12th September, 1492, Grand Duchy of Lithuania
It was just another bright cold afternoon outside of Arklio Galva, old Jokūbas’ establishment. Kotryna just finished feeding pigs, and now she had some free time on her hands, until her master will shout her name from inside the tavern with all the power of his mighty lungs. She could go inside and tell him what the work’s done to avoid it, of course, but had completely no desire to do so. All she wanted right now is to watch passing clouds and, far beyond them, passing travellers. She wandered about how strange it is what mere people and clouds, covering God’s Kingdom from the eyes of humankind, move in the same direction. Life in Braslavl’ was always quiet as far as she could remember it. Being located far from all the conflicts which took part during last century, its quietness was unmarred by all the wars raging in other corners of the Great Duchy. The only trouble they sometimes got were knights from Livonian Order, who could rob or even kill any peasant they met in the wilderness. They knew what the worst they could face for anything done to a peasant was paying fine, which didn’t scare them too much. Kotryna’s mother always told her: “if you see a group of knights while in the woods, run as fast as you can. Because otherwise no one will take you as a wife after they are finished with you”. But if you are careful, they didn’t pose that much of a danger, not like the bandits of old. They didn’t try to find you unprepared; they just believed you were an insect, and could be done with any way they want.
Another group of landsknechts passed by, halberds and pikes wavering in the air. Curious, how come they are here, so far away from Prussia? And it was not the first group she saw, big, hardy men clad in unusual and colourful clothing, faces covered in scars... Some of them were carrying muskets, even. Villagers mostly preferred to avoid them, even though they never caused any problems before. She heard stories about horrible atrocities they do during their campaigns, and only when they were safely away she realised that she was holding her breath.
She looked left and found a young man staring at her. His face was gaunt and pale, his eyes red, and after a few seconds she noticed that his whole body was visibly trembling. His clothing told her he was, probably, local. “Is he sick with a disease?” passed a fearful thought in her head. Meanwhile, a young man opened his mouth as if to tell her something, and suddenly started to cough hard, unable to stop. Kotryna backed away; she was only sixteen, and didn’t want to die just yet. She saw people dying from plague, when she was nine: she lost her father to it. The man, still coughing, tried to walk up to her, but after a few unsure steps he fell down, slowly collapsing to the ground.
- Jokūbas, Jokūbas! – She was shouting a second later, bursting inside Arklio Galva.
- What is it, girl? You stop screaming right now, or you’ll get a slap you will not soon forget! And I told you thousands of times – I’m Master Jokūbas to you! – growled irritated tavern’s fat owner, standing up from his wooden stool beside the bar. There were not many visitors this afternoon, and most of them sat silently in the corners, slowly drinking what Jokūbas called “beer”.
- Master, there is a man outside! He looks ill!
It took several moments for Jokubas to realize why it should be any concern of his. When he rushed outside, shoving the girl aside. The man still was there, laying where he fell, shivering slightly. He lay in almost foetal position, hands pressed to his stomach. The tavern master came to a halt two dozen feet away from the body and stood there unsure, watching the stranger. All he could see from where he stood was a pale face, all warped from apparently unimaginable pain and comparatively good clothes, however made from undyed cloth. One of the tavern’s visitors went out as well, and stood next to him, eyeing the young man with interest.
- Hey, dat’s young Romek! He’s an old miller’s son, – he said suddenly.
- Romek, you say? - mumbled Jokubas, still not moving.