All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 10

They would not realize that their guilt would betray them. What knowledge did they have of borders or guards? He took out the two bags of coin he’d prepared last night. There was a good weight to them, more money than either of them–or quite possibly their overlord–had ever seen. Human greed would do the rest.

“This side of the border, you’re peasants. Across the river, with this, you would be rich,” he said, to prevent them running away here and now, and too early. “All you have to do is lie to the border guard, and say you have come to sell the geese, go and the scatter the money, and I’ll follow in the chaos.”

Big eyed and solemn, they nodded. A little later they got underway, driving the geese with him following behind.

The count soon found that his plans were not as complete as they should have been. The geese were not fast movers, and the track they were on led to join a larger track, down which several other people were heading for market, driving a few beasts, carrying baskets and bundles. Mindaug had not envisaged such a crowd. He stopped the horses for a brief while fiddling with the tack, and allowed a few of the other traders to get between him and the geese, and the bait.

The bridge had been built for rapid demolition. Three sets of pilings in the river, each linked with logs planked with riven oak–barely wide enough for his wagon, and enough to make his horses balk. The last piling had a gate-house on it, and entrants queued for the guard to examine them.

Count Mindaug had expected a commotion ahead. Instead, he and the wagon were causing it. The horses just didn’t like the bridge, the river, or the other traders.

But by then was already on the bridge, completely unable to get off it. The scene that followed was completely contrary to the plan. The guard, several stout farmers, and, to his dismay, even Tamas, came back to help him move. Urgently, he waved the boy on.

It took half an hour, and great patience and determination from a large cowherd, two guards, a shrill and irritable woman with baskets of eggs, and a great deal of swearing to get the wagon into Marchegg. No examination or paperwork had taken place. One guard went back to this post. The other, still shaking his head at the stupidity of bringing horses across that bridge said: “You’re lucky not to end up in the river, you old fool. What brings you to Marchegg?”

Obviously, his plan of chaos on the bridge with the arrest of the two peasants had not come to fruition. Or if it had, he hadn’t noticed. If all else failed, Mindaug could use magic, but that would undo his attempts at secrecy and probably bring him into a dangerous conflict with the Knights of the Holy Trinity.

“Sir,” he said humbly. “I have a number of books in the wagon. The castle of my old overlord, Count Gastell, when King Emeric executed him, had a library, and I was able to buy it cheaply. Well, the truth be told the new lord was going to burn them as rubbish. I am a scribe and love books and I had heard that the Franks love books. There are a few tomes I had hoped to sell to the great Knights of the Holy Trinity, as they appear to be on the subject of magic.”

The guard shook his head. “Only a scribe would do something quite as stupid as to try to bring that wagon over the bridge. They’re good horses, and a solid wagon, scribe. How did you come by them?”

“My mother was… um, a favourite of the count,” said Mindaug, making up the tale on the fly, preparing himself for action. “I was destined for the cloister, but he took me to be his scribe. I and my mother had a little put by for the wagon. The horses were his gift to her. She’s dead now, God rest her soul.”

“Fair payment, I suppose. And the reason the new count didn’t want you around.”

“Or me to remain in the area.”

The guard nodded, set his spear aside and said: “Well, show me some of these books.”

So Count Mindaug opened a carefully wrapped box–one of the front ones which contained little that would make a churchman unhappy, not some of the hidden tomes.

“They look of value. Not that you’re likely to sell them in Marchegg. I’ll give you a chitty so you can go on to the Chapter House at Eikendal. And don’t come back this way, for heaven’s sake, scribe. There are better, wider bridges at Pressburg.”

Mindaug, all his cunning plans it seemed in vain and un-needed, had a little time to wonder where he was going to find some new servants and just how far he could be from here by nightfall, while the guard walked back to the gatehouse and returned with a scrap of parchment.

“Here you go. Avoid narrow bridges!”

“I shall,” said the count, gratefully. He moved on, passing the market where several people seemed occupied in chasing geese, and out of the far gate, into the Frankish Marches.

He hadn’t gotten very far–just to the first copse–when Tamas and Emma came running, beaming all over their faces, to join him. Eagerly holding out his pouches of money. “We didn’t have to use very much, Master. You gave us far too much. Emma went to the wine merchant and changed twenty silver pennies into small coppers, and we bought five bags, tied them around the necks of the geese, cut small holes in them and set them loose in the market.”

Count Kazimierz Mindaug, who had kept his calm and not been at a loss for words with the murderous and demon-possessed Grand Duke Jagiellon, had coolly answered the satanic Elizabeth Bartholdy, and had urbanely dealt with the foaming spittle of King Emeric, was now at a loss for words. He just looked at them and shook his head.

Emma looked at him worriedly. “I am sorry, Master. Did I spend too much? You can count the money…”

For the second time, his new servants surprised the count so much that he wanted to laugh, and this time he actually did. That was something he had not done for so long he had almost forgotten how. It was obviously such an odd noise that it worried the two of them. “Are you choking, Master?” asked Tamas, plainly perturbed, stepping forward.

“No, I am laughing. I have had no cause to laugh for a long time, and I have lost the skill of it,” he said, shaking his head, feeling a bubble of it still within himself. He looked at the second, larger bag Tamas was holding out. “And what is in that bag? The city guard?”

“Oh, just the goose, master. You did say you wanted to eat one, so I brought it along. I kept the fattest one. I did kill it. I hope that is all right?”

And this time Count Mindaug managed to laugh with somewhat more skill. “I am going to have to get used to this. And now, I think we should remove ourselves from being too close to the goose-infested town of Marchegg.”

So they proceeded on their way, Emma calmly plucking the goose, and Tamas driving, while the count found himself as comfortable a place in the wagon bed as the rough road would permit. He attempted to read, and to re-adjust his ideas around the idea of people who served out of loyalty, and, when given a small fortune–brought it back to him.

That had possibilities and possible advantages, even. He was able to grasp that, and to realize that it was a conditional thing, worth keeping alive, at least until he understood it. The joy of it was that Jagiellon, and the demon that owned him, never would or could understand it. Mindaug was not sure he could himself, but at least he knew of its existence now.