Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 68

Chapter 36

Dana left the cart quietly, early, by the back. If she’d got up normally, before she’d covered thirty paces someone from the urchin pack would have joined her. And mother would have moaned, just like yesterday, and the day before.

Mother moaned about quite a bit, starting with the clothing she was wearing.

“It’s a nice skirt mother.”

“It’s a gypsy skirt! It’s dirty and . . .and vulgar. And how can you go barefoot, darling?”

“Tante Silvia says I have to look like the others, Mama, in case they come looking for us.”

Mama had sighed. “Yes. But Dana. They’re gypsies. Remember your position. And well, the men have a reputation. You must always stay with me . . .”

“Mama. It’s hot. The cart stinks of solder and Tante Silvia’s herbs. And you don’t need to worry about the men, I can’t go anywhere on my own. Ever. There are always at least three of those girls with me. Always, mother. And anyway, no one will ever know what I wore or did here. We’re not going to tell them we hid with the gypsies are we, mother?” She didn’t even try to explain that she’d found that the ‘gypsies’ thought it really funny that her mother thought they were gypsies, just like the other bands that traveled the country. Those people were new-comers, and had come from the south somewhere recently . . . within the last few hundred years. These people said they’d always been here.

Mama had sighed. And cried. “I still think we ought to try and go to cousin Dorrotea. Maybe they will have stopped searching by now. Maybe we’ll be safe with my family. They could hide us in a situation more fitting to our station. It’s so demeaning, this.” The Dowager Princess had waved at the cart that was their meager kingdom these days, as if it were a gaderobe. “And they’re gypsies, Dana. You know what people say about gypsies.”

Dana did. She had said some of it herself. They were rude, crude and vulgar, below contempt, he poorest of the poor, and of less regard than a serf. Only . . . something was wrong with that. They laughed at being called gypsies and sneered at. Not openly, but they had laughed. They’d only been among these “gypsies” for a few hours when she’d worked out that even the poorest ragged urchin looked down on her . . . well, not as far down on her as they did on ordinary people. She was of the house of Valahia. Almost as good as them, she gathered.

That would have done to her what it had done to mama — driven her to sneer back . . . except for one of Dana’s two besetting sins. The first — her temper tantrums and black fury, her mother tolerated. That was Valahia — as Valahia as her long straight black hair and pale skin. It was the second sin that drove her mother to despair, her insatiable curiosity.

It was a curiosity that had saved them. That was how she had found out that orders had come through for her to be taken to Buda, because Vlad — about to be transported there and crowned, had somehow escaped from his prison. Mama had not been able to bear the thought of losing another child . . .thought what dire fate she thought was in store for Dana, she had not said. Instead, in a panic, she had sent them both fleeing.

And so here they were. Among the ‘gypsies’ . . . who looked down on them and treated them like charity cases instead of their rightful lords. “We were here long before you, Valahia. It’s our land. You merely live on it.” And worse . . . she, Dana, was among people with some sort of secret . . . which they had no intention of telling her.

Well, she was going to find it out. So she’d pretended to be charmed by their rude songs, and joined in with their rustic behavior as if it was a great treat. Actually — having held up her nose at such things all her life — after a few days she’d got very used to them. She quite liked some of the pastimes they had showed her, involved her in. Some of the games — when she forgot to be superior and got carried away with the game — were clever and fun too. She discovered that she liked winning.

She realized that they weren’t quite games either after a while. They were teaching the young ones how to steal, and how to trick the settled people, which seemed to be their equivalent of schooling. She had to admit it was more challenging than deportment lessons. She decided that — as long as no one knew — being a traveler was possibly more fun than merely being a Princess. Well, not the fishing in the lake. The fishing part was all right. It was catching the slimy things that wasn’t. Blackberrying too. When you were hungry — and she had discovered hunger too, along with the ‘gypsy’ dances, and crude jokes and wild music — blackberries were good eating, despite the thorns.

“Look at your fingers, Dana!” Mama had cried in horror the first day. Then she had taken in some of the other details “What have done to your face? And your hair?” she had demanded icily.

“Green walnut juice. And Tante Silvia did my hair with hot sticks. I like it, I think.”

“You look like a filthy gypsy girl. Not a Princess.”

She’d avoided rolling her eyes because it made her mother despair of her. But she wanted to; how could her mother be so — obtuse? “That’s the idea, mama. I need to look like one.”

But this morning she had a very different agenda. She had noticed that at least two of the three main men, Radu, Angelo, and that eternally grinning Grigori sneaked off somewhere every morning. At least one of them was missing all day.

She’d even tried asking about it. Angelo had laughed at her. “Run and play little girl,” he’d said, cheerfully tousling her hair. She’d nearly exploded with shock and rage at his presumption. Then he’d said. “It’s not for you to know.”

She’d bottled her rage and tried to flutter her eyelashes at him, as she had seen some of the older girls doing. He’d laughed again. “The tricks you have learned among the pack, eh? Your brother is a dangerous man. You will be a dangerous woman one day. You’ll need it. You’ll be tall, just like him. I hope you ride better. He could hardly sit in the saddle when we brought him east.”

“My brother?”

“I have said too much. What you don’t know you can’t tell.”

As far as Dana was concerned as what she didn’t know could very easily drive her mad. But other than the fact that he had plainly met her brother, he was not saying any more. She really hated that.

And they were up to something else. Something that kept the “gypsies” camped on this mountain in the late summer, when they would be normally be working the countryside. The other children let that much on, and they were so plainly pregnant with knowing something she did not, that it had even got her up early, before the sun had even peeked above the horizon. The grass was heavy with dew . . . and it was relatively easy to see where someone had walked out of the camp, heading away from the dark waters of the lake into the pine forests, up on the steep slopes of the mountain.

Looking carefully she just caught a glimpse of them disappearing into the forest margin. The dew was cold and wet on her bare feet as she hitched her skirts up and ran after them. She even had her blackberry basket as an excuse.

They moved faster than she possibly could, she knew. They’d never know she was behind them . . .

And then she caught a brief sight of grey brindled fur, white teeth and a very red mouth in between the shadows. She gave a small strangled gasp of a scream . . . but before she could open her mouth for a full-blooded bellow, Grigori stepped out from behind the low branches of a tree on the other side. “What are you doing here, little girl?” he asked roughly.

Dana was totally startled out of any pretense of hauteur. “L . . .looking for berries.”

“Go down to the lake-side. They grow there. Go.”

“There’s . . . there’s something in the woods. I saw it. Fur and teeth. A bear . . . or a wolf. I can’t go on my own.”

“Ah.” Grigori said. “It is dangerous up here. It’ll kill and eat the soft, tender meat. Now run. I will distract it. Run. Run quickly and do not stop until you are back in the camp. Quickly. Go.”

From the forest came a menacing growl and Grigori drew his knife.

She needed no more urging. In a panicky headlong flight she ran downhill, jinking through the trees and tearing through the underbrush.

But she did not get very far. Less that three hundred paces. She hooked her toes on a tree root and went flying, landing so hard that all the breath was knocked out of her. She lay there gasping weakly, too stunned and breathless to get up, let alone run on, despite her fear. Even so, she tried, because of that, and as she struggled to a sitting position, she realized that the forest was still. There was no sign of a monster chasing her. It would have caught her and eaten her by now. There were no sounds of a desperate struggle while Grigori fought it off. There was nothing but early morning silence broken by a dove’s mournful call.

She’d managed to sit up now, and inspect her ripped skirt and — by hitching the skirt up — her knees. They were both grazed and one dripped a little blood. Sore and with the increasing realization that she’d been made a fool of, Dana stood up. She did not turn down slope. Instead she walked determinedly — if a little cautiously — back up to where she had met Grigori.