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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Thursday, May 12, 2005 22:17 EDT



Kingshall, Telemark

    Signy had got up and dressed herself -- as usual, in the dark. Most noblewomen would have failed utterly at this, not being accustomed to dressing themselves, let alone in the dark. At least the years of having the worst, most sluttish serving-thralls had taught her this much. The shabby riding habit, unlike the formal dresses, was something she could get into by herself, with no complicated lacings or hidden buttons. Before she had always laid it ready for herself -- another unheard-of deed -- but lately Gudrun did, such had been the effects of Cair on her staff. The serving women supposed to attend to her were never awake when she got up, but it was not something they would ever admit to Albruna, so it was not a problem. Albruna didn't mind if it looked as if Signy had dressed by guess. Signy didn't mind either, as long as she got out of the hall before anyone was likely to be looking for her. She could ride -- and as long as she was back in time to break the fast with the household, no-one, or at least no-one important, was the wiser.

    Today however she was greeted by soft rain when she stepped past the sleeping guard on the doorway. It was too gentle to make much sound on the thatch. She would never have time to ride and to get dry and changed before the household was up. She went to the stables anyway. It was -- as long as you were prepared to skirt buildings and stick under the eaves -- possible to do it and stay nearly dry, anyway. It was early, and only the bake-house thralls were up to see her. Of course she had two dogs at her heel -- but she'd long ago taught them to remain quiet. Dogs always seemed to understand what she wanted, even better than the horses did.

    As she reached the stable-door, someone screamed. And screamed again. And then a third time -- a drawn-out shriek of pure terror.

    If she'd thought about it, Signy would have run away. But she just reacted, and ran toward the screams. They were coming from the direction of the temple Vé. And just short of the grove, the thrall-girl ran headlong into her. They both fell down, the thrall still clinging to her. Panting and gasping "Blood... blood..."

    Three guards came blundering through the rain from the hall.

    They checked when they saw Signy trying to sit up in the mud with the thrall-girl clinging to her like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood.

    "Princess...?" panted one still hauling at his leather trousers, "What is it?"

    "I don't know. She came out of the Vé," said Signy prying the girl off her. She stood up, brushing ineffectually at the mud. "Stop clinging to my legs, thrall. What's wrong? And stop saying 'blood'."

    But that was all the woman be capable of saying. She did however point inwards, towards the Odinshof.

    "We'd better go and look," said the burly guard in leather trousers, tugging his blond moustache.

    The woman shook her head and began crawling away. The three men looked doubtful, but leather-pants was made of stern stuff. He began to advance cautiously through the darkness under the dripping trees towards the high-gable set against the rock. The others -- including Signy, followed.

    At the door of the temple they found just what the thrall-girl had been screaming about.


    There were body parts too. The two guards had not just been killed, they been dismembered.

    Signy had always wanted to be a battle-maiden. Right now, all she wanted to do was join the thrall-girl.

    The great doors to the Odinshof stood half open. And now others from the hall were pressing behind them... Including King Vortenbras. He thrust his way forward and pushed the doors wide.

    Peering around him Signy saw little in the dimness. On the far side the fire still burned, sullenly. The solid mass of the altar-slab was visible, dark and oblong. She could just make out the bowl and the hlauttein-twig standing on it.

    And that was all.

    The broad gold arm-ring which always rested in the center of the stone was missing.

    The holiest relic, the oath-ring, was gone.

    "Bring torches. And call out my hearthmen," commanded Vortenbras. "And keep back, all of you. We'll want no muddling of the trail for the dogs."

    Signy found herself excluded too. She went back to the hall, and made her way back to her rooms to wash off the mud, and to dress in what the queen would declare was a more appropriate style. It might have been more appropriate if she'd had the queen's cleavage and the puffed sleeves had exposed less of her arms. The jonquil shade made her look sallow, she knew. But even here the story followed her, with a terrified-looking Gudrun nervously whispering that the temple had been destroyed and that they would all be consumed by the wrath of the Gods.

    "The temple is still there," said Signy. "Now help me with this lacing." She heard the sounds of Vortenbras and his men, and the clatter of horses and the baying of the dogs out there. She wished, very much, that she had some reason to go and join them. Vortenbras's crew might fight well with their mouths but they couldn't hunt like she could.

    By late afternoon they were back.

    But the arm-ring was not. The trail had led up, inland toward the high vidda. And there the dogs had lost it. They'd cast about, hunting hither and thither. But the dogs had been reluctant even to follow the scent in the first place, and had kept returning to the hunters.

    By then Signy had pieced together the whole story. The thrall-girl had gone sneaking into the Vé to bribe one of the guards to let her steal a little bit of ash from the holy fire. It was known to be a powerful fertility charm. She'd found the guard dead, and had fled shrieking her lungs out.

    Even without the evidence of the dismembered guards, it was plain that what Vortenbras and his men had hunted was not human. Only a grendel could have done what this beast had done. Whispered rumor hinted that this was the sheep and shepherd killer of Rodale, come down to mock its hunters. Or that it was a creature of the hag of Ironwood, she who was supposed to guard access to Sverre's northern Kingdom of Altmark.

    Signy was present when the elderly high priest of Odin came to confer with Vortenbras. "Whatever took the arm-ring, King," the elderly priest declared shakily, "Must have no voice, or, with the curses on the arm-ring, we could have followed it by the screaming, once the Arm-ring left the Waerds of the Vé. And it must be immortal to carry the weight of years on the Draupnir.

    "I thought arm-ring gave protection to the wearer," said the Queen-Mother with the kind of finality that tolerated not questioning.

    The old priest nodded weakly. "It would grant powers to the wearer, yes, oh Queen. You cannot be killed. But the power of the arm-ring costs the wearer dearly. A year of life for each hour the power made you whole," He blinked his rheumy eyes. "Any mortal who stole it would be dead by now. And the armring must either rest against the altar stone or against flesh. Otherwise legend says that Draupnir will return magically."

    That was all very well.

    In the meanwhile, the kingdom of Telemark was in ferment. In less than two months the midwinter solstice would be here. And amid the feasting and sacrifice, oaths would be sworn and renewed on the ring.

    If there was a ring to swear on. ***

    There was panic among certain houses where old feuds would be fanned to flames again. There was widespread fear in the homes of small Franklins whose landholding were attested by oaths sworn on the Draupnir.

    There was genuine terror in a modest estate a mile from Kingshall, where Count Tirpizr resided. He was a lowly emissary of the emperor, in a dead-end job among the Norse in a petty kingdom in the wilderness. He had one responsibility: to swear the truce oath, on the Emperor's behalf, every Yule. He'd never been much of a success at court, which was why he'd been posted here. And now it appeared that he might just fail here too. His guards were already inspecting his possessions. Because, if there was no truce between the Empire and Telemark -- as of that moment he, personally, was going to be short a head, without ever returning to Mainz to face the Emperor or the States General's fury.

    Sheer fright forced him into effective action. He could not just leave -- that would never be permitted. But, in case of emergencies, there was a trader in furs and fine liquors who would carry a message. And by nightfall -- a message was heading south, along with a considerable amount of gold.

    Because the Empire would never have entrusted a man as spectacularly inefficient as Count Tirpizr with anything much, his message was only one of five, one of which was only going as far as Copenhagen.

    As it happened any new information that came to the Danish King also arrived with Francesca de Cherveuse, unofficially. Her letter to the Emperor reached Mainz a full day before the next message. Count Tirpizr's message never actually managed to leave Telemark. The fur trader was also in the employ of several others, and he foresaw, quite logically, that Tirpizr was not going to be paying him a retainer for much longer.

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