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

Friday, February 19, 2010

History of Syldavia, Chpt. 4 : Reverie


Professor Alfred Halembique (pictured above) was, during the first half of the 20th century, an historian and world-renowned expert in the esoteric field of sigilography, the study of seals (seals on documents, that is, not those on ice floes).  He became engrossed in the complicated minutiae of Syldavian history later in his career and he was rare among modern-day scholars for the breadth of knowledge of this overlooked subject. Much of what is discussed in these pages is inspired by Halembique’s distillation of records and events into a coherent synthesis.  Halembique delighted in working in the archives of the diocese of Dbrnouk, where the reading room (a large battered table amidst the stacks) had a window opening onto a corner of the town’s market place.  Halembique was a notoriously compulsive chain-smoker and he would sometimes indulge himself with a cigarette by aid of the open window. This was, of course, in a day when libraries had windows that opened but lacked fire alarms.  

One day while ruminating through a very dusty shelf in a long-forgotten alcove, Prof. Halembique put his hands on a coffer of unique and particularly informative documents related to the Abbeys of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladimir (how did those find their way to Dbrnouk, anyway?) and the Venetian administration of Dbrnouk.  These records revolved around certain historical characters who, for the most part, he had previously known only as obscure names.  These characters nevertheless clearly played crucial roles in political events during the opening years of the 13th century.  Halembique found these records to be so vivid that the events they portrayed became almost tangible. At his desk, with his belly pleasingly full after a fine lunch and a glass of something special and warmed by the sun streaming through the window, Halembique let himself imagine these figures as flesh and bone characters as he began to speculate on their motivations.  The cries and smells from the street seemed to recall an earlier time and merged with his reverie.  Halembique then drifted into daydreams where these new personae began to take form before his closing eyes. 

Halembique’s first daydream:

Two figures in monk’s robes hurried towards each other from opposite corners of a dark, arcaded quadrangle.  Through the arches, the lights of numerous torches moving in all directions could be seen, and the cries of anxious men anxious cries echoed, shattering the calm of the cloister.  The two met in the middle of the quadrangle and one, the smaller of the two, gestured to the other, drawing him into the shadow of a stone monument, saying: “Come, over here.  Well, Brother Velimir, what have you to report ?”

The other, a tall and solidly built man whose stride and gestures suggested controlled energy, replied:  “Brother Abbot, two dozen soldiers forced the Abbey gate and entered the inner compound”.  Brother Velimir hesitated a moment, swallowing back the excitement in his throat.  “The brutes made a rough search and took the ledgers from your office, the chapter rolls from the chapter house, a silver altar service and foodstuffs.  They arrested three Brothers and left a dozen of their number as police.  There was a lot of confusion when they tried to leave with our Brothers and a cartload of grain and wine. We have dealt with them." 

“They… are they dead?”  The slighter man stiffened while taking in a sharp breath. 

“No Brother Abbot, mercy guided our hands, and they were not heroes.  Three were wounded but they ought to survive.  They are bound and locked in the cellars. Fully six Brothers were wounded by the soldiers as they entered the Abbey.” 

The Abbot blanched again as he imagined the violence that had suddenly transpired in the Abbey.  He steadied himself against the stone plinth beside him.  After all our planning, suddenly events flood over us.  Are we truly ready?

“My Brother Abbot, this has all happened very quickly but it was foreseen.  The Abbey is secure for now.  But an alarm bell has been rung in the town and the garrison will be fully roused soon”.

“Your family, are they safe?” asked the Abbot.  With his eyes finally adjusted to the dark, the Abbot noticed a large, damp, dark stain spread on the sleeve of his companion’s habit, and then the bright metal chape of a sword's scabbard peeking out from the hem of the habit.  Velimir noticed the Abbot’s gaze, and modestly hid his bloody sleeve and his scabbard amongst the folds of his robe.

“I have already seen to it Brother Abbot, all the families are safely in hiding, outside of Travunje.  The towns folk are already restive – it won’t take much…”

“No, I daresay not.  But what to do now that our hand is forced?  Everything we do now must serve our greater objectives”. The Abbot was regaining his composure and the situation began to become clearer in his mind.  “This isn’t quite the way I wished to launch our plan and I do not like to be rushed.  Our best candidate at the moment is…”

Velimir cut in abruptly “It is Duke Jiri, Brother Abbot, in the circumstances.  We have no idea yet if this rumour about Prince Branislaw has any truth.  It seems so unlikely”

“Yes, indeed, it is surely only a myth.  Nevertheless, we must learn the truth about the legitimate heir.  The Bordurians will use him against us one way or the other if they can.  But, that is for tomorrow.  You and those like you, will you follow the Duke?  The Almazouts were not to be counted amongst the loyal at the last battle…”.  The Abbot looked directly and appraisingly at Velimir, waiting for his answer. 

“No, Brother Abbot” said the Velimir, sighing.  “They weren’t there but they weren’t amongst the conspirators either.  But Muskar … forgive me for saying it Brother Abbott, but King Muskar was no saint either, though he is revered as King”. 

“Hmm, no indeed...”, said the Abbot with a wry grimace.

Velimir continued: “The Duke is a very smart politician.  He will not waste such an opportunity and he knows what it is to be a leader of men.  And, in any case, we were crushed that day and we who lived are aging shadows now.  We are too weak to do this on our own, we haven’t enough men to face the Viceroy in the field.  Duke Jiri has the largest force of men who are not in the hands of the Viceroy already and they are trained well enough; his knights and his crossbowmen are experienced.  So yes, we will follow him, he is our best chance now and for many years, I imagine”. 

“Will you swear to this?” asked the Abbot.  “There can be no change of course midstream, Brother”.

After a pause, Velimir spoke  “Upon my vows, my family’s honour and the spurs granted to me by King Danilo himself, I, Velimir Milutin, rightful Baron of Pivow, swear that I will follow Duke Jiri in battle and as King.  And will you swear to this as well Brother Abbot, to follow Duke Jiri to the throne?” 

“Ah… I do swear it”.

“And will you swear to return the Abbey of St. Stanislaus to its proper life of prayer when all this is over and done, and to leave the sword to the likes of me?”

“I swear it”

Velimir wore a hint of a wry smile on his face as he, a simple Brother, extracted oaths out of an Abbot.  The Abbot, however, sensed an edge of menace hidden in Velimir’s voice as well.  The faint moon light caught Velimir’s short-cropped, grey hair and outlined the bones of his brow and jaw, while hiding the expression in his eyes.  The sight chilled the Abbot for an instant.  In the light of day, Velimir seems such a thoughtful and merciful man, but now he looks as dangerous and pitiless as Death itself.  How many have looked upon this face in their final moments? 

Their vows said, both men breathed in and visibly relaxed a little.

“So, all is now in play” said Velimir quietly, and then he placed his hand on the Abbott’s shoulder.  “There really isn’t a choice, Brother Abbott.  It is either Duke Jiri now or wait for some unknown chance, some other time when perhaps the Bordurians have recovered.  The other nobles are all too young or weak or, like the Duke of Zeta, in the pocket of Surov.  Or, like my family, they have been too long hiding in the woods.  As well, Jiri’s son will be a man to be reckoned with, I think, and worth cultivating.  What of the Venerable Brother Demetrios?”

“The Venerable Brother has already spoken in favour of Duke Jiri, but he is much in his dreams these days.” 

“Yes, I know.  It is sad, he has been in this fight so long.  I give thanks for Brother Demetrios’ strength, but if we do not act on this opportunity we shall all be like him before long, waiting for deliverance in our deathbeds while a foreign tyrant sits in Klow.  I prefer to take my chances now, while there is still strength in my arms.  So, then, shall I send out messages to our outlaw friends?” 

“Yes, Brother Velimir, it is time for them to come back from the woods”. 

“Good.  I…we shall need provisions in quantity very soon, Brother Abbot, and if the Viceroy gets his hands on your flocks first, well, we are done for…”

“I have seen to that, Brother Velimir.  I have already sent word to bring the flocks in and there are ample stocks laid up in the cellars and barns.  How many will come?"

" We can expect, oh, two or three hundred from the hills here in Travunia and another four hundred live on the frontier west of Hum, and more beyond that.  They can be here by the full moon.  My brother and men like him can bring together many more men than that in the Trebjesa valley and in Zympathia - the Viceroy's arm doesn't reach far there.  But they won't be here in time.  We will have to depend on Duke Jiri, my brother initiates and common folk for the bulk of any force."   

The Abbott looked up into the inky night sky where a thin crescent moon was rising.  Alarm bells were ringing out clearly from Travunje’s castle across the town, and lights were visible on its ramparts and in its windows.  Between the clangs of the bells, a growing rumbling murmur could be heard as the streets began to fill with angry townspeople, shouting, banging pots, and brandishing sticks and weapons. 

Velimir looked towards the castle, saying: “By tomorrow morning we will have the castle well under siege.  It won’t last long; those men aren’t strong and they haven’t much stored food”  

“Oh, it won’t come to that, Brother Velimir.  By God’s grace, they will soon find their cistern quite spoiled… It should be pestilent in a day or two, in fact, if things go as they should”.  The Abbot could not hide a sly grin as he spoke.  

This time it was Velimir’s turn to look askance at his companion and to wonder exactly what the Abbot was capable of. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

History of Syldavia Chapter 4 : To arms!

Seeing that a substantial body of men under arms were spontaneously amassing in his territory and sizing up the potential of the moment, Duke Jiri Almazout of Hum decided that the moment had come to strike a decisive blow. He rode out with a strong force of men to meet the rebels.  With a dramatic flourish, Duke Jiri cast his lot in with the rebels and suddenly found himself proclaimed leader of a full-fledged rebel army.  The Almazout family, Dukes of Hum for generations, had followed the earlier Syldavian kings as vassals more or less until the Bordurian invasion, but had not joined the field at the final ruinous battle that extinguished the dynasty.  Their loyalties had therefore been sufficiently murky to escape the Bordurian purge and they had kept their resentment of the Bordurians carefully hidden.  But seeing a crisis coming, and with the political connections to realize what was happening in the abbeys, the Almazouts had also made sure to remain in close communication with the monks of St. Stanislaus.  They had judiciously chosen their moment to act.

Duke Jiri first made a hurried trip to Travunia to organise the jumble of trained soldiers and rabble turning out there and to capture the Bordurian garrison in the town of Travunje.  This he did without much trouble as the garrison was demoralised and poorly lodged in weak fortifications (they had only recently been re-installed there after being expelled from Dbrnouk). The garrison had been effectively held under siege in their crumbling castle by the popular rebellion which erupted when they tried to force their way through the stout walls of the Abbey of St. Stanislaus in search of evidence of rebellion. 

Having forced the garrison’s capitulation and with the region governor imprisoned, Duke Jiri visited the abbey of St. Stanislaus to receive the blessing of the monks.  According to Abbot Remedio’s chronicle Ottocar, Rex regis Syldavinae, Jiri was met by Brother Demetrios, now extremely ancient, blind and bed-ridden. Demetrios gave Jiri his own blessing, reportedly saying “We have waited long in the hope that Prince Branislaw would return.  I fear that this was a vain hope and but by the grace of God another is revealed who his ready to step forward and to take his place.  Let us pray that Duke Jiri may lead the Syldavian people to recover the right and honour we have lost.  O, may God will it that I live to see our victory!”.  With that, Brother Demetrios directed the monks to lead Jiri to the hidden final resting place of Muskar I.  Jiri is reported to have passed a night-long vigil at the shrine praying for a clear plan how to conduct a campaign against the Bordurians.  When he returned to the abbey, Brother Demetrios produced the Mace of St. Vladimir, which had long since been smuggled out of Klow by the monks and so well hidden that few of the monks of St. Stanislaus knew of is presence.  The mace was presented to Jiri in order to rally Syldavians to his cause.  This act in effect granted Duke Jiri the right to claim the throne if he could turn out Syldavia’s occupiers. 

Duke Jiri realised that news of the gathering army of rebels would have reached the Viceroy’s deputies in Klow.  He knew as well that the most direct road to Klow, along the Wladir River, was blocked by the bridge at the fortified town of Djordjevaro.  Passage there would require a difficult siege or a costly assault.  Duke Jiri decided on an alternative plan to bring his force to the enemy.  First, he sent a lieutenant to gather the forces left around Douma and to feign an advance towards Djordjevaro in order to deceive the garrison there into readying themselves for an attack.  Duke Jiri intended to bring the bulk of the army into the highland valleys through the pass of the Sjetinuja River, from Zeta into the eastern end of the Wladir.  This route was long and difficult but was little used and unpopulated.  By following it, Jiri thought that he would be able to arrive unannounced and unopposed in the highlands, and put the Viceroy’s forces into disorder before they could adjust to his presence in their rear.  It was however a dangerous plan should his army be defeated by the Bordurians early on; the retreat of a broken force back through the pass would be a disaster. 

Duke Jiri, his army and its train of wagons, pack mules and flocks of St. Stanislaus’ sheep marched east from Travunje for Zeta.  There they encountered the pretender Branislaw and his small army encamped amidst the smouldering ruins of a newly-pillaged villa near the ancient town of Duklja.  An account of the meeting comes to us from the Rex regis Syldavinae (keeping in mind that Abbot Remedio was not a witness and his habit of sacrificing objectivity for dramatic effect is well known).   The imposter, a wiry man with a sparse beard wearing Byzantine style-armour and a stained purple cloak, approached Duke Jiri and regarded him with an air of suspicion and haughtiness.  About him was a circle of well-armed soldiers; they were all weathered and experienced looking men, dangerous, hungry and, in this moment, more than a little nervous.  The rabble about them consisted of peasants, shepherds and a few men with proper weapons, veteran men at arms.  They were listless and indolent and some wondered why they had as yet only attacked farmyards and not Bordurian soldiers themselves. The impostor brandished a mace and challenged Jiri saying, in the strong accent of Skoder (the region east of Lake Skoder) : “Behold, countryman. I am Branislaw, returned to my people from exile to reclaim what is mine.  By the right of my kingly fathers, I command your allegiance to me and that of your soldiers.  You are welcome in my army.  Join me and we shall take revenge on our oppressors and the traitors”.  He advanced a dirty hand for Duke Jiri to kiss.  

Jiri turned to face his army and replied simply: “O Syldavians, the line of great Muskar is long dead!  But we have the means to rebuild the country Muskar left to us.  Behold the Mace of St. Vladimir with which he vanquished our enemies.  It has been kept for this day so that we may forge anew our country!  Thou art but an Imposter and a Brigand– come take the King’s mace if you dare”!

The imposter’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the mace and at Jiri’s oratory.  Panicked, he lunged at Jiri who struck him unconscious with the mace.  Jiri called for his horse and then, in a gesture worthy of Muskar himself, he offered pardon to any of the imposter’s rabble who joined him and the opportunity to hang with the Imposter to those who would not.  Duke Jiri then marched on to the mountain pass, with his reinforced army trailing behind him and his shepherd-monk-warriors scouting before him.  

Sunday, February 7, 2010

History of Syldavia, Chpt. 3 : The Return of the Venetians, Waiting for Branislaw and Deliverance, sort of…

Ignaz Surov, the viceroy of Borduria, was a warlike, wily and ambitious ruler who was constantly searching for ways to increase the size of his domain and to augment his power and independence. With his suzerains, the Bulgars, on his eastern borders, Surov was forced to look in other directions to independently increase the size of his domain. Syldavia was a natural first target for Surov and, having conquered that country, the troops and taxes Surov raised there enabled him to bolster his army and treasury to the point where he could dare to take on his larger neighbours. Surov began a series of campaigns against Borduria’s neighbours to the south and to the north A campaign against the Byzantine borderlands was a failure. The Empire was still too strong and well organized an adversary and the new Syldavian troops had little stomach for fighting against their former allies. The King of the Bulgars finally imposed a diplomatic “solution” on Surov along with a tidy price for his mediation. Chastened, Surov invaded the petty states to the north. Real gains were made at the outset of this campaign. However, the King of Hungary intervened to see that his client statelets did not meet the same fate as Syldavia. Surov’s ambitions were thus thwarted.

Within Syldavia, Surov attempted to assure the stability of his regime by putting in place a number of his own regional governors over the heads of the nobles. These governors had ultimate responsibility for tax collection, garrisons, policing, and judicial judgments. Many of these affairs had previously been in whole or in part the responsibility of the old noble class, so the Bordurian regime represents a phase of modernisation of the feudal order and of deliberate curbing of baronial power and autonomy. In order to limit the chance of revolt, Surov also stripped many of the old nobles of their positions and lands. Most of these came from the old dynasty’s power base in Travunia, Wladruja and Moltuja provinces. The nobles of more acquiescent regions and those who joined the plot against the previous Syldavian king were largely retained as a reward for compliance.

The Syldavian population in general began to chafe under Bordurian rule, reacting especially to the excessive levies of taxes and military drafts that came with it (the Bordurian war effort was largely financed by Syldavia), the number of good men lost in futile campaigns and the imposition of unfamiliar laws by foreigners. Quite naturally, the disenfranchised nobles and knights were particularly unhappy. Many of them had to accustom themselves to more modest lives as farmers. Those that couldn’t abide such honest work as farming found alternative careers as mercenaries in exile abroad or as merchants in Dbrnouk. Still others joined monasteries or formed dispersed bands of outlaws living in the wild places on the fringes of the kingdom.

With the passage of time expressions of popular dissent became more concrete. Isolated, small-scale rebellions occurred in response to local events, to which the Bordurian authorities responded with the inevitable round of burning, confiscation and executions. The survivors of the altercations hid themselves and eventually fell in with the outlaw bands headed by landless nobles or those of much less than noble temperament. Elements of the Church was subtly and covertly involved as well, as the monastic orders attached to the abbeys built under the Syldavian kings became nests of organised resistance. In particular, the monks of St. Vladimir’s in Klow opened a new abbey in an abandoned cloister in Travunje where they monks could live and work out of the sight of the Viceroy’s staff. Among the senior monks who set up the new abbey was the former royal biographer Brother Demetrios. After the fall of the old dynasty, Brother Demetrios had organised the surreptitious recovery of as many of the skeletal remains of King Muskar as possible; these had been dispersed by Bordurian soldiers as a gesture of desecration. As the new cloister was surely watched, Brother Demetrios re-interred the remains in an unmarked tomb in an obscure chapel in the hills of Travunia that was guarded by the monks. This anonymous shrine was kept a secret, waiting the day when it might help rally the Syldavian cause.

The new abbey was dedicated to St. Stanislaus, the Polish dissident martyr whose dismembered body reputedly re-assembled itself after he was slain at the behest of his tyrannical king. The metaphor was not lost on the monks or on the members of defunct noble houses who quietly drifted in to join the cloister. The real status of these men as true monks is to be open to question as the families of several seemed to have followed them to Travunje and to surrounding villages. As well, many of the new monks do not seem to have replicated the introverted and ascetic way life typical of their more professional brethren. The Abbey owned huge flocks of sheep far in excess of its own needs which they justified as a resource needed to alleviate the hardship of the poor of Travunia. Some of these new monks seem to have been employed as humble shepherds who, working in pairs, lead small flocks to graze far into the hills and highlands. They surely acted as spies and messengers while doing so. It is clear that the Syldavian abbeys had taken on an explicit political function at this time.

Borduria’s hold on power in Syldavia began to slip in 1202 with the arrival of the armies of the 4th Crusade. The Venetian Republic skilfully and cynically used the crusade as a vehicle to speed its own imperialist agenda in the Adriatic. The Venetians and the Crusader generals placed great pressure on the Bordurians to grant the unruly Crusader army free passage through the coastal territory of Syldavia and to pay tribute to the Venetians. The prior brutal sacking of the Dalmatian city of Zadar by the same forces convinced the Bordurians to capitulate. The tribute demanded by Venice was raised through additional and extremely unpopular taxation in Syldavia. The privation caused by these taxes was made worse by the depredations incurred by the not-so-holy-crusaders on helpless Syldavian towns and villages. Despite the fact that the tribute was duly paid, Venice nevertheless exploited its overwhelming force by seizing the prosperous port of Dbrnouk and annexing some surrounding territory (formerly the coastline of Travunia, henceforward termed Ragusia). The Crusader army finally marched on into Byzantium, whereupon the Venetians used it to attack and finally take Constantinople. The infamous pillage and wrecking of that city was a destabilizing shock to the entire region, it blackened Venice’s reputation and was a cause for profound enmity towards the Venetians for centuries afterwards. The malodorous Fourth Crusade thereafter dissolved in chaos without seeing its objectives in the Holy Land. Because of the circumstances of its arrival in Syldavia, it gained very few recruits there. The priests of Syldavia held services of thanksgiving at its departure followed by funereal masses when the news of the catastrophe of Constantinople arrived.

The loss of Dbrnouk and the unwelcome presence of the Crusaders and Venetians all fed the rebellious mood spreading amongst Syldavians. So did rumours of the impending return of the departed Prince Branislaw at the head of a delivering army. Branislaw had become a cult hero; there were in fact several purported Prince Branislaws or heirs thereof hiding out here and there in the forests and mountains and a multitude of small acts of rebellion were attributed to him. The political mood was rapidly coming to a breaking point, with the increasingly strained Bordurians attempting to suppress dissent with ever more force and the people themselves waiting for some new provocation to inspire action.

The awaited crisis came in 1204, when the Viceroy’s spies made clear to him the threat posed by the monasteries. He sent his soldiers into the all of the abbeys, St. Stanislaus’ included, to arrest ex-noble monks and to search for the relics of St. Vladimir, the missing dynastic symbols which he realised were symbols of legitimacy for any future Syldavian ruler. Forewarned by the first arrests in Klow, most of these monks escaped and sought refuge with the outlaw bands, which were often lead by their own cousins. This trespass inflamed the people and popular uprisings broke out in Hum and Travunia. The outlaw bands came out of hiding, disguised as Crusaders to better move in the open and to perplex the Bordurians, and began to marshal themselves near Douma. As well, a second uprising, in Zeta province, was lead by one of the pretenders to the name of Branislaw.

To be continued very soon in Chapter 4...