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Stories of ghosts and witchcraft to chill the nerves and intrigue the imagination…
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Ketil Potbelly was very rich. This fact remained undisputed. Indeed, he was the richest man in Stormwall, even wealthier than the Jarl Erik himself. Ketil had made his first fortune trading otter and beaver pelts for wine, spices and pig-iron – and had sold each and all for enormous profit. Silver bred silver, and gold bred gold, and before Ketil was even thirty no one could rival his wealth, opulence, or indeed, his rapidly-thickening waistline.
Money bought position in the small community and an extensive, comfortable house on the edge of Stormwall. If Ketil’s home was not actually larger than Jarl Erik’s longhall then it was certainly more richly furnished and decorated. Gold-threaded tapestries hung on the walls, rare foreign rugs covered his floors, gold goblets and plate littered his tables, jewels and even more gold circled his fingers and hung about his flabby neck.
Ketil Potbelly was very rich and wanted for nothing – nothing that is except a wife.
Not that the object of Ketil’s affections could not be guessed. Many men’s hearts and eyes were turned in the same direction. Ketil Potbelly could not be blamed for his desire.
He was enamoured of Ragnhilde Olavdottir, the only child of a prosperous freeman in the pay of the Jarl. She was a lithesome creature, not very tall, but with a pleasing sunny disposition. And for all his baubles and trinkets, Ketil could think of little else but the clinging line of her dress, or the tresses of her red hair, or the gentle curve of her breasts and hips, or the sound of her voice, or the life in her brown eyes, or the smell of her body. Ketil had discovered a treasure more precious then diamonds – and a sight harder to come by. He had discovered something deeper than the love of money.
And it was unbearable, irksome, infuriating. He had not thought there could be anything more desirable than hoarded wealth. But he had been wrong and to his dear cost.
Thinking himself a most advantageous match, he asked for the hand of Ragnhilde in marriage. How could any woman refuse such an offer? How could any loving father not greet the prospect of Ketil as a good son with delight? Ketil Potbelly planned the wedding down to the finest detail. He purchased the most expensive wines for the banquet, bought rare silks and perfumes for his bride-to-be, commissioned a fabulous embroidered blanket for the nuptial bed. Success in this venture, as in any other, was assured to his profit.
And then, when everything was at last prepared, Ketil Potbelly, the wealthiest man in Stormwall, asked Ragnhilde Olavdottir to marry him.
She rejected him. There was no anger or indeed any other emotion on her part: she had just told him – matter-of-factly – she desired, and was betrothed, to another. Ketil was very upset and demanded to know the name of her lover. Svein Erikson, she told him.
But it was then, for the first time perhaps, Ketil thought he could hear scorn in her voice and sense the glint of loathing in her glance. But why? he had asked. And she shrugged as if he had too little wits to understand. So Ketil had pleaded with her, unmanned himself before her.
She rejected him, only adding she was flattered by his generous proposal.
Ketil Potbelly could have screamed in rage. How could she! How could she do this to him! The slut! The painted whore! It was crystal clear now. She had encouraged him deliberately so he would make a fool of himself, so he would waste his precious gold. He knew men envied his fortune. What a grand joke it must have been! They would all be laughing now! He could just picture them in the Longhall, hooting and hollering at the funny, fat, comic Potbelly. How could he have been so stupid?
So he went to visit her early the next morning. Perhaps she had been toying with him. He took a jewel encrusted brooch so she might understand how deeply he felt for her.
Her answer was the same, still in the kind manner. But he was sure he could see laughter in those calculating brown eyes. He stormed from her apartment, his face scarlet with rage, his hands trembling.
He returned to his home, but the finery seemed gaudy and worthless, mere baubles to torment him. Stalking around his rooms and corridors, he could not accept her rejection. It was so unfair!
Then an idea came to him. Perhaps it was her father who did not desire the marriage. There was the question of the dowry. Perhaps Olav could not raise the necessary gold. Yes, that was it. Olav did not wish to embarrass himself by admitting his poverty. Yes, that must be it. Ketil would visit Olav and explain the situation. After all, the dowry was not important.
And he had seen Ragnhilde’s father. Olav had been quite polite. O yes, so polite, the low-born oaf! Ketil shouted and raged. The bastard! The bastards! How could they do this to me! How could they! He saw amusement on the faces of his servants, even the peasants and carls smirked and pointed their grubby fingers.
And yet, and yet he knew in the end Ragnhilde would change her mind. Then they would all laugh on the other sides of their faces.
And there had been a marriage. Svein Erikson and Ragnhilde Olavdottir had been married on Wotansday past the full-moon. They invited Ketil to the wedding. And he had gone because he knew there was some kind of mistake. But it was true! The reality came crushing down on him. Ketil was struck speechless. When the celebrations were over, he returned to his home, numb to the world about him. He was empty. His apartments were featureless and vague and empty of value.
He remained in this state for a week or more. He shambled about his house as if he was in some unwaking nightmare from which there was no redemption. He spoke to no one, knew nothing, was unfeeling and uncaring. There was nothing to do – except to eat.
This he did with vigour. He consumed everything put before him – no food was too distasteful or unappetising. He ate as if by filling his stomach he might fill the void left by her rejection. There was no solace. The void was bottomless and food too trivial. Nothing could dispel the emptiness, nothing.
One morning he awoke from his nightmare. His hunger had finally been satisfied. Hate filled Ketil Potbelly. He rose from his furs and his expression was almost grim. His deep set eyes were filled with malice. There was a solution.
Ragnhilde Olavdottir had chosen Svein Erikson. So be it! Let them gloat while they may, he thought, staring at the shabby buildings of the Longhall. But I will have my revenge. If I cannot have the woman I desire then no other man shall. Potbelly grinned, baring his teeth, his double chin folding into layers. There was a solution.
Svein Erikson and his lovely wife would die.
It was that simple. Ketil laughed aloud. With their deaths would come contentment.
But how was it to be done? Ketil was not fool enough to imagine he might commit murder himself. Not only was he a weak man but he had no skill with weapons. He was sufficiently honest to admit he was a coward.
So he thought a little more, reaching an answer swiftly. He might hire an assassin, cheaply most likely for he could not envisage any problems for an experienced murderer. But who? Certainly no man of Stormwall. That much was certain. The fools were too attached to their buffoon of a Jarl. No, this needed to be done with subtlety and tact. Ketil had contacts in the ports of the lands of Mannan, Calatria and Lothland. They could arrange the hire of such an assassin. Yes, that was it! He could send instructions through a messenger, in vague terms so his purpose would not be guessed. Yes, that was it. Then Svein and Ragnhilde would learn the truth of Ketil’s resolve. Let them have their sniggers for the moment.
So he sent his most trusted courier. And that same afternoon, he visited Svein and Ragnhilde in their apartments in the Longhall. He apologised, telling them he had been a fool and begging their forgiveness. He even gave the couple a small cask of his finest wine to celebrate their marriage. Ragnhilde had smiled and said she was gladdened. Ketil smiled back ruefully.
When he had got home how he had laughed.
And then he waited.
It was a full turning of the moon before Ketil heard any more on the matter although he thought about it constantly. Then late one night, there was a knock on his door. Potbelly answered it himself, for he had dismissed his servants, and admitted a pale, unshaven character into his home.
“Welcome,” said Ketil, “I have been expecting you.”
The visitor shrugged, then followed the merchant to his hall.
“I have brought you here for a purpose,” Potbelly went on when they were seated. He did not offer the assassin any wine.
“So I’d imagined,” said the visitor. “I’ve made a journey of some weeks to get here. The miles are many from Llaith in Lothland. I hope I will be adequately rewarded for my time.”
Ketil studied the assassin. It was true his visitor had a hard, rough appearance for his dark hair was unkempt and unwashed and an old scar ran across one cheek from eye to mouth. But the assassin did not have the look of an experienced murderer. He was, well, average and unremarkable, and could have been one of a thousand ruffians or brigands who inhabited the seaports and towns throughout the north. The assassin did not seem to have the strength or cunning for Ketil’s mission.
The merchant hesitated, then shrugged. “What is your name?” he asked. “What should I call you?”
“I have many names,” replied the visitor, “but you may call me Louse, if you wish.”
Ketil nodded. “Well, Louse,” he said, “I have employment for you. There is a son of the Jarl Erik in this town of Stormwall. He is called Svein. He and his new wife have wronged me greatly to my lasting shame and discomfort. I want them punished, I want then dead. Can you accomplish this discreetly?”
“I dare say.”
“Good,” said Ketil more eagerly, then told his visitor all he thought appropriate about the situation. “How soon can this be done?”
“By tomorrow night.”
“Very good – then there is nothing else to say.”
“Not quite,” said the visitor. “There is the matter of my pay. I have not travelled all this way to return home without profit. You would do well to remember it!”
“Of course, how foolish of me!” laughed Ketil. “How much do you normally charge for such a job?”
“Fifty pieces ...”
“Of silver,” interrupted the merchant. “Very well, although it is a high price to pay.”
“... of gold.”
“Gold?” spluttered Ketil. “Gold!”
“Aye,” said the visitor, “that is my price – fifty pieces of gold. You would not want the job half done.”
“This is preposterous!” cried Ketil. “It is a fortune! Surely you are a jesting?”
The visitor’s expression was blank. “Do you see me smiling?” he said. “It is my price.”
“I will give you ten,” the merchant went on. “No more. I am not a man given to haggling or bargaining. If it is too little then return home now. It is my only offer. Take it or leave it.”
The visitor shrugged in reply, and Ketil counted out five gold pieces into his hand.
“Five now,” said the merchant, “five after you have completed the work.”
The visitor weighed the pieces in his hand and frowned slightly, perhaps guessing they were underweight. But he said nothing.
“And one last thing,” added Ketil. “They must know before they are punished who it is that does this to them.”
The visitor nodded again. Ketil showed him to the door, a feeling of deep triumph in his heart. He returned to the hall when the assassin had gone, and poured himself a large goblet of wine. He drank deeply. Ketil Potbelly did not think he would get much sleep that night. His eyes gleamed with excitement at the thought of his revenge.
Ketil woke late the next morning and yawned. He heaved himself out of the chair with some difficulty after draining the last drop of wine from the bottle. It would be a long day, he thought, but an enjoyable one.
He spent the morning on his accounts. But his mind wandered often and no matter how he tried he could not balance the columns of figures. He gave up and took to wandering about the house, not even noticing the coming, then the passing, of the midday meal. Food and money were of no interest to him now.
Finally, as the waiting became unbearable, he escaped the confines of his house for the harbour and town. He searched the few streets and along the rocky shore for a glimpse of the assassin – and then even the complex of buildings, which formed the Longhall. But he did not find the man who called himself Louse. A few of the inhabitants and warriors spoke to Ketil or waved their greeting, but Ketil hardly heard them and acknowledged them blankly.
As the westering sun dipped into the sea, the merchant retraced his steps to his own doors. He slipped inside, took a new bottle of wine from the cellar, and settled down in front of the cold grate with a goblet of wine and his thoughts.
His face was expressionless but in his heart there was joy.
Ketil Potbelly stirred, then opened his eyes tiredly. Something had woken him and he staggered to his feet.
There was another louder knock at the door.
The merchant’s heart pounded in his chest, blood pulsed in his forehead. It must be done, he thought. A wave of satisfaction washed over him as deep as the deeps of the sea. He almost danced his way down the corridor to admit the assassin. He undid the latch and bolts and stood back.
Framed in the doorway was Jarl Erik, silhouetted by torches in the hands of his men. Ketil’s visage became suddenly blank.
“My Jarl,” he said, trying to dampen a yawn, “I had not expected to see you at this late hour. You must come ...”
“Friend,” the Jarl replied, his voice was cracked with emotion, “I have terrible news. Terrible. Ragnhilde has been ...” He faltered. “You must come.”
Ketil was speechless but his soul was singing.
“You must come,” repeated Jarl Erik. “I must show you.”
The Jarl and his men hurried from Ketil’s house and the merchant followed as quickly as he was able. They ran through the deserted streets of Stormwall to Erik’s Longhall, passed the open gates, and into the complex of buildings. Ketil rushed after them, his breath rasping in his lungs, his legs labouring. The Jarl led him down one last corridor to the door of Svein’s apartments. Erik waited a moment and then entered the chamber.
Ketil’s heart missed a beat. Ragnhilde Olavdottir was dead. Her naked body was covered in blood. Standing beside the fireplace, with his back to the door, stood her husband Svein Erikson. The young man was weeping.
But it was not this that made Ketil’s face go pale.
On the wall above the bed, painted large in Ragnhilde’s blood, was the name:
Jarl Erik grinned like a wolf. “Ragnhilde and Svein had a visitor tonight,” he said. “My son was knocked senseless and when he awoke found Ragnhilde dead.”
“What has this to do with me?” Ketil blurted out.
“We found this on the floor,” said Erik, handing the merchant a piece of parchment. “It is addressed to you.”
Ketil opened the letter and read:
You got more than you paid for and
no less than you deserve
Ketil Potbelly’s jaw dropped.
“Aye, friend,” said the Jarl, “I hope you can explain this letter, and the explanation better be good. My son wishes to discuss it with you.”
Svein Erikson turned towards them, but did not appear disposed to hear any explanation. Ketil Potbelly’s revenge had cost him only five gold pieces, but he could be forgiven for thinking it was not a bargain.
To be continued…