Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 56

There were barely twenty of them left. Looking back to see if he was being followed, Vlad realized that the flanking party of Magyar had reached the col behind them. His pitiful little force was caught between two sets of enemies. But it was too late. The little ragtag group of rebels, all that remained of his army, had begun their doomed charge. All he could do was to wave his sword — he had no idea how to use it from the saddle — and race towards the chaos that had been their campsite.

At the top of the slope someone else yelled: “Charge!” And: “He must be taken alive!”

Vlad heard that quite clearly. It was the last thing he remembered hearing clearly for the next few minutes.

If there was one thing more stupid than trying to charge up a scree slope, it had to be charging down one. It was undoubtedly the shortest way down, and in the dust and perhaps in the haste of the moment it might have seemed a good idea.

Vlad had no time to think of his enemy’s logic. He was hacking at an armored man. This was not about swordsmanship. This was about survival. A pitch-fork in the neck assisted his foe’s fall. And somehow he was through to the other side of the Magyar troopers, with nothing but the trail they had followed up here in front of him, and the bulk of his force intact.

* * *

Emeric had some thirty-three battered men paraded in front of him. They were all that remained of a once-proud troop of a hundred and twenty that had set off on a well-planned dawn raid on the encampment of Vlad, Prince of Valahia.

“I think,” he said, smiling nastily at his great aunt’s beautiful features, “that you had better leave military matters me, Countess. I came expecting to find things in good order. Instead I find you have countermanded my instructions and made things a great deal worse. I did have my doubts. You are very skilled . . . in other areas.”

He did not say that he had come because one of the captains whom he had seconded to her had sent a letter to his commanding officer, who had in turn carried it to the king. Emeric might need the man in the future. Besides, he thought it wise to let her think he that had guessed. Actually, the disaster had come as a rude shock to him. She was usually so devastatingly efficient.

She looked down her nose at him. “The operation was well planned. Your troops are inadequate. They were late. They should have arrived simultaneously at dawn.”

He wondered if she realized that she had just reprieved them from drastic punishment. “Let us hear what they have to say,” he said. He pointed to a trooper. “You. Explain.”

The man was gray and shaking. But he was no coward, Emeric had to admit. “Sire. It was steeper than we realized. It took us much longer than we thought. Captain Genorgi had us out at midnight, riding up. We should have been in position hours before dawn. Everyone thought we would be, but we lost the moonlight in the valley. It was pitch dark and very rough going. We had to lead the horses.”

“If you’d lamed my horses in that I would have had you flayed. But surely it had been scouted?”

The trooper nodded. “It’s rough terrain, Sire, but not that bad in daylight. We just didn’t realize that it was an ambush. A trap.”

“And scouts?” asked the king.

“We had some Croats watching the camp from the other ridge, Sire. But they could only see fires. They didn’t realize that the fires were a decoy. We’d have all been killed if our scouts hadn’t sounded the warning. I was coming up the second valley. We killed some of their infantry. But when we heard the fighting, Captain Genorgi told us to leave hunting them and push on for the gap.”

“And then?”

“We heard them massacring Lieutenant Mascaru’s men when we got to the top. There were hundreds of them, Sire. Not just the forty peasants without weapons or training like we’d been told. All yelling ‘Drac!’ and cutting our men to pieces. Captain Genorgi gave the order to charge, and we rode to the rescue. But it was a trap. Prince Vlad . . . He’s not human, Sire. He’s a demon. He made the slope give way under us. I was lucky to get out alive.”

“This may be temporary,” said Emeric, and then remembered that he was not punishing them. “You did well. Now. Return to the ranks. I want to speak someone who was with the other column.”

The trooper was plainly unable to believe his fortune. He bowed and retreated.

“Well?” said Emeric. “Were there no survivors of Lieutenant Mascaru’s column?”

Where had Vlad found a general with this level of military expertise? Where had he found weaponry, knights, or at least cavalry? Emeric suspected treachery, and a far better woven plot that he had guessed at.

Nervously a man with a bandaged head came forward. “Me, Sire.”

Emeric looked at him. A big man, but plainly shaken by the military disaster. So they should be. They were among his best. “And how many knights did they have?”

“More than us, Sire. A hundred at least. They took us in the flank out of the dust.”

“And who commanded them? I need some ideas. Boyars have families.” He smiled thinly.

The soldier looked nervous. “Sire, I think it was Prince Vlad himself. They were all yelling for him, or at least all yelling ‘Drac!’ That’s what they call him. He’s a huge man all in black clothes, black hair and a white face, and you can’t kill him. I shot him at the top of the slope, but he didn’t die. Then in the melee he knocked me out of the saddle just with his gaze. His eyes . . .”

The man shuddered. “I’ll swear our swords barely touched.” The soldier realized what he was saying, shut his eyes, and began to mumble a prayer.

It was all Emeric could do not to kill the idiot on the spot. This was exactly what he did not need. The Magyars prided themselves in the belief that they were the finest heavy cavalry in the world — as Emeric himself did. The accursed Knights of the Holy Trinity used magic, that was all. And now, here was an upstart little princeling who had shaken the confidence of his finest, shaken the very foundations of his kingdom. A man who was, it appeared, rapidly building a more terrible reputation than he himself enjoyed.

* * *

In a shallow cave that was barely more than an overhang, Vlad and his fourteen surviving men, neither looked nor felt terrifying. They felt alive . . . but only just. Of the fourteen, only eight were not walking wounded. They were all still stunned by their first real combat, and the sheer ferocity of it all. Yes, they had escaped. Some said they had seen Magyar butcher Magyar in the chaos of rolling rocks and dust. It appeared that those in the dell had taken their rescuers — those that survived the scree slide — as yet more attackers.

Whatever happened, Vlad’s men had escaped with their lives — those who had not paid with theirs. But they had lost almost all of their food and the better part of their number.

Yet, somehow, Vlad’s men regarded him as a hero. Vlad did not know what to make of this, but it filled him with shame. Still, he had learned one thing. Watchers were now posted. And there were several ways to flee carefully scouted. But he did not know quite what to do next.

The one thing he did not expect was for his watchers to be calling him excitedly, happily. He came to look. A sense of some relief washed over him. He recognized at least three of the men leading a party of perhaps fifty others. Not soldiers, or at least certainly not recognizable as such. There were a number of pack ponies, a few donkeys, and most of the men were carrying large bundles.