Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.
Those who slander me say I care nothing for the fate of other men. They forget that those who rule by the Lord’s grace are entrusted with the Earthly welfare of their subjects, and to some extent their souls. To take one’s subjects into battle, however righteous the cause, ensures that they will sin. The burden of their souls falls upon me, their Prince.
I do not allow others to see my weakness. Few great lords care for the fate of those in their domains. That I of all men should do so would seem the most grotesque of jests. I, whose name echoes through Europe as a byword for atrocity. And yet, I am driven to pray for those whose lives will end on the battlefield this day, men whose only crime is to obey the commands of their lords.
Thus I walked through heavy mists in the Snagov marshes towards a hillock built by the monks to shelter their hermits from winter’s worst. Mist beaded on the fine dark red wool of my coat and brushed cold and clammy against my skin. Around me my bodyguards ghosted through the marsh trees, soft-soled boots all but silent in the pre-dawn gray.
Only ten men of the two hundred my cousin Stephen had sent to my aid walked with me. Of all the forces I commanded this day, Stephen’s two hundred were the only ones in whose loyalty I placed any trust. There had not been time to build forces of my own as I fought to reclaim my land from the Turk’s puppets. My men were hirelings for the most part, bound by no oaths of fealty.
My goal emerged from the chill mist: a glade nestled against an earthen wall overhung with vines. It was a place sought by hermit monks for generations, and an air of peace and contemplation hung about it still.
I nodded to the nearest of my guards, and entered the glade. Another man might not have heard the whispers of movement, the sound of chain mail muffled by layers of quilted cloth. The curse laid upon me by Mehmed had its uses. I knew where my bodyguards positioned themselves, knew that they would give their lives to protect me should the need arise.
I knelt on a bed of fallen leaves, damp cold seeping through my pants to chill my legs. My lips moved without sound as I prayed. I begged mercy for those who would die this day, even those who fought under my traitorous cousin Basarab Laiota’s banner. I asked no quarter for myself, nor for victory, for those matters lay in higher hands than mine. And finally, driven by what impetus I do not know, I prayed that if the Lord would not lift the Sultan’s curse from me He show me a way to use the curse to further His glory.
How many times I begged that the curse be lifted from my shoulders I could not say. I can only say that this morning, as I prepared to face an army near twice the numbers of my forces, I begged instead that the Lord show me His will.
His answer came mere heartbeats after I stood, when I heard the whicker of a horse and the distinctive sound of metal against leather. My chest tightened and my hands clenched. I swallowed, and forced myself to show no sign of disturbance as I walked the few paces to Stefan, the captain of my guards.
“I heard horses and armor to the north,” I murmured.
He nodded, and hastened to another man, who moved away in the mist. I waited, nerves drawn bowstring-tight, while the remainder of my guards joined us. They sensed the tension though they knew not its cause, loosening their swords in their sheaths, faces grim in the ghostly mists.
I drew my own sword, my hand settling comfortably around the worn leather wrappings on the hilt. This weapon had been my father’s, a sword of the finest Toledo steel. Like him, I prized it for its strength and wicked sharpness as well as all it represented. How his faithful retainers smuggled it to me when he was murdered, I do not know. I was young then, too young to fully understand for I had never ruled, never known the bitter fruits of betrayal. Now I could only honor them for their courage and loyalty.
The scout returned, moving as quickly as he could without making undue sound. Though he whispered, I heard enough. At least fifty men approached from the north, men in the turbans of Turkish soldiers. It seemed my dear cousin Basarab lacked the courage to meet me on the field of battle and sought instead to murder me by stealth. The horses would be to ensure they could escape before any pursuit could be raised.
The captain swallowed when he turned to face me. “Sire, fifty men from the Turk army, leading horses. We must fight.”
I nodded once. I and my ten guards were woefully disadvantaged, the Turks too close for a safe withdrawal. Had my curse-sharpened senses not heard them, they would have held the advantage of surprise as well. “Have your men draw weapons, and conceal themselves as well as they may. In this mist, we will be able to strike the center and send them into confusion.”
“Sire… my Lord Prince… We can cover your retreat.” The man’s face had the calm, empty look of one who knows that death awaits, and has made his peace with his fate.
I smiled. Stephen’s men deserved better than I could give them. “If I am not here, they will not allow you to hold them.” I saw no reason to add that the rarely-used paths I had traveled to reach this place were unguarded. Better to draw the teeth of the snake here than to hide and allow brave men to die in my stead. “Go.” I could hear the enemy more clearly now, whispered curses and the sound of wrapped hooves upon soil and leaves.
My guards melted into the mist, slipping behind tree trunks and bushy shrubs. I joined them without word, fighting the excitement that strove to quicken my breath. Soon enough there would be battle, and bloodshed aplenty to appease the curse. Now I could only wait.
Each breath seemed an eternity, those last few moments before our enemy emerged from the heavy mist stretching out into the everlasting wait. First they loomed as grotesque shadows, blurred darkness, then details began to emerge. Here, the shape of a horse’s leg, there the glint of a drawn scimitar. They stayed close, horses and men breathing steam into the air, merging with the swirling shadows.
Their faces were grim, their turbans dark. They wore coats of all shapes and sizes, patched and worn and stained with the blood of former owners, for these were men who rarely saw the bone-aching chill of Wallachian winter. I smelled the oil they used in their hair and beards, the cleaner scent of horse, and shifted a little to ensure that they saw nothing of me as they passed us, alert but unseeing.
No signal was given, for none was needed. The rising tension in the bodies of my men, the quick flicker of their eyes as they checked to see how many had passed us and how many remained, gave the signal to all.
I leaped forward, my sword slicing across a Turk’s unarmored chest as screams and shouts of alarm rose around me. Blood sprayed into the air, scarlet against the gray mists. My mouth opened to receive the accursed nectar, the sickly sweet taste sending thrills of anticipation through my body. My first swallow burned through to my stomach, the fire of renewed strength, of the energy that defeated the wasting sickness that would otherwise consume me.
A scimitar’s movement caught at the very limit of my eyesight. I reacted without thought, my left hand reaching for the hand that held the weapon even as I kicked my first victim aside, raised my sword to the new threat.
I slashed that one’s belly open and wrenched his scimitar from his hand, left him to scream and spill his entrails upon the forest floor. In those few moments, the joy of battle, the knife-edge of knowing that each beat of my heart could be my last, rose to fill me. My sword and stolen scimitar slashed into horses and men as I spun and danced amid the screams of the dying.
None could touch me: the Sultan’s curse granted me speed and strength beyond human while the draught of fresh blood coursed through my body. Here, there was blood aplenty to sustain my unnatural prowess and for once, I welcomed it. Surely this was God’s answer to my prayer.
If I were to use the curse in His name only, dedicate the victories it won me to His glory, it ceased to be the tool of darkness the Sultan had intended and became instead the scourge of Mohammed’s followers. Thus could I expiate my many sins.
I truly know not how long the battle lasted. It can not have been long, for mist still lay heavy about me when my weapons could find no more enemies. I stood, gulping air tainted by the stench of death, and listened. I could hear only my own guards, all ten with the dazed look of men astounded to find themselves still breathing.
Of the enemy, I counted forty and three dead, and seven still living though wounded so severely they would not see the morrow. I stalked to the nearest, rested the point my sword in the hollow of the man’s throat.
He took time to recognize my presence, to look up along the length of Toledo steel to my blood-covered face. A moan escaped him, and the words, “Kaziklu Bey.”
I smiled. The Impaler Lord. He recognized me: good. “Grant me reason not to impale you alive,” I said in Turkish.
His eyes opened very wide, and he grew even paler. His words lacked coherence, and were interspersed with pleas to Al-lah, but they told me enough. This group had been sent to commit murder and return to my beloved cousin Basarab with my corpse — or failing that, my head. Returning without proof of my death had not been an option.
How fitting that dear Basarab Laiota should choose the coward’s path. No doubt he wished to be free of me so he could rest his old bones safely. Perhaps instead of sending his head to the Turks I should send that part of a man they valued most.
My mood must have reflected upon my face, for the Turkish soldier began to beg the mercy I had implicitly promised.
I regarded him with contempt. “May your Al-lah grant you mercy,” I said, and drove my sword into his throat. His body spasmed once, then was still. The death reflected nothing upon me, and I felt only weariness. In truth, there was little likelihood that he would have survived to be impaled, but fear of that fate — and no doubt the reputation I had garnered — overwhelmed any such consideration in his mind. To Turks, death by impalement was dishonor, and impalement by my hand dishonor and defilement.
For Turks, not only did I grease the stakes, I greased them with pig fat. Few had ever received the relative mercy of the stake piercing their heart: I displayed their proclivities to the world instead. Small wonder they held that death in battle was preferable to capture and impalement.
I cleaned my sword on a fallen man’s clothing before sheathing the weapon, and located a relatively unstained turban to unwrap and wipe the worst blood from my face. “Send someone to the camp to have stakes prepared and bring these back.” I could feel the grim amusement in my smile, taste it in my voice. “We will have a welcoming gift for the Sultan’s tool ere this mist lifts.”
Cross-posted to Mad Genius Club