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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knights Of The Cross - Part 5 - Chapter 4
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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 5 - Chapter 4 Post by :Finao Category :Long Stories Author :Henryk Sienkiewicz Date :July 2011 Read :2788

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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 5 - Chapter 4

PART FIFTH: CHAPTER IV

The prince did not object to the duel, because, according to the customs of that time, he had no power to do so. He only prevailed upon Rotgier to write a letter to the master and to Zygfried von Loeve, stating that he was the first to throw down the gauntlet to the Mazovian knights, in consequence of which he appeared at a combat with the husband of Jurand's daughter, who had already challenged him once before.

The Teuton also explained to the grand master, that if he appeared at the duel without permission, he did it for the sake of the honor of the Order, and to avert ugly suspicions, which might entail disgrace, and which he, Rotgier, was always prepared to redeem with his own blood. This letter was sent instantly to the border by one of the knight's footmen, to be sent thence to Malborg by mail, which the Teutons, some years before others, invented and introduced into their possessions.

Meanwhile the snow in the courtyard was leveled and strewn with ashes, so that the feet of the fighters should neither clog nor slip upon the smooth surface. There was unusual excitement in the whole castle.

The knights and court ladies were so agitated that on the night preceding the fight nobody slept. They said, that a fight on horseback with spears, and even with swords, frequently terminates in wounds; on foot on the contrary, and particularly with terrible axes, it always terminates in death. All hearts were with Zbyszko, but the very ones who felt most friendly toward him or Danusia recollected with so much more fear the stories about the fame and dexterity of the Teuton. Many ladies spent the night in church, where also Zbyszko confessed to the priest Wyszoniek, They said one to another as they looked at his almost boyish face: "Why, he is a child yet! how can he expose his head to the German axe?" And they prayed the more fervently for aid for him. But when he arose at daybreak and walked through the chapel, in order to put on his arms in the hall, they again gained courage, because, although Zbyszko's features were indeed boyish, his body was of an extraordinary size, and strong, so that he seemed to them to be a picked man, who could take care of himself against even the most powerful.

The fight was to take place in the castle yard, which was surrounded by a porch. When it was broad daylight, the prince and princess arrived together with their children and took their seats in the centre between the pillars, from where the whole yard could best be overlooked. Next to them were the principal courtiers, noble ladies, and the knighthood. All the corners of the vestibule were filled: the domestics gathered behind the wall which was made from the swept snow, some clung to the posts, and even to the roof. There the vulgar muttered among themselves: "God grant that our champion may not be subdued!"

The day was cold, moist, but clear; the sky swarmed with daws, which inhabited the roofs and summits of the bastions, and which, scared by the unusual bustle, moved in circles, with great clapping of wings, over the castle. Notwithstanding the cold, the people perspired with excitement, and when the first horn sounded to announce the entrance of the combatants, all hearts began to beat like hammers.

They entered from opposite sides of the arena and halted at the barriers. Every one of the onlookers then held his breath, every one thought, that very soon two souls would escape to the threshold of the Divine Court and two dead bodies remain on the snow, and the lips, as well as the cheeks of the women turned pale and livid at that thought; the eyes of the men again gazed steadfastly at the opponents as at a rainbow, because every one was trying to forecast, from their postures and armament alone, which side would be victorious.

The Teuton was dressed in an enameled blue cuirass, with similar armor for the thighs, as also the helmet with raised visor, and with a magnificent bunch of peacock feathers on the crest. Zbyszko's breast, sides and back were encased in splendid Milanese mail, which he had once captured from the Fryzjans. He had on his head a helmet with an open visor, and without feathers; on his legs was bull's hide. On their left shoulders, they carried shields with coat of arms; on the Teuton's at the top was a chessboard, at the bottom, three lions rampant; on Zbyszko's, a blunt horseshoe. In the right hand they carried broad, huge, terrible axes, set in oaken, blackened helves, longer than the arm of a grown man. The warriors who seconded them were: Hlawa, called by Zbyszko, Glowacz, and van Krist, both dressed in dark iron mail, both equally with axes and shields: van Krist had on his shield a St. John's wort; the shield of the Bohemian resembled that of the _Pomian_, with this difference, that instead of an axe stuck in a bull's head, it had a short weapon half sunk in the eye.

The horn sounded the second time, and, at the third, the opponents, according to agreement, were to advance against each other. A small space strewn with grey ashes now only separated them; over that space hovered in the air like an ominous bird--death. But before the third signal was given, Rotgier approached the pillars between which sat the prince's family, raised his steel-encased head, and began to speak in such a loud voice that he was heard in all corners of the vestibule:

"I take God, you, worthy lord, and the whole knighthood of this soil, as witness that I am not guilty of the blood that is about to be shed."

At these words their hearts were again ready to break with grief, seeing that the Teuton was so confident of himself and his victory. But Zbyszko, having a simple soul, turned to his Bohemian, and said:

"That Teutonic boasting stinks; it would be more appropriate after my death than while I am alive. That boaster moreover has a peacock's plume on his helmet, and at the very outset I made a vow to obtain three of them and afterward as many fingers of the hand. God grant it!"

"Lord ..." said the Bohemian, bending down and picking up in his hands some ashes from the snow, to prevent the axe-handle from slipping in his hand; "perhaps Christ will permit me quickly to despatch that vile Prussian, and then perhaps, if not to defeat this Teuton, at least put the handle of the axe between his knees and upset him."

"God save you!" hastily exclaimed Zbyszko; "you would cover me and yourself with disgrace."

But at that moment the horn sounded the third time. On hearing it, the seconds sprang quickly and furiously at each other, while the knights moved slowly and deliberately, as their dignity and gravity demanded, for the first bout.

Very few paid attention to the seconds, but those of the experienced men and of the domestics who looked at them understood at once how great were the odds on Hlawa's side. The German wielded the heavier axe and his shield was cumbersome. Below the shield were visible his legs which were longer, though not so strong nor active as the sturdy and tightly covered legs of the Bohemian.

Hlawa moreover pressed so vigorously that van Krist, almost from the first moment, was compelled to retreat. It was instantly understood that one of the adversaries would fall upon the other like a tempest; that he would attack and strike like lightning, while the other, under the conviction that death was already upon him, would merely defend himself so as to postpone the terrible moment as long as possible.

And so it actually was. That boaster, who generally stood up to fight only when he could not do otherwise, now recognized that his insolent and heedless words had led him into a fight with a terrible giant whom he ought to have avoided like a perdition; and so, when he now felt that every one of these blows could kill an ox, his heart began to fail entirely. He almost forgot that it is not sufficient to catch the blows on the shield, but that it was also necessary to return them. He saw above him the lightning of the axe and thought that every gleam was the last. Holding up the shield, he involuntarily half closed his eyes with a feeling of terror and doubt whether he would ever open them again. Very rarely he gave a blow himself, but without any hope of reaching his opponent, and raised the shield constantly higher over his head, so as to save it yet for a little.

Finally he began to tire, but the Bohemian struck on constantly more powerfully. Just as from a tall pine-tree great chips fly under the peasant's axe, so under the Bohemian's strokes fragments began to scale off and fly from the German warrior's armor. The upper edge of the shield was bent and shattered, the mail from the right shoulder rolled to the ground, together with the cut and already bloody strap of leather. This made van Krist's hair stand on end--and a deadly fear seized him. He struck with all the force of his arm once and again at the Bohemian's shield; finally, seeing that he had no chance against his adversary's terrible strength and that only some extraordinary exertion could save him, he threw himself suddenly with all the weight of his armor and body against Hlawa's legs. Both fell to the ground and tried to overcome each other, rolling and struggling in the snow. But the Bohemian soon appeared on top; for a moment he still checked the desperate efforts of his opponent; finally he pressed his knee upon the chain-armor covering his belly, and took from the back of his belt a short three-edged "dagger of mercy."(109)

(Footnote 109: Called: _Misericordia_.)


"Spare me!" faintly gasped van Krist, raising his eyes toward those of the Bohemian.

But the latter, instead of answering, stretched himself upon him the easier to reach his neck, and, cutting through the leather fastening of the helmet under the chin, stabbed the unfortunate man twice in the throat, directing the sharp edge downward toward the centre of the breast.

Then van Krist's pupils sank in their sockets, his hands and legs began to beat the snow, as if trying to clean it of the ashes, but after a moment he stiffened out and lay motionless, breathing only with red, foam-covered lips, and bleeding profusely.

But the Bohemian arose, wiped the "dagger of mercy" on the German's clothing, then raised the axe, and, leaning against it, he began to look at the harder and more stubborn fight between his knight and Brother Rotgier.

The western knights were already accustomed to comforts and luxuries, while the landowners in Little Poland and Great Poland, as also in Mazowsze, led a rigorous and hardy life, wherefore they awoke admiration by their bodily strength and endurance of all hardships, whether constant or occasional, even among strangers and foes. Now also it was demonstrated that Zbyszko was as superior to the Teuton in bodily strength as his squire was superior to van Krist, but it was also proven that his youth rendered him the inferior in knightly training.

It was in some measure favorable for Zbyszko that he had chosen a combat with axes, because fencing with that kind of weapon was impossible. With long and short swords, with which it was necessary to know the strokes, thrusts, and how to ward off blows, the German would have had a considerable superiority. But even so, Zbyszko, as well as the spectators, recognized from his motions and management of the shield, that they had before them an experienced and formidable man, who apparently was not entering a combat of this kind for the first time. To each of Zbyszko's blows Rotgier offered his shield, slightly withdrawing it at the concussion, by which means even the most powerful swing lost its force, and could neither cleave nor crush the smooth surface. He at times retreated and at times became aggressive, doing it quietly, though so quickly that the eyes could hardly follow his motions.

The prince was seized with fear for Zbyszko, and the faces of the men looked gloomy; it seemed that the German was purposely trifling with his opponent. Sometimes he did not even interpose the shield, but at the moment when Zbyszko struck, be turned half aside, so that the sharp edge of the axe cut the empty air. This was the most terrifying thing, because Zbyszko might thereby lose his balance and fall, and then his destruction would be inevitable. Seeing this, the Bohemian, standing over the slain van Krist, also became alarmed, and said to himself: "My God! if my master falls, I will strike him with the hook of my axe between the shoulder-blades, and overthrow him also."

However, Zbyszko did not fall, because, being very strong upon his legs and separating them widely, he was able to support the entire weight of his body on either as he swung.

Rotgier observed that instantly, and the onlookers were mistaken in supposing that he underestimated his opponent. On the contrary, after the first strokes, when, in spite of his utmost skill in withdrawing the shield, his hand almost stiffened under it, he understood that he would have a hard time with this youth, and that, if he did not knock him down by some clever manoeuvre, the combat would prove long and dangerous. He expected Zbyszko to fall upon the snow after a vain stroke in the air, and as that did not happen, he immediately became uneasy. He saw, beneath the steel visor, the closely-drawn nostrils and mouth of his opponent, and occasionally his gleaming eyes, and he said to himself that the other would fly into a blind rage and forget himself, lose his head, and madly think more of striking than of defending himself. But he was mistaken in this also. Zbyszko did not know how to avoid a stroke by a half-turn, but he did not forget his shield, and, while raising the axe, did not expose himself more than was necessary. His attention was apparently redoubled, and having recognized the experience and skill of his opponent, instead of forgetting himself he collected his thoughts and became more cautious; and there was that premeditation in his blows which not hot but cool anger only can conquer.

Rotgier, who had fought in many wars and battles, either in troop or singly, knew by experience that there are some people, like birds of prey, who are born to fight, being specially gifted by Nature, who bestows all things, with what others only attain after years of training, and he at the same time observed that he was now dealing with one of those. He understood from the very first strokes that there was in this youth something as in a hawk, who sees in his opponent only his prey, and thinks of nothing but getting him in his claws. Notwithstanding his own strength, he also noticed that it was not equal to Zbyszko's, and should he get exhausted before succeeding in giving a final stroke, the combat with this formidable, although less experienced, stripling, might result in his ruin. Thus reflecting, he determined to fight with the least possible effort, drew the shield closer to him, did not move much either forward or backward, restricted his motions, and gathered all the power of his soul and arm for one decisive stroke, and awaited his opportunity.

The terrible fight lasted longer than usual. A deathlike silence reigned in the porches. The only sounds heard were the sometimes ringing and sometimes hollow blows of the sharp points and edges of the axes against the shields. Such sights were not strange to the princes, knights and courtiers; and nevertheless a feeling, resembling terror, seemed to clutch all hearts as if with tongs. It was understood that this was not a mere exhibition of strength, skill and courage, but that in this fight there was a greater fury and despair, a greater and more inexorable stubbornness, a deeper vengeance. On one side terrible wrongs, love and fathomless sorrow; on the other, the honor of the entire Order and deep hatred, met on this field of battle for the Judgment of God.

Meanwhile the wintry, pale morning brightened, the grey fog cleared away, and the sunrays shone upon the blue cuirass of the Teuton and the silver Milanese armor of Zbyszko. The bell rang in the chapel for early mass, and at the sounds of the bell flights of crows again flew from the castle roofs, flapping their wings and crowing noisily, as if in joy at the sight of blood and the corpse lying motionless in the snow. Rotgier looked at it once and again during the fight, and suddenly began to feel very lonesome. All the eyes that were turned upon him were those of enemies. All the prayers, wishes and silent vows which the women were offering were in Zbyszko's favor. Moreover, although the Teuton was fully convinced that the squire would not cast himself upon him from behind, nor strike him treacherously, nevertheless, the presence and nearness of that terrifying figure involuntarily inspired him with such fear as people are subject to at the sight of a wolf, a bear or a buffalo, from which they are not separated by bars. And he could not shake off this feeling, especially as the Bohemian, in his desire to follow closely the course of the battle, constantly changed his place, stepping in between the fighters from the side, from behind, from the front--bending his head at the same time, and looking at him fiercely through the visor of the helmet, and sometimes slightly raising his bloody weapon, as if involuntarily.

At last the Teuton began to tire. One after another, he gave two blows, short but terrible, directing them at Zbyszko's right arm, but they were met by the shield with such force that the axe trembled in Rotgier's hand, and he himself was compelled to retreat suddenly to save himself from falling; and from that moment, he retreated steadily. Finally, not only his strength but also his coolness and patience began to be exhausted. At the sight of his retreating, a few triumphant shouts escaped from the breasts of the spectators, awakening in him anger and despair. The strokes of the axes became more frequent. Perspiration flowed from the brows of both fighters, and panting breath escaped from their breasts through their clenched teeth. The spectators ceased keeping silence, and now every moment voices, male or female, cried: "Strike! At him!... God's judgment! God's punishment! God help you!"

The prince motioned with his hand several times to silence them, but he could not restrain them! Every moment the noise increased, because children here and there began to cry on the porches, and finally, at the very side of the princess, a youthful, sobbing, female voice called out:

"For Danusia, Zbyszko! for Danusia!"

Zbyszko knew well that it was for Danusia's sake. He was sure that this Teuton had assisted in her capture, and in fighting him, he fought for her wrongs. But being young and eager for battles, during the combat he had thought of that only. But suddenly, that cry brought back to his mind her loss and her sufferings. Love, sorrow and vengeance poured fire into his veins. His heart began to call out with suddenly awakened pain, and he was plainly seized with a fighting frenzy. The Teuton could not any longer catch nor avoid the terrible strokes, resembling thunderbolts. Zbyszko struck his shield against his with such superhuman force, that the German's arm stiffened suddenly and fell.... He retreated in terror and half crouched, but that instant there flashed in his eyes the gleam of the axe, and the sharp edge fell like a thunderbolt upon his right shoulder.

Only a rending cry reached the ears of the onlookers: "Jesus!"--then Rotgier retreated one more step and fell upon his back on the ground. Immediately there was a noise and buzz on the porches, as in a bee-garden in which the bees, warmed by the sun, commence to move and swarm. The knights ran down the stairs in whole throngs, the servants jumped over the snow-walls, to take a look at the corpses. Everywhere resounded the shouts: "This is God's judgment ... Jurand has an heir! Glory to him and thanksgiving! This is a man for the axe!" Others again cried: "Look and marvel! Jurand himself could not strike more nobly." A whole group of curious ones stood around Rotgier's corpse, and he lay on his back with a face as white as snow, with gaping mouth and with a bloody arm so terribly shorn from the neck down to the armpit, that it scarcely held by a few shreds.

Therefore, others again said: "He was alive just now and walked upon the earth with arrogance, but now he cannot even move a finger." And thus speaking, some admired his stature, because he took up a large space on the battlefield, and appeared even larger in death; others again admired his peacock plume, changing colors beautifully in the snow; others again his armor, which was valued at a good village. But the Bohemian, Hlawa, now approached with two of Zbyszko's retainers in order to take it off from the deceased, therefore the curious surrounded Zbyszko, praising and extolling him to the skies, because they justly thought that his fame would redound to the credit of the whole Mazovian and Polish knighthood. Meanwhile the shield and axe were taken from him, to lighten his burden, and Mrokota of Mocarzew unbuckled his helmet and covered his hair, wet with perspiration, with a cap of scarlet cloth.

Zbyszko stood, as if petrified, breathing heavily, with the fire not fully extinguished yet in his eyes, and a face pale with exhaustion and determination and trembling somewhat with excitement and fatigue. But he was taken by the hand and led to the princely family, who were waiting for him in a warm room, by the fireside. There Zbyszko kneeled down before them and when Father Wyszoniek gave him a blessing and said a prayer for the eternal rest of the souls of the dead, the prince embraced the young knight and said:

"God Almighty decided between you two and guided your hand, for which His name be blessed. Amen!"

Then turning to the knight de Lorche and others, he added:

"You, foreign knight and all present I take as witnesses to what I testify myself, that they met according to law and custom, and as the 'Judgment of God' is everywhere performed, this also was conducted in a knightly and devout manner."

The local warriors cried out affirmatively in chorus; when again the prince's words were translated to de Lorche, he arose and announced that he not only testified that all was conducted in knightly and devout style, but should anybody in Malborg or any other princely court dare to question it, he, de Lorche, would challenge him instantly to fight either on foot or horseback, even if he should not merely be a common knight, but a giant or wizard, exceeding even Merlin's magical power.

Meanwhile, the princess Anna Danuta, at the moment when Zbyszko embraced her knees, said as she bent down to him:

"Why do you not feel happy? Be happy and thank God, because if He in His mercy has granted you this suit, then He will not leave you in the future, and will lead you to happiness."

But Zbyszko replied:

"How can I be happy, gracious lady? God gave me victory and vengeance over that Teuton, but Danusia was not and still is not here, and I am no nearer to her now than I was before."

"The most stubborn foes, Danveld, Godfried and Rotgier live no longer," replied the princess, "and they say that Zygfried is more just than they, although cruel. Praise God's mercy at least for that. Also de Lorche said that if the Teuton fell he would carry his body away, and go instantly to Malborg and demand Danusia from the grand master himself. They will certainly not dare to disobey the grand master."

"May God give health to de Lorche," said Zbyszko, "and I will go with him to Malborg."

But these words frightened the princess, who felt it was as if Zbyszko said he would go unarmed among the wolves that assembled in the winter in packs in the deep Mazovian forests.

"What for?" she exclaimed. "For sure destruction? On your arrival, neither de Lorche nor those letters, written by Rotgier before the fight, will help you. You will save nobody and only ruin yourself."

But he arose, crossed his hands and said: "So may God help me, that I shall go to Malborg and even across oceans. So may Christ bless me, that I shall look for her until the last breath of my nostrils, and that I shall not cease until I perish. It is easier for me to fight the Germans, and meet them in arms, than for this orphan to moan under ground. Oh, easier! easier!"

And he said that, as always when he mentioned Danusia, with such rapture, with such pain, that his words broke off as if some one had clutched him by the throat.

The princess recognized that it would be useless to turn him aside, and that if anybody wanted to detain him it must be by chaining him and casting him under ground.

But Zbyszko could not leave at once. Knights of that day were not allowed to heed any obstacles, but he was not permitted to break the knightly custom that required the winner in a duel to spend a whole day on the field of combat, until the following midnight, and this in order to show that he remained master of the field of battle and to show his readiness for another fight, should any of the relatives or friends of the defeated wish to challenge him to such.

This custom was even observed by whole armies, which thus sometimes lost advantages which might accrue from haste after the victory. Zbyszko did not even attempt to evade that inexorable law, and refreshing himself, and afterward putting on his armor, he lingered until midnight in the castle yard, under the clouded wintry sky, awaiting the foe that could not come from anywhere.

At midnight, when the heralds finally announced his victory by sound of trumpet, Mikolaj of Dlugolas invited him to supper and at the same time to a council with the prince.

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PART FIFTH: CHAPTER V The prince was the first to take the floor at the consultation and spoke as follows: "It is bad that we have no writing nor testimony against the counts. Although our suspicions may be justified, and I myself think that they and nobody else captured Jurand's daughter, still what of it? They will deny it. And if the grand master asks for proofs, what shall I show him? Bah! even Jurand's letter speaks in their favor." Here he turned to Zbyszko: "You say that they forced this letter from him with threats. It is possible, and undoubtedly
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PART FIFTH: CHAPTER III There was anxiety about Zbyszko in the whole court, among the knights as well as among the ladies, because he was universally liked; but, according to Jurand's letter, nobody doubted that the right was on the side of the Teuton. On the other hand it was known that Rotgier was one of the more famous brethren of the Order. The squire van Krist narrated among the Mazovian nobility, perhaps on purpose, that his lord before becoming an armed monk, once sat at the Honor-Table of the Teutons, to which table only world-famous knights were admitted, those who
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