Vlad the Impaler
Among the Ottomans
As the son of the Dragon, Vlad Dracula was expected to become, by his adolescence, a warrior. Even though the first-born Mircea would be first in line to the throne of the principality, the father looked upon all of his sons — Mircea, Vlad and Radu (born in 1435) — as champee elite to the family name. They learned how to steady a bow, wield a blade and ride bareback before they reached the age of their scholastic studies. The art of fighting came foremost.
In chain mail made to fit their small bodies, with broadswords equally balanced, and on Arabian ponies, they dashed through the edelweiss-strewn forest beside Sighisoara clipping gnarled sycamores and poplars they pretended were oversized sultans. While Carpathian eagles looped overhead, watching curiously, and as woodpeckers careened out of the way, the Dragon watched his little Davids taking on the imaginary Goliaths. He timed their charges, graded their legionnaire skills.
The Dragon envisioned great things for his clan. But, if the sons of Dracul were to be real men, he told himself, they would need a dominion of their own. Being siblings of the Governor of Transylvania, mere puppets to Hungary, was not enough. His prospect, therefore, continued to be to take free-state Wallachia from the timid Danejsti who had virtually placed the welcome mat out for the Turks.
By 1435, the Dragon had convinced his old mentor, King Sigismund of Hungary, to lend him an army large enough to oust the thin-blooded cousin before Romania was lost forever. After a bitter siege on Wallachia's capital, Tirgoviste, the Dragon finally sat on the throne he had wanted for more than a decade.
Tirgoviste, located on the banks of the Dimbovita River, was an old city even when young Dracula followed his conqueror father there. A busy crossroads and commercial thoroughfare in the southern bottomlands of the Carpathians, it was comprised of hundreds of varieties of markets and merchants' stores, busy at all hours. Near the center of town rose the Byzantine eaves of the wealthy landowners who owned a division of fertile grape-producing fields surrounding the town.
The Byzantine battlements of the Prince's Palace, more a fortress, overlooked the roofs of the town and earned a panorama of the rolling landscape of trees, boulders, plains and a generosity of small lakes that provided citizens with mountain water and freshwater fish. The palace's central walls, four feet thick, had been erected by Mircea from the ruins of an early Roman outpost; at a far and high corner of town, they merged with the walls that surrounded Tirgoviste itself. Posh living quarters and the prince's low-beamed rectangular throne room were set back from the main gate across a courtyard and gardens guarded night and day by a legion of sentries posted along the walls and atop the main lookout, the Chindia Watchtower.
Dracula's early life at Tirgoviste consisted of more of the same as in Transylvania, physical and mental study. His mother, the devoutly religious Catholic Princess Cneajna, saw to her sons' religious upbringing, ensuring that they received ongoing commune with the monks from the nearby Church of the Holy Paraclete. Before the sun set, the boys' tutoring had also included, apart from combat skills, daily injections of geography, mathematics, science, language and the classical arts and philosophy.
Dracula and his older brother, Mircea, were the most rough-and-tumble of the Dragon's heirs; they often got into mischief with many of the scamps of the local boyars in Tirgoviste. In appearance, they greatly resembled their father with his dark features, aquiline nose and high cheekbones. Dracula, it was said, inherited his father's temper, combustive and fiery.
Their younger sibling, Radu, despite his warrior's training, spoke softly, moved quietly and tended to prefer the company of only certain boys. (Florescu and McNally hint at Radu's homosexuality.) Angelic faced, the image of his mother, he would, in time, be called Radu the Handsome. In later years, he and Dracula would become fierce rivals.
As for the Dragon, he had become a dignified Wallachian statesman. He ruled firmly, but fairly. However, he found himself stuck between his conscience and duty. Due to the trepidation of his predecessor, Danejsti, the forces of Turkish Sultan Murad II had gained such a foothold in Wallachia that they were in a position to ransack the principality at will. They were everywhere. Their caravans roamed the streets of Tirgoviste, Buzau and Bucharest; their cavalries paraded unchecked from the border of Turkish Bulgaria to the Carpathian Mountains, their scimitars at their sides gleaming in the sun; their foot soldiers camped openly on the Arges and Olt Rivers. In essence, Murad — not the Dragon — owned Wallachia. Attesting to that, consider that the latter was forced to pay the sultan 10,000 gold ducats annually to keep the major cities in his province free from savage attack.
Depending on the source, the Dragon's relationship with the Turks was either forced (because he hadn't the strength to fight back) or chosen (accepting neutrality as a small price to pay for Wallachian liberty). Knowing the character of the Dracul, one might assume he was merely waiting for a first chance to strike. When that opportunity came in 1442, however, he desisted a fight by refusing to join the famous, politically ambitious "White Knight" Jonas Hunyadi, Viceroy of Transylvania, who mustered a huge army to kick the Turks back to Bulgaria.
Some authors believe that the Dragon was being pessimistic, believing that Hunyadi hadn't a chance. Nevertheless, the White Knight, ahead of a force comprised mostly of royal troops loaned to him by the new Hungarian king, Ladislaus III, moved without the Wallachian prince's participation. After a bloody engagement near the Danube, the Turks under the command of Sihabeddin were chased south of the Danube.
Frustrated and angered by his army's setback, Sultan Murad called several top-ranking Europeans, including the Dragon, to Turkish Gallipoli for a parley. No one but the Dragon answered the summons. He took with him his two sons, 13-year-old Dracula and nine-year-old Radu, believing it to be strictly a call under truce. When he entered the sultan's salon, he and his sons were promptly arrested.
Held captive for days, the prince was finally released under conditions set forth by the Turkish court:
- that he swear by both the Bible and the Koran to avoid the engendering of further hostilities;
- that he deposit 10,000 ducats in the sultan's treasury; and,
- insuring he is a man of his word, that he leave his two sons as hostages in Turkey for an indefinite period of time. The Dragon reluctantly consented.
It was not the first time that the Turks pressed into service youths wrested from European nobility. As a body, these captives were placed in what was called the Janissary Corps. The scholastic Turkey: A Country Study, explains: "Expeditions were regularly organized to collect a tribute of Christian boys from the Balkan provinces. Those taken became Muslims and underwent training that instilled in them a corporate identity. These 'slaves of the state' were...prepared for admission into the Ottoman ruling class...where they engaged in Islamic studies, learned Persian and Arabic, and received advanced mitary training."
Young Radu and Dracula were moved from Gallipoli to the center of the Turkish nation, the city of Adrianople. They were not treated as prisoners, per se, but were kept under constant surveillance and supervision. (After all, they were the sons of an important enemy and at many times were given access to government buildings and military unformation.) But, virtually, they were free to roam the day-lit streets when away from obligation, to partake of the Eastern way of life, to breathe in the atmosphere of the markets with their many spices and many new customs, to taste the indescribably aromatic dishes, even to court a girl if they wished — providing she was of honorable birth — under the silvery Byzantine moon.
Radu proved to require little, if any, observation; he fully accustomed himself to the laws, by-laws and culture of Turkey, which he saw as his "adopted" country.
Dracula, on the other hand, often displayed a belligerent and smothering attitude. A good pupil, and not outwardly hostile, he nevertheless liked to quarrel with superiors and bemoan his confinement. He fought for more personal liberty, insulted his bodyguards and a little too often (to suit his present patriarchs) belittled Asian customs.
The Turks were forced to take him to task — more precisely, to the whipping post — on quite a few occasions.
In 1445, European Christians attempted another crusade against the Ottomans. Again, their principle was Jonas Hunyadi, the White Knight, who rode towards Turkish districts with a legion armed for a long conflict. The Dragon, despite his promise to Sultan Murad — and most likely because he did not want to face a public chastisement like the one he had endured for his conscientious objection to the 1442 campaign — offered 4,000 cavalrymen under the leadership of his son, Mircea. He did refuse, however, to personally bear arms in the offensive, hoping the sultan would accept that decision as his intention of loyalty and, thus, refrain from harming his children.
The sultan, upon hearing that Hunyadi was on the attack, had the Dracul's boys locked in the dungeon. There, they received daily floggings and endured long periods of hunger. Dracula's insolence harshened his treatment; he suffered various tortures to mind and body. Still, he was kept alive, probably due to the fact that the sultan figured he could still be employed as a bartering tool.
From a narrow window above his cell, Dracula witnessed the executions of less-fortunate prisoners taking place in the yard outside. Depending upon their crime, they were hanged, shot with arrows or spears, beheaded, crushed under wheels, or given over to a wild beast of prey. Many were impaled.
At first, the teenage boy may have been repulsed at the site of impalement. But, after a while, he certainly grew fascinated by it. Impalement, the most inhuman of punishments, involved piercing a body length-wise with a sharpened pole, the victim then left to die atop the raised pole. Death was excruciating and sometimes slow. Men were usually struck through the rectum, women through the vagina. Dracula watched the victims squirm, scream, hemorrhage, then die. He saw the crows pick at their carcasses that often remained under the hot Turkish sun until they were only blistered meat.
Dracula learned to detest his captives for their cruelty, yet wished that he would be given the chance to serve his captives likewise. Not knowing if and when he might be next, he imagined, if he survived, a day that he could inflict such torment on the Turks. Battered, starving, cut, singed and now having to view what the Turks did several times a week just beyond his windowsill, he probably went mad.
Hunyadi's army had accrued a trio of victories in Turkish Bulgaria — at Peretz, Nis and Sofia — but when reaching the important shipping town of Varna on the Black Sea, it came face to face with an overpowering force under Murad. Hunyadi's troops were slaughtered, Hunyadi himself sent dashing on foot for his life. He and a very few of his soldiers, including the Dragon's son, Mircea, managed to reach Romania safely.
The White Knight, who valued his reputation (and who had set his sights on someday rising to the throne of Hungary), lost respect after the Varna fiasco. To compensate, he regrouped his forces, rebuilt a small army and attacked the Dragon's palace in Wallachia. By asserting his power this way, that is, by taking over Wallachia for his own, he could rebuild a new, first step to the political power he had lost.
The Dragon had been caught unaware. His castle walls were scaled after a brief siege. Fleeing into the hills, the forlorn prince, wife Cneajna and son Mircea could not evade their conquerors. Captured, they were quickly put to death. Mircea met the worst fate: He was buried alive.
When the news of his family's massacre reached 17-year-old Dracula, he went berserk. Sultan Murad, realizing that the boy had suffered enough, released him from prison and offered him a command position in the cavalry. (Even though the captive had been an often-unwilling one, even unruly, the sultan had admired his gumption.) Dracula accepted the post.
The first evidence of Dracula's cunning, a shrewdness that would serve him throughout his life, becomes apparent at this point. By using one enemy against another, he was able to escape Turkey, gain the throne of Wallachia, and avenge his parents' and brother's murders.
He made a deal with the sultan. If the latter would supply him with an appropriate force to push Hunyadi out of Wallachia and set him, Dracula, on its throne, he would keep the principality open to Turkish commerce, its highways unblocked, and restore the per annum tribute of 10,000 ducats to Turkey. The sultan agreed.
A large force of tribal horsemen followed Dracula westward in 1448. They surprised a vanguard of Hunyadi's army at Kosovo Polje, Serbia, and in a nocturnal battle, utterly destroyed it. Reining north in pursuit of Hunyadi, Dracula's cavalry galloped with war whoops into Tirgoviste. But, much to Dracula's disappointment, he learned that his prey had flown.
In all events, a Dracul had come home. He placed himself on the throne of embattled Wallachia, sought out any boyar who had sided with the ambitious White Knight against his father — there had been several — and made perfect example of them all.
There are stories that insist a faithful servant of the Dragon had recovered his master's prize sword from the field where he had been slain and presented it to the son and heir. Dracula. It was an elegant Toledo blade, etched with the Sign of the Dragon. Dracula would carry that sword with him the remainder of his life, going to his death wielding it. But, for now, as its first use, he blessed it in the blood of his father's killers.
The first of three separate Dracula reigns had begun. It was not to last long.