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Chapter 7

Steel. Heavy steel. Angular and Gothic. The spike-shouldered breastplate had curlicues and inlays on the points, for heaven's sake. Not for the first time, Erik Hakkonsen stared in irritation at the heavy plate armor, as he stood sharpening the blade of his Algonquian war hatchet. He was waiting, not with any eagerness, for his squire-orderly to help him into it. He'd drawn the guard-stint for this State banquet. He looked balefully at the closed-pot helmet he'd be sweating in one hour from now. No good German Ritter would consider wearing anything else but full armor.

Only . . . Erik was not a German Ritter. An Icelander wasn't as stupid and hidebound as these continentals. Any Icelander, much less one who had skirmished on the Vinland frontiers, would turn up his nose at elaborate plate armor. A crossbow bolt would punch through it and a ball from an arquebus or a good pistol would shatter the steel. For that matter, at close quarters Erik could find the joints and cut them apart with his blade-and-pick tomahawk, as easily as shucking clams.

And carrying all those pounds of useless steel without a horse to help . . .

He heard the creak of the door. "What kept you, Pellmann?" he snapped, putting the whetstone down. "I've been waiting half an hour. . . . Oh."

The visitor had flopped onto the caryatid-pillared bed. The accommodation was a far cry from the cells in the bleak monastery at Greifswald. It wasn't his churlish Pomeranian squire-orderly admiring the caryatides. The bed protested as the large human negligently sprawled on it rolled closer to inspect the finely carved detail. Manfred whistled appreciatively.

His reaction to the carving was predictable. Perhaps even justified, Erik was willing to admit. Erik himself had blushed when he realized that the carved nymph was perfect in every anatomical detail. The bed's reaction was also quite predictable—and justified. Young Manfred was designed by nature to wear armor. To wear armor without noticing it.

It never failed to irritate Erik. The steel would chafe his lean, angular, sinewy body raw. Manfred was better shaped and padded for this sort of thing.

The solid, blocklike Manfred grinned, revealing slightly skew solid blocklike teeth in a jaw whose musculature matched the rest of him. Erik suspected Manfred could crunch clams without even bothering to open them.

"Well, you'll just have to go on waiting." The young knight-squire drew a bottle from under his cotte, and tossed it to Erik. "Here. Try some of this."

Erik drew the cork without thinking, and took a deep pull. He spluttered. "What is it? Armor polish?" Then he remembered himself, and his duty. He was sworn to the order and God for another two years. He rammed the cork home and tossed it back to the laughing knight-squire. "In heaven's name, Manfred! If Abbot Sachs catches you with that stuff, he'll have you pushing guard duties until you turn gray."

"He's with Sister Ursula again. Doing abbotly duties, no doubt," said the worldly-wise scion of the imperial court at Mainz.

Erik felt his face redden. "Jesu! Manfred, don't say things like that! He's a man of God."

In reply the young knight-squire drew the cork from the dull green bottle with his teeth. He took a deep pull. He did not splutter. He set the bottle down on the stone-flagged floor. With beer-brown innocent eyes he looked mournfully at the Icelander. Then, sighed heavily.

"Erik, alas, I am a man of the flesh. And this is Venice! It's supposed to have the best courtesans and the best bordellos in all Europe. We've been here for nearly two days and I haven't sampled them. You're supposed to look after me! What say you we cut this banquet tonight and go whoring? These local girls will go wild over that blond head and that chiseled chin of yours."

Erik felt himself blush, again. He couldn't help liking his young charge. And he couldn't help wishing that Manfred had been placed under someone else's eye. He understood why he'd been singled out for this. It was, he supposed, a great symbol of trust, and a great honor. It was also a great headache.

He tried an appeal to piety and reason. "Manfred. You're a Knight of the Holy Trinity, even if only a confrere. A moral example to these soft, corrupt southerners. Not a mercenary out for the customary three nights of sacking."

The young knight-squire grinned. "That's why I was planning to pay my way. Not being a ladies' delight like you . . ."

"I've got guard duty, tonight," interrupted Erik, hastily. "And so have you, come to think of it."

Manfred yawned. "I'll swap out. Come on, Erik. I'll go without you, otherwise."

This was a dire threat. It had worked when Manfred had wanted to sample the taverns of Innsbruck. But it was a vain threat this time.

"Abbot Sachs himself put up the list," said Erik, grimly. "And besides, my Breton friend, your court Frankish isn't going to get you anywhere. Without a grasp of the local dialect you couldn't ask your way to the nearest church, never mind anything else."

"That's why I need a linguist like you, Erik," grinned Manfred. "And I sure couldn't get back without my sober, respectable mentor to guide me. Come on, Erik . . ."

"Not a chance." Erik glanced at the light from the high enchased window. "Now you'd better leg it back to get suited up. I'd better yell for that useless Pellmann."

"You'd do well to shove his surly face up his hinder-end instead," said Manfred, rising and stretching.

Erik had yet to get used to the way these continentals treated their servants. Thralls back home were more like part of the family, and as likely to yell at you as you were at them. But Pellmann's insolent attitude toward serving anyone but a North German Ritter was beginning to rub even the egalitarian Icelander raw. "I think I will, if I don't find him in two minutes," he said grimly.

Pellmann bustled in abruptly. The nasty piece of work had plainly been listening outside.

Manfred snorted. "Ah, well. I'll see you at the banquet. Maybe there'll be some pretty women there." He left, leaving Erik to Pellmann's mercies. The Pomeranian knew by now that the worst Erik would do when a buckle pinched him was curse under his breath. Erik would swear the Pomeranian used this opportunity to make the foreign confrere knight's life a misery.

Pellmann's knuckles dug into his rib cage, harder than was necessary. Erik clenched his jaws, restraining a fierce impulse to use his own knuckles on the surly underling's pudgy face. Instead, he satisfied himself with glaring at the walls of the embassy. Even in this modest suite, the walls were covered with wood paneling, ornately carved in the imperial manner.

The sight of those paneled walls darkened his mood further. The very fact that this ceremony was being held here, in the embassy of the Holy Roman Empire, was a sign of the rot. By rights, it should have been held in the Knights' own hospital. And if the one in Venice was too small for the purpose, a suitably neutral site could have been easily found in a city as large as this one. Holding it here simply reinforced the common perception that the Knights had become nothing more than an extension of the imperial power, pure and simple.

Erik sighed, remembering his father's words as he bade his younger son farewell. Remember, lad, stay out of politics! Church or state, it matters not. Your duty is that of the clan, to the Emperor alone. Nothing less, mind—but also nothing more. Nothing else.

But between the Pomeranian squire and the Prussian knight-commander it was hard. The Prussian, Von Stublau, was irritating him even more than Pellmann.

* * *

"Prussian son of a bitch," muttered Manfred, as he marched into the banqueting hall. He said it quietly, though. He'd been hoping for duty carrying the Woden-casket from the chapel nave to the banqueting hall. Instead he'd drawn the delightful duty of being one of the door-wardens. To stand for the entire length of the banquet and watch while the church delegations and the imperials wined and dined the oligarchy of Venice.

Not for the first time he wished he could pack this up and go home to Bretagne. Or even back to Mainz. However, his mother and his uncle had made it painfully clear that he was going to do service as confrere knight in a monastic order . . . or else. And Uncle Charles was quite grimly capable of making the "or else" a long stay in the imperial dungeons. On the whole being a confrere was a better option. Just.

If he had to be strictly honest about it, and he usually was with himself, Manfred had brought it on himself. Going to the Gothic grandeur of Mainz from the impoverishment of Bretagne had been a shock, when he had been sent to the imperial court as a twelve-year-old page. When he went back home to Bretagne, he'd run a little wild.

His mother had hoped the pious, monastic knights would rid him of his taste for low companions and teach him piety, and allow him to mix with people of his own order. Mother was Swabian to the core and regarded her husband's court, and the chiefs and duniwasals of Bretagne, as little more than barbarians.

So far it had made him dislike most Saxons and positively detest most Prussians.

He tried to find solace in what he could. The one advantage of the closed pot, after all, was he could ogle pretty girls at will. Of course he couldn't actually speak to them. As a penance he could watch the chased silver platters of delicacies being carried in. On the plus side he got to watch Abbot Sachs flinch from an array of whole crispy fried baby squid. To make up for it the sound of the rebecs seemed to be trapped in the helmet. . . .

The Venetian musicians were stilled. The great doors at the far side of the chamber were flung open and the party bearing the captured Woden-casket advanced. And there was Erik. Carrying one side of the spear bier the casket was transported on.

Manfred almost laughed. All you could see of the Icelander were those chilly blue eyes. Impossible for most people to read anything in that gaze. But Manfred knew him well enough to sense the Icelander's irritation with the man leading the little party.

Prussian son of a bitch.

* * *

Von Stublau had the opposite end of the spear that Erik had been assigned to. He was even taller than Erik, which was unusual among the Knights. Needless to say, he had the shaft end of the spear. "Pick it up higher, auslander," grumbled the burly German knight-proctor, as they clanked down the passage toward the hubbub of the embassy's banquet hall.

Erik lifted his side slightly. Von Stublau was right. The thing should be borne on a level. The four knights advanced in step, bearing the crucifix made from four lashed spears. Strapped to the crucifix with bands of steel was the Wodenite casket. To Erik, the weight of souls in that casket was far more than the mere heavy oak, black iron studs and rune-etched bands. Even if each soul it had devoured was lighter than swansdown.

True, the capture of a Svear heathen god—even that of a small tribe of Smålanders—was a triumph for the forces of Christ. Its public display and the enactment of the Rite of Forbidding greatly enhanced the Knights' prestige. But Erik knew that the creature of darkness had been taken from a temple of bells and bones. The bones of infant sacrifices . . . The bells made from the skulls.

Like most people from the League of Armagh, even those of Norse descent, Erik was a follower of the Gaelic creed within the Church. That tradition—the more so in Vinland—was not given to theological stringency. Until arriving in the continent, he had paid little attention to the endless doctrinal disputes between the Petrine and Pauline trends within the main body of the Church.

He had known that the Pauline creed was dominant in the Holy Roman Empire; and that the Knights were specifically devoted to it. But the knowledge had been abstract, until he joined the militant order. Since then, the Icelander had come to find some of the practices of the Pauline orders—especially those of the Servants—a bit frightening. His private opinion was that it would be far better to destroy the Woden-godling than to display it.

The banquet hall of the embassy nearly took Erik's breath away. Part of the impact was the smell. Beeswax and alchemistic silver-cleansers clogged the nostrils, even over the smell of perfumes. Part of it was the heat produced by thousands of candles in silver sconces. He was becoming almost inured to the wasteful opulence of the Holy Roman Empire. Still . . . the banquet hall took that opulence to extremes he had not witnessed even in Mainz. He wasn't as bad as the Orkney islanders who made such a virtue of their unavoidable frugality, but the sheer ostentation still bothered him. The high walls were slit with lancet windows, the intervening spaces hung with tapestry. Underfoot was soft with Turkish carpets, imported from the great realm of the Mongol Ilkhan.

The crowded room was silenced by the entry of the marching Knights. As they moved slowly into the chamber, Eric studied the crowd through the narrow slits of his helmet.

At least in one small way, the Venetian notables packed into the banquet hall reminded Erik of the Icelandic Althing-gatherings and Vinlander volk-meets. Far more, in truth, than the people attending the court functions he'd been to in the cities of the Holy Roman Empire, as the triumphant party of Knights displayed their captured trophy in their progression down to Italy.

Those crowds had been composed almost entirely of the nobility. Whereas some—many, Erik suspected—of the grandees of Venice were plainly just wealthy tradesmen. Something about their posture said it.

Erik examined Giorgio Foscari. The Doge of Venice was an elderly man—an octogenarian, in fact—who looked as if he'd be more at home counting coins on his estate than leading Venice's Signori in the Senate and Grand Council. And the "condottiere" General Aldo Frescata, on the Doge's right, looked as though he'd be more at home leading a fashion parade than a march. The Castillian consul sitting next to him, engaged in quiet conversation with the elderly Father Maggiore, head of the local chapter of the Servants of the Holy Trinity, looked far more like a soldier.

The Venetians, on the whole, were dressed to display the fact that this was still probably the richest independent city in Christendom. A city which was itself the owner of a small empire. Still, there was an underlying hardness—a sort of marine tang—that appealed to Erik.

The Servants of the Holy Trinity, spiritual and magical guardians of the casket, came forward from where they had been seated. Their leaders, both of the local chapter and of the delegation from the monastery at Hochstublau, left the high table and joined them.

"Sanctus. Sanctus in mirabile dictu . . ."

The low chant began, as, with swaying censer, blessed salt and the sprinkling of holy water, the monks began their ninefold circle. Sister Ursula began preparing for the evocation of the guardians. Erik was not well versed in magic, other than some of the practices of shamans in Vinland, but he knew it was going to be a long ceremony. The weight of the casket seemed to press down still further.

Out of the corner of his eye Erik caught sight of Manfred, one of the armored door-wardens, as he ripped a browned piece of the whole roasted chamois that had just been carried in by the liveried servants. The supposed door-warden cracked his visor and popped it into his face.

Erik sighed. In the private interview he'd had with the Emperor upon his arrival in Mainz, Charles Fredrik had said that his young nephew Manfred's piety compared well to a Vinlander's city polish. Being more or less half Vinlander, Erik understood the metaphor too well. In another two years he'd have finished his stint as a confrere knight with the Order, and he could go back. Already he'd more or less made up his mind. Vinland. It was such a wide, open place, even compared to Iceland. . . .

* * *

"Conserva me!"

Erik's idle thoughts were interrupted by that sudden loud cry. His eyes, half-closed behind the heavy armored visor, opened wide. He wasn't certain, but he didn't think that shout was part of the ceremony. . . .

The chanting stuttered to a halt. Father Maggiore, the local chapter head of the Servants of the Holy Trinity, had turned and was now staggering blindly into the orderly procession.

Eric frowned. He had half-suspected that the elderly, whiny-voiced prelate was beginning to lose his wits during his hour-long rambling sermon that morning. Now it looked as if he were having a minor fit. The wispy white-haired monk flailed out wildly, knocking to the floor one of the brothers who had tried to approach him.

Monks scattered like sprats as the elderly man began to shriek. His voice quavered upwards above the panicky babble beginning to break out among the grandees of Venice.

Abbot Sachs put down his censer and stepped forward. His open hand was raised, and he plainly intended to slap the old man. Before he could do so, before he could even touch the man, the abbot was flung away, as if by a giant unseen hand. He landed on his backside, legs flailing above his head.

Then the old man stopped. His voice, as whiny as ever, seemed almost normal as he said, "Conserva me, domin . . ."

Then he shrieked terribly, briefly. And then, as the flesh on his face itself began to bubble, melt and flow, laughter, black, deep and evil, erupted from lips pulled into a parody of a grin.

Manfred, armor and all, vaulted the table, sending ornate Venetian glassware, wine and silverware flying. He raised his broadsword . . . and reversed it. Taking it by the guard to form a cross, he advanced on the monk who was tearing aside his robes with frantic bloody fingers.

"Back!" yelled Abbot Sachs, scrambling to his feet. "Back, you fool! Knights! Seal the doorways." Already the nobles and notables of Venice were heading for the great doors in panic-stricken streams.

Knights positioned at intervals around the walls rushed for doors, broadswords at the ready. For a moment it looked as if they would be mobbed down. But steel armor and the fearsome swords quelled the rush, after a part of the crowd had managed to flee the chamber.

Young Manfred, meanwhile, continued to advance on the tortured and still obscenely laughing monk—slowly, as if through thick mud. Sparks leapt from his spiky armor.

"Put this damned thing down," snarled Erik. He had to help the young fool. It was his duty to God and Emperor Charles Fredrik, despite the fact that the hair on the nape of his neck was rising. He had seen combat in Iceland and the magic of pagan shamans on the Vinland frontiers, but nothing like this.

"Stand!" snapped Sister Ursula, advancing with rapid strides on Abbot Sachs, who was pushing his way toward Manfred. The abbot looked as if he was struggling through quicksand.

"Von Stublau!" The nun's eyes singled out the burly Altmark knight. "Protect the casket at all costs. Do not allow it to be set down. This is but a distraction." Then she snatched a basin of holy water from one of the horrified watching monks, and strode—as if it was the easiest thing in the world!—to link arms with Abbot Sachs. Together they held the basin. Together they dipped fingers into it and flicked the water onto Manfred's armor.

The effect was cacophonic. With a discordant jangle like the cracking of bells, Manfred was flung backwards. He landed in a broken-doll sprawl against one of the spindly legged chairs. The delicate piece of furniture splintered under his great weight, fragments flying everywhere.

The nun and the gray-cassocked abbot advanced on the writhing remains of Father Maggiore. Little flames were beginning to dance above the bubbling flesh. The two clerics reached their hands into the basin and . . .

The silver basin cracked in two as if it were a brittle stick. The two clerics retreated hastily, not quite running. Erik was relieved to see Manfred sitting up, feeling for his broadsword among the smashed splinters of the chair.

"A circle!" commanded the abbot. "Servants of the Trinity, form a circle! Knights—put a ring of steel around that casket. The forces of pagan darkness seek to free the Woden."

Hastily, the monks and knights moved to comply.

But it was too late for the former Venetian chapter-head of the Servants of the Holy Trinity. The old monk would never give another whiny-voiced rambling sermon, or come around demanding to know whether anyone had seen his missing cassock. The naked figure was shriveling and blackening even as the monks chanted.

By the time the monks had closed in on the body and sprinkled holy water, there was little more than ashes left.

Father Sachs stilled the monks. Then he marched up to the high table where he had been seated with Doge Giorgio Foscari. He turned on the Signori of Venice. With a gesture he stilled the rising babble from the crowd.

"Hear now my words, people of Venice!" he shouted into the silence, his voice full of righteous anger. "Is it not written: You shall not suffer a witch to live? Evil flourishes here within the see of Venice. Evil I say! Evil flourishes and you are too lax to tear it out, root and branch. The accursed Strega, Jews, and Mussulmen ply their sinful trades in the open. Mammon and Belial have misled you from the holy path given to us by the apostle Paul. I tell you, he who falters from the Gospel is a heretic and damned to eternal hellfire with torments of white-hot scorpions. Your laxity has meant that the evil servants of the Antichrist dared to attack, even here, in the presence of the Master of your city. What hospitality is this that your own guests can be so abused? What has become of the sanctity of guests?"

Erik raised his eyes to the bacchanalian string-courses near the ceiling in irritation at the waste of precious time. Every moment now was vital. The miscreants must be among the "guests." But some had fled. It was essential that they be pursued. There was little doubt that honest steel would destroy the magic of pagans.

Instead he stood and ground his teeth as Abbot Sachs continued to harangue the Venetians.


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