Book: Here and Now



Henry Lion Oldie

Here and Now

The Songs Of Peter Sliadek – Prologue

A road should be observed from a bird’s eye view. It’s very beautiful – a road from above. No dust, no potholes; a cheapjack went along, lost a ribbon. Take it, braid a girl’s hair. The roadside flows with July honey, February cream, November gruel, May’s motley wave. Callosities, weariness, a hedgehog in the breast remained below, on a road – a bird above the road wouldn’t understand it. To it, to a martin-hawk, to a skinny little bird or to a sharp-beaked bully, the road seems to be the most wonderful thing in the world. How different from this road is an everyday sky: the wings tremble, the enemies don’t rest, an arrow awaits, in the cloud it’s cold, above the cloud – no food... That’s why birds squint enviously at silly wayfarers: just look at them walking!..

People should be observed from afar. Out of a window, for instance; still better if the window is at the very top of a tower. It’s very absorbing: people from a distance. A knight doesn’t smell of garlic and booze, a princess doesn’t seem to be a bitch pregnant from a stableman, and those you come across never try to give you a smack in the teeth with their fist instead of sharing wine during a rest. Small men carry pick-a-back small stories – lying, contradictory and momentary, gathered together in a spinner’s yarn. Thread after thread, they weave the tapestry of one big and wonderful Story. Sit in the tower, look out of the window, admire it. What a pity that there are draughts in the tower, the roof leaks, mice rustle in the corners, and at night fears sit on the edge of the lonely bed. In such a case the knight’s stench will pass for valour, and the bitch-princess or any other wench from Lesser Brubulanz will pass for luck, if only she be warm and freckled. You drag yourself to the window in the morning, glance at the ones below and even choke from the cold in the pit of your stomach: just look at them walking...

Life should be observed from aside. From heavenly heights, that is. Then it looks like a fully accomplished and harmonic artifact, a creation of a winged genius, not like a total mess made by some simpleton. Looking from inside you’ll discern nothing in life clearly. Vanity, vexation of the spirit, crumbs in a crumpled sheet; some gather stones, other cast them away, while yet others sincerely love their neighbour with that stone – on the head. And above all – you cannot look at the conception. You cannot perceive it as a whole. You snatched a crust? Chew it, choke on it, and don’t open your mouth for the whole loaf. Not for you loaves are baked.

So why is it that don’t you manage, don’t succeed: a road – from above? People – from a window? Life – from aside? If it’s so much better? Cleaner? Lovelier? You go, raise dust, cough, wonder at yourself. Roll along stupid thoughts in your head. The thoughts rumble, rattle, jump like wagon wheels on potholes. You look from behind your hand: is it still far? Yes, it is.

It’s good that it is far.

What is far – looks much better from here.

Here and Now

The choice is always left to us.

The choice is always left behind us.

We move forward, we hurry, but have we enough courage to interrupt our moving, to stop, subduing our fear, and to turn our back to the danger or the luck which are always in front of us, while turning our face to our choice, which always, forever, inexorable and invisible, is left to us – and behind us?!

The last note in the diary of Byarn the Pensive, a mage from Holne

For a naked sword

Now –

Is the only word.

Nery Bobovay.

“With what?” the taverner’s face turned red.

“With songs,” repeated Peter Sliadek, stunned with his own impudence. “I’ll pay with songs.”

The taverner walked among the tables. Fat, stout, he was moving with a waddle, reminding a loaded wagon at the Kichora road. Arms like hams. If he slaps you on your ear with this...

“A bowl of sauerkraut,” drawled Jas Misiur pensively, looking around his tavern as if he had seen it for the first time. “Two bowls. Full over the brim. Five black sausages fried in honey. Pork liver with caraway seed. Three mugs of beer. The red one, odd-even...”

“Four. Four mugs.” Peter Sliadek always considered himself an honest man.

“Aha, four. And a bed. So, odd-even, with songs?!”

A morning was making its way through the narrow windows. A kitten was playing on the floor with pink sun feathers – hunting, murmuring. Then, having forgotten its play at once, began to wash itself, its shaggy tongue flitting. Peter envied the kitten. It is fed for purring...

“In the evening people will come,” he said, scarcely believing his own words. “I’ll sing. They’ll give me groshes. Many. And I’ll pay.”

“Why didn’t you gather some yesterday?”

“Yesterday there were no people.”

“And today there will be?”

“Today there will be.”

He badly wanted to get up. But he understood: a vagrant, skinny as a stick, would look ludicrous near Misiur, fat from ham-eating. A pole near a barn. A carp near a full grown cat-fish. He would decide I want to run away...

“If you’re about to hit me,” in Peter Sliadek’s voice there was heard dull, habitual despair, “then do it. You’ll feel better. Just not on the ear. To become deaf for me – worse than death. And don’t touch my music.”

He pushed slightly with his leg his “music” – an old, shabby lute wrapped into a motley rag – farther behind the table.

“Like I need your songs...” the taverner muttered. “Like I need your groshes...”

“Today is Saturday. People will come...”

“Like I need your ears...”

Peter felt sudden cramps in his belly. Yesterday it was a Friday evening. And – an empty tavern. Except for a frontier guard, a company officer according to the cords on his uniform, who had come from Rahovez with a lady. His wife, apparently. They were given the best room upstairs. Now the noble pair was sitting by the window, eating pancakes with honey and sour cream for breakfast. The lady was listening to the conversation, if one could call so Jas Misiur’s fair claims and Peter’s counterproposals. The lady was smiling, kindly, with sympathy. Maybe if he were to be beaten she would demand to stop it.

Or she would not.

Ladies, they have a weakness for shows.

Rather, he could count on the mercy of another guest – a tall man wrapped in a cloak. A staff with a knob, standing bored near the wall, showed its owner was a mage. Mages don’t like violence. So it’s said... Peter couldn’t recall who said so and why. Maybe he just badly wanted mages not to like violence. For them to intervene, to protect, to save. He knew this ill feature in him: to devise something and to believe in it at once as if it were gospel truth.

The taverner came closer. Peter shut his eyes, waiting. Just not on the ear. His left ear had been hard of hearing through the winter after the affair in Legnitz.

He couldn’t refrain from getting up. When you stand up it’s easier to bear it.

“Like I need your groshes...” repeated Jas Misiur. “A fool you are. A trouble-doer. A troubadour, odd-even... Sit down.”

Without opening his eyes Peter sat down on the bench again.

“My daughter says: leave the tavern. That is, odd-even, you sell it and move to us, to Rahovez. To nurse the grandchildren. In the evenings you’ll be walking along the quay – with a cane, like an honest citizen. Not you’ll be pouring wine, but someone else will be for you. That’s true: I have a money-box, some savings, my son-in-law is of a high rank, he’ll help... Enough for the rest of my life. But without my tavern I’m... Well, tell me, a goose of passage you are, who am I without my tavern?”

The kitten rubbed itself against Peter’s leg, and the vagrant nearly jumped up. He thought someone was already beating him. It’s the worst thing – at the legs with boots. With a wooden sole, too! After that the road is like hell.

“Sit, noodle. With his songs... What sort of songs?”

“There are merry ones. Bawdy ones, if you need. For ferrymen.” Under his eyelashes there reigned plausible darkness. There swarmed unrealisable hopes, promising to become realised. “Rafters like bawdiness. Dances: ovenzek, kozeryika... Then there are noble ones: about knights, about vows. I can sing a ballade about the battle of Osobloga. I’ve composed it myself...”

He wanted very much to make an impression on them. After all, today was the sixth anniversary of the battle.

“Composed, he did,” the taverner laughed, and there echoed a deep snicker from the side. The officer, apparently. “He posed, posed and composed. Magpies chirred for him, odd-even...”

Peter felt insulted. He opened his left eye: “That’s for somebody else – magpies. And I’ve seen everything. I was in the Home Guard, on the slope. I had a spear – a big one. With jags. They had given spears to all of us.”

“Don’t,” said the officer suddenly. “Jas, not about Osobloga. Leave the guy alone. I’ll pay for him.”

“He’ll pay,” the taverner’s bass crackled with a strange, a bit impudent smirk. “He’ll pay me, odd-even... Make me happy for the rest of my life. Walking along the Rahovez quay with a cane I’ll be: tap-tap, tap-tap...”

Peter Sliadek wondered silently at Jas Misiur’s courage. A plain taverner – yet he isn’t afraid to talk this way to a frontier guard... It looked as if he wouldn’t be beaten up. To ask for some porridge? Maybe he’ll show a bit of generousity... Cooked buckwheat, with lard...

However, instead of buckwheat Peter decided to get insulted for good and all.

“It’s a good ballade. Very good. I’ve done my best. When I sing it, everyone asks to repeat. And clap their hands. Here, this is about the Stooped Knight, how he was fighting over Siegfried of Maintz...”

Tapping with his heels and diligently thumping the rhythm on the table edge, Peter began in full voice:

“Having leaned against a trunk,

On en’my’s shade he trod,

Dying like a day,

To life returning like a night,

And the thinnest skin layer

There on his back burnt,

Between the spine and the tree

It was tearing apart.”

The officer’s laughter was an answer to him. The lady echoed sonorously, clapping her hands clothed in travel gloves. The taverner Jas was droning like a bell. Even the lanky mage deigned to smile with the corner of his mouth. The kitten, scared, leaped away to the stairs, bent its back and hissed.

“Hey, wife! Porridge for the singer! With goose cracklings! Why, you did amuse us, odd-even...”

“Have you really been at Osobloga?” asked the officer suddenly, getting up. In his bird-like, piercing eyes there was a question much more serious than it could seem at first glance. Only that Peter couldn’t understand why the officer gave such importance to this. “Don’t you be afraid, answer honestly. If you lie, I won’t punish you. Have you?!”

“I have...”

“With a spear on a slope?”

“With a spear.”

“Whose standard was there to the left of you?”

“The prince’s. Of Razimir of Opolie.”

“Why, you don’t lie... And what where the thoughts?”

“Whose? The prince’s?!”

“Yours.”

“When?”

“Then. On the slope.”

Peter felt irresistible need to answer the truth. This happened to him rarely and almost always ended with beating. “I felt pity. That I’m on the slope, and they are on the other shore. The Stooped Knight, and Jendrich Dry Storm, and everyone. Were I in their place... I couldn’t see well. But I was looking... I’ve been there, honestly. We were driven through the ford afterwards.”

“Killed?”

“Yes,” Peter Sliadek frowned gloomily. “My spear... In his belly, running; and he made “hah” and died. The rest I don’t remember.”

“Tell the boy, Jas,” nodded the officer, staring straight at the taverner. “I see your tongue’s dancing in your mouth. You want to, so tell him. We’ll wait upstairs. When Seingalt arrives, let somebody announce us.”

The stairs creaked under his feet.

The taverner was looking at the floor for a long time. Then he raised his eyes at the tall mage. The mage nodded subtly. Peter was nervous: he didn’t understand what was happening, and odd things always threatened to turn to bad ones. To snatch his lute and escape?

Were it not for the promised porridge that had appeared in front of him, Peter would have escaped.

But the porridge... with goose cracklings!..

“Eat, noodle. Look at him – trod on the enemy’s shade, odd-even... You saw yourself – the tavern’s empty. Today it will be empty, and tomorrow too. People know when father Misiur doesn’t want to see nobody. And then you turn up. I looked at you: skinny, ribs stick out, only the eyes burn. I think – all right, I’ll feed him. It’ll go on my account in heaven. Like this chicken you were,” the taverner nodded at the mage, and Peter wondered once more at Jas’ odd courage. And also at the strange comparison.

Nothing in common!

“Only that you disturbed me, lad. Troubled my soul. Well, listen. If there’s not enough porridge, I’ll tell to bring some more...” 

* * *

The smoke over the Pshesek’s outskirts was well seen. The tavern stood on a hill, above the crossing of the Kichora and Wrozlav roads – a busy place, and the village where Jas Misiur used to buy provision could be seen distinctly. There, shots of flame. They are burning down Pshesek, sons of bitches. Thanks to the Blessed Virgin, they are doing it reluctantly, lazily. Were it not for a skirmish at Toad Hill, they would give up on it. But now... The taverner was looking from behind his hand, racking his brains in guesses: who had risked grappling with the fighters of the Maintz margrave? Somebody from Opolie’s frontier guard that had been beaten at the border? Not likely. The frontier lads took to their heels, they’ll run away till Osobloga. But now the Maintz men, angry like a devil on Christmas, will vent their fury on this village. It will be good if they do without slaughter – rape a dozen of women, beat up some husbands, rob some cellars...

“What’s on, Jas?”

“A holiday, wife. A holiday it is. Soon we’ll be dancing kozeryika.”

His wife began crying, sweeping her tears with the apron. Never mind, let her. Better now than later on. By midday they’ll get to the tavern, the villains. Then they need to be received, pleased, doused with beer. Maybe they won’t burn it down. But first – to take Lukerda to the hideout: they’ll spoil the girl, these devil’s spawns, and who’ll need her, spoiled? And, save God, carrying a bastard, too...

Honour can’t be cleaned by a dowry.

“Jas, they’re riding!”

The taverner peered, blinking. Riding they are. The horses worn out, barely moving. Five riders on three horses. Who the hell they are? Not alike Maintz men, those have well-fed horses, and riders too...

“Jas, ‘tis Jendrich!”

What a sand-blind. Only now did Jas Misiur recognize the man sitting sideways on a chestnut mare to be Jendrich, nicknamed Dry Storm, the chieftain of a gang renown throughout Opolie. So this is the one who attacked the Maintz men! Probably he’d thought to intercept a train but ran into something else. Handsome Jendrich, known for his proud seat, now looked like a wet chicken. Had it not been for the second rider who’d helped him, he would’ve fallen from his horse. With his moustache into the dust. And his face all bloody.

Here, they’re dismounting.

“Misiur, help!”

Hanging on his companions’ hands, Jendrich hobbled to the tavern. He was broad-shouldered, stout, and his blood brothers only grunted, overstrained under their leader’s weight. Every time Dry Storm would step on his right foot he would groan and swear like a devil. Had he broken it, or what? Or was it an arrow?

“Misiur! I need a hideout! We won’t escape...”

A hideout for him! The taverner imagined the hideout where there would be hiding Lukerda, his own blood, the apple of his eye, – and this robber. Face to face, odd-even. And then she’ll deliver a little chieftain... So what that Jas himself not once had hidden smuggled goods brought by Jendrich, so what that he had his part in the booty, helping to sell it off in Rahovez or in Wrozlav?! Lukerda, the silly girl, is mad about Dry Storm – sighs about him, calls him Robin Hood. Now there’ll be Robin for her, there’ll be Hood, too – in a quiet place...

“Not enough horses, Misiur! They’ll catch us! Hide me, I won’t forget it!”

It’s good he isn’t threatening at least. That is – or else we’ll burn your tavern down. Jas glanced again at smoking Pshesek, then turned his eyes to the chieftain. Young, handsome. The twirled moustaches stick out. He’s in funds. Got his nickname for the wild temper and for the dislike of unnecessary blood. The first is bad, while the second’s good. Yet all the same – this is not the husband his daughter needs.

Well, a man must pay his debts.

“I’ll hide you, Jendrich! Hey, drag your chieftain into the cellar!”

He turned to his wife: “Run for Lukerda. Let her go to the hideout, too.”

The wife twisted her finger at her temple significantly. O yes, women understand shameful affairs quickly.

“Go, go. Let Lukerda take with her this... dependant. He’s old, doesn’t care about no wenches. He’ll look after her. Tell him: you, Giacomo, are our only hope. Guard and protect. If, odd-even, they take us...”

It was true – Giacomo Seingalt was not interested in wenches. He was worn out, the old hook. Though it was seen he had had a good time in his youth. When Lukerda got crazy and started demanding teachers, to be noble-like – dance-mance-reverence – Jas thanked God that this old reveller was found. He knew dances, and languages, and was trained in the etiquette too. He was more than sixty, yet only last year he began stooping. A noble bearing he had. People said he’d been a famous cavalier before: shining on tournaments, fighting the Moors under the standard of Fernando Castilian himself. Fought the Ottomans at the sea. Lies, most likely. For people to lie – as for a dog to raise its tail. Yet that the cavalier was totally broke – that could be believed. He wandered and roamed, and in the past several years he had been a librarian at Jeremy Lovich’s. Jeremy favoured him a lot. Told his servants not to mock the old man, and wouldn’t let his guests make fun of him. He himself would often sit with him, talking. But when the baron died, Giacomo fell out with young Lovich completely.

And left.

Now for a piece of bread, for a roof over his head he teaches the girl all sorts of nonsense.

“Me! Hide me too!”

The devil take this boy! He’d quite forgotten... The taverner turned heavily, with his entire body, to yesterday’s boy. Came here, the imp, asked to stay for a night. Gave a piece of silver for a supper and a bed. Where’d he get it? Stole, probably. You can’t say if the lad is sixteen or twenty. A sparrow of a boy: skinny, dishevelled, only the eyes – like live coals.

“Clear out! Good riddance, odd-even!”

“Me! Me too! If you don’t – I’ll tell the Maintz men everything! Everything!”

Jendrich the chieftain squinted inquiringly first at the taverner, then at his daredevils: to shut the chap up? Dry Storm’s face, red with pain, twisted: no, he didn’t like blood for nothing. However, the boy hadn’t even understood he was within a hairbreadth of death. He lowered his head, swept stealthily a shameful tear. “Sorry... I’m a fool. I can’t – into their hands...” Suddenly he beamed: “I have! This! Here!!!” The dirty hand dived behind his shirt. A moment – and on his palm there sparkled a ray of light: a medallion. A golden one – here the taverner couldn’t be mistaken, be it by eye or by teeth.

“I’ll pay! It’s magical!”

“Gold?” inquired Jas Misiur, just in case.

The boy lowered his eyes. “I d-don’t know. I think so. It’s really magical. This is Byarn the Pensive’s, the mage from Holne.”

Jendrich whistled, squinting. If the boy isn’t lying... The name of Byarn, the mage from Holne, was worth a lot. Jas would hide the vagabond, for such a thing he would hide him in a privy and would sit himself atop for him not to be found.

“What sort of an amulet? For luck? For love?”

“No... It’s against cockroaches. If you put it behind a shutter, there’ll never be cockroaches in your house...”

The taverner hushed at the robbers that started laughing. An expensive thing. Maybe the chap is a chatterbox. Babbled here on and on – cockroaches, Byarn... A thief. All right, one more watcher in the hideout won’t harm. There’s another thing, odd-even: two fellows, an old dependant teacher – and Lukerda alone?!

“Hey, Skwozhina!”

At the threshold there appeared a serving woman – solid, stocky, more alike a man. Her closely set eyes looked shyly and unfriendly. A little girl, about five years old, cuddled up to the woman’s skirt.

“Be ready. You’re going to the hideout. I know you: someone pokes his hand under your skirt – you’ll hit him on the ear! Or blurt something out...”

Skwozhina spat through her teeth, but didn’t say a word.

Dusty darkness. Exciting odours of smoked food, beer, onions and dried fish. Out of the crack there flows a scarcely felt string of wine’s scent. It can be heard how Jas Misiur outside, wheezing, blocks the secret door with various lumber. Even if the Maintz men poke their noses into the cellar, they won’t like rummaging in such rubbish.

“It would be extremely useful to light a candle,” rasps the displeased voice of Giacomo Seingalt. Then the old man coughs for a long time before he continues. “I have been late to examine the interior of this... hmm... apartment, so that now I’m afraid to sit on something improper.”

“With your ass on a pitchfork,” specifies Skwozhina venomously, sneezing.

“Or would you prefer to stand waiting till the Maintz men move further along, towards Wrozlav?” finishes the old teacher calmly, ignoring the serving woman’s acidity. It’s clear that the old man has long ago got used to the woman’s bad temper, paying no heed to her grumbling.

“It’s better to stand. What if they see the light?” the question is asked by the young vagabond.

“Hell they’ll see. I’m sitting in this hole not for the first time. It’ll be better for us to see one another. Especially some of us. I have a flint and tinder. Somebody’s got a candle?”

“Take it please, Jendrich. Although I don’t see anything.”

“Hold it in your hand. Now you’ll see.”

“A-ha. Let him hold it in his hand. And with this hand jerk here and there. Then the candle will grow up to the sky! Blaze without fire, it will...”

“Shut up, you fool!”

“I utterly agree with you, Jendrich. Such ugly things... when there’s a young maiden here...”

“Mommy, I want a candel! It’s vely-vely da-ak! Let uncle Zakomtzik make light...”

“Uncle’ll make, he will... Hell he’ll make, your uncle, and devil too...”

There click the strokes of flint. Sparks. More sparks. There comes the smell of smoke. A fire begins to kindle slowly in Dry Storm’s hands – at first it is dark crimson, dim, then brighter and brighter. Or rather, later on one can see that it is in the hands. At first it seemed as if an ominous red eye appeared in the dark.

“Do you see now? Give me the candle.”

The stooped figure covers the glowing “eye”. Cracking of a wick, flashes rush about the walls.

Light! Alive, ochre coloured.

“I’m grateful. Lukerda, please sit down. It’ll be better here, on the barrel. One moment, I’ll just brush off the dust. There are no stools here, as you may understand. Not to mention chairs and armchairs.”

“What about carpets?” Jendrich makes a grimace. It’s still a question what irritates him more: the pain in his leg or the old man’s primness. “Here it stands in the corner, rolled up. A good carpet, from Shemachan. Bring it here, it’s just for me to lie down. What am I – to lie on the floor?..”

“Where has daddy got a Shemachan carpet from? And... all this?!”

Lukerda was looking around, surprised. Tight logs of carpets, packs of textile, skillfully wrought coffers and carved chests, barrels, bulging sacks. Here and there from the heaps and piles stick out hilts of swords, the shaft of a pole-axe, the polished stock of an arbalest, the crest of a helm...

While making himself comfortable, the chieftain grinned with fake gaiety: “Where from? There from! Doing valiant business – from faraway countries brought, from bad folks taken...”

“Young man, would you be so kind as to name things with their own names? You ought to be ashamed misleading the naïve maiden. Smuggling and robbery, that is how it’s called.”

“Giacomo, stop it! Shame on you! Jendrich, he... he’s a real hero! He attacked today the vanguard of the margrave Siegfried! Like Roland the Furious on the Moors!”

“Yes, of course,” Giacomo smiles bitterly with the edge of his lips, sitting down on the nearest chest. “Roncevaux Pass, the faithful Durendal... Troubadours are standing in line to praise him in their songs. So how do you do, sir hero, terror of the usurpers? The foe is beaten hollow and has fled with shame? Or maybe you and your worthiest knights of luck have just decided to rob somebody’s train? Only that the guard proved to be too tough for our Rolands? And now the margrave’s soldiers vent their anger on peaceful villagers – the heroes have gone, after all! The heroes are sitting in a hideout, saving their strength for new feats!”

Jendrich Dry Storm kept gloomily silent. The old dependant had put his finger on it. That was exactly how it had happened. They crossed the border easily, because after the free city of Holne had been occupied there was no border any more. Close to the evening they discovered the train. The wagons with provision and fodder lagged behind the main troops that had already reached the frontier of the Opolie principality, and seemed to be easy prey. However, they couldn’t make it without noise. The hefty fellows in the train fought off with halberds, furious with despair: jingle, clank, cries... Two of their gang were badly wounded, and brave Zbyshek remained in the field – they hadn’t even time to carry out his body. When it was all over and they only needed to get away the wagons with the goods, out of the forest there rushed out a cavalry squadron. There was five times more of the margrave’s riders than the chaps in the gang, so they couldn’t even think about the loot any more – they would’ve been lucky enough to get away themselves.

They were running away all night. At dawn, near Pshesek, the riders caught them. They were lucky that their pursuers had stretched out after the night. If they struck with all their forth – the robbers would be rotting in the hot sun. After the first skirmish, leaving one third of their gang as prey for ravens, the survivors scattered: into the ravines, to the river Veselka, to the Kichora road. Two were unlucky – they were caught and cut down. As for Jendrich himself, his horse was killed with an arrow. He hadn’t the time to jump off it, and the body of the fallen mare pressed his leg. Thanks to his friends – ran over to him, helped him out. And so now he, Jendrich Dry Storm, had to sit in a cellar with women! With that acrimonious old sponger! With that milksop boy who had probably wet his trousers from fear! This pup even threatened to sell out everyone... Who needs him, I ask you? Or maybe somebody does? All right, we are to sit here for a long time, we’ll shake the truth out of him. There’s time for that.

“What, you hawk – broke his leg in a haycock! Lost your tongue? When it comes to robbing and rolling with other people’s wives in the hay – you are a hero! And when it comes to answer for what you did – stuck your tongue in your behind? Jacom’s saying right...”

“Skwozhina! I’ll show you!..” Jendrich eyed the insolent woman from head to toe. This bitch doesn’t care a damn about who is in front of her: a street drunkard, a city merchant, an honest chieftain – be it the prince Razimir himself! If he’s not to her taste – she’ll fling mud on him without batting an eyelid. To get involved with the fool? It would cost dear. Still he couldn’t remain silent. “With you I haven’t roll in the hay, that’s for sure. Probably that’s why you’re angry. Who would have eyes for such muck? Except for our daring cavalier, maybe. Eh, Giacomo? Is it from you that Skwozhina developed a daughter?”

“I would kindly ask you, sir robber, to restrain from statements of such sort. At least in the presence of the young maiden here. Do you hear me?”

The eagle-like profile of Giacomo Seingalt was radiating cold that usually preceded a challenge to a duel. Lukerda, scared, moved away from her teacher – it was for the first time that she saw him like this. It seemed that the flame of the candle, reflected in the black, deeply sunken eyes of the old man, became in a sudden sharp, frightening.

Not a flame – but a blade, crawling out of its sheath like a snake.

“Of course, highway robbers have no notion of good manners, but I have hoped... In vain, as I see. This concerns you too, Skwozhina! If Jas finds out, he’ll thrash you with a stick. For you not to speak too freely.” The dependant’s face softened, the cold melted. “And on the whole, let’s stop quarreling. If I have insulted someone unwittingly, I make my apologies. It’s because of the nervousness.”

“All right, old man. It’s everyone’s fault. We’ve dished the dirt here – enough.”

The youth who had settled right on the floor nodded, jerking his cheek in a funny manner. As if he was waiting for a slap. But then again, what had he to be afraid of? He hadn’t hurt anyone, sat there quiet as a mouse. Five year old Karolinka, the daughter of glib Skwozhina, didn’t pay attention to the squabble at all: the girl got to the chest where there were kept multicoloured strings of beads, shining buttons and other baubles. Now the child was fingering these treasures, enchanted, forgetting everything. As for Skwozhina herself, she kept gloomily silent. She didn’t know how to apologize, but at least the fact that she had stopped swearing and talking bawdily was a good omen. No one could demand more.



Skwozhina’s father gave up his ghost when his daughter was scarcely sixteen. Just as Lukerda is now. Her own brother Stanek, a niggard and a rascal, soon drove his stupid and unsightly sister out of home, giving her nothing of their father’s inheritance. “You won’t get married all the same – what the hell do you need a dowry for?” As a farewell gift Skwozhina presented her brother with a billet that turned to be close at hand – presented strongly, from all her heart; and he returned the favour, too: Stanek’s fist was a real one, that of a man. After roaming for some time, the orphan girl settled down in Jas’ tavern – washing floors, bringing water. Bring-take, you fool! Her temper, quarrelsome and difficult to get on with since childhood, became a dozen times worse over the years. A girl of many values she was: a pockmarked face, the build of a horse, the temper of a bitch. Only health God had given her: in sharp frost she would run to the well dressed only in a shabby jacket, would carry bags weighing a hundred pounds, would chop firewood – God yield to anyone! People remembered how a cooper Zych when in his cups had pinched her at the haunch – after that he would hold at his back till winter and would walk lopsided.

The entire tavern was laughing at him.

Nevertheless, there was found a daring man who wasn’t afraid of sharing the cooper’s fate. There, Karolinka’s playing with toys, Mom’s happiness. People had babbled things about a child without a father, but never found out the truth. Skwozhina, when asked about her daughter, would keep mum. Usually she would wag her tongue, say something – run away and fight off! And here – silent as a grave. The same way Skwozhina kept silent when the frontier guard men were whipping her trying to find out the hideout of Jendrich Dry Storm: you’re in the tavern, knowing everything, seeing everything – tell us! The taverner may have his own interest, and what’s in it for you?

They whipped and whipped and gave up. Decided she was a mute.

“Mister Jendrich, let me look at your leg. I think there’s a dislocation.”

“A doctor?” Dry Storm squinted at the youth unkindly.

“Well... Sort of.”

“Go on.”

Lukerda turned away shyly when Jendrich began pulling off his leather lined trousers with the youth’s help; while Skwozhina, not abashed a bit, was staring impudently at the chieftain’s legs, hairy and slightly crooked.

“Indeed, that’s a dislocation!” announced the youth sonorously, glad he had been right. “And the bones are intact. You were lucky...”

“Don’t babble. If you can set it – do it. Soon the Maintz men will visit the tavern.”

“I would ask you, mister...”

“Giacomo Seingalt at your service, young man.”

“Could you hold him, please? Yes, thank you. And I’ll attend to his leg. Now it will hurt...”

“I’ll take it. If you set it, kid – I’ll pay in gold!”

The thin fingers of the youth, proving to be suddenly strong, seized Jendrich’s dislocated leg. “Well, with the God’s help!” Then the youth acted surprisingly quickly and confidently. There was a short strong jerk. Jendrich cursed through his clenched teeth, and this time old Giacomo didn’t reproach him. “That’s all. Now we must bandage it.”

The chieftain moved his leg, made a grimace. “Look at you! It seems you really have been a doctor’s apprentice. Search in the farther packs – there’re fabrics. Take any of them, cut for a bandage. Here’s a knife, take it.”

From the first pack cut open there appeared expensive brocade. The youth and Giacomo who joined him (the latter was sneezing desperately because of the aroused dust) had to open three more packs before they got to the store of strong linen.

“How many things daddy’s got here! I didn’t even know...” Lukerda was looking at the chieftain, bewildered. He didn’t answer, groaning from the painful bandaging. Suddenly he grew silent, pushed his finger to his lips abruptly. Everyone in the cellar held their breath. Giacomo, intending to sneeze once more, hastily closed his mouth and nose with his hand, made a strangled grunt and shuddered.

Muted steps above, over their heads. Voices mumble vaguely. Boards creak, sagging.

Thin dust pours on the turned up faces.

“There, at the ceiling,” Jendrich’s hissing whisper. “Do you see the bung? Pull it out. Just be silent!”

Giacomo pulled out the lump of rags bunging a rat-hole or a vent with a visible effort.

“...rode away?”

“To the forest, to the forest, where else?”

“Don’t you lie?!”

“Why would I lie, sir knight? Robbers are robbers. Pure squandering. To the forest, odd-even, they flew, their den’s there, damn them...”

“And where are the people? Why’s the tavern empty?”

“Afraid, they are. You’ll become angry, that is, order to whip. Hiding they are...”

“A sly devil you are, taverner. Well, bring here meat, wine, but see to it, you rascal, that it’s the very best! You bring us rotten stuff – I’ll order to burn your tavern down, and hang you up high on...”

“The very best, sir knight! Just a moment!.. Wife, quick: wine, wine for the good gentlemen, and I’ll, odd-even, put sausages on the pan...”

Jendrich gestured to Giacomo to put the bung back in its place.

“Here they are... Never mind: Jas will douse them with wine and they’ll melt. We’ll hole up. Well, kid, just the time for you to make noise, for the Maintz men to take us on the spot. Eh?”

The youth shuddered again, as if from a slap. Even in the unsteady light of the candle it was seen that he blushed. Anger? Shame?

“You shouldn’t say so, mister Jendrich...”

“Oh, I’m so very sorry! And who was it that threatened to sell us out when we didn’t want to take him into the hideout?”

“I was scared...”

“Scared he was! With rats we have a short talk. A knife in the belly and the bowels on a branch. Tell us, what’s there between you and the margrave Siegfried?”

“I...” The youth felt confused under the intent glances fixed on him. “I... I can’t be captured, by no means! I was going to your prince, to Razimir of Opolie. Look, take me to Wrozlav! You can do it! Surely you know all the paths!”

“What, you have a bag full of golden amulets? The prince will be awfully glad to see you! Gold for us, you for him. The last hope, that is.”

“I have no amulets. I’ve given the last one to the taverner. And as for hope... Maybe the truth is yours. I’m the only hope. Opolie won’t stand against Maintz...”

“Young man, are you experienced in military art?” Giacomo Seingalt curved his brow sarcastically. “Are you a strategist? Do you suppose the prince Razimir will appoint you commander?”

“You are mocking me. But I must! I want to give the prince this...”

The youth opened his bag, began to rustle with the rags. There came to light a casket – shabby, triangular, marked in black, red and yellow chequers like a buffoon’s tights. Its paint had peeled off in some places, its edges were severely beaten. In addition to the casket in the bag there was a big hourglass.

“A game, is it?” the chieftain made a contemptuous grimace.

Giacomo nodded with confidence: “The ‘Triple Nornscoll’, or ‘Cheat the Fate’. I would play it in my time... We may amuse ourselves now, one way or another we’ll be sitting here doing nothing for a long time. Will you play, Jendrich? And you, young man? By the way, don’t you want to introduce yourself to your fellows in misfortune?”

“Forgive me... My name is Martzin, Martzin Oblaz from the free city of Holne. From the former free city. But this is not an ordinary game. It has belonged to Byarn the Pensive.”

“The mage from Holne?!”

“Yes.”

“What a rogue you are, lad! Stole the game from Byarn himself?! First he snitched the amulet, then the game! Or all at once? You’re desperate, and a doctor too... Want to join my gang?” It was hard to understand whether the chieftain was joking, mocking or talking seriously.

“It would be better if I really stole it...” whispered Martzin faintly, lowering his eyes.

“Didn’t steal? So where did you get it?”

“This is a legacy. My teacher Byarn the Pensive died last week.”

“Died?! Tell more lies! Mages – they live for a thousand years!”

“Unfortunately, you are mistaken. Meister Byarn had a weak heart... I know this better than many others.”

“Heart? Why didn’t he make himself healthy with magic and be over with it?”

“Oh, mister Jendrich,” Martzin sighed heavily. The flame of the candle flickered, queer shadows swayed along the walls, and the hideout seemed for a moment unreal – as if the next moment it would flow like fog and disperse. “Don’t mistake a mage for God. The magic of healing uses the healer’s own power. This is not alike spells or taming of the elements. One cannot heal one’s own heart. And I... I’m just learning. Was learning.”

“So how old was he, Byarn? Five hundred years? Seven hundred?”

“Seventy two.”

“A liar you are, kid! My old man lived up to ninety. And there you’ve got a mage!”

“You may not believe me, but I’m telling the truth.” The youth pursed his lips, offended.

“Begging your pardon for interrupting your absorbing discussion, but it seems that you, young man, wanted to expound to us the secret of your legacy. Why do you want to deliver this game to Wrozlav? Or do you hope that while practicing ‘Triple Nornscoll’ Razimir of Opolie will find the method of winning the war with the Maintz Mark?”

“Strange as it is, you’ve almost guessed, mister Seingalt. Meister Byarn had made this ‘Nornscoll’ in his youth, soon after he finished studying with his teacher. With the help of this game...” Martzin became more and more excited, obviously hesitating: to tell more or to keep silent? His voice was trembling, drops of sweat appeared on his forehead. “With its help it’s possible to play again... to change anything! Any event that took place in the past can be turned back! Not to allow the war to begin at all. To change its course. Do you understand me?!”

“To change? And your mage, that is, died all of a sudden?” Jendrich squinted unbelievingly. “He’d do better to play again our sinful life, to save Holne, to win for himself some hundred years! You’re hiding something, student...”

“You are simplifying everything. Anyone can use the ‘Triple Nornscoll’ but its creator. In the hands of meister Byarn the game would lose its power.”

“So he should have given it to your burgomaster. Or to a commander.”

“I’ve suggested this to the teacher. But he refused. When Holne had already fallen, the teacher was considering sending me to the prince Razimir. But he lingered, hesitated... I don’t know why. Then I found him dead. The heart... And then I decided myself...”

“Well, those mages, of course... Nothing’s clear, in short. They don’t know themselves what they want. But you here – you’re our fellow! Put the Maintz men above there to sleep! And we’ll get out, knife them all, take their horses – and to the forest. Straight to the prince Razimir, to deliver him your game. Come on, Martzin! Make your magic!”

“I can’t,” the youth threw up his hands with a guilty look. “I studied only for three years. I learnt only to cause rain, and that with hail, too. The hail’s all right, it’s big, but the rain... The teacher would laugh: you, Martzin, he would say, lack anger for a heavy downpour. A duffer you are...”

“Hail – and that’s all?!”

“Well, some more trifles... But I can’t put anyone to sleep.”

The chieftain spat on the floor. “I knew it. To babble everybody knows, and to do something – no one gives a hoot!”

“Wait, wait! What if...” All the glances turned to Lukerda at once, and the girl became abashed, flushed shyly. And then she started jabbering, floundering and stammering with excitement, as if she was afraid she would be interrupted and wouldn’t be able to finish. “Let’s try ourselves! Ourselves! So that there won’t be a war! Tell us, Martzin, your game... can anyone play it?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” the youth glanced at the taverner’s daughter with surprise, as if seeing her for the first time. Apparently, such a thought just hadn’t occurred to him. The idea of delivering the game to the prince Razimir had possessed his soul since the moment of his teacher’s death, and he hadn’t thought of anything else.

“Then why deliver it to the prince? Maybe we can do it?! And if not – the game won’t lose its power, will it? Right, Martzin?”

“Yes.”

“If we don’t manage, you’ll take the game to Wrozlav!”

“He lies, this Martzin, he does,” Jendrich waved his hand with dismissal. But those who were in the hideout didn’t fail to notice that the chieftain’s eyes were glittering with excitement. “Let him first prove he’s a bit of a mage. Right now... it’s just fooling around.” The severe chieftain wouldn’t confess even to himself that he wanted desperately, to tears wanted to believe in a miracle. With the help of some trashy casket to turn the course of the war back, and the margrave Siegfried will never invade the lands of Opolie, and Jendrich’s gang-mates that have fallen at dawn will remain alive, and...

“Prove? How?” Martzin ruffled like a funny sparrow.

“Have you learnt at least something? To light a candle without a flint?”

“Yes.”

“Come on then!”

The chieftain blew abruptly, and the hideout became pitch dark. The tang of soot crawled into the nostrils. Rustling, vague movement. A drop of flame appears noiselessly, coming out of the darkness. It’s strange, amber, with a vertical line in the middle – like a cat’s eye. Only after two or three heartbeats do they understand that the flame is burning in the air, between Martzin’s hands brought together.

The youth brings the drop to the candle.

The wick kindles at once.

“He’s a wizad, he’s a wizad! Make more wizadly!”

“Hush, Karolinka! Bad fellas will hear – them come and take you. Hush, my daughter...”

Now Skwozhina bore little resemblance to the loudmouthed squabbler that would tell bawdy jokes and wouldn’t give a hoot about anybody. Having drawn Karolinka closer to herself, she was stroking the girl’s head tenderly with a coarse hand, trying to protect, close, hide in her bosom from the troubles awaiting the child in the evil and hostile world.

“Here...”

Jendrich Dry Storm thrust his fingers into his curly inky mane, scratched his head – and suddenly grinned merrily: “Alright, hold that I believe you. Well, mage boy! Teach us to replay fate!”

The pieces were old, part of them lacked a head or a top. Well matching the peeled and cracked casket-board. Martzin was placing them carefully, biting his lip. Giacomo Seingalt was watching the youth’s actions intently. He reached forward: “Three colours? I assume that black is for the Maintz Mark, yellow for Holne and red – our Opolie. Can we choose any side? Any camp?”

“Of course. But you must choose only a single piece. Then for a short time you’ll become the man whose image you’ve chosen. And you’ll move backwards, into the past. There you can try to change something, to give a new course to the events. You’ll have about two months. My teacher would have transferred you for some twenty years without an effort, but I...”

“This sounds alluring. I think I would risk playing for...”

“Two months? That will do! The tournament! The tournament in Maintz! Damn it, I know what to do! Lubina decided not to take part in the jousting! And he should... Oh, I’ll show this son of a bitch!”

“There’s another thing. Would the margrave Dietrich, Siegfried’s father, live at least five-six years more...”

“I know that the burgomaster of Holne has a daughter. Were I in her place...”

“Good heavens! How hadn’t it occurred to me before! Were my teacher a bit more resolute...”

“Mommy, I want play!”

“Wait, dolly. After grown men finish making fools of themselves, they’ll give you toys to play too. Damn you! Just like babies...”

“Hush! Well, lad, show how to play.”

“Have you already chosen a piece, mister Jendrich?”

“Sure!”

The chieftain reached out to the board.

“Wait! This is not how it must be done. Imagine thoroughly what you’re going to do in the chosen man’s place. Because during the game you cease being yourself. Just remember the main thing – what you are playing for. So?”

In the chieftain’s face there expressed the unusually hard labour of the mind. After some lingering Jendrich Dry Storm nodded with a visible effort.

“Then clap your hands over the board. And then, when I say, touch the piece.”

Jendrich’s arms, swelling with lumps of muscles, met in a mute clap. None of them understood where most of the pieces vanished to from the board. The chieftain’s burning eyes were fixed tightly on the image of an armoured knight with a shield and a spear in its hands. The spearhead was long ago broken, the red paint had peeled off the helm – but this didn’t matter now. Martzin took in his hands the hourglass with the massive bronze stand, shook it slightly and stared at the bulging glass. The youth’s glance became lifeless, dim – and they saw that in the lower part of the vessel there rose a thin sandstorm. One by one, faster and faster the sand grains rushed for the orifice of the vessel, to the upper part of it.

The sand was flowing the other way around!

Lukerda gasped and closed her mouth with her palm.

Together with the crazy sand Time itself was turning back, returning on its circuits, casting away generously once gathered stones, giving the possibility to step twice in the same river – to improve, to change, to play again... The last grain of sand dived into the narrow orifice. Time stopped, hanging like an axe over a victim’s neck – and Martzin raised his face, stiffened, pale as a wax mask. “Hurry on, chieftain!”

“Chieftain?!” grinned in response Jendrich Dry Storm. “Hell no! This time – a knight! Lubina Rava, the noble commander of the prince of Opolie! Hold on, Siegfried, you dog, I’m coming!”

The strong fingers, more used to the hilt of a sword, closed on the piece. The next moment the “Triple Nornscoll” disappeared. In its place a window was flung wide open, and one could see distinctly how...

...Clang, a thump on the ground. Enthusiastic cries of spectators. The spear of Siegfried, heir to the crown of Maintz, has unhorsed another rival. A good stroke. It seems that of the fighters that have dared to oppose the initiator remained two: Henric Labendz and himself, Lubina Rava. The rest are already beaten by the young bully. At first, though, Lubina wasn’t going to participate in the jousting. But to reject the invitation of the margrave Dietrich would have been an insult. And then again, the commander loved tournaments. Many were unhorsed by his strong hand, but rivals wouldn’t take offence at one another. Strong was the spirit of the knightly brotherhood, not as it is now...

“I’m getting old. I start grumbling. In our time, that is, the grass was greener, and the girls were prettier, and cows had four horns... Is your sun approaching the sunset, knight?! Come on! There's life in the old dog yet! And the boy is good, really good. Which means you must knock the stuffing out of this blockhead while you still can...”

“The knight Henric Labendz from Boleslavez!”

That’s it, he’s next. Lubina jumped slightly, checking the tourney armour, clenched and unclenched his fingers in the gauntlets. No, everything fitted well. A helm on the head, a spear and a shield in the hands – and he might go out to the field. What a pity that the joy had gone. He remembered sensation of holiday that had filled the tournaments of old. And here, in Maintz, everything seemed as it must be: banners, plumes, armours glittering in the sun, trumpets, heralds, ladies waving their handkerchiefs – yet the holiday was gone. Jealousy, envy... As if a cloud hung over the field, putting out smiles, penetrating souls with streams of darkness.

The commander knew the name of the cloud hanging over the Maintz Mark and threatening to shower its rain onto the neighbouring lands.

War was its name.

And its heart was the heart of young Siegfried.

Why was he so sure? The commander wondered at himself. Only yesterday the skies of the future had still shone with pure azure, and today Lubina was awake because of the sulphuric smell of trouble. In his time the margrave Dietrich von Maintz, Siegfried’s father, had been as belligerent and indomitable as his son was now. Not once and not twice had he tried to widen his borders, but at last, after he was beaten by the powerful duke of Henning, he calmed down. Became peaceful and hospitable. Only that Dietrich is old, and his heir longs for revenge. Clever enough to have learnt from his father’s bitter experience and not go west, to Henning, once again, Siegfried will move his troops east as soon as his hands are untied. Holne will fall quickly, only to whet his appetite; Opolie will stand for some more time. But without reliable allies the principality won’t withstand before powerful and rich Maintz. Making alliances requires time.

A secret guest that had settled inside Lubina was prompting: there was no time.

“A-a-ah!..”

Look at him! Henric Labendz proved to be strong – withheld the blow with his shield, remained in the saddle. Now the knights are departing for the next attack... Lubina felt in his bones: the tournament in Maintz would decide everything. Young Siegfried is trying his strength. When you are twenty two, your blood is up in your veins and your head is full of grandiose plans – victory in the tournament can be accepted for an omen from Heaven. And the flame of war will rage across the land, until the predator breaks his fangs fighting a stronger enemy.

So why not calm down the lad here and now?

“A-a-ah!..”

It’s over. Henric Labendz from Boleslavez is defeated.

Now it’s time.

“The knight Lubina Rava from Wrozlav!”

His hands are accepting the habitual weight of the shield and the spear brought by the squires. His eyes are looking at the world through the visor grid. While riding to the field pitted by hoofs, while listening to the welcoming roar of the crowd, the commander thought: “It’s not enough to simply unhorse the pup. It would be nice to send him to hell. Oh, how nice it would be...”

The thought flashed and disappeared. The weird, evil, foreign thought.

Trumpets.

The opposite tribunes rushed towards him in the usual way, in his ears sounded the victorious rumble of hoofs. But faster than the tribunes, in front of him there emerges a rider in glittering armour. On the azure field of his shield the griffon of Maintz claws a snake. Only a fool would fight a griffon face to face – above it, over the shield’s edge, aslant and up...

A stroke. Crash. For a moment everything goes dark before the commander’s eyes.

Hold on! Remain in the saddle at any cost!..

He made it. The horse stops obediently, turning around in its place. Here he is, Siegfried von Maintz – prostrate on the ground. The commander’s favourite stroke – a spear in a head – had reached its aim one more time. The boy is defeated. Alive or dead?

The lying knight is trying to grope for the hilt of his sword. That means he’s alive. All the same, from Lubina’s stroke he will not recover soon.

One of the tournament marshals runs up to him. His words are making their way through the hum of the tribunes: “Congratulations to the valiant knight on his victory! According to the tournament tradition the winner has the right for a trophy. What detail of the armour would the noble knight wish to take? The spur? The gauntlet? The belt?..”

Lubina Rava looks at Siegfried. Excellent armour. Gorgeous. A cuirass of Milanese steel – the “goose chest”! – a Burgonet helmet in the latest fashion, with a triple visor, lamellar armour surpasses leather one in flexibility. And gold all over: the image of the griffon, the decoration of the vambraces and the spaulders... At any fair such armour would cost oodles of money. While Rava’s lands don’t bring decent income, and the prince Razimir is a skinflint...

“A spur? A gauntlet?!” laughs Lubina with the foreign, stolen laughter. “Hell no! According to the ancient rules I take for myself all the armour of my rival! Order to deliver it into my tent!”

He pulls his helm off, grinning victoriously in the face of the bewildered marshal.

It’s over.

The boy has learnt a proper lesson.

“...victory! I beat him! There’ll be no war!”

“Jendrus! You’re a hero! Let me kiss you!”

“Lukerda, remember about decencies! I can’t allow...”

“No, he’s a hero! He’s a hero all the same! Only... why are we still sitting in this cellar?!”

“Because our most respected chieftain made a mistake. The real commander Rava would never do it.”

“Do what?”

Jendrich was blinking, dumbfounded, looking around him. He was still there, in the tournament field, looking at the defeated Siegfried, grinning in the marshal’s face...

Giacomo Seingalt’s voice sounded surprisingly simple; neither mocking nor the habitual old man’s sarcasm. Only sincere regret: “The knight Lubina would not set his eyes upon Siegfried’s personal armour. Of course, how would you know that the tradition of taking the armour of defeated rivals doesn’t actually exist for at least forty years? Now the winner is satisfied with only an honourable trophy. To act in a different way means humiliating a defeated rival in public...”

The old man thrust his long hand into a heap of stuff behind him with a wry face. With a nasty gnash he extracted a cuirass to which there were fixed by clasps disproportionately big spaulders with crests.

“Presses on my side,” he explained, though nobody asked him a thing. “I do understand you, Jendrich. If you were tempted by this quite unassuming armour, what to say about that of the Maintz heir... For all that, you’re a robber, don’t take this for rudeness. It just didn’t occur to you that you had insulted Siegfried deadly. Formally it isn’t forbidden by tournament rules. But... The future margrave hasn’t forgiven you his public shame. Or rather, hasn’t forgiven it to the knight Lubina Rava, the commander of the prince of Opolie. I’m very sorry, Jendrich. No, I’m really sorry. You have almost made it...”

Distressing silence set in the cellar.

“Damn, but I’m!.. I...” Jendrich turned away gloomily, hiding his face.

It was heard how in the tavern above the Maintz men were bawling a song.

“Well, I think it’s my turn now,” the dependant made himself smile. “There is another way. Would the old margrave live longer... The beloved son had certainly poisoned his father or had organized his assassination. But he who is warned is armed. Ah, my friends, what hasn’t old Giacomo Seingalt happened to be! If you only knew! But a margrave – never. It would be a sin not to use such an opportunity. I’m ready, Martzin. Should I clap my hands too?”

The bony, still strong fingers reached for the image of a king.

The image’s head was broken.

That morning Dietrich von Maintz woke up with the feeling of close death – a feeling as sharp as the assassin’s stiletto.

For the first time in seventeen years of calm and welfare.

I’ll be murdered today, thought Dietrich with a frightful clearness. I’ll be murdered today, destroyed, eliminated, and young Siegfried will receive the crown of the Maintz Mark. The heir will become margrave, while I’ll become dust. Nothing. A vague memory, a ghost of the past. I don’t want to die. Don’t want to. Maybe it’s all because of the dream. It was the dream that had awakened in his soul a presentiment of death. At night Dietrich von Maintz had seen events that he would prefer not to recall. To forget forever. And in any case, not to resurrect them at night.

The rout of Maintz by the troops of Vitold the Bastard, duke of Henning.

It happened long ago – the heir Siegfried was five years old then. This... actually, what did it matter – where, when and how? Quite enough that it had once happened. And for long years it disinclined him from coveting his neighbours’ lands. Tamed his pride, moderated greed and vanity.

At times the margrave felt grateful to the duke Vitold for the lesson. And now...

“You’ll be murdered,” whispered the secret guest that had settled in his soul without asking for permission. “Be careful, old man.”

I’ll be careful, vowed Dietrich, answering the call. I’m not an old man. I won’t be murdered.

While making his morning toilet, he was watching the servants attentively. No one can be trusted. No one. Washing himself in a silver tub – the margrave had always been cleanly – Dietrich broke an arm of a young maid servant who was pouring hot water from a jug. It seemed to him that the maid was hiding a dagger in the jug, preparing to strike him in the back. The victim was sobbing, rolling up her eyes; bodyguards that had rushed into the bedroom were exchanging perplexed glances, while the margrave himself was soothing his heart with difficulty. His body was yet going strong – the maid’s elbow had cracked as a spill in skilful fingers, – but his heart was too worn out for such outbursts.

No, I won’t be murdered.

He drove the bodyguards out. Out!!! Sapheads, duffers, unable to distinguish an assassination attempt from the ordinary lord’s wrath... Then, after some considering, he called for the captain of the guard and ordered him to replace the guardians. The captain, a smart man, didn’t show interest in the cause of the disfavour. He just asked: “With whom to replace?” “Can I trust him?!” thought Dietrich, looking at the captain’s face. “He seems to be loyal. He’s got knight spurs from my hands. He dreams of barony. Or is he already suborned?! Looks straight, without blinking. Black eyes... black eyes, those of a sorcerer!..” The margrave ordered to bring him the list of the Gold Griffon squad and poked randomly at five names. This is safer. Fortuity will prevent them from doing what they’ve planned.



Who are “they”?

He didn’t know.

You’ll be murdered today, old man. No, I won’t.

“Provide the maiden with dowry,” ordered the margrave without looking at the maid who had fainted away. “On the cost of my treasury. Send her my private doctor. Let him not leave her till tomorrow. And marry... Marry her off.”

The doctor – that’s right. Let him not leave her. And not approach me.

Doctors are the main danger.

His heart calmed down and was beating evenly and strongly. Pretended to be young.

At breakfast Dietrich demanded to bring the chief cook into the hall. Let him stand near the table and taste all the dishes served for the beloved lord. Truffles. Deer meat. Hare pâté. Fruits. Wine. Pheasants in honey. Quails. Fish. Bread. In the end of the breakfast the cook, ready to fall on the floor any minute, was driven away by his hands. The margrave himself, satisfied with a piece of fresh bread and a goblet of spring water, was waiting for a long time: was it poisoning? It turned out to be indigestion. The cook had overeaten. Pheasants with fruits, pâté, steamed pike-fish... a bit too heavy. His wife permitted herself a surprised smile, but having caught her husband’s severe glance she halted. The heir, young Siegfried, pretended nothing was amiss.

Heirs are the most dangerous.

I won’t be murdered.

Here and now – I won’t.

Dietrich refused to go hunting. And for half a day was cursing himself for it. Yes, during the hunt it’s easy to shoot in the back. Or a horse would slip, throwing a rider into a ravine. But in the castle it’s not harder to strike with a dagger from behind a curtain. He was sitting in his room gloomily, staring at the wall and repeating as a spell, as a prayer: “Won’t be murdered. Won’t be murdered. Won’t...”

Thin blood veins were protruding on his cheeks.

A lump in the throat.

Hard to breathe. I have to breathe. I’ll remain alive.

He was looking at the yard slabs from out the window, at the faraway garden where there were walking his wife and daughters. He wanted to join them. He wanted to go hunting. He wanted to throw away the suffocation of fear – but danger awaited him at every step. Hold on, old man! I’m not an old man!!! At least one day... Why one day?! I’m still going strong! You’ll die! I’ll live long!..

He came to the door and called in a loud voice: “Priest! Call for my confessor!” When father Jeronim had arrived – without opening the lock he ordered the guard to search the priest. Zealously, bastards! There were no arms found with the cleric, but the margrave, having let the confessor in, withdrew with his own hands a rope that the monk used to girdle himself with. A rope can be thrown upon your neck quietly. During a prayer. Look how thick it is! He’ll strangle a man without batting an eyelid, this hypocrite...

“I wish to confess, father!”

“That’s a good deed, my son...”

During the confession the confessor was nervous, glancing every now and then with fear at the excited margrave. Dietrich felt angry, stumbled over his words, trying, on the one hand, to prepare himself for possible death, cleansing his soul by confession, and on the other – to look after the most suspicious priest; and eventually he kicked father Jeronim out.

The day seemed endless. Devils were knocking in the left temple, turning the world scarlet as Hell’s flame. To sign an abdication in his son’s favour? To save himself? Or is it just an illusory shield, ready to crack at the first push?! Live! I want to live!.. Every rustle in a corridor threatened to be an assault.

When in the evening somebody knocked at the door – gently, cautiously! – Dietrich von Maintz seized his grandfather’s flambard from the wall. Pressed himself into the corner, his back to the wall. The back should be secure. The sword is a bit too heavy, this two-handed one has always been too massive for the undersized margrave, but with a blade of such length it’s easier to keep conspirators at bay. Till help comes.

Help – for me? For them?!

Hold on, old man! I won’t be murdered...

An arbalest bolt struck the window. Thrust under the shoulder blade, penetrating the heart with red-hot iron. There, where the secret guest was tossing, bewildered – why? how is that? – crying out persistently: “Hold on, old man! Hold on!”

I hold on, Dietrich von Maintz wanted to answer.

I hold at the hilt... at the curtain... at the wall...

It’s over. I don’t hold on any more.

...Young Siegfried, in the nearest future – the new lord of the Maintz Mark, – was looking at his father’s body. What a pity. He had wanted so much to boast of his hunting trophies, in spite of the late hour. After death his father became as he used to be: imperious and confident. Quite not the man he had been today: cowardly, frightened, jerking little man.

Outside the window a pigeon was cleaning its feathers – the one that a minute ago had struck its breast at the glass.

“...A-a!.. a..”

Giacomo Seingalt was gulping air convulsively with his mouth. The old man’s face became crimson and seemed black.

“Good Lord! Giacomo, I beg you! Martzin, save him! Save him!”

“Hush! For all the saints’ sake, hush!”

“Calm down, Lukerda. Look, he’s already better...”

“W-water...”

“Sorry, there’s no water. But here’s the wine...”

Giacomo was drinking straight from the mouth of a braided bottle, swallowing convulsively, jerking the gristly Adam’s apple, spilling the wine on his clothes. Finally he breathed out heavily, wheezing: “F-fuh! It eased off...”

“You have tried!” Lukerda was nearly crying. “You’ve tried so hard, poor man!..”

“And for all that you didn’t sign an abdication, old man! Damn it, this was a real hell! I would have kicked the bucket at midday, probably...”

“It’s pity your attempt has failed, mister Seingalt. But not everything is lost yet. I think I’ll take the risk...”

“No! Now it’s my turn!” The girl’s face was glowing with resoluteness and righteous indignation. “You men are never able to bring anything to a close! You should just assassinate the margrave Siegfried – and there’ll be no war! Start it, Martzin. I know what to do!”

On the board a carved queen moved, as if in response.

From the draught, apparently.

“Today I’ll perform a feat”, vowed Belinda van Dayk.

The daughter of the burgomaster of the free city of Holne, doomed to vegetate miserably with the tambour and the gossips of other girls, she was secretly always certain: the time for a feat would come. A day would come, majestic and bright, which would allow her to step up, to stand abreast the heroines of old, leaving her trail on the steps of existence. So sang troubadours whom Belinda was ready to listen to day and night. So wrote poets whom she received affably and fed, in spite of her niggard father’s grumbling. Oh, father! This worthless, mean man, this pile of lard, this mount of fat, caring more for his bulging purse than for a decent place in the descendants’ memory – he refused to defend Holne! He threw into prison a small group of true patriots who were ready to die on the native walls! Together with others similar to him he opened the gates to Siegfried von Maintz and yielded to the enslaver, holding the keys of the gates on the pillow!

Interesting, how such a daughter was born of such father?!

What a pity that the mother died without confiding this secret to her daughter...

Belinda looked around stealthily. In the large city hall a feast was held. At the tables, mixed up with the Maintz usurpers, there were sitting scared members of the city council, syndics of guilds, judges and other respectable citizens. Many of them were choking on their food, terrified by the phantom of possible slaughter. At the head of the central table, in an armchair with a high back decorated with the coat of arms of Holne, there was sitting none other than the margrave Siegfried, surveying the hall with a bored glance. Having remained in light armour, the margrave was a personification of the valour and belligerence of his ancestors –only his peevishly protruding lip gave his young face a touch of vulgarity. Cold, still – snake-like! – Siegfried’s eyes became warmer only in one case: when they would rest on herself, Belinda van Dayk, purposely dressed today in her lowest-cut dress.

Yes, they became warmer.

Belinda felt it with her skin.

Hot. The guffaw of drunken men is confusing. The feat had been imagined differently: more beautiful, perhaps? However, true heroines don’t choose but act. Today at dawn Belinda had understood it once and for all. A secret guest that had settled in her soul whispered to her what should be done.

Yes, just so.

“Then Judith said to them with a loud voice, Praise, praise God, praise God, I say, for he hath not taken away his mercy from the house of Israel, but hath destroyed our enemies by mine hands this night. So she took the head out of the bag, and shewed it, and said unto them, behold the head of Holofernes, the chief captain of the army of Assur, and behold the canopy, wherein he did lie in his drunkenness; and the Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman. As the Lord liveth, who hath kept me in my way that I went, my countenance hath deceived him to his destruction, and yet hath he not committed sin with me, to defile and shame me!”

“Feast on, gentlemen!” The margrave Siegfried stood up. For a moment the hall became silent, though the margrave hadn’t raised his voice at all. Just that some cold flew between the tables. “Feast on, feel at ease! Excuse me for leaving you in such early a time...”

The hour has come, Belinda understood.

Here and now.

She raised her eyes at the margrave. Smiled – experiencedly and alluringly. Now to sip out of the tin goblet. To lick the lips with the tongue. Slower. Still slower. These cowards have hidden their wives and daughters. The cowards are afraid for their cowardly women. I’m alone here. Still better. Still easier.

“You are leaving us, my knight? What a pity...”

A pause.

A carefully calculated one, mellow as old sherry.

“And I’ve supposed I won’t spend this night alone...”

In his bedroom there surely can be found a sword. Or a dagger. Blood will not spatter – it would be ridiculous to perform a feat in a dress soiled in red. And in the morning Belinda will go out to the entire city holding a bag with the enslaver’s head. At the picture “Judith and Holofernes” by the crazy painter Fontanalli everything is real: beautiful and exalted. Without any stains of blood and a cyanotic face colour of the deceased. And there shall peal the bells of the Saint Johann’s cathedral, and troubadours shall praise the feat of the proud maiden, and the Lord shall not permit sin to defile and shame me, for the Lord is always on the side of virtue!

“I won’t disappoint you, my darling,” Siegfried von Maintz was looking at the burgomaster’s daughter affably. The stupid chubby girl had dressed up in the most stupid dress he’d ever seen. “Gunter, the charming fräulein doesn’t want to sleep alone. She’s cold and lonely. Have you understood me, Gunter? And tell your lads I’ll order to hang all your hundred, one by one, if the charming fräulein is left dissatisfied. Have you understood me correctly, my loyal, my clever Gunter?”

Gunter von Dragmain, the captain of guard of the young margrave, always understood his lord immediately.

“...No! Don’t you touch me! A-a-a!...”

“Calm down, my dear. It’s all right. You’re here, with us! It’s not real. Everything’s all right...”

“Oh yes, all right to the last degree...”

“Dirty, sweaty... Beasts!”

“Hush...”

“How dared he! Scoundrel!”

Hush! They’ll hear...”

Lukerda shrivelled by the chest, shuddering with soundless sobbing. Giacomo, sitting near her, was gently stroking the maiden’s dishevelled hair, trying to soothe her.

“Martzin, was it you that stopped the game? This time everything ended much faster...”

“Yes, it was me.”

“Thank you, young man. Lukerda wouldn’t have survived this.”

“I’ve guessed,” the youth’s cheeks were ashen-grey, and the vein in the corner of his eye was throbbing as a fish thrown at the shore. It was seen he was hardly standing on his feet, but a strange force, astonishing even Martzin Oblaz himself, was emerging from the depths of his soul, preventing him from falling into a swoon. “Well, it’s my turn. My teacher has hesitated too long. Excuse me, meister Byarn, for disturbing your ashes...”

The sand flew up faster than usual.

The disciple, in trepidation, reached for the massive rook.

...Byarn the Pensive put aside the pen and sanded what he had written. The ink is quite fresh. Let it dry out. The choice is always left behind us. Always... The old mage was wondering at himself. Having known an hour ago that any direct intervention would only complicate the situation – Byarn even knew why, – he changed his mind in a sudden. Decisively and irrevocably. There’s need to act. Tomorrow Holne will fall. Most likely, there’ll be no siege. The burgomaster Claas van Dayk, a prudent man, will bring to the margrave the keys of the free city – dooming the citizens to economical ruin, but saving them from slaughter. Last evening the burgomaster had visited the mage. He asked: if the stubborn home guard lead by Richard Broose, the syndic of the butcher guild, takes the risk of defending the walls, could the most honourable meister Byarn help with defense. Eem... rain of fire, for instance. Or, that is, lightnings with five jags each. Exclusively on the enemies’ heads.

Then, eem, the burgomaster would be ready to support the idea of defense.

You are a clever man, herre Claas, said Byarn the Pensive. You will understand. Yes, I think I would be able to render assistance. But let me explain why I will not do so. Tell me, if you take a loan from some almost unlawful resources, in addition doubting your future paying capabilities – you do understand that you still have to return it nevertheless, don’t you? Only not the way you’ve intended to.

Eem, I do, nodded the burgomaster. He was quite not so timid and stupid as he wanted to seem.

Herre Claas, said the mage. Even if an aged man like me has enough power for the five-jagged lightnings – you would agree I’ll have to kill. While every member of the Aaltricht lodge knows: a true mage refrains from killing. Because he strikes a deal with fate: to aspire for knowledge while not aspiring for life. Everyone delineates the borders of the allotted territories himself. But you can kill, asked the burgomaster. Yes, herre Claas, answered the old man. I can. Only that then I take a loan from fate, giving it the right for the next move. It has the right to kill as many as I do. The choice is its. It may do this or not, today or tomorrow, hitting or missing, good or bad, laughing or crying... But it will be its move.

Do you want to play with fate for a thousand lives, herre Claas?

For two, three thousands?

I’ll surrender the city, said the burgomaster, taking his hat from a clothes-peg. I won’t force you to take a loan from fate. Not even because you’re my friend, meister Byarn.

He knew how to make decisions, Claas van Dayk.

Tomorrow Holne will fall. Within five days Siegfried von Maintz will move to Opolie. Most likely Opolie will also fall soon: under the existing circumstances the prince Razimir won’t be able to stop the Maintz army. After that there’ll be the turn of Moravian principalities. Mercenaries will pour into the army of the lucky commander. A bloody deluge will begin. And one day powerful Henning will find itself facing destruction, when it stops containing the constant challenge of the Maintz Mark.

Maybe fate is making its move stealthily?

Reshaping and sewing together anew?!

The craving for action, not characteristic for Byarn before, overwhelmed his soul suddenly. As if a secret guest had settled there, moving furniture and sweeping dust out of the corners. The mage felt himself young. Naïve – naïvety is strong, it allows not pondering of the consequences. After it’s all over he should write “The Praise for Naïvety.”

But this is afterwards.

Byarn went out into the night. The moon was chewing on the edges of dark clouds, spitting from time to time yellow saliva on the cobbles of a pavement. The mage stood into the lunar spittle; looked at the shadow prostrate at his feet.

“Get up!” ordered he, feeling how the power was filling him entirely.

The shadow fidgeted, trying not to get hurt over the cobble edges. Darted to the wall of a house, gathered into a tight lump.

Hissed angrily.

“Haven’t I told you?” asked Byarn quietly, without any threat.

The shadow got down on all fours. The hump on its back split with a crackle, showing coriaceous wings. An Ulvvind, the long distance messenger that only the few were permitted to summon.

“Fly to Wrozlav. Carry this,” the mage lifted the chest with the “Triple Nornscoll”, the fruit of long years’ labour. “Give it to the prince Razimir...”

The old man stopped. The secret guest had settled down in his soul wholly, feeling himself at home.

I’m young. I’m resolute.

I know what to do. Here and now.

“No,” said Byarn the Pensive. “You’ll carry me to Opolie. I’ll tell everything to the prince myself.”

At the dawn of the next day Razimir of Opolie learned the secret of the “Triple Nornscoll”. Eight men, eight empowered men, eight courtiers, commanders and politicians gathered at the board. Eight pieces were moving, weaving invisible web, ordering the past to change for the better.

A week later, when the troops of the margrave Siegfried put to rout the Opolie frontier guard, moving relentlessly to the capital, the prince Razimir ordered to execute all the eight of them. Because one had his incurably ill grandson recovered, the other suddenly received inheritance, the third gained the love of a proud beauty...

But the first who was executed at Wrozlav square was Byarn the Pensive, the old mage from Holne.

He didn’t resist.

“Your teacher, Martzin, was a wise man. He foresaw the failure beforehand.”

“I understand now...”

It was pitiful to look at Martzin. He was shrivelled all over, looked haggard, more than ever resembling a hopeless sparrow.

“Hell! Is there no way?!” Jendrich stroke his fist on the floor in a fit of temper. “Damn it, I would sell my soul...”

“We should seek a turning point. A point of influence, as my teacher would say. Nothing is impossible. Everything is liable to changes, but we... We either find the wrong points or make mistakes. Were there more of us, we could try a lot of variants, and eventually... For the game works! You’ve seen it yourselves!”

Martzin wasn’t noticing he was kneeling, looking in everyone’s eyes hopefully.

“Mommy, I want play! In the winda is evil fella. I want to bump on his head!”

“What, are you satisfied? Give the little one to play.”

“Well, why not, as a matter of fact?”

“I know, I know how playing! Must clap hands! Mommy, I want!”

“We aren’t losing anything. Even if she doesn’t manage...”

“All right. Come here, little girl. Stand here, near the board. Do you know how to... eem... bump an evil fellow on his head?”

“Yea. Just like that!”

A sonorous clap of small palms. On the board there remain only two pieces. Two lonely pawns. A red one and a black one. Martzin fixes his eyes on the hourglass, the sand once again starts running up – and suddenly the pale face of the youth flushes with amazement. The sand in the lower part of the vessel doesn’t end! The upper part is already overfull, but the little tornado continues to drive into the orifice numerous grains: hours, days, years...

“It cannot be...”

Martzin hasn’t time to finish. The girl hastily snatches the black pawn and presses it to her chest.

The window is flung wide open...

“Oh, knight! Knight!”

Elsa Fenriver, a five year old girl, clapped her hands. She was charming, in a new frilled dress, flowers in her golden locks. A pony standing in front of the little girl was scared of her quick movement. It snorted, moved back.

Started prancing in one place.

“Wait! Ponee, wait!”

Sitting in his saddle, three year old Siegfried was smiling with the mindless smile of an idol, not understanding what was going on. Today he was dressed up in child armour with a gilded breastplate. Given a helmet with a plume to put on. To his belt was hung a real sword – long-long, up to the sky. Well, maybe not to the sky, but still a long one. Like his Dad’s. Siegfried was happy. And his Dad – the strongest! the cleverest! – went away to the rose bushes to admire his heir while not hindering his son from enjoying his triumph.

Siegfried was happy even while flying off the saddle.

“Ponee!”

Shying away from Elsa, the pony reared. Its hoof stroke near the boy’s head. The toy helmet rolled aside, the temple of prone Siegfried was absorbing an accidental shade – the sun had hidden behind a fluffy cloud resembling a dog.

The blond hair of the heir was sandy.

“Stand!” A shout – masculine, imperious. A strong hand caught the bridle, in a jerk threw the pony away, to the side alley of the garden. Dietrich, the margrave of Maintz, bent over his son: “Are you hurt? Are you all right?!”

Siegfried turned on his back.

Started laughing.

Then thought better, looking at his father’s beaming face, and started crying.

“We’ve seen, Karolinka. You’ve tried. You’ve tried hard, it’s not your fault you didn’t manage. You have played well.”

“Well! I played well! Zere was no evil fella. Was knight! Vely good! And a little horse...”

“That’s how it is,” Giacomo knitted his dry lips. “Just playing. Well, what can you demand from a child?..”

“I want horse! I want knight!..”

“Twenty years!” whispered Martzin as if delirious, looking with horror at the little girl who was ready to cry. “Be she just a bit older... Good heaven, almost twenty years!”

“What are you babbling on, mage boy?”

“Twenty years! She has transferred for twenty years into the past! Herself! She did it herself!” the youth’s eyes were glittering feverishly. “She has a gift! Gracious God, such power...”

“Well, and what’s the use of this power? For Siegfried all this is like water off a duck's back...”

“Maybe the prince Razimir will manage? Or someone else? We should keep trying! We should do something!” but in Martzin’s words there was nothing of the former confidence. “Skwozhina, maybe you’ll try?”

On the board there remained only one red pawn.

The woman squinted contemptuously at the game. “Me? What I am – worst of all?!”

“Hush!” hissed Jendrich desperately in a sudden, and everyone became silent at once.

Above there were heard distinct, self-confident footsteps. The boards creaked.

Giacomo, without waiting for the chieftain’s instructions, pulled the rag bung out of the hole.

“...boozing, that is?..”

The newcomer’s voice – quiet, ingratiating, promising – boded nothing well for the Maintz men resting in the tavern.

“Sir, no, sir baron! I have to report, sir: we were chasing the enemy squad through the night, sir. Now we’re waiting for the main forces of His Grace, sir. My people needed rest...”

“In five minutes here will be His Grace Siegfried von Maintz in person! Search the tavern anew! From top to bottom! I’ll have your hides! If there’s one more national avenger again...”

“Sir, yes, sir!” A busting tramping.

“Sit here with the folks, Karolinka. Mommy will come for you.” Having got up, the serving woman stepped resolutely to the door.

“Have you gone mad, woman?! Want to give us up?!”

But nobody had time to stop Skwozhina. The woman pressed against the door with her entire body, something fell down outside. The door leaf gave way...

“Hold her!”

Too late. Skwozhina was already outside, having shut the secret door and now blocking it with rubbish anew. Giacomo clang his ear to the weak partition. Everyone kept silent. Lukerda was praying soundlessly, moving her lips in a childish manner...

...Voices.

The people waited, holding their breath. Jendrich, baring his teeth like a wolf, took his knife so it would be handy to throw.

“There’s somebody here! Taverner, give a torch!”

“Carefully, good gentlemen, don’t make a fire! Or we’ll burn down!..”

“A broad! By Saint Sebastian’s torturing, a broad! Hey you, come here!”

“Well this is my servant, sir knight! A fool, fool as she is... Hid in the cellar out of fear. Come out, come out, you muck, good gentlemen won’t hurt you. And decant beer, the dark “Chabrick” from the last barrel! Look at her, she took it into her head shirking work!..”

“Give me light, Ronmark. Nobody else there?”

“Empty...”

“Who would be here? Except for rats...”

“All right. Hey woman, climb up. And you too, taverner...”

Footsteps. Receding. From afar, muted – the clang of a lock.

“Blessed Virgin, thank you...”

“Mommy! Want to Mommy!..”

“Come here, Karolinka. Don’t cry. Here, take a toy.”

“Why, this woman has saved us. Were it not for her, they would start rummaging, searching...”

“Siegfried! Have you heard – the margrave himself is here! Were that we could know what happens there now...”

The people were looking at the board as if hoping that the window will be flung wide open any moment.

But the game remained soundless.

Tied to the saddle, a mutilated corpse was dragged over the ground after the rider.

Skwozhina was looking silently how the body of her elder brother Stanek was jumping over the potholes. Soil stuck to his beard, his right shoulder was slashed, his eyes, surprisingly clear on the bloodstained face, were looking mindlessly into the sky. This was the man she hated more than anyone else. She would pray at night for violent death to come for Stanek who had driven his own sister out of home.

There, God had heard.

“Congratulations on your dowry, wench!” whispered inside somebody’s voice resembling very much the bass of the taverner Jas. “That’s what you’ve been waiting for... These folk will ride away, what the hell do they need us for, and for you, odd-even, there’ll be the house, if they haven’t burnt it down, and the field near Zamlynska Gurka, and the cattle, and some clothes! Lubka, she lived with Stanek unmarried, which means she’s not his wife... Throw her a dry bone and let her be happy, the bitch!”

The voice was right.

“What carrion are you dragging along, Gernot?” one of the margrave’s bodyguards stepped forward.

“Rushed on me with an axe, this scoundrel!” cried out the rider merrily, stopping. “Derek had laid his wench on the coffer, so he grabbed an axe, this scumbag...”

“A knight!” the bodyguard burst into laughter, his teeth shining. “Dragon fighter!” And he kicked the dead body with his foot.

Skwozhina was looking indifferently how they were scoffing at the deceased. At night she would dream: I’ll spit in his eyes! I’ll dance on his grave! Here, she has a chance, thanks to good God...

She has a chance.

She went to the tethering post and took a pitchfork forgotten there. Held it in her arms, hefting.

And, stepping forward heavily, stabbed the rider in his side with all her strength.

“B-bitch!”

The rider, stunned with the sudden impudence of the woman, nevertheless contrived to turn his horse and to beat off with his long broadsword. The heavy blade struck at the pole of the pitchfork, cutting it down and aside; the bodyguard groaned when the sharp jags ploughed up his leg. “You beast! You!..”

“...stop it.”

The margrave Siegfried, having walked out of the tavern, was looking attentively at the ugliness that was going on. The glance of the Maintz lord was affable and kind. Especially warm it would become when touching Skwozhina. Loving, one might say. The woman felt how her body under the caress of Siegfried’s still eyes turned into a March snowdrift – loose, spongy. A black crust under which there’s rot and water. But she didn’t lose hold of the pitchfork. Thus she was standing over the body of her hated brother – silent, holding the ludicrous pitchfork at the ready.

The wounded bodyguard, afraid to groan, was limping aside.

A stream of blood was staining his tracks.

“When a dog bites, its master should be punished,” said the margrave in a didactic tone. It seemed that except for him and Skwozhina there were no people remaining on the Earth. “You’ve mistaken, avenger. Here’s the pitchfork. Here I am, the master. Punish!”

“Stop it! Stop it, you foolish broad! My lord, she’s crazy! She’s...”

Not listening to the taverner’s screams, biting her lip and becoming alike the bull Hles when it would see something red, Skwozhina stroke. The clear eyes of her dead brother Stanek, the scoundrel of scoundrels, were looking at her back. The hot eyes of the margrave Siegfried, a man whose soldiers had done Skwozhina the long desired favour, were looking in her face. She was tearing away between these two glances. God bless you, kind lord! Stanek, wish you were dead! Well, dead you are ... what am I doing? Why am I doing this?!

...I’m doing.

She had time to lift the pitchfork for the third time, when the blade of a dolchmesser – a flat dagger with one-sided, knife-like sharpening – flashed under her chin.

“An assaulter cannot be a man or a woman,” said Siegfried von Maintz in a didactic tone, cleaning his blade over the skirt of the murdered woman. On the rough linen, dyed with onion peels and celandine, blood stains looked ordinary. “An assaulter cannot be your equal or not. He can be only an enemy – or dead. This is the main thing. Everything else is hypocrisy. Get ready, in an hour we set out for Osobloga.”

And added, narrowing his eyes: “Don’t burn down the tavern. I was pleased here.”

Later on, when the dust settled after the Maintz men went away, the taverner Jas let everybody out of the hideout. Little Karolinka didn’t cry. She sat near her mother’s body, rocking in her hand a piece from the “Triple Nornscoll”, singing “Hoy, clover of five leaves”. Having finished singing, she put the image near the deceased.

An unused, senseless pawn.

A carved soldier.

“What happened here?” asked Martzin Oblaz in a quivering voice.

It took some time until he got an answer. 

* * *

The kitten that felt warm on the vagrant’s knees turned in its sleep in a funny way. Seized its muzzle with its paws, started purring louder. Peter stroked it absentmindedly. The touch of the soft fur was nice and somewhat unreal.

“I didn’t know,” said Peter. “I’ve...”

“You’ve,” muttered the taverner without anger. “You’ve, we’ve, torn a sleeve... That is, odd-even, you didn’t need to know about it. There’s nothing to know there. You’re alike – he and you, so I started pealing like an old bell...”

With the corner of his eye Peter Sliadek noticed the scanty smile of the mage in the corner who had been sitting still throughout the taverner’s story – and suddenly he understood with piercing clearness whom he was like with and who that stern staff-bearer was.

The door opened wide. A serving girl, about twelve years old, ran into tavern: sturdily– built, sunburnt. On her plain face strangely shone dark eyes, like two cherries. “Uncle Jas! Uncle Jas! The coach with mister Seingalt rode on. He’s ordered to tell he’ll wait near the graveyard, as usual! Let the rest go! He’s already so old, our Jacom, he’s sick from travel...”

“I’m going,” said the mage, getting up. “Jas, tell Jendrich and Lukerda to go after me. I have a presentiment: today, with the God’s help...” He halted, as if he doubted his own words or was afraid of jinx. “Let’s go, Karolinka. Let’s not keep Giacomo waiting.”

“Oh, let’s go, meister Martzin!..”

When the door shut, the lute under the table suddenly echoed with plaintive ringing. As if it had awakened. Or wanted to say something.

“You go,” said the taverner, trying not to look in Peter’s face. It happens when you’ve babbled too much, in a journey or in your cups, and you want to take leave of your accidental fellow traveller as fast as possible, to depart forever. “You go your way, lad. There’ll be no people here in the evening, whom will you sing for? Go to a crossroad, near Rahovez there’s the tavern of Zbych Proksha – on Saturdays it’s piled in! You’ll get your bag full of groshes! And I’ll give you some bread. Go, go, I have a lot of work to do...”

“Thank you,” said Peter.

Jas Misiur smiled wryly: “For the porridge? Or for my babbling?”

“For the porridge too.”

Soon, having left the tavern behind his back, Peter Sliadek slowed his path. I had to leave at once, he thought. I had to... To cheer himself, he started whistling his beloved ballade about the battle of Osobloga – but it didn’t do.

The song made his mouth sore.

He recollected how, a sixteen year old boy, he was standing in the Home Guard on the slope, with the spear he had been given. Miserable, trembling. Below, the cavalry of the margrave Siegfried was crossing the Wench ford. It was clear they wouldn’t hold the shore. The iron flood was ploughing through the river, the plumes of helms were swaying like white surf, and the shaft of his spear became disgustingly wet. Across the river, on a hill overgrown with willow thicket, surrounded by his bodyguards, the margrave himself was watching over the moving of his troops. While struggling with his fear, Peter didn’t understand at first what was going on. Nobody did. Where had the furious riders come from?! None other than the Devil himself must have brought them, because the nearest oak wood was combed thoroughly by the Maintz men beforehand. Seven horsemen, getting in wild galloping to Siegfried’s rear, showered the margrave with arrows at full speed. The bodyguards habitually covered their lord, moving their shields together, but one of them slipped, groaning from the pain in his leg, apparently recently wounded, – in the wall of shields there glimpsed an open space, and the last arrow shot by the horsemen’s leader stroke the neck of the margrave who had been late to put on his helm. Later on the prince Razimir would forgive the skilful marksman all his former sins, changing him from the chieftain Dry Storm into the frontier guard Jendrich Kionka, giving the brave man honour and a coat of arms; but then it didn’t matter, because one of the raiders, dismounted, was already fighting with the bodyguards, trying to make his way through, fight his way through to, reach wounded Siegfried, and the experienced warriors were retreating under the pressure, burning out like hay in fire. The fighter was wearing strange armour – it seemed he had gathered it part by part in the den of a looter or a fence. Because of the ridiculous bulky spaulders the assaulter would be nicknamed the Stooped Knight – but this would also happen only later. And then the cavalry halted at the ford, a terrible rainstorm with hail big as pigeon eggs whipped the usurpers – as if Byarn the Pensive himself, the good mage from Holne, came back from the dead, deciding to stand up for Opolie! The rain was washing out the oozy shore, and the horses stumbled, throwing their riders down. The cry: “Siegfried’s dead! Hit the foreigners!” rolled over Osobloga, and the prince Razimir ordered to sound the attack. Peter was running, choking on water and his own shouts, poking his spear into someone’s belly, shouting again, and came to himself only in the train, where it was hot, he was thirsty, and imps in his head were dancing fiery kozeryika.

His head would ache up to this day, foreboding autumn rains.

“Well, let it be so,” said Peter, barely understanding what he meant. “Let it be...”

At the roadside there was standing a coach. The moustached coachman sat there, bored, sipping from his flask from time to time. Still higher, to the left hand, where heather was fading under dark firs, a graveyard began. Near one of the crosses, around the grave there were sitting people. Peter recognized the company officer with his wife, the mage and young Karolinka. Also there was a very old man dressed in dark blue – the colours of the Opolie house. The old man was stooping heavily, leaning forward. All the people didn’t move, looking at a single point in front of them. Thus would sit players absorbed in a complicated game.

Peter could swear he knew what game was lying on the grave in front of the amazing five.

The “Triple Nornscoll”.

“ ‘I have a presentiment,’ said the mage, getting up. ‘Today, with the God’s help...’ ”

“I’ll write a song,” Peter Sliadek stopped. He was looking at the people occupied with the game, as if hoping they could hear him, digress, stop racking their tormented hearts with the dream of correcting – the most wonderful and the most deceitful dream in the world. “I give you my word, I’ll write a song. A real one. You won’t get angry if I sing it everywhere? I’m seldom allowed to visit castles...”

He threw his lute farther on his shoulder and moved along the Kichora road.

Whistling “Hoy, clover of five leaves.”

The Qasida of Doubts.

O, my crown is turning rusty,

My defence I cannot trust to,

Nights are poisoned with disgusting

Cawing of a crow.

From a tree a leaf is falling,

For my soul, as if, it’s calling,

And my soul will answer, moaning:

“You! Arise and go!”

I’m a king – my throne is swaying,

I’m a void, I am the aching

Of a heart that’s slowly failing,

Shining of a coin,

I’m dead lovers in Verona,

At a wedding I am foreign,

I am standing in an open

Field – I am alone.

I’m alone and not a fighter,

While the safety is in numbers.

Where’s at least one friend? – I’m howling,

Save my soul, o Lord.

Let me be green grass that’s growing,

Let me be a leaf that’s falling,

Sound of people who are talking,

Grey hair of the old.

With eternal peace bestow me,

Just a little of it show me,

Lace of curtain, gently flowing,

Flowers’ scent at dawn.

Give the shining of a lightning...

Be it easy life or striving –

All the same the pain is biting

At my very core.

At dark midnight it will wake me,

Weakness into power making –

So inscrutable and shaky

Is the way I go.

Somewhere, juvenile or ancient,

In a crowd or by myself there,

Through my life I’ll leaf then, pensive,

Being slave or lord.

Flame of tournament I’ll be there,

Armour’s ornament I’ll be there,

And from wisdom’s spring I’ll drink there,

Strict and all alone.

Cough and pain, my joints are aching

And the tiredness is waiting...

“Rise!” I’ll never..! “Rise!” I’ll never..!

“Rise!” ...I will... “And go.”


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