Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 09
“We must hurry,” said the blond woman. She seemed not much older than Vlad himself, and was extraordinarily beautiful.
The door to his gilded cage swung invitingly open. The prince hesitated. “Who are you?” he asked.
She curtseyed. “This is no time for formal presentations, Your Highness. But I am the Countess Elizabeth Bartholdy of Caedonia in Valahia, as well as of estates in other lesser places such as Catiche. I have come to save your life. I will explain once we are away from here.”
It sounded tempting. But King Emeric had himself explained that Vlad was more in a protective custody than just being a mere hostage. “The guard?” he asked, looking at the fallen man, sprawled at the doorway.
“He is drugged. I am afraid I had to put something in his wine.”
He looked very dead to Vlad. Death always had an odd fascination for him. He curbed the desire to bend down and feel if the man was cold. Dead animals were.
“Your Highness,” said the beautiful young countess, with just a hint of asperity. “Your father is dead. You have no further value as a hostage. The only reason that you are still alive is because King Emeric is away in on a military adventure. I know that messages have been dispatched to him, asking for orders about your future. And even if the king decides to keep you alive, your principality will no longer be yours. In the Duchy of Transylvania, the Danesti prepare to put a pretender on the throne. Your loyal boyars need you.”
Father Tedesco had said that Vlad’s fascination with death was unnatural, a recurrence of the evil that had haunted his grandfather. Sometimes Vlad thought that was true. That he was the dragon, reborn.
She touched his hand, her hands soft and cool. He had not been touched by a woman who was close to his own age for many years now. It sent an odd frisson through him, not wholly pleasant, yet compelling.
“We must go now. The carriage is waiting,” she said.
He followed her out of the doorway and into the passage. She locked the door, and dropped the key onto the sprawled guard. It was all strange and dreamlike. He’d imagined walking down that passage. He found imagination had deserted him. Left him numbed, and a little afraid.
“Where are we going?” he asked nervously. He’d dreamed of fleeing his captivity often. But it had been a vague, nebulous dream, based on the geographical knowledge and observations of a ten year old boy. He wasn’t even sure where home was, now.
“First, we flee Buda,” she said. “We will go north to my castle in the little Carpathians. We can find shelter in several of the nunneries I have founded, on the way.”
Nunneries. Well, she must be a good woman then, thought Vlad, trying to quiet his unease. The unease was not helped by the fact that she had taken his arm and was walking so close that her hip brushed against him.
She led him to a small door. It opened at her touch. Vlad had lived in near isolation since he was a young boy, but he was sure that such a portal should be locked and guarded in any castle. This one appeared to be guarded by a solitary shoe, lying on its side next to the doorframe.
It was very bright outside. Vlad blinked and screwed up his eyes. The sun on his skin was hot. It had been years since he’d last felt that sensation.
“I don’t like the sun much myself,” said the countess, pulling a soft lace veil over her face and urging him forward with a gentle tug. “So bad for the complexion. But we shall have to do something about your pallor. Only a prisoner or a bled-out corpse is that white-skinned, and it will not do to have you too obvious. We have several days of travel ahead of us. The roads, alas, are not something Emeric gives a great deal of attention to. I have one of the new enclosed carriages from Kocs. It will help to hide you from the sunlight.”
Vlad’s mind was still tumbling along with his emotions. Part of him wished to scream and dance. Another part suggested that it was all very big and open and bright, and he should turn and run back to the tower in Buda castle that had been his world for so many years. But bright and hot or not, the sun felt wonderful.
Nervously, he walked down the narrow path, away from the castle. Away from the wide Danube and the row of pikes and the flesh-tattered bones of the impaled victims that Emeric ornamented his view with. That was something Vlad’s grandfather had also been infamous for. Vlad wanted to turn and stare, but she led him onward, walking calmly, until they came to the first houses, set along a narrow street.
Already Vlad was aware that his boots hurt. He had not walked so far since he had been a child. There were horses waiting, held by a terrified-looking groom. Horses too had grown smaller, thought Vlad bemusedly, although he knew that this simply could not be case.
Fortunately, he had not entirely forgotten how to ride. Looking at the strange world he found himself in, Vlad was desperately glad he was not attempting this alone. He had absolutely no idea where he was going, except that it was downhill and away from the castle.
It just felt wrong. He should be going east, or at least following the river. The Danube would lead him to Valahia, to his father’s duchy. His now, he supposed. But surely his rescuer knew where she was going? He would just have to put his faith in her.
They rode on, keeping in the shadow of the houses.
The wind carried a shred of strange lilting music to him from the open door of a tavern. His head said he must stay close to the countess. But his heart wanted to dismount and find that musician. He had not heard anyone play that tune since he had been a child, carefree and happy with his mother in Poienari castle. He could not remember where he had heard it there, but he could remember the tune clearly, and he also remembered that it was important, somehow. Terribly important.
His companion must have heard it too. She turned and looked, and although the veil hid her features, he could sense her anger. “We need to ride faster,” she said.
This already felt fast enough to someone who had not ridden since he was ten. But Vlad gritted his teeth and urged his mount to a trot behind her.
The music still echoed in his head. It was still there when a footman helped him to dismount in a very ordinary courtyard, where four horses were already poled up to a large-wheeled carriage. At first he thought that it must be a huge vehicle. But then he realized that the man holding the door and bowing to them had an out of proportion head and was very small. He was child-sized, although bearded.
The countess gave Vlad no time to marvel at the fellow, but had him join her in the carriage. Her strange little dwarfish servitor lifted the steps, closed the door, and then made the carriage sway as he climbed up onto the box. The curtains — a rich, dark red velvet, were drawn closed. The coach clattered and swayed out of the yard. The interior felt as claustrophobic as his prison had. He reached to open a curtain, to see the wonderful world out there. She put a restraining hand on his arm. She had a very strong grip for such a slight thing, Vlad noticed.
“I would like to see. It has been so long since I last could see any other places.” he explained.
“Later, Prince. For now it is not safe. Now you can simply enjoy being alone in the darkness of my carriage with a beautiful woman.” She gave him a sideways look, smiling. “I am sure you would like to kiss me, now that we are private and together.”
The idea seemed both delicious and dangerous. Except… he was not all sure how to do this. She was very soft and scented against him. “We must not go too far,” she said throatily. “Yet.”
“It is as you said, Angelo,” said the saturnine man. “She has him in her clutches. She takes him north, to her lair. But he heard the call. I saw him turn when you played it.”
Angelo nodded. “It is in his blood, and that blood will answer. Now, somehow, we have to get him loose from her. We have only three days. Tonight she will stop at her nunnery. She needs her blood.”
“We need blood too, Angelo,” said Grigori with a toothy grin. “At least meat. A cow or a sheep.”
Angelo shook his head. “A chicken will not be missed too much and will have to do for us. She doesn’t want dinner. She needs pain and blood to sustain her youth. Now, brothers. We need to run. If we have a chance, we must take him.”
Grigori grinned again. “I’ll hamstring him, you tear his throat out. Mind you he doesn’t look like he’ll give us much of a chase. He looks to be a pale, weak thing.”
Angelo looked grim. “She will chase us. And it will be no quick death if she catches us.”
They followed the coach, discretely, at a safe distance. It was hard, deep in the farmed lands, away from the forest. But at least it was twilight, and anyone who saw them might assume that they were just great dogs, running.