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Chapter Four

The river grew increasingly interesting as the afternoon wore on, and I was glad that we had our experienced men at the helm, fighting our way past rocks and rapids.

I crawled under my still-damp sleeping bag and watched the scenery, which was pretty spectacular. The River Dunajec cuts through the Pieniny Mountains, and it was one gorgeous vista after another, with white marble cliffs thrusting up through the pine forest and sudden meadows with sheep grazing.

A castle clung high up on the slopes of a three-peaked mountain. I fumbled for my binoculars.

"That's Pieniny Castle," the boatman shouted. Pieniny Castle! I had toured its ruins once. Now, "dunce caps" topped the towers and the drawbridge was intact. It was here-will be here? — that King Boleslaw the Bashful took refuge after he lost the Battle of Chmielnik to Batu Khan, and Poland was left open to the Mongol invaders. That was-will be-in the spring of 1241, nine and a half years from now.

"What is that thing you're holding in front of your face?" Tadaos asked.

"Binoculars. They make things look close. Here, take a look."

"Later, Sir Conrad. I've got my hands full."

And he did, steering that overladen boat through rapids and eddies. I was dreading my turn at those oars.

It was dusk when he finally said, "That's the worst of it. It'll be clear sailing until tomorrow afternoon. Good Father, give your oar to the poet. Sir Conrad, come take mine. Just keep her toward the middle and you'll have no problems."

It was dark half an hour later when we slid quietly past the castle town of Sacz. It was lightless, and we saw no people.

I was back into my heavy clothes, dried now to mere dampness but the kid at the bow was still shivering. He had been silent since his dunking, and I felt sorry for him. I supposed that I was just prejudiced. I had never met a goliard poet before, but I knew the type. He was exactly the same as the Lost Generation and the hoboes and the beatniks and the hippies and-what was the currrent group? — punkers, I think. Every decade or so, they all adopt a stranger slang, put on a different uniform, and say that I am a conformist and that they are doing something wondrous and new!

Groups who change their names every ten years do it for a good reason. People have discovered that they are bums, and they need new camouflage. Now, I'm Slavic and proud of it. "Slav" comes from an old root meaning "glorious," but during the first millenium, Western Europeans enslaved so many of us that the word "slav" came to mean "slave" in their languages, which is about as derogatory as you can get. A people without a strong sense of selfworth, like the American Blacks, would have repeatedly changed their own name trying to erase the smudge, but of course we didn't. Try to get a Jew to call himself something different. Same thing.

Still, it probably wasn't the kid's fault that he was worthless. So when we were relieved to eat our supperoatmeal and beer, but a lot of it-I sat down next to him.

"Look, kid, I'm sorry about throwing you into the river. It's just that there are times when you should not argue."

"That's okay, Sir Conrad. One gets used to insults following the muse."

"Yes… well. Look, are those the only clothes you have?"

"You see upon me all of my worldly possessions." He wore cheap red trousers and a thin yellow jacket with decorative buttons and worn-through elbows. He had a raggedy shirt that once might have been white. He had the tops of boots-the soles were almost completely gone-and a cap with a bent swan feather. He was as short as my other companions, but while they were thick, solid men, he was as skinny as a schoolgirl. He would have been an amusing sight if he had not been freezing to death.

"Well, maybe I can loan you something." I dug out my spare underwear and socks. Shirt and trousers. Tennis shoes and poncho.

"You'll probably swim in these, but they'll help keep you warm."

"I thank you, Sir Conrad. But don't talk of swimming, as I have done enough of that this year."

My clothes were a dozen sizes too big for him. He was awestruck by the elastic and zippers, and the buttonholes confused him.

I was boggled. His jackets had buttons all over, but he had never seen a buttonhole. How could you have buttons with no buttonholes? Was I really in the thirteenth century, or was I living a wacky dream?

My tennis shoes fit him perfectly. Did everybody back here have big feet?

When I had him dressed, he didn't look like a clown anymore. He looked like a war orphan.

We went back to our oars, and Tadaos said quietly to me, "Sir Conrad, you are too good for this world."

"Oh, he's just a kid."

"A kid who will rob you, given the chance."

"We'll see. How long is my watch?"

"Six hours; four hours to go. You have a full moon and a quiet river, so nothing much should happen; wake me if it does. Otherwise, wake me when the moon is high."

Food and warmth had cheered the kid up, and soon he launched into a monologue about himself and life. His name was Roman Makowski. He was fairly well educated for the times and had attended. the University of Paris.

It seems that a student had been knifed and killed in a Paris alleyway and that the town council wouldn't do anything about it. The students, blaming the merchants, had rioted in protest and had apparently concentrated their attention on the wineshops and taverns. The town militia was called out, and the drinking and fighting spread. In the end, the king's guard had to enforce the peace. Two hundred students, including Roman, were jailed, and the university was shut down for a year.

Roman's father, who had been scrimping hard to pay for his son's education, was not amused. He paid Roman's way out of jail and then disinherited and threw him out of the house.

Roman was madly in love with three different girls without ever having touched one. He was wandering the world in search of Truth, and he hurt inside like a bag of broken glass. In short, he was a typical adolescent.

Eventually, the boatman told him to shut up.

Tadaos kept his bow and arrows in a rack near the stem oar. The bow was a huge thing, taller than the boatman and as big around as a golf ball. It took me a while to figure out what was odd about it.

Tadaos was right-handed, and the arrow rest was on the right side rather than the normal left. The arrows were well made and over a meter long. I was more than a head taller than he was, and I could only pull an 82-centimeter arrow.

The next morning I saw him use the bow while I was on watch again, waiting for dinner. Two meals a day seemed to be standard for the thirteenth century, and I was used to eating a heavy breakfast. The boatman had a fishing line over the side, and I hoped we weren't waiting for that.

"Quiet," Tadaos said in a stage whisper. He crept back to his bow while slipping a leather guard over his right thumb. He had the bow strung in an instant and fitted an arrow to the string.

But instead of drawing the bowstring in the normal way, with the first three fingers of the right hand, he used his thumb. This gave him a remarkably long draw. He elevated the bow to fully thirty degrees and let fly.

I had been so interested in his manner of shooting that it was a few seconds before I wondered what he was shooting at. We could be under attack! I looked out and saw nothing within reasonable range. Then suddenly a violent thrashing began in the bushes fully two hundred meters downstream by the water's edge.

Tadaos motioned to us, and we pulled for the bank.

"That's a remarkable bow," I said. "What kind is it?"

"Strange question coming from an Englishman," Tadaos said. "It's an English longbow. I bought it from a wool merchant."

After a little searching we found a ten-point buck with an arrow squarely in its skull. Incredible. I couldn't have made that shot with a rifle and telescopic sights!