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Much Fall of Blood: Chapter Eleven
Last updated: Friday, December 18, 2009 22:09 EST
They got out of the carriage in order to be ferried across the Danube. Vlad enjoyed that brief respite. The open air was full of strange scents carried on the morning breeze. Although he would never have dreamed of saying so to his angelic seeming rescuer, he found the scent that she used cloying. She had insisted on keeping the curtains in the carriage closed this morning.
The far side of the river was the site of a small town. Vlad hoped for some breakfast, and, by the hopeful looks they had cast at the inn, so did the outriders. But Elizabeth showed no signs of hunger or a desire to stop. As soon as the horses were poled up, she had the coachman drive them onward at a spanking pace.
“I have never been that fond of large amounts of running water,” she said. “It makes me feel a little queasy.”
“I quite understand,” said Vlad, sympathetically. “You are such a delicately built lady that I wonder how you can travel so fast. I remember that my mother always insisted that we spent a day resting after she had been traveling for a day. We sometimes used to travel to Corona. That was considered a two-day journey, but Mama always made it take four. It used to drive my father nearly mad.”
She looked at him rather strangely. “I would not have thought that you could remember so much from so long ago.”
“I remember it very well, although it sometimes seems as if it is somebody else’s life I am remembering. I was lonely and afraid when I was first sent to Buda. All I could do was tell myself stories of what it was like before. I did not speak very good Hungarian and the people would not speak to me in my own language. Not even Father Tedesco, and he was very good to me. I remember the woods and the mountains. I long to see the mountains again.”
“And so you shall,” said Elizabeth. “My castle — one of my residences, the one which we are going to — is set on the edge of the mountains, although I must admit it lacks some of the delights of civilization. I am fond of the liveliness of the capital myself. But there are certain advantages to a residence in a rural fastness. For one, it will be a good place to hide you.”
“Do you think that King Emeric will be looking for me?” asked Vlad warily. Emeric had terrified him when he had been a small boy. He had learned to control and hide that fear. But he had seen just what Emeric did to his enemies or to those who dared to disobey him. They died slowly on the pikes set outside the castle.
That was something that Father Tedesco said that Vlad’s grandfather, the Dragon, had been infamous for. Perhaps for that reason, Vlad had found it strangely fascinating. But it was not something that he wished to experience, personally.
“Undoubtedly,” said Elizabeth. “Do not worry, Prince Vlad, we will keep you hidden. As long as you stay with me, you will be quite safe.”
“Does that mean that I will have to stay hidden indoors? I had hoped to at least be able to go out hunting again.”
Elizabeth laughed at him; a musical tinkle of sound. “You poor boy. We will not have to confine you that much. Of course there will be certain magical protections set in place. And anyway there is not much game close to the Castle. My late husband hunted to excess, I am afraid. He always claimed that it was to get rid of the wolves, but I suspect that he just liked killing things.”
“Oh,” said Vlad. “My father liked wolves.”
She sniffed. “Nasty creatures. And very hard on the sheep.”
Vlad had to admit that was probably true.
The carriage rolled on in relative silence, unless you counted the creaks and rattles as the carriage swayed on its leather springs along the badly surfaced road . The horses were clearly tiring, as they were now moving considerably slower.
Suddenly the coach lurched, and the horses broke into a gallop.
The coach swayed even more wildly and the coachman was plainly fighting for control. Vlad found himself flung about and clung desperately to the leather strap. Elizabeth, however, seemed perfectly in control. She leaned forward and tapped on the small window. Somewhat jerkily, it was opened. “What is happening out there?” she asked sharply.
“Don’t know, milady. Horses panicked,” said the struggling coachman.
After a while, he managed to bring the lathered horses under control. He opened the little window again. “Sorry, Milady, the offside wheeler is going lame. And all of the horses are tired. We’ll need to rest them and see if we can find another team. There is a small inn in the hamlet about a mile ahead. Can I stop there?”
“If you must,” said the countess, looking mildly irritated.
“Perhaps we could get something to eat there?” asked Vlad.
“I doubt if they will rise to much above porklot, which will mostly be cabbage. But nonetheless what you say is true. I have been very remiss in looking after you. We shall have to see what this little place offers. But do not expect too much.”
Vlad did not know what to expect at all. However, whatever happened, he would be out of the stuffy swaying carriage for a while. Her scent was making him want to sneeze. He also felt as if he hadn’t seen a meal for days. He was not too sure just what “porklot” would prove to be, but he would like to try it anyway.
The dwarf, who had also been on the box of the carriage with the driver, clambered down and lowered the stair. He handed the countess down into the crudely cobbled courtyard. She looked around. There was a dung heap. Scrawny chickens ran about. A pig peered at them from one of the empty stables.
“I think that I will get back into the carriage.” she said, disdainfully.
Vlad emerged and stood blinking slightly in the bright sunlight. “I need to stretch my legs,” he said. It was also fascinating and different.
She nodded. “Ficzko, accompany the Prince.” She climbed back into the carriage, and lay back on the velvet upholstered seats. She took a pomander from her reticule and sat swinging it under her nose.
The dwarf bowed to Vlad. It was a rather exaggerated bow, that did not go well with his sardonic grin, or his raised eyebrow.
“Come and survey your kingdom, oh great lord Prince,” he said. There was a faint mocking tone to his voice. Vlad took a dislike to him, although it seemed beneath him to dislike a man who barely came up to his elbow. Vlad felt that he should rather be sorry for him, with his large head and small body. But the man’s attitude did not make it easy. Neither did the faint sneer he wore.
Vlad walked out into the village street. One street was all that there really was to the entire village. Still, it was a joy to stretch his legs and walk, knowing that he could walk as far as he wished. The countess’s dwarf had to run to keep up with him.
And then he heard it again. A strange, lilting, wild music, played softly. It was coming from a narrow gap, a pathway between two of the roughly thatched village houses. Had this been a city, it might one day have achieved status of being an alley.
Ficzko darted forward to stop him walking towards it. “My lord prince, you must not go down there! It is those filthy gypsies and their evil music.”
Vlad found that he remembered the gypsies from his youth. They had always seemed so colorful. He wondered if these were the same gypsies that the dwarf was referring to. The music was suddenly enormously compelling. He had to go to it!
There was a yell and the thunder of hooves from behind him.
The carriage horses and several others came running past, chased by some enormous doglike creatures, gray and terrible. Vlad turned to see what was happening, not knowing quite what to do. The dwarf turned also, startlement writ on his ugly face. As they did so, a dark-haired man in bright ragged clothes stepped out from around the corner.
He raised a pipe to his lips and began to play.
The dwarf rushed at him with an incoherent cry of rage. The piper merely stuck out a foot, and sidestepped. The dwarf landed headlong in the mud. The piper bowed slightly to Vlad, without stopping his playing. He turned slightly, and put his boot on the middle of the dwarf’s back, pushing him back down into the mud. Face down in the mud the large-headed little man scrabbled for his dagger.
The dwarf succeeded in drawing it, but the piper casually kicked it out of his hand, sending it several feet off into a puddle. Then the piper stopped playing and gestured to Vlad, signaling him to come closer.
Vlad was painfully aware that he did not have as much as a knife, let alone a sword. He stepped forward to help Ficzko. “Let him up.”
The piper shook his. “It is you I have come to help, Drac. This one is an enemy. He would stop us if he could.” He spoke, not in Hungarian, but in a language that Vlad knew, but was rusty with disuse. A language that Vlad had not heard spoken more than ten years.
“What!” Vlad stopped, eyes wide. Drac? He remembered the term. Some people had called his father that. The peasants and the tradesmen in the small villages.
“No time to explain now. We need to get away.”
“Who are you?” asked Vlad warily. This made no sense. He should run back to the countess now. Yet… the music called to him. Told him he was right to trust this odd man. It felt right, in a way that his flight had not.
“A friend.” the piper grinned. “You might say we share some of the same blood.” He laughed. It was a strangely infectious laugh. “And now we must flee.”
Vlad wavered, torn between the appeal of the man and his native language, and caution. His instincts said to trust the man, in a way they had not with his angelic-looking rescuer, even if logic said otherwise. The piping had unleashed something strange in him. Something deep and powerful.
“Is there danger?” he asked. “And what about the countess? Should we not try and rescue her too?”
For an answer the piper raised the pipe to his lips again and played a brief trill. “It is you they want, Drac. They will chase you. She is safe.”
His Vlachs must be more rusty than he had been realized. The man must be referring to the enormous creatures that had driven off the horses.
Well, if he could act as a decoy and draw the pursuit away from his rescuer, that was plainly his duty. It was only the dwarf, and the way that the stranger had treated him, that gave him pause. He still had his boot planted on the dwarf’s back, holding him down in the mud.
He stepped uneasily forward. Ficzko kicked out viciously — at Vlad. “I’ll kill you!” he yelled, and he was definitely yelling at Vlad rather than at the man who might a gypsy. Vlad was confused. The man must be a traitor!
“Clearly one of your enemies, Drac. We will leave our little foe here,” said the stranger, putting the pipe into one of his many pockets. He leaned down, took the dwarf by the scruff of his doublet and deposited him into an empty horse trough. He flung him quite hard. Ficzko lay there and groaned.
The gypsy took Vlad by the elbow, and led him around the corner. Two horses were tethered there.
“You don’t think that we should rather go back and rescue the countess?” asked Vlad.
The gypsy shook his head. “Trust me, Drac.” He looked very earnest. “I swear by the blood of the old one, if you do not flee with me now, you will be kept a prisoner and die, probably very slowly. And your people need you. Your land needs you. But we must ride now. We will never have this chance again. You will be much more closely guarded, if we fail.”
Out of his distant past, Vlad plucked a memory of his mother protesting to his father about the gypsies camping at the foot of the cliff below Poeinari. And his father saying that they might be thieves and rogues but at least the sons of the Dragon could trust them, even when they could trust no one else.
Vlad mounted. If it was him who was being pursuing, then let them follow him. The countess had risked much to free him. Two things were important: that he repay her for that, and that he should stay free.
They rode hard cross-country along a break of trees which screened them from the village to some extent. The gypsy rode with casual skill, Vlad with grim determination. It was not quite as bad as the first time that he had ridden. As a boy, he had been in the saddle very often. Even if the horses had shrunk he had not forgotten the skills entirely.
Presently, the gypsy slowed his horse to a trot. They came to a small copse left on the age of a field. Two other men in similar bright ragged clothes were waiting, holding two horses that looked rather familiar.
They mounted up. “What took you so long?” asked one, grinning. “We thought the two of you had decided to stop for lunch.”
That reminded Vlad of the hunger that he had complained of on stopping at the hamlet. Alas, he had never even tried the “porklot,” or anything else.
It appeared that his new escort had no intention of letting him eat either. They rode on, pushing the horses hard. The route they were following kept along the bottom of a shallow depression and next to a marshy stream. It also kept them away from the skyline. Vlad realized that they must surely be locals to know this area so well. It would be very difficult for anyone to follow them by sight.
But he had little spare concentration for possible pursuit. Lack of practice at riding, and not having eaten since very early that morning were having an effect.
“He’s going to tumble out of that saddle soon, Angelo,” said one of the other riders.
The dark, gray-eyed gypsy looked at him. “True. We need some shelter, Grigori. Somewhere we cannot be seen too easily.”
The man he had referred to as Grigori pointed. “There is a haystack and an old barn just over the lip. Maybe half a mile. Or there was last time I was here.”
“And how many seasons ago was that?” asked the third gypsy sardonically.
“About five, I think. But stone barns tend to stay to the same places, although they keep moving the haystacks.”
“It’s getting across the lip that worries me,” said Angelo. “Grigori, let me hold your horse. Go back and see how far back they are.”
The lithe, curly-haired gypsy slipped off his horse. The more Vlad had looked at that horse the more he was sure that it was one that had been ridden by one of the outriders. The man loped off with a long-legged easy stride. He looked, to Vlad’s blurred vision, almost like some great predatory animal gliding away.
But Angelo did not let the rest of them stop. He pressed on, leaving Grigori to catch up.
Vlad decided, when Grigori caught up with them a few minutes later, that the man must run like the wind. “Can’t see them,” he panted. “I’d say that they were good two or three miles back at least, by the smell.”
He vaulted back into the saddle with an ease that Vlad could only envy. “Let’s go and find that barn, he said. There was a good place for rabbits close to it.”
Somehow, Vlad managed to stay in the saddle until they reached the shabby stone barn. But as they arrived, he felt himself starting to fall.
He could not remember how he came to be lying against the edge of the haystack, with his collar loosened. But there was the delicious smell of cooking meat.
“A stupid idea to light a fire if you ask me,” said the gypsy whose name Vlad had not yet discovered. “As well to tell the foe where we are.”
“They are not very good at eating raw meat,” said Angelo. “And smoke is a clear scent marker to you, Radu, but not to them. Ah. I see the Drac is awake. Do you need your rabbit very well cooked, Lord?”
“I would eat anything right now, cooked in any way, or even not cooked at all.” Vlad took the wineskin that Grigori held out to him.
Grigori laughed and punched his companion in the ribs. “We could have given it to him raw, after all. Maybe even with fur on.”
Angelo, in the meantime, was cutting slices off the rabbit which they had been grilling over the open flames of a small camp-fire. He speared them on the end of the knife, and handed it to Vlad. “Eat, Drac,” he said encouragingly.
Vlad swallowed some of the wine from the wineskin they held out to him. It was far from the finest vintages. In fact, it was something he would have turned his nose up at a few days ago. Now it tasted powerful and magnificent.
The rabbit flesh was extremely rare, barely more than charred on the outside. Grains of coarse salt clung to it. Vlad did not think he had ever tasted anything finer. He washed it down with some more of the red wine from the wineskin. “My thanks,” he said, already feeling better even after the first few morsels.
“Cut him some more,” said Grigori. “I have seen a wolf eat slower.”
“But not you,” said Radu, taking out his knife and cutting some more of the meat to hand to Vlad.
“Eat up and be quick,” said Angelo. “We have a way to go before we reach a secure place. Once we are in the mountains we can take things a little slower, but here we are too easy to find. And trust me, Drac, you do not want them to find you.”
Very shortly, far too soon and after far too little food, Vlad found himself being thrown up into the saddle again. They had to do that, because he found that his muscles had already begun to stiffen. He had had no chance to establish just who they were and where they were taking him to.
They pressed on, going back down into the shallow valley and riding on into the gathering darkness. The horses were tired now, only able to walk. But still, they pressed on. Vlad was beginning to wonder if they had successfully drawn the pursuit after them and away from Elizabeth. He was beginning to wonder about the nature of the huge creatures he had seen driving off the horses. He was beginning to wonder too about his good-natured gypsy companions, and just where they had suddenly come from and how they had come by the horses.
He was also wondering just when he would be allowed to get off his horse. By the time they finally stopped, though, he was too exhausted to wonder much at all. All he wanted to do was to rest and to eat. And sleep. Yes, sleep, and he did not care if he had to sleep on the ground — just as long as it was somewhere off a horse.
However, they must have made some allowances for his royal blood. The gypsies found him a haystack to sleep in, which they plainly considered it the height of luxury. And that night, do did he.
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