A Prince to be Feared

 

the love story of Vlad Dracula

Romantic historical fiction from Mary Lancaster.

Europe’s most fearsome prisoner, Vlad Dracula, gifted military commander and one time Prince of Wallachia, the notorious Lord Impaler himself, is about to be released after twelve long years, in order to hold back the tide of Ottoman aggression. The price of his new alliance with his Hungarian captors is the king’s cousin Ilona.

Ilona does not wish to be married. In particular, she doesn’t wish to marry Vlad. Gentle, faded and impossibly vague, Ilona is hardly fit for court life, let alone for dealing with so difficult a husband.

But Ilona’s wishes have nothing to do with Vlad’s reputation and everything to do with a lifelong love affair that finally broke her. Ilona’s family blames Vlad; Vlad vows to discover the truth and sets out by unconventional means to bring back the woman who once enchanted him. Among court intrigues, international manoeuvrings and political deceptions, Vlad reveals himself more victim than villain. But he’s still more than capable of reclaiming his lost rights to both Wallachia and Ilona; and Ilona, when it counts, has enough strength for them both.
 

Read an excerpt below

REVIEWS:

"An absorbing historical love story... my favorite discovery of the year... exquisite characterization and storytelling skills... a love story as poignant as Romeo and Juliet... a rich, vibrant historical novel that is a rare find... So addictive and captivating that I didn’t want to read the end." -  TBR Mountain Range

"I really enjoyed the historical thought put into this book... well-developed characters... in superb taste and with original vision.... at the heart of this historical read is the romance between Vlad and Ilona." - Oh for the Hook of a Book

"I was kind of into Vlad... Ilona, was fun, a realistic mix of innocence and boldness, a bit fiery and a bit shy; I could relate to her... it's fun, and effortless to read" - Unabridged Chick

"a new view on Dracula.... a wonderful job of detailing Vlad's life...I really enjoyed this book. In the end, Vlad is neither monster nor saint, but simply Vlad." - Musings of a Book Junkie

 "I loved what Lancaster did with A Prince to be Feared...taking Vlad Dracula, a character largely vilified and humanizing him, is truly captivating... Different yet memorable...a unique perspective." - Flashlight Commentary

Chapter One

 

Visegrád, Hungary, 1474

 

He made a perfect villain. Even after years of imprisonment and the loss of all he’d once won, even with the prospect of regaining his country and his crown being dangled before him like a carrot, Vlad Dracula still looked fierce, arrogant, and utterly unrepentant.

From his shadowy position in the gallery above the exercise chamber, Stephen, Prince of Moldavia, watched the long, hard fight reach its inevitable conclusion. Both men wielded their swords with skill and with such force that without the protective padding they wore, and the presumably blunted blades of their swords, there would have been blood everywhere. But although his opponent was younger and this was sword play rather than battle, Vlad, the one-time Prince of Wallachia, always fought to win.

Stephen would have been disappointed if defeat and hardship had dimmed the ferocious gleam in his cousin’s eye, if the humiliation of his long imprisonment had managed to bow him. If it ever had, and Stephen couldn’t really doubt it, he was back with a vengeance, and the knowledge made Stephen smile involuntarily as the pleasure of memory overcame the dull pain of loss.

At heart, surely, he and Vlad were still the same men who’d set out together as youths, shoulder to shoulder, to win the world for themselves and each other. Young and invincible.

The swords, flashing in the streaming sunlight, clashed together, screeched painfully, and suddenly the younger man staggered backwards, his sword falling to the floor.

At the same time, the door into the exercise chamber flew open, and a crowd of young men strode in. They stopped in their tracks, staring, as Vlad dropped his padded jacket on the floor and said something to his erstwhile opponent. It might have been gracious or taunting. Stephen couldn’t tell, and neither could the noisy youths at the door who exchanged low-voiced comments in an excited sort of way as Vlad walked across the room.

He still moved like a large cat, quick and dangerous yet peculiarly graceful, sure in the knowledge that whoever was in his path would swiftly get out of it. But the youths, clearly, had never met Vlad Dracula, only heard of him, and they were looking for easy glory.

Behind him, on his feet once more, the man he’d just defeated watched in silence. Vlad himself, finding his way blocked, stood very still. Stephen, his heart beating unaccountably fast, eased backwards to observe better as the prince looked around the four bristling youths.

“If you wish to address me,” he said haughtily, his voice sending shivers down Stephen’s spine, “you must stand at least a foot away from my person.”

“I was here first,” the largest blustered with unforgivable rudeness. Vlad’s age as well as his rank entitled him to far greater courtesy. But with a flash of rueful insight, Stephen saw what his old friend was up against: boys who imagined it was safe to bait the monster of Wallachia because he was a helpless prisoner. And he would be a magnet for the young glory hunters. Stephen’s guilty heart wrenched as if the humiliation was his own rather than Vlad’s.

But Vlad appeared to be used to it. Without warning, he seized the young man by the throat and hurled him across the room. Before the others could react, he rattled his sword between the heads of the two on either side, knocking them apart.

“Let me help you with your manners,” Vlad said contemptuously and strolled out of the room.

His recent fencing partner grinned, somewhat to Stephen’s surprise since the half-strangled youth on the floor was choking and clutching his throat, and blood oozed down the faces of the two who’d come in contact with Vlad’s sword. Clearly it wasn’t so very blunt after all.

Vlad’s fencing partner sauntered across the floor, tutting. “That’s no way to pick a fight with His Highness,” he observed. “I’m sure your parents taught you better.”

Stephen didn’t wait to hear more. Judging it was now safe to descend from the gallery without encountering Vlad, he made his way to the stairs just as a servant appeared at the top with the news that the king awaited him in the garden.

“Well, did you see him?” the King of Hungary demanded almost as soon as Stephen stepped into the fresh air. Slightly disoriented as much by his own churning emotions as by the sight of the royal retinue spreading around the terrace, Stephen took a moment to focus on King Matthias Corvinus. The king beckoned him away from the rest of his following, and Stephen obediently fell into step beside him. They appeared to be walking alone in the direction of the king’s formal garden.

“Yes, I saw him.”

“Did he look pleased with himself?”

A breath of laughter escaped Stephen. “No more than usual.”

“Well, Ilona’s here, so our plan is almost complete.”

Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. With the Ottomans threatening the borders of Moldavia, he needed the Hungarian alliance. And the Wallachian one.

“Have you told him which marriage you intend for him?” Stephen asked.

“Of course.”

“What did he say?” Stephen asked curiously.

The king shrugged. “Nothing.”

“I thought he’d be pleased.” Stephen couldn’t help his pique. He’d done Vlad a rather selfless favour promoting this marriage, considering he’d once coveted Ilona Szilágyi himself—even before her cousin Matthias had become King of Hungary. And in Stephen’s eyes, the existence of his own beautiful wife did not detract from this generosity.

“The alliance is good, and he knows it,” Matthias said comfortably. “Let’s go and find her. A private, informal meeting will be kinder.”

 

****

She moved among the bright spring flowers like a wraith, grey and dull against the carpets of yellow and orange and white spread out before her. Although her steps were quick and light, almost gliding, she made slow progress, stopping frequently to bend and examine the blooms in minute detail. As she crouched down, her grey veil, which was the only head covering she wore, fell forward over her face. One slender, elegant hand pushed it back absently, revealing a tired, almost emaciated face, the skin stretched taut across the high, broad bones of her cheeks and the narrow, almost pointed chin below. With a little more animation, she might have resembled a peasant child’s idea of a witch. As it was, she just looked worn-out, vague, and very badly dressed.

 

Stephen blurted, “That is Ilona Szilágyi?”

“You are shocked by my cousin’s appearance?” The king sounded amused. “You can’t have laid eyes on her in ten years!”

 

“More,” said Prince Stephen. “The Ilona I remember was not afraid to speak her mind to anybody. This one looks terrified of her own shadow.”

“All to the good,” said the king, just as the woman caught sight of the two men approaching along the path and rose to her feet.

S

uddenly uncertain, Stephen touched the king’s velvet-clad arm. “Are you sure about this?”

The king lifted one interrogative eyebrow at him. The rest of his attention and the gracious smile beginning to form on his lips were for the woman in grey.

“You would truly give your cousin to him?” Stephen felt obliged to check now that he’d seen her. “In all her…frailty?”

 

“Well, damn it, man,” said the king through his smile, “what else is she good for? Cousin Ilona!” The grey lady extended one ungloved hand, and the king, who had clearly meant to embrace her, deftly clasped it between both of his instead while she dropped a faint bob of a courtesy. “Are you enjoying my gardens?”

She mumbled something in return, drawing her hand free and casting a glance up at Stephen before returning her patient gaze to the king.

“You do not recognise an old friend?” the king said jovially. “Prince Stephen of Moldavia.”

Her eyes came back to him with curious reluctance. “What a surprise,” she said vaguely, “to find you here. Now.”

 

Stephen blinked. Was that sarcasm in the calm, indifferent voice? Did she actually understand why he was here at Visegrád, on such obviously friendly terms with his one-time enemy, the king? The doubt kept him from noticing till later that it was the only greeting she gave him.

Her eyes moved on to the newly planted trees at the far end of the walled garden. She said distantly, “What is it you want, Matthias?”

Clearly unused to being so addressed these days, the King of Hungary frowned, as if searching for a suitable reply. His ageing cousin dragged her eyes back to him. “I want to go home,” she explained. “I don’t care to live in palaces anymore. Tell me what you brought me here for so that I can do it and leave. Please,” she added by way of an afterthought.

King Matthias beamed at her. “I brought you here because I have found you a husband.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want one.” She might have been refusing an apple or a sweetmeat.

“Nonsense,” the king said robustly. “Every woman wants a husband, and you have been widowed, what, nine years? Ten?”

 

“I have grown comfortable as I am. I don’t need your favour in this.” After a pause, her wandering eyes came back to his, and she added with some difficulty, like a forgotten rhyme or prayer, “Though I thank you for thinking of me.”

“To be frank,” said the king, “I am thinking of myself too.”

A hint of amusement flitted through her dark brown eyes, like an echo of the youthful beauty Stephen remembered. She was still only, what, thirty-six or thirty-seven years old? She didn’t need to look such a damned fright.

She said, “Matthias, I am no prize—a mere cousin, widowed and ageing. Surely we have better relatives with whom to buy allegiance. Unless you wish to appease with a well-born prize of no value?”

She must have seen the truth in her royal cousin’s face, for a breath of ghostly laughter escaped her pale lips. “Give him a castle instead,” she advised, reaching down for a yellow daffodil, whose head was drooping much like her own.

“I’ll give him a castle—lots of castles—as well,” Matthias said with the first hint of impatience. “Don’t you want to know which bridegroom I have chosen for you?”

“No.” Frowning over the impossibility of the task; she was trying and failing to stiffen the flower’s neck.

“It’s an old friend of yours—the Prince of Wallachia.”

As if she couldn’t help it, her gaze flew up to the king’s. But, straightening, she only said sardonically, “Which Prince of Wallachia?” Her eyes alighted on Stephen, some of their vagueness falling away like petals in a breeze. “You can’t be trying to buy Radu. He already has a wife. And Besarab…”

Abruptly, she broke off. Her eyes fixed on a point beyond his head, and, turning, he saw that it was on the lowering building known as Saloman’s Tower. Some distance downhill from the main castle, almost on the bank of the Danube, only the top of the tower was visible from where they stood. It was where the king imprisoned rebellious nobles and other high-ranking enemies. She knew he was here; she had always known.

She said, “No.” The word came out no more than a strangled whisper. Backing away from them, she clutched at her veil with trembling fingers, tugging until it sat askew on her head. Beneath it, her hair was still burnished red-gold, though Stephen could glimpse traces of grey streaking through it. And suddenly she was speaking again, with an intensity she hadn’t looked capable of seconds before. “No, Matthias, not that. Please… ! Don’t put me back on that sleigh ride, not with him…!”

“You’re not making any sense,” Matthias said coldly.

A sneaking compassion entered Stephen’s guilty soul, drowning whatever brief suspicion had arisen about her pretending this ridiculous new character Perhaps these were not the amends he should be making to his cousin. He had been right when he first saw her—she wasn’t capable of dealing with Vlad now; time had not been kind to her. Nor fate, he acknowledged, remembering belatedly the awful execution of her father at Ottoman hands, then the sudden death of her mother and the suicide of her closest friend barely a year later—almost at the same time, surely, as she’d fled Wallachia before the invading Ottomans. No wonder she looked like a ghost of her own past.

Matthias said sternly, “I need Wallachia on my side. It’s unstable. Neither Radu nor Besarab can be trusted, either to hold out against the Ottomans or to remain loyal to me. I need him back there. And his price is you.”

“His price?” she exclaimed. “His? He doesn’t have one for freedom after twelve years! He doesn’t have a price for taking back his own country! Just send him there, and he’ll hold it at your back as he always did, as he always would if you hadn’t—”

Breathless, she broke off, whirling away from them as if trying to hide the agitation she had already betrayed. Matthias and Stephen exchanged glances.

The king said, “It’s your duty, Ilona. And the man has a fondness for you; he won’t hurt you. He asked for you before, remember?”

Her hand flapped helplessly. She mumbled something that might have been, “Fourteen years ago.” And ruefully, Stephen had to agree that the bridegroom might well be a little shocked by the changes those fourteen years had wrought in his old friend.

 

***

He wasn’t in Saloman’s Tower. He was honourably confined in the main palace. The discovery terrified Ilona as the possibility of his more distant presence in the tower had not. If she attended dinner with the king, as she was bidden, she might be forced to meet him, even sit beside him. So she sent her well-born attendant, Margit, with a message pleading a sick headache, which was not so far from the truth.

For a long time, she just paced the comfortable apartment she had been given, wringing her hands and wondering how this had happened, how to stop it. The woolly covering she had deliberately grown over her once sharp mind got in the way of political analysis, but even she grasped that Stephen of Moldavia must be here because he wanted to loosen his allegiance to the Ottomans, and he mistrusted the present ruler of Wallachia. Without Wallachia to help him against the Ottoman threat, he needed powerful Hungary behind him. So was Stephen or Matthias considering the restoration of the deposed prince held prisoner in this palace? Which of them was making it a condition of their alliance? And how had she become a pawn in any of it?

For her, a woman, there was no way out—except death, and despite the poetic justice of committing suicide as Maria had, she could not quite bring herself to that sin. He would put it on his conscience too.

Abruptly, she sank down on the nearest stool. Caught by her own gaze, she stared into the Venetian glass mirror so unkindly placed upon the table, forced to look full into her ravaged face. She would have laughed if she could. All their plans, all their alliances would founder because of this face…

And this mind.

Ilona gazed into her large, hollowed dark eyes. For a moment, they looked unfamiliar, like someone else’s—because they weren’t vague and dull. They were…wild, fearful.

Is there a way? Can I find a way out of this? Can I think?

***

Erzsébet Szilágyi had grown used to holding her head high. Widow of the greatest Christian knight in Europe, sister of the bravest of soldiers, mother of the king of Hungary, she had not allowed age or grief to dampen her pride. Even entering the private apartment Matthias had given to her niece—somewhat overgenerously in Erzsébet’s opinion—alone and being greeted by no one more important than Ilona’s gently born attendant, she kept her habitual, regal posture.

Ilona sat on a stool before a large mirror, absently brushing at the same greying streak of hair among her unexpectedly luxuriant auburn tresses. However untidy, her hair had always been beautiful, thick, and shining, and of such a rare shade of auburn that sometimes it had seemed like dark gold.

Erzsébet blinked away the memory. The present Ilona was no longer a young girl. She wore unrelieved grey, both gown and undergown of the same uninspiring hue. One wide oversleeve flapped like a bird’s wing with every stroke of the brush.

Though Erzsébet stared at her back, Ilona didn’t turn or acknowledge her aunt’s presence in any way, even when Erzsébet said loudly, “What is she doing?”

“She’s not feeling well,” the woman excused her.

“So I heard.” Erzsébet didn’t trouble to keep the disbelief out of her voice or her face as she strode forward and took hold of her niece’s shoulder.

Annoyingly, Ilona didn’t jump or cry out. Instead, the faintest of smiles stirred her lips. She leaned her head to one side, actually touching her cheek to Erzsébet’s hand.

The old lady snatched it back. The affectionate gesture reminded her too much of the past. A very different past.

 

“How are you, aunt?” Ilona asked, as if they’d parted just last week.

“Better than you, by the look of you.”

“True.” Ilona reached out for the ugly grey veil lying on the table in front of her and began to pin it in place. She didn’t trouble with any kind of frame or crespine.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I have a headache.”

Erzsébet curled her lip. “For twelve years?”

“No.” Ilona didn’t sound angry or ashamed, just tired. “Only since coming here.”

“Only since the king, my son, explained your duty to you?”

Her mouth twitched at that, as if she would deny it. But her gaze still avoided her aunt’s. “Yes,” she said. Her slender, almost transparent hands fluttered down to her side, leaving the veil in place, slightly askew but covering all that was left of brightness in her. Erzsébet remembered her hair flashing in the sunlight like exotic, burnt gold as she whirled about, laughing in some childish game.

Erzsébet knew an instant of pity, not unmixed with contempt. “It’s time you pulled yourself together, girl!”

“Yes,” Ilona agreed.

Surprised by this easy victory, Erzsébet peered round into her face. “Then you accept the inevitable?”

Ilona smiled, the first true smile her aunt had seen on her countenance in many years. It might have broken a less stony heart than hers. At the same time, Ilona looked into her eyes.

“We both know my acceptance doesn’t matter. It isn’t mine you need, is it?”

Erzsébet searched her face, looking for insolence, for rebellion, for any spark that would reveal the old Ilona still inside this faded shell.

Understanding dawned slowly, along with renewed pity that the girl had lost her grip on reality to this extent.

“You think he’ll reject you? Because you’ve lost your youth and beauty, you think he’ll turn down the offer of the King of Hungary’s cousin? For God’s sake, you can’t actually imagine this is about you? You know it was never about you! It’s about alliance! Alliance with your family. Alliance that will regain him a country and a throne after twelve years in effective prison. Do you really imagine he cares if your hair is grey or your lips red? He isn’t marrying you. He’s marrying us.”

Curiously, Ilona’s face seemed to whiten. And yet those pale lips curved upward. Light definitely glimmered in those dark, opaque eyes. Not a spark, but something.

She said, “Ask him, Aunt Erzsébet. Ask him if he’ll take the deal without me.”

Without her, without a marriage alliance to cement it, he wouldn’t believe in the deal, wouldn’t trust Matthias—and frankly, who could blame him?

“Why, in the name of all that’s holy, would he do anything so stupid?”

“Because I wish it,” Ilona said vaguely. She stood, tugging at the ugly veil as if to check it was secure. “Have them tell him that…if you like.”

***

Seething with indignation and incomprehension was no way in which to face him. Countess Erzsébet Hunyadi knew it and yet, after ignoring his presence for twelve years, she couldn’t stay away one more hour.

Count Szelényi, his official jailer, was easily summoned and conducted her without question to the prince’s apartment. Erzsébet watched with curling lip as he pushed the key into the lock. He couldn’t be ignorant of the dreadful reputation of his prisoner; he must have heard all the salacious and chilling tales, including the latest, that he trapped birds outside his chamber window and impaled them. Hardly the act of a gentle or sane man.

“Aren’t you afraid to enter his chamber so casually?” she enquired.

Count Szelényi smiled. Although he didn’t appear obviously afraid, neither did he seem surprised by the question. “No, madam. But if you wish, I can wait inside with you. Or outside the door, if you prefer.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Erzsébet said drily. What had she to fear from him?

“As you wish.” Szelényi turned the key, withdrew it, and knocked.

“Enter.”

The voice from inside sent a shiver down Erzsébet’s spine. Not of fright but of…memory. His voice was as it always had been, just as deep, just as vigorous and commanding.

Szelényi swung the door wide. “Sir, you have a visitor. Countess Hunyadi.”

Though her heart had begun to beat unaccountably fast, Erzsébet sailed into the room, registering as she did that it was comfortably furnished with cushioned chairs, and rugs on the floor. His bed had green velvet hangings, and a closed, ornately carved chest stood beside it. The prince might have been detained here, but his imprisonment was not arduous.

And then all peripheral thoughts vanished as a shadow rose from the desk under the darkening window and moved forward into the lamplight.

She’d had a nice speech prepared, a little condescending, a little pitying to remind him of his place, but not unkind. And yet now that those strange green eyes clashed with hers for the first time in twelve years, it all flew out the window. Her mouth was too dry to speak.

Dear God. She had forgotten the force that blazed out of those fierce eyes, the way he dominated a scene just by being in it. He had been the same even as a boy come boldly to her brother’s house in Transylvania to plead for the aid no one had any intention of giving. Supplicant or sovereign, János, her husband, had mocked him. And it was the same now. There was no gratitude, no remotest surprise in his face as he regarded her.

On the other hand, she could have sworn he mocked her. Though, of course there was no obvious disrespect in his stance, in his elegant bow. Vlad Dracula had always possessed exquisite manners.

“Countess Hunyadi,” he said, taking her nerveless fingers and just touching them to his lips. “I am honoured.”

She stared suspiciously at his bent head. Was that sarcasm? Was he chiding her for never visiting him before? What in God’s name did she owe a deposed prince of Wallachia?

The man who, whatever his motivation, had served her husband and her son so far beyond the call of duty.

She shut off that line of thought. She had learned long ago never to reveal weakness, and it was doubly important in the company of this unpredictable and too-perceptive creature.

“Yes,” she agreed. “You are.”

A genuine smile curved his full, sensual lips. Above them, his moustache, longer and thicker than she remembered, was as perfectly groomed as ever. His black locks were loose, his head uncovered, but otherwise he was dressed as formally as if he had just attended the court dinner. Which he hadn’t. He wore black hose with light leather boots and a black, high-necked doublet with short leather tassels dangling from the shoulders. A pristine white collar showed at his throat. Rings adorned both hands.

 

Relinquishing his light, cool grasp on her fingers, he straightened. “Will you sit down? I can offer you excellent wine—a gift from the king, your son.”

“Thank you, no. I cannot stay. I merely came to congratulate you that your fortunes appear to be looking up at last.”

 

“I have new hope,” he allowed.

Had his hopes ever sunk? How had this active, turbulent man coped with twelve years of confinement? Because, despite his pleasant surroundings, that was what it was. She hadn’t believed Vlad could tolerate such curtailment of his freedom. She’d almost expected to find him faded. Like Ilona.

But this, this was definitely the same, arrogant man who had stood before her in his own castle and assured her with perfect self-belief that he would defeat the Ottomans and bring about a new era of peace for Wallachia, Hungary, and all their neighbours. Failure, even after twelve years, seemed to be a temporary matter.

“Perhaps you have,” she allowed. Then, unable to resist taunting him, she added, “Now that you are to become a true Christian.”

 

He didn’t say anything to that, merely inclined his head. But his gaze never wavered. She had the impression he was waiting for something.

“And so your old betrothal to my niece is resurrected.”

He stood very still. She could almost imagine he didn’t breathe. “I am so honoured,” he said, still waiting.

“Would it surprise you to know that my niece does not consider herself honoured by this match? That she does not wish it?”

 

Still those eyes didn’t waver. Erzsébet began to feel her own watering with the effort of holding his gaze.

“No,” he said. “We have not met in twelve years, and I am sure she has heard nothing of me but tales of cruelty and carnage.”

 

“Twelve years,” Erzsébet marvelled. “They have not been kind years to Ilona.”

Something moved in his eyes then, a flash of some emotion suppressed before she could even begin to recognise it. His lower lip clamped over his upper in an old gesture she remembered well. Once, as a boy, it had betokened nervousness, until he’d adopted it as a pose of pride.

He said, “What has happened to Ilona? The king told me only that she was well and unmarried.”

“Twelve years have happened to her! She is old,” Erzsébet said unkindly. “And has been since she escaped from your castle.”

 

His eyes dropped. Erzsébet knew relief because at last she could blink, and also an upsurge of triumph because she was right. Something had happened during those last days of Vlad’s reign, something that could have affected Ilona so deeply that she’d turned into the poor, empty creature she’d just left staring blindly into her mirror. Erzsébet and her family were innocent of this.

 

“Is she here?” Vlad asked. And that, at last, was simple, genuine.

“Yes. She seems to think that if you know her wishes, you’ll take the alliance without her.”

Vlad’s lips curved, separating once more. They both knew that the king held all the cards. The terms of the alliance were his to deal. Marriage alliances were important, yet was it not unnecessarily unkind to give a damaged, gentle being like Ilona to the Impaler now? Perhaps there was a different option, a different relative…? A different way to assuage unreasonable and unnecessary guilt.

 

“I won’t,” Vlad said. “I will change my religion and swear new oaths of allegiance to the king. But I will have Wallachia, and I will have Ilona.”

***

Ilona rose with the dawn. She’d had little rest, less sleep, unable to think of anything except whether or not Erzsébet had gone to Vlad and explained that she didn’t want the match.

Wearing only her night shift, she pushed the heavy blankets off and slid out of bed. The floor was icy under her feet, and she shivered. But she needed air. She felt she’d been suffocating all night. Padding over to the window, she unlatched it and threw it wide. A rush of blessedly cool air caressed her cheeks, surrounded her head and shoulders. The smell of newly made bread filled her nostrils, reminding her she hadn’t eaten yesterday. Her stomach rumbled, comfortingly normal.

It was a good sign. Everything was going to be fine now. It was a beautiful dawn, the sky just beginning to glow pink and orange around the peeping sun. From her window, she could see the garden that had attracted her out of doors yesterday—only to be bearded by the king and Stephen.

Had Stephen seen him yet? Had they met since Stephen had betrayed him at Chillia? Perhaps he understood, now that his anger was passed. Perhaps he would even have done the same.

No. Pragmatic as he was, as a prince had to be, nothing would have induced him to betray Stephen.

She could smell the flowers now, their sweet, subtle scents drifting over the bread, reminding her that she needed to be home to care for her own garden. The servants would neglect it without her to nag them.

Perhaps I can go home today…if she’s spoken with him. How will I know?

 One didn’t order Countess Hunyadi. One could only suggest and hope curiosity would do the rest. And if she had gone to him, if she had passed on Ilona’s wishes, what did he say, how did he look? How did he feel? Relieved. The Vlad she remembered would always honour old promises, but now she’d released him. He could marry, or not, some other cousin.

Whom?

It doesn’t matter to me, or to him…

And she, Ilona, could go home to Transylvania and live out the remainder of her days in the quiet domesticity she had finally found. Great lives and great events would go on, uninfluenced by her, unaware of her existence. And in time, she’d get the peace back. She would…

The castle was stirring. Not just the servants baking and cleaning and lighting fires. She could hear the gentle clip-clop of horses being exercised across the courtyard. Not the king at this hour, but perhaps one or two of his more active courtiers.

Yes, there they were, two of them, with servants and soldiers riding behind. In silence, the two courtiers rode side by side, skillfully controlling the natural exuberance of their mounts, forcing them to a sedate walk at least as far as the castle gates.

They sat very straight in their saddles, one in particular presenting an eye-catching posture, at once graceful, proud, and strong. If you could tell so much from one broad, erect back. Ilona frowned, blinking in the dim dawn light as if that could help her see more clearly. Her heart began to thud against her ribs.

Is it Vlad? Is it him?

He wore a round black hat with a red feather at the side, and from under it long black curls flowed around his shoulders and partway down his powerful back. Ilona swayed, her fingers gripping the sill for support.

Just so had she watched him ride away from her after their very first meeting. The horse had been different—her uncle’s, not her cousin’s—and his garments had been rough and worn, but he had held himself with the same pride, ridden with the same perfect confidence so that she’d almost imagined he was as splendid as he’d wanted to be.

The rider stopped. His horse snorted, and his companion paused too, glancing back at him in quick interrogation. The man who could have been Vlad—please God, don’t be Vlad—began to turn his head.

Frozen, Ilona couldn’t move, couldn’t run, couldn’t even fall out of sight onto the floor. Panic held her paralysed.

His head continued to turn, his neck twisting so that he could look upward. Unerringly, he gazed at her window.

Holy Mary, Mother of God.

Vlad Dracula, exiled Prince of Wallachia. Even over this distance, vitality blazed out of his face.

He won’t see me; he can’t recognise me…

The full lips didn’t smile. But his gaze, rooting her to the spot, didn’t move on. His head dipped, acknowledging her, and at that, she grasped her hair in despair. Her other hand flew to her throat, and she fell back so that she couldn’t see him, couldn’t visualise his failure to recognise her, or worse, his horror at what she’d become.

Her mouth opened in a soundless cry of loss. She pushed herself up against the wall under the window and, for the first time in ten years, let the past consume her.

All content Copyright Mary Lancaster, 2017.

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