The Art Of War

excerpt1 Day was a-dawning sluggishly on Saints Eusignius, Nona and Fabius, a Saturday as it happened; like unto a blunt blade scraping at the gloom caked all over our bodies did the daybreak appear, and impotent, too. The bells tolled half-heartedly and a thin film of light clung to the city. Whatever zombies chanced to be around had one last dance together, sniffed at the milky light irresolutedly and then took to the road. An angel unseen to the eyes of this world herded them briskly together, only to urge them on towards another night, and they, impish lot, slouched in the general direction thereof. The two, Zadic the Armenian and Ioan the Geographere of the Coltia School, abode in their wake staring longingly. "Pray, tarry a while and don't go, hey!" The Armenian entreated the angel, more as an afterthought. The latter did tarry, and they whiled their time away confabulating about this and that and what not, and in conclusion the angel read to them the letter of Franciscus Craneveldius to Nicolaus Olachus. "Most excellent Sire, subsequent to my wife's exile-like sojourn in Louvain, and her recent remigration thence, mention was made of Your Excellency, as mention is prone to be made in the course of discussions. Upon which occasion she said: Woe is me, I do remember now I haven't kept my promise, nor have I acquitted myself of the obligation incumbent upon me by virtue of pledging those cheeses last year, when I was ever so keen on knowing divers spices pertaining to Hungarian cuisine, therefore I am determined to acquit myself of the said obligation here and now, by having the victuals fetched from Leyda. I have sent no matured, solid proviant, but such as be still runny, since, were we to heed medical advice, cheese is all the more beneficial to health as it is closer to milk in its natural state, while solid foodstuffs are hard to be digested by the stomach," and so on and so forth. And for a spell they discussed the consistence of nourishment, which way it be most convenient to the body. "If we ingest nourishment exceeding dense in consistence, then malady will occur," quoth Ioan, thus proving his erudition. The Armenian availed himself of the opportunity to add something on purgation, and also on bilious stools: "Bilious stools, it has been proved," quoth he, "are indicative of an affliction of the pharynx. And it was but recently that I have chanced to encounter an opera singer who had lost her voice. I did inspect her stools for three days on end, and the absence of bile therein was ample proof for me that the affliction was not related to the pharynx, but psychical in nature." The angel then told the story of an orator who suffered from progressive bouts of aphonia, after which he did have to take his leave, regretfully.The two were left alone on the brink of that morning dawning upon the world. Some rats gamboled round their feet; one of the more adventurous attempted to climb up the Armenian's leg. The latter gave it a rather bored clout over the muzzle and it ran off to join Ioan, who grabbed it by the tail and raised it to the window. The beast wriggled its pink paws, squeaking for mercy."Let it go, hey!" the Armenian said. "It saddens my soul."But Ioan did not let it go. He placed it on the window-sill and watched as it froze rigid with fear. "How about eating it, mate?" the Armenian asked in a starved voice. He produced a bulb of garlic from his pantaloons' pockets and showed it to Ioan. "We shall have it stewed." Ioan pondered briefly then nodded his agreement. The idea cheered them slightly and, fired by it, they caught three more rats and wrung their necks. They eyed their carcasses with glee and the Armenian started to recite some doggerel... Ioan managed to stop him just in time, for a large, inquisitive ear had opened into the wall. They urinated into the ear, spat into it and the ear changed back into a mildewed, wet wall."I was a cook in Anatolia for three years," Zadic said, squatting cross-legged on the floor.Ioan aligned the three carcasses tidily before him and watched them.The Armenian picked up the first rat and, pumping up his lungs, blew into its arse until the carcass was twice its original size. He bunged up its orifice with his finger and heaved a sigh of relief. Then he removed his finger and the carcass shot from its skin with a cannon-like boom which startled Ioan."Hey, heh, heh!" laughed Zadic the Armenian, and went through the same routine three times more. He ripped open the bellies with a fingernail which he had whetted at length against the wall, and disemboweled them."They are not all that plump," Ioan said, just for the sake of conversation, although he was no longer in the mood for anything at all.The Armenian stood up, retrieved a tin pan from a dusty corner and placed the three chunks of meat in it. Ioan had already started peeling the garlic and an enticing fragrance reached their nostrils, dispersing any gloomy thoughts. They were interrupted by the arrival of four thugs, dim-eyed from lack of sleep, who beat them up till they were bored, left them both senseless in a corner, and departed.Ioan was the first to come round. He couldn't for the life of him remember where he was, so asked the Armenian. Ioan's voice persuaded the Armenian to open the huge Cyclops-like eye he had bang in the middle of his forehead.He blinked it in confusion. "Don't know, hey!" He tried sorting out his eye for a while, but in vain. Ioan said, from one side:"Those afflicted with a disease in keeping with their constitution, humour and age, and with the season as well, are under a lesser threat." But this did not put the Armenian's mind at ease in the least. He looked upon the world in confusion from his orb and the vile world thrust its way in, startling him. Seeping through the wall masonry, a large bird billowed into the room. "Who's this here bird, hey?" the Armenian asked as an afterthought.The bird Settled before them, cross-legged, and watched with compassion."I am Ulysses-the-Bird!" he said after a while, and folded his wings in errant wise. 2 The sky turned aubergine and it began to snow, sparse, melancholy flakes. Large, wolf-like creatures started to howl at their distant approach across the fields. It chilled them to the marrow of their bones.The Bird screwed his head into his rusty armor and said:"There has to be an inn not far from here!" They clanked their iron suits and moved to one side of the field. It was a strange afternoon: frost descended on their armor like a cloak welding it together. The flurry of snow softened their footfalls and mellowed their thoughts. After a while Ioan said: "That's how it snows over Albion!" "Let's drop this topic altogether!" the Bird said, and there was blood lust gleaming in his eyes. The others succumbed to his mood and turned their thoughts from the snow.A fortress-like inn loomed suddenly before them. They took their time to study it, somewhat confused. It was built of red brick. The red turned to crimson with the cold. Everything seemed to be in good order, though apparently abandoned. A bugle-like sound shattered the Silence. But nothing happened and they plodded on, almost happily.Suddenly, something stirred on the walls surrounding the inn. A distant shot rang out from the battlements of the inn; a puff of white smoke rose into the sky and a slug clanged to a stop against Ioan's breastplate. "What's that, hey!" Zadic started at the noise."The lot in the inn are shooting at us!" Ulysses-the-Bird said.Things were stirring inside the inn: weather-beaten shutters were lowered over windows, gates closed slowly, shut by invisible hands. The musket went off again, with a boom, shattering the silence as before, a puff of white smoke hanging in the air. A red-hot slug fell sizzling into a puddle at the Armenian's feet. They stared, stupefied, until the Armenian finally said:"They almost got me!"Ulysses-the-Bird clack-clacked his bill and said:"We must make ready for the fight!""We are going to fight them!" quoth the Armenian as he unslung his harquebus from his back and planted its forked rest firmly in the mud. Ioan unfurled a tattered banner and placed it next to the rest. For a moment they stood dumb-struck in admiration of its limp flutter.The crowd in the inn fired once more, a volley this time, and slugs whizzed by, whetting their appetite for the fight. "They've no idea how to shoot!" quoth the Armenian. "I am going to shoot. Now!" He fumbled in his haversack and eventually came up with gun-powder and a sizeable shot. Ioan computed the wind velocity and the range, which he communicated to the Armenian. Bored with all this, the Bird had sat down in the mud to watch them. The Armenian tipped the right amount of powder into the muzzle, fitted the huge harquebus into the fork-rest and asked Ioan: "Now then, can you see anything?" Ioan, who was scanning the inn through the telescope answered:"They are about to fire." Which they did. Their slug hit the Bird's flask and a trickle of wine started to drip onto the ground. The Bird jammed a claw into the puncture and stopped the leak. A round of cheering drifted over from the inn. "C'mon, hey, let me have the telescope for a spell, hey, so I can see for myself!" quoth the Armenian. He took the telescope and searched for a worthwhile aim."I'm going to shoot for the weather-cock!" he said after a while, somehow bored."Have you spotted that bearded fellow?" Ioan asked."He's not worth such a big shot!" the Armenian resolved.He slumped over the harquebus and started to take aim in a way that suggested skill and incompetence at the same time. The bird flapped his wings with boredom."Hold it, hey," quoth the Armenian, "I can't aim!"He fussed around the harquebus for a while and, when everybody least expected it, a thunderous boom shattered the quiet. The Armenian flew up in the air and landed flat in the mud followed by the harquebus."Hit!" Ioan said calmly, looking through the telescope. "That unfortunate weather-clock has been blown to smithereens."Zadic the Armenian heaved himself to his feet and asked for the telescope to observe his handiwork. Ulysses-the-Bird, who could see without the aid of a telescope, said:"The bearded fellow has passed out with fear. Now they are rubbing his temples with vinegar.""So I see!" the Armenian said happily. "We'll blow them to pieces! We'll shoot one more time and they'll surrender. I'm going to take pot luck this time.""No!" quoth Ulysses-the-Bird."All right, then!" quoth the Armenian, "I'll aim for the lock on the gate." He retrieved the harquebus, scraped off some of the mud and asked Ioan to make the computations."As soon as you fire, we'll storm the inn and take them prisoners," quoth Ioan and applied himself to his calculations."The bearded fellow has come round!" the Bird said, "and he's flailing his arms like mad.""I'm going to singe his beard," the Armenian said, "as soon as we've stormed the place." He was covered in mud which had started to cake, giving him an unsightly, white crust. Another volley was fired from the inn; tiny white puffs coiled up to the sky. The slugs buzzed angrily past their ears like flies.Ioan gave the Armenian his calculations and the latter prepared to fire. Just as before, the Armenian flew up in the air and fell into the mud with the harquebus beside him. The Bird shouted "Hurrah," and charged. Ioan unsheathed the huge sword dangling at his side, looked at the Armenian and said: "Let's go!"The Armenian drew his broadsword, brandished the blade which glinted in the cold and echoed:"Let's!"They made for the inn side by side. Ulysses-the-Bird led the charge, yelling like one possessed. They could see a gap yawning in the gate; the icy air rushed past their ears, whetting their appetite for the fight. As thou hast ordered me, so have I done. The season now being Autumn and the weather fit for travel, I have given pursuit to the three without further delay. Yestermonth I followed the road to Târgoviste and called in to rest at each and every inn that chanced upon the way. My eyes and ears were wide open and keen, which led sundry folk to remark: "There goes a spy."Yet I took no heed of them, with the exception of one whom I had to denounce on account of his being too garrulous. He babbled incessantly: "There goes a spy, there goes a spy, there goes a spy!" thus attracting the attention of whoever happened to be there. The month was November, as I have already mentioned, and in the course of my progress I had heard as well as seen that the enemies of the Rule are exceedingly many. In consequence, the practice of impaling offenders, skinning them alive, tearing their tongues out, lopping their arms off, gouging their eyes out, having them nailed down as well as other practices that keep us safe from our foes, such as jailing, confiscation, transportation, precipitation from the tower should be increased fourfold if we are to forestall the onslaught of ill-wishers. I have counted and marked all the ones who defied Thee and, in my estimate, their numbers run into ten thousand or thereabouts, counting only those unearthed in the inns I actually stopped at.Unable to track down the three anywhere, I made my way towards Craiova, availing myself of this year's last spell of clement weather, to hunt for them and, having come upon them, hoping to be able to dismount before Thee with their heads in my satchel, thus making Thee glad and willing to pay the fee which is due to me, as agreed, on my return from the Land of the Turk.I stopped at inn after inn. At one of these, a nobleman down on his luck mistook me for a revolutionary agent and asked me to stay at his house. He let me know he was ready to rise in arms against the Rule, but was uncertain whom to associate with. Having drunk his corked wine, I told him he was stupid and entered his name on the Black List under the heading of those to be precipitated from the Tower. But though I have searched high and low, nowhere could I pick up the trail of the three, no matter how much I paid or how frequent my inquiries. I have, nonetheless; stumbled upon foes without number plotting against the Rule, some fifteen thousand of them in my estimate, not including Craiova, where I have not yet set foot.I am writing to Thee for Thy information. Still not finding the three, I moved on to an inn kept by one of our men and chanced there by the end of November, at the time of the first sleet, when a wintry weather of sorts seemed to have set in. Some even say Winter is no longer Winter as it used to be, because of Thy folly turning all things upside down. Such words are spoken and believed by all and sundry, so I have not entered their names on my List. But if Thou hang anybody at random, Thou wilt be certain to have hung one of Thy foes.Since the weather is bad, as I have mentioned, I have sought refuge from the elements at this inn awaiting Christmas, which is nigh at hand. Wasting no time, I have copied out in a neat hand the Lists I have compiled while combing the country. The inn-keeper himself dictated to me another fifty new names of the most dangerous kind, telling me also that in the town of Craiova you have foes without number. Still, I do not think their number is more than ten thousand. Herewith follows the List of those saying that. The acrid gunpowder smoke dispersed reluctantly, gradually revealing scraps of the world unnaturally visited by winter. The reddish bulk of the inn emerged pathetically before their belligerent eyes. From the ramparts, someone's listless hoot boomed out towards them, and they sadly marched into battle. Further off, a gate creaked open, and a fellow holding a huge key in his hand started shouting abuse at them, and mocking their undaunted strut. Then he swung the gate fully open, and one by one, dogs frothing at the mouth came out like just as many solid calves, barked briefly at the sky resembling a burst drum skin, and the whole pack made for them. "These here dogs are of the breed named mastiff!" quoth the Armenian calmly."I know!" quoth Ioan as he came to a halt.Ulysses-the-Bird was somewhere in front and still hurrying towards the inn in his bulky clanking armor. "They're by far the most vicious! They're bred by crossing a wolf with a stymphalid!" quoth the Armenian.Sparse snowflakes started to descend, freezing the landscape into stillness."Lullius was the first to classify them, in 1480, according to the size of their fangs; no one has given any further thought to them ever since," quoth Ioan. He then hailed Ulysses-the-Bird and the latter ground to a standstill like some intricate mechanism, and having them stopped, swiveled his head round."Ay!" quoth he, but did not wait for a reply.A huge mastiff had flung itself at Ioan's gullet. It was floating through the air, its jaws snapping with desire."Jump!" quoth the Armenian.And Ioan jumped as high as he possibly could, a hand's breadth off the ground, and the beast's muzzle clashed against his steel breastplate, a wave of ululation rent the air, and the animal collapsed into a heap at the victor's feet. "In ancient times, stymphalids came to be enamoured of wolves," quoth Ioan "it was much later, though, that they suffered themselves to be fecundated by them, around the year one thousand," then the steel of his sword flashed through the air, and the first of the mastiffs froze rigid for ever. A flimsy stymphalid emerged from his body, laughed breezily in their face, then cheerfully flew elsewhere.