Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 20

Chapter 11

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.