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The Roasted Horse

Is not this ten times better than to set out dogmatically with a sententious parade of wisdom, and telling the world a story of
a roasted horse...”
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. “Chapter upon Chapters” (IV.X)

The siege of Wunderfurt lasted eighty six years and took the lives of a knight and his steed.
The besiegers reached the stout buttresses of the small burgh one pleasant Spring afternoon. Green-
golden banners were positioned, and heralds sent. The townsfolk were demanded to surrender their
arquebuses and welcome within the walls the disorderly armies of Baron Gotthass. In change, they
were offered safe conduct and substantial preservation of estates and goods.
The proud freemen of Wunderfurt flouted the envoys of the Baron and threw vegetables at them. The
besiegers resigned themselves to spend their first night of many on bivouac: tents were planted;
bonfires placed; merry songs of war, of heroic deeds, of homesickness echoed through the plain all
through the night.
The following day – the fine weather lasting – they boldly undertook the arson of the surrounding crops
and windmills, and the hoarding of the few cattle left lingering in the peasantry. Still another day after,
war machines were assembled and tested: Wunderfurt's belfry was missed several times, until the
gunners got bored and went to play dice till sunset. The third day the soldiers began to grow weary.
They had hoped that the citizens of Wunderfurt would be arrogant enough to do something stupid, like
trying some sort of sortie, or even challenging the attackers on open field. But no sign of traffic
appeared from the flat walls, with the exception of the occasional emersion of a sentinel venturing up to
shoot a partridge with his crossbow. The bell from high tolled the hours, the half hours, and the
quarters.
The Baron's strategists laid down their compasses and opened their arms. They sighed, and declared
that – short of Divine Providence – there was nothing left to do but to fasten the mace to the belt and
set up for a long wait: «a couple of months – maybe three – till their wheat is depleted, and typhus
begins to mow».
In the meanwhile, within the town-walls, people were concerned. Provisions were low and allies were
none. Notwithstanding, they resolved to defy starvation, rather than risking open battle with the
invading forces – not to say surrendering! And – sans doubt – they would trust the Divine Providence.
Summer came. The only clouds dimming the sky where those of apprehension for woes and
bereavement to come. The besiegers arranged a variety of games in the open fields; the besieged joined
together in their tavern-houses, and – more and more as time passed – tightened their waistbelts. But
everybody felt too uneasy to sleep. Some blamed the heat; many the hunger; a few would simply sit
silently staring at the star-spangled vault. The besiegers, futhermore, envied the women of the besieged.
Lazily, time went by. Desertion ensued: the young bride of a merchant climbed down the walls of
Wunderfurt using a rope made of braided bedsheets, and sneaked into the camp in search of statelier
and more charming knights than her bald bourgeois husband. On the other side, a small squad of
Bulgarian mercenaries knocked one day at the doors of the town, carrying on their shoulders a grand
pork as a keepsake. They swore allegiance to the burghmaster and asked in return for the blessing of a
soft and clean bed for each, on which they thankfully and promptly laid down a maiden.
Pretty much every kind of commodity in town became ever more scarce; among the rest, beer,
beeswax, barley, cleavers and cloves where wholly depleted. The townsfolk were exhausted. The kids
evaded their parents and ran up and down the ramparts, thrillingly pointing at the “gypsy camp over
there” and mimicking assaults and counteroffensives. Down in the distance, things trembled like under
water: sweating, huffing, the besiegers tirelessly studied the impenetrable walls, surfacing like sea-reefs
shielding the shady inland, and felt as if shipwrecked in a sea of dusty brambles, and dried clay.
As a whole, however, the parts stood immovably opposed, and the situation kept slowly degrading for a
few more weeks. But the fourteenth of July unexpected news sprawled around the besiegers'
encampment, leaving all – as it reached one ear after another – prone in dismay and in sorrow:
Gotthassburg – capital of the Barony – had been taken, sacked and burned to the ground by an
heterogeneous horde of hired ruffians, reformed Yahoos, buccaneers and combatant preachers. The few
survivors were fleeing across the country, trying to reach the army.
Baron Gotthass turned gray and wept. Then he rose, and spake thus:
«Home is no more. No more. Dispossessed of land, we are horde as well. Each and every Nation shall
repel us hence, to the farthest shores of Catshole. Fight – we cannot – for we are haunchbroken for this
catastrophe. Fugue – is debarred – for the loftiest walls everywhere encompass us. So, say I: let's stay
right here, here on the spot! The rootless tree unfolds not its boughs to the sun. Tell Wunderfurt they
have new neighbours.»
They dispatched a young blond-haired herald, of simple countenance, red cheeks, broad smile, and two
marvelous blue eyes which competed in brilliance with the sky. Swiftly he galloped, cheerily wagging
his stretched arm in salutation. The guardsmen – intrigued – watched him approach. The horse – noble
mount – tall and strong, covered the barren stretch of land which separated the encampment from the
walled town in a blink. The herald still convulsively waved, pulling the reins, yelling words which
were lost in the rumbling noise of the horse's race. Puzzled, the watchmen watched each other. Some
aimed their bows at the herald, some took off their helmet and wiped the sweat from their brows. The
horse darted over the thatch, kicking up clouds of dust. The watchmen were shocked. The horse leaped
over the moat; the herald tried to disentangle himself from the stirrups. A high neigh. They smashed
against the wall and then slowly slipped in the slushy water, leaving on the stone a trail of blood.
Some of the guardsmen laughed, others felt sorry, but all rushed to fetch nets and spears, which they
used to recover horse and horseman. That night the Wunderfurters held a great feast in the main square
of the town. A great woodpile was built and burnt to embers in the middle of the square: they put a
great iron grille on it, and on the grate the horse, skinned, gutted, and spiced. The cooking was done
among bursts of jubilation and of sparkling drops of grease. A long procession formed, burghmaster at
its head. Each and every citizen of Wunderfurt payed homage – hats off – to the spoils of the knight,
dignifiedly recomposed and exposed under a brocade canopy. And each and every citizen had his chunk
of horse meat – not enough to fill the grumbling stomachs, but sure enough to hearten up the troubled
spirits.
The following day the herald's body was given back to the neighbors, hard at work at the foundations
of their new town, baptized Hollestat in sign of contrition. Outraged by the news that their horse had
been feasted upon, they refused to sign a peace treaty. Much as a pique, they declared they would
formally regard themselves as perpetual occupants of the land. The relationships between Wunderfurt
and Hollestat suffered because this for a very long time, through decades of hard – although pacific –
cohabitation. The two towns used Jews to trade with each other, and fell often to the brink of open
conflict. But women kept climbing down the balconies and the walls to pay visit to the most famous
knights of the opposing fields, till at last, eighty and six years from the beginning of the siege, in the
symbolic recurrence of the fourteenth of July, on the dried grass fields before the flat walls of
Wunderfurt, the wedding between Elisa, daughter of the burghmaster, and Ludwig, the glamorous first-
born of Baron Gotholle, great-grandson of Gotthass, was celebrated. On this occasion, a treaty of
perpetual friendship and mutual assistance – in prosperity and need – was signed. Halfway between
Wunderfurt and Hollestat, a great bronze statue depicting the ill-starred herald was built.