Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 75

The woman’s eyes were wide. She knelt. But Vlad did not wait to hear what she had to say. He’d plucked the horn from the Sergeant. He did not know how to blow it correctly. But he did. It made a noise . . . a horrible one. It was just as well. It stirred him from his fury, and spared the life of the three, who had not yet managed to get in place behind him. He handed it back to Emil. “Blow it. Properly.”

They rode on, with the sergeant sounding the horn, and Vlad’s men straggling onto the road behind them. They rode past the burned hay-cart, lying crashed where the panicked oxen had dragged it. The fire had spread to the next buildings. Vlad did not stop. He knew that not all of his men were behind him. He supposed he ought to halt, do a roll-call and send a few squads back to dig out the missing, be they dead or engaged in sacking. But his disgust was such that he just had to get away from there.

Part of that disgust was with himself. He’d known, briefly, a surge of triumph, and a surge of lust. A desire to raven too. He’d turned it into anger with his peasant recruits. He remembered them now, waiting in the darkness. The half-frightened bravado. The odd silences. The whispered prayers — he had very keen hearing. How had it turned into this?

They were met barely half a mile from the town, on a bend just short of the crest of the rise by one of the scouts, pushing his horse as fast as he could. “They’re coming, Sire,” panted the man. “Thank God you are here. They’re between us and the pass, already.”

There was nowhere to run to. They could retreat on the town . . . Vlad was damned if he would. “Let us see if these men of ours can stand up to that cavalry charge, Sergeant. It’s that or, as you said, be slaughtered like lambs.”

Vlad’s Sergeants had been a silent group on their retreat from the town. Now they took charge, positioning the arquebussiers on the ridge either side of the road, and in a block, kneeling, standing and waiting in the middle of the trail. Vlad and his handful of ‘cavalry’ waited too, off on the left flank. If anyone broke through, they would have to deal with them.

They did not have long to wait. The fleeing scout had plainly been seen in his panicked flight . . . but it was also obvious that the cavalry had not expected to find Vlad’s soldiers so far outside the town, arrayed for battle. Moving at a distance-eating canter, the Magyar cavalry were a little strung out, but still in fairly close formation when the leaders, coming up to the ridge, saw Vlad’s arquebussiers. To give the Magyar credit, they did not hesitate. Lances dipped. And to give Vlad’s arquebussiers equal credit . . . the sight did not make them break and run. The first volley was a little ragged. But the second rank fired in an almost simultaneous discharge. Wreathed in powder smoke, the third rank fired — and the flanking arquebussiers cut loose too. The charging cavalry fell, but did not stop.

Neither did the massed fire. The green irregulars worked as if this was a drill, and they were an experienced drill team. As if the Magyar lances were not out, dipped and racing towards them.

Gun-smoke and thunder, and his men standing like a wall before the wave . . . would it overtop them? But the wave faltered and broke before the massed fire of the Smerek arquebuses. If the cavalry had realized that they were flanked earlier . . . or if they had realized just how shallow those flanks were . . . but they had not. The terrain had favored Vlad’s men. The Magyar retreated — in bad order. They’d pushed the charge too hard and too far, believing that the enemy would break. When they had not, it had been they that had been broken.

“Stand!” yelled one of Sergeants, when Vlad’s stunned men saw the charge turn to a rout. “Stand, damn you. Recharge your weapons.”

It looked then as if the discipline, so strong in adversity, might just break . . . the line was breaking up into men chasing after cavalry, cheering and yelling. Vlad had seen his troops come to pieces once that day, in victory. It wasn’t going to happen again. He rode up. “Back. NOW. Form up, and ready your weapons.” His voice halted and held them.

Sure enough, the second rush came, this time with the riders caracoling and firing horse-pistols. Vlad exhaled sharply. Had they encountered a scattered rabble chasing after them, even this scanty remnant would have had no trouble riding them down. But the massed fire and the extra range of the Smerek arquebuses . . . turned the second advance into a bloody retreat too.

Now Vlad’s troops made no move without an order. The heavy arquebuses were recharged. Vlad sent his scouts out, and a few minutes later they began to march forward, through the killing zone. Vlad realized that they had in the course of one fractured morning passed from recruits to into being soldiers. “They fought well,” he said to Emil who seemed to have elected himself as his Prince’s aide-de-camp . . . well that, or watchdog.

“Yes, Sire. Shall I have a squad detailed to collect weapons from the dead. We’re a bit short, sire, though we have good guns, I’ll grant. And we’ve got a few wounded there. Ours and theirs.”

“Ours we take with us. Theirs we will disarm. We cannot care for them. I just hope we reach the trail back into mountains before we have to fight again.” He turned to Emil, letting his guard slip, briefly, “How is it that they were such lions here, and such jackals back there?” he said, plaintively.

“Reckon there is a bit of animal, all kinds of animal in all of us, Sire,” said the Sergeant uncomfortably. “Most officers don’t set the standards you do. It’s . . . it’s kind of normal. Armies do that.”

Vlad looked at him coldly. Yes. There was a beast within him too. But he kept it leashed . . . because . . . because if he ever simply let go he knew that it would destroy all in its path. And it would destroy him too. “Emeric’s army behaves like that. But these are my towns, and my people. I have come to liberate them, not use terror to make them my slaves.”

Sergeant Emil was either a very brave or very foolish man. He shook his head. “You can’t stop an army looting a bit, sire. I’m sorry. I’ve spent too long as a soldier to believe otherwise. Maybe you, Sire, can stop them short of rapine, and murder. But ordinary soldiers . . . will take small things, Sire. They’re poor men. And only human.”

Vlad was silent. Then he said: “I will put up with them being only human. It’s them being ravening animals that I will not. I will put up with them being humans because they have shown me that they can also be men.” He sighed. “The animal and the man do war within each and every one of us, Sergeant. Me too. We may not be strong enough to win every battle there, but if we lose more than the smallest skirmishes . . . if we give ground, the animal wins.”

A quiet voice within him said ‘but sometimes the man may not be strong enough to defeat the enemy outside. Sometimes we may need that animal.’ He banished the thought. It frightened him. Like the animal darkness that rose in him sometimes, he could neither understand nor control it.

It was much later on the ride, when they were heading deeper into the safety of the mountains and his head was replaying the events of the day, that it occurred to him: why had the relief column come at all? And if he had not become so angry, they would have caught him with his men scattered through the small town, drunken and dispersed. He pointed it out to Emil. The Sergeant nodded. “Yes, Drac. The men are already asking how you knew it was going to be a trap.”

Vlad did not know how to answer. He felt a suspicion that legend was writing itself around him, in spite of himself.

He suspected it would betray him, one day.