Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 22

Chapter 12

In the pale predawn, the gypsies rousted him out of the haystack, and they set off again. Somewhere they had acquired fresh horses. The saddles were still the same, but the horses were not. The gypsies were skilled in choosing cross-country trails that avoided dwellings. The countryside was changing around them. Ahead were ridges spiked with pine trees.

Vlad could not remember very clearly just what his home had looked like. He hoped that Poienari Castle would loom suddenly from one of these ridges, but they seemed too small to be the mountains that he remembered. Perhaps that was like the way horses had shrunk in the time that he had been locked away. The mountains of his memory had definitely seemed both bigger and bleaker than these. Still, the sight of the ridges lifted his spirits, even though it did nothing at all for his aching thighs and sore posterior.

They rode up into a valley and off towards a scattering of rocks. Hidden among these was a narrow cave entrance. “We should be safe enough up here,” said Angelo, reining in. “Radu, you take the horses on and let them go a few miles from here. Most likely they will find their own way home.”

Vlad was unsure about what was happening to his life, but apparently he had fallen among horse thieves. He deeply and intrinsically disapproved of dishonesty. After he had begun to speak, it occurred to him that this was perhaps not the wisest time to berate the gypsies, but he did not think first.

“Did you steal those horses?” he demanded.

The gypsies looked at him and then began to laugh. “He is the Drac, all over again!” said Angelo.

“Answer my question,” he said sternly, feeling faintly foolish, but still determined.

“Well, Drac, it’s more like this,” said Angelo. “If you needed a horse from one of your tenants, you would use it. By our way of thinking, all of this was our range, and we’re entitled to some of the produce, let alone to borrow a horse or two. We had a hard time explaining this to your grandfather, or so the stories say. He made a few grim examples of some of the boyars and German merchants. That made him very popular.”

“Made him popular?” Were they being sarcastic? he wondered.

“Yes, with the peasants,” grinned Grigori. “And after one or two really good examples, the level of honesty in Valahia improved dramatically. He is a hero still today among them.”

That was a very different story from the ones that he had heard from his Hungarian captors. “I thought he was hated and feared.”

“By some people, yes,” said Angelo. “He was a little mad.”

The gypsy made it sound as if that was a positive attribute. Perhaps it was, for ruling a small mountain kingdom. “See those horses get back to their owners,” Vlad said sternly. Then it would not really be theft. More of a loan.

They grinned. “They have some extra horses now anyway, better quality than this crow-bait.”

Vlad wondered where those horses had come from but decided that he would let it be. “What do we do now?” he asked.

“Rest, eat, and stay away from those who will be hunting for us. Work our way along the mountains until we can get back to the heartland, to the real mountains. To your homeland, Drac.”