Nikopol 25 and 26 September 1396
The Polish knight Swantoslaus lay panting on the northern bank of the Danube. Rolling over, he looked in wonder at his bleeding hand and noted the missing fingers where the axe had struck. Raising himself, he looked back. In the river, men were drowning. On the far bank men had thrown away their weapons and were on their knees in sign of surrender. Those, who had decided early that the battle was lost and taken all the small boats from the southern shore, had departed. He was the only man to swim the great river and survive.
Not that he had intended to swim the thousand yards. Like others, running in panic from the Serbs and Turks, he had dived into the muddy fast flowing river, only to find himself hampered by breastplate, gauntlets and heavy sword. Ridding himself of the metal, he had passed a test that many failed. He had swum, pursued by arrows, to the side of the last departing galley. With his famous strength he had driven his body out of the water to clasp a rope and drag himself up the side, only to put his hands on the rail, for a fellow Christian to drag him to safety. But the boat was overloaded and as soon as his hand grasped the rail, a fellow Christian had brought his holy axe down, severing the Pole’s fingers. The flash of pain was lost in the struggle to survive, to avoid other drowning men and strike out for the safer shore.
Carrion prepared for the great feast. From the air they could sense the concentration of bodies, a mass near the river below the cliffs and the two castles; a stream of bodies up along the steep road; away to right and left the tented city of the crusaders was full of looters, a further stream of bodies, leading up the hill to a ravine full of wooden spikes and disemboweled horses; to further piles of corpses on the plain; a little further and wheel away back for here the feast ended, for the mass of the living victorious had surrounded the surviving defeated.
On the ground the victorious Sultan Bayezid the Thunderbolt rued the cost of his victory, though thanked Allah that the leaders of the mighty Crusading army had quarreled and their quarrel had split their army in two. Up on the hill, the arrogant French and their leaders were now his prisoners. Down below the Hungarians were hemmed against the river with no escape. As he rode towards the Crusader’s camp, he learnt that the Hungarian King, Sigismund, had got away, along with the grand master of the knights of St John, Philibert de Nailllac, on the last Venetian galley. In the camp he wondered at the richness of the loot, the finery of the clothes, and the delicacy of the food. These crusaders deserved contempt, coming to war as if it were a holiday feast.
He also learnt that the day before battle, all Turkish and Bulgarian hostages had been slaughtered. He pondered the fate of these innocent people, taken for ransom from the upriver town of Oriahova that had surrendered to the Crusaders a few weeks earlier.
The next day he decreed that the two thousand prisoners taken in battle should queue before his executioners and lose their heads. Only the very rich and very young would be spared, for he was both calculating and merciful.
Up the hill, unnoticed as yet by corpse robbers, a French knight lay close to death. His name was Gilles Guiton and he came from the village of Carnet on the Normandy Brittany border. He would lie with his smashed shoulder, broken ribs and deep leg wounds for a further day, behind a dead horse, before a Bulgarian woman called Maria Iskra found him. This same woman would appear in Normandy, in the court of the English warrior-king Henry V, some twenty five years later.
The Polish Knight Swantoslaus found his way home across hostile lands. His height and strength brought wonder in the meager villages he passed. They gave him food and dared not attack him. He spread the legend of the Pole who had swum the Danube in full armour. But on that day he cried. He cried not for his mangled hand, but for the fate of the greatest army he had ever seen, an army that should have been invincible, an army riven by the arrogance and licentiousness of its leaders.
Maria Iskra never found her way home, but her story is worth the telling. Insofar as it is a story, it most resembles the scattering of stone beads on a barn floor, most disappearing into corners and through cracks in the floorboards.
30 September 1396
Blessed Mary, spark of my kindling soul! ………..Mother…..Gashed and gored, gored and …..Hot and pricked ……straw beneath, burning.
I am burning like a bogomil – one of theirs – a Bulgar, bougre, bogomil. Light streams from Heaven, but hidden from me. Over and over in my head. Mary mother of God!
She looked at him in the flickering candle light. He was shaking with the fever, flushed and so young, troubled and confused – muttering prayers to Marie the mother of God; Maria her own name.
The priest in the corner stirred. She had thought he had been asleep. Slowly he pushed himself forward to look at the wounded man.
“Holy Mother of God!” he muttered and shook his head.
A door opened and Baba Kera came, wreathed in steam – new poultices for the wounds. The poor boy was moaning in anticipation, but she must change the dressings, clean the wounds and let the herbs she had gathered do their work.
The old woman put down the steaming bowl and waited while Maria Iskra prepared him, talking to him gently all the while – half singing a fragment of a song:
“Mad boy, beautiful and young” – she sang it over and over.
Tenderly she looked at his naked body – so fragile, deeply bruised about the ribs, as if he had been trampled by horses. This made his breathing so painfully arduous. Lower, she uncovered the deep gash in his upper thigh where a scimitar had glanced off his upraised shield and bitten deep to the bone. To the left around the broken arrow shaft in the lower thigh, the wound was continuing to fester. Soon, Isaac said, they could try to draw the arrow out. Finally, she began the long careful process of unwrapping the splints about his left shoulder.
His upper torso lifted forward, he seemed insensible with his eyes open. Baba Kera propped him up with bolsters from the back while she cradled his head in her hefty forearm.
As the final bandaging fell away he moaned and began to shake – his breath coming and going in harsh intervals. Once again she tried him with the Italian phrases she knew, as with careful urgency she washed the ugly smashed shoulder, replaced the splint and wrapped fresh linen about it.
Baba Kera took the strain as he sank back onto the bed. Suddenly, he was looking at Maria. He seemed terrified for a long second as though memory and comprehension prevailed. But then his eyeballs rolled and he began to mutter again in the language Isaac was sure was French.
She looked across to Father Matko to give her hope, but he was asleep. Would the young man die before she even knew his name? This was the young man who had saved her life – she was sure – before the battle. And would she now be unable to return the favour? He had looked so sprightly the first time she had seen him in the camp, and now his body reminded her of a tiny icon of Saint Sebastian, her father had shown her – bought from Italy. Like the saint, he was terribly hurt and yet overpoweringly handsome.
There was no knock or even approaching footsteps. The door opened and closed. It was Isaac.
“Only me” he said softly – so as not to wake Father Matko and risk a scandal. “Ay yi!” he breathed, as he sat on the bed, searching the young man’s countenance.
“Well, well,” he said at length. “He’s living.” He glanced up. “Kera! Bring boiled hot water and put irons in the fire. We’ll get the arrow head out before the boy dies of the rot”.
As Kera busied herself about the fire, Isaac drew from inside his jerkin a dagger with such a long thin blade, that it was a marvel how it could be used without breaking.
“Spanish steel,” he remarked. “From Toledo – it will do.” He turned to her, “Iskra…” – it was her favoured name. “Put this in the boiling water.” She handled it with care – such a murderous looking weapon with strange signs carved into the handle and a snake twined round the guard. “Worth a pretty penny,” he continued. “The Italians call it stiletto. Good for getting into tight places. They learnt this in Portugal, I hear from my brethren. A big battle and lots of knights unhorsed. When your knight falls flat on his back, he’s as helpless as an upturned tortoise, then a little man can creep up and with this long thin blade……..But I am upsetting you my dear. Your knight is safe. For him the stiletto will do good. Now; light more candles.”
Minutes later and Father Matko was awakened by the shrill screaming of a soul in hell. And in the huddle of bodies on the bed lit by an anguished Baba Kera holding a candlestick with three lit candles was Isaac the Jew, side by side with Maria Iskra, straining to keep the victim down.
Father Matko half raised himself in his chair to denounce this devil’s work, but, realising that the business was about the arrow head, he sank back. He contented himself with the observation “God will decide”. He had already argued with Maria Iskra on this point. Her lamentable lack of faith had led to prayer being supplanted by the daily content of Isaac’s bag.
He sniffed. Yes, even now they were brewing some devilish stew.
The young man’s wails were becoming more intense. It was time to go. A muttered blessing was barely noticed by the two on the bed and only just acknowledged by a hasty glance from Kera.
Outside he blinked in the full moon reflected in the puddles. Drawing his cloak about him, he began a heavy walk through the mud across the compound to the cottage close by the wooden church, built by Maria’s father, the Boyar Ivan – God rest his soul, wherever his body was. Beyond the fence a fox barked and sheep bleated in alarm. From inside the house he had left came a loud response that seemed to quiet nature itself. Father Matko shook his head. Nothing good could come of this. As he entered the cottage he felt the emptiness, the lack of a wife dead for two years. The autumn chill had begun and he busied himself about the fireplace. He was expecting a visitor later that night.
The arrow head had lodged close to the main artery. It required a long patient procedure to remove it. All the while she used her weight to pin him as he moaned and whined. She whispered words of encouragement into his ear – one time, a string of nursery rhymes; and then phrases in Italian; then lines from songs.
Isaac muttered and grumbled to himself the while, probing with the stiletto, edging the barbed arrow head towards freedom – every move of the arrow head brought a cry from the knight and a convulsive heave.
Baba Kera’s arms were aching. Every scream marked the moment where she moved the candlestick from one hand to the other. Every movement of the light brought a string of curses from Isaac. She should have been a statue. The poor boy was suffering. At last with a further gush of blood and pus the arrow head was shifted and the red hot iron was applied. The knight was so exhausted that a moan replaced the expected scream. Isaac peered closely at the gaping hole, the burnt flesh and then at the other wound on the right thigh. Pulling his bag up the bed, he dipped his hands into a cheesecloth sack and between his fingers were writhing maggots.
What was he doing now to the poor boy? Alerted by the old woman’s gasp, Iskra looked back from her knight’s face at what Isaac was doing. A wave of nausea hit her and she barely controlled it.
“They will clean the wounds, Iskra, eat away the decay prevent the rotting of the flesh. These too are God’s creatures. They have their uses.”
It was difficult. She remembered finding the rotting meat in the pantry swarming with maggots and flies and that same morning her mother crying out with the stomach cramps from the feast of the day before. How could this be good?
“They only eat the rotten meat, Iskra. All is good,” he repeated. Then he lifted himself from the bed. “Ay I am tired. Have you got a bed for me?…… and not with that priest! He’ll curse me for an unbelieving witch.”
Baba Kera was dispatched grumbling to fetch more straw and woollen fleeces to make up a bed on the opposite bench. Two men were in the house now – and one with the twinkle in his eye that meant manly vigour. She would not sleep a wink that night.
In the cottage a hundred yards away, across a table with two wooden cups, Father Matko faced his visitor, who unknown as yet to Maria Iskra, had sought lodging with her priest. Only next morning, she would see his horse tethered to the church fence.
Yanko drank deep of the sharp red wine and cursed his cousin’s wayward foolishness. How typical of Maria Iskra to risk all in this way! So much her father’s daughter – full of hair-brained schemes – always with westerners. Much good did it do him! The Boyar Ivan – his corpse would have reached Ruschuk by now. “No!” He stopped Father Matko in mid- prayer. “No ‘God rest his soul,’ Father. He gave his family little rest.” The Boyar Ivan – killed by the very people he set so much store by – what irony – and now Maria harbouring this French knight. “A French knight! – fuck his old mother – Sorry Father but these French knights who thought themselves so invincible that they could ride off and beat the Turkish Sultan on their own. You know now what happened – leaving the rest trapped against the Danube when united they could have made a stand and driven the Turks from these lands. Fuck all their mothers. What news? Bayezid has taken Vidin. Our Tsar is packed off to Bursa to be strangled. The richest French knights are stripped and sent marching south bewailing their beheaded companions. The King is on the sea by now on his way to plead for help to save his own kingdom for the Turks are already in Hungary. And I Father, I have to attend the newly arrived Bey to hear of the new order.”
And so deep into the night, the sour wine was interrupted by spluttering outbursts while Father Matko drank sparingly and murmured phrases designed to instil patience.
10 September 1396
Two weeks before the battle of Nikopol
Up the cobbled streets, the Boyar Ivan hastened towards his home. He had seen and heard enough. How stupid! To be caught and penned like lambs on St George’s Eve! – huddling together in sight of the butcher sharpening his knife. He swerved to avoid a crowd of children running down towards the walls to get a better view. He raised his hand to his neighbour, in a gesture that discouraged chatter. Reuben hardly noticed him anyway, as he stood arms extended to the sky, silently crying out his disappointment to the clouds. Past the goats and chickens, closed doors and shutters muffling women’s tearful cries, he looked back over his shoulder at the narrow view of the river, over the harbour walls, and the strange sight of war galleys, newly arrived from down river obscuring the water’s orange sunset glint.
He turned his face back up the shadowy street, towards his house as it still stood, close to the church whose bell had been tolling all day, as if to remind the crusaders that despite its small Turkish garrison, this was a Christian town. Stupid, stupid fool! – he almost shouted it in the muzzle of the tethered bear that, abandoned by his master, swayed from side to side by a dark entrance. The very day, he had marked as the day of departure; was the day the first soldiers had arrived. His daughter, Maria Iskra, had urged him to leave earlier, to get away from this trap town to hills of safety but he had insisted there was time enough. He had so much business to transact out on the wharves and warehouses, making sure his goods were transported down river. Crusaders had been moving at a tortoise speed – and he thought them gone inland towards Belogradchik. But three mornings ago, the vanguard had arrived waving French flags and attacked. With the advantage of surprise they should have prevailed but the Turks had held the moat bridge.
Three days of attack and attack; the main body of the crusaders had arrived. He could see King Sigismund’s standard, amid a sea of tents from his roof. And then that day, the Venetian galleys had glided into view. Any goods he had not got away, in these stupid frantic days of hard bargains, would be lost as the harbour mouth was blocked.
The Turks should surrender. But they knew they were doomed and so had fought with desperate heroism for three days against mounting odds. The Christian and Jewish merchants now planned to open the side-wall gates and attack the Turks from the rear. They had sent messages to King Sigismund, pleading for guarantees the town would be spared. But the messengers reported back that the king had no control. The Boyar Ivan doubted the Crusaders’ appetite for Christian mercy.
Looting, rape, massacre and burning – four words he kept from Maria Iskra, his only child – and sole companion since her mother had died ten years before. He looked at her, as she stood anxiously waiting by the courtyard gateway. She was too pretty. He must cut her hair and bind her breasts, put her in a lad’s clothes and dirty her cheeks and jaw. He must hold her close, for when the Crusaders broke into their house, they must think her the son of a rich man and them both worth keeping alive.
From the deck of the Venetian galley, Brother Gilles de Guiton, knight of the Hospital, stood with Eugene and Lawrence, gaping at the first sight of the invincible crusading army. At the head they easily picked out the French knights, riding back and forth – the pride of chivalry – among the already pitched tents. Beyond, the march of arriving foot soldiers seemed to stretch for a mile. A skiff was lowered for the Grand Master and they made out from their standards Jean de Nevers and King Sigismund on horseback waiting his arrival on the near bank.
Lawrence seemed overwhelmed. Eugene was squinting – hoping to catch a glimpse of Boucicault. Gilles felt a tightening of his chest. O world! O life! – O promise of that day! This was glorious – a moment, thank God, that in a lifetime he could be part of this.
That evening they had gained permission to go ashore. Eugene was seeking his kinsman, Reynaud le Roy. The French had set up their camp close to the barges. On the bank above a convenient jetty, trestle tables were set with roast meats, flagons of wine and plates piled high with peaches.
Gilles had not been prepared for the number of women by the tables – not only serving the food, but sitting among the men and eating as well – some bareheaded in their immodesty – all wearing bright loose clothes. Eager to greet the first French knights he could find, he had to push through these women who seemed to behave with the same familiarity with everyone – shouting out names, demanding to know who he was and whom he knew and whom he sought.
Eugene was clearly upset and muttered an oath at one woman who put herself in his way.
“Whores!” he shouted to Gilles. “Filthy whores!”
They found themselves on a track between brightly coloured tents. Squires were carrying trays to the great men who lounged in groups outside. The air was still and hot and humid.
“Knights of the Hospital!” shouted a man with long fair hair. “You are welcome. We saw you arrive.”
“Good to stretch your legs, eh?” His companion turned towards them. “It must have been a long trip.”
“Come!” called a third. “You want a drink? You are allowed that pleasure at least. The wine’s not French but it’s not bad.”
Eugene lost his scowl in an instant, introduced his companions and asked for his cousin – a squire was dispatched. They all squatted down to share the flagon of wine that passed from hand to hand. Their new friends laughed to see the red liquid run down their chins. “You have not had good wine for a while,” observed the fair haired man. They introduced themselves without formality or titles – Jean, Henri and Georges.
Jean was winding a bandage about his gashed hand. “Three days hard battle, but we’ll get in tomorrow. Then there will be some hot work and slow vengeance.”
“The French must be the first,” cried Georges. “You new lot must know the situation between our lords and masters.”
“Pray tell,” said Eugene.
“Sigismund is craven – friend to the schismatics, the Turks even. It is because of him, we have seen no action as yet. He’s probably trying to negotiate another bloodless surrender. Luckily we got here first with Boucicault and we hold the bridge and first tower now. Whatever happens there will be blood tomorrow.”
“I hear the town is mostly Christian,” Brother Lawrence interposed.
“All sorts – it’s a Danube trading port. If it’s anything like Vidin, it will have all sorts – but mostly Bulgars.”
“Bulgars, bougres!” Eugene spat this out with surprising venom. “It was from these lands that the poison of Cathar heresy first travelled towards our lands.”
“Pitch in!” ordered Jean as puff cheeked squires brought trays of roast chicken and root vegetables.
“Here we live like kings. This country is generous,” said Henri
“Generous with its women, too, it seems,” observed Eugene with a twitch of the lips the company ignored.
“Ah the women!”
“Dark eyed lovelies!”
“They take us for a ride.”
“A jiggy jig jig!”
“But such a ride!”
“Hey” Henri leant forward. “Don’t you get ensnared. Remember your vows! Still God forgives the occasional slip – and what the Master does not see, the skin of your back won’t suffer for.”
Eugene was about to speak. Gilles felt hot and he saw Lawrence’s face bright red. He was grateful for the next interruption – a tall man who, by his features, he guessed to be Eugene’s cousin, Reynaud.
Eugene rose to clasp his kinsman and kiss him on both cheeks. Henri grunted at this affecting scene and cutting a cucumber into thirds passed the pieces to Gilles and Lawrence.
“So you sailed down the Turkish throat. Did you see any action?”
“None.” Gilles remembered seeing bands of horsemen on either side of the narrow channels before they reached Byzantium; but nothing more.
“So they held off – the shitted cowards! Just watched you sail by. Did you pop off the boats to drink a bevy with the eastern Emperor?”
“The Master went in a small boat to report to him but he did not stay long. They have great hopes of us.”
“A mighty city.”
Gilles nodded. The chicken tasted good. They had passed Byzantium in the night and all he had seen were thousands of flickering lights high in the sky.
“A boring voyage though, I expect,” said Jean. “I’m glad I’m not a soldier that has to sail.” He poured out cups of wine and squatted beside them on the dry cracked earth.
“I aim to see the whole world on this jaunt,” said Henri through a mouthful of bread.
“Once we deal with Bayezid, the world is open through to Byzantium all the way to Jerusalem itself – what a pilgrimage!” added Reynaud as he joined them with Eugene.
“Bayezid, the Thunderbolt! I hear he’s drizzling somewhere in Asia.”
“Sweating in fear, more like.”
“Our so called allies think all we are doing is protecting the Christian Kingdoms, but I say – and so does Marshall Boucicault – never in the history of the world has such an elite fighting force been assembled.” They all looked at Reynaud as he said this. “We are an unstoppable force!” The companions murmured and drank the sun down. In the dregs of his copper drinking cup, Gilles saw minarets on fire and the great dome of Jerusalem.
The next day they attacked Oriahova and his connexion with Maria Iskra had its first sputtering light. From afar, Oriahova was a small walled trading post. They had seen it from the river on the way up and marked it as an apple easily picked. Earlier, ironically they had observed that Nikopol had seemed a more difficult proposition.
That night before the attack, Eugene, still suffering from the heavy drinking, was easily persuaded to stay on land, his brother Hospitalers with him. The Marquis had told them that the French knights would start early in the morning. By the time the “sluggish Hungarians” and their “Walachian coward friends” were awake, French power would triumph and Oriahova be taken.
Gilles slept that night but little. He was missing the lap of waters and was kept awake by raucous shouts and a crying woman close by. He would see action in the morning.
23 September 1396
Two days before the battle of Nikopol
A merciful breeze blew up that morning. Gilles walked with Eugene skirting the river reed beds, passed boys running with jars to gather water from above the camp. There were tents and shelters as far as could be seen on the lower slopes. They veered left to avoid a Walachian squatting by the reeds, supporting his shaking form on his spear. They walked up a broad track towards the French encampment.
He was impressed again by the colour of the French tents – even in the smoky squalor of the five day camp! He pointed out the gay pennants flying from the marquees of Jean the Fearless, of Marshall Boucicault, of de Coucy and the other grandees – pitched up-wind of the latrine channels. They were close to but up-wind also from the prisoner pens, where, exposed to the elements, the prisoners captured at Oriahova lay or sat hardly talking, staring ahead, but as if with no hope of ransom appearing over the tented horizon.
Eugene stopped at the fence – and Gilles too – not far from two of the guards who barely acknowledged their presence. From the prisoners there was no movement or interest, until suddenly a boy got shakily to his feet and, picking up a wooden cup, walked unsteadily towards them.
Gilles had wanted to leave; but Eugene lingered with, a speculative smile on his lips. It was a smile that Gilles had lately begun to learn the meaning of and it disturbed him. He looked at the boy – a pretty lad, he thought, in spite of his dirty clothes, his pallor. No wispy beard appeared as yet and his longish hair was tied back from his face.
Eugene turned and winked. “A pretty bird caught in our cage!” He turned towards Gilles and puckered his lips into the form of an obscene kiss.
The boy faltered, stranded now between the huddled group of prisoners and the fence. Eugene beckoned.
“You want water boy? Come on over here. Come on!” He turned to Gilles – a previous declaration had made him embarrassingly bold – “A girly boy! God I love brave firm girly boys! But” – as an afterthought – “I like them better fed.”
This new frankness from his brother monk was shocking, but as he saw the boy stand irresolute, he called out himself.
“Here, come here! I’ll get you water.” He moved away from Eugene, down the fence, towards the guards and the water barrel. The boy followed. Gilles picked up a discarded wine jar from previous nights’ revels and sank it into the tepid water. Hoisting it over to the boy across the fence, holding its weight till he was sure the boy had a firm hold, their eyes had met and their hands had touched. It was surely at Christ’s command. The boy had murmured thanks and again their eyes had met.
Eugene spoke of little else that afternoon, plotting how he could get his hands on the boy. In his imagination, he even created a character for him – that of a naughty novice – a boy needing correction and fatherly care.
Gilles had tolerated his companion’s more muted fantasies in the past – but now felt disquiet at the prospect of his being made an accomplice in an abominable debauch. Something had happened at Oriahova that had emboldened Eugene – that and the impending threat of a great battle.
Eugene, as always, had been unaware of Gilles’ reaction. Never had Eugene’s lips seemed plumper never had his stubby hands formed so many lascivious shapes.
“We must find a way of getting him out. Bribe the guards? A slim lad like that would not be missed. I would only be borrowing him. Trouble is…” – here he turned his head. “They’ll know why I want him and charge me the earth.” He pursed his lips. “And then how to keep him safe….away from suspicious eyes. Oh God help us!”
Eugene’s face twisted in disgust as from out of a nearby tent lurched a half dressed woman – her eyes searching for the latrine ditch. Gilles stared at her bared breasts while Eugene clucked in disapproval.
“Eyes out on stalks – for a filthy whore gypsy woman. You’re like the rest of our French knights. More interested in fucking than fighting for God.”
As they moved away, Eugene began again his plan of abduction and enjoyment.
“I couldn’t get him on to the boat. I couldn’t do anything in the camp – at least not round here. And those Walachians: they’re such steeped sodomites, they’d probably kill me for him.”
“Oh Mary!” he said after a silence that Gilles felt no temptation to break. “Life is so short and brutal, we must grab our beauty and pleasure where and when we can, then enjoy the memory. There’s no way I can keep the boy and look after him. A pity …in other times…I’d feed him sweets from the pantry and watch his cheeks plump up.” He sighed, “Now if we were back in Rhodes!”
Gilles looked quickly at him. He realised how little he had known Eugene in Rhodes and had heard no rumours.
“You mean you…?”
“Oh yes….Oh yes….” Eugene practically purred. “A lot can go on outside the hospital walls.”
“But your vows!” Gilles blurted, and then felt a fool. How many days had he lived by this camp of utter depravity and not said a word?
Eugene paused. “My dear Gilles, I have vowed chastity – and believe me – that was no wrench – to even contemplate the body of a woman is enough to make me vomit. No I hold to the wisdom of the Greeks – you’ve read the Greeks?”
“Well your stay in Rhodes has certainly been wasted. The Greek philosophers and warriors too spoke of the value to civilization of love between generations of men.” Eugene placed the tips of his fingers beneath his chin – as if contemplating the wisdom of the Greeks.
A shout from behind disturbed his reverie and they stepped aside to allow a squadron of sappers with spades pass by – a belated effort to mine the walls of Nikopol fortress.
“Our oaths are to protect captives and prisoners too,” Gilles protested.
“Well our Father Prior has you schooled in every response and I am sorry to find my bosom companion such a prude. You certainly let me prattle about the sailors on the voyage.” He sighed.
“I can see Gilles,” he continued. “Our friendship will be short lived. A pity! For you are a pretty fellow. I will tell you just this. These prisoners are not ours and the way things are, they will not be long among the living. You can be sure that the boy and the rest will have their throats cut and their bodies dumped down river before long. The Turk is on the way and Boucicault will not want men tied up looking after prisoners whose worth in ransom is hardly high. Most of them are Bulgarians.”
“Christians and allies!”
“Schismatics and heretics! But I don’t make the rules.” He stopped and turned around. “No, I mean to have that boy – protect him if I can – though I doubt I can – but at least he will have tasted of manly love and the pleasure of knowing me. You know I can be very tender.”
Gilles watched him stride back towards the French encampment. “Better a millstone round the neck of the man that plotted harm to these little ones.” He remembered the youth’s look of gratitude, how he had then tottered unaided to the group of passive prisoners and that his first solicitude had been for a prostrate old man, pressing the cup to his listless lips.
“Drink Father.” It was to be the last meaningful interchange Maria Iskra had with her father. Iskra stared out over the gashed earth through tears. For that whole day her father had surrendered his energy and retired into himself. Four days of marching and two weeks in the camp he had kept spirits up. Throughout, he had sought to shield her. Her flattened breasts were hidden under a long ragged upper garment and kept her true identity hidden from the guards.
On the day of the surrender of Oriahova, her father had explained it to her: “As my daughter, you will be raped and raped and then killed. The Turk garrison may surrender with terms, but the townspeople will pay the price. The soldiers will want their fun. As my son, they will perhaps let you live in the hopes of ransom. They will see when they loot the house that we are a family of substance.”
And he had been right. In spite of the alliance between King Sigismund and the Bulgarian Tsar of Vidin; in spite of the help Christian inhabitants gave in pointing out the weak points of entry; the French and Walachian soldiers made no distinction between Turk, Jew or Bulgarian – only apparent wealth secured captivity rather than death by fire or sword.
The shrieks of the women still rang in her ears – the acrid smoke of the town still billowed as they were marched away, still blackened the horizon as like Lot’s wife she had turned back but only her eyes turned to salt.
The Western Christians had brought God’s wrath on Oriahova – or so said their priests – Oriahova, the quietest, tightest town – never a Sodom – just a very few easy women on the quays – nothing like Vidin or Nikopol or Ruschuk or anywhere further down where the Italians held sway. – nothing like what her father called the vice dens of Lykostromo.
At first they had been fed and watered – mostly by what seemed scraps from the French banquets. They had even been honoured by a visit of their nominal captor, Marshall Boucicault himself, who aided by a bearded monk translator made calculations on ransom demands. But for the past week, food for them had been more infrequent and the guards less willing to respond to requests for water. The siege of Nikopol was proving unexpectedly difficult and she picked up mutterings about Bayezid.
So the prisoners starved in the September sun shine and on that day her father had become unresponsive in his completed despair. That was when the two young men with red crosses on their tunics had shown an interest in them. She was first aware when Reuben had nudged her and woken her from a doze. She had struggled to her feet and her head had swum. The blonde one had called her. Perhaps he would get her water from the barrel that lay beyond the fence and propped up the indolent guards.
As she had got closer the blonde one had blown her an obscene kiss. She had stopped. Had he seen through her disguise? His fleshy lips and staring eyes had repelled her. Then, mercifully, the other had called her to him – away from his companion as he had walked towards the barrel. She had followed, holding out her pitiful cup but received to her joy a full jar, the weight of which nearly doubled her up. But he had held on to it until he was sure she had it and their eyes had met – he had looked honest, caring and selfless. Yes she remembered that even now.
She had started to walk back. Reuben had risen up to meet and help her. “Well done! Well done!” he whispered. “Beauteous youth touches their hearts.”
She had dared not look back – not at the knight who had helped her, not at the blonde one who desired her.
The blonde one came back for her that very night. The water had been shared out and drunk. Her father had only taken a few sips from the cup. She had offered it to him first, but he soon rolled over face against the dirt.
Jerked out of her slumber by the light of burning torches, she heard the groans of others, kicked aside by the searchers. Then his hand gripped her shoulder; his breath engulfed her. Her scream was stifled, her jaw wrenched and a stream of tender words were poured into her ear. Others moved close and she was pulled to her feet.
“Father!” she looked back at him as he lay with his eyes wide open. “Father!” she repeated but he did not move. In the torch light the blonde man brought his face again close to hers. He spoke urgently with his lips curled down and, following his eyes, she guessed he was talking about the other prisoners. He knew something was going to happen to them.
Fearing a struggle would reveal too much and cause her father yet more pain, she controlled her instinct to kick and scream. In a manner befitting a young man, she threw back her head and struck a defiant pose. He laughed and released his grip on her shoulder. Accompanied by his companions, they walked out of the enclosure and into the camp.
She walked through the tented city for the first time. The camp had erupted around them from the day that they arrived but only now she sensed its enormity. How much did she notice? Men, men, men everywhere were lounging, lying, squatting, talking quietly, shouting, singing, all awake in the warm still night. She passed areas of light, where there was cooking; areas of dark where the tents of slumberers cast out their ropes to catch her feet. Occasionally men lurched out of dark side alleys or from the tents themselves, stinking of drink and urine, cursing, floundering.
Occasionally the blonde one would stop and look at her as if afraid that she would disappear; then he would pinch her cheek. She walked and walked – a walk of horror at her impending fate. Somewhere – some private place in this ant hill – he would be pressing his body on to hers. Good thing her father still lay on his side, thinking only of her survival. Good that he would not think of what was going to happen to his beloved daughter.
Out of the canvassed alleys, they suddenly entered an expanse of starlight. Her feet touched grass. Against the horizon reared the walls of Nikopol; and then his arm wrapped itself round her neck and his face plunged her into darkness. She went limp as his lips pressed themselves on hers and then she felt his tongue pressing on the clenched gate of her teeth. He pulled away as she almost fell and she heard laughter all about her. He shouted as she was shoved from behind. She tripped, almost fell and then marched onwards. The companions had decreased to two, following close by each elbow; and the blonde one ahead, leading eastward, closer to the river. They entered another tented town. The smells were more familiar – bean stew in garlic. A woman sitting by a fire was singing a Bulgarian song to a crowd of men.
They halted as if they had taken a wrong turning. There was a hurried consultation and the three of them drew more tightly about her and turned back the way they had come till they again reached the clearing. Then sharp left up a beaten path, they were again among tents and shelters but walking a wider path. Again, she saw women – some hanging out wet clothes on a line. Further on, she saw a group of men sitting before a large but weathered tent around a fire. The blonde one shouted to the men.
A tall man left the group and pushed past the blonde one to look at Iskra. He gave a grimace of distaste and turned back to talk to her captor. With a shock she realised he was speaking Italian.
“Well Eugenio, man of a thousand rumours, do your ears feel safe?”
“What do you mean?”
The tall Italian flashed golden teeth and gave a high pitched laugh. “The way you have thrown caution to the wind, must mean you think you do not have much more time on this earth.”
“Not at all”, her blonde captor muttered unconvincingly.
“Well, my dear Eugenio! You are clearly fired up at the thought of imminent battle – else you would not take such risks – marching with these rough men through the camp where all can see you – just for this pale faced virgin boy!” He caressed Iskra’s cheek. “Look how he starts! He’ll make a lot of noise if you rush him. You think he will lie willingly with you.” He stared long into Iskra’s eyes.
“A pretty boy!” he said at length. “But parched and starving from the hostage’s pen. Come let’s give him some food and water.”
Iskra was pushed and led to the fire. She felt men’s eyes upon her – eyes more lustful than curious. Pressed to sit on a log, she was presently served a plate of chicken by a wide eyed gypsy boy.
“My friends!” said the tall Italian – as if in introduction and partly enfolding the returning gypsy boy in his cloak – “you see this impulsive romantic Eugene! He crosses the whole camp and, in front of witnesses, falls in love. Then he thinks he can hire ruffians – procured by me incidentally for a fee – and under cover of night steal this boy – and no-one will notice or say ‘what’s up with Eugenio – is his brain bent?’ and then walk through the whole camp again to come to us, to draw attention to us – against my express advice!”
“Listen” he leant forward with a sharp audible whisper. “I give you food and drink for friendship, you pay me for my men, but then you go! You’re not using my tent to debauch this boy – tasty though he may be.”
“Hey Eugenio!” A short fat man – bald with staring eyes – poked the fire sending sparks into the air. “Why go to the trouble of breaking in this boy, when for a few coins, you can get one trained, who knows how to suck cock.”
Eugene’s lip curled. “Maybe because I do not relish putting myself in places where your stubby rotting prick has been, Otto.”
“Don’t forget,” the tall man intervened over the laughter. “Our Eugenio is fastidious – a warrior monk. He cannot deal with corrupted souls. He consorts with angels.”
Feeling strength from the food and water, Iskra looked over her shoulder. Behind her, at some fifty yards, the women were seated before the drying sheets and calling to passing men. Often a man would stop and, following a quick negotiation, would retire with one of the women to conclude his business behind the sheets.
Looking back at the company, Iskra noticed that everything the women did was being followed with great attention by a brown skinned man sitting erect beside the tall Italian. In his hands was a circlet of red beads and at every retirement behind the sheets, a red bead would slide from one hand to the other.
The tall Italian followed her eyes and laughed – again like a mare in heat. “Well Eugenio, your boy is waking up. He’s interested in my business on the side. Hey Tommo!” he nudged his toothy neighbour, the taciturn bead teller. “Ask the boy if he wants to fuck one of your whores?”
Tommo flashed her a smile – almost of complicity, then said in heavily accented Italian “A whore can no fuck a whore!”
Otto led the laughter. “Well said Tommo! Well said! Signor Giovanni – your man is a gem.”
The tall Italian smiled then grimaced then smiled again. Iskra felt her face aglow. “The boy understands we are talking about him. You’ve picked a smart one Eugenio!”
Iskra struggled with her emotions. The words, the obscenities meant nothing – she’d heard them before on numerous quays where the Genoese boats docked – even she had been the target till the sailors understood whose daughter she was – but now she was a boy……
She strove to keep her composure and control her body as the men sat watching her and laughing.
Eugenio cut in with his slow Italian: “It’s instinct – he feels what we are saying. How could a Bulgarian boy understand Italian?” His podgy hand caressed her shoulder and he spoke something meant to be reassuring in his own language – soft words.
As she tensed, Giovanni whinnied, “a complete virgin for you my dear!”
Ahead, beyond the tree that acted as support for Giovanni’s tent, loud voices announced the eventual arrival of a grey haired man of importance, drunk and supported by two women, followed by a guard of three pike men.
Seeing the seated company and the women beyond, the newcomer began to shout.
Giovanni scowled the while and at last said in his own language: “Whoremaster I may be Comte, but do not dare call me a sodomite and lover of boys.” Iskra saw him push the gypsy boy away from him with the command to fetch more wine.
Otto now rose, hand on sword. The women shrieked and pulled ineffectually at the drunken Comte. With a scornful laugh the Comte now pointed at Eugenio and launched into what Iskra assumed was a denunciation. The gestures he used were unmistakable.
The brown skinned man leapt to his feet and began talking urgently in his own tongue to the women. Iskra guessed they were Hungarian. Suddenly she felt Eugenio’s arm circle her waist and she was thrown stumbling to her feet. Now her wrist held in a strong right hand, she was led up the path away from the shouting. As men emerged from tents and women complained within, Eugenio had walked her at a fast pace, dodging from one alley to another.
She struggled. Now was her moment to escape as Eugenio had been abandoned by all followers. But his grip was irresistible and no-one passing paid attention to her struggling as he led her through the darker paths towards the edge of camp.
But Gilles, her saviour, had been waiting, hidden by fluttering tent flaps, shooing away the whores. He had been following them in that torch lit night; he now tracked them even in the pitch black from the camp up into the fields where Eugenio dragged her and cast her down between prickly sloe bushes. Eugenio had his hands upon her, grappling with fastenings, shouting at her to keep still. She screamed – for the first time as she felt his hands search for what he would not find. Suddenly, Eugenio was lifted to his feet then felled to the ground. As he cursed, Gilles whispered urgently in his unknown language, pushing her up the hill away from the camp. And so she escaped.
26 September 1396
He recognised Eugene among a crowd of armed knights, waiting to be helped to horse. Eugene saw him, flushed and moved away. Mounted on a light horse, in light armour, Gilles wondered how his brother Hospitaller had come to be so splendidly and heavily equipped, then noticed the emblem of Reynaud le Roy and guessed his former friend had sought the protection of his kinsman. That explained why the bunk next to his had been untenanted for two nights.
Not that there had been much left of that first night. The lad had run off into the black. Gilles had grappled with his thwarted companion, hampering him, ever aware of the dagger Eugene carried, sheathed behind him – just to give the lad enough time to get away. He used holds he had leant in the ring in Carnet fair. Eugene, dazed by the unexpected first blow, had struck out wildly with his free left arm, and Gilles’ mouth had filled with blood. Eugene had fought blindly, silently, all the time trying to escape, to follow where the lad had run.
Now he shouted after Eugene. This day there should be reckoning and forgiveness between brothers. After all, he had preserved his brother knight from a mortal deed. They could all face the throne of Judgement that day and Christ the Judge might forgive the thought and intent, given the deed itself had been prevented. But Eugene did not turn back and Gilles had urgent business. He carried a message from the Grand Master of his order, Philibert de Naillac, who stood below with the King Sigismund, closer to the Danube’s brown waters than the mostly French knights, who, half way up the hill and eager to gain the glory from the certain victory, were screaming for their horses.
With difficulty, Gilles made out the colours of Enguerrand de Coucy. The Grand Master had been insistent that only de Coucy could moderate this madness. “Seek out de Coucy. Tell him he must delay the advance.” He spurred his horse forward only for it to rear as a knight fell flat on his back in front of them, screaming for help as his own horse bucked and bolted. Gilles mastered his horse and pressed on, shouting his mission for the few who paused to listen.
He rode out of the main press into open ground, noting how quickly the companies of knights were forming. He waved and shouted, seeing the group of mounted men about the standard. Reynaud le Roy was there. He recognised him, visor raised. Eugene would be some way behind. He found de Coucy mounted but without his helmet. .Enguerrand de Coucy shook his grey hair and smiled sadly. “Too late, young man. Too late! We must bow to the wisdom of rash young men. In minutes we will charge.” He looked at Gilles and smiled. “Young man, you are lightly armed. An old man would advise you to ride back to your master, tell him the news. You could tell him the Comte D’Eu said King Sigismund should bugger himself if he thought to keep the glory of victory from the French. You could tell him Jean the Fearless had no intention of renaming himself. You could tell him Marshall Boucicault said that no power that the Sultan put on the field could withstand the charge of French knights. An old man, like me who has seen too many battles would advise you thus; and you would ride down below and tell your Master to pray. But if you choose, in your youthful haste to join in the young man’s charge, I cannot prevent you.”
Gilles made his decision, lightly armoured, though he was, and joined the third rank as it formed. He looked around for Eugene but saw only visored helmets. A shout ahead signalled that others had moved off. He could see the banners of de Coucy now ahead. Slowly at first the massed horses began to walk forward, and then break into a trot.
Up the hill they charged, scattering the young Turks, mowing them down – a harvest of severed and broken heads and limbs. The moves Gilles had learned on the practice ground in Rhodes with the straw stuffed dolls, worked in real battle. His sword sliced and smashed the few that survived the horsemen ahead.
But then the track narrowed, and the light grew thicker, darker. There was a first rattle of arrows. From ahead a riderless horse turned, thrashing with its forelegs. From behind the shout was – forward, forward! More riderless horses and then the rider in front of him dismounted. Shouts rang out across the crowded space. “Dismount, dismount! Let the horses go!”
His armour was light. He dismounted easily. The other knights about him were slower. One fell and was dragged by the stirrups of his panicking horse, plumed helmet bumping on the ground. Some behind managed to stop the horse and help the knight to his shaky feet.
Ahead the clash of weapons summoned him and he was rushed forward by the press of knights. He still had his sword but his neighbour had an axe. They reached the stakes. He remembered the stakes. He barely missed being pinned against a sharpened end rearing from the furrowed ground. Arrows began to whiz from the sides above them. – Press on! Press on! He followed a steel back and a plumed helmet nodding relentlessly forward. Then a thin copse of Turkish lances was pushed aside and he was stepping, stumbling over bodies, striking at those that rose. Onwards the French knights. Mary and Glory! And suddenly in a flood of sunlight they were in an open space. The land had flattened out. There was a tremendous braying of trumpets and he saw the mass of Bayezid’s army, all still, all ready.
He looked to his sides. A substantial number of knights were still there. Ahead he saw the standard of John the Fearless. To the right on higher ground stood Marshall Boucicault and behind him now was the flag of Enguerand de Coucy. And yet for their force of steel they seemed like a scattering of seed before the giant anthill of Bayezid’s army.
A great roar – what happened next? They had seemed so few and yet they fought, pressed together, drawing backwards, hoping to hear the main army coming up from behind to take over. The Turks were poorly protected; his arm grew tired in hacking and slashing. His left arm’s shield warded off glancing blows – still they came, on foot, on horse. Bash from his neighbour, slash from him, a step back; a sprawling body. For a time side by side with a black plumed knight, he thrust and parried, slashed and stepped back, thrust and parried, slashed, stepped back. Horsemen rode at them, riding down their own men. Groups of pike men stepped forward to meet the Turks. Horses reared and men fell.
Arrows whizzed, from above, mostly bouncing off steel armour. A lull in the hand to hand fighting and he was aware that still there was no significant reinforcements from behind. He leaned on his sword, his breath coming painfully, his whole body aching. A few inches separated him from his nearest companion a helmeted, fully armoured French knight, but he was in a tiny island of loneliness – still alive and relatively unhurt but surely doomed to die.
He closed his eyes. The pain was as intense as it was sudden. An arrow from the left was stuck in his upper thigh. Only his sword prevented him from falling. His mail covering his leather breaches had not deflected it. He kneeled in pain as he leant over to snap off the long feathered shaft. He staggered backwards, leaning on his sword. He was hobbled and no use in the front line.
He staggered a few yards back and among Turkish stakes. He fell over bodies. On his feet again, he reached the edge of the staked area, a lip in the hill from which n he looked down towards the plain of Nikopol. Two armies were fighting down there – a different battle it seemed. He could make out the banners of Sigismund and the Master of Rhodes. Down there his companions were hemmed in, backed up against the river. He could see figures in the river swimming desperately for the galleys.
For anyone the battle was easy to read. The dead were strewn towards him as left by a retreating tide and showed where the reinforcing army had tried to catch up with the French, then had been cut off by a new army attacking from the sides and driven back.
The unstoppable force had brought disaster. Their impulsive charge had split their army and brought inevitable defeat.
1 October 1396
A cold light came through the door. He was alive but gripped in a vice of pain. He closed his eyes and opened them again with an awareness of a long nightmare of darkness and flames and bearded faces and……. a woman’s voice stilling his fears.
Fear rose with a spasm in his shoulder. He had no idea where he was. He was Gilles de Carnet, second son, knight Hospitaler of Rhodes. But this was not Rhodes. And now his thigh was throbbing and he did not dare move for the weight pressing on his chest. He was alive. The air he breathed was laced with wood-smoke – not the fire of hell. With an effort, he moved his head. Across from him a man lay on a bench by a wooden slatted wall. The man had a long white beard and was looking at him sidelong with an amused expression.
The man raised himself on his elbow and the smile broadened. Then he called out – in a language that Gilles had never heard before – and into his vision moved a young woman – an expression of mixed apprehension and joy on her face. She looked at him a long time while the white haired man struggled to his feet, stretched painfully and moved over.
“Ti” she said. That was all she said. He did not know what it meant but it sounded like “Tu” and it gave him some comfort for he was in terrible pain.
Then, as the old man muttered something, she began to speak, in halting Italian, words that brought more comfort than sense – something about a battle; something about a river; something about a father. He was sinking back into darkness. The old man continued to mutter. She said “Maria” followed by a word he did not understand. She repeated these two words over and over pointing to her breast. He could not help it. So sorry. He tried to say it but he was falling into darkness.
“That is good,” Isaac repeated. “For the first time he is aware. Next time he wakes, he will understand more. But he will feel more pain. I will give Baba Kera something for this.”
He put his arm round her shoulder. She nodded, happy. Her knight had seen her, perhaps even recognised her. She had told him her name. He might remember it when next he woke.
“I must go,” said Isaac abruptly. I have been too long here for the liking of some and I feel we are past the worst – at least for a day or two. “No!” he held up his hand anticipating her protest. “I know, I know. But I have business and people to meet. It will be good too to know what is being said.”
She frowned. People and what was being said! – “You’re just worried about losing trade!”
“Trade is trade and I cannot starve precious one,” he smiled. “I have your business to attend to as well and all requires haste while the uncertainty continues. Now, for two days the boy will sleep and wake. Give him the soup. Give him the herbal drinks. Talk to him. The wounds are clean now but change the dressings every day. Gently rub his feet, his ankles, his calves, his hands, his wrists and arms. Turn him. He will respond. Baba Kera will help you. Get the men to lift him.”
“If he raises a temperature?”
“Baba Kera knows what to do. You worry too much, precious one!” He playfully snubbed her nose with his thumb. “Enough – I am going. You’ll see me in two days – three at the most.
Early in the afternoon, Gilles awoke, wet about the loins and pain biting repetitively. A dog was gnawing on first his one then his other leg; and a pig was sitting on his chest. There were angry voices out of his vision.
A strong smell of garlic preceded the face of an old woman. She frowned and wrinkled her nose. She had a large growth beside her nose and a hairy lip and chin. He tried to speak but no words came. She just shook her head and he felt the wet covers being lifted from his body.
The angry voices continued away beyond his vision but passion was in the room. A young man was shouting in staccato bursts – a fitting partner for the dog still gnawing at his legs. Before the thought, the thought was confirmed. He was shouting at her, the her who seemed to care for him. Who was this young man who continued to shout? – her brother, her husband, her promised one? Where was the old man who should be protecting her? Summoning strength and a memory, he called out.
She pushed past Yanko, the red faced fool. She almost danced to Kera’s side.
“He’s pissed the bed.”
“Then get warm water to wash him and get clean dry bedding. Stop grumbling and leave him to me.” She pushed the old woman to one side and an old lady’s garlic breath was replaced by breath scented with fennel.
“You remembered my name” He blinked incomprehension. She repeated it in Italian and he nodded. She felt joy. She scanned his pale bearded face, his arching eyebrows and his unwounded head, unwilling for that moment to look at the rest of his body.
“The devil! You listen to me!” Yanko shouted.
Gilles saw her face twitch with irritation and she turned and unleashed a pack of words – a snarling growling pack of words. Just once in mid bark, she turned her face back to him and said in Italian “forgive me.”
The old woman fussed back into partial vision. He felt his lower limbs first bathed then enveloped in warm cloth. His lower body was part lifted and turned and the straw beneath him was pulled away. The young male voice began to hector again, but the young woman had eyes only for him. He felt the old woman leave the bed. He heard her say something and the young man’s voice raised a pitch. Suddenly beyond her Gilles saw the owner of the angry voice – a short black haired thick lipped young man with thin moustache. As soon as the flushed man had eye contact he stopped shouting. He glared; but Gilles looked back. He’d seen that look many times before and had felt afraid. But now he was calm. His pain put him at the centre and the young man’s hatred meant nothing.
Realising this, the young man began to shout again but the upper edges of his voice broke from threat into self regard and back to threat again. In his sight Maria Iskra was smiling. She was confident in spite of Yanko’s railing.
“Bitch dog!” he was shouting. “Whore! Give me respect!”
She would not respond. Soon Kera would come with the hot infusion for her knight to drink to dull the pain. When he got no further response from her, Yanko tried to calm himself. Baba Kera passed by him with a steaming jug. Everything for the wounded Frank! Either at Baba Kera’s bidding or because the sound of raised voices continued so long, Father Matko entered the room accompanied by the two shepherds, Shtillian and Ilko.
Looking for support, Yanko pointed towards the bed: “Father! Father! Is this right? To care for this dirt, this filth scraped from the battlefield? With her father only weeks dead and nothing eaten for his soul!”
Gilles saw the spasm of pain on her face. The angry young man had hurt her somehow. But now came the rumble of an old man’s voice – not the old man from before.
“Listen, my son. Listen to what I tell you. I too am troubled but know that what Iskra does is from a good heart and no-one can gainsay her. She is strong willed like her father – God forgive him – and if you seek wheat for his soul, look to Kera. She has prepared a bowl for you and yours.”
Yanko grunted and the pig on Gilles’ chest shifted its weight. “You back her up because she gives you drink, food and shelter, old man!” Yanko pressed closer and disappeared from Gilles’ sight. “I know you! You cannot stand her wilfulness. How come I hear from you that the Jew Isaac has been here for days, and you talking as if there was a bad smell under your nose?” Back he came into Gilles’ sight as he pointed his finger at Iskra.
“Hey! Your priest agrees with me. You need protection from yourself – your crazy woman heart – look where it leads you! You care for this man and probably this man kills your father!”
“No!” she turned and jumped from the bed out of Gilles’ vision. “No!” – No was no in any language and Gilles recognised her emphatic fury. Only a few more commanding words from her and there were sounds of a struggle. New voices were raised and the voice of the old man trying to restore calm. The young man still shouting came into vision again held by two men in sheepskin coats. The door was opened and they all three struggled outside, the door banging behind them.
Maria Iskra was back at the bed looking at him. A memory stirred. He had known her before all this….. But how? – a girl in very different circumstances but a girl would have been impossible – he had met that face in a state of fear, a person haunted, hunted and in need of knightly protection.
“Who are you?” he pronounced the words slowly, trying to remember his Italian.
“Iskra” – again that word. But he thought that her name was Maria.
She shook her head and then, seeing his confusion, laughed and nodded her head with such comic deliberation that he smiled. Of course, as with the Greeks in Rhodes a shake of the head meant yes; a nod meant no.
Gilles concentrated, trying to dredge up the words from the different languages he had used on his travels.
“Where…” – Yes that was it. “Where are we?”
“A farm – one of my farms – west of Nikopol – Ni-Ko-Pol.” She broke the name into each syllable, and then watched with concern as awakened memories clouded his face.
“It’s all right,” she repeated in a sing song voice as behind closed eyelids he saw a walled town on a hill by the vast river – galleys with flags on the river – that’s the way he had got to the town under siege – on the river – and there were tents everywhere about the town – there were two hills and the town between a castle and a fort and sharply rising land to the south – with a dirt road winding up steep towards where the Turks would come – Sultan Bayezid the Thunderbolt.
It was not all right. So he opened his eyes and looked at the face framed by the woman’s head cloth and he remembered her face and part of its story. “I remember you!” he said and it was her turn to look troubled and avert her head. A boy who was a girl! A girl who was a boy – like something in a fairy tale. Of course she would not have been there on her own.
“Your parents?” he probed – he wanted to know – to understand his position.
“My Father….” A strange noise escaped from her throat and she was gone from the bed and out of the hut. Daylight and cold air rushed in for a second before the door crashed shut and left him with the tutting old folk and the smell of kindling wood for the evening fire. He lay back. – Of course – he understood now what had surprised him – a young woman of some authority looking after him with no Father or husband. And that boyish face – and he remembered – slim figure.
She was the boy he had rescued from the lascivious Brother Eugene. The same eyes had been looking at him as now he lay helpless on her bed of straw. He was now the captive and the boy was now transformed into a blessed damsel. She had been taken at Oriahova. That man, her prisoner companion, was her father – a rich man taken for ransom then killed on orders of Marshall Boucicault and Jean the Fearless. He sank into the memory like warm soothing mud.
Outside, Iskra was fighting yet again with the surge of feelings. He must not see her cry and they must not see her cry. Yanko was gone – stupid, reckless, dangerous man! – a man who, backed by those about him in their cups, would do much damage in these uncertain days. A gust of the wet wind made her shiver. This baffled passion could drive her cousin to extremes. Her father had warned her – and she had laughed at Yanko’s pretensions, but then her father had distanced himself and her from the rest of the family, preferring the company of Italian merchants and Jews. Her dear father – as she walked past the cookhouse, she tried to calculate the number of days since his death. The date of the next stew could not be far away to be distributed and eaten for his soul.
By the sheep pen Shtillian and Ilko were talking – no doubt about what! Father Matko was nowhere to be seen – the church door closed – him inside, confiding his worries to an icon – her namesake probably – a woman who obeyed the male will of God. She nodded to the shepherds – a minimal gesture to acknowledge their earlier help.
Back in the cook house, voices were raised. Kera was shouting at Filka, her younger helper. Iskra half guessed the cause of their quarrel. Big fat Stoyan emerged from his hideaway in the stables. He peered anxiously towards the cook house. Filka was his wife and Baba Kera had been shouting a lot recently. He rubbed his nose, then noticed Iskra. He bowed quickly and with a guilty expression returned to his lair.
She walked out of the gates of the compound towards the pond. It would be dark soon. Petyo – Stoyan and Filka’s young boy was skimming stones on the water and singing in a jerky high pitched voice:
“What a beauty, Mama
What eyes, Mama
Black as cherries, Mama
What a waist, Mama
Thin as poplar, Mama”
The song was punctuated by a grunt as he threw the next stone into the water. He either had not seen her approach or did not wish to acknowledge her presence – so she took the side path that skirted the pond and led towards the fields, away from the compound, away from the few houses that made up the village.
The path led up a slope towards the first ploughed strip. Jumping a ditch then clambering up between sloe bushes that caught at her dress, she now stood by a dried up apple tree, with her head leant against a branch. Here she could cry away from prying eyes, away from the cabin, and away from her knight and patient.
And thus, back in the cabin, Gilles was the captive, on his own now, with just the settled pig and the gnawing dog his companions in the darkening room. Somewhere outside he could hear two women shouting. One of them sounded like the old woman. The other was younger and was not Iskra. He pressed his left hand into the straw, guessing he might be the cause of this commotion. He should sleep but his heart was beating fast.
Tears of shame and horror even now in the safety of the ploughed field replaced tears of sorrow for a dead father. For, while she had been sitting on that log on that horrible night, rehearsing the impending abomination of her body, her father and his companions had been hacked to death on the orders of Marshall Boucicault. This she had had that day heard confirmed by the knowledgeable Yanko.
She pushed her back full against the poplar tree trunk. Soon she would have to tread the path back to the farm compound. Her people must not feel her absence for too long. The memories were so vivid, not thought of for a while, the deep purples and reds when she clenched her eyes – floating from one shade to another – she had to be strong. God knew what Yanko intended to do. The past was past. Her father was dead. The matter of factness shocked her – his body decomposing – somewhere down river, caught perhaps in island reed beds – a white hand resting on a mudbank. That was enough.
She wiped her eyes and face in her apron – the masts of galleys in the river ports so far away, with her father pointing, swearing, commanding at the quayside – that excitement was over forever and must be banished. She looked back at the line of forest and the hills. Yanko was somewhere out there building up his wrath.
Now she needed to concentrate on the living – in particular her saviour. She would have to move him, as soon as possible – away from this exposed farm. She thought of the islands. Yes, the forest island – Isaac would help them get there.
She reached the pond reddened in the sunset. The boy had gone and she quickened her pace to the gate, ordering it to be closed behind her.