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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Fourteen

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




    The Holy Roman Emperor Charles Fredrik was Guardian of the Church, Bulwark of the Faith, Absolute lord and defender of millions souls from the Spanish marches to the Pagan frontier of the Baltic. He was also man a who needed either a far larger desk, or, somehow, less papers, scrolls, books and letters on this one. He sighed. Tapped the new pile of papers Baron Hans Trolliger had just handed him. "What significance do you attach to these reports, Hans?"

    The Baron considered his answer carefully. He'd almost had a very short career at the Court by assuming, wrongly, that the Emperor would want a 'yes'-man. Only the accident of losing his temper in his first week had revealed the folly of taking this course with the Emperor. It had taught him an invaluable lesson. Once, in a wistful mood some years ago, the Emperor explained: His Icelandic mentor from the Clann Harald, Hakkon, had taught him, with a beating to make sure that the lesson was absorbed, that the truly powerful have no need for flattery. Lesser princes wish to be agreed with and praised to bolster their own fragile position. Real power does not need that.

    So Trolliger spoke his mind. As honestly and fairly as possible -- because the Emperor would tolerate nothing else. "They worry me, to be honest, your Highness. We've trouble enough on the eastern flank. The Venetian affair was designed to flank us on the South. This mess with the Danes and the Knights of the Holy Trinity leaves us weak on the whole northern flank. Telemark has become rich with silver-mining in the last few years. Strategically it sits in a potentially difficult position, able to raid the West coast of the Empire, and bottle up the Baltic trade. But I don't know how much reliance we can place on the reports. And just how relevant is this item? Surely an oath is an oath?"

    "You would swear an oath upon the Bible, would you not, Hans?" asked the Emperor, steepling his fingers.

    Trolliger nodded. "Yes, or on the cross, or some sacred relic. But I am not a pagan." "Indeed?" Charles Fredrik smiled wryly. "That was not the impression Bishop Leofric gave me of you, after your last meeting with him."

    Baron Trolliger snorted. "That fool would have burned half of Saxony under us, your highness. His theology is weaker than his grasp on reality. And he has no grasp at all of the latter. It's a local custom and it means a great deal to the people there. They believe in it... oh. I see."

    "Yes Hans. The Norse pagans believe that the oath is binding because it is sworn on something they believe in. And besides, if Brother Eneko Lopez is to be believed -- and the Grand Metropolitan holds him to be one of greatest students of ecclesiastical magic, and the magic of the foes the church, then venerated pagan items do acquire power. Just as the idols they worship may become more than wood or stone."

    "That cannot be true in this case," said Hans Trolliger stubbornly. "If the thing possessed half the powers that this Pagan priest claims it does, it could never have been stolen in the first place. I mean, I dare say the locals believe it but..."

    "But no local would steal it." The emperor sighed. "That leaves a lot of non-local enemies, Hans. People who would love to do us ill. I suspect the hand of our old enemy in this. But then I suspect Jagellion of anything that reeks of treachery."

    Hans Trolliger nodded, slowly. "But can we rely on these reports? They have not been confirmed yet."

    The Emperor picked up a piece of parchment from the chaos of his desk. "I rely on this one, Hans. Not only is it reported to someone else's spies, but this woman has a nose for trouble. This is from Francesca de Cherveuse. The lady whose breasts made you so... uneasy." The emperor chucked at Trolliger's discomfort. It set him coughing. When he'd stopped, he continued. "What she's sent me is a confidential report about this incident, as sent to Harald of Jutland. The Danes watch the Norse more closely than we do for obvious reasons. Harald will be sending us a frantic squall for intervention within the day, I would guess. They'll bear the brunt of this treaty being broken."

    "So what do we do, my Emperor?" He knew that the Emperor's health was failing, and that the last thing his master wanted was a war to leave his heir. "We can send troops north to act as a deterrent..."

    The Emperor shook his head, firmly. "We'll send someone to find the damned thing. Or at the very least find out who stole it. If it is a magical item, we have priests who can track such things. If... as I suspect, this is my adversary Jagellion, being revealed may not rebuild this truce, but it should at least improve matters. And I'll send a high-powered and hopefully frightening delegation to Telemark." He rubbed his bony hands. "Manfred should have finished in Skåne by now. I'll send him and a hundred knights. Merely to escort the Servants of the Holy Trinity, of course. Not to let the locals know we can still flatten them with our cavalry," he said, with a laugh that turned into a coughing fit again. He drank some cordial from a flask on the table. That worried Trolliger too. The Emperor drank too much of that stuff.

    Within the hour an Imperial messenger had set out for Copenhagen, with two letters in the Emperor's personal scrawl. One was directed to Milady Francesca de Cherveuse. The other was to be carried with all speed to Manfred, Prince of Brittany. Other letters, in Trolliger's neater hand, went to the Abbot-General of the militant order of the Knights of the Holy Trinity, and to the Monastic Order of the Servants of the Holy Trinity. Requesting -- in a fashion that was not quite an order, their assistance on the Empire's business.



    It was thus that brother Uriel, who had served Christ and the Servants of the Holy Trinity with distinction in Venice -- when others such as Abbot Sachs, had fallen into the snares of the evil one, found himself called to the study of the head of his Monastry.

    He listened in silence while the Abbot read out the letter.

    "Well, Brother?" asked the Abbot, finally, as Uriel offered no comment.

    The Monk sighed. Shook his head. "You know how I feel, Father Abbot. You sent me to Venice with a pagan relic, none-the-less."

    "And you did sterling work there. What little credit returned to the Servants of the Holy Trinity, and those of us of the Pauline persuasion, stem from that."

    "We should have destroyed the pagan relic immediately, Father. Then that would not have happened," said Uriel, stiffly. "The same holds for this oath-ring. Such items are not consecrated to the use of the church, and should be destroyed, not retrieved for the pagans."

    The Abbot rubbed his jaw, thoughtfully. "While I agree with you in principle, Brother Uriel, there are two things to consider here. The first of these is that the Emperor may be right. The evil of the east may have seized this thing. If it is indeed powerful -- he likes to gather the tools and symbols of power, Uriel. Chernobog has used the venerated idols and pagan holy places against the Church before. He will again. This may be part of the same thing -- in which case it is vital that at least the church should know. The second thing is more secular -- we are honor-bound to assist the Emperor -- especially as we are being entrusted with such a task after having unwittingly colluded with his, and the Church's foes." The abbot sat back in his chair, folded his arms and said, "Finally, Telemark is an area in which we are not permitted to do missionary work. We have, as you know, made some secret converts, but other than that, the kingdom remains committed to heathen Gods. This is a Heaven-sent opportunity to display our strength and our faith, if we can do something that they have failed at."

    "That is three things, Father," said Uriel.

    The Abbot raised his eyes to heaven. "I'll tell you a fourth thing, Brother Uriel. You are going to Kingshall in Telemark. I have thought, prayed and even tried scrying about this. My last scrying sent you to Venice. This time I am sending you North. You are a skilled worker of finding magics. I have a letter here from the Archbishop. We are sending Brother Ottar -- who was a secret convert from Norway before his family were killed and he was forced to flee to Denmark, and also Sisters Mary and Sister Mercy. They are all skilled in the workings of ecclesiastical magic, and at various forms of scrying. Brother Ottar is also a witch-smeller. You have been selected to act as the leader of this group."

    Uriel stood up, shook his head, resignedly. "Very well. Will you at least give me your blessing on this, father?"

    "Of course." The abbot smiled. "And, Brother Uriel... try to open the way for God's missionaries, rather than close it."

    So two days of travel later, Brother Uriel found himself in the company of Brother Ottar, a tall, serious-looking man, somewhat elderly and with a little paunch. Together they met up with two birdlike nuns -- also of some antiquity. The four embark on a church-owned river barge, going North. Brother Ottar had more specific details on travel plans. "We are due to meet Prince Manfred in Copenhagen. He is a confrere with the Knights of the Holy Trinity. They are providing an escort for us."

    Uriel blinked. "Prince Manfred of Brittany? God moves in mysterious ways!"

    Ottar smiled. "Indeed, Brother. I am going back to the lands of the Norse, from whence I was expelled thirty years back. With the blessing of the Empire."

    "To find a pagan artifact."

    Ottar nodded. "A very old and very powerful talisman, Brother Uriel. I have made of study of them, and of this one in particular. It could be put to use, evil use, in the wrong hands."

    "It is an evil thing," said Uriel with finality.

    Ottar shook his head. "Possibly not, in this case, anyway. It appears to be a wholly defensive object. It is entirely possible that some powerful neutral is bound to it."

    "It does not seem -- from what I have read," said Sister Mary, timidly, "to have been very well guarded."

    Brother Uriel shrugged his shoulders. "That implies one of two things, Sister. Either they was assumed that no-one would dream of stealing such a thing, or believed it had own defenses."

    "It did. Or does," said the other nun, Sister Mercy, grimly. The women were alike in size and shape, but Sister Mercy was as stern-looking as the other was gentle. "There are records of an attempt to steal it. According to the chronicles of one Petrus Alberchtus, the thief was found screaming just outside the grove, desperately trying to remove the item, and, according to the story aged and died as they watched. Alberchtus also includes a very precise drawing of the Arm-ring."

    "Well, perhaps we can use that to authenticate anything we do find."

    "A sword thrust will do that," said Mercy. "They tried to kill the thief to get the arm-ring off him -- and as fast as they cut he healed. The Arm-ring itself was what killed the thief. By then he was in terrible pain. He begged them to kill him. They had drag him back into their grove, and then help him to pull the ring off. He died before they could kill him: A very old man."

    "A strange thing," said Uriel, fascinated despite his disapproval. "It sounds like a charm of healing -- yet the pain?"

    The timid sounding little nun thrust her head forward like a curious robin. "Ah. But what if there were two conflicting magics at work?"

    "A curse against theft, and a property of healing?" suggested Uriel. "I suppose that could be."

    "I think not," said Sister Mercy, shaking her head. "The structure of such pagan charms and their sacred objects is my study. I think the healing is merely an aspect of what the arm-ring is supposed to be: a perfect circle. As such it is a symbol of immortality, and also of completeness. It did not 'heal', it made whole. And the pain is quite possibly another side effect. It is the central symbol in the pagan community of that land, held in the religious center. It may well be geographically rooted -- such things often are. The pain the wearer feels is merely a reflection of the pain the immaterial thing, which is the arm-ring, feels."

    "Which makes the thief a very powerful magic-worker, at the the very least," said Brother Ottar, thoughtfully. "I think we need to ask for guidance, Brother, Sisters."

    As the boat moved them downstream, they knelt and prayed. Uriel knew comfort that at least this group of Servants seemed less likely to stray than Sister Ursula and Father Sachs had in Venice.

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