Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 57

He tried to place where the three had been during that disastrous encounter. One of them, still with a horse, had been part of that terrible charge. The other two, one now leading a pack pony, had definitely been with the group that had scrambled off on foot. Vlad had thought them all killed. To his relief, he realized that some of them must have got away.

That was a weight off his conscience. Perhaps generals with thousands at their beck and call felt little for casualties. To Vlad, these men were still precious companions. Yes, they were peasants and yeomen farmers. But they were all he had. And they’d been true to him.

He wished that he could make contact, somehow, with Countess Elizabeth. She would have nobles skilled in the art of war — something he knew far too little of — willing to join and help him. She plainly was a loyal subject, a vassal ruling Caedonia, one of his cities, even if she was also a vassal of King Emeric.

He was delighted to see the other survivors. And totally unprepared for the adulation of those who accompanied them.

“Drac!” People bowed and cheered. “Bless you, Prince!” They crowded round, incredulous and plainly in awe.

Vlad smiled worriedly as he squeezed the shoulders of one the men who had fled on foot. “Were there any other survivors?”

“Some others, I think. We were scattered, Prince. But thanks to you, some of us escaped when you taught the Magyars a lesson. They fled like whipped dogs.”

Vlad found himself so taken aback by this interpretation of events, that he was at a loss as to what to say. The world inside the walls of his tower had ill prepared him for the realities outside. That much he understood. But did life have to be so illogical and confusing? He had lost most of his men, had had to flee their camp; had, in fact, barely survived. To Vlad’s logical mind, that did not make him the sort of beacon to whom men would rally. Yet here they were, with more men than he’d lost, congratulating him on his victory!

It made no sense. Could they not see that he and a bare handful of men were huddling in a cave in the mountains?

“The story is spreading across the country, Lord. Many thousands will answer your call now.”

Bit by bit, as he spoke to his new recruits, Vlad began to understand. In the chaos some of the Magyars had fled too. Vlad knew little about war, and of how King Emeric conducted it. But this much he did know: there was only one penalty for desertion — execution. On the other hand, even Vlad knew that Emeric was fond of painful deaths for those who had failed him. Desertion might have seemed a sensible option to some of those soldiers. It might be dishonorable and disloyal, but, for the second sons and minor nobility who made up the rank-and-file of King Emeric’s elite, it might also have been better than returning and admitting defeat.

So. Desertion, and not just the scree slope, confusion and the few casualties that he and his men had been able to inflict, had made the difference — and painted a different picture of the battle. Very few of the survivors were in the two columns returning to face the penalties that their commanders, or worse, their king, might inflict upon them. But those who had chosen the course of honor, it would seem . . .

Had not chosen the course of veracity. They had vastly exaggerated the size of the force they had faced. These new recruits earnestly believed that Vlad had inflicted a stunning military defeat onto the hated occupiers. Also, that he commanded a large force, and that he was a military genius. Their own eyes soon persuaded them that Vlad had no vast force. However, that just reinforced the belief that he was the greatest military commander that had ever breathed, to be able to inflict such a crushing defeat on superior numbers.

Besides, they wanted to believe. They would not let common sense stand in the way of that.

Vlad had little enough silver, very few horses, scant rations, and no arms. He did have, however, twice the army he’d had before. And there were more men on their way, apparently. Vlad wished desperately for wiser and more experienced counsel. He wished he knew how to make contact with the countess, or even the gypsies. He could talk to them. But he was wise enough to know that he could not truly take these people into his confidence. He needed them. And, even if their belief was false, he needed them to believe in him. So he walked off up the bare mountainside, to a place that he could sit alone and think. And pray. Father Tedesco had said that God would provide answers. Right now, those seemed to be avoiding him.

He would just have to do his best on his own, knowing almost nothing. What ever that best was, it would have to include finding a larger camp and posting sentries. He had read of sentries. In a way experienced them, in the shape of the guards that had watched his tower. He just was not too sure of the exact details — such as how many of them, and what they should do, and for how long they should do it.

He walked back down to the encampment. It was, to his meticulous eye, a mess. Of course, it had been a mess previously, but then, as desperate fugitives organization had seemed a little futile. He cleared his throat. “Have we any men here,” he said loudly, instantly stilling dozens of conversations, “who have any military experience?” He hoped he could find at least one common soldier from whom he could — without betraying too much of his own ignorance — get the details of how to set out sentries.

He got some seven men. And four of them, all comrades, were former sergeants from one of the levies that Emeric had raised in Valahia. “I need sentries posted, I need a better camp — this one is poorly ordered, and I need to train these men,” Vlad began, wondering — as he knew little of how the military actually worked, if such men would know anything of what he needed. Perhaps they would have some ideas from watching their own officers.

They saluted. And turned away . . . But he had not yet finished speaking to them . . .

They seem to believe he had, however. And moreover they seemed to assume that he had ordered them to arrange these matters. To his amazement, Vlad discovered that they seemed to know precisely what to do. He watched them, covertly, determined to learn what to do next time. After a while he wryly concluded that the correct method was probably to tell several sergeants that you perceived a problem. Even if this was not quite the right way, and Vlad did not know if it was or not, it had certainly worked extremely well.

The cave with its handful of desperate survivors transformed — at an almost magical speed — into a military encampment. The two sergeants drilling the newly formed squads might think that they resembled hopeless black beetles . . . and other fascinating and bizarre things, many of which Vlad had never heard of before, but suddenly they began to resemble fighting men. And strangely, despite the abuse heaped on their heads, they appeared proud, even if they were merely armed with staffs of green ash.

It left Vlad free to ponder other important questions, and to wonder if perhaps he should tell the sergeants about those too — and how he could do so without shattering their confidence in him. He could hardly say ‘well, what do I do next?’

The one thing he was sure of was that they could not stay in one place for long. If the Hungarians had found and nearly destroyed them once, they would do so again. The others could delude themselves about his military genius, but Vlad knew he had none, and he knew it. All he had was a logical, and very precise and tidy mind.