The Sufferers and the Three Horsemen
My house was large and built to last, in the style brought to nearby regions by the Varangian marauders of recent memory. Lone houses, especially large ones such as mine, were not common in the woods. What I lived in as these events were unfolding was the kind of fork-and-pole house more commonly found in a town, and then more commonly belonging to a magistrate or merchant. Sadruk had inherited the house, though, from his father, who had built it on the prince’s supposition that a town would grow up around it, establishing an outpost halfway between Drizha and Pinea. But princes come and go, and that’s all the people passing by did as well. No town arose around it, even though so near the stream, and probably no prince since it was built has even known that it is there.
The method of construction calls for hard work, harder than many forest dwellers are willing to invest, but results in a sturdy, permanent home of any size that the builder wants to lay out.
First, the builder selects nine leafy trees, such as linden or ash. The correct tree has a straight, tall, thick trunk that forks into two stout branches at the right height. These trees are cut above the fork, to retain the fork — three taller than the other six — are then peeled, and finally are hauled to the house site. Then nine holes are dug, three along a line that will define the front of the house, three for the taller forked trees down the center, and three more for the back. The most common shape is a square of any size. The tallest forked posts are hoisted upright and dropped into the center row of holes. They are then leveled with their tops at the same height.
In my house, (Sadruk’s), the center posts were almost twice my own height. The front posts, shorter than the center but high enough to permit entry once the wall is finished, are then set. The remaining three posts for the back are placed last, and their length doesn’t matter, as long as they are of even height. If a pigpen is needed behind the house, as on mine, then the back wall needs to be only high enough to accommodate such an addition. A straight ridge pole of pine is then peeled, notched, and hoisted into the forks formed by the center row of posts. Similarly, the front and back rows of forked posts are fitted with cross poles, parallel to the ridge. What remains to complete the roof, then, is for the builder to crisscross this framework with closely-set sapling poles, to cover it with slabs of bark, repeating this layering several times, and to seal it with pine pitch. The front wall of such a house is often buttressed by thick, forked tree trunks sunk into the ground at an angle to meet the eaves. That way, the front wall cannot sag outward, and this lean-to framework in front can be covered with skins for extra sleeping quarters, if it is to be a common house, and can serve as a ramp to the roof.
The way Sadruk’s house was built, the earth dug from the holes and not needed to set the posts was spread under the roof. As much additional loose earth as desired might then be hauled in, spread and smoothed, to raise the floor level above the surrounding forest floor. This was then covered with straw, which was changed as often as the resident could obtain fresh material.
Since it was as long as four or five men lying toe to head and as wide as four as well, ours fit the description of a large house. To finish a large house, the ubiquitous stove is constructed next. For this, a skilled builder is needed. Some of these stoves have a conical shape and an open front, but more often, as with mine, they are long and squared at the edges, and made of angular flat stones or sun-dried bricks or packed clay. They have thick flat tops of broad stones, mudded for smoothness, and are open at one end. Mine also had a thin, broad, flat rock which served as a stove door when slid across the opening. The stoves can be vented to any type of opening — straight through the roof, which assures a leaky roof, or out the end walls of the house — which then makes a tall, teetering chimney unnecessary, or out the back, which permits a short chimney or none at all and provides warmth for livestock. I have been in houses where the stove was simply vented into the room and the smoke drawn off by holes near the peak. Sadruk’s stove was centered along the back wall, where it protruded from the back of the house half an arm’s length so that the smoke hole from the stove opened straight into the outside air.
The outside walls of such a house are normally finished with logs. Sometimes a second row of posts (without forks) is set next to the front forked posts and smaller logs are stacked between these two close rows. The same system may be used for the end and back walls. Sadruk’s house had originally been done this way. In other instances, walls may be constructed of sticks and mud, depending on the materials available. Many years ago, before my arrival, Sadruk had replaced his outer walls and roof. The house, as I left it finally, had the finest mud-and-stone walls with a proper door frame and a window with fitted boards to shutter it completely from the inside. The window also had an inner curtain of layered felt.
The loft where I had made my bed while Sadruk and his son lived there, and which I once again occupied while my lady Laïsha was with me, was hung in one end of the house away from the stove, on beams notched into the forked posts of the center and one end. It gave room to lie down on a mattress of pine needles, with space enough around to stack my personal possessions. Cleats pegged into the center posts formed the ladder to the loft.
My house differed little in construction even from the houses of magistrates and princes. Chiefly, those of the mighty were only larger, with numerous rooms and stoves. A magistrate’s house would have stables, slaves perhaps, and more windows. The house of a prince would include rug-covered flat earthen or fitted stone floors, wall rugs or tapestries, and oiled skins over the window openings. The forked posts in a prince’s palace might be carved with hunting or battle scenes exaggerating the prince’s power and heritage, and would be stained and polished. I often wondered whether I might try carving scenes into the center post of my house, but it always seemed to be something I could never find time to begin.
+ + +
It was a fresh spring day, which lasted long and filled both our hearts, Laïsha’s and mine, with hope of things to come, as well as hope of leaving other things behind. The things I hoped for in both cases were probably unlike the things that occupied Laïsha, but nonetheless, she had a past to hide and healing to anticipate.
Throughout this day my lady Laïsha attempted to help me with small chores inside the house. She spoke of wanting to make a pork pie, but this I discouraged just yet. I proposed it as a goal for the following day, and she agreed. Together we made some fresh biscuits of acorn meal, though, and she directed my sweeping out of the house, so that corners were now tidied that hadn’t been affected in years. The floor would remain strawless for some months now. I proposed that some days hence she should make roughly a circular path inside the house which she could walk each day for ever-lengthening periods. This was a variation of my master’s method for strengthening an injured sufferer.
She rested often that day, too, and during these times I continued quietly packing for my own leave-taking. The things with which I would travel I continued to keep in the loft, against any chance that she could find them and suspect my intentions.
Late in the day, when I returned from an unsuccessful fowl-hunt, I discovered a most extraordinary thing that she had done. Obviously with great care, so as not to injure herself, she had singed away her dark and expressive eyebrows, had reddened her face with heat, and then had turned her face pale by rubbing it with white ashes. Her eyelashes, too, she had virtually obliterated, and her visage had taken on that of a woman fifteen years older. Her face still showed signs of bruises and scratches, although I had had no doubt that her former, muted beauty would return once those minor contusions healed. She had fashioned a bowl-shaped cap for her head that resembled those worn by local women, and she had rudely shorn her long hair so that it fell only to her neck.
If she had gone away one day looking as she did originally, and had returned the next looking as she did now, I would not have believed, even if told, that she were the same woman. The effect was startling.
She sat stitching a tear in my spare breeches, and when I came close enough to assure myself of her identity she lost her composure and began weeping softly.
“It is awful,” she said without looking at me.
“You saw?” I asked, meaning that she had looked at her reflection in the polished silver mirror that was with my medical equipment.
“Thus, you are now a crippled peasant woman whose name is Laïsha, and your past —” I didn’t know how to finish.
She nodded again. Still she wept, and I sat beside her on the bed. For a minute or two we stared together at the opposite wall, but then, with compassion for the untold burden she bore, I turned toward her and set aside the work from her hands and held her hands in mine. That was all I did, and she permitted it. I noticed, though, as I pressed her fingers between mine and felt her palms and fingertips, that hers were working hands. They were larger than her body size might suggest. They were calloused and hard, and a couple of her fingers had clearly been broken in the past. We stared frankly each at the other’s face and I said nothing, nor did I look to see what my touch had discovered. I pondered her secret and felt very tenderly toward her. I understood, too, that her lament of a few days before, for having offended the god-protector of slaves and prisoners, might not have been a reference to her current “imprisonment” with me but to some status she had held in the past — maybe the very recent past.
It was a somber evening until we went to sleep that night.
On the seventh day we made a pork pie, and feasted heartily. Despite her attempt to make herself hideous, which would have had the desired effect upon a stranger, I saw her as I had imagined her healed, and found myself desiring the day when she once again would look that way. This was a difficult thought to bear, for at the same time I thought ahead toward her rejuvenation, I had no intention of being around her long enough to see it happen.
That day, and for the next two, we were visited by a progression of sufferers from Pinea and the nearby woods. This could be expected after the long months of winter. We would now see the results of the frostbite and other ailments that go with colder episodes of the season. The snow was now all gone, and we had enjoyed a few days or parts of days which were warm and bright. The forest floor began to assume a greenish cast to my hazy vision. Mosses and leaves of small plants were beginning to show some life.
It had become imperative to both of us that Laïsha assume a real identity as a peasant, and so, from the moment the very first visitor arrived, I spontaneously introduced her as my wife, and she didn’t even give me a funny look. This struck a couple of visitors as an oddity, since she appeared older than me, and since they had not known me lately to have had a woman in my heart. But they also knew that anything can happen during a long winter, and for most people my foreign origins explained away my mystifying behaviors.
We were confident that Laïsha could safely claim to be from somewhere beyond Drizha, to the south, but I think no one dared ask, so it never became an issue. Since she still hurt, her efforts to help me in my ministrations were feeble. We would tell people only that she herself had been gravely ill but was recovering.
The variety of ailments presented was largely uninteresting, although Laïsha became absorbed in my attempt to straighten and splint crooked bones and sew wounds for a little boy who had fallen from a tree into a pig pen, seriously upsetting the pig. She also took great pity upon a deranged old man with no teeth, who showed no sign of pain in his deadened right leg, which I declined to amputate, but which I was sure, from its blackened condition, would be the death of him within days. I made him some sage brew that I knew would give him comfort, and we talked and talked — as if I were a sage myself! — and, with a heavy heart in my chest, I sent him away with his family, who bore him on a stretcher that they alternately carried and dragged. As he left, his eyes seemed to tell me he understood.
If I had successfully removed his leg, which even Sadruk probably would have refused to attempt, he would have become the third brother in one family to hobble among the houses of Pinea on one stem. The first of those brothers to have one amputated had met so ill a fate at the paws of Bugra-dezhu, the spirit-invoking shaman of Pinea, that the next two had come to Sadruk. For unrelated reasons they too needed amputations, but under Sadruk’s care they survived. I would confidently have relieved this one of the burden if he had come sooner, but I was so certain of his fate that I could foretell how my surgery would have been mistaken as the cause of death if I had tried it now.
Another man, nearly as young as I but carried to me on a litter, arrived with muscles in his back knotted in great lumps. He was a road agent, as was I, and his section was that path which led into some low mountains west of Pinea. He had spent most of the daylight hours of the previous few days cutting and dragging logs. He was in severe pain but was so grateful to be in my house at last that he beamed a great smile through his tears. Sadruk had a sack of a brownish-yellow powder, slung from a post near the stove, which he called mustardic and which he mixed with certain radish roots and softened bark, making a paste to apply to sore muscles. I laid the young man on a bed of furs next to the stove and set his father and brother to rubbing such a paste into his back. I left them working like this for much of the afternoon while I continued to see other sufferers.
For sore muscles, I reflected, Bugra-dezhu — who was not all evil but occasionally manifested some empathy for his sufferers — would have reached into a barrel of damp sand, produced a mandrake root, and would have carved it into the shape of a man or of that portion of a man which represented the injured area. He would then instruct the family to massage not the sufferer, but the carved root! I am proud that I have seldom been tempted to employ such artifice.
I had almost forgotten that they were there when the young sufferer finally sat up, cautiously put his feet beneath himself, and stood. He still hurt but he could move. I washed the fierce-smelling, burning residue from his back and felt for more knots, but he was ready, he said, to return home on foot. They paid me in fleece and in wooden utensils they crafted themselves and went on their way. As I closed the door behind them I realized that Laïsha had seen and studied the resolution of the young man’s problem and continued even now to stare at me with growing admiration for my skills. She smiled at me demurely, and I blushed.
Laïsha was mostly interested in the women who came either to be treated or to accompany family members. She studied their habits and their small talk. They seemed to regard her with a mixture of suspicion and tolerance, but not at all with hostility. I was sure that her frightening appearance, her slight accent, and the fact that she was an utter stranger made them wary if not rude. I listened always to hear whether she spoke to anyone from Pinea about her missing Davnoy, but she seemed not to want to reveal that curiosity before any of them. So I did, to reassure Laïsha that my false story was not false. I chose a particularly unreliable-looking old man who’d come in with his ailing and daft wife, and asked him to take a message to the cartwright — a message that I sought word of the man who had come to him over a week past with a fancy carriage in need of repair. The old man tried diligently to comprehend and memorize my message, and, once his wife had swallowed a bowlful of my stew, for she was mostly suffering from hunger, they went off, he repeating my message to her and she repeating it back to him.
And so it went. There was a woman with a great swelling at the base of her neck. I spent an hour treating a young hunter whose nose had frozen and decayed. I was able carefully to scrape nearly all of it off, leaving him grotesquely defaced. He had also lost some fingers and toes, but had generally healed well. But he left still able to breathe and with no bleeding and was excited by my suggestion that the right craftsman could carve him a convincing covering. There was a baby boy from Pinea, born that winter with paddles in place of hands, tempting me to slit the skin along lines where his fingers should have separated — Sadruk might have attempted it, first on the left hand, then, if that healed well, on the right — and I left the parents with the impression that Sadruk might just do so when he returned.
I think that the visits were very taxing for Laïsha, for by the end of the third day of it her cheer was gone, she sobbed once again from the pain, and her wound oozed a different kind of fluid. I offered, on her behalf, to turn people away, in order to protect her, but until now she would not allow it. By nightfall, though, she thought it would be wise.
The next day, her tenth with me, saw only one more such visitor, and she encouraged me to treat him anyway while she stayed in bed. I too was exhausted by the work, but in exchange during these days we had obtained several spring grouse, sacks of meal, a quantity of iron, which I did not need, and a bolt of good linen. One especially-appreciative old man, a carver of figurines and ornaments, walked back to our house a second day to deliver a decorated cover-with-handle for our chamber pot. The image on the lid was lewd, but was done so well that to reject it on the grounds of taste would have been a waste of the giver’s talent. Laïsha seemed less offended even than I. The same man agreed to meet the hunter who had lost his nose.
Her eleventh day with me was quiet. We each looked after our individual affairs and hardly exchanged a word. Late in the day I wanted to reassure her again that her man would return, so I made a comment about patience.
“Patience!” Laïsha exclaimed. “Patience! I feel as though I’m made of patience, as if it were a substance from which statues are made, like marble or clay!”
I let it pass, and it did.
By her twelfth day, Laïsha was sewing for me and for herself from the new cloth, and was confidently predicting the coming day when she would draw a deep breath. Her prediction changed as the day wore on and she with it, but still we had some fun over it. By now it was clear that her spirits would sag every afternoon, and I adjusted my routines in order to do as little as possible that might annoy her past mid-day.
I felt that she had begun to worry less about the return of her Davnoy, or about the arrival of those who would seek him. These latter people, unknown as they were to me, worried me un-mercifully, however.
I contrived, during these days, to learn her age — she thought she was just past her seventeenth year of age by now, for she had been born in the springtime — and she divulged also that she had some Khazar blood in her. For this information I exchanged my age, the fact that I am a Dregovichian clansman from far to the north, and that I came to this region with a hunting party about five and a half years before. I confided to her, as well, that my failing vision had caused my expulsion from that same hunting group when we were in the vicinity of Gonashi’s pasture, and I had been employed soon after by Sadruk, with the magistrate’s permission.
Sadruk, I also told her truthfully, had lost his wife of a fever, but I made it sound as if this had occurred not long before my appearance. I did not mention that Sadruk had a son, about two years younger than my twenty or twenty-one years, now away in Greece. I did not want to give her the advantage of hope in his impending return.
She claimed that on the morrow she would like to walk out-of-doors and look for doves and woodpeckers, and so, early that afternoon, we put our work aside, set a newly-made stew to simmer, and, before dusk, set about preparing for bed.
I was finishing my last chore of the dying day — gathering fuel for the stove from the pile in front of the house — when the air exploded with the sound of hooves and whinnies. From the road three horsemen reared up. While their tall, black, metal-adorned beasts pranced and blew steam, one dressed as a nobleman addressed me in a tongue more like my mother’s Baltic language than Sadruk’s Slavonic, yet a mixture of both: “Are you the physician spoken of by the shepherd Gonashi?”
I acknowledged that honor.
“We will have a word with you then,” he said, dropping elegantly to the ground. A plain sword protruded beneath his long fur coat, and he wore a thick necklace of silver chain.
The other two were soldiers, but I could tell only that much from their garb, which included a close-fitting cap or helmet of burnished leather. Or, if not soldiers, they were household guards. They too dismounted and tied the three horses to a tree.
The nobleman entered the house unbidden, but I bowed to him stupidly anyway. I barely squeezed in ahead of the guards, crushing my forehead against the lintel as I made haste.