The Ancient Legends of the Czechs
The Maidens' War
After Libuše had been laid to her rest the girls looked round at their companies and saw that they were less serious than in the time when she had been alive and mistress over them. They bore this awareness with heaviness and it was with bitterness that they remembered the time when their princess alone had governed all the land and all men in it; it was with anger that their eyes glittered when more than one of the men said to them, laughing:
"You were in charge, we bowed down to you; and look at you now, you're like a flock of lost sheep."
Their hidden rage stirred them like a powerful flame. In their desire for power and for revenge they took hold of their swords and their bows and without thought for what strength they had they entered into fierce struggle against all men. Vlasta, chief of the regiments in the time of Libuše, was their leader. She was the first to sound the call to arms, she was the first to take up her weapons, she it was who imposed discipline and impelled them to build a strong fortress.
This fortress was built to be their place of refuge beyond the River Vltava, on the summit somewhat higher than Vyšehrad had been on the opposite bank.
The girls took Vlasta as their princess and their leader, and obeyed all that she said. Many of them, at her command, also went out into all the regions of the land to invite women and girls to leave all and gather in Děvín, as the new castle was called, to fight against the men so that women would rule the world, men would serve them and women's order would be maintained. Vlasta's call was not mere sound to be blown away by the wind, but a spark that inflamed the hearts of many. As a pigeon flies out from the nest, so hastened the women and the girls away from their menfolk, their fathers and their brothers, and all came to Děvín Castle where they filled its halls and chambers, its yards and its high bastions.
The men who were not active at Vyšehrad observed them with laughing disdain and mocked them as the girls trained themselves in the use of arms and horsemanship. Even the old and experienced men looked on at them with scorn, and when they spoke of them to Prince Přemysl they spoke with disparagement and made plans to test the women's courage. All those around the prince laughed at the thought of how they would chase them. Přemysl alone remained thoughtful and uneasy and said:
"Listen to why I am not laughing with you. You too would not laugh if you had had the vision that I had last night in my dreams."
He wished to warn them, and told them what he had seen:
"It was in the dark of night, the air was full of thick and choking smoke; in the glare of the fire I saw a girl in a helmet. Her long hair waved from beneath the helmet, in one hand was a sword and in the other a goblet. The men lay slain in the blood-stained dust. The girl was running as if in a rage, her steps passed between the dead men and then she gathered their blood in the goblet and gulped it down like a beast of prey in the lust of a great thirst. Listen, ye men, to the voice of the gods and note well its meaning. This vision was sent to warn us, listen to what I say and do not take it lightly."
While this was being said, the girls were on Děvín and preparing themselves for battle with the men. Thoughts of kinship were subdued by their cries, and even to their own brothers and fathers they declared sternly and heartlessly:
"We are now nothing to you, and never will be again. Let each man fend for himself!"
Then they promised to to keep faith with each other and swore great oaths on their knees that they should be slain by their own swords if they would ever betray one another. Thus they swore on Děvín to their leader Vlasta, who then appointed each to her place and her function.
The wisest of them were kept by Vlasta at her own side with the command to keep the castle safe, the bravest she sent out into the field where they would fight on horseback and kill the men like dogs. Those who were of fullest figure, who were beauteous of cheek and attractive in appearance, she selected to be temptresses of men to destroy them with their beauty and their charms. She wished to annihilate them by force and with all the sly subterfuge she could.
The men, however, remained confused and paid no attention to the warning given them by Prince Přemysl. They flocked to Děvín as if on a gay outing. Each of them thought that the girls, as soon as they saw the glitter of a sword blade in the sun, would take fright and flee like a cat startled by a child's rattle.
But, wonder of wonders! The girls did not remain on the battlements, but nor did they flee. They ran straight out from the gateway where Vlasta, in front of the castle, did not delay in sending them into battle. She sat on her horse in her coat of chain mail, her helmet on her head and her spear in her hand, and spoke with fiery voice to the army of girls telling them not to be afraid but courageously to fight.
"Should we let them overpower us," she cried, "they will first laugh at us. Then they will make us work for them and, worse still, make us into their slaves! Better to die than to put ourselves at their mercy. Therefore hurl yourselves at them! Allow none to live, kill every one, each of them whoever he is, be he brother, be he father!"
No sooner had she spoken than she pulled on her horse's reins and urged it to a gallop. She shouted, she waved her spear and her wild cries followed her as she went. The throng of fighting women sped after her in their lust for war, and at their head, second only to Vlasta herself, were Mlada, Svatava, Hodka, Radka and Častava.
The warriors' arrows fell on the men like snow. And then they were no longer laughing. They fell not one by one but line by bloody line, and before they were aware the women on horseback were already among them, stabbing and lacerating them till they were piled in confusion.
The battle was not long. Three hundred men lay on the ground in their own blood. Those who were left took to flight. The thick, dark wood some way off was their shield and their salvation. Without it they would all have perished.
Děvín and all the land around rang to the sound of the girls' cheers. They showed their joy at their victory which their martial spirit inflamed even higher and which brought the reinforcement of more comrades in arms. Their legend spread quickly throughout all lands and inspired to action even those women who still were uncertain. Evil was about the land. More than one man was found in the morning killed dead or stabbed with a knife, and many, unsure of their safety, left their homes at night to spend the dark hours in the densely wooded groves.
And evil it was for the men near Děvín too. They could not remain near the castle, they could not conquer it by force or by guile. There was not a single man in the castle and there was none of the girls who would betray her comrades. The girls on Vyšehrad also had their spies who did not seem to be with them but secretly gave them reports about all that happened, what the men's plans and intentions were, where they went, and where the girls could lay in wait for them and attack.
Thus the war between them lasted long, openly in the field and secretly by subterfuge. One of the handsome girls tempted a youth, more trusting than he should have been, to come among them, told him he should come to free her when she and a dozen of her comrades would pass by on the road behind Děvín. The youth came and waited in that lonely place, as had been agreed, with some of his own comrades. The girl also came as had been arranged and nine other girls with her. Then at that moment a horde of female warriors hurled themselves out on the men in ambush, killing that youth and all who were with him.
Another young man also perished as a result of treachery. He trusted the words and the charms of one of Vlasta's troop who had promised she would betray Děvín to him. It was arranged that she would secretly admit him into the castle by night, him and a large number of his comrades. But neither he nor any of the other men with him ever returned from Děvín.
The noble Ctirad was another who was destroyed by guile. Vlasta hated him most of all, for it was Ctirad who, as the young leader of his men, had killed the most of her warriors with his sword in many a skirmish and many a battle.
One summer's day, Ctirad left the lands of his family and was on his way to Prague Castle with several men of his kin. Their young leader had his sword at his belt, as did the men with him, and carried also bows and rough leather quivers on their shoulders. More than one of them bore also a spear. At this time, when the girls of Vlasta's regiments might attack, it was not wise to set out abroad without weapons.
The sun burned hot, and the air was stifling. Not a stem nor a leaf shook in the fields of grain and hemp. Nor even in the woods, whither Ctirad's way took him, was the heat easier to bear. Not the shadows of the ancient trees nor the dark rocks that protruded above the valleys seemed to offer coolness. There was no breeze, the trees were still, and the stream in the thicket below the rocks crept on its way without a sound. All was silent, the water, the trees and the birds; but for the human voice that was suddenly heard through the deathly silence: a plaintive, pitiful calling.
Ctirad stopped, and all his men stopped in amazement. The lament came from the distance behind the rocks, then was suddenly silent. Just then, a crow flew up above Ctirad's head and winged its way from them, croaking out its dark and raucous cry. Neither Ctirad nor any of those who were with him noticed that black bird, nor the portent that it meant for them. They went in pursuit of the human cry. As they turned past the rock they pulled up their horses sharp, for they saw something to astonish them.
Beside the rocks, flowered with the golden foxgloves, tangles of raspberries and brambles at their feet, whose flowers were white and berries already ripe, there was a clearing of green and full of light where the birch and the willow flourished. At the edge of the clearing, near the rocks, was an ancient oak tree, and under the oak there lay a girl bound fast to its trunk with rope. She was silent, exhausted by her cries, by her despair, and her head lay to one side. Her hair, half undone, flowed down to her shoulders, and hanging from them was a hunting horn at her side. But when the clatter of the horses' hooves accosted her ears she lifted her head and began once more to call out her pitiful cry, begging the men to untie her, free her, to have mercy on her.
Touched by the imploring voice of this comely girl, Ctirad forgot all caution, as did his fellows. He jumped lightly down from his horse, drew out his sword, cut and chopped through the ropes that bound her and freed the girl. He never thought that Vlasta had heard news the previous day from one of her spies that he would be travelling to Prague Castle that day, or that Vlasta meant to do all she could to see that he would never return, or that this attractive girl was part of her scheme. Freed of her tethers, the girl thanked Ctirad right heartily and told him her name was Šárka, that she was from Okořín, the daughter of a chieftain, that the girls from Děvín had pounced on her in the woods, tied her up, and were taking her to that castle where they would do her harm, that they had reached as far as that spot when they heard the distant pounding of horses' hooves.
"They let me go and left me here, but bound to this tree so that I could not move. To mock me, see, they hung this horn around me so that, bound as I was, I could sound it for help and there, look, a jug of mead so that, thirsty as I was, I would suffer still more from my thirst."
She pointed to a large pitcher of mead in the grass at her feet. And thereon she once more broke into tears, begged Ctirad in her anguish not to leave her there, as he had freed her he should take her to her father before those devilish women and maids returned.
Ctirad sat beside her and gave her his assurance that he would do as she asked, and passed her the jug of mead to give her strength after the fear and suffering she had undergone. She drank and gave him to drink also. As this was happening his comrades dismounted from their horses, tethered them at a short distance and they too lay in the shade beside them in order to cool down. It was afternoon. The sharp scent of thyme and cedar cut through the air, the fragrance of flowers drifted from the meadows in the heat. Not a thing moved, except the the butterfly as it flew across the clearing in the sunlight. The eyelids of the soldiers became heavy, and sleep overtook them.
Their leader, however, was awake and listened carefully to what the charming Šárka was telling him, he drank in her delicious voice as he drank of the mead she passed him. He inspected the hunting horn she took from her shoulder, and when she wondered aloud what sound it might have he pressed it to his lips and trumpeted loud with all his lungs.
The horn sounded all around and clamoured piercingly through the deadly silence. Its sound reverberated through all the rocks and woods, then weakened and died away until all that could be heard was its distant echo in the depths of the forest.
A strike like the break of a thunderclap. A sudden savage cry that shocked around both near and far, behind the trees, in the bushes, within the darkness of the forests. And a horde of girls armed like a fierce and wild swarm swept down into the clearing. Before Ctirad's troop could know what was happening, before they could jump onto their horses or reach for their swords, the female warriors were already among them, killing and stabbing as they attaacked.
Ctirad tried to rejoin his comrades, but before he could pick his sword up from the grass the swarm of women and girls was already upon him, and before he could wield his sword against them he was overcome and fell to the ground. And there they bound him. He lay there as a prisoner, there where shortly before he had freed Vlasta's own spy from her bonds. In vain he raged, in vain he cursed them and shouted as if possessed that he would punish them for their evil trick. Šárka merely laughed; they all laughed and, wild with joy, they led their noble prisoner back to Děvín, forcing him, in his bonds, to walk alongside Šárka's horse. His comrades were left behind in the meadow, in the downtrodden grass and covered in blood. They lay in the sun, pierced by blades and dead; a horde of flies sat on them and high above them a raven could be heard, the crow they had earlier failed to notice, as he called to his fellows to join him in the feast that was on offer.
Thus died Ctirad's men, and thus perished their leader. And the wild and rocky valley where all this took place is still today named after her who was death to so many.
The next day, scouts and sentries brought the terrible news to Vyšehrad that there was a pole erected high above Děvín, and on the pole was a wheel, and twisted in the spokes of the wheel was the body of their leader Ctirad whom the girls had tortured and killed.
This news spread quickly to all around in every land. And from all sides men hurried in outrage and grief to defend Vyšehrad, inflamed by the evil of the girls, and they urged Přemysl to be their leader as all would obey him and as revenge had to be taken. But there were many who did not even wait for Přemysl to give his orders and went in a mob to Děvín and killed the girls they met on the way. And there were many also whom they took captive and led to Vyšehrad.
Vlasta flew into a rage like a she-bear, and in arrogant confidence of victory led all her girls to Vyšehrad to conquer it and kill all the men there. But before they reached the gates a troop of men, full in number, came toward them, thirsty for the blood of revenge.
They met in cruel combat. Vlasta, leading her warriors, struck forward on her horse and in among the enemy. She was driven by her fury and thought to show her comrades the way. She thought they followed in a horde behind her. But the girls were deficient and did not compare with Vlasta; they were not able to drive their way forward, and Vlasta realised too late that she was alone among the men and in the fiercest turmoil of the battle. A dense throng of her enemies surrounded her, a cluster of wild men, they pressed cruelly on her such that she could not even wield her sword. Closing in on her they pulled her from her horse and cut her apart with knives.
Thus she perished.
The struggles of the others were also in vain. And when they saw that their leader had been pulled from her horse they were seized with sudden fear and those who once had put fear into the men fled. They ran in wild confusion back to Děvín where they hoped they would be safe. Many of them were left on the battlefield, many of them fell on the flight back to Děvín, but even those who reached their castle did not escape ruin.
They too did not escape the men, they too were seized by the men who lept onto the drawbridge and into the castle. And so it all came to an end, there was to be no more strength or bravery shown by women. They threw away their swords, they began once more to behave as women, they acknowledged their brothers and relatives, falling on their knees and imploring them with clasped hands.
But the men did take their revenge for Ctirad and all their comrades who had died by the women's guile or violence. And their revenge was cruel, they spared not one of the female warriors. Their beautiful bodies were thrown to their deaths from windows or flung down from the high bastions. And when they had eliminated all of this female company they burned their Děvín to the ground and destroyed it utterly.
Thus ended the Girls' War.
Order and justice were once more established, as there had been before, and Prince Přemysl ruled alone with no opposition from women.
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