Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Order of the Sun

by McCamy Taylor


"Only love itself can explain love,

Only love can explain the destiny of lovers.
The proof of the sun is the sun itself:
If you want proof, don't turn your face away."

Rumi

1.

As a knight of the Order of Malta, I had witnessed warfare in all its forms. One season, our forces would sail the Adriatic, keeping Venetian merchant vessels safe from Barbary pirates. Our next contract might take us to Germany, where a Catholic lord needed protection from rebel Protestants. Where ever there was a need for mercenaries -- and money to pay their wages -- you could find men like us. The seventeenth century after the coming of our Lord was a profitable time for men skilled at fighting, thanks to the religious schism which had torn the Holy Roman Empire apart. And it was a busy time for those like me, a surgeon whose job was to stitch fighters back together after battle.

When the Ottomans stepped into the Hungarian conflict, the leader of our order decided to intervene as well. The mission was intended to raise morale. All this fighting between Christian men of different denominations had a way of making a soldier doubt his faith. Battling the heathen Turks would remind us of our roots and our glory days, as defenders of Christendom.

The Carpathian Mountains were foreign territory to us, wild, rocky, full of strange animals and even stranger people. We would have been at a severe disadvantage, if not for our leader, a black mustached Wallachian with waist length hair, a hooked nose and piercing dark eyes. He was the son of some local noble family and a member of the ancient Order of the Dragon, a group dedicated to fighting the Turks. The men called him Draco, though his servants referred to him as the Prince.

His battle tactics were sound, I give him that. He knew exactly when and where to strike and how best to put the fear of God into the enemy. Night raids were his specialty. A small band of skilled fighters could decimate and dispirit a much larger force if they attacked after dark. And in a war where many soldiers looted their pay directly from the citizens of the towns they "protected", his policy of targeting civilians was not so unusual.

However, Draco's methods were...extreme. If an enemy spy was found hiding in a village, our leader would have the entire population, from the oldest crone to the youngest babe, put to death. His specialty was impalement. Enemy soldiers unlucky enough to be captured alive were skewered on long poles and left to die on the battle scarred plains. From this, the locals decided that he was the reincarnation of a famous prince of the land, who had made his name fighting the Ottoman horde almost two hundred years ago.

Under Draco's command, our reputation as Christian crusaders grew. Before long, our small band of seasoned warriors was joined by a much larger peasant army, which made up for its lack of skill with an abundance of enthusiasm.

Despite our successes in battle, our company of Christian knights was far from content. Even the most jaded soldier eventually grew tired of seeing infants strangled with their mothers' bowels. Especially if the atrocities were committed in a struggle over a piece of land that was not his own.

We had a two year contract. However, by the time winter came to the Carpathians, our moods had grown as bleak as the landscape, all black and grey now that the gold and crimson foliage of autumn had fallen. My brothers in arms resolved to head back to Malta after the next night skirmish.

2.

Shortly after midnight, we crept down the hill overlooking the enemy encampment. The Turks assumed themselves protected on this side by the mountains. However, the locals knew of a trail which would bring us right to the unprotected northern flank of the Sultan's army. The night was moonless, but our leader was blessed with the ability to see in the dark, so we needed no torches. Our boots were wrapped with rags to keep down the noise, and our weapons were sheathed in soft chamois leather from the native antelopes. We moved so quietly that even the capercaillie did not stir in their nests.

As a field surgeon, my duties called for me to follow my fellow knights into battle. I was as heavily armored as the others, for in combat, the Turk would attack anyone wearing the white and red cross of Malta, whether he wielded a sword or scalpel. However, my only weapon was the knife which I used to cut away cloth from bloodied limbs. Though many surgeons among our Order doubled as fighters, I had never killed a man.

We were halfway down the mountainside when our leader, Draco paused. "It is cold here, yes?" he murmured. "Cold for men like you from the south. And your warm southern hearts grow cold at the deaths you have witnessed. You long for the balmy air of Venice, where Christians and Turks do business rather than battle."

Though his tone was mild, his words sent a chill through me. Our plot had been betrayed. I did not know how Draco learned of our plans. Maybe there was a spy among us. Or perhaps he deduced the truth from our guilty expressions. His eyes were unusually large and dark, and they had a way of peering through a man, as if he was reading one's soul.

Knowing how Draco punished traitors and cowards, I turned to flee. However, as I started back up the hill, I witnessed something that made me freeze in my tracks.

A wave, dark and amorphous, flowed down the mountainside. At first, it resembled a cloud of ash, like that which sometimes spewed from Mount Etna. As the dark mass neared, I heard squeaking, chirruping sounds, followed by rustling wings. The cloud became a thousand small black bats which descended upon us, tearing at our hair, crawling in ears and mouths and under armor, nipping lightly at any bit of exposed flesh--

And then the swarming horde was gone, as suddenly as it had appeared. We knights of the Order of Malta stood shivering in the knee high snow, too stunned to move. The forest was perfectly quiet, except for the sound of our ragged breathing.

Draco pulled out his spy glass and studied the camp below. "Take out the guards first, and then spread out in a fan shaped formation."

His words seemed to light a fire under us. As one, we poured down the mountainside towards the sleeping Turkish camp.

Draco had the devil's own luck with weather. That night, as we descended upon the Turks, mist appeared. The sentries had no chance to cry the alarm, because they never saw us. The snow on the ground muffled all sound, enabling our band to move as quietly as the creeping fog through the enemy camp, killing the invaders in their beds. The air reeked of warm blood and cold steel. The knights fought boldly, hacking and slashing with an abandon they had not shown in months.

Our men suffered only minor injuries, so I was free to observe the one sided battle. I was appalled at the behavior of my fellow knights. Some of them smeared their faces with freshly spilled blood, licking their fingers clean before they took up their swords again to continue the slaughter. They laughed silently at their victims pleas for mercy. The worst moment came when a young knight named Rodrigo, a decent, God fearing man, slit a bearded throat from ear to ear and then leaned forward to capture the spurting blood in his mouth.

Though I had witnessed countless battles, I had never seen anything like this. Shocked at the barbarity of good Christian men, I fled.

As I stumbled back up the mountainside, away from the carnage, I spotted Draco. He had one hand on the hilt of his sword. His lips were stretched taught over his gleaming white teeth in a feral grin.

I was no longer afraid of dying. I had just witnessed something much worse than the death of the body -- the death of the soul. I stumbled forward.

"What've you done to them?" I demanded. I grabbed at his furred collar. "What kind of black magic is this?"

"Black magic?" he echoed mockingly. His fingers closed over my neck, almost crushing my windpipe. "I see no black magic, only knights of God upholding their vows. All except you." His eyes narrowed. "But you're no soldier. You're a surgeon, yes? You pride yourself on saving lives rather than taking them -- even though every life you save means more enemies slain in battle." The last was uttered with a nasty laugh. Unexpectedly, he shoved me away. "Be gone! My men have no need of you. Musket balls can't hurt them. Arrows won't take their lives. This night, they are invincible. Together, we will purge the heathen infestation from this land."

Clearly, he was mad, and there was no reasoning with a madman. Nor could I hope to save the souls of my fellow soldiers, for my own soul was in jeopardy. Bloodlust threatened to overwhelm me. Though the battle was far away, I could smell the spilled blood of our enemies, and the odor was almost unbearably sweet. If I did not flee, I would soon find myself drinking alongside my brothers, and then I, too would be damned forever.

With a stifled curse, I turned and stumbled back up the hill, pausing only once to look back. Behind me, Draco stood as still as one of the ancient trees that made up the Carpathian forest. Snow swirled around his dark head. A wolf emerged from the underbrush. Tentatively, it approached the man and sniffed his hand. Prince Vlad stroked the beast's thick fur, and it settled down at his feet, like an obedient dog beside its master.

3.

A year passed, and once again I found myself in the mountains of Eastern Europe.

Though the directions I had been given were sketchy, I knew that I was close to the monastery hospital, because of the dead bodies that lined the road. Plague victims, most of them, their necks blackened and swollen, mouths crusted with dried blood --

Sharply, I turned my head away. It was too tempting. Even hours cold, human blood had the power to excite me. I had abandoned my calling as a physician, because of the awful thirst. Now, I earned my living as a spy for the Hungarian Court.

The land around me was bleak and war scarred. The ancient forests had been leveled by waves of invading armies, the noble trees chopped up for firewood. Foundation stones and a few scattered chimneys were all that remained of many villages. The river was foul with the blood of rotting corpses. Nothing had escaped the furious destruction brought by the war, and it seemed the violence would never end --

And knights of the Order of St. John were, at least partially, to blame. We had helped Draco start his Crusade against the Ottomans. We were the kernel around which a peasant army had formed. And, despite repeated warnings from the leaders of our Order, at least sixty Knights Hospitaller still followed the Prince. The stories told about my former comrades appalled me. There were rumors of cannibalism and blood drinking. Wolves were said to fight alongside human soldiers, tearing the throats out of Muslim and Christian alike. No army could stand before the combined force of natural predators and unnatural men who shook off Turkish musket balls like drops of rain.

Disturbed by the tales coming out of the east, the Vatican sent an elite unit of fighters, crusaders skilled in both the martial and mystical arts. The warrior clerics infiltrated the peasant army. Using arcane weapons, they managed to wound the Prince and then they set fire to his headquarters. Unfortunately, when the fire died, his bones were not found among the rubble.

Without solid proof of their master's death, Draco's followers refused to abandon their Crusade. They continued their nocturnal raids on the Hungarian and Turkish armies. Towns suspected of collaboration were torched and their citizens impaled.

A few weeks ago, the army changed tactics. In the dead of night, under cover of fog, they took control of the fortified town of Galata. Now they had a base from which to launch their attacks, forges to repair their weapons and a supply of human cattle to feed their blood thirst. The Turks planned to starve them out. However, this plan would entail the death of many Christians. The Hungarian King protested. The Turkish Sultan challenged him to come up with a better option.

That was where I came in. There was a rumor about a monk, a holy man and a healer who looked just like Draco. The monk belonged to the Brothers of Poverty, an obscure Order of St. Francis. Their monastery tended the sick and wounded of any faith -- Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim. They charged no fees for their services, since they had wealthy benefactors in Italy, merchants who believed that charity would offset their worldly sins.

The monastery was housed on the bottom floor of a ruined castle, perched high above the blighted valley. An herb garden flanked the paved stone path that lead to the front door. Bees and butterflies hovered over the pungent blooms. A statue of St. Francis had been erected beside a well where weary travelers could get a drink of water. As I paused to quench my thirst, I wondered how the monastery had escaped destruction. Draco's men had no qualms about torching Churches, in order to kill those inside.

I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve, then I continued forward. The shadow of the ruined castle fell over me, providing welcome shade from the sun. Muttering a quick prayer, I raised my staff and knocked on the heavy oak door.

"Coming!" called a voice from within. The sound of rusty hinges made my flesh crawl. All my senses, including my hearing, had become more acute in recent months. As the door opened, I caught the scent of camphor and rosemary which could not mask the odors of human sweat, shit, urine, blood and -- yes, I could smell them -- tears.

A young man peered at me from the open doorway. He had a scraggly beard, and his narrow face was framed by long, curly black hair. Though Catholic, the Brothers of Poverty wore their hair and beards long, like the Orthodox monks of the region, and they were mostly native men, dark haired and swarthy.

"Are you here for shelter?" the young monk asked politely. "Or do need medical care?"

I touched my brow with one finger. "I have a pain here." I had rehearsed my story, and the lies came easily. "And the light hurts my eyes." That much was true. Since being bitten by Draco's bats, I had become unusually sensitive to sunlight. "Food disgusts me, but I'm always hungry." Again, it was the truth. Though I ate in order to survive, bread and meat could not ease my craving. "I've heard that you have a physician here, a healer of unusual skill." I touched the pouch at my hip. Silver coins jangled.

"We charge no fees," the young man was quick to tell me. "But if you'd like to make a donation, gifts are welcome. Please, come this way."

I followed the monk into a large common area crowded with cots. Fresh rushes covered the floor and clay pots of incense hung from the rafters, but the scent of grass and herbs could not disguise the smell of sickness. We passed an old woman lying on a narrow bed, and I detected the characteristic rot of leprosy. Another patient had the sweet sour odor of dropsy. The man with the bandaged foot had blood poisoning. On the far side of the covered courtyard, a man coughed until his face turned blue, and I smelled his pneumonia all the way across the room.

Though my heightened senses should have made the odors of sickness almost unbearable, I found them strangely enticing. I longed to kneel over the woman suffering from lockjaw and fasten my lips to her throat. Her skin was so smooth and pale. Her flesh would tear easily under my teeth and then my mouth would fill with her warm, diseased blood --

With an effort, I tore my gaze away from the young woman's neck.

"There's Brother Stephen!" my young guide exclaimed. "Just the man you're looking for. If anyone can help you, he can." He urged me forward, towards a man dressed in grey, with long, lustrous black hair that fell to his waist. He was taller than the other monks, a bit thinner. His skin was strangely pale, as if he seldom went outdoors.

"Brother Stephen!" the young monk called.

Stephen looked up at the sound of his name. For a moment, fear turned my blood to ice. Though the man who stood before me had a full beard rather than a moustache, I recognized that hawk like nose and those high Slavic cheekbones. It was Draco, the monster who still haunted my dreams. What was he doing here, in a monastery, tending the sick and dying? Had he repented his sins? Or, had madness finally overwhelmed him --

Brother Stephen's eyes met mine, and I wondered how I had ever mistaken him for the Prince. True, he had the same long black hair and the same sharp features, and even the large, dark eyes which I remembered so vividly. By where Draco's intense gaze seemed to skewer a man, Brother Stephen's eyes were full of kindness. His full lips smiled rather than sneering.

He was the same as Draco and yet as different as day from night.

"How can I help you?" he asked in perfect Latin. His voice was resonant. Even in a crowded, noisy room, it made others pause and listen. I was aware of a dozen pairs of eyes fastened upon me, waiting to hear what I had to say to the monastery's most renowned healer.

"Um...can we speak alone?"

"Certainly. Brother Simon, will you please finish changing this bandage?"

I followed Stephen through a door at the far end of the courtyard, down a long corridor to a room which smelled of herbs, alcohol, vinegar and sulfur. The dispensary. A short, balding monk bobbed his head at the sight of the healer and then went back to grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle. The door at the far end of the pharmacy opened onto a small courtyard were some sort of herb concoction was slowing simmering over an open fire. There was a single stone bench, wide enough for two.

"Please sit. You must be tired. What can I do for you?"

My false story died on my lips.

The dark eyes probed me. "You're here about my brother."

Brothers! Of course. That explained the resemblance. The truth, which I had planned to reveal little by little as I earned this man's trust, came pouring out. "Galata's under siege. The townspeople are dying of starvation and disease. Draco has vanished, but his men refuse to put down their weapons. They claim their leader will return and lead them to victory. If we can't persuade them to surrender, no one in the city will escape alive. "

"I'm sorry. I don't know where my brother is. We don't...talk anymore."

I shook my head impatiently. "It isn't Draco we want. It's you. You look like your brother. In the right armor, you could pass for him. If you present yourself to his troops and order them to lay down their arms, they'll do it. Draco's men are fiercely loyal to him."

A strange sort of smile touched Brother Stephen's lips. "Not all his men are loyal, I think." He studied my face. "So, I'm to sully my brother's reputation as a patriot by bartering for peace with the Hungarians and Turks. Is that what you want?"

My heart sank. "Please. Listen to me. The town cannons are loaded with human bones and skulls -- fresh bones, still full of marrow. Prisoners are displayed on the walls, impaled on wooden spears. At night, you can hear children crying from hunger and worse things -- "

He laid his hand on my arm. "I never said that I wouldn't help."

4.

Three days later, Brother Stephen and I arrived at the Hungarian encampment outside the town of Galata. Commander Andras had not expected me back so soon, and he was in the next town, bartering -- or rather, bullying the local boyars into supplying the troops with more food. Morale was at an all time low. The night before, Draco's men had captured a family of Germans trying to escape over the western wall. Two men and three women where flayed and then forced to run from the city with a pack of wolves nipping at their heels. One of the men was still alive, though mercifully delirious with fever.

When Brother Stephen heard the story, he insisted upon seeing the dying man. The German merchant was housed in a tent far from the troops, so that they would not have to listen to his screams. Since even the medics could not bear to be near him, we found him alone. Flies buzzed around his red, raw, featureless face. The air within the tent reeked of opium, but the poppy could not ease his suffering. He was like the land -- blighted, bloodied, a testament to the evil of humankind.

Even to a hardened battle surgeon like me, the flayed man was a sight to shock and sicken. At times like these, I questioned the faith which called it a sin to cut short a man's suffering. A single well placed incision along the side of the neck would send this poor soul to heaven. Why should he endure more than he already had? Did his moans delight God's ear?

I expected Brother Stephen to turn away, once he had seen the man's hopeless condition, but he surprised me. The tall monk knelt beside the cot. He took one red limb—you could hardly call it an arm anymore -- between his hands and murmured "This will take away the pain." He raised the flayed man's hand to his lips as if to kiss it, the way that his order's founder was said to have kissed the feet of lepers.

Something stirred within me. If Draco was a monster, then his brother was a saint. Two men, cut from the same cloth, but patterned so differently. What a relief to meet a man whose heart had not turned to stone! Grateful tears filled my eyes, almost blinding me to what came next.

Stephen pulled back his lips, baring sharp white teeth. He sank his canines into the vein that runs along the wrist. Blood welled up from the wound. He pressed the oozing flesh to his mouth and began to drink.

Lord help me! I did not feel revulsion or outrage. The emotion that overwhelmed me was hunger. I wanted to taste the blood of that dying man. I wanted to drink in his pain. I wanted --

Stephen rose and wiped the blood from his upper lip. The flayed man was quiet now, though the steady rise and fall of his chest showed that he was still alive. Maybe loss of blood had rendered him unconscious. With any luck, he would expire without waking again --

"He'll be better tomorrow," the monk said. "By week's end, his wounds should be healed."

"Healed," I echoed dully. "There's no healing wounds like those."

"So the disciples must have said when our Lord was laid in his tomb. But still, he rose on the third day."

His blasphemy shocked me. "Are you claiming the powers of God?"

Smiling, Brother Stephen shook his head. "I amGod. All of us are God, though some of us have forgotten."

And then I knew that he was as mad as his brother, only his was a gentler, kinder sort of madness. The madness of holy men and saints.

5.

Next morning, Brother Stephen emerged from the commander's tent dressed in leather, armor and fur. His chin was freshly shaved, and his moustache had been trimmed until it resembled Draco's. A heavy gold chain with the circular symbol of the Order of the Dragon hung around his neck. His black hair was pulled back in a braid, revealing his fine, aristocratic features. On his belt, he wore a sword with a jewel encrusted hilt. When he walked, he moved with confidence, head held high, shoulders back, a slight swagger to his step, as if he had never been anything other than a nobleman and warrior.

As he passed by me, I noted a mark on the nape of his neck, a blue spot about the size of a ducat shaped like the sun. Did Draco have such a tattoo? I could not remember. I hoped that it would not give away the monk's true identity. If the Prince's men suspected that they were being tricked, they would tear Brother Stephen limb from limb.

Stephen approached the town alone. As he neared Galata, the gates opened before him. A cheer went up inside. The gates were drawn, and then all we could do outside was wait and pray.

Hours passed before the gates opened again. It was now close to dusk. Stephen's shadow preceded him, long and slender, like a black finger pointing the way. A line of soldiers, some dressed in armor, others wearing peasant rags followed close behind him. Their eyes were fixed on the back of their "leader". As Stephen neared Andras, he unfastened his jeweled sword and laid it at the feet of the Hungarian commander. The rebels followed suit. The pile of swords, muskets, axes and scythes slowly rose as the sun set.

The Hungarian soldiers had been ordered to do or say nothing that might compromise the surrender. Silently, they parted ranks before the grim procession. The rebels were to be allowed safe passage, in order to minimize the loss of life. Even unarmed, Draco's fighters were unnaturally strong, and though the Hungarian force would have prevailed eventually, through sheer numbers, their casualties would have been great.

Their weapons surrendered, Draco's men vanished into the darkness. Now that the threat was gone, the Hungarian troops found their courage. They recalled the atrocities they had witnessed, the companions they had lost. One of the captains wanted to lead a force after the retreating rag tag army. But Commander Andras vetoed him.

"Tell the men to stay close to their campfires tonight. Tomorrow, when the sun is up, if there are any stragglers, we can pick them off." The Hungarian commander turned to Brother Stephen. He clasped his hand and said "Thank you for your help. You've saved many lives. Now, I must ask you to make one more sacrifice. If we don't quash the rumors that Draco is still alive, we'll soon have another peasant rebellion on our hands. Someone has to die, in order to keep the peace."

What was this? Was he suggesting that Brother Stephen die in his brother's place? I started to object, but the commander raised his voice, drowning out my words.

"Put this man in chains," he ordered. "Tomorrow, we take him to the Janissary Agha. As a token of good faith with our Turkish allies."

The commander's men descended upon Brother Stephen, kicking and pummeling him to the ground. They applied manacles and leg irons then hauled him off to the dog kennel where Andras ordered him held under heavy guard.

The monk did not resist, which probably saved his life. However, by the time the guards were through with him, he was in bad shape. So, when I asked to be allowed to see him, in order to treat his wounds, no one objected. Andras had given specific orders to keep him alive until he could be handed over to the Turks.

As I dabbed at a nasty looking gash on his scalp, I demanded to know why he had not spoken up in his own defense.

"Who would believe me?" Brother Stephen asked gently. "I look enough like my brother to be his twin."

"But you're nothing alike!"

"Says one who knows both of us. These men have only seen Vlad across a battlefield." He worked his jaw, which was swollen and bruised. "They saw the rebel army follow me from the city. The fighters laid down their arms at my command. Any sane person would assume that I'm Vlad."

"If you don't care for your own life, then have a care for their souls. They're committing murder."

"It isn't murder if they don't know the condemned is innocent," he reminded me mildly. "Speaking of innocents, how's the flayed man?"

"What? Oh, him. I expect he's dead by now."

Stephen gave me a sly, sidelong glance. "Is that an expert opinion?"

"Yes, in fact, it is!" I retorted. "No man can survive being stripped of his skin." I dug my nails into my palms to quell the urge to slap him. "Do you want to become a martyr? Is that it? Well, I won't let you! I'm not giving up without a fight!"

"I would be disappointed in you if you did," was his gentle reply. Despite all that had happened, he managed a smile. "Go check the German, would you please? I want to know how he's doing."

The German merchant was not dead. He was not even dying. When I stopped to check on him, I was amazed to find that baby smooth pink flesh covered the flayed man from head to toe. He looked a bit like a scalded pig, but his breathing was slow and steady and his expression in sleep was calm. Apparently, growing a new skin was a painful, itchy process, for the tent still reeked of opium. They had tied rags over his hands to keep him from scratching.

I had witnessed some unlikely recoveries in my career as a surgeon, but this was a miracle. I hurried back to the kennel, only to discover that Stephen had been attacked again, after turning down a meal of pork. This lead to the usual speculation -- he was a Jew. He was a renegade Turk. The priests ordered him stripped and discovered that he was circumcised. Once the rumor spread around the camp that he was not Christian, there was talk of burning him alive.

I found him crouching in his kennel. Naked and unwashed, with his long black hair tangled, his face bloody and swollen, he hardly seemed human. But his voice was as calm as ever.

"How is the German?" he asked. "Is he mending?"

I held my tongue.

"Aren't you going to ask how I did it?"

More than anything, I wanted to know the answer to that question. But I bit my lower lip and concentrated on stitching the wound on his forehead.

He lowered his voice. "Don't you want to know why you feel a terrible thirst whenever you smell the blood of the sick and dying?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," I lied. But it was no use. His eyes were like his brother's. They could see straight through me. "Alright, I admit it. Ever since that night, I've been sick. I can't tend the wounded anymore, for fear of what I'll do. The closer they are to death, the more I crave the taste of their blood. I've tried every cure I can think of, but nothing helps -- "

"There's no cure for compassion," he interrupted.

"Compassion?"

"Think. You don't crave the vital essence of others, the way my brother does. You're not drawn to virgins and young men in the prime of their lives. It's sickness and death that fascinate you. Have you never asked yourself why?"

"I know why. God has cursed me!"

"No," he corrected. "God has blessed you. But you won't believe me unless I show you. Come." He flexed his wrists and shook off the heavy iron manacles as if they were flimsy bracelets. A twist of each ankle removed his leg irons. He crawled from the dog kennel. "Follow me."

Mist had sprung up. It coiled through the Hungarian camp like a snake, leading a path from the kennel to the infirmary. No one saw us, though we passed within inches of some of the soldiers. I held my breath, for fear that someone would hear me. What would the troops do if they caught their prisoner trying to escape?

We made it to the infirmary tent without attracting any notice. A single medic had been assigned the task of watching over the sick that night. Before he could raise an alarm, Stephen murmured a single word, "Sleep."and the young man's eyes closed and he slumped in his chair.

"What are we doing here?" I whispered. "What if someone comes in? How will you escape then?"

"I'm not trying to escape." Stephen's dark eyes darted from face to face. He settled upon a man whose head was wrapped in a heavy bandage. An artilleryman, his weapon had exploded, sending bits of shrapnel through his skull into his brain. His injuries had seemed minor at first. Then, he lapsed into a coma. Trepanation had done nothing for him. Within two or three days, he would be dead.

Stephen knelt beside the dying man's cot. He lifted his arm, which was straight and stiff as a board, the worst possible sign. Using his fingernail, he opened a small vein and began to drink.

My throat felt parched. I licked my lips. Though I wanted to look away, I could not. One thought filled my head. What did the wounded man's blood taste like?

After the monk finished with the artilleryman, he moved on to a soldier whose abdomen was grossly swollen. Then, he visited a man half covered with burns. One by one, he drank from them, and every poor, suffering soul he touched seemed to improve. Breathing became less labored. Color went from white to a healthy pink. Seizures stopped.

Sometime in the early hours of morning, the artilleryman woke up. He fumbled with the bandage that was wound around his head, turban style. The blood stained cloth fell away. The holes which the surgeon had drilled into his skull were healed shut with scar tissue that looked two or three weeks old, though his trepanation had been performed yesterday.

"I'm hungry," he complained. "Can't a man get something to eat around here?"

If frogs had fallen from the sky, I would not have been more shocked.

"What will he become now?" I asked the monk. "A freak, like Draco's warriors? You've saved him from death, but what about his soul?"

"His soul is his own business," Stephen replied. "All I did was heal his body."

"By making him a vampyre?"

"No, that's my brother's game. Those he bites turn into undead. When I drink a man's blood, he returns to life. Ordinary, mortal life, without the sickness that plagued him before. Look at him." He pointed to the artilleryman, who was plowing through a loaf of bread as if he had not eaten in weeks. "Have you ever seen a vampyre eat like that?"

"But how -- ?"

"Try it yourself, and you'll see." He propelled me towards a soldier whose leg was rotten with gangrene. My mouth began to water. Blood lust overwhelmed me. When I could not find a vein in his arm, I went for the neck.

Once I started drinking, I found it hard to stop, and I might have killed the patient, if not for Brother Stephen. He grabbed my chin and pulled my lips away from the wounded man's throat.

"Careful. Not too much."

Of course, I thought. Moderation in all things, even sacrilege. I felt sickened by what I had just done. The stain on my soul would never come clean, even if I devoted myself to good deeds for all the rest of my days. I had preyed upon a wounded man, one too helpless to defend himself. I had sucked the blood from his veins. I was no better than Draco. A monster. An abomination --

"Look." Stephen unwrapped the bandages from around the soldier's leg. The green, dead flesh was gone, along with the sickly sweet odor of rot. In its place, healthy pink tissue could be seen.

The wounded man opened his eyes. He uttered a slow, contented sigh. "I dreamed," he whispered. "I dreamed the angel of death came to me and carried me off to heaven. How is it I'm still alive?" His voice sounded strong -- and sane. There was no madness in his eyes. No bloodlust and no thirst for violence. When Brother Stephen offered him a cross to kiss, his lips did not blister and burn.

"How is this possible?" I asked. "Draco's bite can turn a man into a monster, but when you and I do it, he stays a man."

"It's simple," Stephen replied. "My brother steals the life force from his victims. You and I restore their life force. He takes, and we give."

Put like that, it seemed very simple indeed.

6.

Morning came at last and with it the commander's guards. A trio of armed men burst into the infirmary. They paused in the doorway. One of them pointed at my companion. They argued among themselves for a moment. They seemed uncertain --

And for good reason. As the early light of dawn poured through the tent flap, I found Brother Stephen changed almost beyond recognition. Overnight, his black hair had turned snow white. In his eagerness to show me how the dying could be cured, he must have consumed too much sickness all at once. His upper lip was smooth. He had shed his moustache, the way that men often did when they were sick. Though his face was smooth and unwrinkled, the white hair made him look years older. And his dark brown eyes had faded to blue, something that should have been impossible --

But I had seen enough that night to know that nothing was impossible.

"Is it morning already?" Brother Stephen asked mildly. "Mustn't keep the Turks waiting."

Commander Andras panicked when he saw the change in his prisoner, until one of his men suggested black hair dye. They fixed Stephen up to look like the Prince in a fine red velvet suit with a fur collar. His still damp hair was braided and a pearl and ruby encrusted red velvet cap was placed upon his head. A false black moustache was affixed to his upper lip. When they were finished with him, he was the very image of his brother, except for his eyes, which remained a dark, muddy blue.

Stephen resembled Vlad in another way. He shared his regenerative powers. Most of the bruises from the night before had faded. Too bad. I had hoped that his injuries would make his face unrecognizable.

"Say something," I entreated Stephen.

"It's no use."

"At least try. Suicide is a sin. Even for Jews and Muslims."

"I'll keep that in mind."

With Andras and his lieutenants leading on horseback and two dozen heavily armed foot soldiers bringing up the rear, Brother Stephen began his final journey riding in a donkey cart. The road was so bumpy that he could not stand, and so he sank to his knees and bowed his head.

A sea of tents, like white peaked waves, awaited us over the next hill. Janissary infantry wearing turbans and voluminous trousers were lined up along each side of the road. In place of their usual muskets, they carried ceremonial swords. As the cart carrying "Draco" rolled past, they shouted curses. Children and women pelted him with horse manure, rotten fruit and even stones. A gash opened on his forehead, and blood trickled down the side of his face. The red was mixed with black --

So the dye had not dried yet. I glanced up at the sky. Clouds were forming over the mountains. This gave me an idea. Draco could call up fog, and was not fog just another kind of rain? If the Prince had cursed me with his terrible affliction, then maybe I had his powers, too. I closed my eyes. Several minutes passed, before I felt a drop on my cheek. Then another. There was a pause, as if the sky was debating what to do next. Then, a cool, soft breeze touched the back of my neck, and with that the clouds unleashed a torrent of rain.

Brother Stephen spared me one reproachful glance, then he cast his eyes towards heaven, as if willing the rain to stop. It did, but too late. The black dye had already begun to run from his hair, exposing streaks of white. And the damp had loosened the glue which held his false moustache in place. The next piece of rotten fruit that struck him knocked it from his face.

The Turkish troops began to point and mutter. Andras, who had his back to the prisoner, was unaware of what was happening behind him, and he kept riding towards a large, hexagonal tent.

The Janissary Agha, a big, bearded man dressed in billowing yellow robes, red boots and a tall, white hat was waiting for us. He greeted Andras with a smile, which quickly turned to a scowl as he got a good look at the prisoner.

"What's this?" he demanded in his own tongue. He switched to Hungarian. "Andras, you promised to bring me the dragon. Who's this old man?"

Andras twisted around in his saddle. When he saw what the rain had done, he uttered a string of curses that would have made a sailor blush. But he quickly regained his composure. "So the dragon dyes his hair and wears a fake moustache? He wouldn't be the first murderer to suffer from the sin of vanity." He dismounted and strode toward the wagon. Grabbing the prisoner's chains, he pulled him onto the dirt road.

"On your knees!"

Obediently, Brother Stephen knelt.

Andras grabbed the monk's braid and pulled his head down and forward, exposing his neck. "Hurry up and draw your sword," he told the Agha. "Kill this bastard and then we can all go home. And you!" He pointed at me. "If you say a word, I'll have your head up on a pole beside Draco's."

The Janissary Agha fingered the hilt of his sword, as he considered the merits of the Hungarian commander's suggestion. With a shrug, he unsheathed his blade.

"Don't -- " I cried. One of the Hungarian guards punched me in the stomach, knocking the wind from me.

The Agha raised his sword. He was a big man, with powerful arms. A single blow would sever Stephen's head. The Turkish troops began to cheer in anticipation of the death of their most hated and feared enemy.

And then, inexplicably the Turkish commander lowered his blade. He leaned forward to examine Stephen's neck. With his thumb, he rubbed away black dye, uncovering his blue, sun shaped tattoo.

"What is this?" he demanded in his own tongue. He grabbed Stephen's braid and jerked his head back. "How did you get this mark?"

Even on the verge of death, Stephen's expression was serene. "It's a tattoo."

"I can see that! But why this mark? Why the blue sun?"

The kneeling man shrugged his shoulders. "Why not?" he asked mildly. "It's just ink."

The blue sun shaped tattoo was clearly more than just ink to the Janissary Agha. Muslim holy men were summoned. They crowded around Brother Stephen. Their conversation became so animated that I could follow little of it, though I did catch something that sounded like the Turkish word for "sun" as well as the word tariqah which meant "Order" or "Way."

Order of the Sun. What did it mean?

After an hour or so of this confusion, a tiny, wrinkled old man dressed in black with a large white turban appeared. Everyone went silent.

Slowly, leaning on a cane, the ancient cleric tottered onto the road. On his left cheekbone, just below the corner of the eye, he had a sun shaped tattoo, identical to Stephen's.

Even kneeling, Brother Stephen was taller than the old holy man, who peered up at him, nearsightedly. "Salih?" the cleric muttered. "Is that you?"

"Indeed. It's been a long time, my friend," answered the monk.

"Too long." The old man's wrinkled face stretched wide in a grin of pure delight. He threw open his arms. "Welcome home, brother."

7.

Four weeks later, Brother Stephen -- or rather, Salih as he was known by his Turkish hosts -- offered me tea and a plate of dates. His tent was spacious but sparely decorated with an undyed wool rug, two dark blue cushions which smelled very faintly of cedar and a single, low mahogany table inlaid with mother of pearl. Stephen was dressed like a Muslim cleric, in plain dark robes and a white turban.

Because I was used to thinking of the Turk as the enemy, I found the change in his appearance troubling at first. "You look well."

"Thank you." He hid his smile behind his cup. Was he laughing at my discomfort? His eyes might not be dark as Draco's anymore, but they were just as piercing.

"What about your hair?" I asked. "Did the color ever come back?"

He pulled off the turban. Long, white locks tumbled over his shoulders. With his pale skin and snow white hair, he looked wraithlike. No one would ever mistake him for his brother again.

I took a sip of tea, and the scent of almonds made my head swim.. In the distance, a boy was singing. I caught a few words of his song -- something about love -- but then the wind changed, bringing with it the stink of camel. I wrinkled my nose

"How do you bear it? The smells, I mean. That's the worst part about what Draco did to me, besides the blood lust. I can smell a dead rat from a hundred paces."

"You get used to it, after a while. A man can get used to anything. But surely you didn't come here to talk about dead rats. You want to know why the Janissary Agha didn't cut off my head. And why I'm dressed like a Turk." He touched the back of his neck. "My tattoo is the mark of a Sufi religious society, the Order of the Sun. The group was founded by Abdullah Bin Hamza -- "

"But you're a Christian!" I exclaimed.

"It's true that I was born a Christian. My father was a prince of Wallachia. When the Turks launched their invasion, my brother and I became hostages in the Sultan's court. Vlad held on to his Christian faith, but I converted to Islam. It wasn't a forced conversion, as my brother later claimed -- "

A servant entered the tent with a fresh pot of tea. Though we were speaking Latin, we fell silent. I nibbled at a date but found it too sweet for my tastes. Lately, I had begun to rely more and more on blood for my body's nutritional needs.

Once we were alone again, Stephen resumed his story. After Draco -- Prince Vlad regained his throne, he became a vampyre. He attempted to share his curse -- which to him was a gift, the gift of immortality -- with his younger brother. However, the taint which caused the Prince to become a bloodthirsty killer had a completely different effect on his gentler brother.

"After my...transformation, I fled Wallachia and returned to the Ottoman Court. I was looking for something to help me understand the awful change which had come over me. The terrible blood thirst. My attraction to the sick and dying.

"Understand, I wasn't a physician, like you. I was a nobleman. My life had always been one of privilege. People suffering from plague, leprosy -- they weren't part of my world. I assumed that my desire to associate with them was some kind of madness.

"After many years of searching, I met a Sufi mystic. He showed me that the things we call 'madness' are often the truest, most sane things of all. I realized that I wasn't a monster and that one man's curse could be another's blessing."

It was an implausible story. An impossible story. For one thing, the Turkish invasion of Wallachia started almost two hundred years ago, which would make Stephen and his brother modern day Methuselahs. However, I had no reason to doubt him. We talked a bit more about his experiences as a hostage. He told me things about his brother which helped me to understand how he had become the monster I knew.

Finally, I blurted out the words that had been on the tip of my tongue all afternoon. "I was so worried that you were going to die! You should have told me that the Turks wouldn't kill you!"

"How could I tell you what I didn't know? The last time I was in Istanbul, sixty years ago, the Order of the Sun was an outlaw group. Tattoos are haraam. Forbidden. For all I knew, I was the last member of the order still alive. It was a lucky coincidence that the Janissary Agha recognized my tattoo. Otherwise. I would be in two pieces. And even our kind can't heal a wound like that."

How calmly he discussed death. When I was two centuries old, would I be equally detached? Could a man live so long that life became a burden?

Stephen must have sensed my unease, because he changed the subject. "How are things with the Brothers of Poverty? Are they keeping you busy?"

"Busy? What an understatement. When are you coming back?"

"Soon," he assured me. I was delighted -- until I remembered that to a man who had already lived two centuries, "soon" could mean many things. A day. A month. A decade. A lifetime.

Leaning forward, Stephen refilled my cup. "Drink up, my friend."

My friend

He might be a Muslim and a monster, an immortal who drank human blood, but in the end all that mattered was that he was my friend. And if he could live with his curse that was also a gift, so could I. The weight lifted from my shoulders. I raised my cup in a toast. I was on the verge of saying something about friendship and compassion, when one last ray of the setting sun crept through a gap in the tent and turned the carpet gold.

It was a sign, though what it meant, I could not have said. But it was enough.

THE END


© 2010 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction and non-fiction contributions to Aphelion were the novella The Lost Clones of Sakamoto Hero (August 2009) and the article Serious Science Fiction Manga (November 2009).

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