by Gary Clifton
“Leave those freaks in Bucovina,” shouted a dirty, tattered young man from the side of the rutted road. “They should have been abandoned in the forest to be eaten by wolves.”
Mihal, whose knowledge of the Romanian language was limited, understood the tormentor well enough. When the chunk of stale cabbage struck him, he saw food, not garbage. Chained in the wagon with his brother Alex and a female he did not know, Mihal quickly picked up the shattered leaves and divided them among his two companions. All three ravenously downed their portions.
One of the five mounted knights guarding the wagon spurred his horse toward the man, who fled into the thick underbrush. He turned the animal toward four or five more hecklers a few yards ahead, scattering them. Riding close beside the wagon, he leaned down from his saddle to caress the female.
“No worries, Maria.” His hand lingered on her breast. “I, Moise, Commander and Superior Knight of His Excellency, King Moga, will see you are delivered to m’lord intact and ready for use at his convenience.”
Thus, as the terrified girl pulled the few rags she wore closely to her, Mihal learned her name. He could see she was of much higher class than his brother or himself. Perhaps a house servant in training? He prayed to the Great Spirit that she had not been held in the harem of a nobleman back in their homeland of Bucovina.
From the burly knight’s boast, Mihal recognized the name of Moga, King of Vatra, just across the Transylvanian border from their homeland. They were not being taken far from home.
But distance would not matter. Baron Cazacu, ruler of their small Barony in a corner of Bucovina, was a heartless despot whose disdain for the lives and well-being of his serfs was common knowledge. As evidenced by the lack of Cazacu’s soldiers pursuing his kidnapped subjects, he had no interest in saving them from even more brutal slavery than they’d endured in Bucovina.
Suddenly, Moise reached in and struck Mihal a savage blow with the flat of his sword across his back. “What are you staring at, you shriveled freak? You and your other deformed companion will be sport in the arena for King Moga’s hunting dogs while he dines tomorrow.”
He urged his mount forward, and the prisoner wagon swung back into line with a half-dozen others, all loaded with Vatrian soldiers, each with a female or two trapped in their midst for their entertainment. Mihal prayed to the Great Spirit that the soft and beautiful Maria not be dragged into one of those wagons.
Mihal realized that the mounted guards were knights of King Moga’s guard while the troops riding in the wagons or walking beside were common soldiers.
Mihal, ignoring the pain from the sword strike looked rearward, toward Maria. A foot-train of human misery, a rope-chain around the necks of each of about twenty-five prisoners, trailed the rear wagon.
“Are... are you hurt, Maria?” His face was downcast to avoid eye contact with one so far above his status. That he did not know her meant the Vatrians had raided more than his village.
“No. And thank you for the food. I’m sorry that monster struck you because of me.”
Mihal shook his head without looking up. Until two nights before, he and his brother, who was deaf and mute, had lived with their parents in a small hut in their remote Bucovinian village. Their settlement had been attacked in the middle of the night by who he now knew to be troops of the neighboring kingdom of Vatra. His parents and all but the few prisoners in the wagons and those wretches tethered behind on foot, had been butchered.
Mihal gathered from the conversations he’d overheard that Maria, his brother, and he had all been spared execution because they had use in the enemy’s court. All three were dwarfs of a sort. Mihal and his brother were stubby young men with gnarly-muscled arms and legs and hair the color of ripe wheat. Neither was as tall as the waist of one of the invading knights.
Maria was a perfectly proportioned, black-haired small person called a midget in that land, who had only grown slightly taller than Mihal and Alex. To many of the evil men of the period, her delicate size and exquisite beauty made her a target of their animal lust.
He’d just heard Moise, the arrogant knight, describe his own fate. Mihal, a passive youth who had never harmed another human, vowed Moga’s dogs would pay dearly for their dwarf meal. The thought of Maria in the hands of King Moga and his underlings sickened him.
An ear of corn sailed from the underbrush, struck Alex and fell to the wagon floor. Mihal quickly and easily broke the precious item first in two, giving a full half to Maria, then snapped the second again, sharing it with his brother. From the corner of his eyes, he could see Maria’s grateful smile.
Moise, the knight, riding slightly ahead of the wagon, halted his horse until Mihal drew even. “No more eating, freak,” he snarled. “Those are loyal Vatrian patriots showing their scorn for Bucovinian riffraff.”
Mihal and his brother, who by Bucovinian law, should have been killed by their parents as soon as their condition became apparent, had been spared by his loving father and sheltered by villagers. Since early childhood, both not only showed tremendous natural strength from their stubby limbs, but working long, hard days in the farm fields had made them the two strongest young men in the village.
A mile further, Mihal, who was illiterate but by no means mentally deficient, noticed a strange sight at the roadside. Two filthy young men, clad in drab peasant garb, chanced the ire of the knights to come close enough to toss a portion of bread into their wagon before fleeing into the mountainous Transylvanian underbrush.
The three prisoners exchanged furtive glances. Mihal saw something in the two young men’s eyes that was less than hatred. Sympathy, perhaps? The mighty Moise might have used the side of his sword too often on others.
Mihall looked back toward the rear of the procession and was certain he saw dark figures step out of the underbrush and hand ladles of water to the prisoners neck-chained together. Knights bringing up the rear confirmed Mihal’s suspicion by pressing their horses into the underbrush to chase the benefactors. Mihal deduced that at least some of Vatra’s populace was not fond of the knights or of King Moga. His suspicion was heightened when one of the horses returned to the road riderless.
Now he wondered if the thrown cabbage and corn had been hostile at all. Who else might be concealed in the thick woods?
By nightfall, the dreary procession had crossed the drawbridge into King Moga’s castle. The prisoners who had walked roped together were left to sleep on the ground in the cold night air, many nearly naked. Two had died on route, their bodies abandoned at the roadside.
The women who had ridden in the soldiers’ wagons were carried into the soldiers’ barracks outside the castle wall for continuation of a fate worse than death.
Mihal, Alex, and Maria, valued captives, were thrown into a dungeon together, fed a few scraps of bread, and given two buckets, one filled with water, one to be used for refuse. Mihal quietly declared his brother and he would turn their backs when Maria needed privacy.
Mihal knew many of the prisoners who had been led behind the wagon train were from his village. Several of the young men had served in the Army of Bucovina and despite their arduous two-day hike, were strong from hard work.
He studied the barred door, guarded by a single sentry stationed a considerable distance down a long passageway. Illumination was by a torch in between. The door was secured by a chain, not by a regular lock. Mihal motioned Alex to the door. The two small but mighty men wrapped the chain around their wrists, prayed to the Great Spirit, and twisted with all their might.
Both were surprised that the chain, rusty from long exposure to the damp dungeon, broke. Mihal began making choking sounds to draw the sentry’s attention. When the sentry approached, the brothers were upon him, quickly drawing the chain around his neck.
“Now you die, you Vatrian Pig,” Mihal hissed.
“In the name of the Great Spirit,” the sentry gasped. “I’m no Vatrian. I’m a slave, captured in Tessarabia two years ago. Spare me, and I can help you.”
Mihal drew the sentry’s sword and held it to the prostrate man’s throat. “Where do they store the weapons?”
“At the far end. Spare me. The door is not locked, but the guard on duty is a Vatrian.”
In minutes, Mihal, Alex, and the sentry, Maria following, had encountered a second sentry, also a slave from Tessarabia, who joined them. Mihal skewered the Vatrian soldier. With armloads of swords, they rushed to the courtyard, where their shivering countrymen lay, trying to sleep.
The ensuing battle was brief and bloody, quickly disclosing that King Moga had trusted too many slaves with weapons. In his nightshirt, Moise led a final charge of about two dozen loyal Vatrian knights. Before the general alarm was raised, they were all dead by the hand of prisoners desperate for freedom. Many of the Vatrian knights recognized Mihal from the wagon train the day before. They were so taken aback by two men less than half their size wielding broadswords longer than they were, resistance was hopeless.
Mihal’s makeshift followers began calling him Mihal the Brave, a ferocious warrior of seemingly inexhaustible strength and agility. He personally struck off the head of Moise while the self-proclaimed “Superior Knight” was struggling on the ground with two slave sentries who had joined Mihal’s side.
A slave sentry showed Mihal the way to the royal bedchamber, which King Moga was sharing with two young women and a young man. The two Vatrian guards, busy watching the activity in the king’s bed, were quickly killed.
“My kingdom for my life,” the corpulent Moga whined. Grossly overweight, with a scraggly beard, he began to sob like an infant.
Mihal, barely able to reach a full-grown man’s neck with the tip of his sword, answered: “I believe I’ll have both.” He stretched and beheaded Moga in a single swing.
In an hour, the entire castle and the village surrounding it were captured by Mihal’s impromptu army, which steadily gained converts. Again he learned that the foolish King Moga had enslaved many from surrounding countries and had entrusted them to perform as slaves with insufficient numbers of Vatrian guards. He also learned that many native Vatrians had fled the country to avoid King Moga’s wrath.
Mihal was not surprised when numerous Vatrians quickly agreed to join the rebels. Mihal handed several uncooperative, captured Vatrian knights over to townspeople but did not watch the outcome. He found no attraction to slaughter.
By midday, Mihal, Maria always at his side, had formed his revolutionaries into mounted infantry, incorporating several wagons used to haul him and his countrymen into Vatra the day before. They marched across Transylvania and into the mountain borderland of their native Bucovina.
By the time they reached the gates of Bucovina, their numbers exceeded a thousand armed men, plus half as many women, many of whom, hardy from slave labor, carried swords or clubs. As the army swelled, many Vatrians, weary of King Moga’s abuse, joined Mihal. With the spirit of freedom carrying the day, Mihal gave the dozen border guards the option of joining or forfeiting their heads. To a man, all joined the march to Baron Cazacu’s castle to demand freedom.
As they marched across Bucovina, Mihal, bloodied, slayer of a score of men but still painfully taken by Maria’s charms, mustered the courage to ask Maria, who had still not left his side, her background. “If I may be so bold, m’lady, where did you live?”
“I was a slave in the household of Lady Marcellus in the village of Norina, training to be a court dancer.”
“Oh, that is excellent news!”
“It is?” Her wide-eyed gaze caused him to find interest in his feet.
“Er, I mean, only that, I assumed one with such noble bearing as yourself would be of high station, and, um...” He realized with unspeakable horror that she would have soon performed at Court functions and, alas, possibly become the object of some nobleman’s carnal whim. He studied the ground, intimidated by her presence.
Mihal was stunned when Maria spoke. “Mihal, I love you,” she said at they rode side by side. “You’re the finest man I’ve ever met. If we survive, I would like to spend my life with you. You are truly beautiful.”
“M’lady,” he stammered.
“It’s true. I do love you, Mihal.”
Mihal was stirred beyond words that one so gentle could see beauty in his twisted body.
Driven by similar emotion, Mihal’s forces seized control of the despot, Cazacu’s castle and all the land of the small Barony tucked in a corner of Bucovina. Cazacu was captured by the populace, who extracted vengeance for their years in bondage in their own land. Again, Mihal took no part. Cazacu’s head decorated a pole in front of the castle until only a leering skull remained.
Mihal the Brave and Maria were proclaimed King and Queen of the new realm which included both Bucovina and Vatra. They ruled the land for the next fifty years, beloved by the populace for their benevolence.
Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton