All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 05

They’d know that she was dead.

Some of the fleeing Magyar would be too. The ones on foot had fled along with their companions. Someone had managed to loose off a wheel-lock pistol in the distance. And again. That would just make it angry. Now, to take the box and follow the wagon. With luck the horses would stay on the road, even without a driver.

He used the dead man’s waist sash to tie the box to the nervous horse’s saddle. Then, mounted himself on the second horse. He was, after all, a nobleman, and a reasonably good rider, and having organized a lead rein from the tack of the third horse, rode off to find his wagon. He was both luckier and less lucky than he’d hoped to be. It was barely a mile away, but the wagon had suffered a broken pole and the horse was tangled in the traces. The count soon got the horse untangled and calmed, but for the cross-pole…he would be obliged to try and effect some kind of repair, and although he was a great master of magical knowledge, practical woodwork had not come his way much. He might have been stuck there, or forced to use some of the magic he had avoided with such effort, if it hadn’t been for two frightened young peasants scurrying along the road like nervous rabbits.

Mindaug saw the opportunity, and realized that in practical terms, he needed them, as much, perhaps, as the obvious runaways needed him. The girl was limping, the husky looking boy, doing his best to support her. He kept looking back, warily, but plainly did not regard a merchant as a danger–which, Count Mindaug thought to himself, merely showed how wrong ignorant people could be. Not that he was an immediate danger, of course. Still, the presence of three Magyar warhorses–the third having followed the other two–would have alarmed most intelligent observers. But perhaps it was simply that these two youngsters did not recognize them as warhorses. They would have had little experience with such.

The peasant boy bobbed. “Uh. Kind sir. You would not have a drink for my… my sister? She is very tired, and we still have far to go.”

Count Mindaug nodded. “I do. I can hide her too, and you, if you help me to fix this wagon. Is it your master or her father chasing you?

The look of terror on their faces would have been amusing if the count had been anything like Elizabeth Bartholdy in nature. He was not. He had, in the course of acquiring the knowledge he now held, committed some terrible deeds. He would kill without qualm or query if need be. But Mindaug was a man who had really no interest in doing so for pleasure. It was just work, as a peasant might regard butchering a hog as work which had to be done sometimes.

So did calming fears. “I said I could hide you,” he repeated, his voice even. “There is really no need to be quite so afraid.”

“If our lord catches us, he’ll beat us to death,” said the girl tremulously. They were both, on closer examination, slightly better dressed than most peasants. That was a thing of small degree. King Emeric had made sure that he got every groat out of the peasantry.

“He won’t,” said Count Mindaug. “Get in the wagon, young woman. Do not fiddle with anything. There are a few blankets piled in the back. Hide under them. You, boy. Let us change your hair color and clothing. A moment.” He reached in and took out the bag he had packed for the emergencies of magic-while-travelling. It was not something he had sufficient experience of, he had to admit. There were a number of compounds in the bag which had multiple uses, including a bottle of plant-killer taken from the green husks of Vinland walnuts. It was stronger than that made from local walnuts, for some reason. A basin was very useful for thaumaturgy and also for filling with water, and a bit of plant-killer, which had other properties.

“What is it?” asked the boy.

“Hair and skin dye. Dunk your head and hands in. Be quick now. I’ve a spare cotte here too. How far behind you are they?”

“My Lord will be looking for her before nightfall. He may be looking already. I…” he looked fearfully around.

“Get on with it,” said the count. “I’ve a hand-cannon that will see no man gets into my wagon.”

He gave the trusting peasant a spare cotte which he’d used for some experiments, and was thus not too clean, or particularly nice-smelling, and inspected his handiwork. The blond head and white cheeks were considerably darker. “Again.” He said. “We’ll have you too dark for a local.”

The boy stared at his hands “I will look like a gypsy.”

“And not like a runaway serf.”

“I’m a miller.”

That accounted for the slightly better clothes, but didn’t stop Mindaug pointing at the bowl again.

A little later, they were busy working on lashing the cross-bar together when the sound of horses disturbed them. As he had promised, Count Mindaug returned to the wagon and took up the hand cannon. “Keep working. Say nothing.”

The hand-cannon had been added to his store of things to take with him on a whim. It would probably have gotten him shot by the Magyars, but the minor noble and his handful of retainers who came briskly trotting down the road saw it and were wary.

“You. Have you seen two peasants pass? A young woman and a man,” demanded the lordling–addressing the frightened looking boy at the horses’ heads, pointing with the whip in his hand.

“He is dumb,” said Count Mindaug. “And the answer is yes. Running over that field beyond those horses.” He jerked a thumb at the three Magyar horses, now grazing a few dozen yards away, still with their tack on.

The lordling took the sight in, plainly recognized them as the warhorses they were, and type of tack, gawped at them, and then asked weakly. “Where are they from?”

“Back up the way we’d come from. They stopped here, I suppose, because horses look for other horses. Nothing to do with me. As soon as we’ve fixed our wagon, we’ll be on our way. I’d like to find a town by nightfall.”

“Creki, one of my villages, is not more than four miles off,” said the Lordling. He indicated the direction with a pointing finger.

“We’ll likely seek safety there,” said Mindaug. “There’s something back there unhorsing soldiers. I want no part of it.”

By the looks of the minor noble’s face, he didn’t either. “Which way did they run exactly, merchant?”

“I wasn’t paying much attention. I yelled at them to come help me, but they took off toward those woods.”

“Our thanks.”

“You’d best take the horses with you.”

The lordling shook his head. “We’ll go and come back with the dogs. I thought to find them on the road, trying to run to Perca-town. Come on, men. We’ll just go and check that copse over there.”

A few minutes later the count and his wagon were ready to leave, and the lordling and his entourage were already out of sight. “Thank you, master,” said the boy, humbly. “We owe you our lives.”

“Where will you go now?” asked the count, knowing the answer full well.

“Away. We don’t really know…”

What peasant, even a miller, who was a step up on most, would know of other options? Their masters kept it like that, and fed them on horror stories, for good reason. “I have an offer for you,” said the count. “I have a need for some servants, and no need for young girls.” Barring certain rituals, that was true enough. “I’ll see you clear of this place, if you will work for me.”

The boy nodded eagerly. “We did not know where to go.”

And thus it was that Count Mindaug acquired two servants. He was later to wonder why he had done so. But at the time, they were both exceptionally useful.