Below is our second excerpt from Marianne Grossman’s new historical novel, In Defense of Dracula (2004, Taggart Press, 414 pages). In the first excerpt, we learned of the circumstances of the Prince’s birth.
In this excerpt, the now-grown Lord of Tara Romaneasca (a region also known as Vallachia) makes a nighttime assault, behind the battle lines, to breach the tent of the Sultan himself. For who deserves assassination more than this tyrannical proponent of world oppression?
It is night.
It is a night of shadows, and of immense stillnesses.
The horses of the cavalry, tethered to wooden posts planted beside the hastily dug trenches, snort restlessly, pawing the ground, tossing their heads from side to side.
Sentries are on a fearful, yet determined patrol.
This is the Royal Camp of Mohammed the Second, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, conqueror of Constantinople, master of the known world.
The sentries pace the perimeter of the ditches and defenses of the camp, prey to the insects darting annoyingly into their sweating faces. At the evening fire, there has been much speculation — talk of apparitions, of dark powers who are presided over by the Angel of Death, Izrafil, the name now bestowed upon the Lord of Vallachia. The soldiers tell of the horrible giving way of the earth, which has entrapped too many unwary companions in concealed pits, upon the planted tzapas.
Their lot in this land has not been easy. The sacks of rice which Mahmud Pasha has transported from the Venetian galleys gathered upon the Danube has barely covered the bottom of each bowl. The well, miraculously discovered this morning, has not alleviated the shortage of water along the line of march, but has poisoned all those men and animals who rushed to drink there. This very afternoon, an old peasant has entered the camp only to remove the hood of his garment and reveal a face covered with hideously suppurating pustules — the plague! The peasant has been killed, but it is impossible to surmise how many of the inhabitants of the camp have been infected.
Within the royal tent Mohammed, too, is restless. In vain, he has sought sleep beneath the sumptuously brocaded coverlets of the bed brought all the way to this forsaken place from Istanbul. Finally, he rises in disgust. He paces the narrow expanse within the tent, feeling the ache in his legs, his mind drawn to dread portents and presentiments. There is something about this place, this Vallachia, which tears open a part of him best left covered.
He begins to reflect upon the character of the man whom he has discovered his soldiers both fear and admire, the man they have named Kaziklu Bey — the Impaler Lord.
What is it about this man which inspires such tenacity, such audacity, such loyalty? A small force of untrained peasants have regularly disrupted his line of march, hurling one nightmare tactic after another upon the finest assemblage of professional soldiers in the world. It is neither reasonable nor logical that this Lord does not simply give up, vanish.
He has expected an easy victory. Instead, he is led up and down the proverbial path, spiked with tzapas. Even his own person has been threatened, caught in the trap of the fire in the woods, which he has only escaped by the will of Allah. Somehow, he would not be at all surprised at anything this man did.
Just as the Lord of Vallachia has managed to send someone into the tent barely ten feet away from his, splitting Omer Ahmed Bey end to end like a chicken, the man would stop at nothing to wrest the victory for himself.
An owl hoots into the night.
The call is answered by another owl.
Long shadows steal one by one from the shelter of the scorched oaks and beeches of the nearby woods. A small, slithering group advances cross the exposed plain.
The few camels within the camp bend their heads and drink sparingly of the water inside the helmets of their keepers. The soldiers of the Turk sigh, and turn fitfully in their sleep.
The men signal silently amongst themselves. They steal back into the shelter of the surrounding woods.
The Lord of Tara Romaneasca nods to the waiting force of 7,000 loyal men of the soil. The hooves of the horses are muffled with rags. The torches are lit, and the smoke billows long gray tendrils into the sultry summer air. Turbans are hastily fastened upon all heads. The spectral glow of a crescent moon illuminates the fierce glint of determined eyes.
The men group silently into a spear-formation. Vlad plants himself in the forefront of the column. He is the point of the spear, the first defender of his land.
The owl hoots once more into the night.
This time the call is answered by the cry of the wolf.
“Kill all those on foot!” commanded the Lord of Tara Romaneasca from the saddle of the black stallion. “I, myself, shall kill the Sultan of the Turks!”
The column of 7,000 men saw upon his face an intensity of purpose that they had never known before. He was the relentless angel of their deliverance, and they gathered behind him, the body of his spear.
He rode, sliding up from the south.
He rode, while the sentries were overpowered from behind, their throats slit, their bodies dragged into the trenches.
He jumped his horse high above the heads of the first Ottoman soldiers upon the path of his attack. Then Vlad Voivod — at the point of the spear — felt the strong vibrations of the stalwart men who galloped loyally behind him, and the sounds permeated his being, lifting him into understanding with the very yells and shouts designed to create confusion. He was as one with the shrieking mass of soldiers which he plunged upon the camp of the Sultan of the Turks.
Around him, the horns brayed shrilly, the drums beat, alerting the outnumbering regiments to the defense of the Ottoman camp. The Turks spewed into the night, fastening their helmets, groping for weapons, trying to reach their mounts. They were cut and hacked, again, and again, splattered with blood from head to foot.
His men formed the shaft of the huge spear hurled into the entrails of the lumbering beast. He could not be stopped. He would not be stopped. He was the force of the impact, the first to pierce the shield of the Turks, who were afterwards crushed by the momentum of the men faithfully galloping at his heels.
He was history; he was destiny. A wild and splendid call imbued him with unknown glories, and his horse plunged forward; his sword darted like a cold tongue of flame.
The tents of the Turk, illuminated by the smoking torches of his men, are before him now, echoing the cataclysmic din of warfare. The Spahis, the Janissaries, the Nubians rear up. Their blades, mounted like rows of teeth upon the night, rise ready to tear at the enemy.
He hurls himself into the midst of the mounts, his sword slashing through the Spahis, advancing upon the startled Janissaries, once more hacking and cutting at vulnerable flesh, spilling the blood of the invaders into the dust of the land.
Suddenly he looks up. His eyes meet those of the gloriously berobed man, watching him from the entrance to the royal tent.
The great eagles who have locked in battle, look upon each other.
Mohammed inclines his head, perhaps in acknowledgement of the skill of his adversary, perhaps in a weary resignation. Then he turns, and disappears inside his tent.
A terrible trembling pervades Vlad’s soul. The goal is before him, and yet something is wrong. A black scowl flashes through the sweat on his forehead. He has concentrated everything within his will and thought, and he knows, finally, irrevocably, that it is not enough.
Seven thousand men, however brave, cannot plough through ever oncoming waves of Turks. Though he has managed to pierce the main circle of the tents of the camp, in hurtling against the endless Turkish army, he has lost momentum.
The beast cannot be killed. He can no longer condone the needless loss of loyal lives. He has been cruel beyond limit, but only against those who deserved his vengeance. The men who matter — those who follow him faithfully — must be saved. He cannot go further than this. He must order the retreat.
Still, in one last attempt, he will try to destroy the head of the Ottoman forces, the Sultan Mohammed.
A huge Nubian with a glistening black arm, parrying the edge of a wide axe, jumps in front of him. He is tired. His sword arm can barely move. The urgency of his vivid imaginings is unbearable. With one enormous endeavor, his sword plunges through the scant leopard hide of the Nubian, planting itself deeply within the knot of muscles of a black belly.
Tearing out the blade, he rides rapidly through the remainder of the ranks and hurls himself into the abode of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
A guard looks up, too startled to move.
But the tent is empty.
Marianne Grossman was born in New York City, and published her first short story at the age of nine. She studied the philosophy of Ayn Rand at the Nathaniel Branden Institute, and was the Director of Research and Development for International Pen Friends. She now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. The passage above is an excerpt from her new historical novel In Defense of Dracula.