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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Monday, May 2, 2005 19:51 EDT



    Cair found what the little Princess had just said one of the most puzzling things he'd yet encountered among these uncivilized primitives. If he'd understood it right she'd just, with the air someone conveying a huge privilege, decided to have him on her pyre when she got married.

    Weddings around these parts plainly involved more than just a little bed warming! So he took himself back to the stables and to Thjalfi. The thrall might be a few pieces short of a full set of chessmen in his head, but he was an invaluable source of information. And because he was more than a little slow, he was easy enough to pump unobtrusively.

    "Brides get burned?" The thrall shook his head. "No, not unless the groom works too hard on his wedding night and dies. Then she may climb onto his pyre with him. Much honor to the wife. Very romantic," he said, dreamily. "Ancient heroines like Signy -- she who was married against her will to King Siggeir, the King of Gautland, and then had her vengeance, and was burned beside him."

    Cair swallowed, beginning to understand the context of this Signy's statements. "And who else? I mean... tell me about the way you would burn a great Jarl or his lady."

    Eagerly, the thrall began a lengthy description of the burial of King Olaf. Painstakingly he listing the grave goods and the food that even thralls had got to taste. Eventually he came to: "And, with the king we put six serving girls and six thralls. It is a great honor," he said, hopelessly wishful. "Thralls go to Odin's hall to serve there!"

    It sounded like the sort of privilege that Cair felt he could avoid. But he'd better learn to understand their religion and society. He'd been avoiding doing so previously. Looking back, he could see that he'd been stupid. Disdain was all very well, but you had to know your enemy. Over the next week Cair tried to absorb the religion and culture of his captors. The more he learned the more he decided that these Norsemen were crazy. They believed everything had either a spirit, or a little gnome, or a troll, occupying it. Giants made natural phenomena like storms or earthquakes happen. Ha. Stupidity. To someone like himself, a firm believer in real cause and effect, doubly so.

    He'd even sneaked into the pagan's temple for a look around. Well, he'd bribed one of the door wardens. Even in a slave society there is some money floating around. Some of it inevitably found its way to worker of charms. "We thralls don't go there! But Vilmut will let you sneak in in the early morning when he is on duty. Albrecht is always asleep then," one of the girls had told him. "He will let you in for a copper penny. Two if you want some of the holy ash."

    "The holy ash?"

    She giggled. "It's no use to you, outlander. You're a man. Or at least, we think so. It is powerful fertility magic. Especially from the yule log. That is what the priests scatter on the fields at the Beltane feasts."

    So, in the pale dawnlight he had gone and parted with a solitary copper penny. The ash from the kitchen hearths would do for just as well for the things he needed ash for. He suspected the ash from there would do just as well for the foolish women too. The crude soap he'd made with it might even help fertility. At least they might smell less and thus attract someone to assist with conception. Soap was still an imported luxury here.

    This particular temple was dedicated to Odin. There were others around, but it appeared that the one-eyed God was the darling of the Norse ruling nobility. Thor held sway among the warriors, and was even venerated by the thralls. But Odinshof here was strictly for the nobility.

    It was a pretty poor place for all that. Cair had looted far better. The only piece of gold in the place was a solitary, chunky, crudely engraved bracelet, rather like the ones that a fair number of the warriors wore just above the elbow. It lay, quite unguarded, on the middle of huge slab of stone in the middle of floor. An earth floor, yet! The rest of place was wooden, and every surface was carved. The only exception was the back wall, where the fire burned - which was just the rock of the place. The image of their god was old and wooden too. He might be the Lord of the Nobles, but, Cair thought that he could use a dose of gold leaf too. He looked more like a sneak-thief than a God. Still, the monastic orders would pay for these idols. The monks believed them imbued with magical power. Cair treated that assertion with the scepticism it deserved, but, well, if they wanted to part with good money... He studied the carvings. The stains on the huge rock -- it must weigh three hundredweight at least -- suggested that blood sacrifice was practiced here. In the grove, on angled poles he'd seen evidence of horse sacrifices, anyway. Skulls and hides. It seemed a waste of good animals, as he doubted that they'd have the common sense to give this Odin the unsound beasts.

    They were remarkably gullible, he decided.

    The other thing he decided was that Princess Signy needed his help. Badly.

    He started working on a few suitable 'miracles'. And doing a little unobtrusive dyeing work on a Signy's wedding robe, secretly looted from the kist in chambers. It would now change color with body-heat... a simple trick that should convince both her and any others. As for the rest: He had been collecting sulphur from the dried-out ponds next to the mine up on the hill, and saltpeter was something that the horse-dung-heaps had provided. And charcoal was easy enough. Making vitriol had been tricky -- glassware or even glazed pottery was hard for a thrall to come by, even one such as himself. But the shed behind the tannery was now transformed into quite a laboratory. The thralls were all in terror of what he did there, and the smell of the tanning kept others away.

    The only question was just how much time he actually had. He was an astute observer of people. He'd managed to keep the peace in a fleet of corsairs, to direct their internal pressures at an external foe. There were storm signals building up here. Vortenbras had added to his pack of hearthmen from across the petty Norse kingdoms -- and beyond. He had a fair number of disaffected Danes and Svear too. A bad lot, in Cair's judgement. At the moment Telemark appeared to have weaker enemies all around her. The small kingdom had a peace treaty with the Empire and the Danes, but was more or less at war with its neighbors. Only the fact that they all hated and distrusted each other stopped them from allying and destroying Telemark.

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