All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 38

Morning brought a leaden sky and occasional flurries of snow, although it looked a lot worse to the north. And they were in daylight, at the top of the pass, with the trail winding through snow and then into clear fields. Far below, there was a village with smoke rising from its chimneys.

It was somewhat amusing, thought the count, that he’d spent the night in the place he’d been concerned about getting past–the border-post between the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian states. By the looks of it, the weather-wise locals had abandoned their post and gone home. The question now was whether they could do likewise. Well, at least to abandon the post. Go home? The count thought of the draughty castle at Braclaw that stayed chilly even in summer, despite its huge log fires. He had lived out his early years there, and then been taken to be introduced to his first steps in magic. As a younger son, it should not have been his inheritance, but the others… died. Jagiellon had burned the castle, by way of revenge, when the trap on Corfu had failed and Mindaug had had to flee to Hungary.

Home was a concept which obviously meant something to other people, just not to him. He called Tamas, and they went to look at the trail. The snow lay fetlock deep and powdery. “Can we get the wagon down it?” the count asked.

They’d been along steep mountain trails for weeks now, and while those on the worst places had been fitted with windlasses, they’d replaced the brake-blocks on the wagon once already. This slope looked steeper, and in worse condition. Mindaug had learned to trust his servant’s judgment on such matters more than he did his own. The ex-miller had a great of practical common sense, more than most men of education.

Tamas kicked the snow. “It could help, if we put something to drag behind us. If there’s ice, that could be treacherous. There are some eight to ten cubit logs beside the shed, waiting to cut for the fire. We could chain one to the tail, to make a broad anchor to drag in the snow behind us.”

“Let us do that, then.”

Emma had come out to join them. “But is it right to take their log of wood, master?”

The count almost laughed, but she wasn’t joking. And… he needed their respect and goodwill, as he’d come to realize.

“Of course, we’ll pay for it. Do you think a silver penny fair for the lodging?” Mindaug had no idea what a reasonable price would be for such a thing.

“Oh, that’s far too much, Master. We only used twelve of their fire-logs, and I have given the place a good clean up.” She sniffed, disapprovingly. “I’d say two coppers for lodging and one for their log. And, if it please you, there’s porridge and honey ready for you to break your fast. I’ve baked some pot-bread for the road, too.”

One day, thought Mindaug, he’d get used to their way of thinking. But he doubted if he’d ever be able to share it. In many respects, he was still a nobleman of Lithuania, and always would be.

Using the log as a snow-anchor they crept their slow way down the pass. It took care, ropes, patience, and Tamas’ inventive and practical skill to get them down, but they managed. Count Mindaug was glad of it, because there was an inn at the foot of the pass as well as a border watchman, who was happy to have his palm silvered. The little mountain village was not much of a place, but it was warmer. The air seemed warmer here too. They had lost a lot of altitude. The border guard seemed mostly interested in collecting money and was not concerned with invasion, even if he was mildly incredulous that anyone could have been crazy enough to bring a wagon over the pass in the snow. At least, that was what Mindaug thought he was saying. His Frankish was so accented that it was hard to tell.

Still, it was without let or hindrance that they proceeded lower, and to the west. The count was beginning to think of finding a good place to stop travelling now, somewhere on the borders of the Lion of Etruria’s territory. That would hopefully make it possible to flee there if there was an attack, but not so close to Venice as to call attention to himself.

Sooner or later he would have to wield power, build himself a demesne, or find himself a protector. And, of course, build a bolt-hole. In that regard, northern Italy had several possibilities: Padua with its university and library sounded attractive, Milan had a ruler who was recruiting magicians, and Verona was, from what he had read, a beautiful and cultured city–although one always had to wary of the city’s ruling family. The Scaligeri who ruled Verona were prone to lawlessness, even by the standards of Italian nobility.

He had to sneer at himself, a little, in an amused way. Going west had made him soft. The Holy Roman Empire worked on their roads and bridges, policed their little towns, hunted down bandits, and had nothing worse than toll posts for a traveler to deal with. In Lithuania, he could not have undertaken such a journey without a troop of horsemen.

As they rounded the spur, it was brought home to him that this was no longer part of the Empire, but was one of the Italian principalities–and Scaliger territory, known for brigandage.

It had been a steep up-grade, and the horses weren’t moving very fast, when the horses shied and one man jumped out of the thick bushes at the roadside and grabbed their bridles. His companions bundled out of the brush on either side of them, armed with what peasants-turned-thieves had–cudgels and knives. From the way the first one thrust at the count, it was apparent that this wasn’t a hold up and robbery. This was intended to be the murder of a few travelers–they’d rape Emma in the bargain before they killed her as well–followed by dumping their bodies in a ditch after stealing what they had.

Mindaug leaned away and hit the forearm of his attacker, before slipping his own knife up under the man’s ribs. To someone trained to survive murder in Lithuania, it was ludicrously easy. His two servants did not have his advantages, though. Tamas was down but not out of the fight, wrestling with two men next to the wagon. There was a knife being wielded. Emma, seized by a man who hadn’t killed her because a woman was a prize, was screeching like a wild cat and clawing and fighting–fiercely, but not very effectively.

Mindaug picked up the dropped whip and sent the lash around the throat of the man who had pushed aside his dying companion and was yelling for help with the count. A hard jerk and the scream stopped, suddenly. The pommel of the whip then cracked the one wrestling with Emma over the head.

Mindaug muttered a quick spell that slowed the three fighters–Tamas included–as if they were trapped in thick mud. There was no time right now to avoid magic, much as he would have preferred to. He stepped up to the trapped men and dealt with both the attackers with his blade, and then pulled Tamas free and to the seat where Emma hauled him up. The lad was bleeding profusely.