Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 55

Chapter 30

The sun kisses the high places, the cold roost of eagles and fugitives, before it shines upon the rest of the world. In the pale clarity of dawn, Vlad gazed out from the craggy edge above their small camp, loving the sheer limitless immensity of the folded shadow lands below. It had frightened him a little at first. Now he would die before he let anyone shut him away again. For a brief while his soul was at peace, in the vast tranquility of the place, away from the turmoil of conflicting desires and a world he understood poorly.

Could death somehow be like this? An endless, quiet, shadowy country.

The sun climbed slowly higher, becoming harsher and stronger, and people began to stir. They’d camped in a picturesque spot, in a small dell beneath a gray scree, with a craggy peak above it. To the right on the edge of the scree, a col led into another valley and deeper into the mountains.

Far, far below, Vlad’s eye was caught by flash of light. Vlad had discovered that he had very keen eyesight. He peered intently now, wishing that he had one of those telescope devices. Staring, his eyes picked up movements eventually. A column of horses, working their way up one of the valleys. Soon they would be hidden behind the ridge line as the valley turned away in its meandering.

Vlad knew all too well that that valley would eventually bring the horsemen to their camp. And it was very unlikely that it was a friendly column of several hundred horsemen.

He made his way quickly back to his camp. It was a very makeshift camp, tents constructed from a few ragged tarpaulins, and some lean-tos set around several cook fires, one of which was being blown into life.

“Best leave that,” said Vlad. “The Hungarians are coming. I have seen a column of them heading up our valley. Wake everybody. No shouting,” he added, seeing the startled fire-maker take a deep breath to do just that.

A few minutes later, two of the younger boys were leading the horses up to the col while those for whom there were no mounts began to slither and scramble over the broken cliff and down into the next valley. That left Vlad and twenty-one men waiting nervously amongst the top edge of the broken boulder scree near the col.

When he had planned the last ambush he had been filled with a kind of rash fury that expressed itself in cold-blooded, calculated killing. Now, he was just afraid. How had they found him here? The wait seemed interminable. He wished, desperately, that he had the experience, or that someone else here with him that knew what to do.

At last, a pair of troopers appeared at the foot of the little mountain dell they had used for their camp. They were moving cautiously and halted their horses when they saw the rough tents. They turned, quietly, to ride away.

And then, while he was still holding his breath, Vlad saw it all come apart. Someone decided to shoot one of the scouts. He hadn’t actually told them not to . . .

It was good shooting, all things considered. The one scout gave a gurgling scream as the arrow hit him on the breastplate and ricocheted upward, striking just under the jaw. His companion did not wait. He put his spurs to his steed and got away, as less well aimed arrows clattering impotently on the rocks, spearing the thin soil. Vlad heard a horn being sounded. And then, something worse — the sound of screaming from the valley behind them, where those without horses had fled.

Vlad simply did not know what to do. The Hungarians had obviously another column of horse coming up to take them from behind. Vlad’s men were outnumbered, and would have been surrounded. Before Vlad could take a decision — something his little army were looking for him to do — the Hungarians came sweeping into the dell, lances out.

“Loose!” someone yelled. A ragged volley of arrows fell among the Hungarian knights, busy spearing canvas and flattening lean-tos. The knights were heavily armored, the horses less so. Some horses screamed. A few men fell, but the rest were now charging at the scree slope. Vlad’s makeshift troops were no match for them. A handful loosed again, but most of them were scrambling for the col. Vlad stood up. He was damned, he decided, if he would flee merely to run into the second column. He would die here, and die free.

Seeing him stand his ground with a sword in his hand, steadied three or four of his men who had not yet started to run. They began firing more arrows, yelling to their companions to come back and aid them.

Then, the invincible and terrifying Magyar charge slowed. It was not the pinprick of the few light arrows that affected them. Rather it was the utter folly of trying to gallop a heavy horse up a steep loose scree slope. The earlier flight of Vlad’s men had started some rocks rolling down. A cascade of boulders knocked one knight from his horse.

Vlad stretched out his arms. “Push rocks, men!”

A heavy horse just does not change course or stop easily, even on a steep slope of loose rocks. Still, the charge — which had seemed so terrifying and unstoppable — scattered and broke up, as the Magyars tried to save themselves and their steeds. The scree, long undisturbed and appearing fairly stable as a result, had deceived the flatland knights. Perhaps they had intended to merely caracole and retreat, but now, in the sliding and rolling rocks and screaming men and horses, the order was lost. The booming of their pistols had not helped either.

In the dust and chaos Vlad knew only one thing: somehow luck had favored them. But what he should do next was a mystery to him.

The decision was taken out of his hands by someone tugging at his sleeve. “Sire, they are coming up from behind!”

Vlad took a deep breath. One of the reasons they had chosen this little dell as a campsite was that that it had had two valleys for them to flee down. The idea that they might need three had never occurred to him. Plainly someone had pinpointed their campsite exactly, and planned accordingly.

“To the horses, men!” They scrambled over to the col. The man who had warned him had a steaming horse. Vlad read into this that he had ridden someway down the valley before catching sight of the other group of Hungarians, advancing up that escape route. Vlad had heard the screams earlier, but he had to hope that there would still be a way clear. Well, there obviously wasn’t.

“Mount up!” he said. “We are going back over. We will at least die like men.”

They walked their horses above the scree and then down along the clear steep slope next to the cliff where Vlad had watched the sunrise — the route that the boys leading the horses had taken earlier. They were able to ride down, into the dust and shouting. It was very hard to tell quite what was happening down here. Vlad’s men were no battle hardened warriors. They were unarmored and poorly armed. True, most of the men had bows. But none of them could shoot from the saddle. So they had to resort to boar spears, a few pitchforks, rusty old swords — relics taken from above fireplaces — and even a few men who had nothing more than clubs, and axes intended for firewood.

The Magyars should have butchered them. Almost certainly the Magyar would have butchered them, had they come with a little advance notice, and not in the wake of the scree slide. By the time that it occurred to Vlad that in the books he had read, warriors gave a battle cry on charging, it was almost too late to do so. It was certainly too late to think of anything particularly inspiring. He settled for his own name. It echoed hollowly, mockingly weak to his own ears. But that was obviously not how it sounded to his small band of followers. “Drac!” they yelled in chorus.