A Mankind Witchby Dave Freer
(Starred Review) ¿In Freer's superior heroic fantasy novel, set in 16th-century Scandinavia, allies of a demon try to thwart Christian missionary-magicians from the Holy Roman Empire. Freer (The Forlorn) wisely concentrates on individual participants within this big struggle: a shipwrecked Barbary corsair, Cair Aidin, branded as a worthless thrall/i>
(Starred Review) ¿In Freer's superior heroic fantasy novel, set in 16th-century Scandinavia, allies of a demon try to thwart Christian missionary-magicians from the Holy Roman Empire. Freer (The Forlorn) wisely concentrates on individual participants within this big struggle: a shipwrecked Barbary corsair, Cair Aidin, branded as a worthless thrall; a good-hearted but insecure princess; a spectacularly evil troll hag and her grendel son; and a team led by the Holy Roman emperor's nephew/secret agent. All these characters are credibly smart and quirky. Cair, for example, is a clever contriver of mechanical devices, so he stoutly refuses to believe in any of the magic taking place around him. When a sacred pagan token disappears and the princess is framed for its theft, the skeptical Cair pursues her out of love while agents of the Empire follow out of duty¿into the clutches of the troll mother. Freer's people are sometimes mistaken and often stubborn but basically likable; he even presents them convincingly enough to get away with some outright sentimentality. Good characterization, ripsnorting action and an ingenious plot make this a feast for sword and sorcery fans.¿ ¿Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
A Mankind Witch
By Dave Freer
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 Dave Freer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYou speak Frankish?" the Karl translator asked, when the guards deposited him in front of the throne in the high thatched hall.
More fluently than you, thought Cair. But he put on a show of concentration. Nodded earnestly. "I have small." Cair was still not even sure where he was. Some remote little kingdom in Norselands seemed a fairly sure bet. But now came the difficult bit. He had to lie, and lie fluently.
"Vortenbras King he says have you kin who would pay blot ... blood price for you? Ransom." Faced with Cair's blank look, the Karl tried again. "Give him money for you."
Cair wrinkled his forehead in a show of effort. "You tell him-king, me poor man." If word went out that some Norseman was demanding a ransom for Cair Aidin ... Well, even in fleets of the corsairs there were a good few who would pay for him ... dead. If word got to one of the Holy Roman Empire's spies that the Redbeard was a prisoner here-they would pay generously. Very generously. They would keep him alive, too. Their torturers were good at that. Dead people felt no pain. When he'd last heard, the Republic of Venice also was offering five hundred thousand ducats for his head. "Me poor man," he repeated. It would mean slavery, but that was better than the alternatives. He would have some chance ofescape from slavery. And for some obscure reason the slaves here appeared to be left entire. The threat of castration might have persuaded him to try his luck at escaping from the gilded but carefully guarded cage they would put a high-value prisoner into, instead. However, he'd made sure of that already-all that happeed to slaves was a branding. And, once branded, slaves didn't appear well guarded at all. Perhaps the Norse trusted to the remote wildness of this place.
The bearlike man on the throne spat disgustedly at the translation. Bellowed something obviously derogatory in Norse. It was like enough to Frankish to have a haunting familiarity. "What him-King say?"
"Vortenbras King say you too old for good thrall. Not enough work in you before you go die. And too small to plow with."
Too old! He was thirty-five. Not a young man, true. But in his prime! Then Cair understood the implication of the second part of the statement. He'd heard of that, yes. Poor places where they plowed with teams of men or women instead of horses. They did that in the high Atlas, apparently. But for one such as he to be put to such a use by these primitive barbarians!
The hulking bear of a man snapped an order. Cair found himself being dragged backward, by the hair, by his translator. He had to turn and follow, stumbling. He was going to have learn this language. Fast. And he was going to have to restrain himself from killing idiots like this hair dragger.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked.
"To be branded. Then," and the disdain showed in the man's voice, "you go to be woman's slave. Signy."
Cair thought-by the tone-that the last word was probably some kind of Norse insult.
* * *
"What your name, slave?" demanded the stable master in mangled Frankish, looking down at him, as he sprawled on the soiled straw he been shoved down onto.
His new-burned flesh throbbed. Cair added that to the reckoning. But right now he had to survive until that reckoning came due. And that meant that he had to stop being a corsair admiral-and become an anonymous slave. He was not Cair Aidin until he stood on the deck of his own ship again. The barbarians couldn't pronounce his name anyway. He bowed his head. "Cair, master." He would be that, and think of himself as just that, until he was free.
"A good name for a thrall," The stable master grunted. "Get up. Move dung," he pointed to a wooden shovel. "And learn our tongue."
Cair, the new slave, shoveled horse dung. That was another thing they'd pay for, when he escaped. But for now he was content to bide his time. To study his captors and the place he was captive in. When he made his break, he intended to be successful. And, if he had to bring half of the Barbary fleet here, he'd burn this place around their ears. The "palace" and its halls were wooden. The roofs were thatch. They'd burn well. They thought that being this far from the coast would save them. Nothing would.
But after a few days of captivity, Cair-the new thrall-was somewhat less sanguine about it all. The first thing that struck him was that they'd scarcely give a slave at this much liberty if escape was a real possibility. He soon realized that, beside the brand, there were other trammels set on a thrall. And one of them was that, here in the north, he was a small, unarmed fellow. Among the corsairs he'd been of average height. It was not something that had worried him, previously. With a sword in hand, or a ship to command, he was the equal or the better of any other man. Here he was utterly forbidden to even touch either a ship or an edged weapon. A few older, very privileged thralls had belt knives. Small belt knives.
Besides being a mere small unarmed slave-thrall, at the bottom of the Norse social order, he also found he was at the bottom of the pecking order for slave-thralls. He was a woman's slave. And not just any woman. Signy.
You didn't, it would appear, go any lower, around these parts. Being the lowest of the low meant that you got the worst of everything, from sleeping quarters to food, if you could call it that. They were teaching him the job with a good supply of buffets, blows, and occasional buckets of filth. And even other thralls were free to hand out a good beating if they felt like it.
On the second day, still struggling with the language, and still wracked by the last chill of fever, Cair found this out the hard way. He wasn't even too sure what he'd done wrong. All he knew was that he was getting a fiercesome beating with a broken stave for doing it. And the fact that he'd dared to strike back was making it worse. The thrall doing the beating was heavier, taller, and better fed than most of them. He was one of Queen Albruna's slaves-not supposed to be in the stables at all. The other thralls stood and cheered and jeered. There wasn't much entertainment in the stables. Certainly no one lifted a hand to stop it.
The fight was going badly. And then it was going worse. The big fellow kneed him in the crotch, and as Cair's head came forward, he cracked it down against one of the stalls.
Cair swore, amid the blur of pain ... and then the hitting stopped.
Cair managed to stand upright. Blood was streaming from his nose, and the world was definitely out of focus. But the big tow-haired thrall was no longer laying into him. And the stable was oddly silent. Cair closed both eyes and then tried opening them again. His vision was still far from normal, but he could see the thrall, stretched out full length on the stable floor. His head appeared to have turned into a heavy wooden bucket.
That was quite enough for Cair. He was plainly either dead or concussed, and in either case he was going to sit down. Now.
He slumped against the wooden stall partition. He was vaguely aware that some of the other thralls had hauled the buckethead away. But he felt too sore and sick to care. And no one had come to drive him to his feet to work again. He drifted away to somewhere between concussion and sleep.
He awoke to find someone kneeling next to him. Lifting his head. Holding something to his lips. "Drink this."
He sipped. It was a clay dipper of water. He tried to work out who was giving this nectar to him. The light was bad in the stable by now, not that it was wonderful at any time, but evening was plainly close.
It was a woman. Not a thrall he'd seen before. A scrawny lass who had plainly been crying. He sipped some more and then tried to sit up. Quite involuntarily, he groaned.
"You've taken quite a beating, by the looks of you," said the woman, critically. Not particularly sympathetically, but kindly enough. "Can you stand up?" she asked.
Cair tested his limbs. "I think so. I'll try."
"Good," she said. "This is Korvar's stall. He doesn't like being put elsewhere. Come. Up."
She hauled at his arm and he staggered to his feet. She made no attempt to support him, but he did manage to grab the stall edge and steer his way out. The woman appeared more concerned at fussing around the stall, and leading an elderly warhorse across to it, than watching what he was doing, so he sat down again. But his head was clearing, slowly. She patted and soothed the horse. "Next time don't bleed in this stall," she said to Cair, sharply. "The smell of blood gets Korvar overexcited." She leaned over and kissed the horse's muzzle. The horse twitched and sneezed. She laughed. "There, you big old silly. Settle now." Eventually, she came out of the stall, and looked critically at Cair. "There is some horse liniment I made up for strains up on the shelf in the corner. I've found that it helps a bit for the bruises. Then you'd better get across to your quarters, before you get another beating."
It was only after she'd left that it occurred to his muzzy mind that she'd addressed him in Frankish. Not just Frankish but good Frankish. Spoken as a highborn noblewoman would, not some stable girl. But he'd thought no more of it. His head throbbed and so did his ribs. He'd roughly slathered some of the horse liniment on himself. It burned in the raw places, and woke him more thoroughly, but perhaps the herbs in it would do him some good. He'd staggered over to the stinking hovel where he'd been told to sleep. It was small, dirty, crowded, smoky, full of vermin ... and oddly silent when he'd crept in. He'd found a space easily enough, and slept.
Getting up the next morning was even more torture. The bruises had set, and for all that it was midsummer, it was still cold at first light. He chewed on his coarse rye crust and supped the weak, sour small-beer handed to them in the garth outside the kitchen. In the kitchen, the morning's work had plainly begun well before, and the noise was enough to make him retreat from it. He chewed cautiously. His mouth was sore. Looking around he realized that he stood in a little island of silence, while the other ragged thralls jostled and talked-in muted voices, true, among themselves. And across the yard he caught sight of the tormentor of yesterday. He had a dirty bandage around his head. And the minute his eyes locked with Cair's, he shied away.
Cair's own head had bled, and his hair was matted with dried blood. But it was only when he'd helped to lead the horses out to the paddocks down beside the water, and took the opportunity-along with one of the other two thralls-to wash his face in the cold water that he could wash it clear gingerly. And peer at his reflection in the water. He didn't think, all things considered, that he looked that terrifying. So on the way back up to the stables, he ventured to ask what was going on. The other man who'd bothered to wash had spoken peasant Frankish to him yesterday. He was presumably a Frankish prisoner taken on one of the local's raids. "Why is everyone behaving as if I have the plague this morning?"
"I haven't done anything to you," said the other thrall, warily.
"Except kick me and trip me facedown into the dung heap yesterday," said Cair.
The thrall held up his hands pacifically. "But I didn't know, then."
"Didn't know what?" asked Cair.
"That you were a man-witch." Even after the rudimentary wash by the lakeside, the man's face was none too clean. The dirt was the only bit of color on it, right now.
Cair was about to deny this latest piece of ridiculousness when it struck him that it might be useful. These were pagans, after all. They weren't likely to accuse him of trafficking with the devil. "Who told you?" he asked, doing his best to look threatening. He raised one eyebrow, a trick he'd practiced and used to some effect on prisoners himself. If this was the only coin he had to play, well, then he would play it with skill.
The thrall's eyes widened, and he looked ready to bolt. "I saw, yesterday, what you did to Eddi. And I've heard from Piers that one of the other new captives says you were floating on the sea, miles from the land."
Now, thought Cair, all I have to do is find out what I "did" to Eddi, who was presumably the person who had given him the bruises that hurt so devilishly this morning. Whatever it was, Cair hoped the bastard was at least half as sore as he was. He ached. Even his aches had aches. He could use any reputation that would stop this from happening again. There were a few tricks he could use to foster the story. There were a fair number of things a civilized man knew to be science that these ignorant pagans would take for magic. But for now he kept his mouth still and let the tongue of rumor speak instead. From experience, he knew that it always spoke louder than any mere man could. He and his brother had cultivated rumors of the Redbeards' uncanny successes, and of the folly of resisting them, for that just that reason. Even the Venetians were inclined to run, and, when cornered, surrender rather than fight. It always made for easier victories if the victims were half paralyzed with fear before they even went into the fight. Logical thought did not come into these things, thought Cair wryly. "See you behave yourself today, and you won't get what you deserve. I'll stay my vengeance. For now."
The thrall nodded so eagerly that his head was in danger of parting from his shoulders. "Nobody will give you trouble. I promise."
"Good. Now show me what I am supposed to do around here. I don't want more beatings." He saw, instantly that this had been the wrong thing to say, and rectified it immediately. "My powers are low now, too low after my magics at sea, calling the king's ship to me, to undertake great workings again. But I can still manage to deal with the likes of Eddi. Or you. However, I am here for a greater purpose than to waste magic on thralls if I don't have to."
The thrall nodded. "We'd better go and muck out then. Signy never says anything, except if the horses are badly looked after."
There was that name again. He'd taken it for a Norse insult the first time he'd heard it. This thrall and the others in the stable yard put a fair degree of disdain into it. "Who is this Signy?"
"The old king's daughter. King Vortenbras's sister. Half-sister."
It was curious that these slaves would even dare to treat someone that high-born with anything but the very greatest respect, or even omit a title. They certainly spoke the name of Vortenbras's mother with hushed deference. It appeared that how much respect a thrall got from his fellows was largely determined by who owned you. Thus the sooner he, Cair, got himself transferred to the service of some more important personage, the better. It would make life more comfortable, until he could escape.
"They say that she is a seid-witch," said the thrall with disdain. "Or at least the queen does. But I never saw any sign of it."
* * *
During the rest of the day, Cair gradually pieced together a great deal from his new informants, Henri, once a fisherman from the coast of nearby Helgoland, and Thjalfi, their half-witted companion in labor. Thjalfi had no problem repeating the story, over and over again, of Eddi and the bucket. It would appear that Thjalfi had, prior to Cair, been Eddi's favorite kicking target. By the way the moonling smelled, Cair wished that Eddi had kicked him into the water. Thjalfi had no Frankish, but he was slow of speech as well as wits, and he repeated things endlessly. As a learning tool he was an asset, if a noisome one. If Cair understood Thjalfi right, Cair had called Eddi "Buckethead" and a string of strange and obviously magical words. And the bucket had come from nowhere and landed on Eddi's head.
The Berber-coast obscenity Cair had yelled at Eddi, hadn't been "Buckethead." But it did sound similar. Luck and a falling bucket had been on his side. Now he just had to capitalize on it.
Excerpted from A Mankind Witch by Dave Freer Copyright ©2005 by Dave Freer. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Dave Freer is an Ichthyologist turned author because he'd heard that the spelling requirements were simpler. They lied about that. He lives in a remote part of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, with his wife and chief proof-reader, Barbara, four dogs and four cats, two sons (Paddy and James) and just at the moment no shrews, birds, bats or any other rescued wildlife. His first book¿The Forlorn (Baen)¿came out in 1999. Since then he has co-authored with Eric Flint (Rats, Bats and Vats, Pyramid Scheme, and The Rats, the Bats and the Ugly) and, with Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint (The Shadow of the Lion, This Rough Magic, The Wizard of Karres) as well as writing various shorter works. Besides working as a Fisheries Scientist for the Western Cape shark fishery, running a couple of fish farms, he has worked as a commercial diver, and as a relief chef at several luxury game lodges. Yes: he can both cook and change diapers. (No man ever really gets tired of danger sports.) He spent two years as a conscripted soldier along the way, so he can iron too. His interests are rock climbing (he's still good at it), diving, flyfishing (he's still bad at it), fly-tying, wine-tasting and the preparation of food, especially by traditional means¿smoking and salting, all the good unhealthy things.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Scandinavia is home to pagan worship that disturbs their neighbor to the south the true believers of the Holy Roman Empire. Barbary sailor Cair Aidin ship wrecked on the Scandinavian coast has become a thrall to despised Princess Signy, stepsister of King Vortenbras. She is accused of stealing a magical relic that no human should have been able to touch thus everyone except the technologically thinking Cair assumes Signy is a witch. If the relic is not returned to its proper place, Vortenbras and his horde will turn into berserker Vikings destroying Europe. --- Cair loves his mistress Signy and knows she is no thief let alone a killer as proscribed by many. He plans to prove her innocence by rescuing her, finding the lost token and carrying it back to its designated locale. To succeed he needs the help of Brittany Prince Manfred and the royal bodyguard and guide Erik, also seeking the relic. Cair begins his quest entering a realm filled with murdering dwarves, trolls, hags, and other supernatural cretins that Cair refuses to believe exist even as they try to kill him while also eluding the even more lethal agents of the Holy Roman Empire. --- The third Heirs of Alexandria alternate history tale (see THIS ROUGH MAGIC and THE SHADOW OF THE LION) is a terrific fantasy thriller that can stand alone though the previous tales co-written with Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint are fun to read. The exhilarating mid sixteenth century story line contains a fully developed cast (human and others) who enable readers to accept that the Library of Alexandria did not burn and unlike the hero¿s skepticism, magic being genuine. Cair is terrific as he loves Signy the reason he sets forth on his task while saving an empire or two from berserker Vikings is not his mission. Fans will enjoy the latest tale as Dave Freer keeps the series top quality without the collaboration. --- Harriet Klausner
This book is a great run through of the northern reaches of Europe. We meet witches and kings, princesses and pirates, body guards and demons. This book is solid front to back. We meet Erik and Manfred again, but this story focuses more on Signy, a despised princess and Cair, an even lower slave. The plot in this book is every bit is fully formed as in the other two books in this world where Freer collaborated with Flint and Lackey, but is a decidedly slimmer novel. I loved this book and can't wait to get a few paperbacks to gift to people.
I honestly wasn't expecting much from this one, didn't really like the cover, and haven't been historically too fond of the author, but once i gave it a try I found it really quite good. The pacing is excellent. The characters area little over the top, but still human (well not exactly, but you know what I mean). The Norse mythology seemed very well researched and was all used appropriately, which I really liked.
What happens when a skeptical Barbary corsair, a man of science and astronomy, is captured and made a thrall in Norway? What happens when a people who live life full of mythology are confronted with someone who's not afraid of spirits, curses, and otherworldly things, for he doesn't believe in them? What happens when uncanny plots are then put into motion? A Mankind Witch is about the clash of worlds and cultures on many levels, and it's a fun read on many levels. A Mankind Witch is part of the Heirs of Alexandria series, a fantastical alternate history in which magic works, and the famed Library of Alexandria never burned. But don't despair if you haven't read the other very good books in this series, _This Rough Magic_, and _The Shadow of the Lion_. A Mankind Witch stands very well on its own. This book reads very well as a fantastical look at Norse Mythology, complete with Odin, trolls, dwarves, kobolds, elves, and witches. You can't go wrong putting Grieg on the soundtrack and settling in for a good read. Readers who have little or no acquaintance with Norse mythology will very much enjoy this book without needing any deeper knowledge of the history behind it. The book also reads very well as a satirical alternate history. As you recognize different people, you may find yourself snickering uncontrollably. If you read it on both levels, and add in a further level of song and story, this is so very much fun. I'd swear that Mr. Freer used Grieg's _Hall of the Mountain King_ to help him pace the book - it starts quickly, and maintains the tension clear to the finale. I highly recommend this book.