Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 47

Chapter 26

Standing at the burned out shell of the manor house. Elizabeth tapped the riding crop against the cheek of the soldier. “Now tell us again, remembering all the details.”

The trooper looked warily at the perfect complexion and classically beautiful face. She smiled, perfect rosebud lips curved. “I’m waiting.”

“Lady, there really is no more. We got the message from the boyar Klasparuj. We rode back, guided by the messenger. We had no suspicion that it would be a trap. The locals are sullen and uncooperative, but no one would have dared to raise a hand to his Majesty’s troops. They all do what we want. At most they just won’t help us. But this one led us into an ambush, damn him.”

“Of course he did not live through this,” said Elizabeth.

The soldier nodded. “Captain Kouric ran him through, right there.”

“I wonder if stupidity is infectious?” said the countess. “How we supposed to question a dead body? You kill them after you have the answers. Now we are going to have to find someone else to give us that information.”

Captain Kouric looked wary himself. He had come to realize that the countess could be even more vicious than King Emeric, but that she was also much more astute. Of course — although Kouric would never have said this aloud, even to his closest friends — being more astute than Emeric was not hard.

She noticed. She noticed far too much for comfort. “And now, Captain? What else have you done that I’m going to dislike?”

He cleared his throat nervously. “His Majesty’s orders. Any village that shows resistance, we are to execute as many of them as we can find.”

“And you’ve sent some of your men to do this?”

He nodded, sweat beading his forehead.

“Send the rest of your men after them,” she said coldly. “Now. If they’ve killed anyone, you’ll be hanging alongside them in the village square. I need to know what happened here. If that means executing dull-witted soldiers your force, I really don’t mind.”

He left at a run, yelling for his men and horse.

* * *

Elizabeth stood there tapping her quirt on her palm. The tiny slivers of glass embedded in it had no effect on her skin. There were ways, of course, of getting the information, even from the dead. If need be, she could get the burned timbers and blackened stones to tell her. But what she needed was a little more complex. Entrapment always took bait, and she would bet that Vlad had made loyalists for himself. She was not too sure quite where he had got himself a military force.

The Croats were Emeric’s second best troops. They could not have been defeated by mere peasant levies. Vlad must have successfully recruited some of the boyars. That in itself was odd. Emeric, on her instruction, had treated them well. The trans-Carpathian lesser nobility were a fair way towards being more loyal to him than to their actual overlord.

But there was always some petty noble looking out for the main chance. Apparently, this boyar Klasparuj must have been one of them. The surviving Croats said that they had not burned the place. It was possible that they weren’t lying. On the other hand, they had a reputation for arson — to the point where Emeric had had to forbid it during the last campaign. Arson was a shortsighted practice, unless one used it to burn people along with the structures that could be useful later.

She walk over to ashes. Someone had died here. She could feel it. Died terrified.

* * *

“I got there in time, you ladyship,” panted the captain. “They were still rounding people up into the village square. Nobody has been hurt. At least not too badly.”

“I trust you did not mention my name. Remember, I am not here. I am strictly incognito in this affair.”

“Uh.” The captain looked as if in avoiding the mud-puddle he had stepped into a cesspool. “I did say that Your Ladyship had ordered them freed.” She tapped her quirt on her hand again. “But I didn’t use your ladyship’s actual name.”

“I have told you that it is necessary for me to keep an apparent distance from the search for Prince Vlad. Now, thanks to your foolishness, I will have to remove myself from this area. I will need you to bring me those of the boyars who have provided you with the best support. I will need to interview them.”

“Yes, Your Ladyship. What can we do about the attack on our men?”

“Why, be very happy that you failed to execute the villagers. The last prince was a fairly timid man. But this prince’s grandfather would have impaled your troops and set them on the border as a warning. This one seems more like that. Learn to play a longer game, Captain. In good time you will get your opportunity.”

She paused for a moment, reminding herself not to fall into the same error. “I’ve rethought my strategy here. I did indeed order you not to kill the villagers. That made you very angry, that I should suddenly have arrived and told you to take this action. See that you tell quite a number of people that.”

“And the boyars, lady?”

“Have them come and see me,” she said, turning away. “I need to interview them, to find ones that are suitable.”

She did not say what she wanted them suitable for, and the captain wisely did not ask.

* * *

Captain Kouric rode his showy roan down the village street. He noted four of his men’s horses outside the smithy. Now, horses do throw a shoe every now and again, but the captain had an excellent memory — for horses, anyway. Two of those horses had only been reshod yesterday, and those were four that should have been out on patrol. He stopped his horse and tied it next to the others and went inside. Two of his soldiers, who would normally not have deigned to lift a finger if a civilian could be made to do it, were working the bellows while the smith drew a crucible from the furnace with long tongs. The other two were readying a series of bullet molds.

“And just what is going on in here?” he asked sharply, almost causing the smith to drop and crack his crucible full of molten silver metal.

“Nothing, Captain,” said one of the troopers hastily.

“Just making some more bullets, Sir,” added another, as if Kouric could not see that.

He raised his eyes to heaven. “And since when did you need a smith to do that? And why do you need to do it right now?”

“Uh. We thought it might be useful, Sir, to have some spares.”

“Always a good thought,” said Kouric, his eyes half lidded. “But why did you bring the work to the smithy this morning, when you’re supposed to be on patrol?” His voice, silky and pleasant, might have fooled those who knew him less well than his own troops.

“Uh. We only heard about this late last night, Sir. And we can’t get our fire hot enough . . .”

Kouric had seen them melting lead often enough to know this to be a lie. He merely raised his eyebrows at them.

“Well, Sir, it’s not lead. It’s . . . it’s silver, Sir. It is that or gold, and most of us haven’t got much gold.

“’tisn’t my fault,” said the smith. “They told me to melt all their silver pennies. I just does what I’m told, Sir.”

“Silver bullets? You are melting your own money into silver bullets?” demanded the captain incredulously. “Have you all gone mad?”

The soldiers had the grace to look embarrassed. “It’s the only way to stop him, Sir. A common metal won’t do nothing to him.”