Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 79

Chapter 44

To say that Vlad found Elizabeth Bartholdy’s joining of his little army an unmixed blessing was not strictly true. She and those that she brought with her — a selection of minor nobles, and a handful of retainers who seemed to do little more than minister to their masters. They professed to be loyal to his cause, and expected more than he and his army could offer, it seemed. He could quite understand that Elizabeth was too frail and delicate a beauty to sleep rough under crude canvas shelters and eat the rations that his quartermaster had managed to gather for the men. But every other man could do so. The idea of sharing a rough bivouac with common peasants turned soldiers, and having to train with them, let alone share their food, was enough to rouse protests from the boyars. Vlad found himself being very short with that. He’d eaten with the men, bivouacked with his men . . . huddled in the pouring rain without any more shelter than their cloaks with them for that matter. “When you bring me a regiment of cavalry or even a whole troop of knights, I’ll see you are quartered and fed with the men you bring. In the meantime . . . ”

“But this is an affront to our honor! To eat and sleep with the commoners!”

Vlad might possibly have felt that way himself, eight weeks ago, during his captivity. But now . . . well, he’d run with the gypsies, slept and fought side by side with his peasant army. They had given him loyalty and support when that was a rare thing. “It may be an affront to your pride,” he said coldly. “I have noticed people confuse their pride with what honor is. It is an honor to serve in this army. My soldiers will conduct themselves with honor, or feel my wrath. Honor here is earned with combat and loyalty. It is not conferred or earned by others on your behalf. What you have is pride, and a false pride at that. Not honor. Not yet. Do you understand me?”

The florid-faced boyar, so lofty in his ornately frogged outfit a few moments back, almost cowered. “M . . .my Lord Prince. I did not mean . . . I mean the honor of my ancient house . . . ”

“Is greater than mine?” said Vlad, realizing that his voice had risen, carrying to the nearby soldiers, who had stopped to stare. He moderated his tone. “We have few spare resources. I cannot pamper you.”

It was easy enough to say that to the shocked boyar. The countess Elizabeth Bartholdy was another matter entirely. Fortunately, it seemed that she had come prepared. She had her two tire-women, and her tent — a small mansion of decorated canvas — was carried up on mules. Along with a bed and some other furniture. Vlad gazed longingly at the bed It had been a long time since he’d slept on a mattress. Elizabeth watched him. “It is remarkably comfortable,” she said, looking very directly at him with a slight quirk to her lips.

Vlad nodded. And swallowed. He was no longer the innocent he had been. But he was unaccustomed to dealing with lust. And she seemed to do that to him. It was . . . different somehow to way he felt about Rosa. Hotter and more tempting perhaps . . . but with an uncomfortableness to it. As if . . . there was something wrong. There was, he supposed. He’d ill understood Father Tedesco’s long ramblings about the sins of the flesh. He understood it better now. But somehow . . . it hadn’t seemed wrong in the starlight, in his new cloak, with Rosa.

* * *

Either his lover had taken the testicles right off this cursed prince . . . or he was more proof against magics and plain seduction than most men. No. There was more to it than just the frequency or the quality of their coupling. She’d seduced men away from the most skilled courtesans before. He was, in some way, exceptional.

Elizabeth took little pleasure from sex. In the course of her quest for the dark powers that would keep her young, in the rites she had performed to agree to their compact, she had debased herself. Coupled with everything from a dog to a sequence of men and a woman of somewhat depraved tastes. She understood why these acts where essential to the entrapment. But other than the entrapment aspect, the tasting of forbidden fruit, she derived little pleasure from it. She did find a combination of sex and the inflicting of pain exciting. And immediately after killing, while there was still blood in her mouth, it was pleasurable too. But Vlad was not ready for such delights . . . yet. For him it would have to be tenderness, and the nauseating pap about love. That gave her a taste of bile in her mouth, as always. She needed to track his woman down and kill her. Soon.

Then she could enmesh this tender fool.