Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 04
Her fingertips were once again without blemish, her nails beautifully manicured. There was a cost to turning your own body into the perfect assassins killing tool, but Elizabeth had paid that price long ago. Long, long, long ago. More than a century before.
She opened the door to the chambers of the captive duke of Valahia with a smile on her lips. There was something about killing that awoke certain hungers in her. But magic required that she should not use the boy within to satisfy those lusts. He had other value to her. Mindaug had given her a time and place at which he would still have to be alive and, for best effect, virginal. At the time and a place when the shadow ate the moon. And her control of herself was superb. After that, he could be abused and die.
The prince in the tower had not spent long hours mooning out of the windows or singing to passers-by. Heredity had shaped him into a silent man — that and a lack of company, perhaps. Besides, neither were practical options. There were no windows he could see out of.
King Emeric had seen to it that his hostage lacked for nothing — except his liberty, and the freedom to use his mother tongue. The prince had had instruction in several others, Frankish, Greek, Aramaic. He had had tutors for these subjects, of course, Hungarian ones. But other than those and the silent guards, he saw few people, and certainly none of his own age or speaking his own tongue. He had kept the language alive somehow in his memory, reciting the stories and songs of his childhood — silently, under his breath every evening. He had been forbidden to speak or sing them aloud.
He’d done so at first to escape the crushing fear and loneliness of being a small boy taken far from everything he loved and knew, and imprisoned here. And then terrified out of his wits — after being beaten and shown slow death — an act of brutality that as an older, more logical man, he understood had been to ensure that the king of Hungary had a suitably cowed vassal. Instead, his spirit had been shaped by the experience into a secretive but fiercely resistant one. A spirit that sometimes indulged in cruel and wild fantasies of revenge, but more often just longed to be free.
As for sanity… was he mad? Sometimes he wondered.
As prisons went, his apartments had every luxury — except windows. There was a narrow arrow slit high up on the wall above the stair. From a certain angle, he could see the sky through it. Not direct sunlight, but daylight, and sometimes cold breezes wafted in from the outside world, strange in their scents, unfamiliar in their chill.
By the age of twenty he had, to some extent, forgotten the world outside the walls. Not forgotten a desire for it, no, never! But forgotten the details of it. Books, for all that he loved them, were not the same. And Father Tedesco, his most frequent companion, was more inclined to talk of the glories of Heaven, than the glories of the world outside.
Vlad heard someone outside the doors, and wondered if the old priest had come to visit him again.
There was a faint clatter and the door swung gently open.
It wasn’t the elderly priest.
It was a vision.
Naturally she had come to save him from this hell.
So why was he so afraid?
The Southern Carpathian Mountains
The hills echoed with the howling of the wolves. The slim, dark-complexioned man with the silver earrings did not appear to find that a worrisome thing. He slipped along the ghost of a trail as silently and as sure-footedly as a wolf himself. The full moon shone down casting spiky shadows on the pine-needle covered forest floor. The wyvern was just a slightly more spiky piece of darkness. Spiky darkness with red eyes that glowed like coals. Wyverns could shift their opalescent colors to match their surroundings. Here she did not have to.
“So, old one. The blood moon time is coming. The signs say she will capture him,” said the lithe man, looking warily at her.
The wyvern nodded. “She will watch over him carefully. And she has killed many of our kind.” It spoke his tongue. That was part of the magic gift of the creature. A small but vital part.
“Blood calls. We must answer. We have a compact to honor. Blood to spill.” His teeth flashed briefly at that.
“You are too fond of blood, Angelo.”
He shrugged. “It is in my nature. My kind need to see it flow. Life is just the song of the hunter and the hunted.”
“There is more to it than that,” said the wyvern.
“Not for us. Prey or predator, all part of the one or the other, and part of the same.”
The wyvern was a hunter herself, and understood the wolfish Angelo and his kin better than most. “But which one is the boy? Hunter or the hunted?”
Angelo laughed humorlessly. “We will just have to see, won’t we? And she considers all of us prey. Him more so than us.”
The old wyvern sighed. “True.” She bowed her head. “Strike cleanly.”
Angelo drew his blade. It was an old, old knife, handed down from generation to generation. The flakes of razor-edged chert were still sharp. The magic would not allow metals to be used for this deed, the start to the renewing of the compact. It came from a time of stone, tooth and claw. “When have I ever done otherwise, old friend?” he said grimly. “It is the least I can do.”
Afterwards he gathered the blood, and cradled his burden, cut from the creature’s belly. The wyvern was one of the old ones, a creature woven of magics… not designed by nature. There was no other way to get her egg out. The wyvern had to die so that the new ones could be born. And the young wyverns were needed, if the old oath was to be renewed.
Blood must flow. It was all in the blood.
The wolves howled as he walked the trail back towards the tents. Angelo howled in reply. By morning they must all be gone. They were not welcome here any more. The local residents did not approve of the gypsies. Angelo found that funny. They were not the recent incomers, traveling people from the south, barely in these lands for a few centuries. They had roved this land for always and always. But the “gypsies” were a good cover. The old ones had adopted some of their ways, just as real gypsies had taken on some of the ways of the pack.
Well, it should be a year before they came back to this part of their land, in the normal course of events. Of course this year might be different. Angelo stalked out of the woods and slipped past a neat farmstead as silently as he’d come. Somehow, the dogs chained there still barked. It was, he supposed, inevitable that they would know he was near. Dogs did. It was an old kinship, even if they were estranged now.
Instinctively Angelo surveyed the property. The hen-coop beckoned, but he had more important things to do than harvest it. The camp must be broken, and that took time; time they could not spare. They must be miles away before dawn. The evil old woman had her creatures too. They would bring her word that the old wyvern was dead. She’d been investigating the subject of the Dragon’s blood, and word got around.
The settled ones deemed this their property and the “gypsies” to be trespassers and something of a nuisance. Amusingly enough, that was just how Angelo and his clan regarded the settlers. A nuisance that was cluttering up part of their ancient hunting range. The settlers were too numerous to eliminate, but the tribe made up for it as well as possible by preying on them, as wise predators do, not too much or too often. That way prey went on being prey, and available.
Gatu Orkhan stared narrow-eyed at General Nogay. “I will need more gold. Much more.”
“I have been told that this can be provided,” said Nogay. “But gold, Orkhan is not all we need.”
Nogay knew his master to be a weak reed. A good fighter, true. A general who had used his forces well, carefully pitting them against foes he could beat. He might have blood of Khans in his veins… but he lacked that which made men love him. Gold, gold from across the Northern border, gold landed in secret on the beaches to the East, had helped. But thanks to the legacy of Ulaghchi Khan, the clans — especially the traditionalists such as the powerful Hawk clan — frowned on ostentation, away from feasts and weddings.
“Yes. We will need more magics,” said Gatu, misunderstanding him.
Nogay contained his sigh. He was no magic worker. No shaman who could move through other realms. He had simply used that which his northern paymaster provided. The spells required certain rigid conditions — clear sight of the victim, and items of the victim’s essence — hair, nail clippings, skin. He’d killed for his master before, with these tools. And he’d been very careful to make sure that he had some hair from Gatu, and he disposed of his own hair and nail-clippings in the fire.