Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 76

Chapter 41

Elizabeth finished the last of the rites that would allow the dark messenger out of his entrapment in the pentacle, in safety. Safety for her, anyway. Crocell waited for her, at least with the appearance of patience. “You seek my master’s assistance in the capture of Vlad, the Prince of Valahia,” he said with a lift of the dark eyebrows, once he was free.

She nodded. “I have tried earthly means — Emeric’s troops — first. When it became obvious that they were being misled by magical means I turned to my allies and the demons at my beck and call. We held the rite in my residence outside Caedonia. I tried a summonsing. It failed. He is peculiarly resistant to my magics.”

“He would be largely immune to magics intended for humans. His blood is not entirely human . . .”

“I have for some years entrapped lesser creatures of air, fire and water to my bidding. Those summons did not work either.”

“Because he is not that, fully, either.”

“I have created mixtures before. I have forced the lusts of fire on wind. I commanded and constrained the results of that. I still have captive some of the results of those and other experiments.”

“This is not the same. His is a willing sharing, an abandonment of some of the rights and powers of both to join in a union. It is a powerful magical bond, the greatest perhaps, the innocent giving themselves to the other in a willing self-sacrifice. The power generated by that willing union will transcend the givers. It may kill them or make them something more powerful. Powerful enough to resist the lesser demons you sent after him.”

“Then I will need more power. I need power over him.”

Crocell smiled. There was no humor or joy in that smile. “You already have. He is human enough to be seduced. And get him into a place of power, and by using the rite of Cthasares, you can strip some of his power from him. He is mortal. He can be killed as easily as the next mortal. Well. Fire and poisons are less than effective. But a bullet or sword thrust could kill him. Do not, however, try direct magics against him. Or even in close proximity to him. They may recoil and act instead on you.”

Not to use her magical skills? That would be hard. She said as much.

“Passive constraints, spells on those who surround him may work. He is a danger. Why do you pursue him?”

“I want to capture a wyvern. I wanted him as bait. I have been informed by Count Mindaug . . .”

“He dabbles in dangerous and demonic traps, Elizabeth. He may be engulfed by one.”

“So do I. And like him, I intend to outwit it,” said Elizabeth, her voice chill. “Is the wyvern directly dangerous to me? You are constrained to speak the truth.”

“Not directly, no. It is a vessel.”

“I can break vessels if need be.”

“True,” said Crocell. “And these ones are quite young and fragile.”

* * *

Elizabeth stared coolly at King Emeric. “You called me to ask me what to do next because Vlad of Valahia burned a town and shot one of your regiments of cavalry to flinders.”

Emeric held his temper in check. He still was uncertain of his ability to deal with her. If he had to . . . it would be at long range. “I thought you might need to know, Aunt,” he said, trying to match her coolness and failing. He’d been so certain that this trap would work, would deal with the problem rapidly and effectively. The deserter from Vlad’s forces had sung beautifully. Vlad’s scouts had been watching the town so . . . Emeric had come up with what such an elegant solution. What was one small town? One little garrison? Vlad’s scouts had watched the town. Emeric’s scouts had watched the trail down from the high mountains instead. When they were sure that Vlad’s rag-tag army had gone . . . they’d borne word to the waiting troops at Lesu. Emeric wanted the little town to fall. While the sack was on . . . the rebels would be in one place. His Magyar could fire the entire nest, and kill any that tried to flee. Instead . . . it had failed. That Valahian swine had fired the town — ineffectually admittedly, and waited in ambush for the Magyar. Vlad of Valahia had never learned such tactics in his elegant prison. He must have an advisor who was as cunning as a snake. And thus Emeric turned to his own snake.

“I already knew. I have sources not available to you,” she said, dismissively.

He hated her. How he hated her. But he feared and needed her too. “At least that will be the end of his support among the damned commoners. He burned their precious little town. They will hate him now.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I promise you that by now they are already finding ways to say that it was all your fault, nephew. They will believe what they wish to believe. Do not concern yourself with the opinions of lesser people.”

“That is what he has: an army of peasants,” said Emeric angrily. “They are like lice. There are always more.”

Elizabeth looked at her profile in the long mirror in his command tent, ignoring him. Adjusting the collar on her dress. Eventually he coughed. “So what are you doing about Vlad, aunt?”

“Nephew. I know he is dangerous. I have always known that. You underestimate him, and the magic and powers concerned with him. I am moving to trap him . . . And I have to do it myself. I will have him, but like all good ploys it takes a little time to get him to betray himself.”

“You do not fail, Aunt. You are the wisest, the cleverest person I know,” he said ingratiatingly, doing his best at flattery. He knew that he wasn’t very good at it, that she saw through his efforts. But she still did respond to it. If family rumor was to be believed it was her vanity that had entrapped her in the first place. They said that she had not been particularly beautiful — but that she had had a very good skin. She had gone to extreme lengths to keep it that way, he knew.

“And I will not fail this time. I play a long game nephew. For very high stakes.”

He knew that. He also had a good idea just what the stakes were. He had considered it himself. But he had her, so why risk it himself? “So what do you need me to do?”

She shrugged. “Much as you are doing, I think. It has relatively little bearing.”

“It has quite a lot of bearing on the Kingdom, Aunt. I . . . we, cannot afford a rebellion here. Not a successful one. Hungary would splinter,” said Emeric, hoping to finally get her onto the plane of his real, physical concerns.

“Any rebellion will be short lived without Vlad of Valahia. He is their hope, their darling, and their leader. Without him as a rallying point you will have a few minor fires, but no conflagration, Emeric. I will remove him . . . and that which I seek.”

“How . . . I mean he seems very good at evading us. When he finally comes out to fight he has to lose. So he hides and runs.”

“I know where he is,” she said calmly.

“Well, tell me.”

“It would not help. I attempted that when I sent your soldiers in, to ambush him.”

“What will you do to catch him then?”

She smiled sweetly at him. “I am going to join him. With my assistants. Training and preparing them is what I have done while you chased around futilely.”

One day he was going to kill her. “Join him . . .?”

“Yes. For a little while. And I will give him money and support so that he comes to rely on me. I told you he was dangerous. Here, in Valahia, not even I can just walk in and walk out with him. I could have done that in Buda. But not here. Not any more.”

“He has a rag-tag army of peasant irregulars. How would they stop any decent force?” demanded Emeric.

She raised her perfect eyebrows. “How do you think he has stopped them so far? Military genius? This land works it’s own magic for him. If I could just ride in and take him I would. But it is far more complex than you would understand.”

“I am going to crush him militarily,” snarled Emeric.

“Good. Do. If you can,” she said, dismissively.

* * *

If the countess Elizabeth Bartholdy ever felt sorry for anyone, she could have felt sorry for this hapless idiot of a nephew of his. He was so easy to manipulate, she barely needed the magical controls she’d set in place on him. She needed Emeric to press Vlad, to make him even more reliant on her. If Mindaug was right it was all a question of timing. The wyverns would not be ready yet, and neither would he. When they were, she must be in place. Tonight she would call the Vila, and hear how things went on the magical side.

* * *

Emeric looked resentfully at his departing aunt. One day he would really have to kill the bitch. He was fairly sure it would not be easy, but would be possible. In the meanwhile he had to consider his kingdom. He needed a pretender to the principality of Valahia. The Danesti . . . Well, they might prove more of the same; far more trouble than they were worth. His mind turned to Ban Alescu of Irongate. Ambitious. Wealthy from extorting every ounce off the Danube trade with the Mongol. And entirely dependent on their overlord. His mother had been of boyar stock.

And there it was; how obvious: The man was clearly a bastard older son of Vlad’s father. Really legitimate of course. Emeric would see that the papers and records were prepared. It was Vlad’s mother whose marriage was a sham, and Vlad who was a bastard pretender.

Emeric smiled in delight at his own cleverness.

* * *

In the green light from their eyes the Vila’s wet, naked skin looked green too. The rest of the pool was black as ink, the way they liked it. Elizabeth preferred slaves, but in the case of these ones, she was happy to at least pretend their relationship was one of equals. The leggy Vila-woman threw back her white-blond hair and looked out at Elizabeth from her pupil-less green eyes. Mindaug said they did not see as humans saw, but rather looked on essences. Elizabeth did not care. She had reached an alliance with them many years ago, and gave them their annual due of suicidal pregnant girls. Now, thanks again to Mindaug, she had found them useful allies. Yes, the others in compact — and there were some dark and wild ancient things — considered the Vila beyond the pale. But it did not stop them from knowing what was happening. It was from them that she had first heard of the compact, first heard of the wyverns . . . and the blood.

“They have hatched. They grow apace. The wolf people still guard them. They have been taken to be seen. To be imbued,” said the Vila woman, her voice hypnotically low, purring and velvety. Elizabeth knew of the enchantments. She had taken steps against them. She used similar ones herself.

“So are the wolves with the Drac?”

The Vila trailed her fingers across her own flesh seductively. The creature could no more help doing that than humans could avoid drawing breath, regardless of the sex or interest of the audience. “No. They guard the wyverns.”

“Excellent,” said Elizabeth, smirking in satisfaction. The time would come for the changers. But she knew that they knew her for what she was. Vlad, her little spells had ensured, did not.