They had made good progress. Velibor stood watch by the window of an old barn they had stopped in for the night. He had learnt the lady’s name was Maria. They were at the top of a hill, and once they were over it they would be decently safe for the night. Watching the distant war brought back memories of Antonya. He felt the need to cry, but couldn’t. He must be strong for this family, and help them to safety. Just then Maria walked up behind him and brought him a little blanket. She offered him some food and he ate gladly. She was good company, he thought. She knew that things were not okay, yet asked no questions. She understood.
Maria caught Velibor smiling at her, and laughed at him. “Velibor, are you getting tired? I will take watch if you want.” He smiled back, only just realising what he was doing. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. I have a bad habit of that. Can’t sleep?” They smiled in agreement, and conversation flowed like that for a long time. Soon the sun rose, and no sooner did the children. They ate quickly and began their journey again.
He avoided the main road, as the further they travelled, the more people came up to them and asked to borrow one of the horses. But Velibor needed to move the family away and fast. He wanted to help everyone, but it was just not possible. They rode through many fields, barely stopping in case someone caught up on them and took a horse. By lunchtime they were over the hill and a fair distance from it. They were approaching a fairly large town, and decided to stop there for the night. It was then that Velibor realised he had no money. He turned to Maria, but she had nothing either.
The children looked at them, wondering what was going on, when Velibor noticed the little boy sitting with him was playing with something. “What are you playing with there?” The little boy laughed and emptied his pocket. The other children took out a few coins each as well. There was enough money to find them a place for tonight, and a few other things. Velibor had the biggest smile on his face, thinking of all the things he could do himself with that money, when it suddenly dawned on him that they had no idea where this money came from. “Bato, where did you find this?” Maria said sternly to her son. “You put us in sleep and we got it mummy” he replied instantly, smiling at his mother. “Mum,” Elena, her oldest daughter spoke up “The hay that you told us to sleep in, we moved it around to make it more comfortable for us, and these coins started falling out. So while you were talking to Mr. Velibor, we went in turns to check the whole barn for money. We found lots, but couldn’t bring all of it, so we split it up into our pockets, carrying as much as we could, and we buried the rest.”
Elena was maybe only eight years old. She was the oldest of all the children here. And the leader. If she did something, they did it too. Slowly she began to empty all of the coins that she had hidden, and the other children did too. Velibor stopped them quickly though. “Kids, hide the extra coins you just brought out of your pockets. If anyone sees that much money here, who knows what will become of us, and everyone will charge us too much money for somewhere to stay.” He gathered the coins they already had, and together they proceeded to enter the town. Just before the first house, he turned to the family. “I know this may be uncomfortable for you, but for us to get a good place to sleep and eat, I’m going to have to pretend to be your father. So don’t call me Mr. Velibor when we get there and people are around. Is that okay? But remember, this is just pretend, and only while we’re here. Okay?” The children seemed uneasy about this, and all looked to Maria. She smiled and nodded to them, and together they entered the town.
Many of the first places rejected Velibor. Some houses were eager to take him until he mentioned that he had a wife and kids with him. He came towards the end of the main road, with things not looking too good for him. He decided to try one more house. “Maria, if this house doesn’t work, we’ll just grab something to eat and then ride out into the country and find another place to stay out there. I’m sorry children.” With a bowed head, he tried the last house. It was a very big house, double-storey, and very antique. He was pretty sure that they wouldn’t get accepted into this house.
An old man opened the front door, and was surprised to see him there. “Why hello young man! This is quite new. Usually the only visitors I receive is the town officials asking for money. What can I do for you?” Velibor smiled half-heartedly. “Me and my family, my wife and children here, we’re looking for a place to stay. We’re escaping the coming war. We can pay you, help you in any way if you need it, just please, you’re our last hope.” He was almost in tears. He really wanted to help this family, and he felt like he would fail if he couldn’t find them beds for tonight, and food as well. But the elderly man had a big smile on his face. “Company? You want to stay in my house? I’m honoured! You can stay as long as you want to! You can stay forever if need be! This big house is so lonely and sad now that I am by myself. Come inside! Please!” He held out his hand for Velibor to shake, but Velibor hugged him. The children’s faces lit up, and they all rushed inside. Stopping in the foyer, they were amazed at the first sights of the house. “I’m sorry it’s not very clean. I’m old and fairly poor, I can’t afford to pay a maid anymore. I do try to clean though.”
Maria called all the children to her, and they began to talk in hushed voices. The elderly man began to talk to Velibor. “My name is Marius by the way, but you may call me whatever you wish. I am so pleased that you would come to me for help. Would you like to see your rooms?” He led them a grand staircase and onto the second level of the house. “This level” he said, opening his arms “is all yours.” “But what about you Mr. Marius? Where will you sleep?” Marius laughed at Maria. “Darling, I live downstairs. I am too old to walk up and down these stairs everyday. So this is all for you.” The children laughed and ran to the bedrooms, inspecting each one. They settled down, and then slowly one by one poured down the stairs to see Maria in the kitchen. She had begun cleaning up, and Elena called the children to follow suit. Marius had gone to have a midday rest. When he woke an hour later, the house was shining and spotless, and wonderful smells were coming from the kitchen. Maria had begun to cook up a late lunch with what there was in the kitchen. Velibor, on the other hand, had gone into town to find out news about the war.
He walked into the first pub he saw, expecting to see some people there that would help him. He walked up to the bar, and began to talk to a man there. He didn’t know much, except for the fact that there was a senior messenger of the king staying in one of the inns on the other side of the town, and he was refusing to give information. Other than that, everyone knew the same thing: Serbia was slowly losing the war.
He walked through town slowly, trying to learn more things and see what was going on. Not much was happening. Just many people worried about losing land, animals property and crops. He was almost towards the other end of the town, when an old lady standing in her doorway called out. “Velibor, Velibor! Is that really you Velibor?” She grabbed his arm and pulled him into her house. He didn’t recognise her the slightest bit, and she could tell. “You don’t remember me, do you?” He shook his head, and she laughed. “I’m Carol. I was Princess Antonya’s made until she left for Russia. I do not believe it, that you don’t remember me!” he smiled, but was deeply hurt at the thought of Antonya. He was dieing to know how she was. So he asked her, and they sat there for a very long time, telling stories. He learnt how Antonya had not smiled since she had heard news of Velibor’s supposed death in the war, and in general her depression. His heart broke at this news. But what iced the cake of his pain was hearing how she was rumoured to be courting the Tsarevich. Velibor’s heart shattered, and he could feel his eyes burning with tears. Carol offered him dinner, or something to drink, but he felt the sudden need to run. He promised Carol he would return soon and they could talk more, but he had to leave. Walking through the door, as soon as she was out of sight, he ran, and he ran for ages. He entered the house, and things didn’t feel right here anymore, but he ignored it. He ran up to the room he shared with Bato (who insisted on sleeping with him after their journey together) and collapsed on the bed. The tears were burning his eyes as they fell to the sheets. He wanted to rip his heart out and burn it, to die, to leave this world. But even then he had nowhere to go. He lay there for a long time, letting his tears burn rivers into his cheeks, his heart beat and bruise his chest.
Eventually, the tears stopped flowing. He felt dead and empty inside, weak and hopeless. With a defeated spirit, he walked downstairs to find Maria and the children. But no one was there. He walked all throughout the house, his heart starting to come to life as he realised things weren’t right here. There was no smell of cooking or cooked food, no dishes left from dinner or lunch. He ran upstairs to check the rooms, and none of the beds had been touched. He found another door and followed that, wondering what could be there, but there were only more stairs. They lead to an attic, but no one was in there. He began to search it, looking through various things for any sign of where they had gone, when he barely heard the sound of a door handle closing. Looking in the direction from whence it came, he saw a small door concealed by boxes, and ran up to it. ‘the rest of the house is empty’ he thought ‘so here goes!’
Making sure the door wasn’t locked, he closed it gently, only to see little Bato standing in front of him. “You take too long Mr. Velibor!” He looked at where he was. It was like an indoor jungle, one of the most beautiful gardens he had seen. Suddenly, in the corner of his eye, he saw Bato disappear through the trees, and he ran after him. It was like a maze. Running in and out of the trees, through bushes, under fallen trees and over small bridges, then finally Bato stopped. “You have to be really quiet” he whispered “and watch your head, or its going to get very hurt.” He pulled Velibor to his knees, and made him sit down. Then he pushed him very hard. It was like a slide, and it wouldn’t stop. Velibor was worried if Bato had followed him, or if he was just a pigment of his imagination. But sure enough, he was behind him. And just as he saw him, a branch hit him across the head. “Keep your head to the ground Mr. Velibor!” He whispered, laughing as Velibor rubbed his head. After what seemed an eternity, they reached the end, and he just sat there, rubbing his head. Bato frowned at him, and pulled him to his feet. “Mr Velibor, if you don’t hurry up, we are going to miss dinner, and mummy doesn’t like it when I’m late. Come on!” Velibor chuckled and got up, following Bato. They ran through some more trees and bush, until Bato stopped. Velibor wasn’t paying attention, and kept running, going straight into him. Bato laughed, brushed off the dirt on his otherwise spotless clothes, and laughed at Velibor, sitting there on the floor, covered in mud. “Mummy doesn’t like dirty people to eat her dinner. You’re gonna be in big trouble Mr Velibor.” He closed Velibor’s eyes and held his hand, walking him slowly through the forest. Velibor had come to realise that they were no longer in the garden in Marius’ house. They stopped walking, and Velibor heard the sound of a door opening. He was walking on stone now, form what he could guess, and started to worry that he had trusted a demon, that maybe he was going mad. A light breeze blew, and it started to get lighter from what he could see through his blindfold. The ground he was walking on started to feel broken and unsteady, but Bato didn’t slow down. He began to walk faster. Another door opened, and a great noise met his ears. “Mr Velibor” whispered Bato quietly, pulling him down so he could untie his blindfold “we are here.”