Andrzej Sapkowski might be best known for writing the Witcher series (and giving incredibly candid interviews), but there are plenty of titles under his belt. His other major fantasy series—one that’s based on real history—is finally coming to the United States in the first English translation of The Tower of Fools.
io9 is excited to debut the book cover and first excerpt from the English version of The Tower of Fools; translated by David French, who also worked on the translations of the Witcher books. The Tower of Fools—originally called Narrenturm—was first released in 2002 as the first book in the Hussite trilogy. Taking place in 15th-century Silesia during the religious Hussite Wars, The Tower of Fools tells the story of Reinmar of Bielawa (or Reynevan), who flees town after being caught sleeping with a knight’s wife.
Desperate to escape the wife’s brothers, the Holy Inquisition, and a series of strange, mystical forces, Reynevan winds up in a Narrenturm, a medieval asylum for people suffering from rare and mental diseases...and also dissidents of the status quo. Unlike the Witcher series, which was based entirely in a fictional realm, the Hussite trilogy is a fantastical take on real history—including an appearance from the polymath Nicolaus Copernicus, as a fellow patient at the Narrenturm.
Here’s the cover for U.S. edition of The Tower of Fools.
The following excerpt lays the groundwork for Reynevan’s perilous journey, showing how he was caught for his affair and forced to go on the run in a high-speed chase through the streets of his village.
Gloria Patri, et Filio et Spiritui sancto.
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper
et in saecula saeculorum, Amen.
As the monks concluded the Gloria, Reynevan, kissing the back of Adèle of Stercza’s neck, placed his hand beneath her orchard of pomegranates, engrossed, mad, like a young hart skipping upon the mountains to his beloved . . .
A mailed fist struck the door, which thudded open with such force that the lock was torn off the frame and shot through the window like a meteor. Adèle screamed shrilly as the Stercza brothers burst into the chamber.
Reynevan tumbled out of bed, positioning it between himself and the intruders, grabbed his clothes and began to hurriedly put them on. He largely succeeded, but only because the brothers Stercza had directed their frontal attack at their sister-in-law.
‘You vile harlot!’ bellowed Morold of Stercza, dragging a naked Adèle from the bedclothes.
‘Wanton whore!’ chimed in Wittich, his older brother, while Wolfher – next oldest after Adèle’s husband Gelfrad – did not even open his mouth, for pale fury had deprived him of speech. He struck Adèle hard in the face. The Burgundian screamed. Wolfher struck her again, this time backhanded.
‘Don’t you dare hit her, Stercza!’ yelled Reynevan, but his voice broke and trembled with fear and a paralysing feeling of impotence, caused by his trousers being round his knees. ‘Don’t you dare!’
His cry achieved its effect, although not the way he had intended. Wolfher and Wittich, momentarily forgetting their adulterous sister-in-law, pounced on Reynevan, raining down a hail of punches and kicks on the boy. He cowered under the blows, but rather than defend or protect himself, he stubbornly pulled on his trousers as though they were some kind of magical armour. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw Wittich drawing a knife. Adèle screamed.
‘Don’t,’ Wolfher snapped at his brother. ‘Not here!’
Reynevan managed to get onto his knees. Wittich, face white with fury, jumped at him and punched him, throwing him to the floor again. Adèle let out a piercing scream which broke off as Morold struck her in the face and pulled her hair.
‘Don’t you dare . . .’ Reynevan groaned ‘. . . hit her, you scoundrels!’
‘Bastard!’ yelled Wittich. ‘Just you wait!’
Wittich leaped forward, punched and kicked once and twice. Wolfher stopped him at the third.
‘Not here,’ Wolfher repeated calmly, but it was a baleful calm. ‘Into the courtyard with him. We’ll take him to Bierutów. That slut, too.’
‘I’m innocent!’ wailed Adèle of Stercza. ‘He bewitched me! Enchanted me! He’s a sorcerer! Sorcier! Diab—’
Morold silenced her with another punch. ‘Hold your tongue, trollop,’ he growled. ‘You’ll get the chance to scream. Just wait a while.’
‘Don’t you dare hit her!’ yelled Reynevan.
‘We’ll give you a chance to scream, too, little rooster,’ Wolfher added, still menacingly calm. ‘Come on, out with him.’
The Stercza brothers threw Reynevan down the garret’s steep stairs and the boy tumbled onto the landing, splintering part of the wooden balustrade. Before he could get up, they seized him again and threw him out into the courtyard, onto sand strewn with steaming piles of horse shit.
‘Well, well, well,’ said Nicolaus of Stercza, the youngest of the brothers, barely a stripling, who was holding the horses. ‘Look who’s stopped by. Could it be Reinmar of Bielawa?’
‘The scholarly braggart Bielawa,’ snorted Jentsch of Knobelsdorf, known as Eagle Owl, a comrade and relative of the Sterczas. ‘The arrogant know-all Bielawa!’
‘Shitty poet,’ added Dieter Haxt, another friend of the family. ‘Bloody Abélard!’
‘And to prove to him we’re well read, too,’ said Wolfher as he descended the stairs, ‘we’ll do to him what they did to Abélard when he was caught with Héloïse. Well, Bielawa? How do you fancy being a capon?’
‘Go fuck yourself, Stercza.’
‘What? What?’ Although it seemed impossible, Wolfher Stercza had turned even paler. ‘The rooster still has the audacity to open his beak? To crow? The bullwhip, Jentsch!’
‘Don’t you dare beat him!’ Adèle called impotently as she was led down the stairs, now clothed, albeit incompletely. ‘Don’t you dare! Or I’ll tell everyone what you are like! That you courted me yourself, pawed me and tried to debauch me behind your brother’s back! That you swore vengeance on me if I spurned you! Which is why you are so . . . so . . .’
She couldn’t find the German word and the entire tirade fell apart. Wolfher just laughed.
‘Verily!’ he mocked. ‘People will listen to the Frenchwoman, the lewd strumpet. The bullwhip, Eagle Owl!’
The courtyard was suddenly awash with black Augustinian habits.
‘What is happening here?’ shouted the venerable Prior Erasmus Steinkeller, a bony and sallow old man. ‘Christians, what are you doing?’
‘Begone!’ bellowed Wolfher, cracking the bullwhip. ‘Begone, shaven-heads, hurry off to your prayer books! Don’t interfere in knightly affairs, or woe betide you, blackbacks!’
‘Good Lord.’ The prior put his liver-spotted hands together. ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do. In nomine Patris, et Filii—’
‘Morold, Wittich!’ roared Wolfher. ‘Bring the harlot here! Jentsch, Dieter, bind her paramour!’
‘Or perhaps,’ snarled Stefan Rotkirch, another friend of the family who had been silent until then, ‘we’ll drag him behind a horse a little?’
‘We could. But first, we’ll give him a flogging!’
Wolfher aimed a blow with the horsewhip at the still-prone Reynevan but did not connect, as his wrist was seized by Brother Innocent, nicknamed ‘Brother Insolent’ by his fellow friars, whose impressive height and build were apparent despite his humble monkish stoop. His vicelike grip held Wolfher’s arm motionless.
Stercza swore coarsely, jerked himself away and gave the monk a hard shove. But he might as well have shoved the tower in Oleśnica Castle for all the effect it had. Brother Innocent didn’t budge an inch. He shoved Wolfher back, propelling him halfway across the courtyard and dumping him in a pile of muck.
For a moment, there was silence. And then they all rushed the huge monk. Eagle Owl, the first to attack, was punched in the teeth and tumbled across the sand. Morold of Stercza took a thump to the ear and staggered off to one side, staring vacantly. The others swarmed over the Augustinian like ants, raining blows on the monk’s huge form. Brother Insolent retaliated just as savagely and in a distinctly unchristian way, quite at odds with Saint Augustine’s rule of humility.
The sight enraged the old prior. He flushed like a beetroot, roared like a lion and rushed into the fray, striking left and right with heavy blows of his rosewood crucifix.
‘Pax!’ he bellowed as he struck. ‘Pax! Vobiscum! Love thy neighbour! Proximum tuum! Sicut te ipsum! Whoresons!’
Dieter Haxt punched him hard. The old man was flung over backwards and his sandals flew up, describing pretty trajectories in the air. The Augustinians cried out and several of them charged into battle, unable to restrain themselves. The courtyard was seething in earnest.
Wolfher of Stercza, who had been shoved out of the confusion, drew a short sword and brandished it – bloodshed looked inevitable. But Reynevan, who had finally managed to stand up, whacked him in the back of the head with the handle of the bullwhip he had picked up. Stercza held his head and turned around, only for Reynevan to lash him across the face. As Wolfher fell to the ground, Reynevan rushed towards the horses.
‘Adèle! Here! To me!’
Adèle didn’t even budge, and the indifference painted on her face was alarming. Reynevan leaped into the saddle. The horse neighed and fidgeted.
Morold, Wittich, Haxt and Eagle Owl were now running towards him. Reynevan reined the horse around, whistled piercingly and spurred it hard, making for the gate.
‘After him!’ yelled Wolfher. ‘To your horses and get after him!’
Reynevan’s first thought was to head towards Saint Mary’s Gate and out of the town into the woods, but the stretch of Cattle Street leading to the gate was totally crammed with wagons. Furthermore, the horse, urged on and frightened by the cries of an unfamiliar rider, was showing great individual initiative, so before he knew it, Reynevan was hurtling along at a gallop towards the town square, splashing mud and scattering passers-by. He didn’t have to look back to know the others were hot on his heels given the thudding of hooves, the neighing of horses, the angry roaring of the Sterczas and the furious yelling of people being jostled.
He jabbed the horse to a full gallop with his heels, hitting and knocking over a baker carrying a basket. A shower of loaves and pastries flew into the mud, soon to be trodden beneath the hooves of the Sterczas’ horses. Reynevan didn’t even look back, more concerned with what was ahead of him than behind. A cart piled high with faggots of brushwood loomed up before his eyes. The cart was blocking almost the entire street, the rest of which was occupied by a group of half-clothed urchins, kneeling down and busily digging something extremely engrossing out of the muck.
‘We have you, Bielawa!’ thundered Wolfher from behind, also seeing the obstruction.
Reynevan’s horse was racing so swiftly there was no chance of stopping it. He pressed himself against its mane and closed his eyes. As a result, he didn’t see the half-naked children scatter with the speed and grace of rats. He didn’t look back, so nor did he see a peasant in a sheepskin jerkin turn around, somewhat stupefied, as he hauled a cart into the road. Nor did he see the Sterczas riding broadside into the cart. Nor Jentsch of Knobelsdorf soaring from the saddle and sweeping half of the faggots from the cart with his body.
Reynevan galloped down Saint John’s Street, between the town hall and the burgermeister’s house, hurtling at full speed into Oleśnica’s huge and crowded town square. Pandemonium erupted. Aiming for the southern frontage and the squat, square tower of the Oława Gate visible above it, Reynevan galloped through the crowds, leaving havoc behind him. Townsfolk yelled and pigs squealed, as overturned stalls and benches showered a hail of household goods and foodstuffs of every kind in all directions. Clouds of feathers flew everywhere as the Sterczas – hot on Reynevan’s heels – added to the destruction.
Reynevan’s horse, frightened by a goose flying past its nose, recoiled and hurtled into a fish stall, shattering crates and bursting open barrels. The enraged fishmonger made a great swipe with a keep net, missing Reynevan but striking the horse’s rump. The horse whinnied and slewed sideways, upending a stall selling thread and ribbons, and only a miracle prevented Reynevan from falling. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw the stallholder running after him brandishing a huge cleaver (serving God only knew what purpose in the haberdashery trade). Spitting out some goose feathers stuck to his lips, he brought the horse under control and galloped through the shambles, knowing that the Oława Gate was very close.
‘I’ll tear your balls off, Bielawa!’ Wolfher of Stercza roared from behind. ‘I’ll tear them off and stuff them down your throat!’
‘Kiss my arse!’
Only four men were chasing him now – Rotkirch had been pulled from his horse and was being roughed up by some infuriated market traders.
Reynevan darted like an arrow down an avenue of animal carcasses suspended by their legs. Most of the butchers leaped back in alarm, but one carrying a large haunch of beef on one shoulder tumbled under the hooves of Wittich’s horse, which took fright, reared up and was ploughed into by Wolfher’s horse. Wittich flew from the saddle straight onto the meat stall, nose-first into livers, lights and kidneys, and was then landed on by Wolfher. His foot was caught in the stirrup and before he could free himself, he had destroyed a large number of stalls and covered himself in mud and blood.
At the last moment, Reynevan quickly lowered his head over the horse’s neck to duck under a wooden sign with a piglet’s head painted on it. Dieter Haxt, who was bearing down on him, wasn’t quick enough and the cheerfully grinning piglet slammed into his forehead. Dieter flew from the saddle and crashed into a pile of refuse, frightening some cats. Reynevan turned around. Now only Nicolaus of Stercza was keeping up with him.
Reynevan shot out of the chaos at a full gallop and into a small square where some tanners were working. As a frame hung with wet hides loomed up before him, he urged his horse to jump. It did. And Reynevan didn’t fall off. Another miracle.
Nicolaus wasn’t as lucky. His horse skidded to a halt in front of the frame and collided with it, slipping on the mud and scraps of meat and fat. The youngest Stercza shot over his horse’s head, with very unfortunate results. He flew belly-first right onto a scythe used for scraping leather which the tanners had left propped up against the frame.
At first, Nicolaus had no idea what had happened. He got up from the ground, caught hold of his horse, and only when it snorted and stepped back did his knees sag and buckle beneath him. Still not really knowing what was happening, the youngest Stercza slid across the mud after the panicked horse, which was still moving back and snorting. Finally, as he released the reins and tried to get to his feet again, he realised something was wrong and looked down at his midriff.
He dropped to his knees in the middle of a rapidly spreading pool of blood.
Dieter Haxt rode up, reined in his horse and dismounted. A moment later, Wolfher and Wittich followed suit.
Nicolaus sat down heavily. Looked at his belly again. Screamed and then burst into tears. His eyes began to glaze over as the blood gushing from him mingled with the blood of the oxen and hogs butchered that morning.
‘Nicolaaaaus!’ yelled Wolfher.
Nicolaus of Stercza coughed and choked. And died.
‘You are dead, Reinmar of Bielawa!’ Wolfher of Stercza, pale with fury, bellowed towards the gate. ‘I’ll catch you, kill you, destroy you. Exterminate you and your entire viperous family. Your entire viperous family, do you hear?’
Reynevan didn’t. Amid the thud of horseshoes on the bridge planks, he was leaving Oleśnica and dashing south, straight for the Wrocław highway.
Excerpted from The Tower of Fools. © 2020 Published by Orbit Books (US) and Gollancz (UK), October 27, 2020. All Rights Reserved.
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