Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 48

“What on earth are you talking about?” demanded their commanding officer. He refrained from calling them the idiots they plainly were. Kouric had commanded men for long enough to understand that there were times when telling them the average dung-heap had more intelligence, could in itself be a stupid statement. That was when money was involved. More than one officer had been murdered for that mistake.

“The Drac, Sir,” said one of the soldiers, using the local word for dragon.

“There is no such thing, trooper,” said the captain dismissively. Once stories like that got hold, they were hard to dispel among the common soldiers. They were enormously superstitious.

“It’s what the local people call Prince Vlad, Sir,” explained the soldier. “He is a monster, Sir.”

“They are having you on, spinning you a fine fairytale,” said Kouric.

“No, Sir,” said the soldier stubbornly.

Soldiers do not argue with their commanding officer. They know the penalty for that. So if any experienced officer has them do so, he knows something is very wrong. “Where did you hear this?”

“At the Green Bush, Sir.”

Kouric knew that he shouldn’t even have had to ask. The inn was off-limits, but he knew full well that where there was ale, there would be troopers, and nothing short of a armed guard would stop them. “You’re not supposed to shoot Prince Vlad,” he said tersely. “You’re supposed to arrest him. Those are your orders from King Emeric himself. Do you really wish to argue with him? The King is no story put about to frighten little babes. He is a real terror. If Prince Vlad was so powerful do you think he could have been kept prisoner? A hostage — and for years? Now get out there, get on your horses and get to your patrol.”

They turned, and began to sheepishly stumble towards the door. One did half turn, and say: “What about our money, Sir?”

“Go! You were stupid enough to waste it. You’ve lost it.” If the blacksmith had any sense he’d return their silver. If he didn’t, Captain Kouric was not going to look too hard for his murderers. The locals deserved some payback for their part in all this. No matter what the countess said, he was going to make an example of those who were trying to terrify his men with this story.

* * *

In a plain cloak, accompanied by one of his toughest sergeants, equally anonymously dressed, Kouric found his way into the taproom of the inn that night. The host was an old man, with a severe limp. And he was giving free beer to the Croat troopers, which explained just why quite so many of the captain’s men were prepared to risk his wrath by coming to a place that was off limits. There were a few locals. The captain noted their features carefully and sat down with his sergeant to listen. If they’d gone forward to the bar at least one of the men might have recognized them, but they stayed at the back, where the light from the tallow dips scarcely penetrated.

The speaker was so drunk that his words were slurred. He still had every trooper in the place clinging to them. “– drank the mistress’s blood. You could see it running from her throat.” The man panted and sweated, just recollecting the event. “His skin is white, like something that’s been dead. And he wears black clothes like a priest. And he walked right through the fire. Fire that was hot enough to kill the master’s son, and burnt me like this, see.” He pointed to his shriveled hair. “And I got out of there before him, long before him. It didn’t burn him at all. You can’t kill him.”

The old man with the limp had come up to the table quietly, as they listened. He put down three mugs of beer. “On the house. You must stay here to protect us.”

The captain had heard enough. He knew what he’d have to do. “Sergeant, we’ll be shifting camp first thing in the morning.” It was that or lose half his men to desertion. This Benedickt’s story was obviously not invented for audience’s benefit. It had spread to so many of the troopers already, that hanging the man would be a waste of time and effort. Counter-productive, in fact, since the hanging would simply give weight to the story.

Kouric’s patrols still hunted for Prince Vlad. But there was a marked lack of real enthusiasm for actually finding him, and having to try and take him alive as they’d been instructed. Dead in a hail of silver bullets might be a better idea . . .

The captain was not a superstitious man. He would have to keep reminding his troopers just what the king did to those who disobeyed him. He also needed to send a message. Emeric would need more than the handful of soldiers he had in these hills, if they were facing a real armed insurrection.

He was not happy at the thought. The king of Hungary was known to ignore such messages and then, when troubles ensued, to demand the heads of those who had not warned him.

* * *

“Forty two men,” grinned Angelo. “A perfect number. Too many to feed easily, and too few to do anything with. They lack arms, or training, or even anyone to train them. King Emeric must be very afraid.”

Just a few seconds, before Vlad had actually been feeling quite proud of his new army. Their loyalty touched him. Angelo’s sarcasm touched him too, on the raw. But the gypsy was right, and Vlad could not forget that they had helped him to flee and draw off those who might have endangered his rescuer.

“Well, I have you and Grigori and Radu. Then there is me. So we have forty-six men. And I will recruit more ”

Angelo shook his head. “No, Drac. We — Radu, Grigori and I — must go south now, and fast. There is business that we need to see to for our people. We will have to leave you. But we will be back. There are certain rituals between your house and mine that need to be renewed before we can have you crowned.”

The idea of them leaving frightened him. In his shifting world, the gypsies had been Vlad’s one anchor. True, it had been a very small anchor, which had allowed the vessel of his life to drift into new and dangerous waters. But everything else had gone.

“I am not sure where to go next. Or what to do.”

The gypsy seemed amused. “Being a prince is a trade you’ll have to learn without my help. I could only teach you how to look and behave like a gypsy, not the ruler of Valahia. As to where you will go . . . I think that there is only one place for you to go and be safe for a little while, while you try to turn your men into a real army. The high Carpathians. It’s wild, bleak and unruled. Bandit country. The Hungarians will not go there except in large numbers, and large numbers up there are hard to move around fast and unseen. You need time and a hiding place. Go up into the mountains and be very glad that it is still late summer.”

Vlad decided that was sound advice. And those high bleak places called to him.

If he could not turn to the boyars for cavalry, leadership and training, he had to find some people he could trust to help with the instruction, or he would have to learn all of it himself.

But he was aware that twenty-seven horses and the contents of the boyar’s strong box were not going to be enough.