Sunday, April 10, 2011

Afanasy Falls Out of a Tree

Afanasy and Olga were crouching in the tall grass, waiting for their chance to steal more food from the soldiers. They already had a sack of meal, a box of plums, and a hogshead of hog's heads. The soldiers were smashing open another crock of vodka and many were beginning to drop like cordwood into the clay. Something moved in the hedges a few yards east, and a branch broke loudly.

"Foma must have gotten out of the bag - probably smelled the meat cooking on the campfire. You keep an eye on the aide-de-camp with the blunderbuss, and I'll go quiet him down." Afanasy began commando-crawling across to where Foma was hiding.

The aide-de-camp set his blunderbuss down and began singing atrociously with a half-dressed Cossack. "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" I believe. Olga quickly dashed, ferretlike, from the grass across a clearing and into the dusky camp.

Afanasy froze. Did Olga see the sentry in the tree with the damascene cuirasses? Perhaps not. She came to a stop directly beneath the sentry and hid herself behind the very pin-oak tree he sat in.

"Lord, our deliverer and holiest of holies, please deliver that beautiful woman. Amen."

A long leathery arm reached down from the branches, bundled a handful of Olga's cassock, and yanked her abruptly up into the tree.

Afanasy lunged at the spot where Foma hid, hoping to use the besotten serf as a projectile. When he cleared away the grass, however, he discovered not Foma but a group of six or seven hungry brigands also waiting for an opportunity to steal food from the soldiers.

"Pardon!" he hissed, as he turned tail and ran pell-mell toward the tree where Olga and the sentry were tucked away. "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" immediately ceased. The blunderbuss exploded and Afanasy heard a carcass of one of the highwaymen drop heavily behind his sprinting feet. The explosion brought the attention of the entire reeling camp of soldiers on to Afanasy and the team of thugs behind him. The thugs drew bows and a soldier fell as a whistling passed Afanasy's cocked ears.

Only feet from the Olga tree, Afanasy tripped over a drunken private and spun, shouting, into the clay. A soldier with an oak barrel over his head made a phlegmy roar and another boozer came at him with a rusty javelin. Afanasy rolled deftly to his left, kicked at the shins of the barrel-holder and rolled backwards over his own head. The javelin came down and sank into the barrel, and Afanasy sprang up, catching the javelin-tosser across the jaw with a solid right hook. Two of the stinking brigands leapt onto his back and began to pummel him about the head with something like brass candlesticks. Afanasy began quietly singing his own setting of Psalm 37, tugging both assailants off him by the ankles, neatly bouncing their skulls off one another and then collected the candlesticks.

"Hmmm. Venetian, I'd guess."

He sent one spinning end-over-end at an archer as another arrow clipped his chest, tearing a hole in his jersey. The blunderbuss fired again, and a toothless thief with half a beard and half a baked pig spun and fell over Afanasy's left shoulder.

Afanasy yanked the rusty javelin from the cask, causing a foamy geyser of Bavarian aspic ale to gush up. With this the brigands ceased to take any interest in our hero, and descended upon the cask. He picked up an abandoned leather shield and lunged back toward the tree. A shower of arrows began to descend upon him as more soldiers were rousted from their drunken nest, and he crouched for a moment under his rattling shield. He prayed once again for Olga, who had now been captive for a full three minutes. There was a momentary pause in the archery, and instantly the strains of the Volga Boatmen's song began again. Using the javelin, he pole-vaulted elegantly up into the branches of Olga's tree.

"Olga! Olga?" he shouted, as the arrows began to shudder into the trunk and boughs. He looked furiously at the branches above him, below, and then scrambled, snapping the haft of an arrow from his shoulder, looking to holes in the trunk where the cur could have hidden. Another arrow buried itself in his leg, and a third penetrated through the chain mail over his ribs enough to take his breath away. The branch beneath him slipped away and he felt himself tumbling through space as the night overtook his eyes. 

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