Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Friday, June 24, 2005 23:05 EDT




    Manfred found that the trail -- if you could call it that, would almost immediately have been too steep for the horses. It was more of a scramble than a path. If it went on like this it would be too steep for the dogs. Soon they were climbing up short pieces of snow-capped damp rock -- seldom more than the height of a man, but up which the dogs had to be hauled. "Going to be broken legs if not necks at this rate," he grunted, pulling himself up a rock.

    "If we're lucky," said Erik, panting. "This looks well planned to me. Roll rocks on us and we're all dead.

    "They say it opens up a bit higher up," said Manfred.

    "Let's hope so. This is insanity."

    They pressed on. The nature of the terrain made it nearly impossible to all keep together, and it was exhausting going. Manfred knew that nature had made few men as fit, or as powerful, or with as much raw stamina as he had -- except possibly the wire-hard Erik. Erik was used to rough-country walking from Iceland and later Vinland, but the other knights were not. They were more used to being in the saddle than in ravines. Erik and Manfred were soon out-pacing them, although the dogs and a few of Vortenbras's hunters were still ahead. When they reached the point where the valley flattened out a bit, as predicted, Erik said sternly. "We must let the others catch up."

    Manfred nodded. "Let's just move away from this last drop."

    So they did just that. Some hundred yards further on they sat down on a snow-free boulder beside the trail to wait.

    It seemed that no sooner had they done so, than the cloud, which had remained reasonably high until then, dropped like a stone.

    Worse. As it was closing around them, thick and cold and swirling, Manfred saw that it was spilling into the ravine below. He sighed irritably. "Great. So what do we do now? On or back?"

    "Certainly not on. Back ... well, there are a good few places we could have gone over a cliff instead of down the scramble. So I think we sit tight. Sit tight and be glad that we've got a reasonably waterproof cloaks with us. Going anywhere in the mist on a mountain is pure foolishness. We'll go very carefully, sticking together, to see if we can find some fuel and get a fire to burn, if we're going to spend the night up here. But I doubt it. The Norse will come. We'll probably rope the hard sections."

    "Meaning those man-bears have got away," said Manfred.

    "I suspect so, yes," said Erik. "There are still some hunters and dogs ahead of us, mind you."

    "Well, let's get to this fuel-gathering."

    "Firstly, let's tie ourselves together. You'd be amazed at how easily you can lose someone in this sort of mist. And it swallows sound too. Here. Tie this thong around your wrist. And we move very, very cautiously."

    "We can't exactly fall over any cliffs here, Erik. We saw the place before the mist came down."

    "Distances are deceptive in the mist."

    Manfred had to admit that Erik was right. Especially in this mist. It was thick enough to be cut with an axe, never mind a knife.

    "Hell's teeth. Stop a minute, Erik. My cloak is snagged." It came free with a rip - and curse from Manfred. He liked that cloak.

    "See if whatever it was caught on will burn."

    "It's got thorns, whatever it is. Part of it seems dead."

    The valley was full of snow, away from the narrow central track. It was obviously a fairly barren place too, but they managed to collect some more dead bushes.

    Manfred's foot slipped into a hole and he stumbled and fell, pulling Erik down too, spilling their precious hoard of sticks. "God's wounds...." Manfred looked at the rock he'd fallen on. Even in this mist it was strange enough to be noticeable. It was plainly worked stone. "This is a bit odd up here, Erik."

    The Icelander sat up and dusted himself off. "I suppose it was my idea to tie us together. But I thought I told you be careful. Hmm." he paused in his reading of the riot act, to examine the rock. "It's a bautarstein. A driven stone. As you say, odd thing to find here. Usually they're associated with ritual sites. Tombs and the like."

    Manfred shivered despite himself. "Great. Stuck up a mountain in Norway in the mist, on top of a tomb. No doubt some Viking ghosts will come and help us keep warm."

    "They're doing their best," said Erik mildly. "What you pulled me into appears to a large gorse bush. Quite a lot of it -- the part that isn't imbedded in my face and hands -- appears to be dead. So get that knife of yours out and let me have some shavings. We might as well stay right here."

    "So long as I can untie this leash."



    In the mist nearby, something growled to itself. Something that saw far better than humans in the darkness and the mist. Something that could tell by smell exactly where they were anyway. Something that could move as silently as a ghost if it wanted to. Her weather magic had worked perfectly -- this time. The rest of Mother's complicated plots were unnecessary. The Bjornhednar had the Alfar-blot below ground now. She was still valuable. Even diluted Alfar-blood gave certain powers. And Chernobog's prize was within twenty yards of the audit. He'd go and settle for the hunters and their dogs first. He didn't want them coming down here at the wrong moment. It was unlikely anyone would still be coming up, but he'd deal with that too. He smiled in savage satisfaction. An avalanche of snow and rocks would deal with those foreigners. The Norse casualties were a small price to pay. There were plenty more of those. First he would quickly go and roar at those further up. And maybe kill a few dogs. He hated dogs.



    The mist was a great help, thought Cair, climbing steadily. The Norsemen were stopping the knights from going on. And they were making no effort to be quiet. "Prince Manfred is still up there," said a familiar voice. It was the man that had called him a crazy fool. How right he was.

    "So are the huntsmen, my lord," said someone in atrocious Frankish. "They'll bivouac somewhere. There are some caves. This will blow over. I have never seen it come down so fast. Fast come, fast go."

    Caves. Cair registered that and moved on up a small rock-face. The trail was a bit to his left, but basically it went up. And so did he.

    Later he realized that, firstly, he'd been very stupid. And secondly, had he not been so stupid, and had he been in any position to retreat, or even to rest comfortably and safely, he would have stopped. He found himself moving upwards simply because staying in any one place was untenable. And sooner or later it must end. Surely it must?

    By the time it did, Cair was exhausted. Thrall's food, and a long day, had eaten at his physical resources.

    He crawled a bit further from the steep edge.

    And his nose caught the smell of wood-smoke in the mist.

    As he'd already had a day of avoiding all forms of common sense he headed onward towards it. Most likely it would be some of Signy's pursuit. Right now, as they were set on killing her, murdering them for their fire seemed a fair deal. They wouldn't be expecting him to be creeping around in the mist, and if there were too many of them, well, he'd back off.



    Not unexpectedly, the fire had been difficult to get lit. Someone less expert than Erik would have given up. But, now that it was lit, Manfred had to admit it that was very welcome, especially if they were going to spend the damned night on this God-forsaken mountain. And the bautarstein made a fair backrest. No Norse ghosts had come to complain, yet. His stomach reminded him that it was a long time since breakfast, though. "What do you make of this lot, Erik?"

    "Deep and murky, whatever it is," said Erik. "Brother Ottar was telling me that that girl is something of a sacrificial lamb. The Dowager Queen has apparently been offering her to the highest bidder. Apparently, that bid has gone to Telemark's traditional enemy. The girl hates him. Not surprising she turned to the bad."

    "Hmm. Sounds like Brother Ottar should be working for Francesca. How did he find all this out so quickly?"

    "He stuck his neck out. He recognized one of the nobles at court as a secret Christian who knew him. They've talked. I only found this out on the ride up here, mind you. I didn't suspect her," admitted Erik.

    That made Manfred feel a little better about it. "I tell you, you could have knocked me down with a feather when Sister Mercy divined that it was her. She looked like a frightened little mouse of a thing."

    "Hush." Erik had the keen ears of a woodsman. By the way he was poised he'd heard something.

    Erik got to his feet in one smooth movement and lunged off into the mist.

    Manfred followed and was just in time to drop a bear hug around the man Erik was wrestling with.

    A bear hug from Manfred tended to stop struggles very fast. But then Erik usually stopped trouble just as fast, if not faster. He hadn't this time.

    "Bring him to the fire, Manfred. He nearly stuck me," said Erik.

    "If you kick me again, I will squeeze," said Manfred as he carried the prisoner to the fire.

    As they got there, Erik gave a low whistle. "It just got deeper and murkier, Manfred."

    He stared at their prisoner, intently. "Who in heaven's name are you?"



    Cair looked into the steel-gray eyes and knew that he was nearer to death than he'd ever been. He wished desperately that he hadn't reacted to what the man had said. "A thrall, master. My name is C...Karl."

    "Who just happens to be creeping around a mountainside in the mist," rumbled Manfred of Brittany.

    "Who is good enough with a knife to damn near kill a man with a sword," said the Prince's companion his tone showing that this had surprised him. It was mutual. Cair wasn't used to fighting someone that fast or that proficient.

    "I thought thralls didn't get to carry steel?" said Manfred, squeezing slightly. "Eh... mister C... Karl? -- who also speaks Frankish, in case you hadn't noticed, Erik."

    There are times when only the truth will serve well. "I was captured. I was not always a thrall. The knife is a stolen scrap. It was the best I could contrive."

    "That's true enough," said Erik, examining the knife. "And he's branded. But I smell assassin, here. Explain what you're doing here. And what is your real name?"

    Before Cair could reply something bellowed higher up the valley. The mist stifled some of the sound, but still it was a terrifying noise. "Your friend coming to fetch you, eh?" said Manfred, grimly.

    "NO!" said Cair, anger, and fear for someone else overcoming fear for himself. "I haven't got any damned friends. And I wasn't looking for you. At least I thought I was, but then I heard what you said and I wasn't. Maybe Vortenbras is behind all this."

    "As a sentence making a lot of no sense, that one is a winner," said Manfred, sounding slightly amused. "I only understood one word of it... hola... Here it comes." They could hear heavy treads "What do I do with this one, Erik?"

    "Put him to sleep. We can't take a chance."

    As he said this, Cair brought both his feet down on Manfred's toes. And head-butted back as he thrust with his elbows with all his strength. Manfred lost his grip as Cair dance free.

    "Damn you!" Manfred snatched at him.


    It was huge. White, except for the terrible redness of its mouth. So close now that you could smell the fresh blood on its breath.

    Talons like six-inch knives missed Cair's skin by the thickness of a hair.

    They didn't miss his clothing. Had it been anything more substantial than a thrall's ragged tunic, it might not have ripped like paper, and he would have died right there, hauled into a bear hug worse even than Manfred's. As it was he was flung sprawling, to the far side of the fire. He cracked his head against a rock, and the world spun. In the mist, with his head whirling he watched the two knights with their bright swords... and the great mass of white fur and terrible claws and teeth. It seemed to be at least one and a half times as tall as the men. It also had a club. Half a tree, by looks of it. The two knights only had their swords.

    And beyond the monster... mouth dry, head spinning, Cair croaked a warning and pointed. In the mist all that you could see was that they were big and misshapen. Like the gnarled trolls of Norse tales. He scrabbled at the fire as Erik ducked under the club and lunged at the white-furred monster.

    Erik cut the monster, and it yowled. But it would take more than one blow to stop such a creature. And the others were coming to join their master.

    Cair burned his fingers on an ember, and then found a brand. And stared at the bautarstein he'd been seeking.

    "Back! The cave!" he called, fumbling with his pouch. One of his home-made grenades came to hand. "I'll fix 'em. Back and down," he yelled again. Wishing that his eyes would focus properly, he struggled to light the wick. A powerful arm hauled him back. Which was not at all what he'd meant. "Hell's teeth, fool. Back where?"

    "Cave." They staggered back up the slope, and against the odds Cair managed to light the wick of his grenade. He tossed it. But his strength just -- wasn't. It fell barely twelve feet away, rolling toward the troll-things instead of their monster master.

    "God's blood! It's a grenade. Back!" yelled Erik.

    Cair was hauled off with a strength and speed that nearly had his arm out of its socket. They stumbled against a rock-face and fell, as it exploded. As grenades went it was not a great one. Still, it did get results.

    The earth shook slightly. And it was certainly not from the puny grenade. Soft snow cascaded down on them, and a deep grumbling sound shook the earth in earnest. "Avalanche," said Erik. "Back. Back into the cave."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image