Professor Alfred Halembique (pictured above) was, during the first half of the 20th century, an historian and world-renowned expert in the esoteric field of sigilography, the study of seals (seals on documents, that is, not those on ice floes). He became engrossed in the complicated minutiae of Syldavian history later in his career and he was rare among modern-day scholars for the breadth of knowledge of this overlooked subject. Much of what is discussed in these pages is inspired by Halembique’s distillation of records and events into a coherent synthesis. Halembique delighted in working in the archives of the diocese of Dbrnouk, where the reading room (a large battered table amidst the stacks) had a window opening onto a corner of the town’s market place. Halembique was a notoriously compulsive chain-smoker and he would sometimes indulge himself with a cigarette by aid of the open window. This was, of course, in a day when libraries had windows that opened but lacked fire alarms.
One day while ruminating through a very dusty shelf in a long-forgotten alcove, Prof. Halembique put his hands on a coffer of unique and particularly informative documents related to the Abbeys of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladimir (how did those find their way to Dbrnouk, anyway?) and the Venetian administration of Dbrnouk. These records revolved around certain historical characters who, for the most part, he had previously known only as obscure names. These characters nevertheless clearly played crucial roles in political events during the opening years of the 13th century. Halembique found these records to be so vivid that the events they portrayed became almost tangible. At his desk, with his belly pleasingly full after a fine lunch and a glass of something special and warmed by the sun streaming through the window, Halembique let himself imagine these figures as flesh and bone characters as he began to speculate on their motivations. The cries and smells from the street seemed to recall an earlier time and merged with his reverie. Halembique then drifted into daydreams where these new personae began to take form before his closing eyes.
Halembique’s first daydream:
Two figures in monk’s robes hurried towards each other from opposite corners of a dark, arcaded quadrangle. Through the arches, the lights of numerous torches moving in all directions could be seen, and the cries of anxious men anxious cries echoed, shattering the calm of the cloister. The two met in the middle of the quadrangle and one, the smaller of the two, gestured to the other, drawing him into the shadow of a stone monument, saying: “Come, over here. Well, Brother Velimir, what have you to report ?”
The other, a tall and solidly built man whose stride and gestures suggested controlled energy, replied: “Brother Abbot, two dozen soldiers forced the Abbey gate and entered the inner compound”. Brother Velimir hesitated a moment, swallowing back the excitement in his throat. “The brutes made a rough search and took the ledgers from your office, the chapter rolls from the chapter house, a silver altar service and foodstuffs. They arrested three Brothers and left a dozen of their number as police. There was a lot of confusion when they tried to leave with our Brothers and a cartload of grain and wine. We have dealt with them."
“They… are they dead?” The slighter man stiffened while taking in a sharp breath.
“No Brother Abbot, mercy guided our hands, and they were not heroes. Three were wounded but they ought to survive. They are bound and locked in the cellars. Fully six Brothers were wounded by the soldiers as they entered the Abbey.”
The Abbot blanched again as he imagined the violence that had suddenly transpired in the Abbey. He steadied himself against the stone plinth beside him. After all our planning, suddenly events flood over us. Are we truly ready?
“My Brother Abbot, this has all happened very quickly but it was foreseen. The Abbey is secure for now. But an alarm bell has been rung in the town and the garrison will be fully roused soon”.
“Your family, are they safe?” asked the Abbot. With his eyes finally adjusted to the dark, the Abbot noticed a large, damp, dark stain spread on the sleeve of his companion’s habit, and then the bright metal chape of a sword's scabbard peeking out from the hem of the habit. Velimir noticed the Abbot’s gaze, and modestly hid his bloody sleeve and his scabbard amongst the folds of his robe.
“I have already seen to it Brother Abbot, all the families are safely in hiding, outside of Travunje. The towns folk are already restive – it won’t take much…”
“No, I daresay not. But what to do now that our hand is forced? Everything we do now must serve our greater objectives”. The Abbot was regaining his composure and the situation began to become clearer in his mind. “This isn’t quite the way I wished to launch our plan and I do not like to be rushed. Our best candidate at the moment is…”
Velimir cut in abruptly “It is Duke Jiri, Brother Abbot, in the circumstances. We have no idea yet if this rumour about Prince Branislaw has any truth. It seems so unlikely”
“Yes, indeed, it is surely only a myth. Nevertheless, we must learn the truth about the legitimate heir. The Bordurians will use him against us one way or the other if they can. But, that is for tomorrow. You and those like you, will you follow the Duke? The Almazouts were not to be counted amongst the loyal at the last battle…”. The Abbot looked directly and appraisingly at Velimir, waiting for his answer.
“No, Brother Abbot” said the Velimir, sighing. “They weren’t there but they weren’t amongst the conspirators either. But Muskar … forgive me for saying it Brother Abbott, but King Muskar was no saint either, though he is revered as King”.
“Hmm, no indeed...”, said the Abbot with a wry grimace.
Velimir continued: “The Duke is a very smart politician. He will not waste such an opportunity and he knows what it is to be a leader of men. And, in any case, we were crushed that day and we who lived are aging shadows now. We are too weak to do this on our own, we haven’t enough men to face the Viceroy in the field. Duke Jiri has the largest force of men who are not in the hands of the Viceroy already and they are trained well enough; his knights and his crossbowmen are experienced. So yes, we will follow him, he is our best chance now and for many years, I imagine”.
“Will you swear to this?” asked the Abbot. “There can be no change of course midstream, Brother”.
After a pause, Velimir spoke “Upon my vows, my family’s honour and the spurs granted to me by King Danilo himself, I, Velimir Milutin, rightful Baron of Pivow, swear that I will follow Duke Jiri in battle and as King. And will you swear to this as well Brother Abbot, to follow Duke Jiri to the throne?”
“Ah… I do swear it”.
“And will you swear to return the Abbey of St. Stanislaus to its proper life of prayer when all this is over and done, and to leave the sword to the likes of me?”
“I swear it”
Velimir wore a hint of a wry smile on his face as he, a simple Brother, extracted oaths out of an Abbot. The Abbot, however, sensed an edge of menace hidden in Velimir’s voice as well. The faint moon light caught Velimir’s short-cropped, grey hair and outlined the bones of his brow and jaw, while hiding the expression in his eyes. The sight chilled the Abbot for an instant. In the light of day, Velimir seems such a thoughtful and merciful man, but now he looks as dangerous and pitiless as Death itself. How many have looked upon this face in their final moments?
Their vows said, both men breathed in and visibly relaxed a little.
“So, all is now in play” said Velimir quietly, and then he placed his hand on the Abbott’s shoulder. “There really isn’t a choice, Brother Abbott. It is either Duke Jiri now or wait for some unknown chance, some other time when perhaps the Bordurians have recovered. The other nobles are all too young or weak or, like the Duke of Zeta, in the pocket of Surov. Or, like my family, they have been too long hiding in the woods. As well, Jiri’s son will be a man to be reckoned with, I think, and worth cultivating. What of the Venerable Brother Demetrios?”
“The Venerable Brother has already spoken in favour of Duke Jiri, but he is much in his dreams these days.”
“Yes, I know. It is sad, he has been in this fight so long. I give thanks for Brother Demetrios’ strength, but if we do not act on this opportunity we shall all be like him before long, waiting for deliverance in our deathbeds while a foreign tyrant sits in Klow. I prefer to take my chances now, while there is still strength in my arms. So, then, shall I send out messages to our outlaw friends?”
“Yes, Brother Velimir, it is time for them to come back from the woods”.
“Good. I…we shall need provisions in quantity very soon, Brother Abbot, and if the Viceroy gets his hands on your flocks first, well, we are done for…”
“I have seen to that, Brother Velimir. I have already sent word to bring the flocks in and there are ample stocks laid up in the cellars and barns. How many will come?"
" We can expect, oh, two or three hundred from the hills here in Travunia and another four hundred live on the frontier west of Hum, and more beyond that. They can be here by the full moon. My brother and men like him can bring together many more men than that in the Trebjesa valley and in Zympathia - the Viceroy's arm doesn't reach far there. But they won't be here in time. We will have to depend on Duke Jiri, my brother initiates and common folk for the bulk of any force."
The Abbott looked up into the inky night sky where a thin crescent moon was rising. Alarm bells were ringing out clearly from Travunje’s castle across the town, and lights were visible on its ramparts and in its windows. Between the clangs of the bells, a growing rumbling murmur could be heard as the streets began to fill with angry townspeople, shouting, banging pots, and brandishing sticks and weapons.
Velimir looked towards the castle, saying: “By tomorrow morning we will have the castle well under siege. It won’t last long; those men aren’t strong and they haven’t much stored food”
“Oh, it won’t come to that, Brother Velimir. By God’s grace, they will soon find their cistern quite spoiled… It should be pestilent in a day or two, in fact, if things go as they should”. The Abbot could not hide a sly grin as he spoke.
This time it was Velimir’s turn to look askance at his companion and to wonder exactly what the Abbot was capable of.