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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Friday, June 17, 2005 18:29 EDT



    Signy had to admit that her curiosity had been stirred by the outlanders. It was not that foreigners were that rare at the court. But of course, not priests. Or these knights in their spiky armor. She found their strangeness... tempting, rather than threatening. They hinted of the existence of a world which was wider than a Norse-maid's duty. Most of Vortenbras' Hearthmen didn't seem to share her opinion. They plainly found the presence of the Knights intimidating. A couple of the more obnoxious Danes had quietly melted away rather than meet them. That was pleasant too. And the outlanders were well-mannered enough. She'd met several of the knights at the stables. They'd been polite -- even flattering about her darlings. "It is good to see that the old horses are so cherished, Ja," said the broad brown-haired proctor, patting a muzzle. He'd instantly moved from 'outlander' to 'good man' in Signy's estimation.

    The only one of them she found alarming was the lean, powerful man who followed the Prince everywhere. His eyes were never still. He probably didn't even realize that he walked like a cat. Signy was used to assessing warriors. This one was dangerous. But this morning Vortenbras had escorted them across to the Odinshof. By tomorrow they'd be leaving, successful in finding the arm-ring or no. So Signy was back in the stables. She only had a few more months with the horses, before she was sent to Hjorda to die. She'd make the time as good for her horses as she could.

    A thrall came panting in, his eyes bright with excitement. "Princess. The king wants you to come up to the feasting-hall. The outlanders are going to try to divine where the Arm-ring of Odin is with their Christian magic!"

    And here she was in her old riding habit again! And no time to change. She hastened out of the stable. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that Cair was also walking nonchalantly to the kitchen. She had to smile. The thrall was as curious as she was, no doubt. She had to admit to having wondered how anyone had even dared to even try to steal the Arm-ring -- it was so wreathed in stories of power. It could only be an outlander who would commit such a crime. Maybe one of Vortenbras's foreign hangers on? Kingshall-folk believed that the ring had been here since the beginning of time. It was simply unthinkable for them to dare steal it.

    By the time she got into the feasting hall it was crowded, and in the center of the room the foreign priests had already begun their outlandish preparations. She slipped into a corner. But Vortenbras beckoned her across to the royal dias. She'd be able to see better from there. The Christian priests and priestesses had not come to last night's meal. They did look rather like crows in those black and white clothes.



    Cair was a worried man. He'd started to smell treachery when he saw King Vortenbras greet Prince Manfred. Cair, of course, shouldn't have been anywhere near the hall when the Knights presented their credentials to the King. But servants are so unnoticed.

    Cair had captained a ship, and later commanded a fleet of corsairs. Treachery was commonplace among these men. You learned to detect traces of it, in the way men walked and acted. Vortenbras would cheerfully have slipped a knife into Manfred of Brittany, for all that he had been unusually polite. Cair had thought about all this very carefully and reached two decisions. Firstly, the Emperor's reputation was such that if some ill befell his second in line to the throne, someone was going to get badly hurt. Secondly, he'd heard it said that wars were hell on women and horses. He'd bet you could add thralls to that list too.

    Magical rituals were no novelty to Cair. He'd watched his share of fakers in Algiers and Carthage and elsewhere. He'd borrowed freely enough from their patter and occult mysticism to fool these Norsemen too. This appeared to be more of the same. There was a trick to it. Smoke and mirrors, even if you couldn't see how it was done. Well, perhaps they would succeed. He had always been sure that the piece of chunky gold had been stolen, not by some monster, but one of the nobles or priests or one of Vortenbras's hangers-on. The whole thing had merely been set up to look like that to fool the superstitious locals. You could rely on them to cloak the whole lot in mumbo-jumbo and exaggeration. He was sure that it was an inside job. Maybe the Monks and Nuns from the Servants of the Holy Trinity could frighten the locals.

    Still, watching from a favored place -- for a thrall -- he had to admit that these servants of the Holy Trinity were slick. The trick with raising the wards was one worth learning. The chanting had a compulsive, hypnotic effect on the Norse audience -- the very air of the place felt prickly with fearful anticipation. With so many people sweating it no wonder you were left with a tin-taste in you mouth.

    Then they were still. And the audience scarcely dared breathe in the sudden silence. The leader of the monks took up a piece of folded white cloth and traced certain symbols on it, first with a few drops of water, and then with a burned splinter from a small chest. He shook the cloth over a large golden chalice of wine. That was a neat bit of loot. Worth more than the stolen arm-ring, in Cair's estimation.

    The monks and nuns began chanting anew -- with their leader peering into the chalice. Very convenient that. He could claim to see anything. Having steam rise from the chalice was a neat trick too. Cair could think of at least two ways that that particular 'manifestation' could be arranged.

    "I see an anvil. A great anvil dripping with blood. The ring is very close to it."

    "Tell us more?" demanded the Queen Mother revealing that she too spoke perfect Frankish. "That could be anywhere, priest."

    The chalice in his hands began to rock as the queen spoke, and the ward-candles flared. Cair noticed that Princess Signy, standing in front of King Vortenbras, looked ready to faint. She was really being taken in by all of this. Well. Vortenbras was standing right there. He should be able to catch her, that was if the lummox had the intelligence to realize she was fainting.

    Wine sloshed, steaming, onto the floor as the priest sought -- at least to all appearances -- to hold the chalice. "Let that which cannot abide the name of Christ, begone!" He traced a cross in the air, dropping the white cloth in the process, and then seized the chalice with both hands.

    It was stilled, but by the look on the monk's face, it was too late.

    "There are witches, several workers of magic, in our midst. Doubters and enemies," said one of the little old nuns severely, looking at the Norse crowd from under lowered brows.

    How very unusual, thought Cair. Isn't it odd how the charlatans always claim that it is some unbeliever in the audience who is interfering with their trickery. He'd thought that the Servants of the Holy Trinity would come up with something more original.

    But he had to admit that the little Nun's next actions were that. She picked up a short, un-ornamented wooden staff and pointed it at the cardinal points of the circle. Touched it to the cloth on floor. And then, saying certain words he did not catch, she twirled it between her fingers and threw it upwards. It hung in the air and spun lazily. A low moan of terror went up from the crowd.

    Cair would have been terrified too -- if he hadn't achieved the same effect with a twig and a strand of horsehair from the tail of the Queen Mothers fat gray. There were plenty of beams up there, and he was sure that that paunchy monk had the other end of the thread.

    "Seraphim and spirits of the Air, point us to the thief. Show us the last person to touch the Arm-ring," she commanded.

    The staff turned. Stopped. Juddered.

    Like a lance it flew.

    And fell as if it had struck something.

    It lay on the dias.

    ...Pointing at Princess Signy.

    There was a collective hiss of horror.

    And Signy - her face as white as new snow, fell forward in a dead faint.

    Vortenbras stepped hastily away from his half-sister. "Her!" he said pointing at the crumpled figure. "You always said that she was a seid-witch, Mother!"

    The idiot thrall next to him clung to Cair with terror-born hysterical strength, as Cair tried to struggle forward.



    Erik hadn't watched the ritual. Instead he'd watched the crowd. If -- and it seemed quiet likely, the thief was here, they might betray themselves.

    He scanned the rapt faces. And picked out one in the mob of thralls at thekitchen entrance. That Mediterranean-skinned fellow with the black curly hair... and a disdainful half-smile on his face while all around him were in awe. Suspicious. Anyone could pretend to be a thrall, after all. But surely if he were actually guilty he'd be a little more careful about letting his face betray him?

    Erik marked him down. Checked the entrances... and exits. The guards on the main doors were as absorbed in the ritual as the rest of the audience. Then there was also the arch that led to the kitchens. And a small portal off the dias where the royal family came and went. One guard there. At least he looked alert. Erik prodded Manfred with an elbow. "Exits." Manfred nodded, and Erik felt a small glow of pride. Once upon a time he'd have had to explain. The Knights began slowly threading their way to a point between the kitchen and the main doors.

    They'd just got there -- and were behind a solid press of people, when Sister Mercy did her divining.

    They couldn't have been much further from the dias.

    "Seize her," roared Vortenbras, backing off despite the fact that he was closest to his fallen stepsister.

    The slight princess began to sit up...

    And then chaos broke loose.

    It was dim in the Hall. It was winter outside, and heavily overcast. Tapers burned in all the sconces. Some light came in from the wide open double doors and the huge open fireplace.

    The tapers flickered in unison. And died.

    The double doors swung shut of their own volition.

    The fire -- several small trees burning... died back to embers.

    Several shaggy bear pelts hung around the walls, dropped down. And somehow transformed themselves into huge, real, live, angry bears. Roaring bears, cuffing and flinging anything in their way. They all bore down on the half-crumpled figure on the dias.

    In the dim light of the ward-candles -- all that still burned in the feasting hall, they seemed gigantic. Monstrous.

    As they seized the woman, Manfred bellowed "Dia Coir!" He held his sword aloft, and it shone like some beacon. "To me, Ritters."

    Thrusting their way by sheer weight of steel against the panicking Norse, they pushed forward -- as the pack of bears squeezed themselves through the small portal that led into the royal quarters.

    Erik knew that the light was bad, and the throw was risky, but the press of people all trying to go the other way was slowing them down. The Algonquin war hatchet arced over and over and hit the last of the bears, just as the beast brought both its paws down on the man who had belatedly tried to stop them.

    The creature pawed air, and fell.

    The Knights pressed forward.

    Behind them someone had either the intelligence or the desperation to force open the great double doors. Light spilled in. And with this, the fire in the hearth surged into crackling flames.

    The knights reached the dias, and Manfred, despite his armor, vaulted up onto it. Erik settled for the stairs -- three at a time. The only live people still up there appeared to be King Vortenbras and the dowager Queen. The King of Telemark stood defending her, a naked and bloody blade in his hand.

    In the doorway lay a bear-pelt, and a warrior -- who revealed that he wasn't quite dead yet by groaning. The door-guard that Erik had thought looked alert, was now very plainly dead. Taking a quick glance behind them Erik saw that the monks and nuns were calmly relighting tapers in the wall-sconces.

    Manfred kicked the bearskin. "There is something in there, Erik."

    "Back off, Manfred," ordered Erik, in a tone that even the Prince of Brittany knew better than to argue with. "Bother Uriel!"

    The monk came running. Erik snagged a spear from one of the Norse guards who had come trotting up. "There is something inside that pelt. Be ready. It's probably not human."

    Uriel took the cross from around his neck, and held it before him.

    Erik flipped aside the bearskin with the spear.

    It was apparent that the weapons at the ready wouldn't be needed.

    The naked man lying there, with Erik's Algonquin war hatchet imbedded in his neck, was no threat to anyone any more.

    "Bjornhednar!" hissed someone.

    Manfred stepped over the corpse. "Get your hatchet back and let's get after them," he said grimly.

    "Wait," commanded Vortenbras. "My sister is bound to have set traps up there. That is her nature. I will send my men to see if they have fled the royal hall." He pointed with his bloody sword to two of them. "Go. See if they have fled." He looked at his fallen Hearthman. Shook his head. "I apologize. It appears that we had the traitoress in our midst all the time." He sighed. "My thankless half-sister. We knew she was a seid-witch. We just didn't realize -- did not even begin to guess -- how far into evil magic she must have gone. She was the first on the scene when the arm-ring was stolen, you know."

    "I'm only getting about half of this," said Manfred. "What's he say, Erik."

    Erik translated. And looking across saw that the Queen had slumped against the wall. "Is your mother injured? I think you'd better call her women."

    Vortenbras nodded. He prodded one his men. "See to it. The Queen is uninjured, thanks be to the Gods. I was between her and them all the time. But they only seemed interested in Signy and escape." He rested his sword tip on the ground. "Between the two of us, Ritter, I think it is the shock. She always treated Signy as if she were her real daughter. She had just, finally, organized a suitable marriage for her." He sighed again. " Bad blood. It was always said that Signy's mother was of svartalfar blood. Evil will come out of such mixtures."

    The two of Vortenbras's hearthmen who had gone to see if the Bear-men had fled came back at a dog-trot. "They've gone north, my King," panted one. "Towards the mountains," said the other, gesturing.

    Vortenbras took a deep breath. "Get this place in order, Gutheric. You, Hans. Get all my Hearthmen together with their war-gear. We've a witch to catch and kill." He turned back to the Knights. "My thanks. You will excuse me? I must go with my mother. She will need some comfort before I go," he said in broken Frankish to Manfred.

    Manfred nodded. "Can we join you? I have thirty good horsemen to place at your disposal."

    Vortenbras turned to Erik. "I have not the Frankish to say this. But what if the Prince is hurt? The Emperor would be angry, yes. I don't think it wise."

    Erik translated. "I'd agree with him, Manfred."

    "You would. But Charles Fredrik wouldn't. We'll leave the nuns and a guard of three. The rest of us, including Ottar and Uriel, will ride," said Manfred.

    Vortenbras obviously got most of that, bowed and turned to follow the women who were helping the Dowager Queen.

    "Manfred," said Erik, with calmness he didn't feel. "Let them chase their own."

    Manfred took a deep breath, and said with the stubbornness Erik had come to know well, and to realize was inflexible. "No. There's more to this than just theft, Erik. This smells as much as that affair in Venice did. You saw those bear tracks when we were attacked on our first night. This is aimed in some way at the Empire."

    "I must agree with the Prince," said the grim-faced Uriel. "You know that Sister Mary is a witch-smeller."

    Erik hadn't. She was far less threatening looking than Sister Mercy.

    Uriel continued. "She says that there were at least three powerful practitioners of the arts here. Three or possibly four. She is sure that some of them at least were women.


    "Only one left the hall. Unless the bears were practitioners... but I think not. They were probably mere tools. Be-spelled humans. In other words, Erik, Prince Manfred is probably as safe out of here, as in here."

    Erik took a deep breath. "Very well then Brother." He wished, later, that he'd used the argument of 'snow' rather. It might have borne more weight. "But first I want to catch up with one of the thralls. I think he might be able to help us."

    "A thrall's not going anywhere, friend Erik. Those bears are," said Juzef Szpak. "We need to get to our horses."

    "Well, I'll try in the stables," said Erik. "But I think we'll find that this thrall's run too. He's neck deep in all this stuff, somehow."



    In the sudden darkness Cair had seen the fur-clad monsters seize Signy. Unlike the rest of these superstitious Norse bastards Cair had worked out what they were. By the time the knights got to the dais he was not far behind. He'd got himself close enough to see the one that they'd killed. A man in a bear-skin -- as he'd suspected. And at this point, discretion had kicked in. He was certainly the only thrall still left in the feasting-hall. And sooner or later someone was going to notice. Someone might even point out that he was Signy's thrall.

    He ducked his head and scurried out, collecting no worse than a casual clout from one of the guards. Once in the kitchen he kept moving. His chess-player's mind had identified several possible moves. At least two of them involved his life becoming rapidly shorter. He was in the stables before anyone else -- and up into the princess's hidey-hole before anyone else got there. Even the thralls had sneaked across to the main halls, if not to watch, at least to glean snippets of news from those lucky enough to do so.

    He'd organized himself an improvement on the mere ceiling hideout. The stables had just been re-thatched on top of the old thatch for years. The thatch was very thick, and the underlayer was a more than a little brittle and rotten. He'd burrowed into the far corner. A dog would have found him rapidly. But getting a dog -- except a small, agile terrier -- to walk on the poles would be difficult. Besides, he thought it was most likely that they'd go after Signy first. And he wasn't planning to be here if they came back. He'd burrowed in feet first, with an old scrap of bark to hide his face if need-be, so that he was well able to listen to the stable-noises and the excited gossip among the thralls below as they came in. Besides, he could breathe. He'd probably have sneezed himself into betrayal facing the other way. Now he had time to listen, and to think.

    The story was already growing like weeds on the dung-heap: vigorously, and somewhat misshapenly. Cair was surprised to find that it was growing -- at least in the stables, in a somewhat bizarre direction. "It's those black-clad foreigners. Like Odin's ravens." Among the thralls Odin was not popular. Thor and Freya had adoration. Odin -- the nobles god -- fear and respect. "Come to stir up trouble among us," the thrall continued to a chorus of assenting grunts.

    He was a little more taken aback to discover that it wasn't any deep love for Princess Signy that inspired them to believe it all a foreign plot, but her clumsiness. "She'd spot a hair out of place on horse half way across the stable, but she falls over her own feet," said Henri. "What kind of witch is that? Now if they'd told us it was Cair..."

    "Where is he?" asked someone

    "I dunno. He comes and goes just about as he pleases. He was in the stable when they called her."

    The sound of boots and loud voices interrupted the thralls. Vortenbras's hearthmen, yelling for horses to be saddled.

    And barely minutes later someone looking for him. "I'm trying to find the thrall with black hair." The person spoke Norse, but with an outlander accent.

    "We haven't seen him, Master," said Thjalfi fearfully. "Not since before..."

    "I told you he'd run, Juzef," said the outlander, in Frankish.

    "Not far, unless he took a horse. Ask them."

    "You ask them," the first voice sounded amused. "The language the Götar speak is close enough."

    Henri replied without waiting. After all, he was a Frank. "No, master. He didn't steal a horse. He's good slave, master. Very loyal to our mistress."

    "Where has he got to, then?" asked the first outlander.

    "I think he has gone to try to help the mistress."

    "Alone and on foot? He's a crazy fool then," said the second.

    "Yes, master. Mad. But he is a magician too."

    There was a snort. "Well, we'll overtake him then, unless he's grow magical wings and flown after them. You can question him then, Erik. Come on. Otherwise Prince Manfred will have left without us, next thing we know."

    He listened to the sound of spurred mail-boots walking away. "Better make sure you've got a spare cloak and some boots you can walk in, in your saddlebag, Erik. The Prince too. I think we'll have snow before nightfall, by the looks of that sky."

    "I always carry them."

    Lying warm in the thatch, Cair wished them all the misery in the world. Outside horns sounded. Dogs were barking. And Cair at last faced up to thinking about the subject he'd been avoiding.

    He was quite sure that she wasn't the thief. He couldn't bring himself to believe that she could have murdered two guards, or even got someone else to do that. Which left him with two questions -- the first relatively unimportant: why had the Servants of the Holy Trinity -- perhaps working with some of locals, done this? Politics? Was Signy a pawn in some evil game of the Holy Roman Emperor? But it was the second question that really troubled him: what was he, Cair Aidin, going to do about it?

    What troubled him most about this was that he already in his heart of hearts knew the answer. It made no kind of sense. He should take this heaven-sent opportunity to make for the coast. With all the fuss of chasing Signy, they'd never get to pursuing a runaway thrall on a good horse, until he'd got himself onto a boat.

    He knew, though, that he'd be behaving like the crazy fool that the outlander Juzef had said he was. But he wouldn't be alone, or on foot. He had every intention of stealing at least a pair of good horses.

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