All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 09

Now he just had to cross that border. That sounded simple enough, and would be if he used his magical skill. Only that would most likely call unwanted attention to himself. It really was very inconvenient.

The trouble was, the eastern Marches were patrolled by the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Long ago, Emperor Magnus had given them lands there, as a simple way of protecting his border with minimal expense. It had not been a dangerous border for many years, but the abbeys built back then were old and large. They served as a place of rest, recovery and recuperation for Knights back from more dangerous fronts. That meant that there would be magic workers and doughty warriors here, who would not be in these relatively peaceful parts, otherwise.

The answer, of course, was money. Not as bribes, which he gathered might just be counterproductive–a most odd and unhealthy situation as far as he was concerned–but as a distraction. Most people seemed to find it so. Elizabeth Bartholdy had had an ample and generous supply of money, a side effect of the bargain she’d made. The devil provided generously, but did extract interest. From his researching, Count Mindaug had decided that adding interest to the bill… was probably foolish. But then, he’d never rated her intelligence that highly. She’d thought herself too clever, too powerful, and ended up wrong.

They had stopped and camped some distance from the peat-stained water of the river, near enough to see the spire of the church and the tip of the watchtower’s roof at Marchegg, but not close enough to be observed. His researches had indicated that the narrow bridge that had been built there had helped the town to grow a little. But it was still little more than an outlying fortress for the Knights, who permitted, but watched the trade that was allowed across it. It went no further than the walled town, and the gates out of that required a permit chit. Well, once in… he could get out.

Perhaps some vague strand of that long forgotten thing, guilt, had plucked at Kazimierz Mindaug’s mind. He had bought good fat Kenyersalonna bacon and a string of small onions in the last town, and Emma had had Tamas carefully trim hazel twigs into skewers, and she’d cut squares off the bacon side, and slashed it carefully, and then stabbed the bacon onto the skewers, and then half an onion. They carefully toasted the rough rye bread and grilled the bacon, holding the skewers down at an angle so that the fat dribbled into the onion, and then carefully brought their master a wooden platter with the best pieces, and the toasted bread, and strong ewe’s cheese.

It smelled better than most of the feasts he’d had in Lithuania, or in Elizabeth’s castles and palaces, or in the retinue of King Emeric. Tasted better, too.

Here.” He handed them a pottery jar, and a bottle he’d also bought in the village. “We leave the Kingdom of Hungary tomorrow, and it may be a while before you taste anything from your homeland again. Enjoy them.”

The peasant girl looked at the two gifts warily. He’d gathered that even bacon was a rare treat. Meat had been a sparse thing in her life, cooked with grain and pulses, and cabbage to make it stretch, and the bacon and bread a princely meal. “What are they, master?”

“Honey-wine and some cherries in brandy.”

She curtseyed, peasant fashion. “Oh, thank you, master. I have never had those. Have you, Tamas?”

Tamas had come from the fire, so he opened the bottle and smelled it. “Here, Emma. Smell the spices! I was given some of the honey-wine, once.”

The count realized that the spices he took as a normal part of fare, townsfolk took as special treats, and to the peasants, depending on their poverty, they would be far more so. Brandy too was beyond their means. They were as excited as… something else the count had had little to do with, small children, tasting it cautiously. Sampling one cherry between the two of them, and conscientiously offering him some of their treasure. That had surprised him so much that he had almost laughed, not something he had done for a long time.

“No. Enjoy. It is not from my homeland or unusual for me.” How easy it would be to poison them, had the need to do so arisen.

“May we keep them in the wagon, master?” she asked, carefully closing the bottle and clay jar.

“But they are for you to enjoy. To eat. To drink.”

“Oh, but they are too good to have all at once!” she answered, shocked.

And not all his reassurance could persuade her otherwise. Well, if these were treasures, then tomorrow’s plan would work well.

A goose-woman with a flock of six geese coming along the track as they broke their fast provided the portal. “Hola, old woman. Where are you going with those?” asked the count, slightly warily, because as a young boy he had discovered that geese are no respecters of rank.

“Ah, master, I’m off to sell them to the foreigners. Across the river. They’ll give me a better price than I can get here.”

For a brief moment, the count considered killing her and taking the geese. But… money would be easier.

“How much for your fine geese?” he asked.

“These geese! Why, your lordship, they’re worth a silver penny each, but to save me driving them, I’d sell the six for four copper pence each.”

“Why you cheating old hag!” screeched Emma, taking a menacing couple of steps toward the old woman, who, for her part, flinched back the same distance. “They’re not worth two copper pennies. Look at them. Scrawny, they are!”

Battle was about to be joined, when Mindaug intervened. “Here,” he said drawing out this pouch. “It is your lucky morning, old woman.”

“But master,” protested Emma. “They’re not worth that much!”

He looked at her, quellingly. “It is my day for doing good deeds. And this lady looks tired. We will eat one goose and sell the rest. I have spoken.”

She was instantly contrite, at least with him, but the look she cast at the smirking old besom was less so. Still, ownership of the geese was handed over, along with the strings attached to the creatures, who did not seem to like Mindaug any more than he liked them. He hastily handed their leashes to Tamas, and watched the goose woman walk off the way she had come. The vegetation on both sides of the track was thick; within a few seconds, she had completely vanished from sight.

“What do we do with these, Master?” asked Tamas, pointing to the geese.

“You will be taking them to sell across the river, making a way for me to cross with less notice. We need to cross into Frankish lands, and they will not just let us do so.”

“Ah! I wondered why you were paying so much! They aren’t worth half that. They will let us across with the geese?”

“They will let you and Emma across with the geese. You will create a distraction. I will follow.”

They both nodded. “Yes, master. What do we need to do?” asked Tamas.

“Go across the bridge, go into the market and set loose these geese. With any luck people will chase them. Then run up the street and strew the money that I will give you around. People will be so busy chasing the money, they will not be watching the gate.”

Mindaug knew the idea was entirely ridiculous, but hoped that they would hold out under torture for a little while. He found, oddly, that he hoped that their death would be quick. They would create a distraction, of course, but more in the sense of being taken to the garrison, and probably immediately under escort to the nearest chapterhouse. Guards being guards, the senior and most skilled would go running off with them, eager to claim the credit for catching them. And the last thing they’d expect would be a second infiltrator, so close behind those inept two.