Milos wasn’t a particularly smart boy; everyone in Samundzhievo (his mother included) admitted as much. He knew that he had been born in the Year of Our Lord, Sixteen-Hundred and Forty-Two. The priests had told him that; they would know, after all, since they could read and write. According to his mother, that meant he was ten years old – practically a man – and that he had better start behaving like one.
But whatever Milos lacked in brilliance, he made up for with a strong sense of danger. He discerned the latter when his mother pressed him tightly against her apron on a cool Spring morning – the day that Milos left Samundzhievo forever. Milos had watched the Ottoman soldiers gallop into town every year since his birth, always arriving with the pink roses of April. But they never brought good tidings; rather, they came for tribute, for the devşirme. It was a word from a language – the Turks’ language – that Milos didn’t know. But he, and everyone in Ottoman Bulgaria, knew what that word meant.
Milos gulped down his fear when the entire town was commanded to the town’s solitary church that afternoon. They were never gathered together, apart from Mass and feast days, unless something wonderful – or terrible – was happening. But Milos’ mother did not give him even a passing glance as they entered the church with dozens of the town’s other denizens. In an instant, his worst fears were confirmed: the town’s boys, all of them, were stacked like a line of dolls at the very front of the chapel before the altar – nineteen in total. There was just one left to join them before the devşirme would begin.
Milos gave his mother a terrified, pleading gasp as she led him to the front and shoved him into the line before abandoning him for a nearby pew. Milos gaped at her, chest heaving, but her gaze shifted downward as she silently clasped her hands in prayer. Only then did Milos jerk his head in the direction of the soldiers and their apparent commander, a broad-shouldered man, who strode alongside the town’s priest as he reviewed the twenty boys before them.
“One out of five,” Milos thought, over and over again. “Only one out of every five”.
The singular hope raced through his mind as the pair of men finally reached Milos. The boy did not dare look up, but forced his gaze to the grimy stonework floor beneath his leather shoes. His eyes only flicked upward again as the outlandishly bright red tunic of the commander passed him by. Milos’ hands curled into fists as he prayed that the commander’s brief glance had found him wanting – puny, short and skinny – not the right material, not at all, for a warrior.
The minutes stung Milos like the pangs of purgatory as the priest and commander finished with the inspection. But to Milos’ horror, the commander resumed his pacing in the other direction – back down the line. Milos shuddered as the first boy, Ivano, was chosen with a clap on the shoulder. The terror bulged from Ivano’s eyes as he stepped out of the line and trudged, unwillingly, towards the waiting company of soldiers. Milo jolted again as another clap came down, this time only a few paces away from him, as another, older, boy was selected to join the waiting company.
“Two more,” Milos thought quickly. “Just two more to go.”
But to his horror, the commander was inching, ever closer, to the spot where Milos stood like a statue. Instinctively, Milos threw his gaze back to the floor before the commander could see his terrified expression. His jaw clenched as the red tunic, once again, swished before him; Milos dared to hope that the man had ignored him as the heavy boots pounded the stone before him.
Milos nearly choked when he heard another heavy slap beside his ear – but felt no sensation. Stunned, he whipped his head to his right, where Damir stood beside him. Damir turned ashen as the commander shoved him towards the waiting company before proceeding back down the line for his fourth acquisition. Milos’ head swam as the blood came rushing back, his terror abating, as the last boy, Constantin, was directed away from the line. The fourth was chosen; at last, Milos shuddered with relief.
But a sharp noise jerked Milos from his dreamy haze. Constantin suddenly sputtered, heaving, as a nasty cough racked his thin chest. A murmur rose from the assembly as the commander’s glare hardened fiercely. He turned back to the suddenly anxious priest beside him.
“This one is sick,” the commander huffed. Then, motioning to his lieutenant, he shouted in Turkish. Nodding, the lieutenant directed Constantin back into the assembly, where the boy ran back into his family’s waiting arms.
Milos gulped as the nausea crept over him again. The devşirme wasn’t done, after all. Even worse, the commander’s eyes were turning back to all of them, the remaining sixteen, as he scanned the petrified line once more. This time, Milos didn’t look down, didn’t turn his eyes fast enough, until they locked with those of the commander. Milos knew, at once, that he had stumbled into a terrible mistake.
“That one,” the commander shouted, throwing his right arm towards Milos. “The light-haired one.”
Without warning, Milos felt a pair of hands – those of the priest – grasp him by the shoulders and push him towards the other three selected boys and the waiting soldiers. Milos could barely breathe as his hands and feet went numb. But just as the priest released him to the waiting company, another pair of hands wrenched Milos around. He instantly recognized his mother’s sharp, pale features as she looked down upon him, his face wedged between her palms.
“Do as they say,” she spat into his face.
Milos’ breaths turned to rasps. “What?” he cried out. “Surely you won’t let me go? Surely they can’t take me if you refuse?”
She gripped the sides of his face more tightly. “This is for the best. Train with them. Learn from them. Believe whatever they believe. Pray however they tell you to pray. You’re a man now. Soon enough, you will be a warrior. Be a great one.”
“No!” Milos shouted, as his eyes brimmed with tears. “I don’t want to be a man, or a warrior, or any of it. Not right now – I don’t want to leave! Don’t make me!”
Milos tried in vain to grasp her wrists, but was not nearly quick enough. She released him, without another word, and turned on her heel to exit the congregation.
Milos stared listlessly at his hands, pressed into the rough wood floor of the rolling cart, as the caravan lurched forward relentlessly. Every few minutes or so the cart would jolt violently as the wheels hit another crag in the old, ancient road – the road Milos had prayed he would never find himself on. The road to Istanbul.
The lieutenant, who apparently spoke their language fluently, had ridden alongside the cart for the first hour of the journey. He had explained, in a tone that brooked no argument, that they would arrive in the Ottoman capital by the end of the week; that they would be assigned barracks with the other new recruits and receive their uniforms; that their instruction in Islam would begin immediately; that they would soon recite a profession of faith and be given new, Turkish names to signify their conversion.
“Your previous lives,” he had concluded, “will be as if they never were. From today onward, you are yeni çeri, Janissaries, and you live and die for the Emperor.”
Milos sat in begrudging silence throughout the lieutenant’s speech. But with every hour of passing silence thereafter, save for Ivano’s whimpering, anger simmered hotter and hotter in his belly.
“They abandoned me,” Milos ruminated, over and over again. The priest, the very man who baptized Milos ten years before, had shoved him away as if Milos had been struck with plague. His mother, even worse, surrendered him to his fate with barely a goodbye for her only son. Milos would have cried, begged, to stay with her even a few hours before, but now he wasn’t sure if he ever wanted to see her again.
Do as they say, she had hissed at him. It came back to Milos now, like a cruel whisper in the wind.
Slowly, he reached for the wooden crisscrossed bars of the cart around him and passed his eyes over the company of soldiers. His gaze hardened as he considered the proud men in their garish uniforms, with their strange, curved weapons and haughty bearing. Milos wanted nothing to do with any of them.
“I don’t have to take this,” he thought, fingers curling around the grates. “None of it. Not at all.”
In an instant, Milos had the will – he just needed a way.
It came to him that evening as the caravan settled into an encampment once the sun slid behind the hills. The soldiers ate, laughed and sang together, while the boys were fed a dinner of a lentil stew, cured lamb meet and dried apricots. Even Milos had to admit to himself that the food was tasty, even if he had no intention of sharing another meal with this particular company.
Soon enough, full bellies carried most of the soldiers off to sleep in the open air; only the commander and his lieutenant were afforded tents for the evening. A handful of sentries remained alert, keeping an eye on the boys (now huddled together in the cart under a few spare blankets) and listening for wolves in the distance. Every so often, the sentries would shift or stretch out on the dirt beneath them, letting their gazes wander into the distant, starry skies ahead.
These moments, Milos realized, were his chance.
Once the skies were pitch black hours after the sunset, Milos crept quietly out from under his blanket. He carefully negotiated his crawl over the cart’s back gate, barely missing Damir’s forehead with his shoe, and checked every few seconds for any stirring of the dozing men around him. Milos had already marked out his path to freedom. The sentries were separated into two groups to monitor the east and west sides of the road, but none were stationed around the brush that surrounded it. Milos reasoned that if he could slink away from the camp, he could put enough distance between himself and the company to make a run for it into the woods. He might even manage it without rousing anyone at all.
Once his feet hit earth, Milos crawled around the cart to avoid the view of the nearest sentries facing west. If they turned around, they would see a pile of slumbering boys in the cart, just as they had before. The next part was more challenging as Milos slid on his belly, like a snake, towards the tall grasses which surrounded the stone-paved road. Even so, he was now in full view of the other sentries camped about twenty paces away. If any one of them glanced behind, they would surely spot the shadowy figure stretched out along the ground.
A bead of sweat formed on Milos’ brow for the first time as he digested these facts; he had to move fast. But moving fast meant making noise as he bumped his elbow into one protruding stone, then another, each time clenching his teeth against his little yelps of pain. He whipped his head towards the sentries once again, terrified that he might see a pair of eyes gaping back at him, but none had stirred.
Milos’ relief was short lived as he reached the grasses. He realized, on a quick inspection, that they were dry, brittle and prickly, untouched by drenching Spring rains. The crunch of an animal, or a determined boy, creeping through them would be audible to anyone nearby. Milos waited for a passing breeze to disguise the crinkle of his forearms, then his chest, bearing into the first clump of reeds. When the wind picked up again, he pressed forward until his waist was covered and slowly moved his knees along the roots to pull them out of sight. The whistling stopped; so did Milos. He waited patiently for the breeze to rustle the grasses again – if he could only make it ten or fifteen paces into the grass, he could make a run for it and vanish into the woodlands beyond.
But Milos did not hear the next passing breeze; instead, he heard voices. The sentries voices – first one, then a chorus, all flying in his direction. Milos realized, in horror, that both of his feet were still poking out onto the road.
Apparently, the sentries realized it, too. One of them grabbed Milos by the ankles and attempted to wrench him out from his hiding spot. Milos grabbed a handful of the reeds, but could not muffle his shout of pain as they sliced his hands. Two more sentries were suddenly upon him as a half dozen soldiers jerked up from their slumber.
Milos kicked the soldier holding him by the ankles as hard as he could, slamming his heel into the man’s face. Blood gushed from his assailant’s nose as he released his quarry. Milos jumped to his feet, but was quickly knocked down by another sentry whose arms wrapped around Milos’ waist. Milos could just see the glint of the sentry’s dagger before him as they both smashed into the dirt; without a thought, Milos grabbed the hilt and rammed the sharp end into the shoulder of the man pinning him down. Blood sprayed over Milos face as the sentry screamed. Now there were a dozen men shouting, and many pairs of hands grabbing Milos’ feet, arms and shoulders. Someone pulled Milos upright on his knees, and he felt the cold pressure of a knife under his throat. There was nothing left to do – Milos had injured two Imperial Ottoman soldiers. The remainder of his life would pass in seconds. With that realization, the fight left him, and Milos closed his eyes.
But the seconds passed; Milos’ heart beat still, and his pulse ran ragged, as the men around him gasped for air. Still nothing, until the seconds dragged on to a minute.
Tentatively, Milos cracked his eyes open, only to see the ferocious, dark gaze of the company’s commander staring angrily back – barely a handbreadth away.
“What was your plan, exactly?” the commander finally growled into Milos’ face.
“What?” Milos gasped for air, the blade still digging into this throat. “What do you mean?”
The commander rolled his eyes. “After you ran to the woods. What were you going to do next?”
Milos stared at him in disbelief. At last, the boy stuttered the truth: “I…I don’t know. I didn’t really think…”
But the commander interrupted Milos with a snort. “Evidently. Tell me, how long were you going to survive among bears and wolves, with no weapons, no shelter, no tools?”
Milos swallowed hard as a few pairs of hands released him. The knife at this throat vanished into someone’s pocket. “I don’t know,” he admitted sheepishly.
Slowly, the commander drew back as he surveyed Milos, still kneeling in the dirt, with his hard gaze.
“Bahadir,” the commander answered, with a strange finality.
“What?” Milos rasped.
“I said ‘Bahadir’, you little fool,” the commander answered. “That’s your new name. You’re welcome. It means courageous, a quality that you have been clearly gifted in abundance.”
The word – the name, rather – raced through Milos’ mind as his fists hit the dirt before him. But the commander's palm reached under Milos’ chin, and pulled his gaze upward.
“We can make you a warrior,” the commander added, more softly. “But we cannot make you use your head.” He cuffed Milos on his temple, as if to emphasize the point. “If you manage to put your head together with that stubborn heart, you might live to be a great man.”
He grasped Milos by the arm and pulled him up from the ground.
“There is nothing left for you, back there,” the commander added, motioning to the western path of the road. “But everything lies before you.” With that, the older man stretched out his hand to the younger one.
Milos stood still, paused, and thought carefully – perhaps for the first time in his life. He weighed the commander’s words, counted the cost, and considered his options. For the second time, his mother’s admonition came back to him in a whisper: “You’re a man now. Soon enough, you will be a warrior. Be a great one.”
Milos now understood her words, and realized that his path was clear before him. He grasped the commander’s waiting hand, without a word, and climbed back into the cart.