Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 44

Chapter 25

Vlad had arrived in the village as a vagabond. Now, it would seem that he was their prince. But he was deeply troubled over what he had done. He was even more troubled that he could not remember doing it. And the death of the freeman — the first man to ever volunteer to serve him — cut him to the quick. Yes, the fellow was barely a step up from the peasantry, not that different from the servants who had been assigned to him in Buda — but being there at his death, Vlad had realized that he was human too.

The priest had been little help with this inner conflict. He was a simple country cleric, as much afraid of Vlad as was possible without physically turning tail and running. The villagers and the small farmers and handful of peasants seemed to hold their prince in a kind of reverent awe. Not respect. Not even terror, as he had partly expected.

He’d thought at first that it was merely the reaction from an old soldier, who had reason to know gratitude. But it seemed to be a general reaction. The local point of view obviously differed greatly from that of the Hungarians.

The other thing that Vlad had found deeply troubling was the fact that, except in name, he still was a vagabond. And it appeared that in the world outside his tower, money was a real need. Not, it would seem, for himself, or at least not now. He had been given the finest raiment the village people had to offer — spare breeches and a cotte from the priest, who wore a cassock most of the time. They were black, as befitted the priest’s profession. He was given a special shirt saved for weddings by a small landowner. With those gifts, Vlad had come to understand poverty a little better. Someone labored over cleaning his old clothes while another had darned his shirt, marveling over the fineness of the cloth.

Food, too, was their gift, as was drink. He’d been unprepared for the fiery plum liquor. He was even more unprepared for the women who seemed to be making certain overtures. He was uncertain how to take them.

But there were other things. They had come to him, that very afternoon. Two of them, young, tousle-haired and scared. “We wish,” said the slightly shorter of the two, “to join your army, Drac. We can fight.”

Vlad had been startled. Yes, Janoz had volunteered to be his man, but it hadn’t strictly occurred to Vlad that that meant soldier, or that the prince of Valahia’s presence in the Carpathians meant certain war.

“I . . .”

“You will need them,” said Angelo.

“You will need a lot more than just them,” said the old soldier. He seemed to be escaping from the grief of losing his son by casting himself into the role of Vlad’s advisor. Vlad absorbed it all like a sponge. Perhaps he was coming at rule from a different and wrong perspective. It was not something Emeric had had him tutored in. He would take whatever advice was available, and gratefully.

“You will need a lot more men, and good weapons, sire. The best you can hope for around here are a few boar spears or an old halberd or two.”

“I had not thought about all of this,” said Vlad humbly. Yes, the man had just been a peasant levy, but he still knew more of war than his prince did.

“Well, Sire . . .” The old man rubbed his temples. “In my day, this was good country to recruit from. There were lots of bowmen needed, and most of the boys around here can pull a bow fairly well, although light bows and fowling pieces are what they have mostly used. But these days, seems to me, you need arquebuses. They can be had, there are some fine weapons being made, especially by those damned Poles, but they’ll cost you a fair amount of gold. You will need cavalry and some cannon, too. You’ll not find any of our people who would make fit cavalry, Sire. The only trained men are in the service of the boyars.

“My sons will come to join you, sire,” said the old man proudly. “Only, I was hoping we could get some of the harvest in. There is Janoz’s widow. We’ll need to provide for her too, and it will be hard.”

Vlad knew that it was in fact his duty to provide for her, now. Father Tedesco had instilled that in him. Perhaps the old priest had been looking to his own future, but Vlad had already seen, first hand, the value of loyalty. The problem was that at the moment he had not as much as one silver piece to his name. Money rested in two groups in Valahia: the tradesmen and the nobility, not the peasants, villagers or a handful of small freeholders. Somehow he must win the support of at least one of the groups of the powerful and wealthy.

A liveried serving man knocked respectfully at the door of the inn which had, by force of circumstances, become his headquarters. The old soldier scowled at the newcomer. “And now, Benedickt? I thought you had become too good for us village people?”

“I have a message,” said the servant loftily, “from my master for Prince Vlad. He would offer the duke hospitality. Where do I find him, you old fool?”

The insolence galvanized him. “You speak to him,” said Vlad coldly. “And I suggest if you wish to keep your head on your shoulders, you rapidly learn some respect for your betters.”

The lackey did a double-take. Quickly he assessed the posture, tone and attitude of the man he was facing — and bowed hastily. “I beg your pardon, Sire. I just came in out of the brightness. I thought it was only the old . . . ah, gentleman.”

Vlad had noticed one thing about himself. Although he had been out in the weather, and even some sunlight, his skin was not browned like the gypsies or the locals. His skin was very pale and his hair and moustache were jet black. If this fellow could see the old soldier in the somewhat dim lighting in the inn, he could certainly see Vlad.

Still, he reminded himself sharply, the boyars could provide him with cavalry. And as the major landowners, they had money. He knew that much.

“Very well,” he said. “I will come.”

The man bowed again. “The master will have a horse sent for you.”

“That would be appreciated,” said Vlad, thinking that the boyar Klasparuj was very well informed.

* * *

Later that afternoon, two footmen returned with a spirited black stallion, tacked up with a beautiful saddle of the finest leather. It was such a horse that Vlad had always imagined he would ride. The joy of mounting it set aside any doubts that he might have had about the wisdom of visiting the boyar. So, accompanied by a footman on a bay gelding — itself a horse that was a long step up from most of those he had ridden in the last week — he set off for the home of the local overlord.

There was certainly nothing lacking in the welcome he got at the fortified manor house. Klasparuj himself came out to greet him, bowing deeply, and kissing his hand. “It is indeed as the rumor from the peasants had it, my Prince. You honor my humble home.”

The boyar’s home looked to be a remarkably fine and richly appointed to Vlad. Not up to the standards of the royal palace in Buda, of course, but the man was plainly a very well-to-do nobleman.

“Thank you,” said Vlad. “I was not sure what support I enjoyed among my nobles. I am going to need your assistance and your loyalty.”