Conrad Starguard - The Crosstime Enginee Part 21

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And I had come across like a lunatic prophet of doom' I couldn't have done worse if I'd been carrying a sign proclaiming the end of the world. I was in a black mood when I learned that the Krakowski brothers had arrived with a pack train loaded with my bra.s.s mill fittings. City folk didn't pay much attention to most of the country holidays. When there was work to be had, they worked. The collars were so big that they had to be slung between two mules each, like sedan chairs.

I called Vitold, Ilya, and Angelo away from a sort of soccer game and introduced them to the Krakowski brothers. We discussed our mutual needs: the fittings for the dry mill, tubs for washing and dyeing, axles and bushings for wheelbarrows. Fortunately, the Krakowski brothers understood my technical drawings, and I had a thick stack of parchment for them to take back.

It took Vitold a long time to grasp what a wheelbarrow was all about, but he agreed to make a gross as soon as the sawmill was done. They would help in getting in the harvest.

Then there were the clay crocks for Ilya's steelmaking. The brothers agreed to make them but insisted on understanding the cementation process. They already had the clay and the charcoal and the ovens. They were impressed by Ilya's axes and wanted to get into the cementation business themselves. I gave them my blessing.

They had the idea of casting bra.s.s into molded clay forms and a hint from me about stacking up small clay forms and casting many objects at once. They were already selling belt buckles and door hinges by the gross. I called over Piotr Kulczynski and swore him to fealty before the group. It took a while to make the brothers understand that Piotr was not their boss-they could run their business as they saw fit but they were expected to keep him informed on all financial transactions, and he would be reporting to me. It was understood that Piotr was to live in my room at the inn and keep the inn's books as well. I gave him a letter to the innkeeper confirming this. Finally, Thom Krakowski brought up a delicate subject. Despite the fact that they were working for me, I had agreed that they should get one-twelfth of the profits of their work. He therefore felt that I should buy the present fittings and the order I had just placed, just to get it on the books so that they could figure up their bonus. I would get much of this back as my profits for ownership.

I had to agree that this was fair but stipulated that they would be paid from the surplus from the inn. This was agreed on.

Their bill came to 19,500 pence.

It was growing dark, so I invited all present to a quick meal in the count's kitchen. We were halfway through the meal when Lambert came in. "Sir Conrad! Where the devil have you been?

There was a high place for you at supper that stood empty!"

"I'm sorry, my lord. I didn't know that I was invited. The bra.s.s mill fittings came in, and there was much to discuss."

"I saw the bra.s.s. I've never seen so much bra.s.s in one place in my life! You paid for all this?"

"Well, yes, my lord. When I left for Cieszyn, you were distracted with the planting, so I thought it best to take my own money along." "But you agree that the mills are mine?"

"Of course, my lord."

"Then I owe you your expenses. What were they?"

"The present fittings, plus those for the dry mill, the tubs for the factory and the dye, the mules, and the Florentine came to ... uh ... about twenty-three thousand pence."

"Twenty-three ... Come talk with me in my chambers, Sir Conrad." When we got there, he said, "Twenty-three thousand pence is a huge amount of money, Sir Conrad."

"Yes, my lord."

"Hmm. You wouldn't wager on your chess playing. Would you wager on your mill? I would bet you that your wet mill doesn't work. Double or nothing. Do you agree?" "If you wish, my lord. But I'm stealing your money. The mill will work." "We shall see. For now, come to the hall. People want to meet you. I should mention that throughout supper Sir Stefan and his father, Baron Jaraslav, have been d.a.m.ning you to all and sundry for a warlock and a witch! I believe they've called you everything but a Christian."

"Sir Stefan? But why isn't he on guard duty?"

"One of his father's other knights is doing his stint so he can be there to blacken your name. I don't like my va.s.sals acting this way. I know it's not your fault, except had you been there they wouldn't have been so blatant about it. What the duke thinks is anybody's guess."

As we entered, Lambert whispered, "Here we go. Keep your temper!" As we walked into the hall, conversation was suddenly muted. People had been drinking and socializing after a feast. Now half of them were staring at me, and the rest were obviously trying not to.

Bluff it through! I thought, shouting to myself. You can do it, you can do it-I think I can, I think I can, I think I can ... Head high, smiling, I swaggered in at Lambert's side, almost convincing myself that I wasn't. scared. Sir Vladimir saved me. Cutting through the crowd, he said, "Sir Conrad, what's this I hear about your attacking six thugs from the wh.o.r.emasters guild and killing the lot of them?"

"Just lies, Sir Vladimir. There were only three of them, and I believe two lived."

A knight I hadn't met said, "You were completely unarmed when you attacked?" "Well, yes.

You see, there wasn't much time. A friend was in trouble, and had I gone back for my sword, well, who could tell what would have happened?" "A friend of the wh.o.r.emasters guild? Was she pretty?" a third knight said. "Hardly. It was a he. The innkeeper of the Pink Dragon, although his wife was also being abused."

"But how was it possible for one unarmed man to defeat three with knives?" the second knight persisted. An interested crowd was gathering. Except for Lambert's ladies, this was an all-male group. They were all professional fighters, so by their standards anybody talking about bloodshed and mayhem had to be all right. I was winning!

"It wasn't three at once," I said. "I was able to get them one at a time."

"But even one man is hard to believe."

"Okay. Hang up your cloak and I'll show you." As I've mentioned, I'm no black belt, but I did learn a few simple throws in the service. With the sheath on his knife, we went through a few judo throws in slow motion. I didn't actually reenact my fight in the hall of the Pink Dragon. I wasn't sure how these knights would react to kneeing someone in the groin, and I wanted to play the good guy. The first time you find yourself lifted into the air in judo is a memorable event, and it looks impressive. Three or four of them lined up to try me. The others were watching and drinking. I was becoming socially acceptable.

"You see," I said to a fellow in blue who was lying at my feet. "Had I thrown you down hard, you would be momentarily stunned. I could do all sorts of things to you. I could stamp on your chest, for example."

"Try me," a voice said from behind me.

I turned to find myself facing Duke Henryk the. Bearded. "My lord it ... it doesn't seem fitting,"

I stammered. Good G.o.d. He was my boss's boss, and he looked to be seventy years old. Not your usual judo partner! "Try me," he repeated, holding his knife high with his right hand. "Yes, my lord." Taking it slow and watching carefully to see that I didn't hurt him, I started through the same throw that I'd shown the others. "Hold!" he said. I froze.

I felt a sharp p.r.i.c.k at my ribs. Looking down, I saw that the duke held a dagger in his left hand.

Where it had come from, I didn't know. "What do you think now, Sir Conrad?"

"My lord, I think that had I met you in that dark hallway, I would be a dead man."

The room exploded in laughter, but it was laughter of a friendly sort. It was no dishonor to be bested by one's superior.

Contented, the duke sheathed his knives-one in his boot-and walked away. The evening went well, I thought. Sir Stefan stayed to one comer of the room with his father and a half dozen knights.

Sir Vladimir told me that they were the baron's liegemen. No hope of support there! I avoided them and circulated. Conversation that evening centered most ly on hunting and hawking, so I didn't have much to contribute. Krystyana was a perfect hostess, and a lot of her newfound poise was rubbing off on the other girls, especially Janina, Natalia, Annastashia, and Yawalda. They were treated cordially, but they got a lot of side glances.

Later I found myself standing with Lambert and the duke.

"It's an interesting thought you've brought up, Sir Conrad," the duke said.

"That it is possible for an unarmed man to defeat one who is armed." "My lord, please understand that I am not a master of unarmed combat. I'm hardly an apprentice. I certainly believe that in a fight one is much better off armed. It is just that a warrior should remain a warrior even if he's naked."

"Interesting. You say you believe the obvious. Is there anyone who doesn't?" "I've met one, my lord. He insisted that weaponry was unimportant compared to mental att.i.tude and training. He was a master of the martial arts, a black belt from j.a.pan."

"Ali, yes. It is said that you have traveled widely."

"Yes, my lord. Perhaps more widely than you can imagine. But I made a vow--" "I know, son, and I won't push you. Still, a man must think. You, Lambert. Where do you think our Sir Conrad has come from?"

"My lord, I had not intended to speak on this, but since you ask, I must answer. Know that I have been watching this man carefully since Christmas. I have pondered long as to his origins, and I am confident that my guess is the right one."

"Then what is it?" the duke asked.

"I think that he is an emissary from Prester John, the Christian king of that most distant and fabulous empire."

Naturally, I was astounded by this. I'm not sure that I kept my jaw from sagging. Prester John!

"Remarkable," the duke said.

"Think about it, my lord. We have here a deadly knight who is distressed by the sight of blood.

A master of the technic arts who didn't know how a smith makes iron. A man who treats warriors and children just the same. Where else could he have come from but the most civilized empire in the world?" "Sir Stefan would say that he came from the Devil," the duke noted. "There has been bad blood between them, my lord. I have explained" "So you have. But why would Prester John send a man to us?" "Perhaps because of the Mongols," Lambert said. "It is said that they have conquered half the world. Perhaps they press him and he is in need of aid." "Then why didn't he send an emissary instead of an engineer?" "Perhaps he did, my lord. Whatever Conrad's instructions were, well, I've explained the gist of his oath."

"So you have. Well, Sir Conrad. It grows late. We are hunting tomorrow. Will you join us?"

"I would be honored, my lord." I don't like blood sports, but hunting at least has the virtue of putting meat on the table. Anyway, when your boss's boss invites you, you go.

The duke and Lambert drifted away.

We were to hunt for wild boar and bison, the misnamed buffalo of my American friends. There were, of course, wild bison in thirteenth century Poland. They still exist in modern times on carefully tended game preserves. I sent word to the Krakowski brothers to go home and take Piotr Kulczynski with them.

The next morning at dawn, I was on horseback with armor and spear, along with two dozen other knights. The duke sent me back to get my shield, since this was also part of the paraphernalia required.

As we rode out, young Henryk dropped back from the front column and rode at my side. "A remarkable coat of arms, Sir Conrad."

"Indeed, my lord?"

"A white eagle on a red field. That is very similar to the insignia of the dukes of Poland."

"Consider it a symbol of Poland, my lord."

"And the eagle wears a crown. Do you claim to be a king?"

"No, my lord. I'm saying that Poland needs a king." "Hmm, 'Poland is not yet dead."' He read my motto. "Are you saying that Poland is dying?"

"It's lying in a dozen pieces, my lord. That's a fair start. "

"You know that my father and I are working to unite those pieces."

"I know, my lord. When you weld them back together, I will change my motto." He laughed.

"Done, Sir Conrad! In ten years I'll watch you paint out that motto yourself."

"Gladly, my lord. But do it in nine."

We stopped for an early dinner and then spread out at two hundred-yard intervals to sweep through the forest, driving the animals toward the mountains. Lambert was on the far right, and my station was next to him, with Sir Vladimir to my left. They had deliberately put me between two experienced hunters, which was fine by me.

After a few hours I found myself facing a large bull bison a hundred yards away. Anna immediately broke into a gallop. Anna was trained to pa.s.s to the right of a charging knight so that one's spear went over the horse's neck at the knight to the left, but it was easier to use a spear on the right if one had to strike downward. I signaled her to pa.s.s on the left. The bison charged at us, not to slightly miss, as a knight would, but directly at us, to ram! I was bracing for a crash when Anna abruptly sidestepped at the last instant. Surprised, I managed to get a slashing cut into the animal's shoulder. It was bleeding, but it was not mortally wounded.

The bison had had enough and took off at a dead run, angling in front of Lambert. Anna, of course, raced behind it.

"After it, Sir Conrad!" Lambert shouted, and blew a signal on his horn, which I didn't understand. I'd been given a hunting horn, but I didn't know how to use it.

Anna was faster than the wounded bison, but he was built lower to the ground than we were, and he knew it; he charged through the thickets and under low branches. We lost sight of him.

I found tracks along a game trail and followed them for half an hour. By now we were into mountainous country and the trail seemed to lead between two cliffs, about two hundred yards apart, into a valley beyond. The valley contained about a square kilometer of flat land and was devoid of bison, wounded or otherwise. We worked our way up the sloping walls toward the bald mountains above, but it was soon obvious that I had lost the animal.

I was tired, and Anna probably needed rest, although she didn't show it. I dismounted, took a long drink of water from my canteen, and gave the rest to her. I sat down and fell another yard into a hole.

It was not actually a hole but a cave, and the floor sloped downward at a forty-five-degree angle.

I was sliding on my back, headfirst into the darkness. My shoulder hit an obstruction. I yelled and flipped over and skidded on my armored belly, feet first, for about twenty yards and then hit water.

Ile cave was narrow, only about a yard across, and had I still been going headfirst, I might have ended my story right here, by drowning. As it was, I was able to wedge myself between the walls and work myself out before I ran out of air. Climbing up in slippery armor was a miserable job, but I managed it. I looked around. It was not a natural cave at all but an abandoned mine' When I finally got out to greet my anxious horse, I threw myself on the ground, exhausted.

Shortly, I heard a horn blowing from the entrance of the valley. I got up, managed to get a squeak out of the horn slung on Anna's saddle, and then sat down again, carefully avoiding the hole.

Count Lambert rode up. "Sir Conrad, what are you doing up here?"

"Trying my hand at drowning, my lord."

"Drowning on a mountainside with no water in sight? By G.o.d, you are all wet!

Another of your arcane arts?"

"No, my lord. I simply fell down a mine shaft."

"Ali, yes! I remember that shaft. It was dug in my grandfather's time. They used to dig coal out of it and burned limestone from that outcropping to make mortar."

"The coal seam ran out?"

"No, there's plenty of coal down there. But when you have two men mining and thirty more pa.s.sing water buckets, there's not much profit in it. That mine is full of water."

"I noticed, my lord."

"Well, we got your bison two miles to the east. You followed a day-old trail up here. I gather that you don't know much about hunting." "No, my lord. I've never hunted before in my life."

"There are a lot of things that you don't know much about. Since we're alone, it's time we discussed them. I'm talking about Krystyana." "What about her?"

"Understand that playing a joke on my sister-in-law is one thing. Encouraging a peasant girl to take on the airs of the n.o.bility is quite another. Aside from the offense this gives my other va.s.sals- yes, and my liege lord! Do you realize that Henryk asked me why I had a n.o.blewoman working like a servant?-aside from that, have you thought about what's to become of her? Is she going to be content to settle down as a peasant's wife?"

"No, my lord. She wouldn't be."

"Do you plan to marry her yourself?"

"No, my lord."

"Then why have you encouraged her to rise so far above her station?" "Well, she's a good girl, an intelligent girl who wanted to better herself, and I didn't think-" "That's just it! You didn't think! What's more, it's spreading. Three or four of the others are starting to imitate her. You started this, Sir Conrad. What do you plan to do about it?"

"I don't know, my lord." He was right, of course. I'd set the poor kid up for a nasty fall. I'm good with technical stuff, but I am not a wizard when it comes to people problems. Best to change the subject. "You know, if there is still coal in this mine, I could build pumps to empty the water.

We could make mortar here again."

"Ah! I see where you are leading. That would take you out of Okoitz, and you could take the girls with you. Well, why not? You've given my workmen projects that will take a year or two to complete, and it's time you had your own lands, anyway. What if I gave you this valley and the land for a mile around it?" "A mile, my lord?" G.o.d! He was giving me some eighteen square kilometers of land!

"You are right, of course. This soil is rocky and poor. You'll need more. The top of that mountain is the boundary of my brother's land. We'll make that your southern boundary. We'll extend you to Sir Miesko's land on the east and to Baron Jaraslav's on the north and west. That will give you lands about six miles across. You should be able to eke out a decent living on it, in sheep if nothing else. In return, let's see. I'll want you to come to Okoitz for two days a month to oversee your improvements there. And if you get this mine working, I'll want a hundred mule loads of mortar a year. Agreed?"

"Yes, my lord. You are most generous!"

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Conrad Starguard - The Crosstime Enginee Part 21 summary

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