Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 64

She rolled off him again and began to undo his breeches. He’d had strange and confused dreams involving this. She lifted her skirts and put her bare leg over him, and guided him into somewhere warm and wet and soft, and slid it down onto him.

Perhaps this was just one of those confusing and oddly relieving dreams again, he thought, as he thrust . . . she gave slight groan, and pushed down onto him, moving rhythmically, and then panting, faster.

The stars looked down. They were quite small and reachable, really.

“I understand now. I did not understand what she was talking about,” Vlad said later, thinking of Elizabeth. She was very different to this full ripe woman. To be admired, not . . .

“What?” asked Rosa, tracing a pattern on his chest.

“I did not know this was what men and women did,” said Vlad, humbly.

She gaped at him in the moonlight. “You mean . . . I was the first?” She asked.

He nodded.

“Well!” she giggled. “I was going to go, but I see I have a lot to teach you, Drac.”

Vlad did not do a great deal of sleeping that musky scented night. On the other hand he did learn a great deal about women, and indeed, about men. And the world seemed a better, richer, fuller place. Rosa slipped away just before dawn.

But she did promise she would come back. And that he was a stallion. He assumed that that was a compliment.

* * *

“We found these two riding around, Drac,” said Sergeant Mihai. “They claim that they are looking for you. They say they need to speak to you and that it is important.” His tone said that he did not believe them. “Poles. You can trust them nearly as much as you can trust gypsies.”

After their experiences of the previous day, Vlad was not inclined trust anyone. But on the other hand the gypsies had brought him here. They had treated him well enough when he had fled in their company. And besides the world, now that he had discovered Rosa, was not the most evil of places. “I can hear them speak, I suppose,” said Vlad. It would help to pass the time until nightfall.

“Thank you, Prince Vlad,” said the short stocky man. “Your man has the right of it. We are Poles. But we have lived in these lands for twenty years, my cousin and I. King Emeric gave us license to build our workshop and ply our trade here.”

“The bargains that my enemy makes scarcely bind me,” said Vlad tersely.

“They don’t bind him either,” said the stocky man’s companion, who was barely less broad. “He promised our families one thing, and we have found that he demands another.”

“On the other hand,” said the stocky man, “According to my wife, your grandfather kept his bargains, and paid fair price, and your father was a fair man too, as much as King Emeric allowed him to be. I took the liberty, Prince, of inquiring of some of your men while they walked us here, just what manner of man you are. They told me about a trader that was here yesterday. They told me that he had betrayed your Highness. But that you owe him money and you will not see him dead until he is paid.” He smiled grimly. “It was supposed to frighten us, I think. But instead it told us that we can maybe trust you. We wish to make a bargain with you, your Highness.”

That in itself was unusual. Vlad might be ignorant of the ways of the world but he knew this much: tradesmen and nobility did not mix. Tradesmen chaffered with the lower orders. They did not ‘bargain’ with Princes. Any overt ‘bargaining’ rapidly would end up being done at the sword’s point. Most of Vlad’s adherents adopted at least a mildly submissive posture and tone when speaking to him. This man looked him the eye, and by the cut of his jaw was not good at being submissive to anyone. Vlad knew he should be offended. But he found himself liking the short, craggy fellow. “We are honest tradesmen,” the fellow continued, holding out hands that were work-calloused, and that ended in thick stubby fingers. “All we want is to ply our trade and be paid fairly, and stay where we have built our workshops, and not be evicted just because we are not from here. That is what you grandfather did to foreigners.”

“And with good reason too,” said one of the guards. “They were all thieves and rogues. And traitors too.”

The man ignored him, and continued to address Vlad, as if they were the only two men there. “We were offered land and a charter. Now we find our charter ignored and destroyed, and our holdings, our families and our lives threatened — just for plying our trade. Where does your Highness stand on that?”

“I don’t know,” said Vlad smiling despite the man’s effrontery. “Just what is your trade, good man?”

The two men looked at each other, smiling slightly. The stocky solid fellow slapped his own forehead. “Forgive me. I forget, your Highness. Everyone where come from knows us. We’re gunsmiths, Prince Vlad. Gunsmiths from Lwów. We fled from Galicia when Prince Jagiellon killed our Prince. King Emeric’s father gave us leave to settle, gave us a charter, in Harghita and Corona and the cousins in Várad. Józef Smerek is my name. This is my cousin Stanislaw. We are makers of fowling pieces, arquebuses, wheel-lock pistols. We settled here and we would continue our trade here, but now we are proscribed from doing so.” There was no mistaking the fury in the man’s voice at saying this.

“Smerek. They make good guns,” said the guard, considerably more respectfully now.

“And there is the problem,” said Stanislaw. “We make good guns. We sell them. The King’s armies do not buy from us, but there are other customers. Not too many, but others. We make good guns, and we make them not too expensive. Then someone shoots one of King Emeric’s Magyar officers with one of our guns. Shoots him dead, through the armor. And they catch him, find the gun, and now we are proscribed from following the family’s trade. So the family sent a delegation to King Emeric four months ago to appeal the decision.”

The two looked at each other again. Vlad saw how their shoulders were set in anger, the big hands balling into fists. Eventually Stanislaw spoke. He spoke in a cold, unemotional tone, very carefully and very deliberately, as if he was controlling a volcano of rage, but barely. “He tore up our charter. Ripped it apart and threw it in the dirt. And he had Papa Stanislaw impaled for daring to question him. For our part in killing his officer we were flogged. A hundred lashes for Edward and Thaddeus. I had to watch. I was the youngest. I got only fifty lashes — he told them to leave me alive to carry the message.” He lifted his shirt, and turned, revealing the keloid mass of a terrible beating. “My brother Edward died there. Cousin Thaddeus died a week later.”

Vlad looked. And nodded, slowly. It might seem a ridiculous punishment for such a thing, but he too knew Emeric’s reputation. On the wrong day, the wrong word could earn you that sort of treatment. And that would have been just after the King returned from his disastrous expedition to Corfu. His temper had been very, very savage just then. “Fetch us some Schnapps from Mirko,” he said to the guard. Then to the two gunsmiths. “Come. Let us go and sit down and discuss the guns I wish to buy from you. And a new charter. One from me. I expect you sell your guns to me, but I will not blame the maker of the tool for the use it is put to.”

Vlad noticed his men were nodding too.

The two looked at each other. “Yes, your Highness,” they said warily.

“My people call me Drac. Or Sire.”

Józef looked at him strangely. “Drac . . . that means demon. Or Dragon. My wife is from the mountains.”

Vlad nodded. “King Emeric may find I am a demon. The Dragon guards his own treasure. This is my treasure.” He waved his hand at the camp. “My land and my people. Give me your fealty and you and yours will be my treasure too. To be guarded. I will be both the demon and the dragon for you.”

He was surprised to see the stocky, solid men that had looked him in the eye so firmly, suddenly kneeling in front of him. Tears were trickling down the faces of men who would not easily cry. “Drac.” They said, almost in unison. Vlad found his hand being kissed.

“Józef can go back,” said Stanislaw his voice cracking. “I have found my Prince. I want to be your gunsmith, Drac.”

Józef patted Stanislaw gently on the shoulder. “He is the best, Drac. He has even made cannon, though we were not supposed to. That is all we want. Revenge and to be your people. To belong.”

Stanislaw nodded. “Yes,” he said, his voice still thick. “To belong. To have a place we can call our own again. To have a Prince who will be as loyal to us as we are to him.”

Vlad reflected that he would have to go very far to find a better recruiting sergeant than King Emeric. “You will both go back,” he said, raising them up. “There are patrols, and you may fall foul of them. You may need each other for support. My men will see you on your way as far as possible. I want those guns. And then, Stanislaw Smerek, you can return to be my gunsmith. I am going to need you. And you and yours are mine. I will guard you to the best of my ability. I will have your loyalty and you will have mine.”

They nodded. “Drac.” It was a commitment. Heart and soul.

“They will not take us alive, or cheaply,” said Józef with a slight smile. “Stanislaw carries more pistols about his person than most regiments.”