All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 36
The trip through the Alps was extremely chilly, muddy and relatively unpleasant, except where the ground was still frozen. Count Mindaug having been beguiled by the early spring mildness, began finding the nomadic life less charming. The same wagon that had so often in the weeks gone by seemed cozy and comfortable, now sometimes reminded Mindaug of an engine of torture. His back ached, his behind ached even more, and both of his shoulders were bruised from being flung about by unexpected slips and slides and twists of the wheels.
There was still considerable snow around, too. Despite the spring, it was necessary for Count Mindaug and his two servants to spend some nights in various hostelries along the way. People did seem curious as to where they were going and why, so the count set out to provide them with what they wanted. The books were going to Baron Otto Von Wisselbacher, outside Villach. The name was chosen from memory. The man was a minor magician and bibliophile, with whom Count Mindaug had had brief dealings many years ago.
That justified their direction, their cargo, and it seemed an acceptable reason. But, he decided, he would need a profession in Italy as well. And if the duchy of Milan was absolutely not hiring magicians, it was probable the rest of them would also not be–in the same sense. That could push up the price for his services nicely. And, it seemed, these Imperials, and probably the Italians, were terribly trusting. He could be a magician. Not Count Kasimierz Mindaug, the Castellan of Braclaw and Voivode of Zwinogrodek, but a charlatan–good enough to fool most people, but as unmagical as a brick and thus attracting no unwelcome attention from the great powers. Not, at least, until he had a secure bolt-hole and more security and defenses.
There was something very appealing about the idea. Mindaug knew a great deal about many chemical and physical processes, which could pass for magic to the untutored. And he could write very convincing cantrips. He even had quite a few of the chemicals that such deceit would involve. True, he had them for arcane purposes, but who would know?
He began thinking his way through his large collection of lore for suitable tricks. He had a number of books on alchemy, and had a very helpful translation of a book from China, which included recipes for making various pyrotechnics, and the colors that burning them could produce. With this in mind he bought some beeswax and made a few experimental candles, to the fascination of his two servants. Part of the fascination was the careful notes he made of the ingredients and the weights he used.
“Is it magic, master?” asked Tamas, watching him write.
“No, no more so than your making a loaf of bread or pot of stew. You use the same quantities of flour every time you make a loaf, do you not?”
“I’ve got a little rhyme my mother taught me,” said Emma doubtfully. “But the writing is magic. Just like all books.”
Mindaug, who had gone to some lengths to not even hint that he trafficked in magic, discovered that both Tamas and Emma had assumed he was a magician, because he read books. Writing definitely confirmed this assessment. Far from being terrified of it, they were rather proud of him. Still, he did his best. “This will not be magic. It is just knowledge of what will burn in what color, and what will make smoke. I plan to pretend to do magic. It is a trick.”
He went on to discover they were quite aware of tricks, but could still regard that as magic, just magic that could be learned. He lit the candle some few yards away from the wagon, one evening. He’s put it a little distance off, because in his experience such things smelled, and he didn’t want the smell getting into the books. As he had intended, the candle burned for a while and then began to produce smoke. Emma squeaked and both she and Tamas hid themselves behind him.
This proved very wise, as the candle spat several great slow-burning sparks with a shriek, instead of producing a nice bright yellow glow, and then exploded.
It showered him with wax fragments, frightening the horses and Mindaug, and terrifying Tamas and Emma thoroughly.
Kazimierz Mindaug resolved that any future experiments would be performed at a greater distance from himself and his camp, with smaller quantities. Still, in itself, it was fascinating. He could magically produce remarkably similar effects. Perhaps this could enhance or substitute for it.
The second of Archimandrite Von Stebbens’ poacher-trackers did stop in the village over the ridge, barely five miles from Mindaug, where the thirty Knights waited. It was difficult to move and house so many, and yet stay close to the quarry.
The first man, who had been on watch with him, disappeared so effectively that he might as well have been murdered by Mindaug in some vile ritual, for all they knew.
Unfortunately, the poacher who did stop merely clung to the feet of Ritter he’d found. He gibbered insensibly for some time, until Ritter Hartz poured water on his head.
Von Stebbens gave the man a mug of wine instead. It clattered against his teeth. “What happened man?” He demanded, getting ready to shake the fool.
“M’lord, defend me. I need magical protection. You should not have sent us out against the wizard without it.”
“We will defend you. What happened?”
Wild eyed, the man looked around. “I’ll tell you… in the church. We’ll be safe in the church, won’t we?”
They took him to the little village church. “Demons don’t come into the church, do they?” he asked fearfully, kneeling.
It was some time before they could get any sense out of him. “I want the priest. I want to confess my sins first.” And not even a good shaking could move him from that. So they had to wait. “Check on the thaumaturgic watch, Hartz,” the archimandrite instructed, while he waited.
The Ritter came back at a jog-trot. “They report there is no sign of movement or magic, my Lord.”
The poacher came back from the altar with the local priest. “I have granted him absolution,” said the country priest. “But he is a troubled man, sir. Tell the archimandrite your story.”
The little poacher nodded. “Hans and I, we were hidden about thirty cubits away from each other, Hans in some bushes, and me in the ditch on the edge of the road in the dead grass, watching the fiendish sorcerer. And next thing… the magician walks toward me, lights a magic candle and then there’s a huge cloud of magic smoke. Then this screaming yellow demon flies out, all sparks and terrible baleful light, and it pounces down on poor Hans. It knew exactly where he was hiding. He screamed. I knew it was going to drag him off to hell, so I crawled away… but they still shot me. I felt the curse-bullet hit. But there is no blood. No blood,” he said hysterically. “Look!”
He showed Von Stebbens his cheek, which had a red mark on it. It did not look magical or accursed to the archimandrite, but it would leave a bruise.
“It could have been a stone or ricochet.”
“It was a shot!” insisted the poacher-scout, his voice rising hysterically. “In the dark. Magic, black magic. You can’t shoot someone in the dark otherwise. They could never have seen me.”
And there was no way he was going back to his task.
Too late, Von Stebbens began to see the folly of telling the peasant trackers what an evil magician Mindaug was. There was no inducement that could make this one ever dare follow him again.