The genesis of this fragment goes back to my first Orycon, when I attended a panel titled The Armored Character.
I hoped for one thing and got something else: the panelists were almost entirely interested in the technical specs of various kinds of armor, past and present Pretty much nothing about _Character_.
But I thought about the subject, and wrote a bit. This character will give me a chance to explore the effects of warfare on the Commons of Serbia. Also, I can ask a question: When a person has been kicked around for a long time, and an opportunity for redemption opens up, what does that person do? Step through, of course, but what then? Will he backslide into his old ways? We shall see...
CHAPTER: Peter Markovitch
Peter awoke, face down in the muck. He rolled over onto his right side, gasping, trying to get his breath back, snorting mud and blood from his substantial nose and hacking up gobs of phlegm. He opened his eyes and regretted it immediately, and spent the next few minutes wiping and blinking the debris away.
At last he was able to see: or would have been, if it hadn’t been pitch black and drizzling. He groaned, thanking God and his aunt for the waterproofed leather jerkin and pants, and the woolen underclothes that she had given him, so many years ago. Patched and tattered as they now were, they kept him at least somewhat warm. His boots were still on his feet, which meant that no one had looted the field yet.
He’d fought for his life on numerous occasions over the years: when he was a boy and the neighbor kids beat on him because he was a ‘bastard’ and the son of a Bulgarian rapist; as a runaway; as a bandit, to secure his place in the band, and later to become its chief. He’d crossed swords with those his band were robbing, or trying to rob, and with farmers desperate to save their harvest from his equally desperate bandit crew. Sometimes they’d won the day and hauled off the booty; other times they’d run like bunnies.
None of that had ever been anything like the battle he’d just survived. The Hellenes and Sarayenes came to field in disciplined formations, they pinned his band and the rest of the Czar’s infantry between two Phalanxes, and then...
Armored men on horseback rode through and over them, destroying all they touched.
He rose and looked around. He stroked and felt all his body, finding no deep or deadly wounds. The bloody lump above his temple had stopped bleeding. With his eyes now wide, he could see a bit of the nearby field. There were bodies all about, heaped and piled. It was too dark to see them clearly. Perhaps that was a mercy. He shivered. Casting about he saw a faint light in the distance, as of a fire or a lantern. With so little other light about, he could not tell what it was, or how far away.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he thought. ‘I’m walking that way. I’ll freeze if I stay here.’
He began the hike. He walked carefully, feeling each step with his foot before settling it to the ground. There were broken weapons all about, which he dared not tread upon, and bodies that he didn’t wish to disturb. He could hear men groaning, and an occasional scream as some lost and wounded wretch let cry his doomed and hapless state. With each step he took it sank in on him how fortunate he was to be up and walking. No other of his little band of erstwhile bandits had survived the first clash with the Hellenic infantry. From that point on the day had been chaos incarnate: noise, steel, fire and rain. How he had come through the remainder of the battle was simply beyond him.
‘It’s a wagon,’ he mused, staring at the light. ‘A wagon, on fire.’ He was finding it hard to concentrate. He slapped his own face, hard, moaned at the stinging pain and the throbbing in his temple. It woke him up, though, and let him think clearly for a moment. ‘Fire. I have to have that fire.’ He staggered on, raging at the pace he was limited to, shivering more with every step.
At length he was there, staring stupidly at the flames. ‘Hellenic Fire,’ he thought: ‘otherwise it would have gone out by now, with the rain and all.’ Only then did he notice that the drizzle had stopped. He wobbled over to the fire, stuck his hands out to warm them.
When he could feel his fingers again, he looked around. “I want an axe or spear, and some gloves.” He saw a man dead on the ground, his helm and head crushed by some means. He was attired in a haubergeon of riveted mail and wore full finger gauntlets and decent elbow guards. “That’s a Varangian, one of the Saxon type. He’ll have had an axe...” Peter scrounged around and found it, half under a dead horse. He shoved and levered and cursed until he worked it free. It was a fine weapon, a double-bitted two hander. He looted the man’s gauntlets from his stiffened hands and used the axe to dismantle part of the still burning wagon. Then he built of the smoldering and flaming bits a smaller fire of his own. When he was satisfied with that, he sat cross-legged on the ground, as close to his fire as he could get, comforting himself.
Eventually he felt warmer, even comfortable. He laughed a little at his luck, and then found himself weeping. For a while he could not stop, and then he found that he didn’t wish to.
When at last he was finished, he sat considering for a while. First he made in thought a list, then from that list he made a plan, and when he was prepared in mind, as he thought, for each step on the road ahead, he rose and stretched. This habit of his, to sit sometimes and think on the near future, that was what had made him a leader of bandits. If he was to be that no more...it occurred to him that mayhap he could abandon that life. There was equipment round about, and a man-at-arms was less hated than a bandit.
The clouds were breaking up and the moon shone upon the field. He scouted about for a short time, then began looting the bodies within easy reach of the flames. He found a dead Hoplite, and took from him the greaves and knee guards that all such soldiers wore. Peter’s boots were ill-suited to the task of holding them on, so he took the Hoplite’s boots as well. He removed his own belt, threw away the empty scabbard from his lost sword, and annexed the belt and shortsword of the dead man. He took, as well, the vambraces and elbow guards, because he’d always thought the Hellenic style more clever than the Slavic version. He gazed at the Corinthian style helm that the man wore, and, after a moment said: “What the hell, why not?” With the helm and vambraces in hand he returned to the dead Varangian, whose mail-shirt was soon on Peter’s back. He took, as well, the gorget that the Varangian had worn.
With the arm harness on and his new helm in place, he considered. He took up a small round shield from the ground, and returned to the fire, where he’d left the axe. He hopped up and down to settle all the bits, and then stood there, contemplating.
The armor weighed upon him; not just on his body, but on his mind as well.
He found himself standing straighter; the armor seemed to demand it. Physically he needed to be more upright than usual in order to bear the weight, and that gave him the arrogant demeanor that had always irritated him about armed men. ‘On the other hand,’ he thought, ‘I am going to be more confident. Aren’t I?’ He paused in his thought, then: ‘I am not any longer a child of rape, an abused bastard, a desperate runaway, a bandit or a bandit chieftain. Well, I was all of those things, and I am that same man, formed by that life; but now I am also a man-at-arms, if I choose that life. And if a man should raise his voice or his sword at me, I am equipped to face him as an equal.’ Clouds covered the moon, and it was dark again all about.
He took a step and turned abruptly at a sound. The skirt of his mail shirt kept spinning after he stopped, and when his feet slipped on the muddy ground, he almost fell down. He drove the butt of his new axe into the ground, stopping his fall, then straightened up and looked to the west. He stared into the darkness and raised his axe to guard, as he had seen other axemen do. He stood with his feet set wider than his usual stance, and the right foot forward. He was leaning forward just a bit, with the axe upright along his right side; his right hand was at the height of his ear, his left he held pressed against his ribs on the right side. He tried to relax. He waited.
A man stepped out of the darkness and into the circle of the firelight. He was wearing mail and coif, but no helm. He wore over all a torn and bloodied surcote, in the green and black of Sarayi’s troops. He had a sword sheathed at his side, but stood with his hands held away from his body, palms showing pale in the firelight.
“There is no need for further violence,” the man said: “the day is won and lost.” In voice and manner, in every line of his body, he conveyed that feeling that Peter had just begun to have: the confidence of one whose arms and fortune set him apart from other men.
He had used that strange version of Serbian that the Commonwealthers used: ‘Rational Serbian’ they called it. Peter replied in the Serbian of his youth: “Is this field yours, then?”
“The field is ours, decisively. Who are you? Your armor is unmatched, and you have no Color nor any armory. On which side did you fight?”
“My name is Peter the Bastard. I fought for the Czar of Bulgaria, though not willingly. And now it seems I am a free man-at-arms.” He grinned sardonically: “Have you any use for such as me, or am I a prisoner?”
For answer, the knight reached slowly within his surcote, drawing forth a green torse, such as all the footmen upon the other side had worn the day before. He said, slowly: “If you are a Serb, and will acknowledge Her Majesty Sarayi as your Queen, then there is a place for you in her army.” He proffered the torse and waited.
“Sarayi...is she who they say she is? The daughter of Dragutin, the true heir? Raised in the Hellenic Commonwealth by the Medusa?”
“She is all that and more. She is come to drive out the foreigners and restore Serbia. So say I, Constantine Stephan Voislav. I swear it to you, on my honor as a knight.”
Peter found himself trembling. “Bulgarians and other foreigners have ruled my life since I was in the womb. Ruled it, and left it in ruin, and my country as well.” He drove the butt of the axe into the mud and left it standing there. He paced slowly across the lit area, then knelt. He lifted the helm from his head, set it upon the ground at his side, then raised his face, that the knight might look upon him. His head wound showed prominently, the blood from it streaked his face, mixed with mud and sweat and sputum. Dried blood and snot stained his moustache and beard. Over all, tears rolled down, making new tracks across the old, as he smiled through the mask that toil and war had made of his face.
“Is this not a fine jest?” asked Peter. “I was known among the band of bandits that I led as an emotionless golem; yet twice today have I wept. You say there is a place for me, whose only place has been among criminals and madmen. Very well! If you will lead me against the Bulgars, I will follow you, and serve you faithfully.”
“I judge that banditry is the least of the crimes upon your conscience.” Sir Constantine raised a hand to forestall Peter’s response: “Many men, and women too, have been driven to evil deeds by the evil times in which we live. Will you swear to abjure all such deeds, and to obey my commands, and to reverence Sarayi as your Queen?” Again Constantine raised his hand: “Before you swear, know this: if you break this vow: if you steal from the Commons; if you kill any innocent; if you rape any woman, or any man, for that matter; if you are found in treason to the Queen; then I will slay you with my own hand. Think on that and answer now: do you so swear?”
“I do so swear.”
“Then I accept your service.” Constantine laid the torse upon his brow, then said: “Now get up and get in line, we are walking the field in search of survivors.” He grinned: “Such as you. Move!”
Another man stepped into the light, armed as the knight was. This man handed Sir Constantine a helm, which he donned. Peter donned his own helm, slipped the torse over it, and strode to where his axe still stood. Sir Constantine then took a torch from another man, and led the way into the night. A hundred men at least came trailing behind the leaders, through the light, and on into the dark again. Armed they were in various ways, and torsed in green, as he was now. One man near the rear of the column gestured him into the line.