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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 23:25 EDT



    Erik had heard the growl of avalanches before. But not ones like this one. Erik had been willing to swear that it hadn't been natural. There'd been a dance of odd lights in the mist and a strange sort of music in that grumbling.

    Whatever or however the idiot thrall had triggered it, he was really not sure. It must have taken more than that little grenade -- there'd been enough noise earlier to start three avalanches. The odd thrall's grenade had made a nice flash and been good for shock value -- those trolls had panicked easily enough.

    But the avalanche... He was sure that the grenade hadn't caused it.

    Running into the cave had left them in an interesting position...

    If by 'interesting' you meant 'stuck'. They were going to die of suffocation, sooner or later -- along with an unconscious man who could possibly have tried to trap them here. "I still can't wake him," he said to Manfred. "

    "He took a swipe from that thing," said Manfred in the darkness, where he was taking a break from digging.

    Erik didn't hold out much hope for the digging. The snow was soft and powdery and simply cascaded back down onto them. And twice now they'd dug... to encounter rock. Perhaps boulders had come down with the snow -- or they weren't digging straight. The cave had sloped sharply in and they had rolled and fallen about twenty paces. Erik was also very skeptical about the unconscious man. "That's what it looked like, perhaps, as far as we could see in that murk. But he's alive and not bleeding that I can feel. That seems unlikely, given that I have a gouge in my breastplate and a cut on my shoulder, just from the tail end of one of those blows. I fought with this fellow a few minutes back. He was too good. He had a little homemade knife. I had a sword. He should have died. He should have died, if that thing had really hit him."

    "It could happen," said Manfred, doubtfully.

    Erik was far less inclined to give the fellow the benefit of that doubt. "You've got to admit his turning up there was more than implausible. He didn't ride with us, so he must have been here before us."

    There was a long pause. "I suppose he must have been."

    "And he was dead keen for us to get into this cave. Which he knew about!"

    "It is pretty damning, I must admit," agreed Manfred. "But I'll swear that thing hit him. And he really seems to be unconscious. I'll get straight answers out of him when he comes around, I think." There was a certain implacability about that tone.

    "His being unconscious is mighty convenient for him," said Erik. "But if he isn't, he's the best faker in the world."

    "True enough," agree Manfred, who had also tried to wake the thrall. "Well. I can't just sit here and wait for him to come around or for the air in this hole to run out."

    "What are you doing?" asked Erik. Manfred's voice had come from further away.

    "Just exploring this hole we're stuck in," came the echoing answer.

    Erik's first inclination had been to say "well don't." But he curbed it. He was too inclined to say 'no' to Manfred. With some reason, he had to admit. But a novitiate and their experiences in Venice, not to mention Francesca, had made the once-spoiled prince grow up a lot. These days it was far more of a meeting of equals who respected each other, than of instructor and reluctant pupil. Besides. It was nearly impossible not to like Manfred, for all that he was still something of a tearaway. He settled for "Well, let's stick together. It's probably not very big but you never can tell."

    "What about the thrall?" asked Manfred.

    Erik shrugged, and realized that this was rather a futile gesture down here. So he answered instead: "He's not lying in the snow. He's breathing. I can't get a response from him. I think we can leave him here while we explore around. One of us would be bound to break our necks tripping over something carrying him -- for all that I want him to answer some hard questions. If he's a thrall I'm an Ilkhan."

    Erik made his way over to where Manfred stood and they began making their way, cautiously felt footstep by footstep along the wall.

    "It's a lot bigger than I thought," admitted Erik. "We shouldn't run out of air at least."

    "Although the stuff stinks a bit, Erik. You know, I don't think this cave is natural."

    "Now what leads you to this conclusion?" asked Erik, dryly. "Could it be the relative smoothness of the walls? Or is it some arcane knowledge that is taught to heirs of Carnac?"

    "Well, you're feeling better anyway," said Manfred, cheerfully. "I was worried that the slash you took from that thing might have been worse than you were telling me."

    Erik smiled to himself. "What the hell was that thing?"

    "Hard to tell," said Manfred. "There was fog rolling off its fur. A magical creature of some sort, for sure."

    Erik had to agree. The one thing that the Knights of the Holy Trinity had learned -- to their cost, was that magical creatures did exist. "It bled, though."

    "Yes, I saw that. I think that we might have it handled between us, if those others hadn't been there too."

    "Trolls," said Erik, thinking of the gnarled knobbly things.

    "Oh?" said Manfred. "I thought they were stories to frighten children."

    "They frightened the hell out of m....."


    Erik would have replied but many small hands held him. Many, many small hands. Several of them were holding his mouth shut. He managed to bite one. It tasted vile. Like swamp mud. But its squeak at least gave Manfred some warning.

    Not that that helped him much.



    The place was dark. And then there was a hint of light. It grew, but it was no natural light. Instead it was like some eerie marsh-light. Cair concluded he was dead. He'd heard of people who had been inside the doors of death describing the tunnel and the clear white light.

    Considering the life he'd led he would have thought that it would be warmer. But perhaps that came later. Did the pain stop? His head hurt ferociously. He closed his eyes. Odd that you could still do that when you were dead.

    Something touched him. He opened his eyes again. Blinked. The clear white light came from an odd-looking lantern on a pole.

    That was not half as odd as the gnome-like thing that held it.

    The Norse hell was cold, wasn't it? And what else could this creature be but a devil? A very minor one, by its size. Or maybe he was concussed. He'd hit his head, he remembered. He'd had a seaman on his first vessel who'd lost his wits after a blow on the head from a grappling iron.

    The devil spoke. Considering where he was, it was -- he supposed -- not surprising that it spoke Norse. Well, no more surprising than anything else. "Get up, slave" was something they might say in hell, too.

    He tried.

    And fell over. It wasn't very far to fall, but it seemed to take a very long time and consciousness drifted away like smoke.



    Later he awoke again, lying on what was, by the smell of it, old straw.

    And it was warmer here, but, as his head no longer felt as if it was full of clouds, he was very sure that he wasn't in hell after all. And, he thought wryly, even a mere Norse thrall's heaven would surely have fresh straw?

    A little of the cold white light streamed in through a barred grill. He sat up. He felt bruised but otherwise intact. He examined himself. He was still, as far as he could see and feel, intact. His pouch was missing, though. He examined his surroundings as well as he could without getting up. It looked like a cell. Cautiously he stood up. It was as well he did it cautiously, because the ceiling was very low.

    Someone had plainly heard him move.

    A little ugly goblinlike thing, gray-fleshed and dressed, unless he was much mistaken, in scraps of molefur, opened the door. Either that knock on the head had permanently affected his brain, or this was some creature he hadn't ever encountered before. The latter was possible. After all, he'd seen for himself apes that were bigger than a man and built nests in trees like birds, when they'd gone raiding down South. "Come," it said.

    There didn't seem to be a lot of alternatives, especially as molefur-clothes was backed up by a lot more of his kind. With, what to them were probably spears. He was led though various hallways, all too low for him to walk erect, until he came to a room where an older, fatter copy of his guide, dressed in ermine, not tatty moleskin, sat on what could only be a throne. Several others sat around the low steps. And in each of the doorways were more. Crowds of them. With more spears that looked sharp enough to make him die the death of a thousand short needles anyway.

    His pouch lay on the stone in front of the throne. Open. The miscellaneous contents were spilled out onto the stone

    The Goblin-king held Queen Albruna's ring between a gnarled thumb and forefinger. For him it would have made an outsize bracelet.

    "Where did you get this?" the King asked, his eyes narrow.

    Something about the way it was said, made Cair suspicious. ...And the way it was held. As if it might be contaminated.

    "I stole it," he said calmly

    The Goblin-king began to chortle. So did his courtiers. And the guards in archways.

    "That's one in the eye for old bag," said the Goblin with satisfaction, wiping his eyes. "You're very brave, if very stupid, Midgarder."

    "I left her tied up, in an oat store," said Cair.

    "Haw, haw, haw! You're a good liar anyway," said the Goblin sniggering. "What are these other things?" He prodded the aqua-regia bottle with a horny toe.

    "The tools of my trade. I'm a... sort of magician."

    "Haw haw haw. And you get caught by the likes of Thallbru?" The goblin-king slapped his thighs in delight. The rest of the goblin horde seemed to find it equally funny. "I might just keep you as a joker instead of sending you to the mines."

    Cair put the pieces together. Mines. Yet the metalwork he could see was crude. Could he pass himself off as something of an expert on this? He'd never really done much, but it had been an interest. A curiosity. A dilettante's entertainment. Like chemistry, he probably knew more than the locals about it. And he'd found that he could usually wing it on a bit of self-confidence, if they were anything like as gullible as his Norse-thrall victims. He was good at this stuff, after all. Some of his tricks would almost have fooled himself, if he hadn't known they were tricks. "My magic is only in the working of metals," Cair said, loftily. "That bottle there is for assaying gold. If it is true gold, the liquid it will dissolve it."

    The goblin king grinned. "Nothing dissolves gold, Midgarder."

    "I will show you if you like. In my pouch you found a coin."

    "Not gold," squeaked a small goblin from near the portal. He was a poorly looking creature -- head bowed and half-groveling already.

    The goblin king looked at him sternly. "Give, Thallbru."

    The goblin cowered back against the cavern wall. "Not gold. Too light."

    "He's quite right," said Cair. "It is electrum, a mixture of gold and silver - made up to look like a gold florin. It is a fake."

    The Goblin king's pale eyes seemed to glow. "Good enough to fool trolls? Bring it here, Thallbru."

    Reluctantly the small goblin produced it from under his skins. Edged forward and gave it to his master, and scurried back. The Goblin king looked at it, intently, and then tossed it from hand to hand. "Too light," He agreed regretfully.

    "And a bit harder than real gold."

    "Smells wrong too." said the King passing the coin in front of his cavernous nostrils. "A pity. You make this?" asked the king, passing the coin to his courtiers. It circulated among them, being carefully examined, before being reverently returned to the king.

    "No," admitted Cair. "But I could, if I had the tools."

    The King smiled gleefully. "Thallbru. A good thrall, this. Too good for the mines. I will pay you for him." He tossed the electrum coin at the little goblin. "Gold!"

    "But it's not gold!" protested the little sniveler.

    "Haw, Haw, Haw. Teach you to steal from me, Glibflint."

    So Cair found himself spending the next several hours displaying the properties of aqua regia, and talking about wire-drawing and refining. And counterfeiting. He was a thrall, again. But he gathered that being spared the mines was a good thing. He got food, for starters. Gruel, a lump of sour bread, and, as he was already very much in favor, a nice piece of rat.



    Juzef Szpak was no quitter. Manfred, and Erik, not to mention a dozen Norse huntsmen and Hearthmen, their King Vortenbras and their dogs were up there. The mist hadn't lifted, but with calling and care, and a bunch of picket-lines fetched up from the bottom, he had all the knights bar one back together again. Now he was organizing and planning another sortie -- despite the Norse warriors telling him that it was foolishness.

    He'd got hold of a local shepherd, and discovered that they could go around the narrow pass -- on horseback. With the well-bribed shepherd as a guide they could even do it in reasonable safety... It was just as well he'd got them down, as he had just finished organizing a hunt for the missing knight, when snow and a good few rocks came cascading down the gully.

    Szpak didn't wait. He and his twenty-five remaining Ritters, and Brother Uriel (Brother Ottar being too exhausted in Szpaks's opinion) set off with the shepherd to find their way up onto the vidda, and then down into the pass from above. That part of it was ride-able, apparently. And as they rode higher, the mist lifted around them and they arrived at the top under the cloud rather than in it.

    Near dusk, pushing their horses through hock-deep snow, they found the terrified hunters, hearthmen and King Vortenbras near top of the pass, forted up in a cave with what was left of the dog-pack. Several of them had been injured, including Vortenbras. In broken Frankish they explained that they'd been set upon by the Grendel in the mist.

    Now Juzef Szpak knew real fear. He and his men hastened down the gully. He wished that they'd taken the time to re-don armor. But he'd judged time to be of the essence. He did not want to lead his men against some monster, just in their mail-shirts. He'd lose some. But he wanted even less to have to explain to the Abbot-General, and possibly to the Emperor himself, that they'd lost Manfred of Brittany and his bodyguard.

    Besides: He liked both of them.

    Finding a torn body was a shock. But it proved to be a Norseman. They pressed on.

    But all they found was a big slide of fresh snow near the top of the steep part of the gully, and Norse warriors and Brother Ottar coming up from below.

    "We found Von Strethen," said Ottar, grimly. "He missed the trail."

    The Norsemen were examining the new snow-slip. One of them called and the Knights hurried over. The warrior pointed to huge prints, claw tipped. And from a dead bush nearby, Juzef recovered a torn piece of cloak. The distinctive red cloak Manfred of Brittany had been wearing.

    Juzef Szpak sighed. "Back up to that cave. We'll be sleeping there tonight, horses and all. We need to find at least the Prince's remains."

    It was not a pleasant thought. But that evening, bivouacking in extremely uncomfortable circumstances, the two monks made things worse. "It is possible," said Ottar, "Using that scrap of cloth -- to divine some clues as to the Prince's whereabouts."

    "And if he is alive or dead," said Brother Uriel, grimly. "Although we will need Sister Mercy for directional divining.

    Juzef took a deep breath. "Brothers. He's dead."

    "It's not that easy to kill Manfred of Brittany and Erik Hakkonsen," said Uriel stiffly. "I was with them in Venice. They should have been killed several times there."

    Juzef Szpak dug out the fragment of cloth.

    He wanted very much for them to be alive.

    But a part of his thoughts said: That means 'captive'. Captives of something which had been kept at bay by the name of Christ.

    And indeed, that fear was realized.

    "Our prayers have been answered," said Brother Ottar. "Thank God."

    "Now we can just pray for his safety," said Brother Uriel, whose mind obviously worked in much the same way that Juzef's had.



    "Well?" she said. It was snowing, but, to a troll-wife, that was rather pleasant.

    "Well what?" he growled sulkily. "One of them cut me. Cut me to the bone with iron that burned."

    "But are they trapped? I arranged for someone to come and lead them to the cave. I see the avalanche spell has been triggered."

    "Oh, so that was your doing, mother?" His yellow eyes narrowed. "That thrall?"

    "It was my doing, yes. Neat, if I say so myself. Even if the queen had to endure the indignity of being locked into the feed store."

    He snorted. "That's a joke. And the thrall nearly killed two of the boys. Pieces of them have lignified."

    She shrugged. "They'll recover. Or we'll breed more. I've lost a Bjornhednar, and entrapping them is a harder task. I have word from home. The Alfarblot is safe in the fortress."

    He growled savagely. "One day I will spill the blood from that thing. They should all be killed." "One day. But for now her blood is worth more in her body than out."

    "Soon," he grumbled. "It had better be soon, mother."

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