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Chapter 4

The Border Marches

Count Mindaug had discovered in his few days of rough traveling that having been born with many servants to wait on your needs, even a master magician could struggle. Simple tasks like hitching horses to the wagon—an unobtrusive choice for travel, perhaps, but very slow—were more difficult than he’d realized. The runaways Tamas and Emma had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, and might still have to die, but they had eased his passage somewhat. His two servants had, as he guessed, been lovers: she was a pretty peasant girl who had caught the eye of the local lord, and he, amusingly enough, was a bastard child of the same lord, a fact to which he’d owed his elevation to the important—in a minor village—position of miller. It meant he had some skill with things rudely mechanical, which could indeed prove useful.

The problem, of course, was a passage to where? He had thought about various possibilities—Vinland, Alexandria, one of the remote Iberian states. The issue was that physical distances were not the same in the netherworlds, where Chernobog held such power.

The more he thought about it, the more Count Mindaug realized he would have to go either to the Holy Roman Empire or to one of its vassal states. The problem with that, of course, was that their rulers would kill him as surely as Grand Duke Jagiellon, for his role in working with the grand duke and for his aiding of both King Emeric and Elizabeth Bartholdy. He would have to keep his true identity secret. That would be easy enough in a physical sense, but difficult in a magical one. He could protect himself reasonably well, both magically and in combat (as a noble, little as he’d enjoyed it, he had had some training with the sword, main gauche and lance). But against armies and forces of magic such as the Empire or, indeed, the grand duke could muster, he could not stand. At least, not against both at once. He wanted a secure position, where he would be protected, physically, and he could prepare for a quiet departure again, if need be. It was a situation he had realized he would have live with, or he would not remain living for long.

He would avoid Pressburg and head northwest, and cross the black water of the March River, he decided. The far bank was the territory controlled by the Knights of the Holy Trinity, but it was formally part of the Holy Roman Empire. And then he would be going south, to Italy and the sun, and also various small states and principalities. A place where he could possibly find protectors, and return to his art.

In this, he found his awed new servants invaluable. For the first time in his life, the count had servants who did not fear him, but instead felt they owed him their lives, and it seemed were very conscious of that debt. They were both awkwardly eager to please. It was something of a revelation to him: their desire to repay him made them more industrious and more ingenious than fear or money had made his previous lackeys. There had been some wary jealousy on the boy’s part that Mindaug might try to exercise droit du seigneur. Mindaug had very little interest in women, or men, for that matter. He had had his pick and fill as a young and powerful noble. He had, in the course of his researches, encountered more and varied sexual practices than most people. He’d realized what a lever they could be, and had taken certain steps to prevent himself being thus entrapped.

He hadn’t realized that it would also make him totally uninterested.

To his servants, however, with their small knowledge of sex and power, that indifference obviously made him seem even more benign. They traveled steadily, with not more than minor brushes with authority, which he was easily able to dismiss with a touch of arrogance, and a little money. Ahead lay the March River, and the border of the Kingdom of Hungary. It looked a very similar country on the other side of that river: meandering streams and lush vegetation. The count, however, knew appearances could be deceptive, and for him, the other side of the border was much safer from his old master.

Now he just had to cross that border. That sounded simple enough, and would be if he used his magical skill. Only that would most likely call unwanted attention to himself. It really was very inconvenient.

The trouble was, the eastern Marches were patroled by the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Long ago, Emperor Magnus had given them lands there, as a simple way of protecting his border with minimal expense. It had not been a dangerous border for many years, but the abbeys built back then were old and large. They served as a place of rest, recovery and recuperation for Knights back from more dangerous fronts. That meant that there would be magic workers and doughty warriors here, who would not be in these relatively peaceful parts otherwise.

The answer, of course, was money. Not as bribes, which he gathered might just be counterproductive—a most odd and unhealthy situation as far as he was concerned—but as a distraction. Most people seemed to find it so. Elizabeth Bartholdy had had an ample and generous supply of money, a side effect of the bargain she’d made. The devil provided generously, but did extract interest. From his researching, Count Mindaug had decided that adding interest to the bill…was probably foolish. But then, he’d never rated her intelligence that highly. She’d thought herself too clever, too powerful, and ended up wrong.

They had stopped and camped some distance from the peat-stained water of the river, near enough to see the spire of the church and the tip of the watchtower’s roof at Marchegg, but not close enough to be observed. His researches had indicated that the narrow bridge that had been built there had helped the town to grow a little. But it was still little more than an outlying fortress for the Knights, who permitted, but watched, the trade that was allowed across it. It went no further than the walled town, and the gates out of that required a permit chit. Well, once in…he could get out.

Perhaps some vague strand of that long-forgotten thing, guilt, had plucked at Kazimierz Mindaug’s mind. He had bought good fat Kenyersalonna bacon and a string of small onions in the last town, and Emma had had Tamas carefully trim hazel twigs into skewers, and she’d cut squares off the bacon side, and slashed it carefully, and then stabbed the bacon onto the skewers, and then half an onion. They carefully toasted the rough rye bread and grilled the bacon, holding the skewers down at an angle so that the fat dribbled into the onion, and then carefully brought their master a wooden platter with the best pieces, and the toasted bread, and strong ewe’s cheese.

It smelled better than most of the feasts he’d had in Lithuania, or in Elizabeth’s castles and palaces, or in the retinue of King Emeric. Tasted better, too.

Here.” He handed them a pottery jar and a bottle he’d also bought in the village. “We leave the Kingdom of Hungary tomorrow, and it may be a while before you taste anything from your homeland again. Enjoy them.”

The peasant girl looked at the two gifts warily. He’d gathered that even bacon was a rare treat. Meat had been a sparse thing in her life, cooked with grain and pulses, and cabbage to make it stretch, and the bacon and bread a princely meal. “What are they, master?”

“Honey wine and some cherries in brandy.”

She curtseyed, peasant fashion. “Oh, thank you, master. I have never had those. Have you, Tamas?”

Tamas had come from the fire, so he opened the bottle and smelled it. “Here, Emma. Smell the spices! I was given some of the honey wine, once.”

The count realized that the spices he took as a normal part of fare, townsfolk took as special treats, and to the peasants, depending on their poverty, they would be far more rare. Brandy, too, was beyond their means. They were as excited as small children—something else the count had had little to do with—tasting it cautiously, sampling one cherry between the two of them, and conscientiously offering him some of their treasure. That had surprised him so much that he had almost laughed, not something he had done for a long time.

“No. Enjoy. It is not from my homeland or unusual for me.” How easy it would be to poison them had the need to do so arisen.

“May we keep them in the wagon, master?” she asked, carefully closing the bottle and clay jar.

“But they are for you to enjoy. To eat. To drink.”

“Oh, but they are too good to have all at once!” she answered, shocked.

And not all his reassurance could persuade her otherwise. Well, if these were treasures, then tomorrow’s plan would work well.

A goose woman, with a flock of six geese coming along the track as they broke their fast, provided the portal. “Hola, old woman. Where are you going with those?” asked the count, slightly warily, because as a young boy he had discovered that geese are no respecters of rank.

“Ah, master, I’m off to sell them to the foreigners. Across the river. They’ll give me a better price than I can get here.”

For a brief moment, the count considered killing her and taking the geese. But…money would be easier.

“How much for your fine geese?” he asked.

“These geese! Why, your lordship, they’re worth a silver penny each, but to save me driving them, I’d sell the six for four copper pence each.”

“Why you cheating old hag!” screeched Emma, taking a menacing couple of steps toward the old woman who, for her part, flinched back the same distance. “They’re not worth two copper pennies. Look at them. Scrawny, they are!”

Battle was about to be joined when Mindaug intervened. “Here,” he said drawing out this pouch. “It is your lucky morning, old woman.”

“But, master,” protested Emma. “They’re not worth that much!”

He looked at her quellingly. “It is my day for doing good deeds. And this lady looks tired. We will eat one goose and sell the rest. I have spoken.”

She was instantly contrite, at least with him, but the look she cast at the smirking old besom was less so. Still, ownership of the geese was handed over, along with the strings attached to the creatures, who did not seem to like Mindaug any more than he liked them. He hastily handed their leashes to Tamas, and watched the goose woman walk off the way she had come. The vegetation on both sides of the track was thick; within a few seconds, she had completely vanished from sight.

“What do we do with these, master?” asked Tamas, pointing to the geese.

“You will be taking them to sell across the river, making a way for me to cross with less notice. We need to cross into Frankish lands, and they will not just let us do so.”

“Ah! I wondered why you were paying so much! They aren’t worth half that. They will let us across with the geese?”

“They will let you and Emma across with the geese. You will create a distraction. I will follow.”

They both nodded. “Yes, master. What do we need to do?” asked Tamas.

“Go across the bridge, go into the market and set loose these geese. With any luck people will chase them. Then run up the street and strew around the money that I will give you. People will be so busy chasing the money, they will not be watching the gate.”

Mindaug knew the idea was entirely ridiculous, but hoped that they would hold out under torture for a little while. He found, oddly, that he hoped that their deaths would be quick. They would create a distraction, of course, but more in the sense of being taken to the garrison, and probably immediately, under escort to the nearest chapter house. Guards being guards, the senior and most skilled would go running off with them, eager to claim the credit for catching them. And the last thing they’d expect would be a second infiltrator, so close behind those inept two.

They would not realize that their guilt would betray them. What knowledge did they have of borders or guards? He took out the two bags of coin he’d prepared last night. There was a good weight to them, more money than either of them—or quite possibly their overlord—had ever seen. Human greed would do the rest.

“This side of the border, you’re peasants. Across the river, with this, you would be rich,” he said, to prevent them running away here and now, and too early. “All you have to do is lie to the border guard and say you have come to sell the geese, and then go scatter the money, and I’ll follow in the chaos.”

Big-eyed and solemn, they nodded. A little later they got underway, driving the geese with him following behind.

The count soon found that his plans were not as complete as they should have been. The geese were not fast movers, and the track they were on led to join a larger track, down which several other people were heading for market, driving a few beasts, carrying baskets and bundles. Mindaug had not envisaged such a crowd. He stopped the horses for a brief moment while fiddling with the tack, and allowed a few of the other traders to get between him and the geese, and the bait.

The bridge had been built for rapid demolition. Three sets of pilings in the river, each linked with logs planked with riven oak—barely wide enough for his wagon, and enough to make his horses balk. The last piling had a gatehouse on it, and entrants queued up for the guard to examine them.

Count Mindaug had expected a commotion ahead. Instead, he and the wagon were causing it. The horses just didn’t like the bridge, the river, or the other traders.

But by then he was already on the bridge, completely unable to get off it. The scene that followed was completely contrary to the plan. The guard, several stout farmers and, to his dismay, even Tamas, came back to help him move. Urgently, he waved the boy on.

It took half an hour, and great patience and determination from a large cowherd, two guards, a shrill and irritable woman with baskets of eggs, and a great deal of swearing to get the wagon into Marchegg. No examination or paperwork had taken place. One guard went back to his post. The other, still shaking his head at the stupidity of bringing horses across that bridge, said: “You’re lucky not to end up in the river, you old fool. What brings you to Marchegg?”

Obviously, his plan of chaos on the bridge with the arrest of the two peasants had not come to fruition. Or if it had, he hadn’t noticed. If all else failed, Mindaug could use magic, but that would undo his attempts at secrecy and probably bring him into a dangerous conflict with the Knights of the Holy Trinity.

“Sir,” he said humbly, “I have a number of books in the wagon. The castle of my old overlord, Count Gastell, when King Emeric executed him, had a library, and I was able to buy it cheaply. Well, the truth be told, the new lord was going to burn them as rubbish. I am a scribe and love books and I had heard that the Franks love books. There are a few tomes I had hoped to sell to the great Knights of the Holy Trinity, as they appear to be on the subject of magic.”

The guard shook his head. “Only a scribe would do something quite as stupid as to try to bring that wagon over the bridge. They’re good horses and a solid wagon, Scribe. How did you come by them?”

“My mother was…um, a favorite of the count,” said Mindaug, making up the tale on the fly, preparing himself for action. “I was destined for the cloister, but he took me to be his scribe. I and my mother had a little put by for the wagon. The horses were his gift to her. She’s dead now, God rest her soul.”

“Fair payment, I suppose. And the reason the new count didn’t want you around.”

“Or me to remain in the area.”

The guard nodded, set his spear aside and said: “Well, show me some of these books.”

So Count Mindaug opened a carefully wrapped box—one of the front ones which contained little that would make a churchman unhappy, not some of the hidden tomes.

“They look of value. Not that you’re likely to sell them in Marchegg. I’ll give you a chitty so you can go on to the chapter house at Eikendal. And don’t come back this way, for heaven’s sake, Scribe. There are better, wider bridges at Pressburg.”

Mindaug, all his cunning plans it seemed in vain and unneeded, had a little time to wonder where he was going to find some new servants and just how far he could be from here by nightfall, while the guard walked back to the gatehouse and returned with a scrap of parchment.

“Here you go. Avoid narrow bridges!”

“I shall,” said the count gratefully. He moved on, passing the market where several people seemed occupied in chasing geese, and out of the far gate, into the Frankish Marches.

He hadn’t gotten very far—just to the first copse—when Tamas and Emma came running to join him, their faces beaming, eagerly holding out his pouches of money. “We didn’t have to use very much, master. You gave us far too much. Emma went to the wine merchant and changed twenty silver pennies into small coppers, and we bought five bags, tied them around the necks of the geese, cut small holes in them and set them loose in the market.”

Count Kazimierz Mindaug, who had kept his calm and not been at a loss for words with the murderous and demon-possessed Grand Duke Jagiellon, had coolly answered the satanic Elizabeth Bartholdy, and had urbanely dealt with the foaming spittle of King Emeric, was now at a loss for words. He just looked at them and shook his head.

Emma looked at him worriedly. “I am sorry, master. Did I spend too much? You can count the money…”

For the second time, his new servants surprised the count so much that he wanted to laugh, and this time he actually did. That was something he had not done for so long he had almost forgotten how. It was obviously such an odd noise that it worried the two of them. “Are you choking, master?” asked Tamas, plainly perturbed, stepping forward.

“No, I am laughing. I have had no cause to laugh for a long time, and I have lost the skill of it,” he said, shaking his head, feeling a bubble of it still within himself. He looked at the second, larger bag Tamas was holding out. “And what is in that bag? The city guard?”

“Oh, just the goose, master. You did say you wanted to eat one, so I brought it along. I kept the fattest one. I did kill it. I hope that is all right?”

And this time Count Mindaug managed to laugh with somewhat more skill. “I am going to have to get used to this. And now, I think we should remove ourselves from being too close to the goose-infested town of Marchegg.”

So they proceeded on their way, Emma calmly plucking the goose and Tamas driving, while the count found himself as comfortable a place in the wagon bed as the rough road would permit. He attempted to read, and to readjust his ideas around the idea of people who served out of loyalty and, when given a small fortune—brought it back to him.

That had possibilities and possible advantages, even. He was able to grasp that, and to realize that it was a conditional thing, worth keeping alive, at least until he understood it. The joy of it was that Jagiellon, and the demon that owned him, never would or could understand it. Mindaug was not sure he could himself, but at least he knew of its existence now.

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