Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 72

A week ago they had been discussing the possibilities of abandoning their holdings, going south and seeing if they could somehow escape to Venice. When the family had fled Galicia, they had come with little more than ten sons, their tools and their lives. It had been a long, hard struggle. It had seemed almost impossible that they would have to abandon all they had built. Now that they had been offered an alternative, loyalty for loyalty, which two of the boys assured them that they at least accepted unconditionally, the entire extended family moved towards open rebellion. They had plenty of fuel for it.

The murders had been the match put to the fuse, but there had been problems long before this. Before the King’s disastrous expedition to Corfu the family had been offered the opportunity to make arquebuses for the levy of infantry raised here in Valahia. It had been their first ever military order. The Smerek family had gone to it with a will. They wished to prove that their weapons were superior, that they were reliable as gunsmiths to produce goods on time. Then, in the fashion of military procurement under King Emeric, the order had been abruptly withdrawn. The family had been left with storerooms full of arquebuses better suited to military use than their normal hunting market. And then . . . when they had been attempting to stave off bankruptcy, King Emeric had added the final blow. He had probably thought it would be a fatal one, though why he would want to destroy them was a mystery.

He had not reckoned with the spirit that lay beneath their stolid faces.

A thousand arquebuses waited for a better purpose. The Smerek family were delighted to give them one, even if they were only paid in a promissory note. But they were not unaware of the possible consequences. Sooner or later King Emeric would find out just where those guns came from, and then there would be hell and blood to pay.

They were willing to pay that, so long as they got a good return in the same coin from King Emeric. But very few of them were willing to let their women and children pay it for them. Some of the men would be returning to the mountains, with their tools, and a great deal of black powder. Others, the old, the young, the women and the infirm would be going south. Cousin Anton was not obviously connected with the family. Corona was far from the unrest. And it was far closer to flee from there to either Venice, or even possibly into Mongol lands.

Long before morning, firm plans had been made. Travelers set out, going south. Men remained, packing wagons, loading every weapon from their storerooms and display cases. They set out at dusk, having paid suitable bribes to get out of the town gates. There were too many bandits for most travelers to wish to be aboard at night. The Smerek men hoped that it would be bandits that they met, and not King Emeric’s patrols. They did have men on good horses riding ahead, ready to pass through any checkpoint, and then ride back across country to give them warning. But they had also had help from Vlad’s poachers.

Back in the town of Harghita few had noticed their absence. A neighbor. A man who had hoped to buy a gun, illegally, for a quiet and nasty act of revenge. Neither were telling anyone. Instead the town was buzzing with another, related story. The story of an apprentice who had fled his master’s wagon . . . and gone to give warning to the Prince of Valahia that his master had been on a mission from the King of Hungary. He had arrived on foot — at a deserted camp, not long before the Magyar. He’d hidden just in time, and seen his master die at the King’s hand, and be hung for the crows and ravens. He’d sought refuge in the mountains with the Prince . . . been recognized by the men. And been told that Prince Vlad had known of the treachery . . . and yet still had planned to honor his debt.

The story spread across Valahia, growing, like the tales of Vlad’s vengeance, and his conquest of the Magyar.

* * *

Vlad lay with her in his arms. She was soft, warm and curved, and pressed against him. But when he asked, she pulled away. “I don’t think I want talk, Drac. If you want to talk I will go elsewhere. There are plenty of men who do not want to talk. Do you not want me?”

“Very much. I had not known how much before . . . You have given me something very precious. I had never known a woman before you, Rosa. But . . . I have lived in a tower since I was a little boy. With menservants and an old priest and older tutor. I don’t understand so much. And you are the only person I can ask.”

She was silent for a while. “Drac. You really are a babe in woods pretending to be a bear. I think that frightens me because I also want you to be a bear. Very well. I will tell you how I came to be a whore in your army’s tail. And if you condemn me . . .”

“I will not do that. Not now. Not ever,” he said gently.

She looked at him, considering. “You could be a bear in the woods, you know.”

“But I need to be a dragon. And to do that I need to understand.”

“I was sixteen when my father married me off to an old knight on a neighboring estate. We were freeholders, but not rich . . . Mother told me that I would have to accept that it was a woman’s duty to lie there and accept what men wanted and did. It was a woman’s burden, she said. She said it hurt and I would hate it, but I would at least have the consolation of children.”

Rosa was silent a while. Vlad waited. “She was wrong. She was wrong about all of it. But no one will own me. Not ever again.”