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Authors: Rovena Cumani,Thomas Hauge

Tags: #romance, #drama, #historical

The Lake of Sorrows

BOOK: The Lake of Sorrows
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Rovena Cumani
& Thomas Hauge
THE LAKE OF SORROWS
Based on a true Greek tragedy
© Rovena Cumani & Thomas Hauge 2013
Extremely beautiful women often seem to carry a curse. It is hard to become happy; but all too easy to become a fairytale.
Prologue

“T
omorrow I shall be the Pasha of Hyperus, I will not let myself be lectured by a ghost! Not even when you, mother, happen to be that ghost.”

The growling voice of Alhi, soon to be Pasha, carried beyond his imposing tent and into the night outside. The Christians among his guards - for he cared little for religion when choosing his fighting men - made the sign of the cross. “He is at it again!”

The Muslims among them, clutching their muskets tighter, seemed to almost envy their fellow guardsman the ready gesture to ward off evil. “I thought she had decided to leave him well alone. Has not the Sultan named him Pasha? What more could even
she
want?”

The guardsmen’s commander, the gnarled, venerable captain Tahir, spat on the ground. “None of you quivering pups ever met the lady Hamko, did you? Nothing was ever enough for
her.
” He shook his head in gruff awe. “Second wife to a simple chieftain of the Tepeleni, that was all she was, and yet she made herself the ruler of the tribe in the few years between her husband’s death and her own. And now … ” The veteran ran his gaze round the massive camp around the tent of the Pasha-to-be, then gazed North, where, beyond the horizon, Alhi’s native Kelcyre Mountains rose. Old enough to remember the days of a few dozen shivering brigands sleeping on the rocky slopes of those mountains, he felt a fierce pride at the forest of tents filling the plain before him. He had been there when they buried the lady Hamko in the rough-hewn stone mausoleum that was all that Alhi’s primitive brigands could build, and, like the rest of those brutish men, he had cried without really knowing why. Now he thought he knew.

Stroking his giant silver moustache, captain Tahir turned back to scoff at his brother soldiers; it helped quell the feel of an icy wind on his back, and forget the fact that there really was not the slightest gust of wind this night. “Had that she-devil been a man, I would not have been surprised if she had made herself a Sultan, or something like it. Why should she settle for less for her son?”

I

I
nside the tent, alone to all eyes but his own, Alhi of the Tosk tribe of the people of Tepeleni, soon to be Pasha of Hyperus and Thessaly, paced back and forth in his tent like a caged lion. And a petulant one.

The soon-to-be Pasha was dressed in silken finery, but it looked so out-of-place on him that it made him appear even less like a Pasha. Short and broad and ugly, he looked like a bulldog rather than the lion the Sultan had likened him to, although he did have a vast, bushy black mane of a beard, one that was beginning to show streaks of grey. His belly was like a large pot, but his chest like a larger barrel, and he was stronger at forty than at twenty, although perhaps a tad less nimble than he had been at that age. Still, not a man even the cockiest of thugs would like to face sword in hand. Or dagger or knife. For a man who rose to lead his fellow men of Tepeleni had not out-maneuvered his opponents — he had killed them. Man to man, blade to blade in the younger days when his horde was just a band of goatherd cutthroats.

But a horde his band had become, and now it had been promoted to an army. Emissaries of the Sultan himself had come to see the horde’s chieftain with greetings and respect from the Sublime Porte, to offer him the
Pashalik
of Thessaly and Hyperus. It was, in truth, making a gift of what Alhi already owned, but it promised the Ottoman empire’s support to keep it. In return, of course, Alhi would acknowledge that the peace he brought to that unruly part of the empire by killing off his remaining rivals - was the Sultan’s peace. A bargain he had accepted - for the time being.

Presently, his pacing ceased, but not his petulance, and he snarled at the empty darkness in his tent. “I bend my knee to the Sultan, yes. That is the price of my
Pashalik
, mother. And that means I cannot raze Gardiki. That town must wait. I gave you the other two.”

“Wait? Wait, you say? Do you know how long I have waited? You made a vow!”

“And I intend to keep it.” Alhi was gritting his teeth. “And even if I did not, is that not why you came to see me? To hold me to my vow? It has been a long time, you know.”

“You have done well without my guidance. But you owe me Gardiki! Have you forgotten what they did to me? And to your sister?”

“Never even
ask
me that!” He stabbed a finger at the empty darkness around him. “You were once the one urging patience, not I. But the Sultan’s Pashas do not pursue their own little vendettas. Gardiki must be seen to defy the Sultan, not just me.
Then
I will raze it to your heart’s content. But not before.”

A long, bitter laugh filled his ears. “Then pray make haste, my Pasha son. I sometimes fear you will join me in my fine little mausoleum before you have found the time to make good your vow.”

“Never. I have far too much to do before it is time for that. The Sultan gave me this
Pashalik
because he could not take my head instead, but if he thinks he can keep the Lion of Hyperus on a leash, he will be sorely disappointed.”

“Oh, yes, that is what he called you in his flowery letter. ‘The Lion of Hyperus.’ But do not forget that trophy lions are kept in gilded cages and get fat and lazy — and the Sultan has provided a fine gilded cage for you. Yannina is the fattest, finest city in all of the Balkans. The perfect place to spoil a man with rich food and wine, and to exhaust him with a fresh new harem woman for his bed every night.”

“I shall take their pastries and their fillies and laugh in their faces.” He laughed dismissively. “Let them do their worst.”

“They will do their best, my son, not their worst. Ambition has raised many a man to dizzy heights, but appetites have brought just as many crashing down again. Remember that when you ride into Yannina tomorrow and they smile and shower you with flowers. Be careful. And be strong!”

Alhi threw himself on his bed. “When you were still alive, you had me kill my brothers, raze half the cities of the Kelcyre mountains around us, and bleed the other half white — and that was while you were still ruling our tribe in my name. I have become a man since then, mother! Do you really think that just because the Sultan has given me some puffed-up title I cannot out-wit some soft city-dwellers whose home is famous for a
cake?

The voice in his ears grew distant, but the fury was unmistakable. “Never be
arrogant,
my son! They called your father chieftain, but he was just the strongest among that lot of goatherd cutthroats. And your brothers were not brothers, just sons of his first wife, squandering his hard-won gold. I screamed like no woman has ever screamed when I gave birth to you, but when I held you in my arms, I knew you had the make of greatness. Goatherds and thieves they may be, the Tepeleni are strong men, too, and I made you strongest of them all. Remember who you are.”

He hurled his mocking laugh at the darkness “Or who you made me?”

But there was no answer.

II

“H
e never sleeps.”

The elders of Yannina, twoscore of them, gathered in the lavish mansion of the Christian Patriarch, frowned in disbelief. Seated around the Patriarch’s grand oak dining table, servants flocking around them, they had come to discuss tomorrow’s arrival of their new Pasha. But the Patriarch’s kitchen was among the best in Yannina, and his wine even better, and the elders had willingly let themselves be distracted.

Until, that was, their young, but portly - and very nervous-looking - guest could no longer contain himself. They had, after all, invited him because he claimed to know their future Pasha. “I tell you — he never sleeps!”

“Nonsense!” A white-bearded elder, his courage well-fed and fortified by quite a bit of
Mavrodaphne
wine, held out his glass for a servant to fill. “A man who never sleeps will go mad within the week. It has been used as torture in many a dungeon.”

“I speak the truth. He may keep the madness at bay by dozing once in a while.
May!
But it is said he never truly sleeps. Nor does his sister, the lady Haynitsa.”

The elder frowned at this, but consoled himself with a grand mouthful of the rich, red wine. “But why?”

“His sister is screaming with nightmares every night. Every one. But he is not. He will brood, drink, take a harem woman to his bed - and sometimes, it is whispered, a ghost comes to him.”

The Patriarch gently interceded. “Come now, master Feraios, who believes in ghosts?”

“He and and all his army do. And his sister, too, for sometimes the ghost will visit her instead of him.”

“And who would this ghost be, then?”

“His mother. Dead long ago, but a fierce woman while she lived. She ruled his mountain tribe after the death of his father. And she raised him to do the same, and more.”

The white-bearded elder spoke up again, snorting. “A
woman?
Those mountain savages would rather die than submit to a woman!”

Master Feraios stuck out his chin. “That was just what happened to those of them that would not bend their knee to her, until they could bend it to her son. There is still a score of scorched and empty villages in the Tepeleni region left from the time she showed them who she was.” The young man’s fine moustache was quivering. “The son is everything she was — and he is a man!”

Another elder further down the table tried to drown a shudder with his wine. He failed. “Nay, his enemies call him a beast. Those that are still alive, that is.”

The elders were forgetting their wine and the lavish platters of
Karidopita
cakes being brought in by the servants. “And that beast will ride into Yannina tomorrow!”

“Why are we here, when we should be at home, hiding our riches and our daughters, except the plain ones?”

The Patriarch rose to his feet, raising his arms as if at mass. When he did so - and he often did - his less reverent fellow citizens would jest that the Patriarch of Yannina
looked
just like a Patriarch, which was true; tall, slender and dignified. He was said, however, to laugh too easily and make peace too willingly for a stern church father. Nevertheless, while most Greek cities under the Ottoman empire had been withering into mere towns for decades or even centuries, the Patriarch’s Yannina - the Greek Yannina - was still first among the cities of Thessaly and Hyperus in money and letters. Now he spoke with a voice that would fill a cathedral, to cut through the chorus of fear rising around his table. “Friends. Fellow men of Yannina. Calm yourselves. I have yet to meet a man who is as bad as the tales told about him by his enemies.”

Master Feraios sullenly attacked a cake. “You shall meet one tomorrow!”

His host took it in stride, smiling mildly at them all. “Then we must pray to God that He will protect us. And guide us, for we shall have to live with this beast.”

The white-bearded elder was sputtering. “How does one live with a beast, Patriarch? The Good Book may speak of the lion and the lamb sleeping side by side, but I will be damned if the lamb will get much rest!”

“The lion was a fierce beast until Androcles pulled a thorn from its paw. Even a beast must have a heart to live.”

Once more, master Feraios enlightened them. “If this Alhi has one, he has never shown it. The tribal chiefs of the Kelcyre mountains are said to rule solely with fear and blood. Our Pasha-to-be may be wearing silk and not wool these days, but he is still said to scoff at love. Love of friends, love of women, even love of pleasures — he spurns all kinds.”

The Patriarch walked over to one of the large windows towards the city, and, for a time, gazed silently at the city’s spires, gleaming eerily in the moonlight. Yannina had been unusually quiet this day. Men had looked over their shoulders before speaking to one another in the taverns, women had snapped at children that ran too far from their homes, and in the bazaar, usually heartily noisy and bustling, even the most avaricious sellers had praised the virtues of their wares in a subdued voice.

Turning back towards his guests, the Patriarch shook his head. “A man who dares not love anyone or anything will end up destroying everyone and everything around him. No offense, master Feraios, but I do not believe these stories, not completely at least. There must be
someone
the Pasha loves. Let us hail him as our new ruler and look carefully for his heart.”

III

H
aynitsa’s struggle against sleep was longer and harder than ever before, but ultimately as futile as it had always been. She was barely twoscore years old, and yet her hair already had almost no black left in it, her body barely any flesh on the bones. Her eyes, perennially dark-rimmed, glowed with the embers of a madness held at bay only by strength of will. Christians who saw her for the first time would furtively make the sign of the cross, Muslims would whisper a prayer for her to be freed from whatever evil
Jinn
that had sunk their talons into her soul.

BOOK: The Lake of Sorrows
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