Franko Zahar Berkut cover 1932
All real Americans who understand and believe in the traditions and teachings of the founders of their republic; to whom, therefore, it is appropriate to present this book, the story of an independent, self-governing community of 13th century Ukraine, its struggle to preserve its ages-old democratic form of government from enemies within Ukraine and to repel the fearful Mongol Horde which had devastated the rest of the land.
All Americans who still possess the freedom-loving spirit of the pioneers and founders of their country will be spiritually refreshed by reading of a people who maintained their freedom by following the time-tested precepts of their forefathers who resisted all encroachments on their civil rights and liberty. They will intuitively sense that the ideas and ideals presented here are similar to the American concepts of freedom and government, people’s rights, refusal to submit to tyranny and foreign invasion, determination for self-government, cooperation between communities for self-defence and trade, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and in various speeches and writings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
How melancholy it is in our Tukhlia today! True, the rivers Strey and Opir still wash its rocky, birch-rimmed shores; grass and flowers cover its vales in the spring, and in its clear azure skies, as in ancient times, still glides and circles overhead the giant eagle “berkut”. But everything else, how it has changed, the forests, villages and especially the people!
The dense jungle growth of forests which covered almost its entire expanse to the edges of the rivers, except for the upland downs, now has become sparse, diminished, melted away like snow under the heat of the sun; here and there it has completely disappeared leaving behind bald spots of barren areas. In some places all that is left is charred remains of stumps among which grow forlorn spruce or the even more wretched maple saplings.
Where long ago peace reigned supreme broken only now and again by the mournful sound of a shepherd’s “trembita” floating down from some far off upland, or perhaps the roar of a bison or a moose from the murky tangled thickets, now upon the downs shout the cattle herdsmen and in the ravines and gullies halloo the woodcutters, sawers and shingle-makers, ceaselessly, like deathless worms eating and cutting away the beauty of the Tukholian mountain region, the centuries-old spruces, pines and evergreens, either guiding them down stream, cut into lengths, to the new steam-powered sawmills or sawing them on the spot into boards and shingles.
But the people have changed most of all. At first glance it would seem they have become more civilized, but in reality all that has happened is that there has been an increase in the population. There are more villages and hamlets and more houses in the villages, but within these houses there is also greater poverty and misery. The people are wretched, downtrodden, gloomy, towards strangers diffident and self-effacing. Each thinks only of himself without understanding that such a way of life disrupts their unity and causes the disintegration of the whole community.
That was not the way it had been here a long time ago! Though there were less people, what a valiant spirit they possessed! How courageously they lived amidst the inaccessible, primeval fastnesses, high up within the shadow of the mighty giant, Mt. Zelemenya. But for centuries misfortune has been tormenting them. Repeated onslaughts have uprooted their good life, and poverty has broken their freedom-loving spirit. Today only fragmentary accounts of those days remain to remind their descendents of that more fortunate life of their forefathers.
When sometimes an old granny, sitting on the hearth spinning wool, begins to relate stories to the little grandchildren about those times long ago, about the attacks of the ferocious, dog-faced Mongols and about the Tukholian leader Berkut, the children listen fearfully and tears glisten in their grey-blue eyes. But when the marvelous story ends, young and old sigh and remark, “My, what a wonderful tale!”
“Yes, yes!” grandma will say nodding her head. “Yes, my children! For us it is only a story, but long ago it was really so!”
“I wonder if those times will ever return?” some elder might remark. “The old sages say they WILL return again, but perhaps only before the end of the world?”
Cheerless indeed, it is in our Tukhlia today! Only legends endure to remind us of old times and the old life. The people of today, brought up in misery and subjugation in the thousand year-old chains of foreign domination, refuse to believe they are anything but fiction.
Nonetheless the thoughts of a poet return to those old times, making the people come to life again. No matter how unlike our present ways of living those old customs were, all whose hearts are pure, sincere and sympathetic towards their fellowmen will find inspiration here which might well prove useful for the betterment of humanity in our present “civilized” times.
One glorious day of this spring the woodland slopes of Mt. Zelemenya echoed with shouts and bellowing blasts of the huntsmen’s horns.
Tuhar Wolf (Wowk), the new boyar of Tukhlia, had organized a big game hunt to celebrate the beginning of his rule in the region for just recently King Danilo of the principality of Halich had granted him full tenure over this section of luxuriantly grassy downs and mountain woodlands.
In those days to undertake a hunt for big game was not just a means of pleasantly passing away the time but a grim and bloody risk, hazardous to life and limb. Bison, bears and wild boars are truculent, malignant brutes. Seldom did anyone ever succeed in killing one of them with a bow and arrow. Even deer were not bagged without a struggle. The actual kill most often had to be made by facing the animal and plunging a spear into its heart with all one’s might. If the spear missed its mark, the life of the hunter became greatly endangered, especially if he was unable at the crucial moment to find momentary refuge from which to launch a renewed attack with a hunting knife or a strong, long-handled battleaxe.
Therefore it was not surprising to find that Tuhar and his company prepared for the hunt as if for a siege of war, with a supply of ammunition, bows and arrows, a coterie of servants, provisions of food and even a reputable sorcerer who knew how to heal wounds.
Nor was there anything unusual in that Tuhar and his guests were themselves as fully armed as warriors except for steel helmets and armor which would have been too burdensome to manage on their trek through the jungle growth and over fallen timber of the mountainside. The only remarkable aspect of this expedition was the presence of Tuhar’s daughter, Peace-Renown (Meroslava), who not forsaking her father even in this adventure, ventured to join his company of hunters.
The Tukholian citizens, seeing her riding boldly and proudly among her father’s guests, like a straight young willow tree among the oaks, followed her mounted form with approving eyes and spoke thus to one another: “What a girl! She’d make a fine young soldier, and probably a better man than her father!”
This was no mean compliment for Tuhar Wolf was a man as physically solid and strong as a giant oak, broad of shoulders, brawny, and with a thick growth of black beard and hair so that he might well himself have been mistaken for one of the hairy Tukholian bears which he was bound to hunt down. But such a daughter as his Peace-Renown was also hard to find. Aside from her high rank of birth, her beauty, her loveable, kindly disposition, which a number of her contemporaries could no doubt be found to possess in equal degree (though not many could surpass her at that) there was one respect in which none would ever rival her and that was in her free-spirited nature, her initiative, the high degree of muscular development and dauntless courage, manifest only in those young men brought up under the direst stress of circumstances requiring from them an unremitting struggle with relentless nature.
It was apparent that from the outset, Peace-Renown had been permitted the greatest personal freedom, that her upbringing had been masculine in nature and that within the pleasingly formed feminine body dwelt a forceful and valiant spirit.
She was Tuhar’s only child, her mother having died at her birth. Her nurse, an old peasant woman, had trained her from earliest childhood in the performance of practical, everyday tasks. And when she grew older, her father, to assuage his loneliness, took her everywhere with him. To satisfy her impulsive, zealous nature, he taught her the use of all the implements of warfare in the art of self-defense, to bear discomforts without complaint and to face danger without flinching. The greater the difficulties which presented themselves, the more audacious she grew in overcoming them, the stronger she developed physically and the more self-reliant mentally. Despite all this, Peace-Renown never for a moment was unfeminine. She was sweet of nature, good of heart and demure. All this, combined with her training, made a most harmonious and charming combination, so that whoever saw her and heard her speak, could never forget her. Her walk, her lovely voice made them recall to memory the best moments of their lives, their youth; just as the first breath of spring brings memories to an old man of his young love.
The big game hunt was in its third day. Many deer and bison had been killed by the arrows and spears of the boyars. Near the bank of a noisy mountain stream, in a glade deep within the forest, the huntsmen had pitched their tents. Smoke rose high from huge campfires where upon iron racks hung great steaming kettles and where the meat of the game was being turned by the servants as it broiled and baked, to feed Tuhar’s company of guests.
Today, the last day of the hunt was to be devoted to the most important and most dangerous of all, the hunt for bears. At the top of a steeply sloping hill strewn with broken branches and fallen timber and densely forested with sturdy beech and pine trees, separated from the rest of the terrain by deep ravines and gorges, was the ancient breeding ground of the mighty Bruin. There, Maxim Berkut, their mountain guide, assured them could be found the dens of the female bears from which they brought forth their offspring to instill terror into the entire community, on visiting its peaceful pastures.
Although some daring shepherds occasionally killed one or two beasts with their bows and arrows and spears, or managed to lure them into a trap, the number of bears was too great for such infrequent killings to insure the community against their ever-present menace.
It was no wonder that when the new boyar, Tuhar Wolf, announced to the inhabitants of Tukhlia that he was staging a bear hunt and asked them to lend him a guide, they not only sent him their very best young mountaineer, Maxim, son of Zakhar, their most prominent citizen and respected leader, but also a troop of young mountaineer archers, equipped with bows and arrows and javelins to lend assistance to the boyar and his company in the hunt. Tuhar’s plan was to surround the hillside breeding ground with his company and to rid it once and for all of its savage inhabitants.
From earliest morn the encampment was alive with the excitement of preparation. The servants had been stirring about long before dawn getting ready the provisions of food and filling the guests’ wooden canteens with a thirst-quenching drink of fomented honey. The Tukholian youths also prepared themselves by sharpening their knives and wooden arrows, drawing on durable moccasins and filling the compartments of their lunch baskets with roast meat, dumplings, bread, cheese and other food enough to last them the entire day.
Not until this day did Maxim Berkut assume the full responsibility of the expedition. He neither hurried nor tarried, nor did he neglect to oversee every detail of the preparations. Everything had its time and place. Whether among his fellow mountaineers, the older and more experienced boyars, or the servants, Maxim moved about calmly, unobtrusively, giving orders confidently as if he considered them all his equals. His friends were just as free with him as he with them, laughing and joking with him at the same time carrying out his instructions promptly and happily as though they were doing everything on their own initiative without being told. The company of boyar warlords, accustomed to sly, derisive laughter on the one hand and to toadying servility on the other, were in their ways neither as free nor as readily given to jollity, nevertheless, they respected Maxim’s guidance and judgment and carried out his instructions without question.
Although the proud and arrogant boyars may have resented the presence of a common peasant “lout” who ordered them about as if they were his equals, it was demonstrated to them almost at every turn that his instructions were both sensible and necessary.
The sun had not yet risen when the huntsmen left their encampment. The mountains slept, wrapped in their blanket of hushed tranquillity; dreamy mists enveloped the dark green, pointed crowns of the pine trees. Drops of dew hung like acorns among dense, many-pointed leaves; on the ground trailing garlands of climbing vines twisted and twined themselves around the roots of storm-uprooted trees, among the brambles of wild raspberry and blackberry bushes and intertwined themselves with the thick and fibrous shoots of wild hop vines. From the steep, darkly yawning gorges, rose a thick, grayish vapor, indicating that at their base flowed swift mountain currents. The air was oppressive with the mist and pungent odor of pine cones forcing their lungs to expand to their fullest capacity to catch a breath.
Wordlessly, the company of huntsmen pushed their way through the pathless jungle growth, over fallen timber and treacherous ravines. Maxim Berkut led the company followed by Tuhar Wolf, his daughter, the other boyars and the Tukholian youths in the rear. They proceeded cautiously, ears alert to every sound.
The woodland began to awaken to daytime activity. A woodpecker perched on the top of a giant pine a moment, slid down and pecked upon its bark his announcement of the sunrise. From a distance came the roars of bison and the yowls of jackals. The bears, having fed upon their kill, were drowsing away lolling on the soft, mossy beds of their dens at the bottoms of ravines and gorges, hidden beneath the screens of forest debris. A tribe of wild boars grunted at the bottom of a gulch, no doubt cooling their snouts in some icy torrent.
The company had made its toilsome way for an hour or more along the tangled thickets of the primeval forest. Their breathing was labored and difficult, they wiped their brows constantly of the trickling rivulets of perspiration, doing their best to keep up with their guide, Maxim, who kept glancing backward. At first he had objected to allowing Tuhar’s daughter to accompany them on this most dangerous trip, but Peace-Renown was firmly insistent. It was the first time she had been on such an extensive hunting trip and so she was unwilling to give up her plans to accompany them on its most exciting expedition. None of Maxim’s arguments concerning the difficulties to be encountered on the way, the perils of the undertaking, the ferocity and cunning of animals maddened by shots that failed to hit their mark, availed to dissuade her. “All the better! All the better!” she had replied to everything, showing Maxim the intrepid ardor in her eyes, smiling up at him her sweet and utterly disarming smile so that Maxim, as if bewitched, ceased to press the matter further. Her father too, had at first opposed her wishes but in the end, as usual, gave in to her pleas.
Maxim was not a little amazed at her efficiency, rivaling that of the boyars, in surmounting the various obstacles which presented themselves in their path. He watched, astounded at how nimbly she leaped over fallen timber, her sure-footedness along ledges of steeply yawning gorges, how deftly she slid under tangled masses of forest litter and withal so unconsciously, naturally, that to Maxim it seemed as if she floated along propelled by magic, unseen wings. Observing her, he continued to marvel, “What a wonderful girl! What a wonderful girl! Why, I’ve never in my life seen anyone like her!”
At length they arrived at their destination. The breeding ground of the Bruins was a steep hill heavily timbered with giant beech and pine trees, strewn with huge boulders, logs and dried branches, accessible only from its southern side. It was closed off at its western, northern and eastern sides by sheer walls of rock which seemed as if they had been sliced off the giant Mt. Zelemenya and moved a few feet away from it. Beneath these walls of rock roared and foamed the icy waters of a narrow mountain stream.
These natural barriers on its three sides made the work of our huntsmen all the easier. All they needed to do was to spread themselves out not too far apart, forming a flanking line along its southern side and in that formation to slowly ascend the hillside. The beasts, not having any other outlet, would eventually fall into their hands and be killed.
Having arrived at this strategic point, Maxim advised the company to stop a few minutes to sit down or lie down and rest before tackling their hard and dangerous task. The sun had already risen but the surrounding hill-tops and the branches of the giant pines obscured it from their view. After a short period of rest, Maxim began to arrange the hunters into a double row covering the entire width of the pass. At the narrower entrance of the corridor the men would stand five paces apart from each other, but as the sloping course widened on its ascent, the hunters would be forced to move further apart. The only matter which troubled Maxim was the question of what to do about Peace-Renown who persisted in demanding that she be given a separate place in the line rather than be forced to stay at her father’s side.
“What!” she cried. “Am I not as good as any of your Tukholian youths?” her lovely face flushing rosily under Maxim’s regard. “You assign them individual posts but choose to ignore me—that is unfair! Besides, it would certainly bring disgrace upon my father if the two of us should be stationed at one position in the line. Isn’t that so, father?” she questioned eagerly, persuasively. Tuhar Wolf did not have the heart to deny her.
Maxim began to repeat his exposition of all the hazards to be encountered. But all his arguments proved futile. She swept them all aside by answering, “Am I not strong? Do I not know the uses of the bow and arrow, the javelin, spear and battle-axe? Just let any one of your youths try to match his skill against mine and we’ll see who’ll be the winner!”
Finally Maxim had to give in. Nor could he carry in his heart the least resentment against this amazing and charming girl. He wanted to place her in the least dangerous position, but he could not do so for the simple reason that they were all equally dangerous. Having assembled his company, his final command was: “Let us now pray to whatever God each knows and then we’ll sound our horns all together. This will herald our presence here and alarm the beasts. Then we’ll ascend the pass until we reach the portion where it begins to widen. There my fellow Tukholians will guard the entrance so that no beast shall enter it, while you Boyarins, will ascend to the summit, right up to the breeding lairs of the female bears!”
In a minute woodland glades and hillsides reverberated with the bellowing blasts of the hunters’ horns. For a long moment the sound rolled, detonating over the forests and in the mountain ranges. The woodland was rudely wakened. A blue-jay screeched in terror over the pine trees. A frightened giant eagle flapped his wings and soared into the sky. A beast crunched among the broken branches and fallen logs, seeking shelter. When the din of the horns had died away, the huntsmen began their blocking ascent of the pass. Their hearts raced in anticipation of a possible surprise attack and a fight to the finish. They kept a straight formation as they advanced. The first row was composed of the boyars followed by the mountaineers. Maxim led the entire company, guiding their way, cautiously alert to every sound and sign of bear tracks. But the mighty king of the primeval forest fastness, the bear, had not yet shown himself.
They had now arrived at the narrowest part of the corridor beyond which it spread itself into a steep, upward inclining expanse. Here at Maxim’s order they paused once more and blew upon their horns, sending their fearful, thunderous sound into the dim-lit dens and harbours of the bears. Suddenly there was a rustling and snapping of dry twigs nearby, behind a huge pile of thick, half-rotten, giant pine logs.
“Attention!” cried Maxim, “The beast is approaching!” Hardly were the words out of his mouth when, through an opening between two great logs, a shaggy head appeared and two brown eyes, half-curious and half-afraid, peered at Tuhar Wolf, who stood at his place in line just about ten paces away from it.
Tuhar was an old soldier and an experienced huntsman. He was not frightened by this sudden, unexpected encounter. Without uttering a word, he pulled out a heavy, iron arrow, placed it in his bow and stepped back a pace to take aim..
“Aim for his eye, Boyarin!” whispered Maxim from behind him.
An apprehensive moment of silence; an arrow whistled and the beast howled and fell back. Although he disappeared from view behind the pile of fallen timber, his pain-maddened roars did not cease.
“After him!” cried Tuhar Wolf and pushed his way through the opening where the bear had disappeared. At the same time two of the boyar huntsmen had climbed atop the pile of timber and held their javelins in readiness to aim at the beast. Tuhar Wolf, standing just at the opening, shot another arrow at the bear who roared even louder and turned to run away, but his eyes filled with blood so that he could not see his way out and kept bumping into trees as he ran.
A javelin thrown by one of the boyars struck him between the shoulder blades; however, it failed to down him. The savage howls of the wounded beast increased in volume. In desperation, he reared up on his hind legs trying to wipe away with his hairy paws the blood from his eyes which continuously overflowed them, clawing and tearing at the leafy branches before him, throwing them to the ground. But to no avail, one eye was completely shattered by the arrow and the other kept filling up with blood. He wheeled around blindly and approached Tuhar again, who cast his bow aside and, ducking behind the up-turned root of the fallen tree, unhooked his poleaxe from his belt grasping it in both hands. When the bear feeling blindly for the familiar opening between the logs appeared there, he swung the axe down on its head with all his might, splitting the skull in half, its bloody brain spattering him; and the still beast’s carcass fell to the ground with a thud.