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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 21, 2005 07:54 EDT




    The trail had been easy enough to follow, but the bears had not made following easy for the riders. They'd crossed the river, forcing the riders to go upstream to where it could be forded and then to ride back until they could pick up the trail again. Then they'd gone into some old woodland, uncut and full of snags and dead briars. A bear could go where a horse would struggle. It was apparent that these bears retained human intellect if not shape.

    Vortenbras cursed, "Witch-slut. She always was my father's favorite. She couldn't accept that she wouldn't rule. This kind of thing is typical of her. Typical. Vindictive bitch, she made everybody's lives around her a misery. I should have guessed it was her. And after the way my mother always treated her like a daughter."

    Erik made a suitably sympathetic noise. What did you say to man whose sister had just turned into a witch, a thief and a murderer?

    After nearly an hour's hard ride, the going eased. Erik wondered about that, until he saw that the bears - or shape-changing men, had simply taken the shortest route to somewhere where horses would be nearly as useful as an extra nose -- in a room full of skunks. They'd rode into the end of a dead-end valley. A drystone-walled garth and a hut stood at the head of the valley -- and beyond it a steep rocky path headed into a ravine between two granite sheetrock slabs. To add to the cheerfulness of the scene -- occasional snowflakes drifted down.

    The hearthmen reined in -- except for the huntsman -- who was busy whipping the dogs in. Men started dismounting with a steady grumble. The huntsman, having completed his circuit of the dogs, came back up to the knights. He pointed at the trail. "Too steep. Much rocks to climb. No take horses." He said in broken Frankish.

    "Hells teeth!" said Manfred looking at the slope. "Not up there in armor."

    Erik nodded. That would kill a man, as surely as an arrow through the heart. "Dismount them, Szpak. We'll need to strip to breastplates. I hope they'll wait for us."



    The stable thralls left for the mid-day meal. Cair slipped down from his hidey-hole. Hopefully things would still be in too much flux to have his absence noted. Or -- if it was noted, have anything done about it.

    He would have to lead the horses, at least until he was well into the woods. A thrall leading horses would excite no comment. A thrall riding... well. A different matter. He had a good hooded cloak and pair of breeches and some boots that might pass for a poor freeman's gear. A knife too. They'd kill him for that, if they caught him. The biggest problem was that the horses would look like stabled, pampered things, too good for a poor man to own, and his olive skin would betray him too. So he'd have to try to keep his distance from other people.

    He'd decided that a saddle would be worth the attention it might generate while he led the horses and was just busy putting it on when someone cleared their throat behind him. He whirled... to face the last person he had expected to see in the stables.

    Queen Albruna.

    She looked, Cair thought, like a ghost. A shadow of her normal rosy cheeked blonde self. She was alone -- also unusual. But she stood between him and his objective. And if he was caught they'd kill him anyway.

    Her words robbed him of his resolve. "You will be going to my daughter. I need your help."

    Cair stood still. Wary.

    She wrung her hands. "Vortenbras and his men will kill her. She makes me very angry sometimes, but she is still my daughter. I cannot let her be killed."

    Cair hoped that his suspicion didn't show. Or at least the fact that he was going to brain her with a barrel stave any minute didn't show. "And so?" he asked warily.

    "One of my men has just come back. They've cornered them behind Svartdal." Cair knew where that was. He'd been up there with the other thralls to load hay for the stables. It wasn't even a league away. "There is a steep pass up behind it, that leads out onto the vidda. My man saw bear-tracks around a cave near a bautarstein close to the top. The hunt has gone past the cave but they will find it."

    Cair stared at her, wide-eyed. It smelled of a trap. But why him? Was she really just one of those women who hide their feelings behind a mask of bitchiness? "What do you expect me to do, oh Queen? I am one thrall. There is an army pursuing your daughter."

    "If you tell the outlander knights -- tell their leader. I have heard that they do not kill witches who repent," she said wringing her big hands. He'd never noticed how big these were, before.

    Sparing witches was at best only occasionally true. But at least she had told him where Signy might be. He shrugged. "I am just a thrall, oh Queen. How can I do these things?"

    "Don't pretend to be a fool," she snapped. "Take the horse and ride. Just as you were planning to do."

    Cair pinched his lips together. "Put your hands behind your back and turn around."


    "I cannot leave you free to cry warning. I shall put you in the oat-store. They'll find you this evening when they feed the horses."

    "Insolent fool. I won't betray you!"

    Cair picked up the heavy oak barrel stave. "Turn around, hands behind your back or I'll knock you senseless and then do it. I don't have time to waste."

    Muttering, she did as she was bid.

    A very few minutes later Cair was leading two horses down the track that led to Svartdal. Soon a man in a hooded cloak was galloping hell-for-leather up that rutted trail.

    Approaching the hay meadows at the top end of Svartdal, Cair tried to formulate his plans, take stock of what he had... Which was not much in the way of plans or materiels. Two simple grenades, a worn out, broken cheap blade he'd bound into a new handle. A small vial of aqua regia... a little money. A home-made lucifer. Oh, and the Queen's ring. It had seemed too good an opportunity to miss, even if it had started her yelling and he'd had to be hasty about that gag. Plans? None really. His chess-player's mind found the possibilities either too limited or too wide. And it didn't know why in the name of heaven he was doing this. The cloud was already draped on the mountain like a soggy gray porridge, and was oozing its way down.

    The trail of the horses was clear enough even for a seaman to track them. But could he take horses up the pass at the head of the valley? He tried to reconstruct it in his mind's eye. All he could picture was a dark crack, splitting the granite.

    Riding around the corner he could see just that. And also a lot of picketed horses.

    He rode boldly up to them, picking out from the guards one of the Svear outlanders who'd found shelter with King Vortenbras a few months before. Cair had the impression that the fellow was definitely a bit slow upstairs. Cair swung down from the bay, and produced the Queen's ring. He waved it under the fellow's nose. "I have a message for the King," he said, importantly.

    The fellow blinked. "The King is up there. They waited for the Franks. They're not far ahead."

    Cair nodded. So he'd caught up a little. "Take these horses. I must go up there too then. It is an honor for me to be charged with such a mission."

    "What mission?" said the slow-wit. One of the other picket guards was walking over. Cair knew it hung in the balance now.

    "His medication," said Cair, flourishing the bottle of Aqua regia. "And I have no time to waste." He pushed the reins into the man's hand, waved and started jogging up toward the start of the trail.

    He didn't look back, or attempt to run any faster.

    And somehow, no-one followed him.

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