Wallachia, near Castle King’s Rock
“The Mohammedans have found us, Sire.”
Vlad Dracula, War Lord of Wallachia and Transylvania, jerked his horse to a stop. Dracula snapped his head around to look at his companion. “How close, Grigore?”
An excited buzz broke out amongst the warlord’s ten bodyguards. They came to a halt, sending up billows of dough-colored dust that contrasted with the forest’s darkness. Sweat dripped down their leather armor. Their horses pawed the ground impatiently, straining to resume their canters.
Grigore steadied himself with one hand against the back of his panting horse and caught his breath. He turned his steed around and pointed to a mountain pass five hundred feet up the road. “They’re there, Prince. If we pause for a short rest, they’ll be upon us and have our necks.”
“Damn. Reversing our horse’s shoes didn’t throw them off our trail for long,” gasped a trooper beside Dracula, fighting to control a mount that grew nervous as the pitch of desperation in the men’s voices intensified.
Dracula nodded as he tightened his grip on the reins. He focused on the road climbing sharply to the west. “No one can outrun Turkish cavalry forever, Luca. The spahis never quit.”
Cold hatred stiffened him in his saddle. He would love dashing into his pursuers and tearing into as many as possible before they could bring him down. It would be sweet revenge. They had taunted his fiancée until she flung herself from the castle window to her death. But no, not now. There was something more important to finish, something that would deliciously even the score.
Dracula called out to a man holding the reins of a packhorse. Bulging saddlebags draped over the animal’s sides. “Imre, you and Cosmin must take the next road away from us and keep the treasure safe.”
Dracula looked toward a basket lashed to the side of a mule, which was tied to the packhorse. A small head with wide eyes peered over the brim. “And take my son with you. Remember, you hold the fate of Christendom in your hands. Make your way to Buda and meet me there.”
As the men rode away with the boy, Dracula pulled chainmail over his head and tossed it to the side of the road. “Lighten your load, brothers. If we can make it to the next pass, the Hungarian army will save us.”
The small band of Dracula’s retainers cast aside their armor, then spurred their sweating mounts up the grade.
His heart pounding like a drum, Dracula racked his memory. There was a special trail up there somewhere. He’d outwit the Mohammedans, he always did.
Halfway up the grade, an arrow flew over his shoulder. Another struck Grigore in the leg.
“Radu.” Dracula cursed. “My brother has shown the Turks the shortcut.”
A minute later, a band of Turkish spahis emerged from the woods close behind them. Luca screamed as an arrow knocked him off his horse. The shafts buzzed closer as the men approached the top of the ridge.
Suddenly, the Turks halted and the arrows stopped. Rows of mounted soldiers in black armor appeared at the crest, led by a standard-bearer holding a brilliant red flag with a raven in the middle flanked by diagonal squares containing lions. Archers raised their bows, ready to let their arrows fly over the Wallachians and into the Turks behind them.
“God’s mercy,” one of Dracula’s companions cried out. “The Hungarian Black Army.”
Shouts of greetings roared from the rescuers, who met the refugees and led them to a base camp in a clearing on a nearby ridge. As the Wallachians dismounted, a heavily armored man emerged with a measured pace from a tent, flying the army banner.
Dracula cast his reins aside and opened his arms as if to embrace the man. “General von Brandeis, how good to—”
Von Brandeis raised his hand to block his visitor’s embrace. “Throw this man in chains.”
June, 1466, Four Years Later.
Beneath the king of Hungary’s summer palace in Visegrad, Hungary
“Walk quicker, daughter, we haven’t all day,” Father Adan urged.
Ilona stumbled haltingly over the rough earth, steadying herself against the tunnel’s uneven earthen walls. She could barely keep up with the wraith-like figure in front of her who stepped rapidly down the descending passage as surely as if he lived there. After tripping over stones twice, she lowered her flickering candle to light her path. But her carefulness only slowed her pace. Father Adan soon pulled ahead and disappeared, the winding tunnel cutting off his light.
Ilona shivered. Was the priest leaving her behind? Despite her fear, she had to pause a moment to massage her sore foot. She lowered her headpiece to her shoulders and felt dampness soaking the hem of her dress. Disgusted, she rolled the skirt up to her knees. The candlelight revealed a small stream trickling down the tunnel’s floor. “Another miserable irritation,” she muttered.
She drew in a long breath, inhaled the musty air, and fought her anxiety. She would make it to the Tower of Solomon if it killed her. Then she would cast her net around the legendary man everyone traveled to Visegrad to gawk at. Her charms would overcome him and he would make her his consort. From now on, whenever visitors from Venice to Paris visited, they would speak of the beautiful Princess Ilona. “Then I’ll be rescued from my wretched existence,” she vowed.
Father Adan’s voice drew near again, speaking with restrained intensity. “Now, now, daughter, your life is far from wretched. Come along. We have to make this quick or we’ll be noticed and have to face the king’s wrath. If he finds out I showed you this tunnel, he’ll put me in prison and not one as nice as the one we’re going to.”
“Father, you are a true saint for helping me. The day will come when I’ll thank you by getting you promoted to a higher position in the church. You are an incredibly wonderful man.”
Father Adan grunted wearily as if he had heard it all before. “Yes, yes. Let’s just finish this.”
Ilona resumed walking. The priest slowed a little, enabling them to stay together. Finally, they reached an enlarged area containing an iron gate lit up by wall torches and guarded by two sword-bearing sentinels.
Father Adan motioned to Ilona to retreat into the tunnel behind them. His voice rose into a scolding falsetto, something he did in times of stress. “Lower your veil before they see your face. Don’t say a word until we reach our destination. Remember, our purpose is to bring Vlad Dracula into the arms of the Church.”
Well, Ilona would see to it he’d fall into someone’s arms, all right. She tugged the veil over her face. Her heart pounded as they re-approached the soldiers.
“Father Adan?” one of them called out.
The priest nodded, reached into his cassock, and pressed coins into an officer’s hands. He swung the barred door open, revealing a narrow stone staircase leading upward.
“Shouldn’t we ask who this woman is?” another sentry asked his superior.
“You should trust the priest and be satisfied with your portion of the fee,” the officer snapped.
Father Adan and Ilona ascended the steps to the first floor. The priest paused at the top of the staircase, slowly opened a door, and looked both ways down a hallway. He motioned to Ilona. They went a few feet down to their right until they were at the foot of a winding set of steps. They climbed until they reached a landing on the top floor.
There they encountered five guards, three of whom had nodded off in their chairs above mugs spilled over the floor. Two others wearing blackened breastplates stood alert, each one steadying a gleaming halberd. Adan turned to Ilona, warned her by raising his finger to his lips, and then paid the two men.
The soldiers turned around, opened a grilled door, and stepped inside. They reached for curtains hanging from an arch inside, but an erect figure threw the folds open before they could act. The man had a thin, wolf-like head divided by an aquiline nose over a brushy mustache that rose in a grin. “Father Adan, Princess Ilona,” his voice seemed to echo inside his throat.
Ilona’s legs began to buckle, she stared blankly, transfixed like a bird caught in a viper’s gaze. Who else could this be but Vlad Dracula? She gasped. His eyes sparkled like emeralds.
Father Adan recovered sufficiently to point excitedly to the sleeping guards. “Quiet. For heaven’s sakes, you’ll wake them.”
“Small chance of that.” Vlad laughed with disdain. “Those drinks would knock out a gargoyle.”
He stepped forward, took Ilona by her hand, and kissed it. “You honor me with your visit, Princess.”
Surprised Vlad recognized her, Ilona nodded, and then slid her hands sensuously down the sides of her neck where they found the edges of her scarf. She brushed it and her veil to the floor with one motion, exposing an embroidered beige dress. The neckline plunged low, exposing rounded breasts that rose and fell with each breath.
Dracula’s eyes startled her; they seemed to shine with satisfaction rather than excitement, not the reaction she got from other men. Was he not pleased?
“Forgive her, St. Agnes.” Adan rushed to Ilona, stopping only to scoop up her veil and scarf. He attempted to put them back on. “Modesty, woman.”
“St. Agnes never found a husband, Father.”
They struggled briefly until she waved her hands in disgust and gave in. She would let him have his way for the moment. There would be plenty of time for Vlad in the future.
“Let me speak to him,” she pleaded as Father Adan dropped the veil over her.
The priest folded his arms and retreated, but only a few steps. “You may speak as long as you remain properly dressed, daughter.”
Ilona sighed and turned to the man she came to visit. “Vlad Dracula, my visit here was supposed to be a secret between Father Adan and myself. How did you recognize me beneath my veil?”
Dracula’s smile exposed a row of white teeth. “A man who inherits his throne from his father learns very little about how to rule.” He heaved a long steady breath and moved close to her, his voice low. “But a warlord, a voivode, must earn the right to rule. He can only survive if he knows the future before it happens. And then, he must seize the moment.”
Vlad’s energy gripped Ilona and held her. She struggled in vain to talk. Finally, she squeaked out a breathless sentence. “Tell me how you knew about my coming, Voivode.”
Vlad drew back Ilona’s veil and put his lips to her ear. “I share my powers only with those who share theirs with me.”
She put her hands to her tingling throat. After taking a breath, she whispered back. “Of what benefit will it be for me to share what I have with you?”
Vlad stepped back, grabbed the edges of the curtain, and closed them, leaving only his head visible. “We have much to discuss, Princess. Until that time, dream of tomorrow.”
The drapery closed, and he vanished.