Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

A Mankind Witch: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Friday, May 27, 2005 11:07 EDT




    Francesca had been busy, busy, busy. Mostly with talking. Or rather -- with listening. If you listened politely and occasionally directed the conversation where you wanted it to go... Well, she'd found that an amazing number of people were only too happy to give her a great deal of information they'd possibly have been wiser to keep to themselves. Only a fool played at politics and intrigue -- dark and dirty games -- in ignorance. Francesca never ceased to be amazed at how many fools -- even in the highest places -- there seemed to be. Vertical diplomacy was possibly even more entertaining than horizontal diplomacy had been. Right now she was practicing her most successful technique: impress me with how much you know. "But Count... well, I can't mention his name, but a friend, an admirer, shall we say, told me that the Norse were irrelevant, Baron," she said, artlessly. "Of course," she put a hand on the arm of the man responsible for Anti-piracy measures along the Danish coast, "he's probably not as well informed as you are."

    The Baron beamed. "That's hardly surprising m'dear. I have more access to privy information than most. And I have a brain to begin with, unlike Count Rothkilde, although I can't fault his taste in conversational companions. But to call the Norse 'irrelevant' is a sheer folly. There has been a real problem developing across the Skagerrak for some time now, and that problem is Telemark. King Olaf was an honorable man, for all that he was a pagan, but his son -- the man who is on the throne now -- has ambitions."

    Francesca raised an arch eyebrow. "And no honor? Why should honor make a difference? I thought the kingdoms over there were too small and too poor to be a threat to a great state like Denmark, allied (she carefully did not say 'vassal') to the Holy Roman Empire."

    "Ah. Well you see, Emperor Charles Fredrik forced a treaty on King Olaf, and it has kept them from warring with the empire, or us, or our shipping. But you are right about the money and the size. Unfortunately, King Olaf turned his military attention elsewhere and before his death had expanded his little kingdom eastwards. Of course the area is mostly mountains and forest... but one of those mountains happened to be rich in silver. And the forests make good ship-timber. We've got a problem on our doorstep, all right. But don't bother your pretty little head about it."

    "I won't. Not with someone like you in charge, Baron," she said admiringly.

    He swelled up llike a peacock, and told her a great deal more -- not that the treaty was in danger of lapsing -- which she knew already, but of frantic preparations to ready their sea defenses. Of news from spies among the Svear, where Vortenbras was recruiting. He almost certainly didn't realize how much he was revealing, but Francesca was a skilled inquisitor. The Danes were even ready to call off their feud with the Knights of the Holy Trinity. For now, anyway.

    When she wasn't listening, she was reading -- sleeping, had to take second place -- but she could not allow this to take away from her exercise, despite the growing cold. The reading provided her with precise instructions for a very discreet goldsmith.

    Manfred and Erik arrived after some two days of travel, with an escort of Knights of the Holy Trinity. Francesca arranged that some seventy second sons and minor nobles went to watch them at drill.

    The Monks and Nuns arrived the day after that. ***

    Francesca smiled. "My informant tells me that you would know Telemark better than most. They say that you passed through Copenhagen when you fled from there, Brother Ottar. Or should I say Johan?"

    Ottar bowed his head. "It was a long time ago, Milady. I was a young man. I should perhaps have stayed and died for my belief. But yes. I am from Telemark. My family were killed, burned in our hidden chapel, but I escaped. I sought and found comfort in the arms of the Mother Church. I am not Johan Franklin any more. I have sworn my vows and found peace. Who told you, Milady? Is it wise for the success of our mission that I should go?"

    Francesca raised her eyebrows. "I never reveal my sources, Brother. All I will say is that a Danish Noble, who had reason to remember you, told me. He is unlikely to tell anyone else. And thirty years, a tonsure, a belly and a lack of beard will provide a good disguise. No one else will know."

    "Except me, Brother," said Manfred. "The Emperor told me in the letter he sent me. And he regards you as our hidden asset, so it is plain that he intended you to go. You'll be safe enough."

    Ottar shrugged. "It is not for my own safety I fear, Prince. That is in the hands of God. It is for yours. For all of us who go. But my clan was a minor one, and it is as you say, unlikely that I would be recognized by anyone." He permitted himself a smile. "My abbot granted me permission to lie, should anyone think they recognize me."

    "I'd just try and avoid it if I were you, Brother," said Francesca, critically. "You wouldn't be very good at it."

    Ottar shook his head ruefully. "True. I can understand why the Emperor himself finds a use for you, Milady. You are very astute. I shall, God willing, keep to the truth, by keeping my mouth shut, or at least only by speaking in Frankish."

    Francesca smiled and stroked the soft curve of her scented cheek. Manfred had learned to read her subtle signs now. She'd thought of something. Something serious. "It was my understanding that the truce-oath bound Vortenbras from harming emissaries of the Holy Roman Empire. Would they not honor the oath?" She darted a quick glance at Manfred. If she'd got up and said "then you are not going" she could hardly have been more clear.

    The Monk looked utterly shocked. He shook his head, vehemently. "Absolutely, milady! I'm afraid it was the one thing I found difficult to accept here in the Empire. An oath binds. Oath-breakers... be they Kings or thralls, are outcasts. As much as he might like to, Vortenbras would never openly break that oath. A secret raid, perhaps, that he could blame on rogue elements in his court, on some place that could be argued to be not part of the Empire... he might go that far. But the Prince could walk unarmored into Vortenbras's court with perfect safety. Until Yuletide, anyway. The worst that Vortenbras could do would be to throw him and the others out of his kingdom. I was born there. That makes me one of his vassals. But that is a chance I would gladly take."

    "Well," said Manfred sitting back on the gilded chair. "You can relax, Francesca. We'll be out of there in a week, if the arm-ring isn't found. So: Tell me Brother Ottar. You've been to Kingshall, I presume. What do we expect?"

    The elderly, paunchy monk scratched his jaw pensively. "Well, it is not quite like a royal household in the Empire, Prince. The halls are thatched. The place will be full of dogs," said the Monk, with a reminiscent smile. "It is much less formal than the courts of the Empire. There are less layers of precise hierarchy. It's a bit chaotic from time to time."

    "Sounds a bit like Carnac," said Manfred grinning like a shark. "Last time I was home a sow got into the main dining hall. The dogs took after it, so it ran up onto the dias, and took shelter under Lady Marchese's skirts. Between her and the pig and the dogs the table went over. You should have seen the commotion -- let alone heard it. I don't know who squealed louder: The pig or Lady Marchese." His shoulders shook slightly. "A very dignified court it was. M'father was the one who caught the pig and hauled it out too."

    "I suppose you were too busy laughing to help," said Erik with insight based on experience.

    Manfred nodded, beaming. "Right you are! So were most of the duniwasals there. Marchese is a friend of mother's from Swabia. She'd been looking down her long nose at the provincials. The men reckoned that it was one fat sow in trouble looking for another."

    "Manfred, we're trying to find out about what we can expect in Norway, not about how refined Carnac is," said Francesca. "It sounds as if they might be similar, I admit, from what I've heard."

    "Not 'we', Francesca." said Manfred. "My Uncle, to my regret, has very firmly said that you are to remain here. He said something about the entire Empire not being able to afford enough furs to send you further north. If it wasn't for a comment he made later, about me being able to ah... catch up with you once the job was done, I'd have said he was trying to separate us, my love."

    Francesca looked mulish... for a moment. Then she plainly considered just whose orders these were, or perhaps... the grey sky outside her salon's mullioned windows. "I suppose I had better obey an Imperial order. However, you'll have to work a little harder at absorbing customs and diplomatic behavior among pagan allies, then. Even if the customs are like those in Brittany."

    The monk looked relieved at the news that the Prince's leman would not be going to join them. He nodded eagerly. "I have been sent on three missions by our Abbot to visit monasteries and sources of pagan literature within the League of Armagh. In some ways the Norse are like the Bretons, yes. The Irish and Scoti have absorbed a fair part of the Scandinavian culture, along with the invaders to their lands. A substantial amount of this has passed on to the other parts of the League of Armagh. To Ritter Hakkonsen here, of course it would be even more familiar. The Nobility and their Hearthmen will do things that Nobles and Knights would consider beneath their dignity in Mainz. On the other hand, they have to. No thrall would be allowed to cut beast's throats for the midwinter Yule festival."

    Erik frowned. "Thralldom is virtually extinct in Iceland. The church frowns on it. The few who consider themselves thralls are more like family retainers these days. But once upon a time a thrall could not even hold sharpened steel."

    "It is still like that in Telemark," explained the monk. "As I said: even the slaughter of beasts is not done by the thralls."

    "There's a hangover of the same thing in Carnac," admitted Manfred. "My father used to take part in the Martinmas slaughterings, until my mother made him stop."

    Erik grunted. "With you out of the place, at least they have one less set of hangovers. But tell us, Brother: it is a pagan kingdom with which the empire has a treaty. We have orders not to cause offence. What do we avoid? They're idolators -- Woden worshipers, aren't they?"

    The monk assumed an orotarial stance. "Woden is way the Danes pronounce it. The Knights of the Holy Trinity serving in Skåne took it from them. The word is of the same stem as the old Norse 'Odhinn' or Germanic 'Wouten' or Wotan. It has become 'Odin', among the Norse. Historically the Germanic tribes fractured into isolated shards, each with their own local form of Aesir-worship, which vary a great deal. Some, particularly in the territory around our conquests near Uppsala are truly vile, with a great deal blood sacrifice. Oferlundar -- as they are called. Others are less bloody. Odin is but one of their gods -- he is, however, the king of the Aesir pantheon. The Nobility obviously are very loyal to him. We also believe that they also absorbed several older local pagan religions into the pantheon, as they colonized, particularly fertility gods such as Frey. Some of the idols have, we regretfully acknowledge, been imbued with certain magical powers. Some have been possessed by demonic and other spirits. There are scholars who consider each to be an avatar of Woden..."

    Manfred held up his hands. "Stop. I see that we have a serious scholar in our midst."

    The Monk shrugged depreciatingly. "A minor one, Prince. Coming as I did from a pagan land, I knew the old gods had certain powers. I wished to understand how this could possibly be. But both Sister Mercy and Sister Mary are my superior in scholarship, and Sister Mercy is an expert in the theory of pagan magic."

    "And we have Brother Uriel to keep us on the straight and narrow," said Erik, looking pointedly at the goblet of wine in Manfred's hands.

    Manfred grinned. "I'd better bone up on my biblical quotations. St. Paul said: 'take a little wine for the good of your stomach.' Brother Uriel is a stiff old stick but at least you can trust him not to send you off to brothels, unlike our last guiding abbot." He sighed and patted Francesca with a degree of un-monkish familiarity. "Unfortunately. It did Erik so much good."

    Brother Ottar swallowed and looked around for escape.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image