Episode 8: Encounter Two

This entry is episode 8 of 30 in the series Tale of Tales


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Encounter Two



They were somewhere near the tavern, which Žarko first headed for, when they heard the mob. Senka realized that something was happening from the sound of rough shouts and the unusual uproar, and immediately felt uneasy, while Žarko stood calmly in the middle of the street. He was interestedly following the goings on, just as his young companion once upon a time would raise a glance at any bird singing in the forest. While they stood so in the open, Senka began to grow more fearful as she began to pick apart some of the shouted words rising above the clamor.

“Žarko, what is happening?”

“They have caught some thief, so they are going to chop off his hand.” Senka’s horror grew even greater at the calm and dispassionate way in which he said this.

“They cannot do that!” she murmured in disbelief.

“O, but they can… the law says so,” answered Žarko.

Then the piercing shrieks of the captured man reached Senka, as he pleaded with all of his voice: “Please do not, people…. Please, for god’s sake, do not… Please not my hand; I am already crippled in the leg!”

What exactly happened in Senka’s heart at that moment, what broke within her, is hard to say. But she managed to overcome the stifling fear and the sudden shock at the terrible thing this angry mob was preparing to do in the name of justice. Something in her made a snap decision that stood in complete contrast to her actual abilities, and she screamed out: “Žarko, we cannot let them do it!”

“What are you talking about, you poor thing, do not be a fool!” Žarko hushed her up harshly. But if she could see his gaze, she would have known that he had spoken to her more moderately than he wanted to. This was not a man prone to delicacy.

“Please, Žarko! Please, please, please! You are so big and powerful, a true hero! You must not let this poor man suffer in front of you! He stole, did a bad thing, but they want to cut off his hand! They want to take away his hand, Žarko, and maybe he just stole a mere hen so he could eat! You heard that he is crippled, maybe he cannot work for his own food! Like me, Žarko – what would I do if I had not met you? How would I find something to eat? Žarko, you cannot let them do it! Please, Žarko, I plead before the God of the heavens, please, please, please!” Senka was on the verge of hysteria, tears running out of her eyes. There was no explanation for her behavior; she simply felt that her new world, whose foundation had just been built, would collapse into dust if she would allow this barbarity to happen in front of her protector’s eyes. For she had already blindly built a vision of her crude companion against the gods – as ill-tempered but righteous, as mighty yet merciful. And she could not allow herself to see him as cold-hearted; he could not be someone who would indifferently watch the mob abuse the weak.

Though he would never have admitted it to a living soul, not even to himself, Žarko was moved by the girl’s pleas. This powerless, young soul begging so desperately on behalf of an unknown and even unseen person in spite of all the tragedies she alone had already faced, struck a chord in Žarko’s heart. She had even reached out to the sleeping God of the heavens, not for herself, but for the fate of a stranger! He himself would never think to meddle in such a situation – the thief had stolen and had been caught, and the law commanded that he be punished. Žarko did not write the laws, and he also did not bother to think about whether they were just or not. He repeatedly violated them himself, killing those shielded by the law even though they deserved death, yet his head had always remained on his shoulders. The times in which they lived were shaped by people like him, a thing he felt unconsciously, though such thoughts were too subtle to ever be expressed in words. The law of might instead of the might of law was often the reality, the unwritten truth above the official laws of towns: for the laws to be enforced properly, a righteous force had to be behind them, and where such force was lacking, strength alone prevailed.

Žarko carefully scrutinized the bedlam in front of him. Twenty or so villagers, perhaps more, two holding the thief tightly by the hands, dragging him forward to the place where they intended to carry out his punishment, with others going out of their way to beat him, kick him, and spit on him. Some other men of the village were surely still out in the fields plowing or pasturing their cattle, while the remainder of the settlement was likely made up of women, children, and the elderly. He saw their heads peeking out from some of the houses, through windows, and all of them stared, following the furor unfolding; the capture of the thief had overshadowed even their arrival in the village, which would ordinarily have been a real spectacle for such a place. Only some of the men from the procession carried arms, if just some rough pitchforks or worn out hoes, and they used them to poke the thief crudely in the back; they were, obviously, peasants, and not warriors. Žarko had not actually regarded the thief at all – he was not interested in him in the least, even though he was close to deciding to help him and so change the course of that pathetic fate.

“You speak well, dear little sister… your words are pure, but what you spout is madness! Nevertheless, Žarko will do what you wish, as it is too heavy a day for bloodshed.” And just like that, a momentous decision has been reached. For, such was he a giant among men – what others would think over for days and days, he decided in seconds, according to the whims of his mood. And once he decided, Žarko acted with all of his might. He nudged Senka towards the tavern door, across the street’s pavement stones, rushing her out of the way while putting the empty wineskin into her hand, at the same time pulling out his mace with his other hand: “Come on, little sister… do not stand here, go get me my wine; say to them: ‘Žarko ordered it.’ Who knows what will happen after, and I need to fill up.” While still speaking these words, he had already moved towards the mob. A few huge steps and he was close enough, so he halted in the middle of the dusty street, exclaiming:

“Hey, villagers, hear me out!” Žarko’s booming voice rose above the noises and in a moment there was silence, the people all turning their heads towards him as if under command. Then the mighty man continued: “Tell me, who among you knows to read and write? Who of you has read the books of old?”

In the mob there was confusion as some of the men looked around at each other questioningly. Silence reigned. Then one voice shouted falteringly that there was no one literate in the village, before abruptly falling silent. Žarko stood there, upright, gazing at the crowd. Frowning grumpily as he was, this big man was a terrible sight to behold. His spectacular figure stood at least a head higher than anyone’s in the village, and in broadness he was twice the man of the largest peasant. On his head the wolf cap, its upper jaw extending over his brows; on his chest the wolf pelt, a furry vest he wore inverted. In his hand the heavy mace, behind his back the battle spear, and in his belt the saber. The two huge sides of his mustache relaxed somewhat, as he continued looking at the peasants, saying nothing… Little by little the villagers grew uneasy, and nervous mutterings and muffled whisperings could be heard among the mob. Only then did Žarko speak again:

“With no one who reads or writes, how then can you know the law?” Silence. Nobody ventured a word, though nervousness seemed to be growing in the crowd, as if it could sense impending trouble in the air. Žarko again stood silently, regarding them for a time, and then spoke:

“Well, here is Žarko, standing alone in front of you all! And I tell you: I know both, to read and write. The one who thinks he knows the old books better, has to cut off Žarko’s hand first, and only then the thief’s!” After saying this, the giant of a man suggestively moved that heavy mace in his right hand, letting it swing gently back and forth. The mumbling in the mob stopped fully, and silence hung, as if echoing in their ears. And it lasted. It lingered in the air like the people’s fear – it was one thing to catch a hobbled thief, but quite another to confront a fierce warrior. No one risked a word, let alone rose up against Žarko. Žarko left them hanging for a while, staring at them grimly, one by one. And whoever he glared at, the other man’s gaze would drop. Then he raised his voice once again:

“Look here, look here… no one knows the book of law better than the warrior Žarko? If that is how it is, I will take that thief as a slave. I will pay you fairly for the damage he has done; and I say: this is by the law. If someone has an objection to this, come forth now, complain to Žarko!” And, saying this, he scowled even more menacingly, which would have been thought unbelievable just a minute before.

Again one could hear whisperings from the crowd, more strongly even, but now no longer so agitated. The mob had calmed when faced with danger, the man from whom the thief had stolen shouted his consent from the safety of the crowd, while others used this opportunity to already begin slipping away. And so it was resolved; the two men holding the thief by the arms led him up to Žarko, somewhat hesitantly, their heads bowed and their eyes on the ground. They released him and then quickly turned back. The village street emptied, even the man to whom damages were to be paid went away, saying there was no need, that he would not want to take money from such a warrior. Then Žarko, watching the last few people scattering, addressed the thief: “With me, if you value your head.” Then he turned, not looking at him again, and headed straight for the tavern. Senka had not, of course, filled the wine – like everyone else, she had been caught up in the excitement of the events, and had not moved from the entrance, listening, all the time holding the empty wineskin in her hand.

And while the whole village still lingered in a daze under the powerful impressions of what had just occurred, Žarko had already devoted himself to other things. He sent a scared barmaid to fill up his wineskin and fetch the innkeeper; when the man came out, visibly frightened, Žarko asked him to estimate how much was owed to the man from whom the thief had stolen, as he did not want to have a debt to anyone. He told Senka and his new drudge to wait in the tavern while he went across to buy a horse, enough bread, and one whole, uncooked lamb, skinned and well-salted, then threw all of that onto the horse and came back. He reentered the tavern and told the thief, for the first time looking him straight in the eye, grimly: “Now I will eat and drink with my sister until the time for heading out. And you, my servant, will wait in front… Watch the horse! When I come out, if you are not here, or my horse is not here, know there is no place nor hole under the heavens where you can crawl in to hide from me!”


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