Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 21

“Is there danger?” he asked. “And what about the countess? Should we not try and rescue her too?”

For an answer the piper raised the pipe to his lips again and played a brief trill. “It is you they want, Drac. They will chase you. She is safe.”

His Vlachs must be more rusty than he had been realized. The man must be referring to the enormous creatures that had driven off the horses.

Well, if he could act as a decoy and draw the pursuit away from his rescuer, that was plainly his duty. It was only the dwarf, and the way that the stranger had treated him, that gave him pause. He still had his boot planted on the dwarf’s back, holding him down in the mud.

He stepped uneasily forward. Ficzko kicked out viciously — at Vlad. “I’ll kill you!” he yelled, and he was definitely yelling at Vlad rather than at the man who might a gypsy. Vlad was confused. The man must be a traitor!

“Clearly one of your enemies, Drac. We will leave our little foe here,” said the stranger, putting the pipe into one of his many pockets. He leaned down, took the dwarf by the scruff of his doublet and deposited him into an empty horse trough. He flung him quite hard. Ficzko lay there and groaned.

The gypsy took Vlad by the elbow, and led him around the corner. Two horses were tethered there.

“You don’t think that we should rather go back and rescue the countess?” asked Vlad.

The gypsy shook his head. “Trust me, Drac.” He looked very earnest. “I swear by the blood of the old one, if you do not flee with me now, you will be kept a prisoner and die, probably very slowly. And your people need you. Your land needs you. But we must ride now. We will never have this chance again. You will be much more closely guarded, if we fail.”

Out of his distant past, Vlad plucked a memory of his mother protesting to his father about the gypsies camping at the foot of the cliff below Poeinari. And his father saying that they might be thieves and rogues but at least the sons of the Dragon could trust them, even when they could trust no one else.

Vlad mounted. If it was him who was being pursuing, then let them follow him. The countess had risked much to free him. Two things were important: that he repay her for that, and that he should stay free.

They rode hard cross-country along a break of trees which screened them from the village to some extent. The gypsy rode with casual skill, Vlad with grim determination. It was not quite as bad as the first time that he had ridden. As a boy, he had been in the saddle very often. Even if the horses had shrunk he had not forgotten the skills entirely.

Presently, the gypsy slowed his horse to a trot. They came to a small copse left on the age of a field. Two other men in similar bright ragged clothes were waiting, holding two horses that looked rather familiar.

They mounted up. “What took you so long?” asked one, grinning. “We thought the two of you had decided to stop for lunch.”

That reminded Vlad of the hunger that he had complained of on stopping at the hamlet. Alas, he had never even tried the “porklot,” or anything else.

It appeared that his new escort had no intention of letting him eat either. They rode on, pushing the horses hard. The route they were following kept along the bottom of a shallow depression and next to a marshy stream. It also kept them away from the skyline. Vlad realized that they must surely be locals to know this area so well. It would be very difficult for anyone to follow them by sight.

But he had little spare concentration for possible pursuit. Lack of practice at riding, and not having eaten since very early that morning were having an effect.

“He’s going to tumble out of that saddle soon, Angelo,” said one of the other riders.

The dark, gray-eyed gypsy looked at him. “True. We need some shelter, Grigori. Somewhere we cannot be seen too easily.”

The man he had referred to as Grigori pointed. “There is a haystack and an old barn just over the lip. Maybe half a mile. Or there was last time I was here.”

“And how many seasons ago was that?” asked the third gypsy sardonically.

“About five, I think. But stone barns tend to stay to the same places, although they keep moving the haystacks.”

“It’s getting across the lip that worries me,” said Angelo. “Grigori, let me hold your horse. Go back and see how far back they are.”

The lithe, curly-haired gypsy slipped off his horse. The more Vlad had looked at that horse the more he was sure that it was one that had been ridden by one of the outriders. The man loped off with a long-legged easy stride. He looked, to Vlad’s blurred vision, almost like some great predatory animal gliding away.

But Angelo did not let the rest of them stop. He pressed on, leaving Grigori to catch up.

Vlad decided, when Grigori caught up with them a few minutes later, that the man must run like the wind. “Can’t see them,” he panted. “I’d say that they were good two or three miles back at least, by the smell.”

He vaulted back into the saddle with an ease that Vlad could only envy. “Let’s go and find that barn, he said. There was a good place for rabbits close to it.”

Somehow, Vlad managed to stay in the saddle until they reached the shabby stone barn. But as they arrived, he felt himself starting to fall.

He could not remember how he came to be lying against the edge of the haystack, with his collar loosened. But there was the delicious smell of cooking meat.

“A stupid idea to light a fire if you ask me,” said the gypsy whose name Vlad had not yet discovered. “As well to tell the foe where we are.”

“They are not very good at eating raw meat,” said Angelo. “And smoke is a clear scent marker to you, Radu, but not to them. Ah. I see the Drac is awake. Do you need your rabbit very well cooked, Lord?”

“I would eat anything right now, cooked in any way, or even not cooked at all.” Vlad took the wineskin that Grigori held out to him.

Grigori laughed and punched his companion in the ribs. “We could have given it to him raw, after all. Maybe even with fur on.”

Angelo, in the meantime, was cutting slices off the rabbit which they had been grilling over the open flames of a small camp-fire. He speared them on the end of the knife, and handed it to Vlad. “Eat, Drac,” he said encouragingly.

Vlad swallowed some of the wine from the wineskin they held out to him. It was far from the finest vintages. In fact, it was something he would have turned his nose up at a few days ago. Now it tasted powerful and magnificent.

The rabbit flesh was extremely rare, barely more than charred on the outside. Grains of coarse salt clung to it. Vlad did not think he had ever tasted anything finer. He washed it down with some more of the red wine from the wineskin. “My thanks,” he said, already feeling better even after the first few morsels.

“Cut him some more,” said Grigori. “I have seen a wolf eat slower.”

“But not you,” said Radu, taking out his knife and cutting some more of the meat to hand to Vlad.

“Eat up and be quick,” said Angelo. “We have a way to go before we reach a secure place. Once we are in the mountains we can take things a little slower, but here we are too easy to find. And trust me, Drac, you do not want them to find you.”

Very shortly, far too soon and after far too little food, Vlad found himself being thrown up into the saddle again. They had to do that, because he found that his muscles had already begun to stiffen. He had had no chance to establish just who they were and where they were taking him to.

They pressed on, going back down into the shallow valley and riding on into the gathering darkness. The horses were tired now, only able to walk. But still, they pressed on. Vlad was beginning to wonder if they had successfully drawn the pursuit after them and away from Elizabeth. He was beginning to wonder about the nature of the huge creatures he had seen driving off the horses. He was beginning to wonder too about his good-natured gypsy companions, and just where they had suddenly come from and how they had come by the horses.

He was also wondering just when he would be allowed to get off his horse. By the time they finally stopped, though, he was too exhausted to wonder much at all. All he wanted to do was to rest and to eat. And sleep. Yes, sleep, and he did not care if he had to sleep on the ground — just as long as it was somewhere off a horse.

However, they must have made some allowances for his royal blood. The gypsies found him a haystack to sleep in, which they plainly considered it the height of luxury. And that night, do did he.