Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 38

Chapter 21

For Vlad, the days had passed in something of a blur. In fact, it was the countryside that had passed in something of a blur, and mostly they had passed through it in the dark. When they had stopped, especially in the first few days, he had simply been too exhausted to do more than eat and sleep. He had not cared quite what they had eaten, or that they had slept in haystacks, or caves, or a ruined barn. There were always fresh horses, and a change of horses. He was aware that this was not how noblemen usually lived, but at first he had not protested. At least the gypsies seemed to know where they were going, and just how to avoid the patrols. But after a week he was becoming fitter, and, he noticed that the party had visibly relaxed.

“We come to the edge of our range here,” said Angelo. “We are still far from our heartland, but people around here gave some allegiance to your father. We will have a rest day tomorrow.”

“Is it Sunday?” he asked.

The gypsies looked at each other. “I don’t really know,” said Grigori. “You tend to lose track of the days after a while. Town people keep track very well. We will have to find one and ask.”

“I need to go to church,” said Vlad, guilt washing over him.

The three gypsies looked at each other again. “It’s not a place that sees us very often,” admitted Angelo.

“You have less reason to fear for your souls than I do,” said Vlad.

They did not seem inclined to argue with him about that.

“We will take a room at the inn,” said Angelo.

The thought of sleeping in a bed was almost intoxicating. Vlad felt that he’d been something of a burden on their journey, that they could have traveled faster without him. He hoped that soon he would be back in some measure of control of his own destiny. He just wished that he knew what that destiny was, besides merely staying alive. The countess had said something about his father being dead, and his boyars needing him. He seemed to remember that his father had been furious and bitter with the boyars, and had said that they hated him just as much as he hated them. But Father Tedesco had said that time healed all wounds. Perhaps they had forgiven and forgotten.

After a week of hard riding and sleeping rough, all without any sign of fresh clothes or ablutions, beyond a splash in a stream and getting thoroughly wet crossing various rivers, a bath was going to be very welcome. They had not crossed a single river at a bridge, or by using a ferryman. The gypsies certainly knew how to find any ford. Some of the crossings, however, had involved a fair amount of swimming. That wasn’t quite as pleasurable as washing in warm water, especially as they kept to the high ground, scantily populated, and heavily forested. The water in those wilderness rivers was bitterly cold. The gypsies hadn’t seemed to care, so Vlad had not let them know just how cold he was finding it. Now, the prospect of warm water, a soft bed, clean linen, and possibly some clean clothes…

The innkeeper took one look at them, and picked up a big clumsy cudgel studded with bits of iron. “Get out of here!” he hissed, swinging the cudgel menacingly.

“We have silver to pay for food and lodging,” said Angelo.

The innkeeper’s expression did not soften. “Stolen, I’ll warrant.” He eyed them narrowly, still swinging his club. “Get out of my sight, you gypsy filth. If you come back, I’ll break all of your skulls, you thieving vermin.”

Vlad wished that he had that basic accouterment of a gentleman, a sword. He had been taught to fence. Indeed, he’d maintained a rigorous regimen of arms training for years, as much for the value of the exercise as the skills themselves. Of course, as a prisoner –say better, a hostage — he had been required to return the weapons to the armsmaster after each lesson and go unarmed again. Vlad knew full well that if he had a sword he could have killed this idiot in two seconds. A mace, in three.

“My good man,” he said to the innkeeper, very coldly. “You forget that you are speaking to your prince. I have traveled long and far and we have offered you money. I have scant patience with those who abuse my subjects.”

For a moment, it looked as if his hauteur had succeeded. The innkeeper’s jaw and the cudgel both fell. Unfortunately, the innkeeper did not lose his grip on the cudgel, and recovered his jaw. He bobbed a sardonic bow. “Your Royal Highness! I didn’t realize it was you.”

The innkeeper turned slightly to address the two inmates of the tap-room –an old man, white bearded and rheumy-eyed, and a solid looking prosperous farmer, “Next he’ll be telling me how lucky I am to have King Emeric, my sovereign and overlord, favor my humble establishment. Get out, you gypsy scum. You and all your filthy friends. Get out of my sight before I spatter your brains.”

Something snapped inside Vlad. Vlad had been a hostage, but a nobleman, and treated as such. Even the gypsies treated him with respect. He could not remember quite how it happened afterward, but heartbeats later he had the innkeeper by the throat and held up at arms length. He had no idea where the strength came from. The man was both large and fat — but just then holding him seemed entirely effortless. In fact, he was only using his right hand to do so, having using his left to strip the innkeeper of his cudgel.

“You will treat me and my companions with courtesy and respect, you cur.” He flung the innkeeper away from himself, to land sprawled and dazed against the far wall. Vlad stood there, his arms folded, and waited.

The man sat up slowly, fearfully. He felt his throat. His eyes were wide and round. The other inhabitants of the tap room had gotten to their feet, shocked by the sudden violence. “Why didn’t you help me?” croaked the innkeeper.

The large farmer looked at Vlad warily — but the little old man limped forward and knelt.

“The dragon has returned,” he said reverently. “My prince. I served with the pikemen at Khusk, when we broke the Hungarian charge. I was wounded there. You gave me twenty forint and ten acres of land. God has answered our prayers.” There were tears on the old lined face. “Forgive me, Sire. My eyes are old, and I did not quite believe them. God has been good to me. I have lived to see your return.”

He turned slightly to see the burly young man standing gaping. “Janoz!” he said sternly. “Boy, come and give your homage to our sovereign lord!”

Vlad had been told by several people that he had grown into the spitting image of his grandfather. That had been a man no one was indifferent toward, but either hated or loved. Mostly hated by the boyars and loved by the commoners, from what Vlad could tell. Of course, there were exceptions either way. Countess Elizabeth, for example.

Hated or loved, the dragon had always been feared. His justice, even to those who thought it just, was invariably savage.

Plainly, this old man thought Vlad and his grandfather were one and the same. He’d just referred to one of the prince of Valahia’s greatest victories, when he had given the Hungarians a very bloody nose at Khusk. That victory had won a decade of peace for the lands this side of the Carpathians. It had also won the ruler of Valahia a reputation among Hungarians as a merciless and cruel madman — even by the standards of a nation ruled by Emeric.

Valahia’s Transcarpathian lands were too small and poor to stand indefinitely against the might of Hungary, though. The dragon had held them off, but his successor has been made of weaker stuff. Vlad’s father had been — by his own admission and by the bitter complaints that Vlad could still remember — little more than a figurehead, a proxy for rule from Buda.

Vlad reached out a hand to the old man and raised him up, as the large Janoz came forward uncertainly. The old man kissed his hand, smiling tremulously up at Vlad, though his tears still flowed. “If only my Rosa was alive to see this,” he said.

Vlad was left without anything easy to say. He had never, that he could recall, had to deal with adulation before. And he certainly would not have expected it because an old man took him for his ferocious grandfather. Perhaps that was simply the reverence of an old trooper. His grandfather had treated his common soldiery well, by all accounts Vlad had heard. Apparently, the loyalty endured.

Vlad knew very little about ruling, but this struck him as something worth remembering.

“Lord…” said the young man, coming forward. His tone was respectful, if not reverential. He might not accept his father’s conclusions, but he did accept that Vlad was no gypsy vagabond, despite appearances. “He is old. He wanders in his mind sometimes.”

“His mind is a lot sharper than this stupid innkeeper’s!” said Angelo, laughing.

“He has mistaken me for my grandfather,” said Vlad. “I am sorry.”