Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 01
MUCH FALL OF BLOOD
Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer
A plain on the South bank of the Lower Danube
The ochre dust hung in the air, heavy with the smell of sweating horses. It muffled the yarring yells and the thunder of hooves, a little. But only a little. Kildai’s willow-root club sent the head flying, bouncing away from the pack of riders, shouldering their horses forward. It hooked, by the hair, in a small bush. Kildai’s pony was smaller than the average Mongol horse, but very quick on her feet. Good on her turns, and she could accelerate. He broke from the crush and leaned out of the saddle to club the head onward toward the post.
Just before he was knocked out of the saddle, he saw Gatu Orkhan talking to a man in a hooded cloak on the high dais. It was odd how some moments were caught like a fly in the amber of memory — perfectly preserved when all else faded and decayed. A strand of lank blond hair hung out of that hood. The native Vlachs — some of them at least — had the occasional blond head. As did the Rus. But what would either be doing here, at the great kulurtai, on the high dais? The Mongol traditions of their forefathers might be dying away in everyday life, here in the lands that remained to the Golden Horde, but not on this occasion. That was not a place for a slave. Not now.
It distracted Kildai even in middle of the great game.
Being knocked senseless was the smallest price you could pay for that. But he would swear that something had actually knocked him out of the saddle. Something that felt like a great hand.
Count Mindaug had achieved the remarkable. Not only had he escaped Jagiellon and found other — admittedly dangerous — protection, but he had spirited his library away too.
His hostess did read. But she was not fond of research. She drew her power from elsewhere. From a bargain which she still dreamed — foolishly, vainly — that she could avoid paying the price for, eventually. Jagiellon had merely become one with, and been largely consumed by that which he had sought to entrap and use for power. The powers and knowledge their masters had accumulated in planes beyond human ken and understanding was enormous… and devouring. No-one could talk Count Mindaug into such folly. The written word was less powerful, but drew from far wider sources. Eventually… well, he had laid his plans skillfully and long. Eventually, he would risk another throw in the game of thrones and powers. Besides, it suited his own vanity to believe he could deceive both creatures of outer darkness and fallen angels. He knew that was probably just vanity, but it appealed to him, nonetheless.
He studied the passage in the small book again. The book was not bound in dark leather taken from some creature of the night, nor written on a fragile parchment of human skin. But it ought perhaps to have been, because the matters explained therein were compellingly evil. Mindaug had long since learned that content, not form, mattered. He was glad that this fact had bypassed so many of his peers.
He got up from his seat in the book-filled small apartment the Countess had set aside for him. That was a calculated insult on her part, and one that had failed to put him in his place. The books there contained a far wider realm than she herself controlled. The details of this magic… well, he doubted she would read them. But she had a fascination with blood, for obvious reasons. She would not care what came of her experiments, of the lusts generated or the offspring created. But he, Mindaug, would control them. The keys to that control were right here in this book. Unlike his former master, Elizabeth did not care for the less than immediate and proximal things. Power over the rulers of Hungary was sufficient, as long as her comfort and vanity were ministered to. Mindaug did not threaten her directly with his machinations. When she finally paid her price, or if Chernobog finally took on one foe too great or too many, Mindaug would be ready. He would return to his lands on the edge of Kievan Rus. The throne of the Grand Duchy was a short step from there. He wanted it, of course, but merely because he could ill afford to let anyone else have it. Power was too dangerous to leave to others.
But first he needed to persuade the Countess that she needed the blood of the Dragon. As was his way, honed by long practice in the Grand Duke’s court, he would do it by telling her that she needed something else. It never ceased to amaze him how those who had vast, immense power seemed very often to be so stupid. He supposed it had something to do with having untrammeled power, and having it for so long.
Jerusalem, in the lands of Ilkhan Mongol
Jerusalem the golden lay behind him, outside, with its noise, and heat, and smells. It seemed as far away, right now, as fabled Cathay. Eneko Lopez knelt in a small chapel, a simple, humble place, as befitted the faith of the humble, because in the face of God, all men, even the greatest, are as dust motes.
He saw how the dust motes danced in the sunlight of the Levant, as the light shone through the high slit window. Dust motes… Yet the Father cared for and numbered even the least of those motes, he knew. Eneko knew too that pride had always been his weakness. Here, at last, on the hill of skulls, where the greatest had humbled himself, given himself as a willing sacrifice, Eneko knew that he had been weak, and that despite this, he was still beloved. It was no great moment of epiphany, but rather the blossoming of a slow-developing plant. Perhaps he was lightheaded with hunger from his vigil, but the path, so obscure, now seemed clear.
Alexandria, the seductress of the East, luscious, perfumed and corrupt. And home to the greatest library on earth, a repository of more thaumaturgical knowledge — good and evil — than anywhere else. Yes, he had been instructed to go there. But Eneko Lopez was not a man who took any instruction without weighing it against his conscience. After all, why would God have given a conscience to man, if not to be used? But now it seemed clear: those who had used ecclesiastical magics to defend the Church had formed their centers in the areas where Petrines or Paulines held most sway. They had left largely unguarded and unused, the city of Saint Hypatia. It must not remain so. Knowledge, not politics, would be their sternest bulwark against evil, as Chrysostom had said.
Politics. He sighed and stood up, shaking his head. It had ruled the church as much as it did secular society, though less so under the current Grand Metropolitan than previously. To be fair, the wisdom of the current Holy Roman Emperor in this matter could not be denied. Eneko had been sent here to pray for the Holy Roman Emperor’s soul. He had done so. Eneko had also prayed that the soul might remain within its fleshy envelope as long as possible, for the sake of the people of Europe and of the Church. Eneko had played his role in keeping the second in line to that throne alive, and, while he’d had doubts of the boy at first, he’d come to realize that the spirit of Prince Manfred of Brittany might be large enough for the task. If it had been only a question of physical size Eneko would have had no such doubts. Eneko had less knowledge of Prince Conrad, the direct heir. But the Hohenstaffen line had proved that the imperial eagles often bred true. Well, he would just have to pass on his stewardship now, for as much as the young Prince might dream of the fleshpots of Egypt, Eneko was sure that their paths would diverge here.
It was, despite the relief that he felt now that he saw his path clearly, something that saddened him. He would not have thought it possible that he would miss Manfred of Brittany, a few years before.
In another part of the great holy city, in a shady courtyard scented with orange blossom, Eberhart of Brunswick, representative of the States General, Emissary of the Emperor Charles Fredrik, thought of his time among the Celts. The advantage of dealing with the Celts had been that they used chairs. When one dealt with the Ilkhan one lounged on cushions. Or sat cross legged on them. Yes, Jerusalem was considerably warmer, and much less damp than Ireland, but he missed having a back-rest, especially, as it would seem the Mongol officials were just as long-winded as the Celts. Admittedly the wine he was being served was better than the beer in Duhblinn.
The platitudes were… platitudes. But the undercurrents were disturbing. The Ilkhan Hotai the Ineffable, to judge by his emissaries, wanted something. And when the master of all the lands between here and Hind wanted something, he usually didn’t need to pussy-foot around about asking for it, even if politics here were conducted in a more subtle fashion than among the Celts or the Norse. This had to mean the Ilkhan thought that the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t going to like the request much.