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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Thursday, May 12, 2005 22:35 EDT




    Erik looked at the devastation. Looked down at the ground, and dismounted. He actually got down on his hands and knees and examined the trodden earth. Then he stood up and stared at their guide. "Ritter Von Naid. Are you sure these raiders were Svear from across the borders?"

    "And who else would burn my barns, my hay ricks and the cottages, not to mention butchering my people?" demanded the Ritter.

    Erik stared hard at him. "Who indeed?" He asked sardonically. "All riding heavy, ironshod horses too. Isn't that odd, as from what I can gather the Götar have smaller horses, which are mostly unshod."

    Von Naid blanched, but he obviously thought on his feet. "They steal our horseflesh," he said, hastily. "It is a real problem, here on the frontier. It makes identifying people by their tracks difficult. But my men tracked them to their settlement."

    Erik looked down without saying anything. He kicked a piece of horse-dung apart. And then used a handy mounting block to get back onto his horse. As the cavalcade rode off towards the Götar settlement, he fell in next to Manfred. "This stinks," he said, quietly.

    "Well, you would kick horse dung, said Manfred, with a grin.

    "If that was the worst it smelled of, we'd be fine," said Eric, grimly.

    "So what do you think is going on?"

    "I'm not sure yet."

    Half a mile on they met with four men -- Von Naid's.

    "We followed them, Milord. They thought they'd hidden their trail. The cattle tracks were easy enough. They're in a settlement over that hill there -- about two miles from this place. Captives, horses, and cattle.

    Manfred sidled his horse over to Erik. "Three miles. But we heard about this bunch of raiders from nearly thirty miles away. Mighty good information system they have."

    They rode on through forested country, and at length stood looking down at a rather scruffy little hamlet next to a ford and a small dam and mill. It had a palisade, but the gate was open.

    "Well," said the hard-bitten proctor who led the group, drawing his sword. "Let's ride down and ask some questions." By the way he said it, it was going to be questions re-enforced with -- if someone was lucky -- the flat of that broadsword.

    "Do you think that's altogether wise?" said Erik. "They've seen us. They're not closing that gate. This is either an ambush or they're innocent. Either way there are better ways of approaching this.

    "I am in command here, Ritter," said the Proctor. "I'm used to handling these Götar. Leave it to those of us who know. Out swords, Ritters." And there was a steely rasp of his orders being obeyed.

    He began to lead off down the hill at a brisk trot. And an arrow arced out of the thicket below them to their left.

    It hit a horse. The animal screamed and the rider went down with a clatter.

    The proctor half turned, saw, and yelled, "Charge!"

    The Knights put spurs to their horses.

    And Manfred bellowed, "HOLD!"

    Manfred had the kind of voice that would even penetrate a charging knight's helmet. Erik joined him in a second bellow.

    It was chaos. Of the thirty Knights, several were still careering down the hill. Some were wavering, half turned in the saddle -- and a fair number had turned back.

    Then, at a full gallop Szpak, caught up with the leading Proctor.

    And knocked him out of the saddle with a mailed fist.

    "Hold," he yelled too, turning his horse. Facing the oncoming Knights with his sword in hand.

    Mecklen had produced a small horn. "I think I will sound the retreat, Prince Manfred?"

    Manfred nodded, and the horn-call sounded. That brought all the knights back.

    Erik was busy studying the scene. Things were happening down at the village. Hastily someone was closing the gate. Below them, the proctor who had led the charge was staggering to his feet.

    "What cowardice is this?" roared one of the older Ritters. "Now we'll have to ram that gate."

    Szpak riding up behind him, knocked him off his horse too. He pointed down at the hamlet. "There's a cross on that building down there, fools. It's a Christian settlement."

    "They're pretending," said Von Naid. "They put up a cross and they think they're safe to go out raiding. Burn them, I say. I was a confrere Knight of the Holy Trinity once, and you shame the order. Fritz -- you saw them. They've got our captives and kine, they made an unprovoked attack on one of us. Killed one of us." He turned on Szpak. "If you're too cowardly, Pole peasant, I'll lead the attack myself! To me, Ritters!"

    "Hold," said Mecklen. It was said with the grim authority of command.

    "Who do you think you are to give orders," said one of the older Knights to Mecklen, jerking at his horse's mouth, turning toward the hamlet.

    Mecklen leaned over and grabbed the reins. "I am an Archimandrite in the order," he said, "And I am authorized by the Abbot General himself to give force to the orders his representative, Prince Manfred of Brittany. You have been ordered to stand. Who are you?"

    The older Knight gaped. "Ritter Denen."

    But Szpak saw more. He saw as Erik did, that the situation was far from under control. And, as he'd told Erik, most of these young men had seen no action before. "Form up," he yelled. "An orderly formation NOW. You. Denen. Dismount and see what can be done for Ritter Von Aasen. The Knights of the Holy Trinity obey orders from their officers. We do not take them from ex-confreres." Then he turned on Von Naid. "And I'll settle any doubts you have about my courage, on your body, personally."

    Most of the Knights had been squires under Szpak. Several of them actually laughed at this, despite the situation. And they were used to being ordered around by him, so they obeyed, unquestioningly.

    Mecklen was plainly used to being in command too. And he'd had to keep a still tongue between his teeth for some weeks now. He turned on the formed-up troop of Knights. "This is one of the most disgustingly sloppy operations I have ever had the misfortune to witness. No Scouts. No proper order of march, no forward planning, and no proper military discipline exercised. Now: Someone fired an arrow from that copse over there. You. Proctor Szpak. You seem to be the only man blessed with any brains and military training in all Skåne or Småland. Send out a patrol. Now. See if you can find the bowman. He can't have got far."

    "Sir." Szpak saluted and turned back to the Knights and began issuing orders.



    Mecklen looked at Manfred. "If we could have a private word, Prince."

    Erik walked his horse over to Szpak, en route to join Manfred and Mecklen. "Von Naid or his men may try to run, Juzef," he said, quietly.

    "I've already spoken to six of my... boys," said the Polish Knight grimly. "He's not getting away before I've dealt with him."

    Erik rode over to the Archimandrite, smiling a little. Their wheat-winnowing had brought better rewards than he'd expected.

    "Well? Just what is happening here, your Highness?" Mecklen asked Manfred as Erik rode up.

    Manfred scratched his jaw. "I think somehow word came from Denmark about Francesca's activities and what I am supposed to be doing here. A messenger arrived two nights ago and I think that the local powers-that-be put together a clumsy attempt to get me involved in a really messy butchery of a Christian settlement. Good for blackmail, good for convincing a green and spoiled nobleman that this was a dangerous part of the world and that they were doing the right thing -- because to admit otherwise would be to admit to my role in the massacre. I know the Abbot General has kept very quiet about what we encountered in Venice. The locals might have reached the wrong conclusion about us, and assume that I'd be shocked by the butchery at Von Naid's estate and take their part in defending the work of the Knots here."


    "I'm shocked all right," said Manfred. "Shocked no-one has got around to hanging this Von Naid. He and his friends plainly considered the murder of a few serfs a minor matter. That 'raid' was conducted by ironshod, wheat-fed horses, from what Erik was looking at. Big ones. That settlement down there has a spire and a crucifix. I'll bet that it is one of the settlements that I was told about -- where some minor Götar chieftain has been converted by the Danes."

    "And you Ritter Hakkonsen? What do you think?" said Mecklen. "If the Prince is right, and I suspect he is, we've averted a massacre -- but we have little or no proof. Prince Manfred did countermand a legitimate order."

    Erik shrugged. "If Szpak's boys don't bring back that bowman, I think I may have to track him. The first thing is to send a delegation to that village. See if we can find any cattle or prisoners. And establish whether it is a Christian settlement or not. Otherwise we may have a problem explaining all of this. At best we'll be in trouble with the Abbot-General."

    "And Proctor Szpak will be for the high-jump. But I don't think we'll have a problem," said Manfred, gesturing. "Szpak's boys have found the trail of the archer by the looks of it. And I'd say that looks like a priest coming out of the palisade down there."

    Mecklen nodded. He called to one his companions. "Proctor Von Stahl. Ride down and see what the man wants."

    The Proctor did, and returned with a scared-looking Priest, complete with a crucifix around his neck -- not a local Götar either by his speech, but a Dane. He was, he explained, a missionary from Copenhagen. And it was a Christian settlement. They were very welcome to search for prisoners or stolen cows, or horses. There were only three in the hamlet, one of which was his.

    "They must have hidden them in the woods," protested Von Naid.

    "But your men were so sure that they were here in the village," said Erik.

    The priest looked at Von Naid. "I know this man. He has attempted to have the people moved. There is the mill and ford he wants. He was here not a week back, making demands."

    "Liar," said Von Naid, righteously.

    "Go down to village and ask the Godar," said the priest. "And may God strike me down if I lie."

    Twelve of them rode down, weapons sheathed, at Mecklen's order. The village had little place to hide anything, anyway. The women and children were inside the little stave-church, praying. The men watched them nervously. And Erik could see that the young Knights were cringing.

    "I think a little piety is called for," said Manfred to Mecklen.

    The Archimandrite smiled and nodded. "Father Björn," he said, "May we enter your church?"

    "There is nothing hidden there," said the priest, stiffly.

    "We do not wish to search, but to pray, and to thank God his guidance, and our delivery from evil, Father," said the Archimandrite humbly, dismounting. "People forget that we are but a militant arm of the church. Sometimes we forget that ourselves. Do you think you could ask some of the boys I see to hold our horses?"

    The woman and girl children shrieked when the Knights clanked into the dim-lit church. But the cries stilled when the knights knelt. Erik was aware of people peering in at the doorway. ***

    Proctor Szpak looked at the man that the four Knights of the patrol had brought back. "He's been begging us not to kill him," said one of the young Knights. "Says he's name is Luus. He's a huntsman in Von Naid's service."

    "He's a liar," insisted Von Naid. "I dismissed him from my service weeks ago! I see it all now! This is all an attempt to get his revenge. That arrow was intended for me."

    Szpak looked coldly at Von Naid. Then at the knights flanking him. "Disarm him, and bind him," he said. "Also those three," he pointed to Von Naid's servitors. ***

    Looking at the old man in his carved chair, Manfred wondered if he'd converted in order to get his soul into heaven before it was too late. He was old and frail -- but he still had all his wits about him. He spoke good if precise Frankish. "Von Naid?" He nodded. "He has been here. He has lands just across the river. But the only good mill-site is this side. He wants it, but we have the Priest here. He dares not just drive us out."

    "So he tried to start a little war instead and use us to drive you out," said Manfred grimly. "People could have been killed. Well, it's not going happen."

    The chieftain smiled crookedly. "Yes. Sons, you may come out now. These outlanders mean us no harm."

    Manfred should have guessed by Erik's posture that he'd spotted something amiss. But two men with good Swabian-made cross-bows were something of surprise.

    The old man smiled. "There will be no killing today. It is a good. You will need every man in the spring. There is trouble coming out of the Norseland. Someone has been recruiting young men in the Svearlands." He smiled sourly. "I am an old man now, and an exile with those of my kin that were prepared to follow me. But I, Godar Gustav, still have a few people who bring me word from time to time. One of the Norseland kings has plans." The old man shrugged tiredly. "They will not succeed. But they will kill a lot of people. And me and mine are among those who they wish to kill most."

    Manfred nodded. "After this... incident, I think you can be sure that the Knights will be watching over you. And I think that you will have no further trouble with your neighbor."

    There was the sound of cheering outside. One of the old man's sons went to look. He came back, smiling. "They have him. Bound onto a horse like a sack of grain. The people are pelting him with dung."

    Manfred smiled too. "I think we can leave now. May God watch over you."

    The old man stood too, with an ease that betrayed that was less old than he pretended to be. Well, age lent respect. "I think His hand was over us today," he said quietly. "I was less than sure of Him before this."

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