Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chapters 1 - 3


Fear gripped the young girl as she raced frantically from the grove of ancient beech out onto the openness of alpine lawn. The snow-laden peaks of the Carpathians rose all about her - their raw, pristine beauty soaring high above the thoughts of horror that made her head ache and vision blur. Skirts and undergarments had been torn in her flight; voluminous red hair pulled free from its ribbons and entangled with broken twigs. Now, squeezing tears from her eyes, she stumbled across the grass and around jagged rocky outcrops - the clutching fingers of terror attempting to trip and consume her completely.

The mountainside itself resonated with an incessant chiming - a discordant clanging - church bells from the village of Lvov, nestled in the heart of the valley far below, peeling and tolling with a freneticism that served only to escalate her panic. Echoing shouts of alarm and distress intermingled and struck up the hillside - cutting through the entire valley with as much force as the glacier that had originally chiselled it from the ancient landscape.
Pushing through a scratching thicket of birch… gaining speed down a twisting herder's path… the full length and breadth of the valley thankfully opened up before her - the valley that had been her entire world since birth. At its head, to the east, upon the crest that monitored the myriad of gorges and rifts through the range, a warning beacon blazed. Thick black smoke climbed high into the chill of the morning sky. Several miles further, perched on an imposing granite escarpment, the smoke of a second beacon curled and eddied on a gusting, mountain breeze. Below her, the people of Lvov were scurrying from their cottages and barns up toward the fort on Castle Hill. Men yelled and swore - rounding up valuable horses and goats. Women gathered their children and some few belongings. All were hastily moving up to the safety of the ancient citadel.

It had been over five years - late in the autumn of 1513 - since the Tartar raiders had last invaded the village - but Aleksandra knew, without doubt, that the warning bells, the beacons and the turmoil below her meant just that was occurring right now.

She ran.

She ran and slid down the slope - goats bleating and scampering from her path - all her attention on getting into the village and to the protection of the fort with the others. Reaching the lower ground, jumping from rock to rock across a cascading brook that clung to the edge of the pastures, she turned, fleetingly, once more towards the top of the valley - stopping… balancing on an icy boulder mid-stream - mesmerized by the sight before her. Over five hundred Tartar warriors astride their muscled Mongolian steeds had peaked the ridge. Metal-studded brown leathers, topped with metal and leather helmets, glinted in the morning sunshine. All held swords, bows or lances in hand. At their centre was an imposing figure - an immaculate black stallion, fully two hands taller than all the others carrying a rider swathed in black leathers and furs. Great horns appeared to be sprouting from his scalp. He let out a yelping cry that echoed down the valley and rippled, chillingly, through Aleksandra's already overwhelming dread. Several of the mounts reared up on their hind legs and then all five hundred moved as one - galloping down into the vale with a thunderous roar that reverberated off the verdant slopes and amongst the granite peaks - clashing with the increasing din from the village.

'Oh dear God,' Aleksandra faltered in disbelief, almost slipping from the boulder.

She leapt the last few feet to the bank and coursed through the thick, wet grasses of the pasture - lifting her skirts as high as she dared, so that she would not trip.

Lungs burned, legs ached with an obsessive pain, but still she ran - hardly seeming to lessen the several hundred yards still between her and possible safety. The Tartars meanwhile had ridden down the full length of the slope and traversed half the valley floor. The thumping of hooves and the cracking of whips was deafening. Louder yet were the horrendous shrieks and hollers from the warriors themselves.

Now, between the village and the oncoming horsemen, Aleksandra staggered across a roughly dug field - pausing to catch her breath at a ramshackle wall that separated her from the next meadow. Pulling herself up the steps of a stile, scrambling to the top of the stone, shifting her weight to jump down to the far side, the piercing screams of the approaching horde pulled at her, distracted her. The valley suddenly seemed to topple … sky and mountains tumbling … the soggy black soil of the adjacent field coming up to hit her in the face. She felt her ankle being yanked… wedging in the stile - only slipping loose once her full weight had twisted it and thrown her deep into the mud. Pain immediately burnt up the length of her leg - a hot prickling sensation that numbed her completely. Attempting to resume her escape, her legs buckled beneath her … once more she was pressed firmly into the sodden dirt, in agony.
Sprawled awkwardly on the ground she peered toward the village - her throat constricting with escalating terror - and then she turned in resignation toward the horror of the Tartars galloping toward her. She stared at the majestic horses pounding at the earth. She stared at the thickly muscled warriors who waved their weapons and screamed. She just stared.


The familiarity of the call was uncertain….

'Aleksandra, get up, get up!'

'Dariusz…' she mouthed, unable to force even the slightest sound from her lips as he came into her field of vision.

Running across the fields he seemed to easily take the low walls and hedgerow in his stride. Pfzzzzzz… Aleksandra turned to see arrows shivering through the air - smacking into the mud several paces from where she lay. The mounted invaders were still several hundred yards off so the feathered missiles were falling short of their mark - but Aleksandra knew, not for long. She attempted to stand even as
Dariusz continued running toward her.
It wasn't until he was within a few feet of her that an arrow embedded itself deeply into the flesh of his chest - near the shoulder - with a thwacking, squelching shudder. He faltered, blood draining from his face, but still he ran - only dropping to his knees when he had reached her side. Swiftly he scooped her up into his arms and held her tightly - pressing his cheek to her forehead.

'Are you alright, Aleks?'

She did not answer, could not answer. All she was able to do was bury her face in the warming heat of his bloody chest and sob uncontrollably.

The charging Tartars were now less than three hundred feet away. Horses galloped. Hooves thumped and churned the heavy black soil. Warriors shrieked. Arrows continued to pierce the air and plunge into the ground about them.

Aleksandra bit her lip - attempting to stop her sobbing - staring in horror at the arrow, which was stuck firmly in Dariusz' torso, and then up at his face - contorted with fear and pain. His agony consumed her even as he turned with her cradled in his arms and rushed toward the village - tripping over stiles, twisting and veering to avoid the continuing onslaught.

The horsemen were gaining ground - quickly eating away the distance between themselves and their quarry.

Dariusz headed straight toward the outermost cottages of the village.

As they neared the closest, the thick thatch of the dwelling's roof burst suddenly, explosively, into flame. Debris and heat reached out to embrace them. Aleksandra flinched - jerking up and back in disbelief as flaming arrows shimmered through the air - hundreds of fiery missiles arcing high across the sky, leaving black pluming trails before coming to rest in the thatch of the ancient cottages. The blaze spread rapidly, unchecked - jumping from roof to roof, leaping and tumbling from cottage to barn. Dogs barked. Stray goats scurried into deserted laneways and streets now heavy with rolling sooty effluence. Flames licked hungrily at the wooden shutters and doors of the old stone buildings directly before them.

Aleksandra squeezed her eyes shut, pulling herself more tightly into Dariusz' chest as he dashed between the first of the cottages. The roaring blaze and thick choking smoke engulfed them immediately. Seconds later a score of Tartar horsemen rode through the same conflagration. Blinded by fear and billowing blackness, Aleksandra and Dariusz were buffeted by the strong bodies of the horses - flickering flame, menacing horseflesh and armoured-leather boots moving and knocking roughly all about them.

Aleksandra sensed Dariusz' desperation and confusion as he turned to and fro but she clung to him anxiously - that was all she could do. Smoke filled her lungs and burnt her eyes, distilling the realization that even with his efforts, they were, indeed, trapped. There was the glint of metal… one of the Tartars raising a sword. Orange flames caressed and shimmered along its length. Apparently, instinctively Dariusz ducked, pressing Aleksandra between himself and the foam-covered flank of one of the chargers.

The weapon sliced down through the haze, embedding itself in the flesh…

… of the animal directly behind them. The stallion screamed - a distressing utterance that Aleksandra could never have imagined - and faltered sideways - throwing its rider to the ground.

Dariusz turned frantically, but was once again caught between the bellies of two of the mounts. A large Tartar boot angrily, solidly, kicked him in the chest - inches from Aleksandra's horrified gaze. The heavy boot clipped the protruding arrow, pushing it deeper into Dariusz' flesh and then breaking it off just above the skin. He let out a deep agonized yell.
Abruptly he stumbled and dropped, awkwardly, to the ground.

Aleksandra screamed, falling with him - slamming awfully onto the cobbles. The hooves and legs of the warriors' horses now towered around them. Metal-plated hooves thumped into the dirt and loose rocks about their prone bodies. She felt as Dariusz gripped her once more and began to roll - pulling her with him. They rolled under two of the horses, then a third. Trail-sharpened hooves struck down repeatedly - cutting into Dariusz' legs and back as somehow he tried to guard her from the blows. The full weight of one horse bore down brutally against him, pushing the breath from Aleksandra's own lungs, as she lay protected beneath his body. The anguish of Dariusz' yell - his cheek pressed against hers - could only make her wish for immediate death. Please, the unphrased plea seemed to plunge through her mind.

They kept rolling.

Masked by flame and smoke, they tumbled free from the melee and under the raised wooden door of a small barn that bounded the lane. It was the blacksmith workshop.
Enveloped by the dense smoke - the roof and timbers above inscrolled by curling flames - Aleksandra unexpectedly felt some small sense of relief, in the middle of all that was occurring, as Dariusz rose from the ground and pulled her to her feet - holding her full weight so as to keep it off the twisted ankle.

He held her for a moment, just a moment, gazing down into her eyes from a face streaked by dirt, tears and blood. Aleksandra could no longer cry. In the imagined security of the blazing enclosure, she let herself swim within the teary pained depths before her - knowing now that what she had long hoped for was mutual. Warmth encompassed her completely as slowly, deliberately, Dariusz leant down and placed his trembling lips upon hers - a slight, inexperienced, brush of the flesh - before lifting her fully up into his arms once more and carrying her to the rear of the workshop.


Aleksandra covered her ears …attempting to push the noise from her mind…

…Outside she could still hear the galloping and chomping of horses, shouting horsemen and the screams of villagers - villagers unable to make it to the safety of the fort in time.
Suddenly, the front doors of the workshop were kicked open and two Tartars came in on their steeds - spying Dariusz and Aleksandra near the rear of the burning building instantly. They glanced at each other and smirked - a curl of the lips that accentuated their unshaven chins and unusual black slant of their eyes. One of them peered directly at Aleksandra through the haze and reached for his codpiece - giving it a reassuring tug. He chuckled to his companion and spoke in strange words that were muffled by the crackling flames above.
Their horses pulled in uneasily amongst the walls and bails of hay now fully aflame.
The larger Tartar freed the bow from his back-strap and deftly pulled an arrow from his partner's quiver. Aiming directly at the two near the rear of the barn, he smiled and, with a grunt, released the feathered missile. The arrow cut through the air, whistling along the full length of the workshop toward its target. Smoke parted and curled in its wake. Aleksandra stared numbly within the split second of ensuing death - sensing more than actually seeing the entire burning roof structure above them all groan and then abruptly, haphazardly cave in. Flaming beams and thatch fell upon the horsemen - crushing and devouring them in a dust and blaze that churned and sparked. At the same instant Dariusz used all his body weight, and Aleksandra's, to crash through the wooden back wall of the shop - just as the arrow thudded into the timber where they had stood.

They hit the ground amongst splintered and smouldering debris in the lane outside. Dariusz scampered to his feet, still holding her securely. His wound continued to bleed profusely down his breast - soaking Aleksandra's own ripped and burnt clothing.

Moving - stumbling - through the service ways and alleys of Lvov, they passed deserted markets, churches and public buildings. There were several bodies lying on the cobbles. They hurried past the corpse of a young man they both knew well - several arrows in his torso and an arm half hacked off by a Tartar sword. Aleksandra turned from the slaughter and pushed her face against Dariusz' vest - the crimson-soaked material sticking to her skin. Still they kept proceeding as rapidly as they were able; circling around blocks where they heard the horsemen, doubling back if needed, but at all times heading up toward the safety of Castle Hill Fort. Climbing the steeper streets, Aleksandra gazed over Dariusz' shoulder, back down into the centre of the town. The market square hall, well over a hundred years old, burned ferociously. More than a quarter of the stone and thatch dwellings also burned - sending a dark black haze up into the sky to mix turbulently with the clouds that hung low across the roof of the valley. Tartars on horseback roamed everywhere filling sacks with plunder from the homes, stores and churches. She spied one of them loading a wagon with silks and rugs that had come into Lvov from the Eastern trade routes. Tightly, she clutched to Dariusz.
'Aleks,' she heard him whisper, the grating fear evident in his voice as he pointed to the far crest of the hill. To the west a band of Tartars were galloping up toward the front gates of the fort - coming between them and their only chance of survival.

He swung around, desperately searching the buildings that surrounded them for an answer. To their left was an open barn door - Aleksandra pointed - inside she could hear the anxious neighing of horses still locked in their stalls. Dariusz made his move, racing through the door and to the nearest mount - a large chestnut. He threw Aleksandra up onto it and then he mounted a white mare from the next stall.

The two horses and their riders rushed out of the barn. Aleksandra, thankful for the freedom of the chestnut, no longer heeded the pain of her swollen ankle - digging it furiously into the gelding's ribs.

They rode hard up through the winding cobbled lanes. This part of town had so far been spared the torch but even as they sped along, flaming arrows pierced the sky, landing on the thatch or shattering through the glass windowpanes of the more opulent residences. Up on top of Castle Hill, getting closer with each stride, Aleksandra could barely make out the villagers manning the parapets of the fort. Armed only with sticks and a few crossbows they could never hope to evict the assaulting Tartars from the village. At best they could defend themselves - and with several weeks of supplies in store, plus a deep well offering life-sustaining water, they might wait it out until the invaders retreated.

We've got to make it, she thought with some slight optimism - gripping the flying mane and kicking the flanks of her mount with renewing vigour.

They rounded a corner at full gallop - straight into the line of fire of a single Tartar warrior who pulled forcefully on the reins of his own steed and turned toward them. Drawing his sword, already bloody from conquest, a menacing delight flickered across his eyes. He let out a guttural yell and jabbed his heels into his horse - urging it swiftly forward.
'Ride, Alex, go! Please go!' yelled Dariusz above the war cry - slapping and kicking her horse on the rump.

Aleksandra hesitated but then pulled the chestnut to and raced off up a crooked side lane. Riding up the slim passage she turned to see Dariusz face the warrior alone.

He had no weapons.

The Tartar sped toward him, sword wielding, yelling relentlessly. Dariusz stared defiantly - visibly bracing himself for the inevitable. With the horseman almost upon him he suddenly pulled the white mare about and leapt to the ground, behind its bulk. The Tartar yanked roughly at his reins, grunting angrily, to circle around for a cleaner strike; however, an unexpected movement from the right distracted him, as Aleksandra knew it would. Sitting high on the chestnut, she bore straight down upon him, her fear replaced by hatred as she stared him in the face - at the knotted black hair and swarthy blood-streaked cheeks. The Tartar lifted his weapon in intended retaliation but the chestnut collided with him and his Mongolian steed with a bone-splintering crash. Horseflesh smacked fiercely into horseflesh. The Tartar plummeted to the ground and the two horses collapsed and rolled over him with a sickening squelch and grind. Saddles and stirrups flailed. Legs and tails circled skyward. Tartar and horses screamed. Aleksandra herself tumbled awkwardly up, over and through the air - hitting the ground heavily, skidding roughly over the stones. Her neck bent back with a sharp pain in the fall only to be confronted by the sight of one thousand pounds of dead horseflesh, flying saddles, hooves, snapped limbs and a bloody leather-armour-clad Tartar tumbling straight toward her.

And at that moment all went black.

* * *

Dariusz shuddered in a numbing shock … the mess of horses and Tartar stopping just short of Aleksandra. He had no time to check if she were alive or dead - he saw only the pristine whiteness of her neck arching back at an odd angle amongst the waves and flaming curls of her hair - fine droplets of horse and Tartar blood smattered along its entire length. In desperation he picked up the limpness of her body and threw it over the back of his horse. Snatching the dead warrior's sword, he mounted the mare behind Aleksandra and once more rode swiftly toward the entrance to the fort. Anxiously, he saw the horde of Tartars climbing the slope toward the same goal.

With one hand holding tightly to Aleksandra, he urged the mare to gallop as fast as she was able.

But so did the Tartars who now saw his flight.

He yelled to the men on top of the fort wall - his voice almost hoarse from his concern and fear, and exacerbated by the smoke that had left a pungent bile within his mouth and throat.
Tartars screamed fiercely, waving swords and sending a cavalcade of arrows through the air.
Dariusz closed the gap between himself and the gate.

The invaders closed in even faster.

Arrows flew…

…Several struck the white mare in the shoulder and neck causing her to scream and wrench in pain. Others whizzed past Dariusz' face … he ducked and kicked his heels more firmly into the mare's bloody sides.

The fort gate grated… slightly ajar.

The mare hurtled across the last several paces and stumbled through the opening as it was pushed shut behind them with a scraping shudder. She collapsed - throwing both Dariusz and Aleksandra to the ground in a tumbling unconscious heap.

The sharp blade of a throwing axe thudded into the thickness of the wooden barricade.

Several hours passed before Aleksandra started to regain consciousness.
Lying on a mound of hay on the barracks floor, she drifted in and out of a seemingly fractured reality. Eyes still closed, she could feel the softness of a blanket delicately laid over her by one of the old women of the village. Her ankle and head ached terribly but the warmth and soft prickling of the hay beneath her gave some comfort. Though not really awake her small hand stroked another's. She felt its strength - its familiarity. Tenderly she caressed the fine hair on the back of the hand and then, letting the fingers entwine, touched the reassuring row of calluses that crossed the top of the palm. With delight she sensed the pulse of blood and life as it flowed through that hand - through the hand of the one she now knew she …
Slowly she opened her eyes and turned to gaze at Dariusz. He slouched in the hay - his bare back leaning against the smooth-stone wall. He was fast asleep. His head tilted down to one side so that the new stubble on his chin brushed against his naked shoulder. The mop of straight brown hair hung scruffily over his face - hiding thick eyebrows and lashes, but unable to camouflage the intensity that, even in sleep, was evident in all of his features.
Aleksandra smiled - noticing that even heroes dribbled in their sleep.

Pondering her … her thoughts… for this boy… for this man… her gaze fell to the bandages on his chest. Her heart wrenched. The broken arrow was still embedded in Dariusz' flesh and protruded slightly through bloody cloths. The chest hair was matted with blood; His left arm spasmed as he slept.

She pulled herself up to assist him, but then awkwardly grasped at her own head … a sharp pain shooting through it from front to back.

'Hold on there, missy. Don't ye try to be handling too much at once.'

Aleksandra started but then recognized the voice of old mother Baranovsky. She had owned the millinery store in the centre of Lvov for what must have been forever. And as she had been around forever she knew everything about everything and everyone.

'And don't ye be getting no ideas about that young lad while he be sleeping.'

Aleksandra felt herself blush - gratefully accepting a cup of hot chamomile from the old mother. She loved and respected the elderly woman. Indeed, she had often wondered why her father hadn't married her, as they were well suited in their ways.

'Father!' breathed Aleksandra in renewed fear.

She peered around the barracks - desperately searching for that familiar oilskin cloak or thatch of greying red hair. About thirty villagers lay on the floor or sat at old wooden benches. Most had blankets and were trying to sleep. Others cried. The wretchedness of the room and its inhabitants frightened her. Old mother Baranovsky, tending a young mother, seemed to sense her thoughts.

'Don't ye worry, my dear. Your father fares well and has already checked on you at least a dozen times in the last hours while ye be sleeping. He be outside doing what a man in his position needs to be doing at this time. A fine man is he.'

Aleksandra was appreciative that her father, Father Lisowska, was indeed a well-respected citizen of Lvov. With his robust stature and resounding voice he had long been a stabilizing influence for the town-folk from his High Street Kirk. She recalled fondly that, though a man of God and papers, it was not unknown for him to drink all of the younger men under the table and beat even old farmer Kulid at backgammon. But that made the men respect him even more. His dear wife Anna had died sixteen years previously, while giving birth to Aleksandra. But Aleksandra took consolation that he was not lonely. He had the town. He had her. And still Anna was alive for him, as he watched his daughter go through her daily chores and sing to herself while discovering the simple joys of life in the valley.
Aleksandra was his greatest happiness, as he was hers.

After a few minutes, and having drained the cup of chamomile, Aleksandra stood up against the wall. She crouched, brushing her fingers over Dariusz' hair, and then hobbled her way to the heavy wooden door of the barracks, the muffled sounds from the fort outside beginning to take on clarity as she approached. Pulling on the handle Aleksandra was completely unprepared for the scene that addressed her when she swung the door open.

The inside of Castle Hill Fort was chaos.

Several hundred villagers crowded into the confines of the old wood and masonry structure. Livestock were corralled near the western wall, but still a score of goats, pigs and dogs ran freely amongst the people who vied for space to huddle. Children wailed. Many mothers sat in torment - consoling their young. Most of the men and elder boys stood around the perimeter of the walls, on the roof of the barracks above Aleksandra's head, or guarding the single front gate. Dust and smoke from the village hung low above them all.

Aleksandra surmised that as soon as Dariusz had burst into the enclosure on the white mare, the great front gate had been shouldered shut by some of the larger men. Two fully laden wagons had then been rolled in front, hard up against the wooden boards and cross bracing of the ninety-year-old gate. Aleksandra hoped it would hold against the might of those outside. She shuddered when she spied the corpse of the white mare - pressed against the gate to lend its weight to their protection.

Her father, with his flaming red hair, stood defiantly, angrily, on a hefty crate in the middle of this chaos. Emphatically he was barking orders and giving blessing at the same time. He sent men to the top of the wall; commanded others into the cellars to re-count food-stocks; told another to go make peace with his wife - all the while hanging onto the ear of a young ruffian who, Aleksandra concluded, had been up to some mischief.

Father Lisowska turned and saw Aleksandra, his demeanour softening. Then, giving the young boy a clap on the back of the head and a boot in the backside for good measure, he jumped from the crate and strode toward her - smiling broadly.
Aleksandra received a welcome, big bear hug. His large cloak covered her completely and she felt safe as she cuddled into its darkness and warmth. The smell of his aged tobacco gave her immense comfort.

'I thought that I had lost you, my darling.'

Aleksandra held onto him even more tightly and elated in the reassurance of his embrace.
Father Lisowska picked her up and carried her back toward the barracks, enveloped in his cloak.

'This is no place for you out here with all these ruffians, my dear. Besides, best we go in and tend to that young man of yours.' Aleksandra felt herself blushing at his words, that he should be so perceptive.

When his bulk entered through the small door, old mother Baranovsky flashed him a look of disapproval.

'Well it be high time that ye stopped playing your games outside and come in to help where the real work be.'

'Oh, be quiet, old woman,' he said as he laid Aleksandra on the hay and gave her a sly wink.
Aleksandra smirked. She knew how fond he was of the old mother.

'The lad be fast asleep on chamomile and dill berry potion. He be ready for you.'

Father Lisowska eyed the sleeping youth, but before taking the tongs from old mother Baranovsky he bent down and roughly opened one of Dariusz' eyelids with his stout fingers. Holding the gaze of the old mother he reached deep into his cloak and pulled out his flask of old farmer Kulid's best.

'Just to make sure.'

He placed his thumb on Dariusz' fleshy lower lip, pulling it down to expose the whiteness of teeth. Urging the mouth open further he upturned the flask so that a few good chugs went straight in. Dariusz coughed and spluttered in his sleep, as the liquor burned over his tongue and down his throat - but still he slept.

Old mother Baranovsky handed Father Lisowska the tongs and then huddled close on the floor beside him - one hand on Dariusz' naked shoulder, the other braced firmly around the Father.

He gave Aleksandra another devious wink and then mouthed, 'Look away.'

Though she did as she was told, Aleksandra could feel the tongs grip the protruding end of the arrow. She could feel the tug of flesh as the shaft and its head were yanked from the chest; could feel the pain as Dariusz, even in a drugged state, gave a low guttural moan and began to cry faintly in his sleep. Tears escaped her own eyes.

Turning back, as old mother Baranovsky applied fresh bandages, Aleksandra sank into her father's side. Then, holding the hands of both Dariusz and her father, she too slipped into a deep, drugged sleep.


Dariusz and Aleksandra stood atop Castle Hill Fort's crumbling parapet. Leaning against the trunk of an old spindly tree that had somehow taken root in the masonry, they stared out across what was left of Lvov.

It had been several days since the Tartars had left the village, but still buildings smouldered and spot fires developed here and there. Some of the most imposing buildings in the centre of town were now no more than heaps of burnt-out rubble, however Aleksandra knew that Lvov would survive and prosper once more. This area had been inhabited for untold generations; had developed into a key trade stop on both East and West Caravan routes during the late 1400s. It would survive.

High above the dirty black haze that still clouded the sky she could see several cranes circling. They would soon be rebuilding their nests on the ancient chimneys of the town.

She turned to Dariusz who continued to survey the valley for any sign of threat. She thought of the touch of his cheek against hers - his lips upon her own that one tender time.
'Best I return to my chores before old mother Baranovsky chastises me,' she said at last.
Dariusz' lips parted as if he wished to say something but instead he was silent for a moment. Eventually he offered, 'Will you sit with me again when we sup tonight Aleks?' Absently he reached out and entwined a lock of her hair around his finger.

'And every night,' she whispered in return.

She held his gaze as she hobbled to the ladder and climbed down its rungs. She watched him put his hand to his breast - gingerly feeling the swelled tenderness of the wound close to his heart. And still their eyes were locked upon each other's.

* * *

That evening, after the supper of potatoes and salted meats had been consumed, the elders of the village gathered at a rickety old table near the kitchen fires. The matrons of the village went about their work but all the while kept keen ears open to the conversation. Aleksandra and Dariusz sat nearby, on the edge of the well, talking quietly.

'No! It is too early to go back out into the village!' Father Lisowska stated emphatically, causing all to turn toward him. Aleksandra noted how his face was flushing as red as his hair as this meeting tested his anger.

'But the beacons have confirmed that the invaders have left the valley, and our young scouts have not turned up any sign of them in the village,' retorted baker Kolessa.

'No, there is something wrong! The last Tartar invasion saw them stay in the town for several weeks, eating our food and stealing our wares. Why is it that they came and left within three days?'

'But the beacons, the scouts,' butted in Mr Klevan and old father Petryk in unison.

'I don't give a damn about the beacons and scouts. There is something wrong. We need to stay in the protection of the fort until we can be totally sure that the entire village and valley are clear.' Father Lisowska stood up in disgust and brought his large fist heavily down onto the table to ensure he would impinge on the group.

There was still much disagreement amongst the elders and the argument went on long into the evening. Eventually the matrons of the village also got into the heated dispute about whether or not it would be safe to leave the fort and start rebuilding their lives. Aleksandra listened anxiously but knew it was her place to remain silent. Finally it was decided that the matter would be settled by a vote. The most senior men of the village huddled around the table. The matrons stood staunchly behind them whispering in each of their ears. Flickering flames from the kitchen fires cast a glow over them all as one by one they voiced their vote.

They would be leaving Castle Hill Fort at daybreak.

Aleksandra knew that her father was barely containing his wrath but also that he would concede to the counsel of the group. He would, without a doubt, be praying for their safety throughout the long night ahead.

* * *

When the early morning sun slipped over the Carpathians and into the depths of the valley, the gates of the fort were hauled open. At first a few of the men scurried through them and then more and more villagers ventured out to find out what was left of their homes and possessions.

Aleksandra walked with her father amongst the crowd of villagers and livestock. Dariusz had gone ahead with some of the younger men that he worked with under the village stonemason. They would have a lot of work to do to rebuild the village, Aleksandra surmised. Walking their various ways down the cobbled streets, Aleksandra could not help but feel grief at the rubble and debris that surrounded them. Once-splendid cottages were now gutted and black. The carcasses of many, many horses and fellow villagers lay strewn about amongst broken pottery, furnishings and personal belongings discarded during the pillage. The villagers continued on in a deathly silence that was now and then punctuated by the sobbing of a distraught child or ragged howling of a mother who had found her husband or son dead amongst the wreckage.

When Aleksandra and her father wordlessly entered the village square they came to a standstill. The imposing central statue of Prince Danylo of Galicia stood blackened but intact. And to Aleksandra's amazement, Father Lisowska's kirk had also survived the onslaught. The Father fell to his knees and kissed the steps of the small stone structure, and then, still sitting on the ground, he turned to his daughter and cried pitifully. Aleksandra had never seen her father cry before. She had been told that he had mourned for several years after the death of her mother but she only knew him as a man of strength and confidence. Tenderly she placed her arm around his heaving shoulders and put her cheek to his.

A band of Tartar horsemen suddenly appeared from nowhere.

Galloping their Mongolian steeds into and around the confines of the square they yelled wildly, swinging their swords and lances through the air and through the flesh of stunned villagers. Men and women ran in all directions. Children were hurriedly picked up from the ground while others were left bewildered, crying on the cobbles. Another two groups of horsemen galloped at full speed out of surrounding lanes, cutting off any optimism of escape. A few of the men, Dariusz included, tried to fight back but were knocked to the ground by horseflesh and clubs.

Father Lisowska jumped to his feet. Aleksandra could feel the anger welling up inside him as he tightly embraced her.

There were now about thirty mounted warriors in the square, circling the villagers and forcing them to its centre. Bitterly they crowded and milled around the blackened statue. Father Lisowska pushed Aleksandra into the middle of the terrified group and then stepped valiantly forward toward the enemy. Before a word of anger or pleading could be uttered from his lips, a Tartar sword came arcing down - slashing through the collar of his cloak, through the skin, flesh and bone of his neck - separating his head from his body.

Aleksandra, buffeted amongst the crowd, succumbed to total shock - watching incredulously as her father's body crumpled to the ground. His arms and legs flailed violently and then he was still.

She could do nothing - unable to control the trembling that cascaded throughout her body; that drained the blood from all thoughts of consequence. This wasn't real. She just stood there, shoved by panicking fellow villagers. Blankly she stared at her father… at his cloak… at his outstretched hand… at the pool of blood spreading across the smooth stone of the square.
The blood.
Her blood.

The horsemen had trapped over fifty villagers in the square. Deftly they used their steeds and some well-placed slashes of their swords to separate the men from the women and children.
Aleksandra's horror escalated as they surrounded the men and herded them to the far side of the space. Though several yards away, she could still see Dariusz in the skirmish. The intense anger on his face frightened her. She couldn't lose him too.

Abruptly their eyes met.

Time stopped.

She gazed deeply into his eyes. Her love… yes, she was certain that's what it was… swam in their hazel brown hue and was reflected back with a passion and yearning equal to her own.
Clearly his thoughts came to her.
Then the horsemen struck.

Arrows were fired point blank into the men. Swords slashed and clubs hit with skull-splintering accuracy. Men fell, young and old. Dariusz too, fell amongst the heap of corpses after several arrows thudded into his torso - front and back. When, finally, the horsemen moved back from the carnage, the women and children of the village were able to see the mound of corpses that had once been their fathers, husbands and sons. And lovers. The men of the village were dead.

The Tartars turned about. The flanks of their steeds saturated in blood.

Closing in on the women once more, many of the survivors collapsed to the ground in a grieving, quivering shock.

Several of the horsemen then leapt to the ground, handling the captives roughly - separating them into three smaller groups. Aleksandra was yanked, shaking, into a cluster of ten young, frightened girls. She knew all of them well but it was Tetyana and Maryana that she now clung to - they having been close friends for all of their short lives. One of the Tartars drew near, inspecting their bodies, faces and hair. He brusquely checked teeth with his dirty-gloved hands. The girls, too scared to retaliate, let themselves be poked and prodded. None dared look him in the face. Forcefully he grabbed Aleksandra by the chin - lifting her gaze to his. He gave her a broad grin that smelt heavily of decaying stag and alcohol. His face shifted closer and closer to hers. She stared back numbly - devoid of expression or emotion.

Suddenly the horseman's countenance altered and he pulled away abruptly, as if an unexpected thought had occurred. He smiled once more - even more broadly than before - exposing a mouth full of chipped and rotten teeth.

Barking orders in a dialect not totally unfamiliar, two other Tartars rushed to the group of girls. Hessian bags were thrown over them one by one; then brutally they were shoved to the ground and their feet tied.

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Topkapi Palace