Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 71

Chapter 38

King Emeric was no rural hill shepherd who could track errant members of his flock by the smallest hoof indent. But the tracks here did not require that. The wagon had cut deep grooves in the turf next to the trail. He could see exactly where it had stopped. The fat merchant Kopernico Goldenfuss had definitely not lied about that. Of course, being a merchant he had probably lied about nearly everything else. Kneeling and shaking visibly before his king now, he probably wished that he had stayed there, or fled over the mountains, or done anything but return to report on the enemy’s camp and how successful he’d been, and cheerfully demanded the reward he’d been promised.

“I swear Your Majesty. I swear they were right here. And they wanted that drink. They were paying me three times its price . . .” he plainly realized suddenly that this was perhaps not what he should be telling his overlord. “Dear God! It’s their Prince. He’s the devil. He even looks like the black spy. He stopped them buying and drinking it. I swear it must have been him who made your plan fail. I did exactly as you bade me.”

“Except to sell them liquor from my stores at an extortionate price. Which you somehow omitted to tell me,” said Emeric coldly. He detested merchants. Chaffering scum. They always cheated him of his due. Well, sometimes it was important to remind them that a nobleman took at the sword’s point.

“Honestly, Your Majesty, I had to do that,” he babbled. “They would have known I was a spy otherwise. Any merchant would have done what I did. I swear it. Asked anyone. Ask my apprentice, he was there. They suspected nothing. They would have been insensible with the drink . . . please Your Majesty. I did my best.”

“Except to steal from me. And fail me,” said Emeric, putting his hands on the man’s shoulders and letting pain arc through the merchant. The man screamed. “No Your Majesty, aaagh! I never brought back any silver. Truly, I would have given it to you. All I got was the script of the Prince.”

“Which you failed to tell me about. And Prince Vlad saw through you, knowing you to be a thieving merchant.” Emeric let the magical gift of his aunt’s flow through his hands again. The man writhed in agony and then slumped, and toppled over sideways. Emeric had this happen before, particularly with older men. He’d even had a few cut open to find out why. It would seem that their hearts were not equal to the burden the magic placed on them. He walked away, looking up the green valley, where, if this now dead merchant was to be believed, Prince Vlad of Valahia had quartered his little army. Well, short of necromancy he’d get no more from the merchant. But the man had mentioned his apprentice. Emeric had known that two of them had gone up. But he had not thought about questioning Goldenfuss’s apprentice. He clicked his fingers. An officer-aide appeared as if by magic. Knowing that not to do so was a capital offense had worked so well with his aides. “Find me that merchant’s apprentice,” said Emeric, waving a negligent hand at the dead body. “And have that strung up as a warning. They’ll not know he was dead first.”

The officer left at to run, glad to find a task within easy reach, no doubt. He came back a few minutes later, sweating more than could be justified by the heat. “Your Majesty . . . it appears that the apprentice has run away. With his master’s strongbox.”

Emeric stared at the officer. “And how was this allowed to happen?”

“Your Majesty, it appears that the fellow took off when the merchant went to you to ask for his reward. Er. The man was not guarded at that time. He didn’t even wait for his master to get in to see you.”

“I see. You will find out who should have been guarding the wagon and the apprentice. Have them reduced to the ranks, and given 20 lashes.”

Emeric looked in frustration at the empty valley again. It had been such a good, elegant plot. It must have been that accursed apprentice who betrayed it. It would appear that he had killed the wrong man. Emeric shrugged. They were plenty more where that one came from. Vlad had escaped him this time, but he could not hope to continue to do so. He was under-armed and sooner or later would be drawn out into open conflict. Then the superiority of Emeric’s cavalry over some peasant irregulars would make the young fool rue the day he’d fled his quarters in Buda castle.

* * *

The Smerek cousins had ridden through the night, luckily — and, in large part due to the intervention and wariness of their poacher escorts — had had no need to use Stanislaw’s collection of pistols. Stanislaw had one in each boot — boots that had been specially modified to take them — three in his waist-band, and in a double bandolier had been made to fit under his loose cotte, a further four. He knew it was a way of compensating for being unable to do anything when he had had to watch the others die. But it would never happen again. He would start shooting first.

Now, at last, it seemed as if he would have help doing it. And if he had his way it would not just be nine of the bastards that died. His cousin — and indeed the whole family — wanted revenge. But they also dreamed of a place they could have and hold, of a lord to whom they could be as loyal as he was to them. Stanislaw only dreamed of shooting as many as possible. It had been the family — and principally Józef — that had persuaded him out of taking his arsenal of pistols and heading straight back to Buda. That would have killed all of the family. But now . . . well it would seem he’d found both revenge and man to who he could feel loyalty, and who would protect his family.

Riding through the dark on a tired horse, Stanislaw cried properly for the first time since the trip to Buda. It was as if a great weight had been lifted, and he had found that there was a God after all. He wanted to find a chapel, pray and make his peace, something he had been unable to do since Edward’s death from blood loss and festering wounds after the beating.

Back in Harghita the family had met behind closed doors to discuss the news that Józef and Stanislaw had brought back from the mountains. It was not hard for them to meet behind closed doors, after all, there was no business anymore, and the very neighbors shunned them, as if in fear that Emeric’s enmity would somehow contaminate everything they touched. Across Valahia, no Smerek gunsmith was selling anything. Cousin Anton, who had shocked the family by going into the casting of bronze, instead of sticking to firearms, was the only member still selling his goods. For the rest of them, sitting with storerooms full of stock, they had been committing slow economic suicide. The potential buyers still brave or foolhardy enough to be interested had known that. Known that the Smereks would eventually become desperate enough to sell their businesses and stock at any price.

The question that now faced the emigres was whether even that situation was not better than the risk they now faced. But when Emeric had chosen to kill one of the Smerek patriarchs on one of his cruel whims, he had pushed the family beyond the limits of the caution they had always exercised as refugee settlers. The entire punishment had had the opposite effect from that which Emeric could have desired.