“Master Tuko. This poor girl, surely you don’t plan to take her to the guest cottage like this.”
“No, Servant Helgakct. I don’t want her in the house until she’s cleaned up. And make sure her hair is properly braided before I talk to her.”
“As you wish, Master Tuko.”
Servant Helgakct brought a washtub to the front door of the guest cottage and filled it with water, while another servant helped Danka get up and walk to where she would have her bath. Danka sat through her bath in a painful daze, neither cooperating nor resisting as the two servant women bathed her and washed her hair. They decided that she was so dirty that she needed a second bath, and ordered her to stand shivering in the darkness while they dumped and refilled the tub. When they were convinced that Danka was adequately clean, they took her inside and made her sit while they combed and braided her hair. Danka’s new braids were tight and intricately woven; much better the loose careless job her mother always did on her.
Only after Danka was clean and had her hair decently braided did the two women offer anything to eat. She ate a delicious stew with a strange dark brown meat in it. When she asked about the meat, the servants told he she was eating beef. It was the first time in her life she had ever eaten beef. After dinner, on the insistence of the servants, she did something else for the first time: she had to learn how to properly clean her teeth, using a thread and a small brush with salt and water.
Danka was sore, badly bruised, and very tired, but she felt considerably better after her bath and her meal. She had recovered enough to wonder about her situation. She was worried, but no longer terrified. She assumed that had the farmer planned to kill her or harm her in any way, his servants would not have taken the trouble to bathe her and fix her hair.
She looked around the cottage and wondered what she would do about something to wear. There was no clothing anywhere in sight. Her own outfit had been reduced to shreds, so, even if she could return to the fence to retrieve it, there wouldn’t be anything remaining that she could put on. She could only hope that someone would bring her some clothes before she had to leave the cottage. When the servants began to clean up and there still was no hint that they were going to bring her anything to wear, she hesitantly asked.
“You will need to speak with the Master about that. He specifically instructed us not to provide you with anything to wear until he has a chance to talk with you. You can cover yourself with that blanket, if you so desire.”
Danka got in bed and pulled the cover over her. She now understood that, until further notice, she had become a prisoner of the orchard owner. A well-treated prisoner, but a prisoner, nonetheless.
“Master Tuko wants you to rest. He will return your items to you tomorrow, but for now, you must rest and recover from today’s ordeal.”
Danka was worried, but fatigue had over-taken her. She was lying in the most comfortable bed she had ever seen, let alone used. She was clean and well-fed. Her muscles ached horribly, so she had no desire to move. She went to sleep.
For the first time in her life, she slept well past sunrise.
Danka awoke in broad daylight. Servant Helgakct was sitting at the cottage’s table, embroidering a shawl. As soon as she noticed the guest was awake, she summoned a co-worker with a tremendous whistle and handed her the shawl.
Danka badly had to pee. Servant Helgakct pointed towards an outhouse. There still was no hint of any clothing in the cottage, no more than the night before. However, Danka was desperate. She nervously stepped into the bright sunlight and ran to the outhouse. When she finished, she ran back.
“Please Mistress. What am I to do about something to wear?”
“Child, as I told you last night, you must speak with Master Tuko about that. You will have breakfast, and then he will talk to you.”
Danka’s attention was drawn to a plate of eggs, fruit, and bread. A cup of hot liquid sat on the table. It was bitter, but Danka enjoyed it. For the first time in her life she tasted tea.
Servant Helgakct advised the guest to get back in bed and continue resting until the Master came. The peasant was still very stiff from the previous day’s ordeal, so she complied. The bright sun came through the door and she could hear the apple pickers singing as they went about their work. Danka wondered, had she simply come to the property a week ago and asked for employment, if Farmer Orsktackt would have given her a job.
As soon his servants finished cleaning up from Danka’s breakfast and took out the dishes, Farmer Orsktackt entered the cottage. Accompanying him was Servant Helgakct, carrying Danka’s bucket filled with apples and her boots. Danka instinctively pulled the cover up to her eyes.
The farmer ordered his employee to return to the house. Then he grabbed a chair and sat next to the bed.
“I’d imagine that you’re wondering why I brought you here, as my guest, since I was the one who set up your arrest. Would you like me to answer that question?”
Trembling, Danka nodded under the blanket.
“Answer me properly, girl. And uncover your face. You are dishonoring yourself by not conversing in a normal manner.”
Tears started rolling down Danka’s cheeks at hearing the word “dishonored”. How could she become any more dishonored than she was already? However, she complied with her host and lowered the blanket to her neck.
“Now speak, if you wish for me to answer your question.”
“Yes, Farmer Orsktackt, why, am I here?”
“I had to bribe three city guards to retrieve you. I didn’t know what else the mob was going to do to you and I didn’t want to find out. So, I paid them to take you out of the city, and here you are. For the moment, you are safe.”
Danka said nothing. She had no idea how she should answer the man who first condemned her and then saved her.
“I want you to understand that what happened to you yesterday was not what I expected. All I wanted was to force you to stop stealing my fruit, and perhaps make an example of you so that others wouldn’t try taking my harvest. I did expect that you’d spend a day on the pillory, but that was all I thought would happen to you. The rest of it, I mean, the crowd, and the way the councilman’s wife treated you, your parents, was not what I intended. I now deeply regret having brought the guards into our affairs. As I said, the only thing I wanted was for you to stop stealing my fruit.”
“I, I apologize about stealing from you, Farmer Orsktackt.”
“The fruit no longer matters. You’ve been punished many times over for your crime. There’s nothing more to be said about that. There’s nothing more to be said about any of your life here. It’s over. The whole town thinks you’re dead. And your parents, you understand that your parents officially disowned you?”
Danka shook her head.
“Answer me properly, girl.”
“They, actually disowned me?”
“Yes, and your father sought the city’s permission to kill you if you ever attempt to return to your family’s property. You’re dishonored, and he doesn’t want that affecting the rest of your household. To enforce the request, the city council lent him a sword.”
Danka stared blankly as tears streamed down her cheeks. A sword. Her own father was planning to kill her just because she no longer was of any use to him. Now she really knew how little her parents thought of her.
“I could never imagine doing such a thing to my children, but I am a rich man and could afford to keep a dishonored relative. I know your family’s situation is different. You’re no longer useful to them, so they need to be rid of you. And, also, to help themselves to the coins you saved, no doubt.”
The farmer continued: “Not that the sword matters. Like everyone else in Rika Heckt-nemat, your father thinks you are dead, that you drowned when the guards threw you in the Rika Chorna. So, your existence as Peasant Siluckt’s daughter has ended. You will leave this city and you will start a new life with a new name somewhere else. I am returning your bucket to you, filled with fresh apples. I put a note in there explaining that I gave them to you, if any guard stops you. I had my seamstress clean and repair your boots. Tonight, after you have rested and recovered, you will walk out the west gate of my farm, follow the path that keeps you away from the road, and you will keep going until you’ve eaten all of your apples.”
“I, I’m grateful, I mean, that you saved me, and that you want to help me, but I don’t understand, Farmer Orsktackt. I’m just a dishonored thief. I’m nothing now, not even a well-digger. I dishonored myself on your land, and I wanted to steal from you as much as I could. Why are you helping me?”
“I have my reasons. Part of it is my eldest daughter is almost your age. Next month my wife will braid her hair for the first time. She will have a nice celebration and I will present her with a fine dress. The neighbor’s boy is interested in her, so, I presume, after her hair is braided and she has her dress, I will allow him to court her. In other words, she’ll have all the things you wanted. That’s important, because when I saw you tied to the fence, and later on the pillory, I imagined how, with nothing more than a change in the Path in Life; that could have been my own daughter, and not you.”
“There’s more. Some of it I can explain to you, and some of it I couldn’t explain to anyone. As an archer in the Grand Duke’s battalion, I did things, I mean, we all did, that each of us will have to answer for on the day we hold up our mirrors before the Lord-Creator. I can’t change any of that. Now, you have become another part of the Path of my Life that I must justify when I hold up my mirror. You are a thief, but you had your reasons to do what you did, and I don’t believe your soul is broken. I don’t want to be responsible for your death. I want you to live. I want you to leave this city, find a new Path in Life, and prosper. So, I will provide what you need to safely escape. What becomes of you after your escape will be the result of your own decisions.”
Danka wondered how, as a young woman traveling alone, she could possibly go anywhere. She had never been any further from her house than the city market, the town cathedral, and her work site. She hadn’t even gone as far as the northern or western districts of Rika Heckt-nemat, nor had she ever seen the Rika Chorna, which now flowed to the north of the city.
The farmer was wondering the same thing. How on earth would the ignorant girl sitting in front of him ever be able to fend for herself? Well, she’d just have to. Whatever fate awaited Danka, he had to send her on her way and see to it that she never came back. Neither he nor the girl had any choice. She’d have to leave, and that departure needed to be as soon as possible.
None of the townsfolk could know that she was still alive, nor could anyone find out that he had rescued her. If his neighbors realized he was sheltering a criminal, and above all a criminal who had stolen from him, he’d be dishonored and expelled from the Farmer’s Guild. It wasn’t just Danka’s life at stake, nor just his own. He also had his family and the Guild to think about.
Farmer Tuko Orsktackt had traveled across the entire Duchy, first with the Duke’s archers’ battalion and later to buy supplies and tools for his farm. He was well-aware that a lone peasant girl was an easy target for every rapist, slaver, and brigand traveling the road. He dared not give her any money, nor any decent clothing, because such things would make her worth killing. The land-owner could think of only one way Danka could get away from Rika Heckt-nemat and survive long enough to establish a new life somewhere else.
It was a completely dishonorable solution, but one that would be very effective. The Farmers’ Guild had an important secret that its members occasionally used when they needed to move gold or diamonds from one city to another. It was a fake Public Penance collar. By the mid-1700’s the Danubian Church already had re-introduced the pre-Christian method of performing Public Penance, in which a person who wanted to atone for sin humiliated himself by surrendering his clothing and anything else that could be worn. Instead of clothing, the sinner wore a metal collar that marked him as being in the custody of and protected by the Danubian Church. A person wearing a Church collar was prohibited from wearing anything else.
Brigands avoided persons performing Public Penance because they never had anything on them worth stealing. Anyone touching a woman performing Penance would be forever condemned by the Lord-Creator to the Hell-Fire, and the worldly punishment for such an offence was crucifixion. Danubian society took Public Penance very seriously, which meant that anyone performing it was protected by a multitude of taboos and the full authority of the Church. A person wearing a Church collar was completely safe almost anywhere.
Tuko Orsktackt had, in his possession, a fake Church collar that could be unlatched and taken off as easily as any necklace. It had been made for him several years before by a Guild artisan and its purpose was to disguise him while he was traveling with large amounts of the Guild’s money. In theory the collar was an accountable item that the other Guild members could demand to see at any time. However, Tuko had a dispute with two other Guild farmers the previous year and now someone else was tasked with carrying the group’s coins. Tuko’s replacement had his own collar, so it seemed that the Guild had forgotten about the one still in his possession.
There was some risk involved, but Farmer Orsktackt calculated he could give his collar to Danka. That would allow her to freely travel the roads, with everyone assuming she enjoyed Church protection.
“Girl, you haven’t been anywhere. Not even as far as the top of the nearest hill, I presume?”
“No, Farmer Orsktackt.”
“So the journey that you face frightens you. Is that not so?”
“Yes, Farmer Orsktackt.”
“I’m worried about it as well. I’d accompany you if I could, but I can’t. There is only one thing I can do for you, and that is to provide you with a disguise that will grant you safety as you travel.”
Tuko placed the collar in Danka’s hands. “Not even my family or my servants know I have this. You must not let anyone see it until nightfall. Never, never let anyone see you putting it on or taking it off.”
“But, Farmer Orsktackt, this is all you’re giving me? I can’t… ”
“You may think you can’t, but you have no choice. If you go out on the road, by yourself, wearing anything but this collar, you’ll be dead or enslaved by the end of the day. It’s safe passage for you. It comes with a heavy price, but it’s safe passage.”
Tuko explained how the collar worked and even divulged its purpose, to disguise Guild members when they were transporting large sums of money. Tuko hated betraying a Guild secret to a peasant, but he felt that it was necessary for Danka to understand how important the collar was and the sacrifice he was making by entrusting it to her. The collar was an extremely valuable item that had to be treated with great care. It could not be replaced.
“You’ll have to go to the mirror and try out the collar. Practice putting it on and taking it off. Then you’ll need to practice putting it on and taking it off without looking. When you’re crouching outside a city gate or hiding behind a tree, you won’t have the benefit of using your reflection.”
Danka reluctantly pushed aside the blanket. Given her circumstances, trying to display modesty around Farmer Orsktackt was not possible. Anyway, he already had seen her figure in its entirety, so there was nothing more to hide from him. She stood up, positioned herself in front of the mirror, and started fiddling with the collar mechanism. She realized that Farmer Orsktackt was studying the welts on her backside, but she tried to ignore him.
Danka was surprised and fascinated by her reflection. She was pleased by how sophisticated she looked, now that her hair was braided by a woman who actually cared about doing it properly. The young peasant also realized how much she looked like her sister. As much as her mother kept calling Katrinckta “the pretty one”, actually the two daughters were almost identical.
Danka practiced with the collar a couple of times; then turned away from the mirror to practice using touch only. The farmer nodded approvingly when she completed that task.
“There’s another thing you must know before you leave. Can you read?”
Danka blushed and twisted her hands.
“Answer me, girl. Can you read?”
“No, Farmer Orsktackt.”
“Well, there’s no time to teach you how to read, but you are going to have to learn the alphabet so you can recognize letters. Maybe it’s something you can practice whenever you’re sitting alone and have nothing else to do. I’ll have my servants’ tutor instruct you. Put the collar away. Don’t let her see it.”
Danka spent the next several hours learning how to copy and draw letters. She discovered the mystery of all those strange lines, that each shape represented a sound. She was quick to memorize the alphabet and remember which sound each letter corresponded to. The tutor regretted not being able to spend more time with Danka, because it was obvious the girl could have been taught to read within a few weeks.
Farmer Orsktackt returned with troubling news. The guards’ story about her calling out to Beelzebub just before she drowned had made its way through Rika Heckt-nemat’s population. Suddenly everyone was very worried that her corpse had not been seen floating in the Rika Chorna. The city was in a panic about it, with guards and volunteers searching the shore downstream for any trace of Danka’s body, just to verify that she was indeed dead and that Beelzebub had not rescued her.
“I was going to suggest you follow the river west to Danubikt Moskt to see if you could get a job there. Now you can’t go that way, because several hundred people are looking for you. You’ll have to go east, upstream, towards the mountains.”
Danka noted with growing concern that the sun was getting lower in the horizon. The farmer observed the day’s impending end as well.
“Eat, and get some rest. I’ll wake you at midnight and will accompany you as far as the first hill.”
The full moon was directly overhead when Farmer Orsktackt woke his guest.
“Put on your boots and collar, girl. It’s time.”
“Yes, Farmer Orsktackt.”
As the peasant pulled on her boots, her host explained what else was in the bucket besides apples. He had given her a supply of salt and a brush to allow her to keep her teeth clean, a knife that could be used for both cutting food and a dagger, and a forged Church letter to go with her collar, granting her access to any chapel to spend the night.
“There is important protocol you must remember. Whenever you talk to a Church official, you have to kneel and wait for that person to address you. That’s part of the collar. If you forget to do that, the Clergy will become suspicious. Don’t worry about making up stories or excuses. They’re not going to ask you anything, not even your name. They might ask you for your letter, which you’ll have. But they won’t ask you any questions. Your sin, and your penance, is between you and the Lord-Creator.”
Danka finished putting on her collar, made a final adjustment to her hair, and sadly looked at her host. Farmer Orsktackt picked up the bucket.
“You must forget your name. Don’t refer to yourself as Danka. And your family, they mean nothing to you now. So rid yourself of that legacy. My advice? Don’t make up any new name. Let people call you whatever they want. Then, when you must move on, forget, and let the next person call you whatever he wants to. If you don’t give away your life’s story, you’ll be very surprised at the fictitious Paths in Life people decide to ascribe to you.”
They stepped outside and walked across the moonlit orchard. They crossed a vegetable garden and reached the property’s east gate. The farmer opened it, and with that Danka began her wanderings. He led her along a small path that made its way across a sheep pasture before exiting onto a road that passed several wheat fields. Ahead loomed a forested hill; its dark mass looking very ominous in the night.
“People are scared of the woods. That’s why you’re often safer among the trees than you’d be anywhere else.”
They continued along the forested part of the road. It was so dark they barely could see. The farmer walked very quietly, employing the habits he had learned years before as an archer. Now they were going uphill. Danka was scared, because she knew that as soon as they got to the top, she’d have to continue alone.
They passed the summit and stopped in a clearing facing to the east. The moon already was well to the west and there was a hint of light in the eastern sky. Danka had forgotten that summer nights were very short and that she would not be walking in the dark much longer.
Danka already was much further from her home than she had been in her life. Everything was very strange: the hills, the moonlit river, and the distant lights that marked the next town. Her fear went away: she now was very curious to explore her new world.
“This is where we part ways. I have just enough time to return to the town and report to the city council. Today I will join the others and search for your body.”
Danka smiled shyly in the pale moonlight.
“I’d ask you to forgive me for ruining your life, but from what I understand, you didn’t have much of a life to ruin. You wanted to escape from your family, and now you’ve done it. You may want to look at your life in that way.”
“I, I suppose you’re right, Farmer Orsktackt. I did, I wanted to get away, I mean, I even prayed about it.”
“Then the Lord-Creator granted you your wish, is that not so? Not in the way you were expecting, but when the Lord-Creator grants a wish, it never is in the way a person anticipates. Before you go, there is one more thing I want you to think about. You’ve seen the dark side of humanity and suffered the cruelty people can inflict, for no good reason. It just happens and you need to be ready for it. Don’t trust anyone… but keep your heart open. Occasionally you will cross paths with people who will be nice to you. They are out there; the few decent people, and you must be prepared to share kindness when you come across it.”
The farmer tapped his companion’s collar.
“What’s the most important thing to remember about your disguise?”
“I’m not supposed to tell anyone about it, and never let anyone see me put it on or take it off, Farmer Orsktackt.”
“What’s another thing to remember?”
“Get on my knees when I talk to the Clergy. Show them the letter if they ask me about it, but don’t say anything else, Farmer Orsktackt.”
“Good. The first village with a church where you can sleep is about a day’s walk from here. You’ll get there before sunset. As soon as you enter, go to the Church. Get some sleep there, and then you can think about where you will go next.”
The farmer had so much more he wanted to tell the young peasant. So much more, but there was no time. They had to part ways. He didn’t know how to say goodbye to her. He abruptly turned and walked back the way he came, without saying anything. She watched him until he disappeared into the trees.
She picked up her bucket, turned east, and walked towards the first faint light of the pre-dawn.