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PROLOGUE
June, 1540 a.d.

 


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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.


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. 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 had 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.


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 Hohenstauffen 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, Eberhard 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 backrest, 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 pussyfoot 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 Eberhard 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 Eberhard.


Ahmbien cocked his head, obviously weighing that noncommittal "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, Eberhard 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 Eberhard, 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 Grand Duke 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. Eberhard 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."


Eberhard 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."


Eberhard 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 Eberhard.


"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 had 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 Eberhard. "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 Eberhard.


Ahmbien shrugged. "The raid cost Prince Jagiellon's allies dearly. But it cost the Horde still more. Batu 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 Batu, 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 Batu'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 Eberhard 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 Eberhard. 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. Eberhard 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. Eberhard 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."


Eberhard 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 Eberhard 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."


Eberhard 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 to 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 the 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 surefootedly 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.


 


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