The Lost, Page 2A. Sparrow
Last spring, two thousand knights and conscripts of King Sobiesk’s army had marched south to join their allies in blunting the Paludin threat. Shattered by a summer of war, the disparate remnants now threaded their way north through the forests and mountains of Karpath. Janos’ contingent was one of the few without a lord to lead them.
Lord Stanis, their liege, had survived their battles only to succumb to the pneumonia that had plagued their number since the retreat from Wien. When no one else showed the slightest inclination to manage the retreat, Janos had become their leader by default. But Janos knew better. The men squabbled at every ford and fork. He was unfit to lead a pack of dogs.
But soon his headaches would end. Before the week was done they would cross the mountains and return to their hearths and plows, lovers and loved ones. Though, Janos had less reason to return than some. He had no wife or mistress. The pox had claimed most of his family when he was small. But it would be nice to see his uncle Voytek, if he still lived. He had seemed hale enough when Janos left last spring, but one never knew who was next to die in this time of plagues.
As de facto leader of this motley contingent, he would first need to report to King Sobiesk’s council. Each day he rehearsed in his head the story of their travails. Who had thought that he, a son of peasants, would one day speak before a council of lords?
But then he would be free to reclaim the family homestead from its caretakers. Put away his sword. Rebuild a life.
He might even find himself a god or two worthy of worship. In desperate times, he had been impressed how the faithful could find hope in the most hopeless situations.
But which one to choose? So many competing beliefs swirled through Pom these days, all of them riddled and saddled with lapses in their logic, moral inconsistencies and inconvenient obligations.
Once he chose his god, he would pray. For King Sobiesk to temper his military ambitions. For the Paludins to remain tethered to and constrained by a tenuous supply line. And for the Zachodin kingdoms to remain entangled in the West. He would pray for peace to whichever god would listen.
The sun crept into a sky of peach and rose. Auspicious, if not for the dark slates of layered cloud sliding down from the north. An ugly troll of a storm hulked over the mountains.
Yet they were so close to home and its promise of reunions and Yuletide feasts. The men knew this and it pushed them to march two leagues farther per day than they had averaged in the early days of the retreat when home still seemed so far away.
Only yesterday, the scouts had spotted the distinctive triple peaks of Mount Rysy, a mountain also visible from the king’s seat on the plains of Pom, only a day’s walk from the villages surrounding the township of Turok, home to most of these men.
But winter was coming. A crown of snow already frosted the highest of the mountains. Janos feared what would befall them in the heights if they didn’t make it over the passes soon.
None had shoes. Most went barefoot. Some protected their soles with sheets of boiled leather strapped to their feet with strips of cloth. Their bed rolls and clothing were as tattered as their flesh.
Wences brought him some folded birch bark with a paste of poached acorns and some of the barley they had bartered from the lake people. He took one look at the boulder Janos perched on and removed a smooth river stone from his pocket, tucking it deep into a crevice. He had placed enough stones and built enough cairns over the past year to cobble all of Turok Common.
Tomas, an archer and veteran of King Sobiesk’s campaigns, looked up from his bed roll and smirked. “And which god do we honor today with this generosity?”
“Whichever,” said Wences, shrugging. “Any and all. Whoever is watching over us at the moment.”
Tomas’ people came from a western region where the influence of the holy men of Eire was strong. “You do realize, there is only one true God.”
“Oh? And which one might that be? Kresnik? Lada? Svarog? Veles?”
Tomas looked at his three cousins and laughed. All were archers. They rarely strayed from each other’s company. And all shared these strange, monotheistic Zachodin beliefs. Though, to Janos, it seemed like the cousins worshipped Tomas.
“Henryk’s found a game path leading into the foothills,” said Wences.
Janos smirked. “I hope it is better than the last trail, the one that doubled back to camp.”
“This one cuts straight to the north like a dagger,” said Wences. “Deep into the mountains. Henryk found fresh scat. The beasts must use it to migrate from the high meadows. So there may be good hunting as well. What more can we ask?”
Janos shrugged. “Send the scouts ahead while we break camp.”
The men packed quickly. They carried few belongings. Weapons mostly. Axes, pikes, bows, swords. Bed rolls of tattered oil cloth and woolen blankets. Their haversacks were nearly empty. The battlefield stalemate meant few spoils. They had little to show for their efforts but stories and scars. But they had answered the call of their elderly king, and duty fulfilled was reward enough for some.
As they started along the path, the clouds closed overhead like a curtain. Light rain began to fall. A chill settled over the column. Walking, at least, kept them warm. Steam rose from their leathers.
Looking at these men, Janos couldn’t help but think what a sorry picture they would make on the streets of Turok. There was little to distinguish them from a routed army. The townsfolk might mistake them for a gang of beggars. Their battered shields and nicked blades should suggest otherwise, but nothing about their bearing indicated their bravery.
Few bore serious wounds because the worst injured had been left behind at a lake town. A small garrison would protect them and the lake folk from the probes of Paludin horsemen. In return, the lake folk had given them a cozy barn and all the smoked fish and spelt they would need to pass the winter.
As Wences had promised, the narrow game path stabbed straight up into the hills. The men marched in single file. The understory dense with deadfalls, this was a forest that had never been cut or burned.
Hours they walked, without stopping to rest, heading ever upward. Spruces and pines now dominated the hardwoods. They passed so many great and godly trees and boulders that Wences quit making offerings. Janos wondered if it thrilled or distressed him to be walking amidst such a mob of potential deities.
A cry rang out at the head of the column. Wences sprang ahead. Janos followed close on his heels. A panicked scout sprinted back to meet them.
“Henryk took an arrow!”
“Tribesmen!” Janos wheeled around and faced the column. “Unsheathe your blades! Raise your pikes! Spread and advance on this hill!”
The men shoved their way into the tangled forest and climbed. Their only resistance came from the undergrowth. They found Henryk lying on a ledge, a stout arrow fletched with boar bristles protruding from his ribs. He was breathing rapidly. Bright arterial blood gushed from his mouth and nose. He was not long for this life.
Janos knelt beside him, took his hand and gazed into his eyes. He wanted to tell Henryk that the wound wasn’t as bad as it looked, though it was obvious to all that it was as grave as an arrow strike can be. Henryk moved his lips but his eyes went milky and his lids drooped before he could find his voice.
“There!” said Wences, perched at the edge of a bluff. He pointed into the ravine.
Janos rushed over in time to see a small band of tribesmen clad in furs crossing a stream. Two of the men carried a boar carcass trussed to a carry stick.
“We must have startled them on the trail,” said Janos.
“Bastards! They gave us no trouble on our march south.”
“We were an army then … with knights. Now that we are fewer and weaker, they are not so shy.”
“Why harm us? They know we come to fight the Paludins. Would they rather those devils sack their villages?”
“They know nothing of Paludins. They only know t
hese hills. And they have mouths to feed. They were just protecting their kill. It was a lucky arrow that caught Henryk.”
“Luck? I think not,” said Tomas. “These mountain men are too skilled with a bow.”
The men scratched through the leaf litter and buried Henryk in the steaming loam beneath. Wences muttered a brief oath to the gods. They moved on, now as thirty seven.
The rain changed to snow as they pressed deeper into the foothills. Janos kept his scouts closer to the main body. This would give them less warning of threats but would leave the scouts less exposed.
The snow intensified as they left the last of the hardwoods and climbed into a forest of pure spruce. Snow obscured the game trail and rendered it impossible to follow.
“We’ll never make the pass today,” said Wences. “Not in this weather.”
“Those mountains, they looked so close from the lake.”
“The hills deceive. Climb one and it seems a new one sprouts in your path.”
Another scout came running back, eyes intent, filled with a mix of fascination and fear.
“We found a dwelling. A great house.”
“Nay. Too fine for that lot.”
“Neither. Living trees penetrate the thatch. The walls are sheathed with polished planking. Seamless. And they bulge, bowing outward. It looks like a giant mushroom.”
Janos looked to Wences, who could only shrug.
“I suggest we make a wide berth. Avoid trouble.”
“Shelter would be welcome on a day like this.”
“On this side of the mountains, I wouldn’t expect much hospitality.”
“The folk on the lake were friendly.”
“But these are the mountains. Only outlaws and barbarians dwell here. Men of peace don’t choose to live in wilderness.”
“How well is it defended?”
“No sign of any watch,” said the scout. “Could be hiding. But there’s no stockade. Just a loose circle of stones. God stones.”
Janos looked at Wences. “Could it be a temple … of the hill tribes?”
The scout shook his head. “Nah. Once you see it, you will know. It’s nothing the tribesmen could build.”
Janos sighed. “Form up the men. Pikes at the fore. Swords in support. Bows on the flanks. We’re going up.”
“We shall storm it?”
“Perhaps. We will announce ourselves and see what happens. Better to confront them now on our terms than face an ambush later. With all the tracks we are leaving, we have no chance of slipping past this redoubt un-noticed. So let us make ourselves known. If they threaten us, we take them down.”
Janos had no desire to fight. He only wished to pass unmolested. But sometimes aggression was the best defense.
Wences went back into the column and passed the word. The men grumbled, but Janos sensed a grim determination to get beyond this latest obstacle between them and their homecoming.
Janos watched as Wences herded ten pikers into position with half again as many swordsmen just behind them. Two gaggles of archers, evenly divided, formed up on each flank.
The men waited for Janos to give the word.
“Go!” he said.
They stalked up the hillside, slow and deliberate, weaving through the trees, clambering over and under deadfalls. There was no opportunity for stealth. Their struggles with the underbrush made them sound like an entire army. Janos hoped the noise alone would panic the occupants into fleeing.
He stayed with the swordsmen but kept his own weapon sheathed. As they topped the slope, he caught glimpses of the strange building through the thick boles of the spruces. The wooden dome with its thick thatch of lake reeds was unlike any construction he had ever seen on either side of the mountains. Billows of smoke worthy of an iron forge poured out of its chimney.
Three horses roamed free on the terrace, scraping hooves in the snow to expose clumps of grass. They were haughty beasts, snorting at the warriors' approach, not cowed in the slightest.
As the ring of god stones came into view, Janos thought they looked familiar.
“Did we not camp here last spring?” said Janos. “I seem to remember a glade like this, with a stone circle and the same monstrous trees.”
“Aye,” said Tomas, the senior man among the archers. “I took lunch on that very ledge.”
“Could be,” said Wences, taking a river stone from his pocket and placing it at the base of a particularly ancient spruce.
“Wences, assemble a small party of men-at-arms to accompany me. I plan to call at the door. Let’s see if anyone is home … and if so … announce our passage.”
“I say we burn them out,” said Marek, one of Tomas’ cousins.
“Safer that way,” said Tomas, nodding.
“Would it not be good to know if we are dealing with friend or foe before we do anything so rash?”
“A friend, I assure you.” A burly man stepped out from behind a tree. Swords clattered out of hilts. Several of the pike men swung around to face the man. “Welcome!”
He spoke the language of the lowlands like a native of Pom, though with his blunt nose and broad cheekbones, he looked nothing like a plainsman. He had a long, silvery beard, contrasting starkly with his creased and tanned face. Not a single hair marred the top of his ruddy dome. Snowflakes melted when they struck. Rivulets of melt water trickled down his cheeks like tears.
“What are you doing here old man? Aren’t you a long way from Pom?”
“Pom is not as far as you think. And … I am not from the plains.”
“Where are you from, then? You don’t look like a hillsman.”
“I am from everywhere and nowhere in particular.”
Janos exchanged a puzzled glance with Wences.
“This … house. Is it yours?”
“We built it. But it is for travelers like you. Those who respect the forest.” He winked at Wences and nodded at the river stone tucked among the snowy buttresses of an aged spruce.
“An inn? Here? In the wilderness? Whoever comes this way?”
“More than you might think. There are few ways for men to pass through these mountains.”
A meaty aroma, pungent with garlic and onion wafted with the breeze.
“Any chance ... you might spare a bit of your broth? My men haven’t eaten a hot meal in days.”
“Of course. You are our guests. We have been expecting you.” He walked straight into a thicket of lowered pikes. The pikers yielded like rushes in the wind.
Janos followed after him and nodded to his men to do the same.
“Sir! What is your name?”
The man tossed a glance over his shoulder and grinned as he strode barefoot through the snow. “I am called many things. Daba the lame. Dazbog. Zaria calls me Dodzi. I am happy with that.”
“Dazbog?” said Wences. “The giver god?”
Dodzi shrugged. “I am what I am. No more. No less. Not a god. Not a man. I am here for you. I expect you all to stay the night with us. No worries. We have plenty of room. A storm like this is deadly for men, especially in the heights. Inside, we have a roaring hearth and lofts heaped with rushes. Enough dry wood to burn for a week. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. Re-gather your strength. One night, four, it doesn’t matter, we are happy to accommodate you.”
“What price do you ask?”
“Nothing. We offer this food and shelter as a gift. It is what we do, Zaria and I.”
“Please, let us repay you,” said Janos. “We can chop wood, hunt for game.”
Dodzi turned and looked straight and deep into Janos’ eyes, transfixing him with a steely glare that seemed to cut right through him.
“If you insist on a price, my price is peace. Give up your warring. Learn to live with each other in this great world. There is room enough for all of you if you steward it well.”
“It is not up to us,
” said Wences. “We do the bidding of our liege.”
“Well, maybe it should be the other way around, don’t you think?”
Wences started through the door, but Dodzi barred his way with his stout forearm.
“Please. You are welcome inside, but abandon your weapons at the door.”
The men filed into the warm chamber, stacking their pikes and swords just outside the entrance.
The archer cousins—Tomas, Marek, Georg and Piotr—hovered at the threshold.
“What’s wrong?” said Janos. “Go inside. Get warm.”
“How did you know we were coming?” said Tomas, squinting.
“The children told us,” said Dodzi. “They go everywhere about this wood and report what good and bad they see. They seemed to like you all. Your men don’t kill for the sake of killing. They respect tree and stone and pond.”
Tomas scrunched his brow. “You let your children run free in this storm, with wolves and tribesmen about?”
Dodzi chortled. “They are not my children. They belong to the wood. Wolves and tribesmen are no more threat to them than salamanders. They have been here longer than there have been men or gods in this world.”
A frigid wind swirled around the doorway and penetrated Janos’ cloak.
“Come inside, Tomas,” said Janos. “It won’t kill you to step inside and get warm.”
“Let us fetch you some bread and stew while you decide whether to accept our hospitality.” Dodzi strode off to the hearth and cauldrons where men were already ladling out portions and dunking chunks of crusty bread.
The cousins looked at each other. Tomas bit his lip and stepped through the entrance but would pass no farther into the chamber. Naturally, his cousins did the same.
The other men showed no such reservations, crowding around the hearth, peeling off their sodden leggings and foot wraps, laying them to dry, steaming on the warm stone. They were raucous with cheer.
Footsteps, quick and numerous, pattered through the lofts overhead. Tomas flinched and raised his bow. A woman, lithe and tall came stepping down a ladder of birches. Her age was difficult to judge, her brow deeply creased, her eyes confident and mature, but her body retained the curves and contours of youth. Threads of silvery gray accented her honey-blonde hair.
“This must be Zaria,” whispered Wences.
The men’s eyes clung to her every swaying step as she drifted through the chamber, bare feet padding lightly on the timbers. She came to Janos and handed him an elegant ceramic flask with fluted sides. “For the men,” she said. “To share.”