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

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jiri receives an unexpected omen on the road to Douma



The morning following his encounter with the returning Syldavian exiles, Duke Jiri set his newly-expanded army marching back toward Douma.  Jiri rode at the head of the column where he chatted with Count Josip Marklin and a few of the other exile leaders who he had invited to join him.  East of Starisveta, Jiri’s route back to Douma brought them through a range of low but rough and rocky hills.  There, the ancient Roman-built road wound along a steep-sided ravine cut by a fast and shallow stream.  Rounding a bend, Jiri’s army approached a gorge created by an imposing cliff on opposite side of the ravine.  Less than a hundred yards down the road, at the far end of the cliff, was a small bridge.  Merely a few yards away, however, was an old woman in ragged clothing at the side of the road above the stream.  Taken by surprise, she turned quickly to look warily at Jiri and his men and then stood aside to give them space to pass.  She had been watching a flock of goats on the opposite side of the narrow ravine and a young shepherd who stood on the hillside opposite, above the ravine.  The goats too were taken by surprise by the sudden arrival of the men, their big horses and their jingling harness.  A very big buck and a few kids had begun to venture out into the centre of the cliff while the dams and most of the kids hung back.  All froze and turned their heads to gaze at the men and horses.

Alarmed, the kids on the cliff nimbly turned and scrambled back to their mothers, who herded them to safer ground up the slope toward the shepherd.  The buck, however, hesitated, taking one fateful step further into the cliff face.  Then, after looking back at the departing kids, it too turned back.  However, it was a big and ageing beast with think flanks and both stiff legs.  While it turned, its back pushed against the cliff face.  Seeking to regain its balance, the buck dislodged the rocks under its hooves, knocking them into the gorge.  The buck scrambled to keep its footing, its hooves scraping in vain an instant against the loose rock, and then he too slipped, cartwheeling, into the gorge, crashing into the rocks edge of the stream in front of the dismayed onlookers. 

The old woman gasped as the buck fell. One of the men with Jiri cried out "Ha! A pair of silver crowns says that brute of a buck gets up !  Have you ever seen such a beast?"

The buck did struggle to get up, but its foreleg was clearly shattered and he finally stopped, lying back down in the water and trembling.  The old woman cried out a second time when she saw him maimed: "Oh no – my poor buck! He is finished! Who will lead my goats through the snow this winter?"

Jiri looked down at the buck and its ruined leg, and then motioned to a mounted archer to finish the animal off.  Turning to the old woman, Jiri said "Your animals took fright because of us, ma’am.  It is not my wish that my passing should bring you misfortune.  Please accept this compensation.  It should be enough to buy you a fine buck or two."  Jiri dismounted and handed the woman a handful of silver crowns.

The woman took the coins, looking warily with a cloudy eye at Jiri as she pushed back her stringy hair and bowed.  "Thank you, my lord, you shall save my flock and my family.  We were trying to lead the flock to the bridge so that we can go to the market.  Fate!  None of us can escape it when our time is up."   The woman then gazed distractedly down at her ram, which was now lying still, his battered and sun weather-bleached horns peeking like crescent moons out of the reddening water.   She then spoke again, cleverly to Jiri : "You are the Duke, yes?  This is your omen, my lord.  For a gold crown, I will read it for you, I will ."  She poked a crooked tree-root of a finger at Jiri as she spoke and nodded. 

"What?"  replied Jiri, astonished. 

"The old gods still live in these hills, my Lord.  They know the fates of men and sometimes it pleases them to reveal them to us, if only we know how to listen.  A gold piece, my lord – I’ll read your story for you. Men like you seem to always want to know what is lies in store for them…".  A few of the riders with Jiri crossed themselves, a few others pulled out evil eye beads and murmured prayers. 

Jiri too was suddenly chilled by the insistent and weather-beaten woman, but he was certainly superstitious enough to want to know what she saw for him as he set out to fight the Bordurians.  Besides, with his men and the exile leaders all around him, he knew that he could not seem too fearful of what she had to say.  This had better be good news, or else there will be second thoughts through the army within the hour… and she had better not make a joke of this either…  Jiri thought to himself.

"Here is you money, woman, what do you have to say, then?"  Jiri kept his back to his men and steeled himself for her story. 

Pointing down at her dead and bleeding buck with its horns still arching above the water, and then at the Ducal flag which fluttered behind Jiri.  She exclaimed "Two white crescents against red – the buck is YOU, my Lord."  A few soldiers nodded in assent "Yes, its true - the horns are Duke's the two white crescents."  The woman continued: "He was always a strong brute and so damned proud and stubborn!" Some of the men snickered at this and Jiri squirmed a little.  "But, so strong as well and he always knew his way in the worst of weather and snow.  That buck was as sure-footed as any animal I’ve even, he never put a foot wrong in his life until today.  But goats are so…hard to predict … sometimes.  He changed his mind and tried to turn about when he should have gone straight on across that cliff.  He would be waiting for us at the bridge now if he had bone that ". 

"You, lord Duke, you too are poised on a cliff.  No matter what, tough footing, your dams and kids going off somewhere else behind you, you can’t turn back now OR YOU WILL FALL!"  The old woman wagged her crooked finger again at Jiri’s face, as he blanched and recoiled a little.  He didn’t back off quickly enough however, as she grabbed his cloaked shoulder with an unnaturally strong hand and forced him to peer down into the gully, pointing at her buck with that boney finger.  "Look hard at his carcass, my lord.  His head points to the north but his broken leg points to the east.  That is the way he should have kept on going.  Your fate, great lord, is that way, to the east."  The woman released Jiri the then made a grotesque sort of curtsey "Thank you, my lord, for listening to an old woman. That is all I have to say.  Good Day!" she said, and then scuttled up the bank on the other other side of the road, where she seated herself behind some trees and counted out her money. 

Brushing himself off and bemused, Jiri remounted his horse and gave the order to resume the march.  "On to Douma.  And Travunje!"  

3 comments:

  1. Cheers, AJ.

    I should note that this last scene was inspired largely by one of your comments here. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad to be of service, Jim. Being an inveterate punster, I'd probably entitled the above post "The buck stops here." ;)

    ReplyDelete