All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 40
So, it was time to move on again. Despite Tamas complaining of a terrible headache, and protesting about not being allowed to pole up the horses and do the other tasks he normally did for the count, they left early the next day, going west.
Mindaug waited until they were well clear of the town and in a clearing surrounded by trees that blocked sight and would muffle sound before getting Emma to practice with the hand cannon. The count tried it out first. It kicked, and left the firer in a cloud of blue smoke.
Emma eyed it fearfully. “But… am I allowed to use such a thing, Master?”
Mindaug knew King Emeric had strongly disapproved of an armed peasantry. Yes, they had knives and pitchforks, axes and bill-hooks and here and there an old spear, and many had bows, but weapons that could threaten a knight? No. Not to be tolerated.
“This is not Hungary,” he said.
She looked puzzled. “Yes, I know that. This place is not as good, of course, but it was… nice, in some ways. Until we were attacked. It is not safe here.”
Mindaug had to think his way around the “not as good” part. It had never occurred to him that his servants might yearn for the fields and the mill, things they knew. But that was peasantry for you, where “safe” was life and death in poverty at your lord’s whim. At least it was certain, thought the count, like life in Jagiellon’s court had been certain. If you showed too much competence you’d be killed. Too little and you’d be killed. Sooner or later, you would step over one or the other bound.
Neither Elizabeth Bartholdy nor King Emeric had been that different. Not quite as murderous as Jagiellon, but then, who was? Mindaug was beginning to like the idea of dying of old age, as unlikely as that possibility had ever seemed to him in the past.
“No one here cares, Emma. If you had had such a thing at the ready, you could have shot the man who attacked you.”
She plainly thought about this, nodding. Mindaug wondered suddenly if it was the idea of killing that worried her. He’d come across that notion in some books before. A curious concept.
But her reply showed that this was not the case.
“Yes, I could,” she said, quite thoughtfully. “I could have shot him and the man who attacked my Tamas–and you, Master! I could have shot them dead. Show me.”
So he had, once he was sure there was no one to see what they were about. This time, in another clearing, Mindaug set up a target for her to shoot at. It was nothing fancy, just a dead branch propped against a tree stump. She was delighted when she blew the branch apart on her second shot–and her first shot had not missed by much.
Tamas had wanted to try too, but the count had settled for showing him the mechanism and telling him to lie down again. Then he had Emma shoot a few more rounds against other targets he set up in the clearing. Despite the recoil, Emma was quite successful at hitting them. She had strong hands and wrists, and seemed to have a genuine knack for the handcannon.
There was a point, thought the count, in keeping these weapons from the commons or from the women. Women of rank had always used guile, poison or magic to win fights. These weapons–particularly if they got smaller and better–could change that.
Mentally, he shrugged. Mindaug was only worried about his own future, and even if his earthly foes were armed with hand-cannon, sword or spell, he could deal with most things. Let those who could not cope, deal with it in their own way.
On the other side of the pass, in Imperial lands, Von Stebbens and his men were still coping with the snow. Sleds and horses were moving about again, the trail was being cleared–but they were advised not to follow the pass that Count Mindaug had taken for some days yet. The magical watch on the count continued. And, at last, they saw some sign of him using his powers.
“Deaths,” said Ritter Hartz, who had been the one gazing on the thaumaturgic sphere. “It was a small working, though.”
“But with Mindaug, there would be deaths, no matter how small his use of magic was,” said Von Stebbens, grimly. “We push through the pass tomorrow, snow or no snow, Ritters. Or we will go further east and take a lower pass.”
So they did. The guard had gotten to the border watchtower-fort barely an hour before the Knights did. Yes, someone had slept and stabled their horses there–and they had left some coins for payment. The guard produced the coppers to prove his claim. “Not everyone is so honest,” he said.
The Plocken Pass took the Knights most of the day to lead their horses down. Von Stebbens knew there was something of a delicate balance to their behavior here. They were no longer in the Holy Roman Empire, and were mere travelers like anyone else. Not that most people or even the local nobility would interfere in their business. But it could cause complications, especially after the Knights had been used to unwittingly transport Chernobog’s demon into Venice. The Knights had redeemed themselves since, but they had a good reason not to start any diplomatic incidents.
They rode hard to catch up with Count Mindaug. Orders or no orders, the archimandrite was determined to take the man in custody now. The information about Baron von Wisselbacher had plainly been a false lead. Whatever associate Mindaug was heading for must be in Italy somewhere.
Only, as it proved, those few days lead that Count Mindaug had gained, had been crucial ones.
The city-state of Verona was at war with its neighbor, and military patrols were now guarding and setting up barricades on the roads. And the count and his wagon were on the far side of those barricades and patrols.
“Milan. He must be heading for Milan. We had better send word to Mainz.”
So once again magical communication was made.
A discordant note, however, was introduced by Brother Dimitrios. When told of Von Stebbens’ plans, the Aemiline hesychast shook his head.
“I think you may be acting precipitously, Archimandrite,” he said. “I have been able to watch Mindaug at very close range, using my little friends. So far I have seen no sign at all that he is engaged in any sort of dark magic. And it seems very odd that he would have two such servants if his intentions were really those you fear.”
Von Stebbens was skeptical. “And, who, exactly, are these ‘little friends’ of yours who make such reliable spies?”
“Mice, mostly. Squirrels, sometimes. Once in a while I’m forced to use a bird, although I try to avoid that for this work.” His expression was rueful. “I’m afraid there is a reason for the expression ‘bird-brained.’ It’s hard to keep a bird focused on anything for very long.”
“I should think hawks or owls would be able to concentrate.”
The hesychast’s rueful expression was replaced by one of distaste. “I do not like to spend time in the minds of raptors,” said Dimitrios. “Their thoughts–and they generally have only one: kill and eat–are not pleasant.”
The archimandrite was still not satisfied. “Are you saying you can get these ‘little friends’ of yours close enough to Mindaug to really be able to spy on him?”