“So I see some of our comrades have left us.”
“We can do very well without them, captain. There were thirty of us here two days ago. Essos and Polinski quarrelled, and Essos was killed. Then Polinski wanted us to elect him captain, and to move away at once. Four or five, who have always been grumblers, joined him at once, and persuaded some of the others, till we were about equally divided. It came pretty nearly to a fight; but neither liked to begin, and they moved away.”
“There are quite enough of us left,” Ladislas said. “As to Essos and Polinski, I am heartily glad that they have gone. I know they have both been scheming for the leadership for some time. Most of the others can be very well spared, too. There are plenty of us here for travel. There is no doubt, as we agreed before starting, that there is not much more to be done in this part of the country. What with the civil wars, and the bands of soldiers without a leader, and others like ourselves who do not mean to starve, the peasants have been wrought up into a state of desperation. They have little left to lose, but what they have got they are ready to fight to the death for, and, lately, at the first alarm they have sounded the bells and assembled for miles round, and, equipped with scythes and flails, routed those who meddled with them. We had more than one hot fight, and lost many good men. Besides, many of the nobles who have suffered have turned out, with their followers, and struck heavy blows at some of the bands; so that the sooner we get out of this country, which is becoming a nest of hornets, the better, for there is little booty and plenty of hard blows to be got.
“We will go on, as we agreed, till near the eastern frontier. The country is well covered with forest there, and we can sally out on which side we like, for, if there is not much gold to be had in the Russian villages, there is plenty of vodka, and sometimes things worth taking in their churches. The priests and headmen, too, have generally got a little store, which can be got at with the aid of a few hot coals, or a string twisted tight enough round a thumb. At any rate we sha’n’t starve; but we must move on pretty fast, for we shall have to get up a warm hut in the forest, and to lay in a stock of provisions before the winter sets in. So we must only stop to gather a little plunder when a good opportunity offers.”
Charlie and Stanislas were, that evening, sitting apart from the rest, at a short distance from the fire, talking over the future. They agreed that it would be comparatively easy to withdraw from the band as they journeyed forward, if, as seemed likely, they travelled in very small parties. If, indeed, they found themselves with two others, they could leave openly, for these would scarcely care to enter upon a desperate struggle, merely for the sake of retaining two unwilling companions in the band.