Prof. Halembique stirred in his chair, let out a long exhalation, and then settled back into his chair and his dream. (Please note that this story precedes that related in the post of Feb. 10).
Jiri Almazout, the Duke of Hum, departed from his home in Douma to go hunting on a family estate at the northern frontier of the Duchy. For a self-respecting Duke (that is to say, a man who goes to bed at night thinking it possible that he will be king by morning), Jiri was travelling as lightly as he could. He had with him only his favourite horse, a very imposing, well-muscled and nervous animal with a gleaming back coat, his hunting steed and a small party consisting of a guest (a visiting French knight on pilgrimage to Jerusalem), a handful of apple-cheeked and enthusiastic youthful noble companions, a more sober kinsman who was a long-time member of his personal retinue, his falcon-holder, a huntsman, an equerry, an Italian cook, a small troop of mounted men at arms and crossbowmen (one can’t trust the roads with all the outlaws about these days) and two well-laden carts each pulled by four fit horses to keep the pace. Jiri hadn’t made the substantial effort needed to go to his hunting estate in over a year, so he thought it wise to bring some creature comforts as the pantry and the wine cellar there were bound to be in sorry shape.
After one day on the road, the party encountered a man dressed in dusty clothes tending a donkey cart with a broken axel. Sitting nearby in the shade of tree was an aged man resting on a bed of hay, while a large and healthy horse patiently munched grass by the roadside. Even though he was working alone, the man had managed to jack up the cart with rocks and had evidently used the horse, tied to the cart, to help him lift it. Jiri hailed the man, who bowed somewhat nervously before the Duke. He replied “Good day my lords, please forgive us for blocking your path, we have cracked the axel on a rock”. One of the younger nobles snickered impatiently at the man’s predicament but Jiri felt an instinctive sympathy for him. He dismounted and asked the man his business while inspecting his horse approvingly. The man with the cart replied quickly “M’lord, my name is Gregor Mihailovic. I am heading to Travunia with my aged father. He is unwell and wishes to see his old home again and to pray at his father’s church before he dies”. Jiri approached the old man to pay his respects; propped up against the shade tree, the old man bowed his head and gestured a little awkwardly in return. “M’lord, he murmured. Jiri saw that despite his fraility, the old man had a large frame, big strong hands and a rock-cut jaw, he was undoubtedly a strong and impressive man in his day. He had multiple linear scars across his face, as if he had been slashed at with a sword long ago.
Jiri removed his riding gauntlets and stepped forward to take one side of the wheel that Gregor Mihailovic was trying to remove. “Come on, lets get you back on your way. My men and I can try to repair your cart”. The young knights of the hunting party, taken by surprise by their Duke, scrambled to dismount and to take a hand with the cart. Before long, they had lifted out the broken axel while Jiri’s huntsman, a handy fellow, began to trim a stout pine trunk to fit the wheels. After an hour of work, the huntsman and Gregor Mihailovic succeeded in putting the cart back together again.
“Well”, said Jiri, “I think that you should be able to get to the next village with that, if not all the way to Travunia. Your father is an old soldier I take it?” Gregor Mihailovic replied “Yes, M’lord, many years ago in the service of King Danilo”. “Ah, you have been living abroad then, for forty years or so, I suppose?” asked Duke Jiri. Gregor Mihailovic answered “Er… yes M’lord, there wasn’t much left for my father in Travunia after… um…the battle so he went abroad. We have made our living working the soil for some years now”. Jiri reflected quickly on the wave of immigration of the adherents of the house of Muskar that had followed the Bordurian conquest and felt some pity for the pair before him. Both he and his uncle, the old duke, had sheltered others in similar circumstances. “Well, I bid you a safe journey though I can’t say that you will find your home when you reach your destination”. Jiri paused a moment before remounting and pulled a small sack of coins from a pouch on his belt. “Here, take this Gregor Mihailovic. Your road is likely to be long and your father deserves comfort and prayers along the way. Should your journey come to naught, present yourselves to my court at Douma. We always have need of… good farmers in Hum”. Jiri left the purse in the hands of the dumfounded Gregor Mihailovic who stammered his gratitude.
The Duke spurred his horse onto the road and his entourage followed. After a few minutes he turned to his lieutenant and asked “There is more to that man and his father than this story about simple farmers. Tell me, Stépan, your family fled Travunia after the fall of Wastrelmir, do you know of a knight named Mihailovic who survived the last battle and went into exile? Stépan, the dour officer, thought a moment and finally replied “My lord, Mihailovic is a common name, but there was a knight, Lazlo Mihailovic, in the retinue of Count Konstantin, the king’s cousin and one of the deposed lords of Travunia. I believe that he survived and went into exile. He found service in the retinue of the Duke of Zadar, I think. Why do you believe that he was a knight my lord?” “That mare was not bred for pulling ploughs, Stépan. She had a curious brand on her flank, did you see it? Like a trident or a fork I think”. “Oh, like a claw perhaps, My lord?” replied Stépan, holding up his hand with his fingers displayed into a crooked imitation of a claw. “Yes, that is it” replied Jiri. “That would make some sense my lord. That is the claw of the Falcon of Travunia” said Stépan, referring to Travunia’s coat of arms. “It was often used by the knights who held fiefdoms allotted by the Duke of Travunia, as my father did". Jiri turned in his saddle to look again at the cart and its curious passengers but it was already out of sight.
During their third day on the road, the Duke’s party found themselves before the town of Djordjevaro, where the Wladir River passes through a shallow gorge across which one of the river’s few bridges was built. The bridge, originally constructed the Romans, gave Djordejvaro great strategic importance and accordingly the town had long been fortified. Gatehouses were situated on both ends of the bridge and a keep, built of stone stained black by time and weather, loomed forebodingly over the town and the river.
Control of the town and of the bridge had originally been one of the cornerstones of the power of the Almazout family, although their official duchal seat was in the coastal town of Douma. The Bordurian Viceroy Surov, had also noted the strategic importance of the town and appropriated it as a vice-regal domain, using it as the central military barracks and administrative centre for the province of Hum. Jiri’s uncle, who was Duke at the time of the Bordurian invasion, did not have the power to resist this appropriation and counted himself lucky to have avoided being deposed and dispossessed as had been his neighbour Dukes. Nevertheless, the expansion of the governor’s powers at the expense of his own grated at Jiri; the governor was now the chief magistrate of Hum, the chief recipient of its taxes and in control of the largest military forces there. Jiri’s control effectively was limited to the coastal region and the northernmost edge of Hum, the destination of his present journey. To add insult to injury, the Governor was in fact technically his inferior. He was the son of Baron Petar Nikolic , who as Baron of Djordjevaro and liege of the old Duke, had independently plotted with the Bordurians and ingratiated himself with the Viceroy to the extent he was made Count and then Governor of Hum at the Duke’s expense. Jiri recalled the old Count as a treacherous, ambitious and insolent man; he was believed by many to have been the person responsible for the ambush and disappearance of Prince Branislaw on the eve of the fall of the Muskar’s dynasty. His son, the present Count and Governor, was an even more insufferable upstart and schemer.
Crossing the bridge, Jiri cast his eye on the fortification walls and the teams of masons and labourers who toiled on the walls amidst a dubious spider-web of scaffolding. Jiri had received reports that fortifications were being improved but the scale of the work nevertheless surprised him. Carts of stone were being unloaded and their contents piled at the foot of the walls. Other carts brought quantities of lime, sawyers worked on great tree trunks, stonecutters trimmed blocks into shape. Men wearing livery of the viceroy’s army worked as labourers under direction of masons and at deepening the dry ditch. Viewed from the south, from the river, the fortifications were high and substantial and new archery galleries on top of the gatehouse turrets gave sweeping fields of fire over the bridge. Jiri calculated that with the improvements it would take siege works and engines to take the gatehouse; a direct assault across the bridge, previously merely extremely difficult, would now entail catastrophic losses.
Jiri and his party were challenged at the gatehouse by a swaggering Bordurian sergeant who demanded their business. Jiri swallowed back his sudden anger at the impertinence of the soldier. His lieutenant Stépan stepped forward replying in terms as icy as possible “Are ye blind, man, do ye not see the standard? Make haste to open the gate, for the Duke awaits!”. The sentry stiffened a little when he ventured to look up and saw the duchal pennon on an upright lance, but dug in his heels. “Pray wait a moment, my master the Castellan will wish to speak to my lords”. He called out to a second soldier to man his post and scurried off.
Duke Jiri passed a few more uncomfortable minutes awaiting the Castellan, during which he watched the Bordurian soldiers at their work. They were not so very skilled labour after all, it seemed. Jiri chuckled and then suppressed his laughter as he heard a crash of falling stones followed by a shout and a mason ripping into a clumsy soldier with a very choice selection of Syldavian curses. The mason railed on about the uselessness of the workers and of the job itself, declaring that the old wall should be pulled down before it was built higher. He reflected that his own uncle the previous Duke was more than somewhat dilatory in the maintenance of his fortifications. Jiri looked more closely at the walls of the gatehouse, and now noted gaps in the mortar and long cracks running through the masonry. Indeed, thought Jiri, the walls may be getting higher but they are not getting any stronger.
Finally the Castellan arrived and a few more uncomfortable minutes were passed in a thorny dance of superficial courtesy and obstinate insisting on rules and rights, the Duke’s party passed through the gate and through the town. The Duke despised travelling through Djordjevaro because the Governor made an administrative necessity of making clear the extent of Bordurian power within his duchy. The Castellan, appointed by the Governor, was an old Bordurian soldier, smug in his office, massively solid and squat like a old tree stump, just as intransigent and rotten on the inside. It could have been worse however, if the Governor had been there. Finally clearing the gate on the other side of the town, Jiri swore the air grew fresher. He looked backed at the black-stained tower of the keep and noted that on this side of town, the walls were being left untouched, as they had been for years.
A hour beyond Djordjevaro, the party turned west off the main road and crested a high hill, suddenly gaining a sweeping view of the long range of mountains which stretched rampart-like several kilometres off to the west, marking the northern frontier of the duchy. The valley bottom and mountain slopes were forested, with isolated fields clustered about dispersed villages the only obvious signs of habitation. Jiri could see however the clearing where his hunting lodge was built and even a plume of smoke which showed the place had been prepared to receive him. Jiri began to long for a meal and a chance to think about the things he had seen on his long trip.