All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 29

Chapter 15

The Holy Roman Empire

Count Mindaug was enjoying the mild spring in the Marcher country as they made their way west into forest country, avoiding Vienna, and then onward into an area of extensive apple orchards, all in blossom. Many of the blossoms were still pink, but most were starting to shade into white. In places, the trees were so plentiful that the entire landscape seemed to consist of huge pink and white mounds.

There were many vineyards, especially on the hillsides. On several occasions they also passed by patches where asparagus was being grown. Mindaug had a great liking for the vegetables and was sorely tempted to have Emma and Tamas pluck some for him. But there was always the risk of arousing the ire of a local farmer with that sort of petty thievery. Mindaug wasn’t afraid of farmers, of course, but a confrontation that escalated too far or too badly might draw the attention of those he did near to be wary of. So, with some regret, he resigned himself to an asparagus-free diet, at least until such time as he might be able to purchase some in a market.

For the count it was… an odd time. For the first time in his adult life, he was not in service or hastening to be in service to a master of magical and state power. He’d begun that journey as a boy of eleven. He was now fifty-six. He felt as he imagined an old war-horse put out to pasture might.

In a while, he might yearn for the use of power, and long for the intrigues which had been a normal part of his life. In a while, he might want a suitable palace, or at least a noble residence. He might yearn for the company of other nobles… perhaps.

But right now, he desired none of that, and they had no idea that he was even still alive. He was free to enjoy things he had never dreamed of even wanting to enjoy. To look at the sights and to eat well. Yes, home was merely a travelling wagon and his bed a straw pallet. But the weight that had lifted from his shoulders made it all seem good. And, by comparison, the country was safe, fat and prosperous. His new servants fussed over him as if he were a precious chick. He found that very strange, and not a little amusing. They, it seemed, were terrified by the idea of being masterless. They’d fled not to be freemen but because Emma was afraid of being made the concubine of their overlord, and her lover was jealous.

They’d had no idea that life could be better, and would have been terrified to go and look for that small degree of greater comfort, more food, or more rest. But having a master, who, by the standards they were used to, was almost ridiculously generous and soft, was their ideal. Somehow they’d hooked onto the idea that they had to show him they appreciated his kindness–which was purely accidental on his part. For the count, the instruction of servants had been for those who oversaw servants. It appeared those people were somewhat harsher than he was. He had never done any personal disciplining of lazy or recalcitrant servants himself. That had fallen to his underlings.

Only there were none, now.

It worked well, at least for the moment. Tamas and Emma could not imagine braving this big world without a master to protect them, and yet they thought of him as in need of protection from it. The count had long gotten used to the idea of letting Emma chaffer for their food. She loved doing this, considered it a vast privilege and actually had some idea of what they needed, once he had persuaded her that they could eat as if every day was what to her was a once-a-year feast day.

They were neither of them stupid, just ignorant. They were painfully honest, and deeply religious. The two of them spoke in their own Hungarian bastardized with a fair bit of Frankish that had crept across the borders, and had proved very adept at rapidly picking up enough words to communicate with others of their own order. It still kept them from becoming too familiar with the locals. Mindaug himself, of course, spoke fluent Court Frankish. What he hadn’t been prepared for was that local dialects could be almost incomprehensible, especially coming from the peasantry. Sometimes Emma and Tama understood the ditch-diggers and wood-carriers better than he did.

They crossed the Danube at the toll-station at Muthhusen. It was the first substantial town they’d stopped in, having skirted all the others–there were always tracks and long ways around everywhere, if you had strong horses and some patience. And the count wasn’t going anywhere, so he was happy to be patient. By now, the count felt he’d avoided the suspicious scrutiny given to strangers close to the borderland, and, this deep into the empire, could go into the market town with some impunity.

It was a market town, and it was a market day, to the vast excitement of Tamas and Emma. Mindaug had to admit he found it quite entertaining himself. There was music, some dancing. A travelling troupe of actors with a stage-wagon were doing a series of religious tableaux. And, of course, there was drinking, bawds and bullies, as well as stalls offering food and various goods, medicines, charms, saints relics… all being hawked at the top of the stall-holder’s voices.

“Best put your money safely, Master. Or keep it in your hand,” said Tamas, big-eyed at the scale of it all. “I’ve heard such places are full of cutpurses.”

To the count it was a small country-town market, but to them, something vast. And it probably did have at least three cutpurses, reflected Mindaug. No one had ever dared to try to rob him. There was a place in the wagon intended for safe-keeping and the bulk of the remainder of his gold was there, and in a small kist that would kill anyone unwary enough to open it. Both had their protections, but he had some coin in his pouch. He took out a piece of silver. At such a fair they probably could not care what face there was stamped on it.

He handed it to them Tamas. “Get provisions. I’d like another ham, Emma. And get yourselves some more clothes.” He realized he had no real idea of the cost of those, and took out a second silver coin. “For the clothes. Hold onto them tightly,” he said with some amusement. “I will take a walk around.”

They looked at the coins, no longer in shock at being entrusted with what to them was a lot of money, but still plainly delighted. And then Tamas shook his head. “Emma and I will watch the wagon, Master. I know places like this are not safe for a woman alone. And if we leave the wagon untended it will be robbed.”

That would have fatal consequences. Count Mindaug did not mind the deaths, but he could do without the fuss and notice that it might cause. He did notice that other wagons had some kind of watcher, so this probably wasn’t mere peasant foolishness. But he wasn’t interested in chaffering for ham, beer, bread or clothes for his servants, who looked a little too much like runaway serfs–and very poor ones, by the empire’s standards. The peasantry were plainly wealthier here than in Hungary or Lithuania.

“You go and buy. I will remain here.” He was not being generous, just not wishing to shop for the sort of wares a country fair might offer, and not that interested. As usual, Emma and Tamas concluded he was the kindest of masters and probably due for sainthood, which seemed vastly unlikely to Kazimierz Mindaug.

“Oh, we couldn’t go first, Master. You go, we will watch the wagon, water the horses and give them some oats.” They did, it was true, consider giving the horses oats a treat, only for the steeds of the nobility, and thus terribly exciting to do for horses that would draw the wagon, but it was a frequent pleasure, unlike the fair.

Mindaug went, even though taking it in turns was not what he had meant. Perhaps they would sleep in an inn tonight. He roamed the fair, which was set on the town green, amused by the quaint charms being sold–the miss-spelling and ignorance on the cantrip scrolls were truly startling. There were a handful of books for sale. A juggler was performing some tricks which the audience suspected of being magic, and Mindaug knew were not. He decided to get himself a mug of hot spiced wine, and return to the wagon… only to find that his pouch had been slit.