All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 04
Count Mindaug had grown his mustache in the Frankish fashion, suitable for sieving the solid particles out of beer. It did little to improve the magician’s face, but it did help to hide his filed teeth. It might possibly have improved the beer, too. The beer was one of the soft Western details he would once, as one of Grand Duke Jagiellon’s inner circle, have felt irrelevant. Survival was important, good food or drink, irrelevant. But there was no doubt that having fled Lithuania for the West had softened him too, he thought ironically. Now he was a man with a large library of magical tomes, accustomed to such things, and with no means here in the Kingdom of Hungary of supporting either a liking for good food and drink, his library, or his personal safety. Elizabeth Bartholdy was safely dead, and paying back her debt to the devil. King Emeric of Hungary hung on a gibbet near the Dniester. The result was the lawless breakdown that was happening across Hungary. And in the chaos… the Black Brain, the demon Chernobog who ruled his former master Jagiellon, would be seeking him if he showed any sign of still being alive.
He’d used magic to achieve the first part of his flight. Never again! The second journey, to one of Elizabeth’s smaller manors in Slovak lands, he had undertaken in disguise, with no trace of spell-work, and there he’d dispensed of the physical witnesses too. The manor had only had half a dozen servants and a major-domo, with a handful of guardsmen and an elderly knight. They were dead after drinking poisoned wine, now. That had required him to load and pack the wagon himself, and pole up the horses. It was not something he was accustomed to, but then, he’d wanted there to be no-one left to say when or how he’d left. Somehow, he needed a safe place for himself and his library, and he was unsure where that might be found. It had to be well beyond the reach of Jagiellon, or his sendlings. Right now, he was not sure where that would be, except not in Hungary. Possibly in the Holy Roman Empire–where he doubted they would welcome Count Kazimierz Mindaug.
Filed teeth would be no help against magical pursuit, or even the physical. He did not need them distracting the peasants or the soldiery into trying to kill him as a man-witch or a cannibal either, thus the mustache. It was easier than maintaining an illusion, which he was capable enough of, but would have showed his spell-work.
The mustache was a fine short term solution. In the long term he needed far better protection, both in the physical and magical sense. And money to provide beer, servants and good food. Of course he was capable of using magical means to provide those, but right now he cherished the fact that he was officially dead in Mongol lands, and as far as any magical watcher might be informed, dead in the netherworlds. Besides, he had almost a thousand books to look after. That was difficult, without using magic.
Thus he made his way south, doing his best to avoid calling attention to himself. The wagon was very ordinary-looking, with a canvas and wood cover. It was uncomfortable and slow, but the books needed it.
Unfortunately, the party of Magyar cavalry who had been doing a little freelance marauding in the neighborhood decided they also needed it. Count Mindaug had a moment to reflect that perhaps disguising himself as a merchant had been less than clever.
“Here’s loot!” shouted their leader.
They surrounded the wagon in a clearing, and the air was full of their savage laughter. The elevation was low enough here that the area was dominated by beech trees, whose height and dark foliage imparted a sense of gloom to an already gloomy situation.
A sword was held to Mindaug’s throat, several more menaced. “Where is the moneybox, you thieving rogue?” They seemed to find nothing odd in engaging in thievery themselves, while saying this. “Janos, Laszlo, Radul, pull the old fool out of the way, search the wagon. We’ll make him sing before he dies if we don’t find his gold.”
The last thing Count Kazimierz Mindaug wanted was to use magic in close proximity to himself. It would be like lighting a beacon in the nether-worlds. And even if there was no watcher now, it would leave a trail, which would show his passage, his direction, and worst, the fact that he was still alive.
Unfortunately, these fools might ensure that he was actually not alive, anyway. And, almost as bad, they might damage the books. He raised his hands weakly. “Spare me,” he said in a tremulous voice. “Spare old Jusep. I will show you my master’s strong-box. It is hidden and has a magic trap on it. If you break it open you will die. But I will open it for you. You can take all my gold, my life’s savings, just spare me and my old books.”
The blade had pulled back, but two of the men had dismounted and grabbed him by the elbows. “Give it to us, you old fool.”
“He’ll have more hidden somewhere,” said one of the men, as they pushed him into the covered wagon’s darkness, into the narrow gap between the carefully packed and corded, oilcloth covered boxes.
Giving them illusionary gold would not work, then, thought the count, quite coolly. To someone who had survived in the court of Grand Duke Jagiellon and then with Elizabeth Bartholdy, these were merely dangerous puppies.
“What’s in the boxes, old man?” demanded one of soldiers, poking the oilcloth with his sword, and nearly getting himself killed.
Mindaug controlled himself. “Books. I am a bookseller.”
“Go on! There aren’t enough books in all Hungary to fill that box.”
Mindaug thought: yes, and there lies your country’s weakness, but he said nothing of it, just: “There is my strong box,” pointing to a small iron box next to the bedding.
They let go of him to haul it out. He could have stabbed both of them. They would not have lasted a week in Lithuania. Instead he took the time to uncork a metal flask which was dangling from the cross-bar.
The box was heavy enough to fill them with greed and stop them noticing what he did. Mindaug was almost tempted to let them have the contents. Their fellows would kill them for stealing a box largely full of lead, and something less appealing. He’d seen fit to wrap that particular book in sheet lead. It had been a precaution, but he was fairly certain that the book itself was more than just a book. The lock was to keep it in, not to keep the thieves out.
They hauled it out into the daylight, which was a good thing. What was in the box was best viewed in daylight. Not that he had any intention of letting that particular book out, but still. He climbed down from the wagon after them. “Weighs a fair bit,” said one of the carriers. “I think our luck just turned.”
“Open it, you old fool,” said the Magyar lieutenant who had turned his small contingent loose on the countryside. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
They’d put the box down. Men jockeyed their horses around to get a closer view. The two who had dismounted and gone into the wagon stood peering. A third man was holding their horses. Mindaug made sure he was close to the horse-holder, before he started his performance. He bent down behind the box, and tapped on the lid. They stared. He began drawing a suitable complex pattern with his finger across the lid. Their attention was all on the box, and on him now.
From the wagon the creature he had let loose began to emerge. The horses noticed first of course. First with an uneasy tossing of the heads, a whicker… and then full blown panic. Mindaug had been ready. The horse-holder did not even see the knife before it pushed up into his heart. The lieutenant saw it, but his horse was rearing wildly and even a great horseman had other things to do besides avenge the killing.
Mindaug clung to the reins he’d seized from the horse holder. He had the advantage of being on the ground, ready for the shrieking thing that came gibbering out of his wagon, and, besides, he was protected against it. It had been one of Elizabeth’s creations, one of her little experiments in breeding with trapped magical creatures. With any luck, those who might suspect Mindaug was not dead would blame this on looters. It would stink of her magic and bear no trace of his workings.