Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 39

Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 39

It took a few seconds for the implication of this statement to sink into the younger man’s head. Then he too knelt, his eyes wide. “My Lord Prince… they seek you. They must not find you here.”

“Who is looking for him?” asked Grigori.

“Soldiers,” said the local farmer. “Some Magyar. Along with a troop of Croats. They were here the day before yesterday. Asking if we had seen you.”

“They are closer behind than we realized,” said Radu grimly.

Angelo nodded. “I am surprised they dared to ask here. Rumor will spread.”

“They do our work for us,” said Grigori. “Telling people the prince is free. They will rouse the country.”

“We must get him away from here,” said Janoz. “Keep him hidden and safe from the Hungarians. Prince Vlad, my father served your grandfather. I would be your man. We need you, my prince. Drive these foreigners out, and make our land safe again.”

“You need to raise an army, Drac,” said Angelo with a twisted smile. “I think you just found your first recruit. ”

The young man nodded earnestly up at him. “And I have four brothers, Sire. I am the youngest. And there are the Teleki brothers. And the Bolyai. And I would think among the boyar Klasparuj’s peasantry…”

Vlad raised him up. “I accept your service. But right now I am tired, thirsty and I want to know if today is Sunday.”

Janoz looked puzzled. “No, Sire. That was yesterday.” He turned to the innkeeper. “Get up! Bring food and good ale. And the prince wants warm water.”

“Have you run mad?” croaked the innkeeper, still massaging his throat. “He is no prince. Prince Vlad is locked up in Buda. This is a gypsy.”

“I was able to make my escape,” Vlad said tersely, restraining himself. There was a kind of madness pressing at him that wanted to take this fool and crush his throat. Vlad was quite sure right now that if he gave in, he would do it quite easily. Crush the throat and probably the spine in the process.

He’d always been strong — so, at least, he’d been told by his armsmasters. But now, he felt as if he possessed the strength of an ogre.

He took a deep breath. “I have been hunted hard and far. But now I am ready to begin to turn the game against them. And I want warm water, a razor, soap and a towel. We may not be able to stay here in safety, but I will wash and shave. And we will have something to eat. And all of this will happen very quickly or I shall wring the life out of you. I have suffered you in patience long enough.”

Whether the innkeeper believed him, or whether he saw the way Vlad’s long fingers twitched and remembered their iron feel on his throat, it had the desired effect. “Yes, Lord.” The man scrambled to his feet and left for his kitchen at a staggering run, belly and dewlaps quivering.

Angelo pointed to Janoz. “Follow him. Make sure that he does not season the food with henbane. I’ve no love for all this washing, but food and beer are going to be very welcome.”

Vlad nodded. “And you, old sir, are going to sit down and tell me how things are going in the principality. I have been locked up in a tower in Buda. I need to know what is happening here. I need to know what my people need.”

Vlad was vaguely surprised at himself. But he found that he really did wish to know these things. “I will not forget that you were the first to welcome me home, and that your son was the first to offer himself to my service.”

Vlad found that he could scarcely have picked on a more eager informant. In a cracked old voice, the veteran told him of increasing taxes and — worse still, from his viewpoint — of Emeric’s campaign of creeping Hungarianization of Valahia. He was encouraging settlers into the country with generous offers of land or permissions, to displace the local people, especially the tradesmen. The foreigners were naturally more loyal to Emeric than to the Prince of Valahia. They were given privileges and licenses — for instance, smithy permissions, which were refused to metalsmiths that had been working here for centuries.

There was an outraged shout from the kitchen. Vlad, and the gypsies went through to find Janoz struggling with the innkeeper, and the back door open. “He waited till my back was turned and then tried to sneak off,” panted Janoz. “He tried to tell me earlier that we must call the magistrate.”

Vlad found that the strange fury was rising in him again, like some inner dark tide. Perhaps it showed in his eyes because the innkeeper made a desperate attempt to break free — and succeeded. Unfortunately for him, not into the stable-yard outside, but toward the pantry.

The innkeeper snatched up a long knife from the butcher’s block, and that was where Vlad’s memory of the incident stopped. When Vlad next came to himself he was holding the man, now limp and upside down, with his face pressed hard into a bucket of slops.

He blinked. How had he come to be doing this? He hauled the innkeeper out of the bucket and stood him upright. The fat innkeeper toppled over, very slowly. Looking down, Vlad noticed that his own hands were bloody. So was Janoz, who was sitting on the floor, his face white, blood leeching onto his shirt.

Vlad stood irresolute for a moment, not knowing quite how he had come to be where he was, and not knowing quite what to do next. Fortunately, it would appear that the gypsies did have some idea. Grigori knelt next to the injured Janoz and tore the shirt aside, exposing the wound in his chest. It gaped and bled, blood coming in bubbling thick spurts. His father hobbled up, horror and despair on his face.

“He took the blade intended for the prince,” said Angelo.

Vlad too knelt next to the wounded man. “Get us a physician. Run, man.” He looked at the face of the young man. “And a priest!” he yelled after him.

****

They carried him through to the tap-room and laid him on a settle. His father held one hand, and Vlad the other.

The village had no physician. The midwife was doing her best, as the priest gave the man the last rites. Someone had gone to call Janoz’s kin.

“He is trying to say something.” The priest leaned in. So did Vlad. The dying man turned his head to the latter. “My Prince,” he said weakly. “Mira…”

And that was all he would ever say in this world.

“Who did he call for?” asked Vlad a little later, as they drew the linen over his face.

“You, Sire. And his wife.”

Vlad was silent. Then he said, heavily: “He had a wife?”

“A wife and a young son, Sire,” said the old man.

“I must see them. I swear this,” said Vlad, his voice cracking. “If I come to rule, that son will have lands so wide that he will not see the borders from his home. Your son was my first man. I will never forget that.”

“You killed the scum with your own hands, Sire. Drowned him in his own kitchen’s filth. Justice is served, at least.”

“I should have killed him earlier,” said Vlad bitterly. “If I had, a fine man would not have died.”

The old man nodded. “I just wish I could have died in his place. I am old. But he died well and with honor, my Prince,” he said, shakily.

Vlad put a gentle hand on the old stooped shoulder. “He died with great honor, and acted with courage where many a knight would have failed. I will see him remembered for it, and honored. I swear to this. And now will you have someone take me to his widow. I must speak with her.”

****

“He is becoming more of a prince by the moment,” said Radu in a slightly grumpy tone. “He has not yet understood that we are not his subjects.”

Angelo shrugged. “It is the place, and the blood, and of course the old magic. It runs stronger in some than others. It runs dangerously strong in this one. And the light and darkness are closely balanced in him. When he is killing, the dark could dominate.”

He took a deep breath. “We need to renew the compact. The old one did not die in vain.”

“She did work some of her magic on him,” said Grigori. “I can smell it about him.”

Angelo shrugged again. “He has to be strong enough to throw that off, or he will be too weak for the blood pact. We can but bide our time.”

Grigori nodded. “Still. He accepts responsibility well. And he is stronger than his father.”

“We just need to hope that he is more stable than his grandfather. Breeding these bloodlines is not easy,” said Radu.

“True,” said Angelo. “But what other choices do we have? We need them. We need the compact. There are more human settlers every year. And we need space to run.”

“I need space to run now. I need to hunt, properly,” said Grigori, who was if anything, far more wolf than human.

****

In the little church Vlad kept vigil by the corpse. He prayed for his man’s soul. He prayed for his own soul too. Something dark was rising in him. Something he was not sure he could control.

And part of him wanted to let it free.

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