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February 2011, Avon Books
ISBN-10: 0062019007
ISBN 978-0062019004
June 1999, LoveSpell
ISBN-13: 978-0505523112


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Chapter One 

Birka, A.D. 952

"The king's manroot took a right turn."

"Wh-what? What root?" Blinking with confusion, Tykir Thorksson lifted his head off the ale house table and gaped drunkenly at Bjold, the royal messenger.

"And he beseeches your service in correcting the...uh, problem."

"Me? Do my ears play me false?" With a brain that felt like a mashed turnip itself, Tykir scratched the fine hairs on his forearm and wondered irrelevantly how King Anlaf's emissary had even tracked him to Birka. And why, for the love of Freyja, would he go to the botherment of the grueling trek from the far northern reaches of Trondelag to this bustling market town on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälar? To tell him about...vegetables? "Blód hel! I am inclined to take offense. You see afore you a noted warrior and a trader in precious amber. Since when have I become a farmsteader, with knowledge of roots?"

Bjold's jaw dropped at Tykir's ferocious overreaction. Immediately, he clicked it shut and, with a snarl of impatience, tried again, "The king's cock has taken a right turn."

"His rooster?" Tykir was becoming more and more confused. First, vegetables. Now, poultry. Next, this lackwit would be asking him for help in drying lutefisk. "Not that cock." Bjold sniffed huffily, clearly repelled by Tykir's mead-sodden state. In truth, Tykir did not often drink to excess. Though he gave the appearance of a carefree nature, he detested any lack of self-control. He had reason to celebrate, of course, having just returned from a successful trip to the Baltic lands where his workers had harvested a crop of prized amber for his trading ventures.

Still, this heavy cloud of depression had been hanging over him for days. No doubt, it was just boredom. "A-Viking, A-fighting and A-wenching" had long been his life-motto-- leastways on the surface--but somehow those pleasures were fading.

Having seen thirty-five winters, Tykir had garnered more wealth than he could use in a lifetime. He'd lost count years ago of all the beautiful women he'd bedded, but now he no longer felt a youthling's swift rush of enthusiasm at the sight of every comely wench who came within snaring distance.

Then, there was the matter of fighting--a time-honored Viking pastime. From the age of fourteen, he'd fought like a wild berserker in the battles of various kingdoms, like his father afore him--May his soul be resting in Valhalla! But he found himself questioning of late the motives of leaders who called for the rash spilling of blood from their underlings.

Well, there was a-Viking. Tykir had seen adventure in all his trading and Viking voyages. From the Rus lands to Iceland, from the Baltic Ocean to the English Channel, Tykir had visited and revisited, explored and discovered, even conquered. Never did he stay long in one place, though, by deliberate intent. 'Twas not good for a man in his position to form roots.

What else was there to draw a man's jaded interest? What challenges that he had not already mastered?

Tykir sighed deeply.

"By your leave, Jarl Thorksson, 'tis the king's other cock I refer to." Bjold had been rambling on whilst Tykir's mind wandered. Suddenly, the messenger's words sunk in, and Tykir's eyes went wide with understanding. Manroot. Cock. He glanced down to the jointure of his thighs and winced in masculine empathy. "The king's cock did what?"

"Made a right turn. Halfway down." The envoy thirstily quaffed down a horn of ale, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He was clearly relieved that Tykir finally understood his message. "Looks like a flag at half mast, it does."

"And he wants me to fix it?" Tykir gasped out with horror.

"Not you precisely."

Tykir leveled a glare at the impudent lad. "Who precisely?"

The tone in his icy voice must have caught the lackwit's attention. With eyes darting nervously from side to side, Bjold answered, "The witch."

Odin's blood! 'Twas like pulling burrs from a wolf's tail, getting a straight answer from the dolt. "Just any witch?"

"Nay. One in particular." The messenger shifted uncomfortably under Tykir's close scrutiny.

Tykir rolled his eyes heavenward. "Well, that is clear as fjord fog on a rainy day."

Bjold let out a long whoosh of exasperation -- If I were not so tired, I would shake the brainless cur till his rotten teeth rattled for such discourtesy. -- and disclosed, "The witch with `The Virgin's Veil'."

He might as well have said, "The witch with the wolf's tail," for all that meant to Tykir.

Tykir made a low growling sound, and Bjold, with belated wisdom, hurried to explain, "The witch's name is Alinor...Lady Alinor of Northumbria. 'Tis she who put the curse on Anlaf's manparts. All because Anlaf and his hird of soldiers stopped by St. Beatrice's Abbey in Britain one day last year. The abbey is home to a nunnery where Lady Alinor was seeking sanctuary for a time from her bumbling brothers, the Lords Egbert and Hebert."

Tykir wondered what would constitute "bumbling" in the mind of this bumbling idiot. But he did not dare ask, lest he face another long-winded discourse. Instead, he homed in on Bjold's other words. "Stopped by? Anlaf stopped by a nunnery? For a bit of raping and pillaging, I wager."

"And if we were?" Bjold bristled, revealing his part in the marauding band. "'Tis neither here nor there whether we were a-plundering or not. I daresay you've done a fair share of plundering in your day, too. At issue here is the fact that the witch waved a relic in the king's face...a blue headrail which she claimed once adorned the Blessed Virgin Mary." He paused, then explained, as if Tykir were a dimwit, "To Christians, the Virgin Mary is the mother of their One-God."

Tykir fisted his hands to prevent himself from throttling the fool. "I know who the Virgin Mary is."

"Well, as I was saying...that's when Lady Alinor put her curse on Anlaf, threatening, `Curse you, heathen! May your manparts fall off if you do this evil deed.' Well, his manparts didn't fall off...leastways, not yet...but they took a turn to the right." Bjold took a deep breath after that long explanation.

"And?" Tykir prodded. "What has that to do with me?"

"The king wants you to bring the witch back to Trondelag, with her magic veil, to remove the bloody curse."

"Is that all?" Tykir remarked. But what he thought was, A Saxon. Anlaf expects me to stop in the midst of my trading voyage, go all the way to Britain to get the wench, who will no doubt be unwilling, take her back to Norway, by way of Hedeby where I must needs drop off the last of my trading goods, then make my way home to Dragonstead. And all this afore the winter ice sets in. Hah! Anlaf ever was an overbearing lout, even when we were boys. But he goes too far this time. "Nay."

"Nay? Do you say your liege lord nay? Where is your Norse loyalty?"

Tykir stiffened with affront. "Hah! Anlaf is no more my liege lord than the Wessex King Edred. You know well and good that Northmen pledge allegiance to a particular leader, not a nation. My uncle, Haakon, is all-king of Norway and to him alone do I pay homage. Further, 'twas Haakon--then fostering in King Athelstan's court in Britain and having seen only fifteen winters--who went back to Norway on King Harald Fairhair's death and returned to all bonders the odal-rights to their land. My title to Dragonstead stems from Haakon and will remain free and clear in my family name for posterity."

Tykir felt a aching tug in the region of his heart at the mere thought of Dragonstead. If he were being truthful with himself, he would have to admit that Dragonstead mattered more to him than anything. And that was dangerous.

Bjold's face flamed with the heat of embarrassment, but still he blundered on, "The king thought you might be reluctant."

"Oh, he did, did he?"

"He said to tell you that you could have `Fierce One' for a boon if you wouldst do him this favor."

Tykir sat up straighter. "Anlaf would grant me his prized stallion...the one gifted to him by that Saracen chieftain?"

"Yea." Bjold nodded emphatically. "The black devil with the white markings on his hooves. That be the one."

"Hmmm," Tykir said, despite his misgivings. Still, he resisted. "Nay. I have too much to do afore retreating to Dragonstead for the winter."

"In that case, King Analf directed me to offer the slave girl, Samirah, as well. The one with the tiny silver bells on her ankles, and the two silver bells dangling from the pierced rings in her..." He cupped two hands in front of his chest to indicate Samirah's most noted endowments.

"Hmmm," Tykir said again, but not because of the slave girl, enticing as he knew her to be. Truth be told, the horse held more appeal. In the end, though, he repeated his earlier refusal. "Nay, I have no time."

Bjold wrung his hands nervously. "I had not wanted to tell you this, but before I do...well, uh, tell me one thing. You are not the type of man who is wont to kill the messenger with bad tidings, are you?"

Tykir drew himself up alertly. "Speak, wretch, or I will slice your tongue from your mouth and send it to Anlaf on a bread trencher."

Bjold's face went even brighter. "'Tis Adam the Healer," he squeaked out. "Anlaf holds him as friendly hostage till you deliver the witch."

"What?" he roared. "How did Adam end up in Trondelag? I thought he was in the Arab lands. And what in bloody hell is a `friendly hostage'?" Adam was a young man of no more than twenty years who had been studying medicine these past five years or so in the Arab lands, where the most noted healers practiced their arts. He was the adopted son of Tykir's halfsister, Rain, and her husband Selik, who resided in Jorvik. Adam was like family to him...a "nephew" by adoption.

"Friendly hostage means Adam will come to no harm. He just cannot leave Anlaf's court."

Tykir made a low rumbling growl of outrage in his throat.

Bjold shriveled under his obvious wrath and concluded in a rush, "It all comes back to the witch and your mission to capture her."

Standing abruptly, Tykir leaned across the table and grabbed Bjold by the front of his surcoat, lifting him off his bench and half-leaning over the table toward him, knocking horns of ale hither and yon. The boy looked as if he might soil his braies, so afeared was he. "Start from the beginning," Tykir said icily, "and leave naught out."

He settled back for what he hoped was not an overlong tale. Especially since his head was pounding like Thor's mighty hammer, Mjolnir. Especially since he was in dire need of a bath house to rid himself of the fleas that infested his skin and clothing after a long sea voyage. Especially since his good friend Rurik raised his equally mead-sodden head from the table next to him and grinned, silently mouthing the words, "A witchhunt?"

Rurik had good reason to relish the prospect of a witchhunt. Being godly handsome (second only to Tykir, in Tykir's not so humble opinion), Rurik wore his long black hair, as well as his beard, in intricate braids. His mustache was a daily-clipped work of art. But Rurik's overblown vanity had been dealt a blow two years a witch, no less...a Scottish witch, who'd dyed a zagged line down the middle of Rurik's face, whilst he slept, from hairline to chin, with the blue woad of the Scottish warriors. Thus far, Rurik had been unable to wash the color from his skin, or find the wily witch.

Yea, Rurik would be encouraging him to undertake Anlaf's witchly mission.

Then things got worse.

Bjold had stepped outside for a moment to relieve himself, but he returned now. Before he could begin to talk, though, Bolthor the Giant, Tykir's own personal skald--May Odin have mercy!--slid onto the bench next to him. Tykir could not suppress the groan which escaped from his lips. He needed a skald almost as much as he needed a witch, especially a skald as tall as a small tree. But what was a man to do when a fellow warrior saved his life in battle? When said life-friend lost an eye at the Battle of Ripon five years past, Tykir had felt compelled to offer work to the despondent knight. Thus far, Bolthor had tried, and failed, as cook, blacksmith and armorer on Tykir's northern homestead. Finally, Tykir's household had revolted at the unpalatable food, burned-down smithy and broken swords.

Tykir gave Bolthor a passing sideways glance, then looked again. Uh-oh! Too late he realized that Bolthor had that certain dreamy expression on his face which foreboded the verse-mood coming upon him. Too late to escape now.

"Hear one and all, this is the saga of Tykir the Great," Bolthor began.

It was the manner in which all of Bolthor's sagas began. They didn't get any better than that opening line, unfortunately. Rurik's lips curved upward with mirth. With a hand over his mouth, he murmured to Tykir under his breath, "Hver fugl synger med sitt nebb."

"Humph!" Tykir said in reply. "Every bird may very well sing with its own voice, but Bolthor's birdsong is the most unmelodious I have ever heard."

Unaware of their opinions, Bolthor adjusted the black patch over his one eyeless socket and took a stylus into his huge hand. Squinting through his good eye, he began to painstakingly press runic symbols onto the wax tablet he had set on the table in front of him. 'Twas not the norm for skalds to write down the sagas, but Bolthor's head was thick, and he often forgot the words to the tales he had composed.

"Methinks a good title for this one would be `Tykir and the Crooked Cock.' Let me see, how shall I start? Hmmm."

"In the land of the Saxons,
An evil witch did fly.
To Anlaf's proud duckling,
She set her evil eye.
Now, alas and alack,
His furry pet can no longer
Nor with his mate
Fly straight."

Bolthor paused. "How does that sound thus far?" he asked hopefully.

"Magnificent," Tykir said, patting Bolthor on the shoulder. Horrible. Tykir barely stifled a grimace of distaste. I hope my brother Eirik never hears of this one. He will fall over laughing, almost as much as he did over the "Tykir and the Reluctant Maiden" saga Bolthor concocted last winter. Somehow, Bolthor's overlong tales almost always end with me looking the fool. And best that Anlaf does not hear of Bolthor enhancing his wordfame by referring to his manpart as a duckling or there will be sword-dew spilled aplenty.

Tykir scratched his unshaven face and wondered idly if he smelled as bad as his companions. Vikings were renowned for their fastidious nature, unlike those piggish Saxon and Frankish men, who bathed but once a season. Lifting one arm, he sniffed under his armpit...and flinched.

"How do you spell duckling," Bolthor whispered in an aside.

"C-O-C-K," Tykir responded dryly. Let Bolthor figure how to translate the word into the futhark alphabet. That should take a goodly amount of time.

He turned to Bjold. "Proceed," he directed him with a wave of his hand. "I doubt me I will like your report from King Anlaf, but spare me not even the smallest detail."

When Bjold finished, at last, a good hour later, a sudden realization came to which drew a wide smile to his face, overshadowing the anger which lingered beneath the surface over Anlaf's treatment of Adam. I am no longer bored.

He looked at Rurik, then Bolthor, before announcing, "It would seem we are going a-witching."


North Yorkshire
six sennights later

"The Vikings are coming. The Vikings are coming."

"Baaa. Baaa. Baaa. Baaa."

"Bleat. Bleat. Bleat. Bleat."

"Ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff!"

"The Vikings are coming. The Vikings are coming."

Whether it be her crying sheep, or her barking sheep dog, or her shrieking, sheeplike maid, Elswyth, with her frizzy gray hair who was approaching with the dire warning of yet another Northman sighting, Lady Alinor had more than enough problems for one day. A most unladylike phrase escaped her lips--something to do with an unmentionable exercise the Vikings, the sheep and the dog could do to themselves, or to each other, for all she cared. 'Twas an expression she'd heard her hesirs use on more than one occasion when they were ready to explode with ill-temper. And Alinor's temper was very ill, and explosive, at the moment.

Hanging onto a tree root by one hand, Alinor was dangling into a shallow gully infested with briars, trying to extricate one of her ewes, Bathsheba, from the sharp thorns with the crook of her long staff. Her mangy sheep dog, inappropriately named Beauty, was yipping off in the distance as it attempted to steer a small flock of straying sheep back to the stone-fenced pastures of the lower dales.

Continuing to bleat his yearnings, non-stop, off to the side was David, a lusty, overanxious ram of a curly-horned breed almost non-existent outside Córdoba--a bride gift from her last marriage. Ironically, Sheba was in heat, and she yearned mightily for the mating which would produce new lambs for Alinor's thriving flock come spring, but still the dumb female had felt the need to play games of catch-me-if-you-will with the curly-horned David. That's when the coy Sheba had landed herself in the briar patch.

Not all that different from human males and females in the mating rituals, she supposed.

"The Vikings are coming. The Vikings are coming."

"Baaa. Baaa. Baaa. Baaa."

"Bleat. Bleat. Bleat. Bleat."

"Ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff!"

Alinor paused in the act of cutting away the branches caught in Sheba's matted fur, glanced over her shoulder, and groaned at sight of her kitchen maid rushing toward her over the heather- blanketed flatlands, headrail flapping in the wind and brown homespun kirtle hiked practically to her knobby knees. Elswyth always thought the Vikings were coming, no matter if it were mere wayfarers approaching Graycote Manor from the old Roman road, or stray cows from the pastures of Castle Bellard, three miles to the east.

In truth, fighting men from the North had been coming into Britain in droves this past year as news spread of Eric Bloodaxe's campaign to expel King Olaf Sigtryggsson and regain the crown of Northumbria. Recently he had achieved that goal, thanks to the efforts of Archbishop Wulfstan and members of the Norse nobility residing in northern Britain.

Elswyth's fears had started a year past when she had accompanied Alinor to the nunnery at St. Beatrice's Abbey. Whilst there, they'd had the misfortune to witness a thwarted Viking attack on the good nuns. Alinor had been hiding out at the convent from her twin brothers Egbert and Hebert, who had come up with yet another marriage prospect for her...Ecgfrith of upper Mercia, a doddering old Lord with one foot in the grave. Actually, Ecgfrith had passed away before Egbert and Hebert even found Alinor at the nunnery. What a birching she'd received for her willfulness! Three times Alinor had wed and been widowed since her fifteenth birthday, and her only having seen twenty-five winters, all to serve the greedy needs of her brothers.

And it would seem her problems were unending for just yestermorn she'd received a missive from her wool agent in Jorvik, informing her that Egbert and Hebert had been boasting in the market town of a new marriage contract that carried the seal of their third cousin, King Edred...a contract for matrimony between their sister, Lady Alinor of Graycote Manor, and Lord Cedric of Wessex. The sickly king had been plagued by troubles since his reign began six years past. If the Vikings weren't stirring unrest in the north, his own noblemen were constantly nagging at him for favors...not least of all her own brothers.

It mattered not to her brothers that the short, corpulent Cedric was as wide as he was tall. He weighed as much as a horse and was old enough to be her great-grandsire. The important thing to Egbert and Hebert would be the estates Cedric owned which would cede to a wife, and therefore to them as guardians, upon his death.

Well, Alinor could not refuse the king's command, but if she never actually received the royal command of her weak-sapped sovereign, how could she be deemed lacking in proper loyalty? Therefore, she intended to be long gone, into a new temporary hiding place, before Egbert and Hebert's arrival which she estimated to be two days hence, giving Alinor temporary respite from her brothers' machinations.

"Come, Elswyth," she entreated, now that the maid drew near. "Help me free Sheba."

"But...but...," Elswyth protested breathlessly, "the Vikings are coming."

"And if they are? What is it to us? We have no riches for them to pillage--apparent ones, leastways." Alinor had willingly given up all the estates deeded to her by three dead husbands, except for this one measly manor in the far north of Britain, precisely so that she would garner no attention from her only remaining family. The fact that she prospered with her thriving wool trade went unnoticed by her brothers since she plowed all the profits back into the sheep folds and hidden chests of gold. Her greatest dream was that one day she would just be left alone.

"But they could ravish us," Elswyth cried in a horrified whisper.

Alinor had to laugh at that. They would have to be sorry Vikings indeed to feel the inclination to toss the aging Elswyth's robes over her head. And Alinor had known well and good from an early age that she was not comely to men. With hair of a most garish shade of red and with freckles covering her entire body, which was too tall and too thin by half, Alinor held no appeal for the average man...and Vikings, renowned for their good looks, were reputed to be most particular.

"Elswyth," she said in a kindly tone, "we are in more danger of being raped by David, than any Viking, if we do not soon extricate his lady-love from these brambles."

Grumbling, Elswyth reached forward to assist Alinor, but under her breath she mumbled that famous Anglo-Saxon refrain, "Oh, Lord, from the fury of the Northmen please protect us."


Tykir was furious.

It had taken him two sennights to complete his trading ventures in Birka, along with some ship repairs, before sailing for British soil. Now, for the past four sennights--twenty-eight wasted, bloody days--he and Rurik and Bolthor had been riding from one end of the British isle to the other, searching for the elusive witch. Vikings were meant to sail the seas, not travel long, bumpy distances on land, atop horses, till their arses were bruised and their moods riled.

And it was all the fault of the Lady Alinor. Rather, the Lady Witch, he corrected himself. An interesting lady, as it turned out. The thrice-widowed sorceress -- And didn't that happenstance of three, conveniently dead spouses provoke a thinking man's suspicion? -- owned a dozen wealthy estates across this hellish land, all managed by her brothers, the bumbling twins Bjold had referred to. But she chose to live in a poor holding in this bleak, far northern holding in Northumbria, almost up to the Scottish doubt to practice her pagan rites in privacy.

Well, the quest was almost over. When they'd stopped at Graycote Manor a short time ago, her castellan informed Tykir that the Lady Alinor was up in the fells tending to her sheep. Tending? Was she engaged in some black rite involving animal sacrifice or such?

The odd thing was the timber and stone keep, with its crumbling ramparts and stockades, was kept neat, but sorely out of date. At the same time, vast fields of cut hay lay drying for winter feed. A dozen cows lowed in a nearby byre waiting to be milked. Piles of harvested turnips, carrots, cabbages and other food items rolled by in heavy carts. It was an ill-kept estate, overflowing with provender. How peculiar!

Well, be that as it may. He cared not if the witch was rich or poor. Soon, his journey would be over, and the Lady Alinor would pay good and well for all the trouble she had put him to. "We must be careful, Tykir," Rurik warned him.

The three of them rode horses side by side up one fell and down the other, following the castellan's directions. Lady Alinor's dimwitted castellan--leader of a scraggly band of hesirs--had not even thought to question his mistress's safety in sending three Viking warriors after her.

"I am loathe to ask you...but why?"

"We know not if this witch is a `Solitary' or in a coven."

Tykir nodded, though he had no particular knowledge of witchcraft, solitary or otherwise. He would have to bow to Rurik's greater wisdom in that regard.

"No doubt the witch will take on a most beauteous countenance to draw us under her spell."

"Do you think so?"

"Yea, that is what happened to me, I warrant. Why else would I have let my guard down in a strange country in the presence of a known witch?"

Tykir laughed. "Because the Scottish wench opened her lissome legs for you, that's why. Because the man-lust is always upon you. Because you think with the rock betwixt your legs, instead of the rock betwixt your ears."

Rurik lifted his chin with affront, calling attention to the blue dyed line down the middle of his face--a testament to his foolish entanglement with a witch.

"Since we are so close to Scotland, why do you not go in search of the witch? Mayhap you can rid yourself of her mark once and for all."

"All of last year I spent searching for the wench, to no avail. I refuse to spend the winter months in the highlands freezing my arse in search of her now. Next summer, I will find her, or be damned."

"I for one wouldst like to know if the old tales are true about witches having a tail which they hide beneath their robes," Bolthor interjected. "'Tis said that the only way they can lose the long appendage is by marrying a mortal man."

"See," Rurik argued to Tykir. "I was right about witches taking on a tempting form. It makes sense that they would need to do so if they want to snare a man and thus lose their tails."

"You two would believe anything," Tykir hooted. "All I know is that I want to be the one to light the fire under this particular witch...once King Anlaf is finished with her, that is. Then, if I never see English soil, or an English wench, again, it will be too soon for me."

"There she is, there she is," Rurik said excitedly.

A long, telling silence followed, in which they all noticed the same thing. Finally, Tykir snorted with disgust, and said aloud what they were all thinking, "So much for the theory of beautiful witches!"

"Methinks this calls for a saga." Bolthor was already pulling his wax tablet from a saddlebag, muttering something about, "Tykir and the Flame-Haired Witch." Then he launched into his usual introduction, "Hear one and all, this is the saga of Tykir the Great."

"How would you like a stylus up your arse?" Tykir responded.

Bolthor just ignored him and began spouting his verse.

"Flames there were
But not of fire.
Wild spume of
Satan's breath
Spilled from
The witch's head
To catch the wary warrior,
Though he be grandson of
The great King Harald Fairhair."

"I saw a fruit that color once whilst a-Viking in the southern climes. 'Twas called an orange, I think." Rurik spoke with awe on viewing the wench's odd-colored hair.

Tykir had seen red hair before, they all had, of course. Even the great Odin had red hair. But never had Tykir witnessed hair quite like this. Rurik was wrong about its orange color, though; it was more like bright rust on a metal shield.

"Oh, for the love of Freyja! Is that the devil's spittle that adorns her, too?" Bolthor shivered with distaste. "Hair like the fires of hell and the mark of Lucifer on her skin...of a certainty, she is a witch."

He was right. The woman was covered with freckles, every part of her exposed skin, and no doubt every other place beneath her drab robes. Her headrail and wimple, which would normally cover the hair of a lady of her high birth, hung ignominiously from a briar thatch just beyond where the Lady Alinor was chasing a ram which was chasing a baa-ing sheep.

"Dost see her familiars anywhere about?" Bolthor asked in a hushed voice. "Ofttimes witches use cats as their familiars."

They all scanned the horizon. Not a cat in sight.

"Perchance," Rurik said hesitantly, "her familiars are sheep."

"Sheep?" he and Bolthor said as one.

All of their jaws dropped open with amazement at this incredible turn of events.

But then Tykir came to his senses. "I have ne'er heard of anything so ridiculous in all my life."

"Me neither," Rurik and Bolthor agreed.

But they all looked at each other, unsure. If indeed she did use sheep as familiars, she must be a powerful witch. There were dozens of sheep in the area.

"And look," Bolthor added. "She carries a staff. Everyone knows that a witch carries a magic staff. And a bell and crystal, of course."

A tinkling sound came from the neck of the female sheep being swived by the lusty ram. The fine hairs stood out all over Tykir's body at that affirmation of at least one of the witch's tools.

They all narrowed their eyes to see if she might be wearing, or carrying, a crystal. They saw nothing but her simple, rumpled gown. No doubt, she kept it hidden.

"Do you think she dances naked in the forest?" Rurik wondered. "'Tis a common witch practice."

"Did your witch?" Tykir asked with a grin.

"Yea, she did," Rurik told him, grinning back. "'Twas almost worth receiving her cursed mark to see that exhibition."

"I'm not sure there would be so much pleasure in seeing this witch naked," Tykir said. They all concurred.

While they were making these observations, Rurik's dog was barking wildly, the sheep were bleating, and the nervous horses were neighing. In the midst of this chaos, a mangy sheep dog galloped over the fells toward them, a flock of bleating sheep following behind. Apparently, the sheep dog had noticed Rurik's wolfhound, Beast, which stood near his horse's right front leg, trying to appear aloof, but pissing trickles of excitement. The jaws of Tykir and his comrades nigh dropped to the ground with this ungodly spectacle.

Just then, the ram finished his rutting, and his sheeply mate escaped. But apparently the randy ram had other ideas. He chased after her, then stopped dead in his tracks, did an about- face, and began chasing Lady Alinor who had been shouting at the two of them to desist, at once. When the ram bumped Lady Alinor's rump with his curly horns, she fell to the ground, rump in the air.

And all three men stared, transfixed, at one particular spot.

Did she or didn't she?

Have a tail?

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