Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 69

There was no body. No mutilated dark skinned gray eyed man with his throat ripped out, and his entrails wrapped around the trees.

Dana took a deep breath as her temper rose. Not yet there wasn’t. There might be when she caught up with them. They were laughing at her, no doubt. It had been Angelo growling, of course. And whatever she’d seen . . . well, they let the children wander around, freely; she’d discovered that the ‘gypsies’ took good care of their own, contrary to their reputation. She’d seen how the older ones appeared as if by magic when two of the littlest children went too close to a landslip by the lake. Therefore there was no dangerous beast on the loose in the forest. They had just wanted to frighten her off from whatever they were doing in these woods.

She was of the house of Valahia. She didn’t frighten. Not much, or for long anyway, damn their black hearts. She began to walk uphill again, far more determinedly now. It was steep going, and the pine trees grew thicker. It was quite a bit later when it occurred to her that they might not have been going this way at all. There were no tracks. There was not even a well-defined pathway — just the faintest of trails, which only existed in that several of the branches had been broken, possibly by some wild animal. She peered at the thick coating of old pine needles. Looking back she could see how she’d exposed little wet patches of their damp under layer, just by struggling up the steep slope. Looking around there was no sign that the two larger, heavier men had made their way up here. No sign of any other disturbance . . . except on a tree about ten paces away, there were four deep gouges, cut at least a fingertip deep through the rough bark into the flesh of the tree. It bled gummy sap, in thin sticky pine resin trails.

She laughed. So that was what this was all about. Rosin. The right to collect rosin was a Lord’s right, which, of course they would get their peasantry to do. She’d heard tell that it was sticky, unpleasant work, saved for peasants not fit for much better. Still: It was a Lord’s right, just as the venison and wild boar were his. They would not take kindly to some gypsies stealing their property, even if they were not harvesting it themselves. She laughed again, louder this time.

And in the tree above the long scratches something stirred. Something of shifting colors, sinuous, and reptilian and spiky. With bat wings. The shape stared at her with slitted eyes that seemed to slide between a liquid copper and a fiery glow.

She wanted to scream, but she was actually too terrified to do so. Her eyes wide, and her heart racing, she began to turn ever so slowly, making no sudden moves. And then she nearly jumped clear at the top of the pine trees. Because, with a clatter and a thump, a second creature flapped down to the forest floor. The opalescent creature stood there on a pair of feathered legs, great curved talons digging into the moss, a long spiked tail snaked back among the trees. It cocked his head and looked at her. And then, very obviously, sniffed at her. The other of the creatures flapped down, landing barely five paces away. She was trapped between the two of them. The second one stuck its scaly snout forward at her, and sniffed at her knee. The worse grazed knee.

Strange, liquid fiery-coppery eyes with crescent pupils looked at her. It was not, despite the bat wings, talons and long barbed tail, a very large creature. Barely the size of a graze-hound in fact. And skinny. She could see the ribs under the shifting greenish silver color of its scales. She could also see long sharp white teeth set into a red maw.

Then it said . . . “food.”

While she’d been looking at it the other one had also come forward. “Hungry” that one said, and a long, forked, snaky tongue quivered out of its mouth, flickering over her foot and onto her leg with a ghostlike brushing touch.

Dana managed her scream.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Angelo, standing and looking at her from where she would swear he had not been in a few heartbeats before. “They’re young and hungry. They can smell the blood.”

“Help me . . .”

He smiled wickedly. “They are supposed to like tender young maidens. And the more royal the blood the better. Here.” He reached into the sack by his side. Drew out a haunch of venison. Took a long thin bronze blade from his belt. Handed them both to her. “Feed them. Feed them before they feed on you.” His tone did not suggest that he was joking.

Dana looked at the greenish-silver bat-winged creatures in terror. Then the one that had not tasted her with its tongue butted her in the stomach so that she sat down. She was on face level now, and she could see the drool, and feel their breath on her face. And then the Valahia fury came to her rescue. If she was going die it would not be with a poor traveler mocking her. She got to her feet, and cut a long thin sliver off the venison. Ha. Stolen, poached venison! Royal game. The knife was razor sharp. It cut almost effortlessly. One of the creatures tugged at the bloody strip while she was busy. “Wait,” she said sternly, and pulled the meat away from it and gave it to other one. She cut another strip while it stared at her, startled, and hurt looking. She fed it. The other was already demanding more.

The two creatures ate with noisy and messy abandon, and with as much haste as they could get the meat into their faces. The pace did slow down, as the haunch became a bone.

“Give them the bone, and come away,” said the gypsy. “They’ll argue about it, and then play with it and then eat it. They need it for their teeth.”

“What are they?” she asked as she tossed the bone between them.

“Wyverns. Young ones. The last of their kind,” said Angelo, taking his knife from her hand and cleaning it on the pine-needle mat, then on a scrap of cloth, before finally slipping it back into his pouch. “Now. You must promise me you will not come up here without us. Your word of honor as part of the house of Valahia, girl. We watch them . . . but they are hungry. And you are food to them, remember that. They do not yet care if food talks.”

Dana had regained her temper, and her common sense. Besides, his asking for the word of a Valahia appealed to her. “I swear. The word of the house of Valahia,” she said proudly. “But you will let me come again,” she said imperiously. “Our family are called the sons of the dragon.”

“We know. It is why we helped. We have dealt with your family from when your ancestor was just a hill clan chieftain. We stay out of settled people’s affairs, normally. We need to keep you from becoming a hostage. There are things that need to be done. Sacrifices your father was not prepared to make because his son was a hostage.” He jerked a thumb at the wyverns. “They are a secret. You must also swear to keep it.”

Dana had no problems at all with being on that side of a secret. Besides, she suspected that there was more.

“Now you must go. I will see you to the edge of the forest, and you must go quietly back to your sleeping place. You will tell Tante Silvia I asked that she mend that skirt before your mother sees it. It is not good that you are out alone. There are more dangerous things on the mountain, and not all are satisfied with venison.”

“You knew I was coming, didn’t you?” she asked suddenly suspicious. He’d been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

He grinned again. Nodded. “We knew. This time.”

* * *

Angelo waited until he had seen that she was all the way back to the carts and tents. Then he turned to Grigori who had ghosted down the mountainside behind them. “Old blood, that one.”

“At least she never asked how we knew,” said Grigori. “You took a chance there, Angelo. They could have killed her, and she them, with that knife.”

“That is what this is all about, Grigori. Giving and taking chances. She could see them. I think we may need to re-think.”

“It has always been the males of the line, Brother.”

“The blood runs in both the male and the female, it would seem. They called to her, and she came, in spite of the fear. We may have to rethink. Blood is blood. And we cannot always choose. There is little enough of it left. And they accepted her too.”

Grigori raised an eyebrow. “I look forward to your telling Radu that. He is more conservative than I am about such things, although I will agree that the she-wolf can be more deadly than the male. I will go now and arrange that the little one of the House Valahia is not alone again. There will always be some children with her. But I will think about what you say.”

* * *

Dana too was deep in her own thoughts. Wyverns were a heraldic symbol . . . supporters in her family coat of arms. They were believed to spread disease, pestilence and poison . . . and yet, too were symbols of strength. Which were these? Why did the gypsies seem to look after such things? Was there a reason, a real reason for them being on the coat of arms?