Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 42

Chapter 23

The trail was wreathed in mist. It was cold and damp, and it clung and eddied about the riders, swirling around them. For Dana of Valahia it was just the final chapter of this entire terrifying misadventure. Why had mother decided that they had to leave at midnight? She was exhausted, and so was her horse. If they’d left quietly just after complin or even a little before lauds they’d have got just as far from Poienari Castle by now. As it was, it was a miracle they hadn’t been caught.

Actually, they had been caught, while leaving through the wicket gate. Fortunately, by one of their own guards, not those horrible disrespectful Hungarian boors that King Emeric had sent just after Papa died. The guard commander had kept his silence. If only he’d come with them instead!

Dana could only curse her brother Vlad and his escape. Before that, Mother had talked resignedly of an arranged marriage, which Dana didn’t look forward to. But wasn’t that better than running away and living like vagabonds, hoping the Danesti cousins would hide them? Mother thought it better than letting them take her daughter as a hostage too. Dana wasn’t so sure anymore.

They’d gotten lost, in the dark down in the valley, out of the moonlight. Dana would have sworn there was only one trail and the one fork. But the solitary scared manservant was no better at finding the trail than she was. They should have taken the fork. It would have taken them up the steep switchbacks to St Tifita’s chapel, and then back down onto this trail twenty miles further on.

Instead, just when they could not afford the time, they had taken the long trail. She had told her mother that they had passed it. Told her at least three times. Bertha had not been listening. She was too sunk in panic, too afraid. And now, the dawn was just starting to come on. Any moment, the sun might break through the mist.

They had not yet come to the point below St Tifita’s where the shortcut would have come out. They came around the corner, and found the trail blocked. Now, just when they could least afford to lose even more time! The trail was full of multicolored carts, donkeys, ponies, geese, even a few goats. And lots of raggle-taggle gypsies, their bright eyed dirty children herding livestock, the adults tending the carts.

“Get them out of our way,” said her mother, her voice slightly shrill. “Quickly.”

The manservant pressed forward, yelling at the gypsies and flapping ineffectually at their livestock, their jeering children, and the stolid horses drawing the carts. Nervously, Mama began pushing her way after him. Dana followed, trying to keep her horse as close to her mother’s as possible. They hadn’t gotten very far into the crowd when a tall old man with wavy white hair and a crooked beak of a nose leapt down from the seat of his cart and grabbed the two bridles.

“Unhand our horses, gypsy!” Mother was making a determined effort to sound autocratic and in complete control. It was rather spoiled by the squeak at the end of the last word.

“Just trying to help, lady,” he said in a deep gravelly voice, his eyes under those heavy brows bright and sharp. He didn’t look like he had ever helped anyone in his life. Or been polite to them either. But he did doff his hat.

“Let go of our horses. We are in a hurry, varlet,” said the dowager duchess.

He shook his head. “The boys saw the Hungarians climbing the trail to St. Tifita’s, Lady. They’re ahead of you. And coming up behind you on fresh horses. But we can hide you.”

“Are you mad?” Her voice squeaked again. Then she slumped in the saddle. “Oh God. There must be another trail…”

“For goats, maybe.” The gypsy raised an eyebrow at their mounts. “Not for spoiled horse-flesh.”

“But you’re gypsies…”

“We don’t mind lowering ourselves a little,” said the gypsy. “For the House of Valahia, that is. We have an arrangement with your family, you might say. It’s why we are here, Lady. Word came from the north that the Drac has returned to his own. We come to honor a bargain.”

Dana had worn old clothes at her mother’s instance. Mother too was dressed in an old riding habit that she would not normally be seen dead in. They both wore hooded cloaks. How did this man know who they were?

“Bargain…?” said Bertha.

“With the old Drac.” The silver haired gypsy grinned. “He gave us the right to camp on the field below the cliffs of Poienari Castle.” That seemed to be a joke.

“Mother…” said Dana.

“Be quiet. I must think. Dear God.” Bertha turned to the gypsy again. “Drac. In the north. Do you mean… my son?” There was hope and fear in her voice.

“Yes. He comes to fulfill the old bargain, maybe. The Hungarians kept your man from it.”

There was a shrill whistle from the ridge. “That’s Radu. The Hungarian troopers are arriving. He can hear them from the ridge.”

“Mother, my horse is going lame. Let them hide us,” said Dana.

The gypsy nodded. “Good girl.” As if she wasn’t the daughter of the dowager princess of Valahia and the sister of the prince, but one of the ragamuffin children crowding around them!

He reached up a hand. “Here. Let me help you down, and then you get into my cart with my Silvia. No time to change your appearance now. Hide under the sheepskins.”

The gypsy helped her down from the saddle, and someone else helped her mother down. They were hustled to the bright-painted cart hung with a clatter of pots and kettles, and pushed inside by a little woman who looked every inch a fairy-tale witch.

“You keep still,” she hissed. “Climb under the skins in case they look inside.”

Looking back, Dana saw that the saddles and tack had already been stripped off their horses, and some brat was smearing her beautiful grey with mud. The old woman pushed her forward. “But our saddlebags…” protested mother. Gypsies were thieves. Everyone knew that. And they had as much silver as they’d been able to gather and mother’s jewelry case in those saddlebags.

The old woman cackled. “Stay alive first. Then you worry about your saddlebags and your pretties.”

There was a pile of old sheepskins and blankets in the cart. They ducked under the hanging bric-a-brack of a traveling pot-mender, and bunches of drying herbs and tools, to reach them. The old woman lifted the skins up, and the two of them slipped underneath.

They were probably full of lice, thought Dana. But at least they were lying down. Dana felt her mother cling to her. What had happened to the footman, she wondered? Somehow she doubted if the gypsies’ hospitality extended to him.

Then they heard the sound of hooves. Hard-ridden horses. “Stand aside, you scum!” yelled someone in Hungarian. Did he think that the gypsies would understand? By the yells and the braying and the gabbling of the geese, the soldiers were making them understand.

“You!” shouted a voice authoritatively.

“Yes, Lord?” It was the gravelly voice of the man who had hidden them. It would appear that he at least spoke Hungarian.

“Have you seen anyone come past this morning?”

“No, Lord. Not since last night.”

“When?” demanded the Hungarian.

“It was dark. We heard them come past, riding hard.”

“Hell’s teeth! What other trails are there around here?”

“I do not know, Lord. Many, maybe. We only come here once a year. To the field below the castle.”

“Is that where you’re headed now?”

“Yes, Lord. We stay for three days and then we go on.”

“Not a day too soon, I’ll bet. We’re looking for two women. A woman with grey hair, a little stout, and a girl you can’t make a mistake about. White face, and dead straight black hair. She’d be about on the edge of womanhood. If you see them, send word up to the castle.”

“They beat us if we go there, Lord,” the gypsy said dubiously.

“Tell them you have a message for Lieutenant Hasrafa. Now get yourself out of our road!”

They waited in the dark for a few minutes. “You can come out now,” said the crone. “They’re gone.”

“We must get onto our horses and go,” said Bertha. “They’ll catch Hermann. He will tell them…”

The old woman snorted with laughter. “He’s lost his horse. The boys have led him up into the gorge. The horse won’t tell them much. And by the time he gets back to the castle we’ll see he doesn’t either.” She peered at Dana. “You look all in, little one. When last did you eat? You can tell old Tante Silvia. I have four granddaughters your age.”

“Where are we going?” asked her mother fearfully.

“Poienari Castle. We have the right to camp in the field at the base of the cliff.”

“But we just fled from there…”

The old woman smiled wickedly. “If you are going to steal a chicken, the best place to hide it is inside the owner’s hencoop while he looks everywhere else.”