By Sergey Dyachenko, Marina Dyachenko
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1997 Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
All rights reserved.
The walls of the crowded tavern were shaken from the boom of drunken voices. After solemn mutual toasts, after good-natured but pointed jests, after cheerful scuffles, it was now time to dance on the table. They were dancing with a pair of maidservants who, although as sober as their work required, were flushed and giddy from the glitter of epaulets; from all the gleaming buttons, scabbards, and ribbons; from the passionate glances directed at them; and from their efforts to please the gentlemen of the guards. Glasses and jugs tumbled to the floor. Silver forks twisted into fanciful arabesques, crushed by nimble heels. The maidservants' full skirts fanned through the air like decks of cards in the hands of a gambler, and their happy squeals rang in the ears of the onlookers. The landlady of the tavern, a wise, gaunt old woman who only occasionally stuck her nose out from her refuge in the kitchen, knew that there was nothing to worry about: the guards were rich and generous, and the damages would be recouped with interest, and more important, the popularity of the establishment would increase a thousandfold after this evening.
After dancing, the revelers calmed down, the din of voices quieted just a bit, and the maidservants, panting and adjusting their clothing, refilled the jugs that had escaped being smashed and brought new glasses from the kitchen. Now, having returned to their senses, both girls bashfully lowered their eyelashes, ashamed at how freely they had behaved. At the same time, an ardent, chimerical hope for something vague, something entirely unfeasible smoldered within the soul of each girl, and whenever a dusty boot brushed against one of their tiny feet as if by accident, that hope flared up and imbued their youthful faces and tender necks with color.
The girls were named Ita and Feta, so it was only natural that the befuddled carousers kept confusing their names; moreover, many of the guards could no longer manage their tongues and thus were scarcely able to compliment the girls further. The impassioned glances were fading, and together with them the girlish hopes for something unrealizable were slowly diminishing, when a heavy battle dagger suddenly slammed into the doorjamb right above Ita's head.
The room became quiet immediately, so quiet that the landlady stuck her inflamed purple nose out of her kitchen. The revelers looked around in mute amazement, as if they expected to see the menacing Spirit Lash on the smoke-fouled ceiling. Bewildered, at first Ita just opened her mouth, but then, finally realizing what had happened, she dropped an empty jug on the floor.
In the tense silence, a heavy chair scraped back from one of the tables. Trampling the fragments of the broken jug under his boots, a man unhurriedly approached the girl. The knife sheath on his belt was empty, but soon the sinister weapon was extracted from the doorjamb and slid back into its place. The man took a piece of gold from a fat purse.
"Take it, girl. Would you like to earn more?"
The tavern exploded with shouts and laughter. The gentlemen guards — those who were still in any condition to move — joyfully clapped one another on the shoulders and backs, rejoicing at the bold and fortunate amusement thought up by their comrade.
"That's Egert! Bravo, Egert! A daring brute, upon my word! Well, do it again!"
The owner of the dagger smiled. When he smiled, a dimple appeared on his right cheek near the corner of his mouth.
Ita helplessly clenched her fists, unable to take her eyes off that dimple. "But, Lord Egert, you can't just ... Lord Egert!"
"What, are you afraid?" Egert, a lieutenant of the regiment, asked smoothly, and Ita broke out in a sweat before the gaze of his clear gray blue eyes.
"Stand with your back to the door."
"But, Master Egert, you've all been drinking so heavily!"
"What! Don't you trust me?"
Ita's feathery eyelashes fluttered repeatedly. The spectators crawled onto the tables in order to see better: even the truly drunk ones sobered up for the sake of such a spectacle. The landlady, more than a bit agitated now, stood frozen in the kitchen doorway with a mop held motionless at her side.
Egert turned to the guards. "Knives! Daggers! Whatever you have!"
Within a minute, he was bristling like a porcupine.
"You're drunk, Egert," Dron, another lieutenant, let the words drop as if by accident.
A swarthy young man peeled himself from the crowd of guards. "Really? He hasn't drunk all that much. Why, it'd barely wet a bedbug's knees, the amount he's drunk! How can he be drunk?"
Egert burst out laughing. "True! Feta, wine!"
Feta obeyed: not immediately, but slowly and mechanically, and simply because she would not dare to disobey the request of a customer.
"But, but," stammered Ita, watching as a gurgling waterfall of wine tumbled down Egert's throat.
"Not a word," he spat, wiping his lips. "Stand back, everyone."
"Oh, he is drunk!" The shout came from among the gathering of spectators. "He's going to kill the girl, the idiot!"
A small brawl ensued, but it was soon quieted. Apparently, the heckler had been dealt with.
"I'll give you a coin for each throw," explained a teetering Egert to Ita. "One coin per shot. Stay where you are!"
The girl, who had been slowly trying to withdraw from the oak door, fearfully staggered back to her previous position.
"One, two ..." Egert took the first throwing knife that came to hand from the mass of weapons. "No, this is so boring. Karver!"
The swarthy youth appeared next to him as if he had been awaiting this summons.
"Candles. Put candles in her hands and one on her head."
"No!" Ita burst into tears. For a moment, the silence was broken only by her distressed sobs.
"How about this?" An extraordinary thought, it seemed, had dawned on Egert. "For each throw, I'll give you a kiss."
Ita slowly raised her tearstained eyes, but the few seconds of procrastination were enough.
"Let me!" Feta pushed her friend out of the way, stood in front of the door, and took the lit candles from the hands of Karver, who was snickering.
The blades clipped the quivering flames ten times, they entered the wood directly over the girl's head another two times, and they passed within a fingerbreadth of her temple yet three more times. Lieutenant Egert Soll kissed the lowly maidservant Feta a total of fifteen times.
Everyone considered it well played except for Ita. She fled to the kitchen to sob. Feta's eyes were lowered, and the skillful hands of the lieutenant rested on her waist. The landlady looked on sorrowfully, yet with understanding. It soon became obvious that Feta was feverish and swooning from passion. Somewhat uneasy, Lord Soll decided to take her to her room; he was not gone for very long, but once he returned, he encountered the rapturous, somewhat envious looks of his comrades.
The night was already well past its peak when the company finally quit the welcoming establishment. Lieutenant Dron spoke to Egert's swaying back. "All the mothers in the district scare their daughters with stories of Lieutenant Soll. You truly are a rascal."
"That merchant Vapa, you know, that rich man who bought the empty house on the embankment? Well, he just brought in a young wife from the provinces, and guess what: He's already been informed by the local gossips that he should fear neither pestilence nor ruin, but a young guard by the name of Soll."
Everyone laughed except for Karver. He frowned at the mention of the merchant's wife, gritted his teeth, and said, "That's what I thought. Someone let it slip in all innocence, and now the merchant doesn't sleep a wink. He guards her." He crossly tossed his head. Obviously, the merchant's wife had long occupied his thoughts, but her jealous husband had managed to disoblige him by his very existence.
Wobbling, Egert stopped, and the blissful vacancy of drunkenness on his face gradually gave way to interest. "Are you lying?"
"If I were lying?" reluctantly responded Karver. The conversation seemed oppressive to him.
The whole company gradually sobered up enough to consider the situation; someone chuckled at the thought of intrigue.
Egert drew his sword from its sheath, his renowned sword of ancient design, and holding its narrow edge close to his face, he solemnly pronounced, "I vow that the merchant shall not protect himself, not from pestilence, not from ruin, and definitely not from —"
His last words were drowned out by an outburst of laughter. Karver's face darkened, and he hunched his head down into his shoulders.
* * *
The glorious city of Kavarren was as ancient as it was militaristic. In no other city did there live, side by side, so many renowned descendants of venerable houses; in no other city did there grow such an assortment of family trees. Nowhere else were valor and military skill so highly valued: the only thing Kavarren valued as highly as prowess with a blade and bravery in battle was skill in breeding and training boars, whose fights were the primary entertainment in the city.
Any House in Kavarren could, if necessary, withstand the onslaught of hundreds of troops. The walls of every manor were surpassingly strong and thick, the unassailable, narrow windows cut in these walls loomed darkly, and a multitude of steel spikes protruded here and there on both gates and doors. An entire arsenal, consisting of myriad types of weapons, was carefully deposited in the vault of each house, and above each roof a banner, adorned with fringe, waved proudly. On the exterior side of the gates, each house boasted a coat of arms, one sight of which might put an entire army to flight from fear of the numerous claws and teeth, the fiery eyes and the ferociously grinning jaws therein. The city was surrounded by a fortress wall, and the gates were protected by such forbidding engravings that even Khars, Protector of Warriors, would either lose his head or flee for his life should he choose to attack Kavarren.
But most of all, Kavarren was proud of its elite force, the regiment of guards. As soon as a son was born into one of the esteemed families, his father would immediately strive for the rosy-cheeked babe's enrollment in these glorious military ranks. Not a single holiday passed by without a military parade to show off the prowess of this regiment; on the days without a parade, the streets of this peaceful city were constantly patrolled, the pubs prospered, and although mothers constantly and severely appealed to their daughters to be prudent, duels occurred occasionally. These duels were long discussed by the town gossips with both satisfaction and pleasure.
However, the guards were renowned not only for their debaucheries and adventures. The regiment's history was full of victories during the internecine wars that had broken out entirely too often in the past. The present-day guards, the descendants of the famous warriors of old, frequently displayed their military skill in skirmishes with the wicked, well-armed bands of highwaymen who occasionally flooded the surrounding forests. All the respectable men of the city spent their youths in the saddle with a weapon in hand.
However, the most terrible event in the history of the city was by no means some war or siege, but the Black Plague, which appeared in Kavarren many decades ago and in the course of three days cut the number of townspeople nearly in two. Walls and fortifications and sharp steel proved powerless against the Plague. The old men of Kavarren, who lived through the Plague in their childhoods, enjoyed recounting the terrible story to their grandsons; however, the young men were quite capable of ignoring all these horrors, possessing that happy talent of youth that allows admonitions heard but a moment ago with their right ears to instantly fly out their left.
Egert Soll was the flesh of the flesh of his native Kavarren; he was a true son and embodiment of its heroism. If he had died suddenly at the age of twenty and a half years, he would have been lauded as the very spirit of Kavarren; it must be said, however, that in his attractive, blond head there were absolutely no thoughts of death.
If anything, Egert did not believe in death: this from the man who managed to kill two men in duels! Both incidents were discussed widely, but inasmuch as they were both questions of honor and all the rules of dueling had been strictly adhered to, the townspeople soon began to talk of Egert with respect, rather than with any sort of condemnation. Tales of Egert's other victories, in which his opponents escaped with mere wounds or mutilation, simply served as textbook examples for the city's young boys and adolescents.
However, as time went on, Egert fought fewer and fewer duels, not because his combative vehemence had been exhausted, but because there were fewer volunteers willing to throw themselves on his family sword. Egert was a devoted student of swordplay; the blade became his sole plaything at the age of thirteen when his father ceremoniously presented him with the family heirloom in lieu of his childhood practice sword.
It is no wonder that Egert had very few to balance out his abundance of friends. Friends met with him in every tavern, friends followed at his heels in packs and involuntarily became the witnesses and participants in his impetuous amusements.
A worshipper of all kinds of danger, he recognized the distinctive charm of dancing on the razor's edge. Once, on a dare, he scaled the exterior wall of the fire tower, the highest building in the city, and rang the bell three times, inducing by this action a fair bit of alarm among the townsfolk. Lieutenant Dron, who had entered into this bet with Egert, was required to kiss the first woman he encountered, and that woman turned out to be an old spinster, the aunt of the mayor — oh, what a scandal!
Another time, a guard by the name of Lagan had to pay up; he lost a bet when Egert, in full view of everyone, saddled a hefty, reddish brown bull, which was furious but completely stupefied at such impudence. Clenching a horse bridle in his teeth, Lagan hauled Egert on his shoulders from the city gates to his own house.
But mostly the cost of these larks fell to Karver.
They had been inseparable since childhood. Karver clung to Egert and loved him like a brother. Not especially handsome but not hideous, not especially strong but not a weakling; Karver always lost in comparison with Egert and yet at the same time basked in the reflection of his glory. From an early age, he conscientiously worked for the right to be called the friend of such a prominent young man, enduring at times both humiliations and mockery.
He wanted to be just like Egert; he wanted it so fervently that slowly, imperceptibly even to himself, he began to take on his friend's habits, his mannerisms, his swagger, even his voice. He learned to swim and walk on ropes, and Heaven only knows what that cost him. He learned to laugh aloud at his own spills into muddy puddles; he did not cry when blows, accurately thrown by a young Egert, left bruises on his shoulders and knees. His magnificent friend valued his dedication and loved Karver in his own way; this, however, did not keep him from forgetting about the existence of his friend if he did not see him with his own eyes even for a day. Once, when he was fourteen years old, Karver decided to test his friend: He said he was ill, and did not show his face among his comrades for an entire week. He sat at home, reverently waiting for Egert to remember him, which of course Egert did not: he was distracted by numerous amusements, games, and outings. Egert did not know, of course, that Karver sat silently by his window for all seven days of his voluntary seclusion nor that, despising himself, he once broke out into hot, spiteful, angry tears. Suffering from solitude, Karver vowed he would break with Egert forever, but then he broke down and went to see him, and he was met with such sincere joy that he immediately forgot the insult.
Little changed as they grew up. Timid Karver's love affairs all fell apart, usually when Egert instructed him in the ways of love by leading girls whom Karver found attractive away from him right under his nose. Karver sighed and forgave, regarding his own humiliation as a sacrifice for friendship.
Egert was wont to require the same daring of those around him as he himself possessed, and he did his best to mock those who fell short of his expectations. He was especially unforgiving to Karver; once in late autumn, when the river Kava, which skirted the town, froze over for the first time, Egert proposed a contest to see who could run over it, from bank to bank, the quickest. All his friends quickly pretended to have important business to attend to, sicknesses and infirmities, but Karver, who showed up as he usually did just to be at hand, received such a contemptuous sneer and such a scathing, vile rebuke that he flushed from his ears to his heels. Within an inch of crying, he consented to Egert's suggestion. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Scar by Sergey Dyachenko, Marina Dyachenko. Copyright © 1997 Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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