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THE KING DIES


by Harold Lamb

Author of "The Boiling of the Warriors," "An Edge to a Sword," etc.

THE roar of the cataracts drowned all other sounds. It was a mighty voice, that of Father Dnieper—the river that ran through the vast steppe of the Cossacks to the shores of the Black Sea, the borderland of the Turk.

Here and there where rocks thrust up in the gray flood, a veil of mist hung over the cataracts—mist foam-flecked, and colored by shifting rainbows.

It was late afternoon, in the Autumn of the year 1611 of our Lord. The only human being visible in the calm water below the cataracts was a thing of skin and huddled bones covered only partially by rags, a fisherman. He sat in a skiff at the edge of the reeds that lined the bank, holding a line of twisted gut.

Then he shaded his eyes and pulled in his line hurriedly. Out of the mist that drifted over the lower cataracts a man emerged in a canoe. Kneeling, Tatar fashion and using the short, broad oar as a paddle, he swept around a nest of rocks and plunged over one of the rapids.

For a moment, while the fisherman gazed from narrowed eyes, the paddler lost control of his craft. It turned broadside to the current, and swept down upon the last of the rocks.

Without hurrying, the man in the narrow skiff shifted his paddle to the other side, checked the rush of his boat, and reversed ends in time to fly past the glistening black stones. Unharmed, he glided out on the calmer current of the basin and directed his course toward the bank where the boat of the fisherman was anchored.

By now the watcher perceived that the man who had shot the cataracts was long and bony of figure, that his sunburned head was shaven except for the scalplock that hung from the ridge of his skull, like a cock’s comb. This meant that he was not a Tatar but a masterless man[1]—a Cossack.

So the fisherman, instead of pushing his boat to the shore and running away, laid some wet rushes and weeds over his catch of sturgeon. The Cossacks, he knew, were the defenders of the border against the all-powerful Turks and the Tatar tribesmen; but Cossacks had a way of being hungry and of taking whatever food came to hand when they were.

"Health to you, uncle!" The stranger checked his craft within speaking distance. "Can you tell me where the Siech is?"

At this the fisherman dropped his line in fright, and glanced from the corners of his eyes down the broad river. Here, where the Dnieper widened were hundreds of islands, fringed by reeds and willows. On one of these islands was the Siech, or war-encampment of the Zaporoghian Cossacks. [2]

In the Siech gathered adventurers, wanderers, restless Cossacks—all who were sworn enemies of the Turk. Sometimes the Zaporoghians numbered thousands, sometimes hundreds; usually they were at war with the Moslems or the Polish nobility that claimed them—fruitlessly—as serfs by feudal right. The situation of this farthest outpost of the Christian swords was kept a secret. The camp might be on any one of the multitude of islands, all looking alike from the channels.

Only the Zaporoghians themselves, a few of the river-men, and the pedlers and minstrels who dogged the heels of the warriors knew the secret of its place. And the secret was well-kept because those who clung to the fringe of Cossack power knew that their bodies would be torn apart by the warriors if they betrayed the war-encampment.

A month ago a flotilla of the sultan’s boats had come up from the Black Sea with several thousand janissaries, armed and equipped to wipe out the nest of Cossacks. They had landed on the island where the barrack huts of the frontiersmen stood. But the warriors of the Siech had moved the day before to another island, on a whim which they afterward attributed to the intervention of good Saint Nicholas himself.

"You are not one of the Zaporoghians," the fisherman muttered from toothless gums. The stranger wore a leather svitza flung over his high shoulders; his lean arms were bare, his wide pantaloons were of the richest green nankeen. His sword was a Tatar simitar, and his beard, instead of falling over his chest, was trimmed to a point. And his brown eyes slanted slightly, suggesting Asiatic blood.

The fisherman did not wish to be tied in a sack and put to rest forever in Father Dnieper by the Cossacks for giving information to a spy of the Turks. Not he! The Dnieper banks were alive with enemies who would pay a round sum in gold sequins to learn the position of the Siech.

"Nay, old fellow." The stranger’s teeth flashed under his drooping mustache. "I am Demid, and I have come from the river Don in the Northeast. I seek a friend in the camp."

He waited a moment patiently.

"If you don’t speak up I’ll take one of those fish you’ve hidden and ram it down your gullet," he added without a trace of anger.

"Eh—eh!" The river man chuckled. "Now I know that you must be a Cossack knight. It is the way of the noble sirs to address a chap like that—only they threaten in the first breath, and kick a fellow with the second and throw him a silver piece with the third. They are splendid folk, but then, alas, they always scatter wealth as soon as they get it, on anything that comes to hand."

He sighed.

"Not for long are the same Cossack faces seen about here. Their noble limbs soon adorn the torture racks of the Poles, or fester under the mud of the Black Sea!"

Having completed his scrutiny of the newcomer, the old man now pointed downriver. Two hours’ paddling would bring Demid, he said, to some large islands. If he would look then on the left hand, toward the Tatar bank, he would see one with three oaks standing on a knoll at its head. The Siech was on the island below this.

"But if you are really going to the camp," continued the fisher, "you must swim to the island, or find a horse and jump him over the mud wall, or get a Tatar’s head, somehow, and tie it to your belt. Every Zaporoghian must perform some feat, to distinguish him, or the noble knights and their leaders will not drink with him."

Demid nodded, and tossed the other a gold coin that flashed in the sunlight. The river-man caught it eagerly and scrambled to his feet to bow like a marionette.

"By the Father and the Son, you are verily a noble knight. I will pray every saint’s day for your soul, after you have been slain by the Moslem swords. A true Cossack, as God is my witness!"

A half-smile touched Demid’s thin lips as he moved away. Still, the fisher, intoxicated by the glint of gold, called after him.

"May you earn endless glory in the steppe, good sir! May you slice off the head of a hero of the sultan himself. May the children speak your name, and the gray-haired bandura players sing of your Cossack glory when the high grass grows over your bones. And until then may you find gold and jewels—fine horses and silk garments—the fairest women of the infidels—the richest wine to warm your veins——"

The roar of the cataracts drowned his words.

 

SHORTLY before sunset Demid sighted the island of the three oaks and, steering to the left, passed slowly along a body of land bordered by rushes as tall as spears.

Although the young Cossack had lived in a wilderness and had hunted from the time when he was able to loose an arrow from a bow—although he studied the bank of the island carefully and analyzed every sound—he perceived nothing that indicated the presence of men, unless it were a haze in the air that might be smoke. When, however, some water-fowl flapped up from the shore-growth some distance ahead of him, he turned inshore and stood up in his canoe.

Whereupon the rushes were parted in front of him and a bearded face peered out over the muzzle of an arquebus.

"Halt and speak your name and rank! What the —— do you want?"

He submitted to inspection, and after a moment an arm reached forth and pulled in his canoe, and another voice muttered a warning not to break the rushes. Poling his boat through the forest of giant reeds, he touched the mud and sprang out to pull it up on the shore, with the help of the Cossack patrol that had challenged him. Several other skiffs were visible, and a stack of oars. Two of the guards took him along a faint path through willow-clumps, up over a grassy ridge to a wide plain.

Here in a bowl-like depression fires glimmered in front of him, and he passed lines of stalls where Jews and Armenians were selling brandy, food and garments to a smattering of Cossacks. On the other side of the path forges, sunk in the earth, were clanging and clattering as sturdy smiths labored at mending swords or beating out dented armor.

Entering a wall of dried mud, Demid for the first time saw the thatched roofs of the Zaporoghian kurens—the barracks. Between these were wide squares where groups of men sat at ease with their pipes, or ate their supper of kasha and barley cakes. In other groups where corn brandy was flowing he saw warriors leaping about in the wild dance of the steppe, their silver heels thudding on the hard packed earth, the firelight mingling with the red glow of sunset to crimson their sweating faces. A shout of approval at some feat of the dancers broke through the muttered voices that accompanied the strumming of the banduras.

Some of the warriors called a greeting to the two who escorted him, and looked at Demid carelessly.

"—— take you Vladimir, and you, too, Ostab—what have you got there?"

"A Tatar, good sirs."

A roar of laughter greeted this. "Ostab has caught a Tatar—must have set out a bowl of milk for him to lap!"

Demid had passed the last years in the river-watch on the upper Dnieper, where he rode patrol alone, and—although he had his share of fighting—he had never entered a gathering of warriors before. These were tall men, almost invariably, and all bore scars of some kind.

"No, no!" shouted a pock-marked giant, looking up from a throw of dice, "Look at his beard! Hide of Satan! It was trimmed by a Polish wench. Don’t you see he’s a Pole—fell off his horse, by my faith, and couldn’t get up again. So Ostab caught him."

Demid did not see Ayub, the stout knight of the Urals who had befriended him not long since on the Dnieper. He forebore asking for his acquaintance, until he had been examined and passed by the koshevoi ataman, the chief of the Cossacks.

At the entrance of a small hut in the center of the camp several warriors were at dice, while others were chuckling over a Turkish chess-board on which two of their number were rolling about the gold and silver chessmen, heedless of the rules of the game, which they could not play. The thin faces of vagabonds were pressed over the shoulders of wandering boyars, noblemen who had gambled or warred away fortunes and had come to the Siech for the last throw of fortune that could end only in death.

A man with a black beard and a priceless ermine coat spotted with tar rose at their coming. Demid squared his shoulders, sniffing the air heavy with smoke, with the scent of dried grass and sweating sheepskins. The koshevoi ataman glanced at him keenly, listened to the report of the guards, and asked briefly if Demid believed in God, and Christ.

"Well, then, Cossack, cross yourself and join whichever kuren you prefer."

"Ayub is my brother-in-arms. I will go to his kuren."

The brows of the Zaporoghian chief knitted together, and he looked at Demid long and searchingly.

"In what manner did this fellow come to the camp?" he demanded at length of the guards.

"Like a fisherman, sitting in a canoe," grunted the one named Vladimir scornfully. "A woman’s feat, that!"

Demid recalled the warning of the riverman, that each recruit to the ranks of the Siech must perform some feat, to be welcomed by the gathering on the island.

"Take him to Ayub, if he wants to go!"

The chief turned back to his hut, and Demid was escorted, not to the line of barracks, but to the central square where a torch burned beside the great drum that served to muster the men of the camp in an emergency.

Here he beheld a long spear stuck into the ground. Bound to the spear by cords that held his arms above his head was Ayub.

Demid’s solitary friend in the Siech glanced up, and hung his head. He lacked both sword and cap.

"He is a thief," said Vladimir bluntly. "One of the bravest of our ranks, a thief! This dawn was he strung up as you see, to abide here for three days. If, at the end of three days the four hundred gold sequins that he stole—or an equal value—are not restored to their owner, he will be cut to pieces by Cossack swords."

The sentry shifted his arquebus to the other shoulder, and added in a lower tone:

"Do you wish some fine mead, Ayub? Or some gruel and bread? A man must die, you know—that always happens—still, by my faith, a comrade need not starve."

Ayub shook his head.

"Leave me Vladimir and you, too, Demid. I am a thief."

The guard went away, but Demid sat down on the drummer’s bench near by and took out his pipe and tobacco sack. Lighting his pipe at the torch, he studied the burly form of Ayub thoughtfully.

"Tell me why you are a thief."

It was no easy matter to get the veteran to talk about his crime. The bandura players, he said mournfully, would not mention his name, hereafter; children would point at him; his old comrades of the Siech—and Ayub had many—would forget him.

To steal, in the camp, was one of the greatest of crimes. The night before Ayub had been drinking, in the stalls of the camp-followers. He had run out of money and had gone back to his barracks to sleep. In the dark, he had thrown himself down in another man’s sheepskins. But that often happened.

In the morning, the ataman, the captain of the barracks, had discovered that a sum of money he had hidden in the earth under his sleeping-robes was missing. Four hundred sequins had disappeared during the night. Ayub had been seen by several of the warriors to go into the shed and fumble around among the sheepskins. The koshevoi ataman was called to investigate, Ayub was searched, and a half-dozen of the gold coins were found in one of his coat-pockets.

"—— take me," muttered the Cossack, "if I laid hand on one of Boron’s coins! I went to sleep, right off, in the barracks, and did not move until dawn."

"Who is Boron?"

"A bogatyr, a hero—he’s my captain." Ayub considered. "That’s the worst of it. Last evening, in a Jew’s dram-shop I said that he was the only Cossack in the camp who was rich—who didn’t spend all he had on his comrades, like the rest of us. The Jew repeated what I said."

Two things had weighed against Ayub in the minds of the Cossacks. First, he had slighted Boron who was one of the most reckless among men who admired daring in any form. Only on their last expedition to the Black Sea, Boron had led the boats of his kuren to the strait of the Imperial City [3] itself, and burned down the Pharos, the light-house. Half of the kuren had been wiped out and Boron had fought his way through the ranks of the Moslems singlehanded and escaped with his life by swimming. In the last year he had taken a cart-load of spoil from the Moslems.

Second, Ayub had claimed to be penniless when he left the drinking-place. But in the morning some gold-pieces had been found in his pocket.

"Why did you say that against Boron?" asked Demid after a while.

"Because I had been drinking corn brandy."

The veteran shook his head sadly.

"Besides, it’s true. Up the Dnieper, where you came from, the captain has a tower, guarded by serfs, that glitters like a princess’ arm with gold and such things."

Demid nodded. He remembered the tower. He puffed at his clay pipe for a long while. The bustle of the camp disturbed him—who had come from the east where the tribesmen tended horses, and lacked for human companionship. He was troubled. He liked Ayub very much—the stout Cossack had befriended him, and that was a debt that must be paid. But how?

"Four hundred sequins," he reflected aloud. "I have eighty, taken from a Greek merchant, up the river. Will your comrades add more to it?"

Again Ayub shook his head. Many of his cronies of the kuren had died at the Pharos; the others were stripped of gold and gear by now—the raid on the sultan’s towns had been two moons ago, and Cossacks never kept their spoil for long.

Demid gazed up at the canopy of stars beyond the spluttering torch. His comrade could not have been so drunk that he took Boron’s coins without knowing it Ayub had a hard head, when it came to mead or brandy. It was curious that he should have overlooked the gold-pieces in his pocket. But then the true thief might have placed them there when he dug up the captain’s treasury.

"Of course Boron has wealth enough," muttered Ayub, "but the hero is angered at me. Besides, why should I ask him? See, there he is by the koshevoi’s hut, playing at chess."

He was surprized when he saw that Demid had left his side without making a sound.

In fact the man from the Don had sauntered over to the group by the chief’s fire. The hero Boron reclined on a sable robe, taking up the Turkish chessmen and explaining to a group of listeners the powers of the various pieces and cracking a jest about each.

Boron had wide shoulders and muscular hands—a hawk’s nose, and keen, attentive eyes. A bold man, and hard, Demid thought. No man could say that Boron had a loud tongue and a quiet sword. Apparently the bystanders lacked skill to engage him in a game of chess.

"Good sir," said Demid, "will you play with me?"

"Or with Satan himself!" Boron’s teeth flashed under a black mustache. "If you have a wager to put up, on victory. What man are you?"

"It is Ayub’s new brother-in-arms," answered some one, and the bogatyr surveyed the young Cossack with a quizzical smile.

"Have you skill at this game—comrade of Ayub, the thief?"

"Some little have I learned from the friendly Tatars of the Don," responded Demid promptly, and the onlookers nudged each other, whispering that the new recruit looked like a Tatar.

But Boron waved them aside when Demid poured out the gold-pieces from his pouch to the ground beside the board. "Here are eighty sequins, noble sir, and with them will I wager my leather coat and silk girdle, set with blue stones—against a hundred gold-pieces."

The amount caused the watchers to stare, but Boron immediately counted out that number of coins and shoved them out with his foot. The two men set up the pieces and Boron began the play, moving his miniature warriors out carelessly and talking with his friends the while. Soon, however, he frowned and began to devote all his attention to the game.

Demid had put forward a skirnish line of pawns that broke up the older man’s attack and cost him a piece. Boron tried to sweep away his adversary’s defense, and exchanged knights and rooks readily but found himself the loser by another piece at the end of the maneuvering.

"The ——!"

He swept all the men off the board.

"I yield you this game and the hundred sequins. Come, double stakes the next time—two hundred gold coins each of us will wager. My word is good for the amount, is it not?"

He glanced up at the watching Cossacks.

"It is, bogatyr—indeed, what ant out of a dunghill would question your word?"

Demid, setting up the men anew, nodded. It was what he wished, for now the value of four hundred sequins lay on the issue of the second game. Word of the large wager spread through the camp and warriors strolled over to watch the progress of the miniature armies on their wooden battlefield. Little did the men of the Siech know about the game, but the meaning of a piece lifted from the board and tossed aside was clear to them. That knight or that bishop had been slain.

Boron played as swiftly as before, but in silence now, his lean face impassive, his eyes glittering. When he picked one of Demid’s valuable castles from the board the watchers drew their pipes from their lips and nodded to each other.

"Hey, this fellow Boron knows what he’s about, hide of the —— He can match a king with a knight—he has a head like a prince!"

Quietly, the man from the Don met the ataman’s attack with all his skill. The gold-pieces that lay beside his knee would ransom Ayub, if he could win the game. And he was holding his own, although he knew now that Boron was the better player, and that the first game had been lost through carelessness.

Under cover of Boron’s main attack, the ataman had advanced a pawn to Demid’s last line of squares, where, by the rules of the game, it became a queen. Eagerly the Zaporoghian made a move, and cried:

"Shah ma’at <ref>Shah ma’at—sheikh ma’at—checkmate.<ref> Your king dies!"

Demid looked up quickly, and presently he smiled.

"The king dies."

The game was over; he had lost, and he handed over his coat and girdle to Boron who swept up the gold-pieces. But so gravely had he spoken the three words that the bystanders and Boron stared at him searchingly.

"Well, you won’t ransom your comrade, Ayub, after all," remarked the ataman. "Unless you can bring up your Tatar allies who taught you chess and set the Siech at war. Then the drum would be beaten, and Ayub would be freed and given a sword, to fight like a Christian instead of dying like a dog."

And, rolling himself in his sables on the ground, he went to sleep. But Demid remained sitting by the embers of the fire until dawn showed him the scattered chess-men—the kings and warriors lying helpless beside the stage where they had moved in pomp and ceremony a few hours since.

Then Demid stood up, his simitar under his arm, and went over to where Ayub half-lay, half-hung against the stout spear. The prisoner turned a drawn face toward his friend and blinked wearily. Presently, as he noticed that Demid lacked coat and girdle and purse, his beard bristled in a smile.

"Eh, I see that Boron left you your pantaloons. The good knights who passed by on their way to the barracks spoke of your game."

"He plays well."

Demid glanced back at the prone figure under the sables. No one was watching them. He could cut Ayub down and they might escape from the Siech, but Ayub would not do this. To flee out of the camp like a stoned dog, and live thereafter in some distant village—no, Ayub would not do that.

"Hearken, Ayub," said the man from the Don, "I am going from the Siech. You have two days more of grace. Before sunrise of the second day I will be back. Look for me then."

"Nay, Demid, what the —— are you about? Just hear the lad—hasn’t been in the Siech for breakfast yet, and has done nothing but make an ass of himself at chess! To slink out of sight! That won’t help you make friends among the fine knights, at all——"

But Demid had disappeared already into the thin, morning mist.

The gray curtain of mist was heavier over the river, and he was able to take out his canoe and thrust it through the reeds without being observed by any one except a sleepy sentry. Answering the challenge of the guard, he explained that he was setting forth on a hunt.

As soon as he was clear of the rushes, he headed north. Coming that noon to the cataracts, he left his boat in the keeping of the old fishermen who had wished him luck, and struck inland, through the dense oak forest that lined the western bank of the Dnieper.

 

IT WAS toward the end of the third watch, in the second night of Demid’s absence, that Ayub was roused from a doze by a sound near at hand.

The limbs of the big Cossack were stiff, and utter weariness held down his eyelids. He thought at first that day was come, and the cooks of the kurens were starting up the fires. But the stars were still brilliant overhead and no lights showed by the black bulk of the barracks. Even the late revellers had stumbled into their sheepskins.

Ayub knew that the Siech slept, but not the full, deep sleep of a man who has eaten well and drunk his share of wine. The Cossacks had been quarreling; they were restless, under the long spell of idleness; most of the men were in debt to the Jews and Armenians; money was a forgotten thing.

That day a Cossack had killed another man, and had been buried alive under the coffin of his victim. What would you? The Zaporoghians loved not idleness.

The sound caught Ayub’s attention again, and he made out the form of a man stooping to enter the hut where the drummer slept near the great drum of the camp. For a while he listened, hearing only a distant, heavy breathing. Probably the drummer was going to sleep, he thought.

Before long he saw the form of the man again. This time it went away from the hut, still stooping. Ayub nodded drowsily, and half-heard something sliding over the hard earth behind the nocturnal visitor. It seemed to him to be a sack of meal or corn. The man and his burden vanished in the darkness, going toward the stables.

Ayub gritted his teeth against the cramping pain in his limbs and looked toward the east. By the feel of the air he knew that dawn was not far away.

Boom—boom!

Almost at Ayub’s ear the drum—a bull’s hide stretched over a wooden frame—resounded to powerful blows.

Ayub twisted around in his bonds and stared vainly into the shadows. The drum roared on. He wondered why the drummer was without a light and why the koshevoi alaman had not been aroused before the alarm was sounded.

Lights flickered in the windows of the barracks. Boots thudded on the ground, but no longer in the hopak and trepak of the dance. The fire by the chief’s hut blazed up and Ayub saw the koshevoi stride out, buckling on his belt, his baton in hand. Around Ayub masses of Cossacks gathered, and in the cleared space by the drum the leader and the captains of the kurens assembled.

A voice cursed sleepily.

"Who beats the muster at this hour?"

Demid was standing by the drum, pounding it with the flat of his drawn sword.

Torches and lanthorns were brought and the chief looked at the young Cossack inquiringly.

"Where is the drummer with his sticks? What does this mean?"

Still keeping his sword in hand, Demid bowed to the chief of the Cossacks and glanced around the ring of faces that peered at him angrily.

"It is time, good sir, that the council of the Siech was assembled.

He pointed at Ayub.

"Too long has that man been strung up like a drawn ox."

The clamor of astonishment and fury that started up in the growing masses of Cossacks at hearing that a young warrior had ventured to call together a general council was stifled when Demid poured out on the drum, from a cloak that he carried under his left arm, a collection of glittering objects—gold goblets, jeweled buckles, strings of pearls and inlaid incense boxes.

"Here," he said, "is the value of more than four hundred sequins and the limit of time for payment of Ayub’s debt is not yet passed."

A mutter, as of wind stirring dried leaves on the earth, drifted in from the outskirts of the gathering. The Cossacks who could not hear or see what was going on were asking their comrades who stood nearer what it was all about. The mutter dissolved into impatient shouts.

"What dog has called the council to see a debt paid? Demid—who the —— is Demid? Put a halter around him—string him up by the heels. Where are the cooks with their kasha? To purgatory with the cooks, we’ll raid the dram-shops!"

This proposal drew forth a roar of approval. The warriors were hungry, their tempers frayed by the revelry of a few hours ago. Their hands sought their weapons, as several of the nearest strode toward Demid.

But when Boron, the bogatyr, stepped to the drum and began examining the spoil laid down by Ayub’s comrade, the Cossacks paused respectfully.

"By all the saints," shouted Boron, flushing, "these things are mine! The vagabond from the Don has gone to my tower and stolen them.

Again the mutter as of wind brushing through the forests—men whispered to those far out in the crowd what had been said. Then silence.

"Aye, they were yours," said Demid.

Thrusting his left hand into the long pocket of his breeches he pulled forth shimmering strings of pearls, necklaces and bracelets, and finally a double handful of stones torn from their settings—rubies and emeralds that flashed as they bounced around on the drum-head. An emperor’s ransom lay before the men of the Siech. No one had dreamed that Boron had so great a store of riches.

Looking closely at Demid they saw now that a cut ran across the back of one hand, that his shirt was tom open, that his forehead was bruised. When he forced his way into the tower of Boron, he had found it well-guarded by slaves, and among the slaves had been fair women of Cherkessia. Remembering this, he delved into the other pocket, using his left hand again. Upon the drum rolled anklets of inlaid ivory, tiny veils, sewn with pearls, pendants scented with musk, and toe-rings afire with diamonds. The head of the great drum was almost covered.

"Were these taken from your tower?" he asked gravely.

"As God is my witness," responded Boron incredulously, "they were, and——"

"This?"

Demid held out in the palm of his hand a signet ring, wherein glowed a single topaz, inlaid with the crest of one of the high officers of the Imperial City.

"Aye, and that. ’Twas taken from the hand of a Turkish vizier who fell to my sword at our last sally along the Black Sea."

"Aye, bogatyr, when half the men of your regiment laid down their Cossack lives."

Demid handed the signet ring to the koshevoi.

"Father," he said quickly to the chief, "I say that Boron lied when he accused Ayub. See, here, before you, is his wealth. He is not of the masterless ones, for he serves a master. And that is greed."

Hereat, the leader of the Cossacks stepped between the two men, looking first at Boron, then at Demid.

"Hard words! Demid, say all that is in your mind. Ataman, stay your hand until he has done. The time for the shedding of blood will come soon enough."

Boron, quivering with rage, dropped his hands to his sides and glanced at the sky in the east where the first streaks of dull red were showing.

"Ayub," said Demid slowly, "also spoke hard words against Boron. They were true words, as you see. Boron revenged himself by saying falsely that Ayub took his gold. While the old Cossack slept, the bogatyr put the six sequins in his pocket. The rest he carried around himself—for he lacked not of gold-pieces when he played at chess with me. So it is clear to me that Boron, having this"—he pointed to the drum-head—"sought the life of Ayub not because of a few sequins, but in revenge."

"And I say," added Boron calmly, "that one of us will sprinkle his blood in the earth before the day is here."

"Aye," assented Demid, "I claim the right of trial by combat."

He turned to the watching throng.

"Is it not fair, good sirs, that our swords should decide which of us is in the right?"

He had judged the temper of the Cossacks correctly. A shout of assent went up from the crowd: the koshevoi, who never had real authority except in time of war when his word was law, stepped back into the gathering, and a circle was cleared around the two swordsmen.

Ayub, forgetting his aches, tried to pull himself up higher on the spear to see the better, until his neighbors good-naturedly seized him and hoisted him to their shoulders.

For a moment after casting off the long leather coat that he had won from Demid, the bogatyr stood silent, the point of his simitar resting on the ground by his foot. It seemed as if he were listening for some sound other than the heavy breathing of men. At the end of the interval, he raised his weapon, saluted, and repeated quietly the customary phrase—

"To one of us life, to the other, death."

The violence of his anger had fallen from Boron; his eyes were bright and steady, the shadow of a smile on his lips. Demid had taken upon himself Ayub’s quarrel; if the man from the Don should be cut down in the duel, Ayub’s guilt would stand as before. Should Demid, by some chance, be the victor, his comrade would be free of all blame.

Such was the trial by combat in the Siech. Boron saw now how the stranger had planned for this, and in his salute there was a fleeting tribute to the courage of the man from the Don.

They stepped toward each other, and Boron began to attack at once, cutting swiftly at Demid’s waist. He parried his adversary’s answering stroke with a bare turn of his blade, forcing Demid to give ground.

The scimitars clashed and parted, the fine steel humming in the air; the boots of the swordsmen hardly made a sound, so swiftly did they shift position, wheeling around each other and darting in—two men who knew their weapons. They fought in the reckless style of the Moslems—both attacking at once, and leaping apart. Once their curved blades struck against flesh and bone, one or the other would be maimed. And yet Boron could not resist a tour d’ esprit, to show off his brilliancy.

He sprang forward with a shout, locked his hilt against Demid’s, and forced the right arm of the young Cossack high into the air. For a second the two stood, rigid until Boron disengaged and stepped back swiftly, smiling as he did so. Demid’s teeth gleamed under his mustache.

"Well done, bogatyr!" he cried, in acknowledgment.

Ayub noticed that after this Demid no longer gave ground. Pressing Boron back, until the scimitars flashed in the torchlight too swiftly for the eyes of the watchers to follow, he tried for the other’s throat with his point. But Boron got home beneath Demid’s sword.

And Ayub groaned, seeing that Demid was down on one knee, the muscles on the front of his right thigh severed by the sliding edge of the Zaporoghian’s weapon.

"Boron! Well struck, Boron!"

The Cossacks in the throng shouted and tossed up their caps, and some glanced regretfully at Ayub, whose life hung on the bogatyr's next stroke. Demid was crippled.

Boron was not the man to forego an advantage. With a shout of triumph he sprang in, slashing with a full swing of the arm. But in the same instant Demid staggered erect, on his good leg. His scimitar darted forward and Boron never struck the blow he aimed, because his right shoulder was slashed half through the bone.

Stifling a groan, the tall Zaporoghian recovered his weapon with his left hand and set his teeth. Blood soaked the sleeve of his injured arm and splashed on the earth. Demid, poised on one foot, waited for his next move. "Come, bogatyr—I can not advance to you."

There was no middle course. The fight was to a finish, and Boron, weighing the chances, saw that his best move was to knock Demid off his balance. For the last time, he feinted and rushed against his foe. Demid went down.

But before he fell the young Cossack had got home with his point, and his scimitar was thrust through the heart of his adversary. The eyes of the bogatyr opened very wide and his hands fumbled at the hilt that projected from his ribs. His feet, planted firmly, still upheld his body.

Now the koshevoi stepped forward, saying that the fight was at an end, and, putting his arm about Boron, laid the dying man on the ground.

"Hai, sir brother," he observed, "your days with us are over; may your Cossack soul find the glory that you earned on earth. Surely the bandura players will sing your name!"

A little sadly he handed Demid the scimitar that he drew from the body of the first swordsman and most reckless warrior of the camp. A commotion that had been going on for some time attracted his attention. Into the ring from between the legs of the warriors crawled a thin Cossack, his wrists bound together, and his knees tightly secured by a sash. Two long sticks were thrust in the belt of the newcomer, who was gagged as well as bound.

Absorbed in the sword play, the Cossacks in the crowd had paid him little heed.

"The drummer!"

Some one in the crowd began to laugh, and others, who were nearest him looked at Demid curiously.

"Hide of the ——! Demid has bound him with his jeweled girdle, so that he could use the drum himself."

But the koshevoi frowned and took one of the torches in his hand to examine the trussed Cossack.

"Demid did not do this!"

"How not, Father?"

"Boron won this girdle from him three nights ago and has worn it since."

He ripped the gag from between the man’s teeth.

"Who tied you up, you son of a pig?"

"Boron it was, Father. He fell on me in my sleep and lugged me to the stable. I have been an hour crawling here."

While the warriors stared, puzzled, the koshevoi turned the body of Boron over with his foot, looking from the drawn face of the dead man to the signet ring that he still held in his hand, and from that to the disgruntled drummer. Then he glanced at the sunrise, flooding the sky behind the trees. He held up his baton for silence, and listened, as Boron had done, for a sound other than the breathing of men.

A shrewd man the koshevoi and no stranger to the wiles of his enemies. Only a month ago, good fortune alone had saved the camp from being surprized by the Turks. This was the hour in which an attack might well be made on the Siech, and in this hour the drummer whose duty it was to beat the alarm had been made helpless by the man who owned a signet ring of the Turks.

It was the habit of the koshevoi to act promptly. He put on his hat and drew himself up, and his shout was heard over the square.

"Form the regiments under the colonels! See that each man has powder in his flask, and that his pistols are loaded! Send patrols out toward the river on every side."

The muttering of the lines of bearded faces ceased as if by magic. The Father, their chieftain, had put on his kalpak and lifted his baton, as if the Siech were at war. Yet war had not been declared, nor were any foes within sight.

Crashing forth in the semi-darkness of the morning, the summons of the drum dispelled their doubts. The drummer, at a sign from the koshevoi, was beating the alarm with his sticks on the bull’s hide, to arouse those who still slept. While men from each squad ran to the barracks for weapons that had been left behind—while the captains formed their companies and the colonels gathered around the chief, the veteran Cossack ordered that Ayub should be cut free of his bonds. This done, he turned to Demid thoughtfully.

"Young sir, you have ransomed Ayub with your sword. But surely you had hatred for Boron to accuse the famous knight in that fashion."

Taking off his cap—for the koshevoi now spoke not as the commander of a camp at peace but as a leader in war—Demid made answer:

"Father, when his blood was hot, when he waged the battle of the chess-board, he let fall a phrase used only by the Turks. Instead of ‘checkmate’ he cried ‘shah ma’at,’ the king dies."

"So, it must be that he played the game with the Turks."

The chief raised his head and the doubt passed from his eyes as a warrior spurred a pony between the company lines and reined in sharply—Vladimir, of the river-watch. He was smiling and his eyes were bright.

"Father," he said quickly, "we have seen boats drawing in to the reeds, and in the boats are the white turbans of the sultan’s janisseries. Well for the good Cossacks that they are armed and ready. There are many boats, coming to test the hearts of Cossackdom——"

"Colonels," the chief addressed those nearest him, "take your companies in column to the west side of the island. Hold the higher ground, above the rushes."

For the last time he looked at the ring in his hand, and cast it from him.

"It is an evil thing," he remarked quietly to Demid, "when a man sells himself to a master. My eyes are open now. Boron betrayed the position of the Siech the last time; in our raid upon the Black Sea he departed from us, going in among the Turks. He pointed out to them the new camp, and, by binding the drummer, he strove to delay our muster. Hai—he played with princes. But now the bandura players will be silent when his name is spoken."

His face lighted as he surveyed the two warriors standing helpless—Ayub too stiff and cramped to walk, and Demid on one leg—before him.

"You have done enough, Zaporoghians. We may not carry you with us to the combat. Abide here and lick your hurts, while we deal with the Moslems—thus!"

And he mounted a pony and wheeled away; wilfully heedless of Ayub’s prayers to be taken along.

Demid looked at his friend.

"Do you bind up my cut, while I rub your joints."

 

FULL day dawned on the almost deserted barracks. And the camp-followers, the Jews, the Armenians and the wine-merchants, standing on the mud wall beyond which they never came, listened to the discharge of musketry on the distant bank of the river, hearkening to the far-off shouting. Pleasure and excitement ran high among them, for the savage temper of the Zaporoghians was at an end. The warriors were fighting again, which meant that they would be good-humored again by night, and, if fortune decreed it so, owners of rich spoil.

So said the camp-followers. But, in the interval, they were staring at something unwonted. On the top of the drum glittered a mass of gold and jewels—apparent to the keen eyes of the hucksters. Beside the drum lay outstretched the body of one of the finest lords of the camp.

Moreover, and this puzzled the onlookers, two Cossacks, one tall and fat and the other young, were limping slowly out of the camp toward the river. While one moved with painful stiffness, the other hobbled beside him on a stick.

The warriors had their swords in their hands, and they were cursing their legs as they headed toward the sound of firing.

——————

  1. Rover, or masterless man, the true meaning of the word Kazak, or Cossack.
  2. Literally "Men from below the rapids."
  3. Constantinople.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1962, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.