Chronicles of InoWorld
Blood of Kalgama
With a creak, the tavern door swung open, letting in sunlight full of road dust. The eyes of the regulars blindly drilled the shadow that appeared in the opening, trying to see the newcomer. Only a few instants ago they heard the clatter of hooves, and now the guest is on the threshold. Is the wanderer in such a hurry to drink the honey of local flavors?
“Foreigner,” the keeper of the tavern grunted barely audibly and grimaced in displeasure, smelling the heavy smell of sulfur and some hitherto unseen spices. But in less than a second he broke into a toothy smile and spread his palms, inviting the wanderer to sit down:
- Hello, honoured guest! Sit on the bench, rest, and drink the most delicious honey! I see you’ve been traveling quite a long!
The Stranger bowed in response:
- Thank you, sir, but currently I have no time to sip honey. Tell me, where can I find local blacksmith? I just heard that he’s the best in the biz. There’s a rumor saying that legendary tools and equipment come out from under the hammer of such master. I am a merchant from the Misty Mountains. I have a bulk order, which only your blacksmith can handle, but it must be completed sooner rather than later, which is why I am in a big hurry.
- Yes, we have such an artificer. His forge is on the outskirts, — the tavern’s keeper Kasimir wilted, realizing that he could not even sell a mug of honey to the fancy guest, — though it can be found without difficulty. All the roads lead there from all surrounding villages, thus our blacksmith always has a lot of work … But keep in mind: even if you offer generous price, he will not move others, and he’ll start your order only when the previous ones are finished. On the other hand the blacksmith works fast, so be patient, do not push the master.
Noticing the change in the mood of the owner of the tavern, the traveler smiled with the corner of his mouth, came closer and placed an outlandish coin made of an unknown metal on the oak tabletop.
- Please accept my thanks for your wisdom and parting words. Don’t be angry, good man. I’ll make another visit if I settle things with the blacksmith, and I’ll treat everyone with your tasty honey!
Kasimir was suddenly friendly again and chuckled contentedly, looking at the coin.
- Yeah, why think in advance… Go, good riddance!
The stranger bowed and left. No one ever saw him again. Perhaps he couldn’t bargain with the blacksmith… A week passed, another, and everyone forgot about this odd traveler.
As soon as the morning light trembled in the dew, knyaz Svyatopolk had already left his bedchamber. Old wounds ached, and completely drove away his sleep. Looks like a storm is about to break out.
Before he had time to think so, he heard the cry of the voivode:
- Knyaz! What a disaster we have! Oh, trouble! — out of breath old warrior could not catch his breath.
“Here comes a thunderstorm…” the Knyaz sighed. — Why are you tearing your throat, is there a fire? Bells are not heard.
- Evil spirits robbed us! All storages are completely empty! Our reserves, wood, iron, materials — everything is gone, as if we had not filled them since the last full moon!
- What’s the meaning of this? Who can carry away what our workers produced in two weeks in the dead of a single night?! — The knyaz came close to the voivode, — Did you drink some mead yesterday, or are you lying for fun?
- Oh, heaven forbid, knyaz! Go and check yourself!
Indeed, there was no any trace of the former wealth, only a draft walks in the storages. The knyaz interrogated his commune — no one noticed anything suspicious at night, not a creak, not a rustle. Not a single dog barked all night. All doors and gates were locked and bolted, and there were no traces of strangers anywhere.
- Ugh, evil powers… — the Knyaz hit cold ground with his boot, — How is this possible? No carts, no horses… Someone would have noticed… Unless wooden logs grew wings and the iron seep back into the bowels of the earth! Gather, voivode, whole council! Don’t forget about the old wiseman, maybe he will provide us with good advice…
As soon as the voivode ordered everyone to convene, bad tidings came from the nearby village. And shortly thereafter — from all the rest, and even from neighboring lands. Everywhere during the night, the reserves mined for two weeks disappeared without trace. And no one noticed any noise, no pieces of evidence were found.
- Madness, not the other way around… — knyaz Svyatopolk smoothed out a birch bark map, — Therefore, everyone who was doing such a difficult work of production lost their reserves…
The voivode bent over the map and suddenly startled:
There were mouthpieces from all of them, except for Prohor, — he pointed with his finger at a small village of several houses near the depleted iron mine.
- Send your scouts so they can confirm if he is alive, and if everything is fine with him, tell them to drag him here.
It turned out that Prohor did not even know what was happening around. His meagre reserves were untouched, and no one encroached on them. Swordsmen from the Knyaz’s commune tied up the poor and delivered him to knyaz Svyatopolk. The length of the interrogation was endless, cause he knyaz thought that Prohor had a hand in the incident at night. Otherwise, how could his property remain intact?!
Only one thing saved poor fellow from the wrath of Svyatopolk — the elder Svetozar appeared and approached to the knyaz:
- Why did you get mad at Prohor? You know, he is faithful to you and has never done anything wrong to anyone. And it’s beyond the power of a simple peasant to pull off such staff! Let’s think about why everything is gone for us, but he still has it intact?
Prohor looked gratefully at the old man. If not for him, the poor man’s head would be severed from his body. The knyaz ordered Prohor to tell everything about his work as it is, from the very beginning, in order to understand why the robbers bypassed him.
- I mine in the old impoverished adit, little by little I extract iron from there. Among my workers is a lame old man with two grandchildren and a holy fool who hobbled out of the city three winters ago, although he is good at work, fanciful. I trade iron to a nearby town to the blacksmith. Also, I am gradually harvesting wood for huts — in a neighboring village, after a fire, construction began…
- And how much do you have?
- I have enough for my life and the welfare of my workers, so we don’t need more.
- Why, and if the tools have to be repaired? How do you pay the blacksmith?
- Hm, I don’t go to him. We are doing our best, and we repair the instruments on our own. And if it becomes completely unusable, we reforge it into a new ones in the field forge near the mine, fortunately, there is always our own iron…
Having released Prohor, the knyaz, voivode and the elder began to meditate.
- We didn’t learn anything helpful, — Svyatopolk sighed.
- Besides the fact that Prohor is the only one in the whole surroundings who doesn’t go to our blacksmith… — the voivode grumbled.
-And what about the blacksmith, by the way? Were there any tidings from him? — the sage Svetozar asked, — Does he also keep iron in the forge? Knyaz, have you send messengers to him?
And so they did. The Knyaz’s stewards did not return empty-handed — they brought the blacksmith himself, dirty, emaciated, exhausted.
- What happened to you, Mikola?! The Knyaz rushed to the blacksmith. — Put him down! Give him water!
- Oh, Knyaz, your fellows saved me! If not they, I’d die in my own underground! I already stopped counting the days, I thought I wouldn’t get outside…
– How is that possible?! — the Knyaz did not believe what he was seeing, after all, he himself visited the blacksmith just recently in the smithy, took new axes and pickaxes for his workers. The blacksmith was as always, healthy and strong. And now he lies before him thin and weak.
- A stranger came to me on the new moon, sat down on a bench at the threshold and put a hammer made of an unknown metal under his feet. He looked as he himself was the owner here… I didn’t even have time to utter a word, my throat was instantly tied — I couldn’t squeeze out a sound. And then everything went dark. I came to my senses in his underground, could not even get up — as if all my strength had flowed away. I clearly heard voices, steps in the hut and the sound of a hammer in the smithy: life there was going on as usual, and no one seemed to notice my loss. I tried to shout, even knocked on the walls, but everyone seemed to have gone deaf…
- No way, I saw you two days ago! — exclaimed Svyatopolk. — You personally watched how my convoy was equipped!
- By that time, dear Knyaz, I was eating the last pickled cucumber from the barrel… If it weren’t for the leftovers from the winter, thirst and hunger would have exhausted me completely…
- It is obvious that stranger cast your appearance on himself… And he cast a spell of silence on you and your dungeon, — Elder Svetozar joined into the conversation, — but why would he… What was the fiend up to?…
- It has been quiet in the smithy this morning. And when I heard the clatter of horses, I shouted with all my might, your bogatyrs heard and rescued me from the dungeon…
- It means that today the power of the jinx has weakened, either as unnecessary, or the caster is already too far away, — the Elder nodded. — Mykola, maybe you noticed something that would be of help to us?
- What happened in the smithy, I don’t know. In my hut, there’s only one thin crack between the lower rims, and that one looks at the backyard, where my lads stack firewood for the winter. Today in the morning, exactly half of the firewood from the yard disappeared, as if my brethren did not put them there while I was sitting in the underground. I also noticed that they were carrying strange axes behind their belts, which were shimmering with green.
- That’s it! So you, oh, sorry, this villain, gave us axes with an emerald tint and said that they would last twice as many without sharpening. And it was true! What a wonderful tools! Solid rocks were torn cracked open with a single swing…
- I guess a spell has been cast on these tools, — the Elder frowned. — And what if everything that was produced by these toosl magically disappears after a while? What happened to the iron, wood and firewood from Mikola’s yard?…
- No, Svetozar, it doesn’t disappear, it’s just that someone has prepared supplies for himself with our hands… Good day, dear Knyaz!, — came the sonorous voice of Kasimir. He went into the hall, bowed to the Knyaz and handed him two coins. — A stranger came to see me today. We had an agreement with him that if things went well for him in our valleys, he would come to me to drink honey, and treat everyone who was in the tavern…
Kasimir told that this cunning devil had come to him early in the morning, when there weren’t even regulars in the tavern yet, and took only one mug of honey, then immediately drained it in one gulp. The owner of the tavern asked if everything went well with the blacksmith, and apparently, the tipsy local drink turned out to be too strong for the stranger, and the guest’s tongue was untied.
- He said that we are hard-working people! And our land is rich with forests and iron mines. As much as we harvest wood and iron per day, the stranger said, they can’t even produce in a month… So, he says, thank you very much for your work from the Mistress of the Iron Mountains and Kalgama personally… that it, from him himself… Then he came to his senses, got up from the table, shook his finger at me, as if I had deceived him somehow, jumped on his horse and sped away. Just now i realized, when the bad tidings spread the lands, what he was talking about.
- Wasn’t the hammer of your impersonator made of this metal? — Elder Svetozar took a coin from the hands of the Knyaz and threw it to the blacksmith.
- You’re right, i wouldn’t confuse it with anything, the tracery and shine are special, — Mikola agreed.
- Kasimir, it means that ore and wood do not disappear, but magically move to another place… — Elder Svetozar sat down on a bench and leaned tiredly against the wall. — I heard this name more than once… Kalgama is not quite a human, he comes from the valley of the Seven Lakes. There, in the mines that are scattered along the edges of an extinct volcano, this special metal is mined. To extract at least a grain of that ore, you need to break a lot of pickaxes, and to clean up this ore, you need to give a lot of wood and coal to the fire. But the effort is worth it: armor made of this metal is very difficult to break, weapons as well, and the tool is always sharp. It seems that Kalgama, when our tools were forged and sharpened, was casting the spell…
- Why does the valley of the Seven Lakes need our supplies? — asked the Knyaz.
- Kalgama is in the service of the Mistress of the Iron Mountains, so I think our supplies ended up not in the Valley, but in the Iron Mountains… — said Svetozar. — She has long been gathering the best masters and warriors, sorcerers and powerful spirits. Looks like they’re up to something terrible, that’s why they’re hoarding reserves. Probably, a rumor reached them that our Svetlozemie is bathing in resources after the victory over the Undead, that Leshiy let Kuzitiks clear and renew his forests, otherwise it was so overgrown that even he could not get through. And the mines that were in the Cursed Lands became available to us…
- It means that all the tools that have been in the smithy these days are cursed… — Knyaz Svyatopolk looked at the old man, who nodded. — We are not able to go to the Iron Mountains now, after the campaign against the Undead, the bogatyrs have not yet recovered… What about the extraction of iron and wood? Is it possible to forge a simple tool from peasant plows? But plowing is now in full swing…
- We can search surrounding villages for old tools, also ask Prohor’s for a while, until we find a way to remove the spell and reforge our own axes and pickaxes. And we can only find out how to do this from the one who cast this spell, — the elder Svetozar sighed.
-So we’ll head to the valley of the Seven Lakes for answers! Convoke, Voivode, a group of brave warriors, and prepare provisions! The way there is not short, it will take a couple of weeks! As soon as we prepare ourselves properly, we will hit the road.
At night, two Svetlozemie’s scouts made their way stealthily through the hills. They moved quickly and silently, like two shadows. Even the most sensitive sentinels would not be able to see them.
What awaits them in the Valley of the Seven Lakes? Judging by the glow spreading in low-hanging clouds over the hills, nothing good… What tidings will they bring to the Knyaz today? We’ll know shortly thereafter. They calculated: it remains to go around one hill on the left slope, where boulders were scattered. It is convenient to hide in their shadow so as not to get into the view of two watchtowers.
As they climbed higher, Zarya, the eldest of the scouts, made a sign to Deyan, so that he carefully looked at the nearest tower.
– Empty? — Deyan whispered, and Zarya nodded in agreement.
It’s strange, because in case of any incident, the watchtower should not be empty, either it would be occupied by locals, or by intruders. The second tower was also abandoned.
But immediately everything became clear, as soon as they saw the valley…
- I have been serving the Knyaz for a long time and i thought I won’t see anything worse than the army of the Undead. That was fallacy… — Zarya breathed out and straightened up freely to his full height. There was no one to hide from.
-And how long have you been working for the good of our Knyaz? — Deyan muttered thoughtfully, looking fixedly at the Valley of the Seven Lakes, red flashes shone in his eyes…
- As long as you live in this world, — Zarya chuckled, — Let’s go down, we will reconnoiter the roads, there is little time. By morning, the Knyaz must know everything, I guess Svyatopolk will want to see everything with his own eyes…
– Take me on a campaign with you, please — Elder Svetozar, leaning on his staff, approached the Knyaz and bowed.
– Don’t be mad, old man, but I’m afraid you’ll crumble to dust on the road from buffeting — Svyatopolk smiled.
– I’m not so old as to turn into ashes — the old man laughed, — For a long time I wanted to get into the Sage Tower, my library card will expire soon. There are valuable tomes, ancient scrolls — enormous number, hope at least with one eye I can take a look. Maybe I’ll find out something about our enemies. I will reach the middle of the road with you, and then, as our paths diverge, I will manage on my own.
– Oh, you’re such a hothead, Svetozar! So be it, we’ll assign you a place in the cart. As soon as the sun appears from behind the hill, we leave.
– Thank you, Knyaz, but as long as I hold on tight in the saddle, my backside will not be in the cart, — Svetozar narrowed his eyes in a smile and went to equip.
An hour later, the Knyaz, the Elder and bogatyrs headed by the Voivode set off on the road, and baggages followed them.
When three-quarters of the way passed, they saw smoke on the horizon.
– Is the forest on fire? — Knyaz Svyatopolk frowned, — the snow has not melted, and the earth has not yet dried out, it’s too early for forest fires…
– Maybe there was a fire in Lake сity? Or villians attacked and the battle is still going on? — suggested the Voivode.
- Hurry up! Maybe our help is needed, — ordered Knyaz Svyatopolk. — We must quickly get to the hills that lie between us and the Valley. We’ll make a dash and be there until dark so we can set up camp, let the bogatyrs rest a little, and satisfy our hunger. We’ll cross the hills in the morning.
- So i’m saying goodbye to you, — said the elder Svetozar, and waved his hand to the side where the Sage Tower was barely visible in the blue haze on the horizon. — I’m on my way to the East.
- Voivode, choose four proficient warriors from the team and allow them them to lead Svetozar, — said the Knyaz. — And you, Elder, if you find out something important, immediately send one of the bogatyrs to us with a message.
The Knyaz and Elber Svetozar embraced and each went his own way…
… Early in the morning, the Knyaz and the Voivode were waiting for the return of their scouts in a bivouac at the foot of the hill. They returned with the news that it was possible to pass safely into the Valley, that there was no battle at all, but fire erupted from the mountain and burned the entire valley. No one was seen alive.
The Knyaz and the Voivode mounted their horses and galloped over the hills along the old trade route. When they passed the top of the last hill, the Valley of the Seven Lakes appeared before them. All black, as if in soot, fiery rivers spread here and there — like living snakes made of red-hot iron — hissing, boiling, and the smoke from them rises into the sky.
The three lakes closest to the mountain turned into a dirty mess, half of the water boiled away from them, and the one that remained looked lifeless and dangerous, like a swamp bog. From Lake City, which stood on the shores of one of these lakes, except for stone stoves that stuck out here and there like rotten black teeth there was nothing left — only ashes and hardened fiery liquid everywhere. And all around these lakes there’s ashes with fiery ring — the red-hot river went around the lakes, went far down the slope and disappeared in crevices: apparently, the earth shook violently here, which is why it cracked up in several places.
The Knyaz unfolded the map:
- Look, there was a grove here, and fiery river completely swallowed it, and the bridge collapsed! What a vast city it was, full of wonders of wooden architecture! As if Svarog blew it away with a fiery breath…
Looking around the area, the Voivode whistled:
- What a disaster… Indeed, the fire did not happen from the invaders, it was mother nature that raged… And after all, not a single living soul is visible. I can’t believe they all burned to death in the fire…
- Who knows, Moguta… Maybe someone managed to leave the city? It would be necessary to reconnoiter the surroundings, and if we find the survivors, we will ask what happened here — said the Knyaz.
I’ll give orders this right now — the Voivode nodded, — Deyan, gather bogatyrs and search for the people of the Valley.
The Knyaz’s followers were ready for that — Deyan took five brave warriors with him and promised to be back by the evening. And the Knyaz with the Voivode went down to the camp — to wait for news.
But neither in the evening, nor after sunset, nor even the next day the detachment did not return.
Zarya was worried: Deyan — his best disciple — could not just disappear. The Voivode also became worried, ordered his best fighters to prepare for the battle.
They had just equipped themselves, when a shout was heard: “They’re coming! They’re wounded!”
The Knyaz saw: six are descending from the hill: two unharmed ones are dragging their brother under the arms — all covered in blood, legs hastily wrapped in rags. And the other three, among whom is the Knyaz’s scout, are all bruised, limping, Deyan is also holding on to his side.
The druzhinnkis ran up to the troubled ones and hastily escorted them to the camp. Svyatopolk and Moguta hurried there as well.
The withch doctorr was already examining the one that had suffered the most. The wounds on the legs are terrible, not from the blade for sure. It’s like a big animal torn him…
- Deyan, what happened to you? — the Knyaz asked.
- I would be glad to tell you, Knyaz, but I didn’t really understand it myself, — Deyan sat bent over on a bench and held his side with his hand.
- Wait, Knyaz, there’ll be time for questions, — Zarya, seeing that the witch doctor won’t be free soon, sat down next to them, — Come on, take away your hand, let me have a look. — Deyan obediently withdrew his hand. The armor beneath it was slashed and soaked with blood. Zarya helped take off his armor and shirt: a long, deep cut across the ribs was still oozing.
- The armor saved you. Your bones, it seems, are intact, just veins were cut. — Zarya concluded.
The witch doctor glanced at the wound from a distance:
- The bleeding must be stopped! Bring me blue flask, i’ll pour it right into the wound. And yes, bandage it tighter. Regarding this miserable… he’ll be finished by the morning. The wounds are unclean, there is some kind of poison in them, — he pointed to a warrior with cut legs, — only Living and Dead water will help here…
- I have it, — the Knyaz took out two transparent vials on a leather strap from his belt.
- You should save it for yourself… — the healer grumbled, but accepted the bottles.
As the wounds were bandaged, Deyan told about the misadventures of the night. Having descended into the Valley, the team split up: two went to the left — to the lakes; another two — to the far outpost, which they saw on the map; and Deyan with his teammate to the right — along the old highway.
Then they all decided to meet at sunset at the agreed place. Those who went to the left found some of the surviving townspeople in the village of iron-miners near the Fifth Lake, which was not touched by the underground fire.
Those who went to the western outpost returned with nothing, the place was flooded with spring waters.
While Deyan and his companion walked for half a day, but ran into an obstacle: the path ended in a bottomless abyss.
- There was a wooden bridge, but after the trembling of the earth, i guess, it collapsed, — the scout told, — so we decided to take a detour: we noticed in the morning a path that leads to a distant forest. There we returned only by the dark and went out on that path. It was a continuous mess, as if a big crowd passed here. We guessed that many went along it into the forest. We thought to search for the place of their parking, to reconnoiter.
- But even half a road we did not pass, as everything was shrouded in fog, either a roar, or a wheeze was heard, the bushes trembled. And then my companion screamed in pain and collapsed to the ground, as if knocked down. Something grabbed him and dragged into the thicket, — Deyan told, — I grabbed the dagger and started fighting. I felt how my blade cut the slimy skin, penetrateed the viscous flesh, and I understood that this is not a forest beast, but some kind of devilry. Its claws were sharp as forks. The monster waved me off just like a louse, and ripped my side open with his claw. I stabbed him with a dagger between the eyes, so he howled in a way that my ears almost burst. Then, with my weapon in his head, he crawled away somewhere.
Thus Deyan saved his brother. He thought that he had fought off the creature, but when he looked over his shoulder, he was stunned: hundreds of luminous eyes stared at him through the fog.
- I put him on my back and ran, though the road was not visible. Luckily, your rangers arrived in time: they did not wait for sing from us and went in search. They took us and marched through the thickets of hawthorn. We climbed up the hill, and then came to you.
Moguta turned to two shabby warriors completely covered in scratches — It turns out that it was not a fierce enemy, but a berry bush that whipped you, isn’t it?
After that it was decided not to come on that path anymore, but to go to the lake, ask people around…
On the lake, knyaz Svyatopolk, with the voivode and soldiers from the Knyaz’s druzhina, were met in fear. The inhabitants of Seven Lakes thought: the robbers, having learned about their misfortune, came to complete what nature had begun — to burn, plunder the rest, to earn on someone else’s grief. People poured onto the shore of the lake, armed. But Svyatopolk and Moguta dismounted and showed the people their empty hands — a sign that they had come in peace.
Then a man, strong and tall, came out to them, gave them a sharp look with his eyes, dark as deepest waters. He called himself Lark, and said that he was the chief miner and wardmen of the village of White Lake.
Knyaz Svyatopolk told who he was, and that he had come from Svetlozemie itself, and asked what happened in the Valley of the Seven Lakes and how many were left alive.
- The mountain erupted: smoked, shook, split at the top and fire flowed from there, — Lark shrugged, as if it was a common thing. And having met the bewildered glances of the Knyaz and the Voivode, he began to explain. In their lands this has already happened and, judging by the ancient chronicles, not once, sometimes even several times per year.
-The mountain slept for a hundred and thirty springs, our great-grandfathers no longer remembered what to beware of. So what can be said about us, foolish children… — continued Lark, — though water in the Black Lake, which is closest to the foot of the mountain, has long ago became warmer than in the rest lakes: the underground fire came close and began to heat it from below… We should have been wary, but we weren’t ready, so many citizens perished along with our knyaz… Only those who lived on the outskirts, and some miners managed to escape, until the fiery rivers around three lakes closed into a ring…
Suddenly, a cry was heard from the crowd:
-You’re lying, Lark, oh, you’re lying! I heard that harmony with nature was violated, and everyone is to blame. Each of you! You extracted all the treasures of the mother earth! Your frantic greed has destroyed the whole city, the lakes, together with living creatures. The Sacred Grove has burned as well!
Bent almost to the ground, an old toothless old man desperately poked his finger in the direction of Lark and other men, apparently from among the miners. A timid whisper ran through the crowd, and it seemed to the Knyaz that many agreed with the old man.
- What are you talking about, fool? — Lark was indignant, but some of the crowd were emboldened, and shouts fell on him: “Elder speaks the truth!”.
A heated skirmish is about to begin, and the crowd can no longer be controlled. But as soon as the Knyaz raised his hand, everything calmed down. Svyatopolk looked intently into the eyes of Lark:
- I didn’t come to your land for fairy tales.
The Lark lowered his eyes and sighed resignedly.
- Our miners found a rich iron mine a long time ago. As big as never seen before. But it led to the very depths of the mountain. While the extraction was carried out, many good miners died from mountain sickness. But we were not going to stop: we could sell our valuable materials not only to neighbors, but also to the distant cities, even to your Svetlozemie itself! — Lark’s eyes lit up, shone, but he immediately came to his senses and fell silent.
- So what happened? — the Knyaz hurried him.
- Allow the young one to tell you everything. Velimir! — The old man, who just now scolded his fellow tribesmen, pointed to a neighbor, not much younger than himself, only taller and wider in the shoulders. He nodded, stepped forward and immediately coughed.
- Dear knyaz, i saw everything, i know everything, I’ll tell you how it is, if you order… If you are interested… — began “young” when the cough had let go a little.
“Oh, what a chatter… — the Voivode sighed impatiently, shifting from foot to foot. — We won’t sort it out until the next winter!
- We could sit down and drink something… What do you say, Lark? — asked the Knyaz. He nodded eagerly and pointed to a large hut nearby. The Knyaz turned to Velimir — Let’s go there. Just keep it short and succintly.
They went into the hut, sat down on a bench, and Velimir began to tell how he and his friend worked in the main shaft and stumbled upon semi-precious emeralds.
-These emeralds were a cubit-wide! And there were no gems in local lands for centuries! I rejoiced, imagaining how would will live in future! I think for such stones can buy even a whole city! Ah, if I knew what our find would turn into, — Velemir angrily hit his knee with his fist…
Velimir sighed and continued to speak…
The miners were delighted, they began to take out the emeralds from the thickness of the stone, and then a small collapse happened. It turned out that they suffered only bruises and scratches. As the dust settled, they saw: in the place where the emeralds were, a gap was formed, and light streamed through it.
- My mate looked in and gasped. The girl was in this gap, crying, asking to be rescued. I thought for a moment that he had taken a sip of mountain smoke, and now all sorts of things seem to be happening to him. But suddenly I heard a girl’s voice as well: “Help, please! I will die here!”. My friend was quite young. He zealously jumped up and he began to break out the stones.
And then Velimir remembered the fairy tales that his grandmother used to scare him in childhood: about the spirit of the mountains Kalgama. As if he was mighty, ferocious and wayward, he caused all sorts of misfortunes, spat with underground fire, poisoned lakes, shook the earth, and how many people he killed could not be counted. But the mountain tribe managed to capture him. Imprisoned Kalgama in the heart of the mountain. Since then, life in the Valley of the Seven Lakes has improved, nature has become meek and affectionate. Sometimes children happened to feel how the ground barely trembled under their feet, so the old people immediately said: Kalgama turns from side to side in his dungeon. Local villages began to grow rich, trade routes ran in all directions. They sold dried fish; bog iron was mined near Far Lake. People were looking for rare gems on the mountain slopes. And once they came across an unusual mountain ore in the place where the cleft comes to the surface. From this very moment, a new era began — they learned to forge iron of rare beauty from this ore: money, jewelry. Then they got the hang of making weapons — such tools for which warriors and noble merchants came from all over the world. A big city was built…
Then Velimir understood: this is not a girl, but the spirit of the mountains Kalgama is asking to be released, and old fairy tales are not fiction at all, but a true story. He began to dissuade his friend, to drag him away from the break.
- I shouted directly into his ear, but he seemed not to hear, only brushed off, as if from an annoying mosquito, and uprooted stones from the wall. And his eyes are wild, the veins are all puffed up, the gallant prowess is boiling! He knocked me over on the ground. Where did such strength come from? Although I am old, few of my workers have the strength and endurance to bypass me… I immediately realized that I could not cope with him and that trouble could not be avoided: this mad man had already made a whole passage in the break. I ran as fast as even a young boy could not run. And along the way I yelled at everyone to get their feet out of the working. Miners are quick-witted people, they immediately rushed after me.
As soon as Velimir and the others got to the surface, the earth immediately trembled, stones fell from everywhere. Before the miners had time to run to the first lake, a deafening thunder rang out and clouds of smoke escaped from the top of the mountain into the sky.
- What has began! It became black as at night, the dust stands in a column, lightning sparkles overhead, cobblestones are pouring from the sky like hail! And the fiery river behind catches up, devours everything, in a hurry! I still can’t understand how I survived… — Velimir suddenly coughed so hard that he was bent in half.
- I will call the witch doctor, — the Knyaz scooped up water and handed the cup to the old man.
- No doctor can help me. This stone ash seemed to cover my lungs just like silt. Now it will stay with me, it won’t go anywhere,- the old man grunted and gratefully accepted the water.
- So this substance of Kalgam we want to find is a powerful spirit that commands the forces of nature? If we face him, we’ll be like a handful of ants… Do we really need to look for him? Maybe Svetozar will find all the answers in his tablets and remove the spell from the tools? — muttered the Voivode under his breath.
- Don’t be cowardly, Moguta,- Svyatopolk smiled — You and your bogatyrs exterminated a whole horde of Undead and were not afraid to go against Koshchey himself, and now you are afraid of some deceiver? Moreover, he’s far away…
- I don’t think so… — Velimir spoke up — I myself saw him return to his domain. I went to find out if a passage had appeared in the lake city. I noticed that some traveler left his horse near the hills and went straight to the fiery river. The red-hot liquid parted before him and provided the pass into fiery rings. Who else, if not Kalgama, would be able to do this?
The Voivode and the Knyaz looked at each other in surprise.
- Why have you been silent until now?! — roared the Voivode — That’s where you should have started! What did the Knyaz say to you? Keep it short and simple!
- Silence, Moguta. Breathe in, breathe out. Let’s better think about what we will do with the mountain spirit, — the Knyaz frowned. — Velimir, you mentioned fairy-tales. What do they say about how your ancestors managed to capture Kalgama?
- It is, dear Knyaz, — the miner nodded.
- Tell me, who could tell us in more detail about your tales and legends? To find out where our enemy has a weak point…
- The warlock lives behind the bridge. He is over a hundred and forty years old now. This warlock knows everything about our lands, and he knows how to do magic. I wanted to go to him first for help, only the bridge collapsed, and there was no way to get to him along the bypass path — all the devilry from the perishing Valley and its environs is coming there, because the warlock’s house was built exactly on the place of power. Now all the damned are drawn there. It’s scary to go down that path now — you’ll definitely perish.
-Isn’t our Deyan scouting this path?… Svyatopolk muttered.
- Why are you, dear, shaking? — the old woman looked into a nook in the hut, where a young girl hid from prying eyes and wept bitterly.
– Did you hear what Velimir said? So, my beloved was unfaithful to me? As soon as the other beckoned, he immediately rushed to her? Moreover, they say that it was he who brought misfortune on our people! How many people died because of him!
- Your beloved was decent, and would have been a reliable husband to you. Do not listen to anyone and do not stain his memory …
- How can we not listen? I thought he died in the mines from the trembling of the earth by a sad accident. And he, it turns out, is guilty of his own death!
- Guilty is the one who longed to disassemble the whole mountain to the stones, only to take out the valuable ore, and ordered your fiancé and his brother miners to work day and night without rest! — the old woman affectionately ran her dry, wrinkled hand over the girl’s silk braid. — Your beloved, without sunlight and fresh wind, labored for three days in a row in the mine. And Velimir was with him — their heads were clouded, so they saw everything. Though no one can say for sure now what really happened there. So, wipe your tears and go take a pot of milk to the guests: you must respect the foreign Knyaz!
After talking with Velimir and conferring among themselves, the Knyaz and the Voivode decided, firstly, to find a passage to the lake’s city, and secondly, to get to the warlock. They sent scouts along the fiery river to take a walk and look for a gap. And they themselves, having called with them Zarya, Deyan and several experienced bogatyrs, went to the sorcerer…
- The fog covered us there, — Deyan pointed ahead. The Knyaz’s druzhina carefully moved along the path.
- And there is the hawthorn that offended your warriors, Knyaz, — the Voivode chuckled softly, while vigilantly looking around the district.
Deyan noticed something flashing in the dirt. He bent down and raised his own dagger. The blade was covered in semi-dried slime.
- Look, what distinctive tracks! — Moguta pointed to deep holes on the path, as if from spears — As if some heavy set creature passed here on stilts…
But they didn’t have time to examine the tracks: again, out of nowhere, white tongues of fog crawled across the ground.
-Take your swords out of scabbards! Move fast! Covers brothers’ backs! Protect the Knyaz! — as soon as the Voiovde ordered, shadows flashed in the fog, quiet wheezing and a dull growl were heard.
They walk by the river of fire and flame. The heat emanating from it was unbearable: if you come closer than three arshins, your face burns with fire, and the heels of leather boots begin to smoke. The horses refused to go a mile closer to the river, stood up stubbornly, like donkeys, neighing, rearing up. It was decided to leave them and explore surroundings on foot.
Our heroes did not find a passage to the city and to Three Lakes which were enclosed in a fiery ring — the red-hot stream was everywhere. But on the two sides of the river, in some places, large black influxes of cooling fiery slurry formed. In such places, the slow flow was narrowed. The bogatyrs saw that where the old road turns, the influxes are high and not too hot, and the molten rock between them is no more than five feet wide.
- What if we drag the trunk of a fallen tree, throw it over a fiery obstacle and cross to the other side? — the youngest one suggested.
- Why not try? The main thing is not to fall… — others agreed.
So they found a strong log, chopped off the branches, dragged it to the top of the black influx, and threw it over the fiery stream.
As soon as the log touched the other bank, the fiery slurry below it in one place reared up and began to rise upwards.
- What a wonder? — muttered the eldest bogatyr, looking at the huge black elk, completely covered with a pattern of cracks, through which liquid fire oozed the color of the setting sun. It rose from the very hooves and seemed to nourish and at the same time create the flesh of the animal.
The heroes leaned back, not knowing what to expect…
The elk moved his spreading horns and easily threw the heavy log, like a straw, under his feet. That one, barely touching the fiery stream, immediately flared up, and the river immediately devoured it.
The elk looked at the uninvited guests with burning eyes, took a step towards them and shook his head, they say, get out of here in good health.
- Oh you, damned! — the younger yelled, and before the others could stop him, he hit the elk with his sharp sword right on the neck.
The blade easily cut through the black crust similar to a shell covering the animal. For a moment, a fiery liquid appeared in that place, but the wound immediately closed, as if it had not been there. But the edge of the bogatyr’s sword turned black and melted. The blade instantly became useless.
The warriors drew their swords, preparing to repel the retaliatory blow of the mighty bulk.
But the elk stood motionless and only bored the offenders with fiery eyes.
- Pah! Wish Veles could break off your horns, — the younger swore and instantly cringed: it was terrifying to look into the flaming eyes of a strange beast.
- Let’s go, brothers, — the eldest bogatyr ordered, — Let’s find another place where we can throw a log.
They got away from the monster. But as soon as bogatyrs approached the river, an elk immediately grew out of its hot waters, even more than before.
-We cannot overcome this devilry alone, — one of the bogatyrs muttered, — We must report to the Knyaz. We retreat!
- There, Lubim, your heroes have returned, — Milana stood at the door of the barn. She said it and then instantly regretted it. Maybe it was not necessary to focus attention once again, cause the boy has a painfully ardent interest in the warriors that have come.
A boy of thirteen years old put buckets of water on the threshold:
- The ones with the Knyaz? Or the second team?
- The Knyaz is not to be seen, and his Voivode too…
- It means that those who wanted to go to the city could not do it… — the guy drew disappointment and wiped the sweat from his forehead. — If the Knyaz’s druzhina has not yet returned, now they may not return at all. And these are of little use to me… Well, we have to do something!
Milana, watching the boy run somewhere, got worried, threw a towel and rushed to chase the fidget to protect him from all stupidity:
- What are you thinking?! I’m not so young to chase after you!
And the boy went straight to the bogatyrs!
Having reached the village, the bogatyrs saw that the Knyaz had not yet returned and had not sent any tidings.
- How long does it take to get to the warlock? — the elder Bogatyr asked.
- Not long. If you go out in the morning, you can come back before dark settles down, — said Lark, — But only on foot. The horsemen will not pass there — the path is very narrow. In some places viscous, somewhere rocky. It will only spoil the legs of horses.
- So, if everything would be all right, the Knyaz with his druzhina would already be here?
- It turns out so… — Lark lowered his head.
- Equip, brothers, we will visit the warlock. And you, Lark, be our guide.
– Uh-uh, dear boyar, I can’t leave my people alone. After such a disaster, only gods know how much work we have to do — we need to expand the village, put up log cabins and restore the economy. Before the winter will be here… Please, take Velimir, he will see you through.
- Oh, what a sly dog this Lark! — the younger bogatyr whispered to his brother, — I guess we can manage without him. Deyan told everything correctly, the direction is well-known.
- I’ll accompany you! — a beardless youth approached the heroes. — I know all the paths, I walked everywhere: along the mountain, along the sacred grove, and visited the warlock too, even walked behind the watchtowers.
– Lubim! Where are you going, come here, idler! — a middle-aged woman pulled the boy by the sleeve. But he didn’t even pay attention to her words.
- And if I take you to the warlock safe, you’ll invite me to your team!
The woman threw up her hands in horror.
– Look, what a zealous one, — the elder hero looked at the lad reproachfully.
– Just like me when I came to you to study military affairs, — the younger one grunted.
– Only you listened and respected your mother, — the eldest bogatyr rolled his eyes angrily, — Not like this rookie.
– She is not my mother! She is my aunt! My parents remained in Lake City!…
– Let him go, — Lark grunted, — at least somewhere he will be useful… Allow, Milana, your stepson to do great deeds. You can’t keep an underdog at the skirt for a century. And you can’t live with him: he’ll do things, and you will disentangle. It was not for nothing that his father and mother sent him to you to raise, they knew that you would endure everything.
The guy suddenly turned to the chief miner, his fists clenched white:
- Although she is not a parent to me, I will not allow anyone to offend Milana!
The elder bogatyr managed to grab the boy by the hand:
- Stop this madness! Well, you can come with us. Maybe you’ll learn your wits along the way.
- How is that… — Milan gasped.
- Don’t be afraid, he won’t be lost while we’re with him, — the bogatyr promised.
…When the heroes approached the path, they saw the Knyaz’s horses. They grazed along the hawthorn.
- It’s not good to leave living creatures like that. The Knyaz would not allow such a thing. — said the youngest bogatyr.
- We’ll go there, — Lubim waved his hand almost into the thickets.
- The path goes to the left, — the younger objected.
- I know, but it’s better not to walk along it, but to walk side by side, where the grass is strong and the roots of the bushes are deep, which means that it’s safer here… — the boy said in a brittle voice, and then squeezed the strap on his chest.
- What do you have there? — asked the eldest bogatyr.
- Amulet. Warlock’s gift…
– You are well acquainted with the warlock, since he made such a charm for you.
- I help him collect medicinal herbs throughout the district. He needs me, so he saves me…
- And who were you talking about, as if there were no roots?
- About them… — Lubim whispered and pointed with his finger at the clearing that opened before the team.
The bogatyrs saw: the land around is as if plowed, and the carcasses of huge terrible creatures lie right on the path. In the mouth of one of them is a broken shield. Mucus everywhere, blood…
- This is the shield of Moguta!… — whispered the younger one, — What happened here? Brother, can you read the footprints?
- I’ll try, — the gray-haired hero stepped forward, — there were two of ours, and this creature attacked from here. But the monster was quickly subdued. And this one grabbed the shield and dragged our Voivode. From there — the warrior pointed to the place where the earth had been ripped open from the inside — another one jumped out and seriously injured someone. Maybe to the death… There is a lot of human blood… Here is this creature, with a torn mouth. Ours continued to move along the path, fighting back. They dragged the wounded with them.
Suddenly a mist floated on the ground, and something like champing was heard in the distance.
- There! Faster! Lubim shouted, pointing to a rocky hill at the edge of the forest. The heroes saw a palisade through the fog, and behind it the outlines of a hut. All of them listened to the boy and ran. But Lubim let them pass, tore off the clay amulet from his neck, put it forward on his outstretched arm, and slowly began to back away towards the hut.
Suddenly, a clawed paw emerged from the fog and slashed the air. Only Lubim was not hurt by it, as if the hand hit an invisible shield.
“It works,” the boy thought happily, “But I won’t last long like this…”
- Why aren’t you running?! — Lubim heard a furious scream from behind. The younger bogatyr returned, picked up Lubim, threw him over his shoulder and ran as fast as he could. And the boy broke the clay amulet in half and poured some kind of red ash onto the ground behind them. Where it fell, an invisible wall formed, the fog rose like white milk, and black claws and toothy mouths appeared from it, beat furiously against the wall and disappeared again in the fog.
The heroes jumped over the palisade and rushed to the hut. No sooner had they reached the door than it opened. The black-eyed elder stepped aside, letting them in, and said somewhere inside the house: “Help has come.”
The youngest bogatyr threw off Lubim and turned around to close the door. He looked outside, and behind the palisade the fog was teeming with creepy creatures. Only they couldn’t get closer, although the gate, which the bogatyrs didn’t notice in a hurry, is completely wide open …
The hero closed the door and turned to his people — to tell what he had seen — and instantly went speechless. He saw: on the floor lies the Knyaz’s armor, pierced to the core…
- Knyaz? What about the Knyaz?!
Moguta got up heavily from the bench:
-It’s my fault…. Couldn’t save the Knyaz…
Before setting behind the forest, the scarlet sun painted Voivoda’s face with a juicy crimson. Moguta and a team of newly arrived bogatyrs sat by the fire. The experienced warrior was silent for a long time, looking thoughtfully at the shadows that from time to time appeared in the fog behind the palisade. Surprisingly, there was no hint of fog inside the hedge — the air was completely transparent… The heroes patiently waited for the Voivode to hear the story of his misfortunes. Moguta sighed.
- As soon as we got on the path, the haze of milk fell. We were alert — we took out the swords and covered Knyaz into the ring. We started moving forward. Suddenly, from a thicket, a huge creature with spikes rushed at us.Horan and Dragan — not without reason that they’re of best Knyaz’s bodyguards — moved quickly. Horan pushed the monster back with a shield, and Dragan plunged a spear into his chest. That almost completely went into the flesh, as if into swamp slurry, I had never seen anything like it. We did not have time to come to our senses, as the second monster rushed from the other side, we barely managed to put up our shields. So the fiend seized me with his mouth and pulled me towards himself. The shield, like a piece of wood, cracked in half, and the hand was pinched by the hilt. The beast dragged me to the very quagmire, but the Knyaz and Horan arrived in time. Svyatopolk cut off half of the toothed jawbone with one swing, so
the creature had to spit out the shield. The monster roared furiously, but prepared to tear us to pieces. Then Knyaz chopped off his paw with a second blow, though Goran did a nice job as well. We saw — Zarya and Deyan killed another creature, smaller, hacked to death. It became quiet. We thought that other devils got away.
The Knyaz extended his hand to me and said: “Keep your eyes open, Moguta”. At that moment, another reptile jumped out of the ground, larger than all the previous ones, and hit our Knyaz… and pierced through with his claw the size of an arshin!
Further, everything went blurry: I rushed to the murderer and tore his mouth. Turned around — there was nowhere to retreat… From the back, horror approaches on four legs — as sharp as spears. And on top of the body is two-armed, the head is horned. It moves slowly, in jerks, as if broken, and drags a person behind him like a rag doll. More precisely, what was left of a person … We picked up the Knyaz and ran. I don’t remember how they ended up in Radogast’s hut. When I came to my senses, the warlock was already busy with the Knyaz. He sewed him with silver threads… — Moguta twitched -The poison of this creature is strong. Everyone who had Living and Dead water left from the campaign against the Undead gave their flasks to the Knyaz. Only that is not enough…. Our Svyatopolk is on the verge of life and death. The warlock placed him in a dream so that his mind would not fade from pain… I did not save our Knyaz…
The governor dropped his head into his hands and groaned heavily.
Deyan, standing at a distance, averted his eyes:
- I failed as well… I knew that the devil was there, I myself barely survived. And after all, I allowed the Knyaz to come here with us!
- Me too, — Zarya hemmed and clapped Deyan on the shoulder — The Knyaz is not a child, he decides where he should be. And you are not a decree to Svyatopolk. Stop shedding unnecessary tears. As long as the Knyaz is breathing, we must do everything we have to do, and then come what may. Let’s go, we’ll consult with Radogast on how we can help…
- My supplies have run out, dunno why… — the warlock looked meaningfully at the wounded bogatyrs and continued to work at the stove. — In order to keep the Knyaz with us, it is necessary to gather special herbs, and roots. I’ll tell you everything now. And ask the healer of the Belozersk for flasks. Is he alive, by the way?
- Alive, — Lubim answered, got up from the bench, threw a bag over his shoulder, ready to leave — Just tell what kind of bottles: draw it on birch bark, otherwise i won’t remember.
The heroes looked at each other in bewilderment: is it possible that the small one was planning to go behind the palisade? Why, even ten of them cannot cope with the local devils that graze behind the fence in the fog …
Lubim as if I read their thoughts:
- I’m going on by myself. In the meantime, heal your wounds, and yes, Radogast, aybe there is something else you need help with …
- But how can you go there alone? — Zarya asked.
- Just as I walked before, so now I will go… — Lubim shrugged his shoulders, accepted from the warlock a strap with a clay patterned bead and hung it around his neck, instead of the previous one. — These types of things are typical for me. I told you, I walked all the paths in the Valley, I know every color of grass here. And I’m not stupid! Don’t look at me like this. I’m just wiry! Do you want to check my strength in arm-wrestling?!
- Cool down. Oh, you are daredevil … And what, the evil spirits do not touch you alone? On us, a whole armful of hefty men with swords and spears, the monsters were immediately indignant !
The warlock sighed.
- Magical creatures are crowding here against their will. Their place of residence is now already small, and all sorts of people have come here… So they protect their possessions. And they are fierce and so hefty, because the place of power on which my hut stands feeds them. They like me at my place, so they roam nearby, — the warlock explained. — You are armed, dangerous, you smell of war, and stained with blood. So magical creatures rushed at you. While Lubim is with love, kindness and peace in the heart, with pure hope and without fear. He is like last year’s snow to them.
Well, my amulets are also not worn only for the sake of beauty… When I went to the Mistress of the Iron Mountain, I was also hung with trinkets from head to toe: intact, as you can see. True, she laughed at me: “You are like a cherry blossom” she says…
Anger flared in Moguta’s eyes.
“So you went to the Mistress of Iron Mountain?” he growled “Kalgama’s henchman”
- What are you doing, madmans?! — Radogast backed away. The bogatyrs surrounded him, closing any exits from the hut, and their eyes eloquently sent unkind signs to the warlock.
- Knit him, brothers! Zarya yelled.
- Stop! — the warlock shouted desperately — I am no one’s scout! Judge for yourself, would I start healing your Knyaz?
- And who will trust you! Maybe the Knyaz is barely breathing because you are giving him poison!
- Why, if not for my herbs, you would already be looking for the heirs of the Knyaz!
- Our Knyaz has no disciples, — Moguta moved Dayan and approached the warlock. — Tell me like it is, old man, without hiding, what business do you have with the Mistress of the Iron Mountains?” Otherwise, my fellows will tear you into a hundred small Rhodogastics, and I won’t say a word to them!
- Well, what if I went to her? — grumbled the old man. — As soon as I realized that Kalgama had woken up, I jumped up on the Sivka and moved into the Iron Mountains at full speed. The Mistress of the place, a noble craftswoman, a powerful sorceress, more than once helped the Valley of the Seven Lakes in difficult times. Here, for example: her masters paved the old trade route from the east — until now, stone-to-stone is even, though overgrown with grass… That’s why I rode to her for help. By the time I got there, I almost died twice, and the third time — when her guards noticed me. They noticed me somehow, but I didn’t notice them: they hid really well behind the stones. They popped out, and I almost pissed my pants. Heart to the heels… Then I gathered my courage, poked the ring in their snout and barked: Lead me, fools, to the Mistress herself! And say: Radogast Semiozersky has come!
- What is this ring?
-Ah, well, I visit the Mistress every new moon, and I treat sick masters, deliver herbs for infusions so that they don’t get ill… And she gives me valuable salts, mountain essences for my research. And she gave me this ring so that I could move freely around her possessions, without interrogations at every corner.
- How good is our Lady! Eyes like two bottomless lakes, chiseled cheeks, beckoning lips! And her magnificent loins!… Who wouldn’t want to work for?! — the young apprentice said dreamily, leaning on the furs.
The fire in the forge flared up, embraced the workpiece passionately and began to caress, making the iron redden.
- Do you really think, master, that noble craftsmen are here only for the sake of a woman’s beauty?! — the blacksmith glared sharply at the assistant, took a piece of iron from the forge, and began to beat with a heavy hammer. In the light of the fire, under the skin damp from the heat, bumpy muscles began to move. Oh, what a strong big man.
- All right, all right, and she pays fairly… — the apprentice glanced briefly at his frail hands and sighed heavily.
- That’s not the point, — the blacksmith rolled his eyes. She rules wisely, shrewdly. She knows our business not by books: she knows everything herself. A craftswoman that not everyone can surpass. Craftsmen are hired to learn new things. And the Lady welcomes everyone with joy and provides work. Yes, only with those she shares the secrets of our craft, in whom she sees the grain of the creator and the master.
- And she saw that in you?
- Is there a chance for me?
- In you, except for dirty thoughts, nothing is noticeable yet… And when you show what you truly are capable of, you’ll deserve…
- And what is the wisdom of her reign?
- Think about it yourself? Are you doing well? Live well, sleep well?
- Not complaining.
- That’s it. And when the ore and wood began to dry up and the masters began to grumble, they say, she solved all the problems herself. She left her workshop, two weeks have passed — and our warehouses are bursting with fresh materials!
- It’s true…
- What kind of masterpieces do we produce? Power! The beauty! Greatness! Where else would you have to work on such an order?
- Shhhh! The apprentice looked around. — Shut up, teacher! I have heard that the Lady has bewitched that if anyone talks about his work, his tongue will dry up!
-Yes-yes, I didn’t say anything, — the blacksmith grunted and fell silent, listening to the sonorous song of his hammer.
The warlock told that the Mistress accepted him, despite her busyness. As if some work is in full swing in the Iron Mountains. All furnaces are burning, the best craftsmen are working without sleep, and the Lady of the Mountain is on a par with them — she is sculpting something from iron and stone.
- And you should have seen how beautifully it turns out: curls, runic monograms freeze with filigree lace. Only this lace, though thin, but strong, is like your armor, — Radogast enthusiastically moved his hands in the air.
- And what, did the Mistress help you? Dejan asked.
- I told her about our misfortune, that the Valley is being destroyed, people are dying. Kalgama, I say, got angry — he destroys everything. Her eyebrow went up: Kalgama, they say, is an ancient legend, human inventions. And I told her: this invention has already demolished half the mountain and burned half the Valley and does not stop. All sinister creatures are fleeing from the Valley — they have sensed the mountain spirit, they are crowding away from him, closer to the place of power… Only you, I say, are our helper.
The Mistress of the Iron Mountains was silent, thought, and sent the sorcerer home. She promised to come tomorrow and calm Kalgama.
Radogast, as he returned, closed himself in his hut and began to wait. The next day he listened: everything was quiet. The earth does not shake, the thunder does not rumble. He looked around: fiery streams spread along the Valley, only coals remained from the city… but stones from heaven do not fly, ashen dogs lay down on the ground like a gray veil. Radogast decided that the Mistress of the Iron Mountains had succeeded in appeasing Kalgama.
- I thought that the mighty spirit had calmed down and again plunged into sleep. And it turns out that he was not even in the Valley. Because, as soon as the full moon came out, we immediately sensed his return: fiery rivers were agitated, the earth began to shake again, and the black creatures became angry, flustered, and did not want to leave… It seems that the Lady could not cope with him…
She couldn’t, you say? Cause he is in her service now! — Moguta muttered.
- How?! — the warlock was surprised. — The spirit of the mountain will not submit to anyone! You can try to appease him, maybe even buy him off… But to subdue — absolutely impossible!
- But your ancients somehow managed to do it! They sealed him in a cave! — Moguta was outraged.
- In the center of the mountain, — Radogast corrected in a barely audible voice.
- If you wanna, even in your ass, it doesn’t matter now! — Moguta straightened up to his full height, so that he almost collected soot from the ceiling with the top of his head. — Me and Bogatyrs, we’ll kick the crap out of him! Because he almost killed our blacksmith, took the wood and ore, put a spell on the tools so that they are now useless! For the Knyaz!
Bogatyrs instantly began to reassure Moguta, though they told him that even if he decides to go to Kalgama, he still can’t get close to the mountain. They told him about fiery rivers, showed a melted sword and scorched skin. Moguta scratched beard and with the words “we need to think about that” went out into the yard…
- Lubim! You are back! — Milana saw the stepson from afar and ran towards him. — I knew you’d be chased away by the Knyaz! You’re thinking of being a druzhinnik! Don’t worry, you’ll be more useful at home if you stop being naughty.
Lubim, who wanted to hug his aunt, frowned his wheaten eyebrows and put his hands to his sides:
- And no one chased me away! I have already been accepted into the druzhina! I have a mission from the Knyaz! By the way, he’s wounded! I need to see a witchdoctor. The Knyaz’s life and death depend on me!
- Are you kidding? — the aunt concluded the mute in a tight embrace.
The boy barely got free:
- I’m not joking, Milana! Bagniks attacked the Knyaz’s team — three small and two big ones. And the Knyaz was wounded — the damned poked him with a claw. They hurt the voivode’s arm, and other warriors were badly hurt. My companions were also nearly killed! Only I, as a matter of fact, saved them.
The aunt looked intently into Lubim’s eyes the colour of their White Lake and did not find in them sly sparks, which always appeared when he thought to lie to her.
The woman turned serious.
- So it is true you are leaving me?
- So it’s true…
- Eat at least. I made some chowder this morning…
- Thank you. But I don’t have time to fill my stomach. I need to see a witchdoctor…
- At least take a fresh bread! — Milana was crying again, like the other day when she let Lubim go to the warlock.
- Mila-na,- her neighbour shouted to her, as soon as the boy had disappeared behind the hill, — has your Lubim come home?
- No, he is in the druzhina now! And here on the Knyaz’s errand! — shouted the woman in reply. — The huge Bagniks attacked the Knyaz’s team. The Knyaz was badly wounded, and his retinue was maimed. Lubim’s making a fuss!
Lubim was sitting at the witchdoctor’s, and suddenly he hears men shouting under the window:
- Hey, Zhdan, did you hear what happened?! Bagniks attacked the Knyaz’s army, taller than the house, claws like two-handed swords, mouth like your cart! They devoured all the druzhina, and clawed the Knyaz of Svetlozemie with their claws! And the bogatyrs who left with Lyubim also all died, only he returned alive!
“And less than an hour passed before I told Milana…” Lubim grunted and scratching the back of his head.
The day has passed, the morning has come. The heroes helped Radogast to repair the hut. The roof was patched up, the floorboards were fixed. The pen for the gray mare was updated, the stall was cleaned.
By evening, the bathhouse was heated. They went there to bathe.
Moguta called Deyan and Zarya into the hut and seated them at the table.
- I want to consult with you on how to proceed… Maybe, instead of making another mess here, we need to gather a team and send the Knyaz home, to Svetlozemie? .. Call the warlock, the best healers. They’ll help Svyatopolk to recover, and then we’ll see?
– Will we survive the winter without firewood? Without ore, without forest — no construction, no craft… — Dawn drawled.
- And the Knyaz is weak, even the warlock is afraid to pull him out of his sleep… lest our return come at a high pric …
- You’re too hasty, Moguta, — the heroes heard a familiar creaky voice from behind — the elder Svetozar was standing on the threshold, and Lubim propped him under his shoulder.
- Here, I’ve brought you a guest, — the boy helped the old man get into the hut, took off his heavy shoulder bag, untied the tuesok from his belt and put it on the table. — Here the bread is still warm, bon appetit.
He stumbled over to the stove, climbed up and from there said wearily:
- Don’t look for me until tomorrow.
- Svetozar, are you unharmed? Where is your escort? How did you get here? — began to ask the bogatyrs.
- Unharmed. My escort is with me, all four. They went to the bath, — the old man began — The boy, who is new in our team, noticed me and took me to you. He said that there was nothing to do in the Village on the Lakes, that all the most interesting things are here for you … Yes, on the way he told me about how you, adversaries, almost lost the Knyaz… — Svetozar opened the sack, tore off a slice of airy bread and began to chew. — Your neighbors, I must say, are completely unkind. They wanted to take a bit of our skins…
- That’s why I wonder how you got here? — Zarya said.
- A friend is on the shoulders of a friend… — the old man smiled slyly.
- How is that? Tell! Deyan was surprised.
- You better ask how to defeat Kalgama! — Svetozar smiled even more.
- Did you find out?
-Got it! The old man straightened up proudly. — So the library card was not wasted!
- Hey, brothers! — the four bogatyrs that the Knyaz and Svetozar had sent to the Tower of the Wise Man piled into the bathhouse.
- Wow! What a miracle brought you here! Are you all right? — their brothers-in-arms
- Can’t complain!
- All right, let’s go and get some warmth, and you can tell us all about it at the same time!
They entered a dark steam room, sat down on benches, breathed with bated breath the smell of bunches of herbs hanging in the corners — it was good!
- Well, where were you, what did you see, how did you walk past creatures?
- At first we were bored with Svetozar in the Tower of the Wise Man, we passed the time as best we could: practicing our warrior skills, following the girls there on their heels. Do you know what they’re like? Pale, skinny, eyed, in white shirts, not belted…
- You know, like White Girls…
- Sort of! And they’re all scholarly — they know how to read. At first they didn’t recognize us. They teased us every now and then: Fe, they say, barbarians, untutored! But when Svetozar and I were going to the Knyaz, they cried: “Who are you leaving us for, falcons? Vertoprakh almost got married!
The warriors laughed and went on with their tale:
- I’m ashamed to say how we got here. The boy, that you took to the troop, ordered on the path to jump on each other and make a circle. That way the beasts will smell weight, they will think that someone big is coming, and they will not come out.
We almost reached the fence, when local creatures sprang from under the ground, teeth klap-klap! — We hardly managed to fall into the gate and lock it behind us. Why the hell were we riding on each other’s shoulders? — We asked the boy. And he shrugged his shoulders: “I thought it would work. Well, now we know it didn’t.”
The boys laughed again. And when they’d finished laughing, they decided there wasn’t enough steam in the bathhouse.
- Hey, pour some steam on the stones”, — poked his neighbour, who was sitting quietly in the corner near the stove, to the side. He was silent and did not even take a scoop.
- Give him a kindling, may be he felt bad? — advised another.
- Wait, who is he? Nobody came here apart from us seven…
Six black eyes gleamed in the corner…
- I’ll tell you everything, but first let me visit the Knyaz, — the elder pushed the feedbag with bread to the bogatyrs and turned to the warlock, who had already emptied Lubim’s bag and sorted out the contents — Will you take me to the Knyaz?
The warlock nodded, took one of the vials, and hurried into the hall. The old man and the warlock conferred for a long time at the bedside of the wounded man. And the bogatyrs humbly waited.
- I’m glad that you got to Radogast, he is a wise man. It turns out that we served as youths to the same ancient healer, though at different times, — said Svetozar, returning to the table. — Without his skills and your water, living and dead… eh…
The Knyaz’s druzhina bowed their heads, Moguta was already preparing to beat himself and reproach furiously. But the old man suddenly changed his face and smiled.
- Old manuscripts are kept in the Sage Tower. There are many chronicles about Lake Province written by various scribes. There are also very ancient manuscripts. Written, however, in a dead language, in which no one speaks. But the caretakers live in the Tower — the descendants of the Sage himself — they can interpret: from childhood they learn the ancient speech and pass it on in their family so that it is not completely forgotten. Everyone knows a dozen languages! True, this knowledge is getting poorer from generation to generation, because it is not transmitted by those for whom that language is native. Therefore, every day they write down translations of scrolls, stone tablets, inscriptions rewritten from the vaults of caves… Oh, sorry, I got carried away…
Svetozar told how he had found confirmation in the early age monuments that Kalgama was not a fairy-tale scarecrow, but a real threat. The little that the interpreter was able to translate from the ancient one frightened the elder, he hurried to the Knyaz in order to take him away from trouble…
An ancient tribe — the ancestors of the SemiOzers’ folk — came from the north, driven by the impending endless winter. But even in the new place, nature was not very favorable to them. And the shamans of the tribe set out to subdue its fury. From the iron stone that fell from heaven, they carved bracers. For a whole year, the best masters pored over them, and the shamans whispered spells and performed sacrificial rituals. They were presented as a gift to the most furious spirit of nature. He, having taken the form of a man, went out to the people and called himself Kalgama. He liked the gift, and even more so — human worship.
He was so merciful that he even bestowed some knowledge in return on the tribe. Then Kalgam put on the bracers, admired how the sun played in the patterns, and wanted to turn with the wind and fly away. But he was not able to do anything from now on. Kalgama tried to throw off the bracers — in vain. The spirit felt that his strength had suddenly dried up. He saw that the hunters of the tribe were advancing on him, and the tips of their spears in the sunlight, just like bracers shimmer, and fragments of the same metal hang on their necks.
Kalgama realized that it could not have been done without magic, that like a forest animal, he fell into the snares of insidious mortals, but he did not plan to give up so easily. The nine strongest hunters fought him for three days and three nights. And only one spear reached its goal: it pierced the spirit under the rib, Kalgama twitched in pain, and the shaft broke off.
Kalgam sensed that if he continued to fight, he would be blown off his head. He decided that an inglorious flight was better than certain death, gathered the remnants of his strength, lifted stones into the air which whirled around him like a tornado, preventing the hunters from approaching. He retreated and took refuge in the center of a high mountain.
But the shamans tracked him down on a bloody trail and imprisoned him in his own cave with an unbreakable spell. He found himself in a runic ring, which no captive can leave and destroy.
- Where can we find such heavenly stones to make armor and weapons, and overcome Kalgama?! — Deyan asked.
- We have something better, — the old man put his hand into his belt pouch and took out a coin.
- SemiOzersk’s money? Moguta turned the coin over in his hands.
- We don’t need the money itself, but what it is made of.
- Local iron or what?
- It’s not iron at all, — Svetozar smiled.
- But what? — did not understand the governor.
Svetozar did not have time to answer, as they heard the cries outside. They hurried into the courtyard, looking: the soldiers who were steaming in the bathhouse, wet and naked, here and there plastered with bath leaves, rushed towards them. Eyes like bowls. They run and yell: “Burn the bathhouse! Burn the bath now! There is the devil himself!!!”
Bogatyrs looked at the bath: the door of the waiting room lies flat on the grass, steam pours out of the opening. The barefoot fellows grabbed their swords and began to surround the bathhouse. And one was dragging a brand from the fire.
-Wait, what are you going to burn, you stupid bare-assed fools?! — the warlock jumped out of the hut, — Were you afraid of my pet?!
“Hello, dear diary!
I share with you the events of the last days.
I brought the Knyaz’s warriors to the hut of the warlock on the condition that they would accept me into the team.
In general, it can be considered accepted. Only neither the Voivode nor the Knyaz know about it yet.
I gathered roots in the forest, and also lake herbs that the warlock asked for, and quickly ran to the witch doctor for miraculous powders.
I even managed to see Milana. It is not easy to serve in the Knyaz’s druzhina, you have to part with your loved ones for a long time — I already miss my aunt! She, by the way, gave me bread which I shared with the Knyaz’s warriors. I hope they will guess to leave me a piece of bread…
On the way to the warlock, I met an old man with four bogatyrs on the trade route. I realized right away that they were from the Svetlozemie: the belt of the old man was woven with their flowers. They asked me to show the way to the village of the White Lake. I offered to take them to the warlock — because I was too lazy to stomp back to White Lake.
Along the way, I tested his old idea — it didn’t work. The monsters were not afraid of a large weight…
Then I came to the warlock and immediately climbed onto the stove. I pretend to be asleep. Instead, I wrote something memorable with the feather which the warlock made for me.
The bogatyrs made some noise on the street, apparently they met with the Radogast’s pet…
Well. I’m going to sleep.
I don’t understand, though, who walks in the hut, the floorboards sing. Everyone seemed to run outside. Well, I won’t watch it.
I say goodbye to you until a new writing, sincerely yours, the future hero of Inozemie,
- This is your pet? That toothy monster?! — ruddy steamed heroes shouted at the warlock.
- He is not toothy, but very attractive. My pet allows to stroke and even collect poison from his fangs! I make potions that soothe pain and cloud the mind! For your Knyaz too! Such a useful animal in the household!
- Are you a warlock, or are you blind? Did you confuse Anchutka with domestic cattle? Burn the bath, brothers!
- How dare you?! I welcomed you here, and fed! My bags are already empty, you eat too much! I gave my bed to the Knyaz and slept in a corner — I do not complain. I give you permission to do almost everything! And I have here, by the way, not an inn!
The warlock flared his nostrils and shook his fists in the air.
- Well, put down the brand, otherwise I’ll spit on you! All your shameful cocks will dry out!
- What are you making noise for, old man? Need stick? — A quiet voice made everyone turn to the hut: the Knyaz was sitting on a bench by the door and smiling weakly.
- Knyaz! The guards rushed over to him.
- You got up early, prince, — Radogast shook his head. — I hope your flesh will not part again…
- You mended me tightly, it will not disperse. Yes, I was lying down, old man, — said Svyatopolk, only carefully holding the wound with his hand. — Tell me what I’ve missed while sleeping.
The Voivode ordered the bogatyrs to calm down and put on their ports, and strictly forbade them to approach the bathhouse. Then all of them, along with Zarya and Deyan, helped the Knyaz to get into the hut, made him comfortable on the chest, and told about everything that they had learned.
- So Kalgama is not an ordinary evil spirit, but part of Nature itself, who forces its frantic commands? — summed up Svyatopolk. — Deceived, offended, shackled like a slave?…
The Voivode and the bogatyrs exchanged glances: why, does the Knyaz really feel pityness about the insidious villain?…
- We won’t take him by deceit, we’ll challenge him to an honest fight, — the Knyaz continued. — And in order to be equal in strength, it is necessary to forge armor from the same metal from which the ancient tribe made bracers and spears.
- There is no such iron anywhere: once in a hundred years it falls from the sky, — said Elder Svetozar.
- But you know what metal we forge armor from?
- Exactly, our dear friend showed us a Seven Lake coin and was going to tell us about it, — Deyan recalled.
- Yes. Did I tell you that the shamans tracked Kalgama in the mountain on a trail of blood? — Svetozar opened his palm: on it, shining with mother-of-pearl tints, a coin shone. — This is the blood of our mountain spirit…
Lubim, half asleep, listening to the whole conversation, hung from the stove:
– Is it that all the forge, for which our region is famous all over the world, is made of Kalgama’s blood?!
- For many centuries, the mountain has been soaked through with it… — Svetozar nodded.
- How come he didn’t die? — Lubim deftly jumped to the floor.
- He is a powerful immortal spirit of nature — you cannot destroy him, only weaken him. When they imprisoned him in a mountain, the power in him accumulated over time and pulled out over and over again with earthly tremors and eruptions of fiery streams from the mountain, — Svetozar explained.
- Probably, it was not in vain that the mountain has been sleeping for the last hundred and thirty years — Kalgama has been saving strength. He felt that sooner or later the miners would get to the bottom of him, and as they broke the spell of the ring, so he gave free rein to the force. That’s what happened — he destroyed half of the Valley of the Seven Lakes, — suggested Moguta.
- It means that the armor of his own blood, he will not be able to penetrate? — Lubim asked.
- This thought is inscribed in the scrolls, — Svyatozar nodded again.
- What kind of inquisitive young man is this? — the Knyaz asked Moguta.
- His name is Lubim. The boy is local, our guide and assistant. Though he lies to everyone that he was accepted into our team, — Moguta chuckled.
- Because there was an agreement: if I bring Bogatyr’s asses here unharmed, they will allow me to serve in the Knyaz’s druzhina! — Lyubim exclaimed ardently. — I fulfilled my part of the agreement, Knyaz, and your followers are balking about something!
The Knyaz looked appraisingly at the young fellow.
- Hey, brothers, do you think he will be a reliable warrior?
- Undoubtedly. — the elder Svetozar answered unexpectedly quickly.
- It would be nice to train him as a spy, — Deyan agreed, — I sensed his talents from a mile away.
- So take him as your apprentice, — Moguta laughed.
- So be it, — Svyatopolk concluded, — welcome to my team! Do not feel sorry for him, Darya, train him the same way as Zarya trained you.
- Well, hold on, little one… — the older spy laughed.
The Knyaz pondered:
- So, what do we have in conclusion? First of all, we need ore and a good blacksmith. Lubim, do you know where to find it?
- In the city… — the young man smiled bitterly. — There are forges with ore warehouses, and blacksmiths …
Everyone was silent, and there was nothing to say…
- One place could have survived, — Lubim looked into his bag, grimaced, not finding bread there. — When I looked from the hill, it seemed to me that the city wall on the right side in one place was not touched by fire. And just behind it is a small forge. Even if there are no ore reserves in it, there are a lot of all kinds of products: utensils, iron boilers, even chamber pots for Knyaz and other bogatyrs. We can reforge…
- What a joy it is to hide behind a chamber pot in battle… — Dejan snorted.
- Yes, and that would be fine, but how to get into the city? The fiery Elk is guarding the river…
- So, Moguta, send a messenger to Mykola. While we are thinking about how to get the ore, he may already be here with his apprentices, — the Knyaz ordered. — What are we going to do with the Elk?
- Allow me, Knyaz? — the warlock approached the heroes — I have an idea how to help you.
- Tell me, old man.
– I know how to subordinate various creatures to my will. Not just an Anchutka, but even bigger ones I can tam … Someone, for example, who is a hundred times stronger than your bogatyrs and is not afraid of fire. They will help to deal with the horned ones…
- And who is the bigger one you mean? — Moguta shivered, imagining the creature that made a hole in the Knyaz.
- Let’s go and look, it is sitting in the pit.
They went behind the palisade: there was a deep ravine, fog spreading at the bottom.
- Put the ladder down, — the warlock ordered Deyan.
As soon as the ladder touched the bottom of the ravine, an iron clang was heard: someone was climbing up from below. No sooner had Dejan taken a step from the edge than a long tongue wrapped around his neck and pulled him down.
-Freeze! — the warlock ordered, putting a stone amulet in front of him…
The creature froze in place, listening to the warlock. But the thick slimy tongue of Poludnitsa still squeezed the neck of a strong warrior. Panting, Deyan tried to free himself, but his fingers slipped. Sharp teeth froze an inch away from his face, two cloudy pupils under sunken eyelids twitched slightly, not losing sight of their prey. From the mouth it stank so that the warrior almost lost his mind.
- Let go! — the warlock barked imperiously, shaking the amulet. And the Poludnitsa immediately loosened its grip. The bogatyrs grabbed Deyan and dragged him away from the ugly open mouth.
- Decided to kill me? — the Knyaz’s scout growled through a cough.
But the warlock did not answer: looking intently into the half-rotted muzzle of a huge maiden-like creature, he again ordered:
- Get down!
And the Poludnitsa obediently slid back into the ravine, clanging on the stairs with sickles that she held in her hands.
The warlock breathed a sigh of relief, then came to his senses:
- And return the ladder!
A ladder flew out of the ravine into the sky and collapsed next to the heroes.
- The performance is over, — the warlock bowed and shuffled back to the hut.
- I didn’t order such a date with tongued women, — the offended Deyan tried to wipe the mucus from his neck with a bunch of grass, but it only smeared.
- Yes, she kissed you right in… — Zarya grimaced in disgust.
- It’s good that our guys didn’t burn the bathhouse, at least I’ll wash myself. — Deyan snorted.
Yeah, with Radogast’s Anchutka as well… — Moguta neighed. True, the laughter turned out to be strained. The Voivode was frightened in earnest, although he did not want to show it. Why, everyone’s knees were shaking, even the warlock’s…
- So you can enchant those who attacked us on the path? — Moguta asked the warlock. They went into the hut, leaving Zarya and Lubim to help Deyan wash off saliva.
- Bagniks? I guess I can… but it will get painfully expensive: you need amulets, herbs, poisons, overseas potions. It is very dangerous, unreliable. Those who have been walking in a monstrous guise for a long time are difficult to control. For the sake of an example, I showed you the Poludnitsa today, and, to be honest, I barely managed to control it.
Radogast told that in the forest right behind his dwelling there is a meadow surrounded by stones — the remains of an ancient temple. Trees do not grow in the meadow, only grass. In this grass, in the pre-dawn hour, you can see dark spots — similar to clots of shadow: as if the light does not pass through them. If you say a spell, they will begin to glow green, like sleepy mushrooms on a rotten stump.
- These are formless entities that do not yet have flesh, — said Radogast. — Catch one of these in a sack made of special grass, sprinkle it with the ashes of different creatures, pour it with a nine-component potion, and wait. The next day, the bags will begin to grow, and then your newly minted servants will appear. It is not known in advance who will come out of the bag, but someone from the local fauna, whose ashes were poured onto the incorporeal spirit. I’ve got an Anchutka born like that. It is necessary to catch essences when the sky in the east begins to brighten. Then they are clearly visible in the meadow.
- Ancient proverb says: “Leave early in the field, the harvest will be clear”… — the Voivode concluded.
- Something like that. Oh yes, you need to put stone amulets on the bags in order to make the essences peaceful and bind their will to yours, — Radogast remembered. -
I will write a memo to your team. I will detail what is needed for the whole concept and where to get it.
- Well, we will give birth to a dozen such creatures, we will have them instead of cattle. But all cattle must be fed… How about this? — Moguta waited with interest for an answer.
- Isn’t it obvious? Let it free graze! — Radogast shrugged. — And when they are needed, whisper into the amulets. They’ll run right there.
- For free grazing?! Eat people?! Voivode’s cheeks flushed with an angry blush.
- Why, they do not need people for sustenance! The forest is full of animals, and the place of power also feeds them with invisible juices. Okay, Voivode, lie down to rest and tell your bogatyrs to do the same. Another ancient wisdom — the morning is wiser than the evening. Look, your Knyaz has already fallen asleep. It is fine, while you gather the ingredients for taming, he will get stronger a little.
When everyone went to bed, Radogast lit a torch, spread birch bark and began to write a list:
-Oh, they will have to try hard… hope they don’t lose someone in such a mess…
- What did the warlock scribble there? — Deyan sat down with Zarya, who carefully studied a piece of birch bark.
- Shopping list, — the older scout chuckled.
- Come on, share the details.
– Moongrass, centaury, oleander, wormwood, goat willow. There are five more titles. And it is said that everything grows along the abyss, — Zarya straightened the birch bark so that it would not bend. — Note: not to be confused with the vegetation on the back of Svyatke! You pull the grass from his back, and he will cut you into goulash.
- Okaaay… — Deyan threw his hands behind his head and leaned his back on the porch, squinting in the sun like a domestic cat.
- Midday saliva, — Zarya continued.
– Are you kidding?! Why didn’t he say it before! I had that saliva just already in my face! What else is there?
- Stones from the temple (for amulets).
– Aha! And a curse on our head in addition from local spirits…
- Moreover: Hippogriff claw, Warg wool. Stings of arachnids. Wolpertinger’s horn… — the reader’s eyebrows went up, — dragon skin powder, from a part lower than his back.
Deyan opened his eyes.
- Tell me, have you ever tried to kill a dragon?
- No, only Sirins, — Zarya rubbed a long scar on his arm, — it was a bad idea…
- Where can we find a hippogriff and this, how is it said… Vulpinspinger?
– It is said that all this is sold in the stalls on the border of the Iron Mountains, where merchants keep overseas shops. And apparently, all these ingredients are worth as much as our whole Svetlozemie…
- I knew that I would have to gamble…
The next day, the Knyaz gathered his followers for a council in order to distribute tasks.
They decided to send the elder Svetozar to overseas merchants for rare ingredients. They gave him a purse full of gold, and, of course, they assigned bodyguards, four, as usual.
They also sent a detachment to collect grass along the abyss for magic bags.
Lubim volunteered to go to the temple to get pebbles for amulets.
– What else is left? — the Knyaz asked.
– Poludnitsa’s saliva. — Zarya grimaced.
The Voivode winked at Deyan:
- Go, hero, to your sweetheart, ask to spit in a mug.
The warlock placed a black phial on the table and clapped Deyan on the shoulder:
- I’ve already done it. You can exhale, honey.
- Thank you, old man! — the scout really breathed a sigh of relief.
– So, you will go with Lubim to gather the stones, — the Voivode continued seriously. — It’s not good to let our new teammate go there alone.
By noon they all parted.
- It’s good to wander around here with you, I’m not scared. You step lightly, inaudibly, without attracting extra “animals”. Not without a reason you’re Knyaz’s scout, — said Lubim, deftly climbing over the deadwood.
The approval in his voice made Deyan amused.
- The point of eavesdropping is not in walking silently.
- I guess it is about peeping unnoticed, — Lubim chuckled and was immediately punished with a light slap on the back of the head.
- Track down, find out, feed who you need, get the person you are looking for from under the ground, while being invisible to everyone. If necessary, you need to join the battle. Moreover, you will not meet an honest opponent in our business. So the fights are brutal…
- We’ve come, — Lubim interrupted, and Deyan thought: did his student listen at all?
They finished their mission surprisingly quickly. There were many stone placers around the ancient boulders, so they took the largest even stones and returned to the warlock without meeting obstacles.
Radogast immediately performed a purification ceremony so that no curse would stick to the scouts, and ordered them to go to the bathhouse — steam well, to be sure.
- I haven’t washed so often yet… — Deyan sighed, — it won’t take long to get used to it…
The fair was noisy with thousands of voices. “What a miracle… eyes run wide!” thought the old man, looking around.
- Svetozar, is that you? — a fat man in a brocade shirt and slippers with sharp noses made his way through the crowd.
- Vsevolod? — the old man squinted blindly and signaled to the bodyguards to relax. — Homie! I didn’t recognize you, merchant, you have grown in breadth!
- What brings you here, friend? — the fat man hugged Svetozar, but in joy so tightly that the old man’s spine crunched.
– Oh, you are strong, friend, — Svetozar grunted, freeing himself from the hugs, and noticing to himself that his old back suddenly felt better, he squared his shoulders proudly.
- I’m here on the Knyaz’s behalf. He is in the Valley of the Seven Lakes waiting for me with hotels. A whole list. I just can’t figure out where to find it.
- Let me take a look, I know every dog here. How is the Knyaz doing? — the merchant read the list and padded along the noisy shopping malls.
- It’s too long to say. But now he is on a campaign with his druzhina.
– Peaceful or military? Did you quarrel with the Seven Lakes?
- On the contrary, we help them.
- I heard there was trouble in the Valley.
- Yes, the fiery mountain raged… and we are trying to pacify it.
The fat man turned around and furrowed his brows.
- Nature itself?
- Almost. But I won’t talk about it here. Come to Kazimir’s tavern, we’ll talk over a cup of honey, if we’re alive.
The fat man nodded and turned to the tray, from which came the smell of incense.
- So, dear merchant, give us everything you have from the list.
Barely glancing at the birch bark, the merchant with eyes as narrow as slits, a thin mustache and a frail beard, began to mutter and run.
- He guessed that he could make a monthly profit right now… — Vsevolod grumbled and resolutely compressed his lips, as if he was ready to fight.
- Here! The claws of the hippogurif, the furi of the varug, stings of the arachunid, — the trader wrote something with chalk on the tablet, — you will find a skeen of drogon… um… you will find a skeen in a shop with accessories.
- What’s this? — Svetozar looked at a long row of sharp lines.
- These are the numbers, — Vsevolod growled, and instantly yelled at the merchant, — Have you completely lost your shame ?! Where did you see this junk cost so much?! I saw something cheaper around the corner! Well, I’ll turn around right now and go to your neighbor!
The merchant broke into a smile so that the pupils were no longer visible, carefully erased the lines with a cloth and wrote new ones.
- Onli for u, Vsevolod-san.
- For me?! I won’t bring you any more Undead ashes! You know, only I have it in the Svetlozemie’s bins!
Still smiling, the merchant corrected the numbers again:
- U maik me camplitly pur… do u wana a pawder from ze horn of a younicorn in ze apenbadge?
– Do you know where to stuff this powder from rhinoceros horn?!
- Were? — the merchant was sincerely interested, but when he came across the meaningful look of the merchant, he quickly nodded his head. — Gat it, gat it.
New numbers appeared on the board.
- Almost for free! — exclaimed the merchant, and looking at the reddening face of the buyer and his flaring nostrils, he groaned barely audibly and erased the last digit with his palm. The corner of his lips, still stretched into a smile, twitched slightly.
- Deal! — Vsevolod nodded and turned to Svetozar, — pay him, friend…
- Where can I buy a wolpertinger horn? — asked the elder Svetozar when they had already moved away from the gunsmith’s counter, where they got a glorious piece of scaly skin from the proper place of the dragon.
- I myself breed these horned rabbits nearby, — Vsevolod whispered and winked slyly — I’ll give it to you as cheap as possible. Only ts-s-s!
- Good, but let’s be quick: I want to return as soon as possible, I’m worried about the scouts of the Knyaz, they have a task more difficult than mine…
Zarya put the box on the ground and consulted the warlock’s herbalist:
- That’s the grass we need, and that’s the goat willow. You two, take the baskets. Put a centaury in this, put an oleander in this, but put on mittens, it seems to be poisonous. Hang the box over your shoulders and follow the willow vine. And we, — he nodded to the two remaining bogatyrs, — let’s go look for thorns and moon grass.
- Zarya, with all respect, why did we go for herbs in full armor? It’s hard to move, — the younger bogatyrs asked, shaking his pauldron to make it more comfortable.
- The warlock ordered for our safety.
- Fight with thorns? — the warrior chuckled. — Look, it looks like what we’re searching for, into the dead wood!
The heroes looked around — everything seemed to be quiet, no danger. They came closer to the dry thickets and began to carefully cut off large green balls with long sharp thorns from thin branches. While crawling through the bushes in full vestments, everyone was exhausted.
- Look, what it is? Firefly? — the elder hero pointed to a trembling bright spot in the very thick grass.
The warrior wanted to get it with a mitten, as the vegetation around him began to shrink, getting tangled. Right before the eyes of the hero, a monster grew from branches, roots and grass: taller than him, his back was spiked, his horns were snags, his clawed hands were getting longer and longer, his legs, like sharp spears, were deep in the ground. The giant hummed, as if a hurricane wind whistled through the branches. The bogatyr had goosebumps on his back.
- Get out of there! — Zarya yelled, drawing his sword. And the warrior got stuck right in the body of the monster with a mitten. He was desperately trembling, but couldn’t free himself; and the scabbard was made for this hand, he couldn’t get the sword with his free hand… And the dagger with which he cut the thorns remained on the ground…
Svyatke twitched to pull his leg out of the ground — it didn’t work out, the heavy bogatyr only pressed him deeper into the ground with his weight. Only now did the monster notice that a human offspring was stuck right in his body. He swung his huge hand…
- Let him go! — the younger hero slashed his arm with a sword and himself tried to drag the older one.
- I’m stuck! Run to Zarya, save yourself! — the hero managed to say and immediately howled in pain: the torso of the tree thickened, the trap shrunk, his bones cracked…
- Zarya does not abandon his brothers! — he heard a cry above his ear and immediately a sword stuck between the eyes of the monster. Only chips flew. Svyatke began frantically waving his arms around, pushing the heroes away, even broke his arm against the strong armor.
- We’re even! — growled the elder hero.
While Zarya was repulsing the blows, the younger tried to knock out his comrade’s hand from the chest of the tree, but in the blink of an eye the “wounds” grew together, only squeezing the hand more tightly.
- Don’t look, brother! — the younger shouted in despair. A sword whistled through the air…
- We thought it would be easy… — Zarya tried to wrap the stump of the hero as tightly as possible, — Where is the svyatke? — he asked the younger one.
- Crashed to smithereens on the bottom of the gorge… — he put down the baskets with what they got: in spite of everything, the task was completed. He sat next to Zarya and was silent.
The elder hero steadfastly endured the pain, did not utter a sound, he was only slightly pale.
- How are you, friend? — Zarya asked.
- It’s been worse. This time, only the arm was torn off, — the hero croaked.
Zarya shook his head, smiling at the courage of his comrade-in-arms.
- Forgive me,” said the younger one.
- For saving my life? — the hero smiled, — You will, left-handed, now teach me how to use a healthy hand with a sword.
- Ours are coming, — Zarya said — Now we will quickly get to the hut. Let’s drink the witch’s tinctures, the one with the poison of the anchutka, it will ease the pain.
All the next day, the bogatyrs prepared tow from herbs and vines and wove sacks. The Knyaz went out into the courtyard into the fresh air, to walk around and strengthen his body.
- How is our one-armed hero? — he asked. — I haven’t seen him in the hut.
- We freed him from classes, but he still announced himself as assistant. He says it’s easier to get distracted, he is crushing the vine with a stone in the backyard.
Svyatopolk looked at how Lubim and Radoghast were knitting pebbles with runes carved on them into fabric.
- This, Knyaz, is to keep incorporeal entities inside, — the warlock explained, and handed the finished bag to the Knyaz. — You can catch them tonight. And as soon as your sage Svetozar returns, we will brew the potion and raise a detachment of assistants for you…
At midnight the warriors went out to the meadow in the center of the temple. Took a closer look — no dark clots. The sorcerer told them to wait. Silence. Only mosquitoes buzz, and occasional slaps are heard.
As soon as the sky turned blue in the east, nimble shadows appeared: as if they were floating in the grass, briskly skirting the thicker stems.
Radogast crouched down and began to whisper spells incomprehensible, and the shadows suddenly lit up and began to grow, turning into changeable terrible entities.
- You said they would be shapeless! Deyan hissed.
-I mistook the words of the spell, — the warlock scratched his head in puzzlement…
The warlock spat over his shoulder, blew into his fist, and whispered:
- Galya, nobody moves!
And then the eerie spirits disappeared, dark spots swam across the field again.
- What was that now? — Zarya asked, giving a sign to the bogatyrs to lower their swords.
- So, it seems, I got the words mixed up, — the warlock scratched his stomach nervously and muttered something, bending his fingers and muttering satisfied “yeah” and “uh-huh”, and also occasionally puzzled “hmm …”, which pretty much stressed everyone around.
- That’s it, finally! — Radogast began to kneel down to whisper into the grass again.
- Sure?! — Zarya decided to clarify.
– No more tricks?
- Bet my life on it! — the warlock looked at the senior scout so that he understood — one more question and they will go back to their bivouac over the hills with nothing…
- You could, at least, write it down on birch bark for notes… — said Deyan.
- This cannot be written down! What if someone will find and begin to do all sorts of things? — the warlock patted his forehead — everything is kept here. And passes down from father to son.
- You don’t seem to have offspring, so you’re planning to pass your knowledge to the ancestors?
- Can’t you see beyond your nose? — Radogast chuckled. — Do not distract me! Otherwise I’ll mix up the words again…
This time everything worked out well: the shadows, as they should, glowed with a dim green light, and the bags, as they should, easily kept the disembodied spirits inside.
- Take one essence, look at another, notice the third, and the fourth is imagining — Deyan said cheerfully, greedily stuffing the bag with wonderful fireflies.
For a long time the bogatyrs harvested in the meadow. In several visits they transferred the trophies to the warlock in his yard. They dragged a whole mountain of full bags.
- Make a single heap! — exclaimed the warlock.
- What for? They already take very little space.
- When they start growing, they will flood everything here, — the warlock threw another bag to the very top. — Now we have to wait for your Svetozar. Let’s go have breakfast! Lubim prepared porridge!
By noon, the weather turned bad, clouds came in, a fierce wind blew from the west.
- Maybe cover the bags with something? — Moguta asked the sorcerer — Will the water hurt them?
Radogast waved his hand.
- That way the potion will be better absorbed.
- Lubim, are you going far? — The Voivode noticed that the boy was heading towards the gate.
- To meet the old man, — he shouted and turned behind the palisade.
- Deyan, well, accompany your student! — Moguta ordered angrily…
- Why are you alone and without asking? — Deyan caught up with Lubim, and now they were quickly moving towards the old road.
- After all, you are in the team, you must keep a report to me and the Voivode!
- I’m not used to it yet, — the lad justified himself, covering his face from the wind with his elbow.
- And why did you think of going somewhere in such bad weather? Maybe Svetozar still has a day of travel, or even two!
- It’s good that the bad weather is coming, Bagniks don’t like strong winds, for a handful of people they won’t show their noses from their shelters once again. And your elder is already waiting at the crossroads, where the horses were left last time.
– How do you know?
- Anchutka scouted.
They went out of the way to the road and saw: indeed, four horsemen were stomping on the side of the road, wrapping themselves in cloaks. Svetozar sits in a cart drawn by a strong gelding, and his own horse is tied behind the bridle. The cart almost breaks from the load.
- I guess he bought everything we need… — Deyan whistled, — Wassup, friends!
- Hello, good fellows! — the old man answered — Where have you been for so long? We are waiting for half a day, the wind has already tucked the manes of the horses, we’re freezing to the bones …
Deyan looked inquiringly at Lubim, who only shrugged his shoulder:
- The wind is advantageous to us, as I already mentioned. And now it is necessary to move at full speed, not to stop, so that the wheels on the path do not get stuck — the kid climbed into the cart and sat down next to the old man.
- How did you get there? — the druzhinniks asked, opening the gates and letting the travelers in.
- With a breeze, — Deyan chuckled, dismounting. He patted the horse on the neck. — Thank you, Svetozar, for lending your handsome friend!
- Have you done it? Did you find everything? Have you bought everything? — the warlock shuffled to the cart and looked under the tightly stretched canopy.
- Everything that was on the list, in the right amount, — the elder nodded.
- All right, well done guys. So, bring this to the cauldron, this to the cellar, this to the cauldron, this and that to the cellar, — Radogast began to order, pointing with his finger. — This is back to the cellar, and this one too.
- Wait, aren’t you going to brew a potion from all these ingredients? — Svetozar jabbed his staff at the warlock’s chest, trying to dampen his enthusiasm.
- Not from all! The rest I will keep: they will come in handy on the farm.
- What is it, I spent the Knyaz’s gold on your wishlist?! — the old man got angry.
- Why are you upset? It’s a fee for my hut serving as an inn! Agreed with the Knyaz! — the warlock muttered, moving his staff aside. — And eat porridge, you and your fellows have left breakfast.
Evening. The branches were bent. A slanting icy rain poured down from the black, cloudy sky. The warlock, throwing on the hood of his mantle, was diligently stirring the seething brown liquid in the cauldron, from which a yellowish steam was coming. The fire strove to go out, then flared up again, fanned by the wind.
- Ready! — Radogast croaked in a hoarse voice. — It’s time to pour on the bags. Exactly five drops for each!
- Maybe we should try one first? — Zarya asked. — For reliability.
- And it’s better in the house, otherwise it’s fierce and cold here! — Moguta agreed.
- Aha! And if not some kind of Anchutka, but a whole Bagnik hatches out of the bag?! the warlock shouted.
- You said it yourself, the chance is only 11% percent! Look, there are quite a few entities in a small bag, nothing will happen!
- Omg, okay! — The warlock waved his hand. Only you will be responsible for the consequences!
The bogatyrs entered the hut, put the sack on the table and dripped exactly five drops of the thick potion onto it. As soon as the liquid touched the burlap, it spread along the fibers and instantly soaked the entire bag, as if it had been doused from a tub. The sack began to grow in breadth, as if someone was stirring inside. Moguta and Deyan were sitting, watching.
- Have you taken the Knyaz out? — the warlock pushed his way through the curious vigilantes crowded in the doorway.
- Here I am, — said Svyatopolk from the hall, — What is going on with you?
- Come out, Knyaz, get some air while your boyars are hatching a monster here.
- Maybe we can take it out into the yard before it’s too late? — Zarya suggested timidly, pointing to the sack. In the meantime, it had already grown more than a table — it couldn’t be squeezed through any door.
-Damn it… — the warlock’s eyes widened. — Fly you fools!
- Do you know who can be “born” of the warlock’s bag?
- Yes, I checked it in the bestiary. I would like to receive Boroviks, he will be instead of my current watchdog. Not a single robber will show his nose, everyone will become afraid!
- Yeah, just like your wife with the kids: they will see who you brought them, and will run away to live with their mother-in-law.
- Huh, they’ll get used to it. My mother-in-law is worse than Poludnitsa, so my love will not go to live with her. Who would you like to have?
- Bagniks, of course! In battles, they will fight for me!
- Do you even know how tall they are? What are you going to feed him?
- What about in peacetime?
- I’ll feed them with turnip.
- Let’s have a bet on who gets who?
- Yeah! Oh look! Why did they all jump out of the hut?!
-The chance is small, they shouted! It will be fun, they shouted! — the warlock ran around the hut, holding his head. — Sit down, you bastard! Do not move!
From a hole in the roof protruded the downcast muzzle of a Bagnik…
- Move your horses to the small paddock, and these newborns to the big one, there will be some kind of a nursery, — Radogast waved his stick at the crowd of creatures of various types and sizes walking around the yard.
- Don’t you worry they will gnaw at each other? — Moguta asked.
- Go on, tell them to sit still.
- And if they get hungry, what will we do?
Radogast grunted and threw a meaningful look at the paddock with horses.
- Are you crazy, warlock? Here you will feed your Sivka first, but I will not give my Veles to anyone!
- Just a joke, Voivode! — satisfied Radogost smiled with all his six teeth. — Lubim will make a decoction according to a special recipe. One spoon of such a broth is enough for an Anchutka for a month, and for Bagnik for a day. Poludnitsa, Svyatke, Boroviks and others will be well-fed for a week.
- Can an army be fed like this? — Moguta was already calculating the savings on provisions.
- No, for people and livestock it is poison… only our fosterlings will do. But you can still find some useful ingredients here…
- Ready! — shouted the hero from somewhere above — We’re ready, old man!
The warlock looked up at the roof.
- Well fixed, craftsmen! Now return the window to its place! — he pointed with a stick at the part of the log, neatly sewn together with the window, and began to grumble. — I don’t need panoramic views in the hut — how do I heat it in winter? It would be better if you’d cut the Bagnik into pieces and took him out, but no, the defenders of animals destroyed my hut …
When things were done, and people and non-humans were fed, it was decided to equip a trip to Lake City for ore. Each warrior was assigned to control five creatures.
The Knyaz went out to see off the warriors. He had not yet fully recovered, so he leaned on Goran’s shoulder.
- Be careful! Lubim is your scout, protect him! — admonished the Knyaz. — Do not climb into the thickness of dangers — I am not going to pay for the ore with your lives! I’ve had enough of the legless and one-armed! I will not give anyone to this land! And remember what Radogast said: these moose are the spirits of the sacred grove consumed by fire, so do not kill them if possible.
- If you find any manuscripts that survived along the way, take them with you! This is the most valuable legacy of the Seven Lakes! — added the elder Svetozar to the Knyaz’s parting words.
- You just don’t have anything to read here, you’re tired of boredom, so you’re asking… — the Voivode suggested in a whisper.
- Local chroniclers are famous throughout the literate world for depicting shameful scenes, you will be the first to grasp these scrolls with a death grip — the Elder winked.
- I have never walked in such a company before, — Deyan looked around at the companions: Zarya with Lubim, several bogatyrs from the druzhina and a whole list of famously experienced warriors.
- As I see it… — murmed the senior scout, consulting the map — we need to split our team in half. In the place where the cracked boulders lie, we will try to make a blockage. Then the bed of the fiery river will turn into this ravine and flow into the abyss. And the second half-team on the other side, where the moose was first seen, will do the same. Then, in the middle, the fiery slurry will freeze without recharge, we will cross the channel of the fiery river and cross over.
- Sounds like a perfect plan — Deyan nodded. — As soon as we manage to do this, we will meet in the middle, at the old highway. You, Lubim, come with us.
They walked and talked.
- Why do you need such long hair, Deyan? I heard that scouts are trying to cut their hair short so that the enemy doesn’t pull it in the fight. — asked Lyubim.
- In my family, it is not customary to cut off the tail. If it is a beard — you can cut it short, but not the tail on head. According to our belief, strength, health and good luck are in the tail. In a fight with me, no one will have time to even touch it.
- Well, I’ll try to catch luck by the tail! — Lubim got excited and in one leap jumped up to Deyan. But the experienced warrior blocked the student’s hand and deftly dodged. No matter how much Lyubim jumped around, or tried to approach with deceptive maneuvers and go behind the teacher’s back, nothing came of it.
“He jumps like a brainless flea, he has to study a lot of tricks to become professional…” wondered the Bagnik thoughtfully, watching what was happening from the height of his enormous growth…
- Out of breath? — Deyan shook his chin, making it clear that the attempts were useless.
- Not at all, — Lubim muttered stubbornly and frowned his sun-bleached eyebrows.
- It’s good to be childish, but we have come, — Zarya gave a sign to everyone to stop.
They looked around: the fiery river did not think to cool down, the stream slowly moved along the channel. Mooses are right there: they walk produly along the river, swaying their horns.
Zarya called one of the bogatyrs:
- Tell your brothers to distract them, while Bagnik and Deyan will push the boulders into the river! You, Lubim, order your Anchutkas to throw stones at the moose.
And so they did: they began to attack the moose in a crowd, the Anchutkas in the sky chirping and throwing stones, the Moose only had time to brush it off with his horns. Poludnitsas waved sickles in front of the moose’s eyes, but did not beat.
One Bagnik came too close to the river, for which he was immediately punished: the moose butted him right in the stomach. In the place where the horns hit, everything hissed and immediately a stone formed, began to crumble and fall off, like swamp clay dried in the sun. But, a new dirty slurry immediately began to fill the hole — and the wound quickly healed. The Bagnik got furious, swung his paws harder, hit with backhand and broke the horns of the offender.
The moose did not even move: standing, glaring gloomily at the swamp monster, and growing new antlers, like saying: I can do that too!
- Back, Karlusha! — commanded the bogatyr, and the Bagnik retreated, but just enough so that the moose did not reach him.
At this time, two other Bagniks pushed the boulders into the channel. And indeed, as planned, the river ran into an obstacle and began to lay a new path towards the ravine: the earth smoked under the fiery stream, hissed, crackled.
On the other side of the dam, the slurry immediately began to solidify, covered with a black crust.
- Look! — shouted Deyan, pointing in the direction of the second team. On the other side, the river also began to turn black.
- Yeah, they did it too! — Zarya rejoiced.
It became difficult for the huge mooses to move, the viscous slurry of which their flesh consisted began to harden, and then completely froze.
Sacred spirits froze like stone statues.
Suddenly there was a crack from the side: the elk, which just now butted with a Bagnik, fell apart into dust. “Oops-s-s!” hissed the Bagnik, lowering his fist.
- Facepalm… we were ordered not to touch these mooses… — Zarya sighed.
As agreed, the teams were reunited on the old highway. They waited until the crust had cooled down so much that it was possible to run through it, and moved to the other side.
- Show us, Lubim, the way, — Deyan slapped the boy on the shoulder.
Up to the city walls, all the land was scorched, only the skeletons of the stoves stick out in some places — there was not a trace left of either people or buildings.
When they rounded the city wall, a terrible picture appeared before the soldiers: bodies lay everywhere, evenly covered with a hard ash crust, as if some crazy clay master had sculpted them. It became clear that no one had survived in the city.
Deyan felt how Lubim twitched. He squeezed his shoulder to stop the trembling.
- We will definitely find yours, we will build a funeral pyre, we will take them to the forefathers, as it should be…
- I haven’t seen them for four years, — Lubim gritted his teeth, holding back tears, — Now what will I look for? Maybe they were gone from the city. They used to love wandering…
It seemed to Deyan that he heard hope in the boy’s voice. The scout sighed and asked to show the way to the forge.
They found ore where Lubim had supposed: the forge near the city wall stood in a secluded corner behind high stone bins, and therefore remained almost unscathed. The warriors picked up all sorts of products in the shop at the forge: heavy frying pans, candlesticks with forged roses, patterned trays and other utensils.
They walked through the ashes, looking for survivors, although they knew in advance that it was in vain. And so they reached the chambers of the local knyazs. Only a few stone buildings survived, but they did not dare to go into them: it stank so much of a corpse spirit from it…
Anchutkas were sent to the library: they brought two folios in a leather lining and a bunch of scrolls that had decayed along the edges.
On the way back, Deyan noticed that his student was peering to the right.
- Let’s go! — he said resolutely and dragged Lubim in that direction. — Where was the hut?
- There… — Lyubim pointed to the black chimney of the stove. Not far from it lay a pile of cracked stones.
- There… there’s nothing to learn here… — said Lubim. — But my family alone in the village, in addition to the stove, had a heater in the hallway. My mother baked glass beads in it, which the girls weaved into braids…
They came closer and froze: two human figures lay frozen in an eternal embrace on the floor.
- Father covered mother with himself… — Lyubim said indifferently, looking in front of him with an unseeing gaze.
Deyan went up to the student, grabbed his head with his hands, pressed him to the armor and firmly ordered:
- Cry, Lubim!
The guy seemed to be waiting for this permission: his shoulders trembled, he whined, the boy, like a wounded animal…
By evening, they loaded carts with ore and belongings, and sent it directly to the warlock: through the forest, while wenting along the path themselves. The day was clear, setting sun illuminating the valley with long red rays.
- Is it Mikola there? — Zarya pointed to a team of horse riders moving towards.
- Yes! — Deyan waved his hand to the blacksmith and shouted: — Goy, uncle Mikola!
- Deyan? Zarya?! — Mikola hit the horse in the sides in order to get closer to the footmen and get a better look at them.
The overweight blacksmith rolled off his horse like a ball. Friends hugged.
- How are you, Mikola? I see you returned everything back, that was lost in the dungeon, — Zarya patted Mikola in a friendly manner on the belly.
- The messenger told me everything on the way! At first I didn’t believe it, but now I see: it’s true, Lake City is completely destroyed… — the blacksmith didn’t pay attention to the words of the senior scout at all, — I had relatives here…
He said that, and only then did he notice among the heroes a thin, long-legged boy with flax-blonde hair:
– Lubim?! Is this you?! Alive, ma boy! — He squeezed the taken aback kid in strong arms.
- Where did you get the seeds from?
- I asked the Belozeriyan neighbor.
- By the way, what is going on with the warlock, do you know?
- Nah, how Knyaz Svetlozemsky went there, so nothing at all is heard.
- And I heard that the Bagniks ate everyone, and now all kinds of evil spirits live behind the fence of Radogast!
- No way!
- Yes! My son-in-law went to that forest to play. He says, from afar you can see how the Polunditsas are swarming behind the palisade and the Bagniks are walking around on foot!
- What if people are alive, hiding and waiting for help?
- Hey guys! What are you talking about there?
- Hi, Lark! We’re discussing that the warlock’s hat is captured by the evil spirits. It would be necessary to help the visiting Knyaz…
- You are empty heads, the Knyaz has his druzhinniks behind the hills. They would have smashed everything there long ago, if anything had happened to the Knyaz. But no, there’s silence. So they are all right.
- But my son-in-law saw…
- Your son-in-law is a famous storyteller! Enough, better get to work!
- Is he your relative? — Zarya asked the blacksmith, but he seemed to have gone deaf with joy.
- It’s me, Uncle Mikola! Didn’t recognize? — the blacksmith grabbed Lubim in his armful and patted his flaxen curls, not paying attention to the bewildered glances of the warriors, — Oh, you have grown up, fidget!
- I guess I remember… — the lad with difficulty freed himself from the iron hugs of the big man — Is it from you that Milana gave me Svetlozemie’s money for every Carols?
- From me, from me! — The blacksmith blushed with happines. — Not so much value, of course, as memory.
- Well, I exchanged them at exorbitant prices for Lake’s money at the fair, and was known as a rich orphan with influential hillside relatives. But I keep the knife — it was forged to glory, always carrying it with me… Aunt Milan scolded me for this, she was afraid I would lose it.
- How is she, by the way? When I found out from the Knyaz’s messenger what happened here, I was worried!
- Still swearing. For the cause, and just like that — Lubim chuckled.
- And my sister with my son-in-law? — Mikola’s heart sank into his stomach, as soon as he saw how Lubim’s face had changed. — So?! Why do you hang your head and don’t say a word?!
He met Dyjan’s eyes, but Deyan just shook his head. The blacksmith groaned, stepped back, and covered his mouth with his hand. No one dared to break the silence, which was now pressing on the chest of everyone who knew what it was like to lose a loved one. It seemed like an eternity had passed. Finally, Mikola clenched his fists, looked sternly at everyone, and cleared his throat:
- The Knyaz called me to forge armor and weapons for the battle with the spirit of Kalgama, who, as I understand it, is guilty of the death of the Lake City. I will forge such swords for you that with one swing they will blow off his filthy head! Why, I’ll break his neck with my own hands!
- No, I will… — Lyubim said, barely audible, and only Dejan heard him.
For a whole week, the Svetlozemians worked tirelessly. They set up a forge in the village on the White Lake. At the behest of the Knyaz, the bivouac was moved closer to the water. The venerable elders — Svetozar and Radogast — were sent to stay with Milana. The druzhinniks assigned sentinels to the towers — to watch both the borders of Seven Lakes and the fiery mountain.
- Moguta, how is our blacksmith? — Svyatopolk was warming up in the fresh air. Now, when the wounds were tightly healed and the warlock pulled out the silver threads from the Knyaz’s flesh, it was time to return the heroic strength to the body.
- Mikola? If he is grieving, he does not seem to mind. Working tirelessly, quickly tamed the jinx of Kalgama. Under his hammer, local iron is like obedient clay. Such armor forges, a feast for the eyes! — Moguta hurried to the tent and brought out a pauldron: its surface was covered with an intricate pattern, like layered streams of liquid silver frozen in time, with waves and swirls.
- Wow! — the Knyaz marveled, examining the armor. — And what about his nephew, Lubim?
- Deyan does not give him a rest, the boy is always occupied. From dawn to dusk he teaches him military affairs. The guy grasps quickly: flexible, dexterous, quick-witted, and everything works out for him.
- This is good, otherwise our teammate would have completely dropped from idleness. And Deyan, like no one else, knows how to distract the lad from dark thoughts. Speaking of training, — Svyatopolk held out a birch bark to the Voivode, — Vedun sent a message by Mikola.
Moguta unfolded the birch bark and began to read:
– So… Yeah… Oh! The Houses of Voivode were completed, all thanks to Prohor with his old axes and hammers, and meager supplies. Now experienced bogatyrs train druzhinniks incessantly. They practice in all types of military art and their successes are tangible! — smiled the voivode, — He says that the Houses will be of great use! And Prohor did a good job, did not leave us in difficult times!
- Continue reading. — the Knyaz interrupted him.
- Why? Ah, I see… — “You asked me for advice, Knyaz. I understand why you decided to go into a fair fight against Kalgama. But the price may turn out to be great… On the contrary, if acting with tricks and discreetly, then in case of failure Kalgama will not spare anyone at all, because his resentment against the human will only triple. If it would be in my power, I would talk with him on an equal footing, I would try to find a balance between human needs and his desires. But it’s up to you, Knyaz, I trust in your wisdom”. — Moguta returned the birch bark to the Knyaz, — Yeah, I can imagine how Kalgama and we are trying to explain ourselves, and he spits in our faces, like a dragon, fiery slurry… and we will have a flash haircut. Here you are, Knyaz, smiling. And I agree: the Vedun speaks funny, so he let him talk with evil spirit. And I would look at it, I would look! Over a mug of honey with baked breadcrumbs…
- Okay, let’s think about it, how to be, think about it… — the Knyaz wiped sweat from his forehead.
- Rest, Knyaz, do not overwork your brain cells.
- That’s right, better go to Milana, we’ll visit our elders… — Svyatopolk suggested.
Moguta glanced at the tent: the Knyaz’s bodyguards were right there.
-Goran, Dragan, get ready, the Knyaz is heading to the Village. We’ll walk on foot, it’s not far.
- What does it mean — “Knyaz forbade to go into the city”? This Knyaz Svetlozemski is not a ruler for us! We need to find our relatives in the city, gather funeral pyres and take them to ancestors, as is customary!
- What are you making noise, Lark? It was said that it is disastrous there! Not just someone, but Kalgama himself is in charge! It looks like you are worried for the sake of other people’s funeral pyres? Or are you eager to check your stash? I suppose it’s not from the sun that you squint so cunningly!
- You, old man, stop pointing your crooked finger in my direction, otherwise it will break!
- And you stop muddying the water, then I’ll stop poking! We must obey the Knyaz with his druzhinna, we don’t have other defenders yet!
- Come on, hire yourself to the Knyaz in wipers, he has few of his own!
- Come here, you bastard! Filthy animal! Don’t hold my sleeve, Milana! I’ll show him a true bonfire!
- Let him scratch his tongue, all the same, the people do not listen to him. None of the locals in their right mind will stick their heads into Lake City, do not worry in vain. You see, everyone is going home. Let’s go to my place, we will bake pies. With my guests — two wise elders — you will have conversations. What are you staring at, Lark? Step aside!
- “What are you staring at, what are you staring at!” Come on, Milana, welcome all sorts of rogues, such a scam. First, you arranged a shelter for a bastard from a hut, and now a nursing home!
A slap in the face was heard far in the distance, sparrows fluttered from the bush. Proudly throwing up her chin, Milana walked past Lark arm in arm with an ancient toothless old man. He smiled, feeling through the sleeve how the slightly trembling palm of the woman radiates heat.
Lyubim heard Voivode’s cry, got distracted and was immediately punished with an offensive slap in the face.
- Do not snooze! — Deyan smiled out of the corner of his mouth as he walked around the student.
- Master, — Lubim rubbed the bruised place, — can the Knyaz be seen off?
- Missing your aunt?
- Not that very much, bu … although she is not native, but I know her closer than mother and father …
- …well. Go. Just ask the Voivode for permission. That’s something Radoghast will be happy about: he scolded me that I’m distracting you from his teaching. Here you will catch up. But you must return before sunset!
- Somehow I don’t wanna go there anymore… — yubim grimaced, but still ran to catch up with the Knyaz which slowed his step, waiting for the boy.
The aunt’s yard appeared from behind the trees. As soon as Lubim wanted to say this, he groaned, looking at the hut. Suddenly thick blue smoke poured out of the chimney and began to spread over the roof like jelly.
A woman’s squealing was heard from the windows:
-Get it away from me! Take away!!!
The Knyaz with bodyguards tumbled into the hut. They see: a luminous clot is rushing under the ceiling, it looks like a spider, or like a brownie, or even like a senile toothless face.
Milana squeals, fighting off the clot with a towel.
Radogast and Svetozar started laughing. They saw a pot next to the stove, from which blue smoke poured into the chimney.
- Why do you offend Milana? — Lubim snatched the charmed sack out of Radogast’s hands, jumped onto the bench and threw it over the floating scarecrow. Then threw a sack at the warlock and grunted disapprovingly “Like children, really…”
- Thank you, Lubim, my savior! What was it, huh?! — Milana hugged the boy tightly. She still couldn’t catch her breath.
- This is Manila, just an ordinary spirit. Radogast is brewing a potion of strength and wisdom from it. It has the same effect on all living beings, both people and animals, and all kinds of creatures — Lubim explained. — Manila’s main ability is to scare people: you look at him, but what you see is what you are most afraid of.
- It turns out that the hostess is afraid of Radogast? — The Knyaz smiled, then looked at the warlock intently. — And the truth is, you are terrible, old man. If I’d see you in a dream I couldn’t brush you off with the club.
- Have you, Knyaz Svyatopolk, looked at yourself in a stormy river? Go out, take a look into the smooth lake waters: me and you, like two spoons, are similar!
- It’s not that I’m afraid of your face, but of your character! And your dark skills! And Knyaz Svetlozemsky is very handsome! — Milana blurted out without thinking, and then she became embarrassed and blushed.
The old people laughed louder than ever.
- Thank you, Milana, for the kind words, — Svyatopolk smiled. — Well, it’s enough. Tell me, elders, is the protection spell ready for our armor?
- Definitely! The armor that was delivered to the tent recently is already under its guard. We also perfected the spell of the ring and tried it on that chain, — the warlock pointed to a pile of metal in the corner of the hut. — The main thing is not to let the chain break, otherwise the connection between the links will be broken, and the spell of the ring will immediately subside. And Svetozar, according to the scrolls of our ancestors, figured out how to remove the fetters from Kalgama…
The sage nodded in agreement.
- I knew that I was coming here for good news. Thank you, elders, for your diligence! — The Knyaz bowed. — So, Moguta, it’s time for us to visit the Spirit of the Mountain. Gather best warriors and equip them for battle. Take our tamed creatures to the city walls, we will take them with us as an escort, just in case.
- Isn’t it too early, Knyaz, to visit Kalgama? Your former strength has not yet fully returned to you…
Before the Voivode had time to finish, a cry was heard in the yard:
- Knyaz! Knyaz! The watchman reported that Kalgama had come out of the mountain and was sitting at the foot!
-You see, Moguta, I have no time to wait for my strength. If Kalgam disappears, where shall we look for him? Let’s hit the road now! Run, messenger, tell the bogatyrs my command: tell them to go to Lake City immediately! They will put on armor near the city walls. We’ll meet at the pass through the fiery river!
- Do you know what the spirit of Kalgama is like? — a Belozersk’s girl sat down on a mound to gossip with her city friend. — Did you see him when you fled from Lake City?
- I didn’t see it, — the young beauty sighed. — I didn’t see anything at all and I don’t even remember how I ended up here! Fear washed away all memory, like a cow licked with her tongue…
- Yes, but… But I heard from my grandmother that Kalgama is very handsome. As if a stately ancient warrior descended directly from the scroll of the chronicler to the ground. Tall, strong, shoulder-length black hair on the sides at the temples is pulled into thin tight braids, the beard is short and thick, to the envy of local beardless peasants. Leather light armor is caught by straps on a strong chest. His sinewy powerful hands are in bracers of celestial iron, the very ones in which our ancestors locked his strength. And his gaze is sharp. If the girl meets Kalgama, she will immediately fall in love with no memory!
– Really? And I heard something else… As if he was horned, toothy and completely bald! Strong as a hundred bulls, legs like logs, hands like two hammers, a powerful, bumpy back… And only a holy fool can fall in love with such a terrible and evil creature…
- You know, maybe your and mine versions are both true! Do you remember what the guys said? Kalgama turned into a blacksmith of the Svetlozemie in order to deceive the locals.
- Right! And Velimir said that they saw a girl in a cave!…
– Oh, what if now it’s not you sitting in front of me, but the Mountain Spirit himself?… — the village girl jokingly recoiled from her friend. But the second girl suddenly jumped to her feet:
- You figured me out, you wretch! I’ll let you know now! Well, come here! — She began to tickle her friend.
- A-ha-ha, leave me alone, I’m scared! Oh look! Is it possible that the Knyaz of Svetlozemie with his druzhina went on a campaign? Let’s run, let’s see!
Before the sun had time to measure noon, the Knyaz with bogatyrs, in the company of marsh monsters, crossed the city of Ozerny through and went to the foot of the fiery mountain. They were met by a man in full military attire, bracers in the midday rays dazzling with sparkles.
- Here he is, Kalgama… — Voivode said softly.
- As it is, in all its glory — the Knyaz nodded.
- I felt that the human tribe was up to something again! Stand still and answer, who are you? Why came to me? — Kalgama spoke, and his thick voice spilled over the valley.
Giving his soldiers a sign not to move, the Knyaz stepped forward.
- Greetings, Spirit of the Mountains! My name is Svyatopolk, I am the Knyaz of Svetlozemie, the land you left without supplies by deceit, and cursed our tools. I came to you with a demand: remove the spell and return the stolen! I know your fate, and feel resentment against humans. But I ask: stop taking revenge on people, do not destroy the beautiful Lake’s Valley! And then we will give you peace and tranquility. We will take off your chains as well. And if you do not agree, then a fair fight will judge us!
Kalgama glanced at his bracers, then looked at the newcomers and laughed:
- You, mortals, think you can free me?! You couldn’t even remove a simple spell from your tools, but you promise me freedom from ancient witchcraft?! Moreover, do you think that you will be able to defeat me?! Came here in armor forged from my own blood?! Commendable!
- We don’t know how to remove your spell from the tools, but our sage found information about your shackles in ancient scrolls, — the Knyaz did not pay attention to Kalgama’s sharp words. — I keep my word and ready to answer with my head. If we come to an agreement, I will give you freedom.
- Give? Who are you to give me gifts? Why, the fact that you are still alive in front of me is my gift to you! — the spirit was furious. — Do you want to challenge me into a fair fight? Then what for is this crowd of warriors behind your back? Why were the children of the night tamed and brought with you?! Fair fight, you say, so come on, Knyaz, fight face-to-face!
Kalgama waved his hands to the sides, the earth around him collapsed, cutting off the Knyaz from his followers, and in an instant it filled with fiery slurry. There was a wall of black smoke, a giant Moose grew out of the fire, putting horns in the direction of the bogatyrs.
- We’re breaking through to the Knyaz! — Moguta ordered. — Feed Manila’s potion to the Bagniks!
They threw a clod of rags soaked in a potion that Radogast managed to boil. Bagnik ate it, and seemed as if he went mad: roared loudly, crouched to the ground, his body swelled up, began to grow and suddenly swallowed two Bagniks who, unfortunately, turned out to be nearby. The creature grew into a giant and froze, waiting for an order.
- Evolution! — Moguta heard an enthusiastic exclamation at his side.
- Lubim! What are you doing here?! You were ordered to stay at Milana!
- I have come to kill Kalgama! — the boy shouted and straightened the helmet that had collapsed over his eyes.
- Deyan, this puppy is your concern! When it’s all over, I’ll fire both of you from our team! — the Voivode spat, shoved the boy closer to the teacher and turned to the Bagnik. — Hey, beat the mooses! We need to pass!
The giant immediately rushed at the nearest fiery beast. He immediately smashed one into spray, scattering his comrades-in-arms with sparks burning through their clothes. Then grabbed the other with his hands, pulled him out of the river and threw him to the ground. The moose tried to get up, but it didn’t work out: the fiery liquid was far away, did not feed him, and the moose began to freeze before Bogatyr’s eyes, turning into a stone statue…
- No one will interfere us here, Knyaz. You want a fair fight, you’ll get it. And to negotiate with you, mortals, I do not want! — Kalgama deftly twirled an elegant dagger with a long thin blade and an intricate hilt in his hand. The spirit began to slowly walk around Svyatopolk along the fiery circle. The Knyaz vigilantly followed his movements, and there was something feline in them: the same noiseless soft tread, the same impeccably measured steps, the same tenacious look.
Svyatopolk tried to prevent the enemy from attacking on his side. He had already taken the sword out of its scabbard, albeit hastily, but soundly forged by Mikola.
A sudden gust of wind almost knocked the Knyaz off his feet: Kalgama’s blow was unexpected and furious. The Knyaz barely had time to put his sword in front of him. The enemy blade hit hard, but slipped, throwing a beam of sparks into the ground. Before the Knyaz had time to come to his senses, blows rained down on him from different sides: the iron sang its sonorous song. At the limit of his strength, Svyatopolk repelled lightning strikes.
“The armor is heavy, but it doesn’t hinder movements, and it doesn’t let the enemy’s blade pass through my body. Well done, Mikola” thought the Knyaz with gratitude and made a lunge, trying to go on the attack.
But the sword only whistled through the air where Kalgama stood a moment ago.
- I am here, Knyaz — Svyatopolk heard a whisper in his right ear. He jumped back, turned over his left shoulder, swinging and cut into the void again. The experienced warrior understood that the mighty spirit was only making fun of him.
- Your “fair” duel would be glorious if you weren’t just a man. My blood will not save you, Knyaz of Svetlozemie, even bewitched! — Kalgama appeared right in front of the Knyaz. — Although, to be honest, it cuts more painfully than even a heavenly stone.
A thin cut flashed like liquid metal on the Mountain Spirit’s cheek. Svyatopolk was surprised: it means that his blade has reached its goal!
- The duel would be glorious and fair if you weren’t a hundred times stronger than me and inhumanly faster, — the Knyaz smiled and threw the sword into his other hand. — If we fought on equal terms, competing in military skill…
Kalgama thought and changed in face. Then he laughed defiantly:
- You have chosen such an adversary for yourself, Knyaz. I didn’t challenge you to fight, you yourself came to me. So stay strong!
The spirit struck sweepingly, straight ahead. Knyaz only had time to substitute the bracer. The armor cracked, letting the blade pass. But Svyatopolk did not let it get to the flesh: he waved his hand down, continuing the movement of the dagger, and dragged Kalgama with him.
Kalgama did not expect this and almost stumbled. But, quickly catching his balance, deftly spun around, dodging Knyaz’s sword. The straps on his chest snapped, and leather armor flared in both directions.
The spirit roared, his eyes darkened. The Knyaz did not have time to notice how Kalgama suddenly changed: now a hefty horned demon is rushing at him, his muzzle twisted in a terrible grin, his eyes are full of fire. A hail of rough, strong blows fell on the Knyaz. The fiend sliced chain mail in two places on Knyaz’s forearm, scarlet blood stained the earth. But Knayz Svetlozemsky does not lower his arms. After a moment the whole blade of the faithful sword is notched: soon the enemy will break it! The iron song will end along with the life of Svyatopolk.
As soon as the prince thought so, he heard a familiar cry:
Moguta broke inside the ring of fire. Deyan and the others followed him out of the smoke.
Kalgama rolled his eyes and growled in displeasure, returning to his former appearance as a human:
- And here is help for you, Knyaz. End of fair fight! Let’s dance now!
- Stop! — ordered the Knyaz to his comrades-in-arms. — Don’t you dare step in! This is my fight!
And the bogatyrs immediately stopped, not daring to argue with their ruler. Only Moguta barely audibly objected:
- This is not a duel, but a massacre…
The wind picked up the words of the Voivode, and they reached the sensitive ear of Kalgama.
Without taking his eyes off the Knyaz, the spirit answered to Moguta:
– Massacre?! And how to call what you, mortals, arranged then, presenting me with slave shackles instead of the promised gift?! You, who attacked with a whole army! Tracked me down like a hunted animal, and imprisoned for hundreds of years! What is it called in your dialect?! Bullying? Raid? Slaughter? You’re cowardly, miserable and greedy creatures of Yavi! The whim of the bored gods!
Kalgama stood before the Knyaz, spreading his arms wide:
- Who would you fight on equal terms with?
Moguta himself is standing in front of the Knyaz now, puts the dagger of the mountain spirit in his belt, draws his sword and makes a dash.
The Knyaz dodges, responds with a blow for a blow, quickly bypasses Kalgama in the guise of a Voivode and attacks from the side. Voivode’s sword at the last moment gets in the way of the blade, from a strong blow Kalgama takes a step back.
- No! You’re fast enough! — hissed Kalgama. — Who then?!
Long hair fell on Kalgama’s back and immediately gathered itself into a high ponytail at the back of his head. Then the creature looked at Svyatopolk with a familiar squint.
- Deyan! — the Knyaz gasped, and closed his eyes, driving away the obsession. The quick dagger of the Knyaz’s scout flickered in the air: from the left, right, from the ground, and every time aimed at the target, but barely touched it.
The leader of the Svetlozemie loses his breath, caustic sweat fills his eyes. With the last of his strength, he does not allow himself to be touched by the tip of a dagger.
– Let’s try another way? Feel the superiority, just like me! — Kalgama chuckled, turning into a thin tall boy with flaxen hair, and demanded in a cracked young voice. — Beat me, Knyaz!
The Knyaz shuddered inwardly: what does it cost him to overcome Lubim? One swing of the sword is enough to drop him dead. But Svyatopolk will not raise his hand to such Kalgama, and will not dance to his tune!
- If so, then fight with me! — the Knyaz suddenly heard the desperate cry of the true Lubim. The boy has jumped out from behind Deyan and is running towards them.
Kalgama immediately turned back to himself, clenched his empty fist tightly and pointed it sharply in the direction of the boy:
- Go away, silly!
Cobblestones shot up from the ground and flew straight to Lubim. Moguta immediately rushed to the lad, knocked Lubim off his feet and took the whole blow on himself. The body of the Voivode went limp, and remained on the ground.
Svyatopolk struck Kalgama in rage, but the spirit only slightly backed away, letting the sword pass by. Then he screwed up his dark eyes, clicked his tongue, pleased with the thought that it was possible to think of a better option, and said:
- I know, Knyaz, with whom you have never fought, but with whom you will definitely be on an equal footing!
The Knyaz looked at Kalgama and saw a reflection: a burly, tall, bearded man was standing in front of him, his shoulders proudly squared. The spirit was looking straight into Svyatopolk’s eyes. The Knyaz moved his chin and said to his double:
- You are an interesting creature, lord of nature. And this time, it is true that we will be on an equal footing with such an opponent, if you’ll fight without witchcraft.
- Then you should throw off the charmed armor, — grinned Kalgama to the Knyaz.
Svyatopolk nodded in agreement. Opponents were exposed to the waist, took up weapons, and again began their dance in a circle. For a moment, the Knyaz glanced in the direction of his faithful warriors: Goran and Deyan dragged Moguta away, Lubim was already leaning over him, examining Voivode’s head. Maybe remembering some teachings and healing the wound?
Dragan froze like a bow, ready at the first call to rush into battle for his Knyaz. The bogatyrs are here, shoulder to shoulder, and even a giant Bagnik that has come from nowhere looks puzzled at the two Knyazs, wondering which one is real.
- Behind my back is Svetlozemie and the Valley of the Seven Lakes! — the Knyaz uttered and swung quickly and briefly, so as not to open the body, and hit hard.
The sun was setting behind the hills, and the fight continued. Svyatopolk beats in furious excitement: his sword moves rapidly, reflecting fiery flashes that draw unprecedented patterns in the air. But Kalgama is not inferior either: the blade rushes like a sharp sting, eager to get to the Knyaz. The tempered steel of Knyaz’s sword rings against his double’s bracers. Erasing into the sand, the stones creak under the feet of the warriors.
- Lay down your weapon, Knyaz! — breathing heavily commands the Mountain Spirit, — See, you can’t beat me!
- Fold it yourself if you’re tired! — Svyatopolk grins in silent laughter and again steps on the enemy.
- Dunno why you are so stubborn! — the double chuckles.
- …says my reflection, — the Knyaz smirks and strikes, repeating over and over again: “Return the wood and iron to Svetlozemie, disenchant the tools… promise to leave the Valley of the Seven Lakes alone… and you will gain freedom!”
- One foreign mistress has already promised me freedom. Only here I am still in chains! — Kalgama dodges, moves away and again rushes into battle.
- If you don’t believe me, why don’t you turn into your true appearance? Do not release your power and crush me like an annoying midge?! — the Knyaz wheezes.
- I will, the moment I sweep you unconscious with your nasty grin… Phew! — the second Svyatopolk suddenly fell on his knee under the onslaught of the Knyaz’s sword which hit the bracer.
Before Kalgama had time to get up, the Knyaz again struck down. But his sword stumbled upon the blade of the dagger, with which the spirit managed to stop the blow. The long blade cracked and broke in two.
The hilt with a fragment of the blade remained in the hands of the Svyatopolk.
– Ha! It’s over, Knyaz! — Kalgama jumped to his feet and was about to hit the Knyaz with a dagger in his naked torso. But Svyatopolk deceitfully slid to the right, exposed his left forearm to the blow, and he himself drove a piece of Kagama’s sword into the spirit’s shoulder to the very bone.
In an instant the Mountain Spirit turned to his true appearance, grunted with annoyance and collapsed to his knees. Slowly he pulled the sword out of his own body and threw it aside. Silvery blood flowed from a deep wound, and Kalgama coughed, croaked:
- You won, Svyatopolk…
The Knyaz, clutching his forearm with his hand, sank heavily to the ground beside him. Hot scarlet drops fell into the liquid silver.
The Knyaz’s companions rushed in, with swords outstretched, and surrounded Kalgama. Someone prudently dragged the chain, the one on which the warlock cast the spell of the ring.
The Mountain Spirit sensed the same sorcery that had kept him in the dungeon for an eternity, his hair stood up on the back of his neck. Kalgama prepared with the last of his strength to fight for his freedom. But the Knyaz suddenly ordered the combatants to lower their weapons and carry away the chain:
- We don’t need it, — he said in a hoarse voice, then turned to the surprised Kalgama and said:
- It was a glorious battle, Kalgama, Lord of Nature.
Kalgama closed his eyes in relief and smiled faintly.
-Glorious, Svyatopolk, Knyaz of Svetlozemie.
Zarya bandaged the Knyaz’s wounds. Svyatopolk thanked him and asked what happened to the Voivode.
- He is fine, just resting, he got a lot on his head. Don’t worry, Lubim is looking after him.
The Knyaz nodded and pointed to Kalgama:
- Take care of my opponent too.
- No need, Knyaz. Thank you, — Kalgama said, wiping his shoulder with a rag: there was no longer any terrible wound — in the place where the sword stuck, an ugly fresh scar was visible.
- It seems you lost, spirit, but I’m not so sure now, — the Knyaz grinned and grimaced in pain.
- All right, Knyaz, since I lost, demand what you need from me…
- Answer first, why did you dislike the Svetlozemie, why did you decide to rob my possessions? We did not harm you, we did not lock you in chains…
- If I speak from the heart, for me your entire human race is like grains of sand in the desert. I can’t even distinguish Svetlozemie’s habitant from a Lake Citizen. Understand, Knyaz, for me you are like mayflies for a bear — all look the same and live a little: you flare up and immediately fade away… How can I choose on whom to take revenge… Yes, the sharp resentment inside me is based on the ancestors of the Seven Lakes for constant deceit. But I did not go to your land for the sake of revenge.
- Why then?
Kalgama told that when the miners rescued him from prison, he longed for revenge. But when he saw that the fiery mountain had already severely punished the inhabitants of Seven Lakes, he decided not to do anything.
- My power, limited by the spell of the ring, has accumulated over so many centuries and, as soon as the ring broke, bursted out at once, destroying an entire city with its outskirts. So the people of Seven Lakes can only blame themselves and their ancestors for their deaths, — Kalgama gave a heavy glance to Lubim, who was sitting aside, near Moguta.
Then the spirit continued: exhausted, he decided not to waste the rest of his strength on revenge. He tried to take off his bracers, even knocked on them with a blacksmith’s hammer — the heavenly metal did not succumb.
Then he tried to get a fragment of a spear that tormented him from under the ribs during the century, but Kalgama did not succeed either.
- The Mistress of the Iron Mountain found me doing this. And it seems that she was delighted to see my plight, — Kalgama chuckled. — She invited me to her palace and promised to help in return for a favor.
The spirit had nothing to lose and accepted the invitation. In the Iron Mountains, the blind healer worked skillfully: he took the spear out of Kalgama’s torso without excess blood and new cuts.
He felt relieved, the wound quickly healed and his strength increased noticeably. The spirit stayed with the Mistress of the Iron Mountains for three days and three nights. Kalgama saw how various craftsmen worked for her without sleep and rest: blacksmiths, carpenters, stone carvers — as if in a hurry, in a hurry to finish what they started, working, sparing no effort.
- On the third night, the Empress came to my bedchamber and demanded that I get her wood and iron, so much that it would be enough to rebuild a wooden city. And in return she promised to free me from the shackles of the enchanted. I answered her that it was in my power to fill all her vaults to the top with just a wave of my hand, at least this very moment. But only after she returns my freedom, and with it, full strength will come along with all my skills.
- But for some reason the Mistress did not agree to your condition? — Svyatopolk asked.
- As you can see, — Kalgama raised an eyebrow. — She said that she needed the wood with iron as soon as possible: she is fulfilling a large order, and she does not have spare time. But her sages are unlikely to be able to quickly figure out how to remove the bracers, so, she says, go and find what I need and bring it here.
Kalgama, after having once trusted people and cruelly deceived, no longer wanted to stumble upon the same pitchfork. And directly, without concealment, he said this to the Mistress of the Iron Mountains. But she suddenly presented him with an unexpected gift: a blade expertly forged from the tip of the same spear that wounded the mountain spirit. She said, bowing her head in reverence: “People cannot be trusted, but I can. I freed you from suffering and I will free you from shackles”.
The Knyaz looked at the dagger with which Kalgama fought him — the blade is dark, almost black, but if you look closely, you can discern obvious silvery edges of an unusual pattern inside the metal, as if large angular snowflakes lay all over the blade. The Knyaz marveled: so here it is, heavenly iron! And asked aloud:
- So, you believed the Mistress, and went for the task?
- There was nothing left for me, Knyaz. Empty hope is better than despair. I heard from one master that Svetlozemie does not know the need for wood and iron.
Yes, thought Svyatopolk, the fame of us has gone far. Everyone believes that the Svetlozenians, who defeated the army of the Undead, are bathed in abundance. They heard that the forests, which were under the protection of the Spirit of the Forest, are now given to us in gratitude, and the wood there is of the highest quality, and rich ore is now mined in the mines of the Cursed Lands, which were previously inaccessible…
Kalgama returned to Lake City. The spirit found a hammer with which he wanted to destroy the shackles, cast a cunning spell on it and tied it by invisible thread with the owner’s storage…
- And then, Knyaz, you know how it was, since you found me here…
Kalgama returned to the Iron Mountains, but did not find the Lady there, and her best artisans left their workshops. The remaining craftsmen said that the Mistress had almost completed the order and it was necessary to deliver it to the buyer. Since it is huge and difficult to transport, they were divided into parts and taken in a long caravan. And on its destination place it still needs to be assembled, how many days it will take — no one can say for sure.
Kalgama rushed to the sages, but those only shrugged, they still couldn’t figure out how to release the Mountain Spirit, and without the command of the Mistress they still wouldn’t remove the spell.
- I decided to give the Mistress of the Iron Mountains a chance: humbly wait for her return, and then demand payment for the ‘favor’. But I did not stay at her possessions: I bribed one apprentice with my blood to inform me about her return, and myself went back to the Valley of the Seven Lakes. In human form it was hard for me, but there was a place of power, next to it I felt better. I made the spirits of nature that died along with the Sacred Grove my fiery guardians to save my peace, just in case locals dare to poke their noses again.
Who knew that you would appear, such stubborn ones, and even bring the children of the night? You broke through my fiery defenses, wandered around the city, as if you were the masters… — Kalgama shook his head.
- It turns out that the ore and timber that you stole from us cannot be returned?
- It turns out so.
- Can the spell be removed from the weapon?
– You can, if you reforge all the axes and picks with my hammer… And the spell was also designed in such a way that your groves, your forests and mines have all become sick, dangerous for weapons. And even if the ax, which my hammer did not touch, works there, it will take the curse on itself. So you will have to reforge the entire Svetlozemie’s tool if you want to mine. Otherwise, the infection will spread to all near and far lands.
Kalgama put his hand forward, and a large hammer appeared on it, as if out of thin air. Then he found a ‘friend’ in the army of heroes and held out a tool in his direction. — Take it, blacksmith, you have a lot of work now.
- I won’t thank you! — Mikola growled angrily and stepped out of the crowd. He took the hammer out of Kalgama’s hands. — I would have killed you with it! For my sister! For myself, for the entire Svetlozemie!
- I already said: it was not I who killed your sister, but the deceit of your ancestors. And regarding you I was calm: I heard you crunching pickled cucumbers in the underground, even myself tempted — I tried a couple while you were sleeping. Good! Just like the honey in your tavern, — Kalgama smiled impudently and looked defiantly at Mikola.
- Zarya, dispatch the team, tell them to go back to the camp, — said Svyatopolk.
- Are you sure, Knyaz? — Zarya asked cautiously looking at Kalgama.
- Sure. And call Svetozar with Radogast.
- Knyaz, we are here! — came a familiar raspy voice. Old warrior was shuffling towards him, bending almost to the ground under the weight of the armor, and behind him another one, taller and more stately, proudly held his back, his chain mail rings, but still leaning on his staff.
- Oh, old lads… — said Svyatopolk. — Svetozar, wise man, remove the shackles from Kalgama.
- As you wish, dear Knyaz…
Svetozar sat down on the ground in front of the wary Kalgama, then asked him to stretch out his hands. The old man took hold of the bracers, closed his eyes and moved his lips. Ring! — the bracers split in two and fell from the hands of the stunned Mountain Spirit.
He looked with surprise at the Knyaz, and then burst into loud laughter. It was as if the mountain itself was laughing! A fiery stream seethed around, heaved up, the earth shook, the stones on it trembled, a frantic wind rose!
Kalgama got to his feet, clenched his fists and breathed in deeply, as if he wanted to breathe with all his strength, then shouted somewhere into the sky. From there, thunder echoed.
The Knyaz’s comrades-in-arms grabbed their swords, but what was the point in them now…
- You are free, Master of the Elements, — Svyatopolk said calmly.
- Free! — Kalgama shouted enthusiastically and laughed again. Then he turned to the Knyaz. — Why did you free me, Svyatopolk?! In a fair fight before the face of the gods, I lost, which means you should not keep your promise! I’ll slam you all on the spot and not even blink! What were you thinking, madman?!
- I am correcting the mistakes of my ancestors, — Svyatopolk said seriously.
Kalgama looked into the Knyaz’s eyes and shook his head incredulously.
- And how did you come to be so… Honest and noble?
- I was not born like this, but my father and mother raised me that way.
- Well, Knyaz. I am grateful to you and, frankly, I am amazed by your nobility. Accept this blade as a sign of peace, — the free spirit of Nature put a dagger of heavenly iron into the Knyaz’s hands.
- If at some time you feel tight and you need my help, plunge this dagger into the ground to the very hilt and say my name. Farewell, Svyatopolk, Son of noble parents.
- Farewell, Kalgama, Omnipotent Spirit of Nature.
Kalgama bowed to the heroes, stepped into the fiery stream, as if into water, and with a smile dissolved in the fire. The flow stopped and began to solidify, quickly crusting over. In a moment, the underground fire in the entire valley went out.
Radogast groaned when he saw the sacred moose frozen in stone. He approached him, touched its neck, and tears flowed from his eyes.
– Eh, this is the spirit of our sacred grove…
- If we had living and dead water… — Zarya sighed, — but we have already spent it all.
- I have! How, here! — the blacksmith was alarmed, took out a leather purse from his belt, and inside were the cherished bubbles.
- You gotta be kidding me! — Radogast blurted hopefully.
- Take it, old man.
As soon as the dead water touched the black crust it cracked and crumbled, revealing a beautiful animal with spreading horns and shiny hair. A drop of living water was enough to make the elk come to life, move, noisily inhale the air through its nostrils.
For a moment the animal lowered his head to the ground in gratitude and went to where the sacred grove was. Where he stepped, grass began to break through in small islands, then immediately began to grow and merge with each other, turning into a lush green meadow.
Through the stone statues of elks, vines and bushes began to sprout, crumbling and breaking the black figures of animals. Then luminous entities suddenly escaped from them, floated into the air and followed the elk.
As soon as he reached the grove, he struck the ground with his hoof and the skeletons of the trees were covered with fresh foliage and flowers. And the entities suddenly began to take on the shape of mooses and soon disappeared into the depths of the grove behind the sprawling branches of the new forest, along with their leader.
The heroes froze, fascinated by the sudden rebirth of nature from the ashes.
- What the hell? What was it?! Nobody kissed me? — Moguta came to his senses and looked around dazedly.
- We won, — said Deyan.
- Hurrah-ah-ah, — the Voivode drawled. — Great job, guys. Let’s not come tomorrow. Let’s take a day off. Have you tried kebab? Some kind of kebab is made in the village of Seven Lakes. I don’t know what it is, but I want it.
- We haven’t finished everything… — Detan smiled.
- Then the kebab after …
-What now, Knyaz? — Zarya picked up fragments of the sword from the ground and handed it to Mikola. He nodded in agreement: reforge, and it will be like new — the legendary blade that defeated Kalgama himself. We should give him a name, thought Mikola, maybe the Gift of the Mountain…
- We have a lot of work to do, brothers, — Svyatopolk replied to Zarya. — It is necessary to help the inhabitants of Seven Lakes to dismantle the rubble in the city, to see the dead honor by honor, to begin the restoration of the Lake city. In Svetlozemie, all tools must be reforged. And then we have to visit the Mistress of the Iron Mountains, the debt is now listed for her. But today, my faithful friends, rest as you should! And you can not refuse yourself to be intoxicated!
-So, kebab is also possible, — Moguta was delighted and rubbed his hands in anticipation.
- Mankya, let’s go listen to the storyteller, he sings a new epic. After all, we missed everything last time! — a young girl pulled her stout older sister by the sleeve.
- Oh well, don’t rush! — she whined, reluctantly moving her legs. — I just put cabbage soup in the oven to languish, got tired, I won’t run!
They came to the field where all the villagers gathered around a large fire. It was full of people, but so quiet! Even small children do not make noise — they sit, as if enchanted by the iridescent melody of the harp, listen with all their ears to the gray-haired storyteller — he sings an epic song in a sonorous low voice.
“… and Svyatopolk, Knyaz of Svetlozemie, rose up on a high hill, looked around the Green Valley that spread under his feet. He smiled at the warm sun, the deep sky, the ringing swallows. He bowed goodbye to the edge of the Lake and said to the followers: It’s time for us, friends, to go home… ”- the narrator fell silent, the last strings resounded.
People surrounded the elder with enthusiasm, the crowd came to life, it was noisy. Everyone was in a hurry to give the narrator a gift, whoever had it, even a copper.
- Oh, oh, because of you, we didn’t find out anything … — the girl pouted her lips and turned away from her sister.
- Wait a minute to get mad, — said the fat girl, and began to look at the people with concentration, then suddenly screamed. — Here he is! Shinora! Hey! Come here!
- You’ll call me Shinora again, you’ll taste the fist! I won’t even look that you’re woman! — A tall guy approached them.
- You better tell me, do you want to taste cabbage soup? — The fat woman ignored the threat.
- Yours? Without a doubt! — the guy exclaimed, and then became alert. — What are you trading it for?
- Do you remember? — The girl nodded her head towards the narrator.
- Epic? Sure! — answered the boy. He was famous for his memory — remembers every conversation that happened last week, can tell exactly to the smallest moment.
- Can you sing, huh? — the younger sister asked modestly and blushed.
- Okay, let’s go, I’ll sing along the way, — the guy smiled, admiring the blush on the girl’s silk cheeks. He straightened his shoulders wider, took a deep breath and began a sing-song speech:
“I bring you news from the neighboring land — from the forest region — Svetlozemie!
I will talk about the noble Knyaz Svyatopolk, the heroes of his faithful — Zarya, Deyan, Goran, Dragan. About the Voivode Moguta and glorious blacksmith Mikola. About the wise old man Svetozar and the terrible sorcerer Radogast. About the lad Lubim and his aunt Milana, about the distant Valley of the Seven Lakes and the mighty spirit Kalgama …”