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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Friday, September 12, 2003 01:17 EDT



    The ships made their way, cautiously, under oars, the leadsman calling depths as ship by ship the first great spring fleet rowed around the sand-spit at the end of the Lido. In the deeper water of the Adriatic, something watched.

    If the shaman had been in his own white sea he could have named many of the denizens of the cold deep and sunk all of the vessels above. Here the massive eel-like creature that was his sea-form was restricted to watching. He was eighteen cubits long, but that was still not large enough to take on ships. As always his body-shape dictated his appetites. Ships were full of food that would be nice to suck dry.

    He flicked his powerful tail, and began swimming southward. Best to see if the other fleet and army was well hidden.

    This water was too warm. And the monk seals weren't worth eating.



    The galley had a number of its berths taken by the Vinlanders that Kat had rushed over to see. Maria had watched them for a few days now, and she was fairly certain that the two men who looked like a pair of giant warriors were really nothing much more than boys, not much older than she was. They were very happy to be at sea, and she had the feeling that although they probably were quite fond of their sister, they were also just a little tired of having her fastened to them all the time. Back in Venice, no doubt, they'd been able to get out and about on their own, but here, they were forced into each others' company with no chance for privacy.

    Maria came out to put the wicker crib on the deck. Other than the helmsman, the poop deck was empty except for the blond woman—who was dripping tears over the stern of the ship. It looked to Maria as if she might join them, to splash into the water amid the kitchen peelings the cook had just tossed there.

    Maria bit her lip. She'd better go over and see what the matter was. After all, the Vinlanders were Kat's grandfather's business partners. And Alessia, looking like a particularly plump and pretty cherub, was fast asleep.

    Maria walked over, quietly, moving easily with the rolling of the ship.

    "What's wrong?" The Vinlander woman nearly fell overboard.

    The woman sniffed, hastily scuffed a sleeve across her eyes, and turned to Kat with a fake smile plastered over a face that still had tear-streaks running down the cheeks. "Nothing. I thank you," she said. "I am well. Truly."

    She looked as if she was going to dissolve into tears in the very next moment.

    Fine. You and I are the only two women on this ship, young lady. And we're going to the same place. I think we had better be friends.

    One thing she had noticed about the Vinlanders was that they seemed to be very direct, in a way that suited Maria's canaler sensibilities. So she decided to be direct, herself.

    "No, you aren't well," She put an arm over the blonde's big shoulders. "I'm not blind," she continued, feeling a hundred years older than this poor young thing. "You can tell me what's wrong. I'm a friend of Kat's."

    That earned her a look of puzzlement from the woman. "Katerina Montescue. I mean Katerina Valdosta."

    "Ah. Ja." The girl sniffed again, and bit her lip—but a tear escaped anyway. "You were with the bride. In the beautiful crimson dress—you are the bride's friend, ja? Such a pretty girl, and such a fine husband. I did not recognize you in those clothes."

    It was plain this meant a huge leap in status to the Vinlander, and thus in acceptability as a confidante. "You know them well, then?"

    "Kat's my best friend," Maria said, and was a little surprised to realize that it was true. "And her husband is very, very good to my people in Venice." Any more would be too complicated to explain at one sitting. Maybe later.

    "I know that your—" she searched her memory for the word that Erik used "—your clan is going to be trading partners with Kat's family, and I know that Kat wouldn't want to see you so unhappy if there was anything she could do to help. So, can I help?"

    "I cannot see how," the girl replied mournfully.

    "Well, why don't you just tell me about it?" Maria said, reasonably. "That can't do any harm, and it's better than crying here all alone over the turnip peelings."

    The girl's face worked for a moment, as if she was trying to hold herself back, but it all came out in a rush, anyway. "I am so unhappy!" she wailed softly, in tones of such anguish that they imparted a sense of heartbreak to the banal words. "I will never see him again!"

    For one, sharp-edged moment, Maria was tempted to join her in her tears, for the words called Benito's stricken face up in her own memory. I will never see him again—

    But she was older than this poor child—in experience, if not years—and she held onto her composure.

    The moment passed. Maria patted the blond woman's arm awkwardly. What the hell did you say to a cry of pain like that? She settled for: "There, there.."

    Even this provoked another flood of sobbing. "He was such a nice man. The nicest we have met here in all Europe. And so tall, too." How could something that sounded so silly also sound as if the girl had lost her first and only true love?

    Tall? Well, that counted out Benito. "Didn't he, I mean, couldn't you..?" Maria floundered. She really didn't know how to deal with this. "What happened? Why won't you see him again?"

    "I did not want to go. But Bjarni said Mama would never allow it. I know Mama would not be happy. But his eyes are such a beautiful blue-gray. And his chin is so... so square-cut and manly." She sniffed; and then, obviously overcome by the vision she'd conjured up, began to cry again.

    "I cannot sleep for thinking about him!" she sobbed.

    From the tone of her voice, that was nothing less than the truth, and a great deal less than she felt.

    "Why won't your Mama approve?" Maria ventured, cautiously. "Is he married or something?"

    The woman mournfully shook her head. "Erik is not married. But he is just a lowly bodyguard. We are the Thordarsons. We are one of the wealthiest families in Vinland. I cannot just marry a Nithing. Mama wants me to marry a man of position. That would help the family. But... but he was so wonderful."

    She began to hiccup, and Maria patted her back. Good Lord. How long has she been crying like this? Hours? Days?

    She knew all too well what the girl felt like. She'd been there—before she learned just what a scum-bred bastard Caesare Aldanto was.

    Cogs began to turn in Maria's head, though. And if this Erik was the Erik she knew, he certainly wasn't a scum-bred bastard. "Who was he guarding?" she asked.

    The Vinlander girl shrugged, as if anyone other than Erik was of no importance at all, and pulled a handkerchief out of her sleeve. By the sodden look of it, she had been crying for hours. "I do not know. A guard is a guard."

    Maria bit her lip again. "You don't know the rest of his name do you? Erik what?"

    "Hakkonsen. It is a good family..."

    Maria almost choked. Just a bodyguard! "Ah. Well. Have you heard of Prince Manfred?"

    Svanhild nodded. "Of course. The heir to the Emperor. The son of the Duke of Brittany. He was at the wedding." Her tone turned bitter. "It is very good for business, these connections that Katerina brings to the Thordarsons, ja."

    "Well, he's actually not the heir. That's his cousin, Conrad. Manfred's next in line after him. That makes him the third most important person in the Holy Roman Empire, which is the most powerful state in Europe. Maybe in the whole world."

    "Ja," the girl said, indifferently. "And also the Duke of Brittany has great standing in the League of Armagh. He is a very important man. If only my Erik could have such friends—" She began to sob again.

    Maria shook the woman's shoulders, just a little, although it was like trying to shake one of those Teutonic warriors that had come into Venice among the Knots. Mostly, she was trying not to laugh.

    "Listen to me! Erik Hakkonsen is Prince Manfred of Brittany's personal bodyguard and master at arms. Only bodyguard is the wrong word to use to describe him. It's more like—"

    She scrambled for some phrase that might describe what Erik did besides "keeper." Or maybe, "nursemaid." And if Benito only had someone like that to knock some sense into him—

    "He's a sort of teacher, or companion, and— well, he keeps Manfred from getting into too much trouble. Being a bodyguard is just a small part of it. Kat's friend tells me they are really much more like friends. What he certainly isn't is a—" Again she searched her memory for what the girl had said. "—a Nithing. I suspect if you asked Manfred, he would say that Erik is very important to him."

    The sobs stopped, abruptly, and the blond woman stood up from the stern rail, a look of fierce delight on her face. "Really?" she breathed, hope replacing the despair in her sea-blue eyes so quickly that Maria's breath caught.

    Maria nodded firmly. "Really."

    The blond hugged Maria. "Svanhild Thordarson is forever in your debt!" she said thickly. "I must now go and turn this ship."

    Maria didn't try to tell her that you can't alter the course of a great galley in the Venetian Western convoy, not short of being the Bora-wind in person. But, by the looks of it, Svanhild would have a damned good try. Bless her heart, the girl had a good steel spine to her, when she wasn't sobbing in heartbreak!

    Well, the captain had survived Alessia's bellows. He'd survive Svanhild.




    The next day Svanhild and her two brothers sought Maria out, where she, Alessia and Umberto sat in the lee of the mound of deck-cargo. There was a bright, steely look in Svanhild's eye. "The Captain says you and your husband are going to Corfu," she said.

    Maria nodded.

    "Do you know how often the ships sail back to Venice from this port?" demanded Svanhild. "And can you recommend to us a good vessel and captain? Not like this stupid captain! We even offered to buy his ship. He said it was the state's ship, not his to sell. What kind of captain doesn't own his own ship? At least, as a partner."

    Umberto stared at them, open-mouthed. Then he shook his head.

    Maria was just as dumbfounded as he was. Buy a Venetian great galley? She couldn't even begin to guess how much that would take, even if one were for sale!

    "We don't know Corfu," Umberto stammered.

    "We've never been there," explained Maria, sitting Alessia up and rubbing her back. The baby rewarded her with a milky belch.

    Svanhild deflated a little. "Oh. We thought..."

    But some of Francesca's gossip had come back to Maria, and she'd been saving it for the next time she saw the girl. "But Svanhild, you don't want to go back to Venice! Erik and Prince Manfred are coming along somewhere behind us. They're going to the Holy Land."

    One of Svanhild's brothers looked speculative and asked: "This ship will also stop in Corfu?"

    Umberto nodded. "Almost all of our ships do."

    The big Vinlander patted his sister. "There, Hildy—you see! It is good that we did not turn the ship! We can just wait for them."

    "They won't be more than a few days behind us," Umberto offered helpfully. "A pair of weeks, at the very most."

    "But—if they go to the Holy Land—" Svanhild began, desperately.

    "Then maybe... " the boy replied, manfully, "maybe we need to see about the trade opportunities in the Holy Land too. Sven and Olaf can go to set up the warehouse in Bruges and then go back across to the family and tell them we will be delayed."

    Svanhild burst into tears again, but they were tears of relief, as her brothers seemed to recognize. And she nodded, smiling around the tears. She had, Maria thought, a lovely smile. She only hoped that Erik was going to be receptive to it. Or, Manfred or no Manfred, Svanhild's brothers might just break him in half.



    High on the hillside overlooking the sea, the King of Hungary watched, unmoving. Out on the white-flecked Adriatic, the Venetian convoy sailed past. He counted ships. Sixteen great galleys, carrying a small volume of valuable cargo. Pilgrims, too—rich ones. High quality furs from as far afield as Vinland. Bullion. Amber. Twenty-three round ships of varying size laden with salt, fish, timber. Strange that Venice should export timber, but really, Venice was just a clearing house. The produce of Europe was funneled through it. Half a dozen minor galliots, carrying anything from pilgrims to arms. A lot of Ferrara steel went to the east.

    He would have loved to seize that convoy, just as he would have loved to seize the convoy of ships that had overwintered in Outremer. But it would not be wise to make the attempt, even with the help of Genoa or Aragon, or even the Barbary corsairs. The eastern Fleet of the Republic was not a target to take lightly. Not at sea. Where land bombards and fortifications could be brought into play, as Alexius could manage in the Bosporus, it might be worthwhile.

    The Atlantic fleet would be smaller, but it was all great galleys, so it had more men, and was far faster. Emeric was in no hurry to tackle that either. Not even outbound for Flanders, laden with the rich goods of the east. He'd get it all, if he just waited. The Greek galleys were no match for this number of Venetian ships, but later, when traffic was down to occasional vessels, they and the Dalmatian pirates out of the Narenta could seize anything that came through the Straits of Otranto.

    His bodyguards shivered in the bitter north-easterly wind. If it would quicken to a gale he might yet have some of the loot on those ships. But alas, the Bora was not forthcoming. He must look into weather-magic some day.

    When the last ship had begun its upwind tack he turned to go. His bodyguards knew their master well enough not to utter a word. They rode over the ridge line; below lay the huge sprawl of their camp. Nearly fifteen thousand men waited there, among them four thousand of his precious Magyar heavy cavalry.

    It was a measure of the King's command that not one single fire burned. The Narenta pirates were too afraid of the Venetians to light a fire. The Hungarian forces, however, were more afraid of their King. From Croat light Cavalry, to Slav pikemen, every last soul of them knew: you freeze to death before you light a fire, if Emeric so commands.

    Three of his officers rode up to meet him, looking wary. The set of their shoulders altered, the King noticed, as he smiled his grim smile. He was pleased; a good general was valuable, but they must fear him. Good generals could become threats otherwise.

    He nodded to their bows. "The Atlantic Fleet will have left Corfu. Another week, if our informants are correct, and the Eastern Fleet will be on its way. Then, within two days, I want us at sea. Nine days from now we must be on our way to Corfu. We need to strike fast and hard."

    "My cavalry are ready, Your Majesty," said Count Ladislas.

    "I'm still waiting on the siege cannon," said the artillery commander. "Even with double teams of oxen we keep getting stuck in the mountains, Your Majesty. The mud is over the axle-trees in places."

    Another thing Emeric's officers learned, and quickly, was not to lie to him. The man was scared but honest. Emeric knew the value of tolerating failure, up to a point. Besides, he'd come over those roads himself and wasn't surprised, nor did he blame the officer. This early in spring—which hadn't arrived in the mountains yet—the roads were just mud or still waist-deep in snow.

    He waved dismissively. "If we have to move without them, we will. If we have to lay siege, then we'll have time to ship them in."

    The relief on the officer's face was amusing, but best not to let it go too far. "Two weeks. Mova ik, or I'll have your head."

    He noted that the Croat cavalry captain was looking even more tense.

    He waited. The man simply couldn't take it after a minute's silence. "Your Majesty. The scouts you ordered sent out south... seven of them have not come back. One squad."

    The King nodded. "Find them. You'll find their bodies or their mounts. Then, when you've found what became of them, find the nearest village and crucify all the men. Make the women watch."

    Emeric raised a forefinger. "You have eight days."

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