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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jiri marches to Starisveta




The early morning found Duke Jiri and his commanders before the walls of Douma, marshalling up their little army for the march to Starisveta.  The force comprised the town’s garrison and the levy from Douma and the surrounding countryside.  Enough newly-called up men were present, sleepy and only a matter of hours from their farms, that the organization of the army proved somewhat chaotic. 

It was, however, a clear morning and it promised to be a fine day for marching.  The light, still a soft gold after the dawn, glinted on the polished metal in the men’s armour, harness and weapons, and picked out the bits of red cloth (the colour of Hum’s flag) they wore .  The army, which was otherwise plain in homespun linen and wool, thereby gained a sparkling, dazzling effect for a moment.  Duchess Franka rode out from the town and joined Duke Jiri and her son Konstantin once the troops were finally in order.  She carried the standard of the Duchy of Hum in her own hands and rode holding it aloft before handing it to Konstantin.  The standard, showing a pair of decrescents, argent, on a field gules, also caught the light, glowing and pulsing as it fluttered at the head of the army.  This was not exactly typical behaviour befitting a Duchess but the soldiers were delighted and cheered the gesture.  Jiri laughed admiringly at how Franka instinctively found a way to take the lead, and to dispel with a grad gesture the anxious murmurings he heard here and there amongst the men …Are we really going to fight? How many of these rebels are there?  When will we come back?..

With a gesture from Duke Jiri, answered by the blast of a horn, the column shuffled into motion.  Franka rode with it a hundred metres before said her farewells.  She murmered a private word to Jiri and clasped his hand, into which she placed her scarf,  as a token.  She then led her horse aside and watched in salute as the column passed her by, before returning in the now quiet and empty-feeling town.  Jiri recognized the scarf, it was one she had let fall before him in a tournament many years before; he had retrieved it and tied it about his lance, the start of their courtship.   He turned in his saddle and tied it to the shaft of his pennon, held by a squire riding behind him. 

The army marched through the day, arriving dusty and thirsty in the late afternoon on a broad plateau near the town of Starisveta.  They caught up to Stépan Gladic’s force of levy soldiers on a high hilltop just northeast of the town. Having already been there a few hours, Stépan had his men fetch water, start campfires and prepare a simple meal for the Duke’s men.  The land sloped away to the southeast, to the sea, from the hilltop. From this vantage point the town of Starisveta was clearly visible, a cluster of red tile roofs nearly a mile away.  Also visible was the ruined, roofless and blackened hulk of the St. Narcissus monastery.  Smoke still issued from parts of it and its bell tower had partially collapsed, taking on the form of a broken and jagged tooth silhouetted against the sky.  Duke Jiri felt cold anger overtake him to see the mess that had been made of the place.  As word of the state of the monastery, one of Hum’s most prominent ecclesiastical sites, spread amongst the army, men lamented and spat in their fury, some crying out against the Bordurians.  Vandals!  Vagabonds! By St Vladimir! 

Stépan Gladic rode up and hailed the Duke  “We were not opposed but my scouts have spotted the rebels are only a few miles away.  I thought it best to find a position we could defend while we waited for you”.  Jiri nodded and gazed moodily once again at the ruin of the monastery.  Stépan continued “Why don’t we go get a look at the damage for ourselves while the men take their rest, my Lord?  The monks are awaiting your arrival, in fact”. 

Jiri agreed and turned his horse to follow the road to the town, with Konstantin and Stépan in tow.  A voice edged with anxiety cried out behind them behind them “My lord , where are you going?   Should we not continue on to meet the rebels before the light fails?  The voice belonged to Pawel Vitros, a Bordurian officer in the command of Baron Dokovic.  He had been sent along with a pair of troopers, to observe the progress of the ducal army and to give a personal report of the encounter with the rebels. The Baron had decided to not accompany the Duke’s army himself, in order to oversee the recovery of his wounded men and to prepare for the anticipated arrival of the major Bordurian force.  Pawel had reason to be anxious, he was a survivor of the force that had been massacred by the rebels and might well have been one of those who had burned the monastery.  He was worried that the sight of the ruined monastery would provoke a negative reaction amongst the soldiers, as was in fact happening. 

Glaring at Vitros, Jiri spoke bitterly “Ritter Vitros, I am going to the church while my men take a well-earned rest.  It seems appropriate to pray for a victory and for the safety of the men.  Perhaps while I am there I should pray for mercy for you and your Baron, who shall one day have to answer to God for the needless destruction of one of His houses…”

Pawel Vitros paled and slunk back speechless through the crowd of ill-tempered soldiers. He set himself up on the edge of the camp with his two underlings but kept his eyes on Jiri and the monastery.

Jiri and Konstantin entered the monastery grounds and saw up close the state of the place.  Few buildings still had roofs and many were completely collapsed or were roofless, the chapel included.  The air was acrid with smoke which still emanated from buildings and piles of charred wood.  A few monks. Their habits filthy with grey ash, worked here and there and animals walked about in groups, having been loosed form their barns before they burned.  Jiri was welcomed by a group of monks who had been attempting to bring down at the roof of a half-burnt barn.  The aged Abbot came out to greet the Duke and, clasping Jiri’s hands in his own, began a long and disconsolate description of the calamity that had befallen the monastery.  He then lead Jiri and Konstantin to the chapel and blessed them, gesturing at the gaping entrance to the roofless sanctuary before turning and withdrawing. 

Jiri walked into the chapel, ash swirling around his feet as he avoided piles of spilled roof tile and burned roof beams.  At the far end of the chapel, a figure moved.  A tall and solid man dressed in a black, travel-stained cloak and hood, seated on a stone pillar base, stood up and hailed Jiri making only the slightest of bows before walking closer.  “My lord Duke!  Welcome, your highness”.  Jiri was taken aback by the man, whose dress resembled that of a monk except for the horseman’s boots he wore, and for his bearing, that of one used to command.  Wary, he drew himself up and looked appraisingly at the man, thinking Franka warned me that one who would be an ally would seek me out – could this be him?   Having come to within a few yards of Jiri, the man pulled back his hood , revealing close-shorn gray hair and a stern face with chiseled features. 

Though it was years since they had last met, Jiri recognised him.  “Velimir Milutin!  he cried.  


1 comment:

  1. Powerful writing indeed! I can almost smell the ashes and burnt wood. I'm looking forward to more!

    ReplyDelete