Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 46

Black fury began to rise in Vlad. It had all been a deceit! His memories of the boyars had been correct. He was beginning to feel that he should never trust in anything but his first instinct.

“Emil. Go and fetch us some rope,” said the boyar. “I have wasted a great deal of good wine capturing him. It’s all superstition. We could just have tied him up when he got here. I hope King Emeric is going to be generous.”

The footman got up, and the black tide within Vlad surged also. They were not holding him particularly tightly. He had been so surprised he’d not done any struggling, and they obviously thought him almost comatose with drink. Calling on the furious strength that was welling up inside him, he flung them aside. Or at least, he succeeded in kicking the majordomo away, and cracking together the heads of the plump son, who was holding one arm, with the footmen who held the other.

That left only the boyar himself. He clung fast to Vlad’s back, even as Vlad struggled to his feet.

The boyar kicked at his legs, making Vlad stagger back toward the vast hearth. Vlad tripped over one of the fire-dogs and fell backwards, into the burning logs.

His fall was cushioned by the man on his back — who screamed and let go.

Vlad stood up, in time to see the plump son swing a chair at him. Vlad sidestepped — and fell over the boyar, who was crawling out of the huge fireplace, screaming in pain. The man’s clothes were on fire. The chair smashed on the edge of the fireplace — and part of it flew into the fire, knocking a log out.

The boyar rolled desperately. He crashed into the wall and the long drapes. Flames licked up from his burning clothes onto the drapery.

The majordomo had fumbled a clumsy wheel-lock pistol out from wherever he had hidden it. With shaking hands, he pointed it, as Vlad advanced from the fireplace. Vlad was far too angry to be afraid.

The pistol boomed. Vlad kept coming forward. If it had hit him, he didn’t feel it. But the woman screamed and clutched her throat and sank to her knees, before pitching forward.

The majordomo stared at the tableau in horror.

“It is not a good enough bullet to kill the prince of Valahia. Mere lead won’t do it,” said Vlad, still walking toward the table, ignoring the screaming and terror. He picked up a branch of candles, and flung it like a javelin at the second footman, who was trying to pull a halberd free from a display of arms. It missed, but as he ducked the footman swung the halberd wildly and knocked over another branch of candles. The candles in the branch Vlad flung had all been extinguished by the speed of his throw. But these remained alight, and the tallow burned in a shallow puddle on the large kist. It must have dripped inside, and whatever was inside was very flammable too. It went up in a tower of flames.

Somehow the heat got through to Vlad. He shook himself, took stock of his circumstances, and realized that he was in a burning building. The son was trying to get past him, and Vlad let him flee. The boy was running the wrong way, up the passage.

The footman and majordomo had fled. Vlad could not leave the boyar and his wife to die. The boyar was further away. He would gather him up, and grab the woman and run.

The boyar must have been half crazed with the burning, because he took one look at Vlad and somehow staggered into a run . . . back towards the burning drapes. Vlad allowed himself just a moment of indecision and then turned. If the man could still run, he could save himself. He scooped the woman up in his arms. She was voluptuous and heavy, but Vlad had no difficulty carrying her. He kicked aside the still swinging door and stormed out into the hallway. The front door was open, and the roof on fire.

* * *

No one likes or trusts the gypsies. But these men had brought the prince here and he had plainly exerted his hold over them too. So when the gypsies told the villagers to gather their weapons and come to the fortified manor of the boyar Klasparuj, they came. Boyar Klasparuj was a hated landlord. Grasping and cruel, he and his men were feared.

Their prince was already loved and respected. “He killed Gregor the innkeeper with his own hands for what he did to Janoz. Drowned him in his own kitchen filth. And you know, he went himself to house of the widow Mira . . .”

If the prince wanted them, armed, his word was law.

They were waiting in the darkness when the fire began erupting through the roof. Angelo turned to Grigori. “He has called the wildfire.”

The second gypsy nodded. “It’s never a good thing to wake in a building.”

The door burst open and some liveried footmen came running out, yowling like scalded cats. Angelo stopped one. Hard. “Where is the prince?” he demanded.

“Dear God. I shot him!” quavered the man.

“What?!” demanded a villager. “Benedickt . . .”

“But he didn’t die,” said the man, his voice shrill. “He just didn’t die! I shot him dead. And he just kept walking towards me. He said lead would not kill him. It had to be royal metal. We gave him so much wine it would have felled an ox, but he wasn’t even drunk. He’s a demon . . .”

“Not a demon,” said Radu. “Drac. He is the dragon, reborn.”

As he said this a figure came staggering down the stairs, his hair and clothing aflame, a kist in his hands.

And then, as part of the roof fell, sending a plume of flame into the sky and illuminating everything with sharp red light, Vlad came out of the doorway, a woman in his arms. The flames curled up hungrily behind him, highlighting the prince in his austere black, his face very white. Red blood ran from the voluptuous woman’s throat, and down onto her breast.

The villagers surged forward. Vlad put her down. “She is dead. They tried to betray me, Angelo.” He looked at the flames and said tiredly. “The fire will spread. You’d better see to the horses in the stables. We’ll need good horses. They had sent for King Emeric’s men.”

Villagers ran to do his bidding.

“What of this one?” Radu pointed to the fallen figure that had staggered out, aflame, just before Vlad appeared.

“The son. Let us see if anything can be done for him.”

But he was no longer breathing. His hands had burned onto the kist he’d carried.

“He abandoned his parents to fetch that,” said Vlad.

“The manor strongbox must have been important to him,” said Angelo dryly. “Well. We’d better get to those horses and leave.”

Vlad shook his head. “No. I have money.” He kicked the strongbox. “I have horses and I have men. I see that the men have weapons with them.”

“We thought you might need freeing.”

“I might have,” acknowledged Vlad. “But I dealt with that. I have had enough of just running. I have a funeral to attend tomorrow. Let us deal with these Croats tonight. It will make them less eager to follow me.”

Angelo looked at the burning building. At the peasants with pitchforks, boar spears and bows. “They’ll kill this lot, Prince.”

Vlad shook his head. “We will not give them the opportunity. These people know the land here. The Croats do not. And they expect a prisoner. One man. They will not know what to expect.”

Grigori rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “I think that after tonight, they will expect the worst.”

Radu snorted. “The tale will grow somewhat in the telling.”

“Oh yes,” said Angelo. “A dark and fearsome tale. A legend.”