1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 27
Twenty men at arms charged into the fray and Izabella’s scream had brought the wagon train into it. Most of the men of the village of Ruzuka — and more than a few of the women — charged in with whatever they had on hand. Five guns and dozens of knives, axes, and the like.
It’s said that no organized force is ever outnumbered by a mob. But there was no organized force on the field that day, only two mobs. And the wagon train had more people.
Sword out, Alexander road up to the big peasant who had just stabbed Nikita, and there was a shot. His horse reared and went over. Alexander tried to get out of the saddle and almost made it. Almost wasn’t good enough. The horse landed on his left ankle and he felt agony as it was wrenched. Alexander bit his lip and pulled his ankle from under the horse. He tried to get his gun out. He tried to stand, and there were several more shots. Alexander didn’t know whose shot hit him, then or later. It was even possible that it was one of his men’s muskets that had fired the shot. All he knew was a sudden pain in his right thigh, just above the knee. He reflexively drew up his right leg, leaving all his weight on the sprained left ankle, and went down again, losing his gun and sword in the process. By the time he knew what was going on again, the battle was essentially over.
Alexander looked around as Leonid Ivanovich bandaged his leg. He cursed himself for a fool. Four of the people from the wagon train were dead and three of his soldiers. Except for Leonid Ivanovich . . . all those who could run had run, and that big ass peasant was directing the other members of the wagon train in collecting up the guns.
A priest came over with a young girl who Alexander thought was Nikita’s sister. “You are the commander of the local streltzi?”
“Her brother and I commanded this unit,” Alexander confirmed. looking at the girl. She was pregnant. It was visible, though not yet blatant. “Did that big peasant get you . . .” Alexander stopped. It was a stupid question. At this point, who the hell cared?
“No,” the girl said. She hooked her thumb at the priest. “He is the father and no one forced me.”
Alexander felt the next question on the tip of his tongue, wondering if she had married the priest, but he bit it back. There were more important things to talk about. He looked around the docks again. The peasants had gathered up the guns and the wounded. They had laid out the dead and a woman was being restrained. “What happens now?”
“We aren’t sure,” the priest said. “Introductions, I guess. I am Father Yulian Eduardovich. This is Izabella Ivanovna Utkina. And you are?”
“Alexander Nikolayevich Volkov . . . and I’m in almost as much trouble as you people. Whatever possessed you to run like this?” It was a question that Alexander had wanted to ask ever since he had been given this assignment. Why were so many of the peasants so ready to run? It was especially acute in a situation like this, when they were bringing their master — or at least their master’s daughter — along with them.
The girl, Izabella Ivanovna, started to speak, then stopped and looked at the priest.
“People can only take so much. And whether you realized it or not, the serfs of Russia have lived a long time right at the edge of too much. Czar Mikhail offers freedom, and the boyars –” The priest gave Alexander a hard look. ” — and their minions, offer only the lash.”
“Well, it’s the rope for you now, not the lash,” Alexander said. “I can’t see that as much of an improvement.” Then he shrugged and added, “Not that I’m likely to fare all that much better.”
“Why not?” asked Izabella, sounding curious.
“My family were early adopters, and while not exactly allies of the Gorchakovs, we were strongly involved with the Cherakasky family. So, considering the latest we heard from Moscow, my family is already in trouble. And we live to the southwest of Moscow, so it’s not like we can pull up and leave. Meanwhile, you people have blown my command out from under me. I am likely to be sacrificed on the altar of political necessity. Not that my family will want to, but they won’t have much choice, not with Dimitry Mamstriukovich Cherakasky dead.”
Alexander knew from his family that Sheremetev was seeing traitors under his bed, and the only thing keeping the purges from going wholesale was the threat that the rest of the high houses would band together against him. The Cossacks to the south had taken several towns and even Archangelsk was making independence-minded noises. Shein had taken his forces in Tobolsk and declared an independent state. The rumors were that he had taken the Babinov Road, the best route through the Ural Mountains and was threatening Solikamsk. Any excuse Sheremetev could find for purges in Moscow would be acted on. Alexander had been told, in no uncertain terms, to keep his head down and his nose clean.
The woman who was being restrained started screaming, “Murderers! Killers! You murdered my son and corrupted my daughter! False priest, leading me into corruption and betrayal of my vows! It’s all your fault. May God curse you and all you damned, cursed serf scum!”
Izabella rolled her eyes. “My mother has gone crazy.”
“Well . . . your brother . . .”
“Yes! My brother. And I helped kill him. I didn’t mean to, but it’s my belly that sent him raving after Stefan and Stefan had nothing to do with it. Stay away from us. We’re all crazy.” Then she started crying.
Alexander didn’t know what to do. And he wasn’t sure she was wrong about the crazy, but she wasn’t blaming everyone but herself. That, in itself, said something about her.
The big peasant came over and Father Yulian turned to him. “Stefan, what are we going to do with the prisoners?”
Stefan gave Alexander a hard look, but as Alexander watched it transmuted to a look that was partly made up of disgust, but mostly just tired. “Let them go, I guess. We don’t have enough men to guard them day and night.”
Izabella looked at Alexander. “You want to come with us?”
Stefan said, “We can’t trust him.”
“Because he . . .”
Izabella turned to face Stefan, and he blushed.
Alexander realized what was going on and tried to calm things down. “I don’t see how I could go, anyway. My family would be punished if I joined Czar Mikhail.”
“See?” said Stefan.
“That wasn’t what you . . .” Izabella stopped herself with a visible effort and took a couple of deep breaths. She looked at Alexander then at Stefan. “If the streltzi are going to get organized and come after us again, he’s going to be the one to organize them. When Nikita went nuts, no one did anything till he –” She pointed at Alexander. ” — acted.”
Father Yulian held up his right hand in almost a benediction, and said, “Calmly, Stefan. And you too, Izabella. Alexander, can you walk? I think this discussion should be somewhere a little more private.”
Alexander’s leg and ankle were hurting enough that it was hard to think, and he seriously doubted that he could walk without aid. His man, Leonid Ivanovich, got under one arm and Izabella under the other. Between them, they took most of his weight, but he still almost fainted when his now swollen ankle was bent as his left foot hit the ground.
They half-carried him up onto the boat, and set him in one of the wagons. Then the priest asked, “Who is your friend?” pointing at Leonid.
“This is Leonid Ivanovich. He’s been with me since I was a boy.” Leonid was a peasant from his family’s estates who had been assigned to look after Alexander when he was eight, and had been looking after him ever since. Leonid took care of his clothing and his kit, saw to the horse, and dealt with tavern keepers and the like… There were few people in the world that Alexander trusted more.
“What do you think of Czar Mikhail’s proclamation, Leonid Ivanovich?” asked Father Yulian.
Leonid looked at the priest, then at Alexander and hesitated.
“Speak your mind, Leonid Ivanovich,” said Stefan. “No one is going to punish you for telling the truth. We won’t, and he can’t.”
Alexander blinked. He was still hurting and this was confusing. What made them think that he would punish Leonid for saying what he thought? Not that Leonid was big on thinking in the first place.
“I would like to go with you,” Leonid said.
It took Alexander a minute to realize that Leonid was talking about going with the peasants who were running, not about staying with Alexander. “What? Why?”
“It’s nothing against you, sir,” Leonid said. “You’ve mostly been fair with me, but I want my own life. Your papa wouldn’t let me marry Alla and married her off to Petr the baker because I was to look after you.”
Alexander barely remembered that. He had been ten or so, and Leonid had been perhaps twenty-five. He remembered being upset that Leonid was paying so much attention to a girl, and he remembered that Leonid had been unhappy after she married the baker. But he hadn’t realized that his father had had anything to do with it. “I’m sorry, Leonid. I didn’t know.”