9. Iron Horse
Kurt belched, scratched at a flea-bite. The large wooden collar was uncomfortable. The iron hasp was out of reach behind him. This at least proved he was too valuable to kill. He hoped so, anyway. The Teutons were gathered round their machine. Three great iron wheels bound to a huge barrel shape. A huge chimney affair belched out smoke and the noise was like... Not like anything heard in Kurt's mountain village, anyway. It seemed obvious what the thing was for. A chain of carts, with wooden, metal-bound wheels trailed behind the steaming, rattling beast.
He looked around. About twenty men were roped together. Most had the square collar. The two men Kurt had been taken with held their heads erect, as he himself did. It must have taken more than a day to reduce the others to slumped, head-bowed figures, surely? None of them looked more than a few years older than Kurt himself. Except one. His straggling beard showed flashes of white through the dirt. Eyes the colour of tree-bark, his skin was swarthy. Kurt's grandfather had told him such people existed, far to the south. He had even said that they spoke some strange language and that they could convert it into symbols on paper. But then his grandfather had also told him that the ancients flew in the sky like giant birds.
The great beast began to shudder. Kurt wondered why someone would create such a thing, what was it for? One of the Teutons pointed at one of the carts behind the machine and cracked a whip, in case the prisoners were unsure of what he meant. The old man made a nimble leap, acquiring for himself a splinter-free space. Kurt himself was not so lucky, but he was spared the fate of the man who was too slow. Others flinched from the warm blood, Kurt let it fall like summer rain on his skin. It was just blood, human or boar, what difference did it make?
The cart lurched forward. All, save the old man, lost their balance, exchanging elbows and curses while they recovered it. It became obvious why they had built such a thing. It moved quickly. Faster than a huge team of horses. The reason for all being roped together was equally clear: a scrawny Tirolean had fallen over the side. The remainder of the captives were quick to pull him back aboard. Had he gone under the wheels he could have dragged more of them out. In the cart behind were two of the four Teutons who had boarded after herding them on. The occasional touch from one of their whips encouraged Kurt to look forward. He could see two larger men sweating on a platform behind. They were tending to a fire, heaving large logs into the furnace before them. From time to time, one of them would wrestle with a huge lever. Kurt soon learned that this was the point at which he should hold on tight to something, preferably the cart itself. He was not a fool; he knew what machinery was. Hadn't there been a mill in his village? It had to be admitted, this was something new.
What could only have been curses reached their ears from the guards in the cart behind. Kurt risked a look. The empty carts had broken away and were being left behind very quickly. They rolled forlornly down the shallow hillside.
Kurt laughed, that's what we're for? He laughed again and said aloud,
The old man turned one corner of his mouth upward. The rest had either not understood his Romaunsch or did not care.
Kurt watched as the two men in the cart behind began an argument. The larger of the two made his point with the aid of a jabbing finger in his comrade's chest. The loser began to clamber from the rear cart into the captives'. The old man gave Kurt a smile as he slid his foot in the Teuton's path. It was worth the cuffing awarded to the rest of the prisoners, in Kurt's view. The guard forced his way through to the front of the cart. He tried shouting at the two men feeding the furnace. In the end he cracked his whip and both turned, short dagger in hand. Kurt saw the guard attempt to explain what happened in dumb-show. Both of the other men shrugged. One of them made a circular motion with his hand, with an increasing speed and shrugged again. The guard made a chopping motion with his own hand and the other Teutons nodded.
The old man did not risk another sly trip, Kurt was glad to see. The guard had his sword unsheathed. When he got to the rear of the cart he sliced through the ropes with one blow. Kurt chanced a glance behind: the look on the larger man's face as his cart rolled away was indeed funny. Perhaps that was why the remaining guard was laughing so much.
Kurt slept the sleep of the damned. Elbows and knees and the jerky progress of the machine mixed reality with dreams until he was sure the Old Man had spoken to him without moving his lips.
'You must take the bottle,' were the words.
When they came to a stop, Kurt was not the only one to stretch and groan. He stopped short when he realised something had been stuffed into his tunic. A bundle of rags with something hard inside it. He clamped his arm to his side. Kurt looked around for the old man. He had gone.