The Cossack

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Among the Cossacks of the Wild Fields there was no Cossack more ordinary and unremarkable than Yakiv. He fought and plundered like many of his kinsmen, but his honors were few and his spoils paltry. Other Cossacks in his band treated him with only minor respect, though he felt he deserved more. Ambitious and hungry for power, Yakiv sought to expand his estate by the sword. 

After prayer one day, Yakiv rode his horse, a powerful black mount, to the hovel of an old woman, a crone who used Tatar rituals to divine the future. As he entered her hubble dwelling, the old woman raised a bony finger and pointed directly at his face. 

“Are you a warrior of renown?” Her voice shook and croaked with every word. Yakiv scowled with displeasure. 

“My kinsmen spit on me, they call me weak and unfortunate. I must become a great warrior, to honor my family and my house.”

The old woman smiled, showing her yellow and crooked teeth. 

“You seek a spell?”

Yakiv nodded slowly. He had not taken this decision lightly, as it was considered dishonorable for a warrior to enlist the aid of a sorceress. But there was no other way Yakiv believed he could achieve victory. So, he resolved to call upon the aid of this old woman. The woman narrowed her eyes. 

“I require payment before.”

Yakiv wordlessly placed a small satchel of silver on the table. The woman looked up at Yakiv and smiled again. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, perched on a small pile of filthy blankets, the old woman retrieved a tattered scroll and set the parchment on a wooden chest. She unraveled the scroll, sending clouds of dust into the damp air. The old woman consulted the scroll for several minutes, making no sound. Yakiv tired of this waiting, and just as he was about to leave in frustration, the old woman looked up, her brow furrowed. 

“Do you have a mate?”

“Yes, I have a wife.”

“Does she have beautiful hair?” Yakiv looked suspiciously at the old woman.  

“Her hair is the envy of every Cossack woman on the Steppes.”

The old woman pored over the scroll once more and spoke without looking up. When she spoke, her tone carried the weight of explaining the conditions of an enchantment. 

“Your wife, your mate, your help meet, has power over you. The warriors of your regiment do not respect you, but if you cut off the hair of your wife and attach it to your bulava, you will be blessed with power over your enemies.”

Yakiv narrowed his eyes in confusion. His wife’s hair? And what was this about his bulava? The ceremonial mace was reserved for the hetman, the leader of the host, a Cossack general above all others in prowess. He was not even close to possessing such an object. 

“I have no bulava, you stupid old woman!” Yakiv nearly screamed. The old woman did not react, but merely continued to read the scroll. 

“If you cut your wife’s braid as a symbol of your faith, you must challenge the captain of your regiment to a fight to the death over leadership of the regiment. You will be granted the title of hetman as you defeat your enemies. To preserve the terms of this spell, you must cut the hair of ever female captive you take, every woman in the lands you conquer. From the Poles and the Wallachians, to the Tatars and the Kuban Cossacks, your kin. Every braid, every lock, every head of hair must be shorn to follow the terms.”

Yakiv frowned and began pacing. He knew of the power of the old woman, as she held the reputation that many crones did. A devout Orthodox Christian, Yakiv was nonetheless wary of the influence of the crone. If this was promised to him, he must do as she said. 

“I accept the terms.” Yakiv ceased pacing and stood in front of the crone. The old woman smiled crookedly again, and raised her finger again.

“But if you keep any hair, even a single braid, left intact on the head of a woman, your armies shall desert you and your wife shall spurn you. If you fail, you will fall.”

Yakiv’s eyes widened in concern. The hair of another woman meant nothing to him, yet he was willing to cut the hair of his wife to gain power. This must be done. Yakiv nodded in acceptance. 

“I will do as you say.”

The crone laughed, a cruel high pitched laugh, which gave Yakiv cause to shudder.

“Then so be it! The spell is cast! Like Joshua in the Holy Scriptures, and the Israelites of old, you will conquer and sacrifice!” 

 

The ride back to his home passed quickly for Yakiv. He thought on the terms of the spell, the spell that would shape his destiny. He was resolved to move ahead with his plans. Yakiv arrived at his home, a simple wooden dwelling near a small grove of trees. Yakiv tied his horse to the post outside the door and slowly walked into his home. The space was dark, lit only by a few candles. The table at the center of the room was bare, except for an empty wooden bowl. In one corner of the house, Yakiv’s wife Vira bent over an open chest, rummaging around for something inside. Yakiv unhooked the belt of his sword and placed it on the doorframe. 

Vira turned around and noticed her husband. As her head turned, her long, thick braid, black as pitch and soft as Persian silk, swung behind her back. Unlike the Slavs to the north, who wore their hair in two braids, or the Kalmyks with their beaded tresses, Vira wore her hair in a single braid like a true Cossack woman. The ends were thick, sweeping past her hips down to her thighs. Yakiv drank in the beauty of his wife’s hair, knowing it was doomed. His wife was dutiful and faithful, and she would do anything he asked. 

She smiled as she beheld her husband. 

“My husband, you have returned!” Vira’s voice was deep and smooth, music to Yakiv’s ears. He was lucky enough to have married one of the most beautiful women in the Wild Fields and all of Little Russia. Yakiv stepped forward slowly. 

“My wife, my love, I have visited the Tatar woman near the fort.”

“That old crone? What did she want?” Vira began to gather bread, onions, and beets from the corner table to set for supper. 

“She told me that I can become a great warrior.”

“But you already are, my love.” 

“Do not lie to me, woman!” Yakiv snapped. He hated when Vira tried to console him in this way. Vira cocked her head in confusion. 

“Why would she tell you this?” Yakiv ignored the question. 

“She said that if I challenge the captain to a fight to the death, I would triumph and my kin would give me their swords and we would ride victorious.”

“The captain? He is hated by all.”

Yakiv growled in agreement. “He is a coward and a liar, and he will fall to my shashka.”

“What must you do?” Yakiv looked at his wife. Vira was intelligent and perceptive, more than Yakiv was at times, and she knew that this would not just happen on its own. 

Yakiv locked eyes with her, and said bluntly: “I must cut your hair.”

Vira blinked, then stared at her husband in silence. Yakiv continued. 

“I must cut off your braid, and attach it to the bulava I will win when I become hetman.”

Vira raised her eyebrows. “You are a long way from hetman, husband.”

Yakiv frowned. 

“All will come, my love. It is a sacrifice, and when I kill the captain, I will become stronger than ever. Then, after uniting my allies, I will become hetman of the Cossacks and lead our people to glory. But first, I must cut your hair. And to be victorious, I must cut the hair of every woman I conquer, every one.”

Vira stared at her husband intently, gauging his feelings. He was sincere, she could tell, and he believed the words of the crone. If Yakiv would become a great warrior, her hair was a worthy sacrifice. She walked up to him, feeling the outline of his flowing trousers with one hand, and stroking the long top section of his black hair with the other. She looked deep into his dark eyes before leaning in and whispering: “It is done.”

With a swift motion, Yakiv reached for his shashka, drew it from its scabbard, and slashed it through the hair. With a loud ripping sound, Vira’s magnificent braid was shorn just above her shoulders. The braid fell to the dirt floor with a thud, and the remnants of Vira’s hair swung forward. Vira did not even flinch as the act was done, instead staring into the eyes of her husband. Her thick hair, free from the weight of the braid, blossomed in volume. Yakiv liked the new style, and he bent down to retrieve the braid. Over a meter long, the coil of hair was shiny and silky, the dream of any man. Vira seized Yakiv’s arms and pulled him in close. 

“I want the hair.” Her voice was resolute and sure. Yakiv’s eyes narrowed in confusion. 

“The hair you cut in your victories. Bring it all to me, every braid, every lock, every head of hair; it is mine, and I want it.”

Yakiv almost trembled before the might of this woman, his woman. Her words echoed those of the crone, and she stood in majesty, her wild shorn hair dancing around her shoulders and a glint of power in her rich brown eyes. She was the wife of a hetman, the wife of a great warrior. Yakiv would conquer for her. 

The braid found a temporary home on the table, carefully laid out, as Yakiv and Vira ate their supper in silence. After they finished, they made love, enjoying the freedom of Vira’s hair. The night passed uneventfully, though Yakiv slept little as he contemplated his future. With his wife’s braid in his hands, he would fight until he won the bulava, where the braid would be fastened. It would all begin with the captain. 

Morning dawned, and Yakiv ate a hearty breakfast of meat and onions, cooked in butter. He donned his fur trimmed cap, his jerkin and vest, his shashka, and his lance. With a lingering look from his wife, Yakiv turned his horse toward the fort. The regiment held its markets and meetings in the fort, which was built along a stream between two low hills. When Yakiv arrived, he dismounted, tied his horse to a post, and marched to the meeting hall of the fort. Entering through the great wooden doors, Yakiv called out the name of the captain, challenging him to a duel. The captain appeared, flanked by henchmen, sneering at the dare. Yakiv gripped his shashka, ready for the fight to the death. 

 

Vira waited all day for her husband. She accomplished her menial chores with ease, the rhythm mastered years ago. As the sun began to set, she feared she had lost her husband before his prophesied victories would come. Then, as dusk settled over the hut, Vira spotted a lone rider in the distance. At once, she recognized the figure as her beloved. Yakiv approached, stopping in front of the hut and throwing down the sash of the captain, stained with blood. Vira looked at the sash, then up at her husband. 

“Hetman Yakiv…” she whispered, almost sensually. Yakiv smiled, and he jumped down from his mount and embraced his wife. On the morrow, Yakiv would gather the regiments and have himself declared Hetman, leader of the Cossacks and rightful ruler of the Wild Fields. 

 

Hetman Yakiv controlled the largest confederation of Cossack regiments in the entire Steppe. Yakiv’s closest friends, those who hadn’t looked down on him, became his advisers and chief officers. The regiments assembled at the fort shortly after Yakiv claimed the bulava and was declared hetman by acclamation of his men. Yakiv felt a rush of pride in his new position, and, remembering the old woman’s warning, immediately declared his intention to raid and pillage, first against Russian settlements to the north, and then on to Poland, Wallachia, and Tartary. 

The regiments rode into battle, charging full force into the midst of their enemies. The Russians fled in terror as their villages were overrun; resistance was swiftly quelled, but mercy was shown to those who submitted. The bandurists, minstrels of the Steppe, followed in the wake of the Cossacks, singing songs of the deeds of Hetman Yakiv and his brave warriors. With the bulava proudly displaying Vira’s magnificent braid, Yakiv swept all before him, and true to the promise of the old woman, he assembled the women of his conquered territory together for fulfillment. 

The men and boys were kept off to the side to watch as Cossack warriors brought the women and girls in front of Yakiv and his entourage of strongmen. A Cossack would bring before Yakiv the women with the finest hair, the longest braids, the fullest color, the thickest strands, and the silkiest bearing. Then, as all watched, short daggers would be produced and the hair would be cut short. The blades sliced through the thick hair like shearing wool, and the hair would fall to the ground in heaps. Cossacks would attend to every captured female, forcibly relieving them of their way to show their submission. Defeated, the townsfolk had no choice. The blond locks of the Russians, the crowned braids of the Wallachs, the pigtails of the Poles, the plaits of the Tartars, and the falls of the Crimeans all fell at the feet of the mighty Hetman Yakiv. 

Once the hair was shorn, it was loaded onto wagons by the bale full. Carts brimming with the silky locks of conquered subjects were shipped back home to the small cottage of Vira, the wife of the Hetman. Besides loads of plunder, the mistress received these carts of hair. Yakiv’s trusted lieutenants escorted the carts and declared their arrival on behalf of the Hetman. Tons of hair were delivered at the home as Vira looked on in silent but obvious pleasure. As the hair was unloaded, Vira would walk among the bales of tresses, clutching choice braids and locks and inhaling their scent. It was said by some that Vira would pile heaps of lovely locks onto her bed, disrobe herself, and lay on and caress the spoils around her. 

Hetman Yakiv was unstoppable, and he left a swathe of destruction and a sea of severed hair in his wake. But all of his ambitions came to an end when he entered a village in the far north of the Wild Fields. The ritual was repeated as the townsfolk were brought before Yakiv and the women were shorn; these were Russians, so brown and blonde hair prevailed. Soon, heaps of silken tresses were laying on the ground. However, something caught Yakiv’s eye, and he raised his hand to halt. 

“You, bring that woman to me!” Yakiv called to a Cossack in a blue coat, who promptly grabbed a nearby Russian girl and shoved her forward. Yakiv saw her clearly for the first time; she was a breathtaking beauty, maybe twenty years old, with flawless skin and a mane of golden hair that fell to her knees. He was entranced by the sight of her, and in that moment, the Hetman forgot about all other things. 

“What is your name?” Yakiv demanded. The woman looked at the ground, unwilling to meet the Hetman’s gaze. She spoke in a soft whisper. 

“Polina.”

Yakiv drank in her beauty, especially her incredible hair. In the last year, he had witnessed thousands of heads of hair shorn in deference to the vow he had made with the old woman. But all he could think about was Polina and her tresses. Her hair rippled in graceful waves all the way past her thighs. He knew he would have her, one way or another. Yakiv signalled to some of his men to lead Polina away to the house the Cossacks had claimed as the Hetman’s quarters, while the rest continued to shear the hair of the remaining Russian women. 

That night, Polina was brought to Yakiv in the room where he stayed. Demurely, Polina stood before him, her gown loosened and her hair freely flowing over her shoulders to her thighs. Yakiv, overcome by desire, undressed her and buried his hands in her luxurious mane of golden hair. As they made love together, Polina succumbed to the pleasure and cried out in passion as Yakiv twisted the hair and pulled at it, revelling in the silky texture. Even though he had defiled so many heads of hair, he would never allow blades to touch Polina’s hair. After it was done, Polina asked Yakiv to become his mistress, and the Hetman eagerly agreed. 

 

But fate was not kind to the oathbreaker Yakiv. For one reason or another, Cossack chiefs began to desert Yakiv, taking their regiments elsewhere. Even some of the Hetman’s lieutenants failed him. Counterattacks from Polish hussars and Tatar cavalrymen forced Yakiv and his dwindling army to retreat. Hordes of angry villagers, along with many shorn women, angrily threw stones and bricks at the Cossacks as they left. Polina, now an outcast among the Russians, travelled with the Hetman, but was a pariah to all others. Yakiv felt in his gut that because he had betrayed the vow to the old woman, he was losing everything. It was true. 

By the end, everyone deserted Yakiv. All of his Cossack comrades left him behind in a remote part of the Wild Fields. Polina married a Polish nobleman. Even Vira, Yakiv’s wife, scorned her traitorous husband and collected her riches and gathered a following of loyal Cossack bodyguards. Golgan, one of Yakiv’s lieutenants, claimed his bulava and brought Vira her former braid, which the woman proudly wore as a belt around her waist. Vira purchased a magnificent castle in Wallachia, where she lived with her gold and, most importantly, her vast collection of hair, which was her only intimate company. Protected by her Cossack guards, she vowed to never let Yakiv see her. Penniless and forgotten, the oathbreaker Yakiv wasted away in obscurity and died. The Cossack warrior held the world in his hand, but he gave it all up for a fall of golden hair. 

 

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