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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2018 20:16 EDT



The Holy Roman Empire

    Count Mindaug was enjoying the mild spring in the Marcher country as they made their way west into forest country, avoiding Vienna, and then onward into an area of extensive apple orchards, all in blossom. Many of the blossoms were still pink, but most were starting to shade into white. In places, the trees were so plentiful that the entire landscape seemed to consist of huge pink and white mounds.

    There were many vineyards, especially on the hillsides. On several occasions they also passed by patches where asparagus was being grown. Mindaug had a great liking for the vegetables and was sorely tempted to have Emma and Tamas pluck some for him. But there was always the risk of arousing the ire of a local farmer with that sort of petty thievery. Mindaug wasn’t afraid of farmers, of course, but a confrontation that escalated too far or too badly might draw the attention of those he did near to be wary of. So, with some regret, he resigned himself to an asparagus-free diet, at least until such time as he might be able to purchase some in a market.

    For the count it was… an odd time. For the first time in his adult life, he was not in service or hastening to be in service to a master of magical and state power. He’d begun that journey as a boy of eleven. He was now fifty-six. He felt as he imagined an old war-horse put out to pasture might.

    In a while, he might yearn for the use of power, and long for the intrigues which had been a normal part of his life. In a while, he might want a suitable palace, or at least a noble residence. He might yearn for the company of other nobles… perhaps.

    But right now, he desired none of that, and they had no idea that he was even still alive. He was free to enjoy things he had never dreamed of even wanting to enjoy. To look at the sights and to eat well. Yes, home was merely a travelling wagon and his bed a straw pallet. But the weight that had lifted from his shoulders made it all seem good. And, by comparison, the country was safe, fat and prosperous. His new servants fussed over him as if he were a precious chick. He found that very strange, and not a little amusing. They, it seemed, were terrified by the idea of being masterless. They’d fled not to be freemen but because Emma was afraid of being made the concubine of their overlord, and her lover was jealous.

    They’d had no idea that life could be better, and would have been terrified to go and look for that small degree of greater comfort, more food, or more rest. But having a master, who, by the standards they were used to, was almost ridiculously generous and soft, was their ideal. Somehow they’d hooked onto the idea that they had to show him they appreciated his kindness–which was purely accidental on his part. For the count, the instruction of servants had been for those who oversaw servants. It appeared those people were somewhat harsher than he was. He had never done any personal disciplining of lazy or recalcitrant servants himself. That had fallen to his underlings.

    Only there were none, now.

    It worked well, at least for the moment. Tamas and Emma could not imagine braving this big world without a master to protect them, and yet they thought of him as in need of protection from it. The count had long gotten used to the idea of letting Emma chaffer for their food. She loved doing this, considered it a vast privilege and actually had some idea of what they needed, once he had persuaded her that they could eat as if every day was what to her was a once-a-year feast day.

    They were neither of them stupid, just ignorant. They were painfully honest, and deeply religious. The two of them spoke in their own Hungarian bastardized with a fair bit of Frankish that had crept across the borders, and had proved very adept at rapidly picking up enough words to communicate with others of their own order. It still kept them from becoming too familiar with the locals. Mindaug himself, of course, spoke fluent Court Frankish. What he hadn’t been prepared for was that local dialects could be almost incomprehensible, especially coming from the peasantry. Sometimes Emma and Tama understood the ditch-diggers and wood-carriers better than he did.

    They crossed the Danube at the toll-station at Muthhusen. It was the first substantial town they’d stopped in, having skirted all the others–there were always tracks and long ways around everywhere, if you had strong horses and some patience. And the count wasn’t going anywhere, so he was happy to be patient. By now, the count felt he’d avoided the suspicious scrutiny given to strangers close to the borderland, and, this deep into the empire, could go into the market town with some impunity.

    It was a market town, and it was a market day, to the vast excitement of Tamas and Emma. Mindaug had to admit he found it quite entertaining himself. There was music, some dancing. A travelling troupe of actors with a stage-wagon were doing a series of religious tableaux. And, of course, there was drinking, bawds and bullies, as well as stalls offering food and various goods, medicines, charms, saints relics… all being hawked at the top of the stall-holder’s voices.

    “Best put your money safely, Master. Or keep it in your hand,” said Tamas, big-eyed at the scale of it all. “I’ve heard such places are full of cutpurses.”

    To the count it was a small country-town market, but to them, something vast. And it probably did have at least three cutpurses, reflected Mindaug. No one had ever dared to try to rob him. There was a place in the wagon intended for safe-keeping and the bulk of the remainder of his gold was there, and in a small kist that would kill anyone unwary enough to open it. Both had their protections, but he had some coin in his pouch. He took out a piece of silver. At such a fair they probably could not care what face there was stamped on it.

    He handed it to them Tamas. “Get provisions. I’d like another ham, Emma. And get yourselves some more clothes.” He realized he had no real idea of the cost of those, and took out a second silver coin. “For the clothes. Hold onto them tightly,” he said with some amusement. “I will take a walk around.”

    They looked at the coins, no longer in shock at being entrusted with what to them was a lot of money, but still plainly delighted. And then Tamas shook his head. “Emma and I will watch the wagon, Master. I know places like this are not safe for a woman alone. And if we leave the wagon untended it will be robbed.”

    That would have fatal consequences. Count Mindaug did not mind the deaths, but he could do without the fuss and notice that it might cause. He did notice that other wagons had some kind of watcher, so this probably wasn’t mere peasant foolishness. But he wasn’t interested in chaffering for ham, beer, bread or clothes for his servants, who looked a little too much like runaway serfs–and very poor ones, by the empire’s standards. The peasantry were plainly wealthier here than in Hungary or Lithuania.

    “You go and buy. I will remain here.” He was not being generous, just not wishing to shop for the sort of wares a country fair might offer, and not that interested. As usual, Emma and Tamas concluded he was the kindest of masters and probably due for sainthood, which seemed vastly unlikely to Kazimierz Mindaug.

    “Oh, we couldn’t go first, Master. You go, we will watch the wagon, water the horses and give them some oats.” They did, it was true, consider giving the horses oats a treat, only for the steeds of the nobility, and thus terribly exciting to do for horses that would draw the wagon, but it was a frequent pleasure, unlike the fair.

    Mindaug went, even though taking it in turns was not what he had meant. Perhaps they would sleep in an inn tonight. He roamed the fair, which was set on the town green, amused by the quaint charms being sold–the miss-spelling and ignorance on the cantrip scrolls were truly startling. There were a handful of books for sale. A juggler was performing some tricks which the audience suspected of being magic, and Mindaug knew were not. He decided to get himself a mug of hot spiced wine, and return to the wagon… only to find that his pouch had been slit.



    His first reaction was a dangerous fury that they dared do something like this. He’d turn those coins to scorpions… and melt their entrails for daring to take his money. He could put a tracing spell…

    He shook his head. Folly. Not worth it for a few coins. He was still angry, but on further thought it did tell him something good and valuable: he had successfully posed as what he was supposed to be. No thief would have dared touch a magician’s pouch, let alone the pouch of a noble of high degree who was also a master magician, who could inflict a torturous death on them. Theft was something the lesser orders were prey to. They could, he thought irritably to himself, now that his own funds were somewhat more limited, less afford it.

    So he went back to the wagon and sent the other two off, with no more than a warning to hold tight to their money, and to stay together. He was still somewhat annoyed. While camouflage was all very well, some respect and the protection that gave were going to be necessary. And he would, in a few months, need to find a protector, or at least a source of income.

    His thoughts were interrupted by a loud belch from the man who had just walked up to his cart, which occupied the space next to the count’s wagon. The fellow had his charm-cantrips over his arm, and a mug of beer in his hand. He flicked a small copper coin to the urchin who had been sitting on one of the poles of his cart, drained his beer, and set the charms in his cart, before turning to go and unhitch his scrawny horse, tied to a post some yards off. Mindaug noted his pouch bulged. The fellow gave the count a wave, and out of professional interest, Mindaug walked across to help him harness up the horse. Not that he knew much about harnessing horses, but possibly more than the fellow knew about writing spells. That would not be hard.

    “I won’t help you kill your wife. Or your mother-in-law. And I’m all out of love philtres,” said the fellow cheerfully.

    “I have no real need of those,” said Mindaug. He hoped the scorn didn’t show. “So this is regular business of yours? Do people often ask you to kill someone?”

    “Oh, all the time. Don’t go there. The church will get onto you before you can say ‘Emperor Charles Frederik.’ Where are you from, fellow?”

    “I am from Bohemia. My mother was Hungarian.”

    “Ah. And you have come down in the world, have you?”

    He was fishing… Mindaug’s barriers rose… and were dispelled. “I can tell your fortune for you. My magical arts can show what the future holds,” said the mountebank. “The past and future are an open book to me. I know you were born to wealth.”

    My accent betrays me, thought Count Mindaug, knowing he’d have to do something about that. He chose to ignore the offer, and instead passed the strap to the man. “Your accent is not from here, either,” he said calmly.

    “I come from sunny Italy, my friend. Where I will be again before the bitter winter bites here. Now that Duke Visconti is dead, I’m for Milan. They say that the new Protector is not hiring magicians.”

    “This is different?” asked the count.

    “Visconti was too busy hanging or burning any he found to be not hiring.” The fellow, realizing he did not have a customer, got into the cart and took the reins. “Farewell. I want to make the real city by nightfall. Linz calls. There’s profit in these small towns but the city is the place for me.”

    Count Mindaug let him go, and went back to the wagon with some food for thought. It seemed that he might find employment in Milan. And if a mountebank and a charlatan could fill his purse, well… he could be a far more effective mountebank. He could, without resorting to real magic, fool a more intelligent audience than this. And so… the church did watch but tolerated these frauds? There were obviously lines not to cross and he would have to establish where those were. Spying magically on the empire, and reading about it–those did not add up to the same thing as being here.

    Emma and Tamas returned, loaded with purchases, and small change they punctiliously returned–which they expected him to inspect and assumed he would know how well they had done. They were excited by the shows and the music, disgusted by the prices, and amazed at the variety. Well, they’d see a bigger city in Salzburg, before they travelled on to Linz and then Italy.

    The naturally frugal Emma had of course not wasted money on made clothes. The idea seemed to shock her when her master mentioned it. “Oh, no! They were far too expensive, master. And not well made.” She could, like any peasant, sew, and better than most, it appeared. She had bought cloth and sewed for herself, Tamas, and shyly presented him with a fresh shirt of finer linen than the wool she had bought for their clothing, about which she had obviously labored with especial care. He’d have to actually make sure tailored clothes were included in her next purchase, as he planned to move up the social scale in his disguise, and thus his servants would have to do likewise.

    She was furious with the town of Muthhusen, its inhabitants and the Franks in general when he asked her to repair his slit pouch. It was a good thing she had no magical skills, or they’d be suffering with everything from scales to boils.



    Archimandrite Klaus von Stebbens knew just what a high responsibility the Knights of the Holy Trinity, and indeed the Emperor had laid like a cross upon his shoulders, to follow such a one as Count Mindaug. The man was a monster, and an associate of monsters. A killer. Someone who should be destroyed without compunction and with all the haste possible. At all costs, his evil designs had to be thwarted.

    They watched Mindaug both magically and physically. Von Stebbens had a number of men with his troop who had been poachers, and one who had missed his ship home to Vinland. He was a man of one of the forest tribes there, and could track a ghost, or sneak up on a rabbit and cut its throat.

    And, so far, the count had given them a very pleasant holiday and had engaged in precisely no magical activity, nor committed any of the habitual brutality he was expected to. It could be that he was trying to hide. It could also be, as Abbot Goldenbuss had theorized, that he had no idea that his cargo of books made him very easy to track, magically, even if he was lost in their distant view. Mindaug might well have become so accustomed to the evil aura of some of those tomes that he didn’t realize that, for some magicians, they were like so many beacons in the night.

    They thought they’d found out what he was up to at last, when he had headed for the round pyramid deep in the forest between Zwettl and Gross-Gerungs. But he had driven straight past the track to the witch-place as if he hadn’t even known it was there.

    They had tried to investigate his two assistants. So far, either they were innocent dupes or mere servants–which seemed unlikely, on the face of it. Klaus had nearly fallen over backward, though, when he was told the young man and woman had gone into a small church in the hamlet of Waldenberg, and asked the priest if he could marry them. The priest had wanted them to wait until he could announce their names before mass to ask if there was any impediment to their marriage. The girl had burst into tears and said their master could not be kept waiting.

    The priest had heard their confessions, though. And was being obstinate about the sanctity of that confession. The archimandrite had to respect that, but surely… he had sent a letter to the bishop, asking for his help. He hoped it would be forthcoming.

    But the very fact that someone as evil as Mindaug could have associates who would willingly enter a church and confess… was simply hard to grasp.



    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.”

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