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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Monday, June 6, 2005 21:32 EDT




    "I've seen better harbors," said Manfred, surveying the ships pulled up on shingle. "Actually, I've seen better fishing harbors."

    "The rate Telemark is expanding it'll soon have all of those too. And other deepwater ports. Stavager and Áslo. Besides, Skien is a good port, apparently. Why they chose to land us here is anyone's guess."

    "To make things awkward for us," said Erik. "The Emperor is sending the knights to remind them what heavy cavalry looks like, and they're reminding us how difficult landing them can be. It's a game of sorts." He pointed to the cluster of old men who had come escort them. "Every one of them is crippled, Manfred. You can bet they're mere lowly Franklins too, by their gear. Vortenbras is toying with you. He's saying that this delegation isn't worth guarding. Learn, Manfred. I wish Francesca was here to teach you all of this. She's much better at these sort of games than I'll ever be."

    "A game that got my gear wet," said Manfred, grumpily. "And now, doubtless, the guides will take us by the most roundabout route, involving half a dozen river crossings, and lots of forest and steep mountainside."

    "Doubtless," agreed Erik. "Places where heavy cavalry are going to struggle."

    "Humph. Next time my uncle wants a pawn to push around, I'm going to suggest he sends you without me, Erik. Well, lets put on a good show for them anyway."

    "Szpak is doing that," said Erik, pointing to where the new Senior Proctor was putting his 'boys' through some drill while they waited for the rest of their gear to be unloaded.. "That man will go far, I think."

    Manfred nodded. "Good instructor. Do they really distill cabbage liqueur in Gda sk? Or was he having me on?

    Erik shrugged. "The stuff smelled as if it might be true." He cast a glance at the sky. The heavy cloud looked leaden enough to suggest that only providence could be holding it up in the sky. Snow was coming, or he knew nothing of Northern weather. "And I hope they get that kit on the pack-horses quickly or we'll need more than even that vile stuff to warm us."

    "Why in heaven's name couldn't the Empire's problems take place in sunny Syracuse?" said Manfred. "It's all very well for you. You've got ice in your veins anyway. But there is a lot of me to keep warm, and I've had my skin stick to cold armor before."

    "Don't want to be a pawn. Want to be somewhere warm," said Erik, tightening a cinch. "We are full of complaints today. Francesca will still be in Copenhagen when we get back, you know."

    Manfred snorted and turned to yell at a couple of porters carrying the canvas stitched gear bales up the beach. "Move it! We want to be there before this Christmas, not the next one."

    Within the hour they were saddled up and riding out. Manfred threatened with snow was a powerful force.

    The country they rode through was heavily forested -- stands of mixed Oak, Ash and Elm. Once they left the coast there was little sign of habitation. The trail was rough and under-used. Erik was pretty sure that they were indeed being taken by a back route. Brother Ottar quietly confirmed their suspicions. This was the most roundabout way possible, turning a fifteen league journey into something far longer. The maps he had peered at in Copenhagen had indicated that going by water would be considerably faster. But a few days should still see them at Kingshall -- so long as the snow held off that long. Or the wittering old nun-ducks didn't drop dead. Both of the monks could ride -- Uriel, like he'd been born in a saddle, and Ottar with grimly determined competence. Perhaps the two nuns were great magic-workers, and scholars. What neither was, was a rider. Sister Mary could almost stay in the sidesaddle without clinging onto the pommel. At a walk. And Sister Mercy was worse. She clung unashamedly. And neither was really of an age to do the journey on foot, either.

    They were obliged to proceed at a walk. And to stop to allow the nuns to rest.

    And, while their Norse escort who had certainly not forced the pace at first, as the afternoon had worn on, they'd definitely begun to show signs of impatience and downright worry.

    The night was definitely drawing in when they reached a notch leading downward into a valley. "There are houses down there, " explained one of the guides -- the only one who spoke fluent Frankish. "It is too cold to go further. Besides, there is a grendel... it has killed many beasts and some people," he said looking nervously around at the rocks.

    "A grendel?..."

    As he said it there was a terrible quavering shriek from up-slope. The elderly Norse escort gave a shriek of his own and shoved his spurs into his horse. Their escort seemed to have one idea only -- to see how fast they could get out of there. These Franks could either escort themselves or follow.

    "Hold!" bellowed Szpak to several of his knights whose mounts seemed to think that this was a great idea. "Form up. Take station around the Prince, the holy nuns, the grooms and the packhorses. I'll have the hide off any man that panics. Believe me, I am more dangerous than anything you'll find on this hillside."

    As if to counter this assertion, a deep, terrible roar came echoing down the valley. It was low-pitched enough to spook the horses, and seemingly even to make the rock quiver.

    Szpak jigged savagely at his horse's bit. "Prince Manfred. You will remain in the middle of the group," he snapped. "Out lances, Ritters. Except Sonderberg and Von Duren. You draw your swords, gentlemen. Stick with Hakkonsen, the Prince and the brothers and sisters. We'll continue at a walk."

    Erik could feel the hairs on the nape of his neck rising, as the quavering shriek began again. Something huge and dark was stumping down the slope towards them, wreathed in mist. And Erik knew fear. It was like cold tide surging around them. Horses eyes rolled. Even with the iron control the knights exercised over their steeds, one of them was going to bolt.

    Brother Uriel dropped off his horse. Erik managed to lean forward and snag the bridle as the animal started to run. "Here. Up!" he yelled at the Monk.

    Instead Uriel was helping Sister Mercy dismount.

    "Stay in the saddle!" bellowed Manfred.

    Instead Uriel helped the nun down. She fell into his male embrace-- probably for the first time ever. But she was already scrimmaging in a small bag. And singing. It was, unless Erik was mistaken, the twenty-third psalm.



    "Damnation." Erik let go of Uriel's horse. A part of his mind said that Uriel was a good horseman. He hadn't fallen off his steed. He'd dismounted deliberately. That didn't stop him trying to reach the frail little old nun -- as Uriel was helping the other one down... and Ottar was falling off. Erik decided he'd have her over the crupper. She could haul her skirts up or cling like a sack of meal...

    The little nun ducked under his hand. It was not so much a case of evading him as scrawling something hastily on the earth. And now Brother Uriel had found her hand. "Sing," he yelled up at the Knights. "We are being be-spelled."

    "Whatever it is, it wants us to run. Hold them, Juzef. Rein in here," yelled Manfred, before joining into the psalm.

    Another terrible rumbling bellow came down the valley. But now it sounded less terrible, somehow, above the echoing psalm. The knights stood like a spiky steel wall against the thing that was stumping down the hillside toward them. It was hard to make out what it was, except that it was large, and shadowy and surrounded by roiling mist.

    "Troll. Or a troll-wife," said Ottar, breaking off his singing in the attempt to light a candle. The wind was no help. Neither was the horse that nearly knocked him over. A squire grabbed that one's bridle. So far someone had taken control of the loose horses at least.

    "You need to set up wards?" asked one of the two Ritters that Szpak had detailed to guard the monks and nuns. "We can use fires." He pointed. There'd been a small landslip here and a snag of dead broken pine was just to the left of them.

    "Yes," said Uriel. "Do it." Three squires hastily scrambled off their horses and gathered dry pine, which they put at cardinal points indicated by the monks. "It is a sending of fear."

    "And whatever it is wants us scared and running. Or it is herding us down there," said Erik, decisively. "We stand right here. Look. It hasn't actually advanced. It's just trying to frighten us."

    The fires were hastily kindled. And the Knights stood, the flames reflecting on the bright steel, making a line between the fires they dared the grey menace up the hill-slope to attack.

    It didn't. The shriek came again. As did a growl. "There are at least two of them -- the one we can see up there, and up the right-hand slope the other. It sounds worse. Do we charge it, Ritter?" asked Proctor Szpak.

    Uriel answered him. "No. We've raised a ward around us. If they could attack us they would. We will attempt certain spells of banishment now. Even if that fails the creatures do not like the daylight. We merely need to wait for morning."

    "Could be a long cold wait, especially if the snow comes on."

    "It won't. The wind is turning," said Erik, feeling it against his face through the visor. There was a comparative warmth to it. Even a tang of salt.

    "Well, we've got lots of firewood," said Manfred.

    As he said this an angry flurry of wind and snowflakes ripped at the fires. It sent sparks and twigs flying. It did not damp the fires. Instead they flared brighter. The Servants of the Trinity began chanting in unison. Bell-like voices seemed to be joining them as if from a great distance. The wind died back.

    Uriel wiped his forehead. He was sweating despite the chill -- it would freeze tonight. "Weather magic. Powerful and treacherous stuff. I hope we have defeated it."

    Within the hour it had settled into a siege situation. The grooms and squires had picketed the horses and gathered fuel from the pine-snags. The knights had divided up into three patrols, walking their horses along the short perimeter of the fire-warded area.

    They prepared themselves for a long sleepless night.

    They were quite correct about that.

    Finally, as the sky began to pale, the bellowing and shrieking let up.

    They moved out at dawn. There was no sign of the monsters now. Erik and one of the others rode up-slope to have a look. He returned a few minutes later, looking puzzled. "Prints the size of ploughshares. Big bare feet. And a lot of bear-sign. Recent at a guess. Six, seven bears at the least. Odd. I thought bears were solitary creatures?"

    Brother Ottar looked wary. "There are tales told of Bjornhednar. Shape shifters, like the Ulfhednar-- the wolf-men."

    "Well, perhaps that's what happened to our escort," said Manfred. He yawned. They were all tired. "Erik, I was talking to Brother Ottar here while you went looking at bear prints. He says if we go back a few miles and take that trail off to the west we should come out at one of the lakes. We should be able to hire a couple of boats to carry us. The nuns at least."

    Erik nodded. "If we have to ride hard they're going to fall off."

    "Sister Mercy doesn't even have to ride hard to do that," observed Brother Uriel, grimly. "The woman hasn't been in a saddle before, Ritter. Sister Mary rode as a child. But sister Mercy is extremely stiff today. It'll be all she can do to ride at all."

    "We've got little choice about it then. Lake Holme it is."

    "This King of theirs may not be best pleased about us making our own route."

    "Then he should send us an escort that doesn't run away," said Manfred. "I have his safe-conduct here." He tapped his stomach.

    "You ate it?" said Szpak with a grin.

    "Not yet. It's in an oilskin pouch next to my skin, along with various other documents. But if we don't get some breakfast soon I'll be tempted."

    "I was going to ask why you ate alone," said the Pole.

    Fortunately, they found a farm shortly after taking the Western trail. And once the Franklin had been convinced that the outlanders hadn't come to kill him and loot his homestead, he was happy to sell them great rings of flattbrød, smoked salmon and some weak ale. And with more reluctance, some oats for the horses. There was a lot of winter ahead and he had stock to bring through it.



    "It burns us," snarled her son. "It burns worse than that one-eye accursed arm-ring did, Mother. You should have warned me."

    She stared at him with cold green eyes. "You'd better get used to it. We'll have to fight more Christian mages and the knights of the Holy Trinity if we're to have our way. It didn't kill you, did it?" The Troll-wife looked exhausted. Having her spells broken had been draining and uncomfortable for her too. She just hoped it that had hit that cursed elf-get as hard. Hatred as bitter as bile surged in her throat. Well, she'd be rid of the half-breed alfar soon. It would die. She would no longer be able to draw on it then, but at least it wouldn't be here to gall her.

    As usual her son wilted under her gaze. Physically he was even stronger than she was. But he still bowed before her, most of the time. She planned to keep it that way. He dropped his eyes. "So what do we do now, Mother?" he muttered.

    "Leave it to me. It will take me a day or two to gather the snow-clouds in again. They cannot be at Kingshall in less than three days. I have further spells of hiding and spells of binding to weave."

    "Curse their cold iron. I want to kill them. I want to drink their blood."

    "And so you shall, son. As soon as I have Chernobog's victim secure. As soon as Joulu is over."

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