The other day, on the way back from the oncologist, I dropped by one of the local thrift stores and spotted this: With Fire and Sword by the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. (Pronounced "sin-KAY-vitch.") I had never heard of Sienkiewicz, I thought, until I noticed from the book cover that he had written Quo Vadis. But it was the description of With Fire and Sword as Volume One of "THE Polish epic historical series" that piqued my interest. I could, I thought, risk a dollar on it. Sienkiewicz' writing is stunning. He had me with this description of the steppes on page two:
Such were these Wild Lands: a continent of grass stamped with savage beauty. Billowing pastures where a mounted man could vanish like a diver in a lake. Violent chasms torn out of the earth, gaunt breastworks of crumbling clay and limestone that opened without warning under a horse's hooves. A wilderness of forest, fallen timbers, sudden glittering lakes and rivers exploding into cataracts. . .It was a land as vast as all of Western Europe, subject in name to the dominion of the Crown of Poland but, in effect, belonging only to those who lived by claw, fleet foot, and arrows shot out of ambush in the night. The Tartars grazed their horses there by treaty permission; and Cossack horse-thieves turned these pastures into battlefields where the sounds of slaughter, the screams of dying men, the drumming of hooves galloping out of ambush, the clash of steel, and the hiss of the Tartar arrow and the whirling lariat seemed to hang forever on the wind, carried from unknown beginnings into an endless future like the Steppe itself.No one knew how many battles were fought there in the years gone by, nor how many men left their bones scattered in the Steppe for the wolves and vultures. Armed travelers who heard the whirring of great wings, or saw the black swarms of carrion birds wheeling in the sky, knew at once that corpses or bleached bones lay somewhere ahead and looked to their weapons. Men hunted each other in this menacing green sea with no more feeling than they'd have running down a hare; everyone there was both the hunter and the prey. This was the immemorial home of outlaws hiding from the law and the hangman's rope. Armed shepherds -- as savage as their untamed flocks and herds -- guarded lean sheep, fierce stallions and wild cattle. Bandits sought loot. Cossacks trailed Tartars and Tartars hunted Cossacks. It was common practice for entire vatahas of light cavalry to guard the immense horseherds while raiding marauders came a thousand strong; and all of them, no matter whom they served, were men for whom words like gentleness and mercy had never held a meaning.The Steppes were wholly desolate and unpeople yet filled with living menace. Silent and still seething with hidden violence, peaceful in their immensity yet infinitely dangerous, these boundless spaces were a masterless, untamed country created for ruthless men who acknowledged no one as their overlord.