Raznoy, Bugra-dezhu, and the Wolves

Laïsha was stooped over the fire until we were all inside, then she straightened slowly, and with a hard, silent look at the intruders, shuffled lamely to the window.  While the intruders busied themselves warming their hands and sampling the stew, Laïsha pushed open the as yet un-boarded felt curtain and look in the direction of the horses.  She let out a weak moan, and I felt sure that here were the seekers of Davnoy.

I would be lucky to survive this encounter, and she, too, if she were hiding from some misdeed perpetrated upon the household of the merchant of Dneprokiev.

“Some food, then, if you please!” said the new nobleman jovially, but authoritatively enough that he was not to be refused.  Nor would I have refused him.  First, though, I took Laïsha by the arm and helped her to the bed.  I did this as much to point out to the visitors that she was ailing as to help her along.  I thought she might have something to whisper to me, but she repeated her moaning and even increased it to an irritating wail.

“Laïsha, please, relax and be comfortable,” I urged her, easing her onto the bed.  One of the soldiers came and peered at us sternly in the dimness of evening, but I ignored him.

“Let the woman tend her guests!” bellowed the nobleman.

“She has been gravely ill, Sir,” I explained.  “She will rest while I tend to your needs.”

While I was serving the three visitors Laïsha rose and tried to help me a little, although her efforts apparently were to make my work more efficient, not actually to serve them.  All the while she kept up a weak, high moaning.  I set a generous portion of our new stew before them that the three of them could share.

The nobleman asked me whether I had seen a carriage and a man who might have identified himself as Davnoy of Dneprokiev.  In the dimming light Laïsha and I had exchanged a glance as he was asking this question, and so I parried it with a half truth, which she could not dispute, that no visitor here had told me that that was his name.

The nobleman talked while he ate, without looking at me or at my lady, but one guard eyed me constantly while the other ate quickly and then helped himself to my stored food to feed their horses.

“The magistrate of Pinea has the horse that was Davnoy’s,” the nobleman went on.

“Then I would conclude that Davnoy of Dneprokiev has taken a lodging in this area,” I suggested, over Laïsha’s chilling moan.

The nobleman stopped his chewing and looked her way, then back at me, more astounded than irritated.

“I cannot quiet her,” I told him, hiding my growing amusement.  Why she was doing it I did not know.  Again, however, I escorted her to the bed and sat her down.  She walked in true pain, and I said, plain enough for all to hear: “Laïsha, My Dear Wife, you don’t have to help.  You are in great pain, and you can stay right here in bed.”

She wouldn’t lie down, but sat there staring and moaning low.

The nobleman jumped up from his meal and pointed at me with his flat wooden spoon.  “Davnoy has met an ill fate, and I deduce that it befell him somewhere in these woods!  How can a carriage and a man vanish?  This is not a wilderness!  I am persuaded that there was a young woman with him, too.  Vanished?”

He swept into the center of the room and whirled about, scanning the dark interior of the house.  He fixed for a moment on Laïsha, who stared at the floor and moaned more quietly.

“You see,” he went on, addressing me, “that might be plausible.  They might have vanished — been consumed by a river or lost in a ravine — but there’s the matter of the horse.”  He paced.  “So if no one talks here, we can make some trouble.  For someone in these parts obtained the horse of Davnoy of Kiev, and do you know what else?”

“I think I do,” I replied, startling him.

“Then tell!”

“That would be the horse that my neighbor Gonashi found near his home by the river.”

“Very good, Physician!  That is the horse that the magistrate of Pinea now keeps for us.  A horse that has had its mane and tail altered, and only very recently.  What else would you like to tell us, now?”

“That is all I know,” I told him.  Now my lady, Laïsha, knew how easily I could lie.  I feared that she would be strengthened in her own belief that I knew more than I would tell her.

The nobleman addressed his soldiers: “Search!  Search the whole house, and if you find nothing, search the outside.”  Turning to me, he said: “Your friend Gonashi has a very small house, and he made us welcome.  We were kind in our search there.”

“I hope you have felt welcome here, too,” I said, and laughed dryly.

The guards were kinder than I thought they would be.  They moved methodically.  I didn’t know whether Laïsha felt safe in her disguise.  She showed no fear.  But my fear rose to cold panic each time they approached my door or my medicines.  One guard lifted the sleeping pad all but where Laïsha sat.  The other walked by my shelves of medicines two times, then paused to dump a couple of jarfuls onto the floor.

Finally, one climbed to the loft and brought down my kotomka being made ready for travel.  He also motioned to the nobleman to suggest that the latter take a look above.  The nobleman climbed back down and glared at me.

“Who sleeps there?” he asked, accusing.

“I have, from time to time, when…” I lowered my voice “…when Laïsha is especially difficult.”

The nobleman took the travel sack from the soldier and dumped its contents onto the floor.  Then he stared at me.  “Leaving, were you?” he asked.

I swallowed and choked back tears.  Then I thought clearly.  “Surely you would understand that a physician must make short trips to dispense medical aid to those who cannot travel,” I said with little confidence.  “I must tend the magistrate of Pinea at times, and these are the things I would take with me.  Having extra, I keep them thus packed.”  I marveled again at my mixed luck, for I had not yet included arrows and my bow in the pack.  They still hung by the door, readied for my fowl hunting.

The nobleman was incredulous.  “There is no physician in Pinea?  Then why do you not move to the village and save your sufferers so much travel?”

He thought he had me, but the truth was easy: “There is a spirit-monger, one who has lived there for nearly a century, whose name is Bugra-dezhu.  He is venerated even though the villagers know him to be dangerous.”  I momentarily recalled an incident that explained Bugra-dezhu: When six children in one family died in the time between the full moon and the empty moon — this was during the first month I was with Sadruk — Bugra-dezhu pronounced it a curse.  Sadruk, on the other hand, called it a strickening — a weakness in the family members that rendered them helpless against the cause, but for which cause there may have been a remedy.  In spite of such a record of travesty as followed the old charlatan, Sadruk feared that our kind of physician was an aberration that wouldn’t last.  The people would rather propitiate dubious gods and call upon their ancestors’ spirits through a pretentious fraud like Bugra-dezhu, a magician who kept them under his spell of fear by casting spells they need not fear, by performing tricks with lodestone, and by his intimidating and self-important countenance.  I avoided troubling the intruder with this much detail.

“He is an old bocolabras, more interested in casting spells and calling upon stars than in applying healing remedies,” I went on.  “We have tarried here knowing that he will some day die.  The young magistrate, however, does not trust him, but according to the wishes of the people allows him still to practice his craft.”

“Such a magistrate has no future,” muttered the nobleman, after he had contemplated my speech.  “Nor have you.  You talk too much.  I know your kind of medicine, and you displease the spirits by denying them their power.  You will be taught a bitter lesson when the spirits are ready to destroy you.”

One of the guards had been searching outside the house for evidence of the missing Davnoy and waited until his young master was finished with that conversation before he felt free to report his findings.  “We have a supply of meat on the roof, I’m happy to report: some of it pork from a pig, poorly butchered, and some sheep hearts and livers, evidently much-prized, judging by how well it was protected.”  The guard gave me a sly smile.

Reeling at the insult to my butchering, I began to stammer that was something besides meat up there.

“Fetch us as much of the sheep meat as we can carry,” the nobleman commanded.  “Let these pigs eat their own kind!”  He snickered at his cleverness, while Laïsha instantly bent over, coughing and choking where she sat.  I hurried to sit beside her and bent as well until I could see her face.

She was laughing!  But the coughing was real, and the pain of it fought fiercely against her amusement.  She leaned into my shoulder and wiped her nose and mouth against my shirt.  As she did so, her eyes met mine and held them for a moment.  There was still a merry gleam there, but she was crying nonetheless.  My jaw dropped at this instant as I shuddered with the awareness of what she already understood.  Laïsha slid past my back to lie on the bed and pulled my head down alongside hers.  “Say nothing about the meat they take,” she groaned softly into my ear.  “Dead slaves are not hard to replace.”

As I rose slowly from the bed I resolved to ask her as soon as I could how she knew of these body parts — when had I spoken of it?  Shortly afterward, though, I inexplicably recalled the conversation with Turgey as he and I had stood in the doorway.

This nobleman was probably my same age.  Yet next to him I felt small, provincial, embarrassed.  He had struck fear in me, and I suppressed it for the present: I feared that Sadruk’s medicine, which I now practiced, did indeed displease the spirits.  I feared the consequences he foretold.  But I might also fear the consequences of this visit, so I dismissed his remark, feeling foolishly brave.

The guards both circled the outside of the house a couple of times.  They also walked a way into the woods in back of the house, and one visited the scene of my bonfire, but in the waning twilight evidently did not detect the ashes beneath the fresh brush I had piled thickly onto the site.  Then all convened in the center of the room.

“We will stay here the night,” the nobleman said to his guards, but just that moment Laïsha burst into a wail that even set the horses outside to neighing.

I rushed to her and wrapped an arm around her, but with strength I didn’t expect she rose from my light grip and cried: “Three horsemen!  The dream!  The children!  The wolves!  Three horsemen!”  Wild-eyed, she turned upon me and shouted: “Now the wolves will come for us!”

While I pulled her back onto the bed beside me the nobleman said nervously: “There are no wolves in these woods!”

“Ages ago they were here,” I said, mostly to Laïsha.

She glared at me — at us all, then said, suddenly more quietly:  “Then they were gone.  Now they’ve come back.”

While she continued moaning and babbling about horsemen and wolves I raised the bed covers and forced her into a reclining position.  I tried to imagine what she was thinking: dream, children, three horsemen.  It was enough to go on, so I patted her shoulder and made up a story about our children, two boys, chased and eaten this very winter by wolves, and about a recurring dream that Laïsha had been having that when three horsemen appeared the wolves would return to eat us.

The nobleman and his soldiers stood dumbfounded next to the smoldering stove.

“I find your tale unbelievable, but why you would construct such a lie I cannot deduce.  We will remain here until first light, and then you can be assured we will be gone.”

To guard the horses the nobleman assigned himself the first watch and assigned his soldiers to divide the rest of the night.  I offered to watch as well, but the nobleman, suspicious of my state of sanity and certain of Laïsha’s, declined the offer.  “Keep your hag from that hideous moaning in any way you can,” he ordered me.

While I re-packed my sack, the nobleman made his bed upon the stove and one guard made his bed upon the bench beside it.  The other guard climbed to the loft.  The darkness was deep already, both inside and out, and I realized suddenly that Laïsha and I would be expected to share the master’s bed.

“Forgive me, but —” I began to whisper as I hesitantly sat upon the skins and blankets beside her, taking the position away from the door in order not to crowd her injured ribs, but she put her hand over my mouth for a second, and then lifted the covers and tugged my arm to draw me inside.

“Silence!” she insisted in the quietest whisper I’d ever heard.

And so I remained silent.

“The wolves!” Laïsha occasionally cried out weakly all through the night, and each time she did it I would stroke her hair and with whispered assurances try to console her.  Was this an act?  I felt certain that it was.  Each time she uttered it — “The wolves!” — it sounded as though she had resigned to a fate at the jaws of such beasts.

At other times in the night I could feel her weeping silently, and this I knew to come from her pain and from her exhaustion.  Again I would stroke her hair, and at these times she truly seemed consoled.  It gave me a strange stirring to caress her head so freely.  I found that I did it for my own pleasure as much for her reassurance, and so I touched her that way probably more than the situation called for.  But she accepted every advance I made as if it truly meant something to her.

I didn’t sleep at all.  I saw the silhouette of the nobleman or one of his soldiers poking the fire from time to time.  I heard their murmuring when they changed the guard, and realized that were it not for the nobleman’s sleeping, the guards would not have kept their business in whispers, for they bore no respect for this country physician and his bugle of a wife.

At one point in the night the guard on duty must have been sniffing or feeling inside my medicine jars.  The clanking of jar lids and his occasional audible recoil from the odors made clear his actions.

There could still be a chance that he’d find the yellow jewel or the medal that had belonged to their besought Davnoy.  There could also be a chance, unless I acted soon, that Laïsha would find them.

I thought hard about the lies I had told her, and whether I should carefully give her the truth.  But if only my plan would work, that I would leave her here to have this house for her own until she wished to leave it, then she never need to know the awful truth, for I would take all the remaining evidence with me.

I must protest that I was not such a callous man as would abandon a woman to fend for herself in these woods.  I thought and thought, and at last I realized what might work out.  I could invite Gonashi, through messages after my departure, to take up residence here in this house.  Even though it had only one room and a loft, it was much more accommodating than his hut by the river where he raised as many children as sheep.  Then he and his wife could see Laïsha safely through until she could arrange to leave.

But there was one more quandary, and I could see that it had already begun to tarnish the luster of even such a plan as that involving Gonashi: I felt a true tenderness for this lady with whom I now slept, or, more accurately, with whom I now lay without sleeping.  I had no delusion that she, still to my mind of some higher breeding, would ever be drawn to desire a life with a peasant such as I, but already she appreciated me.  If it hadn’t been for the certainty that I would be discovered for my “crimes” I could have altered my plans in order to remain a devoted follower and subject of this lady through the coming years — to stay close by her here by Pinea and then wherever she might go to resume her noble way of life — for I now felt that her indulgence would be assured and I could envision enjoying her friendship for some years to come.

Wherever she might go, though, I could not yet imagine myself going also.  My aim was to travel to Greece.  Moreover, I could not suppose that over a period of years, as her friend and servant, I could keep from her the true events leading to her arrival with me.

When at last I noticed the approach of dawn I propped myself higher in order to peer into the room.  I expected that the glow from the stove should still illuminate the slumberers beside it.  But, as hard as I looked, I could see no lumps on the floor or on the stove.  Nor was there a figure on the bench beside the stove or the shorter one beside the door.

I studied the scene closely for some minutes and listened for sounds of the presence of others, but they were not there.

Apparently I had indeed fallen asleep, if only for a short time, and even before the hint of dawn they had departed.  I lowered myself back to the bed and whispered to Laïsha: “They’re gone.”

“I know it,” she replied with a pained whisper of her own.

I said inside myself: Then why are we whispering?

“I can move to my loft now,” I told Laïsha, and began to withdraw from the bed, but just then she rolled onto her left side and put an arm across my chest.  Together, therefore, we slept deeply until the sun was high.

<Table of Contents> <Seven> <Nine>  <People and Places>


The Sufferers and the Three Horsemen

My house was large and built to last, in the style brought to nearby regions by the Varangian marauders of recent memory.  Lone houses, especially large ones such as mine, were not common in the woods.  What I lived in as these events were unfolding was the kind of fork-and-pole house more commonly found in a town, and then more commonly belonging to a magistrate or merchant.  Sadruk had inherited the house, though, from his father, who had built it on the prince’s supposition that a town would grow up around it, establishing an outpost halfway between Drizha and Pinea.  But princes come and go, and that’s all the people passing by did as well.  No town arose around it, even though so near the stream, and probably no prince since it was built has even known that it is there.

The method of construction calls for hard work, harder than many forest dwellers are willing to invest, but results in a sturdy, permanent home of any size that the builder wants to lay out.

First, the builder selects nine leafy trees, such as linden or ash.  The correct tree has a straight, tall, thick trunk that forks into two stout branches at the right height.  These trees are cut above the fork, to retain the fork — three taller than the other six — are then peeled, and finally are hauled to the house site.  Then nine holes are dug, three along a line that will define the front of the house, three for the taller forked trees down the center, and three more for the back.  The most common shape is a square of any size.  The tallest forked posts are hoisted upright and dropped into the center row of holes.  They are then leveled with their tops at the same height.

In my house, (Sadruk’s), the center posts were almost twice my own height.  The front posts, shorter than the center but high enough to permit entry once the wall is finished, are then set.  The remaining three posts for the back are placed last, and their length doesn’t matter, as long as they are of even height.  If a pigpen is needed behind the house, as on mine, then the back wall needs to be only high enough to accommodate such an addition.  A straight ridge pole of pine is then peeled, notched, and hoisted into the forks formed by the center row of posts.  Similarly, the front and back rows of forked posts are fitted with cross poles, parallel to the ridge.  What remains to complete the roof, then, is for the builder to crisscross this framework with closely-set sapling poles, to cover it with slabs of bark, repeating this layering several times, and to seal it with pine pitch.  The front wall of such a house is often buttressed by thick, forked tree trunks sunk into the ground at an angle to meet the eaves.  That way, the front wall cannot sag outward, and this lean-to framework in front can be covered with skins for extra sleeping quarters, if it is to be a common house, and can serve as a ramp to the roof.

The way Sadruk’s house was built, the earth dug from the holes and not needed to set the posts was spread under the roof.  As much additional loose earth as desired might then be hauled in, spread and smoothed, to raise the floor level above the surrounding forest floor.  This was then covered with straw, which was changed as often as the resident could obtain fresh material.

Since it was as long as four or five men lying toe to head and as wide as four as well, ours fit the description of a large house.  To finish a large house, the ubiquitous stove is constructed next.  For this, a skilled builder is needed.  Some of these stoves have a conical shape and an open front, but more often, as with mine, they are long and squared at the edges, and made of angular flat stones or sun-dried bricks or packed clay.  They have thick flat tops of broad stones, mudded for smoothness, and are open at one end.  Mine also had a thin, broad, flat rock which served as a stove door when slid across the opening.  The stoves can be vented to any type of opening — straight through the roof, which assures a leaky roof, or out the end walls of the house — which then makes a tall, teetering chimney unnecessary, or out the back, which permits a short chimney or none at all and provides warmth for livestock.  I have been in houses where the stove was simply vented into the room and the smoke drawn off by holes near the peak.  Sadruk’s stove was centered along the back wall, where it protruded from the back of the house half an arm’s length so that the smoke hole from the stove opened straight into the outside air.

The outside walls of such a house are normally finished with logs.  Sometimes a second row of posts (without forks) is set next to the front forked posts and smaller logs are stacked between these two close rows.  The same system may be used for the end and back walls.  Sadruk’s house had originally been done this way.  In other instances, walls may be constructed of sticks and mud, depending on the materials available.  Many years ago, before my arrival, Sadruk had replaced his outer walls and roof.  The house, as I left it finally, had the finest mud-and-stone walls with a proper door frame and a window with fitted boards to shutter it completely from the inside.  The window also had an inner curtain of layered felt.

The loft where I had made my bed while Sadruk and his son lived there, and which I once again occupied while my lady Laïsha was with me, was hung in one end of the house away from the stove, on beams notched into the forked posts of the center and one end.  It gave room to lie down on a mattress of pine needles, with space enough around to stack my personal possessions.  Cleats pegged into the center posts formed the ladder to the loft.

My house differed little in construction even from the houses of magistrates and princes.  Chiefly, those of the mighty were only larger, with numerous rooms and stoves.  A magistrate’s house would have stables, slaves perhaps, and more windows.  The house of a prince would include rug-covered flat earthen or fitted stone floors, wall rugs or tapestries, and oiled skins over the window openings.  The forked posts in a prince’s palace might be carved with hunting or battle scenes exaggerating the prince’s power and heritage, and would be stained and polished.  I often wondered whether I might try carving scenes into the center post of my house, but it always seemed to be something I could never find time to begin.

+ + +

It was a fresh spring day, which lasted long and filled both our hearts, Laïsha’s and mine, with hope of things to come, as well as hope of leaving other things behind.  The things I hoped for in both cases were probably unlike the things that occupied Laïsha, but nonetheless, she had a past to hide and healing to anticipate.

Throughout this day my lady Laïsha attempted to help me with small chores inside the house.  She spoke of wanting to make a pork pie, but this I discouraged just yet.  I proposed it as a goal for the following day, and she agreed.  Together we made some fresh biscuits of acorn meal, though, and she directed my sweeping out of the house, so that corners were now tidied that hadn’t been affected in years.  The floor would remain strawless for some months now.  I proposed that some days hence she should make roughly a circular path inside the house which she could walk each day for ever-lengthening periods.  This was a variation of my master’s method for strengthening an injured sufferer.

She rested often that day, too, and during these times I continued quietly packing for my own leave-taking.  The things with which I would travel I continued to keep in the loft, against any chance that she could find them and suspect my intentions.

Late in the day, when I returned from an unsuccessful fowl-hunt, I discovered a most extraordinary thing that she had done.  Obviously with great care, so as not to injure herself, she had singed away her dark and expressive eyebrows, had reddened her face with heat, and then had turned her face pale by rubbing it with white ashes.  Her eyelashes, too, she had virtually obliterated, and her visage had taken on that of a woman fifteen years older.  Her face still showed signs of bruises and scratches, although I had had no doubt that her former, muted beauty would return once those minor contusions healed.  She had fashioned a bowl-shaped cap for her head that resembled those worn by local women, and she had rudely shorn her long hair so that it fell only to her neck.

If she had gone away one day looking as she did originally, and had returned the next looking as she did now, I would not have believed, even if told, that she were the same woman.  The effect was startling.

She sat stitching a tear in my spare breeches, and when I came close enough to assure myself of her identity she lost her composure and began weeping softly.

“It is awful,” she said without looking at me.

“You saw?” I asked, meaning that she had looked at her reflection in the polished silver mirror that was with my medical equipment.

She nodded.

“Thus, you are now a crippled peasant woman whose name is Laïsha, and your past —” I didn’t know how to finish.

She nodded again.  Still she wept, and I sat beside her on the bed.  For a minute or two we stared together at the opposite wall, but then, with compassion for the untold burden she bore, I turned toward her and set aside the work from her hands and held her hands in mine.  That was all I did, and she permitted it.  I noticed, though, as I pressed her fingers between mine and felt her palms and fingertips, that hers were working hands.  They were larger than her body size might suggest.  They were calloused and hard, and a couple of her fingers had clearly been broken in the past.  We stared frankly each at the other’s face and I said nothing, nor did I look to see what my touch had discovered.  I pondered her secret and felt very tenderly toward her.  I understood, too, that her lament of a few days before, for having offended the god-protector of slaves and prisoners, might not have been a reference to her current “imprisonment” with me but to some status she had held in the past — maybe the very recent past.

It was a somber evening until we went to sleep that night.

On the seventh day we made a pork pie, and feasted heartily.  Despite her attempt to make herself hideous, which would have had the desired effect upon a stranger, I saw her as I had imagined her healed, and found myself desiring the day when she once again would look that way.  This was a difficult thought to bear, for at the same time I thought ahead toward her rejuvenation, I had no intention of being around her long enough to see it happen.

That day, and for the next two, we were visited by a progression of sufferers from Pinea and the nearby woods.  This could be expected after the long months of winter.  We would now see the results of the frostbite and other ailments that go with colder episodes of the season.  The snow was now all gone, and we had enjoyed a few days or parts of days which were warm and bright.  The forest floor began to assume a greenish cast to my hazy vision.  Mosses and leaves of small plants were beginning to show some life.

It had become imperative to both of us that Laïsha assume a real identity as a peasant, and so, from the moment the very first visitor arrived, I spontaneously introduced her as my wife, and she didn’t even give me a funny look.  This struck a couple of visitors as an oddity, since she appeared older than me, and since they had not known me lately to have had a woman in my heart.  But they also knew that anything can happen during a long winter, and for most people my foreign origins explained away my mystifying behaviors.

We were confident that Laïsha could safely claim to be from somewhere beyond Drizha, to the south, but I think no one dared ask, so it never became an issue.  Since she still hurt, her efforts to help me in my ministrations were feeble.  We would tell people only that she herself had been gravely ill but was recovering.

The variety of ailments presented was largely uninteresting, although Laïsha became absorbed in my attempt to straighten and splint crooked bones and sew wounds for a little boy who had fallen from a tree into a pig pen, seriously upsetting the pig.  She also took great pity upon a deranged old man with no teeth, who showed no sign of pain in his deadened right leg, which I declined to amputate, but which I was sure, from its blackened condition, would be the death of him within days.  I made him some sage brew that I knew would give him comfort, and we talked and talked — as if I were a sage myself! — and, with a heavy heart in my chest, I sent him away with his family, who bore him on a stretcher that they alternately carried and dragged.  As he left, his eyes seemed to tell me he understood.

If I had successfully removed his leg, which even Sadruk probably would have refused to attempt, he would have become the third brother in one family to hobble among the houses of Pinea on one stem.  The first of those brothers to have one amputated had met so ill a fate at the paws of Bugra-dezhu, the spirit-invoking shaman of Pinea, that the next two had come to Sadruk.  For unrelated reasons they too needed amputations, but under Sadruk’s care they survived.  I would confidently have relieved this one of the burden if he had come sooner, but I was so certain of his fate that I could foretell how my surgery would have been mistaken as the cause of death if I had tried it now.

Another man, nearly as young as I but carried to me on a litter, arrived with muscles in his back knotted in great lumps.  He was a road agent, as was I, and his section was that path which led into some low mountains west of Pinea.  He had spent most of the daylight hours of the previous few days cutting and dragging logs.  He was in severe pain but was so grateful to be in my house at last that he beamed a great smile through his tears.  Sadruk had a sack of a brownish-yellow powder, slung from a post near the stove, which he called mustardic and which he mixed with certain radish roots and softened bark, making a paste to apply to sore muscles.  I laid the young man on a bed of furs next to the stove and set his father and brother to rubbing such a paste into his back.  I left them working like this for much of the afternoon while I continued to see other sufferers.

For sore muscles, I reflected, Bugra-dezhu — who was not all evil but occasionally manifested some empathy for his sufferers — would have reached into a barrel of damp sand, produced a mandrake root, and would have carved it into the shape of a man or of that portion of a man which represented the injured area.  He would then instruct the family to massage not the sufferer, but the carved root!  I am proud that I have seldom been tempted to employ such artifice.

I had almost forgotten that they were there when the young sufferer finally sat up, cautiously put his feet beneath himself, and stood.  He still hurt but he could move.  I washed the fierce-smelling, burning residue from his back and felt for more knots, but he was ready, he said, to return home on foot.  They paid me in fleece and in wooden utensils they crafted themselves and went on their way.  As I closed the door behind them I realized that Laïsha had seen and studied the resolution of the young man’s problem and continued even now to stare at me with growing admiration for my skills.  She smiled at me demurely, and I blushed.

Laïsha was mostly interested in the women who came either to be treated or to accompany family members.  She studied their habits and their small talk.  They seemed to regard her with a mixture of suspicion and tolerance, but not at all with hostility.  I was sure that her frightening appearance, her slight accent, and the fact that she was an utter stranger made them wary if not rude.  I listened always to hear whether she spoke to anyone from Pinea about her missing Davnoy, but she seemed not to want to reveal that curiosity before any of them.  So I did, to reassure Laïsha that my false story was not false.  I chose a particularly unreliable-looking old man who’d come in with his ailing and daft wife, and asked him to take a message to the cartwright — a message that I sought word of the man who had come to him over a week past with a fancy carriage in need of repair.  The old man tried diligently to comprehend and memorize my message, and, once his wife had swallowed a bowlful of my stew, for she was mostly suffering from hunger, they went off, he repeating my message to her and she repeating it back to him.

And so it went.  There was a woman with a great swelling at the base of her neck.  I spent an hour treating a young hunter whose nose had frozen and decayed.  I was able carefully to scrape nearly all of it off, leaving him grotesquely defaced.  He had also lost some fingers and toes, but had generally healed well.  But he left still able to breathe and with no bleeding and was excited by my suggestion that the right craftsman could carve him a convincing covering.  There was a baby boy from Pinea, born that winter with paddles in place of hands, tempting me to slit the skin along lines where his fingers should have separated — Sadruk might have attempted it, first on the left hand, then, if that healed well, on the right — and I left the parents with the impression that Sadruk might just do so when he returned.

I think that the visits were very taxing for Laïsha, for by the end of the third day of it her cheer was gone, she sobbed once again from the pain, and her wound oozed a different kind of fluid.  I offered, on her behalf, to turn people away, in order to protect her, but until now she would not allow it.  By nightfall, though, she thought it would be wise.

The next day, her tenth with me, saw only one more such visitor, and she encouraged me to treat him anyway while she stayed in bed.  I too was exhausted by the work, but in exchange during these days we had obtained several spring grouse, sacks of meal, a quantity of iron, which I did not need, and a bolt of good linen.  One especially-appreciative old man, a carver of figurines and ornaments, walked back to our house a second day to deliver a decorated cover-with-handle for our chamber pot.  The image on the lid was lewd, but was done so well that to reject it on the grounds of taste would have been a waste of the giver’s talent.  Laïsha seemed less offended even than I.  The same man agreed to meet the hunter who had lost his nose.

Her eleventh day with me was quiet.  We each looked after our individual affairs and hardly exchanged a word.  Late in the day I wanted to reassure her again that her man would return, so I made a comment about patience.

“Patience!” Laïsha exclaimed.  “Patience!  I feel as though I’m made of patience, as if it were a substance from which statues are made, like marble or clay!”

I let it pass, and it did.

By her twelfth day, Laïsha was sewing for me and for herself from the new cloth, and was confidently predicting the coming day when she would draw a deep breath.  Her prediction changed as the day wore on and she with it, but still we had some fun over it.  By now it was clear that her spirits would sag every afternoon, and I adjusted my routines in order to do as little as possible that might annoy her past mid-day.

I felt that she had begun to worry less about the return of her Davnoy, or about the arrival of those who would seek him.  These latter people, unknown as they were to me, worried me un-mercifully, however.

I contrived, during these days, to learn her age — she thought she was just past her seventeenth year of age by now, for she had been born in the springtime — and she divulged also that she had some Khazar blood in her.  For this information I exchanged my age, the fact that I am a Dregovichian clansman from far to the north, and that I came to this region with a hunting party about five and a half years before.  I confided to her, as well, that my failing vision had caused my expulsion from that same hunting group when we were in the vicinity of Gonashi’s pasture, and I had been employed soon after by Sadruk, with the magistrate’s permission.

Sadruk, I also told her truthfully, had lost his wife of a fever, but I made it sound as if this had occurred not long before my appearance.  I did not mention that Sadruk had a son, about two years younger than my twenty or twenty-one years, now away in Greece.  I did not want to give her the advantage of hope in his impending return.

She claimed that on the morrow she would like to walk out-of-doors and look for doves and woodpeckers, and so, early that afternoon, we put our work aside, set a newly-made stew to simmer, and, before dusk, set about preparing for bed.

I was finishing my last chore of the dying day — gathering fuel for the stove from the pile in front of the house — when the air exploded with the sound of hooves and whinnies.  From the road three horsemen reared up.  While their tall, black, metal-adorned beasts pranced and blew steam, one dressed as a nobleman addressed me in a tongue more like my mother’s Baltic language than Sadruk’s Slavonic, yet a mixture of both: “Are you the physician spoken of by the shepherd Gonashi?”

I acknowledged that honor.

“We will have a word with you then,” he said, dropping elegantly to the ground.  A plain sword protruded beneath his long fur coat, and he wore a thick necklace of silver chain.

The other two were soldiers, but I could tell only that much from their garb, which included a close-fitting cap or helmet of burnished leather.  Or, if not soldiers, they were household guards.  They too dismounted and tied the three horses to a tree.

The nobleman entered the house unbidden, but I bowed to him stupidly anyway.  I barely squeezed in ahead of the guards, crushing my forehead against the lintel as I made haste.

<Table of Contents> <Six> <Eight> <People and Places>


Laïsha and Davnoy
Kiev and Pinea

The lady ignored me for the rest of that morning following Turgey’s departure, except to complain of the cold or the heat or the light or the darkness.  But after noon, she reminded me of her intention to sit.  The sitting was utter torture for her, however, and we would not have attempted it at all were it not for the fact that I also had to get her to her feet, after a fashion, and help her to use the pot.

Back in her bed, my lady cried openly through the rest of that day.  During one outburst, she moaned that she had offended Obemyn-Chuv, who, strangely enough, I knew to be an eastern god and protector of slaves and prisoners.  From that I concluded that she regarded herself a prisoner in my home, which offended me a little.  She avoided any but the briefest conversation with me, and, even though we ate together, she ignored my other movements about the room.  I made use of the time to put my house in order.

Before she arrived to interrupt what had been truly an uninteresting existence, I had been making some preparations for a change in my life.  The delay she would cause might not be significant, I reasoned, but I felt I needed to carry on with my plans.  Chiefly, I intended to leave the master’s house and make my way to a city, any convenient city, somewhere in the south, preferably one where he had been known and where, with some luck for me, he might have spoken well of me also.  I would have been gone long before the carriage accident that brought this trouble upon me but for the flaw in me that, ever since my eyesight began to deteriorate, I have been a procrastinator, and so, by the time of the vernal equinox I was still not ready to depart.

I believed that I could explain to the local people the master’s absence only for so long.  Then they would become suspicious, although I could suggest that he had met trouble somewhere on his journey.  But people who are not vagabonds do not travel alone.  In fact, whereas most suppose the woods to be full of spirits and mysteries, seldom does anyone travel alone even on a day’s journey.

I am not so awed by the forest, having been a hunter and a student of my Uncle Zhukin.  Hunters venture away for a season, merchants for a time, and a few, like my master and like Gonashi, live out their lives in remote sylvan cottages, beyond the comprehension of most villagers, who, inscrutably to me, prefer to huddle in tiny huts or to forego all privacy and make a den inside a community house of from two to ten entire families.  (And some community houses, occupied by a dozen or more people, are no larger than the cottage I shared with Sadruk.)

Even so, if some tragedy truly had befallen Sadruk, word would reach Pinea eventually.  Yes, they would suspect me, because such word would never come.  And they would suspect the more because I was from a distant, northern region and not one whose honor was assured by familiar lineage.

So I gambled that there would be no immediate confrontation with the local people.  That could only come later.  It was, rather, the master’s son who made me uneasy.  He had gone to Greece, there to study medicine and mathematics.  He could easily suspend his studies and return for a visit in the early summer.  Or else, should he not be faring well in that austere seat of learning, he would have little choice but to return even sooner.  This confrontation I hastened to avoid.

I had determined to leave no word of my destination once I would finally leave, but to take what I could of my wares and strike out, like a wanderer.  I marveled, with my penchant for making inappropriate choices, that I had not become a brick maker.  Then, to travel and take my wares, I’d have had to fill my sack with brick samples.  In contrast, dried leaves, vials of rare oils, and small metal implements were light in weight.  Cooking pots were available wherever on my travels my services might be needed, and to replenish my supplies I would need to tarry somewhere only long enough to gather or distill or ferment some native ingredients.

I had left my narrow sleeping loft, which opened directly over the master’s bed, as it had been the day my master died, but now, with my lady sometimes watching but without interest, I climbed the cleats on the cottage’s center post and cleaned it out.  I burned much at the stove, and small things which I wished to keep I began loading into a kotomka, a birch-bark sack, which I retained in the loft.

I sharpened arrows late into the evening of my lady’s second day with me, and contemplated my pending departure.  Certainly I would stay until she was ready to fend for herself.  I was sure that I would eventually learn her name and origin, so I could, as one option, escort her to Pinea and, with her nobleman’s money, secure her a homeward passage.  That was not a good idea, though.  That would draw much attention my way, and surely she would learn from people in the village that no nobleman with a carriage in need of repair had ever arrived from my house.

I wondered, as well, whether she would be well enough to travel homeward by summer.  Often an injury such as hers left the sufferer a permanent cripple.  So my second thought was that I would simply nurse her to the condition that would allow her to tend to her own needs in this house, and then I would leave her here.  I wasn’t sure whether I would openly leave or secretly, but I could work that out later.

The next day she again arose, used the pot, and cleaned herself, with enough assistance from me that her humiliation was prolonged, although I encouraged her to try it alone.  From then on, though, she did manage alone and I took pains to assure her some privacy.

This day she insisted upon sitting up in bed for several hours.  She watched me replenish some of my more complicated medicines and listened as I explained their uses.

First there was ordinary soot, scraped from a certain part of the interior of the stove where it formed tight mounds of the finest, blackest powder.  In this form, steeped in water and the water drained and mixed with vinegar, it settled many cases of fever and jaundice.

Spread dry upon a narrow wound, this powder also assured rapid dissipation of the pain, so that sloughing and final healing could get under way more quickly.

Next, there was the hard black material resembling pottery shards that could be chipped from anywhere inside the stove.  This too could be steeped in a brew and the brown broth used as a substitute for weak urine in making poultices.

One of my favorites, and I used it often on myself, was capsicum — finely-ground dried pepper imported from the south.  Mixed with honey, thyme, and some coarse meal, this flummery has cured many sore throats and other complaints from deep in the chest.

The idea, as with numerous other remedies both for internal and external complaints, is that there is a quantity of pain that must be extracted from the area of an injury.  It may be a cut in the skin or a burn or a stomach ailment or an earache.  Certain preparations have been shown to hasten the release of all the pain to be extracted, thereby clearing the way for a quicker resolution.  With open wounds, such preparations could permit healing before blackening of the flesh sets in.  With internal fevers given to paroxysms, such a pain-releasing preparation causes the outbursts to come all together — violently, of course, and very painfully for a brief period.  But once past, the recovery is assuredly rapid.

The trick of it is to determine a minute quantity for every ailment, using the correct pain releasers, so that a release is realized, but not so great a release all at once that the sufferer’s body cannot tolerate the convulsions, or else death will follow.

All this time I dwelt in agitation concerning what treatment to use on the lady’s pain, which was both inside her body and on her skin.  I had already given her a flummery softened with spiræa.  I would gradually increase the capsicum until she could no longer tolerate its sensation in her mouth, and we would set the strength of the mixture by this test.  Thus her surcease of discomfort would be hastened.

As my lady watched, or dozed, sometimes deliriously, I finished the sad task of cataloging Sadruk’s medicines, combining his with my own, and augmenting my shelves with those he possessed but which I did not.  I had found a sack of vials, some labeled and some not, that I spent considerable time testing in order to determine their identity and efficacy.  Among these I discovered cypress, frankincense, parsley, anise, a minute quantity of laudanum, which suppresses suffering, powdered bodies of thousand-legged worms, and powders made from the aromatic bark of certain exotic trees.  These latter two have many uses in curing skin diseases, especially the nasty kinds that derive not from an injury but from their own insidious causes — rashes, creeping flesh, and tiny spreading blisters.  Sadruk was a pioneer of salves for treating what he called erisypelas, or skin irritations.

I drained the pig’s eyes of their eye water and set this aside for treating my lady’s sadness.  I ground some parts of insects that I had dried over the winter: ants’ tails, locusts’ heads, and whole dragonflies.  I also ground some dried bones to a powder, and also ground minute quantities of certain crystals: chiefly garnet and white rock, but also some tiny fragments in green, lavender, and pink.  Sadruk was fond of crystals, and while he accepted that princes should have the large ones for their vanity, he guarded the right of physicians to possess the smaller, poorer-quality stones for use in medicine.

+ + +

Before the end of this the third day, the lady again quizzed me about the man who had brought her here.  I answered plainly enough about his dress, the color of his hair, and described his sword and his boots.

“Tell me about his mannerisms and his voice,” she bade me.  “And how well did he speak your dialect?”  I sensed that, in spite of her constant and obvious discomfort, she was teasing me, and that she knew I was hiding behind a lie, but until now she had to be satisfied that I had met him, or else how could I have described him?

“How well did he speak it?  Impressively well!” I exclaimed.  “But you see, due to the hour and perhaps due as well to his worry over your condition, he made haste, and there was little I could learn from him.”

“What did he wear about his neck?” she asked with a serious expression.

I had to think.  “Nothing that I recall, Miss.”

“I cannot conceive that someone could have overlooked such a gaudy neck piece!” she said accusingly.

“I only know that I am an addled and insensitive person who cannot see well, but please, let me think on it.  I too cannot imagine how I missed it.”

Think!  How else?  He had lost his neck decoration in the accident, and I had either burned it with the debris, or it lay somewhere under the snow between the road and my brush pile.

Next morning I was out at first light.  I scraped first in the road itself, then began to tromp and sweep the snow from the path to my house.  This path I widened until it looked like an invitation to a Varangian horde.  And at last, of course, I found it.  It was a large medal, probably of solid silver, in an oblong shape, and clamped in its center was a large, clear, yellowish to grayish crystal resembling amethyst but for its color.  It would have hung from his neck by a leather thong, now missing except for a knot of leather that remained caught in a hole through the top of the ornament.

I returned to the house with my find, but could not place it with the nobleman’s other belongings in the lintel, since to do so would be to work right over my lady’s head.  Instead, I retreated to a corner and used the stub of a broken knife to pry at the stiff hooks gripping the rock in the center.  This pretty stone, if powdered, might prove to have some medicinal value of which I was yet unaware.  Nonchalantly I hid the silver portion in the bottom of a small clay pot that held other metals for use in my preparations, and the crystal I dropped into my jar of sorrel.

On the morning of this the fourth day the lady said that, since she now knew the extremity of her pain, for short periods she could tolerate it.  No more did she fear standing stooped, for example, for she knew it would hurt only so much and not more.  She longed for a deep breath, though, and proposed that we should roast a bird on the day that she would draw her first full and satisfying breath.  This became a joke for us, for while she raced to achieve that benchmark, I worried whether, with my weak eyes, I would be able to pierce a bird with an arrow in time for the celebration.

Late that morning I told her that the nobleman’s neck piece had indeed returned to my memory, and I described it approximately.  She said that I astounded her, and not by my brilliance but by my lapses of the same.

She wanted this day to study her wound, so I exposed it to view and explained the process I had gone through to repair it.  This impressed her, and so to impress her the more I powdered it with a mixture to draw out much of the residual pain.  She howled and twitched so that I feared I had accidentally overdone it.  From the crock where they were soaking I brought out some strips of the pig’s intestine then and stretched them over the wound.  She remained wide-eyed after the pain treatment’s effects subsided.  Then I bandaged it again, and at her insistence I helped her to wash herself, her hair as well, and to put on the gray dress.

By mid-day she was growing irritable once more, until sleep overtook her.  From time to time, awake or asleep, she would weep, grimace, stiffen in spasm, cough, and speak of tearing the bandage off in order to scratch.  She was convinced that there were insects in the bandage, which must be biting and causing the itching, but usually when we checked there were none.  And often she moaned: “If only I could draw a breath!”

The fifth day was a good one, this in spite of the fact that her wound opened a little.  I admitted to her that I didn’t know whether it would be better to sew it again or let it close on its own.  She examined it closely and regarded me critically and begged me not to sew it, and so we left it alone.

By this time she had begun to take an interest in her appearance.  I helped her pick scabs from her face, and I packed snow into a pouch for her to place against a slightly swollen cheekbone.  I found her a bristly piece of dried pig hide which I fastened around a piece of wood, and with this she could brush out her hair.  Since our relationship had permitted me regular scrutiny of her, she was not at all self-conscious whenever I looked at her long, as it had been necessary for me to do when tending her face.  In fact, she seemed boldly to present herself for my gaze, and I often found myself taking advantage of my license to study her frankly.  She sat before me now, prettying herself, although not necessarily for me, and I regarded her freely.

I had never before given thought to beauty.  While to me she was regal and elegant, I suspected that experts on beauty would not apply that description to this lady.  But she was totally feminine, and, as I contemplated her now, was also strikingly pretty, especially when she smiled.  And her smile revealed one of her charms, that being two top center teeth grown in at slightly different lengths.  She hadn’t smiled often in my presence, but because of her trauma I could forgive her for that.

Her brushed hair was wavy, nearly black, and although coarse, also shiny.  It was long enough in back to reach her shoulder blades, now that it was untangled.  I hadn’t often seen hair that long on a woman or on a man.  She had wide eyes of swamp-water green that flicked constantly over her surroundings.  Her cheekbones were high and may have been made more prominent by their bruises.  I was most fascinated with her eyebrows: dark and thick near her nose, tapering to ends that turned slightly upward and faded to points.  Her nose, as I often remarked inside myself, could boldly cleave the space before her and could have fit a much larger face.  And yet, where is there a beautiful face that isn’t made more attractive by a feature that is out of proportion to the rest?  I wondered whether her sense of smell were proportionally more acute.  I resolved to test this idea eventually, since I also have a large nose and seem to smell better than most other people can.  She had the look of a girl who was confident and wise, but also able to laugh and play, and yet truly not one to be crossed.

Against this observation of her I regarded myself as a modestly pleasant-looking man, strong and lithe, but clumsy and often unsure of myself in small matters.  My hair and beard are light brown and curly.  Both are kept short for ease of care.  I darken readily in the sun and retain the brownness well into the winter.  My shoulders are broad and I can puff out my chest to a considerable expanse.  In the presence of this lady I was acutely self-conscious about my eyesight, as I was in anyone else’s presence.  Many would assume me accursed to be deserving of such an affliction.  I knew that in prowess or agility, if not in grace, I was a match for most men, that I was also perceived as courteous with all, but for wits and charm most people might prefer the company of fleas.

After an indulgence of hair-grooming, interrupted by weak coughing and light gasping and occasional glances toward me, my lady laid down her things and boldly regarded me as I held my gaze on her.

Bluntly I said to her: “Today you must tell me your name.”

“If you do not know it, then I have no name.  You must give me a name.”

“Then I shall,” I agreed.  “But you have not asked me mine.”

My lady shrugged lightly, barely managed to say: “Your friend called you Kolyar or some such nonsense,” and then grimaced at the response from her aching, burning, itching, stabbing side.

I noticed her distress, but continued as on a mission.  “I am Kolyek, also called Kolyek-the-blind.  Yet, I am not blind, as you have observed, just sorely limited in what I can see at a distance.  You have heard me called Kolyei, and you would honor me to address me by that diminutive.”  I smiled at her, prepared for a response.  She appeared to roll her eyes and to shake her head almost imperceptibly, still stiffened by pain, which I boldly ignored.  After a moment’s pause, I went on: “I know.  I will call you Laïsha.  It is a name I have known and have remembered with great…” — I wanted to say “fondness,” but I feared that I would seem too affectionate — “…warmth.”

“Warmth?” said the lady in a derisive tone, but she followed the word with a short sigh as she looked at me squarely and braced for another surge of pain.

I ignored the brief sarcasm.  “But why will you not tell me the name you have already been given?”

“Perhaps I would forget my past,” she said quietly, turning away.  “And easily I could, but that he comes for me.”  She had been sitting up in bed again, but now, cautiously, she lowered her feet to the floor and talked with me while perched stiffly on the edge.

“But who comes?” I asked, hoping to trip her up for the nobleman’s name.

“I will tell you.  But if he did not tell you, then you must not repeat his name in his presence when he returns for me.  He detests familiarity in those beneath his station.”

“That is a promise I can make and keep,” I said with uncommon assurance.

“He is Davnoy.  He is nothing more than the son of Abru, a wealthy merchant of Sambatas or as you may know it, Dneprokiev, but he fails — to understand that he is only that and not a prince.”  She spoke with the pain that accompanied all of her speech, but this time it was haughty as well.

I was close to believing that she held the man in some disdain, but dared not proceed on that assumption.  And she herself apparently was not a daughter of this same wealthy merchant, or else she might well have said that Davnoy was yer brother.  Dneprokiev was a name I had heard, sometimes shortened as Kiev.  It was a large town, I knew, and on my migration southward with a party of hunters, some years before, I passed within a day’s journey of its gates, if it had gates.

“And why would you call me Laïsha?” she asked.

I thought of a girl I had known in my home village when I was young, a severely crippled girl with a twisted spine.  Even so, she was a joyful and stoic person, and I had played with her when very young, until her own pain had deprived her of that freedom.  When she died, at about ten years of age, slowly starved and tortured by her father and mother, I felt my first deep personal loss.  Her name had been Laïsha, and I had not known another by that name since.

I told my lady all of this, and added that it was my wish to invest in her the hope for recovery that could not have been possible for that crippled child.

Perhaps my explanation touched her in some way I did not anticipate, for after that she became more cooperative and less plaintive or demanding.

That evening she spoke of the time that had passed since her companion, Davnoy, had left to have his carriage fixed — five days.  “A half day’s journey by foot, three or four hours by carriage…” she pondered.  “He would be back by now, I am certain.”  She looked at me as if to ask for more information, for her look told me she was convinced that I knew more than I would tell.  But she fixed me with the look only for a moment.

“He’ll not be returning, then, will he?” she asked, more as a statement.  “Did he think me dead?  Did you — could you, the physician, possibly have persuaded him that I could not be kept alive?  Has he given me up to the gods?”

“My Lady, perhaps he would think you dead, but not due to my persuasion.  If he has drawn that conclusion and will not come for you, then we must send you to him once you can travel.  Indeed, in the meantime, we could send word.”  The more I spoke as if he had left my house alive, the more likely I might persuade even myself.

“Ha!”  She uttered it so loudly that I looked about the room to see whether someone else had provided the voice.

This was my opportunity to test her for the answer to another question that trouble me.  “If, I dread to think, some serious misfortune has befallen him alone, what then?”

“His family will seek him.  They will learn what has become of him.”  She looked at me steadily, and said: “If misfortune caught up with him near here, then they will be here some day to trace him.”

“And I will tell them of my encounter with him, and you will have your passage homeward.”

She shuddered slightly and then said: “If he does not return, then I am in your debt with no way to pay.  What then do you say?”

I wanted to end my lie that very moment, but my tongue stumbled on the first words of truth.  “My Lady, I have told you things — things that… that are as they are.  I must believe, just as you, that he will return and that I will be paid in some kind.  But if he does not come,” I smiled at her, “I have had the benefit of a new experience.”  Staring at me, she blushed quickly.  “For I have never… ah, treated a wound such as yours.  Therefore I am in your debt, since you have aided me.  I perceive, also, that you will not be an idle sufferer under my care.  Let us leave the account at that for now.”

Laïsha paused.  “Then let me sleep upon the straw — on the floor and return your bed to you, and let me tend some small chores.  I might not have chosen — to become your burden, but you are so accommodating that I could be tempted — to use your hospitality to unfair advantage.  Others must do that to you.”

I declined to exchange sleeping arrangements just yet, and busied myself with small tasks in the house.  My mind was busy too, and so I could not initiate small talk.  My lady occupied herself with her person and clothing, and eventually lay back to rest.  Presently she began to speak of something, but cut herself short and dismissed my attention before I understood the subject.

Maybe owing to her discomfort, or else because we were, after all, truly strangers, or because I was not high-born as she, or for some other reason, she did not go on at the mouth as many women do.  Even though I welcomed her conversation and was warmed by her interest and familiarity, even by her mild insults, I was grateful for her usual silence.  For it seems a form of thought control that some women exercise over men: They speak incessantly; words flow and flow.  Surely they cannot also think at the same time, so they must be thinking aloud.  And a man must suspend his thoughts in order to listen.  So a man who talks little, joined with a woman who talks much, is forced to think her thoughts most of the time and she none of his.  If he listens to his thoughts instead, he misses what the woman is saying, and that may not be wise.  If he puts words to all his thoughts, as does she, then there would probably not be enough time in a day for both of them to think, silently or aloud.  I did not have a wife, and Sadruk’s had died in a long-ago blizzard, so my mother was the last woman with whom I had lived.  Since then I had observed it long and often among the women who accompanied their men to Sadruk and me for healing.

After a while I saw that my lady was watching me.  “I know nothing of your journey,” I said as cheerfully as I could broach conversation.  I let it sound as if I were frankly curious.

“Yet you knew we had not come by way of Pinea, for you say you had to give Davnoy directions to the village.  Therefore…” she paused to allow me to answer.

“Therefore you would have left Drizha, to our southwest and on the edge of the steppe, on the morning of the day before your accident.  And your Davnoy knew of Pinea.  I merely had to tell him where to find the cartwright.  You yourself have told me that you did not come from the direction of Pinea.”  Of course, I knew they had come by way of Drizha, because I had seen the direction in which the carriage was traveling.  “But you are from Dneprokiev, so Drizha was only a stopping point on your return journey from somewhere distant.”

“You are good at drawing conclusions.  That is called logic, am I right?”

I nodded, but she was having some amusement at my expense.  I did not deny her the pleasure, for I wished her spirit to be strengthened as an aid to her healing.

“But I do not come from Dneprokiev, until lately, nor from Drizha except in passing.”

“You would mystify me, but I will not be mystified,” I said to her with a smile, but mystify me she did a little, and I think she knew it.

On the morning of the sixth day I was awakened, where I lay in my loft wrapped in my cloak, by the roaring of the stove fire and the heat that it sent aloft.  I peered below.  My lady, Laïsha, as I would try now to call her, was stooped by the blaze and into it was stuffing the remaining rich clothes taken from her battered trunk.

I rushed to interfere with this madness.

“Burn the rest, please,” she asked simply, as I began to re-pack the trunk.  She looked at me firmly, face-to-face and close-up while I returned her gaze with, I am sure, an expression of utter stupidity.  “Please.”  Her eyes welled with tears and her voice weakened.  She turned to shuffle back to the bed.  I took her arm and steadied her, but she resisted receiving any assistance.

“All… all of this?” I asked tentatively, returning to the fire.

She nodded.  “The trunk also,” she assured me.

I dragged the tousled box to the stove and hesitantly continued feeding things to the fire.  My lady was watching, so I worked at a more natural pace, broke the box into bits, and soon it was all gone.

“If young Davnoy has disappeared without a trace, then so also must I,” she explained after I had finished.  I waited, but she would say no more.

As the day wore on her cheerfulness of the day before returned.  The sun was brilliant, for the first time since her arrival, and we spent much of the day with the shuttering boards opened at the front of the house to admit the bright light, the spring-greeting insects, and the cool air loaded with the raw earthen fragrances of an approaching growing season.

When we checked her wound, I was able to predict a good recovery of the flesh.  The pig-gut covering was loose where it should be and tight where it should be.  Some stitches near the ends of her cut were already disintegrating, leaving the skin closed.  In the center, the aggravation of the day before seemed minor.  Of her ribs and the damage they bore, I could make no prediction of recovery.  We physicians do not know which bones can be healed and which cannot, and the ribs, or parts of them, are not always thought of as true bones because they are not connected to others.  She explored her wound with her fingers, and at last she shrugged.  “You have treated me well,” she reassured me once again.  “I will breath and move freely again one day.”

Outside, the snow was shrinking away from rocks and tree trunks, and there were many bare and muddy or wet and icy places.

“A good day for travel,” I said as we were eating.  “Perhaps, My Lady, your Davnoy comes for you today.”  It was ridiculous of me to talk that way, but I enjoyed the pace of her recovery and wanted to encourage it any way I could.

“It would be well for you to use the name you wished to give me,” she suggested.

“Perhaps he has not disappeared, and therefore you need not do so.”

“I would like to explain some things to you,” she told me.  “But as yet I cannot.  First, I must know what has happened to him.  I know he would not leave me here if he knew I were alive, even if I were near death.  If you did not pronounce me dead, then, as difficult as it is for me to believe he left me here, I must believe more strongly that he will return.”

I was listening, but she paused to work at her biscuit.

Then she went on, and I began to understand: “If he has not returned to Dneprokiev by now, or even some days ago, then soon he will be sought.  Someone will be here, of this you can be sure.”  I understood that she was keeping a secret and that it was causing her some distress.  We were both pensive.

<Table of Contents> <Five> <Seven> <People and Places>


Gonashi and Turgey

Dusk was fast approaching and snow still lightly falling when I awoke from a pounding in my dream to a pounding upon my door.  While I slept, my lady had succeeded in turning her body somewhat onto its left side.  The blanket was raised enough for me to see that she had also succeeded in hoisting the undergarment roughly to her waist.  She was emitting a low wail which I considered to be an attempt to wake me.

I seized my cap and ever-present ax and burst out the door as if bent upon obtaining some firewood.  This way I could save inviting my visitor inside just to determine his business.

My neighbor Gonashi, the poor shepherd who lived at the river crossing two hours or so toward the village, Pinea, stood before me as a supplicant, and with him a youth — his oldest son, Stallo.  By a rein the youth held the bob-tail mare.

“My friend, Gonashi!” I greeted him and we bowed to one another.  “How well to see you!”

“My son and I have found this horse.”  As if I might not have seen it, Gonashi waved his arm behind him to indicate the beast.  After a pause he explained further, since I remained silent: “We are come to return it to its owner, and we thought that it might belong to your master.”

“I wish it were ours, oh Friend, but it is not, nor is it one I have seen before.”  (How boldly I lied!)  Gonashi was no threat to my safety, but I needed to maintain a consistent fabrication with everyone I might meet.

“I see,” Gonashi said, and hung his head.

I waited, for a moment, then invited them inside for a cup of stew.  “I have a sufferer, very ill, and my master is still away, but I am sure you could join me for a rest or until morning.”  I was confident that they would decline, but it was not a great risk even if they stayed.

“Thank you, Friend Kolyei,” Gonashi replied, “but we have only set out at mid-day and have traveled but little.  Clearly we will go many stadia before we have found this mare’s owner.  We are prepared to travel.”

I considered what this honest man would go through to look for the non-existent owner, and what he would be forced to do when he would give up the search.  I thought about his pastures, mushy with thawing ground water, the crusts of snow perforated with sprouting crocuses intent upon driving winter away.  I thought about lambing, and pregnant ewes getting stuck in the mud along the river’s edge.  I loved this quiet man, who humbly provided Sadruk and me with fresh sheep parts and products for our medicine stocks and asked nothing for them: gonads, eyes, and bladders, the oil of boiled lambs’ wool, and the fat scraped from the skin.  Gonashi was not the rough, arrogant gospodar that I was accustomed to in a sheep owner.  Nor was he timid or weak.  He was simple, clear-eyed, sincere, and a very hard worker.

“Friend Gonashi, I think you would be justified even now to turn this horse over to the magistrate.  He would understand.  You cannot afford to be gone from your tasks for so long as it may take to find this horse’s home.  You are required only to make a search, and I can avow that you have done that.  You are not required to search until you find.  Perhaps this is the horse of one who —” I paused, lowering my voice, for I had warmed to my speech “— of one who has had an unfortunate accident, or perhaps it was set loose for being mean-tempered.”

“You are wise, Friend Kolyei.  My compliments to your master.  We will continue to search for a while, but I will not neglect my family.  We will go.”

I watched them move away under the pair of giant pines that sheltered my short path to the road.  Then, to relieve the heaviness I felt at seeing them thus occupied at my indiscretion, I called after them: “If the magistrate wishes to find a home for such a fine beast, you may tell him that I am willing to be its owner!”

“And I, too!” Gonashi called back.  “But of course, I cannot!”  It was true.  One who found an item of worth and who turned it in to the magistrate could not request to claim the same item.  This was to prevent lawful stealing.

And I truly did not want the horse!  First, I was not prepared to shelter and feed such a beast, and second, I could not take the chance of having it around where my lady, upon sufficient recovery, might see and recognize it, not to mention others familiar with the dead man.  “Friend Gonashi!” I called at last.  “If the magistrate will give it to me, I will surely repay you!”  I hoped my phony sincerity didn’t show.

“You are a friend,” Gonashi called back, and waved good-bye.

Inside, I bent over my lady in order to see her face.  Although her eyes were large and bright and by daylight I could have seen them open from anywhere in the house, in the rapidly advancing darkness, and with my flawed vision, I needed to peer closely.  My presence startled her, but then slowly she turned flat onto her back again.

“More food?” I asked.

She declined with a shake of the head, and again I pitied her look of pain and nausea.

“Can I make you more comfortable?”

Again she declined.

“Can we talk, then?” I suggested.

After a pause she assented.  “I don’t believe he — would have left me,” she whispered.  “He doesn’t know these parts.  We have only just entered — these woods from the south.  Where could he have gone?  Did he say — how soon he — would return?”

I hadn’t thought of that, so I busied myself with feeding the fire.  By then I could respond: “There was a problem with the cart, and he wanted to get it repaired as quickly as possible.  Whereas I am a physician, I have not the means to offer carriage repairs, so I directed him to the near village of Pinea, a half-day’s journey by foot, therefore much shorter by horse.”

“I believe he would have stayed,” she repeated, no longer resorting to whispers.

After a moment she asked: “What sort of horse — did your friend find?”

I answered half truthfully: “A shaggy, bob-tail, tarpan mare that looks like those to be found in the west, I’d say.”

Then she asked: “Who is your master?”

“The physician who owns this house, and who has been my teacher, is Sadruk, of Pinea.”  I spoke fondly of him, as indeed I was, or had been until he died at my hand.  I pulled a bench from beside the stove to the edge of the bed, and I sat.

Hoarsely, she pressed on: “And he is away, you say.”  She had overheard my whole conversation with Gonashi the shepherd.  That was all right for the most part, for soon she would have to know more about me and about her surroundings.

“He travels to Bulgária, near Greece, to learn, sometimes to teach, and to bring back new medicines.”  Truly Sadruk had done just that a few times in the past.  He had gone there twice since I’d been with him, always attaching himself to a party of others leaving from Drizha, the village to our south.  Most recently he had gone in order to learn the ways of diagnosing disease by the study of the sufferer’s urine.  He had been in the process of teaching me about this very subject when he died.  For days he had been gnawing on tough bearberry leaves.  The effect was to turn his urine bright green.  If a person were suffering from a urinary ailment, Sadruk was telling me, the bearberry leaves would have made the urine brown.  But what to do for the ailment — that was lost to me when Sadruk suddenly died.  My notes, inscribed several days later, also say that the bearberry can be made into a tea, but to what purpose I still don’t know.  That is a secret of the Greeks.  Sadruk would have traveled there many more times, and I might soon have been asked to go along.

Occasionally while we talked my lady stiffened with spasm, a new development, and one which I hoped she would not ask me to explain.

“I suppose you know my name, and some things about me?” my lady challenged presently, turning slowly onto her back in order to face me.  The movement made her wince until she was settled again.  I didn’t offer to help but sat close at hand and watched stupidly.

“Your name!” I replied cheerily.  “Well, that’s interesting, because I completely neglected to inquire for that information.  Why don’t you tell me who you are, so that I may address you properly?”

“And I suppose that you know not who it was that left me here?”

“That too I did not ask.”

The lady paused to gather some force for her next pronouncement: “You may be — a physician,” she groaned, “but you are also a fool.  A fool for — not asking, or a fool for believing — that I would accept no explanation for your lapse in not asking.”

The truth, so plainly stated — that I was a fool — stung me a little, coming from so fine a woman as she.  But I could forgive her, out of pity if for no other reason.  “Your husband said —”

“My husband?” she interrupted hoarsely, then gritted her teeth for another spasm.

“He referred to you as his wife,” I lied, losing my confidence.

“He would not have done that,” she said, relaxing again into the bed.

I sat silently beside her, trying to maintain an air of innocence, and struggled with a lump in my throat.

“I am sorry,” she told me at last.  “You are — not to blame, and you obviously have — no knowledge of me.”  At this she laughed bitterly and strangely, suffering as she did so.  “I shouldn’t actually say — you have no knowledge of me.  Perhaps better to say you — know nothing about me.  If you were told it, or out of kindness you have concluded — that he and I are married, that is not your fault.  You are a good care giver.”

“Thank you, Madam,” I said humbly.

“I am not a ‘Madam,’ I am a ‘Miss.’”

“And you are right in one thing,” I told her sincerely, “but I make no excuses for it: I am a fool, and not only since you arrived.”

“I am hungry, if you please,” she said, changing her mind about my offer of more food.  “And I hurt greatly.”

I brought her broth with morsels of solid meat and dried beets in it this time, my best hardwood spoon, and a hard biscuit to gnaw.  I dined with her and ate very slowly, since she needed a great deal of time and much help to consume anything.

I still had to know what she knew of the accident, so I hit upon Yomo, the sow.  “I butchered a pig last night, you know,” I ventured, “so that you might have some good meat.”

“Surely not only for me.”

“Well, for me, too.  And for your companion, when he returns.  You might have seen this pig when you arrived.  She was not well-fattened.”

“I saw no pig.  I saw nothing when I arrived.  I know only that I was greatly…” she adjusted her position “…fatigued in that carriage, trying to sleep while — being tossed about on your horrible road, and then — the thing was tumbling like a thrown stone.”

I believed her.  Patiently I held her stew before her as she paused for long spells between mouthfuls.

But, my horrible road!  Indeed, it was my road.  It was part of the bargain by which the magistrate of Pinea, elected by the mir to be starosta as well as Prince Askold’s ruler in this part of the volost, allowed me to stay in his district.  For, as is the case with any woodland resident, Sadruk was responsible to maintain a clear path for half the distance to his nearest neighbor in each direction.  But this was a job the older physician did poorly, preoccupied as he always had been with his science.  I was assigned the job, a masterful stroke for the magistrate, (for I believed that I did it very well).  I introduced to him and to the region my own idea for improving the road system, and yet not my own thought but the method invented by the prince of my northern homeland.  We laid straight, long poles of evergreen at the center of the path, all the way to the next citizen’s boundary of responsibility.  Once laid, the poles marked the road so that it would not be lost in the rush of springtime growth, and these poles had to be replaced only infrequently, as when some traveler burned one for fuel or cut it up for wagon parts.

For a traveler on foot the poles made handy spans across streams and mud.  An agile traveler could traverse a distance of pole road very quickly, since he could avoid snares of tree roots and undergrowth.  Depending how they were harnessed and depending whether drawn by men or by beasts, carriages and carts could straddle the poles and find the packed wheel tracks on either side — or ruts where these were unavoidable.  And ambitious drivers of carts could “borrow” the poles near a deeper stream, lash them end to end, lay two sets side by side, and lay shorter logs across the pair to form a solid bridge wide enough for the vehicle.  I always tried to provide a stack of poles near river and stream crossings for this purpose, thereby not to lose the ones meant to mark the road itself.

I knew that I maintained my part of the road better than anyone else from Pinea to Drizha, so the lady’s complaint about the path cut me like a sharp stone to the ankle.

I must have reflected on these thoughts for as long as it has taken to write them, for when I next regarded the young woman, she had finished the cup of stew that I was spooning into her and was saying: “I am wracked with pain, and I know I must sleep.”

I made her a fixative of flummery strongly laced with acid of spiræa and told her she must swallow two mouthfuls.  “This would ease your aching if you were less sorely injured,” I said.  “In your present circumstances I can say only that it will help, but I can promise no total relief from pain.”  I had to feed her the pasty substance, but she seemed eager for any abatement of her agony.

“It needs salt,” she commented in an advisory tone.  “Tomorrow I shall sit, with your assistance,” she announced when she’d finished, “and the next day you will help me to my feet.”

I wanted to protest, but reluctantly I agreed to cooperate in her plan.  As I watched, she closed her eyes, turned her head, and panted lightly.  I let her sleep.

+ + +

I was up early to do some chores which I took some delight in attending.  I added to the stew, still at simmer on the stove.  I aired the room of smoke and then went onto the roof to retrieve some meat.  Yomo’s carcass, cut up and wrapped, was at one end of the roof so that it not be confused with Sadruk’s stored slave organs.  As I sawed at a pork bone with a dull blade I paid no attention to the world around, so when Turgey shouted a greeting from only an arm’s length beyond my dangling feet, he startled me, and I fell off the roof.

The freeloader stepped aside, not even attempting to break my fall, but I was able to sit on my sore tail and laugh with him.  His cloak in shreds and patches, he was still, somehow, the picture of vagabond dignity.  A missing tooth gave his grin a peculiarly personal edge, and the elaborate bindings on his feet gave his costume a look of palace importance.

“When I found you absent, and Sadruk also, I was tempted to join the lady in the master’s bed!” Turgey confessed as I struggled to rise.

“You can’t imagine how much you’d have regretted such an act,” I said as I hoisted myself to a hunched erectness.

“You realize, of course, that I must take my pleasure wherever I can find it,” Turgey grinned down at me.  Each time I saw him I was once again struck by his towering height, and I almost lamented that he could have been a guard for the Prince or a man of high authority, given his imposing presence.

I straightened and dismissed these pointless thoughts, which could only humiliate him.  I led him slowly to the front of the house.  He had already peeked inside, so I bowed to him at the door and invited him in for a meal and conversation.  “What were you doing on the roof, Friend?” Turgey was asking as I passed under the lintel.

So I turned and told him, matter-of-factly, that there were two piles of meat on the roof: that which Yomo had bestowed upon us, for which I thanked him directly, and some organs and other portions from a couple of dead slaves, which gruesome by-product of death Sadruk had secured there in the fall.  “What news do you bring?” I then asked.

Turgey barely waited for the invitation before he ducked under the lintel and strode into the warm chamber.  “Oh, Kolyei, the greatest news.  Yes, the greatest news!” he exclaimed, spinning around with his face uplifted and his arms raised.

I stared at him with frank skepticism.  There were few people in the world who made me feel superior, and I liked to show him that he was one of those whom I looked upon with good-natured contempt.  In fact, it was this relationship, which he also accepted, that made me welcome his ill-timed visit.  “What is the news, Friend Turgey?”

“Kolyei, it’s wonderful!  I’ve been keeping careful watch on the length of daylight, and it’s increasing once more!  The gods of light are once again pushing back the armies of the gods of darkness!  We shall have longer days once more.  Even now the length of day surely exceeds the length of night!”

I ladled some stew into a large, shallow bowl from which we could both spoon our breakfast.  I also took from a post a pouch containing two fists of dried berries that I knew my guest would appreciate, and sat it before us.  I cringed to realize that I was probably surrendering my entire remaining stock of such fruit, for I brewed many remedies and drinks from them.  Turgey sucked and slurped and munched and splashed, and consumed the entire portion of dried berries.  After I had eaten a little I stared at the man as we sat together on my bench.  I watched him drip the heavy broth freely into his beard, and I knew that for the remainder of his visit, after our bowl was licked dry, I would watch him suck on tufts of the matted hair in order to glean the flavor and crumbs from it.

At last I spoke: “What you’re witnessing is the change of seasons, Turgey.  Haven’t you heard of the seasons?”

“A plausible explanation, Kolyei, but every few years spring does not come.  Besides, where do seasons come from?  The gods must control them!”

“When did spring not come, Turgey?”

“A few years past, My Friend.  It was late autumn, and I was traveling far beyond the north shore of the Sea of Balta, and I was forced to stop in a very unfriendly village.  There was a trained bear that had its own house, and they made me live with the bear.”

(I peeked around Turgey and squinted at my lady, lying close by, as his story became more and more preposterous.  I caught her glaring at Turgey’s back through the slits of her eyelids, pretending to sleep, but challenging me to know that she was offended.)

My guest prattled on: “Even though it was only autumn, the snow came suddenly and stayed, and I could go no farther.  The people of this town could not speak a real language.  They only jabbered in strange syllables, and so they were very unfriendly.  So I had only the bear’s own house for my shelter.  The snow was so deep that neither the bear nor I ventured outside even to loose our bowels…”

“Even the bear held it all winter?”

Turgey feigned pain at the insult to his honesty.  But he wouldn’t be stopped, and I counted on that fact.  I wished the lady to hear this tale as well, for I hoped his sincere absurdity would amuse her.

I wanted to ask him what they ate.  If neither went outside, where did they get food?  Why didn’t the bear remain asleep, as I knew bears would ordinarily do?

“The snow piled deeper and deeper, and the nights became longer and longer until there was virtually no daylight at all.  And then it remained that way for weeks upon weeks.  Twice I was able to crawl out through the roof and find other people atop the snow, who gave me little bits of food and fuel in the frigid darkness.  I asked them what was happening, and all pretended that this was quite normal.  So I was forced to nibble crumbs and to hoard fuel that I could not light and to huddle inside that little house with the stinking, unfriendly bear.”

“Didn’t the bear sleep away the winter?” I had to ask.

“Of course it did, My Friend, but it awoke briefly every few days and snarled at the unending darkness.  Months went by, and eventually I could stand it no more.  So one dark morning, I crawled out again and, with wide planks strapped to my feet, I raced toward the south for days without stopping.  Still, the daylight didn’t come more than a couple of hours a day.  And then, in a town on the south shore of the sea, I met some travelers who were as bewildered by the phenomenon as I, for they had just come from the west, and reported that they had already seen crops in bloom and warblers in the trees.

“I told them, of course, of my experience to the north.  They thanked me for warning them against proceeding farther, and they rewarded me with this fine silver dagger, which I have carried ever since.”

Turgey handed me the knife, and I admired it well, turning it over and over in my hands.  When had this adventure taken place?  Before I first met Turgey, perhaps?  And only now he showed me this great dagger?

“It’s yours, Friend Kolyei,” he declared.

I thought about the sword and the money that I already possessed, which had belonged to my lady’s nobleman.  So I refused Turgey’s gift, gently but firmly, and asked him what I could do for him that he would be so generous with his knife-of-good-fortune.

“I need some oil of fliskouni, Friend Physician.  I have found it useful in treating this boil that threatens to rot my nose right off my face.  Our friend and your master, Sadruk-the-physician, first treated me with it.”  Turgey’s left cheek was an open sore, weeping yellowish clear fluid which formed a crust at the edges.

I produced a clay flask of the oil he requested, my last quantity of it, but I knew that I would be able to replace it in a few months, once the herbs in the forest yielded their new growth.

“This isn’t all you wanted of me, is it,” I stated openly.

“I have something else which I had also hoped to leave behind with you,” he admitted quietly.  But then he turned to study the lady’s slight form on the bed, covered as it was with furs.

“That is a sufferer in my charge,” I explained frankly, “a stranger in this forest, who was injured and left in my care.  She is sorely wounded and how long I shall tend her I don’t know.”

“And your master?” he asked.

“Gone for a considerable time,” I said truthfully, because forever is a considerable time.  “Just what else was it you wanted us to have, Friend Turgey?”  Had the trained bear fallen in love with him and followed him here?  Did he have a wagon-load of silver daggers he’d stolen from a vendor?  A corpse, perhaps?

“A nine-year-old girl,” Turgey said sheepishly.

“Where is she now?” I asked him with alarm.

“Safe.  Quite safe right now.  You see, I was forced to remain in a town called Riga for many weeks, mistaken for a cripple that had run away from the town.  Of course, I am no cripple, but that was the point; they thought that I had hobbled away and found a magician to heal me in the evil arts, and had then returned.  So they put me to work in the stables of the magistrate.  Hard work, Friend Kolyei!  Riga is a very large town, and the magistrate has many horses!  The few times I tried to speak with the magistrate and explain that I was a learned and worthy fellow just as he was, he had me whipped!

“They said that I had begged from everyone all my life and had never worked for my swill, and now I must repay the debt.  Well, there was no debt to repay, for I was not their man!  So, by the time I could escape from the injustice, I calculated that the town owed me a considerable debt.  And so, I took the magistrate’s young daughter, to carry my things and to keep me company.

“Let me tell you: It was a bad idea.  Now this is all true, I promise under the name of Shonsak.  I see your look of amusement!  Kolyei, I expected some resistance from the child.  But no!  She has clung to me like a louse.  She talks without ceasing!  She berates me constantly.  She believes none of my stories, and yet she begs me to tell them to her again and again.

“I waited in an area near the convergence of two rivers, hoping that someone would come from Riga to find her.  I have even abandoned her along the way a few times, but she is swift as a doe, and crafty, and cheerfully she catches up to me in a few days.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

“She is with your neighbor by the river, the shepherd Gonashi.  She knows by now that I can’t evade her, so she made no protest to my coming farther to see my friends, the physicians.  Gonashi assured her that you live nearby.”

“She is undefiled?” I asked, without knowing why it mattered.

“Kolyei!  You dishonor me!  She is a child, although a fat one who will make a healthy and desirable woman.  I admit, I had thought what she might mean to me if I kept her for a few years.  But you know me.  I can plot ahead, but I am easily diverted, so no plan is ever carried out.  At least I know that about myself.  I didn’t know five days ago that I would be seeing you this soon again!”

I thought of my vulnerability, my sufferer, my crimes, my short life and long future.  Turgey was always flirting with disaster.  Any wanderer is suspect wherever he goes, and Turgey thrived on this notoriety and suspicion.  I, on the other hand, have survived by being inconspicuous and deliberate, even hesitant and indecisive.

“I see your problem, Friend Turgey,” I replied.  “But you can see by my circumstances that another belly to fill and another mouth to make noise is not what I need.”

We sat silent for a moment, and then I added: “Besides, Turgey, why haven’t you simply taken her back to Riga yourself?”

My visitor gazed at me with big, sad eyes.  I read in them that the entire story of the girl’s origin was untrue.  I wanted to ask for the true story, but I knew that he would simply fabricate another fantasy.

He understood.

“It’s true that I can’t escape her,” Turgey said, staring off into the room and twining part of his beard into the side of his mouth.  “But you’re right to refuse to take her.  In fact, she’s not a girl, but a boy of about nine.  A very fair child, and I hoped you’d accept and I’d be gone before you’d find out that he wasn’t a girl after all.  Then, some years later I would return and you’d accuse me of tricking you, and I’d assure you that all along I thought he was a girl.  Oh, well.  You’re too good a friend to be treated that way by the likes of me.”

I had to ask: “So, did you know he wasn’t a girl when you took him from his home?”

Turgey gave an ironic smile.  “If I told you that he followed me, that I didn’t steal him as I had said, would you believe me?”

“What difference would it make, My Friend?  No matter what you tell, I’m always greatly entertained.  And isn’t that what you’re about, anyway?”

“You’re right.  I don’t know why I come here, because I can’t hustle you or your master.  But maybe that’s why I like you: You help me find my true identity once in a great while, and I can know that beneath all that I am not, there is someone that is who I am.”

To my surprise, Turgey’s eyes reddened and he produced a few brief tears.  We stood and hugged, and I knew that presently he would regain his composure, his deliberate self-delusion, and his walk in life.  I also knew that he wouldn’t linger as a guest.  The self-examination was too constant.  We stood outside in the cold mist for many more minutes, talking about little things, as if he were the man of means that he sometimes purported to be, pausing on his journey to pass the time with this country physician.  I made him a gift of some more food, bundled tightly for easy carrying.  No sooner had he departed than I missed his company and wanted to run after him and ask him and the boy to stay.

But I resisted, out of indecision.

<Table of Contents> <Four> <Six> <People and Places>


The Lady and the Butcher

Daylight was full upon me as I re-entered the house — once again denting my forehead on the lintel.  I pulled back the covering and checked my lady’s wound.  She still slept, and I began to hope that, following my stitching, peace and healing had begun to settle into her.  Boldly I freed her left arm from the draped and wrapped garment and pushed the loosened cloth away to expose for the first time the uninjured left side of her torso.  I stared for some minutes at her chest and belly, bare save for the strips of cloth that crisscrossed her breastbone and enclosed her bosom.  I could make no sense of this mass of tightly-fastened and wound and bound clothing that she wore but was touched with tenderness at the sight of her thus exposed.  I had not bandaged the bloody injury and remained reluctant to do so because I needed to check it often.

At last I covered her again and fueled the fire in the large earthen stove not far from her feet.  Then I removed my stiff wet clothing and ventured to wander about inside my warm house, wearing nothing.

My worst work was done — that which, in my hesitation I had most wanted me to avoid.  Now, although my fabrication was not clearly formed, I had only to explain the presence of the lady, should anyone come and find her there.  Anything else that needed explaining had been changed from earth to air.

Again I contemplated the way the lady’s pelvis was elevated above the bed, forced up by the mass of garments.  I knew I had to remove more of her clothing the better to make comfort possible, but trembled at the thought of her certain wrath over such an indignity.

I probed first into the folds of her heavy skirt — probed for sign of further injury and for sign of the skirt’s fasteners.  I could still find no hint for removing it properly.  Beneath the caftan she wore long stockings of heavy brown felt, and leather boots over these.  Again I stood staring, puzzling.  A range of conflicting emotions battled for control of my thoughts.

Eventually I had to examine her for further injury.  I decided that I must manipulate her knee and hip joints to be sure there were no broken bones there, so I took each leg in hand and worked it about.  Her farther knee showed limited motion and enlargement, but didn’t behave as if mechanically defective.  All else seemed in order, but it was upon gripping her nearer thigh through layers of cloth that I discovered that she had emptied her bowel.  I realized then that for some time I had been smelling something familiar but unwelcome, although my mind hadn’t yet comprehended it.  I gave hard thought to what I must do now.


I covered my front side with a doeskin apron, already much stained and stiffened by the blood of animals as well as people, and went behind the house to butcher the pig.  My feet were bare, as was my entire back side.  Only on the front was I covered, from my neck to my knees.  A testy breeze insulted my flesh, causing me to shudder often.  But the less I wore, the less I could procrastinate, and the less damage I could do to the few clothes I owned.  The apron would remain bloody, and after a time I could wash from my own skin the stains which hadn’t by then worn off.

I was a good butcher, I congratulated myself.  In fact, if the lady in my house were to die and if I needed to dispose of her body — I allowed it to pass my thoughts fleetingly — I could quickly make from her what would appear to be just so much more pork.  (Pork in appearance only!  I would never consume human meat!)

There was much in a sow that I could use in my medicine — the bristles, of course, are useful, whether plucked or left on squares of skin.  There are many remedies that call for eye water, so of course I saved the eyes.  I resolved to soak and scrape some of the large intestine for its qualities as a wound covering, as well as a covering for small windows in door or shutter.  I squeezed the waxy substance from inside the ears as well.  Certain bones make fine tools, but I ignored these as I quickly flayed and quartered the carcass.

That done, the skin salted and soaking in meltwater, and the meat salted, wrapped in straw-cloth, and stored in its own place upon the roof (apart from the human organs), I gave thought to checking my brush pile, just to reassure myself and bolster my satisfaction, but I resisted.  I didn’t dare venture to place footprints anywhere I didn’t want others to look.

Still dressed only in my apron, I fought the snapping branches of undergrowth, dragging my smaller barrel, and went to the stream for more water.  My toes took many bruises from slipping on smooth icy stones.  What an idiot I must have appeared!  That reflection made me think of Turgey.  We made so much fun of him after every visit — how he would have had fun at my expense if he could but see me now!

By the time I ducked back through my doorway with my water, sloshing icy cascades over my feet, I suspect there was as much of my own blood on my cracked and scratched hide as there was from Yomo.  I stood the barrel near the stove to suggest, in vain of course, that its contents assume some gentle warmth.  I dipped a bowl into the barrel and sat it onto the stove to warm more quickly.  From another bowl atop the fire I ladled some broth from my nighttime stew into my most delicate clay cup and took it to my lady.  With the greatest of care I raised her head to meet the rim and brought her lips together with the broth.  She did not respond.  I manipulated her jaw to unclench her teeth and tried again, and this time a few drops fell onto her tongue.  Still I did not see her swallow.

Still wearing only my long apron, I sat the cup aside and turned with resolve to the problem of her clothing.  By now I realized I had little to fear from her anger at my liberal disrobing of her body.  If I had lived in a village I could have enlisted the help of any of the women, but the nearest woman was hours away.  It would have been possible to fetch her, but I doubted that I should leave this lady unattended for that long a time.  She was at my mercy, and in the time I would possibly preside over her recovery I could hope to assure her of the necessity of my decision.  She might well be more angry if I left her filthy.  What I should be more concerned about, I said inside myself, would be the reaction of any of her people should they learn of the liberty I was about to take.

Yet didn’t I have a small trunk of her very clothing from which to replace the bloodied and dirtied garments?  And couldn’t I clean her and re-clothe her within an hour?  She might never know that I had done it alone, I assured myself somewhat aloud, as I resorted to a sort of murmur that I indulge in when I am planning and working.

I removed the blankets and, with the pivoting blades in one hand, I probed once again with the other for one final clue to a fastener.  Nothing.  Gingerly I pressed her flesh at the navel and inserted a blade beneath the cloth gathered there.  At that instant she groaned.  I froze.  Her eyes blinked and then widened in horror, fixing on my apron, as she drew some unspeakable but also inaccurate conclusion about me.  My hands still in place at her belly, I spun to face her squarely, thereby to conceal my entirely-exposed back half, but it had already been apprehended.  She tried feebly to rise.  For a second she was choked with pain.  Then she fell back.

“I am a physician,” I told her in a friendly, professional tone.

“I am befouled,” she said faintly, panting as if a man were standing upon her chest.  She coughed lightly, and continued doing so frequently for most of her waking time.

“My Lady, I only wished to assist you, indeed to make you clean and comfortable.”  I remained poised to cut, but dearly wished that I had not been caught in the act.  I ached for her suddenly.  Her husband had died, and she knew it not.  Worse, I had denied her the privilege of giving him a respectful burial as I was sure noble people would do.  And then, after I had burned his body as if it were a sputtering birch log, I had ground his bones as well as my master’s without remorse.

“Is there no woman present?” she whined.  I barely understood her labored speech.  Tears were in her eyes, but I knew not whether tears of pain, fear, grief, or humiliation.  Her pronunciation was colored by the hint of a native tongue that was non-Slavonic.

“You are far from any women.  You’ve had an accident, and I am a physician.”

Why are you nude?” she squeaked, her eyes closed and her body tensed.

I considered my appearance.  “I have been butchering,” I said, as if that explained everything.  She glanced at me and stiffened more.  Then I added: “I do it without my clothes so that I don’t ruin them.”

Her left hand suddenly gripped my cutter.  Her right had moved also, as if she intended to seize me with both, but her wound hindered that arm.

“My Distinguished Lady, I have been trying to discover your wounds, but I cannot make sense of you garment.  I took the liberty to cut away…”

“It is a yelek, but how would you know that?  Cut it away, then, quickly.  Quickly, please.  Your blade is cold,” she bade me, with resignation in her hoarse whisper.

I made talk while gnawing at her waistband with my cutters.  “You have a deep wound in your right side.  No doubt you can feel it, but I beg you please not to disturb it with your fingers.”

Her eyes were closed.  She made no reply.

I improvised what seemed like a natural story as I revealed within her clothes a sight of disconcerting contrasts, for other than my exposure to one disrobed female corpse and to children, who could often be found nude in the yard of a home, I had never seen what I now beheld.  It was not an attractive sight, only owing to her filthy condition at the moment, yet, to make time to tell the lie that came to mind and leisurely to observe her in more detail, I proceeded to cut the length of cloth along each of her legs.  Inevitably I would have to do so anyway.

“Your carriage had an accident.  Do you remember it?”  I paused here, because certain details of her recall were important to me.  Had she seen me at the side of the road?  Had she even seen the pig?  I examined her left knee, which was bruised and swollen, then moved on.  She lay still, but opened her eyes and stared straight above.

“Please, it smells badly.  I feel like vomiting.  Can you hurry?” she pleaded, lightly panting and pressing her elbow against her wound.

Indeed it smelled badly!  But nearly as strong as her own odor was that of the substances smeared upon me in the butchering.  Perhaps she didn’t recognize the difference.  It behooved me to prevent her vomiting, considering how it would convulse her wounded ribcage.  I felt for the poor girl, and I suppose I should have told her so, but instead I was warming to my tale and forged ahead with it.

“Your carriage was upended some distance from here, but your nobleman righted it quickly and rushed you here, the first house he could find.  As it would be your good fortune, I am a physician, recently ascended from my apprenticeship under a teacher of the most forward Greek methods.”  I wanted to know early on whether she preferred a shaman who would invoke spirits or a master of herbs and surgery.

I separated the undergarments from her body and pulled them carefully, so as not to jar her chest, retaining in them most of the product of her distress.  I left the open outer skirt beneath her temporarily as a bed cloth, however.  Then, with the barely warmed water and thick rags I washed her quickly and dried her.  She whimpered throughout the ordeal.

Oblivious to my insensitivity, I pressed on: “Your nobleman has left you here to be tended by me, promising to return soon to see about your progress and your ability to travel.”

Finished with her mess, I lay a fox fur over her mid-section.  Then I found myself a not-too-dirty robe and traded it for my apron, but not before I had tormented myself with a quick sponging from the freshly-fetched water.  She paid me no heed.  Impulsively, I balled her stinking garment together with my stiff, disintegrating apron and thrust them into the stove.  Although the smoke from my fire typically escaped neatly through the back of the house, on this occasion the ever-present leaks into the room began providing an inward surge of smoke from the burning clothes that had an oddly acceptable odor.  Sadruk had cut and capped a hole in the roof for such back drafts, and the errant wisps curled toward the opening as I bustled to finish this embarrassing job.

Then I opened her trunk and sought her attention.  I held up for her view the first of those items that apparently served as underclothes.  She shook her head as I raised each of several pieces until at last she settled upon a simple device even I could comprehend.  This I pulled up over her thighs, but could not draw farther without causing her grave distress from her rib injury.  We both seemed to realize that that was as far as it would go today.  Then I came to an outer garment, a simple gray wrap that would form a dress, which she approved, but there was no hope of getting her into that.  I applied a bandage cloth to her wound and covered her again with the blankets.  Then she motioned for me to continue through her things until I had found a like set of clothing, which I obediently set aside.  She surprised me next by telling me that I should tear some certain other items of plain clothing into rags for use in my work.  I hesitated, to be polite, but she painfully insisted, and so I complied.

“Are you hungry?” I asked as I began rapidly tearing a half dozen garments into strips.  I had closed the trunk and pushed it against the wall.

“No,” she answered flatly, gasping, coughing, her voice sounding hopeless and depressed.  She tried again to rise.  Once again, of course, she fell back in agony.  This time I hurried to prop her up ever so slightly, which again pained her until it was done.  At least I could get a cup to her mouth, now, without pouring it over her face.

I blended a dried garlic clove and some sorrel tea into a cup of stew broth, and she took it readily, but after four or five swallows she was taken with a severe choking which ended her meal and which unnerved me for its haunting resemblance to Sadruk’s death during a similar episode.

Helpless, I stood by, watching her heave with the convulsing coughs, and when it subsided, she began sobbing.  I wished I had some fresh ground ivy to give her for her cough.  That being unavailable due to the season, I quickly stuffed a cloth sack with dried calamus and placed it next to her cheek in order to surround her with an interesting and spicy aroma.  I checked her bandage, which remained, I thought, remarkably unstained except for a small patch of yellow and red in the center.

She began to complain of burning and itching, and there would be times in the coming days when I would have to restrain her from tearing at her side.  We talked no more that morning, for I, exhausted and seized by much confusion, lay upon a bench next to the large stove and opposite the door, and fitfully slept.

<Table of Contents> <Three> <Five>  <People and Places>

Historical Perspective

While there is no other record of the tale that has just been told, and therefore no verification of the events described, it can be compared with what is known of the history of Russia at that time.  The story neither contradicts present knowledge of Russian history and the Khazars nor does it contribute anything substantial.  Kolyek, from whose manuscript this tale is taken, has not made an attempt to record a history but rather composed a memoir of his early life, and whether he survived longer than it took to write it is not known.

What is already well-documented is this: In A.D. 861, Greek brothers, Methodius, a monk, and Constantine, a priest, (or Mefhodi and Konstantin), met with the Kagan (or Khan) of the Khazars at the Kagan’s summer home in Semender, on the Caspian Sea.  The Kagan at that time had been experimenting with religions and sent an emissary to Constantinople (Konstantinopolis) in A.D. 860, requesting representatives of the Christian persuasion.

Byzantine Emperor Michael III and the Patriarch (Bishop) of Constantinople, Photios, cooperated in sending the two famous brothers who would later be canonized as the patron saints of Russia.  (There is some disagreement whether Methodius actually made the journey but no question that Constantine did.)  The Kagan received their mission in 861, but after hearing from them and from representatives of Islam sent by al-Mutawakkil ʿAlā ’llāh, the Caliph of Samarra, as well, he remained dedicated to the faith of the Jews, whose traditions were already tenuously established in the Khazar Kaganate.

This decision by the Kagan formally established the present Jewish enclave in that part of southern Russia, who are the Jews immortalized in “Fiddler on the Roof,” for instance.

Methodius and Constantine returned to Constantinople, beset at least once on their return trip by Magyar or Khazar raiders.  The raid by Jackal on such a caravan, told by the writer of this book, is very likely that same raid which is told in the history of the Greeks’ mission.

Following their return to their capital, Methodius and Constantine were sent on another, better known expedition, at the appeal of Rastislav, ruler of the western Slavic group of princedoms known as Moravia.

They left on this mission in A.D. 862 or 863, never to return permanently to Constantinople.  Before they left, however, Constantine the priest developed an alphabet for use in reducing spoken Slavonic dialects to writing.  There had never been a Slavic alphabet up to this time, although some scholars argue that attempts had been made among the east Slavs to create one.

Aware of the Moravian ruler’s problems with the Frankish (western) Christian missionaries and of a disagreement between Rastislav and Nicholas I, Bishop of Rome, who argued for keeping the liturgy forever in Latin, Constantine saw the value in converting the church liturgy to the common languages of the Slavic people.  So before he and Methodius departed for Moravia, he developed the first widely-used Slavic alphabet, from which the Glagolithic was derived, and began translating the Gospel.  Could Kolyek’s crude attempt at Slavic letters, which he describes in this book and which, the story suggests, was conveyed by Simonos to Constantine in time for his mission to Moravia, have been the basis for Constantine’s Slavonic alphabet, which led to today’s Cyrillic.

Late in Constantine’s life (827-869), he assumed the monastic name, Cyril (Kiril), after one of the great early saints.  A later version of his alphabet, called Cyrillic in recognition of his monastic name, is the basis for the Russian, Ukrainian, and some other modern Slavic scripts.

There is no historical basis for the principal characters in this tale: Euthymios, Simonos, Kolyek, Laïsha, Marhya, Gian-Pietro, and Russak. the towns of Blodensk, Pinea, Drizha, and Granitsu are mentioned nowhere else in history, although they may be the sites of modern towns now having different names.  Etil (Itil), however, was the winter home of the Kagan of the Khazars, and Dneprokiev is clearly a reference to the then-already-established city of Kiev on the Dnepr (Dnieper) River.

The Ingulets, Ingul, Donets, and Don are all true rivers in Ukraine and Russia, and the Dnepr did indeed have a stretch known as the Seven Rapids, now submerged due to the hydro-electric dams on the lower Dnepr.

The Jackal is unique to this story, as are his followers, but his mentor, Craizamon, was a contemporary historical figure as a Khazar warlord.  The Khazar’s wife, Atye, portrayed in this story as a crazy woman, is also described that way in at least one other historical reference.

Justinian and Theodora, mentioned in the story, were sixth-century rulers of Byzantium. Dioscorides, Aurelius Celsus, Galen, and Anthimus were medical practitioners and writers of earlier centuries who still influenced Greek medical teaching in the ninth century.

Sadrug, Gonashi, Combriedo de Palma, and Abru’s and Vennamar’s families are found in no other historical references.

A telling comment on Russian folk tales appears in The World & Its Peoples — Russia (USSR).

Often, as can well be understood, the mouzhik (the peasant) is the hero, sometimes in the guise of the durak (the simpleton), who gets the best of it in the end.  The miller and the soldier are also heroes, reflecting the dignity vis-à-vis the powerful.  Stories, some very profane, abound about the priest and his wife.

The story Kolyek tells in Fire, Wind & Yesterday, even to the point that he portrays himself as a potential priest with a provocative wife, is certainly in this tradition, and perhaps the earliest such written account as well.

The Horizon History of Russia contains this summary about the various groups of Slavic people:

In the midst of these movements of peoples across the great plain, the Slavic tribes emerged.  Their origins are not known; in the first century A.D. the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of them as Venedi, or Wends, who were then settled in the basin of the Vistula River and the region of the upper Dnieper — roughly equivalent to the areas of eastern Poland and Belorussia today.  He noted that, unlike the nomadic Sarmatians [an Iranian people], they traveled on foot and lived in settlements.  Already they were spreading out, colonizing westward toward the Carpathians and across the Danube, and northward and eastward into the forest zones.  In the course of these colonizing movements, which lasted several centuries, the Slavic tribes became divided into three distinct groups: the West Slavs of the Vistula Basin who became the Poles and Czechs; the South Slavs who settled in the Balkans; and the East Slavs who were divided into a number of ulus, or tribes…  During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries A.D. the East Slavs pushed back the numerous Finnish tribes and the Letts and the Lithuanians, who occupied the lands to the north.

The main area, inhabited by the East Slavs, lay in the zone of dark, almost impenetrable forests.  The nomads did not occupy this region; they needed the freedom and space of the steppes, over which they could range their horses.  But the Slavs were also drawn southward along the river routes, seeking a share in the lively trade controlled by their Khazar neighbors.  In the seventh and eighth centuries the Khazars ruled the steppes from their capital of Itil (supposed to be near modern Astrakhan) on the lower Volga, exacting customs duties from the steady stream of commercial caravans and boats that passed through its crossroads stronghold.  The Slavs paid tribute to the Khazars, but became increasingly involved in this trade, sending goods and slaves, mainly the fair-haired Finns so much in demand in the slave markets of the Mediterranean.  Their early cities of Pskov on the Velikaya River, Novgorod on the Volkhov, Polotsk on the Dvina, and Smolensk and Kiev on the Dnieper flourished while the trade routes were secure; but in the tenth century the power of the Khazars began to weaken, and they were challenged by the nomadic Pechenegs.  Slavic merchants found that peaceful passage along the great river highways could no longer be taken for granted and that they had to contend with the new menace from the north, the Varangians, as the Slavs called the Vikings, who appeared along the River routes in the eighth century.

Further, the Horizon History of Russia explains:

In the tenth century many peoples abandoned their pagan gods and adopted one of the monotheistic beliefs.  The Volga Bulgars adopted Islam in 922, the Danubian Bulgars having already become Christians; the Khazars had adopted Judaism about 865; Poland, Hungary, Denmark, and Norway converted to Roman Christianity in the second half of the tenth century.

In 988, Vladimir, ruler of the Kievan state, adopted Greek Christianity, although it was already a widely-held faith in his regions.

Other sources emphasize that, while the first millennium A.D. was one of dark historical silence in western Europe, Byzantium and the Arab states were flourishing in the arts and learning.  The university in Constantinople was indeed reopened in 863.  Caravans plied the routes to the north and the south of the Black Sea, reaching across two continents, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Constantinople had been the center of the eastern Roman empire until roughly the fifth century A.D.  With the decline of the Roman state, Byzantium rose to heights of enlightenment.  The Bishop of Rome had frequent disagreements with the Bishop of Constantinople, and the two were further divided when the brothers, Methodius and Constantine, eschewing Latin liturgies, insisted upon teaching the Slavic people in their native dialects.

Somewhere, everywhere, behind all of this history, real people — individuals — lived, laughed, loved, ached, pondered, plotted, played, and died.  Except for those fortunate to be named in a written historical account or folk tale, there is no trace today of anyone’s individual existence.  And even those about whom anything at all is written are evermore forgotten unless their stories are discovered, translated where necessary, published, and read.

<Table of Contents> <People and Places>


Sadruk and the Lady

Outside, in the gathering darkness, a light, late snow had begun to fall.  Since the winter was more than half over, the ground was often almost bare.  Just when it would seem as though the snow in the woods was about all melted and the ice soft enough to chew, along would come another dusting such as this, and we were plunged into several more days of waiting.  Spring would be late, people said.  Even so, I appreciated the change from winters past in my more northern homeland.

I found the mare and made her a meal of some grain and shriveled roots that I had stored.  She wouldn’t wander far, of that I was now certain.  Yet I couldn’t contemplate keeping a horse for myself during these times.  I knew little enough about these creatures, and she would eat the same food I had put by for myself, and ten times as much at that.

I left her to her own devices for the night, half hoping she would leave, but half dreading it also, for where she turned up next there would surely be questions.  I then went around the house and, without even looking to see whether she had returned, I ducked under the roof of Yomo’s enclosure and began patching the loose corner of her pen.

She was there, of course.  She snorted at me, a threat perhaps, as I drew two sides of her pen together and bound them with a thick braid of dampened reed.  Of course this pig would hate me.  Until a month ago she spent winter evenings inside by the stove, indulged in this and many other ways by her companion and my master, Sadruk, but now that I was fully in charge of the home and the master forever gone, she learned that I was not fond of having a pig in the house.  When I had finished binding the rails, I climbed out and stared at the stinking swine.

It was then that my procrastination fully struck me: I had been uncertain what to do with the nobleman’s body, the wreckage, the horse, even the lady, whom by now I should have summoned back to consciousness.  Here was one thing I could do.  I could be decisive and at the same time solve two of my current problems.  I would kill the pig.

As I returned inside for the instrument of my desire, a slender, sharpened iron pike the length of my forearm, I congratulated myself on the simplicity of this one act, even as a lump formed in my throat.  Yomo was a young sow, not well-fattened, but as fat as she would be until another autumn.  If I didn’t spend considerable time this very night repairing her pen even more than I had just done, she almost certainly would be gone again within a day or two in retribution for the beating and scare she had suffered at my hand this day.  That was one of the problems I could solve.  And, especially with a sufferer sorely in need of good food, (the second problem), and I unable to hunt for a time due to the lady’s need for attention, as I perceived things, the only sensible course to take was to butcher the sow.  The meat would keep for many days, and to wait much longer would mean losing that advantage to the warming weather.

Once again, I half circled the rickety pen and climbed inside, right next to the sprawled creature.  Again she groaned where she lay but was predictably unwilling to make room for my foot, as I pretended for a moment to fuss with the enclosure.  Since losing her indoor privileges she lay with her back to the warmest wall of the house, close against the earthen stove just inside the wall, which gave her some comfort on these cold nights.

In truth I loosed the rail a bit to aid my escape.  Then, casually, as if I did it often, as indeed I had done in years gone by, I slowly placed one foot against the nape of the sow’s neck so that her lunge would help propel me, and I plunged the pike into the side of her slackening throat as she exhaled.

The iron rod began on one end with a long, long point as sharp as a sewing needle.  It grew wider toward the fat end, where it was capped in a thick, wide leather grip.  It penetrated her windpipe instantly and sank deeper into the mud than I had expected, which nearly pitched me over her and onto her flailing feet.  But, due to my own sudden panic, I recovered quickly.  The iron rod pinned her neck to the earth for an extra second, and then I was hurled through the side of the enclosure as she leaped to her feet and crashed out of the pigpen, still skewered.  My foot found the hollowed-log barrel it sought and from there I sprang to the low, bark-covered roof of the house to lie and watch.

For a horrible moment I tried to recall whether I had left the door ajar on the opposite side of the house, for if I had, Yomo could have been drawn toward the light of the cooking fire in her effort to breath.  But her struggle was mercifully brief.  With the fatal rod through her neck, she ran for the woods behind the house, but collapsed halfway across the distance.  Where she fell I was determined to leave her for the night, although a proper butchering would not have waited for morning.

When she was down and clearly no more a threat, I slit her in the throat and the haunches to help the blood to drain, and then circled the house to go inside.  I must have been hurrying, because my forehead, as it had often done before, met the low lintel over the door and snapped my head back.  My butt landed somewhere within the dim interior of my cottage and the back of my head slammed against the mercifully rotted threshold.  I think I slept there, stunned, for a brief spell, for my chest had a dusting of snow upon it by the time I looked myself over and pondered which way was up.  For the rest of this night I would surge in and out of pain deep inside my head.

At last I lighted a large wax ball candle that we physicians would use to heat ingredients and sat it on an upturned log next to the bed.  As I was about to light another my eye caught a dark red stain on the deerskin bedding, matching the color of the lady’s garment.  I brought my face close in order to see well and suspected I had discovered the source, a wound at the tender spot I had noticed earlier in her right ribs.  Once again I spoke to the lady and carefully fingered her ribs.  She tried to draw her knees up in response, but did not regain consciousness.  I lifted her and shifted her a little onto her left side to let her curl her body and to place the wound at better advantage for the work I would surely be doing soon.  Then I stood back and regarded the bed and lamented that it lay so near the floor.  A bench nearer my own waist height would have served much better.

The master’s bed — called such both for its unusual and innovative design: a wide, padded platform raised a hand’s span above the floor, and because my own master had slept there until recently — stood just to the left as one entered my house.  Most every other peasant has his bed spread upon the large earthen stove that dominates every house, or on an earthen shelf molded into the side of the stove, and the family sleeps anywhere on these surfaces, for it is made with that in mind.  But mine was a master’s bed, stuffed with pine needles and all manner of loose hair, covered with deerskin, furs, and woolen blankets — haven to insects, it is true.  It sat near enough to the stove to know the warmth on most nights, and was protected from the out-of-doors by being behind the door as one opened it.  What’s more, the door, like that in a rich home, was sealed against drafts by having strips of fur tacked along the four edges to cover all the cracks around it, and the outside, in deepest winter, could be covered with layers of skins.

As the lady lay, her head right behind the door, my mind raced to discern the proper way to proceed.  I stroked a large icicle that I had brought inside, in order to wet my palm, and pressed my hand against her cheek.  I commanded her to awaken, but she did not.  Her breathing seemed slowed, her face without a trace of color next to my hand, which itself was not greatly darkened.

With her black hair and angular but pleasant features I would have assumed her a Turk, but for her manner of dress and the paleness of her face and hands.  She had wide eyelids that wrapped around to the sides of her face and rims of lashes lining her eyes in black.  Her long hair was pulled back and collected in some type of tie, exposing her ears.  I had seldom looked closely or long at a woman’s ears.  There was a cord in her neck that bulged at the base of her ear and I wanted to touch it.  Her nose looked to be longer than necessary and projected blade-like before her face.  Her nostrils were wide, and yet this formidable nose did not detract from her femininity.  She was likely younger than the dead nobleman, who himself couldn’t have been in his twentieth year.

And, if I continued to procrastinate upon what I knew I must do, she would never become twenty herself.  I looked for the proper way to open the front of her garment — a sort one-piece, body-length caftan — in order to expose her injury, but however the clothing was fastened was unclear to me.  I didn’t want to convulse her further by turning her torso over to search for fasteners at her back.  So, with great care but deft action, using a shearing device my master had devised by pinning two like blades at a pivot, I slit the garment from her neck to her navel and then cut it toward me at the waist.  I cut her sleeve free and pulled it from her arm, then peeled the rest of the rich cloth carefully to the bed.  I fully expected to reveal a protruding rib-bone, and that anticipation gave me some fear, for I had never yet succeeded in removing a loose bone and keeping the sufferer alive afterward.

I sprinkled water onto her skin to soften the thickening blood, thus to aid in peeling away the fine and expensive cloth.  I had to use the ragged edge of my thicker thumbnail to scrape and separate the cloth from her skin right next to the wound itself.  Would she be angry with me for destroying her clothing?  This question set me to worrying.  Yet her blood had ruined it already, or so I consoled myself.

Soon I had bared before me a long, deep gash like one that might have been made if a corner of a heavy box had struck her with extreme force.  Somehow, indeed, I concluded, she had been driven against her clothing box, or else against a part of the interior of her carriage that had had that same shape and effect.

For many minutes I daubed and soaked up blood and perhaps other vital fluids, intent upon exploring the cavity to search for bone fragments or other unseen damage.

I looked at her face often, during this process, for any sign of consciousness of pain.  There was none.  Still, blood came forth in tiny rivulets, therefore I remained hopeful.  Cautiously I reached a finger into the opening, and beside it another, releasing suddenly a faster flow of warm, sticky fluid.  I knew that in this part of the body I could encounter the entrails, or a punctured bubbling lung, or a dark organ.  My probing told me nothing, though, but that I had done enough; I neither touched nor saw any of these possibilities, and her bones felt to be whole, although perhaps cracked.  I unwrapped a pack of implements and found a needle of ivory which I quickly strung with a waxed woolen thread.  I had observed many times before how skin will shrink away from a wound, but most people I had sewn in my apprenticeship to the master had skin both tough and pliable.  Lately Sadruk had taught me to sniff the skin to be sewn, for the odor of the flesh can indicate its strength.  This lady’s chest smelled sweet and even retained the essence of her wet woolen garment.

Promising odor aside, the lady’s skin was thin and tore easily as I stitched.  Unlike the skin on a creature’s or a person’s back, the skin on one’s flank can be fragile.  My master’s method had been first to soak rags in a tea of borage and lay these over the wound to help the edges of skin glue themselves back together, then to remove the rags and lay one flap of skin over the other.  He would then line up a row of stitches through the overlapping layers.  I had some dried leaves of borage and so I boiled them and applied the tea-soaked rags.  But my master’s stitching method I could not use on the lady’s tender chest.  I resorted instead to individual knots to bring together the delicate edges of her wound.  In all I broke only two needles doing this.

There were other methods, of course.  Older physicians or medicine women might salt the entire wound to soften it all around, then pack it with powdery clay to dry it.  They obtained better results at times by smearing a wound with vulture grease or with the pulverized entrails of certain animals, mixed with clay.  If the victim’s station in life were of little enough consequence, they might do nothing more than to wrap the open wound tightly with strong linen and wait for the skin to grow together once more.  If the wound failed to close, or if the sufferer died, then this was taken to signify that the person was guilty of some past crime.  Frequently the first person in the villages near where I grew up, injured by any means after an unsolved crime had occurred, was watched for this very sign of guilt.

Sadruk had taught me to make a paste of crushed coriander seeds, whose aroma offended the nose — not by its fragrance but by its strength.  This paste should be spread over the stitched skin.  Also, if I wanted to take the time, I had one of the best coverings for such a great cut right behind my house, for the intestines of a pig, unrolled, scraped, and stretched, would cling tightly over the wound and form a seal very much like skin itself.  But on this young sufferer I seemed to have straight edges along the gash with which to work and I know that the skin of most sufferers heals well when sewn by my method.  I was not concerned whether this lady were guilty of anything or not.  What’s more, I was eager to impress this stranger with my attentions and skill.  After sewing her closed, therefore, I applied a poultice of comfrey, rather than the coriander paste, to encourage the knitting of any broken rib bones, covered her as best I could with my blanket and also with my master’s fur covering, and sat back on my stool now fully perplexed.  I would explain to her that, in a few weeks’ time she should be able to gather the narrow leaves of fresh philanthropos to press against the wound, if it were still not fully healed, but such plants had not yet sprouted.

My master had said I would make a fine physician, and perhaps he was right to trust in my intelligence, for I believe I learn well and judge wisely.  But I grow anxious when I am unsure of myself, and I sat staring now at this soon-to-be cadaver and furiously gnawed on my beard.

+ + +

In my youth I had expected to be a hunter.  Before the tragedy which claimed my brother’s life and drove me from my mother’s home I was proving quite skillful.  A year after Latchek, my brother, drowned I was taken into the hunters.  Gradually, though, others were seeing and killing food where I saw none.  I realized at last that I was afflicted with a kind of blindness which I found disappointing, but not to be feared.  No farther than a hand-span from my face I can see sharply.  Beyond that, men and animals can move and can see one another and me clearly, but not I them.  I may see vague forms and colors moving in the distance but that is all.

I understood that if hunting were the only way for me to survive I would quickly have died in my youth, as indeed no doubt many had died before me who through the ages suffered only from poor vision.  As a hunter who couldn’t see, I would starve.  And while I would be slowly starving some creature of guile, either man or beast, would have crept up on me and I, unable to see until too late, would have perished.  Indeed, this very possibility haunts me even the more today.

My mother, who came from the Lithuanian people near the shores of the great Sea of Balta, would have told me that I had earned a curse from one of her gods.  Or worse, she would have blamed my curse onto something she had done herself, for she too had poor eyes.  But I never returned to my home town of Perenemansk after my expulsion from my hunting group, and so my poor mother never had the chance to trouble me about it.  And I never had to trouble myself further with her bewildering assortment of gods and spirits.  She especially would disapprove my present occupation of physician, for by her reckoning all serious illness comes from the spirit world, and my worsening eyesight would be an affliction that the spirits had caused in me.  This reasoning holds no fascination for me.  For physicians such as my master, and now I (his former apprentice), discredit the notion of spirit-caused illness.  While my mother would argue that the spirits are displeased with me for attempting to heal those justly cursed, I find that even people I know to be guilty or nasty-tempered heal as quickly as those who are demonstrably pure in heart.

Fortunately, in these present times, there are many things other than hunting that a man can do which require seeing only close-in, and thus, my fortunes turned me toward the art of healing with medicine.

+ + +

As the candle flame whipped about, tossed by feeble, unseen influences, I regarded the lady before me and judged that she could only be uncomfortable the way she lay.  The skirt she wore over the lower portion of her caftan — a lap robe of sorts, integral to the garment, was so voluminous and bunched behind her that her legs could not lie flat upon the bed.  I also said inside myself that, while I had found one serious injury, I had examined her no more thoroughly than that.  Yet there was no evidence of another bloody wound, so I procrastinated on checking her further.

Something inside me, in spite of my fear of losing her to death, jumped with glee as I thought of the opportunity that her death would pose.  Outside I had a male cadaver, an uncommon find for any student of medicine not handy to a battle.  Inside I might soon have a female.  The only good female cadavers I had heard of were scarce and expensive, if one could afford to pay anything at all.

Cadavers are usually derived of four sources, if one doesn’t count a battlefield.  The worst, to my thinking, are bodies of people killed by plagues.  They are never fresh and much to be avoided, my master had said.  My only opportunity to examine a female body had involved one of these, and, while from outside the house of the physician who owned the cadaver I saw the body briefly and can summon full recall of its stench even today, I declined the chance to join those who had gathered from afar to get their hands on the organs or probe the bones with knives.

Unguarded graves are the second source.  Many bodies, both of men and of women, are taken from graves and sold under the pretense that they have been obtained by other means, although those who trade in these carcasses usually make no attempt to remove the tell-tale soil.  These can also be identified by their price.  While victims of a plague generally command virtually no price at all, exhumed corpses bring whatever price the buyer is willing to pay, since those who rob graves are desperate men after easy silver and the bodies must be moved along quickly even if frozen, before discovery of the open grave.

I can recall my mother’s admonitions not to play at night near the burial ring of our village, and indeed, it is a rule that children everywhere seem to have in common.  I understand now that, although we were warned that it would offend the spirits of our dead ancestors to play among them, it was more surely a mother’s fear that I, her child, would fall into a recently-raided grave and suffer an injury, or that I would chance upon grave robbers who would steal me as well.

If I merely happened to trip and fall into one, the injury would be minor, though.  Plundered graves are more frightening than damaging, especially to children.  The burial ring in nearby Pinea might not prove damaging at all.  It is more sophisticated than the ones I knew in my childhood.  In Pinea, for example, the ground is scraped flat and a slight depression is made for each body.  Logs are placed alongside and over the corpse, which itself is covered with rocks, to thwart scavenging animals.  The mound is then covered with debris — leaves, twigs, brush, and the removed soil.  There is not much of a hole to stand as a hazard, but more a pile of heavy and therefore unyielding debris.

The third source of cadavers, and the best if most onerous ones to be had for study, with prices to match, are generally known to be the bodies of pretty wenches abducted from the streets of larger towns and cities, mutilated somewhat to feign accidental death, and sold soon after in the country.  But even though the desire for these is high, the demand is not — who can pay the prices?  What’s more, no city, where an anonymous abduction could take place, was within a hundred versts of Sadruk’s house, so this source was useless to us.

Slaves provide the last source, and an easy source wherever slaves are common.  They were not common in these deep woods, for the people who could afford to own slaves were few — mainly the Prince himself and an occasional town magistrate.  A pair of slaves had been delivered to Sadruk the previous autumn, draped across the back of a horse.  They belonged to the prince of some region to our south, and had taken suddenly and violently ill during a trading mission to Drizha.  By the time they arrived at our house, accompanied by a twitchy little guard and a large, mean woman who apparently served as their traveling cook, they were dead.  Sadruk had been relieved to receive them in this condition, for had they still been alive, the cook, as supervisor, would have proved troublesome and meddlesome during their treatment and recovery.

And yet, the cook remained furious about the distance they had traveled to find this house, when they had been told it was only a short distance into the forest.  She would tell it all around the countryside how Sadruk and I had mistreated her poor slaves and killed them both.  Sadruk coolly struck a deal with her, though, whereby the cook could claim that she had sold him a pair of living, sickly slaves, which made it legal and absolved her of responsibility for losing them to illness; and to Sadruk’s mind, he had obtained a pair of inexpensive cadavers.

The dead slaves were both lean, powerfully-built young men of unclear origin — Sadruk thought they were Greeks — and they provided invaluable lessons in anatomy for the next several days.  We compared the position and color and size of their parts, one with the other, and dissected eyes, hands, genitals, and even peered into the brain of one.  We buried their remains after Sadruk had removed certain organs and muscles for later study.  These reserved parts even now were carefully wrapped in linen, marked as to which man they had belonged to, and lay frozen on the roof, protected from ravens by a cage of woven saplings.

Almost never, I was sure, did a student of medical arts obtain a female cadaver as I felt sure I was about to do: A complete stranger would die on my bed and leave no one to claim her corpse.  Could I simply bury her — the decent thing to do?  Yet for all its simplicity there was supreme risk in keeping her for study.  Surely somewhere, within days I judged, these two would be missed.  People would come searching.  How soon?  Were they to rendezvous within hours of their passing here?  Was there another, accompanying carriage before theirs, or behind?  I had seen none, but I had been busy!  With what I had on my hands at this point, I was already guilty of some crime, I was certain, for without a doubt I would be expected to report the accidental death of a nobleman, and merely not to do that was a crime.  And in reporting such, I could be sure, I would be viewed with suspicion.  And, should the lady survive and recall the incident, my pig would be brought to account, and I to account for the pig.  And yet, not my own pig but my master’s, and then, worst of all I would be brought to account for the disappearance of my master.

Then a plausible explanation for the lady’s presence in my house came to mind, should she begin to recover, but only if I could rid myself of all trace of the carriage, the nobleman, his clothes, and the horse.  I could not bury the evidence, for, even if I could penetrate the ground, determined searchers would surely unearth a shred of clothing or an iron carriage strap.  As it were, my master’s own body would also be discovered, since it was frozen and poorly covered by loose stones in a sandy embankment nearby.

I slid back the covering over my door’s peephole and stared into the darkness in the direction of the brush pile that covered the debris from the accident.  What I must do was easy to deduce.  I even caught the sound of my own voice saying: “Of course!”   Snow still fell, lightly and from a low sky that would obscure any sign of flame or smoke.  My house was an uncommon half day’s brisk walk from the nearest village, Pinea, and a quarter day’s walk from the next dwelling.

I gathered embers from the stove into a leather pouch lined with sand and carried the fire starter to the brush pile.  I had cleared enough land the previous autumn to expand the root garden my master had always kept for marketable produce.  (If I were to carry on my apprenticed art in this place I needed to offer more than my mere services in exchange for my own needs of food, instruments, and condiments.)  The brush, if it would burn, surely could not ignite the frozen forest, so to start a fire here would be safe and virtually undetected from afar.

Within minutes, with last autumn’s partially-dried branches as starter fuel, I had a willing and intense blaze.  But it had been a mistake to ignite the fuel first; now I had to find a way to place the nobleman onto the hottest part of the fire.  I pulled the  young man’s corpse upright and struggled against its willowy complacency in a macabre dance that nearly landed me in the flames as well.  I stood by for a short while.  As soon as it — the body — was ignited I began to smell the oddly pleasing but, of course, hideous odor of sizzling human flesh.

With a rush of panic my head automatically jerked toward the house.  What if she had seen?  Was that the lady leaning out the doorway, watching, silently accusing?  I kept my useless, cloudy gaze on the house and strolled toward it.  The figure in the door didn’t move.  It turned out to be nothing more than the bracing and rags that have been added over the years to help the door do its job.  But other images of disaster flitted into my mind, and for hours I expected them to come true.  Predators on four legs would smell the cooking meat and lunge from the forest to drag a sizzling leg from the fire’s edge.  The smoke would whisper into the nose of a neighbor, many versts distant; he would imagine the house on fire and rush to help, (or to be the first to loot the charred remains that he expected to find).

All through the night I returned to the house, then to the fire, and back to each again.  Outside I often heard my thoughts rendered in my own voice — I was nervously talking to myself as I carried out the complicated tasks!  At the site of the blaze I heaped on more fuel and raked in the embers to assure that the nobleman’s body and the carriage would burn completely.

At the house I began cooking a stew and tended further to the lady — and I pondered the problem of the horse.  Such a carcass as that of a horse I could not incinerate as I was doing the nobleman’s, for I doubted that I would succeed in roasting even half its meat, much less making it vanish.  I had no way to destroy the horse without a trace.

But the willing beast helped me in my decision by lingering near the house and by allowing me to bob its tail in the manner common to our Volynian neighbors to the west and to clip its mane.  The hair I was glad to have for surgical thread and bedding.  For the time being I included it in the bed’s stuffing near the lady’s feet.  I removed its iron shoes and filed its hooves in order to assure no identification of it by that means.  After a thorough examination I was sure that it bore no artificial mark of ownership.  Thus, come daybreak, I could drive it from my house and onto the road.  There I could persuade it — scare it actually, by means of whipping or shouting, to flee toward the village or into the woods.

The fire consumed enormous quantities of fuel.  The small trees, branches, and shrubs that I had saved on the hillside were disappearing quickly, and the opportunity to dispose of one more body would soon pass.  I had been reluctant — reluctant to look at Sadruk once more and to see how he had decayed; reluctant more to remove every trace of him from the face of the earth.  Yes, that was it!  The source of my procrastination had a name, and having a name, it was vulnerable.  I could face it, identify it, deal with it.  If I gave him to the fire, he would be as gone as if eaten by a great omnivorous beast.  It would be as if Sadruk of Pinea had never existed.  It was too horrible a thing to do, without his assent, to one I had loved.  My vision further obscured by tears, I removed my rigid master from his shallow grave, however reverently he had been committed to rest, and refilled the hole.  Without looking full at him — I feared to see him staring up at me — I incinerated his carcass too, right after I had reluctantly flung the nobleman’s clothes and sack — a piece at a time — onto the inferno.

Inside the house I checked the lady obsessively, but she slept on, and more peacefully, I imagined.

With the clouds low and thick, daylight penetrated later than usual, and still the snow fell softly.  Flakes were now piling up on the ashes at the edges of my bonfire.  I raked through the coals and dragged out what I could find of metal and bones.  One particularly large, hot piece of iron gave me a thought, and, gripping it in a sizzling willow fork, I walked to the horse and poked the poor beast full in the flesh below its brief tail.  The mare’s hind hooves sprayed me with clumps of icy earth as she charged away toward the road without a backward glance.  (She may not have known that it was I who lightly burned her rump.)

At the fire I completed my work of raking the coals and destroying the evidence by grinding the brittle skulls, pelvises, and femurs between two large rocks and scattering the fragments back onto the center of the fire.  Exhausted, but still cheerfully talking to myself, I worked down every bone that I could in this fashion, and pieces that were too hard to break down I set aside into a pile as I did the metal.  I longed to retain some bone powder for use in my medicines, but dared not do so for the uncertainty that rose in me — supposing the dust of Sadruk or the other might have the power to call out from the jar to anyone who would peer inside.

This tedious work gave me much time drowsily to talk to myself about the things my master had taught me as I sought to apply them to the lady inside my house — and not so much the details of medicine but the truths of the world.  For instance, he brought me to understand, as the ancient teacher Aristotle taught, that all matter is composed of four elements: earth, water, fire, and air.  As I worked before the light of the embers these elements were all present, and indeed only these in their many forms.  All material bodies have four properties, and these, too, were evident as I ground the bones and sorted the refuse: the hot and the moist, and their contraries, the cold and the dry.  Even as I watched the occasional snowflake strike a glowing coal, I saw the evidence of this: the cold dry water crystals transmuted into the hot wet air.  There is much more beyond these truths that people will probably never know, for example, how one form of matter gives rise to things with different properties: how trees make leaves, how logs becomes ashes, how water becomes ice.  I didn’t seriously concern myself with these problems, but they were sufficiently intriguing to draw my thoughts from my master’s immolation and my lady’s mutilation.

At last I was satisfied with my work.  Late in the dawn I gathered the piles of larger bones and metal and visited the stream across the road.  In truth I traveled down the stream for some distance before I found a spot I deemed deep enough to contain, beyond reach, the iron, including the horse’s shoes.  From the sack of bone fragments I dropped pieces all about, both in the water and out, but not so that anyone who might find one piece in the winter forest would be likely to find another.

Returning to my house I saw that my footprints leading to the stream were quickly being obliterated by the snow that had now come up heavy and cold and windblown.  At the site of the fire I scooped up spadefuls of embers and flung them into the crop garden and beyond, and I dragged more unburned branches into a circle to surround the hissing ashes.  Within hours there would be nothing left to observe there but a much-reduced brush pile with snow upon, within, and beneath it.

<Table of Contents> <Two> <Four>  <People and Places>


Yomo and Turgey

A.D. 861

You find me next in the eighth winter since those tragedies occurred.  Those two events set me onto a new course, that of hunter, and Sadruk and Drukov onto new paths that would intersect mine.

I am now Kolyek-the-blind, (a landless peasant, hence Kolyek-the-bobil), and yet, I have here seen only my twentieth summer and have barely established my manhood.

I no longer live near the Avek River or near my mother.  I no longer hunt, except that I occasionally snare a hare or a fowl for my own dinner.  I have stayed in one place for about six years, now, and I have learned to raise a pig.

I have never loved a pig, though.  Even if I credit Yomo, the sow, for setting off the later events that led to the improvement of nearly everything in my life except my eyesight, I have no greater regard for pigs.

No one has criticized me for my attitude about pigs, but I suspect simply that no one has noticed.  Nor am I acquainted with anyone else who shares my sentiments about them.  Other people who have them love their pigs.  They keep them in their houses and sleep upon them.  One family I remember from my childhood insisted that their sow suckle their children — for as long as the poor infants survived.  Only two or three lived to walk and talk, and the one who was my own age, with whom I played, was a very strange boy.

People who don’t have pigs often say to me, coming near so that I can see their faces fuzzily: “Your pig makes you so happy — surely you must love your pig!” or, after crouching to hug Yomo’s neck, they say: “I should get a pig, too.”

This self-important, smelly, lean brown sow, Yomo, was a gift to us, (my master, Sadruk, and me), from Turgey, or Turgey-the-durak, as we called him in his absence.  Turgey-the-fool, he was, the Vagabond, the Surprise Guest, the Simpleton, and the Innocent — or so he seemed.

Nonetheless, Turgey was special to us, although no one would call him a friend.  He would have you believe that he was absolutely guileless, yet always able to provide for himself in unaccountable ways.  The way we obtained the piglet speaks for him.

In an arrangement I will presently explain, Sadruk and I lived alone in the forest, not quite a day’s walk south from Pinea, an ancient village so named for the formations of rocks that rose to its south and west, shielding it from weather and making work difficult for invaders.  The cliffs were also a reliable source of water in all seasons, where it poured from the rocks in springtime cataracts and seeped in trickles throughout the driest months.

Turgey burst upon us one day with a nasty wound on his flank, the result of falling down a rocky embankment while running through the forest late at night.  After many days of suffering, he came meekly to Sadruk for healing.  Sadruk and I saw to his wound, and soon he was improved.  But he could not pay.  Other healers, principally spell-casting old women, of course, would have inflicted smoke and chants upon him calculated to heal but calculated also to restore his suffering in a few days if he failed to pay, but this was not our method.  Turgey knew that much and more about us.  And so we were not surprised, after treating his bruises and enduring his patter for a few days, when shortly he returned bearing our compensation: a piglet.  And yet, it was not just any piglet, but one with an  inscrutable name, Yomo.

We never learned where Turgey had obtained the animal or the meaning of its name, for while there are many who keep pigs in every village, everyone else learns when one becomes missing.  Nevertheless, we could not resist surmising that, for a man to run through the forest late at night, as evidently Turgey often did, there must be a reason not unlike panic.  We never pressed him to explain.  For my part, I didn’t want to know how to commit petty crimes, as I was certain I would if I became too friendly with this frightful but amusing man.

At first glance, Turgey would appear to be assembled of peeled, polished cedar poles topped with a spreading black fungus, the entire figure draped in some filthy, un-dyed woolen robe.  I once noticed that a dried mushroom cap has skin the color and texture of Turgey’s, in the few spaces where he doesn’t have hair.  He had no house nor even village of his own, no place to raise animals, and nothing to exchange for his needs but talk, which came in gusts of warm, fetid breath from a cavernous mouth half full of huge, un-sturdy brown teeth.  And the talk he offered spilled forth on so many subjects all at once that, even when alone, he sometimes sounded like a room full of chattering people.  Yet, whenever he came about, everyone was genuinely interested to see him; he always bore stories and news of the other towns he had just visited, and he was always loud and quick, pleasant and funny.  Children and old folks loved his antics, and everyone else enjoyed seeing them entertained.  Thus he survived, by endearing himself to others with his surprise visits, his incessant babble, and his unpredictable bequests.

Yomo, however, had been a payment of doubtful value.  Her direct intrusion onto my fate, and mine onto hers, came about one day during that prolonged, late-winter season marked by ice leaving the waterways and re-forming as icicles on branches and roofs.  Yomo caused a calamity which determined my destiny, and, I can argue, the destiny of hundreds more.  I am too modest to propose that the sow influenced the meandering of history in my part of the world, although that very proposal pushes itself ever and ever into my musings.  And yet, if Yomo did so, then Turgey also, inasmuch as she came from him.  And if Turgey, then the poor peasant who one morning found a piglet stolen.

It began like this:

It was a frigid afternoon in late winter.  I slogged around to the back of the house to feed the gaunt, hateful sow.  Again her pen was demolished, and again she was gone.  I squinted into the forest and felt my shoulders sag.  Any pig will disappear now and then, for pigs think in peculiar ways that are short on reason.  Yomo had lost her favorite companion, though, and by that I don’t mean another pig, so she made a point of escaping once every few days.

I sighed and then hurried between the house and the road, pausing to tear a switch of linden sprouting from a stump, just before the dormant sapling poked me in the chin.  I knew where to begin looking, and if she hadn’t been gone long she’d be easy to find.  She had a nose for moist, fertile places, and even though the foraging was poor due to the lingering of winter, Yomo would be at the misty eddy alongside the stream across and west of the road.

I pulled my forelock to keep from muttering a curse on the sow.  Such an oath, if undeserved by the one accursed, could return to the sender, and I couldn’t be sure whether Yomo was capable of deserving wrath, nor whether she could deflect a curse simply because she wasn’t human.

Stiff twigs and stouter branches snapped at my face and stung my cheek as I hurried through the tangle of red, brown, and gray-black, leafless undergrowth.  My shoes, lined with thick fleece, cushioned against features on the ground that would gash one’s feet, but soon grew wet inside and slippery outside as I plunged through a shallow but uneven snow cover.

How would Yomo greet my approach this time?  As last time, when she charged me headlong as a wild boar, pausing to trample me half-heartedly?  As once before that, when she butted my water barrel, knocking me along with it into the brook?  Or as once even earlier, when she darted back and forth along the stream bank until I had to relent at her playfulness and snort with laughter?

She did none of these.  This strange day, which would soon become as significant as the day I lost my brother, Yomo ignored me when I came upon the stream, which itself lay just out of sight of the road.  She surely sensed that I was somehow to blame for her present loneliness.  I was moved to anger, so without warning I rushed her from behind and whipped her swiftly with the switch.  She began to amble homeward as if under no degrading influence, and that only stirred me more.  Branches tore at my eyelids and icicles tinkled in my wake.  Ever more wildly I whipped and hissed and charged the despicable sow until, at the break in the undergrowth next to the road, she paused to contemplate me and then galloped into the path of an elegant one-horse day-carriage approaching from the south.

In the moment of Yomo’s pause I suffered a flash of confusion, as perhaps she did also, for only in that instant did I first hear the rattle of the gig’s harness.  Concealed from the road by the stark, bony-black tree stems, I must have made a move to try to warn the driver, but no doubt at the same time I also tried to shoo the pig out of the way.

Yomo raced beneath the rearing horse without harm, but the mare lunged forward and then tried to whip the carriage around on the nearly impassable, frozen and re-frozen road.

I had always thought such conveyances sturdy-built as an Avar chariot set upon two axels.  This one, though, more elegant even than a rich man’s droshky, was made of polished wood, some of which was no thicker than bark, with a structure upon it that partly enclosed the seated occupants, top, sides, and rear.  It shattered as it tumbled and rolled, splintered and collapsed.

The horse trotted far enough away to be certain that she was out of danger from the pig as well as unshackled from the carriage.  I plunged into the wreckage and found first a nobleman’s arm — the fine stitching in the woolen sleeve filled me instantly with dread.  Breaking away and scattering pieces of thin, foreign wood, I exposed his shoulders and then his head.  Here I had to gasp.  A piece of his dainty cart, part of the frame but now a sharply-pointed sliver, had been driven into the soft flesh beneath his jaw and thin beard.  This short spear had penetrated deeply enough into his head to cause his left eye to bulge and give his face an odd, choking sneer.  His eyes were open — indeed, the left one protruded so far that the lids were useless to cover it once again — but they saw nothing.  I stared into the young man’s contorted face and waited as the other eyelid twitched and then went slack.  It was impossible to tell just how deeply he was impaled, but my knowledge of medicine and of a body’s construction, which is considerable, as I shall soon explain, qualified me to reject reviving him.  I would have to grasp his head beneath the chin and at the back of the neck and then pull him free from the skewer, but first I would have to free the rest of him from the chaos.

And yet, it was already too late.  As I peered at him and considered his rescue, it was clear that no heroic effort, even backed up with incantation, would restore his pulse.  I took the relaxing of his eyelid to signify his moment of death.

I lifted on a large portion of the carriage that covered his lower torso and legs and perceived briefly that, while his upper body was clad in a fur-lined coat over a fine black woolen tunic, on his lower half he wore a skirt of darkest red over the caftan-like undergarments of a rich lady.  The part of the carriage that I was lifting was too heavy for me to hold for long, so I let it down gently and scrambled to the other side, for the truth seized me: The legs belonged not to the nobleman; the top portion of a lady must also be covered by the mess, and the red-skirted legs must be attached to her instead.

There she lay, of course, in an impossibly acrobatic pose, gasping lightly and grimacing from pain as I lifted in a new place.  She was lying somewhat on her left side and, when I broke off and tossed away a part of the slab that weighed down upon her, she began spasmodically to curl her shoulders toward her waist.  Where she was hurt I couldn’t yet tell, but since only her mid-section was still covered by wreckage I deduced that she were somehow crushed in that area.

I ran for the horse, which yielded compliantly to my advance.  What remained of her harness I quickly tied to an end of the largest portion of the carriage that still covered the victims.  With the mare tugging lightly and I lifting with one hand, the carriage body pivoted upward and I could drag the lady free of the trap.

I spoke softly to her, then more sharply, but she did not respond.  She was clearly unconscious.  With a sweep of my arm inside the cavity formed by the collapsed carriage I searched for any victims yet undiscovered, that is, a baby or a pet.  (Noblemen and their wives keep exotic pets, I had learned.)  There was no one else to be found, so I freed the horse.  Then, as gently as I could, I carried the lady thirty paces from the road to the cottage I called home.  There I placed her on the near edge of the master’s bed that I had been using as my own.

There seemed little that I could do for her until I could ponder her possible injuries.  Only while she was bobbing in my arms did she make a vocal sound and that only a weak wheeze, I assumed from pain.  Tentative and uncertain, I looked her over briefly, but then left her there and returned to the carriage.

Now it is necessary to explain that, while all of this had been an accident, I was in no position to have any scrutiny brought to bear upon me for any reason.  Being a peasant physician put me only the breadth of a boar’s bristle above the other earthy people that inhabited this miserable region.  That is to say, the ruling and merchant classes had no more use for me than I for an extra beetle in my meal bin, and until I could decide how to explain or escape from these my mounting problems I decided I must hide the evidence.  For it was not so much discovery of my part in this accident that I feared, although later I would fear that discovery very much, but rather my part in the misfortune that was Sadruk’s recent death.  And yet, at each of these mishaps I was no more than an observer, the one providing the agent, (the pig in one case, the tea in the other), which precipitated each tragedy.  Unlike my initial indifference to the lives of these two travelers, however, I had loved my old master.

I should not deem him old, though.  Sadruk was hunched a little, from working over low benches, and pale, from seldom venturing into the light.  When I had first seen him, some years before, he had startled me with his shock of dark hair that shot straight up from his scalp, trimmed closely all around the sides to expose the round, red ears barely held apart by a narrow, long face.  From that first meeting, until his death, he had commanded me with urgent eyes that never squinted as mine do.  Sadruk’s face was always angled toward the bench before him, and his eyes, often peering upward to expose the glistening whites below, followed me about the little house as I went about my chores and assignments as his apprentice.  I welcomed the scrutiny, for it was my aim completely to please the man who had taken me in as a youth, and I soon recognized his constant gaze as one not of caution but possibly of wonder and admiration.  I am a good servant by nature, and quick enough to learn.  I truly did please the man, and it showed as he watched me over the months and years.

Back at the site of the accident, and with the willing help of the submissive horse, I freed the nobleman’s head from the carriage’s brutal grip — a more difficult removal than I had anticipated.  Then I cleared all debris from the road.  (Road?  It was only an indistinct path through the forest marked by a center line of straight poles laid end-to-end, now embedded in hardened, muddy snow.)  This wreckage rubble I gradually piled upon the slope to the southeast of, and well below, what I shall hereafter call my house, and I covered it with brittle treetops and branches left from some land clearing I had begun in the autumn.  The nobleman’s grotesquely defaced body I dragged here and there in great indecision.  But I was forced to decide because darkness was falling.

I am not a superstitious man, but it was unseemly to think of hiding a body in the loft of the house or beside the bed.  I included it, therefore, with the remains of the carriage, covered with brush and branches.

From time to time during this operation I peeked in on the lady and found her ever the same — wheezing lightly and grimacing in such a way that I began to suspect it was her normal expression.

In the waning light of dusk I examined the belongings that emerged from the wreckage: a once-sturdy wooden trunk, now cracked and flimsy at one end, that held only the lady’s clothes or things presumably related to clothing, also an embroidered cloth sack filled with a nobleman’s clothing, bundles of foodstuffs recently acquired, and some items of worth that I removed from the nobleman’s person.  These latter included a plain but highly serviceable sword, a sack containing nineteen large gold coins and several silver grivna, and a roll of inscribed sheets of parched calfskin.

The documents were written in two languages, half in one I did not read but took to be Latin, the other Greek.  The Greek was so elegantly lettered that I knew I would be an hour deciphering its characters, and much longer in the translation, if I could translate it at all.

I had seen a gold bezant only once before in my lifetime, but could make no mistake that gold was the metal of which the yellow coins in the purse were made.  As the precious metal disks slipped between my fingers and clinked back into the sagging purse, the artery in my neck pulsed and a tightness gripped my head — I felt like a common robber!

The lintel over my door was massive, yet rotted hollow in the middle, thanks to the work of ants, and it contained an opening which could be reached from the hinge side, next to the bed.  With my back to the lady I plunged the sword into this hole, and with effort made it disappear completely.  Then I shoved in the rolled parchments and the sack of money and filled the aperture with a handful of crumbling tree bark.

While the lady slept I examined her visually for injury.  Only her face showed any trauma, and that only in the form of cuts and some nasty abrasions.  Tenderly I pressed my fingers against her neck, her breastbone, her left ribs, and then her right ribs.  When I touched her in this last part, her body convulsed, and I knew this was where I must suspect her injury to be.  Turning from her in order to think further, I tended to the fire in the earthen stove and contemplated her recovery under my care.

With my thumb I pressed a tuft of my still-youthful light beard between my lips and stroked the hairs with my teeth until presently I plucked one, and this I gingerly turned around between my tongue and teeth before biting it into two short sections and spitting them out.  This stimulated my thinking.  What would this woman remember of the accident?  What would I tell her?  Where were these two going in this region and who was expecting them?  Why were they so richly dressed for travel?

<Table of Contents> <One> <Three> <People and Places>

People and Places

Fire, Wind & Yesterday is a story about a time and place quite unfamiliar even to many well-read people.  This glossary is provided to help the reader keep track of people and places found in the story.

Underlined names have an historical basis in other references.  Names not underlines cannot be matched with historical individuals or places and may be unique to this tale.

Aaron ben Nisi — son of the Khazar Kagan, Nisi ben Menasseh
Abru — a Derevlian merchant of Dneprokiev (Kiev)
Agaruk — Sadruk’s father
al-Mutawakkil ʿAlā ’llāh — Abbasid Caliph of Islam in Samarra until assassinated in December, 861
Anthimus — Greek healer and food expert, 6th century A.D.
Arappi — a metalsmith in Etil
Askold — a prince of the upper Dnepr
Atelkuzu — a name for the region around the lower Dnepr
Mount Athos — “Holy Mountain” in Greece with twenty monasteries comprising the center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism
Atye — name not historically verified, wife of the Khazar Kagan, Nisi ben Menasseh
Aurelius Celsus — 1st century Roman physician and medical writer
Avek — a river in Lithuania
Azov — a northern extension of the Black Sea Russia, bordered by Ukraine and Russia
Balta — Baltic Sea
Blodensk — village in Ukraine to the south and west of Kiev
bocolabrass., what the Avars called a shaman or sorcerer
Boris I — ruler of Bulgária who converted to Christianity around A.D. 864
Bugra-dezhu — old shaman of Pinea
Bulgars — a population inhabiting the region of the upper Volga, north of Khazaria, also describing some who migrated toward present-day Bulgária
Caspian — landlocked sea bordered by Russia, Iran, and three former USSR republics
Chersonthema Chersōnos, also spelled Kherson, busy Byzantine outpost originally located on the southeastern shore of the Crimean peninsula and important in trade and diplomatic relations with the Khazars
Christos — Christ, the Christ
Combriedo de Palma — a merchant of Mallorca, stranded in Granitsu
Constantine — early saint (Konstantin) for whom Constantinople (now Istanbul) was named, also the 9th century Greek priest, mentioned in this story, who later changed his name to Cyril (Kiril)
Craizamon — a Khazar warlord who roamed the steppe in the mid-9th century
Cyril — early saint (Kiril) for whom Constantine in this story renamed himself, now one of the patron saints of Russia along with Methodius (Mefhodi)
Darband — ancient city on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, also spelled Derbent
Daryetta — mother of Laïsha
Davnoy — second son of Abru
Dioscorides — 1st century Greek physician and pharmacologist
Dir — a prince in the region of Kiev
Dnepr River — Dnieper River
Dneprokiev — previously unknown name for the city of Kiev (Kiev-on-the-Dnepr)
Don — River in southern Russia
Donau — Danube (“Mother”) River
Donets — a tributary of the Don
Dregovichian — an ancient tribe of east Slavs in the region roughly through Lithuania and east Poland
Drizha — 9th century village on the fringe between forest and steppe, south of Pinea
Drukov — son of Sadruk
Etil — also spelled Itil, capital of Khazaria
Euthymios — Greek bishop who visited Kolyek along with his brother Simonos, a hieromonk
Foredya — Magyar nomad who sold Kolyek the card
Francia — France
Gamaliel — son of Laïsha and Kolyek
Gainnis (Greek), Gian (Italian) — John
Gian-Pietro — Greek hieromonk made bishop who started the church in Granitsu
Giannis Chrystostom — (St. John Chrystostom) the “golden-voiced” 4th century saint of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches
Galen — 2nd century Greek anatomist who also attempted to describe the function of the vascular system
Gonashi — Kolyek’s shepherd and neighbor, who lived to the north, toward Pinea
Granitsu — trading town on the right (west) bank of the lower Dnepr
Grom — a lieutenant of Khazar warlord Jackal
Ilyana — Kolyek’s mother
Ingul — a river of southern Ukraine flowing into the Black Sea
Ingulets — a river in southern Ukraine parallel to the Ingul
Itil — also spelled Etil, capital of the Khazar Kaganate
the Jackal — petty Khazar warlord named this story
Kagan — another title for Khan, Knyaz, Prince, King, Ruler, in a sense, Khan of Khans or King of Kings, more title than substance in the first millennium A.D., although, by the ninth century, the Kagan of the Khazars had become exceedingly regal
Khatun — of the Kagan’s many wives, the wife who filled the rôle comparable to a queen in the west
Khazaria — area in southern Russia from the mouth of the Volga and westward into the steppe
Khazars — people of Khazaria, generally thought to be heavily Persian in origin
Ki — ancient Slavic prince for whom Kiev was named
Kiril — Cyril
Kirochi — female patient of Kolyek, briefly mentioned
Kolyei — diminutive or affectionate name for Kolyek
Kolyek — the Slav whose manuscript is the basis of Fire, Wind & Yesterday
Konstantin — Constantine
Konstantinopolis — Constantinople (now Istanbul)
Krim — Crimea or Crimean peninsula on the north side of the Black Sea
Kunedsi — 9th century Varangian prince mentioned in this story
Laïsha — daughter of Khazar trader Vennamar, slave of Derevlian merchant Abru, finally wife of Kolyek
Latchek —Kolyek’s twin brother
Levedia — ancient city in southern Russia
Mefhodi — 9th century monk (Methodius) mentioned in this story, now one of the patron saints of Russia, along with the priest Kiril (Cyril)
Margaronis — Greek logician mentioned in the story
Marhya — Laïsha’s original name, later the name taken by the girl adopted by Laïsha and Kolyek
Matarka — ancient trading city on the south shore of the Sea of Azov
Methodius — Mefhodi
Muzhitsa — wife of Vlatislav, magistrate of Pinea
Myenko — one of Jackal’s band who became loyal to Laïsha and Kolyek
Nagalyeva — widow from Drizha who accompanied the mission from Drizha eastward
Natti — Laïsha’s younger sister, younger than Yarrel
Neman River — westward-flowing river through Lithuania
Nicæa — also spelled Nicea, city in Turkey
Nisi ben Menasseh — Kagan of the Khazars at the time of this story
Obemyn-Chuv — pagan god, protector of prisoners and slaves
Panticapæum — ancient trading city between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea
Patmos — in this story, probably refers to one of the Greek islands of the Dodecanese
Pecheneg — 9th century tribe of the steppe north and east of Khazaria
Pechersk — caves along the Dnepr near Kiev
Perenemansk — village near the Neman River where Kolyek was born
Perun — pagan god of thunder
Peshewar — also spelled Peshawar, trading city in Pakistan
Petros (Greek), Pietro (Italian) — Peter
Photios — Patriarch of the Orthodox church, headquartered in Konstantinopolis
Pinea — 9th century village in the forest south of Kiev
Podil — the sloping riverbank of Kiev
Polotnoy — neighbor to the south of Sadruk and Kolyek, toward Drizha
Polyanian — any 9th century inhabitant of the area west of the Dnepr between Kiev and the Black Sea
Polychrono — monastery of Mefhodi
Pyoss — Russak’s dog
Rastislav — 9th century ruler of Moravia, near present Czech Republic
Raznoy — first son of Abru
Rurik — prince who began ruling Kiev around A.D. 863
Russak — Dregovichian hunter turned fugitive
Sadruk — physician outside Pinea who accepted Kolyek as apprentice
Saint Sophia — here refers to 6th century Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople (Hagia Sophia) built by order of Emperor Justinian I
Sarkel — 9th century city on the lower Don
Sarmatia — name given by 5th century B.C. Greek historian, Herodotus, to what was later Khazaria, also once used to describe all of Russia from the Caspian Sea to the Baltic Sea
Scythian — one who inhabited the steppe north of the Black Sea until the 3rd century B.C. when subdued by the Sarmatians
Semender — the Kagan’s summer home on the Caspian Sea
Shonsak — possibly a pagan god
Shorgat — a lieutenant of Khazar warlord the Jackal
Simonos — Greek monk who visited Kolyek along with his brother Euthymios, a bishop
Sosigenes — Greek astronomer who may have helped design the Julian calendar
Sounion — a promontory on the coast of Greece southeast of Athens
Stallo  — son of the shepherd, Gonashi
Stribog — pagan god of winds
Svarog — pagan god of the blacksmith’s fire
Tabiti — pagan goddess, the Great Mother
Taggia — wife of Drukov
Tangrï — also spelled Tengrï, a pagan god
Tokharian — an extinct east Asian language
Turgey — erstwhile friend of Kolyek and Sadruk
Ukraina — Ukraine
Valkolyak — Kolyek’s father
Varangian — Viking; Varangians/Vikings
Venezia — Venice, Italy
Vennamar — Khazar trader in Etil, father of Laïsha
Vlatislav — magistrate of Pinea
Voronyonok — raven chick found by Russak
Yarrel — Laïsha’s younger sister, older than Natti
Yeshua — Jesus
Yomo — the sow
Zhukin — Kolyek’s uncle, (his mother’s brother)