Chapter Thirteen: Hell Hath no Fury…
By the end of May, the pass was clear and traffic to and from the city now travelled the road daily. Berwald's nerves were on edge, jumping at every noise and it was Tino who kept him sane. "Bear, honey, remember, each day as it comes." He would remind Berwald as they went about the daily life that didn't wait just because they were scared. The animals needed tending, the garden needed weeding and watering, Peter and Berwald's pants needed mending, dinner needed getting on the table, little and big boys needed bathing every day, life moved on.
Berwald had the horses hitched to the plow and was turning the ground in the south field to plant the sweet grasses the animals would feed on over the winter. Peter was in the barn playing with the goats. In another few weeks, all but Alice would be heading over to Mathias' to be raised on his farm. It wasn't that Peter couldn't head over there to see the others any time he wanted. He was always welcome at Onkle Mads and Onkle Aleks house. In a few more years Tino would let him make the short walk on his own, but for now Tino and Berwald walked him over when he wanted to visit.
Tino was doing laundry and hanging it up on the line to dry when Peter came crying out of the barn, holding his arm. Tino rushed over, calling for Berwald. He was bleeding and it appeared he'd cut himself on something in the barn. It wasn't fatal but to a four year old, it was the end of the universe.
Berwald scooped him up. "I'll get him over to Mads. It's nothing it might not even need stitches Mama." Berwald said standing.
"I'll be right behind you, I'll get the horses back in the barn and I'll follow." Tino said setting Berwald down the road with their son and Tino unhooked the big brutes from the plow and they followed him, and the apples he held as bribes, into the barn. He got them in their pen dusted his hands off and turned around and ran right into a large, wide chest.
"I've been waiting all day to have you alone to… talk. Little Tino." Ivan purred and all the blood drained from Tino's face as he backed away.
"L-l-l-leave me alone, Ivan please. I'm begging you, let us go." Tino pleaded, shaking from head to toe as Ivan reached out to run a hand down his hair and cheek.
"You run away from me. This makes me unhappy. All winter I lose money because you leave me." Ivan began circling his prey now like a hungry wolf.
"I was afraid you were going to sell my baby. Oh Please Ivan he has a chance here, he has a father here and a place to grow into a respectable man. Please, please don't hurt my baby." Tino begged, fear gripping him like an icy fist. No one terrified him quite as much as Ivan did.
"Do you know how easy it would be to take everything from you? A Fire in just the right place will kill Peter and that Swede, especially, if you are all sleeping because the well water was poisoned. I could kill everything, right down to the little yappy dog. I do not like when my property runs away." Ivan began his violet eyes full of intense malice and sickening joy at the thought of causing pain and death.
"No. Oh Ivan no! Please don't kill them! Please. I'll do anything you want I swear. Don't kill them! I love them please." Tino fell to his knees begging and pleading for Peter and Berwald's lives. Because he knew one thing, Ivan never bluffed. He would follow through with his threats until he got what he wanted.
Ivan reached down and yanked the rune necklace off from around Tino's neck and looked at it before tossing it into the straw in the goat pen. "Love? You are a whore. You are MY WHORE. Your wasted trollop of a mother sold you to my father for another opium fix. And he left you to me. You love who I tell you to love, men who pay for the privilege. However, I can be generous. I really don't want to fight with you all the way back home. Come quietly and without fuss and I will leave the Swede and the ugly little brat alone. They are of no value to me. You… are." Ivan said holding Tino's chin to force him to look into Ivan's eyes, his cold, calculating eyes.
"I have been watching you for days. What a pitiful life this is for you worth so much more to so many men. Such beauty wasted on that classless brute. He has you cooking and cleaning and ruining your skin in the sunshine. Eking out a pathetic existence out of soil and dirt, rutting like pigs in the mud. This life is beneath such beauty. Now come before they wonder where you are. It would be a shame to have to shoot your Swede. It will only take my order. My men are everywhere." Ivan said and sobbing with a shattered heart Tino nodded.
"Give me just a minute, please." Tino said going inside, taking off his wedding ring to lay it on the kitchen counter where he scribbled a hasty note on Berwald's pad of paper on the counter.
"I well lub u, foreber. Do not fallow. He will kell u bothe. I so sorrey." Tino scribbled as best he could, all the while hoping that Berwald would be able to read his terrible writing and understand. He set his ring on the note, his tears making it almost impossible to see as he joined Ivan in the yard again, going back to save his family was the only thing he could do. Ivan was dangerous and he would kill Berwald and Peter if he fought back. Tino knew he was going to be beaten to within an inch of his life as soon as they got back. He knew what happened to runaways when they came back.
And they always came back, willingly or unwillingly.
Ivan always got them back. He knew this day was coming, had always known. It didn't make it any easier to bear however. His heart felt ripped to shreds as he was pulled into a carriage just down the road and taken back to the city.
It started immediately. The moment the door was shut to the carriage Ivan grabbed his arm. "You will regret running away." Were Ivan's words as he forced Tino's sleeve up his arm, Tino struggled involuntarily.
"NO! oh God, NO IVAN not that! I swear I won't run again! I swear it! Not that! Please!" Tino begged the minute he saw the needle.
"It will only hurt more if you fight me." Ivan said digging his fingers into the bones and sinews of Tino's arm making him scream in pain. Then the needle jammed roughly home and within moments, Tino's vision swam as the opium rushed through his body. He never remembered the carriage even moving until he woke up hours later, strung out and shaking, with the telltale stomach cramps and long moments of delirium as the potent drugs ravaged his system. He had never taken the drug in his life; he'd seen Ivan force the addiction on so many others, to keep them willing prisoners. His descent into Ivan's drugged little puppet had just begun.
He was tied to a bed in one of the hidden basement rooms, Ivan's personal torture chambers where he broke people slowly. Tino knew he was in for days and days of torture before Ivan was through with him, Ivan was furious and this was how he spent his anger on his victims. His vengeance was methodical, calculated, as he slowly and painfully bent you to his will, until the only thing that mattered in life anymore was the next drug high to escape the hell that was living.
It had looked worse than it was. Peter had only caught himself on the corner of the shovel. Once Aleks and Mads had him all cleaned up, it only needed to be bandaged and a cookie made it "all better". It was then everyone realized Tino wasn't there yet.
"Something is wrong; he'd have been here by now." Berwald said turning worried eyes to Mathias.
"Go, both of you I have a bad feeling too. I'll watch Peter. Go." Aleks said handing Mathias his rifle. They all knew but didn't dare say out loud yet. All were afraid to jinx it if they were worried over nothing more than a feeling. They weren't taking chances either.
Berwald squatted down. "You be good for Onkle Aleks. Papa will be back as soon as he can." Berwald reassured his weepy son and Aleks picked him up and propped him on a hip.
"We'll be fine Papa. We'll make cookies. Just go." Aleks said putting on a brave face for the little one as Erik came into the room his rifle on his back.
"I'm going to." Was all he said, he cared about Tino too and wouldn't sit idle when a friend needed help either. All three men were running back down the road to Berwald's, Berwald and Mathias shouting for Tino and scouring the farm for any sign of him once they reached the yard.
"IN HERE!" Erik shouted bringing the ring and note out to Berwald.
Berwald's eyes scanned the note and then crushed it in his hand. "Ivan has him. I'll kill that son of a bitch if he's hurt a hair on his head." Berwald growled his eyes full of anger. Mathias tucked the ring in his pocket.
"Keep it together Man. We'll get him back the right way so no one gets hurt. Erik, take one of the horses and get Rutger and Ludwig and bring them to meet us at the Cock-n-Bull tavern on Market Street, tell them what you know and have them bring back-up. We go in with a plan and no one dies because I don't trust this Ivan guy as far as I can throw him and I want the law at my back. Ludwig owes me a favor." Mathias said trying to keep things organized and to keep a wild bear of a Husband from just storming in with his gun blazing and getting himself killed.
Erik was bareback on Magnus in no time and was a blur down the road. The boy could ride like the wind and was gone. Mathias was pulling Berwald into the barn. "Come on saddle up Hans with me. Never leave a German and a Dutchman alone in a place that serves beer for too long I want them sober." Mathias made light as best he could. He knew how Berwald felt, if some psycho had Aleks? Mathias would be foaming at the mouth crazy.
Berwald looked down momentarily and little baby Alice was there at his feet bleating, in her mouth was Tino's necklace. Like she was making sure it didn't get lost in the hay underfoot. Berwald put it in his pocket and pat the little darling on the head. "Tack Alice. Bra flicka." Berwald said tenderly before he finished getting the bridle on Hans who stood perfectly still as if he too knew something was dreadfully wrong.
The whole farm seemed to be holding a collective breath waiting. It was eerily silent in the barn as Mads cinched the saddle in place. "Come on you big brute, breath out you bastard. It's gotta be tight or you're dumping us on our asses." Mads prodded the big male to let out the breath he was holding and as he did so Mads gave one last hard tug to secure the straps.
Berwald was up first, giving Mads a hand up. "God I feel like a woman holding on to you. Don't bounce me off this ass end Svenk." Mads teased as Berwald snorted and snapped the reigns and Hans shot out of the barn like hellfire was licking at his withers.
Berwald and Mathias reached the tavern first, Mathias was obviously a regular with the patrons and owners, but then again the Dane seemed to have friends everywhere he went. The bar was owned by an older Italian gent and his two grandsons. Judge Carriedo was at the bar frustrating a young bartender who was cursing at him enough to turn the air blue. His much more genial brother was waving at them as Mathias entered.
"Erik has been. Ludwig went out to get help and Erik went to fetch Mr. Van der Ploeg from the grist mill." Feliciano Vargas-Beilschmidt announced leading them over to a table where Ludwig's older brother already sat and stood to shook Mathias' hand.
"Erik only gave us a cursory overview. My brother has gone to round up a deputy or two and Erik went to fetch Rutger over from the mill, they're working overtime since the west trade route has been blocked half a year." Gilbert said as they sat and he eyed Berwald up and down once and then grinned.
"I don't pity the arschloch who is going to meet the business end of your fist. Scary looking piece of work aren't you?" Gilbert added as the pulled up chairs and Feliciano brought over a pitcher of lager.
"Cut the joking Gil. This is serious. Ivan Braginski has Berwald's spouse. We're going to get him back out before anyone gets hurt. Tino is not a slave, Ivan cannot hold him against his will and you and I both know he's got fingers in every pie except the sheriff's office because your brother can't be bought. But he'll have shooters ready to pick us off like flies if we invade his territory. God knows where he has Tino." Mathias said and Berwald shivered.
"Basement. Tino told me Ivan has torture chambers down there. There's a false bottom floor. There's an entire catacomb of rooms hidden under the basement floors. He runs his opium trade from down there and it's where he puts his property to discipline them." Berwald said looking like he was barely holding it together. Feliciano laid a hand on Berwald's arm.
"My husband will help you. He's wanted to arrest Ivan for years. If he's kidnapped your wife, he'll get her back for you." Feliciano said and Berwald gave a rather forced smile.
"My husband, Tino is my husband." Berwald corrected and Feliciano smiled.
"Sorry. I get called a girl all the time too." Feliciano admitted as Ludwig strolled back in along with a tall and broad fellow with a scar over his right eye, a massive dark Turkish man wearing a bright red fez, a sleepy-eyed Greek and a large Cuban smoking a pungent cigar. All of them armed to the teeth and dangerous looking. Erik pulled up the rear, lost behind a sea of monstrous men.
"You will stay here Erik. Aleks will kill me if I let you get hurt. I will kill me if I let you get hurt. Park it young man in that chair." Mathias began and pointed at a chair and when it seemed Erik was going to protest, Mathias leveled him a look that nigh on defied description. It was the sort of look only father's seemed to have mastered that said clearly: "Just try and defy me little boy and I will stick my foot so far up your ass my toes will clear out your breakfast from between your teeth like toothpicks from the inside."
"Yes sir." That was all Erik answered as he sat down with a deflated "plop" at the table and Feliciano laid a hand on Erik's shoulder in understanding and empathy.
"Sometimes it's annoying being too young or-a too old for the fight kiddo. But your Papà, he's-a right. You stay here with us son." The elder Italian said coming over with sarsaparilla and a platter of pasta to feed the boy and keep him out of trouble while the others hurried off to the back room to discuss a plan of action where Ivan's spies all around town wouldn't hear.
Erik didn't correct the old man either. Mathias was the closest thing to a father Erik had, he certainly treated him like a father, and Erik was grateful to both Mathias and Aleks for all they had done for him. Even if he was rather disappointed he wouldn't be helping anymore that night.
Time could not be measured in minutes our hours, not to Tino. When he wasn't sleeping and having dreams that could only be described as hellish nightmares, he was in a stupor, barely breathing. "Oh Lawd, he done did it now. He done give you too much. Come on baby, don't you be leavin' old Hattie now." The kindly, elderly woman said her weathered ancient hands wiping Tino's brow where his body tried sweating out the toxins now coursing through his body. It wasn't bad enough the master had whipped Tino while he was drugged within an inch of his life, the master had given Tino too much of that mind poison all at once, and Tino had reacted badly too it. He was choking on his own vomit and screaming in his dreams. When he finally did sleep, it was restless and violent shaking and trembling. Tino needed a doctor not some old slave woman but the master refused. He wanted Tino suffering.
Hattie just held Tino's hand and said a prayer. He'd only been here four hours and he was at death's door. The master's anger and flared, the drugs had been too much for his smaller system and between the whipping and the drugs Hattie wasn't sure Tino was going to live out the night.
He kept crying out for Berwald, that nice Swedish fellow that fixed the attic window. Perhaps that was where Tino had spent his winter. She hoped so; she remembered the way that young man had looked at her Titi. Like he was a treasure to be cherished and not beaten until broken. At least Tino had half a year of happiness before he died. Most of her babies never got that much to begin with. Hattie hoped Tino turned a corner soon. Good or bad, it was better than this hellish Limbo of perpetual suffering he was living in now. All she could do was mop his brow free of sweat with a cool rag and wait it out with him. Like she always did with her babies, all her precious little loves.
Hattie sang Tino the old lullabies she used to sing him when he was still innocent. Before that damn master Grigori sold Tino when he was barely out of his nappies. Then Tino's mama, so high on the opium they pumped her full of signed that cursed paper giving Tino to the master when she died, then when the consumption finally got the bastard, his son takes over his mad ways before he's even dry behind the ears. He was raised to be a tyrant by a tyrant. Ivan was as mad as his papa. His mind was twisted to be evil by the most evil of men. It broke Hattie's heart. Ivan was just as much a product of this hell hole as Titi was. Some nights she lay wishing the place would burn to the ground. It would be the only thing to set these souls free. This place was nothing but the Devil's playground. She sometimes thought even if she lit it on fire herself, the damn place wouldn't burn. It was already blazing with hellfire anyway. Sometimes it felt like Hellhounds guarded the place at night.
After discussions, everyone agreed Ludwig would lead his hastily appointed militia of deputies down the main street and head in right through the front door with seizure warrants happily supplied by Judge Carriedo from where he was holding "court" from the bar. He was more than happy to give Ludwig whatever he asked for if it meant finally getting a Braginski behind bars. That whole district was overrun with corruption, bribery, the Russian mob and Ivan's string of brothels and opium trade. They'd walk in there and prove it tonight with a warrant to search the premises. Tino's kidnapping was just the sort of "Golden Opportunity" they needed even if everyone agreed they would have chosen a different method if given the choice. No one wanted to think of a person being tortured, especially the married men who could understand Berwald's rage that seemed frozen in a state of pain, horror and anger. He was white knuckled and wanting nothing more than to put a bullet between Ivan's eyes.
"Just don't kill him Mein Friend. No man will fault you for taking a piece of his hide in retribution, but I don't want to arrest you too, unless he is about to kill you, please try to avoid killing anyone." Ludwig said and Berwald nodded tersely as they finally headed out to get Tino at sunset.
To Be Concluded….
Coming Soon: Chapter Fourteen: End Times.
"Tack Alice, Bra flicka" = "Thanks Alice, Good girl." In Swedish.