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This Rough Magic: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Thursday, July 10, 2003 02:19 EDT



    Svanhild Thordarson was not a maiden easily intimidated; she had faced, in her time, bears, catamounts, blizzards that piled snow to the rooftree, drunken and aggressive skralings who had gotten more aqavit than they should have, and skraling war-bands. She could make a wilderness camp, milk a cow, goat, or sheep, cook a meal without a single implement but a knife, and read an Icelandic saga like a skald. She could hunt, fish, and ride as well as her brothers, besides having all of the usual skills of a well-bred maiden. She had, during the rough crossing, climbed into the rigging in her leather skraling trews to help alongside her brothers.

    She had not only been willing to go with them, she had been eager. Valkyrie-like she might well be, but like the storied Brunnhilde, she had her soft side. She wanted a husband, children, and a home of her own. But the only way she was going to get one was to find a husband who wasn't somehow related to her.

    Impossible in Vinland. Well, perhaps not impossible, but difficult. The only unmarried men who were not somehow tied into the Thordarson Clan were thralls (her mother would have died), skralings (actually, not unacceptable, but she didn't really want to set up housekeeping in a bark lodge or a skin tent), or trolls. Trolls, at least, so far as she was concerned. Nasty, fat, obnoxious, hairy, smelly, uncouth, elderly trolls.

    So for both Svanhild and her mother, this trade-expedition was heaven-sent. For her mother, it would be an opportunity for Gulta and Bjarni to find their sister a fine, unattached nobleman, and if this furthered their trade-alliances, all the better. For Svanhild, well, if unattached young men were so thick on the ground as all that back in the Mother Countries, she would make sure that any nobleman that the boys presented to her were young and handsome. Or at the least, not trolls.

    She had strode confidently off the ship once it reached the harbor in Venice—and then, for the first time in her life, discovered something that intimidated her as bears, catamounts, and blizzards had never been able to do.

    The women of Venice.

    In the Piazza San Marco she encountered the women of Venice, and, though Gulta and Bjarni were deaf and dumb to such nuances, knew that although she might be considered to be one of the prettiest maidens in Vinland, here she was...

    A troll.

    The women of Venice were tiny, dainty, slim-waisted and small-breasted. Their perfumed hair was either dark as a raven's wing, or a becoming honey-colored shade. They did not stride, they glided. They did not wear leather and fur and homespun in tunics and trews, nor aprons and plain dresses; they wore elegant gowns of silk and brocade, velvet and linen, embroidered and trimmed with laces and ribbons. Their hands were soft and white; their complexions pale and faintly blushed. Svanhild towered over them; with her sun-browned face and brassy-gold hair, she looked like a huge, cheap trinket among a box full of dainty, gold-set jewels. Or a cow among a herd of deer, a goose swimming with swans. And she knew it, and they knew it; she saw it in their eyes, in the amused side-glances they bestowed on her.

    No young man, noble or otherwise, would look at her with anything other than amused contempt.

    In the time it took to walk from the ship to the lodgings her brothers had arranged for her, she had read this lesson in a thousand eyes, a thousand veiled smirks, a thousand smothered laughs behind their backs. Gulta and Bjarni were indeed oblivious to it all, excited as children at Christmastide by the newness and the bustle. So she put up a good front for them, marching with head high and cheeks burning with shame, pretending that she did not notice what was going on, either.

    But she did, and it didn't stop at the door of the lodging, either.

    Even the servants here looked at her in that scornful way, until she was afraid to leave her room, lest she meet with their sneers and arch glances. And it quickly became clear that Venice had more people in a single one of its many districts than there were in entire cities in Vinland... so finding Nicolo and Clan Montescue was not going to be the simple matter of appearing on the docks and calling out the name.

    While Bjarni and Gulta searched the city for someone who could take them to Clan Montescue, she hid in her room, took comfort in what luxuries the boys found for he—-food, primarily, which was of immense comfort, since food did not have sneers or scornful eyes—and felt despair creeping over her. And wondered if—just perhaps—Nicolo Montescue, plausible fellow that he was, had somehow tricked them. That his Clan was not the leaders of trade that he had said. That he did not even have a Clan. That she and Gulta and Bjarni had come here on a fool's errand, and she the most foolish of all...

    Then they finally returned after days of searching, with the news that Clan Montescue had been found, that it was as great as Nicolo had claimed, that although Nicolo had unaccountably vanished between Vinland and Venice, the ancient Clan Chief Lodovico had welcomed them and their plans with every bit of warmth and enthusiasm they could have hoped for. Which was all the more gratifying, since the resurrection and second banishment of the old man's son had been a heavy blow to him.

    But then, came a heavy and horrid blow to Svanhild, delivered lovingly out of the mouths of her own dear brothers.

    "And we are to come to dinner with them, this night, and sit in honor at their table!" crowed Bjarni. "Now we will be sought for, and taken seriously! In fact, we are to come to their table most nights, and feast with them, and they will introduce us to all of the great Clan Chiefs of the city!"

    "This will be your chance, sister," Gulta said, in a kindly voice, as she felt the blood draining from her face. "For surely there were be many young men there. Ah, but I must warn you, do not cast those blue eyes upon the one called Marco Valdosta, for he is spoken for by the daughter of Clan Montescue."

    "The daughter is clever as well," Bjarni tossed off, casually. "Well read, and canny, and of an age with you. You must cultivate her; the old one dotes upon her, and it is clear that she has great influence upon him."

    The bare thought made her stomach turn over.

    Oblivious as ever, the boys tramped off noisily with more of the samples of the trade-goods that they had brought. In a sick panic, Svanhild looked over her best gowns, then sat down, and ate an entire basket of pastries. And in food, found what little comfort there was to be had.



    If she ate like this all the time, marveled Kat, the svelte Svanhild would be the size of a barn by the time she was fifty. Unless she was one of those people who just never got fat. Looking sidelong out of her eyes at the Vinlander, Kat decided this probably wasn't the case. Svanhild had a perfect northern complexion, creamy-white with blossoming roses in her cheeks, but there was already a hint of a second chin. Well, thought Kat, uncharitably and just a touch enviously, most men would be far too distracted by the magnificent and well-exposed frontage to notice that.

    Kat wondered what conversational gambit to try next. Her grandfather was deep in animated conversation about hunting with their male guests, Svanhild's brothers Gulta and Bjarni. They were as blond as their sister, and considerably larger, not that Svanhild was any midget. They were partners in her father's enterprise. It behooved her, as a good Venetian hostess, to talk to the women-folk. Only...

    What did say to someone who answered your comments with 'Ja' or 'Nu' and continued to eat as if there were a famine coming?

    "Do you like Venetian food?" asked Kat, watching Svanhild mopping the last droplets of mostarda di cremona on her platter with a slab of ciabatta. The piece of prosciutto-stuffed capon breast was long gone.

    Svanhild smiled. "Nu."

    Kat was about to give up when Svanhild at last volunteered something: "I like more cream, ja."

    "Oh. We don't use cream much in Venice. There are not many cows on the islands."

    Svanhild swallowed the last mouthful. "Not many young men either, nu?"

    Kat couldn't tell if that was relief or if the beautiful Svanhild was upset by the lack. "Well, a lot of the young Casa Vecchie usually go off to the trading posts of the Republic. They say Venice lives on the patience of her women. A lot of the men are at sea or away sometimes for years. Even those who are married."

    "I am supposed to make a marriage. Mama sent me with my brothers to Europe for that purpose."

    It was said so blandly that Kat still had no idea whether she was in favor of the idea or not. "Er. Any suitors?"

    Svanhild shrugged. "None that are noble enough for Mama, ja. Mama wants a nobleman for me."

    "Do you like any of them?

    "Nu." A pause. "Are there desserts?"

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