Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 17
In the carriage, Vlad’s companion had fallen silent. He did not mind. There was the vista. The air outside. It helped with the queasiness from the swaying. There was just so much space. He saw a boy in one of the fields waving his hand. It took him a few moments to work out that the young fellow was greeting him. He waved back, smiling for the first time on this momentous, terrifying, exciting, confusing day. But for some reason the lad was running away as fast as his legs could carry him.
“What was that, Prince Vlad?” asked the countess, turning her wonderful smile on him.
“A boy… He waved and then ran away. Am I that frightening?”
She shook her head. “Peasants. They are afraid of everything. Anyway, we are near the Nunnery of Saint Anna. We can rest there for the night.”
“They will allow men within their walls?”
“I founded it. I still provide a generous stipend for it. We take in poor girls and orphans from Arrabona. Even some waifs from Buda and Pest.”
“That is good, Godly work.”
She crossed her hands in her lap and looked demurely down at them. “They have no one to turn to.”
How could he have doubted her? He knew so little of this outside world. Father Tedesco had told him of the poverty and the needs of the poor. He had known little about it when he’d first come to Buda. But it had been one of the old priest’s more frequent topics.
The area must be rife with bandits, thought Vlad, surveying the grim, grey walled compound, with its church and cloister. The abbess who greeted them was scarcely more cheerful looking. And she was large. As big as most men, with hands like slabs of pork.
She bowed very respectfully to the countess. “All is prepared, Your Ladyship.”
Countess Bartholdy smiled regally. “Good, Anna. We will have pleasant… worship and rest. See that my men and the horses are suitably looked after. You have prepared a chamber for my guest?”
The abbess nodded. She turned to one of the women standing in her wake. “Illona, lead the gentleman to his chamber. See that he has warm water to wash with.”
Illona looked as if she had missed all the meals the Abbess had found. She beckoned, and Vlad followed her, in through a heavy studded door and up a long passage to flight of stairs leading to an upstairs chamber. They passed a kneeling girl painstakingly sweeping the stone flags. The girl must have had a dreadful life. There was a beaten air about her. A look of fear. She cowered away from them in the passage. Vlad realized that, despite the terrors Emeric had inflicted on him, perhaps his captivity had not been so evil.
The room was large and luxuriously appointed, with an enclosed bed hung with fine red cloth. “Most comfortable looking,” said Vlad.
Illona nodded. “Her ladyship keeps it for her companions. Warm water will be brought to you, shortly.”
Looking over her shoulder — he was far taller than she was, far taller than most men, let alone women — Vlad was surprised to see the girl staring fearfully at him. A novice, he assumed.
She looked so afraid. He wanted to comfort her. “That girl…” he said, gesturing.
Illona smiled for the first time. You could not often say that a smile disfigured a face, but in this case it was true. “That one is for Her Ladyship’s service. I will send you another.”
“I just wanted say to her that God will care for her. She is safe in the arms of the church now.”
The woman Illona seemed surprised. But she turned away without saying anything.
Later that evening, Vlad dined with the abbess and the countess. They ate venison and he enjoyed it very much. The wine too was as red as blood and strong. Wine never seemed to make him drunk, as he had seen in others and read about. It — or the long day — made him sleepy, however, and he was glad to make his excuses and retire to his chamber, where he soon fell into a sound sleep.
He was wakened by a scream.
Definitely it was a woman, screaming.
He thought he had better go and see. But the door refused to open. And the window too was barred.
The moon shone down and he looked out. He had quite a prospect from here. He could see the chapel. He could swear that was another scream coming from there. He watched for a while. And then he saw a light — candles — in the darkened chapel. They came out in the moonlight — some thirteen people, carrying something between them in a blanket. One of the carriers — simply by her size — had to be the abbess. Another, oddly, walked like a man. A third was plainly the dwarf.
They all wore hooded cloaks — except the last figure who walked behind them. Even in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bartholdy was beautiful. Her blond hair looked white in the moonlight, and her face serene. Somehow, she looked even younger than she had before. He wondered if he should call out and ask what had happened. But it seemed as if she was in control of the situation, so he just stood there, silent, watching as they walked into the cloister. As they walked below him, he thought that it looked rather like someone was lying on the blanket, but their candles did not provide enough light for him to see clearly.
After they passed out of sight, he stood there for a long time looking out across the open landscape beyond the monastery walls. Yes, there were bars. But at least he could see. And the air smelled cleaner here.
In the distance something howled, a strange wild sound.
He almost felt as if he should howl back. He even found that he had taken a deep breath to do so, before shaking himself, and thinking how foolish he was being.
Then, because everything was still, he went back to bed. On the way he kicked a metal shackle set into the wood. It bruised him, and perhaps because of the pain or because it had been such a strange and experience filled day, sleep took a long while coming.
And when it did, he found himself in the old familiar dream of running through the scent-rich forest. Of the hunt.
But somehow, this time, he was the prey.
They left early the next day, breaking their fast just before dawn. Most of Countess Elizabeth’s retinue looked as tired as Vlad felt, even if they were probably not as stiff. Vlad’s muscles hurt as he struggled up into the carriage.
The countess herself, on the other hand, looked positively sparkling this morning, her skin radiant and full of a youthful glow. She smiled at him. “It does not look as if you had a good night. Unfamiliar beds do that to me too.”
“What was happening last night?” asked Vlad, curiously.
“Why, nothing. Should something have.” She lowered her lashes and looked at him from under them, with a little smile on her lips.
“I woke up when someone screamed. I tried to get out but I was locked into my chamber. From the window saw a party come out of the chapel. Why was I locked in? What were you doing?”
She laughed musically. “Why were you locked in? You silly boy! You are a man and this is a nunnery. If they had their way they’d have chained you to the bed, too.”
“Oh, is that what the shackles are for?” he asked, pleased to have had the mystery clarified.
She looked at him enquiringly with just an element of calculation in her gaze. “Shackles?”
“Yes. There are four set into the wood of the bed. I barked my shin on one, so I noticed.”
“Goodness. I wonder what those are for. Perhaps for chaining a dog or something. I was merely joking, Vlad. I did not want to trouble you with that sad business last night. The poor girl was possessed of an evil spirit. We had to scourge her and pray with her to exorcise it.”
“Oh. I will include her in my prayers, then,” said Vlad. “Is she free of it now? Will she be all right?”
“She will recover. Pain is a necessary part of the process,” said the countess. “Do you really have to have the curtains open, Prince? Of course I am a weak woman and not as robust as you. The breeze is so injurious to a lady’s complexion. It’s almost as bad as the sun.”
“Once they cross they Danube we must strike,” said Angelo. “If we let her get him to her fortress we will never get him away from her. In fact even another night could be too late.”
“They will take a ferry. We could sink it, and snatch him from the flotsam.” Grigori grinned, showing very white teeth.
Angelo shook his head. “She has a bargain with the Vila.”
“Then we need to plan to get across by boat,” said Radu. “Besides, Grigori, you get tired after swimming half a league.”