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.
“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.