Buzzards, Hawks and Ravens
(Account of Six Friends' Lives in the "Dark" Ages)
- Shrovetide -
Jannes was impatiently sitting on the window sill in the big oriel of the
bower, staring through the fogged window panes at the gate. He only had blurred vision
through the streaky greenish glass panes overlooking the deserted inner ward of
Anzo was weary of Jannes' nagging questions. "Calm down, Jannie, I told you they will be here on time. Do you know how far it is from their home village across the border, all the way to Quentisburry? It's a strenuous ride of four days, and over there in the mountains there should still be a lot of snow."
Anzo, sitting at a table close to the window, was busy drawing a picture of the spring festival on a small sheet of parchment. He had already outlined the scene of young maidens in white gowns dancing around a maypole. Now he drew two groups of lads in colorful dress cheering on the girls. Thimus, sitting beside him, was sharpening quills, because he was practicing writing.
Berrit's mother, the Duchess of Quentisburry, looked over from her seat at the fireplace, blazing logs. The lady's chamber was the only warm room in the castle, besides the kitchen. She and her maiden enjoyed warming their backs, while doing the last adjustment stitches on the fancy costumes Berrit and Bastian would be wearing for the Shrove Tuesday Rumpus.
She loved the sight of Anzo and the two boys, but still she wondered why. On the first evening after Berrit's return from his successful campaign to free Anzo of Veldegg, she had been full of joy. Reclining in front of the fireplace after the evening meal, she dreamed of the marriage of Berrit to a beautiful girl, of four or five beautiful grandchildren, and lots and lots of great-grandchildren. She dreamed of being a happy grandmother.
When Berrit and Anzo had left the hall, heading for the patio to enjoy the sight of the town illuminated by the full moon, she took the hand of her husband to follow the two young men outside. Beaming with happiness she walked out onto the patio to tell Berrit of her dreams for him, but outside, her heart nearly ceased beating. In the silvery moonlight the two slender young men were leaning into each other in a tight embrace. The taller of the two had his arm around the neck of the smaller one, while the smaller one was holding the taller around the waist. It was a heartwarming picture of two people in love, but the lovers were young men. Berrit and Anzo were holding each other.
She was just about to shout out in surprise, when Duke Edo, catching sight of her sudden upset, took her in his arms and silenced her with a quick kiss and a smile. Leaving her at the door, he sneaked up to the two and embraced them from behind.
Anzo was nearly scared out of his wits. He turned paler than the moonlight and stammered, "Duke Edo, Duke E..."
The Duke, hugging the two youngsters even more tightly, responded smilingly, "Call me `father', Anzo! Call me `father', my boy! Don't be afraid; you and Berrit are both my sons now! I always wanted three sons, and now that Ivain is no more, you are the third one!" and he kissed both on the forehead.
Turning back to wife, he pleaded, "Come, my dear Lady, come closer. Embrace our new son, Anzo, Berrit's dearest friend! Make Anzo welcome in our family! Make him your son, too!"
Later, in the four poster bed, snuggling close to her husband, Berrit's
mother asked, "
The Duke just kissed her, "Don't worry, dear, only God knows the answer and he has made those two one heart and one soul! I know for sure they will be one till death does them part."
Now, many weeks later, she was happy! Taking a box with cookies from the shelf, she called, "Thimus! Jannes! My dear grandsons, I've got cookies for you! Come over here!" Enjoying seeing the healthy appetite of the munching kids, she reminded them, "Don't forget about my dear Anzo, he likes sweets as much you do."
Berrit and Anzo, Ruwen and Bastian and their two young friends, had moved into a big room on the second floor in the old donjon. Duke Edo was sure this was the safest place in the whole castle, because the walls were made of more than six feet of heavy boulders and the windows small, like loopholes. He reckoned that not even the fiercest enemy would able to break the walls or enter through the slits. The disadvantage of this safe room was that is was cold in the wintertime, freezing cold, because there was no fireplace. The room was furnished with three four poster beds and only one small table. The two bigger beds were for the young men, and a smaller one for the boys.
Thimus woke up freezing. Jannes was sleeping at the foot of the bed. He had stolen all the blankets and had left Thimus bare assed at the head of the bed. Thimus listened in the dark. Anzo was snoring in his bed at the other end of the oval room. Like a mouse Thimus scampered barefoot through the cold, drew back the curtain of Anzo's bed, slipped under the heavy cover and embraced his big friend. Anzo moved slightly, but didn't wake up. Thimus slipped closer, hugging Anzo tightly, trying to warm himself up.
"Get out of the bed. You are cold as an ice cone!" Anzo grumbled drowsily.
"I am freezing, I am cold, spoon me, please! You are my big brother!" Thimus demanded with chattering teeth.
Anzo couldn't help but smile and hugged Thimus tightly, kneading his cold bum.
In the other bed Jannes became subconsciously aware of Thimus´ getaway and started complaining, "Where are you, Thimus, please come back!"
Jannes got up when Thimus didn't comply with this wish. He stumbled through dark, over to Anzo's bed and tried to slip into it as well.
"He's my big brother, Jannes!" Thimus protested and Anzo added, "Quick, weasel over to Ruwen and Bastian, the Midnight Princes are waiting for you!"
Jannes couldn't believe this news. He had waited and waited and waited, till the midnight the bells sounded. Then he had fallen asleep and now they were back.
He rushed to the other side of the room and drew back the curtain to the bed of the Midnight Princes. Bastian and Ruwen were snoring back to back. He climbed across Bastian's head and tried to squish between the two.
Bastian woke up, turned around, hugged Jannes, and then spooned him, "Did you wait for us, Jannes? It's great to be back. Ruwen missed you terribly! He talked of you every night!"
"I missed you too! You came back late. For three days I waited at the window and you didn't show up." Jannes answered, sniffling, but then he decided to be a big boy, "But I didn't cry; never!"
Bastian sensed Jannes distress over the previous days. He drew him closer and whispered in his ear, "I missed you too; not only Ruwen did! But don't wake up Ruwen. He is dead tired. Let him catch some sleep."
But Jannes wanted to talk to Ruwen though, so, ignoring Bastian's request, he began to blow softly into Ruwen's ear. He was sure his big friend would wake up, because Ruwen was very ticklish. Sure enough Ruwen searched for the cause and turned away, still dozing. When the tickling didn't stop he woke up and turned back. Feeling Jannes´ arms around his neck he began to rub noses with the boy and whispered, "I am glad to be back again with you, Jannes. Now we are a family again, you, Bastian and I."
In the morning, Jannes first words to Ruwen were, "You are stinking; you really smell rotten. Didn't you take a bath during the last two months?"
It was true; Ruwen and Bastian smelled like they had been swimming in liquid manure. To get a thorough cleaning after breakfast, the five friends went to the castle bathhouse. The room was small and the tub had only room for two. As it was winter they had to save hot water. Anzo and Thimus were the first to step into the sunken bathtub filled with steaming water, because they were the cleanest. The water was still hot and clean when they left it. The second group to use the tub was Jannes and Ruwen. After Jannes had washed his friend's head with lousewort and rubbed his body with soap, the water had turned slightly grey.
Just when Bastian jumped into the tub, Berrit entered the bathroom. He was back from an inspection up in the mountains and hadn't had a bath for more than a week either. He needed a bath also, and asked, "Hey Bastian, can I join you in the tub?"
"You are welcome to join me, but it will be tight in here for two big lads. We are the biggest of us all."
"I don't mind! This way I will finally have the opportunity to touch you everywhere." Berrit answered sniggering, "So far this has only been Ruwen's privilege. I have never had a chance to lay my hands on you, at least not on your most sensitive parts!"
"Permission granted, if you promise not to treat me the way you treat Anzo in bed."
"Ha, ha, ha! I'll bet you would like my treatment! Anzo and I, we both enjoy each other as much as you and Ruwen do." After diving into the now lukewarm water of the tub, Berrit added laughing, "I promise not to treat you like Anzo! Not today! But tomorrow on Shrove Tuesday, everyone is allowed to make love to everyone else. There are no restrictions! Maybe I will catch you by surprise! So, be careful tomorrow!"
It was still dark when Jannes woke up on Shrove Tuesday. He waited for the roosters to begin their morning concert. Then he slipped out of the warm bed he shared with Thimus and tiptoed soft-footed over to Ruwen's and Bastian's big four poster bed. Pulling back the curtain just a tiny bit, he looked for Ruwen. His big friend seemed not to be in bed anymore, and only Bastian lay snoring in the bed. Then Jannes spotted two feet sticking out of the duvet close to Bastian's head, and remembered that Ruwen preferred to sleep with his head against the bed's foot, in order to escape Bastian's snoring. He began to tickle the soles of Ruwen's feet. This promptly made Ruwen start out of his sleep. "Is that you, Jannes? I overslept!" stifling a yawn, he told him, "Get going, sonny; strike the bell and wake up the sleepy-heads!"
While the others came to life protesting loudly, Ruwen picked up Jannes and carried him through the draughty corridors towards the chamber belonging to the ladies. Jannes snuggled Ruwen tightly and buried his nose deeply in his big friend's warmth. The nine year old boy liked to be carried like a baby and clasped Ruwen's waist with his legs.
"Your little butt is cold as ice!" Ruwen remarked, pressing Jannes against his breast, "I have to warm you, Jannie!" Kneading Jannes bum, he hurried down the dark corridors.
In the homey chambers of the ladies, the costumes for the Shrove Tuesday Rumpus were waiting for the six friends. All of them were ancient, traditional costumes, handed down from generation to generation. Especially the masks showed signs of ages passed. They were finely carved and polished by handling. Their faces showed strange and archaic expressions.
Berrit's mother and her maids had prepared the Shrove Tuesday dress for the boys. Jannes and Thimus were supposed to wear the costume of Baby Rams, the servants of the Njörd, the god of wind and fertile land. Their disguises consisted of long shirts of bleached linen, painted all over with small flowers. Their capes were of the soft, white coat of newborn lambs.
After Jannes had dressed up in his costume he spun around two or three times, and asked, "Do you think my parents will recognize me? They don't know that I will be one of Njörd's Baby Rams today." Ruwen grinned and the Duchess, checking the outfit that was formerly that of Berrit's older brother Edward when he was very young. "Surely not, my little nephew, at least not after you have put on your mask!" and she covered Jannes' head with the mask formed as a small ram's face, with the curled horns of a big ram.
Just then Thimus raced into the chamber dragging Anzo along. "Why didn't you wake me up, Jannie? You promised to wait with dressing till I was also there!"
"There is no hurry!" Anzo smiled, "just wait." Together with Berrit's mother he began to change Thimus into a second Baby Ram, using Berrit's former disguise.
Their masquerade seemed to have turned the two boys into green-eyed rams. Immediately, Jannes and Thimus started to charge at each other like incarnate rams struggling for supremacy. They charged merciless at each other, running their heads together so hard that the horns threatened to break.
The adults laughed heartily, separated the two small adversaries, and removed their masks.
"Stop fighting!" the Duchess exclaimed. "You have to wait with the fighting till you meet the Ratfinks at the town square, or do you really want to hurt each other?"
In a hurry, the four young men put on their own Shrove Tuesday disguises. Ruwen and Anzo were camouflaged as Feather-Hansels. Being the smaller two of the four, they used costumes formerly used by Berrit's brothers Ivain and Edward, when they were teens. Their white, tight fitting tunics were decorated all over with the opalescent quills of ducks and roosters and the eyes of peacock tail feathers. Their riding boots had long spurs like what roosters have. Their faces were hidden behind bright masks of polished lime wood with big eyes and red smiling lips. Their disguise was perfected by two girdles studded with rows of small jingling bells, worn across the chest, crosswise.
Berrit and Bastian dressed in the loose full-length outfit of the Baldr-Sons, the Heralds of Spring. Their cloaks were made out of hundreds of small scraps of fabric in bright colors. Wrapped up in these eye-catching costumes, Berrit and Bastian looked like twins. Their similarity was reinforced by the masks hiding their faces. These circular masks allegorized the springtime sun with an aura of golden rays. Stepping this up were the periwigs of long golden curls. Only insider could determine who was who, by the color of their eyes, which sparkled a shiny blue in Berrit's mask, and in deep green in Bastian's. The Heralds of Spring were very imposing characters and their impressiveness was emphasized by the huge crosiers they carried, which had bells in the curved tops.
In the early morning light the Children of Iounn, the Goddess of annual rejuvenation, were gathering outside the southern city gate, at the bridge over the river. The Heralds of Spring, or Baldr's Sons, and the Feather-Hansels, each of them with twelve young men, as well as the group of three dozens boys, the Baby Rams and Billy Goat, were impatiently waiting for the beginning of the Rumpus. All members of the Children of Iounn were unmarried males. Girls and women were not allowed to use a disguise at Shrove Tuesday, because this would mean mischief for the whole next year. But they had other duties; tasks at least as important as the ones engaged in by the men. They had to prepare the offerings to the Goddess of Spring, the delicious pancakes.
The four friends and their excited fosterlings, Thimus and Jannes, joined
the waiting circle. As soon as the big bell at the
Behind the Baldr´s Sons, the Feathers-Hansels lined up. The Hansels offered Anzo and Ruwen the leading positions, but both declined, realizing very well that they did not know the dances the Hansels had to perform, all the way along from the Southern Gate and up to the main square at the High Church. The Baby Rams and Billy Goats walked at the end of the column.
Thimus and Jannes had no problem at all in joining the group of Baby Rams and Billy Goats. Jannes, the son of the captain of the guards, was instantly recognized by his peers. Immediately, he mingled with the other eager village boys, dragging Thimus along. He was accepted as one as one of them. Only a few scoundrels envied him, because he had the privilege of living in the castle. Jannes didn't mind the occasional barbs from his former playmates and happily explained to Thimus, "Hey, look at all the Baby Rams and Billy Goats! We are three dozen strong! Didn't I promise you that this day will full of fun! It is the greatest day of the year. We will not only defeat our enemies, the Ratfinks, but also stuff ourselves with pancakes, till our bellies are bursting!"
Excitedly the Baby Rams and Billy Goats were horsing around, attacking each other and demonstrating the way they would attack and beat the Ratfinks, the servants of the Wilde Men, the Giants of Winter.
As soon as the sound of the big bell faded away, the faint wailing chimes of a dead bell began to pervade the city. This was the signal for the Children of Iounn to form a half circle in front of the City Gate. The twelve Sons of Baldr took the middle and on each wing six of the Hansels took their stand and the Baby Rams and Billy Goats lined up behind. The Baldr´s Sons began to pound the ground with their big crosiers till the bells in the curved tops chimed and drowned out the whimpering of the death bell. Then the two Big Baldrs began to shout:
Open the gate! Open the gate!
Spring heralds cannot wait!
Open them wide! Open them wide!
Iounn's sons are ready to fight!
Undo the latch! Undo the latch!
The darkness now, will meet its match!
Next, the other Sons of Baldr joined in, then the Hansels and finally the Baby Rams and Billy Goats. They repeated the refrain six times, gradually raising their voices. The volume increased to an earsplitting noise, as the jingling of bells of the Hansels and the banging of tambourines of the Baby Rams and Billy Goats was added. The shrill crescendo finally broke the catches of the city-gate. It swung open as if by magic and Iounn's´ Children marched through the undefended city-gate, while the sound of the death bell shooed away the sleep of the tired citizens.
At the other end of the town, the wailing sound of the death bell drove murky figures out of their hiding places in moldy basements, from under broken headstones, out of the remains of barns and deconsecrated chapels. At first, twelve Wilde Men, also known as the Icy Pyrs, gathered at a deserted square close to the Northern Gate of the city. The bulky bodies of these giants were wrapped in rotten rags of bear skin. Their headgear was bear skulls with pointed fangs. They greeted each other by banging together their pitchforks and birch-brooms.
Soon they were joined by the Beastly Perchtens, twelve men in tattered coats. Their faces were disguised by masks with big teeth and hulking eyes and their heads crowned with pointed antlers carved from knotty wood. Soon the Icy Pyrs began a weird round dance pepped up by deafening tunes played by the Beastly Perchtens on shofars. Suddenly the whole square was flooded by three dozen of Ratfinks. These small hairy ghosts came oozing out of dark alleys and dirty rat runs like pus from a boil. The demonic creatures had concealed their faces with masks having pointed teeth and sporting naked tails like rats. They mingled with the Wilde Men and the Perchtens, playing high pitched tunes on their tiny flutes. The crashing sound of pitchforks and birch-brooms, the whooping sound of the shofars and the high pitched whistling of the flutes added up to the cacophony of sound a barbarian horde coming down from the ice-covered mountains might make.
A marching column was formed, the parade of the Wardens of Winter, with the Wilde Men in the lead, the Beastly Perchtens next and the mob of Ratfinks at the end. With their pitchforks and birch-brooms, the Wilde Men knocked on every door they passed, the Perchtens blew their horns and the Ratfinks their whistles and then they shouted:
Give us meat and give us lard!
For a start, for a start!
If you don't, if you don't
Rats will gnaw upon your bones!
Gives us more, give us more!
If you don't, we'll break the door!"
Frightened looking people opened the doors of their houses to contribute their alms: fat sausages, smoked meat, blood pudding and greasy pancakes. They filled the baskets of the Ratfinks with all the tasty food that was not allowed during Shrovetide. But oftentimes the Perchtens decided they wanted more and hammered on the doors again and Ratfinks demanded to the ear-breaking sound of the shofars:
Give us more, give us more!
We shall break the door!
If you give us none,
If you give us none,
Your life will soon be done!
And the poor people gave all they could spare. They gave even more to the
horrible ghosts, threatened by the pointed forks of the Wilde Men. The
sickening parade meandered on and on through the small dark alleys of
Quentisburry trying to drown out the whimpering of death bell with the noise of
their instruments. Their destination was the big market square in front of the
The Heralds of Spring were aiming for the same destination, the market square. But first they had to visit the citizens of the lower part of Quentisburry. At the front doors of every house the Heralds of Spring chimed their bells, the Feather Hansels danced in pairs or did a ring a ring of roses, did somersaults and handsprings, so that their girdles, studded with rows of small jingle bells, chimed happily. The Baby Rams and Billy Goats knocked at every door they passed and sang with clear voices:
Give me a pancake and I'll be gone.
But if you give me none,
I'll throw a great stone
And down your door shall come.
But the people were sure that the lovely Baby Rams and Billy Goats wouldn't throw stones to break the doors or windows. The people were full of expectations and opened their houses gladly to invite the Children of Iounn inside. They offered them hot pancakes, dripping with fat, and filled up their baskets with roasted meat, delicious sausages and sweet cakes.
The happy Heralds of Spring thanked the citizen by singing:
But hark, I hear the pancake
And fritters make a gallant smell.
The cooks are baking, frying, boiling,
Stewing, mincing, cutting, broiling,
Carving, gourmandizing, roasting,
Carbonading, cracking, slashing, toasting.
The singing and dancing Children of Iounn paraded through all the
roads and alleyways of the southern quarters of Quentisburry and finally
arrived at the market square in front of the
The day before the cobble stones of the big square had been swept clean by the scavengers. Carpenters had constructed a scaffold with three levels, in front of the town hall, opposite the church. Cooks were busy roasting whole pigs and cattle on skewers. Impoverished women, using the festivity to make some cash, prepared pancakes dripping with fat in charred frying pans over open fires. The entrances to the still empty taverns were decorated with greenery and the aroma of hot punch drifted outward, already attracting thirsty citizens.
The seats on
the three levels of the scaffold were jammed by married couples, excited girls,
dolled up maidens and merry widows. The large padded chair, on the balcony of
the town hall overlooking the square, was waiting for the Duke and the Duchess.
Other chairs on the balcony were reserved for the Mayor, the Canon of the
The noise in
the square was muted, because the people only talked low-keyed and the woeful
jingling of the death bell was the most obvious sound present. Suddenly, its
feeble sound was drowned out by the reverberating boom-boom of the three big
bells of the
From opposite ends of the square the adversaries closed in. They closed in seeming silence because the church bells drowned every other sound. Like they were on a battlefield, the two parties moved towards each other, till the Wilde Men and the Baldr-Sons stood eye to eye.
Suddenly the boom-boom of the bells ceased and the Duke, rising from his seat at the balcony of the town hall, announced with keen voice: "Heralds of Spring, we all together, I, the Duke and the citizen of Quentisburry, beseech you! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight the Wardens of Winter. The evil monsters have occupied our town much too long! Fight and win! Fight and win! Fight and win, you Children of Iounn!"
All the citizenry rose from their seats, beginning to clap their hands and shouting, "Beat them! Beat them! Force the Ratfinks and the Perchtens and the Wilde Men out of our town! Chase the Evils back into the mountains, into the terrible gorges of the mountains! Chase them into the perpetual ice!"
The Wilde Men began to howl like wolves and to bang with their forks and brooms against the cobbles stones of the square. The Perchtens blew their shofars and the Ratfinks their whistles. The erratic banging changed into a rhythmic sound, while the Wilde Men chanted:
We will stay!
We will stay!
The Wardens of Winter
Will stay for ever!
Now the Heralds of Spring, the Sons of Baldr, waved their crosiers with the bells, and retorted:
We will win!
We will win!
We will chase away
The cold, the snow, the ice!
We will chase the evil
Back to the mountain gorges!
We will banish the evil!
Banish the Wardens of Winter!
The Feather-Hansels began shaking their bell studded girdles and the Baby Rams and Billy Goats began to beat their tambourines and shouted:
Vanish from the town!
Vanish from the earth!
Vanish! Vanish! Vanish!
This ritual chanting match lasted longer and longer, and got louder and louder and finally ended in a ritual fight between the two parties, the Wilde Men against the Heralds of Spring, the Perchtens against the Hansels and the Ratfinks against the Baby Rams and Billy Goats. The two parties began to flail at each other. The forks and brooms of the Wilde Men collided with the crosiers of Baldr´s Sons, the shofars of the Perchtens with the girdles of the Hansels and the Rams and Billy Goats attacked the Ratfinks with their horns. The people rose from their seats and stamped the ground and cheered for their favourites.
The whole fight was supposed to be only a ritual clash, because the members of both groups were friends and neighbours all year long. Just for this day, they turned into fierce enemies; just for the Shrove Tuesday Rumpus.
But this morning something was different. The Duke was watching Berrit and Bastian closely from his outlook on the balcony. He was the first to notice an unexpected change in the fight. He was not able to identify Berrit or Bastian, because they were wearing identical costumes, but suddenly he realized that the biggest of the Wilde Men was attacking one of the two with full force, either his son or Bastian. The hairy giant was thrusting his fork with as much force as possible against one of the two. He was trying to impale him on the sharp points of his fork.
It was Bastian who was in danger of getting speared. At first he didn't recognize the danger and received an ugly wound in his left arm. He turned to his opponent and looked with surprise into the icy eyes of his attacker. Without thinking he reacted to the danger he was in and began to fight back with his crook. He was lucky! The impact of the blow with his crosier broke the wooden mask of the attacking Wilde Man and ripped open the left side of his face.
Bastian's enemy, however, was fierce, swift and determined. Ignoring the blood running down his face, he attacked again. The sharp tines of his fork tore Bastian's colourful Shrove Tuesday dress to shreds and cut deep into Bastian's shoulder. The strong young man fell, bloodstained. Ruwen, watching his friend falter, darted forward and prevented the next blows with his jingling studded girdle. Now city guards, responsible for the orderly course of the events at the Shrove Tuesday Rumpus, came rushing to the scene of the murderous assault. While they were trying to help Bastian, the attacker mingled with the crowd and took a flight.
Davy, a former member of the Brave Boy Bandits and now a servant to the Midnight Princes, had been watching the scene, horror stricken. Quick thinking as he was, he took up the pursuit of the wounded Wilde Man. Staying at a safe distance, he followed him cautiously. After passing two side roads, the Wilde Man turned into a crooked alleyway running downhill to the river. Davy hesitated at the turn for a moment to avoid being seen. Then, he too, slipped into the dirty road, but he was too late. The wounded man had vanished from sight. Davy scanned the small houses on both side of the alleyway with his sharp eyes, but didn't notice a single soul. Just when he decided to return to the main street, the low thud of a closing door and the quick steps of a person hastening away aroused his attention.
Davy rushed forward. At the next corner was a small chapel dedicated to Saint Barbara. Its front door was slightly ajar. Peering into the murky interior, only lit by a single light, he noticed another door leading to the side road. Instead of entering the chapel he sneaked around the corner into the small alley.
Davy couldn't see the Wilde Man in the side road; just a tall man with greying hair and a bald top. The stranger wore plain clothing like any other citizen and was rushing towards the convent of the Benedictine monks at the dead end of the small street.
Davy was unsure about the identity of the stranger, but only for just one moment. Then he knew for sure! That man was Bastian's attacker, because when this stranger turned his head to check the road for pursuers, Davy noticed the bleeding wound on his head. In front of the convent, the stranger made a sharp turn and entered into a rat run overgrown by shrubs. Davy waited for some moments and then sneaked into the dusky path as well. At a dead-end a derelict house was tucked against the massive walls of the monastery. Its roof was partially collapsed and its window shutters were broken. Its massive door, however, was undamaged and blocked from the inside, as Davy found out when he tried to pry it open, but without success.
The incident at the market square had attracted the attention of the bystanders for only a short time. Ruwen and Berrit helped Bastian, who was in a state of shock, to rise to his feet, and guided him into the town-hall. In a scarcely lit back-room they laid him down on a bench and removed the blood-soaked tunic.
Bastian was pale as death and the blood drenched costume made the injury appear more dangerous as it actually was. The first unexpected stab of the fork wielded by the attacker had perforated the muscles of his upper arm, while the blows with the fork had left several deep cuts running from the left shoulder down his rib cage.
"Are you alright, dear Bastian?" Ruwen wanted to know, petting Bastian's head and kissing his forehead, "Are you alright, my dear? Can you move your arm? Can you breathe alright?" Ruwen trembled like an aspen leaf and nearly cried. His dearest Bastian was wounded, his one and only Bastian.
Meanwhile, Berrit had fetched a big bottle of strong brandy from a tavern next door and began to pour the stinging liquid over Bastian's upper body and arm. Bastian was still dizzy but recovered fast, because the loss of blood was not substantial.
"Hey, that burns like hell! Stop it, you stupid!" he complained, groaning and coming back to full consciousness again. He rebuked Berrit, "Don't waste that precious stuff; better to let me have a sip!"
"He is back! He is back again!" Berrit's mother exclaimed, relieved, "Dear Bastian, I am so glad that the hairy beast didn't kill you! That monster surely meant to attack Berrit! His mistake was your ill luck and my son's good luck!" Turning to her husband, "You are a lucky father, my dear!" and then to Berrit, "You owe him your life, my son! Thank god for your friends!"
Meanwhile the captain of the city guards had entered the hall way, "The attacker has escaped! He is nowhere to be seen, Highness!" he told the Duke, "I have interrogated the leader of the Wilde Men and all the others of his group. No one had seen this man before today. He is definitely a stranger!"
"So he was not a citizen of Quentisburry?"
"It seems not, my Lord! This morning when the Wilde Man gathered, they missed the twelfth one; Otwin is his name. Then suddenly a man turned up in Otwin´s the outfit, saying that his cousin had gotten sick and had asked him to substitute. Because time was short, the stranger was accepted as the twelfth of the Wilde Men, without further question."
Now they all discussed their next actions. The first decision was to close the city gates and to keep a sharp eye on everyone trying to leave the city by other ways.
The discussion was hot, by the time Jesper and Pinkus of the Grey Raiders joined the group. They were upset, because they loved Berrit, despite their former disagreement, "Let our Grey Raiders search the dark corners of the city; let them check all hiding places vermin could hang around, especially honky-tonks down by the riverside, dear Lord." Jesper requested. Pinkus added, "Please Sir, let me get all our men! Our men are shrewd and cunning. They will find the murderer if he is still in town!"
Just then the high pitched voice of a boy began to make racket at the entrance, "Let me in! Let me in to see the Duke! I am Davy, a friend of Ruwen and Berrit! I know where the murderer is!"
Everyone looked in surprise and the duke waved for the small boy to come nearer.
"I followed him, dear Lord. I followed the attacker, he changed his clothing in the Chapel of Saint Barbara and turned into an overgrown rat run at the left of the monastery, down by the river!"
"So it was a monk?" the duke asked with suspicious voice.
"A friend of the monks?"
"I don't know! I think not, he didn't look like a monk! He didn't enter the monastery either, but vanished in a ramshackle building close by!" Then he gave a detailed description of the assassin.
When the Captain, Jesper and Pinkus, with some of their men, searched the chapel, they recovered a bloody Wilde-Man costume hidden in the confessional box. Following Davy's advice, they searched in the dark alleyway and finally broke the door of the old house. The ramshackle house was deserted, as was the garden in the back.
The small piece of land bordering the monastery was overgrown by shrubs and full of rubbish. In its back was a small passageway, with a door into the high wall of the monastery. The wooden door was blocked from inside. They pounded against the door, but in vain. Nobody opened the door and they couldn't pry it open, even by using an axe.
At the main square, the Shrove Tuesday Rumpus was in full swing. The Heralds of Spring and their followers, as well as the Wilde Men and their crew, had removed their masks and were celebrating Shrove Tuesday together. They had been friends and buddies for as long they could remember and only members of opposing groups for this one day of the year.
In front of the scaffold, long tables were arranged and people were struggling for the best places. The tables were full to the bursting point with delicious food collected by the Baby Rams, the Billy Goats and the Ratfinks from the citizens, or bought at the market stalls. Sparkling beer and sweet punch bestowed by the Duke was served in abundance. Old and young were eating and drinking, and everyone was happy. A band began to play gay tunes and the young people began to dance landlers and round dances at the square.
The Duke and the Duchess watched the Rumpus from the balcony, together with the Major and the Canon. Anzo and Berrit were holding hands, and not minding the questioning looks of the onlookers. Bastian, still feeling slightly feeble, was sitting in the Duke's comfortable seat. He was the hero of the day, and the Duchess, as well as Ruwen, competed with each other by feeding him with the best morsels the kitchens could offer.
Davy was the second one to be honoured today by the Duke, and especially Berrit. He was treated like the son of a noble man and asked to stay on the balcony. After he had stuffed his tummy with lots of meat and pancakes, he got bored. Together with Jannes and Thimus, he left the balcony and began to roam the whole square, checking out every market stall.
In the meantime Jesper and Pinkus had secretly called together all members of the Grey Raiders. They were all tough looking and raffish, just right for a dangerous task like this. "Check the square, all the taverns and dark places for this assassin." Pinkus told them, "He is tall, scrawny and nearly bald-headed. Do not attack him; instead, make him drunk or pursue him! We need to know where he is staying! Don't kill him, since we need to know his master." While the raiders were swarming the whole town, Pinkus took Fatty aside, "I need your help, Fatty, your special help! You really look like a pious and kind lad since you joined the Duke's household. But I know you haven't forgotten the tricks I taught you, my boy. Go to the monastery and attend the evening prayers. Check the whole convent for the scrawny, bald-headed guy with the injury to his face. He may be hiding in the monastery!"
The Shrove Tuesday Rumpus had started late in the morning and now, early in the evening, the cold night air was creeping into the city from the mountains. At the main square the feasting continued. Old people had already left for home, but the young lads and maidens were dancing to the music of the band. Couples, neighbours and friends relaxed at the tables or swayed to the music. Drunkards tried to slip away from their awkward wives, to the taverns, but their gossiping women kept an eye on them like alert watch-dogs.
As it was getting darker and darker, the Duke and his guests decided to leave the party reasonably early, as intended. The departure of Berrit and Anzo, as well as the Midnight Princes, displeased the celibate daughters of the noblemen attending the Shrove Tuesday party. They had hoped to get a kiss or even more from one or the other of these desirable bachelors. This was not their lucky day. The unexpected incident with the strange Wilde Man had foiled their plans. Some of the girls had to be consoled by their mothers, while others looked for fun in dark corners, with willing lads.
Back in the castle, Ruwen had to help Bastian find the most comfortable resting position in their big bed. His dear friend was hampered from moving freely because of the bandages around his chest and left arm. When Bastian was finally at ease his companions gathered at the four poster bed. Thimus and Jannes joined Bastian in the bed. They were leaning cross-legged against the back of the bed and smiled happily. Ruwen took a seat at foot end of the bed and kneaded Bastian's feet, while Berrit and Anzo wedged together in a small armchair hardly wide enough for one person.
"Stop tickling my feet, you stupid! My chest is aching and so is my arm, not the soles of my feet!"
"I am sure you don't want me to tickle your most sensitive parts, do you? That would be unfair in public!" Ruwen breathed to Bastian, smiling from ear to ear!
Jannes having overheard Ruwen, giggled, "Don't be shy, Ruwen!" and digging Thimus in the ribs, he crowed aloud "Everybody knows by now, which part of Bastian's body is the most sensitive! Ruwen, hasn't he begged you often enough to stop tickling his little soldier, when you both thought Thimus and I were already asleep?"
Ruwen blushed and Bastian chuckled, suppressing his pain, "I told you brother, the walls have ears in a castle!"
Berrit suddenly leaned forward. His face was very serious and he exclaimed with solemn voice "I owe you my life Bastian! The assault was meant for me! I don't know how to thank you. Let us two be brothers." And he kissed him on the forehead. "We will take this day as a new beginning to our relationship. So far we just were friends, but now we are blood brothers!".
Bastian was taken by surprise. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and then smiled mischievously, "I already told you yesterday that I love you like a brother and we have to share everything!" and with that, he raised up slightly, took hold of Berrit's head, and kissed him fully on the mouth.
This cheered up everyone and six pairs of eyes began to sparkle. Anzo, wanting his share too, began to act the neglected child. He complained with sad voice "And who wants to be my bro? I never had one!"
All were relaxed and turned to Anzo, but none of them were able to answer the question this particular evening, because the door opened wide and Berrit's mother appeared, leading a small parade, holding a candlestick with five burning candles. She was followed by two maidens carrying plates with delicious pancakes and sweet donuts. Then came Fatty and Davy, the former Brave Boy Bandits, bringing along a folding table and chairs for everybody. Next was Jaco, carrying tumblers, and finally, the Duke himself, bringing along a big bowl of hot punch smelling of sweet cinnamon.
"Boys!" Berrit's mother exclaimed with a happy voice, "Let's celebrate this day full of wonders and happiness! Let's celebrate the last day of the cold wintertime!" and the Duke announced, "Let's celebrate the opening of the season of happiness, springtime!"
The celebration lasted till the roosters started to crow and Jannes and Thimus fell asleep exhaustedly on Bastian's side.
The next two days brought no news concerning the attacker, despite the painstaking search of the town and the environs, by the Grey Raiders and the city guards. However Otwin was found, at of the first day, Ash Wednesday, by the city guards. They had instructions to interrogate him because of the stranger, his alleged cousin, who had substituted as a Wilde Man. Otwin, who was a cabinetmaker by trade, wasn't at home in his sick-bed, and neither was he working in his woodwork shop, with his brother, also a carpenter. When the search party turned his home upside down, they found him in a wooden shack, hidden behind a stack of planks. He was dead. His body was cold and his head was smashed. Somebody had killed him. Was it Bastian's attacker?
Already, on Shrove Tuesday evening, Fatty had begun his mission as an undercover investigator in the monastery. He had dressed up in his most humble clothes and attended the Compline in the monastery with his head hanging low. Taking his seat close to the choir, he tried to attract the attention of the monks by acting very desperate and most contrite about his sins. During the service he got curious as well as approving stares from the monks. After the Compline, the sub-prior asked him into the visitors-room, to question and comfort him. He was invited to stay in the monastery for the night. The next day, Fatty attended all the services, beginning with the Nocturne in the dead of the night, and ending with the Compline in the evening. But his efforts were in vain; he didn't catch sight of the assassin that whole time. In the dark he returned to the castle, stopped being pious, and continued his sinful life with his buddy, little Davy.
The rumour of the hunt for Bastian's attacker spread like wildfire throughout the Duchy, especially because of the reward money promised by the Duke. Success came quicker than expected. In the morning of the third day, the owner of a water mill several miles down the river from Quentisburry discovered the corpse of a man in the water run to the mill wheel. Immediately, he gave an alarm to the city guards, who recovered the body, which was already swollen due to the beginnings of decay. Davy recognized him as the man he had been following after the attack on Bastian. The pursuers were sure it was the corpse of the attacker, because of the gaping wound on the left side of his head. However, the man hadn't died by drowning. A close inspection revealed that he had been garrotted.
Neither the Duke nor Berrit and his friends were happy about this outcome. They had hoped to catch the man alive and find out about the perpetrator of the murderous attempt.
In the evening of the third day, the duke gathered a small circle of confidants in a safe room in the donjon to discuss the situation and decide about future actions.
"After more than a year, we still do not know who murdered my second son, my dear Ivain." the duke declared. "After nearly three months we still have no information about the felon who carried out the attack with the catapult, which failed to kill Berrit." Berrit continued, "And now the attack on Bastian. I'll bet Bastian was not the target of the murder attempt. I was the target of that villain. He failed because he could not distinguish me from my friend at the Shrove Tuesday Rumpus. That leaves us with a lot of questions."
"Was the initiator of Ivain's assassination also the initiator of the attacks on Berrit and Bastian?" Ruwen asked of the circle.
"Maybe, but not for sure! The first attack on Berrit may have been instigated by the former Abbot of Niwenburg because he hates Berrit," Anzo interjected, and then continued, "But also my step-uncle, the Count of Veldegg, could have given the order to kill, to take revenge for my escape!"
"I don't think the latter is the case. If your uncle is eager to kill anyone, it would be you, my Anzo!" Berrit added.
"And how about the followers of the Pope's party; they want me to change sides or resign!" the Duke of Quentisburry added.
Talking over all the possibilities, the duke finally decided, "First of all, you, Berrit, and your friends, have to get the best military training possible. You all have to be instructed in self-defence! I don't mind you practicing your preferred vocation; healers, painters or rovers, or whatever, but I insist you learn how to fight! Even Thimus and Jannes have to."
"Agreed!" Anzo answered, and everybody was surprised by this immediate response. "I agree, and I know the best swordsman all around; it's my friend, the Genoese mercenary. He will instruct us all in all the techniques of fighting!"
I would like to express my special thanks to B. for doing a wonderful job by correcting all the wrong expressions and the punctuation used by a non native English writer.
Comments, reviews, questions and complaints are welcomed. Please send them to Ruwen Rouhs. And I would like to add, thanks for reading.
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