1413 year. King Jagiełło still does not have a male heir. The conspirators want to put a descendant of the Hohenzollern on the throne. Meanwhile, there is a series of cruel killings.
From dawn, they traversed tall, un-strewn oak-hornbeam trees, an icy thicket of oaks, beeches, hornbeams and firs, dead from frost. They attached oval wicker hoops filled with a thick thong braid to their shoes. They crushed the hard snow cover - once gray as wolf fur, then again sparkling with millions of diamond crumbs. They had sheepskin coats on their backs, and sheepskin coats on their heads. Even so, the cold air penetrated them right through.
Izbor was driving. For the first time since he came to live in the settlement, he took a helper with him. He still had the strength to draw his bow, but he felt that he would not sheathe the prey and bring it back to the village. The villagers considered him a stranger, looked at him askance, but he had gone from hut to hut yesterday in search of volunteers. There are few left capable of going hunting. Finally Jurand came forward, now keeping two steps behind. The boy was young, he had more strength than the others. He was considered an efficient carpenter, but he knew little about game. His wife told him to go. She wished Izbor ill, but had the same reason as the old hunter to forget about her injuries. It was hunger.
Winter of the century
People here did not remember a winter like this. The trees were cracking in the forest from the frost, and the emaciated animals were dying out. The defeat began already in summer, when floods flooded fields, farms and granaries. Then came an even wetter autumn. Cows and pigs grazed in a hollow in fenced forest clearings drowned. There were not enough stocks from last year's harvest. To make matters worse, the mice came with a great plague and ate up the seed intended for spring sowing. Hunger and dampness brought all kinds of illnesses to humans. March came, and winter was not letting go. For a few days the world was obscured by heavy blizzards, and after them, instead of the thaw, even more severe frosts prevailed. To survive, people ate acorns and bark.
People here did not remember a winter like this. Trees were cracking in the forest from the frost, and emaciated animals were dying out.
Izbora's daughter was with hope; the solution should be in early summer, yet she was in pain, as if she was about to give birth. The old man knew that if he didn't hunt anything, his daughter would die . The carpenter who was walking with him, his wife, and their three children will also die. And maybe no one in the village will survive . They needed meat to keep men on their feet, to keep women and children alive.
Dancing with wolves
Luck was on their side. Already after an hour they came across a disturbed snow. Izbor recognized the feeding place:the animals rummaged here with their hooves in search of bushes and lichens. A dozen or so steps further, under a sprawling old oak tree, the men discovered a lair - a large, longitudinal basin melted in the snow down to the ground . Jurand looked questioningly at Izbor.
Deer, said the old man.
They were reassured, and they followed the game with brisk steps. But not only they fought for survival. Forests, especially near human settlements, roamed herds of hungry wolves , ready to throw themselves at people walking in a group of hunters. Izbor carried a hunting bow and Jurand had a small wolf crossbow strapped to his back. Now he had him get her ready to shoot. The fears were soon confirmed. Behind the first range of hornbeam, the deer's tracks have been joined by new ones, arranged in one line - large, elongated, front claws imprinted in the snow more clearly than the side ones.
The text is an excerpt from the novel by Szymon Jędrusiak "Tron Jagiellonów", which has just been released by the Bukowy Las publishing house.
"Wolves," Izbor muttered.
"I see one ..." Jurand crouched down to examine the leads.
-That's how the pack goes. The first wolf leads and the next ones put their paws in his trail.
–Can it be a lynx?
Condemned to death
Izbor shook his head. Lynxes are cats, they hide their claws when they walk on snow. The old man would like to be wrong, because lynxes hunt alone, bury their prey in the snow or drag them up a tree. Lynx could take their prey, and the wolves would only be bloody scraps in the snow.
"Wolves," he repeated.
They walked for another half a mile. Jurand felt pain all over his body. Hunger jerked from the inside, muscles trembled. Though he was not a hunter, he knew that they would stand no chance against the hungry herd. It is madness to continue walking. They will starve here and the animals will tear apart their flesh and spread their bones . He was so overwhelmed with fear that he ran out of breath and dropped to his knees. Izbor, however, did not see it. He pressed on without turning his head. But he too, having made another half stand, stopped. For a moment he stared at the snow trampled around the young trees. Then he turned his head, looked for his companion, and several times clumsily scooped the air towards him with a fur-thick arm.
- God is with us! He called as Jurand finally crawled to him. - This is where deer were feeding. The wolves gave up the deer and followed the herd.
The hunter bent over the trail once more. He rubbed his teary eyes from frost and blinding white. Male or female? Hoofprints were clear, wide and deep here.
–Taurus! He announced happily.
Before leaving the village, Izbor prayed for a male, because such a booty was worth the trouble and punishment if poaching appeared. There would be enough meat for the entire settlement. There would also be leather that could be sold well and the antlers. He also hoped that he would be able to get his daughter the miraculous cube of Saint Hubert - cartilage from the heart of a deer, in the shape of a cross, which when powdered and given to pregnant women works miracles.
The Cursed Forest
Strengthened by hope, they followed the lead for several hours until they were out in the open:a two-standing stretch of wetlands, now frozen in place by frost. It started blowing. The trail led straight to the densely lined, wet forest beyond the marshes, closed on three sides by a wide stream called by the locals the Fiend's Water. It is a cursed forest, dotted with drowned pits and bottomless swamps, an ancient graveyard of vampires, strigoi, ghouls and various unclean forces.
Even during the wars that abounded in these lands, people preferred to die by enemy swords than to take refuge in this filthy bend. As far as human memory goes, no one got out of there completely. Once upon a time, a few daredevils ventured into the swamps. They drank a quart of vodka and started walking. Groping the treacherous waters with their long poles, they pressed on. And they were lost from hearing.
The trail led straight to the densely lined, wet forest behind the swamps
Jurand had only heard of one lumberjack who returned. He lost his way in winter a long time ago. He had spent the whole night behind the marshes. He had barely gone a hundred paces - he said after his return - and already some hairy arms were clinging to him. A silent howl wafted down the ground like mist, blood dripping from the treetops into the eyes as soon as man raised his head to seek help in heaven. A few days later, he lost his mind completely and lost his speech.
- I'm not going through the marshes! The carpenter gasped.
-The forest is dense. Izbor grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard. - Cuckold will be ours soon! Make the sign of the cross. You will chase away the fiends. In the name of the Father and the Son…
–I won't go!
Frost and wind turned their faces into stiff masks. They hurt as if they had been pounded with sticks.
-You won't come back. Izbor spoke with increasing difficulty. The numb lips refused to obey. - You choose death.
Jurand shook his head. He wanted to say something else, but only a groan came out.
- Go to hell! Izbor pushed the young carpenter so that he stumbled back and hit the tree trunk with his back, then, exhausted, slumped into a snowdrift. The hunter untied the wicker hoops from the boots. He threw them at his companion huddled under the tree. He walked alone through the icy swamps. The snow cover was thin here, he glided every few steps, struggling to keep his balance. He had to overcome the frozen stretch as quickly as possible. The wind picked up. The frosty air choked him and burned his throat.
Though he was not a hunter, he knew they would stand no chance against a hungry herd.
He was finally on the other side. He made the sign of the cross and followed the trail deep into the forest . The forest was thickening quickly. That's good. Following the footsteps, Izbor guessed that the deer was carrying a large wreath. Confusing clues, deceiving, wandering in the thicket must have cost the bull a lot of effort. The hunter saw the animal a few prayers later. They were only a dozen fathoms apart. A huge tan male with a powerful mane on the neck and spreading antlers. Decimal! As tall at the withers as the largest horse. The tired deer opened the nostrils, pricked up his ears and continued deeper into the forest. He had long since sensed a deadly enemy in the hunter.
The Secret Hut
New forces entered Izbora. He took his bow off his back and drew an arrow from his quiver. He forgot about Strigoi and Fiends and Devils. He wanted to get the animal, carve out of it as much meat as he could carry. He took a few quick steps when suddenly saw… a stump. A remnant of a freshly cut tree. With a cut human hand, low, right next to the carp . And then one more and one more. He was terrified that he had lost his mind. That he is dreaming that Satan has confused his mind. A moment later a small clearing appeared in front of him. He rubbed his eyelids sore from the snow glare several times because he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
There was a hut in the middle of the clearing. Or rather, a low shepherd's hut the size of a bath shack, with a sloping roof almost touching the ground, covered with branches and bark. The hunter walked around carefully, saying goodbye every now and then and muttering his Hail Mary. The hut had only one window, to the east, covered with a shutter. It was entered from the south. The old man stood motionless for a moment. He listened. There was no sound coming from inside. There was no smoke above the hut. There were no fresh traces in the yard. The low, wide, almost square door was half buried in snow.
Izbor had the thought that since the hut is abandoned, maybe he will use it as a hiding place. He will drag the deer here, piece by piece, the meat will be safe from the wolves. He would come for them a few times from the village, maybe even take a narrow sleigh that would fit between the trees.
There was a hut in the middle of the clearing.
He took off his gloves, slipped his fingers into the narrow gap between the shutter and the wall, and pulled it towards him. There was a short creak. He pulled again, harder. The shutters opened a little. He rested his left hand on the wide plank above the door frame, bent his head, leaned his feet deep in the snow and, pulling firmly towards him, crushed the ice that had settled on the hinges. When the shutter opened just enough for you to see inside, he looked up.
He did not immediately understand what he was seeing. There was a terrible image in the frost-tearing eyes. Only after a while Izbor's clenched throat released a hoarse scream . Then the hunter, pressing his arm sharply, managed to close the shutter. His heart was pounding madly. He felt a prick in his chest. He had no strength to run away. He dropped to his knees. He knew if he fell on his face, he would be lost. With a last effort of his will, he pressed his back against the cabin wall.
The text is an excerpt from Szymon Jędrusiak's novel "The Jagiellonian Tron", which has just been released by the Bukowy Las publishing house.