Twelveby Jasper Kent
Melding the supernatural and the historical, a thrilling novel of vampires set in the Napoleonic wars.
In June 1812, Napoleon's massive grande armée began its invasion of Russia, and the imperial Russian army, massively outnumbered and out maneuvered, was forced to retreat. But a handful of Russian officers — veterans of Borodino — are… See more details below
Melding the supernatural and the historical, a thrilling novel of vampires set in the Napoleonic wars.
In June 1812, Napoleon's massive grande armée began its invasion of Russia, and the imperial Russian army, massively outnumbered and out maneuvered, was forced to retreat. But a handful of Russian officers — veterans of Borodino — are charged with trying to slow the enemy's inexorable march on Moscow. Helping them is a band of mercenaries from the outermost fringes of Christian Europe, known as the Oprichniki — twelve in number — who arrive amidst rumours of plague travelling west from the Black Sea. Preferring to work alone, and at night, the twelve prove brutally, shockingly, effective against the French.
But one amongst the Russians, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, is unnerved by the Oprichniki's ruthlessness. As he comes to understand the horrific nature of these strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they've unleashed in their midst.
— The Times
- Prometheus Books
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By Jasper Kent
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Jasper Kent
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Chapter OneDmitry fetyukovich said he knew some people.
"What do you mean, 'people'?" I asked. My voice sounded weary. Looking around the dimly lit room, I could see that we were all weary.
"People who can help. People who understand that there's more than one way to skin a cat. Or to kill a Frenchman."
"You're saying that we can't do the job ourselves?" My question came from instinctive patriotism, but I knew a hundred answers without having to hear Dmitry's reply.
"Well, we haven't done too well so far, have we? Bonaparte is already at Smolensk-beyond Smolensk by now probably. It's not about saving face any more. It's about saving Russia." Dmitry's voice showed his exasperation. Bonaparte had rolled across Russia as if the Russian army hadn't even been there. That was the plan of course, so we were told, but even if that were true, it was a demoralizing plan. Dmitry paused and stroked his beard, the scar on his cheek beneath reminding himof how strongly he had fought for his country; how hard we all had fought. "Besides," he continued, "there're only four of us. General Barclay's idea wasn't for us to defeat the French with our bare hands. We're supposed to work out a way to defeat them." He snorted a brief laugh as he realized he was getting above himself. "To help the rest of the army defeat them."
Dmitry's typical arrogance and his recognition of it relaxed the four of us with a ripple of silent laughter that passed around the table, but it quickly evaporated.
"You really think it's as bad as that?" It was Vadim Fyodorovich, our leader, or at least the highest-ranking of us, who asked the question.
"Don't you?" replied Dmitry.
Vadim was silent for a moment. "Yes, yes I do. I just wanted to hear it out loud."
"I wouldn't have believed it before Smolensk," I said.
"Perhaps that was the problem," said Vadim. "Perhaps none of us really believed what Bonaparte was capable of. That we do now gives us some ... hope." He rubbed his face, his fingers running through his thick, black beard. "Anyway," he resumed, with a little more energy than before, "Dmitry, tell us about these people."
"A small group," explained Dmitry, "expert in working behind enemy lines. Always attacking when they are least expected. Always causing maximum disruption at minimum risk."
"They sound like Kazaki," I said.
Dmitry sucked his bottom lip, choosing his words. "Like Cossacks, yes-in many ways." He again thought carefully before speaking. "But not Russian."
"And how do you know them?" From Vadim's tone, it seemed clear that he knew the answers to his questions already. He and Dmitry had had plenty of time to talk on the grim ride from Smolensk back to Moscow. It was natural-certainly natural for Dmitry-to make sure he entered a debate with half of us already on his side.
"They helped us against the Turks." Dmitry's eyes fell on my diminished left hand as he spoke. My two missing fingers had long since rotted away in the corner of a prison cell in Silistria, severed by a Turkish blade. It was a wound that people seemed particularly sensitive about, although I had long since gotten used to it. The physical scars were the least of the horrors that the Turks had visited upon me.
"So does this mean that you know these people too, Aleksei?" asked Maksim Sergeivich, turning to me. Maksim was the youngest of the four of us. Just as I had noticed that Vadim was already on-side with Dmitry's plan, Maks was afraid that a three-to-one vote was a foregone conclusion. And that would be a big problem for Maks. He had a thing about democracy.
"No, no. This is as new to me as it is to you, Maks," I replied cautiously. I looked at Dmitry; this was all new to me, and it was odd-to say the least-that Dmitry had never mentioned it. "Dmitry and I never crossed paths in Wallachia. They seem to get about though, these ... 'people.'" I stuck with Dmitry's original word. "Fighting on the Danube and then travelling all the way to Moscow to help us. Where do they call home?"
"They're from around the Danube; Wallachia, Moldavia-one of those places. They fought there from patriotism, to defend the land of their forefathers. Fighting the Turks is something of a tradition down there."
"Well, the whole thing's out of the question then, isn't it?" said Maks, his eager face lighting up at being able to point out a logical flaw. He pushed his spectacles back up his nose as he spoke. "The Danube is as far away from us as ... Warsaw. Even if you sent word to them today, Napoleon would have taken Moscow and would be warming his hands by the fire in Petersburg before they ..."
Maks stopped before he finished his sentence. He was, more than any man I knew, able to detach himself from his own world. Most of us would find it hard to describe so glibly the realization of the horror we were all fighting, but Maks could conceive the inconceivable. It was a useful and at the same time sometimes frightening trait. But today, even he understood the potential reality of what he had said.
Vadim bridled at the image. "If Bonaparte were to make it to Moscow or Petersburg, then the only fires he would find would be the smouldering remains of a city destroyed by its own people rather than allowed to fall into the hands of the invader."
At the time it sounded like tub-thumping bravado. We little knew how true his words would turn out to be.
"Maks does have a point though," I said. "The whole thing is academic now. If we were going to use them, we should have sent word a long time ago."
"Which is why I did," said Dmitry.
He looked round the room, into each of our eyes in turn, daring one of us to object. Vadim already knew. Maks saw no logical argument against a fait accompli. I was tired.
"There was a letter from them waiting for me when we got back here today," continued Dmitry. "They've already set off. They expect to be here by the middle of the month."
"Let's just hope they don't get caught up in the French lines along the way." My comment sounded cynical, but it was a serious issue. Half of the Russian army had been dashing back from a rushed peace settlement with the Turks and had only just made it ahead of Bonaparte. Dmitry's friends would be running the same risk. But none of the others cared to take up the point, so I let it lie.
"How many of them are there?" asked Maks.
"That depends," said Dmitry. "Twenty if we're lucky-probably fewer."
"Well, what use is that?" I asked. I sounded more contemptuous than I had intended to, but no more than I felt.
"Davidov performs miracles with just a few Cossacks," Vadim pointed out.
It was below the belt; Denis Vasilyevich Davidov was something of a hero of mine. But the comparison was unfair.
"A squad from a Cossack voisko consists of eighty men or more; not twenty. Are your friends worth four Cossacks each?"
Dmitry looked me square in the eye. "No," he said. "They're worth ten." I felt the sudden urge to punch him, but I knew it was not Dmitry that I was angry with.
"Perhaps you should tell us what makes them so remarkable," said Vadim.
"It's hard to describe," said Dmitry, considering for a moment. "You've heard of the Oprichniki?"
Vadim and I both nodded agreement, but Maks, surprisingly, had not come across the term.
"During the reign of Ivan the Fourth-the Terrible, as he liked to be called-during one of his less benevolent phases, he set up a sort of personal troop of bodyguards known as the Oprichniki," explained Dmitry. "The job of the Oprichniki was internal suppression, which is obviously not what we're talking about here, but the method of an Oprichnik was to use absolute, unrestrained violence. Officially, they were monks. They rode around the country wearing black cowls, killing anyone that Ivan deemed should die. Although they were monks, they weren't educated, but their faith gave them the fanaticism that Ivan needed."
"And these are the guys that are going to help us?" asked Maks dubiously.
Dmitry nodded slowly. "There are similarities. My friends understand that violence is of itself a weapon. They are unhindered by scruple or fear."
"And are they religious?" I asked. "Monks, like the original Oprichniki?"
"They're not monks"-Dmitry paused, as if considering how much to tell us, then continued-"but they have their own fanaticism. Where they come from, on the borders of the Ottoman world, Christianity has always been an adaptable concept."
"Are they controllable? Trustworthy?" asked Vadim.
"As trustworthy and controllable as a musket or a cannon-in the correct hands. They just need pointing in the right direction and they get on with it."
"And you're sure they don't expect payment?" Vadim's question clearly referred to a conversation he and Dmitry had had in private.
"They enjoy their work. Like any army, they live off the vanquished." None of us quite followed Dmitry's meaning. "The spoils of war. Armies live off the gold and the food and whatever other plunder they take from the enemy."
"I'm not sure they'll find enough gold with the French army to make their journey worthwhile," I said.
"There are rewards other than gold," said Dmitry with an uncharacteristic lack of materialism. "They are experts at taking what the rest of us would ignore."
I don't think that any of us really liked the idea of resurrecting the Oprichniki, but the name stuck, even though we never said it to their faces. Once we'd met them, we got some sense of how Dmitry came up with the analogy.
It was late and Vadim Fyodorovich brought the meeting to a close. "Well then, gentlemen, we have a week or so in which to prepare for the arrival of the 'Oprichniki.' That gives us plenty enough time to work out how to make best use of them." He took a deep breath. He looked exhausted, but tried his best to instil some enthusiasm into all of us. "It's been a tough campaign so far, I know, but this time I really feel it in my water that Bonaparte has overreached himself and that we've turned the corner. Eh? Eh?"
He seemed, against all hope and experience, to expect some sort of rousing cheer of agreement, but he got little more than a nod or a raised eyebrow as we each left the room and headed for our beds. He was not the kind of man to whom stirring propagandist speeches came naturally, nor were we the kind to be stirred by them. That's part of what had made us, until then, such a good team.
We had ridden at almost full gallop from Smolensk to Moscow, sleeping rough when we could find no convenient lodgings. The weather of early August was oppressively hot for some, but I enjoyed it; I always loved the summer and hated the winter. Even so, it was good to sleep in a real bed again. It was the same bed I always slept in-usually slept in-when staying in Moscow, in an inn just north of the Kremlin, in Tverskaya; the same inn where we had held our meeting. It was the small hours by the time we broke up, but I did not fall asleep immediately. Instead, my mind drifted back to another meeting, the first time I had met Vadim, the time when our strange little group had first begun to assemble.
"Dmitry Fetyukovich has told you what this is all about?" Vadim had asked.
Dmitry Fetyukovich, as ever, had not told me much. It had been seven years before, November of 1805; less than a month before the Battle of Austerlitz. Dmitry had said he knew of a major who was trying to form a small band for "irregular operations." I'd been interested and so the meeting had been arranged. I'd never spoken to Vadim, but I'd seen him around the camp, usually slightly dishevelled and unmilitary, but always respected by those who knew him.
"Not entirely, sir," I had replied. "Dmitry just told me it was something a bit out of the ordinary. It sounded worth a go."
"There's no 'sir's here," Vadim had told me, firmly. In those days he had been a little more austere than he became as I got to know him better, and as he became better practised at getting his way without coercion. "Respect for your superiors may be the great strength of the Russian army, but it doesn't always encourage ..." He could not find the word.
"Thinking?" suggested Dmitry.
"Exactly," Vadim had continued. "Thinking in the army can get you into a lot of trouble."
He and Dmitry exchanged a smirk. Dmitry later told me that Vadim had once almost been court-martialled for disobeying an order. In doing so he'd captured an enemy gun emplacement and turned the tide of a battle, but the order had come from a very rich, very noble, very stupid senior officer and there were many who thought that the sensibilities of that breed of officer were of far greater significance than the winning of mere battles. Fortunately, others didn't. Moreover, and although none would have guessed it from his manner or demeanour, Vadim was also very rich and very noble, with the added advantage of not being in the slightest bit stupid. He had been promoted to major and given a pretty free rein to do whatever he thought would best harass the enemy.
"And thinking," Vadim went on, "is what I'm told you do rather a lot of."
I smiled. "It's more of a hobby, really. Like you say, there's not much use for it in battle."
"Not in battle, no. In battles you obey orders-generally. When I give orders, you obey orders; but that won't happen often. And don't imagine you'll avoid battles either. You'll still have to fight like a soldier. It's what we do between the battles that will be different."
"And what will we be doing?" I asked.
"Espionage. Sabotage. Uncovering information and spreading chaos. Sometimes in a small group, sometimes alone. I'll tell you what to do, then we work out how to do it. How's your French?"
Unusually, we had been speaking in Russian-something that was becoming popular amongst those who wanted to prove themselves true patriots.
"Pretty good," I said.
"Dmitry tells me you could pass yourself off on a street in Paris."
"I suppose that's true," I ventured.
"Well, if it's true, then say it. Modesty is just another form of lying; useful with the ladies but dangerous amongst brothers-in-arms. You tell someone you're only a 'pretty good' shot then he'll start taking risks to cover for you. Then he gets killed and it turns out you're a damned good shot, and his death's down to you. What are you like as a shot?"
"Pretty good," I replied. Vadim frowned. "But I'm damned good with a sword."
Vadim grinned. "Good. Ideally, you won't need to spend too much time using either. One last thing-for now: can you recommend anyone else for this? We can work as a team of three, but four or five would be better."
"Another thinker, you mean?" I asked.
Vadim nodded. I thought for a moment, then turned to Dmitry. "Have you mentioned Maksim Sergeivich?"
"I thought about him," said Dmitry. "He's very young and he's a bit ... odd."
"He certainly thinks," I said.
"That's just it," replied Dmitry. "He thinks odd things."
"Sounds ideal," announced Vadim.
And so the following day Vadim had been introduced to Maks. He had required even less persuasion than I had, but then it would have been hard to find a role that was more appropriate for him. We had all met for the first time within the space of just a few months, but already our band was complete.
But now, seven years later, Dmitry had invited new members to join us-men that only he knew and only he could vouch for. Desperate diseases call for desperate remedies, but as I fell asleep I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable about these Oprichniki that Dmitry was to introduce into our midst.
Despite our late night, I woke early the following morning. We had a week until Dmitry's "people"-the Oprichniki-arrived and, with only a little preparation to be made for them, that meant almost seven days of leisure.
I walked around the still-familiar streets for the first time in nearly six months and noticed little had changed except the weather, and on this glorious summer's day that was a change for the better. The people were much as they had been. Certainly they knew that Bonaparte was approaching, but they knew too that he must stop. No emperor whose throne was as far away as Paris could ever march his army all the way to Moscow. The fact that he had marched as far as Vilna, as Vitebsk, as Smolensk, the fact that those cities were also unassailable from Paris, they fully understood. But that didn't change their belief that Moscow itself could not be reached. And I was in full agreement. Of everything I was to see in that long autumn of 1812, despite the almost unimaginable horrors, the most unreal was to be the sight of French troops on the streets of Moscow.
Excerpted from Twelve by Jasper Kent Copyright © 2010 by Jasper Kent. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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