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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Monday, May 30, 2005 09:48 EDT




    Her river was a raging torrent right now. Not even the bjornhednar could cross it and live. From a quarter of mile off, the growling roar of tumbling boulders would made it almost impossible for mere mortals to have conversed. Bakrauf and the great white monster that was her son had no such problems.

    "Call out you hunt to carry us across," he said, staring at the churning water of the Fimbulthul.

    Green-eyed and baleful Bakrauf stared at him. "You know the terms of their compact as well as I do. If I use them too often for things like this, then my nine calls will be spent. When I do really need them to bear me away... they will come for vengeance, not for orders."

    "Call them," he said, his yellow-eyed glare matching hers, unblinkingly. "You won't need them again this year. After Joulu they are yours again, for the nine calls of next year,"

    At length she dropped her gaze. "And how are we to get back? We need to be back by morning," she muttered.

    " Fimbulthul is dropping," he said, pointing with a heavy claw. "By morning the bjornhednar can cross. But we need to consult the easterners. We need to be within our wards before contacting the black brain. Chernobog is not to be trusted."

    Bakrauf could not disagree about this. The demon of the East had devoured and enslaved others. It would not let common purpose stop it now. And the auguries she had performed showed hints of dire portent. But the signs were muddled and obscured, as if roiling through a mist of magics. Even she, the mistress of seid, could not tell what was coming. All she could see was that it was going to be, in some way, cataclysmic. They had the arm-ring secure and hidden now -- and since then the signs had gone awry. The magics involved with that thing were deeper and more powerful than she'd realized. "Very well." She spat. Spittle, earth and blood were all she needed. That and the words of summoning the bound ones. One of the Bjornhednar could spare some blood.

    Soon the enchanted ones came, shrieking and cawing, a black and tumbling mass, appearing first as a squabble of blood-eyed ravens and crows. As they settled around Bakrauf and her retinue, the shriekers resolved themselves from their assumed appearance -- into the hunt. Some were things of the nine worlds, others creatures more of spirit than flesh. Blood-drinkers, creatures of the night. Crones and pale sylph-like girls with empty eyes. But in exchange for what she had given, they came. Hating her. Fearing worse.

    At Bakrauf's command, they snatched her and her escort up. They bore the entire entourage across the seethe and ravel of water, cold hands plucking, not quite daring to tear.

    They set them down, with spiteful pinches for the bears, if not for Bakrauf their mistress, outside the troll castle.

    Bakrauf spoke the words of opening, and slowly the hilltop rose on the huge brass pillars. The Bjornhednar bore her within. Trolls, svarts and human thralls were up and about. The place was full of the smokes and sound of industry, which was as it should be. Her subjects groveled as their mistress passed.

    They cowered as her son passed in her wake.

    In her throne room the circles were prepared with meticulous care. This was no time or place for haste. Time did not run at the same pace here as elsewhere, anyway. Guardians of flame and ice were positioned.

    At last, the blood was spilled and the words spoken. Bakrauf found herself speaking once again the Grand Duke of Lithuania -- or at least to the demon that wore that face.

    "My spies have sent me interesting news from the Empire, troll-wife. You've hooked a very big fish with your small machinations."

    Bakrauf did not like her works described as small. But she held her tongue. One day there might be reparations. One day. "What big fish?"

    "One so big that I will be very generous if he is destroyed," said Jagellion.

    Bakrauf smelled trouble. A trap. The black brain's 'generosity' was infamous. "I say again: what big fish?"

    The great scar on Jagellion's forehead pulsed. "The Holy Roman Emperor has dispatched none other than his nephew, Manfred of Brittany, to accompany a group of Christian mages to see the ring found again. This Prince has... angered me. And his death will weaken the Empire."

    Her son growled. It was a horrible sound, deep enough to make braziers vibrate. The guardian flames shivered. "We know that. And his death would bring down the wrath of the Empire on our heads. We are not ready. Not yet. We need to gather the disaffected to us first. Spring is the earliest we can begin the raiding. By next autumn..." he growled again.

    Jagellion smiled savagely. "What else can you do? Let them find it? That is what my auguries say he will do. Make it appear accidental. Cut off a few heads in ardent apology."

    Bakrauf let her breath hiss between her big square teeth. That was what it had all meant! Curses! Black curses! "You hope in vain. Even if we wished to oblige you, we cannot kill him. The magics on the Oath-ring will prevent it."

    The metal eyes stared out at her. The pulse in the scar on Jagellion's forehead throbbed. Then Jagellion smiled again. "Delay. If you delay enough - until the oath no longer binds you, then you can kill..." The Grand Duke paused, as if something had just occurred to him. "No. Better still. Better by far! Let him disappear. You can be searching desperately for him! His death would be a prize for us, but the Holy Roman Empire could be torn asunder by pretenders and conflicts... if he just vanishes." Jagellion's metal eyes gleamed. "Make him disappear, and I will reward you, generously."

    "It would have to be generous indeed," said Bakrauf, sourly. "You know what sort of trouble this would bring down on us? Even here, away from mortal realms we are not beyond the reach of Christian mages. And it could severely hurt my plans in Telemark."

    Jagellion, or the thing behind him, did not seem concerned by her problems. They were, after all, allies of convenience, not choice. "You don't have any other options, troll-wife."

    That appeared true enough. She hated being trapped. But there'd be ways to turn this to their advantage. This Princeling could be kept as a useful hostage, for starters, once away from human realms where he could be found. And she could engineer things so that their hands were clean. Let some others of the nine worlds carry the blame if finding-magics were invoked. "So what rewards do you offer?" she demanded. Best to bargain hard. She could always renege later. Subtly, of course.

    Later, when they had finished speaking, Bakrauf sat back on her throne, pondering. She began to think that there might be quite some possibilities in this situation: If it was played right, both the Empire and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania could be milked. Already Chernobog had given more than she'd expected. And she was the mistress of seemings after all. She began to think in wider terms. She avoided the old Gods and their powers. Even dealing with Chernobog was safer, for one such as her. But they too might be persuaded to deal for a key to their lost worshipers.

    Once all of Germania, Saxony and Jutland had sacrificed in the groves too. The smell of those sacrifices must have been sweet. She scowled, sending frightened thralls scurrying. One-eye was not to be trusted.

    She sat and considered her options. Seemings and weather magic were her particular strength. Some deep snow might be an advantage. Such things took time, though.

    Her son's growl broke her reverie. Well, that would please him too. He liked deep snow. He liked fresh blood soaking into the whiteness. And if all her illusions and magics failed to lead this Prince into entrapment, her son could always take him with brute force. That was his forte.

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