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PROLOGUE: Players Various

Biscay, July 1538

Cair clung to a spar floating in the open ocean, out of sight or scent of land. The rain had stopped now, and, as the spar rose with the swells, he looked around for other wreckage. Other heads in the water.


He saw nothing but white-capped gray sea.


The loss of his crew cut more deeply than the loss of his ship.


He drifted. And clung. The cloud-tattered morning turned to a slate-skied afternoon. There was no longer hope left in him. Just relentless determination, beyond any logic or faith.


And on the wings of evening, a dragon came out of the sea mist.


* * *

Lying, bound with coarse rope, on the ribs in the bow of the longship, Cair knew that it had been no dragon. A dragon would have mercifully devoured him then and there.


"They say," said the prisoner next to him, in broken Frankish, "That you are a man-witch. That any other would have drowned. They found no others, nor any sign of your ship."


Cair let none of his instinctive scorn show. Primitive superstition! Instead he said nothing, keeping as still as he possibly could in his patch of relative warmth.


He remembered little of the rest of the voyage. It was blurred with fever and exhaustion. But he was aware that the other prisoners avoided even touching him.


 


 


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Kingshall, Telemark, July 1538

"The poor girl. I feel so sorry for her. She's stunted, you know. They say . . ." and the honeyed voice of Signy's stepmother dropped, but not so low that it couldn't be heard clearly through the thin wooden wall. "It's the dokkalfar blood on her mother's side . . . The woman died in bearing the girl. That's a sure sign of the ill-fortune that goes with meddling in seid-magic. And only the one scrawny girl-child, Jarl. Anyway, it is not important. She is of the royal line even if she probably will never bear children. She's far too small. She spoils her complexion with sunlight. And she has no womanly skills. I mean, look at her embroidery! It's appalling. No, your master would be wise to look elsewhere."


Signy's nails dug into her palms. She dropped the frame of crooked stitchery that confirmed the truth about her skills with a needle. She knew perfectly well that she had been supposed to hear every word. That it was meant to wound. That didn't stop it hurting. Dowager Queen Albruna seldom missed the opportunity to try and belittle her . . . And seldom failed to do so. It wasn't hard. Signy knew that she was no one's idea of a shield-maiden. She was too small, too wiry, and as gifted with the womanly skills of fine weaving and delicate stitchery as a boar-pig. She couldn't even see her threads in linenwork, let alone do it. But, by Freya's paps, she'd sooner die than let the queen mother see any sign of how her barbs stung.


She scrambled to her feet in a tangle of limbs, kicking over a footstool. That was normal, too. Her stepmother hadn't said that Signy was as graceful as a pregnant cow on an ice patch—yet. But she would, as usual. Then the shaming, half-true stories would follow.


Albruna could enjoy needling her stepdaughter. King Hjorda wouldn't care: he'd take her if she had two heads and tail. He wasn't interested in Signy as a woman: she was merely wanted as a claim to the throne of Telemark. As long as her brother was unwed and without heirs . . . she had value. And if that vile old goat Hjorda could get a son on her, he'd have a better claim to the throne than Vortenbras did. She was a very valuable trading piece at the moment, and Albruna was holding out for a high price. Signy knew that was why she was still here, an old maid of twenty-four. She was waiting for Hjorda to increase his offer. Albruna would go on belittling her, pretending to try and put Hjorda off, until the price went up enough.


Signy spat, trying to rid her mouth of the sour half-vomit taste that the thought of her father's old foe engendered. She touched the wire-bound hilt of the dagger in her sleeve. She'd sworn on both Odin's ring and Thor's hammer, that she'd see King Hjorda dead in his marriage bed. Her father's honor demanded that. Then she would die herself as her own honor required. But not for the first time she wished that she really was the dokkalfar seid-witch's daughter that Dowager Queen Mother Albruna accused her of being, every time she wanted to make sure the princess had not a friend in the royal household. If Signy had had any powers, dark or no, she'd have turned her stepmother into a rat in a nest of vipers long ago. The gods knew, she'd tried. But her participation in any charm, any piece of galdr, guaranteed that it wouldn't work. She could make any charm backfire, let alone fail.


"Come now, Your Highness," said Jarl Svein, his voice as smooth as oiled silk, "a princess of the blood of two ancient houses, no matter how suspect the bloodlines are, is a jewel of value."


Abruna gave her characteristic sniff of disdain. "I've always had my doubts about her blood. Seriously, King Hjorda would be wiser to look elsewhere. How can someone of our lineage be so graceless? She's as clumsy . . ."


Signy had been told to wait until she was called to meet Hjorda's emissary. But she knew what was coming next. She'd rather face the inevitable whipping than stay a moment longer. After all, what was one more whipping? They hurt less than words anyway. She could be in the friendly comfort of the stables in a hundred heartbeats. She darted out of the door of the antechamber . . . 


To have her passage blocked by a large woman with thick buttermilk-blond braids. "Where do you think you're going?"


Such an insolent question from a thrall-wench! Signy raised herself up to her full height, and did her best to look a princess in every one of those meager inches. Even as she did it, she knew she was failing. "It is none of your business, Borgny." She hoped she'd kept the quaver out her voice.


 


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Mainz, late October, 1538

"It's already snowing in the north, Uncle," protested Manfred. "Surely it'll wait until summer. Or at least spring." There was not much hope in his voice. When the Holy Roman Emperor made up his mind, even Prince Manfred of Brittany obeyed. He was even learning to do it with not more than a token protest.


"You're big enough to keep out the cold," said Charles Fredrik, dismissively waving his own large hand at his oxlike nephew. "And I want this sorted out before spring comes and more trouble starts. You, Erik, and Francesca will travel together to Copenhagen. Francesca, it will be your unenviable task to soothe the Danes down. The Knights of the Holy Trinity are still the bulwark of our defence against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and, with Jagellion on the throne, we need them more than ever. The last thing I need is them involved in a messy little land squabble with the Danes up in Sweden. At the moment the Knights are subdued because of the way they were used in the Venetian affair. They know they came very close to feeling the full weight of my wrath. The Abbot-General has agreed that there is a problem in Skåne. He has agreed to allow you to act in his name there, provided that we also deal with the Danes." He grimaced. "Which may be more tricky than knocking a few Knights' heads together, Francesca. They are stiff-necked about that independence of theirs, even if they are a vassal state. It's not something that you would be advised to mention."


Francesca, or, as she now styled herself, Francesca de Chevreuse, although this was not the name she'd been born to, shivered artistically. "Your wish is my command, my Emperor." She dimpled, looking at him with her eyes provocatively half-lidded. "Forgive the shiver. It's the thought of all that ice and snow, and me without any good furs to keep it from my skin." The former Venetian courtesan was a voluptuous, warm, creamy-skinned beauty. She liked to show that skin, and was well aware that even the Emperor liked to look at it.


Charles Fredrik chuckled. "We'll have to see that you are appropriately equipped. We can hardly have our Imperial special emissary turning blue in public. See to it, Manfred. Let Trolliger have the reckoning. Why do I get the feeling that suppressing them militarily might have been cheaper?"


Francesca acknowledged this with a smile and a small bow. "I shall try to restrain Manfred from spending more than the cost of a troop of cavalry, Your Highness."


The Emperor shook his head. "I hope you absorbed the lesson, Nephew."


"What?" asked Manfred, rubbing his solid jaw. "Never to go shopping with Francesca? My purse learned that a while ago, Uncle."


"Besides that. Explain to him, Francesca."


She turned to Manfred. "He means I have not wasted my effort on fighting the inevitable, the Emperor's orders, but instead got the best out of it that I can."


"Huh," said Manfred, gloomily. "What can I get out of it? To think I asked for you to send me away from this pile of stones before winter set in properly. I had somewhere warm in mind, before the bishop-general insisted on me coming back to some freezing chapter house in Prussia. Even Erik got chilblains in that first winter."


The Emperor turned his attention to the third person present at the interview. Erik Hakkonsen had not said anything yet. But then the tall, spare Icelander seldom said more than he had to. The Clann Hakkonsen of Iceland had provided personal bodyguards for the heirs of the Imperial House Hohenstauffen's wanderjahre for centuries now. They were far more than mere bodyguards. They were the final arms instructors and mentors for the princelings. Their loyalty was not to the Empire—Iceland was part of the League of Armagh, owing no fealty to the Holy Roman Empire, but to the House Hohenstauffen, personally. It meant that they, and only they, treated the scions of the most powerful Imperial house in the world like troublesome children, from time to time. Charles Fredrik knew that he owed his personal survival—and the survival of the Empire—to Erik's father. Erik had done as much for Manfred. When the Hakkonsen spoke, the Hohenstauffen listened. But Erik just shook his head and smiled wryly. "He still complains too much, Godar Hohenstauffen. Even if that affair in Venice did help him to grow up a bit. A bit of hard riding in the cold will be good for him."


 



Telemark, Norway. All Hallow's Eve.
A convocation high on the barren vidda.

The hag spat into the balefire. Green flames leapt as the stream of spittle hit the burning fungus. She wiped her chin with the back of her broad hand, and then turned again to face the draug she had raised. Needs be it must be one of the dead of this place. Midgard's dead for information about Midgard, after all. She'd brought the body up here, after her slaves had hauled it out of the bog where she'd laid him, facedown, with his throat cut.


And they thought that his body lay in his ship mound in honor! A seeming was quite adequate to fool these Midgard lice. And she was the mistress of seemings.


"Speak," she ordered.


The draug gurgled horribly at her. Her hard green eyes narrowed as her son stepped forward, ready to cuff the dead thing. Bah. Blows, even blows from one such as he could not hurt the dead. But she could. Her galdr would burn it like a whip of fire. She waved her hulking child back, back to his björnhednar guards.


She raised her arms to begin the chanting . . . and realized that the draug's defiance was merely a problem of the cut throat. Or maybe it was defiance of a sort. The draug hated her, hated her with a helpless fury that could drive it to act even against the pain she could inflict with her galdr chants. She took a handful of clay and mended it. "Now. Speak. Defy me if you dare. What is it that holds us back? Why did the raid fail?"


"The draupnir," he croaked. "The oath."


Of course. It was obvious now. The oaths sworn on that thing would be binding, even if the swearer had no intent of honoring them. She should have guessed. But the thing had that about it which repelled her. Odin's temple yard was not a place she went to if she could possibly avoid it. The one-eyed one's priests were less affected by seemings than others, even if she'd seen to it that the present high incumbent was near to blind with cataracts. With certain protections her son should be safe from it. And if not—well they would find a way to break the oath. Or cause it to be broken.


Lightning split the sky, and the thunder echoed among the high places. Big drops began to hiss on the balefire. Now that she had what she needed, Bakrauf began dismissing the spells that had given the draug the seemings of life. It fell like a child's broken doll, tumbling onto its side by the fire. The face of the dead kinglet was twisted into the rictus of a smile. She considered it, thoughtfully. Draugar thus compelled could not lie. She kicked the body, and gestured to the björnhednar. "Take him back. I may need him again."


She turned away, the firelight glinting briefly on the cunningly wrought silver ornaments in her ears. They were perfect, down to the last hair, and no small part of her power over the björnhednar rested in them.


Then she strode back downhill, away from the stone that marked the gateway between her place and this, back toward the halls of men in the valley below. Behind her, her son followed. The pelting rain and even the hail did not worry her. Troll-wives have no objection to rain. It is bright sunlight they avoid.


 


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