All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 31

Von Stebbens’ troop followed and watched at Muthhusen. As a matter of course, they’d taken into custody a charm-seller from Italy, who had had words with Mindaug. The charm-seller’s pouch had revealed more money than was remotely plausible and some of it Hungarian gold thalers. Count Mindaug had spent a little time in the man’s stall, looking at the wares. It had not been obvious how they had known the other would be there, or what had happened or been passed, but Klaus intended to find out. The reputation of the Knights of the Holy Trinity helped to open reluctant mouths. The charm-seller nearly melted with terror when the archimandrite, in the full spiky armor of the order, walked into the cell where he was being held, followed by two other burly knights, in the same garb.

“I didn’t know! How was I to know? I would never steal from the Knot… Uh, the great Knights of the Holy Trinity,” the fellow burst out before Klaus could say anything.

“You stole from us?” What? wondered von Stebbens. Some precious relic that Mindaug had come to fetch? There were traps ready to try and prevent him escaping magically.

“Yes, but I didn’t know. He just looked like a rich merchant or a noble’s by-blow. How was I know? You’ve got it all back.” The man was almost blubbering now.

“What did you steal? Tell me everything,” said von Stebbens relentlessly. The answer had to be here.

The man was either the best actor in the world or genuinely dumbfounded by the question. “His money. He was so green that he looked at the sackbut when Malky played the blast. I gave him one thaler.”

The certainty with which the archimandrite had approached the prisoner was now in tatters. Malky, it turned out was a sackbut player with whom the charm-seller had a regular arrangement, when they were at fairs together. When the charm-seller had a fat mark, he would signal the sackbut player, who would let lose a mighty noise, and in the distraction, the charm-seller would slit the pouch, and later give a small cut to the musician.

It seemed too much of a story just have been made up on the spur of a terrified moment. But the archimandrite was a thorough man. He sent two knights to find the local magistrate and track down a sackbut player called Malky. And then he asked what exactly had passed between Count Mindaug and the charm-seller.

The charm-seller told him. “I didn’t have a chance, straight off to see what I got, just pushed it in my pouch… as soon as I looked… I went to get a beer to celebrate, and only then I saw the gold. I knew I had to get out of there. It was too much money! He had to be a wealthy powerful man. I gave Malky a coin, and grabbed my wares and got out of there. And there was the mark sitting on a wagon bar, next to my cart, not guessing a thing. He even helped me get my horse. I told him I was going to Linz, and then back to Italy. I even offered to tell him his fortune, since I wanted to find out where he was going. He said his mother was Hungarian but that he came from Bohemia.”

“So you are asking me to believe you stole from one of the most powerful and deadly magicians in Europe. And that he did not take revenge?” asked the archimandrite, with a disbelieving snort. “Steubel. Just on the off chance that he isn’t lying to me, you had better have that money placed in a suitably consecrated and protected spot, and have all those who have touched it bound in rites of protection. Heaven alone knows what sort of magic he’ll use, but it’s bound to be nasty.”

The prisoner, already pale, turned sheet-white and started weeping.

It did not take long to find the sackbut player who was nearly blind drunk on his sudden windfall. He rapidly confessed his role in the thefts, when he realized what trouble he was in. It also transpired that the charm-seller had been up before the local magistrate before for theft, and had managed to not be convicted… but he was still suspected.

The archimandrite went back to the charm-seller. “Never before has a man been so lucky to end up just imprisoned for theft,” he informed him. Personally he found the so-called charms, all scrawled with badly penned useless doggerel just as much of an affront. There were signs there that the fellow had tried to dabble in more knowledge, some of it of questionable virtue, and even failed at that. And yet the gullible had bought his wares, and probably derived comfort from them.

They were no closer to finding out just what Kazimierz Mindaug was up to, or who his associates in the Empire were. The situation did not improve when with the local bishop–a stout Pauline cleric–they re-interrogated the priest from the church Mindaug’s servants had entered.

The priest was an elderly man of military bearing, which the Knights who had questioned him earlier had not told Klaus von Stebbens. One look told the archimandrite that he and the bishop were wasting their time. He did a little polite asking and was not surprised to find that he was correct. This was a man who had served in a mercenary company, found God, and had used the money he’d accumulated to study and enter the priesthood. Eventually, he’d ended up in a quiet country parish.

Klaus told him of the manner of man they were following, of the fact that he was a foe who would send his little congregation screaming to their deaths… and got exactly what he expected. A shake of the head.

“That may be, but the two servants spoke only kindness of their master. And their sins were sins of little people, My Lord. I know those, I know how to read the truth, and the omissions of parts of the story. I have dealt with peasants like them for many years now. They made full confession, and I had no difficulty in granting them God’s forgiveness. I only wish I had defied my bishop,” he inclined his head to that man, “and married them, then and there. I will not betray their small sins to you, or what they said to me. That is between them and God, now. You can ask them or God, but you will get no answer from me. You or I might easily have done the same, or worse. I see no need, or gain, in breaking my vows to tell you.”

The bishop tried, but failed. Klaus von Stebbens did not. One did not batter oneself to death against a rock. And he had learned a little more. Mindaug, who was one step from Satan, had possibly outsmarted them by employing young innocents who were not of his kind. No matter. They would see, or be shown, the evil of his ways. Or fall into the pit with him.

When Mindaug turned south at Salzburg, the archimandrite sent hasty messages to his archbishop, and also to Mainz. Surely the man would not be allowed to leave the empire for Italy? Tracking him would be much harder in foreign territories.

Somewhat reluctantly, Von Stebbens decided he had no choice but to employ the services of the monk which had been offered to him by the man’s order. Reluctant, because the order in question was the Aemilines, who had no official ties to either of the great factions of the Church, but clearly leaned more toward the Peterines than the Paulines to whom the Knights of the Holy Trinity adhered.

Healers, for the most part, as had been the martyred saint from whom they took their name. But some of them also practiced a sort of quiet magic, with which they communed with the spirits of wild animals. Small and timid animals, as a rule, since they favored such.

Still, by all accounts the archimandrite had heard, such an Aemiline sage could perhaps track Mindaug where the Knights themselves could not.

It was worth a try. “Send for that monk,” he ordered one of his subordinates. “The hesychast the Aemilines offered us. I’ve forgotten his name.”

“Brother Dimitrios.”

“Yes, him. We need him as soon as possible.”