Captain Ion's Arrow

excerpt While they were rushing on horseback towards Curtea de Arges, the boy was thinking about Voiena. He could not work out if he still felt something for her. He remembered only the taste of her kisses and the hot softness of the girl's cheek, pressed to his, while he held her tight to his chest. Nothing besides this… nothing at all… But who could have imagined that Voiena would eventually fall in love with His Majesty Vlad, fall for him so badly that she would leave her parents to accompany the king in exile and would want to have the same fate as he, whatever that may be? If her love was true – and the Boy had started to believe it was – he was not sorry. "In fact, now I have to look after and I have a great responsibility towards Oltea," he said to himself.And as he remembered the little girl, his heart grew lighter.The other night, keeping his promise, he had told her some things from what he knew about His Majesty Vlad, and Oltea had fallen asleep in his arms.Around midnight he covered her with a blanket and stole outside her room. They mounted on horses, he and Bucur, and left.Recently, fearing that he might lose his life in battle, and so that Oltea would not be left alone, he had been on an urgent visit to the Olt valley to try to find her relatives.Due the turmoil of feelings and events in the sultan's harem, Roxana had forgotten to tell him the name of the girl's mother. The Boy could only ask what the name of the village was where a woman, who was kidnapped after her husband had been killed by the Turks, had lived. But there was no finding it. Nobody could possibly know who, of all those poor women taken away by the Turks, was the mother of the little girl. He needed time to be able to make, undisturbed, new investigations.For now, Oltea had nobody. And one couldn't possibly know if he were able to find her family again. Both he and she were unfortunate from this point of view. Fate brought them together through similar misfortunes: The Boy felt it was his duty to devote his life to the little girl, in Roxana's memory.A cold wind started to blow. Dark clouds were sailing across the sky. It smelled of wet fir-tree. All around, across the mountains, the two boys felt surrounded by the mute circle of the fir-tree and beech trunks, by silences and shadows.If only they made it to Curtea de Arges faster!When they crossed the Olt, at Rimnic, dawn was breaking. Near the bank, a beech, taken down by the storm, was leaning against the strong chest of an oak, as if it had asked for support and to help it stand again.They crossed the valley where they had fought and had been both kidnapped by steward Ghiltz to be sold to the Turks. Here is the place where Tit played with the marionettes. And here the Boy knelt for the first time before His Majesty Vlad.The boys looked each other in the eyes, overwhelmed with memories, but did not say a word.In about an hour it started to rain. They covered themselves in white felt army cloaks. They made one stop in the village of the Golesti, small boyars, faithful to Vlad. One of them had been hanged by the Turks at Curtea de Arges, the other had managed to run away, and was wandering through the mountains.There, the boys changed their army clothes with merchants' clothes that they found in the manor of the Golesti.Several peasants of the Golesti, finding out that the boys were in the village and that they were going to help king Vlad, asked them to let them come as well. The boys thanked them and answered that, if they were needed, they would let them know in due time. It wasn't good for the moment to travel in a group, as they could attract the attention of the Turks and of the spies of the great boyars.They rode off again and, at about noon, they reached Curtea de Arges.The village was silent. The Turks were swarming all over. At the gates of the city, in a clearing, they saw a lot of peasants impaled or mounted on pitchforks. They entered the city. They took on the less crowded streets. They went through orchards with branches barren from the wind and reached a rather handsome house, with a large porch, where a silversmith lived. Bucur had left his bear there.What a joy for the poor animal! What grumbles and what hugs… of a bear did he bestow on them!The silversmith told the boys that there was someone whom they might want to see, and, accompanying them to a half-ruined cottage, at the back of a nut-tree orchard, showed them a man still in his youth, who was sitting at a table, writing something.They recognized him at once, this man being one of king Vlad's most trusted men, about which we haven't had the chance to talk. His name was Radu Farma. He had been Vlad's secretary and the right hand of bailiff Lazar who had brought him to the palace.Farma gathered Greek and Latin knowledge, knew many languages and was skilled in philosophy. He had but one fault – he was born with very thin legs and he could only stand with the aid of a stick. That is why he rarely left the palace, and naturally, people didn't know him much. But, even so, lacking strong legs, he had reached Curtea de Arges on horseback, following Vlad, and he was trying to help his master."This is what's going on," he started telling them. "To keep them near him, so that they will protect him, Radu the Handsome allowed the Turks to take spoils as much as they wanted from friends and enemies. Their tents are full of precious things, girls and children. As for Vlad's men, they are hunted like wild beasts and killed. Have you seen the ones from the outskirts?""We have seen them," captain Ion answered."Our turn might come any time…" said the secretary."The point is that the king must get away," said the silversmith. "He will avenge us all. And each of our sufferings will be avenged…""The Turks cannot get through to Poienari," captain Ion said."Yes, the fortress was well fortified with brick," Bucur added."But His Highness and the soldiers do not have food… the carts with food were captured by the boyars, a week ago, while they were heading towards the fortress, and were given to the Turk raiders," the silversmith added. They could hear footsteps in the garden. The people in the cottage shut up. The silversmith went out to see who was coming, and soon returned, bringing with him one of his apprentices, a young man of about twenty-six, dressed in city attire, bearing the marks of his craft – a silver goblet with a leg – on the leather breast-plate."May I speak?" the apprentice asked the master, after he entered the cottage.The silversmith nodded:"Speak! We are all His Majesty's servants!""I took the silverware, as you ordered, to bailiff Negrev's house," he announced.The other people from the cottage looked questioningly to the apprentice, waiting impatiently for the rest of the news.Bailiff Negrev was one of Vlad's boyars. The Turks had caught his wife and children at Snagov, after they had entered Bucharest, and had forced them to go on Radu the Handsome's side, threatening that otherwise they would kill his family.Negrev went on Radu's side, but only because he had no choice, to save his children from death, and Radu repaid him by giving him, as he was still in straitened circumstances, a high office in Curtea de Arges. As he did not trust him, he was nevertheless, secretly planning his end.In his turn, boyar Negrev kept in touch with secretary Farma, through the silversmith's apprentice."Boyar Negrev informs us – and this time the apprentice turned to secretary Farma – that Ali-Beg's armies have surrounded Poienari. Nobody can get out or in the city…""So they think…" the secretary smiled, because he already knew that, from the deep well of the fortress, a road opened up under the mountain, and came to the surface far from the place surrounded by the Turks. But this secret road was to be used only by the king when there was no other way out.The king could thus leave the city whenever he wished. But he hoped for the backing that he had asked Mateias Corvin for, who made him a lot of promises, offered a relative of his in marriage, but had sent, until then, only a few carts with weapons and a few stonemasons."The saddest thing," the apprentice went on, uttering the words feebly, although there was no one else in the cottage besides Vlad's friends, "is that there is a spy of the great boyars in the fortress."Hearing these words, the Boy felt his heart beating fast."We know," said secretary Farma angrily. "It is Voiena, Flor's daughter. Voiena swore to avenge her father and her fiancé, who were both servants to Radu and to the Ottomans, and who received the punishment they deserved – one impaled by Xalom and the other slashed by His Majesty…""It is said," the apprentice followed with what he had heard from Negrev, that she swore to either bring about Vlad's death, or to die herself.""I do not understand how His Majesty Vlad let himself be deceived by this snake, more evil that all the great boyars put together," Farma said. "One can see she's Flor's child… like father, like daughter."Bucur looked at the Boy, whose flush vanished from his cheeks."I was there when she was begging His Majesty Vlad to let her into the fortress and I looked into her eyes. They were clear," Bucur repeated what we heard him say to captain Ion, earlier at Tismana."You surely can tell they were clear," the apprentice added, "as she made the agreement with Ali-Beg herself, in whose tent she is said to have been, so that the Turk will look at the windows of the fortress every night. If she succeeds in what she is planning, that is, to open the gates for the Turks, she will inform Ali-Beg by moving round, from the window, a burning torch. The raiders, at this sign, will dash in, catch His Majesty, the soldiers and the guards, and will torture them to death.""God, why didn't you tell this to me before all the rest?" Radu Farma got up from the table, scared, standing with difficulty on his weak legs, brushing his sweated forehead, with a quick move of his hand. "The danger is bigger than I expected. We must inform His Majesty at once about what Voiena and Ali-Beg planned…""But how?" asked the silversmith. "Only a bird could get into the fortress. And even that would be pierced by the Turks' arrows…""A bird?" the secretary pondered for a few seconds. "What if I wrote a note to the king telling him about the new villainy that was planned? I would put the letter on the tip of an arrow. All that would be left is that a very good archer of ours sneaks through the Turks, near the fortress. The arrow aimed from the bow might reach the king's chamber through the window.""A thing like this seems impossible to me," the silversmith spoke, opening his arms wide. "It is said that the security is so strict, that not even a mouse could pass, much less an armed soldier…""Still, if he were a very, very good marksman, who would want to risk his life to save His Majesty Vlad, we might try it.""I'll give it a try!" said the boy, turning his white face towards the ones around the table, because he possessed to a great extent the qualities Farma spoke about.Bucur, who had been waiting for this to happen, cheered up suddenly, hearing that captain Ion took this decision:"That is us… secretary Farma, captain Ion and I, we are the ones that will do our best to save His Majesty Vlad, going into the Ottoman camp. We hope that tonight the letter will reach His Majesty." That evening king Vlad called into the royal chamber those who had accompanied him into the fortress. Only the guards remained at their posts. From the wounded, one had died and was buried in the fortress yard. Mihailo and the other soldier, looked after by Tit, were doing much better, and came to the gathering.They had no more food, except for a handful of dried fruit, which they didn't eat, keeping them for times of need."I called upon you," said the king, "to tell you…" But before he finished his word an arrow whizzed through the open window. It sliced through the candle on the table, swept it off the candlestick and, rolling on the slabs up to the door, put it out.Vlad took his bow and jumped to the window.He peered towards the Turks' camp, through the darkness, but did not see anything, except for the flicker of the Arges river, which was flowing stormily, fighting hard with the rocks, here leaping victoriously over them, there crammed and squeezed among boulders, boiling, angry like a beast."I can't see anything," he told the soldiers. "Light the candle again!"Tit flickered the tinder box. A small blue flame struggled between his fingers. A soldier picked up the candle sliced by the arrow."A fine marksman!" Vlad admitted. "From such a distance, shooting obliquely, maybe from Pietraria Hill, he hit with such precision under the flame of the candle. Who might he be?" "Well, some wild raider!" a soldier spoke. "He wanted to scare us." "I don't think so," Tit spoke. "There is something different here…" "Could it be our men?" said Mihailo. "Your Highness! Your Highness!" Tit shouted, holding the arrow. There is a letter here…" "Open it," Vlad ordered. "It is signed Radu Farma," Tit spoke. "Read it!" said Vlad again. "What is it? What's going on?" Voiena came up unexpectedly, entering through the door. "How did you get here?" Vlad said gloomily, making a sign to Tit not to read. "I ordered you not to come until you are asked for…" "Forgive me, my lord," she begged, eyeing the letter in Tit's hand. "I was passing by and I heard a noise. Allow me to stay. So that I might share in your joys and sorrows." If the Boy had seen Voiena that moment, he could not have said that the girl was not beautiful anymore, although she no longer had the freshness and the delicacy she had before. But the lies, the fear and the crime that she planned with Ali-Beg cast a shadow over her face. "Go to your room!" Vlad repeated, adamant. After she left, Tit read further what Farma had written. "Your Highness," the secretary ended his letter, "if everything ends up well, please, light a resin torch on the mountain, so that we know that you are free and so that we wait humbly for your orders." Silence fell upon the room, each of those present shuddering inside with the new villainy that had been hatched, but not letting their thoughts to become visible on their faces. "All right," Vlad said at last, and, from the way he spoke, they all realized that terrible things were about to happen. "Cruelty can be answered only with cruelty. Betrayal and villainy with a terrible punishment. All right!" he repeated. "We will let Ali-Beg have it his way. Voiena will give the signal with the torch, so that the raiders attack. And we will welcome them accordingly…" "No!" Voiena screamed, when they brought her in, realizing only then what she had done and being terrified by Vlad's inflexible face. "Not me… not me…" But Tit took her by the shoulders, led her to the window, put the torch in her hand and he himself, moving her arm, turned it around three times. At the same time, one of the guards, the one on the rampart on the right, came panting on the stairs and informed Vlad:"A bear… climbing on the rocks… and on the rampart… threw us a sack with food over the wall. We are saved, Your Highness… we are saved…""The sack with food that Farma informed us about finally arrived," Vlad said, relieved. "That was all we needed. Let the soldiers eat quickly to gather up strength. Heat up the tar and the oil in the cauldrons. Bring the baskets with vipers. There will be a big party. We will have Ali-Beg as a guest, our dear Voiena's good friend." "No… no…" Voiena screamed, crawling on the stone floor and hanging on to Vlad's foot. "I have been harshly punished as it is…""And we will light a big torch on the mountain," the king told Voiena, with his eyes burning, "as secretary Farma asks us, so that seeing it, our army captain Ion will know that we are free, that treason was vanquished, and that the fight against the enslaving Ottoman power, and of the great boyars, their servants, will never stop, as long as Vlad, the nephew of Mircea the Elder, shall live…""No!... no!..." Voiena was screaming, not finding other words through which to ask for forgiveness, while Vlad left the room and a soldier remained with her but only for as long as it took him to tie her up with ropes. What follows is known to us from a song. The boys, being on Pietraria Hill – as Vlad had accurately guessed, with his soldier's eye, because only from that place one could aim well with a bow – looked in amazement at what was happening in the fortress.I will not tell, although it would probably be worth it, about the skillful and daring way in which they went through the Ottoman lines, dressed with shalwars and Turkish country jackets over the Wallachian clothes, going past guards, creeping through the ditches sometimes, sometimes going over abysses and cliffs only with the aid of the bear.Only those who have ever been there and measured up with the eyes the proud mountains, that not even the forests dare to climb up to the top, can understand the unimaginable hardships faced by the two young men.While the bear was climbing, with the sack of food on his back, on the slope and on the right side rampart, the Boy took out the arrow, in which Farma's letter was thrust, and put it in the bow.He aimed for a long time, as he wasn't completely certain that he would hit the target from such a distance, because his hand was shaking a little."I'm afraid I might not hit the candle!" he told Bucur. "Don't you want to shoot?""No. It's time you proved that you know who to chose between Vlad and Voiena," Bucur answered, stirring him.Captain Ion aimed again at the candle, under its red playful flame. He steadied his arm and shot. The arrow whizzed. It went through the window. The candle fell and was put off. Bucur clapped his hands:"You hit it! You hit it!"The song tells of how, after the signal given by Voiena, with her arm held by Tit, Ali-Beg dashed towards the fortress, with his army unleashed, certain of an easy victory.But unexpectedly, just when the raiders reached the foot of the fortress, from the walls, from the towers, from the battlements, like from some clouds of hell, a deadly rain of boulders and tree stumps, started to fall, flushes of tar and hot oils, and baskets heavy with poisonous knots of hungry vipers.The arrows and the spears thrown by the few soldiers, the guards and by the king hit them. The ladders, barely put up and fixed with hooks, fell down.Running from the windows to the battlements, on the wall and in the tower, using different weapons and means of combat, the Romanians made the raiders believe they were a whole army."Allah! Allah!" the raiders begged their God, as they believed that the gates would be open and they could enter the fortress."Allah! Allah!" Ali-beg was shouting as well, seeing the misfortune that befell them, just when he thought himself victorious. "Did Voiena betray us, or was our plan discovered? Go back, go back… children of Allah! Save yourselves!" he was calling the riders to him. "The Wallachians are devils." About two hours after the battle that Vlad and his few men fought against Ali-Beg's army – smaller by one third now – was finished, a bright torch was lit on the mountain, in a place where one can see far away in the valley.From it, sparks like gold butterflies were rising, that were swept away by the autumn wind that was bringing snow, over the mountain."Our lord is free!" Bucur said."Let's hurry there," said captain Ion.But when they reached the torch, they found nobody.The torch had been made of Voiena's body, tied up and rolled in resin.The fire had burnt her hair, her eyes and mouth and had reached her bosom and her treacherous heart.And it burned like this for three days and three nights, terrifying the Turks that, entering the fortress eventually, after they had battled it with the canons, found no soldier inside and thought, superstitious as they were, that Vlad and his party had vanished.Ali-Beg ordered the army to march back. The boys hurried them back by finding comrades in arms and means to harass the raiders, over the mountains and the hills.From Curtea de Arges – taking secretary Farma with them – Bucur and captain Ion left for Oltenia, where Radu the Handsome's power had not spread yet, nor did Ali-Beg dare to move over."We will take shelter at Tismana for now," captain Ion told his followers, while they were crossing the Olt on their way back. "There, in the monastery-fortress, we will prepare to continue the fight. The fight is just starting, and we will not stop until His Majesty Vlad is again among us…"From the tower of the monastery in which she had been for a few days, from morning till evening, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand, the girl saw the Boy coming along with the two other riders.She rushed down the stairs. She started running on the bridge and came before him.Captain Ion lifted her up. He took her in his arms. And so, holding her in his arms, and accompanied by the laughter of his two comrades in arms, they entered on horseback and full of hopes in the yard of Tismana monastery. Tineretului, 1967

by Alexandru Mitru (b. 1914)