King Stépan IV's pleasure dome at Kragoneidin, on the shores of Lake Polishov

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Prof. Halembique’s second dream pt 3

A revolt in Hum? Jiri’s head was frozen in confusion at the news. How? There had been no clue that this was in the wind, things had been calm just a few days ago. While Jiri struggled to collect his thoughts, the messenger, a cavalryman based in Douma, continued: “…and as well, my lord, Bordurian soldiers forced their way into the monastery of St. Narcissus and arrested several monks. The rebellion broke out almost right away. Lord Drogo, the castellan at Douma, sent me as soon as our scouts could confirm what was going on”.

Jiri began to regain his composure as the messenger spoke. He finally placed the young man as intelligent soldier by the name of Matija, the son of a respectable burger family. That the Bordurians are arresting monks would surely be enough of a provocation for an uprising. Trouble is going to break out everywhere if these arrests are widespread. The cloister of St. Narcissus is in Starisveta, that is about five leagues or so northwest from Douma, near the coast.  It wouldn't take long for news to get that far. “So, Matija, the rebellion broke out once news of the arrests reached Douma? “Er, my lord, the trouble seems to be further to the west, near the border. Our scouts reported that the rabble seized a frontier post and a tax-collector’s storehouse and that men were gathering a day’s march west of Starisveta. Starisveta was teetering on the edge of an uprising when I left and the mood in Douma was very poor but the town was under control” replied Matija.

“This uprising broke out right after the Bordurian insult in Starisveta, but not in the town itself…?” asked Jiri. That makes no sense. If it was simply the arrests themselves that set this off, the uprising wouldn’t be at the frontier but in the town. It seems as if these rebels were already planning to act when the Bordurians brought things to a head.

“How long have you been on the road? Jiri queried. “Two days, my lord. I rode hard and would have arrived earlier but Lord Drogo ordered me to avoid Bordurian patrols and to go around Djordjevaro as well. I had to find a place to swim across the river. Then, I had to stay out of sight of some Bulgar scouts on the road north of Djordjevaro. I think they were following me here”. Matija, now clearly exhausted, relaxed a little and began to look at the remains of the hunters’ feast with glassy eyes.

Jiri steered the messenger to a bench in front of the roast boar and put a wineglass in his hand. “You did well to get this news to me, Matija. You have my thanks. Eat your fill then rest”. Then, he turned to speak to the hunting party, still standing attentively and uneasily in front of their tables. “My friends, our time is short indeed,  We cannot afford to be trapped here, far from Douma. Prepare yourselves to leave. Arrange your saddlery and your weapons and then get some sleep while you can. We will rise and depart before dawn ”. Suddenly left nearly alone, the Italian cook looked disconsolately at the the floor. His pièce de resistance, a spectacular pheasant tart with live birds under the crust, was a cold ruin. The birds had long since nibbled their way out of the crust and were sporting amongst the rafters of the emptying hall. Soon only Matija remained, tucking greedily into a plate piled high.

Jiri napped fretfully that night, thinking about the day to come. He arose two hours before dawn to find many of his men already awake and saddling their horses. Soon all the men were up. Jiri assembled them in the hall to give them their orders. “We are probably under watch by those Bulgars that Matija saw yesterday. So, we will head west through the forest and try to gain some time that way. It is still too dark in the forest for the horses so we will lead them on foot until there is a hint of light in the sky. I’ll travel to Douma with Stépan and a small group of other horsemen so that we can better hide from sight. Muzzle the dogs to keep them quiet, they will come with us for the first few miles. Then you, Joris, you will take the dogs and the men at arms north towards the mountain. Make sure the dogs make a lot of noise up there. I will continue west up the valley, then turn south and go wide around Djordjevaro. The accursed Governor is waiting for us there, so let us avoid him”.

Jiri paused and then continued “The men at arms and members of the household will have to stay here for now and keep up the semblance of a hunt. I will need a volunteer to command them”.

An awkward silence answered Jiri. The Chevalier de Canço stepped forward. He was a short and solid man but who was full of energy and easy motion. The younger knights of Hum looked stiff and straight as boards standing next to him. “You have been a noble host to me, lord. May I offer to repay your kindness by volunteering to stay with your men?”.

Jiri was surprised by the offer “You are very generous, Chevalier, but this is not really your responsibility, I would regret to see you become entangled in Syldavia’s problems”.

The Chevalier replied “If I may be so bold, my lord, I have a little experience of command and with being an emissary. Your young knights include some of your own kinsmen and the sons of Hum’s grand families. They are all liable to be held as captives if taken by the Governor, for ransom or to gain an advantage over you. I am but a pilgrim passing through Syldavia and am of no account here. My voyage to Antioch was required of me by the Archbishop of Toulouse, a Cardinal. It would create a diplomatic incident to detain me, even in Orthodox lands”. Raymond de Canço recalled quickly the events that lead him to this enforced pilgrimage: a couple of ill-judged sarcastic poems written about a powerful man back in Toulouse, the death of a patron, the emnity of the Archbishop and his own precipitous fall from grace. Oh well, c’est la vie. At least I missed that ill-conceived crusade the Archbishop threatened to send me on. And, here I am, in the middle of interesting times here in Syldavia. Things could be worse!

“We are fortunate to have your among us, Chevalier. I accept you proposition. I ask you only to remain here three days, you may then return to Douma when you see fit. From there you may continue your voyage. My men at arms shall be your bodyguards en route, though I will take some crossbowmen with me, the four men with the fastest horses. They should change out of their livery and find some common clothes before we go.

The huntsman spoke up “My lord, my family hails from the hills southwest of Djordjevaro. I know tracks through the hills that can lead you back to the main road south of Rivajow, places where none but shepherds pass”.

“Excellent, that is perfect. We’ll need to keep our eyes open for these groups of rebels as well!” replied Jiri, then turning to address the cook, he said “Leave the table set and keep a fire in grate and meat on the spit, as if we are coming back”. The cook merely rolled his eyes. “Now, let us start out”.

Setting out, the group found that their departure was covered by a thick fog as well as the dark. Later, a couple of miles into the forest, Jiri turned to his party saying "This is where we part. My lord  de Canço, Joris, take your men and the dogs up the mountain, you can now remove the dogs’ muzzles. Stay out all day, return to the lodge with the setting sun. Farewell and good luck to you!”

“Good luck to you on your voyage, my lord. We hope to be back with you soon”.
Joris, the veteran sergeant of the men at arms, stuck his spear on the ground and exclaimed quietly “Hurrah, the Duke!” The men at arms, spontaneously joined in “Long live Duke Jiri!

Back on his hunting horse and moving quickly along the forest trail in early morning gloom with his big black horse trailing behind him, Duke Jiri felt his confidence rising. They were still well hidden by the fog and the gloom and the heavy air stifled even the baying of the hounds, who were falling fast behind them. Even without the light, Jiri knew this terrain well, having wandered it since he was a youth. Pressing on westwards into the valley, he followed a deer path above the banks of the Vepur Kavak stream, whose course ran through a shallow canyon. Jiri suddenly struck off the path and wound down the steep ravine to a ford over the stream. Without hesitating, he spurred his horse into and across the stream. The others hastened to keep pace with him, several less agile riders found themselves quite thoroughly doused.

The group picked up another trail leading into the hills west of Djordjevaro and continued on their way. The huntsman now took the lead, scanning constantly the trail ahead and the hilltops around them. They pounded on long into the day, through forests and bare hills and past shepherds tending their flocks, finally arriving at a large and prosperous farm, the estate of a retired knight and gentleman farmer. Here, Jiri and his entourage took refreshments from the solicitous landowner and requisitioned extra horses. They returned to the trail until the sun began to drop, silhouetting the hill-tops. The huntsman slowed up to draw beside Duke Jiri. “My lord, don’t look now but we are being followed by two horsemen, they are on the ridge to the west and are matching our pace.  They are over-bold, my lord, to have let the sun reveal them so". The huntsman's voice contained a hint of scorn for the horsemen's sloppy pursuit.

“We won’t be able to catch them here in the open, they will just run away if we turn. We will have to try to lose them in the night” said Jiri.

“Aye, lord. That ridge they are on will end in a cliff in a mile or two. We will have to cross a small bridge beneath the cliff and they will have to come down and cross there as well. We’ll be back in the cover of the forest by then. Let me take the crossbowmen and lay in wait for them while the rest of you go on, we can at least force them to walk”.

“All right. Be sharp though. They cannot escape to give a report. Understood?” said Jiri.

“Understood, my lord!” said the huntsman. A grim and crooked grimace cracked his face, which was whiskered and weathered nut-brown by a life spent outdoors. He dreaded a confrontation with soldiers but was clearly excited by the pursuit and the day’s urgency. “Look ahead, my lord. You see that big hill-top a few miles ahead, the one with two rounded peaks and a gully in the middle? Yes? Well, it will be getting dark by the time you arrive in front of it. A little brook flows down from that gully, this track goes right through it. Follow the brook up the hill-side and you will find a little stone hut where you can pass the night in shelter. It will be safer than sleeping by the side of the trail, you'll be able see anyone coming from afar and you can always sneak out the other side of the gully if need be”. We will meet you on the road again in the morning but if all goes awry, follow this track to a river, less than an hour south of the hut. Ford the river and continue south into the lowlands, you will soon find yourself amidst the farmland north of Douma. I’d stay away from the main road as long as possible”.

The two rode on silently with the rest of the troop in a file behind until they crossed the little wooden bridge and were once again enclosed by the shade of the forest. Once well into the wood, the group came to a halt. The huntsman and the crossbowmen dismounted and disappeared into the woods where they tethered their horses in a thicket and then circled back toward the bridge. Dressed in neutral brown, they soon disappeared from view as they took up hiding places near the bridge. Jiri and the rest of his depleted band spurred their horses once again and clattered off down the trail.

The two pursuing horsemen trotted along the ridge top, stopping once they could see the cliff edge. They then turned back in search of a safe route down the slope. Barely two minutes later they arrived at the bridge, one venturing ahead, the other hanging back. Both looked cautiously at the bridge and into the woods beyond, acting for all the world like wolves. They wore loose-fitting belted robes, each with a cap tipped with a feather and carried recurved bows in their hands as they rode. The trailing rider gestured upriver, making a swimming motion with his arms. The lead rider peered into the stream, which seemed deep and fast and the very irregular bedrock slabs of its shoreline suggested that its bottom might be dangerous for a horse’s legs. He looked down the trail into the shaded woods once again and then back to the trailing rider, gesturing to the descending sun which was left unobscured by gaps between the hills and which was now very much in their eyes. The hind rider gestured once again upstream but the lead shook his head and approached the bridge. The hind rider cursed audibly and then approached the bridge as well, watching as the first crossed and then stepping up to cross it  himself.

The sun still in his eyes until the last moment, the first rider disappeared into the shadows cast by the trees and found himself momentarily more or less blind, but he let his horse walk on nonetheless. The second rider had already crossed by this time but he hesitated at the edge of the forest’s shadow to watch his partner ride ahead. At that moment, the lead horse suddenly shrieked and reared back, then fell heavily, throwing his rider. The horse rolled onto its back and convulsed, showing the end of a bolt buried deep in its chest, just beside its heart.  In an instant it went still. The rider too lay still, his head cocked at an unnatural angle as he lay face down in the trail. A second bolt ripped through the air before the nose of the rear horse, passing where the horse would have been had the rider not stopped. The rider stared for just an instant into the dark woods and with a quick and fluid  motion loosed an arrow into the trees. A crossbowman collapsed, gasping and surprised, with an arrow in his chest. Then, cursing again, the rider reigned his horse back savagely, turned on the spot and sprang for the bridge. A crossbowman fired but his bolt but missed as the horse turned with such rapidity. A forth bolt embedded itself in a tree as the last crossbowman, ham-handed, fumbled his weapon at the last moment. Out from the bushes at the track edge jumped the huntsman who nocked an arrow and drew back his bow. Although the rider had dropped down to hang hidden by the side of his horse, both the horse and the huntsman were in the middle of the track, which ran in a straight line. For the huntsman, a very experienced man with a bow, it was not a difficult shot. The huntsman aimed and loosed the arrow, hitting the horse in the flank. The horse reared and turned, forcing the rider to sit up in the saddle to regain control of his mount. The huntsman  knocked and loosed a second arrow, this one hitting the rider in the waist as the horse arrived at the bridge.  The rider twisted, then slumped and finally slid from his saddle and into the stream. The huntsman grimaced once again, shook and looked down at his hands, which trembled madly as they never did while hunting game.

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