Vlad Tepes Dracula was a man with little tolerance for squeamishness.
|The battle was over. We had won.
The sun was dipping below the western horizon. Relief came washing over me, for darkness would soon shield my sight from the slaughter of that day. When I closed my eyes I saw the faces of the men I had killed – no, not men. Prince Dracula deeply discouraged his troops from regarding the olive-skinned enemy as anything but animal.
When I opened my weary lids on the dying day, blood was all I could see. A land of blood, soaked and buried and dripping with it. Bodies, mostly Turk but some of my fellow Christians, dotted the landscape all the way to the sunset, still wearing faces of shock, fear, or rage, if they had even managed to hold on to their head. The wounded gurgled and groaned, but not a man came to their aid, for their gaze was affixed to the worst of it. My countrymen stood like stones, their faces iron bosses, long shadows pointing the way to what seemed like a forest – would that it were.
Everywhere, I heard the thunk of huge stakes, the height of two men, into deep pits. Soldiers steadied the great trunks and filled the pits in with earth. Once or twice, a spurt of blood from above would splash upon their helmets. It did not deter them from the work.
I summoned the courage to glance up. Most were naked. Prisoner Turks, not just soldiers but civilians, women and children too, were rammed onto the stakes, their blunt points wet and glimmering. The lucky ones got the sharper stakes: for them it was over quickly. Many more were impaled by way of the asshole. This was the more dreadful course. After a few hours the point would force itself through their jaw and out of the mouth, driving intestine upward forth from the lips, as if it were trying to escape its ruined host.
The sun was nearly gone, but the knot in my stomach did not unwind. Instead of bearing witness to the horrors, they invaded my other senses. The palpable stench of smoke, rotting flesh and horseshit made my gorge rise. The agonized screams of the tortured poured down my ears like ice water.
I let out a little grunt. One of the men under my command, Josef, or Julian, damned if I recall, turned and shot me a stiff look. I tried my best to look dispassionate and failed utterly.
Josef or Julian’s attention was soon drawn from the sad sight of me, however. A misty orange cloud of dust chased a group of cantering horses and their riders. The men began to cheer but I could not. At the front rode the prince.
Vlad Dracula had not bothered to wash the blood from his armor, face or hair, and it ran down the sword he now stabbed toward the sky, as if trying to pit God upon it.
He was a striking man, respected by his subjects, hated by his enemies and feared by all. His dark hair ran down to the shoulders. His big eyes were green but glistened red in the twilight. He licked his lips and dampened dry blood in his mustache and the tuft of hair below his lower lip. His face was hard, healthy and angular – his frame tall and lean, built for the horse and the bedchamber. It was little wonder women adored him as well as his troops. They said he had three mistresses always at his beck and call.
His horse, dark as night, danced restless. Dracula sheathed his sword and held out his blood soaked hand, riding through the ranks. Men pushed and shoved to touch it. Once they did they marveled as if they had been washed in holy water instead of cursed blood.
I closed my eyes and fell to my knees, leaning lazily on my sword. I tried to imagine I wasn’t there, that I did not exist. And for a moment, I did indeed extinguish myself. There was peace I had not known in months of fighting.
The trance was broken by the snort of a warhorse. My eyelids peeled apart, and I saw black hooves. Moving up the steed’s legs I beheld the rider: His gleaming eyes, his bloody armor, his fierce mustache and his charismatic smile of pearly teeth.
“Good evening,” said Dracula with a courtly nod.
I managed a salute and a mumbled greeting.
“Soldier,” he continued, grinning, “You look like a dead man! Many of our men have not eaten… are you hungry?”
In the corner of my vision, a Turk on a stake twitched and spat blood. This and the thought of food brought my breakfast boiling up and spraying out, vomit soaking my jerkin and the already-sopping earth in front of me.
Dracula frowned. “You are sick, then. Is this not so?”
I gagged and spat and choked on the words: “Not so… my lord… it’s just… the smell…”
Dracula blinked and took a few sniffs from his big, strong nose.
“What smell, my friend?” he asked. His eyes turned to me, glowing and icy all at once, daring me to answer.
My legs trembled. The impaled prisoners gave shrill cries. “The bodies…” I stuttered.
“The bodies.” Dracula echoed.
“…of the impaled…”
Dracula sighed. His leathery hands fisted into a vice. He said softly: “There are reasons things are as they are. Perhaps if you rode in the saddle of a boyar, you would better understand.”
He kicked the horse. Tears blurred my vision. My men stared at me with open mouths. Two heavy arms picked me up from behind and carried me. My feet uselessly dragged in the dirt awash in human blood.
A long stake awaited me.
“Longer than the rest… so that our friend may be aloof from the smell he so detests.”