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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 8, 2005 09:46 EDT



Kingshall, Telemark

    Cair made sure that he was in a good position to observe the arrival of the the delegation from the Holy Roman Empire. Firstly, it was quite amusing. They'd never guess who the ragged thrall watching at them was. Secondly there was a small chance that he could engineer their presence into a chance to get away, and indeed to get Signy away. But he knew her well enough by now to know that she'd never leave willingly. The Princess had been brought up in a trap called 'duty' and was her own jailor.

    He did not have to fake gaping when the Knights rode up in neat order, with two monks riding in their midst, and a pair of nuns in a horse-borne litter. The two elderly women looked more than a little sick. Even in the late afternoon light with the heavy cloud hanging low, the knights' spiky steel armor was almost dazzling. They advanced in neat and disciplined formation -- very different from Vortenbras's hearthmen. The Norse were big men, as a rule. These were also big men, on huge horses, in formation. The potential for martial prowess might be what made the rest of the Norse stare. But for Cair it was different. He'd worked out who the bulky, barrel chested man leading the column was.

    Manfred of Brittany. Such a prize! If he had a hostage like that, the Empire would pay Cair Aidin a very high price for his release. Then the humor of it struck him. He was a slave, at least for now. But he still thought like a Corsair Captain. ***

    Erik looked at the Norse crowd. Typically, he searched for danger, for the unusual. For the threat. It was what a good bodyguard did, and in many ways Erik Hakkonsen had been raised and bred to be the very best. One of the gawping crowd made him pause. He was plainly a thrall -- but not like the other open-mouthed slaves staring at them. For starters he was of Mediterranean origin, olive-skinned and dark-eyed. Most of the ragged Thralls were blond or brown haired. Blue eyes were the norm here too. But slaves could come from anywhere. It was not his appearance that made the man stand out to Erik. It was his posture. That made Erik's reflexes prickle into readiness.

    And while the others gazed in awe at the column -- this man had been laughing. He'd plainly seen heavy cavalry trooping before. And something about them struck him as funny. That was odd. And, despite the fact that the man was in rags, and not obviously armed, Erik perceived him as dangerous. He mentally marked him down to be watched. The Norse might be scrupulously honorable about the truce oath, but that didn't stop someone else wanting Manfred dead.

    It was plain that word had gone ahead -- but not far ahead. The Norse Kinglet showed signs - to the watchful, of hasty preparation to meet his guests, just as they were escorted into the hall. The Norseman was big. One of the biggest men Erik had ever seen -- nearing seven foot tall at a guess, broad chested, with long white-blond braided hair and a beard. He looked as if he could cheerfully have murdered them. Still -- he was polite on receiving Manfred's credentials and the letter from the Emperor. Everything was wittered through a translator. Erik decided that it would be unnecessary to point out that his native Iceland had been principally settled by Norsemen, and that Manfred had suffered through some instruction in the language-- not so different from the Frankish of the Empire. Manfred had a positive gift for languages. His pursuit of tarts and strong drink had led to his grasping the Italian dialect far more easily than Erik. Doubtless, if there were Norse temptations of the same sort he'd move from rusty to fluent in record time. But for now, they let the interpreter witter. It gave one time to think.

    "Vortenbras King he says you are welcome. He apologies for the difficulties."

    "Tell the King it was not serious. We are honored to be here, to try and assist you in recovering from your terrible loss," said Manfred lying with equal facility. Francesca would have been proud of him.

    A steward was called and servants led the knights to their quarters.

    "Koboldwerk country," said Erik once they were alone. "I'd keep you in full armor if I could. But you will even sleep in a mailshirt."

    "They have a treaty with us don't they?" said Manfred. "Not that I'd trust that big bruiser on the throne too far."

    "Exactly," said Erik, grimly. "Even among honorable people it only takes one oath-breaker."

    "He didn't seem exactly thrilled with the idea that we had come to help him find this arm-ring. What did they call it -- Draupnir?"

    "That's it. Dripper." Erik grimaced. "Understandable, them feeling that way I suppose. Our even trying is something of an affront to the local priests."

    "Especially," said Manfred -- fishing in a saddlebag -- and pulling out a heavy golden arm-ring -- "as we're going to succeed."

    Erik looked at the engraved carved ring, and raised his eyes to heaven. "Francesca, I detect your hand."

    Manfred nodded. "She had it made in Copenhagen. It's a good copy of the original -- and how many people look that closely at this sort of thing? Now we just have to arrange to find it somewhere. She advised a good layer of mud and a little battering."

    Erik shook his head. "My advice - which I doubt if you'll listen to, is toss it into a swamp or the gaderobe. As soon as possible. Francesca is a genius at politics -- but I wish she'd stay out of physical meddling. She should have talked to the nuns about this scheme."

    "Francesca's never been terribly good with nuns, unlike you," said Manfred, grinning. "The old ducks are both all weak-kneed at that manly, clean-cut appearance of yours, and are ready to tell you all sorts of things. We all have our weak points. Francesca's is nuns. The nuns weak point is you. But this is a good copy, Erik. Good enough to fool an expert goldsmith."

    Erik took it and examined it closely. "What it isn't, is a magical object. The real Draupnir would be busy killing me right now. I would be unable to let go of it, I would be in mortal agony, and the only way to lessen the pain would be to take it back towards the temple Vé. Manfred, everyone knows that. Everyone would know this item was a fake. And then we'd be in real trouble, treaty or no."

    "Oh," said Manfred, pulling a face. "Well, I suppose we'd better find the real thing then." He paused."So how did it get stolen, eh? Some fire-tongs? Or a good thick leather glove?"

    Erik shook his head again. "You should do your homework, Manfred. It would appear Draupnir can't be dealt with quite that easily. No, either the thief is dead -- which is the theory I favor, because all the guards were killed, or it was magically transported."

    "So we're looking for a dead body. And pretty close by if the pain is that intense. You wouldn't think it would be that hard. You'd think the locals could cope."

    "Brother Uriel and I were working out how it could have been done -- the thief could have been under compulsion of some sort -- no one would steal it without that. When they died, the next bearer could have been standing by. It would leave a trail of dead bodies..."

    Manfred shuddered. "You two are a pair of ghouls. Now we've got find a trail of weeks-old dead bodies, probably buried, or sunk into one of these lakes, if the thief-master has thought all this out, and planned it that well."

    "Possibly," agreed Erik. "And I am sure the locals will have tried every form of augury and magic at their command to find the arm-ring. Obviously someone has hidden it well. So what we thought we'd try is pointing to the thief instead. One of the nuns is good at that."

    "Sister Mercy," said Manfred pulling a face.

    Erik nodded.

    "She looks like she might enjoy thrashing the miscreant."

    Someone knocked politely. It was the steward. "My lords, you are summonsed to the evening feast. Can I show you where to go?"

    They set off up the passage. As they walked, Erik caught sight of the dark-skinned man who had aroused his suspicions earlier. He pointed. "Who is that fellow, friend?"

    The Steward looked startled. Erik noticed that he made a warding symbol with his hands, obviously without realizing what he was doing. "It's just a thrall, Sir. He's the Princess Signy's stable thrall. He's not supposed to be indoors. But he always is," said the steward irritably.

    "Odd looking man," said Erik, fishing.

    The steward nodded. "Ugly fellow. He comes from some far-off place, Sir. They took him during a raiding voyage. Fished him from the sea, I believe. It's never wise to cheat the sea of its prey."

    No more useful information was forthcoming, as they were led in to the feasting-hall of the royal house of Telemark, and to the high table.

    The feasting-hall might have had all the trappings of a Norse Valhalla, complete with the shield-hung walls, bearskins, rich hangings and golden -- well, thatched -- roof, but Da Messibugo's innovations hadn't reached this far into the wilds. The Ferrarese steward's delicate carving was a great success in Mainz, with birds and flesh being neatly cut without the carver even dirtying his fingers. This was more like a scene from an earlier century. Erik realized that if anyone did plan to kill Manfred, dinner would be the ideal time. It was definitely a case of he who stabbed fastest got the best bits. And even the slight girl with the severely braided hair and tight mouth was better at it than Manfred was, and she was clumsy. Erik carefully surveyed the people at the king's feasting-hall. Quite a rough crew, by the looks of it. And very free with the ale-horns.

    Interesting. They were certainly not the courtiers and elder statesmen he'd come to expect in Frankish courts. These were more like a mercenary company, with drinking habits to match. Manfred would look like a man of moderation in this scaff and raff. Bragar-toasts were drunk, and the evening grew steadily more raucous. Manfred matched the Norse, toast for toast. At least, being foreign, he didn't have to match the boasting. Erik kept himself quiet and watched. There was something about the King of Telemark and his court that made him very, very watchful.

    The only person who had been quieter was the slight woman in the braids. Her place at the high-table had proclaimed that she must be high-born -- most likely the King's stepsister, according to the information Francesca had provided. She had answered his questions without looking at him, in as few a words as possible. Words spoken in Frankish, good Frankish. Some outlandish name... Princess Signy. Her garb and her manner were at odds with her position, thought Erik, watching her. Her dress was citron taffeta, but, in Erik's opinion, badly cobbled. The yellow became her badly, and did not go with the only jewelry she appeared to be wearing -- identical bracelets on each wrist. They were pretty enough work, little bears holding paws, but hardly the jewelry of a Norse kinglet's adult sister. A minor merchant's teenaged daughter might have worn them with pride. Her step-mother displayed jewelry enough to prove that the kingdom wasn't poor. Mind you, bears seemed fashionable here. The queen mother had little bear earrings.

    If the princess had been dressed as befitted her station, and wore an expression of less misery, and maybe not braided her hair as tightly, she'd probably be quite pretty. As it was she appeared to be a spinster in her mid-twenties, at a guess, in a society where marriage by sixteen was the norm. Well, perhaps she was fussy as well as a bit clumsy. She had a slight squint, he noticed. And tiny frown-lines on her forehead. She sneaked off early, leaving the motherly dowager- Queen to smile blandly at the steadily more drunken antics of her son's court.

    The Queen reminded him of his mother -- at her worst.

    Erik hoped that Manfred would have a suitable headache in the morning.

    And he was not disappointed.

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