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by Bill Bowler

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Chapter Three: The Shadow in the Mirror

part 1 of 3

Yanosh Straker hunts monsters for a living. He’s stumbled on a nest of them and is tracking them down, one by one, and eliminating them. One young man, Josey, is terrified to discover that Straker is after him for some reason. Josey runs, but his world seems to be changing. His old life is fading and a new, confusing, unreal existence seems to be opening up before him

Thunder and lightning had raged for three days but the rain had finally stopped and the thick sky was clearing. The sun peeked through like an unblinking eye and showed its face as wispy clouds floated high across the patches of pale blue sky. The long grass, damp from the rains, rippled as the ceaseless wind blew through the valley.

From a gap in the mountains, a single road came through a pass and wound along the valley bottom, a narrow corridor at the base of steep, heavily forested slopes. Atop one peak, with a clear view of the pass, a castle stood on a ledge in the cliffs.

Two boys with wooden swords played in a golden meadow at the foot of the mountain, in the shadow of the castle. A body of armed men was gathering on the road near where the boys were playing.

You be the Sultan,” demanded the smaller boy.

“No, you,” said the larger boy. “I’m the Voyevode. You get killed.”

“Why do I always have to get killed? Why don’t I get to win sometimes?”

“Because I’m stronger,” said the older boy. He swung his wooden sword and struck the younger boy in the temple. The younger boy fell to the ground, a gash in the side of his head. “You get it now?” said the larger boy, holding his wooden sword against the smaller boy’s chest. “Yield in the name of Vladimir III!”

Blood flowed from the gash in the younger boy’s head. Tears filled his eyes, but he said nothing.

Atop the mountain, the castle gates swung open on creaking hinges. A squad of armed men, the Voyevode’s elite guard, emerged from the castle with Vladimir III at their head. In single file, the men crossed the small bridge spanning the precipice that yawned before the castle walls and moved down the steep flight of 1,500 stone steps that led through the forest to the valley bottom.

When the Voyevode and his men reached level ground and came out of the forest, they joined the main body of troops — knights on horseback, archers, pike men and swordsmen — assembled and waiting on the road. The Voyevode’s coat of arms was emblazoned on every shield: a black dragon, its tail wrapped in coils around its own neck, with a white owl in its jaws.

The Voyevode mounted a splendid black mare and gave the signal. As the troops moved out, Vladimir saw his son and nephew playing in a field beside the road.

Vladimir III, Count Dracul of the Order of the Dragon, Voyevode of Wallachia, had long, silken black hair that fell to his shoulders from beneath his jeweled, fur-lined helmet. His large, cruel, expressionless eyes were almond-shaped and dark as coals. A thick, black moustache spread like a brush beneath his long, thin, hooked nose, obscuring his upper lip. His complexion was pale, like a cadaver. He was tall and slender, his hands delicate, with long, thin, grasping fingers. He had the emotionless and frightening look of a large insect or spider. A white owl’s feather was set above his jewel-encrusted visor, in the center of which was set a large, blood red ruby. His armor was black.

His men kept moving, but Vladimir III reined in his horse at the edge of the meadow and watched the two boys at play. His nephew, Yanosh, had pinned his son, Josip, to the ground with a wooden sword. Vladimir’s thin lips curled into an ugly sneer.

Yanosh looked up to see the knights riding by and his Uncle Vladimir, astride a magnificent black mare, looking down at him with a frown on his red lips and a dark shadow across his normally blank and expressionless eyes. Yanosh raised his wooden sword and cried, “Victory is ours! Death to the Musselman!”

As Yanosh raised his sword, Josip swung his own wooden sword hard into Yanosh’s legs, behind the knees. Yanosh’s legs buckled from the blow and he fell to the ground with a howl of pain. Josip leapt up and ran off, disappearing into the long wet grass.

Now a cruel smile played on Vladimir’s thin lips. “Let that be a lesson. Never hesitate to strike a blow and finish the enemy. Never show mercy, for it is a sign of weakness and the fruits of this life belong only to those with the strength to take them. The wolf does not pity the lamb, nor give up his fur like fleece. Weakness brings only shame and death.”

Yanosh nodded his head as he rubbed the backs of his knees, now swelling from the painful blow and turning black and blue.

“Josip!” Vladimir called out. Josip’s head popped up amidst the damp, swaying grain. “Both of you, back to the castle at once. It’s not safe here.”

The Voyevode spurred his horse and galloped down the road to the head of his troops. When he had disappeared from sight, Yanosh and Josip stood and watched the archers and pike men pass by.

“Something’s up,” said Yanosh.

Josip nodded, watching the armed men.

“Well?” asked Yanosh.

The two boys broke into a run. They ran along the edge of the road, staying in the long grass, following the rear guard of Vladimir’s troops. When the boys rounded the bend near the southern end of the valley, they stopped short. Just down the road, the Voyevode, on his black mare, was giving orders to his men near the entrance to the pass. The two boys stayed low, slinked into the forest and hid behind an ancient oak, watching the men take up their positions according to Vladimir’s orders.

The Voyevode’s spies had reported a detachment of Ottoman Janissaries approaching the valley from the southeast. From the reports of his emissaries, Vladimir III knew the Sultan was boasting of his intention to extend his Empire north and west into the rich lands of the Carpathians and beyond.

Vladimir III was prepared to greet the uninvited guests in the manner they deserved. At the entrance to the pass, the Voyevode dispersed his infantry into the thick forest on both sides of the road. The men melted into the trees and disappeared. On Vladimir’s orders, his archers clambered up the steep slope and hid behind rocks on the high ledges in the cliffs that rose on both sides of the pass.

Vladimir pulled his cavalry back up the path, away from the pass, around the bend in the road. Out of sight, the knights waited in the long grasses of the meadow at the forest edge, in position to charge when the time came to deliver the death blow to the invaders.

The trap was set. The sun stared down past the floating wisps of white, unaware or unconcerned that human blood was about to flow. The ceaseless wind swept again through the valley, whispering through the forest and drying the golden grain that filled the fields and had soaked up the rain for so many days past.

Voyevode Vladimir III, Count Dracul of Wallachia, rode back along the now silent and deserted road to the bend, and hid his horse in the long grass. The two boys, from behind the massive trunk of an ancient oak, watched the road where it emerged into the sunlight from the shadows of the narrow pass.

A turbaned Janissary captain appeared at the mouth of the pass and rode slowly into the valley at the head of his detachment. The narrow valley spread before the captain and he spied the walls and towers of the castle atop the mountain to the north. It was quiet. Too quiet. There was not even the sound of a bird singing, no peasants working the fields. Nothing.

As the Ottoman soldiers came out from the pass onto the road, the captain raised his hand to halt his squad behind him. Something was wrong. Even the wind had died down and for a moment that hung in time, nothing stirred. All was quiet and still. Then the forest spoke to the cliffs. A cry rang out from the trees and a flood of arrows rained down on the Ottomans. Men pierced by arrows fell from their horses to the road, where red streams now ran in the mud. With bloodthirsty screams, Vladimir’s infantry rushed from the forest, attacking the Turkish line from both sides as the deluge of arrows rained down from the rear, cutting the Turks off from retreat back through the pass.

Caught in the jaws of a vise, the Janissaries wheeled to face Vladimir’s infantry advancing from both directions, exposing the Ottoman flank to the Voyevode’s cavalry still hidden in the fields around the bend. Vladimir gave the signal. The knights drew their swords and charged. The Turks fought bravely, but they were outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Their position was hopeless. Vladimir’s troops mowed the enemy down like wheat beneath the sharp blade of the reaper’s scythe.

By late afternoon, the valley road was drenched in blood. The entrance to the pass was strewn with body parts. Bloody headless and armless corpses, bristling with arrows, were piled two and three deep along the road and in the adjacent fields. Count Dracul’s men had taken 50 Ottoman prisoners alive, lost souls who, as they marched bound and fettered towards the castle, might well envy the dead had they known what living hell fate had in store for them.

When the last of Vladimir’s soldiers had disappeared down the road, returning with their prisoners and loot to the castle, the two boys left their hiding place and emerged from the forest to the side of the road.

“Look!” said Josip, pointing towards the sky. Already, the vultures soared on their majestic wings and circled above the carrion that lay strewn across the road and meadows.

Yanosh looked down at a headless corpse that lay on the road among the pile of bodies.

“Which one is the Sultan?” asked Josip.

“He’s not here yet,” said Yanosh, “but he’s coming.”

They heard a weak groan from one of the bodies.

“This one’s still alive,” whispered Josip.

Yanosh pulled a bloody broadsword from the grip of the headless corpse. He walked through the red mud to the body that had groaned, lifted the heavy sword with both hands and plunged the blade into the chest.

“Why did you do that?” gasped Josip.

“Mercy is weakness and shame. Kill or be killed.”

“We better get back to the castle,” said Josip, “before we get in trouble.”

“Let’s go,” said Yanosh. “I don’t want to miss anything.”

* * *

In the dungeon, the Ottoman captain lay stretched on the rack. Vladimir III paced back and forth in the torture chamber while the warden stood holding the long wooden handle that controlled the hellish instrument.

Vladimir nodded to the warden. The warden pulled the lever, the gears meshed and turned, and the ratchet clicked. The taught ropes that bound the prisoner’s wrists and ankles pulled in opposite directions, lifting his body up off the roller.

“I’ll ask you again,” said Vladimir III. “What were your orders?”

“To join with the Hungarian forces,” groaned the prisoner

Vladimir’s brow darkened and his cruel eyes peered out through narrow slits between the lids.

“But Hungary is neutral. Why join the Hungarians?”

The prisoner said nothing. Vladimir nodded to the warden, who pulled the lever again. The prisoner’s right wrist cracked as the joint dislocated.

“They’ve made a secret pact,” gasped the Ottoman captain. “The King of Hungary wants you... removed.”

Vladimir stopped pacing and stood motionless. He took a deep breath and shook his head sadly. “And who,” he said quietly, “who do the cursed Sultan and that Magyar dog think might rule in my place?”

The Ottoman captain groaned but did not answer. Vladimir nodded to the warden, who pulled the lever, driving the ratchet another notch.

The prisoner’s left shoulder pulled loose from its socket and he screamed, “Your brother! Radu!”

The blood drained from Vladimir’s face but his eyes blazed. He was terrible to see. His brother a traitor? Radu the Handsome in league with his enemies? Radu, whose boy Yanosh was like a son to Vladimir?

“Where,” whispered Vladimir, trembling, “is the rest of the Sultan’s army?”

He nodded to the warden who grasped the wooden pole.

“Behind us... Six days’ march,” gasped the prisoner with his last breath before losing consciousness.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler

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