Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 62
“We need arms. And gold or at least silver. More horses. And probably food.” Vlad spoke to himself. He did not dare say so to any other person. That would betray the weakness of his position and his own lack of knowledge. He knew he was the Prince of Valahia. He knew from Countess Elizabeth — he kept thinking of her — that his father was dead and that King Emeric was going to have him killed, as he had no further use as a hostage . . . He was not entirely sure why he was of no further use. His mother still lived, didn’t she? A tear pricked at his eye. For years he had avoided thinking of her. It hurt too much. He’d had a baby sister too. Where were they? Still in Poienari castle, high above the ravine? Why could Emeric not just have forced her to act as regent?
He would go south, he decided. He had an army of sorts, growing daily. He bit his lip. He was aware of the problems in logistics. Just feeding them all up here in the mountains was a problem. Could he expect his good sergeants to solve that? They seemed very adept at solving other problems. It seem a great deal to ask . . . and he had a feeling that he might not like their solutions. A raid on a village would not enhance his popularity. Nor was it honest. And that, he had discovered, was as important to his peasant army, as it was to him.
Someone coughed, well off down slope. The Sergeants had discovered . . . as had he quite by accident, and nearly fatally — that they should not try to sneak up on Prince Vlad. Where the speed and strength came from, he was not sure. But his men had learned not to toy with it.
It was one of the Sergeants. “Begging your pardon, Sire. Sorry to disturb.” What did they think he was doing? Plotting deep doings? He had too little to do. Too much time to think. Of the horror of men and their dying. Of the flames. Of gypsies that everyone seemed to despise. Of the creamy softness of the countess. Of the confusion of feeling she caused in him. “Yes, Sergeant Emil?”
“The outer perimeter guards found a man with a wagon on the trail. He said he was looking for you, Sire.”
“He says he is a loyal vassal. He has goods to sell.” The Sergeant sounded suspicious. “He sounds like a German. You can’t trust them Sire.” The Sergeant looked as if he wanted to say more . . . and then shut his mouth.
Vlad waited and then, when nothing more was forthcoming pressed the issue. “What is it Sergeant Emil?”
“Well, Sire,” the Sergeant said uncomfortably, “We could use food. And other goods . . . waxed flax, cloth. It’s cold here and not even autumn yet. I’d have confiscated all his goods and chased him off for a thieving German. But some of the men say you . . . you’d not like that, sire. That you paid good silver for everything. Only . . . I have no silver, Sire.”
“Then let us go down and see what he has to offer. I’ve been told my Grandfather believed in honesty and that the country people still love him for that. I owe him for that legacy.”
The Sergeant twisted his hat in his hands. “Begging your pardon, Sire, that’s true. But he was a mad bastard too . . . uh.” he swallowed convulsively as he realized what he’d said.
Vlad nodded. “I know. I remember that even my father was afraid of him.”
The sergeant nodded. “But he fixed those foreigner gougers properly. And he was harsh . . . Sire, but fair. Not like King Emeric, who’ll punish a man for telling him bad news, even if it is true. Or who’ll kill the closest people to make an example.”
They had begun to walk down the mountain toward the rutted track that criss-crossed the stream, using whatever flatland was available to continue up into the mountains. “I gather you have had experience of King Emeric, Sergeant Emil?”
The grizzled sergeant nodded. “He’s like a rabid weasel, Sire. He kills for pleasure or for no reason at all.”
There was a already a crowd around the wagon, and business was brisk, by the looks of it. The jowled merchant and his assistant were busy.
The Sergeant shouted something so close to a bear growl that Vlad did not quite catch the word. But the chaffering and noise stopped. Men stood rigid as if suddenly frozen to attention.
“And what is happening here?” asked Vlad, feeling his hackles rise looking at the trader.
The man bowed very low. “Your Majesty’s loyal servant. Kopernico Goldenfuss, is my name Sire. I trade in various fine goods . . .”
“At a price,” muttered someone.
Vlad looked him over, not liking what he saw but unable to put a good reason to it. Yet . . . those feelings had been right in the past. “You know my grandfather’s reputation, Goldenfuss? Honest weights, measure and fair dealing, or he made some appropriate adjustments to the weight and measurement of the merchant, I believe. He took the short weight off the scoundrel’s belly.”
“S . . .sire. I but took a reasonable profit for the risks and the transport . . .” The merchant stuttered.
“There are no risks. I accept that transport must cost something. What goods have you?”
“S . . .some fine cloth, Prince. And schnapps. And dried beef. I would be pleased to make a gift of a fine bright outfit for you, Sire. Not somber blacks. Scarlet and purple. Fit for a noble to wear . . .”
The rough wool had irked Vlad, as had the austere black of the priest’s spare clothing. But this . . . scum thought he could bribe him. “My clothing is adequate,” he said shortly. “I wear it with pride.”
He was surprised to hear the troops cheer. He realized that for this conflict anyway, he would be wearing simple black clothes. “I could use a cloak, as could a number of my men. But I will have no more of your exploitation. I will buy your entire cargo at a fair price. It will be given to those who have most need. Give them their silver back. And consider yourself lucky. You will not be so fortunate twice.” He turned to the Sergeant. “I will have those goods back in the wagon, Sergeant, and each man to get his money back.”
The Sergeant nodded. “And a close guard on that Schnapps, Sire.”
Vlad had not thought of what strong drink could do. He nodded. Looked at his small army and the expressions on their faces. “Every man will get some. But we cannot have any drunkenness. The Hungarians will cut your throats while you all sleep it off. The first man I find drunk . . . I will drown in it. ”
There was an almost imperceptible nod of approval from the Sergeant. “Right. Form up. A straight line. With the goods and we’ll see you get your money.”
The merchant coughed, and bobbed his head awkwardly. “About my money, Sire . . .”
“You will paid,” said Vlad curtly, thinking of his scanty supply of silver.
“Of course, Sire. Your script is good.”
Vlad suddenly put something he’d read into place. He’d read of promissory notes and usury without understanding them fully or bothering to find out much. So this was what it meant. He had the vaguest grasp of finance: he’d never really had the occasion to use money in the tower, and he was unsure just how Princes got it. Taxation . . . but how did it work? What did he have to do? A series of accidents had lead to a reputation as leader. As Prince. He’d been lucky. He’d made the right decisions . . . he thought. He desperately needed someone to advise him. He just didn’t know things any fifteen year old peasant boy would know, let alone a twenty year old Prince. But Vlad knew two things. Firstly, his hold on these people was strong but tenuous. Secondly, he needed them. Without them he was a child, lost and floundering. That much he’d learned among the gypsies, even before life became so much more complicated. He would be taken by his enemies. They might kill him. That he could endure. But they might imprison him again. He needed these people, if only to keep him from that. Besides, it would seem that he had inherited noblesse oblige. His father had drummed that into him from very young, and he had never quite forgotten it — and oddly, the old priest that had been allowed to visit him in prison had re-enforced it.
But oh, for someone he could ask.
“A word, Sire.” It was Sergeant Emil again. “I have taken the liberty of making Mirko the quartermaster for now. He served in Corfu, Sire. If that’s all right Sire?”
How did he expect Vlad to know? He barely knew what a quartermaster was. “I suppose so.” That didn’t sound firm enough, but it was said.
“I trust him, Sire. He’s a good man.”
“I did not trust that merchant.”
The Sergeant nodded slowly. “It was a bit odd. Traders don’t travel up int the mountains with a wagon-load of schnapps without a good few guards. Do you want us to tail him, Sire? There are a couple of men . . .” he coughed, “That, if you take my meaning, shot deer on land where they shouldn’t have. They can move without being seen, at least as fast as man and a wagon.”
Vlad had to think about what the Sergeant was saying. Ah. Poachers. He felt some doubt . . . but . . . he was suspicious. And it did feel right to be that, and to take some action, even though trimming the lard off the fat thief had seemed a better idea. “Tell the trader we want to buy more. He must come back.”
The Sergeant nodded. “We could use more supplies, Sire.”
“We will not be here when this merchant comes back. Just in case. Just one man, watching the trail.”
The Sergeant rubbed his stubbly jaw, nodding again. “Yes Drac,” He’d noticed they called him that in times of stress or for greater respect. “I’ll tell him too that most of the men are away. We only have some new recruits here.”