Just after dawn, Duke Jiri arose with his retinue and descended the mountain. At the edge of the trail, they met Dragan the huntsman waiting with three of the mounted crossbowmen and two horses with empty saddles, one of which limped from a wound in its flank. “Welcome Dragan, you succeeded with the Bulgars then?” asked Jiri. “Yes, we did my lord. There were only two of them in the end. They were a very dangerous pair but we managed to catch both. We had a little luck with the low sun and their carelessness. Piotr was very unlucky, however. We buried him in the woods back near the bridge” replied Dragan.
“Ah, no! That was a brave risk you all took on our behalf, my thanks to you” said Jiri, with regret. After a long pause Dragan continued “We buried the Bulgars in the woods as well and hid the carcass of one of their horses as best we could in the dark. We saved the Bulgars’ clothes and caps as we thought that they might come in handy should we be spotted by another patrol”. “Good thinking, though we will have to be careful not to be caught with them” said Jiri. Dragan, will you and one of the soldiers scout ahead on the trail and wear the robes over your clothes? Dragan donned the robe, muttering “This is bound to be bad luck”.
The group continued on their way towards Douma, winding along at a fast pace through the hills with the disguised scouts well ahead. In the mid-morning, their track encountered a noisy little brook and snaked through its steep-walled and forested ravine. Jiri trotted up to join the lead riders to discuss the route ahead. He was mounted on his splendid black steed, which he had rested as much as possible the day before. Stépan spurred on his horse as well to catch up to the leaders but not before they made a sharp turn and disappeared into the trees.
As Jiri and Dragan talked, the trail made a second sharp turn and then the woods suddenly opened up, revealing a broad open gulch with the brook and the trail running along its edge. Jiri and the two other lead riders were stunned to suddenly see men, numbers of men, two dozen or more, there in the clearing before them. The men were just as surprised to see horsemen suddenly appear in their midst. Some were standing alongside the track, others were lolling about, one group was tending a small number of tethered horses, two others were unloading a cart, still others were setting up a cauldron on a tripod over a fire.
The first to react was a man standing on the trackside who fixed his eyes on the lead riders and cried out “Bulgars! BULGARS!!!” then unslung a crossbow and feverishly began to lever back its bowstring. Jiri’s attention was drawn by the sight of the weapon and then spotted other men bringing out weapons after the cry of alarm. “St. Vladimir! – Men! – Armed Men! – We have stumbled onto the rebels! Knights, to me!” Jiri reached for his sword as Stépan came out of the trees, alarmed by the cries. The “Bulgars” beside Jiri drew their own swords. Stépan began to take in the unexpected and confusing scene before him.
The crossbowman finished cocking his weapon and began to load a bolt while he snarled and shouted at Dragan. A great ginger-haired man with a bill hook stepped up beside the crossbowman, he too was intent on Dragan and then he looked over at Duke Jiri. As he did so his expression changed from anger to recognition and then confusion as he looked questioningly from Jiri to the “Bulgars” and back again. As the crossbowman raised his weapon, the ginger-haired man reached over and pushed it down, speaking to his companion as he did so. Both then concentrated on Jiri and looked anxiously towards him while backing up a few steps. Dragan was frozen, certain that he would meet the same end as the man whose robe he was now wearing had met, ironically by Dragan’s own hand just the day before. Fickle Fate!
Jiri at this point had his sword aloft and was turning in his saddle, crying again “TO ME!!” trying to speed his squad of young knights out of the woods. Expecting a crossbow bolt at any moment, he made his great horse lunge forward and then he reared it back, up on its hind legs. The horse, shrieking and frothing, kicked at the air towards the crossbowman. The man paled in terror and dropped to the ground cowering.
Stépan saw the strange exchange of looks between the rebels, the “Bulgars” and Dragan and Jiri. In an instant of insight he understood that the ginger-haired man had backed off once he recognized Jiri and was now waiting for the Duke to act. Then, hearing the hooves of the knights finally arriving behind him and noticing a squad of crossbowmen preparing their weapons across the clearing (“Its is the Duke!” someone cried), Stépan reached out to hold back Jiri’s sword arm, saying “My lord, don’t stop to fight, it is better to ride on through them. Get out of here”. Jiri glared back at him, furious to be restrained in the heat of the moment, only to see Stépan’s cool and intent eyes looking back at him. “Kinsman, listen to me, everything hangs on this moment, do not stop to fight here. They have missiles. We are outnumbered and unarmoured. We shall be killed if we stay here. Ride on through NOW!” urged Stépan. Jiri looked about quickly, surveying the chaotic situation around him. The ginger haired billman was desperately waiting and bracing himself in a defensive position. The crossbowmen across the clearing were now formed up and were loading their weapons while their chief looked warily back at him.
Jiri reined back his horse and it reared up again while the Duke bellowed “Knights – drive on through, scatter them, do not stop!” He then spurred his horse and sprang straight towards the crossbowman. The man bolted for his life, dropping his crossbow on the ground as he scuttled away. The ginger haired man backed off quickly, he grimly eyed the horse as he kept his billhook pointed vertically to gain some space for himself. The squad of knights, already at a run, caused a stampede among the footmen who expected more horsemen to arrive at any moment. Their flight cleared a wide path in front of the knights. Stépan shouted at Dragan to run after the knights. He then spurred his own horse into action, riding with his sword hand held up open in the air, looking squarely at the apparent leader of the group as he passed. In a few moments, Jiri and his retinue had passed through the clearing and were galloping down the forest track again. The whole standoff had taken but a handful of seconds. Stépan, last in the line, slackened his pace and looked warily back behind him, no pursuit was given.
After a couple of minutes, Jiri halted and called for his retinue to reform about him. Seeing that all were accounted for, Jiri looked to the disguised “”Bulgars” and said with a grim chuckle “Perhaps the disguises weren’t such a wise idea! It would be best to throw those clothes away now. We are approaching home territory anyway”. Dragan, still trembling, sighed deeply “A thousand thanks to you my lord. You and your horse saved my life back there, that man with the crossbow was aiming straight at me. He had no love for Bulgars, judging by the look on his face!”.
“That was a close shave, eh Stépan?” said Jiri, ruefully shaking his head and re-sheathing his sword. “I hate to leave those ruffians free on the road, but they will be ready for us now, we’ll be shot from our saddles if we go back and it is essential that we reach Douma. We will continue on our way and alert the first watch post we see that these men are on the trail” “Aye, lord, we are lucky that they were just as surprised as we were! And that you put the fear of God into that poor fellow with your horse!” replied Stépan. Dragan, beginning to recover himself now, merely whistled from between his crooked teeth.
The group resumed their route, now at a brisk trot. Jiri turned to Stépan and spoke quietly “We were indeed lucky there, we are fortunate that it was not a planned ambush”. Stépan replied saying: “Forgive my presumption back there, my Lord, I saw that there was still a chance to get out of there with everyone alive, but there was no time to explain”. “Hmph. Well, you were right in any case, Stépan, it was a wise choice to ride through. It would have been a bad mistake to get caught in a meaningless skirmish there and it probably would have ended badly for us as you say. But one thing, kinsman, what did you mean by “everything hangs on this moment”? “Er… I spoke in haste, my Lord. I merely meant that we, you in fact, are not yet at war with the rebels. To have attacked them there would probably have committed you to a course of action. Especially if some noble blood was spilled by them… some of the young knights, or you yourself even, St. Vladimir save us! By leaving without challenging them, you might still be able to claim that you and they are not enemies. Maybe even on the same side”.
“Oh well… ally myself with rebels? …a dubious prospect! You surprise me, Stépan, that is a quite lawyerly explanation for a soldier… and a fight with them is certainly likely” said Jiri. “Well, if you ask for my opinion, lord, we would have been cut down had we fought, but we weren’t necessarily in mortal danger at the beginning. That man with the crossbow, the one who started things off? He thought that Dragan was a Bulgar and that we were Bordurians. He was a rebel all right, and he was looking to kill an enemy. But that other fellow stopped once he recognized you. He had no desire at all to attack you and waited for you to show what you would do. There was also some sort of captain with that group of crossbowmen, he recognized you as well and held off firing on you. They weren’t in any hurry to do harm to you, just our “Bulgar” friends. I don’t think that these rebels are your enemies at all. Not unless you make them so”.
Jiri reflected on what Stépan said, and finally spoke. “A curious thing, I didn’t get as good a look at those men as you did but I have the impression that there were a number of seasoned soldiers amongst them. That wasn’t just a rabble coming straight off the farm. And, there are precious few farms around here in any case. These “rebels” are coming from elsewhere, outside Syldavia maybe”. Stépan replied “That makes sense, my lord. A few were wearing traces of what looked like a livery, red and white”. “Red and white – that is the livery of Hum! And of lots of other places” said Jiri. “Yes my lord… it is the livery of the Duke of Zadar as well. Many Syldavians and some of the old exiled nobility went into his service after the conquest...” said Stépan only to be cut off suddenly by Jiri, who said : “...and now that the Venetians and those so-called crusaders have sacked Zara and the Duke of Zara is dead, these exiled Syldavians are now cast to the winds once again. Like that fellow we met on the road a few days ago, what was his name… Gregor Mihailovic, that was it”.
Jiri and Stépan looked at each other as they rode, both arriving at the same conclusions. Jiri spoke “Well, Stépan, I think that we begin to understand what might really be going on with this uprising. These rebels are experienced and desperate soldiers, and Syldavian as well. This is going to be a tough nut to crack...” “Tough indeed, my lord. The Bordurians probably have no idea how tough” replied Stépan, with a hint of a sly smile as some hope began to grow inside him.
That evening the group spent the night at the estate of a trusted nobleman, discussing news of the uprising and of the presence of a new Bordurian force marching south from Djordjevaro. They rose before dawn and rode through Hum’s agricultural heartland, saluted enthusiastically by the people they passed. By late morning, Jiri was relieved to finally see the walls of Douma before him and the sparkling blue of the sea beyond.