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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Friday, June 10, 2005 08:54 EDT



    The next day, after breaking their fast, the Knights and the Servants of the Holy Trinity with their divining gear were escorted to the edge of the sacred grove... which, it appeared, was as far as they were going.

    Or at least as far as they were going according to the old skinnyshanks pagan priest in his ratty wolf-skin, who stood with folded arms, blocking their way. He seemed convinced that his hundred and ten pound bulk was an insurmountable barrier.

    Manfred studied the layout of the place carefully. It appeared that a cluster of oaks -- the sacred grove or Vé, presumably, grew around a huge tumbled boulder -- a rock the size of several cathedrals. Across the fields he could see another such knot of ancient oaks -- presumably another temple. The perimeter of the Oak-grove was marked with driven stones. And, if he understood old spindle-shanks correctly, "No heathen, idol-worshiping unconsecrated priest would come past those stones to profane the holy place."

    Manfred had never thought of it that way before, but it was a question of perspective. And old skinny-shanks had the penetrating voice that nature had seen fit to give some older men. Did he have to shout?

    Best to do something about it now, before it got any louder. "Brother Uriel." Both the monk, and, Manfred noticed, Juzef Szpak, looked in danger of exploding into some very unwise action. "Is it necessary that you actually physically have to go to the place? Is there no way we can just do it from here? We can try again from each path out of there, or something."

    The Monk turned to him, shaking his head emphatically. "We need to apply the principles of contagion... we need the actual place the accur..." Brother Uriel restrained himself with effort, obviously recalling something. "The item. We need something that was touching it. It was lying on an altar stone, apparently. Thus we need the altar stone."

    "Does the altar stone need to be in the temple?"

    Brother Uriel blinked at the idea. Turned to Brother Ottar and Sisters Mary and Mercy. "What do you think, Sisters? Brother Ottar?"

    "No reason at all," said Mercy. "Of course the place retains the memories of what happened there - and allowing these memories to be visualized is one of my skills. It will be impossible to perform those magics in some other place -- so 'seeing' the deed will be difficult."

    "Anyway," said Ottar in a low voice, "I had always cautioned against that. Too much blood has been spilled there. Too much sacrifice and pain. We risk bringing back someDraug... some shades are best left sleeping. Brother, if we can work on the stone in a consecrated space that has never been so defiled... it will be safer as well as more likely to succeed."

    One of King Vortenbras's hearthmen had translated the idea to Vortenbras.

    The King shook his head emphatically. "Nei!" He seemed shocked by the very idea. The old priest however, found it funny. Something about "it would break the heathen Frank's back and serve him right."

    "Excuse me," said the timorous Sister Mary. "It would not have to be the stone itself. We could do a working from dust off the stone. It was done thus with the relics from St. Theophilus's tomb, remember, Sister?"

    Sister Mercy nodded. "I had forgotten. Yes. Ask them, Prince Manfred, if we can send one person to gather some dust from the stone.

    Manfred turned to Vortenbras -- who was looking as if he too might just explode any minute. Szpak. Uriel. The Priest of Odin -- for all that the old geezer looked as if a stiff breeze might knock him over, and this giant of King -- all were braced for a fight. Manfred was used to being the biggest man around. It gave one a new viewpoint to have someone looking down at you. So Manfred spoke calmly, as if he was asking a taverner for another stoup of wine, when the fellow already thinks he'd had too much. "We will not take our priests inside your holy place, or try to move the stone."

    The Hearthman translated hastily. The storm clouds over Vortenbras's brow lifted a bit. Old skinnyshanks nodded, and tossed back his ratty wolf-skin cape and lifted his nose, saying something about the true god of noblemen, if Manfred got it right. "We ask though that one of my knights go to the see the place where the arm-ring lay. To bring out some dust."

    This one gave the translator coughing fits. Vortenbras and the old Priest looked thoroughly taken aback, and be it said, amused. However, it seemed that old skinnyshanks was inclined to refuse anything on principle. Vortenbras cut him off mid-tirade, with an imperious wave of the hand. "Ja," he nodded. He looked thoughtful for a moment and then continued. Manfred didn't grasp enough to understand it except for the word 'noble'.

    The Hearthman translated. "The Prince himself must go. Odin is God for the nobleman."

    "Tell them I go with you, or I'm not letting you go," said Erik in the tone that Manfred had learned meant 'non-negotiable."

    Manfred turned to the translator again. "I must take my bodyguard with me."

    Back came the reply. "Only Noblemen"

    Erik stepped forward. And said something in Norse. The translator, priest and Vortenbras's eyes widened. He turned to Manfred. "We will need something to collect the dust on, Prince."

    Wordlessly Sister Mary produced a folded piece of fine white linen cloth from the little bag she carried with her.

    Manfred took it and old spindle-shanks grumpily turned to lead the way into the leafless grove.

    Walking quietly behind him between old gnarled trees, some of them with boles the size of cannon trunnions, hung with lichen and mistletoe, Erik said, quietly. "So much for the dignity of the church and the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Do you realize what that translator made of "dust"?"

    "No. What?"

    "Dirt," said Erik, sourly.

    Manfred's eyes widened. "Oh. No wonder the bastard found it funny."

    "Yes," said Erik in a very even voice. "One of the Knights of the Holy Trinity and a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire... going to clean the dirt off Odin's altar."

    "That'll sound good in their next drinking and bragging session," said Manfred wearily. "Oh well, it's done. And what did you do to get them staring at you?"

    "They wanted to know if I was noble enough. I told them who my maternal great grandfather was," said Erik, curtly.

    Manfred gave a wry half smile. "I didn't know that great grandparents frightened them like that. I'd have dug out my Great Aunt Olga for the trip. So who was this venerable relation?"

    Erik just looked at him coldly.


    "Hush." They'd come to the temple. It was cut into the rock of the boulder with a portico-style roof extending out from the stone. The carved wood of the rooftree was black with age and smoke. "Been around for a while," said Manfred, quietly, taking in details. Inside, the place was dim, and dominated by the altar-stone. It was a back-breaker all right. Set straight onto the earth floor, it must have weighed three or four hundredweight. Manfred wondered if he could have lifted it, let alone have carried it.

    "A very very long time," said Erik equally quietly. "Look at the hearthstone." The stone was deeply incised with spiral patterns. The fire burned in what was plainly a natural fissure in the rock, behind it.

    The old priest said something, peevishly.

    "What does he want?"

    "Us to clean the altar stone and get out of his temple," said Erik.

    Manfred shook the cloth out. And said: "Keep a straight face, for heaven's sake, Erik," as he hastily bunched it in his big hands.

    It was a small, cross-embroidered altar-cloth.

    "You can actually see where the ring was lying," said Erik looking at the altar carefully. It was indeed dusty. That was inevitable with a floor of tramped earth. "Here, Manfred." He pointed. One could see the faint outline of the arm-ring there in the dust. "Fold the cloth up again. Let's see if we can capture just that."

    Manfred held it out to him. "You do it. You've a more delicate touch than I have."

    So Erik folded the cloth, and gently placed it on the altar, just over the dust-marks. He rubbed just slightly, and picked up the cloth. "Let's get out of here."

    The old priest muttered something that was probably "Can't even clean properly." But he was too glad to see them go to make any more fuss.

    "What did you mean about those spiral carvings?" asked Manfred as they walked back, Erik carrying the cloth carefully. "You see them in Brittany too, you know."

    "And in Ireland as well. They're no part of Scandinavian Odin worship. That place was a temple long before the Norse brought Odin here."

    "Common practice, building your temple or church where another one stood. Establishes that you're the master," said Manfred. "Half the churches in the Empire stand on the sites of old Lundar, apparently."

    "Considering that you can't pray without moving your lips, isn't that just what you were doing when I put the altar cloth on top of Odin's altar?" asked Erik, his lips quirking.

    Manfred looked a little sheepish. "After Venice and what we ended up fighting there, I take my religion just a little more seriously. Besides, I'd give you long odds that you were doing the same."

    Erik acknowledged the hit. "You always were a lucky gambler."

    "Well I hope that this particular gamble pays off," said Manfred with a gesture at the cloth.

    They met the others, waiting just outside the ring of stones that marked the waerd of the temple Vé. "You were successful?" asked Brother Uriel.

    "I hope so. There is an imprint of the ring in the dust on the altar stone. I hope we've got that on the... cloth," said Erik, handing it over.

    By the glint in the Monk's eye he knew exactly what sort of cloth Sister Mary had given them. But all he said was: "Excellent! We'll take it back to our chambers and work on it."

    King Vortenbras barked out something. Brother Ottar and Erik both visibly paused. "I'm afraid we won't," said Erik. "The King has ordered that you do your... work in the feasting hall, before all of the company. He's not quite accusing you of chicanery. Yet."

    An unfamiliar smile cracked Brother Uriel's stern visage. "The Lord moves in mysterious ways. We were warned against public displays of our faith, but my Abbot asked that we should try to open the way for missionary work here. Now, at their insistence, we shall have to show them. Knock and it shall be opened unto you."



    Erik fell in quietly behind Manfred and beckoned to the birdlike little Nun. "Sister Mary. You're Irish," he said quietly.

    She nodded. "In a manner of speaking. My father was a Frankish master miner recruited to oversee lead and silver mines by the Irish. My mother was born in the Bóinne valley. I lived in Duhblinn until I was a woman grown." She sighed, reminiscently. "Many years ago of course. But the church knows no nationalities."

    "Neither do temples, by the looks of it. The hearthstone in there -- it was carved with spirals in the Irish manner. You see them in Brittany too."

    The wrinkled face wrinkled into more wrinkles as she smiled. "And further afield across Europe. Old temples. Some of them rededicated to new gods... Tell me about the temple. Especially the area where the stone lay."

    "It was just across a fissure in the rock. With a big single log smoldering inside it."

    To his surprise the old woman ducked her head and hid her face in her hand. "You do see the symbolism, Ritter Hakkonsen." There was some amusement in her voice. "And some of the other mythos attached to the arm-ring might make more sense now. It was supposed to be born of rock of the temple."

    Erik frowned. "But it is gold... oh I see."

    "Partially perhaps. You do know that metals are often deposited in fissures, and that gold does occur with silver, sometimes? And Norway produces silver?"

    "Er. No. You obviously know more than I do about this, being a master-miner's daughter. But you mean the gold for the arm-ring came from the fissure that's... well, their hearth."

    "Yes. You can see what Pagans would make of the symbolism of such an item. I must confer with Sister Mercy about this. The Arm-ring too may predate the present pagans. It may have a bearing on this."

    As far as Erik could see, 'bearing' was just a bad choice of words.

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