1 // Andrei.
There was nothing anyone could do to stop it: darkness was about to fall on the quiet village of Elinya.
And so, as the last swells of light sank behind the Rhodope Mountains, the people made their preparations. Torches flickered to life along the main roads and at the gates. Clean smoke swirled up from chimneys and floated away with the westward wind. Quiet prayers went on behind closed doors, some to Christ, some to Allah. Every ordinary family had their ordinary routine, and it was considered rude to pry.
Andrei’s family was not ordinary. He was an old man, unmarried, caring for his younger brother’s orphaned children. His nightly routine, then, was appropriately odd and prying. He sat alongside little Ivo and Neli at the edge of his roof, bare feet dangling. In his hands was a small telescope he had bought as a young man at a market in Sofia. With it, he looked down at the streets and noted the illicit comings and goings. With it, he looked out at the mountains, watching for lynx. With it, he looked up at the stars, pointing out constellations for the children who looked up at him.
Tonight, Neli was quiet, and her brother Ivo wanted to hear Orion’s story once again. Andrei marveled at the hopeful look on the boy’s face, realizing how much he looked like his father. He shook his head. Clouds parted to reveal the scarred face of the night’s red moon.
“Tonight is not a time for hearing,” Andrei said. “It is a time for looking.”
While Andrei and Ivo lost themselves in the splendor of the night sky, Neli, just nine, stared down at her twiddling thumbs. She had met the moon before, in all her shapes and sizes, but not this moon, not this color. She shied away from it like a stranger, allowing it to look her over, to judge her. She thought it rude to gawk back, and decided to hold off on looking until she had been introduced.
A distant yelp. A ringing bell. An opening gate.
Three men clad in black armor rode dark destriers into the village square: emissaries of the empire. The central figure, tall and wild-eyed, had dangling off the back of his saddle a limp body—according to his dress, a village sentinel.
“Uncle Andrei,” said Ivo, “what happened? Did those bastards hurt him?” The boy’s face turned bone white.
“Mind your tongue, nephew. What is tonight?”
“A time for looking.”
A committee of two came to meet the new arrivals: the priest and the mullah. They dressed differently, walked differently, and spoke in different terms. Maybe the majority of folks had forgotten, but elders would remember these two men as the Banev brothers. In taking their respective mantles, they ushered in an era of relative peace and prosperity. Now, as a crowd slowly gathered around them, they were all that stood between Elinya and the empire’s bloody boot.
Andrei could not hear what the men were saying, nor read their lips in the dim light of the torches surrounding the square. Their spirited movements said more than enough. The mullah stepped forward, hoping to build a bridge with shared faith. He pointed to the sentinel’s body and calmly asked a question. One of the emissaries hopped down from his horse, hand to hilt, and made an expansive gesture that said these mountains belong to us. The priest sank to his knees and prayed. The emissary on foot approached him, shook his head, and spat. Then, he drew his dagger and sliced viciously near the priest’s steepled hands. The way the priest hunched over and writhed around, it was reasonable to assume he had lost at least a finger. The mullah, incensed, said something rash.
Then, they all fell silent. The central emissary, the leader, had thrown down his gauntlet. After a moment, the men in black rode out into the night.
“What does that mean?” asked Ivo.
Andrei placed his head in his hands. He tried not to show his fear. “It means this place isn’t safe for you two anymore.”
A closing gate. A blaring horn. A panicked din.
Many foolish men and women convened in the great hall, swords and pitchforks in hand, qurans and bibles left at home. They talked in circles, always returning to the thing they each knew in their hearts. They were about to die, but they would go out fighting. There was honor in that.
The wiser, albeit slightly less honorable among them, made preparations to flee. The better off would take horses, and the poor would walk. In the end, they escaped with nothing but their lives. For whatever that was worth.
Conscious of the children’s eyes on him, Andrei maintained a stone face and spoke little for the rest of the evening. He filled a waterskin from the spring. He took apples, nuts, and brown bread, and threw them all in a satchel. And, once he had said a tentative goodbye to his home and the few he could call friends, he guided Ivo and Neli up the mountain.
There was nothing anyone could do to stop it: the quiet mountain village of Elinya was, for all intents and purposes, going to war with the Ottoman empire.
2 // Ivo & Neli.
“Uncle Andrei?” Ivo kept asking, but Andrei was not in the mood to talk.
He led the children up miles of winding mountain trail. It seemed for a time that he was as lost as they were, but he found what he was looking for within the hour. A grand pine leaned against the mountainside, and through meters of sticky, scratchy needles, was a dimly lit cave. A safe place. “Stay here,” he told them. “It is a time for looking and sleeping, and for taking turns.”
“Will you fight?” Ivo asked.
Andrei shook his head. “I am an old man. I am done fighting. I will make sure the way ahead is clear, then return with more food. You will wait for me here until you cannot stay a moment longer. Do you understand?”
Andrei stopped by the cave entrance for a moment, unable to turn around. “And if I do not return… if I do not return, you are to follow the river west to Sofia.” Then he was off, and the children waited.
On the first morning, Ivo awoke to a startled shriek. Neli stood with her back to the tree, face alight with panic. The morning light illuminated something that had not been visible in the previous night’s dark. In the far wall of the cave were embedded two dusty skeletons. Whoever they were, they seemed to have been sitting side by side when they passed. The children would have left right then, if they did not care so much for their uncle, and trust him implicitly.
After half an hour spent calming Neli down, Ivo suggested they name the skeletons Dragan and Ana, after their parents. He chuckled darkly, but Neli was not amused. For all they knew, it really was them.
Things only got worse from there. The nights were cold and the days were long. The dirt floor made a good space for writing and drawing, but by the third day, when there was only a small bit of water left, neither child found themselves in the mood to move from their spots on the cave wall. Ivo dug down into the dirt and found another, much older set of bones. Neli began tallying the days by scraping a stone against the wall beside her. On the third night, they saw an orange glow. Ash blew into the cave between the cracks in the pine, and they knew that Elinya was lost.
On the fourth day Ivo said, “I’m going to go out and look for food. You stay here with mom and dad.”
Neli stared daggers. “Uncle Andrei told us not to leave.”
“...until we can’t say a moment longer. Well, I can’t. Maybe you can live on water and worms. Not me. Don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it.”
Neli wanted to protest further, but did not have the energy to shake a fist properly. If she was being honest, she had grown a little stir-crazy herself, and her stomach was in knots with hunger. “Be safe,” she said.
Ivo returned some time later. He carried a full waterskin over one shoulder, and held onto his satchel as if it were his most valuable possession. Perhaps it was. He opened the bag, reached in, and pulled out a handful of ripe red berries. The children salivated and crouched down over the bag like foxes at the door of a henhouse. The berries were sweet and tart, and they were starving. They ate until they were sick, which wasn’t very long.
The berries had a strange effect. A euphoric headrush. Regret and longing. The sudden, crystal clear sense that God reached out of heaven and set the berries on the bush for them to find, and the sneaking suspicion that somebody wanted to take it all away. Before either of them could do anything about it, they fell asleep.
When Neli awoke, Ivo’s cheeks were streaked with tears. He looked at her with dead dark eyes and asked, “Did you eat the rest of my berries?”
Neli's own eyes narrowed. “No!” She crawled over to the satchel and checked it. It really was empty. There should have been enough for days. “I don’t understand. Why did you take them? Why did you take them from me?”
Ivo scoffed. “I know you did it.”
“You’re the liar!” Ivo’s face twisted with unhinged anger. He jumped up, ran across the room, and tackled Neli. Her head thumped against the sand. They struggled a bit longer, Ivo holding her down by the shoulders, Neli scratching his arms until they bled. Eventually she found a good angle and kicked between his legs. Ivo yelped and recoiled, retreating to his spot against the wall. For days afterward they sat in silence, exchanging bitter glances, surviving on water and spite alone.
Finally, on the seventh day, there was a rustling in the tree by the mouth of the cave. Neli’s eyes lit up. “Uncle Andrei?”
3 // Stanimir.
It was he who had given the order.
There were two things Stanimir feared: God, and the Sultan. These two fears, and not a single hope or dream, defined his life. He never wanted to be a soldier. He had neither the stomach for blood nor the heart for war. But, like so many, he had no choice. The exhaustion in his eyes spoke of the day he was selected as devshirme, a blood tax destined to serve the Sultan. The worn quran in his bag marked the many hours spent studying to complete his conversion. The way he could not bear to look back at the scorched remains of Elinya betrayed that the humble village was once his home.
He walked aimlessly up the hill after his men. They were miles ahead, whooping and hollering, cutting down anything that moved, chasing the last stragglers. He resented having to spend time in the battlefield with men such as these. Only a few months ago, he had been on track to become grand vizier—that is, to really be in control. Now, he was a lowly boluk-bashi, fighting to keep his head. If that meant suffering fools for the rest of his life, then so be it.
God dotes upon the good of heart, Stanimir had written in a letter to the Sultan. Not only those who have learned to read the right book. He really believed those words—so much so that he allowed them to wreck his career. It was all for naught, though. The Elinyans had been foolish. Was it such a terrible fate to convert? There is a certain glory in dying for one's belief, of course, but there is a time for everything. He had never seen such brutality as in the execution of the raids on Elinya.
Stanimir came upon an old man hanging from a tree by a spike through his chest. The man’s satchel was on the ground near the tree. It did not contain much: only some brown bread, a couple of apples, and a small telescope. He looked up at the man, whose drooping face was turned up to the stars. The man looked familiar, but Stanimir could not remember why. He discarded the thought immediately. He could not allow himself to remember too much, or he would never make it through the week.
And it was he who had given the order.
He continued up the hill and met with his men by a great tree. A few of them were talking to a young boy. He was tiny and frail, and his eyes were big in his gaunt face. Stanimir wondered whether he looked this young and fragile when he was taken. He approached.
“What is your name, boy, and how old are you?”
The boy sniffed. “Ivo Mitkov. Eleven.”
“You are from Elinya?”
“I will tell you this. If you are willing to convert, there is a great place for you in Istanbul. You will be trained in mathematics, and philosophy, and military tactics. Should you succeed, the career opportunities will be beyond your imagination. It is a great blessing to be chosen as devshirme.”
Ivo nodded and bowed, but he did so out of fear, not hope.
Satisfied, Stanimir left the boy with one of his nefer and wandered away. A couple of his men emerged from the great tree on the side of the mountain. They were laughing, but stopped as soon as they noticed their captain.
Needles scratched Stanimir's face as he made his way through the pine and came into the cave. What he saw first was a smear of blood on the wall, half-covering a row of seven scratches. His eyes followed the blood trail. There were droplets on the sand that led into a long, dark streak. Someone had been wounded, then dragged across the floor. Dragged, to be put somewhere.
There she was. A little girl, no more than eight or nine. She sat cross-legged. Two skeletons were embedded in the wall behind her. It looked like she was sitting in their laps. Her cheeks shimmered with dry tears. Her throat had been sliced from ear to ear. It was relatively fresh, too. Blood was still trickling out from under her pale, peaceful face.
Stanimir blanched and vomited in the dirt. He needed to forget, but he never would.
It was he who had given the order.
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Wow! This story was incredibly sad.
Yes it is! We're anti-war in this household!
I have taken a bit of a hiatus from Reedsy, but I'm looking forward to reading your works again. This story reminded me of how much talent you have. Your characters are strong, and I especially sensed the amount of research that went into writing this (or just the amount of background knowledge you happen to have). It was a great adventure story.
I took a random elective sequence on Balkan lit and fell in love with it. Truly a fascinating history, there at the bridge between east and west. Glad you liked it! Thanks for reading.
I could definitely feel the wealth of backstory here and I am glad that you had the "evil" character of Stanimir have a moral dilemma. Makes him seems more human and I feel it resonates more. A rather sad story but very well written with a good flow. Nice job. :) Feel free to read my story "Knight's Assassin" if you would like.
Ah, I love this time period. At first as soon as they said war, my theater kid mind went to The Great Comet of 1812 ("There's a war going on out there somewhere, and Andrey isn't here!") but as I continued to read it reminded me more of Kirsten White's And I Darken series, which also takes place across this time period. Nice work! Would you mind reading some of my more recent stories? I could really use feedback on a handful of them. Of course, take your time!
A great story, the ending was very nice. I love the vibe of the story, even without your comment through the descriptions we do get this old world feel while reading. The way the story was broken up into these sections that highlight different characters to me was ingenious. Honestly this story probably could be a lot longer, essentially through these characters you could create an entire world!
Hey, A.g., this feels like the perfect story for this time of year. You've got another batch of characters who feel tangible, with breath in them. And you've got another setting that you have breathed into and made alive. The desperation of the people, and the exhaustion of the enemy leader. I loved the description of the berries, and the way you covered the action without narrating through it. In long- form, you could have had a chapter just about that event, but you handled it succinctly here, within the shorter space. My favorite line i...
To clarify: Ottoman reign in the Balkans, 1600s, and that's about where the historical part ends. Fake village, fake people. If you're a cool nerd who notices anything glaringly ahistorical, point it out for me please!