/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Heirs of Alexandria

Much Fall Of Blood

Eric Flint


Eric Flint

Much Fall Of Blood

Mercedes Lackey

Dave Freer

PROLOGUE

June, 1540 A.D.

Mercedes Lackey Eric Flint Dave Freer

Much Fall Of Blood

A plain on the south bank of the Lower Danube

The ochre dust hung in the air, heavy with the smell of sweating horses. It muffled the yarring yells and the thunder of hooves, a little. But only a little. Kildai's willow-root club sent the head flying, bouncing away from the pack of riders, shouldering their horses forward. It hooked, by the hair, in a small bush. Kildai's pony was smaller than the average Mongol horse, but very quick on her feet. Good on her turns, and she could accelerate. He broke from the crush and leaned out of the saddle to club the head onward toward the post.

Just before he was knocked out of the saddle, he saw Gatu Orkhan talking to a man in a hooded cloak on the high dais. It was odd how some moments were caught like a fly in the amber of memory-perfectly preserved when all else faded and decayed. A strand of lank blond hair hung out of that hood. The native Vlachs-some of them at least-had the occasional blond head. As did the Rus. But what would either be doing here, at the great kurultai, on the high dais? The Mongol traditions of their forefathers might be dying away in everyday life, here in the lands that remained to the Golden Horde, but not on this occasion. That was not a place for a slave. Not now.

The sight distracted Kildai even in middle of the great game.

Being knocked senseless was the smallest price you could pay for that. But he would swear that something had actually knocked him out of the saddle. Something that felt like a great hand.

Mercedes Lackey Eric Flint Dave Freer

Much Fall Of Blood

Catiche, Slovenia

Count Mindaug had achieved the remarkable. Not only had he escaped Jagiellon and found other-admittedly dangerous-protection, but he had spirited his library away too.

His hostess did read. But she was not fond of research. She drew her power from elsewhere. From a bargain which she still dreamed-foolishly, vainly-that she could avoid paying the price for, eventually. Jagiellon had merely become one with, and been largely consumed by that which he had sought to entrap and use for power. The powers and knowledge their masters had accumulated in planes beyond human ken and understanding was enormous… and devouring.

No-one could talk Count Mindaug into such folly. The written word was less powerful, but drew from far wider sources. He had laid his plans skillfully and long. Eventually, he would risk another throw in the game of thrones and powers. Besides, it suited his own vanity to believe he could deceive both creatures of outer darkness and fallen angels. He knew that was probably just vanity, but it appealed to him, nonetheless.

He studied the passage in the small book again. The book was not bound in dark leather taken from some creature of the night, nor written on a fragile parchment of human skin. But it ought perhaps to have been, because the matters explained therein were compellingly evil. Mindaug had long since learned that content, not form, mattered. He was glad that this fact had bypassed so many of his peers.

He got up from his seat in the book-filled small apartment the countess had set aside for him. That was a calculated insult on her part, and one that had failed to put him in his place. The books there contained a far wider realm than she herself controlled. The details of this magic… well, he doubted she would read them. But she had a fascination with blood, for obvious reasons. She would not care what came of her experiments, of the lusts generated or the offspring created. But he, Mindaug, would control them. The keys to that control were right here in this book.

Unlike his former master, the Black Brain who had taken possession of the grand duke of Lithuania, Elizabeth did not care for the less than immediate and proximal things. Power over the rulers of Hungary was sufficient, as long as her comfort and vanity were ministered to. Mindaug did not threaten her directly with his machinations, but when she finally paid her price, or if Chernobog finally took on one foe too great or too many, Mindaug would be ready. He would return to his lands on the edge of Kievan Rus. The throne of the Grand Duchy was a short step from there.

Alternatively, if certain variables came to pass, he might instead become the power behind the throne of Hungary. That would be less satisfactory than seizing power directly in Lithuania, of course, but it might do well enough. Unlike most of those he maneuvered against, Count Mindaug has no interest in power for its own sake. His was ultimately a cautious nature. He needed power-preferably great power-simply because he could ill afford to let anyone else have it. Such had been the great lesson his life had taught him.

But first he needed to persuade the countess that she needed the blood of the Dragon. As was his way, honed by long practice in the Grand Duke's court, he would do it by telling her that she needed something else. It never ceased to amaze him how those who had vast, immense power seemed very often to be so stupid. He supposed it had something to do with having untrammeled power, and having it for so long.

Mercedes Lackey Eric Flint Dave Freer

Much Fall Of Blood

Jerusalem, in the lands of Ilkhan Mongol

Jerusalem the golden lay behind him, outside, with its noise, and heat, and smells. It seemed as far away, right now, as fabled Cathay. Eneko Lopez knelt in a small chapel, a simple, humble place, as befitted the faith of the humble, because in the face of God, all men, even the greatest, are as dust motes.

He saw how the dust motes danced in the sunlight of the Levant, as the light shone through the high slit window. Dust motes… Yet the Father cared for and numbered even the least of those motes, he knew. Eneko knew too that pride had always been his weakness. Here, at last, on the hill of skulls, where the greatest had humbled himself, given himself as a willing sacrifice, Eneko knew that he had been weak, and that despite this, he was still beloved. It was no great moment of epiphany, but rather the blossoming of a slow-developing plant. Perhaps he was lightheaded with hunger from his vigil, but the path, so obscure, now seemed clear.

Alexandria.

Alexandria, the seductress of the east, luscious, perfumed and corrupt. And home to the greatest library on earth, a repository of more thaumaturgical knowledge-good and evil-than anywhere else. Yes, he had been instructed to go there. But Eneko Lopez was not a man who took any instruction without weighing it against his conscience. After all, why would God have given a conscience to man, if not to be used? But now it seemed clear: those who had used ecclesiastical magics to defend the Church had formed their centers in the areas where Petrines or Paulines held most sway. They had left largely unguarded and unused, the city of Saint Hypatia. It must not remain so. Knowledge, not politics, would be their sternest bulwark against evil, as Chrysostom had said.

Politics. He sighed and stood up, shaking his head. It had ruled the church as much as it did secular society, though less so under the current Grand Metropolitan than previously. To be fair, the wisdom of the current Holy Roman Emperor in this matter could not be denied. Eneko had been sent here to pray for the Holy Roman Emperor's soul. He had done so. Eneko had also prayed that the soul might remain within its fleshy envelope as long as possible, for the sake of the people of Europe and of the Church. Eneko had played his role in keeping the second in line to that throne alive, and, while he'd had doubts of the boy at first, he'd come to realize that the spirit of Prince Manfred of Brittany might be large enough for the task. If it had been only a question of physical size Eneko would have had no such doubts. Eneko had less knowledge of Prince Conrad, the direct heir. But the Hohenstaffen line had proved that the imperial eagles often bred true. He would just have to pass on his stewardship now, for as much as the young Prince might dream of the fleshpots of Egypt, Eneko was sure that their paths would diverge here.

Despite the relief that he felt now that he saw his path clearly, he was also a bit saddened. He would not have thought it possible that he would miss Manfred of Brittany, a few years before.

***

In another part of the great holy city, in a shady courtyard scented with orange blossom, Eberhart of Brunswick, representative of the States General, emissary of the emperor Charles Fredrik, thought of his time among the Celts. The advantage of dealing with the Celts had been that they used chairs. When one dealt with the Ilkhan, one lounged on cushions or sat cross legged on them. Yes, Jerusalem was considerably warmer, and much less damp than Ireland, but he missed having a back-rest, especially as it would seem the Mongol officials were just as long-winded as the Celts. Admittedly the wine he was being served was better than the beer in Duhblinn.

The platitudes were… platitudes. But the undercurrents were disturbing. The Ilkhan Hotai the Ineffable, to judge by his emissaries, wanted something. And when the master of all the lands between here and Hind wanted something, he usually didn't need to pussy-foot around about asking for it, even if politics here were conducted in a more subtle fashion than among the Celts or the Norse. Despite his wizened body, he was a man of immense influence. The Ilkhan's slightest word could mean death and destruction to thousands. This had to mean that Hotai thought that the Holy Roman Empire wasn't going to like the request much.

"As you know," said Bashar Ahmbien, "we are not a great maritime people."

What he said was true enough. It was the mastery of the horse that made the Mongols the dominant force of the east. Light, fast cavalry, great bowmen and superb tactics.

But of course Eberhart politely demurred. "You are a developing maritime force, rather."

"Perhaps-but the vessels of more powerful forces are reluctant to allow us to develop further."

This was dangerous talk. The Mediterranean needed yet another sea-power about as badly as the Holy Roman Empire needed Jagiellon as the grand duke of Lithuania.

"Ah," said Eberhart.

Ahmbien cocked his head, obviously weighing that non-committal "Ah" for any possible information. It didn't tell him very much. "Yes. We have found this irksome in the Black Sea."

That was somewhat better, Eberhart felt, although far from anything to relax about. But Ahmbien plainly understood this too. "It is not, you understand, our desire to control the seas. We've found ships very poor places to maneuver our horses. But we would like to talk and trade with our kin."

"The Golden Horde," said Eberhart, cutting to the chase. This was both dangerous and yet potentially advantageous. The Golden Horde had become isolated on the lowlands to the east of the Carpathian Mountains after the death of Batu Khan. To the south, the Bulgars, Thracians, other mountains tribes and Emperor Alexius in Constantinople cut them off from their fellow Mongols in Egypt and the Levant under the Ilkhan. Hungary and Slavic tribes and Vlachs vassals of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania blocked their movement to the north and west.

The Holy Roman Empire truly did not mind if they blunted their swords on the Prince Jagiellon's minions to the north. Even if they won, well, that would-at least in the short term-be no bad thing. The Mongols had proved to be excellent rulers, once the initial wave of conquest had passed with its atrocities and barbarities. Often less greedy in taxation than former rulers, and happy to allow freedom of religion and trade. Even their justice was frequently an improvement.

Local satraps were varied, of course, and some were oppressive and greedy. But the shadow of the Great Ilkhan rested on them. They did not dare go too far. Eberhart knew that a Mongol war with King Emeric of Hungary would be a desirable thing, although it would be better if that merely resulted in the death of King Emeric, and not the destruction of the buffer-zone that was his kingdom. But, weak reed and traitor though Alexius was, giving aid to cause the downfall of Byzantine Emperor Alexius was not desirable. Besides… the Black Sea… the Venetians were good allies, and they relied on the trade out of the Black Sea to some extent.

"You are too astute for us, noble lord," said Ahmbien, a hint of a smile peering out from behind his moustache, a moustache that would have done the hind end of a wild Irish moorland pony proud. "The Golden Horde. The descendants of Batu Khan. It would appear that some months ago the issue of succession became paramount. We believe this is of interest to you. The leadership is divided among the clans. Since the death of Batu Khan the Horde have increased their numbers and look for fresh lands. Part of the Horde favors expansion to the south."

Eberhart tried not to tense, like a terrier at the mention of rats. And failed.

His host inclined his head at him, just slightly. "And the faction we feel has a just claim, would break out through the lowlands to the north and east. Our support would carry weight among the clans."

Eberhart exhaled. Of course, there was no way of telling if Ahmbien spoke the truth or not. But at least the Ilkhan were presenting the information that there were two factions, which they had no need to do. "Of course," he said.

"We understand each other, then. An agreement of mutual convenience as it were," said Ahmbien, tugging his moustache.

"Indeed. But I fail to see what this has to do with us. Or with maritime prowess?"

"We have always been able to send messengers across the Black Sea. Not easily, but by indirect routes-Trebizond, by sea northwards to Kerch, across the Krym and then on into the lands of the Horde. We receive news the same way. Our last five messengers have failed to return. So have the ships they sailed on. We believe a great fleet is being assembled in the Dniepr gulf. We have word of at least three hundred round ships, and many galleys."

There could only be one destination for such a fleet.

Byzantium.

And whatever else the Holy Roman Empire might disagree with Ilkhan about, this they had in common. The Ilkhan did not want the allies of Prince Jagiellon to take Constantinople. Neither did any other Mediterranean or even European power. "How long has this been underway?" asked Eberhart.

"Perhaps three years," said Ahmbien.

The reasons behind Jagiellon's adventures against Venice suddenly became much clearer. The Mediterranean without Venice's galleys would present a large soft underbelly. Smaller powers-the Genoese and others-could be picked off piecemeal. Jagiellon had been moving pawns on a board so vast that others had not been able to see them all. When he had failed in Venice, he just gone on building ships. But by now… they should have sailed.

"The tribesmen of the Golden Horde raided deep into the north. They captured and burned a fleet of barges. Barges full of flaxen sailcloth and rope," said Ahmbien, as if reading his mind.

"Ah!" said Eberhart. "The fleet would have sailed after the failure of the attack on Corfu, but couldn't?"

Ahmbien nodded. "By next spring they will sail, unless the ships are destroyed."

"Can they be?" asked Eberhart.

Ahmbien shrugged. "The raid cost Prince Jagiellon's allies dearly. But it cost the Horde still more. Baku Khan was killed. Thus the Horde did not take and keep but returned to their grazing-lands to hold a convocation of the tribes, to choose a new leader, as is our tradition. Ghutir, the son of Baku, was named as the new Khan. But he died. Magic and poison were both blamed. Now, the succession is clouded. There is Gatu, the son of Baku's younger sister, the grandchild of the orkhan Berke. And there is a cousin, one Kildai, who is the great-grandson of Batu Khan's older sister, and is descended from Ulaghchi Khan on his mother's side. It is complex."

"Always seems to be," said Eberhart, dryly. "And one of these would go south, and the other north. It would seem that being flanked by the same enemy would be unwise for anyone, let alone a master of tactics like the Mongol."

"You speak soothly," said Ahmbien with equal dryness. "Except… Gatu, we believe, has no intention of being flanked… by enemies."

It took a moment for this to sink in. "I think I need to go and prepare certain messages, Your Excellency," said Eberhart. He struggled to stand up, his knees complaining about the long time spent sitting on the cushions.

The Bashar Ahmbien waved him down. "Sit, my guest. I have more to tell you, and a proposal to make. I wish to introduce you to the tarkhan Borshar." He clapped his hands. A servant appeared, bowed. "Summon the tarkhan Borshar of Dishmaq," said the old man.

Borshar, when he arrived a few minutes later, was a tall shaven-headed man with the customary Mongol forelock. He showed not a trace of expression on his broad face. He bowed perfunctorily. Eberhart had met many functionaries in his long and varied life as an official of the States General. He was good at reading men. Borshar just came across as inscrutable. Eberhart did not like that.

Ahmbien coughed delicately. "The Ilkhan would take it kindly if you could prevail on your Venetian allies for us. Relations," he smiled wryly, "are better between yourselves and them than between us and them. We need the good tarkhan taken to the lands of Golden Horde. We believe that his presence can influence matters in a mutually beneficial fashion."

Eberhart raised his eyebrows. "One man?"

Ahmbien shrugged. "And his escort, naturally. We have found one man in the right place can make a large difference. Of course it would help if that one man carries the word of the legitimacy of a marriage and the support of the Ilkhan."

"Legitimacy?"

"The marriage of the elder sister of Batu Khan. It happened in times of war, and without the formality it should perhaps have been accorded. The claim of Gatu to the Khanate rests partially on the shoulders of that uncertainty, and partly on the youth of Kildai."

It sounded good. That was enough to make Eberhart suspicious.

"Letters of safe conduct according those who accompany the tarkhan the status of escorts to an envoy, will of course be provided, under the seal of the Ilkhan."

Eberhart did not raise his eyebrows in surprise. But he wanted to. That was a signal privilege. The Mongols were legendary for the degree of safe-conduct accorded to such emissaries and their escorts.

***

It was as luxurious a boudoir as Manfred had been able to contrive. She had taught him a great deal, reflected Francesca, and not just about sex or politics. Whether the knowledge of fabrics and cushions was really essential to a man who might one day yet rule the Holy Roman Empire, and definitely would rule the rough Celtic halls of Brittany, could be debated. But Francesca de Chevreuse had no doubts about it being of value. Both politics and sex were enhanced by such things. How many pointless wars were born, accidentally, out of a poor night's sleep or an uncomfortable seat? While dukes, kings and emperors might claim to rule by divine right, that did not appear to protect them from occasional peevishness. She'd gotten to meet several of the great men, first as a courtesan and later as Manfred's leman.

She bit her lip. Being Manfred's leman had been a comfortable life and an interesting one. She had a great deal of power and influence, even with the emperor himself. It would take very little effort and feminine wile to maintain the status quo. But in a way, this life was a gamble. And she was an intelligent gambler. It was time get out of this particular game, while she was still winning. The emperor might have looked indulgently on his nephew's mistress, even used her as his agent, while she was a transient feature of Manfred's life. But she knew, too well, that the throne would not tolerate her installing herself as the power behind the prince.

Manfred was changing. Command on Corfu had altered him. He didn't realize it yet, but he was ready to move on.

She'd seen it before as a courtesan. She recognized the signs now.

Therefore it was time for her to move on too. Quickly and neatly, retaining the contacts and friendships that she'd established. Alexandria called to her. It was supposed to be a warm, cultured and seductive city. Well, that sounded just like her sort of place. She gave a wicked little chuckle. Besides, the city would need something to counter Eneko Lopez and his companions' piety.

Manfred came in quietly. For a big man he could move remarkably silently when he chose to. "I thought you might be asleep," he said.

The solicitousness too was unlike him. Manfred was not inconsiderate, or even particularly self-centered, for a prince of the blood. Erik had seen to that. Manfred could be very considerate-when it occurred to him that his normal way of life might be less than pleasant for someone else. That much she had tried to teach him, along with politics and a less brute force approach to everything.

"A glass of wine?" he asked pleasantly, running a big hand down her spine.

Francesca swallowed. She'd dismissed many lovers before. Some of them had been powerful, big, violent men. She'd taken appropriate steps to deal with that sort of problem, and moved on. Anyway, she had no such fears from Manfred. Why then, was she afraid? It suddenly came to her. Yes, he was powerful and influential. But she was afraid of hurting him. That was not something that had ever bothered her before. She'd spent a long time with Manfred, though, longer than with any other lover. Long enough to know that he too had his soft spots, and where they were.

"I thought you were still in church," she said.

"The bishop got tired of me. He threw me out." Manfred smiled. "The church loves me… and loves me to leave when I sing."

He walked across the room and poured out two goblets of wine. "The truth is that I had a feeling I should come up and bid you farewell."

She gaped at him.

"I didn't want you to go without at least saying goodbye."

Her eyes narrowed. "Eneko?"

He handed her the goblet. "He's as mum as an oyster, my dear. You know that."

"Then how…?" She was never at a loss of words. Suddenly, she found them scarce.

"You said so, a while back. And I've been seeing the signs. I was taught by a selection of women, Francesca. As well as you."

"You've learned a bit too well," she said wryly. "What do you intend to do about it?"

"Help with the organization. I've learned over the years that you usually do exactly what you plan to do. And I value you too much, both as a friend and a lover, to stand in your way."

"It is not fair to play emotional games, Manfred." Her voice was slightly gruff in spite of the superb self-control she prided herself on.

"Nothing is fair, Francesca. But I'm not good at games. I'd rather hope that I could see you in Alexandria one day, than be stupid enough to try and keep you."

"You've grown a lot, Prince."

"I hope not. Getting armor altered is more complicated than you may realize. Now, do I lock the door to keep Erik out for a last few minutes or not?"

"Oh, I think I can spare you more than a few minutes, and make it last a little longer than that too," said Francesca, lowering her lashes.

***

Erik Hakkonsen, bodyguard and mentor to Prince Manfred of Brittany, forced the attacker's blade point into the wood of the door behind him. In the process he might just have broken the man's fingers. Erik hit him with pommel of his knife to silence him. The last thing that he wanted was to attract extra attention. Narrow alleys were not his choice of fighting ground. Kari was still fighting with the other two. Erik grabbed both of Kari's opponents by their loose garments and slammed their heads together. Hard.

Kari looked reproachfully at Erik as he dropped the two limp bandits. "What did you do that for? It was shaping into a nice little fight."

Erik shook his head at the young Vinlander. Kari's family were sept and kin, at least by Erik's understanding of the duty he owed to Svanhild. Erik therefore owed a duty of care to the boy. He'd not expected that to mean taking care of a tearaway, who, while less inclined to go drinking or whoring than Manfred had been, liked fighting. Kari fitted Jerusalem like a bull-seal fitted a lady's glove.

"If you want to fight there are plenty of knights. And there is me," said Erik.

Kari grinned disarmingly, showing a missing tooth. "The knights fight like knights. And as for you… I like to win sometimes. I thought you were busy watching over the Godar's nephew?"

"He's in church. On his knees. Where you will be shortly. Those men did not want to fight. They wanted to kill and rob you."

Kari shrugged. "Who else could I find? I don't like picking on drunks. You said that that was unsporting."

"One of these days you will also remember that I said picking fights with back-alley murderers would get you killed, you young fool." Erik took him by the ear and led him toward more salubrious parts of the city. With Manfred, Erik had thought that he was hard done by having had to locate all the taverns and brothels in any town. Kari took things to whole new level. He could be looking for a fight anywhere.

Buda, The Kingdom of Hungary

From the topmost ducat-gold curl to the tip of her toes, Countess Elizabeth Bartholdy was the most beautiful and youth-filled damsel any man could ever dream of. She simply had to smile and lower her long sooty eyelashes to have most men agree to do anything she asked of them.

The guard on Prince Vlad of Basarab's elegant prison was made of sterner stuff than most. That was not surprising, of course. You would want such guards for the grandson of the Dragon. But he was still a man. And too slow to react, when she put her hand where no lady would have done.

That instant of hesitation killed him, as the razor-sharp talon-like steel tips to her claws slipped through the cloth far more easily than the proverbial hot knife through butter. There were a few inhuman things that could survive the venom that tipped those nails. No human could.

She sheathed the claws again, as he fell with barely a whimper. There was a slight clatter from his sword. She paused for an instant to enjoy the look on his face. She loved that look of startlement and betrayal. It suited men so well.

Her fingertips were once again without blemish, her nails beautifully manicured. There was a cost to turning your own body into the perfect assassin's killing tool, but Elizabeth had paid that price long ago. Long, long, long ago. More than a century before.

She opened the door to the chambers of the captive duke of Valahia with a smile on her lips. There was something about killing that awoke certain hungers in her. But magic required that she should not use the boy within to satisfy those lusts. He had other value to her. Mindaug had given her a time and place at which he would still have to be alive and, for best effect, virginal. At the time and a place when the shadow ate the moon. And her control of herself was superb. After that, he could be abused and die.

***

The prince in the tower had not spent long hours mooning out of the windows or singing to passers-by. Heredity had shaped him into a silent man-that and a lack of company, perhaps. Besides, neither were practical options. There were no windows he could see out of.

King Emeric had seen to it that his hostage lacked for nothing-except his liberty, and the freedom to use his mother tongue. The prince had had instruction in several others, Frankish, Greek, Aramaic. He had had tutors for these subjects, of course, Hungarian ones. But other than those and the silent guards, he saw few people, and certainly none of his own age or speaking his own tongue. He had kept the language alive somehow in his memory, reciting the stories and songs of his childhood-silently, under his breath every evening. He had been forbidden to speak or sing them aloud.

He'd done so at first to escape the crushing fear and loneliness of being a small boy taken far from everything he loved and knew, and imprisoned here. And then terrified out of his wits-after being beaten and shown slow death-an act of brutality that as an older, more logical man, he understood had been to ensure that the king of Hungary had a suitably cowed vassal. Instead, his spirit had been shaped by the experience into a secretive but fiercely resistant one. A spirit that sometimes indulged in cruel and wild fantasies of revenge, but more often just longed to be free.

As for sanity… was he mad? Sometimes he wondered.

As prisons went, his apartments had every luxury-except windows. There was a narrow arrow slit high up on the wall above the stair. From a certain angle, he could see the sky through it. Not direct sunlight, but daylight, and sometimes cold breezes wafted in from the outside world, strange in their scents, unfamiliar in their chill.

By the age of twenty he had, to some extent, forgotten the world outside the walls. Not forgotten a desire for it, no, never! But forgotten the details of it. Books, for all that he loved them, were not the same. And Father Tedesco, his most frequent companion, was more inclined to talk of the glories of Heaven, than the glories of the world outside.

Vlad heard someone outside the doors, and wondered if the old priest had come to visit him again.

There was a faint clatter and the door swung gently open.

It wasn't the elderly priest.

It was a vision.

An angel.

Naturally she had come to save him from this hell.

So why was he so afraid?

The Southern Carpathian Mountains

The hills echoed with the howling of the wolves. The slim, dark-complexioned man with the silver earrings did not appear to find that a worrisome thing. He slipped along the ghost of a trail as silently and as sure-footedly as a wolf himself. The full moon shone down casting spiky shadows on the pine-needle covered forest floor. The wyvern was just a slightly more spiky piece of darkness. Spiky darkness with red eyes that glowed like coals. Wyverns could shift their opalescent colors to match their surroundings. Here she did not have to.

"So, old one. The blood moon time is coming. The signs say she will capture him," said the lithe man, looking warily at her.

The wyvern nodded. "She will watch over him carefully. And she has killed many of our kind." It spoke his tongue. That was part of the magic gift of the creature. A small but vital part.

"Blood calls. We must answer. We have a compact to honor. Blood to spill." His teeth flashed briefly at that.

"You are too fond of blood, Angelo."

He shrugged. "It is in my nature. My kind needs to see it flow. Life is just the song of the hunter and the hunted."

"There is more to it than that," said the wyvern.

"Not for us. Prey or predator, all part of the one or the other, and part of the same."

The wyvern was a hunter herself, and understood the wolfish Angelo and his kin better than most. "But which one is the boy? Hunter or the hunted?"

Angelo laughed humorlessly. "We will just have to see, won't we? And she considers all of us prey. Him more so than us."

The old wyvern sighed. "True." She bowed her head. "Strike cleanly."

Angelo drew his blade. It was an old, old knife, handed down from generation to generation. The flakes of razor-edged chert were still sharp. The magic would not allow metals to be used for this deed, the start to the renewing of the compact. It came from a time of stone, tooth and claw. "When have I ever done otherwise, old friend?" he said grimly. "It is the least I can do."

Afterwards he gathered the blood, and cradled his burden, cut from the creature's belly. The wyvern was one of the old ones, a creature woven of magics, not designed by nature. There was no other way to get her egg out. The wyvern had to die so that the new ones could be born. And the young wyverns were needed, if the old oath was to be renewed.

Blood must flow. It was all in the blood.

The wolves howled as he walked the trail back towards the tents. Angelo howled in reply. By morning they must all be gone. They were not welcome here any more. The local residents did not approve of the gypsies. Angelo found that funny. They were not the recent incomers, traveling people from the south, barely in these lands for a few centuries. They had roved this land for always and always. But the "gypsies" were a good cover. The old ones had adopted some of their ways, just as real gypsies had taken on some of the ways of the pack.

Well, it should be a year before they came back to this part of their land, in the normal course of events. Of course this year might be different. Angelo stalked out of the woods and slipped past a neat farmstead as silently as he'd come. Somehow, the dogs chained there still barked. It was, he supposed, inevitable that they would know he was near. Dogs did. It was an old kinship, even if they were estranged now.

Instinctively, Angelo surveyed the property. The hen-coop beckoned, but he had more important things to do than harvest it. The camp must be broken, and that took time; time they could not spare. They must be miles away before dawn. The evil old woman had her creatures too. They would bring her word that the old wyvern was dead. She'd been investigating the subject of the Dragon's blood, and word got around.

The settled ones deemed this their property and the "gypsies" to be trespassers and something of a nuisance. Amusingly enough, that was just how Angelo and his clan regarded the settlers. A nuisance that was cluttering up part of their ancient hunting range. The settlers were too numerous to eliminate, but the tribe made up for it as well as possible by preying on them, as wise predators do, not too much or too often. That way prey went on being prey, and available.

***

Gatu Orkhan stared narrow-eyed at General Nogay. "I will need more gold. Much more."

"I have been told that this can be provided," said Nogay. "But gold, Orkhan, is not all we need."

Nogay knew his master to be a weak reed. A good fighter, true. A general who had used his forces well, carefully pitting them against foes he could beat. But while he might have blood of khans in his veins, he lacked that which made men love him.

Lithuanian gold from across the northern border, gold landed in secret on the beaches to the east, had helped. But thanks to the legacy of Ulaghchi Khan, the clans-especially the traditionalists such as the powerful Hawk clan-frowned on ostentation, away from feasts and weddings.

"Yes. We will need more magics," said Gatu, misunderstanding him.

Nogay contained his sigh. He was no magic worker. No shaman who could move through other realms. He had simply used some simple spells provided by his northern paymaster, Grand Duke Jagiellon. The spells required certain rigid conditions-clear sight of the victim, and items of the victim's essence-hair, nail clippings, skin. He'd killed for his master before, with these tools. And he'd been very careful to make sure that he had some hair from Gatu, and he disposed of his own hair and nail-clippings in the fire.

Mercedes Lackey Eric Flint Dave Freer

Much Fall Of Blood

PART I

July, 1540 A.D.

Chapter 1

Sitting back in his chair in his office in the Castel a Terra of the Citadel of Corfu, Benito Valdosta raised his eyebrows. "And you want me to come out to your estate for some hunting but not to tell anyone. Guiliano, how stupid do you think I am?"

Guiliano Lozza had begun to acquire a little layer of comfortable plumpness again that had made the recruits in Venetian Corfiote irregulars call him Loukoumia. Marriage to Thalia, and with a babe on the way, had eased some of the bitter lines that the murder of his wife and child had brought to the face of the former guerilla-captain. Guiliano had turned down offer of the job of Captain-General of the island without a second thought. He was more interested in his olives, his grapes and the possibility of a pack of plump children to spoil. It would be easy for a fool to forget that the Loukoumia was a master swordsman and strategist.

Benito was only a fool some of the times, and this wasn't one of them. Guiliano smiled. "Spiro told me I might as well be direct with you. It's a dangerous business, Benito. One I wish I was not involved in."

"Then why are you involved, Guiliano? Just what is going on?"

"Listening ears, Benito," said Guiliano quietly. "Trust me. For old time's sake."

Benito sighed. "I've got responsibilities, Guiliano."

"She-they'll do without you for a day, Benito," said the swordsman-turned-olive-grower, understandingly.

Benito looked at the crib in the corner of his office. Times changed. He now had an office, not to mention the crib. "But will I do without them?" he asked wryly. "Very well. Tomorrow."

Guiliano shook his head. "Tonight. It must be tonight. The wind is right," he said, cryptically, "for the kind of game we're after."

The wind was setting westerly. Good for Albania, if not wild boar. The hairs on Benito's neck prickled. "I'll be there."

"So will our old friends, Taki and Spiro."

That confirmed his suspicions. Every second local male was called Spiro, and every fourth, Taki. The conversation would mean nothing to a listener who was not aware that their mutual friends Taki and Spiro-referred to together-were the skipper and the mate of a small fishing boat. They were principally fishermen, anyway, although it could be argued that they were actually principally drinkers of mediocre to bad wine, and incidentally extremely good seamen and fisherman. Like all skippers around these parts, Taki fished for some targets that were best fished for on moonless nights, landing goods when and where duties were not collected on cargoes. Benito would have trusted them with his life. He'd had to before.

Whatever was going on, it had forced a man who would rather grow olives to mess with politics. A man who would rather farm than adorn the most powerful military and second most powerful political office of the island. It had to be worth looking into. Corfu was a Venetian possession, but it was also a small island close to Byzantine Greece and the wild mountainous tribal lands of the Balkans. As much as the tribal clans up in Albania and the hinterland accepted any one leader, it was Iskander Beg, the Lord of the Mountains. Iskander Beg had held off both the Byzantines and Hungary-no small feat.

Some of the tribes had occasionally raided Corfu in the past. Corfu was a soft place compared to their iron hills. The Venetians, and the local magic, had made that an expensive exercise-but the cost had been counted by both sides. As the temporary Deputy Governor, Benito wanted to avoid any more attacks again. Corfu needed a time at peace to recover and grow. An enemy might see this as a good opportunity to attack.

Benito had put out feelers to Iskander Beg, with those who did a little legitimate trade with southern Illyria. He had not expected a reply from this source. He smiled ruefully to himself. He should have. He'd learned a great deal about politics in the two months he'd waited for Venice to send out a new governor, much of which he hadn't wanted to know. The underlying principle seemed to be that nothing in politics was ever straight or direct.

He sighed and looked at the clock. He had yet another meeting with the surviving Libri di Oro, the aristocratic landlord parasites that Venice had created from the Corfiote nobility. Created, and then made rotten and idle. They would pour platitudes on him, when what most of the ticks wanted was for him to drop dead, and the opportunity to get their old lives back, with as much extra land-loot as they could steal added to their wealth. Benito would be polite in return, although he wanted to break them. Going off in the dark with Lozza would be a relief. He hoped that it would be to do something stupid and dangerous. At least he would be more in control then.

***

The water was black, nearly as dark as the mood on the boat. Even the wise-cracking Spiro was less than himself.

"You realize," said Guiliano, "that if this goes wrong, Maria will kill all of us tomorrow." He was being perfectly literal. She would, and Guiliano understood Maria's "wifely" role with Aidoneus better than most Venetians. His wife believed firmly in the Goddess, and had told him where things stood.

Spiro looked at the dark mass that was Illyria, straight ahead. "If it doesn't go right, there won't be a tomorrow."

Taki, sitting at the tiller-bar snorted. "The Lord of the Mountains keeps his word. Relax. And give me some more wine."

"You've had enough," said Thalia. She'd refused to remain behind.

"I'm still upright. So how can that be true?" asked Taki cheerfully.

"If we sail back, then I have every intention of not being upright," said Spiro. "So we need to save a half a cask."

"Never put off drinking until afterwards, just in case there is no afterwards," said Taki. But he didn't insist on more wine. Instead he guided the fishing boat toward a pair of lanterns set up in a dark cove, lining them up very carefully.

A little later Benito Valdosta sat at a rough oak table in a small shepherd's hut, facing the beak-nosed lord of southern Illyria. The humble setting did not seem to bother the man. Lesser men might need regal trappings so that one did not confuse the king with a hill-shepherd. Iskander Beg claimed descent from Alexander the Great of Macedon, and he didn't need fine clothes or a rich hall to tell you who he was. All Iskander needed was enough light for a man to see his eyes.

They burned. And looking at them, Benito knew that he had found a kindred spirit, albeit one reared in even harsher soil than he had sprung from. This was not a man who would be cowed by threats or worried by the odds against him. On the other hand, he looked very shrewd indeed. This was a good thing, Benito decided, because what Benito had in mind was more like commerce than devilry.

"Once," Benito said, "there was a road from here to the Adriatic."

"The Via Egnata. From Phillipi or Christopolis to Appolonia or to Dyrrachium. Durazzo, as the Venetians call it. Days past. A route for conquerors," said the Lord of the Mountains, dismissively. Yet… was that a hint of a smile under his moustache? And, whatever else he was, ignorant of history he was not. Iskander also spoke good Frankish for a hill-chieftain in a remote, mountainous piece of nowhere.

"The Romans built it to conquer Illyria. Did they succeed?" asked Benito airily.

Iskander gave a snort of laughter. "Oh, for a little while. You can never really conquer the land of the eagles. People try."

"The Byzantines are that foolish," said Benito idly.

Teeth gleamed through the moustache. "Not often. The emperor tells them to be. The field commanders do not, in reality, try very hard any more. We've discouraged them."

Benito grinned back. "Then why worry? I gather we share a love for Emeric of Hungary."

The Lord of the Mountains nodded. "He does seem to have had a sharp lesson from you in Kerkira. And another for crossing my land without my permission."

Benito clicked his tongue. "A pity he succeeded."

Iskander Beg shook his head. "Not really a pity. He's a fool. And it is better to have the fool we know for an enemy, than to have him succeeded by man of competence. Emeric's mouth and vanity are worth a good thousand soldiers to us." Iskander's eyes narrowed a little. "On the other hand, I have been told that your death would be worth a great deal of gold, besides several thousand warriors."

Benito smiled urbanely at the Lord of the Mountains, showing no sign of the tension he felt. "You don't have to flatter me."

The Lord of Mountains beamed. "I like you, boy. And I have just upped the value that was put on you."

"You gave your word," said Guiliano.

"And my word is good," said Iskander Beg. "Even if we stand to eliminate two dangerous enemies at one stroke."

"We do not have to be enemies," said Benito.

"You are not Illyrian. You are not of my tribe. Therefore you are my enemy."

Benito was beginning to get a feel for the way the man thought now. This was more than just a declaration of Illyria's superiority and isolation. It was a subtly worded invitation. "And how does one join your tribe?"

The Lord of the Mountains tugged his moustache. "Three ways. By birth. By marriage. And by challenge."

"It's a little late in the day for the first two. So what is the challenge? The usual thing, eh?" Benito's smile was all teeth, and did not reach his eyes. "To drink a bottle of Slivovitz, kill a bear and make love to the most beautiful woman in the village. And later the challenger staggers into the village terribly scratched and says: 'Now where is this bear I have to kill?'"

The Lord of the Mountains laughed. "You'd do better to take your chances with the bear than trying your charms on our women. No, it is a simple challenge." He pointed out of the door into the darkness. "A test of stealth to start with. I will put my men on the hill. I will go to the summit. You must join me, without being caught."

Benito's heart fell. Even after the time he'd spent with the Corfiote irregulars, Erik Hakkonsen had rated him almost as silent a woodsman as a blind horse with bells on its harness. But what did he have to lose, beside face? "Surely. Send your men out."

"They'll try to cut you rather than kill you. I'd do the same if I were you. No point in being part of the tribe with a gyak on your head."

Benito looked at the men he would have to avoid. Looked at their knives. Wished it could have been the bear that he had to cuddle. The twenty or so of them slipping away into the forest had longer claws. Erik should be doing this, not him. This was not the thick Mediterranean scrub of Corfu or the lowlands of Illyria, but an actual forest in the steep limestone gully that led down to the river. Or bare, open rock and thin heath that wouldn't hide a field-mouse.

"I will go up there," said the Lord of the Mountains, standing up lithely and setting off without a backward glance.

"Benito, you are crazy," said Thalia. "The Kyria Maria will kill me if I let you go."

Benito shrugged. "You have to understand the man, Thalia. He is testing us. Testing Corfu. To fail will be bad. To not even try will say that we are soft." As quietly as he could he slipped away into the woods.

It wasn't quietly enough. He never even saw the man, just saw the flash of steel. They might be able to move like ghosts, but no-one had taught them how to use the blade.

Being fair, it could have been that the man had wanted to cut, not kill. The Illyrian hadn't expected to have his blade pushed into a tree, and to have himself thrown hard over Benito's hip. Iskander Beg's man had the breath knocked out of him-but the weak cry and the crashing were enough. Others were coming. So Benito stepped around the vast boled tree and swung up into it.

He hadn't been as unobserved as he'd hoped. There were five of them coming out of the shadows. They sounded cheerful enough as they helped his victim to his feet.

And then they started climbing after him. Benito moved higher, further out among the spreading branches. Dawn was not that far off and visibility up here was better. They were good woodsmen, but terrible climbers. For this business, a childhood spent scrambling over the roofs of Venice was far better training than woods and mountains.

Benito waited until the closest man was within a nervous two yards of him. The branch cracked and Benito dropped to a lower branch, with a laugh. The backspring had the pursuer grasping branches frantically. Benito moved out on the lower branch.

Another three men. He waited as they climbed the tree too. And Benito jumped.

As roof jumps went it was a small one-not more than four yards and to a lower branch. It was a branch in another tree, however. Moving fast now, Benito went down that tree, leaving the swearing Illyrians behind him. Someone fell, by the sounds of it.

That had cleared at least eight of them out of his path. Benito abandoned stealth and ran, uphill, cursing tree-roots. He had about three hundred yards to cover.

Fortunately, he saw and heard the pursuit-and climbed the next tree. He repeated the trick-not waiting for the fellow to get high before dropping into another tree. And down. And then a few yards on. Up again, unseen.

He watched as one of the Illyrians passed below. It was tempting to drop on the fellow and teach him to also look up occasionally, but he was here to get up the slope, not to have fun. And Benito had to admit that he was having fun. He had missed this.

Better not to let fun distract him too much. The trouble was that treed gullies inevitably got narrower and steeper at the top.

He found a nice weighty dead branch, and, climbing up to where he could at least see the crescent moon, he flung it down slope. That done, he dropped out of the tree and began moving laterally, out of the forested gully. There was no cover out there.

No cover for the solitary guarding Illyrian either. The fellow was staring at the forest, sitting on a rock cleaning his fingernails with his knife. Benito had less than seventy yards to the top. There were times for subtlety and times for speed-and a good solid dead branch he found lying on the ground.

Benito tossed a loose rock downhill and to his left, and started running as soon as he heard it clattering. The momentary distraction gave him twenty yards before the Illyrian saw him and ran at him, yelling. There were other shouts from behind him. Benito didn't look back. He just used the branch like a lance, and the moment's shock of impact to sidestep. And then to keep running for the last twenty yards.

Where a rude shock awaited him.

He might even have been caught right there, if it had not shocked his pursuer just as much. There was no-one there.

Benito simply turned and ran the other way. He swore quite a lot too. There was a perfectly good path down the slope to the hut that took him a few minutes, instead of the half hour he'd spend in blundering through the woods.

The Lord of the Mountains was sitting on the bench outside the hut, with one of his own men, and the other Corfiotes. Benito had had the hill to help him get over his bad temper at being so neatly gulled.

Iskander hadn't actually said he would be at the top of the hill. He'd just said that he'd go there. Well, if the Illyrian thought he could teach a Venetian how to make deals with weasel words…

"Guiliano," he said conversationally, panting just a little, "Disarm that bodyguard."

The bodyguard was undoubtedly one of the finest fighters in all Illyria. Guiliano Lozza was still easily his master, especially since the bodyguard plainly wasn't expecting such a command.

While the distraction occurred, Benito stepped up to Iskander and touched his shoulder. "Reached you," he said. "But I think I will leave you alive, because you are more trouble to Byzantium and to King Emeric than I'd realized you would be."

Iskander Beg smiled. "The blood feud you'd cause by killing your own kinsman and chieftain would hardly be worth it."

He stood up, planted his hands on his hips, and watched the panting band straggling up to the hut. "Well? Do you still think the Venetians are soft? And that we should raid now while Kerkeira is war-weary and weak?"

The remark provoked a fair storm of laughter. Knives were sheathed. Benito found himself surrounded by the group that had tried catch him, grinning and backslapping. Iskander joined them. "Come. Now we will talk. And drink slivovitz, kinsman."

Sitting and drinking the clear plum liquor at dawn was not something that Benito wanted to do every day, but today it seemed fitting. "I rule at least in part by guile," explained Iskander, sitting a little apart and talking to him. "The tribes are fiercely independent. But they will follow a clever leader who has won their respect. This story will go around. It will grow in the telling. People will say how cunning the Lord of Mountains was… and that this Venetian was a match for him. Like a fox, but with honor. That is important here. There were some that said it would be the right time now to attack Kerkeira. In spite of the magic."

"It's not something I would attack. That magic destroyed Emeric," said Benito, keen to reinforce the idea, as little as he approved of the Goddess and her cult.

Iskander Beg shrugged. "The Illyrians drove the Pelasgian mother-worshippers from this land to Kerkira. They have long memories in these mountains. They remember the land moving and the sea coming and killing their ancestors. They remember that magic, and saw that it was still active. Now my people have two reasons to keep away-magic and a leader they can respect. So: Tell me now what you plan for the Via Egnatia. It would not be good for the trade of Kerkeira for it to operate again."

"I think it can be made good for Corfu," said Benito, "for Venice, and also Illyria. Ships, especially round ships carry more cargo. But… if I am right, the Byzantines will seek to bar us from the Bosphorus. From the Black Sea trade. Trade is like the muscles of your hand. If you don't keep using it the hand grows weak. It loses its cunning. It's what happened to Via Egnata. Once a little part of every caravan that passed along it stayed here in Illyria. Most of the bulk went on to be sold, but enough remained here-paid by travelers, to be a goodly amount of wealth. Still, it was a small part of every rich load. Some chieftains saw profit in robbing travelers, taking the entire load rather than just a little. So less travelers risked the road. So it became less friendly-and now no-one uses the old trail. I want to open it up again. If we can reach some agreement with the Bulgars or the Golden Horde, Venice could still move cargoes of silk and spices from the east through Trebizond, even if Constantinople is closed to Venetian shipping. Raiding is fun, but the real profit lies in trading."

"Spoken like a Venetian," said Iskander.

"Yes. It has the advantage of being true, too," said Benito dryly. "Look. We have this night put the final veto on to any Illyrian ideas of war with Venice. You did not want it anyway. Why not use the situation to our mutual advantage as well?"

Iskander Beg was silent for a while and then answered. "Because the chieftains of the Illyrian tribes from here to the edges of Macedonia obey me out of choice. Fractiously. I really have little power over them. And raiding is a way of life here. But I will think about it."

Benito rubbed his chin thoughtfully. It was something that had bothered him once… to be his father or his grandfather's offspring, and not to be himself. But since then-now on this hillside, again-he'd proved himself. And a weapon was a weapon. You used it when you needed it, before worrying about where it came from. "You may have heard of my grandfather, Duke Enrico Dell'este of Ferrara."

"The Old Fox," said Iskander. "I have done my best to study his tactics. Just because I live in the mountains of Illyria does not mean that I am ignorant, Benito Valdosta."

Benito was sure by now that wherever this man had lived-and he'd bet it wasn't just in the mountains of Illyria-that he was anything but ignorant. "We talked about the Swiss mercenaries once. He said the greatest warriors came from places where nature shaped and honed the men from birth, and frequent combat had tempered them. Harsh places. He also said that the people of such places win battles, but lose long wars."

Iskander raised his eyebrows. "While I accept the first part of his statement-my people have to be as hard as the rock of our mountains or they would die, and they spend what spare time they have in feuding-I do not intend to lose my wars. All our wars here are long. So why does the Old Fox say that we will lose?"

Benito knew then that he had been right to bring his grandfather into it. Enrico Dell'este would be taken seriously on this subject, by such a man. Benito Valdosta would not be. Not yet.

"Two things. Firstly, numbers. The warrior of the harsh lands can kill five times as many soft lowlander soldiers-but there are fifty men from the fat fertile lowlands to one from the harsh mountains. And the other factor is money. It is hard enough to scrape a living off these bare hills, let alone buy good weapons or keep a large standing army. The second sons of the mountains, and cold northlands too, go off raiding or as mercenaries because there is not enough food or land."

Iskander grunted irritably. "I accept that the Old Fox is right on this. But I have a people and a land to hold, and, yes, to reclaim that which was taken from us. We shape our fighting around harvests and fieldwork. Short sharp raids are our way."

"And you need the grain and cattle and sheep of the lowlands to keep your people alive in winter. But you cannot press your advantage, because the food needs to get home. So, you win each battle… and lose the fertile valley lands, because you cannot hold them. Or if the tribe moves to soft lands, they too become soft and lose their battles."

Iskander raised his chin, and stared down at Benito, eyes narrow. "So, Benito. The Old Fox's grandson does not lead me down this path only to tell me that I cannot win. How do we avoid this trap?"

Benito smiled. "I told you. You sit astride a trade route. In the long term, trade will bring your people far more than the loot from one raid, or even from one trade caravan. You can keep the second and even third sons home, as warriors. There will be fighting on the borders."

"More when there is a rich prize like a trade route to be seized, or competition to be blocked," said Iskander.

Benito drank some of the plum liquor. "Nothing is for nothing," he said with a grin.

Iskander nodded. "You speak very persuasively. What does Venice gain from this?"

"A route around Alexius. More traffic. And someone who will lose much trade if they go to war with us," said Benito.

"Clever, " said Iskander.

"It's this stuff we are drinking. Enough of it and anything sounds clever." Benito swayed to his feet. "I just hope Taki really does sail better when he's drunk or we may end up in Vinland instead of Corfu."

Chapter 2

"Magic is not some cheap fairground trick, for the entertainment of fools, easily done and cheap in the price it asks," said Eneko Lopez, calmly but firmly. "And you know we do not act for earthly thrones or powers."

"This isn't exactly an earthly power," said Manfred wryly.

"It still means mixing in the affairs of governments, princes and kings, to say nothing of emperors."

"And what are the alternatives, Eneko?" asked Manfred. "That we should all sit on our hands waiting for the lightning to fall? You know as well as I do that Jagiellon has motives which reach far beyond mere geographical conquest. At least you should know that, seeing as you have told me so."

Lopez lowered his heavy brow and peered at Manfred from under it. "Don't play your semantic games with me, Manfred of Brittany," said the cleric grimly. "God gave us responsibility, so that we might use it. Not so that we could rationalize doing just what we wanted to do."

"Well," said Manfred, "At the end of the day it is your decision." He turned and walked out.

Eric followed, looking rather bemused. "I thought that you were going to make sure that he sent a message to the emperor?" he said, once they were outside.

"I have," said Manfred grinning, showing his large square teeth. "You cannot force someone like Eneko Lopez to do something by telling them that they must."

Eric raised an eyebrow, "So you tell him that he must not? That's Kari-level logic."

Manfred shook his head. "I set it out with impeccable logic and then leave it him to sort it out with his own conscience. I am pretty sure that in the next few minutes he will be consulting with those brothers of his, and will be in magical communication with Rome. Word will spread very rapidly from Rome. We have a good network that picks up information from there. I can pretty well guarantee that word will be carried both to Mainz and to Venice within the next two weeks if not sooner."

"Where did you learn to be so devious?" said Eric, shaking his head, "The right knightly behavior is to have threatened to knock his head off and then to have a good half an hour argument and shouting match about it."

"Would that have achieved anything?" asked Manfred, grinning. "I mean, it sounds like a lot of fun and very traditional, but Eneko is really not someone you can force to do anything. What we really wanted was for him to contact Mainz magically. He's not going to do that, no matter how we try, but this way we might get him to at least tell Rome."

"If it catches on, we could have the development of a new age of reason," said Erik dryly. "But I don't think the knights of the Holy Trinity are quite ready for this."

"It's the weight of all of that armor," said Manfred. "It weighs down on their heads-"

"And stops the brain from working," finished Erik. "It's an interesting theory, Manfred, but I know as many hidebound warriors on the plains of Vinland as I do among the knights of the Holy Trinity, and they don't wear armor."

"A good thing, too. Next thing I know you'll want me out of my armor. And I'm built to carry it. I must admit I really feel more comfortable in it. But I thought I'd beat you to your favorite argument about steel affecting our brains."

"I detect the fell hand of Francesca," said Erik with a wry smile. "I wonder how long the effects of her training will go on affecting you?"

"She is not someone that I am going to forget in a hurry," said Manfred, quite somberly.

"True," agreed Erik. Privately, he thought that his task was going to be considerably harder now. But there was also no doubt that Manfred was considerably wiser than he had been when he had first encountered Francesca, both about intrigue and in dealing with people. Much to his surprise, Erik regretted that she was going to be going to Alexandria and would not be continuing to journey with them. He had come to accept that she was an ally, and in her strange way, a kind of friend. But all he had said was that they had better tell the knights of Manfred's escort that they would be leaving Jerusalem quite soon.

Manfred nodded. "Eberhart is just waiting for some letters that will accredit the Mongol tarkhan as a diplomatic emissary of the Ilkhan. The Mongols are very stringent about the way that diplomatic missions are treated. I gather that the protection afforded to him would even extend to us if we were caught up in some fracas in their territories."

"Mighty generous of them," said Erik sardonically.

"It harks back a long way," said Manfred sententiously. "Apparently some minor emperor sent back the head of a tarkhan to Genghis Khan. Genghis declared war and hunted the emperor down, finally killing him on some remote island in the Black Sea. Believe it or not, I actually read about it. If they knew about the reading back in my father's court I would be a laughing stock. It's all the fault of you and Francesca. You have rotted my brain and kept me from the strong drink that would have preserved it. I need some wine to set this right."

"Any excuse," said Erik, "but I must admit that I am fairly dry, and the water in this town would give a camel the flux."

"Excellent," said Manfred. "Let us go and find Falkenberg. That way we can combine drinking with telling him that Eberhart is going to have us escort a party of Mongol diplomats."

"I am sure that will delight him," said Erik, grinning wryly.

"Well, I suspect the drinking part will."

In the cell that he had been assigned in the Hypatian monastery, Eneko Lopez might well have guessed that he was being manipulated. He was an astute man and had much experience of the ways of the world. However, Manfred's predictions were quite correct too. Eneko had very little option but to warn the Grand Metropolitan in Rome that the earthly arm of the spiritual evil to the east was going to threaten the entire Mediterranean.

Soon he and his brothers were busy setting up the candles for the wards. In reality, this was neither the most demanding nor the most difficult of magics. However, he did believe that magic should not be used lightly under any circumstances. Kings and princes seemed to have trouble understanding that every little thing they wanted done was not of the greatest urgency.

The monks chanted in unison, raising the wards. Eneko wondered whether this development should change the way that he saw his future duty. Perhaps Rome would see it that way. On the other hand, Alexandria was as much a city of the Mediterranean as was Venice or Rome. Unless he misread the intentions of the demonic force that had possessed Prince Jagiellon, it only sought geographical dominion in order to gain control over other things which were not of this world. What it sought could as easily lie hidden in the myriad scrolls and ancient books of magical lore in the great library at Alexandria. Eneko did understand that power left its mark on the very stones of places. It was almost as if the magic leached out into the surroundings, polluting them and changing them. Sometimes for the better, or, depending on the nature of the magic, the worse.

He shook himself away from these thoughts. It was his turn to perform the rituals. He could ill afford to be distracted. Even thus protected by Angelic wards the practice of magic reaching across great distances was still a very dangerous pastime, in which the practitioner was at great risk of interception and harm by hostile magic workers.

Chapter 3

"We must hurry," said the blond woman. She seemed not much older than Vlad himself, and was extraordinarily beautiful.

The door to his gilded cage swung invitingly open. The prince hesitated. "Who are you?" he asked.

She curtseyed. "This is no time for formal presentations, Your Highness. I am countess Elizabeth Bartholdy of Caedonia in Valahia, as well as of estates in other lesser places such as Catiche. I have come to save your life. I will explain once we are away from here."

It sounded tempting. But King Emeric had himself explained that Vlad was more in a protective custody than just being a mere hostage. "The guard?" he asked, looking at the fallen man, sprawled at the doorway.

"He is drugged. I am afraid I had to put something in his wine."

He looked very dead to Vlad. Death always had an odd fascination for him. He curbed the desire to bend down and feel if the man was cold. Dead animals were.

"Your Highness," said the beautiful young countess, with just a hint of asperity. "Your father is dead. You have no further value as a hostage. The only reason that you are still alive is because King Emeric is away on a military adventure. I know that messages have been dispatched to him, asking for orders about your future. And even if the king decides to keep you alive, your principality will no longer be yours. In the Duchy of Transylvania, the Danesti prepare to put a pretender on the throne. Your loyal boyars need you."

Father Tedesco had said that Vlad's fascination with death was unnatural, a recurrence of the evil that had haunted his grandfather. Sometimes Vlad thought that was true. That he was the Dragon, reborn.

She touched his hand, her hands soft and cool. He had not been touched by a woman who was close to his own age for many years now. It sent an odd frisson through him, not wholly pleasant, yet compelling.

"We must go now. The carriage is waiting," she said.

He followed her out of the doorway and into the passage. She locked the door, and dropped the key onto the sprawled guard. It was all strange and dreamlike. He'd imagined walking down that passage. He found imagination had deserted him. Left him numbed, and a little afraid.

"Where are we going?" he asked nervously. He'd dreamed of fleeing his captivity often. But it had been a vague, nebulous dream, based on the geographical knowledge and observations of a ten year old boy. He wasn't even sure where home was, now.

"First, we flee Buda," she said. "We will go north to my castle in the little Carpathians. We can find shelter in several of the nunneries I have founded, on the way."

Nunneries. Well, she must be a good woman then, thought Vlad, trying to quiet his unease. The unease was not helped by the fact that she had taken his arm and was walking so close that her hip brushed against him.

She led him to a small door, which opened at her touch. Vlad had lived in near isolation since he was a young boy, but he was sure that such a portal should be locked and guarded in any castle. This one appeared to be guarded by a solitary shoe, lying on its side next to the doorframe.

It was very bright outside. Vlad blinked and screwed up his eyes. The sun on his skin was hot. It had been years since he'd last felt that sensation.

"I don't like the sun much myself," said the countess, pulling a soft lace veil over her face and urging him forward with a gentle tug. "So bad for the complexion. But we shall have to do something about your pallor. Only a prisoner or a bled-out corpse is that white-skinned, and it will not do to have you too obvious. We have several days of travel ahead of us. The roads, alas, are not something Emeric gives a great deal of attention to. I have one of the new enclosed carriages from Kocs. It will help to hide you from the sunlight."

Vlad's mind was still tumbling along with his emotions. Part of him wished to scream and dance. Another part suggested that it was all very big and open and bright, and he should turn and run back to the tower in Buda castle that had been his world for so many years. But bright and hot or not, the sun felt wonderful.

Nervously, he walked down the narrow path, away from the castle. Away from the wide Danube and the row of pikes and the flesh-tattered bones of the impaled victims that Emeric ornamented his view with. That was something Vlad's grandfather had also been infamous for. Vlad wanted to turn and stare, but she led him onward, walking calmly, until they came to the first houses, set along a narrow street. Already Vlad was aware that his boots hurt. He exercised regularly and vigorously, but only with the armsmaster in the confines of his prison. He had not walked so far since he had been a child. There were horses waiting, held by a terrified-looking groom. Horses too had grown smaller, thought Vlad bemusedly, although he knew that this simply could not be case.

Fortunately, he had not entirely forgotten how to ride. Looking at the strange world he found himself in, Vlad was desperately glad he was not attempting this alone. He had absolutely no idea where he was going, except that it was downhill and away from the castle.

It just felt wrong. He should be going east, or at least following the river. The Danube would lead him to Valahia, to his father's duchy. His now, he supposed. But surely his rescuer knew where she was going? He would just have to put his faith in her.

They rode on, keeping in the shadow of the houses.

The wind carried a shred of strange lilting music to him from the open door of a tavern. His head said he must stay close to the countess. But his heart wanted to dismount and find that musician. He had not heard anyone play that tune since he had been a child, carefree and happy with his mother in Poienari castle. He could not remember where he had heard it there, but he could remember the tune clearly, and he also remembered that it was important, somehow. Terribly important.

His companion must have heard it too. She turned and looked, and although the veil hid her features, he could sense her anger. "We need to ride faster," she said.

This already felt fast enough to someone who had not ridden since he was ten. But Vlad gritted his teeth and urged his mount to a trot behind her.

The music still echoed in his head. It was still there when a footman helped him to dismount in a very ordinary courtyard, where four horses were already poled up to a large-wheeled carriage. At first he thought that it must be a huge vehicle. But then he realized that the man holding the door and bowing to them had an out of proportion head and was very small. He was child-sized, although bearded.

The countess gave Vlad no time to marvel at the fellow, but had him join her in the carriage. Her strange little dwarfish servitor lifted the steps, closed the door, and then made the carriage sway as he climbed up onto the box. The curtains-a rich, dark red velvet, were drawn closed. The coach clattered and swayed out of the yard. The interior felt as claustrophobic as his prison had. Vlad reached to open a curtain, to see the wonderful world out there. She put a restraining hand on his arm. She had a very strong grip for such a slight thing, Vlad noticed.

"I would like to see. It has been so long since I last could see any other places."

"Later, Prince. For now it is not safe. Now you can simply enjoy being alone in the darkness of my carriage with a beautiful woman." She gave him a sideways look, smiling. "I am sure you would like to kiss me, now that we are private and together."

The idea seemed both delicious and dangerous. Except… he was not all sure how to do this. She was very soft and scented against him. "We must not go too far," she said throatily. "Yet."

"It is as you said, Angelo," said the saturnine man. "She has him in her clutches. She takes him north, to her lair. But he heard the call. I saw him turn when you played it."

Angelo nodded. "It is in his blood, and that blood will answer. Now, somehow, we have to get him loose from her. We have only three days. Tonight she will stop at her nunnery. She needs her blood."

"We need blood too, Angelo," said Grigori with a toothy grin. "At least meat. A cow or a sheep."

Angelo shook his head. "A chicken will not be missed too much and will have to do for us. She doesn't want dinner. She needs pain and blood to sustain her youth. Now, brothers. We need to run. If we have a chance, we must take him."

Grigori grinned again. "I'll hamstring him, you tear his throat out. Mind you he doesn't look like he'll give us much of a chase. He looks to be a pale, weak thing."

Angelo looked grim. "She will chase us. And it will be no quick death if she catches us."

They followed the coach, discretely, at a safe distance. It was hard, deep in the farmed lands, away from the forest. But at least it was twilight, and anyone who saw them might assume that they were just great dogs, running.

Chapter 4

"I was not in any real danger, Maria. They take honor seriously over there. And now we have a peace agreement, and maybe more."

"With them," Maria hissed, glowering at him. "Illyrians! How could you!"

"Given a choice between another war right now, and reaching an agreement that could keep the Corfiotes sleeping peacefully in their beds, I thought that it was not a bad idea," said Benito calmly.

"The Illyrians drove the great Mother's people to take shelter here. Made us call on the Lord of the Dead to put the sea between us and them! Kerkira's women can never forgive them. There can be no peace between us."

"Maria, you have an Illyrian rug on your floor. You bought that happily enough, thinking that you had got a bargain. This is a business arrangement too, and Petro Dorma will be well pleased, I think. Besides, you were born and bred in Venice, not here. The people of Venice's canals are 'us,' not the women here."

Benito tried to keep his own voice completely cool. He had no love nor trust for Corfu's ancient religion. He tolerated it. Barely.

"They are my people now," she said stiffly.

Benito was too tired for an argument. He shrugged. "Then maybe you should actually ask them what they think, instead of getting on your high horse and talking for them. Thalia seemed to think that it was a good idea."

"Oh." That seemed to take the wind out of her sails a bit. "You've been drinking."

Benito nodded. "Slilovitz. For breakfast."

Maria sniffed. "Don't they have food?"

"Ewe's cheese and bread that's rich in stones," said Benito, feeling a tooth. "Trust me. I needed slivovitz to be able to eat it. Seriously, Maria. Illyria is a hard, poor country. I'd rather they weren't using us as a larder to raid. Let them trouble Emeric and the Byzantines instead. Besides, you'd like the Lord of the Mountains. I must see that you never meet, or you might run off with him."

Her eyes filled with sudden tears. "You know that's not true, Benito. I love you. It's just…"

"It's just that I didn't tell you before I went," he said skating away from the other man in her life, the Lord of the Dead. Aidoneus was always somewhere in the back of Benito's mind, as was the fact that he would have to lose her for four months, come winter. It made their relationship just that bit more tricky, along with the fact that the church would not marry them, as a result. That drove her further into the arms of the Mother-Goddess worship and paradoxically toward Aidoneus. Life was never simple.

"Partly," she said. "And partly…"

"I know. And now is there any chance of real food? Without rocks or slivovitz? And how is our baby?"

"Grumpy and sleepless without her father. And fast asleep now, having kept me awake half the night. I suppose I could find you a bite to eat. There is some cold frittata."

Benito grinned and hugged her. After a moment she responded. "Our time together is so precious, 'nito. And I miss you like fire when you're away."

"Better away for one night than fighting a war again," said Benito. "But yes. I missed you too. I need you, remember."

She nodded, and buried her face in his shoulder. Together, a little later, they walked to Alessia's crib. Benito felt his face soften as he looked down on her. "Did she give you a hard time last night?"

"She's your daughter," said Maria. "So, yes. And I was worried about you. Boars can be dangerous."

"They're not a patch on an Illyrian with a sense of humor, or sailing with Taki after Spiro's finished the wine. Come, let her sleep a bit longer, and let me get some real food. And then maybe…"

Maria smiled wryly. "And then she'll wake up."

"She's trying to prevent any competition for your affection."

Later-when, as predicted, Alessia was awake-Benito went back to his office. Inevitably, there were a slew of minor matters that people thought would be better if he dealt with in person. Perhaps some of them would, at least for the people concerned. He also had to go and talk to Belmondo. The governor was in semi-retirement, but still wielded some influence back in Venice.

Benito was keen on having Belmondo's wife-and the old man himself, purely as an ancillary-shipped off to somewhere like Vinland. So far, Renate Belmondo seemed to have understood that in choosing to accept Benito's Maria as a willing bride for the Lord of the Dead, and, what was almost worse, having put Alessia at risk, she had made herself an implacable enemy. An enemy who would take her slightest miss-step as a reason for dire consequences.

Renate may possibly have had reasons, and made innocent misjudgments in an effort to do her best. Benito could see that now. But he was never going to tell her that. He'd learned to believe in checks and balances to power, no matter how good that power was. It was faintly amusing to know that Renate and the non-humans of the island considered him to be a check on their power. They were a little afraid of him. Bringing Maria back from the kingdom of the dead had engendered some respect from them, it seemed. That was good. Non-humans had advantages over most mortals. Reminding them that they shouldn't abuse their powers was no bad thing, Benito felt.

Chapter 5

The sun beat down like a hammer from the cloudless sky of Outremer as they rode toward Ascalon. Well, Manfred had to admit that the hammer part could also be from the amount of wine he had drunk last night. The glare off the polished armor added insult to the throb in his head. After the departure of Eneko Lopez and his companions-and as a very odd companion indeed, Francesca de Chevreuse-and a small escort of the Ilkhan's warriors, things had gotten a little rowdy. Manfred, in between wishing for a drink, had time now to think about that escort. It would seem as if the Ilkhan's local representative, the Bashar Ahmbien, was sparing no effort to please the delegation from the Holy Roman Emperor. They even had a writ of safe conduct as the escort of an emissary, with the seal of the Ilkhan himself.

Ahmbien also had spared no effort in seeing they got on the road out of Jerusalem quickly. He had even intervened to deal with some awkwardness resulting from Erik having assaulted three of the local constabulary while they had been trying to arrest young Kari.

"It was a misunderstanding," Erik said. Looking genuinely embarrassed he admitted: "I took them for back-alley knifemen."

Manfred enormously enjoyed his gentle reproach to Erik. He hadn't had many opportunities. "Tch. As if those assigned to patrol the bad parts of town ever indulged in that kind of thing! Anyway, luckily you didn't kill them. The Ilkhan takes a dim view of that. Their cracked heads will mend."

"I am sorry. I will pay weregild."

"I already have." Manfred did his best to shake his head in a good imitation of disappointment. "I do hope word of this never reaches Iceland. Think what your poor mother would say!"

Erik peered at him suspiciously. "You have no idea, Manfred. Mama is…"

Manfred's composure failed then, and he collapsed into helpless laughter.

Erik did a very fine bit of glowering before starting to laugh himself. "I should have left them to arrest Kari. The best place for that boy is in jail, or out on the open prairie. I can't imagine what possessed the Thordarson clan to bring him along."

"Maybe they thought there would be enough space for him to be a horse-borne hooligan. From what I've heard, the Vinlanders are used to more space and less people."

Erik nodded. "It is what calls to me about the place. There are mountains and valleys and plains… and then more. It is so vast and fertile."

"And warmer than Iceland and far from your Mama, after she hears that you assaulted three officers of the law."

Erik pulled a wry face. "There is truth in that. She is very strict in her interpretation of right and wrong. She would never have accepted Francesca."

"You had enough trouble at first."

"I was wrong," Erik said simply. "I will miss her, you know."

"Not as much as I will," said Manfred, with a wicked grin.

Erik blushed. He was still, even after Svanhild, very prudish about some things. Manfred smiled. He'd had a pleasant few minutes giving Erik a hard time. It was a good thing that they hadn't killed the Bashar's officers, though.

Erik rode beside him now in silence. That suited the way Manfred's head felt, but headache or not, certain things were niggling at his mind.

"Just who is this Borshar Tarkhan?" he asked, pointing an elbow at the Mongol group who rode ahead of them. "I got the official story from Eberhart, but frankly it just doesn't wash."

Erik looked at the column ahead. "Eberhart says he claims to be a diplomat, but thinks that he might just be something else. I do not know the language yet, but look at the posture of his escorts. They fear him. He is a non-Mongol, yet he outranks them."

"A spy? Something else? And we are escorting him? People might take it as our stamp of approval if he causes trouble, Erik." Something else got through to Manfred's mind. "What do you mean 'know the language yet'?"

"I have decided that my penance will be to learn this language. It would have stopped me being an embarrassment to you yesterday, with Bashar Ahmbien's officers."

"Erik, get over it. I wasn't embarrassed. Amused as hell, yes. Jerusalem has been less than funny. I know you well enough by know to know perfectly well that you just made a mistake, an understandable one."

"Nonetheless, if Eberhart is right, I want to understand what they're saying. We have a new horseboy."

Manfred blinked."What?"

"A brat Kari found for us. He speaks fair Frankish, and fluent Mongol. I will be taking lessons."

"As long he also actually knows which end of a horse produces manure and which end bites, and keeps the tack in good order, we can use him. Although getting Kari to choose a horseboy may turn out to be a mistake."

"I hope so," said Erik. "I hope he'll be more trouble than he's worth. I have made Kari responsible for the boy. He says he has no parents. That may give Kari something to do besides get into trouble himself."

Manfred shook his head. "The problem with clever ideas is that they have a habit of not working out quite the way one plans."

David, the son of Isaac, was the horseboy in question. He was finding out that the trouble with clever ideas was that they didn't always work out quite as one planned. It had seemed such a good scheme too. True, the Mongol overlords had very short tempers with horse-thieves. With thieves of any sort-the Yasa code was harsh. Thieves died, even if they were young thieves.

But that was for those who stole horses from them. They were fairly disinterested in horse theft from visiting crusaders-as they referred to the people of the Holy Roman Empire. They had a grudge there. They were none too keen on their vassals being great horsemen either, and taxes discouraged horse ownership amongst the non-Mongol commons. There was still a market for stolen horses, though, and these foreigners had some very fine animals. And, it would seem, no idea that they might need close guarding. He could lead off a string of them from the stables to a buyer from Samaria and be back in Jerusalem-why did this foreigner think anyone would ever want to leave Jerusalem?-by morning. Even if they did come looking for him, he would just be one boy among many in the backstreets of Jerusalem.

Then he'd discovered the first problem with being hired by someone who didn't speak Frankish too well. There appeared to have been a misunderstanding. He'd thought that he was being hired to work in a stable in Jerusalem. He'd been unable to bolt when he discovered they were saddling up for the ride out of the city. Well, he disliked being out of the city, but he could steal horses out here just as easily, and use one to get himself back home.

Then he'd found that the column was being escorted by the Bashar Ahmbien's guard. He could take a chance on foreigners, but no-one messed with the Ilkhan's men. There would be no help for it but to leave on foot as soon as he got the chance. His older brothers would laugh at him. Likely his father would beat him-as he hadn't recommended him to this man who barely spoke Frankish, let alone Mongol.

David scowled. It was after mid-day. He should be peacefully asleep. And he'd never ridden this far before. He was going to have to cross a lot of countryside before he got back to civilization again. He'd have to see what in the way of light goods he could steal to make the exercise worthwhile.

"I feel we should be walking," said Eneko. "Or at least walk from Bethlehem."

"I will go by ship," said Francesca calmly. "In case you had any delusions about me being pregnant and on a donkey."

There was startled silence. "That's quite close to blasphemy."

"I just said it was out of the question. You were the one playing at being Joseph. Besides, piety is a state of the mind, not of the feet."

There was a snort of unwilling laughter. "You do have quite a knack of putting men in their place, Francesca De Chevreuse."

"They get so lost otherwise," she said placidly.

Chapter 6

"His suns soul roams the lands of Erleg Khan, my daughter," said the shaman, calmly. "I must call it back to join his other souls here under the bowl of heaven."

Wherever Kildai's soul was, it was nowhere pleasant. Bortai's younger brother muttered, but his eyes did not open. If you opened them, the pupils remained wide, even if you took him out into the brightness of mother-sun.

The shaman of the White Horde smiled comfortingly. "The windhorse of this boy is strong. His souls are strong too. It will return. It may take time. Erleg Khan's world below is wide, far wider than this."

Bortai sighed and looked at the doorway. "Parki Shaman, you know as well as I do that the one thing that we do not have is time. Gatu calls for the election of a new khan now."

The shaman shrugged. "It may take greater skills than mine. My master Kaltegg, who was your father's shaman, had more-"

Two warriors bundled in through the door. The blade of the leader's sword embedded itself into Parki's neck. The target was in itself more shocking than the deed. Once, no-one would have dared to raise a hand to the shaman of the White Horde. Now, with the old ways dying, someone had killed him. But Bortai had no time for horror.

She had time for a knife instead. The killer had no opportunity to free his blade before she cut his throat. Her father had believed that it was time the people returned to the path set by Chinggis Khan. To the traditions of the Mongol. That meant that she knew how to use a knife, a lot better than some low half-Vlachs scum.

Her father's insistence on a return to the secret history and the Yasa had gotten him killed. Her, it had kept alive.

Alive for the moment, at least. She was still armed only with a knife, and dressed in a deel, facing a foe with a sword and wearing a leather and steel mailcoat. He swung, the blade passing through the flames. She could not restrain her gasp of horror. Even those who had given up the old faith for Islam or Nestorian Christianity would not do something like that. A Mongol knew that it would mean their death.

Belatedly, that occurred to her attacker also. He looked at the fire, and that instant of distraction was enough for her. He died, as she'd intended, quietly. She cut the felt at the back of the tent, and, picking up her unconscious brother, slipped out into the darkness.

Already the kurultai encampment was noisy with the sound of drunkenness. Kildai was only fourteen, but he was a solidly built boy. She knew that she could not carry him far or fast-but that now was time to follow the ancient maxim of Chinggis Khan to the letter. She must flee, and survive. There would be time to gather others to their standard if they lived. But Gatu had obviously decided that they would be better quietly dead.

Kildai was a problem in his unconscious state, though. He would have to travel in a cart, and that would be difficult. There were of course many carts in the section of the kurultai that was devoted to her Hawk clan. But, by the action taken, getting back there was unlikely. Even if they did, if they broke camp now it would be noticed and would lead to a confrontation that they could not afford at this point. Gatu's men would be waiting, patiently, for the last of the White horde, the clan of the hawk, to flee the boundary markers of the kurultai. The guard-duty for the camp worked according to a strict rota, and the clan on guard tonight were no friends to the Hawk clan. She could not go back. They would be waiting, she was sure.

Instead, she made her way across the camp, keeping in the darkness between the gers, until she came to the Fox people. They were Blue horde, but their grazing was poor, and they had a constant raiding warfare with the Bulgars. She put Kildai down in the deep shadow, stripped off most of her jewelry, and left it next to him in her sable muff. It would not do to appear too wealthy. She took a deep breath and walked forward between the fires they had set for visitors and traders. The small group drinking kumiss were silenced by her arrival.

She put her hand on heart and bowed. "Respect to the hearth and the Fox clan."

They still drank kumiss and set up guest fires, so they probably still held to tradition. Tradition would require a greeting and an offer of sustenance before any form of business could be discussed. The delay irked her, but it could be used to her advantage.

The Fox Clan elders would assume she was avoiding being stolen by her intended groom. That was a game they would revel in. Being hard to capture was still honorable. Chinggis Khan had declared an end to wife-stealing, and while he lived that had been strictly observed. But he was centuries dead and, like drinking, wife-stealing was a much beloved Mongol custom.

Eventually, the niceties having been observed, they got down to negotiation. Bortai was terrified that her brother might wake, alone and in the dark and as confused as people were, after a blow to the head. But she kept a steely calm. "I need three fine horses, such horses as the great Fox clan ride."

The clan elder shook his head sorrowfully. "Alas. Horses… We could offer you a pony. For twenty dirhan in silver."

She shook her head equally sorrowfully. "A prince's ransom. I am a poor woman. What of a gelding and mare?"

The bargaining went on. She dropped some comments about the leader of the Jaghun her father wanted her to marry. She was afraid that even the small piece of jewelry she offered might be too much, or a piece they might recognize. But at length she got what she wanted-which was anything but three horses-and they got a good price on a covered cart that had seen better days, with an ox. The cart would be in bad repair, and it was most likely the ox was young and still balky and undertrained, or close to its deathbed. But they expected her to be caught in fairly short order, so there was no point in parting with the best. There was a fair chance that the ox would either be left on the plain or become part of her new husband's property.

Now she had to deal with the delicate matter of getting Kildai into the cart, unseen. She really had no idea how to manage that. But fortune favored her. No sooner had the beast-young and balky, as she'd predicted-been poled up, than a loud fight broke out. Her Fox clan helpers hurried off to watch. They were fairly drunk by now and entertainment at night in the kurultai was scanty. She went back to find Kildai and found that he had moved. Rolled over, or been rolled over.

Her heart was in her mouth as she felt for her fur muff that she'd left the rest of her jewelry in. It wasn't there!

Anger blossomed like fire in her. What had they come to, the great Golden Horde? She assumed that someone had thought the boy drunk, maybe a thief himself, and had robbed him. She cursed furiously. Kicked something. It was the muff… but there was no jewelry in it.

Feeling around she found a solitary bangle that the thief must have dropped. Maybe there was more, but time conspired against her. She slipped the bracelet onto her wrist, carried Kildai to the cart, loaded him into it, and led it off. There would still be sentries to pass. But discipline was fairly lax. She'd planned to bribe a night-watch sentry. Now… she might have to kill one.

She made her way to the edge of the vast encampment. Once outside those limits, the rules of conduct for the kurultai would no longer apply. She could see a sentry on horseback, silhouetted against the night sky. There might be foot patrols, as well. It had not occurred to her to find out before the kurultai. Like the problem of how to deal with a mounted guard, that had not been something she had ever given any thought to.

The sentry was mounted, and had a lance, a bow, a sword. She had a knife and a bullock-cart.

And he was not going away.

She led the cart forward. Sometimes boldness was the only approach.

The guard rode over. "Where are you going, woman?"

She bowed. "Greetings."

"I asked you a question." He leaned over and grabbed her by the hair.

She grabbed his wrist and jumped, and then hung. "Hellcat!" he swore, struggling to keep his balance. But he was a Mongol horseman, not easily dislodged from the saddle. She kicked off two footed from the pony he was riding. It whinnied in protest, and he lost his grip on her hair-well, mostly; some stayed in his hand-as she fell free. She rolled under the cart.

Then the fool committed the cardinal sin of any cavalryman in combat. He dismounted. And fortune, or the tengeri, favored her. He dived under the cart too, to try and catch her, startling the ill-trained young bullock. She rolled out of under the far side of the cart while the heavy wheel rode over his arm. He screamed, but she already had her foot in the stirrup, and swung up onto the pony. She had the advantage now, as he staggered to his feet, clutching his arm.

Mongols train their horses to be weapons too. And the guard had much that she and her brother would need to survive. She rode him down. Then she used his own lance, which had been strapped to the saddle, to make sure that he was dead. Only when she was certain did she dismount, tie a rope to him and drag him to the cart. That took nearly all of her strength to get him onto it, to lie next to her stentorianly breathing little brother.

She tied the pony to the tail of the cart, and then led the bullock off into the darkness, following the heavily worn and rutted track to the southwest, away from the lands of the White Horde and the Hawk clan. In short, away from the direction of safety-but that was also where Gatu's men would search first. By mingling her tracks with those of the other clans who had come from the southwest she would make it harder for them to track her.

A bullock cart could not move very fast or very far. And they only had one pony. A family needed at least ten, and a hundred sheep, just to survive. They would have to eat plants. The thought was enough to make her blench, despite all she had been through that night. The shame and disgust would simply have to be borne.

It was a long night. When she stopped to rest and water the bullock and the pony at a copse next to a small stream, she had time to check on her brother, and to examine the dead man.

He carried the typical gear of an ordinary horseman. Knife, sword, a small hatchet and a leather surcoat, varnished and sewed with iron bosses. His captargac had some boiled horsemeat, a small bag of millet, a small clay pignate and grut-four or five days food for them before she would have to resort to roots, berries and leaves, and whatever game she could kill.

She left the body in the copse, covered with leaf litter. She would have given him a better burial, but time pressed. A bullock-cart does not move very fast and distance was her only friend, tonight. In the morning-or sooner-the body of the shaman Parki would be discovered. Then there would be a hue and cry. Gatu's men too would be out looking for both her and Kildai.

Thinking about it now, she was sure it had been Gatu's intention to present the murdered bodies of both her and Kildai and a couple of dead scapegoat killers, to the clan. With no leadership the Hawks and their adherents, would have fallen in behind Gatu. Now… his plans too were awry. The death of shaman Parki added to that. Many had fallen from the old religion, but shamans were still revered and respected.

It was possible that the great kurultai might break up, with no decision on the khanship reached, and with clan fighting clan. She could only hope the Hawk clan survived. The clan was in a very poor position-without leadership, the subclans might desert to join others. There were some cousins with a claim to the clan-head, but, thought Bortai, none whom would do more than to enable the Hawk clan to survive, at best.

In the pale light of dawn, Bortai found a small fold in the landscape and hid the cart in among the scrub oak. She tethered the ox and pony where they could graze and reach the stream. Then, too exhausted to do more, she lay down next to her younger brother. His face was pale, but he was still breathing. She put an arm around him, and she slept.

She woke briefly as a party of horsemen rode past on the lip of the hill. She could hear their voices carried on the breeze. They were angry voices, but the words were indistinct. She held the hatchet, and waited. One whicker from the pony and they were lost.

But the riders rode on, and lady sun shone down from father blue sky.

Chapter 7

David was saddle-sore, tired and a long way from Jerusalem. Too far for him to run in one night. And that dark-haired son of Baal that had hired him still wanted work from him!

"You want me to do what?"

Kari cuffed him. "Every night. It gets done, see. If I have to chase you to it again, I'll beat you. Do you know anything about the care of horses? You ride like a bag of corn. You barely know which end bites and which end makes manure."

David decided right then that running off, with or without something for his trouble, could barely wait until everyone was asleep. Only they didn't seem tired.

It was a cold and grey dawn when Kari shook him awake. "Get up, lazy boy. There is work to do." Kari seemed cheerful to be up before the sun. David was not. He must have fallen asleep, and he was so stiff he could hardly move.

Kari looked at him trying to stand up and began to laugh. "You're not really a horseboy, are you?"

David stared poisonously at him. "No, Lord."

"Then why did that big fool of a stable-master tell me you were?"

David did not point out that his father was no stable-master, although right now he would agree that he had been a fool to have done this to his youngest son. "Can I go? I will even give you the money back." He never thought he'd say that. But it would be worth it.

Kari laughed. "No."

"What…?" David gaped.

"Ha!" Kari shook his head. "And make me have to tell Erik that I messed up? Are you crazier than me? No, you are going to become a great horseboy. Now get moving. The more you move, the less stiff you will be."

The only direction David wanted to move in was straight down back into sleep. But with Kari standing there he could hardly do anything except to stagger towards his chores.

A few minutes later the Frank, Erik, came in to the stable, still in a quilted jacket and carrying a thin-bladed sword. "No training this morning, Kari?" he asked, setting aside the blade and taking off the jacket.

Kari poured oats into a nosebag. "No. New horseboy to train instead."

Erik laughed. "I hope he makes your life a bloody misery."

"Then he'll be a short-lived horseboy."

Other Frankish knights began arriving. They had all plainly been hard at some form of exercise, and were sweating freely despite the cool of the morning. David soon realized that he was there merely to care for the spare remounts. The knights had each come to see to their own horses. What kind of Frankish lords were these?

Later he asked Kari. He got a cuff around the ear for his question-but also some answers. "Firstly, I am not a Frank. I am from Vinland. And secondly, these are the knights of the Holy Trinity. The knights are a militant order, brat. They may be Frankish lords, but right now they are monks in armor. They also believe a knight must have a close bond with his horse. It is his first and greatest weapon in battle."

David had heard of the knights. Who had not? It just hadn't occurred to him that these men with the three crosses on their surcoats were part of that order. They fought up in wild northern parts, which in his limited knowledge of the world, must be at least three days ride from Jerusalem.

Vinland… he wasn't too sure where that was. A wild land somewhere to the west, full of monsters and barbarians. He took a long look at Kari. Well, that fitted.

"Why are they here?" he asked. "Are the ogres and trolls of the north coming to attack our master the Ilkhan?"

Kari shrugged. "I am just Erik's blood-retainer, now. Or so he has told me. It is some affair of state, brat. Of no interest to you or me."

David had heard of affairs of state. Just quite what they were he was less sure. But he suspected high-paid whores. He found the idea very interesting indeed. The Mongol escort's slaves and servants began trickling into to the stable-area to see to the horses. One had a steaming piece of new bread. David was suddenly aware of a pressing need for food. He'd fallen asleep before anyone had eaten the night before. "Do we get to eat?"

Kari looked at him critically. "When you've finished with the horses, yes."

"Chartering vessels for this lot is going to be less easy than it was in Venice," said Manfred thoughtfully. "I don't have Francesca to smile at Petro Dorma, and the Venetians are going to look askance at fifty armed Mongols and their horses."

Eberhart shook his head. "Only nine will be going on with us. This is something of an honor guard. But yes," he said, his old eyes twinkling, "even I miss Francesca. Although it is her wit and her knowledge of statecraft that I miss."

Manfred grinned. "Old man, I saw you look at her statecraft, if that is what she kept on her chest. And I'll bet we miss her more than she misses us. She'll be breast deep in intrigue already, mark my words."

"Breast deep…"

"She never got neck deep. Always liked to be able to see above the common herd of players. I'd like her here to watch this emissary." Manfred began to chuckle. "Mind you, just think what she will drag Eneko Lopez and his friends into."

"The priest and the courtesan. An unusual pairing," said Eberhart, smiling.

"That depends on the priest," said Erik. "But those two are well matched, I would say. She'll add some worldly wisdom to his saintliness and he will add some his piety to her… uh… breasts."

Eberhart nodded. "It's as well that those two are numbered among the Empire's friends."

Manfred rubbed his jaw. "I wouldn't put it that way, exactly. Eneko Lopez is a friend of God. As long as the Empire is on God's side-at least in his eyes-he will stand by us through thick and thin. But only God will save us if we become like Aquitaine. I've heard him on the subject. As for Francesca… she is a wonderful woman. A very, very clever woman. I wonder if I ever saw what really motivated her. It wasn't just money. She could have become very rich, at least in the short term, by betraying the Empire. She knew who would pay-I know, because she pointed enough of them out to my uncle. She sees, or at least saw, that her interests aligned to the Empire-when it might have been of short term benefit to see profit elsewhere. Now…" he shrugged. "I know she will be in contact with my uncle's agent in Alexandria."

"You're very dispassionate about it," said Eberhart, impressed despite himself. His brief had been to teach Manfred something of diplomacy and statecraft on this journey to the Holy Land. At first he'd thought it hopeless…

Manfred shrugged again. "She said princes need to be."

Erik said nothing, but he knew Manfred well enough to know that his charge was still a little hurt by Francesca's departure. Manfred was deeper than he let people guess. And his armor was more complex too. Perhaps Francesca and Manfred had not been soul-mates, as he and Svan had been, and God knew how it still burned him even now to think of her, but Manfred had stuck almost faithfully to Francesca for longer than Erik would have thought possible. In a way he was comforted that Manfred was a little wounded. Dispassionate might be what princes had to be, but it was not what a man must be. And a prince needed to be a man, first, or he might become a monster like Jagiellon. Maybe errors in love were a small price to pay to avoid that.

But all he said was: "Time to ride before it gets too hot again."

"To think I longed for warmth in Ireland," said Eberhart, looking out at the cloudless sky.

"Too much of anything is a bad idea." Manfred speared another piece of meat from the wooden platter on the table.

"Tell your stomach that also applies to breakfast," said Erik. "The sooner we go, the sooner we'll get there."

The sea was near to mirror flat when they came in sight of Ascalon, gleaming as if some knight's poor squire had just polished it, with reddish tints from the setting sun. Erik saw how the new horseboy-who had possibly the worst seat of any rider Erik had ever seen, bar Benito-gaped at it, his mouth wide open. For once, the scrawny foxy-eyed boy didn't look like a thief looking for a target. He just looked stunned and very young.

"What is it?" asked the horseboy.

"The Mediterranean. They call it a sea," said Kari, sneering, "but it's hardly worth it."

"But… what is it?"

"Salty water. The tear of the giantess Ran."

"Can't be." The boy swallowed. "It's even bigger than Jerusalem."

"And has more fish too. Some big enough to eat a man whole."

The foxy expression returned to the boy's eyes. "I'm not some stupid Frank."

Kari grinned. "You just thought you were a horseboy. Really, we're keeping you for bait."

"Kari," said Erik.

"Well, he's not much good as a horseboy," said Kari with a shrug.

"And too scrawny for good bait," said Erik. "Now, someone who hasn't come to drill for the last few days is more likely to have a bit of fat on him for the sharks."

David decided that they were all crazy. He ignored them. But he wanted to get to that "sea." It called to him. He wanted to touch it. Tears… ha. There was not that much salt in the whole world. But to see it and touch it! The stories he would tell his older brothers.

The world was a bigger place than he'd realized. Bigger even than Jerusalem, although he would never admit that in public. Ascalon itself was barely worth calling a town, though, he thought, with a lofty sniff. They rode on into the gathering dusk, towards the port. The air smelled very strange. He recognized the garbage and horse-dung scent of Jerusalem. But it was overlaid with fish, tar, and a smell that he'd never come across before.

It smelled salty.

"The bad news is that going on to the Black Sea, let alone chartering a vessel to take Borshar there is simply not feasible," said Eberhart. "The Mongols are not welcome in Byzantium-with good reason, to be fair-and word is out that the Venetian traders on the Golden Horn are virtually under siege again. Alexius is not going to allow Venetian vessels to pass through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. He may let the eastern trade convoy that has gone to Trebizond back out because to try and trap them again would mean war, but it's going to take a fleet bombarding his palace to get the Byzantines to let Venetian vessels sail up the Bosphorus."

"Get hold of the fleet in Trebizond and get them to transport these Mongol gentlemen to the lands of the Golden Horde first," said Erik. "The Mongols have this very admirable system of pony-messengers."

"It won't work." Eberhart shook his head. "I suggested that. It appears the eastern convoy did not make a long stop in Trebizond. Normally they stay for months. But this time… well, Venice may know something we don't. The vessels unloaded, took on what cargo was ready, and put to sea. Ahmbien had them watched, and used that system of riders to keep him informed."

"Then," said Manfred, standing up. "I think we need to sail for Venice. I suspect Alexius's capital is about to feel the weight of Venetian bombards. The question is what do we do with this Borshar Tarkhan?"

"I suppose we need to ask him."

They found the Ilkhan delegation on the balcony. Borshar Tarkhan rose and bowed. "Greetings. I gather your endeavors have not met with much success," he said in perfect Frankish.

He was expecting that, thought Erik. Their spies must make Francesca envious. "Yes. We plan to go to Venice itself…"

The tarkhan interrupted. "I am ordered to accompany you if that is the case."

Erik wondered why Eberhart looked as if he had just swallowed something really nasty. As they walked back to their quarters in the inn, Erik decided he'd better get on with learning some Mongol. It made him uncomfortable not to know what these people were saying among themselves. And he was, first and foremost, Manfred's bodyguard. Anything that made him uncomfortable was a warning sign.

Chapter 8

Vlad's head was in a turmoil. He was, by nature, a very precise person. Enough people had told him so, from King Emeric himself to the servants who had marveled at the geometric positioning he liked of the few accoutrements in his room. He could not understand why everyone would not wish their world so ordered. He liked to know precisely how things worked. In the small world of his tower in Buda castle, that had been easy enough. Some things, like his careful dissection, had upset and revolted Father Tedesco. But birds were free. They flew to the tower, to the high window, and away at their own choosing. He had merely wished to understand how it was possible. He had gained some understanding of just how they beat their wings and how the feathers flared from their wings. And of how thin and frail their bones were, even compared to mouse bones.

He had done penance for that.

He wondered now if he should do penance for this. He would have liked to have Father Tedesco to advise him. To try and make sense for him of all the unfamiliar emotions. She lay against him, her body softly curved and warm and scented. She had drawn his hand onto her thigh and now her fingers trailed across the skin on the back of his hand, barely touching him. How she could maintain such control as the carriage jolted and swayed on its leather springs was something a small part of his mind was fascinated by. The rest of his mind was overwhelmed by the sensations she was creating as she traced strange patterns with her perfectly manicured fingers.

After a little while he decided that he really didn't like it. It made an odd heat within him, not entirely a pleasant sensation. He felt as if he might take her into his arms or tear the fine fabric and lace away from her breast. It was beyond his rational control. That too he did not enjoy. So he pulled his hand away.

She laughed throatily. "Do you not like me, Prince?"

He blushed and stammered some reply. Was he being terribly rude? Was this how men and women conducted themselves outside of his tower? He had been escorted to King Emeric's throne room several times. There had been women and men there, but he did not recall noticing anything like this. Nor in his reading. Nor in his distant memories of growing up.

For the first time in many years, Elizabeth was both surprised and intrigued. Her senses were enhanced in such a way that she saw and felt things denied to ordinary mortals, just as their so-called salvation was denied to her. Pah. What had she ever cared for that? There was a virginal innocence to this boy that was almost intoxicating to her. It could only come from rearing him in such isolation from the world.

There was a darkness in him, too. Not at all like her carefully cultivated darkness, with its rewards and price, but wild savage darkness, more like some volcano of power and passion held in rigid check. And he had great strength. Power, for which he had paid no price. Power enough to pull away from her spell of binding and subjugation as if it had been a mere spiderweb. She had used sigils of dark magic that should have made him her slave.

She knew that his blood had value in magical terms, but she had merely seen him as bait. Bait for an ancient, rare and magical creature, useful to her plans. Now she realized his blood might be even more valuable than she'd believed. Possibly even worth keeping within his veins for a while. Who would have thought that mixing blood could have that effect? She might have to experiment with it herself. Of course, if it only affected offspring it would be of little use to her.

She would set Mindaug to investigate the matter. He needed work. She would watch Mindaug more carefully than Chernobog had been able to. Elizabeth had less interest in geographical power than Chernobog, but there were aspects to this strangely powerful pawn in that area too. So much-besides pain and betrayal-had become ennui as the years passed. This would provide a fascinating distraction. She would have him in the end. She would enmesh him and strip him of his innocence and then his power, and enjoy a brief period of lust and darkness with him before all was done. But in the meanwhile, let the prey think he had sprung the trap. That he had got away.

"What shall we talk about, Prince Vlad?"

He was silent for a while. "My homeland," he said. "And please, I need to open these curtains. The swaying makes me feel sick."

Both requests surprised her a little. She disliked bright sunlight, and the countryside. So dull, only good for hiding things in. And her knowledge and interest in Carpathia's countryside was sketchy at best. "It is mountainous. There are a great many trees."

"Pine trees. I have run and hunted there often," Vlad said longingly

He had been taken from home when he was ten, she knew. He must have been somewhat differently raised than the boys of the royal house in Buda. "You remember that?"

He shook his head. "I dream it. I dream it often."

And that, to one such as her, was more worrying than his resistance to her entrapment.

They panted and lolled in the shade of the small copse on the hillock, three rangy, grey-eyed men, in ragged, patched clothes that spoke of travel.

"Why could she not have chosen a cooler day for it?"said Grigori, wiping his face with a multicolored kerchief. "Or gone by night. Running at night is safer and more pleasant."

Angelo shook his head. "Not from her. Remember who she is. And this is not our home range. It is hers."

"I am just glad that the roads do not run too straight. At least, it's cooling off. Do you think that she will go on through the night, or stop at her nunnery?"

"Stop, I think. The horses are tired and there is nowhere else here she can get a change. Not that I know of, anyway. I have scouted this country, but I know it less well than I like." Angelo handed a wineskin to his companions. "Drink. I see dust. It will be the carriage."

"Is he definitely still in it?"

Grigori wiped his mouth and handed the wineskin on. "Hard to tell through the curtains. The _arriage has been out of our sight a number of times. Would she fear pursuit enough to set us a false scent?"

Angelo peered toward the dust. "She is old enough and devious enough. But she is also arrogant in her power. All we can do is follow until we can get close enough to get the scent of him. And getting too close may be foolish too. I have watched her kill."

The enclosed carriage clattered closer along the road. But now the drapes had been drawn aside. They could see him clearly despite the distance, his skin pale and his hair as dark as his grandfather, the dragon, with the same heavy moustache. His face was lean and long. His expression: troubled.

They watched as the carriage and the outriders passed some quarter of mile away. Their keen eyes noted details. Details others might not have spotted, but they were hunters. The offside horse was beginning to go lame. The countess would have to slow down soon.

Angelo got to his feet. "That'll make the chase easier. She'll be there at nightfall now, not before."

"It's an ill time to get there. We could strike before?"

"If the chance arises." Angelo sniffed. "The weather is on the change. That may help us tomorrow. Come, brothers. The chase calls."

A shepherd boy walking back to his flock with a hat full of blackberries saw a carriage and outriders pass. He waved. No one waved back, but that was hardly surprising. Then he dropped his hat and stood staring.

Those looked like great grey wolves loping across that field. Surely there were no wolves here? He felt suddenly very frightened and alone, and aware that his flock was further away from him than it should be. He stood indecisively for a long moment. And then, without stopping to pick up his hat, let alone the wild berries, he ran in the opposite direction from the wolves or the carriage. The carriage had outriders, doubtless with bows or guns. Let them deal with the wolves.

In the carriage, Vlad's companion had fallen silent. He did not mind. There was the vista. The air outside. It helped with the queasiness from the swaying. There was just so much space. He saw a boy in one of the fields waving his hand. It took him a few moments to work out that the young fellow was greeting him. He waved back, smiling for the first time on this momentous, terrifying, exciting, confusing day. But for some reason the lad was running away as fast as his legs could carry him.

"What was that, Prince Vlad?" asked the countess, turning her wonderful smile on him.

"A boy. He waved and then ran away. Am I that frightening?"

She shook her head. "Peasants. They are afraid of everything. Anyway, we are near the nunnery of Saint Anna. We can rest there for the night."

"They will allow men within their walls?"

"I founded it. I still provide a generous stipend for it. We take in poor girls and orphans from Arrabona. Even some waifs from Buda and Pest."

"That is Godly work."

She crossed her hands in her lap and looked demurely down at them. "They have no one to turn to."

How could he have doubted her? He knew so little of this outside world. Father Tedesco had told him of the poverty and the needs of the poor. He had known little about it when he'd first come to Buda. But the subject had been one of the old priest's more frequent topics.

The area must be rife with bandits, thought Vlad, surveying the grim, grey walled compound, with its church and cloister. The abbess who greeted them was scarcely more cheerful looking. And she was large. As big as most men, with hands like slabs of pork.

She bowed very respectfully to the countess. "All is prepared, Your Ladyship."

Countess Bartholdy smiled regally. "Good, Anna. We will have worship and rest. See that my men and the horses are suitably looked after. You have prepared a chamber for my guest?"

The abbess nodded. She turned to one of the women standing in her wake. "Illona, lead the gentleman to his chamber. See that he has warm water to wash with."

Illona looked as if she had missed all the meals the Abbess had found. She beckoned, and Vlad followed her, in through a heavy studded door and up a long passage to flight of stairs leading to an upstairs chamber. They passed a kneeling girl painstakingly sweeping the stone flags. The girl must have had a dreadful life. There was a beaten air about her. A look of fear. She cowered away from them in the passage. Vlad realized that, despite the terrors Emeric had inflicted on him, perhaps his captivity had not been so evil.

The room was large and luxuriously appointed, with an enclosed bed hung with fine red cloth. "Most comfortable looking," said Vlad.

Illona nodded. "Her ladyship keeps it for her companions. Warm water will be brought to you, shortly."

Looking over her shoulder-he was far taller than she was, far taller than most men, let alone women-Vlad was surprised to see the girl staring fearfully at him. A novice, he assumed.

She looked so afraid. He wanted to comfort her. "That girl…" he said, gesturing.

Illona smiled for the first time. You could not often say that a smile disfigured a face, but in this case it was true. "That one is for Her Ladyship's service. I will send you another."

"I just wanted say to her that God will care for her. She is safe in the arms of the church now."

The woman Illona seemed surprised. But she turned away without saying anything.

Later that evening, Vlad dined with the abbess and the countess. They ate venison and he enjoyed it very much. The wine too was as red as blood and strong. Wine never seemed to make him drunk, as he had seen in others and read about. It-or the long day-made him sleepy, however, and he was glad to make his excuses and retire to his chamber, where he soon fell into a sound sleep.

He was wakened by a scream.

Definitely it was a woman, screaming.

He thought he had better go and see. But the door refused to open. And the window too was barred.

The moon shone down and he looked out. He had quite a prospect from here. He could see the chapel. He could swear that was another scream coming from there. He watched for a while. And then he saw a light-candles-in the darkened chapel. They came out in the moonlight-some thirteen people, carrying something between them in a blanket. One of the carriers, simply by her size, had to be the abbess. Another, oddly, walked like a man. A third was plainly the dwarf.

They all wore hooded cloaks-except the last figure who walked behind them. Even in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bartholdy was beautiful. Her blond hair looked white in the moonlight, and her face serene. Somehow, she looked even younger than she had before. He wondered if he should call out and ask what had happened. But it seemed as if she was in control of the situation, so he just stood there, silent, watching as they walked into the cloister. As they passed below him, he thought that it looked rather like someone was lying on the blanket, but their candles did not provide enough light for him to see clearly.

After they had gone, he stood there for a long time looking out across the open landscape beyond the monastery walls. Yes, there were bars. But at least he could see. And the air smelled cleaner here.

In the distance something howled, a strange wild sound.

He almost felt as if he should howl back. He even found that he had taken a deep breath to do so, before shaking himself, and thinking how foolish he was being.

Then, because everything was still, he went back to bed. On the way he kicked a metal shackle set into the wood. It bruised him, and perhaps because of the pain or because it had been such a strange and experience filled day, sleep took a long while coming.

And when it did, he found himself in the old familiar dream of running through the scent-rich forest. Of the hunt.

But somehow, this time, he was the prey.

They left early the next day, breaking their fast just before dawn. Most of Countess Elizabeth's retinue looked as tired as Vlad felt, even if they were probably not as stiff. Vlad's muscles hurt as he struggled up into the carriage.

The countess herself, on the other hand, looked positively sparkling this morning, her skin radiant and full of a youthful glow. She smiled at him. "It does not look as if you had a good night. Unfamiliar beds do that to me too."

"What was happening last night?" asked Vlad curiously.

"Why, nothing. Should something have?" She lowered her lashes and looked at him from under them, with a little smile on her lips.

"I woke up when someone screamed. I tried to get out but I was locked into my chamber. From the window saw a party come out of the chapel. Why was I locked in? What were you doing?"

She laughed musically. "Why were you locked in? You silly boy! You are a man and this is a nunnery. If they had their way they'd have chained you to the bed, too."

"Oh, is that what the shackles are for?" he asked, pleased to have had the mystery clarified.

She looked at him enquiringly with just an element of calculation in her gaze. "Shackles?"

"Yes. There are four set into the wood of the bed. I barked my shin on one, so I noticed."

"Goodness. I wonder what those are for. Perhaps for chaining a dog or something. I was merely joking, Vlad. I did not want to trouble you with that sad business last night. The poor girl was possessed of an evil spirit. We had to scourge her and pray with her to exorcise it."

"Oh. I will include her in my prayers, then," said Vlad. "Is she free of it now? Will she be all right?"

"She will recover. Pain is a necessary part of the process," said the countess. "Do you really have to have the curtains open, Prince? Of course I am a weak woman and not as robust as you. The breeze is so injurious to a lady's complexion. It's almost as bad as the sun."

"Once they cross they Danube we must strike," said Angelo. "If we let her get him to her fortress we will never get him away from her. Even another night could be too late."

"They will take a ferry. We could sink it, and snatch him from the flotsam." Grigori grinned, showing very white teeth.

Angelo shook his head. "She has a bargain with the Vila."

"Then we need to plan to get across by boat," said Radu. "Besides, Grigori, you get tired after swimming half a league."

Chapter 9

The crowd of voivodes and hetmen in his throne room were doing their best to look brave and great. To the iron eyes that looked out at them from Jagiellon's mask, they were neither. They were, however, the right sort of tools for his tasks. Greed and fear made great levers to drive them about his purposes. He kept them in balance between fear of their fellows and fear of him. And when he called, they came, like the cowed dogs they were.

Of course, there were a few who had attempted to avoid the summons with various excuses, and had sent representatives. They would be punished appropriately. They entertained something Chernobog disapproved of, and did his best to eradicate: the folly of hope.

Still, there was one emissary whose master could not be punished. Or, at least, could not be punished… yet. The fact that the emissary was here, and being seen in public, was an endorsement of sorts, as the remains of the Golden Horde were not yet vassals. But soon they, and the Bulgar Slavs, would fall in line. Constantinople and Alexius posed no challenge. Chernobog's geo-political machinations followed a very different logic from that of his merely mortal foes.

There was power in the geography, both on a physical and a spiritual plane. Other powers and their minions, such as that accursed Elizabeth Bartholdy, did not fully grasp that. They would. But by then it would be too late.

"Nogay Tarkhan." Jagiellon greeted the emissary with what for him was considerable affability. The man still stood too straight. He bowed. He had not abased himself. "And what news from Gatu Khan?"

"He still remains Gatu Orkhan. The kurultai broke apart before his election could be finalized."

Jagiellon stood up slowly. He was a huge man and he towered over the tarkhan. He turned to the assembled lords of all of the vassal tribes and states to the east and south. "You are all dismissed," he said. "The tarkhan and I have things to discuss privately."

Nogay stood stock still, perhaps alarmed by the hasty departure of the others. Some of them were known to him. Many of the southern clans which owed fealty to Jagiellon were blood relations of the clans within the remnant of the Golden Horde that lived on the western shore of the Black Sea. The Crimean Tatar were close kin. They were intermarried too with Bessarabians under Jagiellon's sway.

When they were alone, Jagiellon resumed his seat. He had stood solely for the purpose of intimidating the tarkhan with his immense size. That done-satisfactorily, he gauged-he had no desire to remain on his feet. The Black Brain found the grand duke useful, and the man had become so heavy in middle age that standing for any length of time risked damaging his lower limbs.

As he lowered himself into the throne, a slight scuttling noise drew his attention to the side. A rat had emerged from a hole in a corner of the throne room and was staring at him, its whiskers twitching with caution.

Caution only, not fear. Rats had little to fear in the grand duke of Lithuania's palace. As a matter of policy, Jagiellon made only minimal attempts to suppress the rodents. He kept just enough feral felines to prevent the rats from overrunning the palace altogether. He-or rather, the demon who controlled him-found that a multitude of rats had the effect of frightening his subjects, in a subtle kind of way. Perhaps they feared their overlord might feed them to the rats in the cellars.

As, indeed, he had done on a number of occasions.

Once the grand duke's eyes moved away, Mindaug sent the rat scurrying along the wall. As soon as Jagiellon began to speak, he would have the rat move close enough to overhear the conversation.

Mindaug leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed, visualizing the scene in far-off Vilna through the rat's eyes. There was some peril here, of course. Mindaug would be subjected to considerable pain in the event Jagiellon took notice of the rat again and decided to kill it.

That was a minor danger, however. First, because it was unlikely that the grand duke would succeed in such a project. As a young man, Jagiellon had been a truly formidable physical specimen. His reflexes had been astonishing for someone his size. But age and sedentary habits-not to mention his gross culinary indulgences-had added so much fat to his frame that, though still immensely strong, he was no longer as quick as he'd been years earlier.

The grand duke was still surprisingly quick, for such a huge man. But not likely to be quick enough to catch a rodent. Even if he did, the pain inflicted upon Mindaug would be intense but brief. And there would be no lasting damage. The method Mindaug was using to control the rat had some problems. The effort of controlling the noxious little creature was considerable; the effort of trying to filter meaningful words through its tiny brain harder still. After two hours, Mindaug would be mentally exhausted. But the great advantage was that Mindaug could sever his connection with the rat-or have it severed by another-without suffering any permanent injury.

No, the real danger lay with the Black Brain, not the monster's human shell. There was always the possibility that Chernobog's suspicion would be aroused, should he notice that a rat in his palace was behaving oddly. The demon himself was not given to using small animals as spies. Those methods were too humble and subtle to appeal to his basic nature. However, he would know that such was possible, for someone with sufficient knowledge and skill.

There weren't many in the world who had that knowledge and skill. But Chernobog was likely to know that his former servant Count Mindaug was one of them-and he had a grudge against Mindaug. Which was reasonable enough, of course, given that Mindaug had betrayed him.

Should the Black Brain come alert, there was the real possibility that his demonic powers-which, unlike his human sheath's body, was not subject to fat and unexercised muscles-could move fast enough to catch Mindaug before he could extricate himself from the rodent. Should that happen…

Well. The result would be most unfortunate. The best Mindaug could hope for was that Chernobog would be satisfied with locking the count into his rodent form with no hope of escape. In which case, Mindaug's lifespan would become that of a rat-two years; three, at best-and, still worse, it would be a life emptied of all interest. Even if Mindaug could maintain his intelligence in those circumstances, which he thought dubious beyond a few weeks, what good would it do him?

Count Mindaug's great interest and passion was knowledge, and knowledge required the ability to read. It was hard enough to make sense of spoken words through a rat's little brain. Mindaug had never been able to get one of the wretched rodents to learn how to read. That was their greatest limitation as spies.

Cats were worse. Dogs, hopeless. Some day Mindaug planned to experiment with owls. In addition to their superb eyesight, he thought their talons might be suitable for turning pages.

He had the rat right behind the monster, now. He commanded the little creature to scuttle underneath the throne and then hold perfectly still. Partly, to avoid any risk of detection; mostly, so Mindaug could concentrate on the coming task. Filtering sense through a rat's brain really was quite difficult.

Later, after the grand duke had finished with his agent in the Golden Horde, Jagiellon called for the voivode from Odessa and the admiral from the secret vast shipyards he had built close to the mouth of the Dniepr where his fleet was being assembled.

The voivode had no doubts about the fragility of his position, but he had news that he believed would please his master. "We have begun pressing sailors, Grand Duke. They are river men mostly, but at least they have been on board a vessel before. We have thirty round ships and some seven galleys, and nearly forty galleasses now outfitted. The galleasses are doing patrols already with the other vessels and the crews are learning their trade."

"I will send fresh levees. Ten more galleys must be in the water before winter," ordered Jagiellon.

The voivode bowed. "It will be done, Prince."

"The men to be transported on the round ships will begin to arrive in the last weeks of March. See that their the camps are prepared."

"Could I ask the numbers, Prince?"

"Some thirty thousand. That will be adequate for the purpose. The first four thousand will arrive with the barge fleet from Kievan Rus with the cordage and sailcloth. Now go. I am going to select from the candidates who have been sent down from the north."

The voivode of Odessa looked both curious and afraid. As well he might, Jagiellon thought. The man was too efficient for his own good. Unfortunately, he was also too efficient to kill right now.

This was a problem for Jagiellon, and one which he had become faced with all too frequently. Ruthless ambition and greed had provided some of his best vassals, but such a vassal always wanted to be overlord. It was necessary to watch them, intimidate them, and occasionally reduce their ranks. This voivode was very close to that brink.

The grand duke was not overly concerned with the matter, however. In long years, only Count Mindaug had succeeded in escaping the Black Brain's culling. And someday he expected to catch Mindaug and be finally done with him.

Mindaug kept the rat hidden under the throne until well after nightfall. Then, let an hour pass after the grand duke left the chamber before he had the rat emerge.

That done, he sent the rodent in search of one of the palace's handful of cats. That took no more than five minutes.

The feline was presumably surprised to find a rat doing all but leaping into its maw, but its brain was not big enough to retain the memory for long. The chance that the Black Brain would detect anything amiss was essentially non-existent. Even the chance that Chernobog would have detected the lingering traces of Mindaug's presence in the rat had been miniscule.

Miniscule-but not non-existent. Mindaug valued methodical caution above all other virtues.

The pain was intense, true. Cats were efficient killers, but not merciful ones. But the moment passed, soon enough, and Mindaug was able to concentrate on what he had learned.

He was not surprised by the scope of Chernobog's ambitions. Still, he had not realized how extensively the Black Brain had succeeded in penetrating the Golden Horde. Mongol society was not easily subverted by outsiders, even ones with the grand duke's powers.

That much was simply a matter of abstract interest, at the moment. But Mindaug could no longer ignore the possibility that his present refuge might become threatened. Countess Elizabeth was extraordinarily shrewd, but she had two intellectual blind spots.

The first-inevitable in such a foul creature-was that she had delusions concerning her ability to postpone forever having to pay the price for her bargain.

The second was that she consistently underestimated the sometime effectiveness of purely human political and military action. Mindaug thought that blind spot was also due to the creature's foul nature. No matter what methods were used, successful action in the political and military spheres required a great deal of effort. Among Elizabeth's multitude of vices, laziness took its rightful place also.

So. It was time for Mindaug to consider his alternatives.

Chapter 10

Benito Valdosta read the message from Petro Dorma very carefully, for the third time. The orders contained therein came as something of a relief, in part. They would get him away from a myriad of petty problems, and might stop him from murdering some Libri d'Oro idiot.

On the other hand, the idea of leaving his wife and daughter while he led a naval campaign was considerably less than attractive. However, unless he misread the time line, it could just work out. The Byzantine emperor would be expecting both trouble and relief in spring. If Benito had his way, he'd have trouble long before. In autumn, if possible. There was always the risk of storms. On the other hand it would be a very unwelcome surprise for His Imperial Idiocy.

It could be a worse surprise for the fleet in the Dniepr. The most serious flaw in this plan could be the arrival of the Golden Horde. Benito wished that he had more knowledge of what was happening in the lands of the Golden Horde, to the west of the Black Sea. He began to toy with the idea of spying or at least surveillance, possibly from the lands of Iskander Beg. He wondered just how Petro Dorma had come by all his information in the first place, and if Benito would be able to access those channels. The old established order in Venice tended to regard him as a loose cannon. "I can't imagine why," he thought to himself, with a chuckle, getting up to go and collect a map of Constantinople from a cupboard. He could imagine Admiral Douro's delight at the news that Benito Valdosta was coming back to the Arsenal.

However, that was a trivial problem compared to the one he was going to face when he broke this news to Maria. That would require a lot more than mere military tactical skill. It might just involve the ability to dodge flying china. Living with Maria could be a lot of things, but it certainly was never dull. He considered the best possible ways of approaching the subject. Regretfully, he decided that sneaking off without telling her probably would not be worth the pain. In the end, the truth might just serve him best, even though he doubted that it would serve him very well.

Still, the problem would have to be faced, and soon. Petro wanted him back in Venice within three weeks.

***

Maria watched her daughter indulging in the traditional pastime of chewing her toes. She had begun to worry about winter. That was a thought that was never too far from her mind. She would have to leave Alessia and Benito and go down into a vast and unearthly realm to spend her four months with Aidoneus, the Lord of the Dead.

She really, really did not wish to go, but that was the bargain that she had made. No matter that she had risen to be a scoulo wife, and now the wife in all but name of the acting governor of one of Venice's most valuable colonies: she was a canaler born. There was a code of honor that went with that. Canalers had very little, except for that code. They made their bargains, and they lived and died by them.

She sighed. Honoring her bargain also meant that she was going to have to leave her daughter with Benito for four months. She knew he was surprisingly capable. But that did not make it any easier.

Benito came in, without his usual smile, but with a piece of paper in his hand. "Read this," he said, handing it to her.

Maria had learned to read late in life. It still took more concentration than she felt happy about, but Kat's letters from Venice had made her a little more practiced. Still, she had to read this message twice. She closed her eyes, and put her hand to her head. "I thought that we had won some peace."

"The only kind of peace that Grand Duke Jagiellon will ever recognize is total surrender to his will," said Benito. "And that is not a peace I would have my daughter live under. I saw what he did to Caesare. He must be stopped." There was a certain implacability to that statement, a grimness that belonged to a man far older. At times like this, Benito frightened her a little. And yet this was what made him the man that he was. A man who had literally gone to hell for her and brought her back.

"Yes, but why must it be you that stops him?" she asked plaintively.

Benito grimaced."Because Petro Dorma thinks so. Of course I'll have Admiral Douro as well."

"You are not to kill him," said Maria sternly. "And anyway, if there is danger Corfu needs you."

"If Jagiellon succeeds in taking control of the Bosphorus it won't just be Corfu that is in danger," said Benito. "His armies will ravage everything from Alexandria to the gates of the Mediterranean. This is a fight we must take to him. We must destroy his fleet. We really need to deny him access to the Black Sea if the Byzantine empire is going to be a weak reed."

"Oh? And why don't you just conquer all of the known world while you're about it?" Maria had never entirely come to terms with the sheer size of the world. Part of that was because she had spent her formative years in the narrow canals of Venice. In a way, her world had been defined by the confines of the Lagoon. Travelling first to Istria and then to Corfu had changed her perceptions a little, but there still seemed far too much world to get her head around.

One thing that she was sure of: the Black Sea was both far off and large. Yet she also knew that Benito was almost impossible to stop once he got going.

He chuckled. "I think that the whole world might take more than two or three months. I might just have to settle for Constantinople."

She was taking this far too easily. Benito knew that he ought to just be grateful and not to pursue the matter. But he loved her very much, too much just to take the easy way out.

"Explain why you are not throwing dishes at my head," he said gently, taking her into his arms.

She was silent for quite some time, leaning into him. Eventually, she said slowly: "I suppose it's because I wished that you and Alessia would go to Venice while I was… away. Kat and your brother Marco are there. They will be good to our daughter. Also, Petro Dorma is the doge. He is responsible for the well-being of all of Venice. I do not think he is a man who would lightly ask this of you. He must have real reason to fear. And the canals are still full of my relations. But," she said fiercely, "this is my Corfu now. Mine. You will see that it stays safe." That was a strict instruction.

He nodded. "Too many people have bled and died to keep it free and safe for us to neglect it now."

"And you will be careful?" she said, her eyes narrow.

"I never promise what I can't deliver," he said with a wry grin. "I promise I'll take reasonable care. Well, as much as possible."

"Huh!" she snorted. But she did not pull away from him. Instead she snuggled closer. "Alessia has fallen asleep. And I don't think you have to go back to that office just yet."

Benito knew just how much work there was waiting for him. But, all things considered, it was probably less important than staying here right now. So he picked her up, the muscles he had built up while working in the Arsenal paying a handsome dividend, and carried her through to their bed. Briefly, he thought about where he would get good maps of the Golden Horn, but then he focused on more important and immediate matters.

Chapter 11

They got out of the carriage in order to be ferried across the Danube. Vlad enjoyed that brief respite. The open air was full of strange scents carried on the morning breeze. Although he would never have dreamed of saying so to his angelic seeming rescuer, he found the scent that she used cloying. She had insisted on keeping the curtains in the carriage closed this morning.

The far side of the river was the site of a small town. Vlad hoped for some breakfast, and, by the hopeful looks they had cast at the inn, so did the outriders. But Elizabeth showed no signs of hunger or a desire to stop. As soon as the horses were poled up, she had the coachman drive them onward at a spanking pace.

"I have never been that fond of large amounts of running water," she said. "It makes me feel a little queasy."

"I quite understand," said Vlad, sympathetically. "You are such a delicately built lady that I wonder how you can travel so fast. I remember that my mother always insisted that we spend a day resting after she had been traveling for a day. We sometimes used to travel to Corona. That was considered a two-day journey, but Mama always made it take four. It used to drive my father nearly mad."

She looked at him rather strangely. "I would not have thought that you could remember so much from so long ago."

"I remember it very well, although it sometimes seems as if it is somebody else's life I am remembering. I was lonely and afraid when I was first sent to Buda. All I could do was tell myself stories of what it was like before. I did not speak very good Hungarian and the people would not speak to me in my own language. Not even Father Tedesco, and he was very good to me. I remember the woods and the mountains. I long to see the mountains again."

"And so you shall," said Elizabeth. "My castle-one of my residences, the one which we are going to-is set on the edge of the mountains, although I must admit it lacks some of the delights of civilization. I am fond of the liveliness of the capital myself. But there are certain advantages to a residence in a rural fastness. For one, it will be a good place to hide you."

"Do you think that King Emeric will be looking for me?" asked Vlad warily. Emeric had terrified him when he had been a small boy. He had learned to control and hide that fear. But he had seen just what Emeric did to his enemies or to those who dared to disobey him. They died slowly on the pikes set outside the castle.

That was something that Father Tedesco said that Vlad's grandfather, the Dragon, had been infamous for also. Perhaps for that reason, Vlad had found it strangely fascinating. But it was not something that he wished to experience, personally.

"Undoubtedly," said Elizabeth. "Do not worry, Prince Vlad, we will keep you hidden. As long as you stay with me, you will be quite safe."

"Does that mean that I will have to stay hidden indoors? I had hoped to at least be able to go out hunting again."

Elizabeth laughed at him; a musical tinkle of sound. "You poor boy! We will not have to confine you that much. Of course there will be certain magical protections set in place. And anyway there is not much game close to the castle. My late husband hunted to excess, I am afraid. He always claimed that it was to get rid of the wolves, but I suspect that he just liked killing things."

"Oh," said Vlad. "My father liked wolves."

She sniffed. "Nasty creatures. And very hard on the sheep."

Vlad had to admit that was probably true.

The carriage rolled on in relative silence, unless you counted the creaks and rattles as the carriage swayed on its leather springs along the badly surfaced road. The horses were clearly tiring, as they were now moving considerably slower.

Suddenly the coach lurched, and the horses broke into a gallop.

The coach swayed even more wildly and the coachman was plainly fighting for control. Vlad found himself flung about and clung desperately to the leather strap. Elizabeth, however, seemed perfectly in control. She leaned forward and tapped on the small window. Somewhat jerkily, it was opened. "What is happening out there?" she asked sharply.

"Don't know, milady. Horses panicked," said the struggling coachman.

After a while, he managed to bring the lathered horses under control. He opened the little window again. "Sorry, Milady, the offside wheeler is going lame. And all of the horses are tired. We'll need to rest them and see if we can find another team. There is a small inn in the hamlet about a mile ahead. Can I stop there?"

"If you must," said the countess, looking mildly irritated.

"Perhaps we could get something to eat there?" asked Vlad.

"I doubt if they will rise to much above porklot, which will mostly be cabbage. But nonetheless what you say is true. I have been very remiss in looking after you. We shall have to see what this little place offers. But do not expect too much."

Vlad did not know what to expect at all. However, whatever happened, he would be out of the stuffy swaying carriage for a while. Her scent was making him want to sneeze. He also felt as if he hadn't seen a meal for days. He was not too sure just what "porklot" would prove to be, but he would like to try it anyway.

The dwarf, who had also been on the box of the carriage with the driver, clambered down and lowered the stair. He handed the countess down into the crudely cobbled courtyard. She looked around. There was a dung heap. Scrawny chickens ran about. A pig peered at them from one of the empty stables.

"I think that I will get back into the carriage." She said, disdainfully.

Vlad emerged and stood blinking slightly in the bright sunlight. "I need to stretch my legs," he said. It was also fascinating and different.

She nodded. "Ficzko, accompany the prince." She climbed back into the carriage, and lay back on the velvet upholstered seats. She took a pomander from her reticule and sat swinging it under her nose.

The dwarf bowed to Vlad. It was a rather exaggerated bow, that did not go well with his sardonic grin, or his raised eyebrow.

"Come and survey your kingdom, oh great lord," he said. There was a faint mocking tone to his voice. Vlad took a strong dislike to him, although it seemed beneath him to detest a man who barely came up to his elbow. Vlad felt that he should rather be sorry for Ficzko, with his large head and small body. But the dwarf's attitude did not make it easy. Neither did the faint sneer he wore.

Vlad walked out into the village street. One street was all that there really was to the entire village. Still, it was a joy to stretch his legs and walk, knowing that he could walk as far as he wished. The countess's dwarf had to run to keep up with him.

And then he heard it again. A strange, lilting, wild music, played softly. It was coming from a narrow gap, a pathway between two of the roughly thatched village houses. Had this been a city, it might one day have achieved the status of being an alley.

Ficzko darted forward to stop him walking towards it. "Your Highness, you must not go down there! It is those filthy gypsies and their evil music."

Vlad found that he remembered the gypsies from his youth. They had always seemed so colorful. He wondered if these were the same gypsies that the dwarf was referring to. The music was suddenly enormously compelling. He had to go to it!

There was a yell and the thunder of hooves from behind him.

The carriage horses and several others came running past, chased by some enormous doglike creatures, gray and terrible. Vlad turned to see what was happening, not knowing quite what to do. The dwarf turned also, startlement writ on his ugly face. As they did so, a dark-haired man in bright ragged clothes stepped out from around the corner.

He raised a pipe to his lips and began to play.

The dwarf rushed at him with an incoherent cry of rage. The piper merely stuck out a foot, and sidestepped. The dwarf landed headlong in the mud. The piper bowed slightly to Vlad, without stopping his playing. Then he turned and put his boot on the middle of the dwarf's back, pushing him back down into the mud. Face down in the mud the large-headed little man scrabbled for his dagger.

The dwarf succeeded in drawing it, but the piper casually kicked it out of his hand, sending it several feet off into a puddle. Then the piper stopped playing and gestured to Vlad, signaling him to come closer.

Vlad was painfully aware that he did not have as much as a knife, let alone a sword. He stepped forward to help Ficzko. "Let him up."

The piper shook his head. "It is you I have come to help, Drac. This one is an enemy. He would stop us if he could." He spoke, not in Hungarian, but in a language that Vlad knew, but was rusty with disuse. A language that Vlad had not heard spoken in more than ten years.

Vlad stopped, eyes wide. Drac? He remembered the term. Some people had called his father that. The peasants and the tradesmen in the small villages.

"No time to explain now. We need to get away."

"Who are you?" asked Vlad warily. This made no sense. He should run back to the countess now. Yet… the music called to him. Told him he was right to trust this odd man. It felt right, in a way that his flight had not.

"A friend." The piper grinned. "You might say we share some of the same blood." He laughed. It was a strangely infectious laugh. "And now we must flee."

Vlad wavered, torn between the appeal of the man and his native language, and caution. His instincts said to trust the man, in a way they had not with his angelic-looking rescuer, even if logic said otherwise. The piping had unleashed something strange in him. Something deep and powerful.

"Is there danger?" he asked. "And what about the countess? Should we not try and rescue her too?"

For an answer the piper raised the pipe to his lips again and played a brief trill. "It is you they want, Drac. They will chase you. She is safe."

His Vlachs must be more rusty than he had been realized. The man must be referring to the enormous creatures that had driven off the horses.

Well, if he could act as a decoy and draw the pursuit away from his rescuer, that was plainly his duty. It was only the dwarf, and the way that the stranger had treated him, that gave him pause. He still had his boot planted on the dwarf's back, holding him down in the mud.

He stepped uneasily forward. Ficzko kicked out viciously-at Vlad. "I'll kill you!" he yelled, and he was definitely yelling at Vlad rather than at the man who might a gypsy. Vlad was confused. The dwarf must be a traitor!

"Clearly one of your enemies, Drac. We will leave our little foe here," said the stranger, putting the pipe into one of his many pockets. He leaned down, took the dwarf by the scruff of his doublet and deposited him into an empty horse trough. He flung him quite hard. Ficzko lay there and groaned.

The gypsy took Vlad by the elbow, and led him around the corner. Two horses were tethered there.

"You don't think that we should rather go back and rescue the countess?" asked Vlad.

The gypsy shook his head. "Trust me, Drac." He looked very earnest. "I swear by the blood of the old one, if you do not flee with me now, you will be kept a prisoner and die, probably very slowly. And your people need you. Your land needs you. But we must ride now. We will never have this chance again. You will be much more closely guarded, if we fail."

Out of his distant past, Vlad plucked a memory of his mother protesting to his father about the gypsies camping at the foot of the cliff below Poeinari. And his father saying that they might be thieves and rogues but the sons of the Dragon could trust them, even when they could trust no one else.

Vlad mounted. If it was him who was being pursued, then let them follow him. The countess had risked much to free him. Two things were important: that he repay her for that, and that he should stay free.

They rode hard cross-country along a break of trees which screened them from the village. The gypsy rode with casual skill, Vlad with grim determination. As a boy, he had been in the saddle very often. Even if the horses had shrunk he had not forgotten the skills entirely.

Presently, the gypsy slowed his horse to a trot. They came to a small copse left on the age of a field. Two other men in similar bright ragged clothes were waiting, holding two horses that looked rather familiar.

They mounted up. "What took you so long?" asked one, grinning. "We thought the two of you had decided to stop for lunch."

That reminded Vlad of the hunger that he had complained of on stopping at the hamlet. Alas, he had never even tried the "porklot," or anything else.

It appeared that his new escort had no intention of letting him eat, either. They rode on, pushing the horses hard. The route they were following kept along the bottom of a shallow depression and next to a marshy stream. It also kept them away from the skyline. Vlad realized that they must surely be locals to know this area so well. It would be very difficult for anyone to follow them by sight.

But he had little spare concentration for possible pursuit. Lack of practice at riding, and not having eaten since very early that morning were having an effect.

"He's going to tumble out of that saddle soon, Angelo," said one of the other riders.

The dark, gray-eyed gypsy looked at him. "True. We need some shelter, Grigori. Somewhere we cannot be seen too easily."

The man he had referred to as Grigori pointed. "There is a haystack and an old barn just over the lip. Maybe half a mile. Or there was last time I was here."

"And how many seasons ago was that?" asked the third gypsy sardonically.

"About five, I think. But stone barns tend to stay to the same places, although they keep moving the haystacks."

"It's getting across the lip that worries me," said Angelo. "Grigori, let me hold your horse. Go back and see how far back they are."

The lithe, curly-haired gypsy slipped off his horse. The more Vlad had looked at that horse the more he was sure that it was one that had been ridden by one of the outriders. The man loped off with a long-legged easy stride. He looked, to Vlad's blurred vision, almost like some great predatory animal gliding away.

But Angelo did not let the rest of them stop. He pressed on, leaving Grigori to catch up.

Vlad decided, when Grigori caught up with them a few minutes later, that the man must run like the wind. "Can't see them," he panted. "I'd say that they were a good two or three miles back."

He vaulted into the saddle with an ease that Vlad could only envy. "Let's go and find that barn, he said. There was a good place for rabbits close to it."

Somehow, Vlad managed to stay in the saddle until they reached the shabby stone barn. But as they arrived, he felt himself starting to fall.

He could not remember how he came to be lying against the edge of the haystack, with his collar loosened. But there was the delicious smell of cooking meat.

"A stupid idea to light a fire if you ask me," said the gypsy whose name Vlad had not yet discovered. "As well to tell the foe where we are."

"They are not very good at eating raw meat," said Angelo. "And smoke is a clear scent marker to you, Radu, but not to them. Ah. I see the Drac is awake. Do you need your rabbit very well cooked, Lord?"

"I would eat anything right now, cooked in any way, or even not cooked at all." Vlad took the wineskin that Grigori held out to him.

Grigori laughed and punched his companion in the ribs. "We could have given it to him raw, after all. Maybe even with the fur on."

Angelo, in the meantime, was cutting slices off the rabbit which they had been grilling over the open flames of a small camp-fire. He speared them on the end of the knife, and handed it to Vlad. "Eat, Drac," he said encouragingly.

Vlad swallowed some of the wine from the wineskin they held out to him. It was far from the finest vintages. In fact, it was something he would have turned his nose up at a few days ago. Now it tasted powerful and magnificent.

The rabbit flesh was extremely rare, barely more than charred on the outside. Grains of coarse salt clung to it. Vlad did not think he had ever tasted anything finer. He washed it down with some more of the red wine from the wineskin. "My thanks," he said, already feeling better even after the first few morsels.

"Cut him some more," said Grigori. "I have seen a wolf eat slower."

"But not you," said Radu, taking out his knife and cutting some more of the meat to hand to Vlad.

"Eat up and be quick," said Angelo. "We have a way to go before we reach a secure place. Once we are in the mountains we can take things a little slower, but here we are too easy to find. And trust me, Drac, you do not want them to find you."

Very shortly, far too soon and after far too little food, Vlad found himself being thrown up into the saddle again. They had to do that, because he found that his muscles had already begun to stiffen. He still had had no chance to establish just who they were and where they were taking him.

They pressed on, going back down into the shallow valley and riding on into the gathering darkness. The horses were tired now, only able to walk. Vlad was beginning to wonder if they had successfully drawn the pursuit after them and away from Elizabeth. He was beginning to wonder about the nature of the huge creatures he had seen driving off the horses. He was beginning to wonder also about his good-natured gypsy companions, and just where they had suddenly come from and how they had come by the horses.

Most of all, he was wondering just when he would be allowed to get off his horse. By the time they finally stopped, though, he was too exhausted to wonder much at all. All he wanted to do was to rest and to eat. And sleep. Yes, sleep, and he did not care if he had to sleep on the ground-just as long as it was somewhere off a horse.

However, they must have made some allowances for his royal blood. The gypsies found him a haystack to sleep in, which they plainly considered the height of luxury. And that night, do did he.

***

In the pale predawn, the gypsies rousted him out of the haystack, and they set off again. Somewhere they had acquired fresh horses. The saddles were still the same, but the horses were not. The gypsies were skilled in choosing cross-country trails that avoided dwellings. The countryside was changing around them. Ahead were ridges spiked with pine trees.

Vlad could not remember very clearly just what his home had looked like. He hoped that Poienari Castle would loom suddenly from one of these ridges, but they seemed too small to be the mountains that he remembered. Perhaps that was like the way horses had shrunk in the time that he had been locked away. The mountains of his memory had definitely seemed both bigger and bleaker than these. Still, the sight of the ridges lifted his spirits, even though it did nothing at all for his aching thighs and sore posterior.

They rode up into a valley and off towards a scattering of rocks. Hidden among these was a narrow cave entrance. "We should be safe enough up here," said Angelo, reining in. "Radu, you take the horses on and let them go a few miles from here. Most likely they will find their own way home."

Vlad was unsure about what was happening to his life, but apparently he had fallen among horse thieves. He deeply and intrinsically disapproved of dishonesty. After he had begun to speak, it occurred to him that this was perhaps not the wisest time to berate the gypsies, but he did not think first.

"Did you steal those horses?" he demanded.

The gypsies looked at him and then began to laugh. "He is the Drac, all over again!" said Angelo.

"Answer my question," he said sternly, feeling faintly foolish, but still determined.

"Well, Drac, it's more like this," said Angelo. "If you needed a horse from one of your tenants, you would use it. By our way of thinking, all of this was our range, and we're entitled to some of the produce, let alone to borrow a horse or two. We had a hard time explaining this to your grandfather, or so the stories say. He made a few grim examples of some of the boyars and German merchants. That made him very popular."

"Made him popular?" Were they being sarcastic? he wondered.

"Yes, with the peasants," grinned Grigori. "And after one or two really good examples, the level of honesty in Valahia improved dramatically. He is a hero still today among them."

That was a very different story from the ones that he had heard from his Hungarian captors. "I thought he was hated and feared."

"By some people, yes," said Angelo. "He was a little mad."

The gypsy made it sound as if that was a positive attribute. Perhaps it was, for ruling a small mountain kingdom. "See those horses get back to their owners," Vlad said sternly. Then it would not really be theft. More of a loan.

They grinned. "They have some extra horses now anyway, better quality than this crow-bait."

Vlad wondered where those horses had come from but decided that he would let it be. "What do we do now?" he asked.

"Rest, eat, and stay away from those who will be hunting for us. Work our way along the mountains until we can get back to the heartland, to the real mountains. To your homeland, Drac."

Chapter 12

In terms of raw power, both of intellect and in the actual ability to affect events, it would be hard to have eclipsed the people gathered in a quiet and rather nondescript salon in the Doge's Palace in Venice. Both the doge, Petro Dorma, and Count Enrico Dell'este were more than capable of a display of pomp and finery, if they thought it would serve their purposes. But unlike many rulers, they understood that these were just tools, not ends in themselves.

Besides, they had no need to try and impress the other people present. The Venetian Council of Ten knew them all far too well. Marco Valdosta, and that which walked with him in spirit, were unlikely to even notice finery and rich throne rooms. They both saw far deeper than that. Count Von Stemitz had seen more Gothic splendor in Mainz. And Patriarch Michael, speaking for the church in Rome, had his eyes set on far more spiritual glory. Only Admiral Doria, the duke of Genoa, unfamiliar with the group, was in the least surprised by the lack of ostentation in the quiet private salon.

"Eneko Lopez is not a man to send such news without being very certain of it," said Patriarch Michael, in reply to the admiral's question.

"I have heard of him," admitted the admiral. "He has a reputation for being a somewhat inflexible man. You will pardon my saying so, but the church has for so many years refused to send such communications. Why should it be different now? How can you be sure that this message is a real one? We have always enjoyed much better relations with the Byzantine Empire than Venice has. Our trade with the Black Sea is more extensive than Venice's. We would surely have been aware of any such fleet."

The patriarch nodded. "It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to be absolutely certain that no form of magical interference has taken place. Nonetheless, the clerics in Rome are very skilled, and have the greatest ecclesiastical protections that we have been able to devise, Admiral. They are as sure as they possibly can be that the communication came from Eneko Lopez in Jerusalem. He sent word of a threat to many nations and to the Church itself. That would be why he has decided to do this."

"It is just that… Yes, our ships are restricted in their access to certain ports. But we would surely have known from our agents if something of this size was happening. We trade with the Golden Horde too. The Black Sea is something we know well."

As Petra Dorma was all too well aware, the Black Sea was the region in which Genoa had most of its influence, other than the trade in their local Ligurian region and their colonies on Corsica. The admiral was unlikely to forget that Venice was its largest commercial rival in the Mediterranean. Both sides had used war and a plethora of dirty tricks to try and gain the upper hand.

However, the new duke had gained his place after the old duke had supported (largely tacitly, it was true) the blockading of the Venetian fleets. That had seriously angered the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles Fredrik had not yet taken substantial steps against Aragon and the Aquitaine. But when he had had an opportunity to intervene in the election of a new duke in Genoa, he had let it be known that he favored the captain-general of the fleet-and besides having the military might of the Holy Roman Empire to use as influence, much of the trade to and from the north flowed through the port.

Venice was the predominant power in the Mediterranean, but the Genovese would dearly like to change that situation. Petro could only hope that the admiral saw a greater advantage in cooperation rather than playing a spoiler's role, which the Aquitaine was particularly infamous for. That was why they had not been asked to send a representative to this meeting. For the Aquitaine, their own immediate interests always came first. Of course, the Aquitaine would couch it in seductive terms; that, and the seduction itself were what they were best known for.

"We would be prepared," said Petro, "to conclude certain treaty arrangements concerning the use of the Golden Horn, and also access to ports on the Black Sea. We would not be offering such concessions lightly, Your Grace."

The Genovese duke looked somewhat taken aback. Such directness was unusual among Italian principalities. But he was an admiral first and a duke second, and plain speaking had value to a seaman. "It could certainly seem that you are in earnest," he said. "Look, it is not that I doubt your sincerity, Doge. Or the fact that I doubt a message could have been sent from Jerusalem. But much of our trade depends on cordial relations with the Byzantine emperor. We have a somewhat different strategy to that of Venice. We have never occupied any of his territory. Should we now descend on Constantinople, as part of an attacking fleet, that relationship could not be reestablished."

Personally, Petro Dorma doubted that Emperor Alexis was going to manage to keep the throne under his incompetent backside for too much longer, even if Venice and her allies left him alone. Whoever took over might not remember those who had supported Alexis with any fondness. But before he could think of a tactful way of pointing this out, the Old Fox came to his rescue.

"There is no need for an attack on Constantinople," said Enrico Dell'este pacifically. "All we need is safe passage for the fleet. Should your friend the emperor grant us that small boon there will be no form of conflict. The fleet could even sail under your flag at that point."

To put it mildly, that was a very flattering offer, and not one that Admiral Douro of the Venetian fleet was going to take kindly to. Admiral Doria-now the duke of Genoa-was plainly quite taken with the idea. It would elevate his status a great deal.

"But what possible reason could we had to do such a thing?" he asked, thoughtfully.

"Piracy!" said Duke Enrico. " It's always a problem, is it not?"

Patriarch Michael raised his eyes to heaven. "Deceit serves no one, my son."

"There cannot be five years between us, father," said the duke with a smile. "And if it proves false, both Venice and I will be punished."

" And if there is no fleet in Dniepr bay? What becomes of our bargain then?" asked Admiral Doria.

"We will honor them," said Petro. He knew that Venice was unlikely to prove forgiving if this was indeed a false alarm. Doges had been unseated before, especially as a result of costly and unsuccessful military adventures. But he would honor his bargains. He could only hope that whoever came after him had the common sense to abide by it also.

He had great faith in Eneko Lopez, however, and did not think that this would turn into a false alarm. Besides, there were several other reports from Venice's agents, both in the Black Sea, and more particularly in Constantinople. This just added a final bit of weight to those reports.

Suddenly Admiral Doria began to chuckle. "I foresee that you will have great problems with my old enemy, Admiral Douro."

Petro coughed. "We have taken some small steps in that direction. A fast galleass has been dispatched. I have recalled a young and very able commander from Corfu."

Enrico Dell'este turned to him sharply. "Benito! What do you wish to do, Petro? Put hot coals down Admiral Douro's breeches? Benito nearly drove him mad in the Arsenal."

"Well, yes, but he has habit of getting his own way," said Petro Dorma. "Benito fights to win. He will not let things like petty rivalries stand in his way. And the sailors who sailed with him before, will, it appears, follow him to hell and back. If he says that the fleet will sail under the Genoese flag, then not many men will disagree."

Admiral Doria raised his eyebrows. "This is young Benito Valdosta?"

Duke Enrico nodded. "My grandson." There was more than a trace of pride in his voice. "He is something of a hooligan. But a good leader of men."

"And my brother," added Marco, a little defensively.

"I have heard of his… ah, adventures." Admiral Doria sounded a bit dubious.

"He is a great deal more respectable these days," said Petro Dorma, smiling. "Although not everyone believes that. It's quite a reputation to try to live up to. So we like to keep him out of the way on a nice quiet island until we need him."

Chapter 13

Elizabeth Bartholdy was in a towering rage. Whip in hand she stood astride the dwarf's recumbent body. "You fool! How could you let him escape?"

Ficzko whimpered.

"Answer me!" she shrieked. But he was beyond answering anyone. The only footman that remained cowered back against the wall. The others had all set off on foot after the horses. The remaining footman looked as if he would very much like to join them.

As abruptly as Elizabeth had lost her temper, she recovered it. She turned to the footman. "Put him in the carriage."

Gingerly he picked the small man up.

"On the floor, not on the seat," she said. "Then go and procure me a private chamber in that inn. I will need nine candles." She did not explain what she would need the candles for. But then, as he had been in her service for some years, he could probably guess.

In truth, she was more furious with herself than she was with her little henchman. She had heard them playing their vile music in Buda. They masked themselves well by pretending to be gypsies, but she knew them for what they were. She should have realized that it was some kind of spell. A summoning of some sort.

Why had he been so proof against her magics? He had seemed the simplest of men, yet somehow he had resisted her. That was extremely unusual. She had not wished to use the full force of her powers on him. But next time… Next time, she would bind him. Both with physical chains and with the spells of binding, of lust, and of her other strengths, pain and blood. Now she must perform workings in order to track him.

The footman returned. "The chamber has been prepared for you, My Lady. I could only get you tallow dips. This is a poor place. It is all they had."

She tossed the whip back inside the carriage. She was aware of watching eyes peeping around the coarse drapes. They would have watched her beat the dwarf. They would suspect what she was going to do in that chamber, and they would perhaps balk at her demand for a suitable sacrifice. She cared little for their knowledge of her activities. Such small and poor folk could do nothing to her. Yes, her activities here would feed rumor, but that already existed. She had the power and the influence to override any consequences it might cause-and the rumors also sent her recruits.

She reached into the carriage. A little blood would do for a minor working. She would just have to summon a suitable sacrifice. She drew her hand across Ficzko's back, which came back sufficiently red. She muttered a minor cantrip. That would keep him loyal, despite the beating. The dwarf was useful to her. He was one of her oldest cohorts, entrapped by desperate feelings of inadequacy both about his size and his sexual prowess. He had been a willing and, indeed, an eager participant in her activities. He enjoyed the power. Perhaps that came from being so small.

In her other hand, she took the cushion that Vlad had been leaning on. An item of clothing would have been better, but she had to make do with what was available. Then she went inside to the low-beamed room and drew the drapes. She had no need of light to set up the circle of tallow dips, and to prepare to call the inn's cat. She stationed the footman at the door. She could open a window for the victim.

Later, while she washed her hands in the basin she had had the footmen fetch-the little brute had scratched her-she pondered the information that she had gathered. The direction scarcely surprised her. The distance did. And so did the fleeting image of a vast gray wolf. It occurred to her then, that they too had betrayed themselves. She had hoped-indeed all of Count Mindaug's researches had led her to believe-that Vlad would be the perfect bait for the ancient creature that she wished to entrap. If anything, the changers had proved that. Now all she had to do was to catch him and hold him. It was a game of cat-she looked at the body of the sacrificial animal-and mouse. She would enjoy that. And she might even enjoy playing with the little mouse for a while.

They were games that she had had more practice at than anyone else. She had had more time to perfect them. Her hands crooked briefly into claws. Yes, she would enjoy playing with them and she would make the game last; tease them with pain and with hope, even though they had no chance of escape. As for the lupines and their powers, she must get Count Mindaug to research the problem. He had managed to bring the greater part of his extensive library with him. Elizabeth had always disliked books, preferring to follow her researches with assistance from the bargain that she had made, but she would acknowledge that there was value hidden in those dusty tomes. She just preferred someone else to extract it.

Unlike Count Mindaug, she could think of nothing more dull than that vast repository in Alexandria although it did sound as if she would enjoy the rest of that city. One day she might even go and visit the fabled jewel of the Nile delta. Later, when she had finished this current business.

Chapter 14

Maria was standing outside on the battlements of the Castel a Terra-it was one of little Alessia's favorite walks-when she saw Manfred and Erik come up the hill from the newly anchored galleys. They were not hard to recognize. White blonde heads such as Erik's were rare, and so were people of Manfred's bulk. She smiled and took the now sleepy child back to their apartments in the vast castle complex.

She had been very sad to leave the house that she had shared with Umberto. But practicalities had dictated. The house was part of the living given to whoever was in charge of the little Arsenal. Spare houses were few in the citadel. It would have been unfair to deprive the new master sent out by Venice. Yet there were ample accommodations in both the Castel a Terra and the Castel a Mar. The governor traditionally lived in the Castel a Mar, but that had a tunnel that led into the caves in which the island's age-old Goddess temple was hidden. Benito, she was sure, had engineered matters so that all the possible apartments in the Castel a Mar were either more inconvenient for his work and ill-suited to Alessia's comfort, or were occupied by people whom she would have felt guilty to have him evict.

There were some rooms available, it was true. Rooms that were on the small side, and up several flights of stairs. These rooms in the Castel a Terra, on the other hand, were so much more comfortable and had a fine view and a pleasant breeze. Benito could be very subtle when he chose. Of course, it would need a little more than mere inconvenience to take her away from the Goddess. But the living arrangements did stop her from spending quite as much time with Renate Belmondo as she would have otherwise.

Not that the priestess was not available to her, or that she could not visit her. But it was a little more difficult, and there was always a wary look in Renate's eyes when they met. Renate had been accustomed to huge power. It had been kindly and gently wielded, but the priestess had been accustomed to having the final word, and being deeply respected for this. Maria had to smile. Benito was not too good at respect for anyone.

Maria could accept that Renate Belmondo had made innocent misjudgments. But, older and wiser now, she could also see that Lady Belmondo had been grooming Maria for the role that she now found herself in. Something that Benito said rang very true: Aidoneus should choose his own brides, and court them just as other men did. Too often, intrinsically unwilling brides-girls schooled into complaisance, or desperate and miserable-had taken up the half almond. That had not been good for Corfu, and it had not been good for the Goddess or her priestesses either.

Of course, Maria thought wryly, it hadn't been for the benefit of those ill-suited brides that Benito had wanted Aidoneus to go and choose his own girls to woo. Still, the situation had had a curious side effect: the priestess had let it be known that Maria was her chosen successor, as well as the living bride. Women came to talk to Maria now. In many cases she simply sent them on, but there were some things that she felt better qualified to help and arbitrate with. Renate Belmondo was Casa Vecchi Longi. As well-meaning as she might be, she had never known poverty or want. Most of the goddess's worshipers on the island were peasant women. They had never known anything but poverty. Maria understood the choices they had to make better than Lady Belmondo. She'd had to make them herself, as often as not.

As time passed, she found that word had plainly got around: more women came to consult her. And it became more and more difficult to actually manage to do her own housework. Someone would just do it for her. That was not something that she'd ever thought she'd miss. On the plus side it did mean that entertaining became very easy. She'd felt guilty about it, and the small gifts too. But she understood all too well that to refuse would hurt their pride. And when pride is almost all you have, it is very precious.

She was very sure that Benito would bring Prince Manfred and Eric Hakkonsen to visit their apartment. Once it would have terrified her to have such elevated people in her home. Now, she looked forward to it, with some pleasure. Besides, when you came down to it, they were remarkably human. Perhaps not ordinary-well, definitely not ordinary-but still people, despite their rank.

***

Benito was trying to deal with the mountain of things that had to be sorted out before he left, when someone knocked tentatively on the door to his office. Benito ground his teeth in fury. He had given very strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed. He refused to even look up from his desk.

"Who the hell is it this time? Tell them to go away, Spiro!" he shouted to his secretary. He recognized that timid knock.

Instead, somebody opened his door. "And there I thought you would be pleased to see us again," said Erik.

The carefully sorted papers and documents went flying. Benito nearly knocked his desk over and landed on his face in the process of vaulting it. Erik grinned from the bear-hug, "You're really not suited to desk work, Benito. You nearly broke your neck there. A fine way to treat it after all the care we took looking after you during the siege."

Benito attempted-and failed-to throw Erik over his hip, grinning so widely that his ears were in danger.

"You've gotten fat and sloppy since I've been away," said Erik, also beaming. "We need to practice again."

"Excellent," said Manfred from where he was blocking the doorway to Benito's secretary's office. "Then he can beat you up for a while. I need a break."

"What would you prefer?" asked Erik, cracking his knuckles. "Fingers? An arm?"

Benito had stepped back and stood looking at the Icelander, while still holding on to his upper arms. There were lines on that handsome clean-cut face that had not been there before. But at least Erik was able to smile again, even if there was a sadness in his eyes that Benito suspected would never quite go away. Erik was back his to dry jesting, too.

He also plainly understood the way that Benito was looking at him. "I won't say that time heals Benito. But you get used to it."

Not knowing quite what to say, Benito just nodded. There was some things that went beyond saying anyway. Suddenly, only having to part from Maria for four months of each year seemed a very small price to pay for getting her back. He knew that Erik would have settled for that, or made any other bargain, to see his Svanhild again.

"Let's go and get ourselves a drink," said Manfred gruffly. "Even some of that vile kakotrigi."

Benito laughed. "It's not that bad. Actually, I am getting to like it."

Manfred looked into the office. "Want some help getting this lot into the fire? Best thing you can do with papers, honestly."

Behind Manfred, Benito's secretary flapped his hands as if he were a large panicking goose, trying to take off. Erik beckoned to the man. "Pick this lot up. Sort it out. Make sure that he has any relevant bits that he has to actually read clearly marked. And if you get any wrong you can explain to me just why your life is of any further value."

Manfred chuckled. "When you finished sorting them out I think my uncle could use your help in Mainz. No wonder Icelanders are known to be such prudent traders. It's the way they keep records. Now let us go and find some wine. We' ve got quite a lot to tell you. And you might as well enjoy your kakotrigi now because I have a feeling that you are going to be joining the Venetian fleet shortly."

Benito gaped at him. "How in heaven' s name did you know that?"

Manfred nodded to Erik. "See? It seems that Eneko Lopez got a message through after all."

Erik scowled at Benito. "You had to say that, didn't you? Now he'll think he's an expert at manipulating the likes of Eneko Lopez."

Benito snorted with laughter. "There are some people that it just doesn't pay to try and fool. And he is one of them."

"Now you're making his head even bigger. Let us go and find this wine. I dare say you have some in your quarters. It's more likely to be private than a dockside tavern."

"Besides, I'll get to make eyes at that pretty wife of his," said Manfred with a grin. "I like to live dangerously."

"And she is the dangerous one," said Erik.

"I knew that," said Manfred. He punched Benito on the shoulder, in what he probably thought was a gentle manner. "You didn't think I was afraid of the hero of Corfu?"

"It's my wine, and my wife," said Benito, rubbing his shoulder, and leading them off. Privately, he found it heartwarming that they thought of Maria as his wife. That was more than the church was prepared to do.

Chapter 15

"How did you know that they were coming?" asked Benito, looking at the wine goblets and the platter of pickled squid, olives and wedges of frittata.

"Who cares?" Manfred cheerfully ambled forward and bowed to his hostess, gesturing at the food and bottles. "You should be grateful, you dog. It matters not if she consulted the entrails of a seagull, or received a divine visitation. She has provided wine and food. And, as usual, I'm starving."

Erik came forward also and bowed and kissed her hand. Maria blushed slightly. In the canals, a friend would have given her a hug and kissed her on both cheeks. She decided that it was time he learned some canal manners. She stepped forward and hugged him. He hesitated a moment and then hugged her back. "Gently," she gasped. "I'm not a bear that you have to squeeze to death."

It was his turn to blush. Manfred pushed him aside. "I should have gotten Francesca to give you lessons. This is how you do it." He enclosed Maria in an embrace only fractionally less bear-like, but also with a kiss on each cheek. "Better?" he said cheerfully. "Mind you, he's a braver man than I am, is Erik. I was more wary about hugging young Benito's wife. At his age men are very possessive."

"Well," said Benito, "I would be jealous except that Erik told me that you were starting to become senile and not really responsible for your actions anymore."

Maria laughed. "Don't worry, Benito. If they become too familiar, I will make them hold Alessia. I have found that she controls most men better than I ever will."

"And how is the young charmer?" asked Manfred, looking at the rocking crib.

"She likes to be moving when she goes to sleep," explained Benito.

"Like her father, she has restless bones," said Maria. "She sleeps best if she is very tired and we are traveling."

"Of course it could just be that she likes the rocking motion," said Benito, "but that does not allow it to be all my fault." He grinned and assumed a posture of deep dignity. "We fathers have our responsibilities."

"We have a few of those too," said Manfred. "Currently, in the shape of a group of Mongols from the Ilkhan that we are supposed to do something useful with. We're hoping to put them on a ship heading for the Black Sea. We thought you'd be the best person to deliver them."

Benito blinked. "What?"

They explained.

"So," said Manfred, "we are relying on you to get these Mongols to the lands of the Golden Horde. Hopefully, that will stop Erik muttering incomprehensibilities at our rather useless horseboy."

"What?" said Benito again.

"I was trying to learn some of the Mongol tongue," explained Erik. "The horseboy is supposed to be teaching me. In exchange, he avoids doing any work. He's better at that than at teaching, I'm afraid."

Benito rubbed his forehead thoughtfully. "I think I may be able to deliver your Mongol emissary, and possibly without mobilizing a fleet and subduing Constantinople."

"Don't tell me," said Manfred, grinning. "You have a new plan which avoids ships entirely. You're going to disguise us as Magyars and persuade Emeric of Hungary to send us there with a personal escort."

"That's not a bad idea," said Benito, "but not quite the one I had in mind."

"No doubt something worse. Why do we always fall in with these lunatics, Erik?" Manfred helped himself to more wine. "I mean, he's better than that mad bastard up in Telemark. The Turk would have attached all of us by leashes to the feet of well-trained eagles and flown us across. Screaming, because that's what we did mostly when involved with his clever 'solutions'. I suppose we should be grateful. With Benito, at least we just end up as nervous wrecks, shaking a lot."

Benito had heard about their misadventures with a certain Jarl Cair in Telemark. They sounded a little too magical to him, and far too involved in matters he understood less well than warfare or thievery. Cair was a problem he'd rather not face, by the bits that Erik had left unsaid. Fortunately, he wasn't likely to be his problem. Telemark was a long way from Corfu or Venice. "While it does involve crossing the land of the white eagles, I hadn't yet decided to attach you to any of them. I cannot say that it isn't tempting though, as an idea."

"And where are you going to find enough eagles to carry something that size, especially in armor?" asked Erik, jabbing a thumb at Manfred.

"He means Illyria," said Maria. "The land of the white eagles."

"I see he hasn't gotten any less crazy since we met him," said Erik. "It would probably be easier to disguise us as Magyar. From what I've heard, it would take a fairly large land army to fight its way across the Balkans. And the terrain is hell. Straight up-and-down, apparently. Rough on anything except the locals. Bad for a big slow-moving field army."

Benito smiled. "There used to be a road, a Roman road across. As it happens I have been in… ah, negotiations with Iskander Beg. The Lord of the Mountains, as they call him."

"What he means is that he went and did more crazy things, and got himself accepted into one of their tribes," said Maria tartly. "I was very angry with him, and he's been trying to persuade me ever since that there are great advantages to us being close friends with our ancient enemy."

"Well, there are some advantages, if they have stopped trying to kill you," said Erik.

Benito laughed. "I wouldn't go that far. Illyrian ideas of hospitality are enough to kill most people. But I do think it would be possible to have them take your party of Mongols off your hands and escort them across the mountains. That would solve one of the tactical issues that's really been bothering me. Forcing our way through the Bosphorus is going to be tricky enough. If we find that the Byzantines have been reinforced while we're in the Black Sea, things could become very awkward indeed-especially if we've suffered losses."

"Planning your campaign already?" asked Erik.

"He's collecting maps," said Maria. "Some of them smell."

"And none of them are too accurate," said Benito grumpily. "Or at least no two of them seem to agree with each other exactly. I'm hoping that they'll have better quality maps and more information in Venice. There has to have been more to this than one message from the Ilkhan."

Manfred nodded. "I think you'll find that is true. Petro Dorma and the Council of Ten maintain a pretty effective and widespread network of spies and assassins. So does the Holy Roman Empire. You know it often only takes one keystone piece of information to make it all fit together. From what you say, they've been conferring. It may even be that this confirms information that hasn't come back. Jagiellon uses some means which are denied to the rest of us to maintaining his security. And working in his territories is a high-risk profession."

"Petro is not exactly a rash individual," said Erik. "I think you can guarantee that he knows more than just the information we sent from the Ilkhan."

"I hope so," said Benito. "What we have now is not much to plan a campaign upon."

"Why don't you come down and discuss them with Falkenberg and Von Gherens? You wouldn't find much better advice," said Manfred. "Just so long as you bring the wine with you. They're too expensive for me to provide for at the dockside tavern. For men of God, the knights drink far too much."

"I've noticed that you only complain now that you're paying," said Erik. "And they drink far less than you do. We also need to discuss the possibility of sending Mongols across the Balkan mountains with the tarkhan himself. He's not the easiest of men to read or get along with."

Manfred grunted an agreement. "The Mongols keep to themselves. A couple of the warriors speak a little Frankish. So does the tarkhan. But he doesn't talk to anyone."

"I suppose keeping to himself is part of what an envoy has to do," said Erik.

"Huh," said Manfred. "Old Eberhart can and will talk to anyone, usually at such length that they will pay him to go away. And my uncle says that he is one of the most effective diplomatic envoys in the Empire."

"Still, talkative or not, we could use the Mongols not coming south." Benito paused. "Actually, what we really want is information from the Black Sea. Or better still… An alliance with the Golden Horde and we would have successfully isolated Alexis and flanked Emeric, and threatened Jagiellon. By a stroke of diplomacy we would have won more than the Knights of the Holy Trinity have in the last fifty years."

"Remind me not to get you to explain that to Falkenberg!" said Manfred, laughing. "Still, the idea is not without some temptation. I wonder if we can send old Eberhart with the Ilkhan's Mongols to the Golden Horde?"

"He is not that bad," said Erik. "A bit prosy, that's all. But he has served you very well on occasions. Bought us a lot of time."

"He's good at that," granted Manfred. "I'm still in favor of sending him to treat with the Golden Horde, though. It's as good an opportunity as the Empire has had to make contact with them. As usual, Benito makes a good point."

"It wouldn't work," said Erik. "They are very hierarchy conscious. Well, in a way. They believe any Mongol is the social equivalent of a noble among other people. They would only treat prince to prince. That's always made finding ambassadors very hard. Eberhart was telling me about it. Actually, he was telling both of us about it, but you were asleep."

"The Empire has at least half a dozen impoverished principalities in it," said Manfred. "A fair number of princes should be willing to take on lucrative and non-energetic employment."

"Eberhart commented on that also," said Erik dryly. "It's true enough that there is no shortage of princes. However, can you think of any one of them that you would trust to buy a horse for you without them coming home with a three-legged donkey? That is, assuming that they didn't drink away the money before they even got to the horse fair. Most of them are not impoverished for no reason."

Manfred grinned. "Prince Heinrich of Swabia. The perfect choice. He could be guaranteed to come home from the horse fair with a fine pair of dead ducks and a price on his head. As a diplomatic envoy, he would make a very fine hat stand."

"Curiously, the very example that Eberhart mentioned," said Erik.

"I do see the point," admitted Manfred. "Still, in terms of value to the Empire, and the fact that the Mongols have a very strict code of honor about the treatment of diplomats, you'd think my uncle could have found someone."

Erik shrugged. "The problem is also one of finding the right opportunity to talk actual business. According to Eberhart, they're experts at talking for a very long time and not saying anything."

"If he thinks that they're good at that, then heaven help any ordinary prince," said Manfred. "So will you see what you can do about our Mongols for us?"

Benito nodded. "It might be best if I went in person," he said nonchalantly.

"Not all the way to the Black Sea!" Maria said sternly. "Petro Dorma himself has sent orders for you to go to Venice."

Benito pulled a wry face. "True enough. On the other hand, we could get such a lot out of somebody from our side going along to have a good look. It's mostly going to be sea battles, this campaign. Except of course for Constantinople. I've a mind to use stealth there, if at all possible."

"It shouldn't be," said Erik.

Manfred took a deep pull at his wine glass. "We're talking about Emperor Alexis here," he said. "Anybody else would take preemptive measures. Among other things, Alexis believes that he's a military genius. He's also still deeply in debt, and likely to stay there. It might be easier just to buy our passage to and fro."

Benito shook his head. "Not if we are in a bidding war with Jagiellon. Then Alexis could afford to trade the two of us off against each other. By reputation, Alexis does not stay bought."

"So Eberhart said," said Erik. "You really have to give up sleeping when he talks, Manfred."

"I think I was half awake for that part," said Manfred. "So tell me, Benito, are there any delightful young ladies with acrobatic skills you'd like to introduce me to here?"

"There had better not be," said Maria.

Benito laughed. "I've gotten respectable these days." He paused briefly. "From this I gather that Francesca went through with her plans to go to Alexandria?"

"Unfortunately," said Erik. "I thought that I had persuaded him out of that sort of behavior. It appears that I hadn't, and that it was just Francesca's influence."

"I wouldn't have called it influence, myself," Manfred said. "More like affluence."

Everyone laughed, Erik while blushing. Benito found that quite funny. After all, Svanhild had been even more "affluent" than Francesca. "I am sure," he said, "that all the ladies of our beautiful isle, some of whom may easily be both acrobatic and even possibly well endowed, will be delighted to make your acquaintance, now that Francesca's gone."

"Quite a few of them were interested even when she was around," said Maria, with a secretive little smile. "They are going to be a bit more aggressive about it this time, I think."

Erik groaned. "I hope we can get these Mongols heading off across Illyria as soon as possible. Then I can get him back on the ship and out to sea where the worst I have to worry about is predatory mermaids."

Benito drained his glass and stood up. "Drink up," he said. "Let's go down to the ship and meet your Mongol envoy. As acting governor, it falls within the realms of my duty to offer him and the knights of the Holy Trinity the hospitality of the citadel."

"Excellent." Manfred rubbed his hands. "That means they'll be accommodated and drinking at your expense."

Erik laughed. "You know, I don't think the Godar Hohenstauffen realized just what a great thing he was doing for Manfred's education when he insisted to the abbot of the order that Manfred should be suitably accompanied-and then gave Manfred a fixed budget."

"And gave me a minder," said Manfred sourly, "to make sure that I didn't settle accounts in the traditional knightly fashion."

They went down to where the knights were disembarking their mounts off the vessels, and giving the animals some much-needed exercise. Benito was cheered by the enthusiastic greeting he got from the knights. He was also soon being overwhelmed with advice on how to capture a vast wealthy city.

"The biggest weakness of the Byzantine Empire is that it is heavily dependent on mercenaries. Buying the emperor Alexis is an expensive waste of time," said Von Gherens. "Buy his army out from under him."

That was an idea that had not even occurred to Benito. Of course, some of the emperor's troops would be torn from levies from within the eastern Roman empire. Very possibly, he would have a mercenary but intensely loyal personal guard. Petro would know all of these details, but it was an avenue that was still worth following up.

The discussion centered on the weaknesses and strengths of Constantinople and the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Siegecraft was something the knights were expert in, and, as they had taken to Benito during the siege of Corfu, they were all to willing to teach him as much about it as they could. A number of them had been to Constantinople and had looked on it with very professional eyes.

Eventually, Benito was able to make his escape and be introduced to the tarkhan Borshar. The man was reclining on some satin cushions under a makeshift awning on the deck, while one of his servitors fanned him. Several of the Mongols lounged about. The air was full of the scent of some form of burning herbage. Perhaps the tarkhan found the odor pleasant. To Benito, it smelled like a weedy field being burnt off.

Borshar rose slowly to his feet, when one of his honor guard announced their presence. He wore his hair in the Mongol fashion, shaved except for long forelock, but that was where the similarity with the Mongol guard ended. Borshar had a bony and slightly hooked nose, a long face, and heavy eyebrows like two straight bars that sloped slightly downward towards his large ears. His eyes were deep set, brown, and, it appeared to Benito, a little out of focus.

The tarkhan bowed, a mere inclination of the head. "Prince Manfred, how can I assist you?"

"The boot hopefully is on the other foot, Tarkhan," said Manfred. "Let me introduce you to his Excellency, Milor' Benito Valdosta. He is the acting governor and military commander of this charming island. He has, we hope, a way in which you may fulfill your mission."

Benito bowed politely. He could see how the man had gotten under Manfred's skin. Still, perhaps it was just a foreign culture. The way things were done among the Mongol. "I am honored to meet you," he said, in his best attempt at the tongue-mangle that Erik had taught him on their way down to the ship.

This did get a reaction. It drew an incredulous smile from the Mongol warrior who had announced them, and it made the envoy's mouth drop open for an instant. He closed it, but looked considerably more alert now. "I am afraid," said Benito, holding up a hand to stem a flood of incomprehensibilities, "that is all of your language that I speak."

"Your greeting," said the tarkhan, "is surprising. So… Why did you tell me that my mother was a tortoise?" His eyes narrowed.

The Mongol guard seemed to find the situation utterly hilarious. He had dropped his spear and was clutching his knees, doubled up with laughter. It did not seem that the tarkhan found it quite as funny. On the other hand, neither did Erik or, right then, Benito. Several of the other Mongols had stood up, and the joke was repeated when the Mongol guard had enough spare breath. It was apparent by the reaction of the others, that however affronted the envoy himself might be, his entourage thought it a capital joke.

"I do apologize," said Benito. "I was told that it meant that I was honored to meet you." Inwardly he wondered furiously how the hell he could get out of this situation. Had he started a major diplomatic incident? Was the man going to try and kill him? Manfred was laughing as hard as the Mongols by now, and would be scant use in any defense. Erik looked ready to kill someone-which also was not what they needed right now. "It would seem that I was gravely misinformed."

"And your informant is going to wish that he was never born," grated Erik.

The tarkhan tugged his moustache. It was short, black and bristly, unlike his companions' luxuriant affairs. Then he smiled. It did not extend to his eyes, but at least he smiled. "Perhaps we should confine ourselves to speaking in Frankish."

"I think so," said Benito with relief. "Anyway, other than that… um… useful phrase, I don't know any Mongol. It's not a phrase that I think I will have the opportunity to use again. What I had come to say is that we have concluded an agreement with our neighbors across on the mainland. I believe we can arrange for you to travel across Illyria, to the lands of the Golden Horde. Would that be an acceptable solution for you? You could arrive within weeks. If you wait for a sea passage, it could be many months."

The envoy stood impassively, not even blinking, for a few long moments. Benito decided that it would be very dangerous to gamble with this man. It was almost impossible to tell what he was thinking. Then the tarkhan said, "I will have to consider this. You will allow me time to think. You are proposing a somewhat different route and method than the one which I was instructed to follow."

"Certainly," said Benito. "I will need to establish that you can be granted safe passage. That will take me a few days. We will meet again formally and officially soon, hopefully without any more such interesting incidents. In the meanwhile, can we possibly sit and have a glass of wine together? I'm sure that we have much to discuss of mutual interest to the Ilkhan Mongol and the people of Venice." Benito gave the tarkhan the benefit of his most winning smile. "It is sometimes easier to discuss these things informally over a few glasses than to deal with them in the full light of protocol."

"I have not been given the authority to reach agreements with the Republic of Venice," said the tarkhan disinterestedly. "And I do not drink alcohol. I will let you know what decision I reach as to the possibilities of traveling across land to the Khanate of the Golden Horde." He waved as dismissively as any emperor, and they were left with little choice but to bow and leave.

Chapter 16

"In the 58th year since the Khagan Temujin, the Princess Khutulun wrestled with Khan Ulaghchi. As was the custom, one hundred horses were bet upon the outcome," sang Bortai, softly, as she gathered berries. "But the great khan bet a thousand horses."

She faltered briefly. A thousand horses! She traced her lineage directly to Khan Ulaghchi, the greatest and most powerful of the khans of the Golden Horde, whose dominion had extended across all the Cuman Khanates, the Volga Bulgars, the Bashkir lands-from the Carpathians in the west to the Alatau Mountains in the east, and across the limitless steppe between. He had drawn tribute from the Kievan Rus princes and been visited by delegations from across the world. He had had a thousand horses to gamble. But he too had barely survived fleeing his uncle Berke, with no one but his warrior bride beside him.

Ulaghchi had survived. Had then conquered. But had he ever had only one horse? There was no doubt that that period of hardship had shaped Ulaghchi and his loyal Khutulun. That was what had made him determined to keep the Mongol people true to their traditions, no matter what other tribes they assimilated. Ulaghchi's rule had lasted for over half a century, and his influence was still felt now, hundreds of years later. He had set out the rules of conduct that still governed the noble houses, enforcing Chinggis's rules on drunkenness, drawing back to the shamanistic roots of their faith. Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were tolerated, but they were for non-Mongols. The Mongols were above these things, true only to the everlasting blue sky, guided by the spirits.

Ulaghchi's was a great dream to follow. But with only one horse, and an unconscious brother, the clan scattered and possibly destroyed, it also seemed a very far-off dream. As much of a dream as getting Kildai to Kaltegg Shaman, whom Parki Shaman had recommended before he was killed.

Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a movement in the shrubbery on the far side of the little stream. She tensed, staying absolutely still herself. Then, after waiting far too many heartbeats, she slowly turned her head, making no sudden movements. There was a roe-deer doe there, barely thirty paces away. A big step from any other game she'd seen so far. There had been a rabbit that she'd bagged yesterday. She had chopped it finely, cooked it into a broth with some millet and salt and herbs. But that deer would be enough food for days… If she could get a clear shot at it. What an idiot she was. A few moments ago she'd been singing, quietly, it was true, but still behaving as if she were safe in clan-lands and not on the run from their enemies.

She strung the bow and selected an arrow, being careful not to make any sudden movements. She took careful aim. She was not as good a shot as her little brother was, or even as her older brother had been. And missing was not an option. That was enough food to see that they could stay hidden all day for a while, and only move at night.

She gave thanks both to the spirits of the wood and the deer. And then swore, as the deer crashed forward. She shot anyway, and fought her way forward through the blackberries, knowing that she was tearing her deel, but too angry to care. Now she might lose an arrow as well. And then she stopped dead.

For there, not forty paces away was someone else, doing exactly the same thing. He had caught sight of her and froze, just like a deer that hopes you have not seen it. Just as she was doing.

His clothes were more ragged than hers-and that thing could hardly be called a bow. And he was tow-headed, and plainly terrified.

What was a slave doing here, with a weapon? That was something a slave would be killed for, even now. Realistically, everyone knew that slaves did a little poaching, trapping small game, using a shepherd's bow or spears that were little more than sharpened sticks. But this slave-with that bow, and having slain a deer…

He had to be a runaway. No wonder he was so scared. Bortai had instinctively put another arrow to her bowstring, after launching the first. He was going to break and run any moment now. She could see the way his eyes darted, looking for cover, looking for the best way out.

"Stand," she said.

He didn't. He fell to his knees instead, his eyes wide and wild. A week ago she would hardly have noticed. But now… she could hardly help but be aware of some fellow feeling, if not sympathy. The Vlachs was young and gaunt to the edge of starvation. It was a pity he'd cost her a clean shot at the doe, but perhaps he could be of some use. There was, to be honest, much that a slave would know that she as a Mongol princess did not. Things which would be useful in helping both her and Kildai to survive.

"Spare me, noble lady," he said tremulously. "I was just so hungry."

"So was I," she said crossly, "and now you have cost us both our dinner. I suppose the beast is a good league off by now."

He shook his head and pointed with a shaking hand. "No, lady. You dropped it."

Well, that put a very different complexion on the matter. She felt almost inclined to let him run, as a reward. But she could ill afford him being caught and telling someone about her.

The best thing would be just to kill him, but she couldn't quite bring herself to do it. "Well, then, you'd better come and carry it back to the cart."

He blinked. Then a lifetime of obedience took over. "Thank you, lady." He set down his crudely made bow down and began walking into the thicket. For a moment, Bortai wondered if he would bolt. She would have as soon as she had cover. But then, she had not been a slave all her life. The Vlachs seemed to accept that he was back in servitude. Oddly, his face, so terrified a few minutes before, had eased into an expression of relief.

That made sense, in a way. Slaves did not make decisions. Slaves simply did what they were told. They were fed, and housed, perhaps no better than a dog, but that was the owner's problem and prerogative. The runaway might have lost his freedom, but he had also been freed from responsibility that he had no idea how to deal with.

And she might as well be killed for stealing a slave as far stealing a horse. She'd taken the horse in fair combat, but she doubted if the orkhan would accept that.

The doe had managed to stagger on a little way before it fell, but had not gone too far. Looking at it, honesty forced Bortai to admit that it was the slave's heavy crude arrow that had pierced its eye and killed the beast. Her arrow was merely lodged in the hind flank.

"Where did you learn to shoot like that?" she asked suspiciously.

He looked at her with frightened eyes. "I think I was just lucky, lady." He hesitated. "I did shoot… when I was a little boy. Before…" his voice trickled off.

That did explain it, partially. Those born into slavery were more docile than those taken on raids. Raiding deep into the mountains did yield some new slaves. It was not something her clan had had much part in. Ancient law forbade the holding of Mongol slaves, or even those of part Mongol blood. With their territory being in the north, the Hawk clan had mostly clashed with other clans further north, those now under the sway of minor khans who owed allegiance to the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Other clans might hold the law in scant regard. But the Hawk clan was rigid about such things. That made them respected, certainly. But Bortai suspected they were also regarded as thinking themselves a little too good for everyone else.

The slave could be lying about the luck. Slaves did lie. Honor did not have to be their path. Either way, they would need to pick up that bow of his. She might need him to use it again, no matter whether he was supposed to or not.

It was a good-sized mature doe. "Take the hindquarters," she said, "we'll clean it back at the cart." The carcass would draw flies, but she wanted to be close to Kildai, just in case he woke.

They carried the doe back to where she had hidden the cart, pausing to collect his makeshift bow. She had to shake her head at the thing. It was just a yew bough with a string, made, by the looks of it, from flax. What could he be able to do with a real composite bow?

They hung the carcass in a tree to flense it. Then, abruptly, the slave sat down. He tried to stand up again, but failed.

"When last did you eat?" asked Bortai, looking at him, sitting and swaying.

"Not for some days, lady," said the man, trying to rise again.

"Sit," she said firmly. "I have one unconscious man on my hands. I do not need a second." She dug in the captargac. Mixed up some of the grut and ground millet with some water in the bark bowl she had contrived. "Here," she said. "Eat that."

He took it, confusion and gratitude vying for space on his face. He had plainly had the kind of master who would never have given food to his slaves with his own hands. There were some like that. "Thank you, lady," he said. "I thought you would beat me."

"For falling down from hunger? No wonder you ran away."

He looked at her with very frightened eyes. So he might, since the penalty for running away was death. But that was likely to be her own reward if Gatu or Nogay and his men caught up with them. Of course they would probably amuse themselves with her first. Try, at least. She would have to see how many of them she could kill. It was more honorable to die in combat.

"You will not send me back? Please, lady." His voice was shaking.

"With whom?" She pointed at the cart. "With my brother?" She knew in a way that she was being foolish, telling him that she was alone. But he was so afraid, and so weak. She took out her knife, and began to cut open the doe's belly. He staggered to his feet, and began to help to haul the intestines out. "If I am caught…" he said quietly.

She interrupted. "They will kill you. Do you think they would treat me any differently?"

"Oh." He was silent as this sank in. He hauled the liver out. "Can I set this aside, lady?"

She nodded.

"It does not keep very well," he explained. "We can dry some of the meat, but we must eat the organ-meats soon."

It appeared that the runaway slave had thrown his lot in with her. In a way, a small way, that was comforting. "I know that much. What is your name?"

He looked startled anew. "Ion, lady."

She had never introduced herself to a slave before. They all just knew who she was. Presumably they found out from other slaves.

But she saw no reason to go into detail. What he did not know, he could not betray. "I am Bortai." It was a common enough name.

He bowed awkwardly, plainly as unfamiliar with this situation as she was. "I know. Princess Bortai of Hawk clan."

So much for keeping her identity a secret. "And how do you know so much?"

He looked warily at her again, as if afraid that she would hit him. "It was my task," he said. "I was supposed to follow you. To tell my master where you went."

She looked at him. He was just such an ordinary looking slave. Of course they weren't supposed to bring spies to the kurultai. But many people did. Would she have noticed anyone following her? Anyone as unobtrusive as this? Now that she thought about it, she could see where slaves would make excellent spies, if they were capable and bold enough. That was a lesson to be remembered.

"Who was your master?"

His terror returned full force. "You will not send me back? I will be a good slave to you." His eyes were as wild as when she had first encountered him.

"Don't be more foolish than you have to be," she said tersely. "I just want to know by whom and when you were ordered to follow me."

"Lord Nogay. He showed you to me at the start of the kurultai, High Lady."

Nogay was one of Okagu's followers. "And where did you lose track of me?"

"At the ger of Parki Shaman. I saw Lord Nogay's men go inside. I heard… But when I dared look you had gone. There were only the dead. I was very much afraid. I ran to Lord Nogay. It took me too long to find him. I did not know he was with the soldiers watching the Hawk clan's gers. He was very angry. He took most of the men from the watch and went looking for you. When he and his Jaghun came back from looking for you, the fight with Hawk clan had already broken out, and they had fled."

That meant that at least some of her clan had escaped.

"Lord Nogay began to beat me. I knew that he would not stop until I died. But he did stop, when someone brought him news that a sentry had been found dead. He let go of me, and I ran."

No wonder he had looked at her with such terror.

"I did not know where to run, but the camp was in uproar. There was much fighting. Many clans fleeing. Much chaos in the dark. Some fires had broken out. I ran. I hid. The next night, I ran again."

"Where did you think you were going?"

"To the mountains. I came from there."

He should have been going west, then, not south. Bortai suspected that the direction that he had been traveling in was merely away. Her own decision had been slightly more logical, at least in the short term. She'd gone the opposite direction from that which any logical person would have thought: toward the lands of the Hawk Clan. That was direction in which the greatest search would have been instituted.

The direction she'd taken instead would hopefully throw off the pursuit, at least for a short time. It was also the shortest distance to the security of the Bulgar hills.

Dubious security, to be sure. She had a good chance of being enslaved, just like Ion, or merely raped and killed by the Bulgars. Relations varied. In some places, border clans had peaceful arrangements. In others, more commonly, raiding continued both ways.

She might be lucky, she might not. But at least there would be no systematic search for her and Kildai in Bulgar tribal lands.

Between her and Ion they lifted Kildai up a little, and gently spooned small quantities of broth into his mouth. The quantities had to be very small, or he simply coughed and spluttered. Bortai was not too sure how much of it was actually getting into him., but he did seem to be swallowing something.

Looking at him, Bortai felt very alone and very afraid. A warrior Princess like Khutulun should be ready to deal with usurping orkhans. But the clans of Golden Horde always insisted on a male khan, except as a temporary regent for an underage heir. Ulaghchi the Great had left a legacy of deep reverence for Mongol tradition. That could work both for and against them. Many of the clans would support Kildai because of that tradition. Though young, he was still of age. But they would not support her, while he was unconscious.

She refused to let her mind even think about her little brother being dead.

That night they moved on again. Of course, any decent herdsman could have tracked them. But the land hereabouts was riven with tracks, mostly recent. It was, Bortai admitted to herself, very much easier to break camp and to yolk the ox with help. And now she could ride and scout while Ion drove the cart. That was a great deal better and safer than driving the cart blindly.

They still traveled only a league or so that night, but she was able to find a good patch of woodland to hide in. In this area the wooded steppe was more wood than steppe. That was good for hiding, and bad for traveling fast.

This was a better sited hiding place, and there were two of them. That still should not have meant that she could sleep so deeply. But two nights of fear and stress and traveling, compounded by wary and uneasy sleep during the day, had taken their toll.

She had not even realized that she had fallen asleep. She had just meant to lie down for a few minutes in the shade under the cart. She was awakened by the sound of voices. Unfamiliar voices, and harsh ones.

Her first thought was that the runaway slave must have betrayed her.

Chapter 17

"The complexities of the situation," said Eberhart of Brunswick, "are such that I wish you had brought me into it earlier. Yes, Benito Valdosta, I accept the point that you're making about the vulnerability of a fleet in the Black Sea without control of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. In my youth, I too served with the knights of the Holy Trinity, in the Swedish campaigns. I have some grasp of military matters, even if I admit that I lack the depth of perception that you seem to have. But it is of enormous diplomatic importance to use the leverage that we now have with the Ilkhan, especially when it comes to the opportunity to visit and treat with the Golden Horde. Prince Manfred is in the unusual-and, I might say, unprecedented-position of being accredited as part of a Mongol diplomatic mission." He sighed. "I had hoped to prevail on his Imperial Majesty to let the Prince and the Mongol party be part of the fleet. It's not a negotiating position we are likely to be in again. The Mongols have some strong ideas about the necessary status of envoys."

Manfred sat down with complete unconcern about the effect that his bulk might have on the spindly furniture in Eberhart's cabin. He put his hands together, steeling fingers. "Of course," he said, "there is one simple possibility. I am empowered to act in my uncle's name. I carry his seal. Instead of trying to hold on to the Mongol envoy and his party so that we can accompany them on what will be the sort of naval engagement that delights Benito, we could simply accompany them across the Balkans. That way, we could very possibly achieve Benito's end and what you say would be my uncle's purpose."

"That is an entirely ridiculous suggestion, my Lord Prince!" exclaimed Eberhart, for once shocked out of his normal diplomatic speech. "Uh, with all due respect. The risks to your person…"

"Are considerably less than the risks I faced in Venice, Telemark and later in Corfu," said Manfred bluntly. "Not only do the Mongols have rather demanding requirements as to the status of envoys from non-Mongols, they are also famous for the courtesy and sanctity they require others to accord to their envoys. I am in the enviable position where the Ilkhan would be obliged to go to war against the Golden Horde if anyone touched a hair on my little head."

"It is only so little," said Erik, "because it contains so little of the stuff required to think inside it. There is the small matter of the Balkans. We are down to fewer than two hundred knights. One hundred and seventy-four, to be precise. That is insufficient even by their own delusions of prowess to cross those mountains."

Benito coughed. "If you think you are safe in Mongol hands… well, I think the one thing no one will argue about is that Iskander Beg is also a man of his word. True, the word-short phrase, rather-is usually 'I will kill you if you cross my lands.' If he decided that you would not cross the mountains of his kingdom, you would not. But it isn't. He has agreed to let at least one convoy take the old Roman Road. If that works out, there will be more. The Illyrian was honest enough to say that there might still be trouble from bandits or a chieftain who decided to do his own independent raid. But even fifty of the knights would be more than a match for that."

Erik frowned and said thoughtfully: "And we are as much honor bound to see that the Ilkhan envoy gets to the lands of Golden Horde, as they are to treat us as diplomatic envoys. We promised to get them there. There are only ten of them. Not enough for the crossing without us."

"They did rather trick us into it, didn't they?" said Manfred, grinning at Eberhart.

"I concede that it is possible that the compliment that they paid us by giving us such status could have been for an ulterior motive," said Eberhart. "But we stood to benefit so much from the status in any dealings that we had with the Golden Horde…"

"I see this as a way of turning it to our benefit, now," said Manfred.

"I still think the idea is fraught with danger," said Eberhart. "Erik, tell him it would be folly."

Erik stood there sucking his cheek. Eventually he shook his head. "No, Ritter." He looked at Benito. "You forget that I have been involved in several of this young madman's crazy solutions. He has a way of seeing solutions, solutions that will work, where other people would charge in blindly and lose. I see a great deal of danger in a sea assault on Constantinople. I see even more danger in getting Manfred back from the Black Sea, if Constantinople is reinforced. I also see no benefit to the Empire in this envoy arriving after the election of a new Khan. It seems to me that that is very likely to happen."

"Besides," said Manfred quietly, "this has the potential to seriously damage two of our greatest foes. I think there is little else that I could do which would help the Empire as much. I have decided."

Once Manfred had actually taken that kind of decision, Benito knew that there was little point in anyone arguing. And no one did. Discussion then moved to practicalities-how to feed and provision the expedition, and how to pay for it. After listening for a while, Benito cleared his throat. "If you will all excuse me," he said, "I had better go and see about contacting Iskander Beg. Of course, it is entirely possible that the man whose mother is a tortoise may decide that it's a bad idea."

Erik scowled. "I'd forgotten about that horseboy."

Benito grinned. "I may tell you, as the acting governor of the island, that the murder of horseboys is not permitted. It was a damn fine trick. It's just a pity that he had to catch me with it instead of you."

"Death would be far too fast," said Erik. "In fact, I think that I will go and look for him right now. As Benito has just pointed out, our planning is premature."

He stood up, blonde, lean and very deadly looking. Benito wondered if he would ever have tried playing such a practical joke on the man. Possibly-when he'd been thirteen and convinced that he would live forever. He had to feel some sympathy for the horseboy.

***

The horseboy was not there.

David was already making his way through the streets of Corfu town. He had had no intention of being anywhere close to the blonde foreigner when he found out that he had been taught some choice Mongol insults and not the useful phrases he'd thought he was learning. As luck would have it, David had been lazing and listening in to talk of the tarkhan and his Mongol guards when it had happened. If he had not realized just how serious the trouble was that would result, it would have been one of the finest bits of revenge of his life. And now…

Now he was back in familiar territory, even if this was a town still scarred by the battle they had apparently had here over the last winter. He only wished that it was a larger town. But a town was still better than all the miles of emptiness-both of water and on land-that he had come to discover the world outside Jerusalem held. That was a lot of emptiness, and he wanted none of it. He would have to somehow get on a boat and go back home. Jerusalem must be missing him.

As he walked through the streets, his sharp eyes taking in the details of the shops and stalls, he wondered what the local penalties for theft were. From what he had heard, there was nowhere in the world that was strict as the Ilkhan. Well, it was said that the Golden Horde were even more traditionalist. If there was anywhere in the world that David did not want to end up, it was in their backyard. Thieving was a dangerous enough way of living in Jerusalem, where he and his family had many contacts and knew the local scene very well. Pilgrims and foreigners could be preyed on, provided one was careful.

What he really needed was a local informant. He picked on a likely looking ragged boy, greeting him. And was rewarded by a high speed stream of incomprehensible gibberish.

Maybe life was going to be a lot more complicated than he'd thought. He felt a bitter sense of resentment and betrayal. Why hadn't anyone told him foreigners didn't all speak Frankish?

It was only after the foreign urchin had run off that he realized that his pouch was missing. He swore and ran after the boy, but the boy knew where he was going and David did not. Soon, he was forced to give up the pursuit.

Well, he had wanted to know just what sort of penalties for theft they had here. At a guess, he had just been shown-the hard way. If he ever found the little brat again somebody else would be learning the hard way. Grumpily, he set off to acquire some lunch. To a sharp Jerusalem boy that could hardly be much of a challenge.

***

Benito was back at his desk in the Castel a Terra when Erik came to see him several hours later. "It's too soon for me to have word back from Illyria," he said. "And thanks to you I now can't find two essential pieces of paper, and my secretary is a gibbering wreck. Besides that, I haven't heard a word from your Mongol friend."

"It's not that," said the Icelander. "I've got Kari out scouring the streets. But if that horseboy has run off into the countryside it might take us weeks to find him."

"Ah!" Benito leaned back in his chair, and managed not to smile. "I did warn you about killing him, Erik."

"Neither Kari nor I have laid a finger on him," protested Erik. "And it's not because we didn't want to. But apparently he ran off before we'd even finished talking to the Mongol. Several of the Knots saw him go. None of them had the brains to stop him."

If Erik was calling the knights of the Holy Trinity by the derisive term "Knots" he was genuinely furious-and by his expression, worried also.

Benito had long since given up deliberately baiting the likes of Erik Hakkonsen. Danger seemed to seek Benito out, without him going looking for it. "Relax, Erik."

"I'll need some help, Benito. A word with some of your Schiopettieri, and possibly the loan of some of your troops."

"I said, relax. I already sent a messenger down to your vessel. You must have missed him by a few moments. I have your runaway horseboy. He will need to be a little faster and sharper, if he's going to cope with being a thief in the big city. He can't even cope with swiping bread and squid on Corfu. I'm tempted to give him a few lessons myself. In the meantime, I'm just doing for him what you and Petro Dorma did for me. He's enjoying a little bit of a frightener in my cells. I have a few of the lads yelling at him in Greek."

Erik shook his head as if to clear it. "Yelling in Greek? Why?"

"I figure that I owe him something for nearly causing an international diplomatic incident. And if you think I'm being too harsh, the boy can count himself lucky to still have his fingers and face intact. Stealing anything from Mamma Kasagolis is just plain stupid. If a patrol hadn't been passing by at the time he'd have been beaten half to death. As it was, he did acquire a few lumps before they figured out that he really wasn't able to understand Greek. They brought him here, because as the Podesta I deal with foreigners. I figured out that he was your horseboy, but I pretended not to understand a word he said. So what do you want to do with him? You can collect him now, if you like."

Erik began to laugh. He laughed until he had to sit down. When eventually he got his breath back, he shook his head. "The Mongols virtually stamped out crime when they conquered Outremer a couple of hundred years back. This brat is undoubtedly what passes for a thief in Jerusalem. He might even be quite good at it by the standards of a city without much crime. I think he's experiencing some culture shock. Can you have your men lead him out and show him the gallows?"

Benito raised his eyebrows. "Don't you think that's a bit much?"

"No, I don't. It's going to be a while before he gets back to Jerusalem. There are a good few places where he could get himself into just that much trouble, or get us into it. I don't have the skills to teach him to be a thief who can survive, and you don't have the time. So I will have to frighten him into a bit of honesty, at least for a while."

Benito smothered a smile. "And this has nothing to do with him teaching you that a respectful greeting is 'your mother is a tortoise'. You know, it could have been much worse. He could have had you-or in this case me-proposing some form of interesting sexual liaison."

"Then I would not just have had you show him the gallows. He could have tried on the noose for size," said Erik grimly. "I think you can let him spend the night ornamenting your cells. Kari and I will come and fetch him early in the morning."

"I'll temper justice with mercy," said Benito, nodding. "I'll have someone explain to him that the gallows will be where he's heading, unless someone from the ship is prepared to come and take him away. That'll give him some reason to be grateful when you do turn up. It's more than he would have gotten in most port cities."

Erik snorted. "He'd be lucky not to have ended up dead in an alley in quite a lot of them. At the very least someone would have knocked him on the head, and slit his pouch."

"I gather," said Benito with a laugh, "by his plaintive complaints and protestations, all of which I pretended not to understand, that someone did relieve him of his pouch. He is taken aback by the dishonesty of us foreigners and how we victimize visitors."

"Isn't it strange," said Erik, with a smile, "how the biter seldom likes to be bitten?"

"It does give you a different perspective on it," admitted Benito. "Not that it works as a perfect cure for everyone. People are inclined to see things from their own point of view, regardless."

"It worked on you," said Erik. "But then, you always were almost too smart for your own good, Benito." He smiled as he said it.

Benito shrugged. "Anyway, you'd better take this, if you're going to take that horseboy with you." He held out a slim book.

"What is it?" asked Erik, a little suspiciously.

Benito did his best to look aggrieved, in a saintly sort of way. "Why does everyone always think the worst of me? It is a book of Mongol-Frankish translations from old Belmondo's library. Some common words and phrases. And the same in their script."

"I'll show it to the boy and tell him he has to be a bit more careful now," said Erik, taking the book.

Benito sighed. "Erik, the time you've spent with the knights of the Holy Trinity is affecting your thinking. Don't even think of showing him the book. You let him go on teaching you. But you check the words yourself, with the book he doesn't know you have. And then you make him say them to one of the Mongols, if they don't quite match the book."

Erik raised his eyebrows. "You're starting to make the Old Fox look positively straightforward."

"It's so obvious," said Benito, shaking his head.

Chapter 18

After King Emeric of Hungary's reverses in the attack on Corfu, and the devastating losses of their retreat across the Balkans, he had had little appetite for campaigning. But if he was to repair his armies and keep his tax base intact, he had to take action against the upheavals that followed.

He used a restive province to cow the others and demonstrate the penalties for rebellion. He brought overwhelming force to bear and left behind in village squares some pointed reminders of what could happen to those who displeased him. Sharp reminders, with people impaled on them. He'd also found that an effective way of getting the message across. True, a lot of the peasantry had fled, and it would be some time before the province started to yield dividends again. But a king could not be expected to hunt down every peasant.

So, he was in a buoyant mood, joking with his commanders as he rode back toward the royal castly at Buda, at the head of a column of his invincible Magyar heavy cavalry.

The messenger who arrived was relieved to find him so cheerful. King Emeric had a habit of executing messengers who brought him news that he did not wish to hear. And even the stupidest messenger would know that the king was not going to enjoy this piece of news.

By the shift in expression on the king's face, from laughter to a narrow eyed stare, Emeric had read the messenger's expression too. "Well? Spit it out. What is wrong, you fool?"

"Your Majesty, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news…"

"Your face told me that already," snapped Emeric. "Now what is it?"

"Your Majesty, it would appear that Prince Vlad of Valahia has escaped from his quarters."

Emeric pursed his lips, and sat still a while in the saddle, in thought. Then he said: "I imagine you would not have brought me this news if he had been recaptured. How did he escape?"

"It would appear that he had outside help, Your Majesty. The guards were all murdered. None of them appear to have even tried to defend themselves. Three were stabbed, and another four appear to have been poisoned. Some of them died in what appears to have been extreme pain. We must conclude that some form of treachery or magical means were used."

"Spare me your conclusions," said Emeric. "Tell me instead what measures have been taken to recapture him. I think it is time that I dealt with the Vlachs for once and for all. Having a suitable hostage has kept them from being too restive, but with Vlad's father now dead, I had wondered what steps to take next. It would appear that the matter has been taken out of my hands."

"Your Majesty, we have sealed all the roads going east. Patrols are scouring the countryside between the roads. We have taken in several suspects known to have Vlachs sympathies. They are being put to the question."

"Well, at least they were measures not entirely devoid of sense. Although inadequate. You need to send a message to my aunt, the Duchess Bartholdy. Also, I will need reinforcements sent to our garrisons at Irongate, Poienari, Beszterce, and Caedonia. They are to seize the Dowager Princess and her daughter and have them conveyed to my court. Once news of this leaks out, we will have unrest in the Duchy of Valahia. Have my secretary write the orders for you, and bring them to me for my signature and seal. You may carry them back to the castle immediately. Baron Arbalar will take the appropriate measures from there."

The messenger bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty."

He was too relieved at keeping his head to even dream of protesting that he had just ridden for ten hours, and that he and his horse were in no state to ride directly back to the castle. He could always get a new horse somewhere. He had used up four remounts so far. And being too sore to stand tomorrow was better than sitting on a sharpened stake now.

However, by the time that Emeric's secretary had finished scribing the letters and the tired messenger took them to the king for signature and his seal, Emeric had changed his mind. "I think instead," he said tearing up the neatly penned letter, "that I had better go and speak to Elizabeth myself. You will proceed back to Buda, and pass on my orders there. I will take part of my column to go north to visit the countess."

The messenger was relieved, again, that the king would be going north and not him. One did not work in Emeric's court for as long as he had without becoming very wary about the stunningly beautiful Duchess Bartholdy. There were certain unpleasant rumors about her seemingly eternal youthfulness. Emeric's court was always awash with rumors, but the ones concerning Elizabeth were unusually persistent.

That might just be a pipe blown by jealousy, of course. She was truly beautiful. But the messenger had no desire to find out if they were true or not.

***

Emeric had plenty of time on the three day ride to Elizabeth's castle in the northern Carpathians to think about the situation that Vlad's escape created for him in Valahia. There were complexities involved, and considerable potential both for exploitation and disaster. The area to the west of the Carpathian mountains was fertile and valuable. There were a number of settlers there from other parts of his territory. They at least would be loyal. And it was country that was suited to his kind of military operation. But the area inside the arms of the mountains themselves was almost entirely loyal to the house of Valahia, with the exception of the Szekely seats. It was also not a good area in which to try military conclusions with an army like his, so dependent on heavy cavalry.

Perhaps it was time that he threw his weight behind the Danesti-a rival and related clan. One never knew if they would prove any better, unfortunately. However, no matter how good a refuge the Besarab had in the mountains, they needed the flatter lands to sustain themselves. The mountains were dirt poor. All very well for producing a few sheeps' milk cheeses, but not much good for outfitting a troop of cavalry.

It would appear that someone had half crippled her pet dwarf, Emeric noticed, when he was shown in to the duchess's presence by a limping Ficzko. That would not improve her humor. He was a horrible little man, but he had been in her service-in more ways than one, Emeric suspected-for many years.

In private, Elizabeth showed the king of Hungary none of the respect that she would accord him at court in Buda. "Well, Emeric?" she said impatiently. "I am rather busy at the moment. What is the problem, this time?"

"And why should there be a problem, Aunt?" he said, in an attempt at hauteur which failed completely. He knew that she was not actually an aunt, but more like a great aunt. Or even great-great-aunt. He also knew that she had manipulated and controlled his father and very possibly his grandfather too. He knew full well that she had arranged his father's death, so that he could ascend the throne. Like a spider she had controlled the web of power that was Hungarian politics for the better part of the last century. She still looked as if she was barely twenty. Of course most people believed that it was her mother, and grandmother who had been so influential in their time.

Emeric maintained the fiction that he was independent of her power. And, in fact, he had done his best to try and become that. At least in Buda, they would question her orders now. But that was a small step, and one he was well aware of the danger of taking.

"Because you only ever come to see me when you are in trouble, Emeric," she said coolly.

That was probably true. But then, she only came to Buda to interfere in the running of his kingdom. He almost always did her bidding in the end. That didn't mean he had to like it.

"This time, it is more your advice that I want. I do not think we are in trouble yet. Vlad of Valahia has escaped from his quarters in the castle. I was going to have to release him anyway. With his father's demise, the Vlachs are calling for his return to take the throne. I was going to insist that we had his mother as a hostage instead, and marry him off to a suitable lady of my court. A Hungarian or possibly a Slovene. Now the matter is rather out of my hands. There is that clan of cousins, the Danesti…"

Elizabeth smiled warmly at him. That was enough to sound some alarm bells, as well as allowing him to relax slightly. He could still ill afford to openly antagonize her, so it was good to see the smile, but it was a little worrying that he might find himself as a cog in her machinations. Emeric was well aware that Elizabeth was involved in some very black magic indeed. As black as it got, in fact. And in his heart of hearts, he knew that he was not a great and powerful practitioner of those arts.

"This time you were wise to come and speak to me before you did anything rash," she said. "There is a great deal more to the house of Valahia than just a petty principality. There is power there. Power that we should harness for the Kingdom of Hungary. And Prince Vlad must be very innocent, the way you've kept him sequestered. More innocent and ignorant than a convent-reared babe."

He knew her well enough to understand that she was not talking of dynasties, or the right to command vast armies, or rule by hereditary right over great swathes of Europe. She was talking about power in a less earthly sense.

That could still, of course, give him both the armies and the rule, which was what he wanted. But Elizabeth had always been rather uninterested in those, even though he was sure that she intended to keep the magical power mostly to herself.

"I have ordered some of my troops to seize his mother and sister and have them sent under escort to Buda. I will have the girl married off as soon as I get her there. I'll find a suitable nobleman. Perhaps one of the Slavs or Croats."

The countess shook her head. "It is be very unlikely that your troops will find them there. If they-whoever 'they' are, which still needs to be determined-are well enough organized to seize Prince Vlad from Buda, they will have taken steps to get his mother and sister out of harm's way as well. You should have taken some measures with the girl earlier."

"She's barely thirteen."

"A fine age," said Elizabeth. "I'm sure you that would have found more than one noble ready and willing to do their duty for the kingdom. There are enough greedy little lordlings that would marry a cesspit if you told them to, and not a few of them would prefer it if the girl was young."

"I've just been busy. I did not expect the Prince of Valahia to die just yet. I certainly didn't expect his son to escape his captivity."

"We need to look at steps that can be taken to capture Vlad. I must tell you that I need him alive, Emeric. If necessary you can kill him later, and put the Danesti on the throne. I think them a shaky reed for your purposes, though."

"The instruction will be given." She did not explain why she insisted that Vlad be taken alive, and Emeric did not enquire. The answer was likely to be one he didn't want to hear-assuming she answered at all.

"You are very unlikely to catch him by ordinary means," said Elizabeth. "If he has help, and that help has arcane skills, ordinary patrols and checkpoints are not going to catch him. He will certainly be disguised, and will probably be well-informed as to their whereabouts."

She sat back in her chair. "I think that you're going to have to leave this in my hands for now. By all means invest more troops in Valahia. Prepare for unrest. Make a few suitable examples of some of the peasantry. The local boyars have little cause to love the house of Valahia. The commoners however, are another matter. Let them feel the weight of your authority. I will need some of your troops. Mostly cavalry, I think. I believe I can locate him by magical means. Restraining him, and whatever partisans he has been able to gather, will take quite a few men. I will need to operate in secret. I'll want some off your light cavalry as well, and an officer with no scruples and the ability to follow orders. But he needs to have some brains too."

Emeric felt as if he was being given the orders. But as always, with Elizabeth, he felt powerless to resist her plans. He wondered, not for the first time, if she had put some kind of compulsion on him. But surely she would never have dared to do that. He was, after all, the king.

***

After Emeric had left, Elizabeth sat, thinking. She had been unsure, when he arrived, if he had found some trace of her abduction of Vlad. A competent magic worker could have divined what had been done. Of course, she had left a few traps, demonic traps, that probably would deal with all but the most competent of magic workers.

There were few of those left in Hungary. The church was docile in Emeric's domain, and Elizabeth had hunted the pagans far more relentlessly than any Christian fanatic ever had. She had made very sure that Emeric had little access to anything but dilettantes in the field of magic, especially the darker arts. She'd had to kill a few who had attempted to seek his protection.

But he might have found someone in his rather futile militaristic efforts that she had not yet found out about and neutralized. He had done so before. There was a streak of deviousness in the boy. That was about all that was left of the old bloodline. She ought to breed from him soon. The original line had been a strong one. She'd seduced her own brother to make sure that they bred true. It still gave her a tiny frisson to think of his utter horror when he had discovered what he'd done, and just how she'd manipulated him and forced him, and that limp wife of his too, into deceiving the court and the world.

She smiled. He'd driven him to take his own life, in the end. She'd seen to it that he died unshriven, with the full burden on his soul.

The role of great-great-aunt suited her better than that of great-grandmother. She wondered if she should do it again. It would be easy enough: the compulsion had been set in place during rituals that Emeric did not even remember, back when he had been about four years old. He'd been charmingly innocent and terrified.

But perhaps it was just as well to thin the blood. She'd had to kill the others far earlier in life. They'd become suspicious and rebellious at a younger age than Emeric, shaking off some of the enchantment. Emeric was so vain that he considered his person sacred.

Anyway, it would appear that everything had worked out for the best. Emeric had given her the troops she desired to herd the bait with. When she was ready, she would catch both the prey and the bait. Both had their uses. She stood up in a fluid movement, almost cat-like, refreshed by her deliberations. She must go and speak to Count Mindaug. It was he, and his endless literary researches, that had brought her the knowledge of what she needed for bait. Mindaug didn't know that she had been trying to catch one for the last fifty years. Like pagans, the non-humans were creatures to be used and then destroyed. Except the Vila, who were too useful to be destroyed.

She had even met the original Dragon of Valahia briefly. Such an opportunity that she had missed, perhaps. But there had been something about him-despite his reputation, which had interested her-which had made her uneasy. Besides, he had undoubtedly been more than a little mad.

Belatedly, her thoughts turned to the younger sister that Emeric had mentioned. Just the right age. Very probably a virgin. That would be particularly valuable blood for refreshing her youth. Royal blood, and with a nonhuman taint. Best drunk straight from the still warm victim.

Emeric wanted to waste such a resource on marriage to one of his vassals. Her need was greater. She would have to have the girl snatched, if Emeric succeeded in capturing her.

***

"They were relatively common creatures once," said Mindaug. "Many were created."

He wore, Elizabeth was amused to discover, eyeglasses here in his book-piled chambers. Perfect vision-indeed, better than perfect-had been part of what she'd demanded for her side of the bargain. She recalled that she had once been prone to terrible headaches, back when she too had read, seeking a way-any way-to avoid the creeping ravishes of time on her beautiful skin.

"So you have said. And the pure essences extracted from that blood will have value to me and my works. But I become more and more interested in the effects of the blood in admixture with humans. Vlad may be bait, but he is powerful too in his own right."

***

Mindaug looked down at the book in his hands as a way to avoid looking directly at her. "Yes," he said. "It said so in the book I showed to you. Creatures of mixed blood are dangerous, as they exist outside the constraints of either humans or the others, with some of the powers of both. So are the creatures which cross the lines between the non-human realms. But they are not easy to create."

"I have some experience at forcing matings of nonhumans of air and water, and some success with the offspring," said Elizabeth.

Count Mindaug reflected that it was odd that he, like so many of the other nobility of Europe, was related to this woman. As a class they were, he reflected, more inbred than was wise. Perhaps that was where her madness came from. There could be no doubt that there was madness there, underlying her vanity and the strange desperation that had led her down this course. She enjoyed killing and pain. Count Mindaug did not. They were necessary tools and he was adept at using them. But, like his point-filed teeth, they were about survival, not choice.

So was helping her with her preparations here in this bleak, stone walled and cold "nunnery" that she had as an adjunct to her castle. At the same time, he was preparing certain spells in case he would need to make a rapid physical departure. He had, as yet no second country or a protector to flee to. He'd been quietly searching for both. Hungary looked to be the best possibility, as little as Mindaug wanted to be in the proximity of that realm's vicious and sadistic king. But if things went awry-if Elizabeth Bartholdy decided that he was a threat, for instance-he could disappear rapidly. True, it would only take him as far as his crowded library in her castle in Catiche. But he could use more ordinary and physical ways to flee from there. It would take her or anyone a while, even with demonic aid, to find him.

Mindaug continued to study the plainly bound book. It struck him that demondim might take a multitude of forms, including appearing to be paper.

Chapter 19

Bortai heard his voice then, sounding just a little arrogant-something she wouldn't have thought the slave capable of. "What do you want here?" he asked. "My master is away, and the young master is asleep. Go before you wake him." He spoke as if he had been a family retainer for fifty years, confident in his value to the clan.

Bortai was surprised to hear the strange voices modulate. "We just want to know what you are doing on our lands," said one.

"When the kurultai broke up, we were separated from our clan," said the slave. "We are returning to them. We merely travel through. That is permitted."

"We are looking for a woman…" That was a different voice.

"There are no women here," said the slave in a tone of some shock and disgust. He did it well, as if they had suggested that the cart was some kind of cheap brothel in one of the small settlements. "Even my master's wife is three years dead."

"We must look," said the first of the strange voices. "Stand aside, slave."

Bortai rolled quietly to the far side of the cart and drew her knife. Up to that moment, there had been some chance that the interrogators might back off. But they would see Kildai. They would find some of her things in the cart. The runaway slave could hardly stop them.

"No," Ion said. The slave's voice shook, but he did the unthinkable. She could see them now, two ordinary warriors from one of the poor clans from the south that had allied itself to Gatu. One had dismounted and had stopped just short of the slave, an incredulous look on his face. His hand rested on his sword hilt. But he faced just a solitary slave. He was hardly expecting trouble, even if Bortai could see that the slave had a stout stick in his hand.

While one man remained mounted they were in grave danger. But he was relaxed, slouched in the saddle. She measured the distance with her eye. She could throw a knife fairly well, but doing so would leave her unarmed. Still, she saw no alternative.

And then, once again, the slave's precipitous and unexpected actions affected her aim. He hit out at the warrior with his cudgel, dividing her attention for a moment. She was too late to stop the throw, although she did pull back from the intended force of it. As a result, she did what no good Mongol would ever do. She hit the flank of his horse instead of him. At least the weakened throw meant that the knife did not sink itself to the haft as she had intended.

But as far as the horse was concerned, a giant and vicious horsefly had just bitten it. It screamed, reared, turned and tried to bite the spot. Not surprisingly, the horseman lost his seat.

Ion almost lost his head. His blow with the cudgel, while unexpected, was hardly the most effective blow ever struck. The warrior barely staggered, and an instant later had drawn his sword and struck back. But sheer fury made him clumsy with his stroke, so that the slave was able to block it with his cudgel. The cudgel lost the top hand-length, and, almost dropping it, Ion stumbled back. He would have died seconds later if Bortai had not kicked the warrior's legs out from under him.

The warrior still had his sword, but not for long. As he rose, Ion stepped forward and managed another wild swing with the truncated cudgel. That hit the warrior on the forearm just short of his elbow. The sword flew out of his hand and embedded itself in the wood of the cart. Bortai was on to him before he could draw a knife.

Wrestling was one of the noble arts, one in which she might not exceed the skills of the legendary princess Khutulun, but was easily a match for some poor ordinary warrior. However, there was still the other man, who had gotten to his feet, drawn his sword and was running towards them.

Ion turned tail and ran. Bortai knew now that she had little choice. She had to kill the first man very quickly. They had staggered to their feet. She did not wish to throw him and lose grip. Instead she swung him between herself and the second man and he took the sword thrust intended for her. His companion's own fury made him clumsy also.

A moment later, Ion made sure that the other warrior had no opportunity to strike again. Ion's crudely made arrow skewered the man just as effectively as it had the doe.

The warrior screamed, staggered and fell as she pushed his blood-gushing companion away from her. Ion advanced slowly, another one of his home-made arrows on the string.

Bortai did what every good Mongol woman would do in such circumstances. She picked up a knife and cut their throats, neatly.

Ion dropped his bow, and stood there, holding on to the edge of the cart. His face was white and his teeth chattered. He looked to her as if he would fall over at any moment.

But they were more urgent things to be done. One of the Mongol horses stood, as Mongol horses had been trained to stand when their riders alit. The other…

She would need to see how far it had run. "We will need to saddle up. No, I will just take this horse. But you had better yoke the ox." She was already in the saddle, and looking to see if she could see any sign of the other horse.

"Lady Bortai, we must flee," he said, his eyes wild with fear again.

"If we can't catch the horse, we'll have to. Whatever happens, we are going to have to take steps not to be tracked. Or not to be tracked too easily. Within the next day they'll start looking for these two. If I can find the horse, we'll have to bury the bodies."

She put her heels to the pony's sides. Fortunately, she did not have far to go before she found the other horse. Her first thought was for the injury that she had caused. It was a nasty wound, but probably not serious. She led the horse back, looking for her knife, which had obviously fallen out. But she found no sign of it. That in itself was irritating. There had been a good stone on the pommel.

When she got back, the cart had been hitched up but there was no sign of Ion. He might have run off, but she would give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Last time that she had assumed that he'd run off he had used that bow of his to good effect. It wasn't lying in the cart or on the ground. So it was a safe assumption that he'd at least taken that with him.

Bortai hitched the horses and began to unsaddle them. Sure enough, Ion appeared warily from behind a tree and began to help. He was still obviously very afraid.

"You did well back there," she said.

He shuddered. "I did not actually know what to do," he admitted.

"Hit much harder," said Bortai gruffly, some level of combat aftershock beginning to take hold. It was better just to keep doing things.

A slave was not supposed to take up arms. But if he had not done so, she would probably have been dead and Kildai would have been killed no long afterward. It would seem to her that Nogay had wasted a very loyal servitor-but then perhaps that was why he had been entrusted with following her.

"We need to do something with these bodies," she said. "And maybe move just a little bit."

The slave looked at the bodies and shuddered again. "We could take them to the edge of the stream where there is a steep bank. We could cave it in on top of them."

She made a face. That was too close to the water. Disrespectful of it. But they had to do something, or the carrion birds would show others just where these two had met their demise. "Not in the water," she said.

He shook his head. "Well clear. There was a little hollow that I was hoping to hide in myself, Lady Bortai."

So, once they had looted the bodies of anything useful, between them they dragged the corpses to the undercut bank. Sooner or later, unless they had rain, someone would probably track the missing two warriors. They would find the spot where the killing had happened. It was very possible that they would find the bodies too. Hopefully the cart would be a few days away before that happened.

A little later, they moved the cart and the horses. As they were unhitching it again, Kildai gave a weak moan. His eyes opened wide, and then closed again. Bortai dropped the yoke and ran to him. But it did not appear that he was going to do any further waking up just yet. She hoped, desperately, that he would stir soon. They had three horses now. Once he could ride they could abandon this cart.

She was not going to abandon the slave. If he was caught he would be killed. The man had risked a great deal to save her and Bortai, and behaved with rare courage too. Such loyalty had to be respected.

She wondered if he could ride. In the meanwhile, she must see to that poor horse. It would need to be stitched and poulticed. Fortunately, she knew how to do both. She felt scant sympathy for the clansmen that had hunted for her. They would have killed her and Kildai, and taken their severed heads as proof. But horses were different. A horse did not choose the use it was put to.

At dusk they must travel on again. They would seek to mingle their trail with that of other bullock carts. But never again would she allow exhaustion to override her caution. They could take turns to sleep. Ion might not be as keen eared as a sentry, but she would teach him to watch the horses. A horse was more keen-eared than any human, especially for the sounds of other horses. If whoever was not on watch slept a little distance away with a bow, they could wreak havoc on any enemy. They could certainly deal with foes in ones and twos.

There was nothing like victory, no matter how unlikely, and how much by the favor of the spirits, to dispel fear and despair. With Kildai stirring, she almost dared to let herself hope that they could survive.

Chapter 20

"So, Benito, you want to send a column of Knights of the Holy Trinity down the Via Egnata," said Iskander, as the two of them sat on a log looking out toward Corfu. "Do you want to start several wars?"

Benito thought carefully before replying. "I suspect that knowing they could be flanked might also restrict certain ambitions. If I were Alexis, I would make haste to open the sea route, before the principal source of my income dried up. But then I am not Alexis."

"I would have reason to know fear, if you were," said Iskander. "But there is also Emeric of Hungary, to say nothing of the Grand Duke of Lithuania."

Benito shrugged. "Seen from your point of view, King Emeric is at war with you and will remain at war with you for as long as he lives. The fact that you may be allying with some of his enemies is hardly going to change that. If anything, it may make him a little more wary. As for Jagiellon, the Mongols are at the moment a buffer between you and him. I have explained why we are escorting these envoys from the Ilkhan to the Golden Horde. If we fail, you will have Jagiellon's proxies on your doorstep. If we succeed, you will have a buffer zone."

"That is a better argument than all the rest," admitted Iskander. "But there is no need surely for the knights to accompany them. I tell you truthfully, some of my people will be very uneasy about that party, so large and heavily armed."

"By all means, match them with an equal number. The truth is, and I am being frank here, we dare not have anything go wrong in getting those envoys to the lands of the Golden Horde. We are honor bound to see that they get there. If we fail in any way, we will have acquired a powerful enemy. And to be honest again, some of the tribesmen in these hills are, by your own admission, barely under your control. They might try their luck with a small party of Mongols, no matter who they were escorted by. They're not going to-not one little tribe by itself-try it against the knights. I think the knights' reputation has penetrated even here." He smiled at Iskander's slightly troubled face. "If at a later date some tribesmen raid a caravan the matter can be dealt with without destroying any chance of other traders using the Via Egnata. But this first journey must succeed."

Iskander stood up, and took a deep breath. "I risk my own standing among the tribes. Have I your word, as a kinsman, that the knights of the Holy Trinity do not come as a reconnoitering force? That they will, unless attacked, refrain from conflict?"

Benito did not smile, even though he wanted to. This was serious. "I have never been as happy to give my word. You don't know them as I do, Iskander Beg. They are monks in armor. They will serve where their abbots tell them to serve. And they will obey orders, even to the death. They are a bit boneheaded, to be honest, but one gets used to them." He said the last with a disarming grin.

Iskander laughed. "Well, there are a fair number among my own tribe that would fit the boneheaded part, but they're not much good at taking orders. We tend to go our own way up here. Where there are two of us, there are three different opinions. I will provide an escort and scouts."

"And I will see that they pay, and pay handsomely, for food and lodging where it is available. We will have to discuss this, Lord of the Mountains. If possible they do not want have to take a baggage train with them. It will not be easy to get it over the mountains in a hurry."

Iskander smiled. "As it happens I have a number of very fine Hungarian tents that I could have set up along the way. Their previous owners had to abandon them."

"So sad for them. I think that we could decide on a mutually agreeable fee for this. There really isn't much of a market for second-hand tents."

Iskander laughed. "Maybe not on Corfu. But they are promising material for fine cloth up here in the mountains. Delicate blouses for the ladies, and things like that."

"Probably linen for the Lord of the Mountains' bed too."

Iskander shook his head. "The canvas is a little too soft for that. It might make me soft too. To avoid it I will have them put up for a traveling band of Knights. No one will want to use them after that."

"Well, seeing as we would doing you a public service, you wouldn't want us to pay for the use of them then, would you?"

"You chaffer like a Venetian, Benito. Not a member of my tribe," said Iskander shaking his head, with his brow wrinkled in sorrow, and his mouth held prim. "Just think of the poor women who will lose fine blouses."

"Well, it's the duty of the king to help to guide them away from vanity and vainglory. But, before we get to serious dickering, I need to make sure this journey is going to happen."

The Lord of the Mountains raised his eyebrows. "Surely," he said, "they can see your impeccable logic?"

"It's hard to tell quite what the envoy is thinking. We did not exactly get off on the right foot."

Benito told Iskander just how the horseboy had misled Erik, and just what had followed. Iskander's teeth gleamed white through his moustache. "This boy will go far, if he lives long enough."

Benito laughed. "Right now all he wants to do is get off my God-forsaken island, and gets back to his nice safe Jerusalem, where he is apparently counted one of the biggest rogues. Or thinks he is. Anyway, just as soon as I hear from our Mongol envoy, I will send you word."

Iskander Beg nodded. "I will arrange it all. It is possible that I may decide to accompany this caravan myself. I will of course expect you, kinsman, not to tell them who I am. You're quite right. Much rests on this first caravan succeeding. But I would not have word of my presence get out. You are not the only one whom enemies would like to see dead."

"A good idea, I think. There have not been many caravans of such value. At least, not ones where several great powers would pay so much just for the heads of the people on it."

"I know," said Iskander. "I think you should put it about that the knights are outfitting to go overland to Rome. That might be best. You have my word, and you have my honor: they will get through my territories alive, while I remain alive to see that they do. You may tell the knights and the envoy that. Even outside of Illyria, my honor is known."

Benito took his hand firmly. "I am proud to be adopted into your clan for that reason. It is a reputation that goes back many centuries."

Iskander smiled wryly. "Centuries… One day I will tell you the entire story, Benito Valdosta. It is much more complicated than you realize. But let us just say that there are few enough men of honor. We should stand together, because, clan or no clan, we are brothers of a kind."

"I know," said Benito simply. He felt an affinity with the man, and with his tiny beleaguered quarrelsome people, who still-against the odds-defied great powers both to the north and the south. It was clear that the liking cut both ways. He felt almost as if he was dealing with the elder brother Marco might have been, if they'd shared the same father. It might not be logical, but Benito knew that he could trust Iskander. He also knew why Iskander was Lord of the Mountains. Men would follow him, even these fractious hill-tribesmen.

***

The Mongol envoy's eyes looked sharp and slightly hooded. But at least he was smiling, which was an improvement on anger. "Of course, I will require certain guarantees. It was with such contingencies in mind that I asked that Prince Manfred and his Knights be accorded the status that was given to them by Bashar Ahmbien. But I believe that as long as he accompanies us the Ilkhan would not take it as an affront. I would be able to complete my mission. Thus all our parties would be satisfied."

Eberhart looked doubtful. "It is still fraught with some risks, Borshar Tarkhan. The person of Prince Manfred, for all that he thinks this is a good idea, is not one the Holy Roman Emperor is likely to put in harm's way again."

Borshar looked mulish. "It is a point of honor, Ritter. Either we are accorded the appropriate escort, to which you agreed, or we do not go."

"Let us have no further discussion on this matter," said Manfred firmly. "I have decided, and I am authorized to speak for the emperor. In this case I will speak for him about myself. The risks you speak of are small. Iskander Beg is known to be a man of his word. So are the Mongols, especially on matters of diplomatic protocol, and the safety and treatment of envoys. That, I believe, covers us. We will accompany you."

Borshar bowed respectfully. "You conduct yourself with honor, Prince."

"I hope so," said Manfred. "It is the hallmark by which my mentor," he gave an ironic smile at Erik, "says great men and great nations are known. He sets a high standard for us."

"I shall see that meetings are arranged between yourself and the new khan of the Golden Horde," said the tarkhan. "As you are a man of rank and honor. If we can talk now of practicalities, we speak of a journey, overland, of some sixty leagues, I believe."

"More," said Falkenberg. "It's mountain country. But part of the route follows an old Roman road, and Benito has arranged provisioning and accommodation. We should, even estimating conservatively, have you there in twenty days. We are preparing for the journey with some extra packhorses. It has been set about that we will make a landing at Bari and that we will proceed overland to Rome and then on to Venice."

"That is slow travel by Mongol standards."

Von Gherens eyed him frostily, but said nothing.

Chapter 21

For Vlad, the days had passed in something of a blur. In fact, it was the countryside that had passed in something of a blur, and mostly they had passed through it in the dark. When they had stopped, especially in the first few days, he had simply been too exhausted to do more than eat and sleep. He had not cared quite what they had eaten, or that they had slept in haystacks, or caves, or a ruined barn. There were always fresh horses, and a change of horses. He was aware that this was not how noblemen usually lived, but at first he had not protested. At least the gypsies seemed to know where they were going, and just how to avoid the patrols. But after a week he was becoming fitter, and, he noticed that the party had visibly relaxed.

"We come to the edge of our range here," said Angelo. "We are still far from our heartland, but people around here gave some allegiance to your father. We will have a rest day tomorrow."

"Is it Sunday?" he asked.

The gypsies looked at each other. "I don't really know," said Grigori. "You tend to lose track of the days after a while. Town people keep track very well. We will have to find one and ask."

"I need to go to church," said Vlad, guilt washing over him.

The three gypsies looked at each other again. "It's not a place that sees us very often," admitted Angelo.

"You have less reason to fear for your souls than I do," said Vlad.

They did not seem inclined to argue with him about that.

"We will take a room at the inn," said Angelo.

The thought of sleeping in a bed was almost intoxicating. Vlad felt that he'd been something of a burden on their journey, that they could have traveled faster without him. He hoped that soon he would be back in some measure of control of his own destiny. He just wished that he knew what that destiny was, besides merely staying alive. The countess had said something about his father being dead, and his boyars needing him. He seemed to remember that his father had been furious and bitter with the boyars, and had said that they hated him just as much as he hated them. But Father Tedesco had said that time healed all wounds. Perhaps they had forgiven and forgotten.

After a week of hard riding and sleeping rough, all without any sign of fresh clothes or ablutions, beyond a splash in a stream and getting thoroughly wet crossing various rivers, a bath was going to be very welcome. They had not crossed a single river at a bridge, or by using a ferryman. The gypsies certainly knew how to find any ford. Some of the crossings, however, had involved a fair amount of swimming. That wasn't quite as pleasurable as washing in warm water, especially as they kept to the high ground, scantily populated, and heavily forested. The water in those wilderness rivers was bitterly cold. The gypsies hadn't seemed to care, so Vlad had not let them know just how cold he was finding it. Now, the prospect of warm water, a soft bed, clean linen, and possibly some clean clothes…

The innkeeper took one look at them, and picked up a big clumsy cudgel studded with bits of iron. "Get out of here!" he hissed, swinging the cudgel menacingly.

"We have silver to pay for food and lodging," said Angelo.

The innkeeper's expression did not soften. "Stolen, I'll warrant." He eyed them narrowly, still swinging his club. "Get out of my sight, you gypsy filth. If you come back, I'll break all of your skulls, you thieving vermin."

Vlad wished that he had that basic accouterment of a gentleman, a sword. He had been taught to fence. Indeed, he'd maintained a rigorous regimen of arms training for years, as much for the value of the exercise as the skills themselves. Of course, as a prisoner-say better, a hostage-he had been required to return the weapons to the armsmaster after each lesson and go unarmed again. Vlad knew full well that if he had a sword he could have killed this idiot in two seconds. A mace, in three.

"My good man," he said to the innkeeper, very coldly. "You forget that you are speaking to your prince. I have traveled long and far and we have offered you money. I have scant patience with those who abuse my subjects."

For a moment, it looked as if his hauteur had succeeded. The innkeeper's jaw and the cudgel both fell. Unfortunately, the innkeeper did not lose his grip on the cudgel, and recovered his jaw. He bobbed a sardonic bow. "Your Royal Highness! I didn't realize it was you."

The innkeeper turned slightly to address the two inmates of the tap-room-an old man, white bearded and rheumy-eyed, and a solid looking prosperous farmer, "Next he'll be telling me how lucky I am to have King Emeric, my sovereign and overlord, favor my humble establishment. Get out, you gypsy scum. You and all your filthy friends. Get out of my sight before I spatter your brains."

Something snapped inside Vlad. Vlad had been a hostage, but a nobleman, and treated as such. Even the gypsies treated him with respect. He could not remember quite how it happened afterward, but heartbeats later he had the innkeeper by the throat and held up at arms length. He had no idea where the strength came from. The man was both large and fat-but just then holding him seemed entirely effortless. In fact, he was only using his right hand to do so, having using his left to strip the innkeeper of his cudgel.

"You will treat me and my companions with courtesy and respect, you cur." He flung the innkeeper away from himself, to land sprawled and dazed against the far wall. Vlad stood there, his arms folded, and waited.

The man sat up slowly, fearfully. He felt his throat. His eyes were wide and round. The other inhabitants of the tap room had gotten to their feet, shocked by the sudden violence. "Why didn't you help me?" croaked the innkeeper.

The large farmer looked at Vlad warily-but the little old man limped forward and knelt.

"The dragon has returned," he said reverently. "My prince. I served with the pikemen at Khusk, when we broke the Hungarian charge. I was wounded there. You gave me twenty forint and ten acres of land. God has answered our prayers." There were tears on the old lined face. "Forgive me, Sire. My eyes are old, and I did not quite believe them. God has been good to me. I have lived to see your return."

He turned slightly to see the burly young man standing gaping. "Janoz!" he said sternly. "Boy, come and give your homage to our sovereign lord!"

Vlad had been told by several people that he had grown into the spitting image of his grandfather. That had been a man no one was indifferent toward, but either hated or loved. Mostly hated by the boyars and loved by the commoners, from what Vlad could tell. Of course, there were exceptions either way. Countess Elizabeth, for example.

Hated or loved, the dragon had always been feared. His justice, even to those who thought it just, was invariably savage.

Plainly, this old man thought Vlad and his grandfather were one and the same. He'd just referred to one of the prince of Valahia's greatest victories, when he had given the Hungarians a very bloody nose at Khusk. That victory had won a decade of peace for the lands this side of the Carpathians. It had also won the ruler of Valahia a reputation among Hungarians as a merciless and cruel madman-even by the standards of a nation ruled by Emeric.

Valahia's Transcarpathian lands were too small and poor to stand indefinitely against the might of Hungary, though. The dragon had held them off, but his successor has been made of weaker stuff. Vlad's father had been-by his own admission and by the bitter complaints that Vlad could still remember-little more than a figurehead, a proxy for rule from Buda.

Vlad reached out a hand to the old man and raised him up, as the large Janoz came forward uncertainly. The old man kissed his hand, smiling tremulously up at Vlad, though his tears still flowed. "If only my Rosa was alive to see this," he said.

Vlad was left without anything easy to say. He had never, that he could recall, had to deal with adulation before. And he certainly would not have expected it because an old man took him for his ferocious grandfather. Perhaps that was simply the reverence of an old trooper. His grandfather had treated his common soldiery well, by all accounts Vlad had heard. Apparently, the loyalty endured.

Vlad knew very little about ruling, but this struck him as something worth remembering.

"Lord…" said the young man, coming forward. His tone was respectful, if not reverential. He might not accept his father's conclusions, but he did accept that Vlad was no gypsy vagabond, despite appearances. "He is old. He wanders in his mind sometimes."

"His mind is a lot sharper than this stupid innkeeper's!" said Angelo, laughing.

"He has mistaken me for my grandfather," said Vlad. "I am sorry."

It took a few seconds for the implication of this statement to sink into the younger man's head. Then he too knelt, his eyes wide. "My Lord Prince… they seek you. They must not find you here."

"Who is looking for him?" asked Grigori.

"Soldiers," said the local farmer. "Some Magyar. Along with a troop of Croats. They were here the day before yesterday. Asking if we had seen you."

"They are closer behind than we realized," said Radu grimly.

Angelo nodded."I am surprised they dared to ask here. Rumor will spread."

"They do our work for us," said Grigori. "Telling people the prince is free. They will rouse the country."

"We must get him away from here," said Janoz. "Keep him hidden and safe from the Hungarians. Prince Vlad, my father served your grandfather. I would be your man. We need you, my prince. Drive these foreigners out, and make our land safe again."

"You need to raise an army, Drac," said Angelo with a twisted smile. "I think you just found your first recruit. "

The young man nodded earnestly up at him. "And I have four brothers, Sire. I am the youngest. And there are the Teleki brothers. And the Bolyai. And I would think among the boyar Klasparuj's peasantry…"

Vlad raised him up. "I accept your service. But right now I am tired, thirsty and I want to know if today is Sunday."

Janoz looked puzzled. "No, Sire. That was yesterday." He turned to the innkeeper. "Get up! Bring food and good ale. And the prince wants warm water."

"Have you run mad?" croaked the innkeeper, still massaging his throat. "He is no prince. Prince Vlad is locked up in Buda. This is a gypsy."

"I was able to make my escape," Vlad said tersely, restraining himself. There was a kind of madness pressing at him that wanted to take this fool and crush his throat. Vlad was quite sure right now that if he gave in, he would do it quite easily. Crush the throat and probably the spine in the process.

He'd always been strong-so, at least, he'd been told by his armsmasters. But now, he felt as if he possessed the strength of an ogre.

He took a deep breath. "I have been hunted hard and far. But now I am ready to begin to turn the game against them. And I want warm water, a razor, soap and a towel. We may not be able to stay here in safety, but I will wash and shave. And we will have something to eat. And all of this will happen very quickly or I shall wring the life out of you. I have suffered you in patience long enough."

Whether the innkeeper believed him, or whether he saw the way Vlad's long fingers twitched and remembered their iron feel on his throat, it had the desired effect. "Yes, Lord." The man scrambled to his feet and left for his kitchen at a staggering run, belly and dewlaps quivering.

Angelo pointed to Janoz. "Follow him. Make sure that he does not season the food with henbane. I've no love for all this washing, but food and beer are going to be very welcome."

Vlad nodded. "And you, old sir, are going to sit down and tell me how things are going in the principality. I have been locked up in a tower in Buda. I need to know what is happening here. I need to know what my people need."

Vlad was vaguely surprised at himself. But he found that he really did wish to know these things. "I will not forget that you were the first to welcome me home, and that your son was the first to offer himself to my service."

Vlad found that he could scarcely have picked on a more eager informant. In a cracked old voice, the veteran told him of increasing taxes and-worse still, from his viewpoint-of Emeric's campaign of creeping Hungarianization of Valahia. He was encouraging settlers into the country with generous offers of land or permissions, to displace the local people, especially the tradesmen. The foreigners were naturally more loyal to Emeric than to the Prince of Valahia. They were given privileges and licenses-for instance, smithy permissions, which were refused to metalsmiths that had been working here for centuries.

There was an outraged shout from the kitchen. Vlad, and the gypsies went through to find Janoz struggling with the innkeeper, and the back door open. "He waited till my back was turned and then tried to sneak off," panted Janoz. "He tried to tell me earlier that we must call the magistrate."

Vlad found that the strange fury was rising in him again, like some inner dark tide. Perhaps it showed in his eyes because the innkeeper made a desperate attempt to break free-and succeeded. Unfortunately for him, not into the stable-yard outside, but toward the pantry.

The innkeeper snatched up a long knife from the butcher's block, and that was where Vlad's memory of the incident stopped. When Vlad next came to himself he was holding the man, now limp and upside down, with his face pressed hard into a bucket of slops.

He blinked. How had he come to be doing this? He hauled the innkeeper out of the bucket and stood him upright. The fat innkeeper toppled over, very slowly. Looking down, Vlad noticed that his own hands were bloody. So was Janoz, who was sitting on the floor, his face white, blood leeching onto his shirt.

Vlad stood irresolute for a moment, not knowing quite how he had come to be where he was, and not knowing quite what to do next. Fortunately, it would appear that the gypsies did have some idea. Grigori knelt next to the injured Janoz and tore the shirt aside, exposing the wound in his chest. It gaped and bled, blood coming in bubbling thick spurts. His father hobbled up, horror and despair on his face.

"He took the blade intended for the prince," said Angelo.

Vlad too knelt next to the wounded man. "Get us a physician. Run, man." He looked at the face of the young man. "And a priest!" he yelled after him.

***

They carried him through to the tap-room and laid him on a settle. His father held one hand, and Vlad the other.

The village had no physician. The midwife was doing her best, as the priest gave the man the last rites. Someone had gone to call Janoz's kin.

"He is trying to say something." The priest leaned in. So did Vlad. The dying man turned his head to the latter. "My Prince," he said weakly. "Mira…"

And that was all he would ever say in this world.

"Who did he call for?" asked Vlad a little later, as they drew the linen over his face.

"You, Sire. And his wife."

Vlad was silent. Then he said, heavily: "He had a wife?"

"A wife and a young son, Sire," said the old man.

"I must see them. I swear this," said Vlad, his voice cracking. "If I come to rule, that son will have lands so wide that he will not see the borders from his home. Your son was my first man. I will never forget that."

"You killed the scum with your own hands, Sire. Drowned him in his own kitchen's filth. Justice is served, at least."

"I should have killed him earlier," said Vlad bitterly. "If I had, a fine man would not have died."

The old man nodded. "I just wish I could have died in his place. I am old. But he died well and with honor, my Prince," he said, shakily.

Vlad put a gentle hand on the old stooped shoulder. "He died with great honor, and acted with courage where many a knight would have failed. I will see him remembered for it, and honored. I swear to this. And now will you have someone take me to his widow. I must speak with her."

***

"He is becoming more of a prince by the moment," said Radu in a slightly grumpy tone. "He has not yet understood that we are not his subjects."

Angelo shrugged. "It is the place, and the blood, and of course the old magic. It runs stronger in some than others. It runs dangerously strong in this one. And the light and darkness are closely balanced in him. When he is killing, the dark could dominate."

He took a deep breath. "We need to renew the compact. The old one did not die in vain."

"She did work some of her magic on him," said Grigori. "I can smell it about him."

Angelo shrugged again. "He has to be strong enough to throw that off, or he will be too weak for the blood pact. We can but bide our time."

Grigori nodded. "Still. He accepts responsibility well. And he is stronger than his father."

"We just need to hope that he is more stable than his grandfather. Breeding these bloodlines is not easy," said Radu.

"True," said Angelo. "But what other choices do we have? We need them. We need the compact. There are more human settlers every year. And we need space to run."

"I need space to run now. I need to hunt, properly," said Grigori, who was if anything, far more wolf than human.

***

In the little church Vlad kept vigil by the corpse. He prayed for his man's soul. He prayed for his own soul too. Something dark was rising in him. Something he was not sure he could control.

And part of him wanted to let it free.

Chapter 22

Duke Enrico Dell'este stood and pored over the layer of maps that almost entirely covered the vast expanse of table that he had commandeered. So far the only final strategic decision that he had been able to reach was that he needed a bigger table.

"As I said to Lodovico, it's all very well," he grumbled to Petro Dorma when the Doge came down to inquire how his planning was going, "to talk of strategies and of how we will deal with various obstacles. But you cannot plan in a void of information. We have so little knowledge of what is actually happening in Byzantium, let alone the Black Sea. We don't know for sure quite what Genoa will bring to the conflict. We don't know if the other states appealed to will contribute any forces at all."

"I have here a digest of some of the latest reports to come in from our various agents," said Petro. "Some ships just got in, bearing word."

"I would appreciate it still more if they would bring that jackanapes of a grandson of mine back here. What have they to say?"

"The most interesting one comes from Puglia, of all places. It would seem that Emperor Alexis is trying very hard to recruit some mercenary commanders. Fortunately for us, his reputation precedes him. His promises are worthless. And he has very little hard cash to offer."

"I can think of a few that it might be worth our while to pay to have go to his 'rescue'," said the Old Fox. "Most of the condottieri are not worth half the money they are paid. And what else, Doge Dorma? You have asked me to help with your strategy. I cannot do this without information. In northern Italy I have a fine network of spies and agents. I know who is buying supplies to outfit campaigns. I know who is moving where. But I really cannot afford to do the same for Byzantium and places further afield. My pouch is not as deep as that of Venice."

"And I wish that the Council of Ten would agree to let me spend quite as lavishly there, as you do here," said Petro. "But for what it is worth, now that we know what we are looking for, we have confirmation from Odessa. Some of Jagiellon's troops are building up in a camp outside the city. And although the agent I have there has not been able to leave the city, he has some rumors of a fleet. Several shipwrights have disappeared from the city, taken in the early morning by soldiers of the voivode. On the other hand we have no news from the Golden Horde, except via the same agent. They were due to hold their kurultai-that's essentially a vast electoral meeting to choose a new khan-in a week's time. The kurultai typically go on for a while, but even so, they must have a new khan soon. Other than that, Alexis prepares himself for conflict, but is trying to do so in secret. We have a great deal of detail about that, and about the defenses prepared for Constantinople."

"I truly hate trying to plan a campaign with such extended lines of supply and communication. By and large the fleets are going to have to operate completely independently. The Black Sea fleet is still sitting in Trebizond. We could have used their strength. I am not even sure just when they will be able to sail. I cannot get a straight answer from Admiral Douro."

Petro laughed. "Benito will get answers out of him, or if not from him then from the masters at the Arsenal, as I found last time. Benito was good at it."

"I am glad to hear that I am good at something, anyway," said Benito Valdosta, from the doorway.

"Benito!" bellowed Enrico Dell'este. "You hell-born boy! What has taken you so long, eh?"

The gruff comment was completely at variance with his beam of pleasure. He had spent most of his life carefully distancing himself from his two grandsons, for their own safety. It was likely that Marco Valdosta would succeed him. The boy would do well, would be much beloved by the populace-the root of Dell'este power. But there was no doubt that the younger brother-as much a devil as the older one was a saint-filled a larger place in Enrico's heart. True, given half an opportunity, Enrico would kill the man who had fathered the boy, for what he had done to his errant daughter. But that was not Benito's fault. Enrico had moved far past any feelings of that kind. The boy had proved himself every inch a Dell'este!

He wore the colors of the house of Dell'este on the tassels of his sword-scabbard, Enrico noted with pride. He hugged him, fiercely. "I ask again, what has kept you so long? Petro, let us have some good wine!"

"Lodovico kept me. And some good wine. Quite a lot of good wine. If I have any more I will be awash, and I will want to see the town, instead of concentrating on these maps. Lodovico sent me here, eventually. I have yet to find my brother. Lodovico has gone in search of his daughter and son-in-law for me."

"As far as I know," said Petro, "he is treating patients at the St. Raphaella chapel."

"I should have guessed," said Benito. He pointed at the table. "I have been collecting maps myself. But you have a few more than I do."

"Still not enough, and not enough information either," said Dell'este grumpily.

"Well, I have some more. And I have taken some steps." Benito bowed to the Doge. "Which I hope you'll approve of. Time being of the essence, I did these on my own cognizance."

"Why am I suddenly afraid?" asked Petro Dorma with a small smile. "What have you done?"

"You know the letter that I sent you about Iskander Beg? About reaching an agreement to reopen the Via Egnata to trade."

Enrico raised his eyebrows. "You did not tell me about that, Petro."

"It is a commercial possibility," said the doge. "The problem lies with the Bulgars, if we wish to use that route to access the Black Sea. Otherwise, it is probably cheaper and easier to move cargoes by sea rather than overland to Constantinople."

"You should occasionally see things in other terms besides commerce," said Enrico dryly. "If it is possible to cross the Lord of the Mountains' lands with a decently large land army…"

"It will not work," interrupted Benito. "Iskander Beg is not going to allow foreign soldiers to use his land as an access route. For starters, it would probably break his hold on the mountain tribes. For a second, he has to live with two nations that are hostile to us on his borders. We do not intend to try and hold Constantinople. At least, I hope not. Iskander Beg would be left with a furious neighbor. He can hold the Byzantines, or Hungary. But if they both attacked him, which they would if they saw him in close military alliance with us, the Illyrians would at best be severely punished."

"True enough," admitted the Old Fox. "But we could at least use the Illyrians to gather some decent intelligence."

"Well," said Benito, "I hope that I have done that and a little more. There are commercial possibilities too. I gather you had a message delivered from Jerusalem by magical means."

"Yes," said Petro. "The more conventional paper confirmation arrived by fast galleass a few days ago. It filled in some of the detail that was missing from the magical communication. Our friend, Prince Manfred of Brittany, has been a busy man."

"Not as busy as he's going to be," said Benito. "I have sent him and the remaining Knights of the Holy Trinity across the Balkans, to escort a party of Mongols and the Ilkhan envoy to the Golden Horde. Apparently, he is in rather a unique position to negotiate with them, and the Ilkhan Mongols can hopefully shift the election of a new khan for the Golden Horde in our favor."

Petro pulled a wry face. "It's too late for that, I'm afraid. They've had their electoral meeting."

"I knew it was too good an idea to work," said Benito irritably. "Well, at least Manfred is in a good position to negotiate with whoever they have elected kahn. He may still save us some fighting. And at least he is safe as a diplomatic envoy among them."

"Like the fleet sitting at Trebizond, I wish we could get hold of him to tell him what was happening," said Petro.

"Ah. The fleet has already left Trebizond," said Benito. "Apparently the Mongols tried to negotiate a passage with the Venetian vessels. But they had already sailed. I heard that from Eberhart."

"That's very early. Something must have been worrying them. They can hardly have full holds yet," said Petro.

"Those two factors considerably alter our strategies," said Enrico. "I presume you've arranged for information to flow back with your devious Illyrian friend. Can he be trusted, by the way?. Never mind, that's a stupid question. You would hardly have sent Manfred of Brittany off with the Illyrians otherwise."

"Yes to both questions. Iskander Beg is both a devious and dangerous man. He's also an extremely honorable one, in my judgment. The greatest danger that we could suffer is that someone could kill him. He makes a wonderful thorn in the side of Emeric of Hungary." Benito smiled. "He admits, by the way, that he left Emeric alive after the Corfu campaign, because he would sooner have an enemy he knows is an incompetent idiot, than have to deal with the successor who might be more able."

The Old Fox raised his eyebrows. "A sensible man, if not one of nature's optimists."

Benito shrugged. "There is little enough about his land to encourage optimism. It's hard and poor, most of it. And the tribesmen thrive on raids and feuds that go on for generations. But he is a thinker, and a clever and learned man, despite where he lives, and his rustic people. He has studied your campaigns, by the way, grandfather. I think if he had more resources, and possibly more people, Byzantium and Hungary would have to watch that they were not consumed by him. I would rather have him as a friend than an enemy. Venice might be wise to let him profit a little from the overland trade, even if it costs us some short-term profit. But, if Manfred can reach some accommodation with the Golden Horde, that would open up a route to the lower Danube." He smiled at Petro's expression. "Yes, I thought that would appeal."

"Petro, you look like a fox dreaming of unguarded hen roosts," said the man who was called the Old Fox himself.

"He's probably," said Benito speculatively, "dreaming of the possibility that Alexis will successfully bottle up the sea route to the Black Sea ports. That would exclude the Genoese, and any other traders, and give Venice a large advantage, if not a virtual monopoly. Even for a year or two, that could make an almost obscene amount of money."

Petro eyed him suspiciously. "If you should ever consider entering the services of another state, Benito, I will have a hard time persuading the Council of Ten that you are not a practitioner of black magic and an enemy of the Venetian Republic, and a suitable target for our assassins. And that," he said to Enrico, "is by way of a joke, my friend. So you can take that expression off your face. Venice loves him far too much. He's just too astute for his own good."

"I took business-cunning lessons from the best," said Benito, grinning at the former head of the trading house of Dorma. "So how is my old enemy Admiral Douro slowing things down this time? I must get across to the Arsenal later. I have some friends to chase along."

"I'll walk with you," said Enrico Dell'este. "We can take a canal-boat. It will be better if you surprise them, the way you surprised me."

A little later they were out of the Doge's palace, and away from the easy listening of spies. Benito turned to his grandfather. "Your man Antimo Bartelozzi, grandfather. Would there be any possibility of sending him to Constantinople? On a certain commission for me… well, for Venice. I'll have to talk to Petro about money."

His grandfather looked at him strangely. And shook his head. "You can't send a man to a place where he already is, Benito."

"I should have guessed."

The Old Fox clapped his favorite grandson on the shoulder. "And I should have guessed you'd ask. Petro knows, but not whom."

The sun was setting. Benito paused for a moment, to gaze upon the sight. Some trace of melancholy must have come to his face, for Enrico asked: "Thinking of your friends?"

Benito hadn't been, actually. He'd been thinking that mid-summer would soon enough pass, and that before too many more months went by Maria would vanish into the underworld. There, she'd spend the winter as the wife of Aidoneus.

As always, the thought was… hard to handle. But Benito didn't want to get into that discussion with his grandfather. So, he nodded his head.

"Yes. I have no idea when I'll see Prince Manfred and Erik again."

If I ever do, came the additional thought. But he left that unspoken. There was enough of melancholy, for the moment.

The Old Fox clapped him on the shoulder again. "Some wine, I say!"

Benito smiled. "Splendid idea."

PART II

August, 1540 A.D.

Chapter 23

The trail was wreathed in mist. It was cold and damp, and it clung and eddied about the riders, swirling around them. For Dana of Valahia it was just the final chapter of this entire terrifying misadventure. Why had mother decided that they had to leave at midnight? She was exhausted, and so was her horse. If they'd left quietly just after complin or even a little before lauds they'd have got just as far from Poienari Castle by now. As it was, it was a miracle they hadn't been caught.

Actually, they had been caught, while leaving through the wicket gate. Fortunately, by one of their own guards, not those horrible disrespectful Hungarian boors that King Emeric had sent just after Papa died. The guard commander had kept his silence. If only he'd come with them instead!

Dana could only curse her brother Vlad and his escape. Before that, Mother had talked resignedly of an arranged marriage, which Dana didn't look forward to. But wasn't that better than running away and living like vagabonds, hoping the Danesti cousins would hide them? Mother thought it better than letting them take her daughter as a hostage too. Dana wasn't so sure anymore.

They'd gotten lost, in the dark down in the valley, out of the moonlight. Dana would have sworn there was only one trail and the one fork. But the solitary scared manservant was no better at finding the trail than she was. They should have taken the fork. It would have taken them up the steep switchbacks to St Tifita's chapel, and then back down onto this trail twenty miles further on.

Instead, just when they could not afford the time, they had taken the long trail. She had told her mother that they had passed it. Told her at least three times. Bertha had not been listening. She was too sunk in panic, too afraid. And now, the dawn was just starting to come on. Any moment, the sun might break through the mist.

They had not yet come to the point below St Tifita's where the shortcut would have come out. They came around the corner, and found the trail blocked. Now, just when they could least afford to lose even more time! The trail was full of multicolored carts, donkeys, ponies, geese, even a few goats. And lots of raggle-taggle gypsies, their bright eyed dirty children herding livestock, the adults tending the carts.

"Get them out of our way," said her mother, her voice slightly shrill. "Quickly."

The manservant pressed forward, yelling at the gypsies and flapping ineffectually at their livestock, their jeering children, and the stolid horses drawing the carts. Nervously, Mama began pushing her way after him. Dana followed, trying to keep her horse as close to her mother's as possible. They hadn't gotten very far into the crowd when a tall old man with wavy white hair and a crooked beak of a nose leapt down from the seat of his cart and grabbed the two bridles.

"Unhand our horses, gypsy!" Mother was making a determined effort to sound autocratic and in complete control. It was rather spoiled by the squeak at the end of the last word.

"Just trying to help, lady," he said in a deep gravelly voice, his eyes under those heavy brows bright and sharp. He didn't look like he had ever helped anyone in his life. Or been polite to them either. But he did doff his hat.

"Let go of our horses. We are in a hurry, varlet," said the dowager duchess.

He shook his head. "The boys saw the Hungarians climbing the trail to St. Tifita's, Lady. They're ahead of you. And coming up behind you on fresh horses. But we can hide you."

"Are you mad?" Her voice squeaked again. Then she slumped in the saddle. "Oh God. There must be another trail…"

"For goats, maybe." The gypsy raised an eyebrow at their mounts. "Not for spoiled horse-flesh."

"But you're gypsies…"

"We don't mind lowering ourselves a little," said the gypsy. "For the House of Valahia, that is. We have an arrangement with your family, you might say. It's why we are here, Lady. Word came from the north that the Drac has returned to his own. We come to honor a bargain."

Dana had worn old clothes at her mother's instance. Mother too was dressed in an old riding habit that she would not normally be seen dead in. They both wore hooded cloaks. How did this man know who they were?

"Bargain…?" said Bertha.

"With the old Drac." The silver haired gypsy grinned. "He gave us the right to camp on the field below the cliffs of Poienari Castle." That seemed to be a joke.

"Mother…" said Dana.

"Be quiet. I must think. Dear God." Bertha turned to the gypsy again. "Drac. In the north. Do you mean… my son?" There was hope and fear in her voice.

"Yes. He comes to fulfill the old bargain, maybe. The Hungarians kept your man from it."

There was a shrill whistle from the ridge. "That's Radu. The Hungarian troopers are arriving. He can hear them from the ridge."

"Mother, my horse is going lame. Let them hide us," said Dana.

The gypsy nodded. "Good girl." As if she wasn't the daughter of the dowager princess of Valahia and the sister of the prince, but one of the ragamuffin children crowding around them!

He reached up a hand. "Here. Let me help you down, and then you get into my cart with my Silvia. No time to change your appearance now. Hide under the sheepskins."

The gypsy helped her down from the saddle, and someone else helped her mother down. They were hustled to the bright-painted cart hung with a clatter of pots and kettles, and pushed inside by a little woman who looked every inch a fairy-tale witch.

"You keep still," she hissed. "Climb under the skins in case they look inside."

Looking back, Dana saw that the saddles and tack had already been stripped off their horses, and some brat was smearing her beautiful grey with mud. The old woman pushed her forward. "But our saddlebags…" protested mother. Gypsies were thieves. Everyone knew that. And they had as much silver as they'd been able to gather and mother's jewelry case in those saddlebags.

The old woman cackled. "Stay alive first. Then you worry about your saddlebags and your pretties."

There was a pile of old sheepskins and blankets in the cart. They ducked under the hanging bric-a-brack of a traveling pot-mender, and bunches of drying herbs and tools, to reach them. The old woman lifted the skins up, and the two of them slipped underneath.

They were probably full of lice, thought Dana. But at least they were lying down. Dana felt her mother cling to her. What had happened to the footman, she wondered? Somehow she doubted if the gypsies' hospitality extended to him.

Then they heard the sound of hooves. Hard-ridden horses. "Stand aside, you scum!" yelled someone in Hungarian. Did he think that the gypsies would understand? By the yells and the braying and the gabbling of the geese, the soldiers were making them understand.

"You!" shouted a voice authoritatively.

"Yes, Lord?" It was the gravelly voice of the man who had hidden them. It would appear that he at least spoke Hungarian.

"Have you seen anyone come past this morning?"

"No, Lord. Not since last night."

"When?" demanded the Hungarian.

"It was dark. We heard them come past, riding hard."

"Hell's teeth! What other trails are there around here?"

"I do not know, Lord. Many, maybe. We only come here once a year. To the field below the castle."

"Is that where you're headed now?"

"Yes, Lord. We stay for three days and then we go on."

"Not a day too soon, I'll bet. We're looking for two women. A woman with grey hair, a little stout, and a girl you can't make a mistake about. White face, and dead straight black hair. She'd be about on the edge of womanhood. If you see them, send word up to the castle."

"They beat us if we go there, Lord," the gypsy said dubiously.

"Tell them you have a message for Lieutenant Hasrafa. Now get yourself out of our road!"

They waited in the dark for a few minutes. "You can come out now," said the crone. "They're gone."

"We must get onto our horses and go," said Bertha. "They'll catch Hermann. He will tell them…"

The old woman snorted with laughter. "He's lost his horse. The boys have led him up into the gorge. The horse won't tell them much. And by the time he gets back to the castle we'll see he doesn't either." She peered at Dana. "You look all in, little one. When last did you eat? You can tell old Tante Silvia. I have four granddaughters your age."

"Where are we going?" asked her mother fearfully.

"Poienari Castle. We have the right to camp in the field at the base of the cliff."

"But we just fled from there…"

The old woman smiled wickedly. "If you are going to steal a chicken, the best place to hide it is inside the owner's hencoop while he looks everywhere else."

Chapter 24

"This," said Falkenberg, "is not the kind of country you want to have to cross with siege cannon."

Erik looked at the mountainside and the trail that had wound its way up. It was beautiful country, in a stark kind of way. "It's certainly not the kind of place you'd want to try and cross if there were hostiles ready to ambush you."

Falkenberg nodded. "Even with a lot of light cavalry scouting for you. There are too many good spots to drop arrows or rocks onto the trail."

"It's a good thing that we have the locals scouting for us." Manfred pointed to two of the Illyrian escorts on the upper arm of the hairpin bend. "Although it does raise the question of why they should feel the need to."

Erik shrugged. "It's a bit like the feuding tribes and clans in the mountains in Vinland. Most of them have some kind of grudge with their neighbors, usually so long ago that they've forgotten quite what it was about. They'll come together to fight a common enemy, or to raid a profitable target, but the rest of the time they fight each other. Just to keep in practice."

"I'd rather that they fought with each other than with us. They've got no armor to speak of, but this is good country for archery and ambushes." Falkenberg surveyed the slope with a professional eye. "Still, I will grant that whoever this Iskander Beg friend of Benito's is, he can organize. We are making better time than I'd expected."

***

David rode close behind the three Knights, listening. He was scared half out of his wits. He had thought that he was adapting to the strangeness. But that had been in the closed confines of the ship, where he'd still been his normal confident self. He'd recaptured that confidence quickly enough once he got over the initial shocks, and had done some learning: basic things like how to muck out well, and how not to try anything clever on Kari.

That hadn't stopped him taking enormous delight in setting up the tall blonde Ritter with the Mongol lessons. On thinking about it, though, that had probably been quite stupid. Kari, who in David's opinion would pick a fight for fun with a dragon, treated Erik with serious deference. But David had really thought that in among the rubes in the tiny town on that godforsaken island, that he would be cock-of the-whoop. Then that old woman had caught him. He'd been pathetically grateful at being rescued by what passed as the local police! If word of that ever got back to Jerusalem he'd probably have to stay away for ever.

And then there was the very young man that they called-so respectfully-Milor' Valdosta. He'd been laughing at Jerusalem's finest, David was sure. Well, he was sure of it now. At the time he'd been terrified. He'd been, David had to admit, nauseatingly grateful to see Kari and Erik. Even if they were going to beat him. Which they hadn't, oddly enough.

And then, just when he thought he could reassert his self-confidence with yet another neatly placed language trap, Erik had set him up. Thank God that he had made him use the phrase on Lord Tulkun. The Mongol was too plump and too good-humored to take it the wrong way. Besides he understood far more Frankish than he ever let on. But Erik now seemed onto his tricks.

And Erik and Tulkun were clumsily talking. David had resolved to be a lot more careful in the future. He was going to listen and learn a little before he tried anything.

He was so busy listening and learning that he nearly got himself killed when things next went wrong.

"Scatter!" yelled Erik.

David blinked. What was "scatter"? Some kind of wild animal? Then, as the column of knights divided and spread, putting their heels into their huge mounts with the calm skill of professional soldiers, who know when to obey orders, he realized that what Erik meant. Scatter because someone is shooting at us, and there are a lot of arrows in the air…

The knights were armored. He wasn't.

Both the Mongol party and their Illyrian escort had drawn bows. The difference was that the Mongols were already riding hell for leather and the Illyrians were trying to still their horses. Several bangs and puffs of smoketestified to wheel-lock pistols being used.

David's horse did not like the noise. It was not a warhorse and had not been training for battle. Ironically, that probably saved his life. The horse reared, and David fell off.

A black-fletched arrow cut into his shoulder as he sat up, just as Kari galloped past and snatched him off the ground. "You damn fool! Didn't you hear Erik? Pamolai's claws! How badly are you hit?"

Almost fainting with pain, David tugged at the arrow. "Leave it. It'll have to be pushed through," Kari said, pulling his horse up behind a huge boulder. Somehow he managed to dismount, still holding David in one arm. "Erik said that he wanted you to be a lesson to me," said Kari grimly. "The first bit of decent action we've seen, and I'm babysitting. Now let's see that arrow."

He tore aside the cloth of David's cotte and shirt. "You're a lucky brat. It'll have to wait a few minutes but you'll be fine. Those Mongols are the finest horse archers I've ever seen. Better even that the skraelings on Vinland's plains. I think there are some very surprised and very dead Illyrians."

***

The knights had divided neatly, according to their training. Manfred's bodyguard kept in tight formation around him. The rest of the heavy horses thundered up the pass. Their attackers had hidden in some rocks where they had thought that they could escape up the next hairpin zigzag. What they hadn't anticipated was just how fast the knights' horses could gallop once they got moving. They also hadn't anticipated just how agile the ponies of the Mongols could be. The Mongols had not stuck to the trail-and they were capable of shooting very accurately from the back of a cantering horse.

The panicked ambushers tried to flee. But the knights were less than a hundred yards off by then. That was not enough time to get their own mounts up to full speed. The rushing wall of lance points caught up with them and swept them off their horses.

There was little for the Illyrian escort to do, except dismount and cut throats, which they seemed to do with great relish. In the meanwhile, the Mongol were scouring the mountainside. The entire ambush had resulted in one dead packhorse and one injured horseboy-and fifteen dead bandits.

"We were supposed to panic, and flee, and then they'd loot the pack-train," said the Illyrian captain, kicking one of the bodies. "It's a favorite trick around here. What gave you warning, Lord?" He asked Erik curiously.

"I heard the arrows coming," said Erik. "One of them had a loose fletching. It makes a characteristic noise."

The Illyrian looked at him with wary respect.

Erik too had learned something in the ambush. He had heard just how well the Mongol could shoot from a moving horse, and now he had seen proof of it. That, and the agility of the men and their ponies had probably made a good few of the knights of the Holy Trinity reassess them. Admittedly, this was a hand-picked and elite group, both of Mongols and of Knights.

He turned to Kari. "You'd better start teaching that hell-born brat some basic military discipline and skills. I'll not have his death on my hands and conscience, just because he sits around going 'huh?' when he's told to move. I'm surprised he didn't try to argue about it."

"The very thought that had gone through my mind," said Kari, swatting David relatively gently on the uninjured shoulder. "Mind you, we could just use him for target practice. That way he would at least die for a purpose."

Erik favored both of them with twisted half smile. "On second thoughts, let Von Gherens and Falkenberg train him. They have not enough work to do. They normally instruct novices."

***

Iskander Beg, masquerading as the captain of the party's Illyrian escort, watched and listened. He had been somewhat embarrassed by the ambush that his men had missed. Fortunately, it had failed spectacularly, and he'd learned a little more about the two parties he was escorting. Enough to realize that there was a large difference in quality between these Knights of the Holy Trinity and King Emeric's heavy Magyar cavalry. The spiky armor might look archaic, but there was nothing archaic about their drill. He had noticed that, even though they were on the march, they still practiced every morning. The fact that they, and not a pack of servants, tended the horses was interesting. Benito had said they were a monastic order, but still…

He was glad that they were mostly engaged in combat in the far north.

The Mongols were less of a surprise. In the uncertain border region near the Danube, where you could as easily encounter Bulgars, Hungarian patrols, and the occasional Golden Horde Mongol, the Illyrians had had first hand experience of Mongol horsemanship and archery. It would appear that, despite differences in dress and appearance, these Ilkhan were much the same as their cousins in the Golden Horde. Iskander did not think that he would like them for southern neighbors. Better that the Byzantine Empire remained as a buffer between him and them. He had a feeling that they would be intolerant about raids and far better at dealing with steep hill country than the Byzantines.

Still, best to be shot of the lot of them. This had been, in terms of gold, a profitable exercise. Benito had been quite right about that. But there was also something to be said for keeping them out of the heartland of his people. Although that that could just be prejudice. And a little embarrassment.

Chapter 25

Vlad had arrived in the village as a vagabond. Now, it would seem that he was their prince. But he was deeply troubled over what he had done. He was even more troubled that he could not remember doing it. And the death of the freeman-the first man to ever volunteer to serve him-cut him to the quick. Yes, the fellow was barely a step up from the peasantry, not that different from the servants who had been assigned to him in Buda-but being there at his death, Vlad had realized that he was human too.

The priest had been little help with this inner conflict. He was a simple country cleric, as much afraid of Vlad as was possible without physically turning tail and running. The villagers and the small farmers and handful of peasants seemed to hold their prince in a kind of reverent awe. Not respect. Not even terror, as he had partly expected.

He'd thought at first that it was merely the reaction from an old soldier, who had reason to know gratitude. But it seemed to be a general reaction. The local point of view obviously differed greatly from that of the Hungarians.

The other thing that Vlad had found deeply troubling was the fact that, except in name, he still was a vagabond. And it appeared that in the world outside his tower, money was a real need. Not, it would seem, for himself, or at least not now. He had been given the finest raiment the village people had to offer-spare breeches and a cotte from the priest, who wore a cassock most of the time. They were black, as befitted the priest's profession. He was given a special shirt saved for weddings by a small landowner. With those gifts, Vlad had come to understand poverty a little better. Someone labored over cleaning his old clothes while another had darned his shirt, marveling over the fineness of the cloth.

Food, too, was their gift, as was drink. He'd been unprepared for the fiery plum liquor. He was even more unprepared for the women who seemed to be making certain overtures. He was uncertain how to take them.

But there were other things. They had come to him, that very afternoon. Two of them, young, tousle-haired and scared. "We wish," said the slightly shorter of the two, "to join your army, Drac. We can fight."

Vlad had been startled. Yes, Janoz had volunteered to be his man, but it hadn't strictly occurred to Vlad that that meant soldier, or that the prince of Valahia's presence in the Carpathians meant certain war.

"I…"

"You will need them," said Angelo.

"You will need a lot more than just them," said the old soldier. He seemed to be escaping from the grief of losing his son by casting himself into the role of Vlad's advisor. Vlad absorbed it all like a sponge. Perhaps he was coming at rule from a different and wrong perspective. It was not something Emeric had had him tutored in. He would take whatever advice was available, and gratefully.

"You will need a lot more men, and good weapons, sire. The best you can hope for around here are a few boar spears or an old halberd or two."

"I had not thought about all of this," said Vlad humbly. Yes, the man had just been a peasant levy, but he still knew more of war than his prince did.

"Well, Sire…" The old man rubbed his temples. "In my day, this was good country to recruit from. There were lots of bowmen needed, and most of the boys around here can pull a bow fairly well, although light bows and fowling pieces are what they have mostly used. But these days, seems to me, you need arquebuses. They can be had, there are some fine weapons being made, especially by those damned Poles, but they'll cost you a fair amount of gold. You will need cavalry and some cannon, too. You'll not find any of our people who would make fit cavalry, Sire. The only trained men are in the service of the boyars.

"My sons will come to join you, sire," said the old man proudly. " Only, I was hoping we could get some of the harvest in. There is Janoz's widow. We'll need to provide for her too, and it will be hard."

Vlad knew that it was in fact his duty to provide for her, now. Father Tedesco had instilled that in him. Perhaps the old priest had been looking to his own future, but Vlad had already seen, first hand, the value of loyalty. The problem was that at the moment he had not as much as one silver piece to his name. Money rested in two groups in Valahia: the tradesmen and the nobility, not the peasants, villagers or a handful of small freeholders. Somehow he must win the support of at least one of the groups of the powerful and wealthy.

A liveried serving man knocked respectfully at the door of the inn which had, by force of circumstances, become his headquarters. The old soldier scowled at the newcomer. "And now, Benedickt? I thought you had become too good for us village people?"

"I have a message," said the servant loftily, "from my master for Prince Vlad. He would offer the duke hospitality. Where do I find him, you old fool?"

The insolence galvanized him. "You speak to him," said Vlad coldly. "And I suggest if you wish to keep your head on your shoulders, you rapidly learn some respect for your betters."

The lackey did a double-take. Quickly he assessed the posture, tone and attitude of the man he was facing-and bowed hastily. "I beg your pardon, Sire. I just came in out of the brightness. I thought it was only the old… ah, gentleman."

Vlad had noticed one thing about himself. Although he had been out in the weather, and even some sunlight, his skin was not browned like the gypsies or the locals. His skin was very pale and his hair and moustache were jet black. If this fellow could see the old soldier in the somewhat dim lighting in the inn, he could certainly see Vlad.

Still, he reminded himself sharply, the boyars could provide him with cavalry. And as the major landowners, they had money. He knew that much.

"Very well," he said. "I will come."

The man bowed again. "The master will have a horse sent for you."

"That would be appreciated," said Vlad, thinking that the boyar Klasparuj was very well informed.

***

Later that afternoon, two footmen returned with a spirited black stallion, tacked up with a beautiful saddle of the finest leather. It was such a horse that Vlad had always imagined he would ride. The joy of mounting it set aside any doubts that he might have had about the wisdom of visiting the boyar. So, accompanied by a footman on a bay gelding-itself a horse that was a long step up from most of those he had ridden in the last week-he set off for the home of the local overlord.

There was certainly nothing lacking in the welcome he got at the fortified manor house. Klasparuj himself came out to greet him, bowing deeply, and kissing his hand. "It is indeed as the rumor from the peasants had it, my Prince. You honor my humble home."

The boyar's home looked to be a remarkably fine and richly appointed to Vlad. Not up to the standards of the royal palace in Buda, of course, but the man was plainly a very well-to-do nobleman.

"Thank you," said Vlad. "I was not sure what support I enjoyed among my nobles. I am going to need your assistance and your loyalty."

"Of course," said the boyar, bowing again. "Come in! Come in! My cook has a wonderful way with blue trout. I think it good enough even for the capital. I have been there, you know."

He was not quite babbling, but plainly more than a little nervous. Vlad reminded himself that the boyar, like most such, was a provincial. A wealthy one, obviously, but he had probably never entertained anyone of Vlad's rank before.

"Buda is so magnificent. Beautiful. The reflection of the castle in the river! Not to mention"-this came almost with a giggle-"His Majesty's taste in pole-ornaments." Then he seem to recall himself. "But I am a terrible host. Let me give you some wine! Arpad!"

He gestured to a hovering servant, who was waiting with a tray holding large goblets. Next to him was a man holding an ornately enchased silver beaker. That was the same man-Benedickt, if Vlad recalled correctly-who had come to deliver the message. He poured red wine into the goblets.

The boyar took his wine and immediately raised it in a toast to his visitor. "Your health, my liege. May you reign long and prosperously!"

They drank. It was strong, heavy red wine.

"Ah!" said his host. "Bull's blood, Benedickt, see that the prince's glass is filled!"

"I am not reigning yet," said Vlad, feeling a little uncomfortable in his borrowed peasant's Sunday black wool and simple linen shirt, while his host was wearing embroidered puce velvet. "But I do hope to enlist your aid…"

"Of course. Of course. You have only to ask, my liege. Come, though, and meet my family."

They walked through into a large sale. A sulky looking plump boy in his late teens stood there, dressed in the height of last year's court fashion in Buda. Sitting next to him on a settee was an older woman-clearly his mother, from the resemblance-wearing a rust-colored high-waisted velvet overgown, with a fine saffron linen shift puffing out from slits in the sleeves and showing at the neckline. It was an opulent garment, although she filled it too generously, especially the low, almost transparent shift studded with seed pearls. So it seemed to Vlad, at any rate-but then, he had been allowed little contact with women by Emeric. Perhaps he was mistaken.

"Anselm, Clara," said the boyar. "Come and make your bow to the prince. My Lord, may I present my wife and son, ardent supporters of your cause. Benedickt. See that we have wine."

More goblets were produced, more wine drunk, as they waited to be called to dine. Vlad could only hope that they would be quick about it. He was very hungry, and everyone, including the factotum Benedickt, was keen to see that his glass was full.

His hostess had begged him to come and sit next to her on the settee. Vlad wished now that he had remained standing. She seemed to find reason to touch him every few words, to run her fingers delicately along his arm, and to urge him to drink more wine. The woman puzzled him. It had been many years since he had been a guest in the home of another person. He really could not remember this sort of behavior. But he'd been a mere boy, interested in boyish things, and heartily bored by social events. His brief encounters with the Hungarian court and the women thereof had not suggested that this was the way they behaved. But perhaps things were different here in the provinces?

He still found it embarrassing. Possibly awkward, as well. The boyar seemed eager to commit his men and money to Vlad's cause. He really did not want the man taking offence about his guest's conduct with his wife.

"I wish you would tell us about what they are wearing at the court," asked the young man, surveying his own raiment. Vlad had never given his clothing a second thought. It was set out for him and he was dressed by his valet. Vlad had found the dresses of women more interesting to look at. He was, naturally, aware of the prevailing mode. But his own dress was not something that he had ever been much interested by.

"Don't bother the prince," said his mother, taking the opportunity to pat Vlad's hand again. "The prince needs more wine, Benedickt."

He didn't. Fortunately, a butler came and called them to eat just at that point.

"I'm afraid," said his hostess almost as soon as they'd taken their seats, "that we have very little to set before you tonight. Some good fish. The blue trout is our pride, but other than that, we only have some venison, some broiled boar, sweetbreads, and a brace of roasted duck."

Vlad did not point out that for the last while he'd been lucky to dine on rather ill-cooked rabbit, and a few scrawny chickens that his conscience pricked him about. The gypsies might possibly have bought them, but he rather doubted it. Instead he just said: "That sounds delightful."

"Can we give you another glass of wine?" she asked, leaning over and brushing her breast against his shoulder. Somewhere in the conversation it had come out that the lady Clara was considered a great beauty.

Plainly she had not compared herself to the radiant Lady Elizabeth. His image of beauty, he feared, would be forever colored by Countess Bartholdy's flawless perfection.

***

It was a very long meal. Vlad had been awake a long time and ridden many leagues, and the turmoil of the happenings at the inn had not permitted him to rest. The combination of food and lots of wine was making him worried that he would quietly slide under the table, snoring. He could remember some of his father's guests doing that. Now he understood why.

On the other hand, if he remembered right, most of those had become quite rowdy before doing that. Wine did not seem to have that kind of effect on him at all, however. He was just very tired.

Apparently, his hosts must be aware of the effects of so much wine. They were watching him closely, possibly in fear that he would start becoming rowdy.

He must make the extra effort. He needed them. "I think that I need some air," he said, his voice reflecting that inner tiredness.

He pushed his chair back. He noticed that his solicitous host had done the same, as had his son, and Benedickt the majordomo had come to draw his chair out for him. Slightly embarrassed by all this attention, he was paying less of a mind to his feet than he should have been. He hooked one on the chair leg and stumbled.

"Seize him, Benedickt!" shouted his host, surging forward. Moments later, a surprised Vlad was bowled over by his host, his host's son, the majordomo, two other footmen, and even his host's wife. She, admittedly, did little more than try to kick him on the shin.

"By God, he has even more of a capacity than his accursed grandfather was supposed to have!" grunted his host.

"His other appetites are less," said the lady of the house disdainfully.

The boyar snorted. "I was never so embarrassed as by your behavior. You conducted yourself like a harlot."

"You told me to do so, Klasparuj," she said angrily.

"Yes, well, I thought he would be less likely to notice us plying him with drink if he was distracted by a little flirtation. I did not mean you had to engage in that kind of coquetry! Now, go and get us some rope. We need to bind him fast. It will be some hours before the Croats can be here."

"Send one of the footmen," she said sulkily, turning her head away. "I have done enough for you. I cannot see what the fuss is about, anyway. I mean, look at him! Dressed like that!"

Black fury began to rise in Vlad. It had all been a deceit! His memories of the boyars had been correct. He was beginning to feel that he should never trust in anything but his first instinct.

"Emil. Go and fetch us some rope," said the boyar. "I have wasted a great deal of good wine capturing him. It's all superstition. We could just have tied him up when he got here. I hope King Emeric is going to be generous."

The footman got up, and the black tide within Vlad surged also. They were not holding him particularly tightly. He had been so surprised he'd not done any struggling, and they obviously thought him almost comatose with drink. Calling on the furious strength that was welling up inside him, he flung them aside. Or at least, he succeeded in kicking the majordomo away, and cracking together the heads of the plump son, who was holding one arm, with the footmen who held the other.

That left only the boyar himself. He clung fast to Vlad's back, even as Vlad struggled to his feet.

The boyar kicked at his legs, making Vlad stagger back toward the vast hearth. Vlad tripped over one of the fire-dogs and fell backwards, into the burning logs.

His fall was cushioned by the man on his back-who screamed and let go.

Vlad stood up, in time to see the plump son swing a chair at him. Vlad sidestepped-and fell over the boyar, who was crawling out of the huge fireplace, screaming in pain. The man's clothes were on fire. The chair smashed on the edge of the fireplace-and part of it flew into the fire, knocking a log out.

The boyar rolled desperately. He crashed into the wall and the long drapes. Flames licked up from his burning clothes onto the drapery.

The majordomo had fumbled a clumsy wheel-lock pistol out from wherever he had hidden it. With shaking hands, he pointed it, as Vlad advanced from the fireplace. Vlad was far too angry to be afraid.

The pistol boomed. Vlad kept coming forward. If it had hit him, he didn't feel it. But the woman screamed and clutched her throat and sank to her knees, before pitching forward.

The majordomo stared at the tableau in horror.

"It is not a good enough bullet to kill the prince of Valahia. Mere lead won't do it," said Vlad, still walking toward the table, ignoring the screaming and terror. He picked up a branch of candles, and flung it like a javelin at the second footman, who was trying to pull a halberd free from a display of arms. It missed, but as he ducked the footman swung the halberd wildly and knocked over another branch of candles. The candles in the branch Vlad flung had all been extinguished by the speed of his throw. But these remained alight, and the tallow burned in a shallow puddle on the large kist. It must have dripped inside, and whatever was inside was very flammable too. It went up in a tower of flames.

Somehow the heat got through to Vlad. He shook himself, took stock of his circumstances, and realized that he was in a burning building. The son was trying to get past him, and Vlad let him flee. The boy was running the wrong way, up the passage.

The footman and majordomo had fled. Vlad could not leave the boyar and his wife to die. The boyar was further away. He would gather him up, and grab the woman and run.

The boyar must have been half crazed with the burning, because he took one look at Vlad and somehow staggered into a run… back towards the burning drapes. Vlad allowed himself just a moment of indecision and then turned. If the man could still run, he could save himself. He scooped the woman up in his arms. She was voluptuous and heavy, but Vlad had no difficulty carrying her. He kicked aside the still swinging door and stormed out into the hallway. The front door was open, and the roof on fire.

***

No one likes or trusts the gypsies. But these men had brought the prince here and he had plainly exerted his hold over them too. So when the gypsies told the villagers to gather their weapons and come to the fortified manor of the boyar Klasparuj, they came. Boyar Klasparuj was a hated landlord. Grasping and cruel, he and his men were feared.

Their prince was already loved and respected. "He killed Gregor the innkeeper with his own hands for what he did to Janoz. Drowned him in his own kitchen filth. And you know, he went himself to house of the widow Mira…"

If the prince wanted them, armed, his word was law.

They were waiting in the darkness when the fire began erupting through the roof. Angelo turned to Grigori. "He has called the wildfire."

The second gypsy nodded. "It's never a good thing to wake in a building."

The door burst open and some liveried footmen came running out, yowling like scalded cats. Angelo stopped one. Hard. "Where is the prince?" he demanded.

"Dear God. I shot him!" quavered the man.

"What?!" demanded a villager. "Benedickt…"

"But he didn't die," said the man, his voice shrill. "He just didn't die! I shot him dead. And he just kept walking towards me. He said lead would not kill him. It had to be royal metal. We gave him so much wine it would have felled an ox, but he wasn't even drunk. He's a demon…"

"Not a demon," said Radu. "Drac. He is the dragon, reborn."

As he said this a figure came staggering down the stairs, his hair and clothing aflame, a kist in his hands.

And then, as part of the roof fell, sending a plume of flame into the sky and illuminating everything with sharp red light, Vlad came out of the doorway, a woman in his arms. The flames curled up hungrily behind him, highlighting the prince in his austere black, his face very white. Red blood ran from the voluptuous woman's throat, and down onto her breast.

The villagers surged forward. Vlad put her down. "She is dead. They tried to betray me, Angelo." He looked at the flames and said tiredly. "The fire will spread. You'd better see to the horses in the stables. We'll need good horses. They had sent for King Emeric's men."

Villagers ran to do his bidding.

"What of this one?" Radu pointed to the fallen figure that had staggered out, aflame, just before Vlad appeared.

"The son. Let us see if anything can be done for him."

But he was no longer breathing. His hands had burned onto the kist he'd carried.

"He abandoned his parents to fetch that," said Vlad.

"The manor strongbox must have been important to him," said Angelo dryly. "Well. We'd better get to those horses and leave."

Vlad shook his head. "No. I have money." He kicked the strongbox. "I have horses and I have men. I see that the men have weapons with them."

"We thought you might need freeing."

"I might have," acknowledged Vlad. "But I dealt with that. I have had enough of just running. I have a funeral to attend tomorrow. Let us deal with these Croats tonight. It will make them less eager to follow me."

Angelo looked at the burning building. At the peasants with pitchforks, boar spears and bows. "They'll kill this lot, Prince."

Vlad shook his head. "We will not give them the opportunity. These people know the land here. The Croats do not. And they expect a prisoner. One man. They will not know what to expect."

Grigori rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. "I think that after tonight, they will expect the worst."

Radu snorted. "The tale will grow somewhat in the telling."

"Oh yes," said Angelo. "A dark and fearsome tale. A legend."

Chapter 26

Standing at the burned out shell of the manor house. Elizabeth tapped the riding crop against the cheek of the soldier. "Now tell us again, remembering all the details."

The trooper looked warily at the perfect complexion and classically beautiful face. She smiled, perfect rosebud lips curved. "I'm waiting."

"Lady, there really is no more. We got the message from the boyar Klasparuj. We rode back, guided by the messenger. We had no suspicion that it would be a trap. The locals are sullen and uncooperative, but no one would have dared to raise a hand to his Majesty's troops. They all do what we want. At most they just won't help us. But this one led us into an ambush, damn him."

"Of course he did not live through this," said Elizabeth.

The soldier nodded. "Captain Kouric ran him through, right there.

"

"I wonder if stupidity is infectious?" said the countess. "How we supposed to question a dead body? You kill them after you have the answers. Now we are going to have to find someone else to give us that information."

Captain Kouric looked wary himself. He had come to realize that the countess could be even more vicious than King Emeric, but that she was also much more astute. Of course-although Kouric would never have said this aloud, even to his closest friends-being more astute than Emeric was not hard.

She noticed. She noticed far too much for comfort. "And now, Captain? What else have you done that I'm going to dislike?"

He cleared his throat nervously. "His Majesty's orders. Any village that shows resistance, we are to execute as many of them as we can find."

"And you've sent some of your men to do this?"

He nodded, sweat beading his forehead.

"Send the rest of your men after them," she said coldly. "Now. If they've killed anyone, you'll be hanging alongside them in the village square. I need to know what happened here. If that means executing dull-witted soldiers your force, I really don't mind."

He left at a run, yelling for his men and horse.

***

Elizabeth stood there tapping her quirt on her palm. The tiny slivers of glass embedded in it had no effect on her skin. There were ways, of course, of getting the information, even from the dead. If need be, she could get the burned timbers and blackened stones to tell her. But what she needed was a little more complex. Entrapment always took bait, and she would bet that Vlad had made loyalists for himself. She was not too sure quite where he had got himself a military force

The Croats were Emeric's second best troops. They could not have been defeated by mere peasant levies. Vlad must have successfully recruited some of the boyars. That in itself was odd. Emeric, on her instruction, had treated them well. The trans-Carpathian lesser nobility were a fair way towards being more loyal to him than to their actual overlord.

But there was always some petty noble looking out for the main chance. Apparently, this boyar Klasparuj must have been one of them. The surviving Croats said that they had not burned the place. It was possible that they weren't lying. On the other hand, they had a reputation for arson-to the point where Emeric had had to forbid it during the last campaign. Arson was a shortsighted practice, unless one used it to burn people along with the structures that could be useful later.

She walk over to ashes. Someone had died here. She could feel it. Died terrified.

***

"I got there in time, you ladyship," panted the captain. "They were still rounding people up into the village square. Nobody has been hurt. At least not too badly."

"I trust you did not mention my name. Remember, I am not here. I am strictly incognito in this affair."

"Uh." The captain looked as if in avoiding the mud-puddle he had stepped into a cesspool. "I did say that Your Ladyship had ordered them freed." She tapped her quirt on her hand again. "But I didn't use your ladyship's actual name."

"I have told you that it is necessary for me to keep an apparent distance from the search for Prince Vlad. Now, thanks to your foolishness, I will have to remove myself from this area. I will need you to bring me those of the boyars who have provided you with the best support. I will need to interview them."

"Yes, Your Ladyship. What can we do about the attack on our men?"

"Why, be very happy that you failed to execute the villagers. The last prince was a fairly timid man. But this prince's grandfather would have impaled your troops and set them on the border as a warning. This one seems more like that. Learn to play a longer game, Captain. In good time you will get your opportunity."

She paused for a moment, reminding herself not to fall into the same error. "I've rethought my strategy here. I did indeed order you not to kill the villagers. That made you very angry, that I should suddenly have arrived and told you to take this action. See that you tell quite a number of people that."

"And the boyars, lady?"

"Have them come and see me," she said, turning away. "I need to interview them, to find ones that are suitable."

She did not say what she wanted them suitable for, and the captain wisely did not ask.

***

Captain Kouric rode his showy roan down the village street. He noted four of his men's horses outside the smithy. Now, horses do throw a shoe every now and again, but the captain had an excellent memory-for horses, anyway. Two of those horses had only been reshod yesterday, and those were four that should have been out on patrol. He stopped his horse and tied it next to the others and went inside. Two of his soldiers, who would normally not have deigned to lift a finger if a civilian could be made to do it, were working the bellows while the smith drew a crucible from the furnace with long tongs. The other two were readying a series of bullet molds.

"And just what is going on in here?" he asked sharply, almost causing the smith to drop and crack his crucible full of molten silver metal.

"Nothing, Captain," said one of the troopers hastily.

"Just making some more bullets, Sir," added another, as if Kouric could not see that.

He raised his eyes to heaven. "And since when did you need a smith to do that? And why do you need to do it right now?"

"Uh. We thought it might be useful, Sir, to have some spares."

"Always a good thought," said Kouric, his eyes half lidded. "But why did you bring the work to the smithy this morning, when you're supposed to be on patrol?" His voice, silky and pleasant, might have fooled those who knew him less well than his own troops.

"Uh. We only heard about this late last night, Sir. And we can't get our fire hot enough…"

Kouric had seen them melting lead often enough to know this to be a lie. He merely raised his eyebrows at them.

"Well, Sir, it's not lead. It's… it's silver, Sir. It is that or gold, and most of us haven't got much gold.

"'tisn't my fault," said the smith. "They told me to melt all their silver pennies. I just does what I'm told, Sir."

"Silver bullets? You are melting your own money into silver bullets?" demanded the captain incredulously. "Have you all gone mad?"

The soldiers had the grace to look embarrassed. "It's the only way to stop him, Sir. A common metal won't do nothing to him."

"What on earth are you talking about?" demanded their commanding officer. He refrained from calling them the idiots they plainly were. Kouric had commanded men for long enough to understand that there were times when telling them the average dung-heap had more intelligence, could in itself be a stupid statement. That was when money was involved. More than one officer had been murdered for that mistake.

"The Drac, Sir," said one of the soldiers, using the local word for dragon.

"There is no such thing, trooper," said the captain dismissively. Once stories like that got hold, they were hard to dispel among the common soldiers. They were enormously superstitious.

"It's what the local people call Prince Vlad, Sir," explained the soldier. "He is a monster, Sir."

"They are having you on, spinning you a fine fairytale," said Kouric.

"No, Sir," said the soldier stubbornly.

Soldiers do not argue with their commanding officer. They know the penalty for that. So if any experienced officer has them do so, he knows something is very wrong. "Where did you hear this?"

"At the Green Bush, Sir."

Kouric knew that he shouldn't even have had to ask. The inn was off-limits, but he knew full well that where there was ale, there would be troopers, and nothing short of a armed guard would stop them. "You're not supposed to shoot Prince Vlad," he said tersely. "You're supposed to arrest him. Those are your orders from King Emeric himself. Do you really wish to argue with him? The King is no story put about to frighten little babes. He is a real terror. If Prince Vlad was so powerful do you think he could have been kept prisoner? A hostage-and for years? Now get out there, get on your horses and get to your patrol."

They turned, and began to sheepishly stumble towards the door. One did half turn, and say: "What about our money, Sir?"

"Go! You were stupid enough to waste it. You've lost it." If the blacksmith had any sense he'd return their silver. If he didn't, Captain Kouric was not going to look too hard for his murderers. The locals deserved some payback for their part in all this. No matter what the countess said, he was going to make an example of those who were trying to terrify his men with this story.

***

In a plain cloak, accompanied by one of his toughest sergeants, equally anonymously dressed, Kouric found his way into the taproom of the inn that night. The host was an old man, with a severe limp. And he was giving free beer to the Croat troopers, which explained just why quite so many of the captain's men were prepared to risk his wrath by coming to a place that was off limits. There were a few locals. The captain noted their features carefully and sat down with his sergeant to listen. If they'd gone forward to the bar at least one of the men might have recognized them, but they stayed at the back, where the light from the tallow dips scarcely penetrated.

The speaker was so drunk that his words were slurred. He still had every trooper in the place clinging to them. "-drank drank the mistress's blood. You could see it running from her throat." The man panted and sweated, just recollecting the event. "His skin is white, like something that's been dead. And he wears black clothes like a priest. And he walked right through the fire. Fire that was hot enough to kill the master's son, and burnt me like this, see." He pointed to his shriveled hair. "And I got out of there before him, long before him. It didn't burn him at all. You can't kill him."

The old man with the limp had come up to the table quietly, as they listened. He put down three mugs of beer. "On the house. You must stay here to protect us."

The captain had heard enough. He knew what he'd have to do. "Sergeant, we'll be shifting camp first thing in the morning." It was that or lose half his men to desertion. This Benedickt's story was obviously not invented for audience's benefit. It had spread to so many of the troopers already, that hanging the man would be a waste of time and effort. Counter-productive, in fact, since the hanging would simply give weight to the story.

Kouric's patrols still hunted for Prince Vlad. But there was a marked lack of real enthusiasm for actually finding him, and having to try and take him alive as they'd been instructed. Dead in a hail of silver bullets might be a better idea…

The captain was not a superstitious man. He would have to keep reminding his troopers just what the king did to those who disobeyed him. He also needed to send a message. Emeric would need more than the handful of soldiers he had in these hills, if they were facing a real armed insurrection.

He was not happy at the thought. The king of Hungary was known to ignore such messages and then, when troubles ensued, to demand the heads of those who had not warned him.

***

"Forty two men," grinned Angelo. "A perfect number. Too many to feed easily, and too few to do anything with. They lack arms, or training, or even anyone to train them. King Emeric must be very afraid."

Just a few seconds, before Vlad had actually been feeling quite proud of his new army. Their loyalty touched him. Angelo's sarcasm touched him too, on the raw. But the gypsy was right, and Vlad could not forget that they had helped him to flee and draw off those who might have endangered his rescuer.

"Well, I have you and Grigori and Radu. Then there is me. So we have forty-six men. And I will recruit more "

Angelo shook his head. "No, Drac. We-Radu, Grigori and I-must go south now, and fast. There is business that we need to see to for our people. We will have to leave you. But we will be back. There are certain rituals between your house and mine that need to be renewed before we can have you crowned."

The idea of them leaving frightened him. In his shifting world, the gypsies had been Vlad's one anchor. True, it had been a very small anchor, which had allowed the vessel of his life to drift into new and dangerous waters. But everything else had gone.

"I am not sure where to go next. Or what to do."

The gypsy seemed amused. "Being a prince is a trade you'll have to learn without my help. I could only teach you how to look and behave like a gypsy, not the ruler of Valahia. As to where you will go… I think that there is only one place for you to go and be safe for a little while, while you try to turn your men into a real army. The high Carpathians. It's wild, bleak and unruled. Bandit country. The Hungarians will not go there except in large numbers, and large numbers up there are hard to move around fast and unseen. You need time and a hiding place. Go up into the mountains and be very glad that it is still late summer."

Vlad decided that was sound advice. And those high bleak places called to him.

If he could not turn to the boyars for cavalry, leadership and training, he had to find some people he could trust to help with the instruction, or he would have to learn all of it himself.

But he was aware that twenty-seven horses and the contents of the boyar's strong box were not going to be enough.

Chapter 27

Erik and the Illyrian captain stood on the wall of the little fortified village, looking down on the braided river below. "That is the edge of our territory," said the Illyrian captain. He pointed. "Over that ridge are the lands of the Golden Horde. They will have seen us by now. They keep a watch higher up. Across that mountain, are the Bulgars. There is usually someone up there too. I feel sorry for them in winter."

Erik nodded. "Our thanks, Captain. It occurs to me that I've yet to hear your name. I would like to tell my young friend, Benito Valdosta, how carefully you have watched over us. I do realize that you have dealt with two other groups of attackers, after the first incident on that pass. If we could formally introduce ourselves? I realize that it is late, but as they say, better late than never."

The mustachioed captain smiled. "In some cases, knowing could make you late, Ritter Hakkonsen. Benito already knows who I am. But as we part ways here, you may as well know my name. In these mountains I am called Iskander. And now, I see your men are readying themselves to ride. We will scout as far as the river bank. It is easy to ford at this time of year."

He turned and left the parapet. Erik went down to join the other knights. Manfred greeted him with a wave. Then frowned, seeing Erik's expression.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," said Erik. "We've just been hoodwinked a bit. Not that it did us any harm, I suppose. But Benito might've told us."

"I so love it when you speak in riddles," grumbled Manfred. "I suppose I should be grateful for the mental exercise."

"I mean that the Illyrian captain of our escort was none other than the Lord of the Mountains himself. Iskander Beg."

Manfred raised his eyebrows, and whistled. "No wonder his nose was out of joint when we were attacked. Eberhart is going to be sorely disappointed that he missed the opportunity to do some more politicking." Manfred smiled. "There is a rose in every patch of thorns. I'll save pretending that I knew until I need to irritate him about something. Still, we've got a day or two, surely."

"No. More like until Terce bell, if they have such a thing in these mountains. The river down there is the border, and our Captain Iskander has gone out scouting."

"Well, whatever happens we have learned a bit about him," said Manfred. "His logistics and staff work are far too good for some tribal chieftain lost somewhere in the middle of the mountains. My uncle would love to employ him."

Erik nodded. "True, although that's hardly a good thing for us to tell the overlord of these tribes. The Illyrians might be as poor as Shetlanders, but they are just as proud of their independence."

"I suppose so. Francesca tried to teach me the fine art of tact and sensibility, but I mostly failed at it." Manfred mounted up, grinning. "Fortunately, from my experience, it is something that translators do for you. So how ready are you with the Mongol tongue?"

"Far from ready to act as an official interpreter," said Erik, tightening a cinch before mounting up. "My understanding is getting much better. But as for the speaking, I really think that I need a better teacher."

"But then our horseboy would have no practice in getting faster reflexes."

Erik jibbed his horse forward, "Knights!" He raised his voice to address all of them. "We are now on the borderline between Illyria and the lands of the Golden Horde. Our Illyrian escort will leave us at the river. From there, until we meet the Golden Horde, we will be taking full escort duty. Falkenberg, you will organize the prince's personal guard. Von Gherens, you will take the van. Proctor Kalb will take the rearguard. Knights Von Diderik, Kirsten, Von Taub and Wellmans, Hunsen, Dader, pair off. You will be scouting ahead. Kari, you are with me."

He and Kari would be even further ahead, riding point.

Two of the Mongols, the rotund Tulkun and his sharp-eyed friend Matu, came up with their ponies. "We riding, scout. Meet Horde." He held a bunch of sky blue pennants in one arm and waved them about. "Put on, how you say, spear. Truce. Mother sun, father sky."

That would certainly ease any confusion arising from seeing a large party of foreign armored horsemen moving into their territory.

***

David had learned a fair amount since the incident on the pass. One of the things he'd learned was to look out for signs that the knights were expecting trouble. Even with the new sky blue pennants affixed to their lances, there was a sense of heightened awareness in the column. He, along with the baggage train, rode near the back, behind Manfred and his escort. By now he'd worked out that it was no use just wishing that he was riding even further back, preferably on the way to Jerusalem. He looked and listened hard. There was entirely too much silence in these places. He was sure that any enemy could hear the passage of the knights from a good half a league away. In a nice crowded noisy city there were other noises to hide behind.

He'd never realized just how much he appreciated Jerusalem's Mongol overlords, until they were no longer around.

***

The country was more rugged here, along the borderland with the Bulgars. Bortai knew that was a blessing more than a curse. The terrain had provided the cover that had let them avoid an arban that had plainly been out looking for someone. Now she prayed to the spirits of the land, to the tengeri, to the eternal blue sky, that they would not have to break cover to get over the next ridge. And they had to get over it and soon. She'd been scouting and spotted two arban of search parties. One to the west and the other to further east. The only way out was over the ridge.

Otherwise-had the pursuit not been getting closer-she would have been terribly happy. Kildai had awakened. He was confused, true. But two days ago she'd been less than sure that he would ever wake again.

Unfortunately, there was no way they could get the cart over that ridge. And she was not at all sure how he could ride. He seemed to think that she was his mother, dead five years now, rather than his older sister.

They had tethered the ox where it could graze reasonably well, and hidden the cart. With any luck those who were following them would lose a little time searching the area for them, not knowing that they'd moved on. Now it was a question of whether Kildai could stay in the saddle. She and Ion helped him into it. Surely, someone whose balance was that bad would fall? She thought they would probably have to tie him into the saddle.

But instincts honed by a lifetime spent riding came to Kildai's rescue. Even just sitting there, he'd put a foot into the far stirrup without any help from them. She had planned to ride on the same horse, in front of him. Now she wondered if he could stay in the saddle by himself.

But it was best not to take such a chance. At least Kildai was willing to let them tie his hands together, around her waist. Ion mounted clumsily-he had hardly ever been in the saddle. Leading the other horse which was laden with such supplies as it could carry, they rode out, keeping under the trees, working their way ever upward.

As she had feared, the last section of the slope offered no cover at all. It was just bare sheetrock with scattered tufts of grass. Looking back, she could see dust that had to be a large party of riders. There might be smaller groups trailing them also.

They simply couldn't afford to wait for nightfall. So she rode her mount out under the trees and onto a rough trail. As she had guessed would happen, she heard a distant yell and someone sounding a horn. She urged her horse into a canter. They'd save the galloping for later. Anyway, it was very likely that Ion would fall out of the saddle when they tried.

Coming over the ridge, she looked back again. The dust cloud had grown considerably. They were pushing those horses. And then, she heard a sound that she would have never have thought could be so sweet. It was a bell. She'd heard them before from one of the churches of the Vlachs who lived higher up in the Carpathians. No wonder they were hunting her hard. There must be a Bulgar village close by.

Crossing into Bulgar lands wouldn't stop the pursuit. But it did mean that someone-besides her-might just be shooting at them. If she could find some place to hide…

She wished that she knew more about the Bulgars and the border area. But her clan's holdings were far to the north. She'd never been down here and never had much interest before. The situation was complicated, if she recalled correctly. There were several conflicting peoples in the area. Bulgars, Illyrians, Hungarians. Bortai didn't really care. She just hoped that they would be furious with a raiding party and so busy fighting them that they wouldn't notice three riders fleeing.

***

Erik had missed his guess slightly. They were ready in the woods on the far side of the river when the terce bell rang out from the little white chapel in the village in the mountain-fold.

The Illyrians wasted no time, and engaged in no great formalities at their border. Iskander Beg simply rode up to Manfred, Eberhart and Erik. "Our mutual friend," he said, "has asked that you send word back, if you can, as to what is happening here. Of course he also wants to know what is happening further north."

He grinned through his mustache. "He never asks for too much. There will be some men and good horses waiting in the village." He pointed to the little place they had just left. "In case you or a message want to return the same way."

"Our mutual friend, Benito Valdosta," said Manfred smiling. "If you knew him as well as we do, you would know that he always asks too much-and then usually gets it. Our thanks to you, Lord of the Mountains. Benito said that you took your honor very seriously here in the mountains. I take mine seriously too, and I realize that you have paid us a rare honor. The Holy Roman Empire is in your debt."

Iskander bowed his head slightly. "I hope that I will have no occasion to wish to collect," he said, still smiling. "I hear a horn. It would seem that the Golden Horde are already aware of your presence. I think we will remove ourselves a little. Relations have not been of the best at times. I would prefer it if you met them somewhere close to the ridge. The land between it and the river is something of no man's land. We'd like to keep it like that."

In close formation, once the scouts were across, the knights clattered across the braided gravel of the border river, and into the woods. There was a faint trail, but it was obvious that it was rarely used. Erik, Kari and Tulkun the rotund Mongol rode ahead.

"Now, for heavens sake, Kari. Don't shoot the first thing you see that moves."

"It's best that way," said Kari. "Really, Erik. It avoids so many problems later." He was grinning as he said that, and Erik could only hope that he was joking. With Kari he never could tell. He always had at least four wheel-lock pistols secreted about his person. They were apparently not yet very common in Vinland and he had a fascination with the weapons.

***

Bortai felt her little brother slumping against her, but there was no way they could stop now. They needed to get somewhere closer to those bells, or else where they stopped would be where they died. She could hear a second horn being sounded. Their pursuers must be over the ridge by now.

The trail, faint though it was, did make travel faster. It zig-zagged down the slope between some large boulders, each the size of a couple of gers. It was a good place for an ambush, and she might have considered the possibility, had there only been three or four enemies in pursuit of them. But she would guess by the dust that thirty or even forty was closer to the number. Only speed could help now. Fortunately, even two up, they probably weighed less than most warriors, especially this late in summer. Summer was drinking and feasting time.

That same speed nearly had them ride into the people coming up the trail. For a moment, seeing just the scale mail and forelock of a Mongol warrior, she snatched at her bow. But then she noticed two other things. One was the man who was riding just ahead of the Mongol, in spiky, angular armor, on a truly magnificent piece of horseflesh. His visor was open. He had a chiseled face, and fine, almost white-blond hair. Obviously he was not a Mongol. In fact, he didn't look like he belonged to any people Bortai knew.

The other thing that really struck home was the sky blue truce flag on the lance of the Mongol. Then she saw more subtle differences. She'd never seen scale armor quite like that worn by this Mongol, and his tack was arranged slightly differently. The silver inset on his saddle was also something that she'd never seen before, as was the device on his shield.

But she knew what it represented. She'd heard of the Bear clan. They were part of the Red Horde. The Ilkhan. Not seen in Golden Horde lands for many years. Almost a thing out of legend.

Her frozen moment was interrupted by Ion falling off his horse.

***

Erik had heard them coming. Two or three horses, ridden hard. So, by the way he had drawn two pistols, had Kari. The Vinlander refused to wear much in the way of armor. He felt it slowed him down, which Erik had to admit was probably true. There was unfortunately nowhere to get off the trail. The path passed just between two of the huge boulders, leaving a space barely wide enough for four to ride abreast. Kari sidled up to a twisted tree that grew out of a crack and waited. Erik and Tulkun took firmer grips on their weapons, Erik dropping the point of the lance with its blue pennant to just above head height. Tulkun did the same with his spear.

They were ready for anything…

Except for a very beautiful young woman, riding tandem, with a young head lolling sideways behind her.

A woman who managed to control her horse, and to get a bow into her hand and an arrow on the string faster than Erik would have believed possible. Then it seemed as if she saw enough to dip that arrow-point, pull her pony to a halt-and still stay on it, bow in hand. It was a superb display of horsemanship as well as quick wittedness.

Just behind her, a second rider and a third horse came to halt. This rider, in rough homespun, showed no skill at all, unless it was in the speed with which he departed from the saddle.

In the stress of the moment Erik grasped for words. He'd never been too good at talking to girls, and in a foreign language…

Too late he realized what he'd said. That first carefully memorized sentence. He fumbled for the words to apologize, while turning puce with embarrassment.

As the man in homespun got to his feet, she started to laugh. It looked like she might just laugh herself out of the saddle too.

The boy up behind her needed help. Behind them, Erik heard the clink and clatter of the rest of the knights. His Mongol companion started to speak. Well, to do his best, between snorts of laughter. She replied to him.

He bowed deeply.

"The very people we are looking for," he said.

Just then another group of riders came around the bend. Also Mongols. They yelled when they saw the woman, spurred their horses, and dropped their lance-tips.

There was a sudden double boom. In the narrow defile, the sound echoed very loudly. The riders began frantically pulling their horses around. The shots in a place for an ambush might have been the cause. Or it could have been the solid mass of armor visible less than a hundred yards further back down the trail.

Erik reflected that there was a certain inevitability about all of this. Firstly, he'd accidentally insulted this woman. Fortunately, she did not seem to take offence. Then she turned out to be from the clan that they were looking for. Then some other Mongols came around the corner intent on murder, which Kari and his too ready pistols had stopped. Now…

There were more Mongols coming around the corner. And the body of the knights was coming up, the weight of their great-horses and armor gathering momentum.

He finally got it all together. "Lady," he said, "can I offer you shelter?"

***

Since the events of the kurultai, Bortai had at least known what to expect of events. Yes, there had been a few surprises, such as Ion and the slave's courage and bowmanship. But here, when she thought that luck had finally run out for her and Kildai, it would seem that the spirits had taken a hand-although in a way no-one could expect.

The foreign knight telling her that her mother was a tortoise-plainly a fumbling attempt her language-had been so incongruous and funny that in spite of the desperate circumstances she could not help but laugh.

Now he had just proposed marriage. Offered her his ger.

There was no doubt that the tengeri had a sense of humor. An odd sense of humor.

But it would seem that her latest suitor had a lot of knights to prevent anyone killing her or her brother first. And in close, tight quarters like this, the greater maneuverability of the Mongol horsemen counted for little.

***

In a chaotic mass the Mongol turned and rode away. That was one of the actions that they were famous for. Some foolish enemies had mistaken such retreats for cowardice and panic.

Erik was not among them. He signaled a halt, and as the charge had not yet built full momentum, the knights slowed to a walk by the time they had reached him.

"Did you have to start a war?" demanded Manfred, who had somehow contrived to get among the van.

"As yet, hopefully not," said Erik. "Usually someone has to get killed for that. And I didn't see anyone go down when Kari loosed off those pistols of his."

Kari shook his head regretfully. "No. They're not as accurate as I'd like them to be. I think I may have winged the one."

"Then what in the name of all the saints happened?" asked Falkenberg.

"And just what should we do now?" added Von Gherens. "Retreat on the river?"

"I think that would be wise," said Erik. "There were some grounds for a misunderstanding."

"Like Kari shooting at them," said Manfred.

"To be fair, he only did that because they were heading for us full tilt with their lances out," said Erik. "It could have been nasty, otherwise. I think we'd better do a systematic retreat now while we can. They'll send an emissary down shortly, I should think."

Manfred nodded. "And who's the wench? There you are, on a barren mountainside, which I thought had a female sheep at best, and some beautiful girl comes out of the woods to find you. Why am I not this lucky?"

"I don't know. But Tulkun said that she is from the clan we're looking for."

"I admit that makes a pleasant change," said Manfred, turning his horse as Falkenberg gave orders. "Mostly girls just stare besottedly at you. This one at least has the common sense to laugh at you instead, even in the middle of a cavalry charge."

Erik blushed a dull red. "I may have greeted her incorrectly, in the stress of the moment. And her companion appears to be injured. We'd better see what help we can give."

Manfred raised his eyebrows. "Just what did you say to her?"

"I think you have enough to mock me about," said Erik severely. "Kari, you and the horseboy get on top of that rock. Everyone else is wearing armor, which doesn't help with climbing. Fire a shot if you see any sign of them coming back down the slope. And don't fire at them. Fire in the air, and then mount up and get down there. And come running anyway when you see us on the far side of the river."

He turned to the young woman with the boy on her back, whose eyes were open now but distinctly out of focus. In his rudimentary Mongol, Erik said: "If you will come with us. It looks as if the boy needs some help. We have those among us with some skill in healing."

She smiled at him. She had one of those smiles that ran all the way to her eyes, and dimpled her cheeks. "Thank you. You are offering your protection to him too?"

At least that is what Erik thought she was saying. So he nodded.

"The clan of the Hawk is glad to accept." She was obviously stifling a gurgle of laughter.

He wondered quite what he'd said this time.

"Come on, Ritter Hakkonsen. Lead out!" yelled Falkenberg. As the man who had fallen off had remounted, they all rode back to the river.

***

On a field which was part of the floodplain of the little river, the knights formed up into a defensive square. The river was barely a stream now, but Bortai thought it be a raging torrent in winter. The blonde foreign knight had kept pace with her and Kildai. He had dismounted easily, something that Bortai was willing to bet was actually quite hard to do in such armor, without help. He produced a knife and she knew a moment of alarm, despite him having offered clan friendship. But it was just to cut the thong that she'd used to secure Kildai's arms around her. He lifted her little brother down.

Another one of the knights, a man with a scarred face and an eye patch, came up, along with the man from the Ilkhan Bear clan. She noticed there were several of the Bear clan in among the large party of Knights. The tall blonde man gently set Kildai down on a blanket that the dark eyed man with his braided hair and the pistols had ridden up and handed to him.

She dismounted too. "What is wrong with him?" asked the man from the Ilkhan.

"His suns soul wanders the lands of Urleg Khan. Have you a Shaman who can enter the spirit world below and call him back?"

The Mongol shook his head. "Maybe these Franks have someone. Their medicine is not as sophisticated as ours, but in spite of that, many of them get better. What happened to get him into such a state?"

"He was knocked off his horse during the great game at the summer kurultai. I think he landed on his head."

So these were Franks? She had, of course, heard of them. What were they doing here on the borderland of the Golden Horde? Was their word worth anything? Why did they accompany the people of the Ilkhan? And why did they carry truce-diplomat flags?

The Mongol nodded sympathetically. "It has happened to me. But I just broke this bone here." He pointed to his shoulder. "Mind you, I think that was from being kicked after I fell."

The one-eyed man knelt next to Kildai, opened his eyes and examined each pupil in turn. Very gently he felt at Kildai's neck, and then the skull.

He looked at her and asked a question.

"He wants to know how long he has been like this," translated the Bear clan Mongol. "And what happened to him."

She answered as best as she was able, feeling oddly helpless. Actually, she felt like just sitting down and starting to cry, as if she was a little girl again. It was just so good to no longer be carrying the entire weight of her little brother's health, and the clan's and their own survival on her shoulders.

Her relief must have shown in her face because the tall blond knight said something to the man with pistols. He took something out of a pannier, which turned into a simple saddle stool, with three legs and a leather top. The blond knight set it up and offered it to her with a small bow and a gesture.

He seemed to be avoiding using his few words of Mongol. She could understand that. A tremulous smile to her lips-not something she was very accustomed to bestowing on strange foreign knights. Or anyone else, really. The tremulous part worried her. She must not show such weakness.

The one eyed knight stood up, dusting off his hands. He spoke again to the man from the Ilkhan, who translated. "He says the boy must rest quietly. He must stay still for some days. He should not ride, anyway."

Bortai shook her head, pointing back at the ridge. "If they catch us, they will kill us. We are far from our clan. We were," she decided to be economical with the truth, "separated from them during the big fight at the kurultai."

The plump Ilkhan warrior, Tulkun, was plainly shocked by that. "They fought? At the kurultai?"

She nodded. That had indeed been a shocking breach of tradition, but then tradition seemed to be weakening its hold on some of the clans.

"Clan fought clan." She pointed to Ion. If this man from the Ilkhan was going to be sympathetic, she may as well see if she could get some protection for Ion. "Our slave saw more of it than we did. He saw which clan waited in ambush for others, under the kurultai flag. They will kill him if they find him too."

"So, the clans have not yet selected a new khan?"

She shook her head. "As far as I know, no. The kurultai was broken before the vote. That means that Gatu Orkhan is regent."

"Ah," said the Mongol from the Ilkhan. "That is what the tarkhan Borshar has come to see to. We are not supposed to know," he said with a small smile. "And I heard and will bear witness that the Ritter Erik Hakkonsen offered marriage and kin-shelter. The Franks are under the envoy-flag of the tarkhan."

"Yes, but he did not actually understand what he said." Bortai smiled on the Ritter. That had been a generous gesture in a time when she had seen very few.

The warrior from the Ilkhan bowed respectfully. "The honor of the Hawk clan has not diminished. There are many who would have taken advantage."

The blonde Ritter Hakkonsen spoke to Tulkun, who replied to him in the foreign tongue. He was speaking about them, that much Bortai was sure of. Behind him another knight rode over-the one who had shouted to him at what had almost been a cavalry clash. Now that things were not quite so fraught, she realized just how big the man was. And her first thought, incongruously, was a twinge of sympathy for the poor horse!

Fortunately it was a very sturdy animal, much like its rider.

***

"She speaks too fast for me to understand all of it," said Erik. "What is the problem? They were hunting for her, weren't they?"

The Mongol nodded and replied in broken Frankish. "She was separated from her clan. Big fight at clan gathering-supposed to be peace for election of new khan. Fight start before khan elected. They very powerful clan, much honor. Old family. Clan the Ilkhan support for khanate. Family for ruler." He smiled. "You offer clan-protection. But honorable lady know it is just foreigner who does not understand what he say. Honor for foreigners not the same for Mongol."

Even though it wasn't intentional, the condescension in the statement irritated Erik. Manfred, now standing just behind them, leaned forward. "What did he say? I'm not sure I followed."

"The girl and-I gather the boy is her brother-come from the royal clan, if I understand it right. They got separated from their clan in a fight about the new ruler. In my misguided attempt to be polite, I offered them from what I can work out was an alliance and the protection of my clan. But our translator says that she understood that we foreigners don't have much of sense of honor and they don't expect us to abide by it."

Manfred raised his eyebrows. "And that is the core of the problem with our relationship with the Ilkhan, and probably the Golden Horde too. Erik, if I did not know you well enough to know you had already decided to do it, I'd order you to tell her that we foreigners have our own code of honor."

"No," said Erik. "This is not something that can be told. It must be shown."

Chapter 28

The great gray wolves ran on, covering the miles with an easy, distance-eating lope. They conversed as they did so, in the way of the wolf which is far more complex than mere words, communication at the level of scent, tiny movements and postures of the head, ears or tail, with the smallest yelp meaning many things through these filters. Human speech had its advantages, and a greater range of vocabulary. But now… this seemed very free. They had kept to human form for a long time.

They paused on the ridge-line, tongues lolling, with the folds of the world trailing out raggedly to the lowlands. If anyone had been watching they would have seen how the three blurred and faded and became three men, lean gypsies in ragged bright clothes.

"We should be there by the hatching."

"At least now that we can run properly."

"And hunt properly."

"Still. There is much weighted against him. Perhaps one of us should have stayed."

Angelo shook his dark ringlets. "No. He must find the path himself, without us. We have done enough. Too much, without the compact."

"Times and circumstances drive," said Radu.

Angelo took out his pipe and played. The ancient threnody, sad, sweet and compelling, came back in echoing snatches, as if the land itself was answering. Perhaps it was. He stopped and let the silence of the mountains return.

Eventually, he spoke. "We are creatures of the compact, born to it and shaped by it. Without it, we will die."

Grigori shrugged. "So will he. So will his people."

"This is true. But that will be of no help to us."

"It's in the blood," Radu said. "I could smell it. He will come to us. Blood calls to blood."

"But it is still his choice and ours," said Angelo. "The compact is a thing of willingness. The blood must be freely given."

"And if it were not? If it were taken forcibly?" asked Radu, curious. "That would not be easy, but it could be done. There are magics…"

"It has happened before," admitted Angelo. "The hunger born of it is terrible, as are the creations thereof. When the time came on them… The creatures of the shadows stalked the night and fed on the blood of innocents. Or any other blood they could find."

Grigori shook himself, and spat. "Half-creatures. Loup-garou."

"Indeed. Neither man nor of the old blood, and not constrained by the compact. The legends still remain," said Angelo, grimly. "They are hard to kill."

"I still think we should have told him more," said Radu.

Angelo shook his head. "Part of the magic requires innocence. To take the step willingly, not knowing entirely what the risk or the price will be. Humans take innocence as virginity."

"It has parallels, I suppose." Grigori grinned toothily. "Although it does assume that a piece of skin equates with innocence."

"A large assumption, and sometimes false."

A little later they set off again. The moon would be full in three days time and they had many miles to cover before then. The distance on a map it was not so great, but there was a complex terrain both physically and spiritually between them and the heartland in the Faragas Mountains and the Lacul Podragul.

And with steady inexorable precession, the syzygial dance of earth, moon and sun moved on to the point they had last occupied forty-four years and one month before. The exeligmos. The full turn of the wheel.

***

Duck eggs are frequently given to chickens to sit. Mother hen will dutifully turn them and them keep them the right temperature, until they hatch. To sit a wyvern egg, the wolf-people knew, you need a mountain. And not just any mountain. It had to be the one called Moldoveanu. It was a fitting place for such a thing.

Alchemists would pay a great deal for something as rare as a fragment of wyvern eggshell. The cave was littered with them, still golden in the candle-light.

Yet it would not be easy for anyone to ever find this place in the roots of the mountain. Were they to somehow evade those who guarded the place from within the dark trees on the lower slopes, climb the ravine, pass the waterfall and the guardians in the water, they would find the place itself was full of strange and unpleasant sulfurous reeks. The breath of mountains can kill, and here it was so bespelled that it would, if necessary, to defend this place. Set on a small fissure that steamed gently, the egg rocked. And rocked again. There was a sharp sound, like the touch of fine crystal glassware. A tiny hairline crack shivered across the iridescent gold surface of the egg.

From long experience the wolf people knew that the shivering would be matched in the otherwise still waters of the Lacul Podragul. This was not a mystery that they had thought upon, it was just the way that the mountain was. They knew better than to set up camp too close to the lake edge, because they knew what was coming next. On the steep rocky bluff they sat above their multicolored carts and tattered tents in the moonlit darkness, looking out over the water. They watched how the water suddenly shivered although there was no breath of wind. No one spoke. It was a time both enchanted and fraught with perils. The little ones within would be weak, and the shells were close to being as hard as adamantine. When they were full-grown, adamantine would be as soft as velvet compared to them. But now, they had to fight free.

In the cave, Angelo waited, as was his duty and right as the oldest. He had with him a flask of the only food that could nourish a young wyvern. A second crack splintered into the surface of the egg. There was nothing musical about this one. Instead it sounded like a wagon-load of glassware crashing down a cliff.

Angelo knew that the Lacul would be a torment of waves now. He braced himself. There would be more. But at least there was a second crack. With creatures that had to be born as twins there was always the fear that only one would survive. He waited for the next assault on the egg and its membrane. A few moments later he was rewarded by a piece of shell ricocheting like shrapnel off the walls, and the appearance of a dragonish snout with a little sharp white egg tooth on the end. The baby snorted out egg-fluid, and sniffed, tasting the air. A second snout pushed its way next to it through the same gap, and repeated the performance.

Angelo realized that he had been holding his breath, and he exhaled in a long sigh of relief. The two noses twitched at him synchronously. The shell cracked and shattered with a noise like a chandelier cascading down several flights of stairs. Two pairs of little red slit eyes looked at him, and blinked simultaneously. Both gave a curious high-pitched creel and began struggling their way free of the egg membrane.

Mothers were reputed to gash their own breasts to feed their offspring. Perhaps they would, if they could survive laying the egg. Angelo had a flask of their mother's blood for them. No other substance would nourish the chicks. Fortunately, as long as it was kept from contact with the air, wyvern blood appeared to neither coagulate nor decay. Magic gave, magic took away.

It was a rare and wonderful blood and it was not only the chicks that needed it. Angelo did not know quite when the relationship between his kind and theirs had begun, or just how it had come into being. But their care of the hatchlings was an ancient and sacred trust. His people believed that without that blood the tribe would return slowly to its roots. Either a nomad or a wolf pack, depending on just who told the story. Neither was an option that anyone wanted to take a chance on.

This land was full of old things, creatures from before man's settlement. Most were subject to the compact. But only Angelo's kind were unsure just where they stood in it all, if it failed. All they knew was that it would cost them half of themselves.

Chapter 29

In Odessa a very frightened little man made painstaking notes about the number of wagons passing beneath his window. He was unsure if or how he would get the information to his paymaster. But if he had nothing to sell, he would never have the money to leave.

The work was dangerous, but Count Mindaug paid well.

***

The work was not actually that dangerous. True, Jagiellon was wise to the workings of agents and double agents. Spies and betrayal were meat and drink to him. Anyone attempting espionage on a military or political target of concern to the grand duke was indeed taking a great risk.

But economics was not. The Black Brain knew a great deal about several planes of existence. Mindaug's estimate was that he knew the least about this earthly one. Trade was something Chernobog had always understood poorly.

The demon was not subtle, no matter that he thought he was. To him, power meant that you took what you wanted. The only purpose of trade was to corrupt and to move spies into the territories of those who did not understand absolute power. Right now, Jagiellon judged that it was more important to keep his enemies in the dark concerning his preparations than it was to maintain the regular commerce of Odessa. So, he'd ordered the port closed. The cargo that would normally have been shipped out was piling up in the warehouses at the docks.

That also meant that Odessa was slowly starving. Mindaug's agents reported that people were even beginning to mutter against the voivode. At this stage, all that was involved were frightened and resentful mutterings. Things would have to get much worse for the utterly cowed population to even contemplate rebellion.

Mindaug knew that the voivode of Odessa poorly understood his overlord. He thought Jagiellon was merely a cruel and monomaniacal man who could possibly be reasoned with.

He would learn the truth, soon enough. And, unlike Mindaug, he would not have had the perspicacity to organize a means of escape before the demon's jaws closed on him.

Mindaug moved to the shelves to seek another book. All things considered, as vile a creature as she was, working for Countess Elizabeth was considerably safer than working for Chernobog. She was not actually a demon herself, after all. Simply someone who suffered from the delusion that she could trade with the greatest of demons and come out ahead on the deal.

***

Jagiellon had had reports, but he preferred to see things for himself. So, in a supply tent in Odessa, a blank eyed man roused himself from where he lay, rather uncomfortably. He was cold and stiff and walked, as a result, with difficulty and with a jerky and unsteady gait. No one spoke to him as Chernobog looked around the shipyard. They knew the nature of the blank-eyed man.

Neither Jagiellon nor Chernobog knew very much about shipbuilding. Jagiellon had never chosen to interest himself in such mundane tasks before he encountered Chernobog. Ships such as these that plied oceans of water did not occur in Chernobog's normal realm. However, both of them could recognize the signs of industry. There was plenty of that. Rigging and ratlines were being strung on some of the vessels already. Others were still being clad with their outer planking. That ran to plan too: if they were going to be forced to wait for another season, they may as well build more vessels.

Chernobog left the human-vessel right there. Someone would take it back to the tent. Instead he occupied the body of a cavalry commander and looked out onto the vast parade ground. Jagiellon kept a far closer grasp on military matters than commercial ones.

Levies from across the lands that gave fealty to the grand duke Jagiellon were engaged in drill. The levies came from several linguistic groups. Many of them were hereditary enemies. To a greater or lesser extent the Black Brain managed and controlled their officers. That required a vast capacity. But Chernobog had that, even if he sometimes poorly understood human soldiers' abilities and limitations.

The army being readied for the round ships-some forty thousand men, now-was but a small portion of the force that Jagiellon was mustering. He would have to strike in the north and the center, once he held the gate to the Mediterranean. For the last few years he had kept up a slow war of attrition, without major attacks, while building more reserves. He'd learned that it would take large numbers to bring down the Holy Roman Empire, given the capabilities of its current ruler.

This time they would feint north. The war hardened Empire, led by the knights of the Holy Trinity would stop that attack, as they had many others. But the attack would be merely a diversion. Jagiellon thought the underbelly of Europe was soft and unprepared. With any luck, Emeric of Hungary would attempt to take advantage and attack either Italy or the Holy Roman Empire-not realizing that this would leave him vulnerable on his own eastern borders. Jagiellon would settle for a bridgehead into the heart of Europe through Hungary. The part of Jagiellon that was the Black Brain, Chernobog, cared little for these geographical conquests. But they were physical prizes which were not without value in the spiritual world. And besides, pouring across the northern Carpathians from the lands of the Kievan Rus would allow Chernobog to seize the physical earthly holdings of an old enemy, Elizabeth Bartholdy. There was a certain satisfaction in that.

Chapter 30

The sun kisses the high places, the cold roost of eagles and fugitives, before it shines upon the rest of the world. In the pale clarity of dawn, Vlad gazed out from the craggy edge above their small camp, loving the sheer limitless immensity of the folded shadowlands below. It had frightened him a little at first. Now he would die before he let anyone shut him away again. For a brief while his soul was at peace, in the vast tranquility of the place, away from the turmoil of conflicting desires and a world he understood poorly.

Could death somehow be like this? An endless, quiet, shadowy country.

The sun climbed slowly higher, becoming harsher and stronger, and people began to stir. They'd camped in a picturesque spot, in a small dell beneath a gray scree, with a craggy peak above it. To the right on the edge of the scree, a col led into another valley and deeper into the mountains.

Far, far below, Vlad's eye was caught by flash of light. Vlad had discovered that he had very keen eyesight. He peered intently now, wishing that he had one of those telescope devices. Staring, his eyes picked up movements eventually. A column of horses, working their way up one of the valleys. Soon they would be hidden behind the ridge line as the valley turned away in its meandering.

Vlad knew all too well that that valley would eventually bring the horsemen to their camp. And it was very unlikely that it was a friendly column of several hundred horsemen.

He made his way quickly back to his camp. It was a very makeshift camp, tents constructed from a few ragged tarpaulins, and some lean-tos set around several cook fires, one of which was being blown into life.

"Best leave that," said Vlad. "The Hungarians are coming. I have seen a column of them heading up our valley. Wake everybody. No shouting," he added, seeing the startled fire-maker take a deep breath to do just that.

A few minutes later, two of the younger boys were leading the horses up to the col while those for whom there were no mounts began to slither and scramble over the broken cliff and down into the next valley. That left Vlad and twenty-one men waiting nervously amongst the top edge of the broken boulder scree near the col.

When he had planned the last ambush he had been filled with a kind of rash fury that expressed itself in cold-blooded, calculated killing. Now, he was just afraid. How had they found him here? The wait seemed interminable. He wished, desperately, that he had the experience, or that someone else here with him that knew what to do.

At last, a pair of troopers appeared at the foot of the little mountain dell they had used for their camp. They were moving cautiously and halted their horses when they saw the rough tents. They turned, quietly, to ride away.

And then, while he was still holding his breath, Vlad saw it all come apart. Someone decided to shoot one of the scouts. He hadn't actually told them not to…

It was good shooting, all things considered. The one scout gave a gurgling scream as the arrow hit him on the breastplate and ricocheted upward, striking just under the jaw. His companion did not wait. He put his spurs to his steed and got away, as less well aimed arrows clattering impotently on the rocks, spearing the thin soil. Vlad heard a horn being sounded. And then, something worse-the sound of screaming from the valley behind them, where those without horses had fled.

Vlad simply did not know what to do. The Hungarians had obviously another column of horse coming up to take them from behind. Vlad's men were outnumbered, and would have been surrounded. Before Vlad could take a decision-something his little army were looking for him to do-the Hungarians came sweeping into the dell, lances out.

"Loose!" someone yelled. A ragged volley of arrows fell among the Hungarian knights, busy spearing canvas and flattening lean-tos. The knights were heavily armored, the horses less so. Some horses screamed. A few men fell, but the rest were now charging at the scree slope. Vlad's makeshift troops were no match for them. A handful loosed again, but most of them were scrambling for the col. Vlad stood up. He was damned, he decided, if he would flee merely to run into the second column. He would die here, and die free.

Seing him stand his ground with a sword in his hand, steadied three or four of his men who had not yet started to run. They began firing more arrows, yelling to their companions to come back and aid them.

Then, the invincible and terrifying Magyar charge slowed. It was not the pinprick of the few light arrows that affected them. Rather it was the utter folly of trying to gallop a heavy horse up a steep loose scree slope. The earlier flight of Vlad's men had started some rocks rolling down. A cascade of boulders knocked one knight from his horse.

Vlad stretched out his arms. "Push rocks, men!"

A heavy horse just does not change course or stop easily, even on a steep slope of loose rocks. Still, the charge-which had seemed so terrifying and unstoppable-scattered and broke up, as the Magyars tried to save themselves and their steeds. The scree, long undisturbed and appearing fairly stable as a result, had deceived the flatland knights. Perhaps they had intended to merely caracole and retreat, but now, in the sliding and rolling rocks and screaming men and horses, the order was lost. The booming of their pistols had not helped either.

In the dust and chaos Vlad knew only one thing: somehow luck had favored them. But what he should do next was a mystery to him.

The decision was taken out of his hands by someone tugging at his sleeve. "Sire, they are coming up from behind!"

Vlad took a deep breath. One of the reasons they had chosen this little dell as a campsite was that that it had had two valleys for them to flee down. The idea that they might need three had never occurred to him. Plainly someone had pinpointed their campsite exactly, and planned accordingly.

"To the horses, men!" They scrambled over to the col. The man who had warned him had a steaming horse. Vlad read into this that he had ridden someway down the valley before catching sight of the other group of Hungarians, advancing up that escape route. Vlad had heard the screams earlier, but he had to hope that there would still be a way clear. Well, there obviously wasn't.

"Mount up!" he said. "We are going back over. We will at least die like men."

They walked their horses above the scree and then down along the clear steep slope next to the cliff where Vlad had watched the sunrise-the route that the boys leading the horses had taken earlier. They were able to ride down, into the dust and shouting. It was very hard to tell quite what was happening down here. Vlad's men were no battle hardened warriors. They were unarmored and poorly armed. True, most of the men had bows. But none of them could shoot from the saddle. So they had to resort to boar spears, a few pitchforks, rusty old swords-relics taken from above fireplaces-and even a few men who had nothing more than clubs, and axes intended for firewood.

The Magyars should have butchered them. Almost certainly the Magyar would have butchered them, had they come with a little advance notice, and not in the wake of the scree slide. By the time that it occurred to Vlad that in the books he had read, warriors gave a battle cry on charging, it was almost too late to do so. It was certainly too late to think of anything particularly inspiring. He settled for his own name. It echoed hollowly, mockingly weak to his own ears. But that was obviously not how it sounded to his small band of followers. "Drac!" they yelled in chorus.

There were barely twenty of them left. Looking back to see if he was being followed, Vlad realized that the flanking party of Magyar had reached the col behind them. His pitiful little force was caught between two sets of enemies. But it was too late. The little ragtag group of rebels, all that remained of his army, had begun their doomed charge. All he could do was to wave his sword-he had no idea how to use it from the saddle-and race towards the chaos that had been their campsite.

At the top of the slope someone else yelled: "Charge!" And: "He must be taken alive!"

Vlad heard that quite clearly. It was the last thing he remembered hearing clearly for the next few minutes.

If there was one thing more stupid than trying to charge up a scree slope, it had to be charging down one. It was undoubtably the shortest way down, and in the dust and perhaps in the haste of the moment it might have seemed a good idea.

Vlad had no time to think of his enemy's logic. He was hacking at an armored man. This was not about swordsmanship. This was about survival. A pitch-fork in the neck assisted his foe's fall. And somehow he was through to the other side of the Magyar troopers, with nothing but the trail they had followed up here in front of him, and the bulk of his force intact.

***

Emeric had some thirty-three battered men paraded in front of him. They were all that remained of a once-proud troop of a hundred and twenty that had set off on a well-planned dawn raid on the encampment of Vlad, Prince of Valahia.

"I think," he said, smiling nastily at his great aunt's beautiful features, "that you had better leave military matters me, Countess. I came expecting to find things in good order. Instead I find you have countermanded my instructions and made things a great deal worse. I did have my doubts. You are very skilled… in other areas."

He did not say that he had come because one of the captains whom he had seconded to her had sent a letter to his commanding officer, who had in turn carried it to the king. Emeric might need the man in the future. Besides, he thought it wise to let her think he that had guessed. Actually, the disaster had come as a rude shock to him. She was usually so devastatingly efficient.

She looked down her nose at him. "The operation was well planned. Your troops are inadequate. They were late. They should have arrived simultaneously at dawn."

He wondered if she realized that she had just reprieved them from drastic punishment. "Let us hear what they have to say," he said. He pointed to a trooper. "You. Explain."

The man was gray and shaking. But he was no coward, Emeric had to admit. "Sire. It was steeper than we realized. It took us much longer than we thought. Captain Genorgi had us out at midnight, riding up. We should have been in position hours before dawn. Everyone thought we would be, but we lost the moonlight in the valley. It was pitch dark and very rough going. We had to lead the horses."

"If you'd lamed my horses in that I would have had you flayed. But surely it had been scouted?"

The trooper nodded. "It's rough terrain, Sire, but not that bad in daylight. We just didn't realize that it was an ambush. A trap."

"And scouts?" asked the king.

"We had some Croats watching the camp from the other ridge, Sire. But they could only see fires. They didn't realize that the fires were a decoy. We'd have all been killed if our scouts hadn't sounded the warning. I was coming up the second valley. We killed some of their infantry. But when we heard the fighting, Captain Genorgi told us to leave hunting them and push on for the gap."

"And then?"

"We heard them massacring Lieutenant Mascaru's men when we got to the top. There were hundreds of them, Sire. Not just the forty peasants without weapons or training like we'd been told. All yelling 'Drac!' and cutting our men to pieces. Captain Genorgi gave the order to charge, and we rode to the rescue. But it was a trap. Prince Vlad… He's not human, Sire. He's a demon. He made the slope give way under us. I was lucky to get out alive."

"This may be temporary," said Emeric, and then remembered that he was not punishing them. "You did well. Now. Return to the ranks. I want to speak someone who was with the other column."

The trooper was plainly unable to believe his fortune. He bowed and retreated.

"Well?" said Emeric. "Were there no survivors of Lieutenant Mascaru's column?"

Where had Vlad found a general with this level of military expertise? Where had he found weaponry, knights, or at least cavalry? Emeric suspected treachery, and a far better woven plot that he had guessed at.

Nervously a man with a bandaged head came forward. "Me, Sire."

Emeric looked at him. A big man, but plainly shaken by the military disaster. So they should be. They were among his best. "And how many knights did they have?"

"More than us, Sire. A hundred at least. They took us in the flank out of the dust."

"And who commanded them? I need some ideas. Boyars have families." He smiled thinly.

The soldier looked nervous. "Sire, I think it was Prince Vlad himself. They were all yelling for him, or at least all yelling 'Drac!' That's what they call him. He's a huge man all in black clothes, black hair and a white face, and you can't kill him. I shot him at the top of the slope, but he didn't die. Then in the melee he knocked me out of the saddle just with his gaze. His eyes…"

The man shuddered. "I'll swear our swords barely touched." The soldier realized what he was saying, shut his eyes, and began to mumble a prayer.

It was all Emeric could do not to kill the idiot on the spot. This was exactly what he did not need. The Magyars prided themselves in the belief that they were the finest heavy cavalry in the world-as Emeric himself did. The accursed Knights of the Holy Trinity used magic, that was all. And now, here was an upstart little princeling who had shaken the confidence of his finest, shaken the very foundations of his kingdom. A man who was, it appeared, rapidly building a more terrible reputation than he himself enjoyed.

***

In a shallow cave that was barely more than an overhang, Vlad and his fourteen surviving men, neither looked nor felt terrifying. They felt alive… but only just. Of the fourteen, only eight were not walking wounded. They were all still stunned by their first real combat, and the sheer ferocity of it all. Yes, they had escaped. Some said they had seen Magyar butcher Magyar in the chaos of rolling rocks and dust. It appeared that those in the dell had taken their rescuers-those that survived the scree slide-as yet more attackers. Whatever happened, Vlad's men had escaped with their lives-those who had not paid with theirs. But they had lost almost all of their food and the better part of their number.

Yet, somehow, Vlad's men regarded him as a hero. Vlad did not know what to make of this, but it filled him with shame. Still, he had learned one thing. Watchers were now posted. And there were several ways to flee carefully scouted. But he did not know quite what to do next.

The one thing he did not expect was for his watchers to be calling him excitedly, happily. He came to look. A sense of some relief washed over him. He recognized at least three of the men leading a party of perhaps fifty others. Not soldiers, or at least certainly not recognizable as such. There were a number of pack ponies, a few donkeys, and most of the men were carrying large bundles.

He tried to place where the three had been during that disastrous encounter. One of them, still with a horse, had been part of that terrible charge. The other two, one now leading a pack pony, had definitely been with the group that had scrambled off on foot. Vlad had thought them all killed. To his relief, he realized that some of them must have got away.

That was a weight off his conscience. Perhaps generals with thousands at their beck and call felt little for casualties. To Vlad, these men were still precious companions. Yes, they were peasants and yeomen farmers. But they were all he had. And they'd been true to him.

He wished that he could make contact, somehow, with Countess Elizabeth. She would have nobles skilled in the art of war-something he knew far too little of-willing to join and help him. She plainly was a loyal subject, a vassal ruling Caedonia, one of his cities, even if she was also a vassal of King Emeric.

He was delighted to see the other survivors. And totally unprepared for the adulation of those who accompanied them.

"Drac!" People bowed and cheered. "Bless you, Prince!" They crowded round, incredulous and plainly in awe.

Vlad smiled worriedly as he squeezed the shoulders of one the men who had fled on foot. "Were there any other survivors?"

"Some others, I think. We were scattered, Prince. But thanks to you, some of us escaped when you taught the Magyars a lesson. They fled like whipped dogs."

Vlad found himself so taken aback by this interpretation of events, that he was at a loss as to what to say. The world inside the walls of his tower had ill prepared him for the realities outside. That much he understood. But did life have to be so illogical and confusing? He had lost most of his men, had had to flee their camp; had, in fact, barely survived. To Vlad's logical mind, that did not make him the sort of beacon to whom men would rally. Yet here they were, with more men than he'd lost, congratulating him on his victory!

It made no sense. Could they not see that he and a bare handful of men were huddling in a cave in the mountains?

"The story is spreading across the country, Lord. Many thousands will answer your call now."

Bit by bit, as he spoke to his new recruits, Vlad began to understand. In the chaos some of the Magyars had fled too. Vlad knew little about war, and of how King Emeric conducted it. But this much he did know: there was only one penalty for desertion-execution. On the other hand, even Vlad knew that Emeric was fond of painful deaths for those who had failed him. Desertion might have seemed a sensible option to some of those soldiers. It might be dishonorable and disloyal, but, for the second sons and minor nobility who made up the rank-and-file of King Emeric's elite, it might also have been better than returning and admitting defeat.

So. Desertion, and not just the scree slope, confusion and the few casualties that he and his men had been able to inflict, had made the difference-and painted a different picture of the battle. Very few of the survivors were in the two columns returning to face the penalties that their commanders, or worse, their king, might inflict upon them. But those who had chosen the course of honor, it would seem…

Had not chosen the course of veracity. They had vastly exaggerated the size of the force they had faced. These new recruits earnestly believed that Vlad had inflicted a stunning military defeat onto the hated occupiers. Also, that he commanded a large force, and that he was a military genius. Their own eyes soon persuaded them that Vlad had no vast force. However, that just reinforced the belief that he was the greatest military commander that had ever breathed, to be able to inflict such a crushing defeat on superior numbers.

Besides, they wanted to believe. They would not let common sense stand in the way of that.

Vlad had little enough silver, very few horses, scant rations, and no arms. He did have, however, twice the army he'd had before. And there were more men on their way, apparently. Vlad wished desperately for wiser and more experienced counsel. He wished he knew how to make contact with the countess, or even the gypsies. He could talk to them. But he was wise enough to know that he could not truly take these people into his confidence. He needed them. And, even if their belief was false, he needed them to believe in him. So he walked off up the bare mountainside, to a place that he could sit alone and think. And pray. Father Tedesco had said that God would provide answers. Right now, those seemed to be avoiding him.

He would just have to do his best on his own, knowing almost nothing. What ever that best was, it would have to include finding a larger camp and posting sentries. He had read of sentries. In a way experienced them, in the shape of the guards that had watched his tower. He just was not too sure of the exact details-such as how many of them, and what they should do, and for how long they should do it.

He walked back down to the encampment. It was, to his meticulous eye, a mess. Of course, it had been a mess previously, but then, as desperate fugitives organization had seemed a little futile. He cleared his throat. "Have we any men here," he said loudly, instantly stilling dozens of conversations, "who have any military experience?" He hoped he could find at least one common soldier from whom he could-without betraying too much of his own ignorance-get the details of how to set out sentries.

He got some seven men. And four of them, all comrades, were former sergeants from one of the levies that Emeric had raised in Valahia. "I need sentries posted, I need a better camp-this one is poorly ordered, and I need to train these men," Vlad began, wondering-as he knew little of how the military actually worked, if such men would know anything of what he needed. Perhaps they would have some ideas from watching their own officers.

They saluted. And turned away… But he had not yet finished speaking to them…

They seem to believe he had, however. And moreover they seemed to assume that he had ordered them to arrange these matters. To his amazement, Vlad discovered that they seemed to know precisely what to do. He watched them, covertly, determined to learn what to do next time. After a while he wryly concluded that the correct method was probably to tell several sergeants that you perceived a problem. Even if this was not quite the right way, and Vlad did not know if it was or not, it had certainly worked extremely well.

The cave with its handful of desperate survivors transformed-at an almost magical speed-into a military encampment. The two sergeants drilling the newly formed squads might think that they resembled hopeless black beetles… and other fascinating and bizarre things, many of which Vlad had never heard of before, but suddenly they began to resemble fighting men. And strangely, despite the abuse heaped on their heads, they appeared proud, even if they were merely armed with staffs of green ash.

It left Vlad free to ponder other important questions, and to wonder if perhaps he should tell the sergeants about those too-and how he could do so without shattering their confidence in him. He could hardly say 'well, what do I do next?'

The one thing he was sure of was that they could not stay in one place for long. If the Hungarians had found and nearly destroyed them once, they would do so again. The others could delude themselves about his military genius, but Vlad knew he had none, and he knew it. All he had was a logical, and very precise and tidy mind.

Chapter 31

Erik had noticed that the Ilkhan hunkered down on their haunches to talk. So he did the same next to the girl and her brother. Struggling to express himself in a language he barely had a handle on, he gestured quite a lot. "I have given the order. A thing to carry him on will be made for the boy. We have to travel. We look after you."

She stared at him, wide eyed. And responded with a high-speed chatter of which he understood only one word in three. It was not easy to string those words into anything coherent. How did he say "slow down?" The best he could manage was "do not gallop."

She looked at him, puzzled. And then started to laugh. That hadn't been quite the reaction he'd been looking for, but she did have one of those infectious laughs.

He saw that the pestilential horseboy had gotten back. "You. David. Come help to translate. And none of your silly tricks."

***

Bortai had wondered just what she would do next. There was a little church and village up the slope. But it would offer at best temporary shelter. Given the numbers that now hunted for them, such a little village could not protect them, even were its people willing. And the foreign knight had said that Kildai should not ride any further.

She was rather puzzled when the tall blonde foreign knight came and squatted next to them as if he were from the steppes himself. His accent was as strange as his words were limited. But there was no mistaking the kindness behind the words. It made her eyelids prick with tears, tears that she was determined not to show. He gave orders. He must command these mercenaries. It was odd that Ilkhan should resort to using a mercenary escort. But she could think of no other reason for these knights to be accompanying a tarkhan's party. Given the fact that they were coming from the west, either the Ilkhan had vastly increased their territories, or these knights had been hired to see them across lands not under Mongol control, lands where the locals were so ignorant that they would dare to attack a Mongol envoy. It was unlikely that either the Illyrians or Bulgars would have dreamed of it; they had had contact with the Golden Horde. But perhaps there were other tribes and kingdoms further west with less respect. The heyday of Mongol power, Bortai knew, had passed.

Nevertheless, they were still a force to be reckoned with.

Then she got the actual meaning of what he was trying to say. He had ordered a litter to be made for them to carry Kildai in. And he made no mention of consulting the tarkhan. Well, perhaps that was just his lack of skill at her language.

She was a princess of the Hawk clan and she recognized his honorable conduct. He might be a foreigner, a sell-sword, but his behavior was far better than that manifested recently by many Mongols. Her reply, a little embarrassed, was perhaps voiced faster than it would otherwise have been.

By his puzzled look, she realized that she must be speaking too fast. And then he told her to stop galloping. It was so earnestly said that she had to laugh. She was behaving like a hysterical girl, and part of her was embarrassed by her own reaction.

He did smile when she laughed, though.

***

David looked at the Mongol woman. He was a Jerusalem born thief. He had lived under the shadow of the Ilkhan all of his life. He was good at spotting details. Her clothing might be travel-stained, and torn, but it had been some of the finest weave. Her accent and tone reflected the same reality. This was one of their highborn, the kind that he avoided with as much care as possible. One step out of line and there would be no leniency. His first reaction was that he ought to back off and get lost. But he had learned by now that Erik's orders were to be obeyed, so he came forward and bowed very low, no matter how much his feet wanted to run in the other direction.

"She doesn't seem to understand what I'm trying to say," said Erik. "Explain to her that I'm having a stretcher made. I'll detail a few men to carry the boy. He'll get jolted around much less like that. We really need a well sprung cart, but that doesn't seem possible. Tell her we'll get her back to her clan. I daresay somebody will be pleased to see her. The two of them seem to be good, ordinary people."

Unholy glee stirred in David's breast. Erik plainly did not realize that this was a high-ranking woman. Direct tricks, like the one that had nearly had him killed in the terrible criminal haven Corfu, were out. But he could certainly let the knight talk himself into a tricky position. And he would have grounds to claim complete innocence! Oh, bliss. It would serve them right for bringing him so far from Jerusalem. And it would be funny.

He would have to be careful, though. Stay close to the exact meaning. But Erik was going to be very embarrassed when it turned out that this was a very high muckety-muck, and he'd been treating her as if she were a commoner. Mind you, David had noticed that the Ritter treated Prince Manfred in much the same fashion. He knew that Erik was no noble. He'd asked Kari. But while he was at it he could tell her that Erik was of great rank. That meant a lot among the Ilkhan Mongol.

And then David realized that she was looking at him very strangely. Well, one of his ancestors somewhere had been one of the conquerors. He did have the eyes. In Jerusalem that was not uncommon. Looking like a Mongol had not stopped the local constabulary from watching him, unfortunately. He didn't have the forelock. That was strictly forbidden to lesser people, at least among the Ilkhan.

"Lady," he said in a tone of deep respect, "my master, the noble Ritter Erik Hakkonsen, says that he has ordered them to make a litter to carry your brother."

"I understood that." She looked at him strangely again. "How old are you?"

David wondered what on earth set her off on this tangent? What did it have to do with her? He was a little small perhaps. But he would swear that he had grown a good hand since leaving Jerusalem. His breeches bore testimony to that. "I am sixteen, lady."

"You look to be a little younger."

Well, he could be. Birthdays were not as religiously observed as they might be. He simply knew that he'd been born some time around the ascension of the new Ilkhan. But it was not a comment he appreciated.

"Sixteen," he repeated firmly.

"Tell your master that we appreciate his kindness. But we do not need to accept such charity."

"It is best for the boy," said Erik in his best Mongol, putting a neat end to David's plans for a flowery and mildly insulting translation. "We honor our promises."

***

Bortai had wrestled with the best. It was expected of a noble Mongol lady. Seldom, however had she been thrown as hard as this, and then as neatly pinned. First, a boy who could be Kildai's twin brother-dressed like a peasant. Could she possibly have got things wrong? It had been a few years since there had been much contact between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhan. But there was almost no imaginable way that the Ilkhan would be subservient to these Franks. If she recalled her histories correctly, the Franks had been among the allies of Ilkhan against the Baitini. They had fallen out over one of the battles, where the Franks and their allies had failed, and the Ilkhan had been defeated. When the Ilkhan returned in force, the Franks too had been evicted from their holdings in Asia Minor. But that was all centuries ago. It still did not explain why this boy who was by all appearances as much of a son of the Hawk clan as Kildai, was doing as a serf. And, to make things even more difficult she was afraid that what this Erik said was true: she had to do what was best for Kildai.

Then the ridiculous side of it struck her. This foreign knight had proposed marriage to her. And in the jest of it all, she had accepted. And now he was saying that he honored his promises.

***

"Why does she keep laughing at me?" asked Erik plaintively.

Just at that point, a pair of men carrying a lance with the blue truce flag emerged from the woods on the far side of the braided stream. Erik looked up. "Hell's teeth," he said. "I'd better mount up and see what is going on. David, find Kari. I'm going to need someone else who is not in armor to help carry. In fact you will need at least four of them, to take it in shifts. Get Falkenberg to sort it out."

***

The boy ran off. He even ran like Kildai, Bortai noticed. The armored Erik got into the saddle with graceful ease and cantered off. Bortai was left sitting next to her brother. She had spent much of her life telling others what to do. Her mother had died in childbirth when she was just eleven. Much of Kildai's rearing had fallen on her shoulders. Yes, there had been many other older women to help with the practical day to day tasks, and her aunts had seen to her own very traditional upbringing… But she was still her mother's daughter. She had the final responsibility. She was accustomed to a role in the clan decisions. Now she watched as others dealt with their fate. She really did not like it. She could see no easy way of changing the situation, but it irked her.

***

Erik rode forward, escorting one of the Mongol, not Tulkun, whom he was developing something of a friendship with, but one of the others, to meet the Golden Horde envoy on a gravel bank in the middle of the braided stream. Erik could not really follow the entire discussion between the men. He did get some of the formalities, and some references to 'Franks'. At length the Golden Horde man saluted respectfully, and turned his pony and rode away back into the woods on the opposite side of the stream. Erik wished that he knew exactly what was going to happen-budid not appear too threatening. This was something of a relief. By the way they rode, he really had a feeling they'd be tough opponents, especially on broken terrain.

A little later a party of four reappeared, still carrying the truce lance and Erik found himself riding out again. The new party from the Golden Horde was headed by a harder-faced individual, and as was protocol, two knights and two of the Ilkhan men rode out to meet them. This time Erik's party included Tulkun. Once again, Erik had great difficulty in following what was obviously a very polite… but more insistent discussion. The one word that seemed to be being repeated quite often was 'Bortai' with several gestures.

Tulkun held out his hands, pointed to Erik with a thumb, and, grinning like a cheerful bear, sounded off at great length. The hard-faced individual peered at Erik then spouted at some more length. The only word Erik understood was 'foreigner'.

Tulkun replied. This time the only word Erik got was envoy. At least that's what he thought it meant.

The four turned and rode off again. "What was all that about?" demanded Von Gherens. "Are you selling them Erik?"

Tulkun grinned. "They want young lady from Hawk clan. I explain she under clan protection of him. Officer cross. Try to say that envoy-truce does not apply to foreigners. I have to explain to him that even our Tarkhan is not Mongol, but still under protection of Ilkhan. There is nothing they can do. But he does not like it." That idea plainly amused the rotund Mongol. They did seem to like laughing at these sort of things, Erik noted.

A further half hour later a plainly still more senior commander came down-amid worrying reports from the scouts that there were riders moving in the forest on the far side of the river, spreading out as if to flank them.

This time the tarkhan himself rode forward to treat with them. Erik would have loved to know just what he said, but he told the escort to back off. It must have been pretty impressive and effective however. He rode back smiling calmly. "They will escort us to the camp of the orkhan. Prepare to ride."

***

Bortai found herself being carried along by the tide of events. It was not entirely a bad direction to be carried in, but it would require care and careful steering to survive. She wondered just how deep the honor of her new protector ran. She got the feeling that it might be very deep indeed, despite his being a foreigner. On the other hand the honor of Gatu Orkhan could hardly be very much shallower than it already was. She could expect treachery and they would be heading back into the heartland of his support. It would also take them closer to her own people. Somewhere, somehow, she must seize the opportune moment to rejoin their clan. If Kildai recovered enough for them to ride it might be possible. Her thoughts also turned to the possibilities of using this serf David. The sight of him in the saddle would certainly upset rumors that Kildai was dead-if she could stop Kildai being seen by any others, while he was carried on litter.

And how was she to do that? She noticed the boy, David, hanging around as two of the foreign Knights loaded Kildai gently onto a stretcher made from two strong poles and a piece of canvas. She called him over. He was visibly nervous. Good. "I do not know how to tell you this, boy, but do you own a hood? Something to hide or change your face perhaps?"

He looked even more alarmed. "I have a hooded cloak, great lady." He paused. Then curiosity and fear got the better of him. "Why?"

"You look like someone. Someone they would like to catch over there," she pointed across the ridge.

He looked very much as if he want to turn and run right then. "But I have never ever been there before."

"Yes, but you look very much like someone that the Raven clan want dead. I would wear the hooded cloak and keep out of sight as much as possible."

He bowed hastily and ran off. Bortai saw him rummaging in a pack a little later.

The Ritter Erik came back from the third parlay. He too bowed, but it was an easy, friendly bow. He was plainly unaware of her status, or else so highborn himself that he made little or nothing of it. "We explain you part of my clan. Protection of Tarkhan," he said in his awkward Mongol.

Bortai was uncertain quite whether he meant that they were under the protection of the envoy, or that he was there to protect the envoy. But whichever one it was, it plainly extended to providing for them. "I have asked Ritter Von Stael to see that you and your man are brought some food and drink. While we find out quite what is happening. Tulkun believes it will be no problem."

Bortai believed that at least on the surface General Okagu of the Raven clan would have to go along with the pretense that she and Kildai were protected. She was also sure that they would make a serious attempt to murder them. Of course, it would all be done under the cover of a polite fiction-if they were killed some 'renegade' would be caught and executed, and humble apologies conveyed. The killing would never happen in the public eye. But they would watch like a lynx in the forest, stalking a doe with a fawn, looking for the slightest opportunity to strike. She was sure right now that several of Okagu's officers were pointing out that at least they knew where she was now, and would be able to find a suitable opportunity somewhere. She would have to be as wary as that lynx-stalked doe. And when they got the chance, run for it.

She was also surprised by the thoughtfulness of her accidental protector. She had seen that he was a very busy commander, and yet he had found the time to consider their needs. She'd noted that he had ordered scouts deployed both up and down stream, and on a high point behind them, as well as forming the knights up in the defensive square. For a barbarian, he was a good Orkhan.

A little later, as she had expected, an honor guard rode down. Bortai found herself moving off at a walk, in the tail end of the column. Next to her two knights carried Kildai. His eyes were open again. He seemed, in her judgment, to be little less confused this time. He had at least called her by her own name. And while she was in sight he seemed content to lie still.

***

Erik rode close to Manfred. Yes, they were all in full armor. Yes, his charge was in the midst of a body of some of the finest knights in Christendom, but they were not in Christendom. This was a wilder, wider world. Nor had Erik been entirely comforted by the behavior of the Golden Horde Mongol. True, he had snatched a piece of their prey from their jaws. But surely that had been just a piece of petty inter-clan warfare? A set piece of triumphalism to hold one of the women of another clan for ransom? Or did things go deeper than that?

"Why are you so edgy?" asked Manfred.

"Something is not right about this crew," said Erik. "Yes, I know we didn't have the most auspicious start. But I talked to Tulkun-the short plump one. He seemed to think that it was just a bit of clan rivalry. The Hawk clan claim descent from Chinngis Khan. They're a bit holier than thou, or rather, more Mongol than thou, and it would be a big coup to capture part of the clan. But the girl seemed to think they'd kill her. She should know, surely. Tulkun thought it very funny, but he doesn't know these people and they're behaving more like bears with sore teeth."

Manfred grinned. "You spend your whole life looking for disasters, Erik. Our envoy fellows seems cheerful enough."

Erik grimaced. "It is always best to plan for disaster. Then when disaster happens, you can see how wrong your plans were."

Manfred shook his head. "In my experience you plan really well, Erik. It's just that usually the wrong disaster strikes."

"Yes… well. But the girl worries me. There is something not quite right about all of this."

"Nice looker," said Manfred. "And there is a charming novelty in seeing one of them laugh at you, instead of make calves-eyes at you. What did Falkenberg say about the boy?"

Erik shrugged. "From what we can work out, the kid had been unconscious for nearly three days before he started coming around. There is a possibility the spine is damaged but… well, by the way he's been jolted about-if it were damaged it'd be likely he'd be paralyzed. And his sister says he's moving his arms and legs. It's too early to tell. If a casualty stays in a coma for more than a week-things don't look good. Falkenberg thinks he's got a good chance of recovery. Of course keeping him still for a week or two would be best. But people with head injuries usually recover quite fast-especially youngsters-when they start to recover."

They had reached the ridge-top by this stage. "Well. The lands of the Golden Horde," said Manfred. "Funny they don't look particularly different from the other side."

"They do slope away to softer lands, by the looks of it," said Erik. "Anyway, it's the people, not the terrain, that shape a land."

Tulkun shouldered his horse up to them. "Lady say she have something to tell you. Stop knights sweating so much."

Erik looked around warily. "I better go and see what it is, Manfred."

"If you must," said Manfred. "Carrying stretchers on foot is good for them. Just as long as you don't want me to do it."

So Erik rode back-to where, as Tulkun had correctly put it, the knights were sweating along, carrying the boy. It was not that the lad was that heavy, but it was already bidding to be a warm day.

Erik greeted her, his tongue almost tricking him into the 'tortoise' again. It was just close enough to make the accidental transposition easy. She obviously caught it, because she suppressed a laugh but not the dimpling of the cheeks. "I wanted to say I have a cart hidden down there. Maybe even an ox, still."

That would please the knights, even if it would probably jolt about more. Erik was sweating in his armor. Actually the only person who seemed to be feeling cold was the horse-boy. He was wearing an old hooded cloak Kari had given him. It was a good bit too large for him. Erik wondered if the boy was sickening for something.

Chapter 32

Across Europe there are places where old stones remain in cleared places. Moss grows on other rocks and even on the trees. Not on these stones.

Particularly not on the stones standing in their ancient ranks here. This was not a great or impressive circle; the stones were small and worn. Irregular. If it had not been for the lack of moss, they might just have been a random arrangement of rocks, not at all unusual for these mountains.

Humans often made the error of thinking there were merely two intelligences that shared this world: those who were human and those who were not. Of course, in reality, it was infinitely more complex than that. To begin with, there were facets of reality that mere flesh and blood rarely perceived, much less walked in.

But even on the earth shared with ordinary mortal men… other creatures, not precisely "mortal," walked. Some walked in darkness, others in light. Some were cloaked in flesh, others were less defined by the material world. Here of course, in her dark green heart, the wood sang ancient songs too. The forest was neither benevolent nor even truly understanding of animal life. It used and survived it, and sang slow songs of wood, water, wind and stone.

And blood.

Blood could bind.

Green cool eyes stared from the forest shadows at the glade and the ancient stones. Their blood was blue. There were others among the trees, further back, not wishing to be seen. It was twilight-a time when those of the day were prepared to meet the night creatures. And they had all come-or at least many of them. There were those who had chosen their own path and made their own arrangements with powers, such as the Vila. But the others… From hollow places in the hills, from the lakes and the streams, they came. Some would come forward when the syzygy called. Others would not.

The wolf-kind came to honor their side of the bargain, bringing the young ones to see and be seen, to receive the blessing and the binding of the forest, of the water and of the stone. Of all those who gave allegiance to forest that once stretched from shore to shore before the ice-time… and again after, while men still huddled fearfully on the edges.

Men had grown more numerous and bolder since then.

The forest and its ancient denizens had given way.

Everywhere, but here.

With a hiss the dragon-headed wyverns entered the glade. They were still of an age when every new thing was a delight-and possibly edible. Angelo and his kin stayed back, as was their right, on the north side of the circle. They were still. The time for howling was not yet.

There was no wind, but the dark forest moved and groaned.

Two sets of red eyes looked out at it. Eyes that burned like coals.

Utterly heedless of the magic and the dignity of the occasion, the two engaged in rough and tumble and then bounced around. The old ones looked on. There were few young ones anywhere anymore. These two had vast license, and both of them knew it.

They tasted the rocks too.

The forest creaked, almost as if it was clicking its tongue in disapproval

"The dragon comes. They know it." said Angelo.

"But will he come here?" asked Radu.

"And then there is the question of blood," said Grigori, his long red tongue lolling.

Angelo sighed. "Go and chase down a buck or something. How do I know? How do any of us know? He will do what he will do. That too is in the compact."

"It's in his blood," said Radu.

"But will his blood be in it?" asked Angelo looking at the shadows in the trees.

Chapter 33

In his throne room in Vilnius, that which sat behind the eyes of the grand duke was concerned by the continued absence of his new shaman. True, he could do without one. He had in the past. But having a shaman was less fatiguing. He would send fresh messengers to Karelia, with dire warnings. He did not like being kept waiting, or-although this was unlikely-being defied.

Jagiellon wondered briefly if there were some way to suck Count Mindaug-or better, Elizabeth Bartholdy-into the conflict he was stirring up in the lands of the Golden Horde. With the magical forces being unleashed, either one of them might with some luck de destroyed or at least damaged.

Neither of them existed in the spirit world to the degree he did. Mindaug dug for knowledge in print. He was clever, in that way, but in the end such knowledge was inherently weak. For her part, Elizabeth's power came from borrowing against her bargain. That made her formidable, for the moment, but eventually she would have to pay her side of that bargain.

But Jagiellon-Chernobog could not believe either could be that stupid. In the meanwhile he waited for his other plans to come to fruition. His targets walked cheerfully into his traps. What rich prizes to be so foolishly risked! Pawns, true, but pawns of some considerable value.

Magical communications were always fraught with risks. In common with several other religious sects, the Baitini believed themselves especially good at it, and protected. Chernobog knew otherwise, but if that was what they wished to believe, or that the drug enhanced their skills, he would not stop them. Like the belief that he would return them to power, they were welcome to their delusions as long as they were of use to him. As a fifth column within the Ilkhan they were very useful.

Jagiellon had received news of the progress of Prince Manfred of Brittany and his knights with some satisfaction. Although he had shattered the eastern dominions of the Golden Horde into a number of little khanates that served him, he knew that his hold on them was fragile. He needed to subjugate the Horde for once and for all. At a stroke now he would create a new ruler and a vassal, together with new enemies for them-the Ilkhan and the Holy Roman Empire. That would make the new western Horde's ruler very dependent on Lithuania's support.

The Baitini thought that, because of the visions of paradise he'd supplied them, that they were dealing with their god. That was amusing, insofar as the Black Brain Chernobog was capable of being amused. The Baitini earnestly believed that they were doing the righteous and honorable thing. Which, indeed, it was-for Chernobog. It was all about perceptions. Like their name, which had been a derogatory term until they embraced it.

It would be necessary to allow some of the lesser knights to escape. Perhaps a few, to give them a better chance of returning the news to the Holy Roman Empire. And at least one of the Ilkhan envoy's escort must return to the Ilkhan. Preferably they would have terrible tales of the other's vile duplicity and perfidy. He must brief his servant about that. He hoped the tarkhan's mind would not be so drug-mazed as to forget.

Chapter 34

"We need arms. And gold or at least silver. More horses. And probably food." Vlad spoke to himself. He did not dare say so to any other person. That would betray the weakness of his position and his own lack of knowledge. He knew he was the Prince of Valahia. He knew from Countess Elizabeth-he kept thinking of her-that his father was dead and that King Emeric was going to have him killed, as he had no further use as a hostage… He was not entirely sure why he was of no further use. His mother still lived, didn't she? A tear pricked at his eye. For years he had avoided thinking of her. It hurt too much. He'd had a baby sister too. Where were they? Still in Poienari castle, high above the ravine? Why could Emeric not just have forced her to act as regent?

He would go south, he decided. He had an army of sorts, growing daily. He bit his lip. He was aware of the problems in logistics. Just feeding them all up here in the mountains was a problem. Could he expect his good sergeants to solve that? They seemed very adept at solving other problems. It seem a great deal to ask… and he had a feeling that he might not like their solutions. A raid on a village would not enhance his popularity. Nor was it honest. And that, he had discovered, was as important to his peasant army, as it was to him.

Someone coughed, well off down slope. The Sergeants had discovered… as had he quite by accident, and nearly fatally-that they should not try to sneak up on Prince Vlad. Where the speed and strength came from, he was not sure. But his men had learned not to toy with it.

It was one of the Sergeants. "Begging your pardon, Sire. Sorry to disturb." What did they think he was doing? Plotting deep doings? He had too little to do. Too much time to think. Of the horror of men and their dying. Of the flames. Of gypsies that everyone seemed to despise. Of the creamy softness of the countess. Of the confusion of feeling she caused in him. "Yes, Sergeant Emil?"

"The outer perimeter guards found a man with a wagon on the trail. He said he was looking for you, Sire."

"Oh?"

"He says he is a loyal vassal. He has goods to sell." The Sergeant sounded suspicious. "He sounds like a German. You can't trust them Sire." The Sergeant looked as if he wanted to say more… and then shut his mouth.

Vlad waited and then, when nothing more was forthcoming pressed the issue. "What is Sergeant Emil?"

"Well, Sire," the Sergeant said uncomfortably, "We could use food. And other goods… waxed flax, cloth. It's cold here and not even autumn yet. I'd have confiscated all his goods and chased him off for a thieving German. But some of the men say you… you'd not like that, sire. That you paid good silver for everything. Only… I have no silver, Sire."

"Then let us go down and see what he has to offer. I've been told my Grandfather believed in honesty and that the country people still love him for that. I owe him for that legacy."

The Sergeant twisted his hat in his hands. "Begging your pardon, Sire, that's true. But he was a mad bastard too… uh." he swallowed convulsively as he realized what he'd said.

Vlad nodded. "I know. I remember that even my father was afraid of him."

The sergeant nodded. "But he fixed those foreigner gougers properly. And he was harsh… Sire, but fair. Not like King Emeric, who'll punish a man for telling him bad news, even if it is true. Or who'll kill the closest people to make an example."

They had begun to walk down the mountain toward the rutted track that cris-crossed the stream, using whatever flatland was available to continue up into the mountains. "I gather you have had experience of King Emeric, Sergeant Emil?"

The grizzled sergeant nodded. "He's like a rabid weasel, Sire. He kills for pleasure or for no reason at all."

There was a already a crowd around the wagon, and business was brisk, by the looks of it. The jowled merchant and his assistant were busy.

The Sergeant shouted something so close to a bear growl that Vlad did not quite catch the word. But the chaffering and noise stopped. Men stood rigid as if suddenly frozen to attention.

"And what is happening here?" asked Vlad, feeling his hackles rise looking at the trader.

The man bowed very low. "Your Majesty's loyal servant. Kopernico Goldenfuss, is my name Sire. I trade in various fine goods…"

"At a price," muttered someone.

Vlad looked him over, not liking what he saw but unable to put a good reason to it. Yet… those feelings had been right in the past. "You know my grandfather's reputation, Goldendfuss? Honest weights, measure and fair dealing, or he made some appropriate adjustments to the weight and measurement of the merchant, I believe. He took the short weight off the scoundrel's belly."

"S… sire. I but took a reasonable profit for the risks and the transport…" The merchant stuttered.

"There are no risks. I accept that transport must cost something. What goods have you?"

"S… some fine cloth, Prince. And schnapps. And dried beef. I would be pleased to make a gift of a fine bright outfit for you, Sire. Not somber blacks. Scarlet and purple. Fit for a noble to wear…"

The rough wool had irked Vlad, as had the austere black of the priest's spare clothing. But this… scum thought he could bribe him. "My clothing is adequate," he said shortly. "I wear it with pride."

He was surprised to hear the troops cheer. He realized that for this conflict anyway, he would be wearing simple black clothes. "I could use a cloak, as could a number of my men. But I will have no more of your exploitation. I will buy your entire cargo at a fair price. It will be given to those who have most need. Give them their silver back. And consider yourself lucky. You will not be so fortunate twice." He turned to the Sergeant. "I will have those goods back in the wagon, Sergeant, and each man to get his money back."

The Sergeant nodded. "And a close guard on that Schnapps, Sire."

Vlad had not thought of what strong drink could do. He nodded. Looked at his small army and the expressions on their faces. "Every man will get some. But we cannot have any drunkenness. The Hungarians will cut your throats while you all sleep it off. The first man I find drunk… I will drown in it. "

There was an almost imperceptible nod of approval from the Sergeant. "Right. Form up. A straight line. With the goods and we'll see you get your money."

The merchant coughed, and bobbed his head awkwardly. "About my money, Sire…"

"You will paid," said Vlad curtly, thinking of his scanty supply of silver.

"Of course, Sire. Your script is good."

Vlad suddenly put something he'd read into place. He'd read of promissory notes and usury without understanding them fully or bothering to find out much. So this was what it meant. He had the vaguest grasp of finance: he'd never really had the occasion to use money in the tower, and he was unsure just how Princes got it. Taxation… but how did it work? What did he have to do? A series of accidents had lead to a reputation as leader. As Prince. He'd been lucky. He'd made the right decisions… he thought. He desperately needed someone to advise him. He just didn't know things any fifteen year old peasant boy would know, let alone a twenty year old Prince. But Vlad knew two things. Firstly, his hold on these people was strong but tenuous. Secondly, he needed them. Without them he was a child, lost and floundering. That much he'd learned among the gypsies, even before life became so much more complicated. He would be taken by his enemies. They might kill him. That he could endure. But they might imprison him again. He needed these people, if only to keep him from that. Besides, it would seem that he had inherited noblesse oblige. His father had drummed that into him from very young, and he had never quite forgotten it-and oddly, the old priest that had been allowed to visit him in prison had re-enforced it.

But oh, for someone he could ask.

"A word, Sire." It was Sergeant Emil again. "I have taken the liberty of making Mirko the quartermaster for now. He served in Corfu, Sire. If that's all right Sire?"

How did he expect Vlad to know? He barely knew what a quartermaster was. "I suppose so." That didn't sound firm enough, but it was said.

"I trust him, Sire. He's a good man."

"I did not trust that merchant."

The Sergeant nodded slowly. "It was a bit odd. Traders don't travel up int the mountains with a wagon-load of schnapps without a good few guards. Do you want us to tail him, Sire? There are a couple of men…" he coughed, "That, if you take my meaning, shot deer on land where they shouldn't have. They can move without being seen, at least as fast as man and a wagon."

Vlad had to think about what the Sergeant was saying. Ah. Poachers. He felt some doubt… but… he was suspicious. And it did feel right to be that, and to take some action, even though trimming the lard off the fat thief had seemed a better idea. "Tell the trader we want to buy more. He must come back."

The Sergeant nodded. "We could use more supplies, Sire."

"We will not be here when this merchant comes back. Just in case. Just one man, watching the trail."

The Sergeant rubbed his stubbly jaw, nodding again. "Yes Drac," He'd noticed they called him that in times of stress or for greater respect. "I'll tell him too that most of the men are away. We only have some new recruits here."

Later, when the merchant had left with his empty wagon, they broke camp. Vlad was surprised at how quickly, and with how little fuss it could all happen. He was also surprised in another way just before they set off. His new quartermaster brought him a cloak. "Black, Sire. As you like it. Made up already… But I had to get the girl to use some of the purple satin for a lining. There wasn't enough to go round, Sire. And best that it go to you, without the men fighting over pieces to give to their lemans."

Vlad took the cloak. It was stitched neatly, with a high collar, and lining of rich purple satin, and crimson inset to the collar. "What girl did this?"

The quartermaster looked as if he'd bitten into something unpleasant. "Rosa, Sire. I, um gave her some of the crimson for her trouble."

"I did not know we had a seamstress. I didn't know we had any women here at all. This is well done. But it is not safe for her to be here."

The quartermaster shrugged. "There's a certain kind of girl that'll always show up in the tail of an army, Sire. Your grandfather… he, um, was odd about it."

"Continue, quartermaster." He'd heard some fairly vicious stories about the old man.

The quartermaster plainly assumed he knew just how his grandfather had been odd. "Well, we didn't know how you'd stand on it, Sire, so we've kept them hidden."

"Do not hide things from me, Quartermaster. I don't like surprises. What are they doing here?" It was a statement of fact. Vlad was surprised to see the man cringe slightly, as if he'd said something sinister.

"Well… the usual, Sire. You know," Mirko said, rubbing his hands together.

Actually, Vlad was largely unsure. He'd been confined to six rooms in a tower, with menservants who barely spoke to him, since he was ten. His elderly tutor and priest had not taught him much about the world, let alone women. His occasional contacts with the court had been closely guarded and supervised. He knew men and women got together. He had some rather indefinite ideas about what happened then. He'd had some very confused and vivid dreams about it. Mostly involving death. "Why?" he asked.

Mirko shrugged. "Some of them have lost everything and had nothing else to sell. Some who want money. Some, like Rosa, who are too wild to keep to one man, Sire," he said uncomfortably.

"Oh. Well. Tell her I would like to thank her sewing this for me."

Mirko blinked and swallowed.

Down the hill one of the Sergeants bellowed. "Move out."

The quartermaster saluted. "Have to go, Sire," and scuttled away, plainly welcoming the interruption.

Vlad went to mount his horse, wondering just what he'd learned.

They rode or marched to the new camp that the scouts had located some days before. There was even a half tumbled down old shepherds hut for him to sleep in. For some reason, his sergeants decided that it was appropriate accommodation for their Prince. It was a gesture of consideration and respect. Vlad understood this. He hoped they would also understand why he had refused it. It had walls. Walls and a roof. And no windows. The thatch was old and rotten, and there was no door-or flooring. Yet it was still too confining for him now. For that reason, although it was a hovel, it reminded him far too much of his tower in Buda Castle. Walls might provide shelter, but they also provided confinement.

Instead, Vlad chose to bed down a little way away from the main encampment between some gray rocks that would provide some shelter from the wind and privacy. He had always had privacy, and had grown accustomed to the solitude. The together-living of his soldiery he found hard. The men were used to sharing small accommodations with a large family. He had had six commodious rooms to himself, most of the time. He would have the stars and openness, and a quiet place by himself. His sergeants were welcome to the shelter and its fleas.

He was becoming quite a seasoned campaigner by now. He cut some heather for a bed. It did not look as if there was any chance of rain that night. So he did not bother with any form of lean-to. He simply laid his old cloak on the heather. He would wrap himself in the generous, thick folds of his new cloak after they had eaten.

That night as they were sitting around the fires-the schnapps had added a little volume and a little extra cheer to the troops, but they were anything but raucous-one of his sergeants came to him. "Sire, the poachers that Sergeant Emil assigned to follow that trader are back. You were right, Drac." He said with deep respect. "The traitor met a Hungarian patrol. They escorted him. And the men say the patrol was waiting for him. We will kill him if he ever sets foot in these mountains again."

Vlad digested this information. "I must forbid you from killing him, even if he deserves death."

The sergeant looked puzzled. "But why, Sire?"

"It seems probable that they will try to attack our camp again. When they do not find us there, they will probably punish him. However, I owe him an amount of silver. That debt must be paid. And then I will deal with the traitor in an appropriate fashion."

The Sergeant saluted smartly. "I shall make sure that everyone knows that, Drac." There was something approaching reverence in his voice as he said that. Vlad wondered why. It seemed only fair.

As usual, he found himself sitting slightly aside from the rest of the men. He did understand that they felt this to be a measure of respect. It would also seem that they found themselves a little uncomfortable too close to him. However he had keen hearing. He did not think they realized just how much he eavesdropped, and how much he was learning from them. It was better than admitting he knew little of how to deal with people, let alone organize armies. The breeze brought him to wafts of conversation, some of which he could make very little sense of, and others like "… Knew it was a trap." Or "… he'll pay. Look at what he said he do for that German merchant."

Satisfied, Vlad took himself off to his rest. This time at least, he had made the right decisions.

He had found that he was quite a light sleeper-once he had recovered from the sheer exhaustion of his first few days as a free man. He had little fear that anyone would be able to sneak up on him while he was asleep. He also noticed that among the sentries the Sergeants appeared to have one whose duty it was to watch over him. They were careful to leave him his space, however. He lay there looking up at the stars, somewhere in the region between wakefulness and sleep, when he heard a slight noise. A rustle of cloth. He was sharply and suddenly very awake, ears pricked, not moving but with every sense alert. His hand rested right next to his dagger haft… and he waited. Vlad was unsure just how late it was. There were no sounds coming from the camp fires. And yes, that was definitely someone trying to move closer quietly.

There was also, now that his senses were so utterly keyed up a faint scent. He caught sight of a black figure silhouetted by the moonlight. Whoever it was, was not particularly large. Ever so slowly, trying not to rustle cloth, Vlad drew his dagger. He closed his eyes, and then peered through a tiny slit, and tried to breathe easily and evenly. He expected the attacker to rush him at any moment.

What he did not expect was for the person to kneel down, and say in a quiet but recognizably female voice, "Drac?"

Vlad rolled and stood up in one easy movement. In his hand the knife gleamed silver, as his cloak flared around him. The woman gave a small gasp of horror and held out her hands defensively.

"What are you doing here?" He asked, not relaxing. She had been looking for him, not a quiet place to relieve herself.

She giggled nervously. "Mirko said that you want to thank me. So… um… I came to be thanked, Drac." It was clear moonlight. Vlad could see that she was smiling warily at him. "I am Rosa. I sewed the lining into your new cloak."

Vlad slipped his dagger back into the sheath. "Ah. Yes. But why now, young lady? I very nearly killed you by accident."

"I did not want everyone to see, Drac. I had to wait until people were asleep," she said her voice husky. He looked at her and saw how she looked back at him, brow lowered. She licked her upper lip. "Can we lie down among the rocks again. I do not want the guard to see me."

Vlad nodded. He sat down on his bed of heather again. She came too and pushed him back down gently on it, lying half on him, half next to him, her body soft against his, her lips brushing against his jaw line, hands running across his shoulders. She rolled slightly, and undid the buttons on her blouse. Moonlight shone on the full curves of her white breasts, and she began undoing the buttons on his shirt.

This was more alarming and confusing than merely being stalked by some killer. "What…" She put a finger to his lips and began to slowly, languorously kiss her way down his chest, unbuttoning as she went. She paused just short of the last button, and then slid her way up again, her breasts brushing against his chest. She put a leg over him and ground her hips against his. Then she sat up on top of him, rubbing her pelvis against him. She took his hands and led them up to touch the great soft globes and the firm nipple standing out from them. He felt the curve of them, touching and caressing, barely knowing what he was doing, but not wanting to stop either. He could feel his own pelvis thrusting up and against her. His body seemed to know what it was doing, even if his mind was less sure.

She rolled off him again and began to undo his breeches. He'd had strange and confused dreams involving this. She lifted her skirts and put her bare leg over him, and guided him into somewhere warm and wet and soft, and slid it down onto him.

Perhaps this was just one of those confusing and oddly relieving dreams again, he thought, as he thrust… she gave slight groan, and pushed down onto him, moving rhythmically, and then panting, faster.

The stars looked down. They were quite small and reachable, really.

"I understand now. I did not understand what she was talking about," Vlad said later, thinking of Elizabeth. She was very different to this full ripe woman. To be admired, not…

"What?" asked Rosa, tracing a pattern on his chest.

"I did not know this was what men and women did," said Vlad, humbly.

She gaped at him in the moonlight. "You mean… I was the first?" She asked.

He nodded.

"Well!" she giggled. "I was going to go, but I see I have a lot to teach you, Drac."

Vlad did not do a great deal of sleeping that musky scented night. On the other hand he did learn a great deal about women, and indeed, about men. And the world seemed a better, richer, fuller place. Rosa slipped away just before dawn.

But she did promise she would come back. And that he was a stallion. He assumed that that was a compliment.

***

"We found these two riding around, Drac," said Sergeant Mihai. "They claim that they are looking for you. They say they need to speak to you and that it is important." His tone said that he did not believe them. "Poles. You can trust them nearly as much as you can trust gypsies."

After their experiences of the previous day, Vlad was not inclined trust anyone. But on the other hand the gypsies had brought him here. They had treated him well enough when he had fled in their company. And besides the world, now that he had discovered Rosa, was not the most evil of places. "I can hear them speak, I suppose," said Vlad. It would help to pass the time until nightfall.

"Thank you, Prince Vlad," said the short stocky man. "Your man has the right of it. We are Poles. But we have lived in these lands for twenty years, my cousin and I. King Emeric gave us license to build our workshop and ply our trade here."

"The bargains that my enemy makes scarcely bind me," said Vlad tersely.

"They don't bind him either," said the stocky man's companion, who was barely less broad. "He promised our families one thing, and we have found that he demands another."

"On the other hand," said the stocky man, "According to my wife, your grandfather kept his bargains, and paid fair price, and your father was a fair man too, as much as King Emeric allowed him to be. I took the liberty, Prince, of inquiring of some of your men while they walked us here, just what manner of man you are. They told me about a trader that was here yesterday. They told me that he had betrayed your Highness. But that you owe him money and you will not see him dead until he is paid." He smiled grimly. "It was supposed to frighten us, I think. But instead it told us that we can maybe trust you. We wish to make a bargain with you, your Highness."

That in itself was unusual. Vlad might be ignorant of the ways of the world but he knew this much: tradesmen and nobility did not mix. Tradesmen chaffered with the lower orders. They did not 'bargain' with Princes. Any overt 'bargaining' rapidly would end up being done at the sword's point. Most of Vlad's adherents adopted at least a mildly submissive posture and tone when speaking to him. This man looked him the eye, and by the cut of his jaw was not good at being submissive to anyone. Vlad knew he should be offended. But he found himself liking the short, craggy fellow. "We are honest tradesmen," the fellow continued, holding out hands that were work-calloused, and that ended in thick stubby fingers. "All we want is to ply our trade and be paid fairly, and stay where we have built our workshops, and not be evicted just because we are not from here. That is what you grandfather did to foreigners."

"And with good reason too," said one of the guards. "They were all thieves and rogues. And traitors too."

The man ignored him, and continued to address Vlad, as if they were the only two men there. "We were offered land and a charter. Now we find our charter ignored and destroyed, and our holdings, our families and our lives threatened-just for plying our trade. Where does your Highness stand on that?"

"I don't know," said Vlad smiling despite the man's effrontery. "Just what is your trade, good man?"

The two men looked at each other, smiling slightly. The stocky solid fellow slapped his own forehead. "Forgive me. I forget, your Highness. Everyone where come from knows us. We're gunsmiths, Prince Vlad. Gunsmiths from Lwow. We fled from Galicia when Prince Jagiellon killed our Prince. King Emeric's father gave us leave to settle, gave us a charter, in Harghita and Corona and the cousins in Varad. Jozef Smerek is my name. This is my cousin Stanislaw. We are makers of fowling pieces, arquebuses, wheel-lock pistols. We settled here and we would continue our trade here, but now we are proscribed from doing so." There was no mistaking the fury in the man's voice at saying this.

"Smerek. They make good guns," said the guard, considerably more respectfully now.

"And there is the problem," said Stanislaw. "We make good guns. We sell them. The King's armies do not buy from us, but there are a other customers. Not too many, but others. We make good guns, and we make them not too expensive. Then someone shoots one of King Emeric's Magyar officers with one of our guns. Shoots him dead, through the armor. And they catch him, find the gun, and now we are proscribed from following the family's trade. So the family sent a delegation to King Emeric four months ago to appeal the decision."

The two looked at each other again. Vlad saw how their shoulders were set in anger, the big hands balling into fists. Eventually Stanislaw spoke. He spoke in a cold, unemotional tone, very carefully and very deliberately, as if he was controlling a volcano of rage, but barely. "He tore up our charter. Ripped it apart and threw it in the dirt. And he had Papa Stanislaw impaled for daring to question him. For our part in killing his officer we were flogged. A hundred lashes for Edward and Thaddeus. I had to watch. I was the youngest. I got only fifty lashes-he told them to leave me alive to carry the message." He lifted his shirt, and turned, revealing the keloid mass of a terrible beating. "My brother Edward died there. Cousin Thaddeus died a week later."

Vlad looked. And nodded, slowly. It might seem a ridiculous punishment for such a thing, but he too knew Emeric's reputation. On the wrong day, the wrong word could earn you that sort of treatment. And that would have been just after the King returned from his disastrous expedition to Corfu. His temper had been very, very savage just then. "Fetch us some Schnapps from Mirko," he said to the guard. Then to the two gunsmiths. "Come. Let us go and sit down and discuss the guns I wish to buy from you. And a new charter. One from me. I expect you sell your guns to me, but I will not blame the maker of the tool for the use it is put to."

Vlad noticed his men were nodding too.

The two looked at each other. "Yes, your Highness," they said warily.

"My people call me Drac. Or Sire."

Jozef looked at him strangely. "Drac… that means demon. Or Dragon. My wife is from the mountains."

Vlad nodded. "King Emeric may find I am a demon. The Dragon guards his own treasure. This is my treasure." He waved his hand at the camp. "My land and my people. Give me your fealty and you and yours will be my treasure too. To be guarded. I will be both the demon and the dragon for you."

He was surprised to see the stocky, solid men that had looked him in the eye so firmly, suddenly kneeling in front of him. Tears were trickling down the faces of men who would not easily cry. "Drac." They said, almost in unison. Vlad found his hand being kissed.

"Jozef can go back," said Stanislaw his voice cracking. "I have found my Prince. I want to be your gunsmith, Drac."

Jozef patted Stanislaw gently on the shoulder. "He is the best, Drac. He has even made cannon, though we were not supposed to. That is all we want. Revenge and to be your people. To belong."

Stanislaw nodded. "Yes," he said, his voice still thick. "To belong. To have a place we can call our own again. To have a Prince who will be as loyal to us as we are to him."

Vlad reflected that he would have to go very far to find a better recruiting sergeant than King Emeric. "You will both go back," he said, raising them up. "There are patrols, and you may fall foul of them. You may need each other for support. My men will see you on your way as far as possible. I want those guns. And then, Stanislaw Smerek, you can return to be my gunsmith. I am going to need you. And you and yours are mine. I will guard you to the best of my ability. I will have your loyalty and you will have mine."

They nodded. "Drac." It was a commitment. Heart and soul.

"They will not take us alive, or cheaply," said Jozef with a slight smile. "Stanislaw carries more pistols about his person than most regiments."

Chapter 35

The knights found Bortai's cart easily enough. The bullock had pulled its stake and it took Kari a while to find it. He was a better-than-average tracker, Erik noted. He was as useful out here as he had been difficult in more civilized parts. The knights were glad that he had found it. So was Bortai, Erik noticed. It was probably all she had in the world besides a couple of ponies. Good horseflesh, but not on a par with that owned by the Ilkhan's escort. That was to be expected, naturally. Erik did not have Svanhild's eye for horse-flesh, or utter passion for it. But he did like horses, and felt that he could tell a great deal about a man and his culture, from his horse. The Illyrians were not great riding people and generally the quality of the mounts of the scouts that accompanied them had not been of the best. Not that they didn't look after their horses, or were not proud of their steeds… but they came across as a people who fought on foot and fled on horses. The Ilkhan's men used and loved their horses… but the Golden Horde came across to Erik as men who lived in the saddle, fought in the saddle, and would probably mount a horse in order to cross the street in a town.

With three rather unexceptional ponies to her name, no wonder a cart and a bullock had seemed so important to the girl. Well, his own family were not rich-the lands at Bakkafloi had always been more beautiful and wild than really productive, although they grew good sheep and tough Icelandic ponies, and the sea saw that no-one ever starved, but there were only little patches that were arable for rye and oats-so he knew what it was to be careful. And she smiled about it. She had an infectious smile, as well as a happy laugh-frequently, it seemed, when he was there. Erik was glad for her, although it gave him a pang of guilt. He'd never really thought he would enjoy listening to any woman's laughter again, after Svanhild. Svan had been quite a serious girl, most of the time. Except-he blushed, remembering-when he tickled her.

***

Finding the cart intact-and the bullock too, was a relief to Bortai. It meant that she could implement the second phase of her plan. With Kildai safely hidden in the cart, there was a chance that she could fool-or at least insert doubts into the minds of some of the Raven clan, that the boy who looked like Kildai, was in fact him, and up and about. There was of course one problem. He looked like Kildai. He ran like Kildai. But he did not ride like him.

She had to come up with an answer for that. But finding the cart, bullock and the things they had had to abandon was something to smile about to the tall blonde Knight. Her betrothed. She had to laugh a little. If that story got among the clan! And it was rather appealing and amusing the way he looked puzzled when she laughed at him. She felt slightly guilty. He had blushed so today. She chuckled to herself, a gurgle of welcome laughter. It had been rather pleasant to play such games after the life and death survival on the run for the last while.

She looked up from the cart to discover that he had just ridden up. And she was laughing again. He probably thought she was laughing at him. Well, at least he did not appear to be offended. She smiled and greeted him in his own manner. Perhaps his mother really was a tortoise.

He frowned, looking most comically puzzled. "I thought that was the wrong greeting."

Some demon from the lands of Erleg Khan made her reply, demurely looking down. "It is. But a man might greet his betrothed so. "

He put his hands to his face. Shook his head. "I am sorry. That horseboy! He told me it was the right way to greet people politely. I wanted to learn your tongue. He taught me much rubbish." He blushed yet again. "I am glad Benito didn't know it was that sort of greeting. He would have killed me, let alone David."

"What?"

So in broken Mongol, assisted by Tulkun who had just ridden up, he told the story of how he had got the Darughachi to thus greet the tarkhan. By the time he had got to the part where his friend the Darughachi had the boy in jail she had to wave her hand at him-the one that wasn't clutching her pommel-to stop. She couldn't breathe and was in danger of falling out of the saddle. The plump Ilkhan warrior was in no better case.

***

Erik hadn't seen quite how funny it could be before. But he had to admit, telling the story himself, in his broken Mongolian, that it was more than just a little ridiculous. He found himself hard put not to laugh too at their delight in the story. It would appear that the Mongols shared the same sense of humor as the Plains Tribes in Vinland. The Plains Tribes could be serious and earnest people. But they were also hugely fond of practical jokes, preferably very embarrassing and fairly direct ones. It was not a terribly subtle humor perhaps, but it was enjoyed enormously. Erik had liked the Plains Tribes. He found he liked the Mongols too, so far. Well. He had not bound to the tarkhan Borshar. But perhaps he was more likely to get on with the rustic ordinary Mongol, than someone who was plainly more at home in the great cities of the Ilkhan empire, places like Jerusalem, Dishmaq and even the fortress-city of Alamut. Borshar seemed to spend a great deal of time in a trance-like state, paying little attention to the rest of them.

Erik rode back up the column to Manfred. "You seem to be getting along very well with your Mongol girlfriend," said Manfred.

Erik knew better than to rise to Manfred's obvious bait. "I was explaining how come I used the wrong greeting. Fortunately, they seemed to find it quite funny. And there's no need for you to mock me about it."

"I wouldn't have dreamed of it," said Manfred with a totally unsuitable saintlike expression on his face. "I was just wondering if I should be learning the language. Or if she has any sisters."

"Learning the language is always good idea. Philandering in a strange culture probably isn't," said Erik.

"You never know," said Manfred. "There must be a culture out there somewhere that thinks it's a good idea. I mean, I've never met any other girls who think that your face is something to laugh over. They normally go all starry eyed and moon over you." Eric cuffed him. "Ouch. You are supposed to be protecting me. Not inflicting me with injuries."

"I am protecting you. Your comments will get you killed elsewhere. I'm trying to teach you not to make them. Just you wait for rapier practice. Too much of you is covered by armor."

"Not another word, I swear," said Manfred, his grin belying the solemn words. "It is age, I am sure. Your face didn't used to be funny, now it is. We're all just used to it. Or afraid of you. That's why we don't laugh."

Erik threw up his hands in disgust. "Just you wait. You and that horseboy, David. I will choose my time and place."

Manfred laughed. "That hell-born brat. He's even more trouble than Benito was. Falkenberg and Von Gherens have both told me that he was born to be hung. At least Benito had the common sense to shut up and learn. This one keeps his mouth shut only when he's eating. And he's not even too good at that. Kari has had a rough time just teaching him to chew with his mouth closed."

Erik nodded. "Mind you, I've had less trouble from Kari since he's had to run after the boy."

"So now, instead of one source of trouble, you have two. I am not sure if you have gained ground, Erik. But no doubt this is some obscure Icelandic battle strategy."

"I think I'll ride up and check on the van," said Erik, shaking his head.

***

Manfred watched him ride forward. He smiled quietly to himself. There had been a time, after Svanhild's death, that he had seriously feared for Erik's sanity and survival. He would never tell Erik: but he hoped that this Mongol girl seduced him, stole his heart, or at the very least make him laugh a lot. It had done Manfred's own heart good to see Erik smiling again. He would have to find excuses to send the Icelander to keep the lass company. Preferably on a cold, lonely night. Erik was no philanderer, but perhaps the girl could make up for it. In Manfred's experience, all but a few of them were willing to do just that, given the right opportunities. Erik was several years his senior, but in this, Manfred felt very much like an older brother. It would do the boy the world of good. And besides, she really was quite a looker. Maybe she did have a sister.

***

David was beginning to wonder whether dying of heat was any better than being murdered. The knights in their armor were complaining. And he, in this hooded cloak, felt as if he was going to melt entirely. Worst of all, it appeared that both Kari and Erik had noticed. "What are you wearing that thing for?" asked Kari. "It's hot enough to make a bear shed its pelt. Are you hiding something under there?"

"I'm just not smart enough to be seen among these noble Mongols," said David.

"These are nobles?"

David nodded. "Yes. Of course. They are Mongols. Like the knights, they are nobles. Well, not just commoners like me."

"In Vinland a man's as good as he can prove himself to be," said Kari. "I've never understood how just being born makes you something special. Maybe all nobles have tough births… but you never showed any worry with the knights. If these Mongols are what you call nobles, the knights should have troubled you just as much, eh?"

"They're foreigners. It's different," said David.

"Well, I'm not buying you some smarter clothes because you won't be seen dead in what you have. They'll just have to put up with you as you are. Or you can cook in that thing."

That was all too close to the truth. The part about being seen dead, and the part about cooking.

A little later, Erik had come past, doing his usual checks on the column and scouts. He had his visor raised within the column. He raised his eyebrows looking at David.

David had to admit that he'd at least tried to avoid being noticed quite so much by Erik, since the practical joke. He'd also tried to avoid any more temptation in this direction, especially after he'd been caught out. But the Frank's face did make it hard to resist. And he did feel that there was still some payback justified, even if Erik and Kari had saved his life from those barbarians on that island.

"Are you sickening for something, brat?" asked Erik. "It's as hot as a warm day in hell, or even a cool day in summer in Jerusalem."

David decided to play it for sympathy. "I am not feeling too well."

"I'd better get Falkenberg to look at you, then," said Erik. "He's as near to a Knight Hospitaler as we have with us. Mind you, I could ask one of the Mongols. Maybe they have a healer."

"Er… no. I'm really not feeling that sick. Perhaps I could just ride back to that village in Illyrian territory and wait until you all came back."

Erik snorted. "I don't think you'd survive, boy. The world out there is more complicated than Jerusalem. Maybe I can get you a ride in the Mongol lady's ox cart. You could hardly ride it worse than you do that horse. I'll go and ask her."

He rode off, and came back a short while later. He was smiling. That was enough to worry David. He had seldom seen Erik smile, and never for no apparent reason. "Come along, brat. The lady says she'll do you up as a pretty little Mongol boy. No one will ever accept that something as lowly as a mere horse-boy will be smart enough to ride in a Mongol lady's cart. I've been talking to Kari. So if you're sick, or not smart enough? Either way we'll fix you."

David groaned. But he had learned by now that there was not much use in trying to resist Erik. Besides, he could lie down in the cart, couldn't he? No one would see him there.

Of course, when he got to the cart he discovered that the noble Mongol lady had her own ideas about what to do with him. It appeared that these included cutting his hair and dressing him up in her brothers deel. "I'm sure that they would hardly recognize you like that," she said, with a twinkle in her eye that he entirely distrusted. From the lofty height of his 15 or possibly 16 years he knew that women were usually not to be trusted, especially when they looked at you like that. And after they had asked you if your mother was a tortoise, definitely not.

On the other hand, it did appear that she was going to let him drive the cart. That was more pleasant than riding as far as he was concerned. And he did rather enjoy wearing the fine clothes. He noticed several of the Golden Horde riders were plainly very impressed. He sat tall, forgot about the various ills of his life and played off the attitude and manners of nobly born Ilkhan Mongol. He doubted that they were that different to the ways of the Golden Horde.

Bortai had to laugh again. The tengeri were surely playing some complicated game with her life, and for that matter, with Kildai's. The foreign knight, Erik, must by now think that she spent her entire life laughing, principally at him. But he had told a good story, even in his broken Mongolian. Storytellers and singers were much liked and respected, the great ones as much as Shamans and Orkhans. He seemed genuinely concerned about the serf who looked so like her brother. Well, he did say the boy was much trouble. So was Kildai, except when the seriousness of being a leader of the Hawk clan was impressed upon him, which, sadly, usually lasted only a few heartbeats.

She was of course pleased to 'help'. She hoped she didn't look too utterly delighted by his request.

A little later Tulkun rode by again. He grinned at her. She beckoned him closer. Using every ounce of protocol at her disposal she addressed him very flatteringly. He grinned wider. "And what is it that the noble lady requires? When my wife is that polite to me, I know that she wants something."

"The wisdom of the noble warrior from the bear clan stands as high as the eternal blue sky," she said, with her best smile. The one she saved, normally, for asking just how much a warrior would dare to wager on a wrestling match.

He chuckled roundly. "Oh, this is a large one. What is it that you desire, noble lady?"

"Just that if any of the people of the Raven clan of the Golden Horde should ask, my brother Kildai, as well as having been concussed, has broken his leg. It is not too serious," she said demurely. "You saw how they strapped it up and splinted it, did you not? It will make riding very painful until it heals."

He laughed again. "I suspect that this is a very clever trick. But I do not see that it will do me, or my master the tarkhan, any harm."

"No. And it will earn you the gratitude of the Hawk clan."

He nodded. "If any of them should ask me, I'll tell them that. You do not want them to think he can ride?"

"Something like that," she said, favoring him with a smile again.

She was pleased to see, a little later, after some quick barber work, and changing the boy into Kildai's beautifully embroidered deel, and even letting him wear Kildai's sword, that her judgment had been dead right. So long as they did not really get a close look at him or see him riding… The sword too, he was plainly unfamiliar with. Ion was able to leave off driving the cart, and she let the boy take over with it.

This David seemed to be enjoying, which was something Kildai would never have allowed anyone to see, even if he did. And by the looks on the faces of the Raven Clan escort, Tulkun had done his part too. It would make nearly as good a story as the tortoise greeting, if they got away with it. And there was some delight in playing such a trick on this serf from Ilkhan lands. No matter what his birth, he had shown himself to be a practical joker. A trickster. It was a dangerous way to establish your status, but it was both popular and effective. Of course any such trick always called for a reply. She smiled to herself; she was, in a way, repaying Erik for his generosity, and this David for his practical joke. Besides the look on the faces of the Raven clan made it all very worthwhile.

A little later the blond knight came riding up again. He was, she noted, ever vigilant. An Orkhan who did not believe in merely delegating his responsibilities. She could understand why the tarkhan Borshar had hired such a mercenary, if he was going to hire such things at all. She'd seen quite a number of battle commanders, and this was one of the most methodical she had ever come across.

He looked at David. Blinked. Looked again. Then he motioned for her to ride next to him. They rode ahead a little. "He looks very like your brother. Clever. I should have seen."

And she should have realized that someone as vigilant as this would not miss the similarity. Or be taken in by the deception. She could only hope that the Raven clan was led by less observant warriors. "They look quite like each other," she admitted. "If they see him sitting up, they will not realize that he cannot ride away."

He looked at her keenly. "There is more, yes?"

He was entirely too astute. She nodded. "There is conflict between this clan and ours. Believing that my brother is recovered will worry them. That is good."

"I have a lot to learn about your people," he said. "Good luck with this."

His eyes, never still, scanned the countryside. "It is a fine, rich land this," he said.

"Ours to the north is better," she said proudly. "What is your land like?"

"Mostly rocks," he said with a smile. "And very much colder. But when I have finished my… " he searched for words and ended up with, "serving." Which was plainly not quite what he wanted to say. "I am going back to Vinland. There is much good rich land there. I went there before," he searched for the word again, and had to settle for 'serving' again.

Bortai had to smile at his description of his family's lands. Not many of the Mongol would admit to their lands being 'mostly rocks', although in some cases it was true. It also explained what he was doing here. He was probably a second son. At least it would seem he had no plans to carve out a holding on Golden Horde lands, or, not yet. "So where is this Vinland?"

"A long, long way to the west," he said. "Across a huge… water, that takes us weeks and weeks to cross. My home is… part of the way. On a land in the water."

"An island. In the sea," she explained, resisting an urge to ask him if his people tended fish on seahorses.

He repeated her words, carefully. "And you would call them?" He supplied the words. And asked for a few others. It was amusing. But he never stopped looking out for trouble.

And when it came he reacted with speed and ferocity.

They had fallen back slightly and were now level with David and the cart. He suddenly dived sideways, snatching the boy off the bench of the covered cart.

An arrow ripped through the covering of the cart. Had he still been sitting there, David would have taken it in the chest. Erik had somehow spotted it in the process of removing David from its path he had also knocked her sideways, almost off her horse. She could not be certain that that was his purpose, but they were the only unarmored people there.

The responses from the Frankish knights were equally rapid, and plainly very practiced. Well, the movement of the knights was practiced and coordinated. What nearly frightened half of the Raven clan off their horses was the dark-skinned man and his hand cannons. He had fired four of them in to the copse, which the arrow had almost certainly come from, even before the steel-clad knights had got to a full gallop. Some hurtled towards the trees, the others closed in around them, as they pushed the whole column, including the poor ox and cart, into a run.

Bortai had pulled herself back into the saddle, and, plainly on orders from Erik, found herself between three steel clad knights. The man with the hand cannons had leapt from his horse and onto the cart, a feat fitting of a Mongol warrior. The Raven clan obviously did not know quite what to make of all of this. It was apparent that although they were supposedly escorting the knights, the knights themselves were looking after the situation. A few hundred yards later someone-possibly Erik-called a halt. Looking back, Bortai could see why. The small column of knights that had detached itself, now accompanied by a couple of Arban of Raven clan warriors were returning. With a dead body.

Erik, still with the serf boy David across his saddle bow, rode up. He dropped the boy, who sat down abruptly panting and wild eyed at their feet. Eric was not laughing now. "I did not bring him to you to be killed."

"They are without honor," hissed Bortai, white with anger. She had expected treachery, but later, in the dark, when they could do it with poison or a thin-bladed dagger. She had never expected anything quite this blatant. True, had the boy been killed, and the knights and the man with the hand cannon been less rapid to react, the bowman would have got away. No doubt the Raven clan would have sent several Arban 'in pursuit'. They might even have brought someone back. Almost certainly, a dead someone. Possibly even the bowman. They would have been handsome and fulsome apologies. Blood money paid-they were under the escort of the Raven clan. It would have been a matter of considerable embarrassment. She would not even have been surprised if they did escort her home after that. She was not that important in their scheme of things. Killing Kildai plainly was.

"I nearly got killed," said her brother's look-alike, still stunned.

The man with the hand cannons had pulled the cart up next to them. He said something. The boys staggered to his feet. Bortai noticed that the man who had taken control of the cart was patting him on the shoulder with a sort of rough kindness. She felt terribly guilty. They did not look alike, but what if it was his younger brother? "I'm sorry," she said humbly. "I did not expect this."

"You warned me, Lady," the serf David said, gratefully.

That actually made her feel worse. It was conduct without honor. And without honor the Hawk clan was nothing.

The knights who had sortieed, together with two of the Golden Horde Mongols, Tulkun and a second man, and two Arban of the Raven clan came riding up. Bortai noticed that Erik's huge companion had made his way there too.

Bortai let her fury explode within her. A little later, when she calmed down, she was not entirely sure quite what she had said to the commander of the Arban. It had included quite a lot of terminology that a wellborn Mongol lady should not admit that she knew. The leader of the Arban was bright red, and the serf boy David was laughing so much that it looked like he would fall over. Tulkun and his companion were looking at her with a mixture of shock and amusement.

The commander of the Arban stuttered out the start to a reply.

Bortai, now that she had vented some of her spleen, demolished him in a few well chosen words about the honor of his clan. And told him to go. Now. To remove himself from her sight, and to do the sort of job of patrolling that honor really demanded. She knew just as well as he did that the archer was from his own clan. She also knew that the humiliation would prevent them from trying in that manner again. It did not stop her from being badly embarrassed too, later.

***

"By Christ's blood!" said Manfred admiringly. "I don't understand a word of it, but I have heard drill proctors with thirty years experience give a gentler chewing out. She's quite some spitfire, that girl. Take my advice: stick to the meek and mild ones. They're not as much fun in bed but at least you get to keep your head on your shoulders."

"She certainly was as shocked and angry as any one can be. She… has quite a rough tongue. I thought at first that she'd set David up as a decoy-a false target. I was fairly angry with her. He's just a fool of a boy."

Manfred shook his head and looked at the leader of the Golden Horde's little patrol slinking away like a whipped cur. "Are you sure she's just some ordinary woman, Erik? She was behaving like an empress back there."

Erik blushed dully. "No empress would tell a man to do that. No empress would even know the words. I didn't even know half of them, but what I did understand… well, I think perhaps she is woman who cleans fish. They are… um inclined to speak like that."

"Still think you'd better take some steps. Fishwife or no, someone just tried to kill that boy. My suspicion has to fall on our escort."

Erik nodded. "Kari got lucky with a shot there. Normally those pistols of his are not particularly accurate, especially at that sort of range. Mind you, if they'd shot from close up they'd have killed him. I only had a few heartbeats of warning. I think he'll have to go inside the cart, and we'll have to put a full escort on it. I think, because I am trying to conserve our force, I will bring them inside your cordon."

"Makes sense to me," said Manfred. "If the targets are hidden inside that cart they can't tell just where they're dropping their arrows."

Chapter 36

Dana left the cart quietly, early, by the back. If she'd got up normally, before she'd covered thirty paces someone from the urchin pack would have joined her. And mother would have moaned, just like yesterday, and the day before.

Mother moaned about quite a bit, starting with the clothing she was wearing.

"It's a nice skirt mother."

"It's a gypsy skirt! It's dirty and… and vulgar. And how can you go barefoot, darling?"

"Tante Silvia says I have to look like the others, Mama, in case they come looking for us."

Mama had sighed. "Yes. But Dana. They're gypsies. Remember your position. And well, the men have a reputation. You must always stay with me…"

"Mama. It's hot. The cart stinks of solder and Tante Silvia's herbs. And you don't need to worry about the men, I can't go anywhere on my own. Ever. There are always at least three of those girls with me. Always, mother. And anyway, no one will ever know what I wore or did here. We're not going to tell them we hid with the gypsies are we, mother?" She didn't even try to explain that she'd found that the 'gypsies' thought it really funny that her mother thought they were gypsies, just like the other bands that traveled the country. Those people were new-comers, and had come from the south somewhere recently… within the last few hundred years. These people said they'd always been here.

Mama had sighed. And cried. "I still think we ought to try and go to cousin Dorrotea. Maybe they will have stopped searching by now. Maybe we'll be safe with my family. They could hide us in a situation more fitting to our station. It's so demeaning, this." The Dowager Princess had waved at the cart that was their meager kingdom these days, as if it were a gaderobe. "And they're gypsies, Dana. You know what people say about gypsies."

Dana did. She had said some of it herself. They were rude, crude and vulgar, below contempt, he poorest of the poor, and of less regard than a serf. Only… something was wrong with that. They laughed at being called gypsies and sneered at. Not openly, but they had laughed. They'd only been among these "gypsies" for a few hours when she'd worked out that even the poorest ragged urchin looked down on her… well, not as far down on her as they did on ordinary people. She was of the house of Valahia. Almost as good as them, she gathered.

That would have done to her what it had done to mama-driven her to sneer back… except for one of Dana's two besetting sins. The first-her temper tantrums and black fury, her mother tolerated. That was Valahia-as Valahia as her long straight black hair and pale skin. It was the second sin that drove her mother to despair, hre insatiable curiosity.

It was a curiosity that had saved them. That was how she had found out that orders had come through for her to be taken to Buda, because Vlad-about to be transported there and crowned, had somehow escaped from his prison. Mama had not been able to bear the thought of losing another child… thought what dire fate she thought was in store for Dana, she had not said. Instead, in a panic, she had sent them both fleeing.

And so here they were. Among the 'gypsies'… who looked down on them and treated them like charity cases instead of their rightful lords. "We were here long before you, Valahia. It's our land. You merely live on it." And worse… she, Dana, was among people with some sort of secret… which they had no intention of telling her.

Well, she was going to find it out. So she'd pretended to be charmed by their rude songs, and joined in with their rustic behavior as if it was a great treat. Actually-having held up her nose at such things all her life-after a few days she'd got very used to them. She quite liked some of the pastimes they had showed her, involved her in. Some of the games-when she forgot to be superior and got carried away with the game-were clever and fun too. She discovered that she liked winning.

She realized that they weren't quite games either after a while. They were teaching the young ones how to steal, and how to trick the settled people, which seemed to be their equivalent of schooling. She had to admit it was more challenging than deportment lessons. She decided that-as long as no one knew-being a traveler was possibly more fun than merely being a Princess. Well, not the fishing in the lake. The fishing part was all right. It was catching the slimy things that wasn't. Blackberrying too. When you were hungry-and she had discovered hunger too, along with the 'gypsy' dances, and crude jokes and wild music-blackberries were good eating, despite the thorns.

"Look at your fingers, Dana!" Mama had cried in horror the first day. Then she had taken in some of the other details "What have done to your face? And your hair?" she had demanded icily.

"Green walnut juice. And Tante Silvia did my hair with hot sticks. I like it, I think."

"You look like a filthy gypsy girl. Not a Princess."

She'd avoided rolling her eyes because it made her mother despair of her. But she wanted to; how could her mother be so-obtuse? "That's the idea, mama. I need to look like one."

But this morning she had a very different agenda. She had noticed that at least two of the three main men, Radu, Angelo, and that eternally grinning Grigori sneaked off somewhere every morning. At least one of them was missing all day.

She'd even tried asking about it. Angelo had laughed at her. "Run and play little girl," he'd said, cheerfully tousling her hair. She'd nearly exploded with shock and rage at his presumption. Then he'd said. "It's not for you to know."

She'd bottled her rage and tried to flutter her eyelashes at him, as she had seen some of the older girls doing. He'd laughed again. "The tricks you have learned among the pack, eh? Your brother is a dangerous man. You will be a dangerous woman one day. You'll need it. You'll be tall, just like him. I hope you ride better. He could hardly sit in the saddle when we brought him east."

"My brother?"

"I have said too much. What you don't know you can't tell."

As far as Dana was concerned as what she didn't know could very easily drive her mad. But other than the fact that he had plainly met her brother, he was not saying any more. She really hated that.

And they were up to something else. Something that kept the "gypsies" camped on this mountain in the late summer, when they would be normally be working the countryside. The other children let that much on, and they were so plainly pregnant with knowing something she did not, that it had even got her up early, before the sun had even peeked above the horizon. The grass was heavy with dew… and it was relatively easy to see where someone had walked out of the camp, heading away from the dark waters of the lake into the pine forests, up on the steep slopes of the mountain.

Looking carefully she just caught a glimpse of them disappearing into the forest margin. The dew was cold and wet on her bare feet as she hitched her skirts up and ran after them. She even had her blackberry basket as an excuse.

They moved faster than she possibly could, she knew. They'd never know she was behind them…

And then she caught a brief sight of grey brindled fur, white teeth and a very red mouth in between the shadows. She gave a small strangled gasp of a scream… but before she could open her mouth for a full-blooded bellow, Grigori stepped out from behind the low branches of a tree on the other side. "What are you doing here, little girl?" he asked roughly.

Dana was totally startled out of any pretense of hauteur. "L… looking for berries."

"Go down to the lake-side. They grow there. Go."

"There's… there's something in the woods. I saw it. Fur and teeth. A bear… or a wolf. I can't go on my own."

"Ah." Grigori said. "It is dangerous up here. It'll kill and eat the soft, tender meat. Now run. I will distract it. Run. Run quickly and do not stop until you are back in the camp. Quickly. Go."

From the forest came a menacing growl and Grigori drew his knife.

She needed no more urging. In a panicky headlong flight she ran downhill, jinking through the trees and tearing through the underbrush.

But she did not get very far. Less that three hundred paces. She hooked her toes on a tree root and went flying, landing so hard that all the breath was knocked out of her. She lay there gasping weakly, too stunned and breathless to get up, let alone run on, despite her fear. Even so, she tried, because of that, and as she struggled to a sitting position, she realized that the forest was still. There was no sign of a monster chasing her. It would have caught her and eaten her by now. There were no sounds of a desperate struggle while Grigori fought it off. There was nothing but early morning silence broken by a dove's mournful call.

She'd managed to sit up now, and inspect her ripped skirt and-by hitching the skirt up-her knees. They were both grazed and one dripped a little blood. Sore and with the increasing realization that she'd been made a fool of, Dana stood up. She did not turn down slope. Instead she walked determinedly-if a little cautiously-back up to where she had met Grigori.

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 ruse. Not yet there wasn't. There might be when she caught up with them. The 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 underlayer, 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 Valah 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 Valah 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 Valah 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?

Chapter 37

David was glad enough just to lie down in the cart, and close his eyes and control his shaking. He had to admit-at least to himself if to no-one else-he was badly rattled by all of this. He actually wanted to cry and might just have permitted himself a snuffle or two. Was the entire world determined to kill him? He hadn't even done anything to most of it, yet.

And if the entire world did have to be set on killing him, was it right that there should be quite so much world?

Pondering the unrightness and unfairness of it all, he might possibly have fallen asleep for a while. He was not certain. He had his eyes closed anyway. But the feeling that he was being watched finally penetrated his rest. He had grown up as a thief in family of thieves in Jerusalem. The days of strict enforcement of the Yasa code were long gone, but even so, there were very few thieves in Jerusalem, and those that there were, were like David-very aware of being watched. They'd been selected for that. The Yasa code of laws had had those who failed, killed. Of course that hadn't stopped him going against his instincts at that market stall on Corfu, where he could SEE that the stall-holder had her back to him. She had two small mirrors hidden among her merchandise…

Someone was definitely watching him. He opened his eyes a slit, wondering just how fast he could get to the knife in his boot. If they had tried to kill him with arrows… and failed, knives and certainty would be next.

It was the boy. He was half sitting up in the bed they had made up for him, staring at David. David opened his eyes properly and sat up.

"What are you doing here? And why are you wearing my deel?" asked the boy.

Perhaps because he had just managed to frighten himself silly again, David was less than respectful to this scion of a noble Mongol clan. "I'm here because your sister tried to get me killed instead of you," said David bitterly. "Which is why she made me wear your deel and sit out there, and get shot at. But she didn't tell me that. Oh no. She told me she was helping me."

The boy nodded slowly. "Bortai does that kind of thing. You get used to it," he said, quite as if he accepted this as a norm.

"I'll get even. Just you wait. All right, maybe she didn't actually know they'd try to kill me. But she tricked me," he said, darkly.

The boy sniggered. "She always does that. You get used to it," he said again. "Oh my aching head. What happened to me?"

David had no intention of getting used to that sort of treatment from anyone, even a highborn Mongol lady. The very idea made him angry and frustrated, and although he knew he should be treating this boy with deference, he could not bring himself to do so. "You fell off your horse. Then you landed on your head. Knocked yourself unconscious."

"I did not! I do not fall off," said the boy indignantly. He paused. "Something knocked me off. I remember that. That and the Vlach. I don't remember anything else."

"I suppose you never fall off," said David sarcasm dripping from every word.

Either the boy was totally unaccustomed to sarcasm, or the effects of being hit on the head were greater than David had realized, because he obviously failed to detect it. "Well. Not that often. And you?"

"At least I don't land on my head," said David unwilling to admit that he had discovered that compared to the knights, and Kari, he was not a very good rider.

"Oh I suppose you land on your feet," said the boy, showing that no matter how insensitive he was to being the target of sarcasm, he was expert at using it himself-and that he plainly took David for someone of his own rank, just a little older. "Where are you from? Your accent is very strange."

"Jerusalem. The greatest city in the world," said David proudly.

There was a longish silence. David eventually worked out that the kid-and he was a kid-at least a year younger than he was, was trying to work out where Jerusalem was. Everyone ought to know that. But maybe, on thinking about it, the kid had last been riding around at a kurultai, deep in this godforsaken part of the world. Someone from Jerusalem was not something he'd be expecting. "You're from the Ilkhan. Has Bortai got us away across the sea?"

"No, you're still in the lands of the Golden Horde. I came here…" the kid probably had no idea who the knights of the Holy Trinity were, "with the tarkhan Borshar."

"Oh. I am very thirsty."

David sat up properly. "Hang on. I'll get Kari to call your sister to bring you something to drink. I don't know where to find anything."

"Kari?"

"Yes. He's driving the cart. He is mad. But don't worry, he's mostly harmless. He doesn't speak Mongol."

"You have a servant that is mad?"

Temptation, never too far from David, took a firm hold of him and steered his mind down to the reply he gave. It was bound to get him into trouble. But sometimes being in trouble was worth the payback. And he felt that he had a fair amount to pay Kari back for. "Doesn't everybody?" He said airily. "We humor him. He gets strange ideas. As I said, he's mostly harmless provided he doesn't get too excited. And he does a good job with the horses. We can't leave him to starve."

"Ah!" Light and respect dawned on the boy. "Lesser clans do. But we of the Hawk clan also take our responsibilities seriously," said the boy. "I suppose old Mette is pretty crazy. She still thinks I am in swaddling clothes," he said, grimacing.

David nodded, and pulled aside the door curtain. "Kari. The boy is awake. He says he's thirsty. Will you call his sister for him?"

Shortly Bortai came along with a skin of what was, by the smells of it, Kumiss. "Help me sit him up," she said.

"I can manage," said the boy rebelliously.

David felt he had the measure of the boy by now. He was still very afraid of the lady Bortai, so scared that his mind failed to make the connection that this was in fact her brother. In his mind the boy had somehow become a sort of younger brother of his own. "Do what you are told, you hell-born brat, or I will beat you," he said, sitting the boy up.

"Ha. You and how many others?" said the boy, not actually resisting. He took the skin of Kumiss and drank.

"I think you must lie down again, Kildai" said Bortai.

He opened his mouth to protest, but David again, without thinking, waved a finger at him. He scowled and cooperated. "What's going on, Bortai?" the boy asked, once they had made him comfortable again. "How long have I been like this? I'm tired and weak. I don't like it."

"Longer than I liked either. Now lie still and get better because we may have to ride as if all the demons from the furthest corners of the realms of Erleg Khan are on our tails," she said.

"Now?"

"Not until we are across the great river," she said. "Rest."

He was already slipping into sleep. Or at least his eyes were closing. He opened them briefly and looked at David. "Bortai. Honorable clan. Look after old retainers. Mad ones."

She sat there watching him for a little bit. Kildai at least appeared to be sleeping. Eventually she asked. "What was that about, serf-boy?"

"I have no idea, Noble lady," said David with his best attempt at insouciantly pretending not even having been in the same country as whatever had happened to cause whatever she was asking about. "He's been hit on the head. People get very confused by that."

"Yes. He keeps asking me how long he's been like this. And then he forgets he's asked. But this time he recognized me. He seemed to be a lot more with us. He seemed to listen you. If I had told him to do that, even politely, he would have told me not to treat him like a baby. I am glad he had the Kumiss. It's the first time he's asked for anything. You can live off Kumiss."

David nearly said 'Yes, but who would want to,' but managed to bite his tongue in time. The fermented, mildly alcoholic mares milk had come his way-well, he'd gone out of his way to steal it, because the noble Mongol still drank it sometimes. You had to grow up drinking kumiss to like it. Jerusalem had every other drink known to man, and of a long list David could make to try again, Kumiss was near the bottom. You'd have to drink a bucket of it to get mildly tipsy, and he would throw up long before that. But she wanted reassurance, so he gave it. "Yes. I have heard some people eat nothing else all summer."

She scowled. "Yes. True. But the great Ulaghchi Khan forbade that." She looked at her brother again. "You are good with him. And I think it is probably safest for you in here. If he wakes again, call me. I need to watch for enemies."

"Erik is watching. Nothing gets past him, Noble lady." He was beginning to believe it.

She nodded. "He is a great Orkhan. But he does not know the Raven clan. They have no honor."

So David found himself on sick-bed duty. It beat currying horses. He looked forward to telling Kari that he would have to do that on his own again.

Some time later Kildai awoke again. David's hopes that he might have forgotten the last time or be lost in the confusion of concussion were dashed. Kildai plainly recognized him. "Can you call your crazy manservant? I need to pass some water. And I wasn't going to tell Bortai, but I don't think I can stand up. I feel so weak. But I really need to relieve myself. And I can't have a woman help me do that."

***

Later, when David had gone off to get himself fed, Bortai sat with her brother. He thought she was looking at him rather too keenly and too often, so he asked about the other boy. "He's not from any clan," said Bortai. "Although his mother was a tortoise," she said smiling.

Kildai looked at her. "Oh. He said he came from Jerusalem."

"Yes he's with the Franks and the tarkhan."

Kildai had had a Byzantine tutor. His father had insisted. Bortai had learned more from the man than he ever had. The Byzantine knew nothing about the important things of life like horses, or the great game, or even about archery, war or hunting. Most of his attempts at teaching his charge about the history and geography of the wider world had passed into one of Kildai's ears and out of the other. A few errant bits had stuck. He knew that the Franks existed. And he knew that Jerusalem was in the lands of the Ilkhan Mongol. The Tortoise must be one of their clans. Strange, but maybe the Ilkhan had run out of good names.

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 Jozef-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 Jozef 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.

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."

Chapter 39

"I am worried," said Erik to Manfred, as they stopped for the evening.

"A normal situation," said Manfred. "What about this time? Besides a beautiful woman who keeps laughing at you."

"Believe it or not, that's part of it. Although not for the reasons you imply. I met and lost the only girl I will ever love."

Manfred said nothing. He'd learned that much from Francesca. Saying things like: "You'll get over it" or "there are other fish in the sea" were counterproductive, even if they might be true. Manfred had never been that seriously emotionally engaged with a lover. Physically engaged, yes. But he knew Erik was different, and did not know how to love lightly, and would never learn to. Manfred doubted anyone would be allowed to pierce that armor again. It was a pity, because Erik would never really get over it without someone else to take her place in his heart. But he knew his bodyguard, mentor, and latterly friend too well to do more than tease him, beyond a certain point.

"It was that incident when someone shot at the horse-boy. It just doesn't fit, Manfred. The Mongols responded far too slowly… and the commander knew it was going to happen, if you ask me. That and the general… I don't know, feel. And the fact that they say we're going to have to cross the great river-I presume that must be the Danube. I feel like we are walking into a trap."

"You've been uncomfortable from the very start of this venture into the Golden Horde's lands, Erik. You've told me so at least five times now," said Manfred.

"It's the river, Manfred. Look, here, if things turned nasty… well, we are not that far ride from Illyrian lands. And if that Iskander Beg has less than a regiment's worth of men very close at hand I will be very surprised. They were there, watching, when we had our first little meeting. I spotted at least three scouts, and I'd bet Mongols did too… but that won't be all. Iskander is like a good knife man. You won't even see the blade until he tries to kill you."

He gestured at one of the Golden Horde Mongol trotting past. "There are not that many of them. With our armor and our cohesion as a force… we could possibly get you back to that border-line. But not once we are across that river."

Manfred thought about it. Erik was by nature and by training one of the finest bodyguards in world. His instincts were preternaturally sharp. But this time… it just didn't add up. "There is of course their reputation for honoring the safety of envoys and diplomats," said Manfred. "And we are that, even if I must agree with you that this lot seem as trustworthy as the average adder. They don't like us, but there is not much-serious-that they can do about it. Envoys and their escorts are sacrosanct."

"It's an old reputation," said Erik. "Centuries old. Things change. And the part that worries me most, is that they are not likely to send your head in a bag to the Holy Roman Emperor to tell them that it happened. The Ilkhan, by all accounts, are still known for that honor to envoys, but if you die here-the blame is likely to be pinned on Iskander Beg. Or bandits."

"The only part of your logic that doesn't make any sense to me," said Manfred, "is why they would do it? They have nothing to gain by it, that I can see. Well, other than your little bit of Mongol cuddle. And she's pretty, but hardly worth ruining the reputation of centuries, and creating two major enemies if word of it leaks out. And you know these things leak out of even the most closed societies. Sooner or later, someone would tell a trader or a seaman. But I actually have an entirely different worry for you. Something that has been bothering me."

" What is that?" asked Erik.

"It seems to me," said Manfred, "That our entire reason for coming on this expedition has fallen apart. We hoped to meet and establish some form of diplomatic contact with the leaders of the Golden Horde. Now it appears, from what I can gather that they are in a state which is very close to civil war. They don't have a new Khan. Their electoral kurultai broke up in fighting. Nobody is in charge at the moment. From the point of view of our agreement with the Ilkhan: we have honored that already. We have brought their Tarkhan safely to Golden Horde lands. Should we not be heading back? I know that we haven't affected things as far as Jagiellon's fleet is concerned, but to be brutally honest, their civil war does us no harm."

Erik nodded slowly. "A point. I think you need to talk to Eberhart."

"For once I actually think I really could benefit by talking to old doubletalk," agreed Manfred. "Come with me. With any luck you will get your wish, and not cross the river."

They found Eberhart, "We have a problem-besides the fact that their women laugh at Erik," said Manfred.

"Would you give it a rest?" Erik scowled. "Manfred has a serious question about the entire mission. It would seem that our purpose-to treat with the new Khan-cannot be achieved. I think we need to head back to Illyria." He did not say 'While we still can.' But Manfred could tell that he was thinking it.

Eberhart tugged at his short white beard. "Perhaps we need to talk to the tarkhan Borshar." Eberhart gave a wry grimace. "That is if the tarkhan is prepared to talk to anyone. My experience among the Ilkhan is that their diplomats are even better than the Ard Ri's speakers at the fine art of saying very little in very many words, for a very long time. Borshar seems to be an exception to that. Perhaps it's because he has to serve among us foreigners. I had hoped we'd learn something about the Ilkhan as we journeyed together. But he really is the most taciturn of men."

Manfred decided that if Eberhart thought the Ilkhan wordy, he was infinitely glad that he had not ended up having to deal with them too. But he refrained from saying anything, something he wished that Eberhart would do.

Erik shrugged. "He looks almost as if he's in a trance half the time."

"Well, let's go and find out if he is talking at the moment," said Manfred. So the three of them went across to the encampment that had been set up for the tarkhan. Much to their surprise, he was not only welcoming but quite affable. He clapped his hands and sent his manservant to bring a bitter brew in little cups that he called kaveh, served with sickly-sweet little sweetmeats. Manfred would have preferred a glass of wine, but that was not on offer, it seemed. On the other hand Borshar was, this time, willing to talk.

"At the moment, until a new Khan is elected, the orkhan, that is the war-leader, will oversee matters. It will be of great value for you to meet him. I will arrange for an audience for you, it will be an opportunity for you to present your credentials. He is a leader of great influence. I have spoken with these clansmen. He is trying to bring the kurultai back together again."

Erik had no time for diplomatic doublespeak. "Tarkhan, I am responsible for the security and safety of the Prince." As an afterthought he added, "and Prince Manfred is responsible for your welfare. It is my task to assess risks. I do not like this situation. Quite honestly, I believe that we will come to the Danube tomorrow. I am concerned about crossing it."

The tarkhan raised his eyebrows. "You are here as part of my escort. You were honored by that status by the Bashar Ahmbien, the voice of the Ilkhan Hotai in Jerusalem. It is a matter of honor among the Mongol that an envoy and his entourage, and their escort will be as safe as if they are in their own homes. Do you question this?"

Manfred watched in some amusement as Erik, the blunt-spoken Erik, tried to avoid a major diplomatic incident.

"No," said Erik after a short struggle with his tongue and his conscience.

***

Before they rode out the next morning, Erik discussed the situation with Falkenberg and Von Gherens. He was not surprised to find the two old warhorses had similar feelings of discomfort. "They're supposed to be escorting us, protecting us, providing something of an honor guard," said Falkenberg. "They're not. They're guarding us, as if they expect us to break and run. When we rode that archer down-Kari had wounded him, half of them were all set to attack us instead."

"And if he wasn't one of their boys, then I'm a castrati eunuch from Alexandria," said Von Gherens. "We're riding into trouble, Erik."

"But from what you say, we can't easily get out of it," said Falkenberg. "I had a long talk with Eberhart last night. He said that to break off now would just about be a declaration of war. A deadly insult. I think it might be worth it."

"Unfortunately, Manfred doesn't. And in the end it is his decision," said Erik dourly.

" So what do we do?" asked Von Gherens. "Besides make our peace with God and go like lambs to the slaughter?"

Falkenberg touched his sword hilt. "We will make them pay a very high price for it. To the last man."

Erik bit his lip. Shook his head. "In a way, the worst outcome for them is if some of the knights get away. A great deal of their power and prestige rest on their reputation. So does that of the Ilkhan Mongol, who do a great deal more business with us. Any kind of treachery here would force them into an alliance with us. We need to look carefully at the trap we are walking into. And then when they think they have us, give them a surprise or two."

The notion that the Mongol were not a great maritime people was upheld by the ferry boats. Erik's standards were set out in the north Atlantic. These things would have had a life span of moments in those great swells. Even on a river this size, Erik viewed them with trepidation. However, they did stay afloat for long enough to get them across the Danube. It was a vast river, and an intimidating barrier.

Looking upstream Erik could see distant cliffs. "What is that?" he asked one of their escort, pointing at it.

The man spat in the water. "Magyar," he said sourly. "Irongate."

Erik had been unaware of just how close they were to the edge of Valahia and Hungarian territory. Not that they would find any security or help there.

Once they had crossed the river it was still another four days ride to the orkhan's camp. With every league, Erik's worries increased.

The camp was not far from the river. And Erik became aware of just how large the force assembled there was. There must be at least five thousand men there.

Erik looked at his pitiful force of knights, and put the heel of his hand to his head.

PART III

September, 1540 A.D.

Chapter 40

Vlad looked despairingly at his recruits attempts to hit targets with their new arquebuses. He himself carried two of the Smerek pistols. And he could hit a target with them, while on horseback. This lot, it would appear, could not have hit a barn door from the inside. Wreathed in smoke, they fired at targets fifty paces off… and missed.

"Don't worry, Drac," said Sergeant Emil, when he commented on it. "They're as good as King Emeric's arquebusiers. Maybe better. The guns are better. And it's not about accuracy, really. It's about massed fire. They're not shooting at targets. They're just shooting at the charging mass."

"But will they even get that right?" asked Vlad.

The Sergeant nodded. "We don't tell them so, but they're better than most levies. They'll get there, Sire. It's whether they can do so when they've got a regiment of Magyar charging down on them that you have to worry about. And if they don't, well, at least we won't have to worry about it."

"Why not?"

"Because we'll all be dead," said the sergeant with macabre humor. "If they break and run, we'll be run down and spitted. It'll be like a pack of wolves among newborn lambs."

***

"It's a small garrison, Sire. And we need to blood the troops somehow. And we need food and a victory," said Emil.