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Chapter 1


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 spellwork, and there he’d dispensed of the physical witnesses too. The manor had only had half a dozen servants and a majordomo, 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 spellwork.

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 money box, 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 netherworlds. 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 strongbox. 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 strongbox,” 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 crossbar.

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.

They’d know that she was dead.

Some of the fleeing Magyar would be, too. The ones on foot had fled along with their companions. Someone had managed to loose off a wheel-lock pistol in the distance. And again. That would just make it angry. Now, to take the box and follow the wagon. With luck the horses would stay on the road, even without a driver.

He used the dead man’s waist sash to tie the box to the nervous horse’s saddle. Then, he mounted himself on the second horse. He was, after all, a nobleman and a reasonably good rider, and having organized a lead rein from the tack of the third horse, rode off to find his wagon. He was both luckier and less lucky than he’d hoped to be. It was barely a mile away, but the wagon had suffered a broken pole and the horse was tangled in the traces. The count soon got the horse untangled and calmed, but for the crosspole…he would be obliged to try and effect some kind of repair, and although he was a great master of magical knowledge, practical woodwork had not come his way much. He might have been stuck there, or forced to use some of the magic he had avoided with such effort, if it hadn’t been for two frightened young peasants scurrying along the road like nervous rabbits.

Mindaug saw the opportunity, and realized that in practical terms, he needed them, as much, perhaps, as the obvious runaways needed him. The girl was limping, the husky-looking boy doing his best to support her. He kept looking back warily but plainly did not regard a merchant as a danger—which, Count Mindaug thought to himself, merely showed how wrong ignorant people could be. Not that he was an immediate danger, of course. Still, the presence of three Magyar warhorses—the third having followed the other two—would have alarmed most intelligent observers. But perhaps it was simply that these two youngsters did not recognize them as warhorses. They would have had little experience with such.

The peasant boy bobbed. “Uh. Kind sir. You would not have a drink for my…my sister? She is very tired, and we still have far to go.”

Count Mindaug nodded. “I do. I can hide her too, and you, if you help me to fix this wagon. Is it your master or her father chasing you?”

The look of terror on their faces would have been amusing if the count had been anything like Elizabeth Bartholdy in nature. He was not. He had, in the course of acquiring the knowledge he now held, committed some terrible deeds. He would kill without qualm or query if need be. But Mindaug was a man who had really no interest in doing so for pleasure. It was just work, as a peasant might regard butchering a hog as work which had to be done sometimes.

So did calming fears. “I said I could hide you,” he repeated, his voice even. “There is really no need to be quite so afraid.”

“If our lord catches us, he’ll beat us to death,” said the girl tremulously. They were both, on closer examination, slightly better dressed than most peasants. That was a thing of small degree. King Emeric had made sure that he got every groat out of the peasantry.

“He won’t,” said Count Mindaug. “Get in the wagon, young woman. Do not fiddle with anything. There are a few blankets piled in the back. Hide under them. You, boy. Let us change your hair color and clothing. A moment.” He reached in and took out the bag he had packed for the emergencies of magic while traveling. It was not something he had sufficient experience of, he had to admit. There were a number of compounds in the bag which had multiple uses, including a bottle of plant killer taken from the green husks of Vinland walnuts. It was stronger than that made from local walnuts, for some reason. A basin was very useful for thaumaturgy and also for filling with water, and a bit of plant killer, which had other properties.

“What is it?” asked the boy.

“Hair and skin dye. Dunk your head and hands in. Be quick now. I’ve a spare cotte here, too. How far behind you are they?”

“My lord will be looking for her before nightfall. He may be looking already. I…” he looked fearfully around.

“Get on with it,” said the count. “I’ve a hand-cannon that will see no man gets into my wagon.”

He gave the trusting peasant a spare cotte which he’d used for some experiments, and was thus not too clean or particularly nice-smelling, and inspected his handiwork. The blond head and white cheeks were considerably darker. “Again.” He said. “We’ll have you too dark for a local.”

The boy stared at his hands “I will look like a gypsy.”

“And not like a runaway serf.”

“I’m a miller.”

That accounted for the slightly better clothes, but didn’t stop Mindaug pointing at the bowl again.

A little later, they were busy working on lashing the crossbar together when the sound of horses disturbed them. As he had promised, Count Mindaug returned to the wagon and took up the hand-cannon. “Keep working. Say nothing.”

The hand-cannon had been added to his store of things to take with him on a whim. It would probably have gotten him shot by the Magyars, but the minor noble and his handful of retainers who came briskly trotting down the road saw it and were wary.

“You. Have you seen two peasants pass? A young woman and a man,” demanded the lordling—addressing the frightened looking boy at the horses’ heads, pointing with the whip in his hand.

“He is dumb,” said Count Mindaug. “And the answer is yes. Running over that field beyond those horses.” He jerked a thumb at the three Magyar horses, now grazing a few dozen yards away, still with their tack on.

The lordling took the sight in, plainly recognized them as the warhorses they were, and type of tack, gawped at them, and then asked weakly, “Where are they from?”

“Back up the way we’d come from. They stopped here, I suppose, because horses look for other horses. Nothing to do with me. As soon as we’ve fixed our wagon, we’ll be on our way. I’d like to find a town by nightfall.”

“Creki, one of my villages, is not more than four miles off,” said the lordling. He indicated the direction with a pointing finger.

“We’ll likely seek safety there,” said Mindaug. “There’s something back there unhorsing soldiers. I want no part of it.”

By the looks of the minor noble’s face, he didn’t either. “Which way did they run exactly, merchant?”

“I wasn’t paying much attention. I yelled at them to come help me, but they took off toward those woods.”

“Our thanks.”

“You’d best take the horses with you.”

The lordling shook his head. “We’ll go and come back with the dogs. I thought to find them on the road, trying to run to Perca-town. Come on, men. We’ll just go and check that copse over there.”

A few minutes later the count and his wagon were ready to leave, and the lordling and his entourage were already out of sight. “Thank you, master,” said the boy humbly. “We owe you our lives.”

“Where will you go now?” asked the count, knowing the answer full well.

“Away. We don’t really know…”

What peasant, even a miller, who was a step up on most, would know of other options? Their masters kept it like that, and fed them on horror stories, for good reason. “I have an offer for you,” said the count. “I have a need for some servants, and no need for young girls.” Barring certain rituals, that was true enough. “I’ll see you clear of this place, if you will work for me.”

The boy nodded eagerly. “We did not know where to go.”

And thus it was that Count Mindaug acquired two servants. He was later to wonder why he had done so. But at the time, they were both exceptionally useful.

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