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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 4
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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 4 Post by :KarenB Category :Long Stories Author :Henryk Sienkiewicz Date :July 2011 Read :1429

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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 4


Macko and Zbyszko had seen enough of Lithuanian and Zmudz warriors when serving under Prince Witold. The sights of the encampment were nothing new to them. But the Bohemian looked at them with curiosity. He pondered both upon the possibility of their fighting qualities and compared them with the Polish and German knights. The camp was situated on a plain surrounded by forests and swamps, which rendered it impregnable, because none could wade through that treacherous marsh land. Even the place where the booths were situated was quaggy and muddy, but the soldiers had covered it with a thick layer of chips and branches of fir and pine-trees, which enabled them to camp upon it as upon perfectly dry ground. For Prince Skirwoillo they had hastily constructed a Lithuanian _numy_, constructed of earth and logs, and for the most important personages scores of booths of twisted branches. But the common soldiers were squatting in the open around the camp-fires, and for shelter against bad weather they only had goatskin coats, and skins upon their naked bodies. None had gone to sleep yet; they had nothing to do, after yesterday's defeat, and had thrown up earthworks during the day. Some of them were sitting or lying around the bright fire which they fed with dry juniper branches. Others were scraping in the ashes and cinders from which proceeded a smell of baked turnips, which form the ordinary food of the Lithuanians, and the strong odor of burned meat. Between the camp-fires were piles of arms; they were close at hand so that in case of need it would be an easy matter for everybody to reach his own weapon. Hlawa looked with curiosity upon the lances with narrow and long heads made of tempered iron, and the handles of oak saplings, studded with flint or nails, hatchets with short handles like the Polish axes used by travelers, and others with handles almost as long as those of the battle-axes used by the foot-soldiers. There were also among them some bronze weapons from ancient times when iron was not yet employed in that low country. Some swords were entirely made of bronze, but most of them were of good steel of Novgorod. The Bohemian handled the spears, swords, hatchets, axes and tarred bows, examining them closely by the light of the camp-fires. There were a few horses near the fires, whilst the cattle grazed at a distance in the forests and meadows, under the care of vigilant ostlers; but the great nobles liked to have their chargers close at hand, hence there were about twoscore horses within the camp, fed by hand by the slaves of the noblemen in a space enclosed by stacked arms. Hlawa was amazed at the sight of the extraordinarily small shaggy chargers, with powerful necks, such strange brutes that the western knights took them to be quite another species of wild beast, more like a unicorn than a horse.

"Big battle horses are of no use here," said the experienced Macko, recollecting his former service under Witold, "because large horses would at once stick in the mire, but the native nag goes everywhere, like the men."

"But in the field," replied the Bohemian, "the native horse could not withstand that of the German."

"True, he may not be able to withstand, but, on the other hand, the German could not run away from the Zmudzian, neither could he catch him; they are very swift, swifter than those of the Tartars."

"Nevertheless I wonder; because when I saw the Tartar captives whom Lord Zych brought to Zgorzelice, they were small and matched their horses; but these are big men."

The men were tall indeed; their broad chests and strong arms could be seen under their goatskin coats; they were not stout, but bony and sinewy, and as a rule they excelled the inhabitants of other parts of Lithuania, because they lived in better and more productive lands, and were seldom subject to the dearth which often afflicted Lithuania. On the other hand they were wilder than the other Lithuanians. The court of the chief prince was at Wilno, whither the princes from the east and west, and ambassadors and foreign merchants came, and that contributed somewhat to lessen the roughness of the inhabitants of the city and neighborhood. There the stranger only appeared in the form of a Knight of the Cross or a sworded cavalier, carrying to the settlements in the deep forests fire, slavery and baptism of blood. That was the reason that the people in that part of the country were very coarse and rude, more like those of ancient times, and very much opposed to everything new, the oldest custom and the oldest warrior clan were theirs, and the reason that paganism was supported was that the worship of the cross did not bring the announcement of good tidings with apostolic love, but armed German monks instead, possessing souls of executioners.

Skirwoilla and the most notable princes and nobles were already Christians, because they followed the example of Jagiello and Witold. Others even among the common and uncivilized warriors felt in their hearts that the death-knell of the old world and religion had sounded. They were ready to bend their heads to the cross, but not to that cross which the Germans carried, not to the hand of the enemy. "We ask baptism," they proclaimed to all princes and nations, "but bear in mind that we are human beings, not beasts, that can be given away, bought or sold." Meanwhile, when their old faith was extinguished, as a fire goes out for lack of fuel, their hearts were again turned away simply because the religion was forced upon them by the Germans, and there was a general sense of deep sorrow for the future.

The Bohemian, who had been accustomed from his infancy to hear the jovial noise of the soldiers, and had grown up among songs and music, observed for the first time the unusual quiet and gloom in the Lithuanian camp. Here and there, far away from the camp-fires of Skirwoilla, the sound of a whistle or fife was heard, or the suppressed notes of the song of the _burtenikas_, to which the soldiers listened with bent heads and eyes fixed on the glowing fire. Some crouched around the fire with their elbows upon their knees and their faces hidden in their hands, and covered with skins, which made them look like wild beasts of the forest. But when they turned their heads toward the approaching knights, one saw from their mild expression and blue pupils that they were not at all savage or austere, but looked more like sorrowful and wronged children. At the outskirts of the camp the wounded of the last battle lay upon moss. _Labdarysi and _Sextonowi, conjurers and soothsayers, muttered exorcisms over them or attended to their wounds, to which they applied certain healing herbs; the wounded lay quietly, patiently suffering pain and torture. From the depth of the forest, across the marshes and lakes, came the whistling of the ostlers; now and then the wind arose, driving the smoke of the camp-fires and making the dark forest resound. The night was already far advanced and the camp-fires began to burn down and extinguish, which increased the dominating silence and intensified the impression of sadness, almost to a crushing extent.

Zbyszko gave orders to the people he led, who easily understood him because there were a few Poles among them. Then he turned to his armor-bearer and said:

"You have seen enough, now it is time to return to the tent."

"I have seen," replied Hlawa, "but I am not satisfied with what I have observed, for it is obvious that they are a defeated people."

"Twice,--four days in front of the castle, and the day before yesterday at the crossing. Now Skirwoilla wants to go a third time to experience another rout."

"How is it that he does not see that he cannot fight the Germans with such soldiers? Pan Macko told me the same thing, and now I observe myself that they are a poor lot, and that they must be boys in battle."

"You are mistaken in that, because they are a brave people and have few equals, but they fight in disordered crowds, whilst the Germans fight in battle array. If the Zmudzians succeed in breaking the German ranks, then the Germans suffer more than themselves. Bah, but the latter know this and close their ranks in such a manner that they stand like a wall."

"We must not even think about capturing the castles," said Hlawa.

"Because there are no engines of war whatever to attempt it," replied Zbyszko. "Prince Witold has them, but as long as he does not arrive I am unable to capture them, unless by accident or treachery."

Then they reached the tent, in front of which burned a huge fire, and within they found smoking dishes of meat, which the servants had prepared for them. It was cold and damp in the tent, therefore the knights and Hlawa lay down upon skins in front of the fire.

When they had fortified themselves, they tried to sleep, but they could not; Macko turned from side to side, and when he observed Zbyszko sitting near the fire covering his knees with twigs, he asked:

"Listen! Why did you give advice to go as far as Ragnety against Gotteswerder, and not near here? What do you profit by it?"

"Because there is a voice within me which tells me that Danuska is at Ragnety, and they are guarded less than they are here."

"There was no time to continue the conversation then, for I too was fatigued and the people after the defeat gathered in the woods. But now, tell me, how is it? Do you mean to search for the girl forever?"

"I say that she is not a girl, but my wife," replied Zbyszko.

There was silence, for Macko well understood that there was no answer to that. If Danuska were still Jurandowna (Miss Jurand) Macko might have advised his nephew to abandon her: but in the presence of the Holy Sacrament, his search for her was his simple duty. Macko would not have put the question to him if he had been present.

Not having been there he always spoke of her at the betrothal or marriage as a girl.

"Very well," he said, after a while. "But to all my questions during the last two days, you replied that you knew nothing."

"Because I do know nothing, except that the wrath of God is probably upon me."

Then Hlawa lifted up his head from the bearskin, sat up and listened with curiosity and attention.

And Macko said:

"As long as sleep does not overpower you, tell me what have you seen, what have you done, and what success have you had at Malborg?"

Zbyszko stroked his long, untrimmed hair from his brow, remained silent for a moment, and then said:

"Would to God that I knew as much of Danuska as I do of Malborg. You ask me what I have seen there? I have seen the immense power of the Knights of the Cross; it is supported by all kings and nations, and I do not know any one who could measure himself with it. I have seen their castles, which even Caesar of Rome does not possess. I have seen inexhaustible treasures, I have seen arms, I have seen swarms of armed monks, knights, and common soldiers,--and as many relics as one sees with the Holy Father in Rome, and I tell you that my soul trembled within me at the thought of the possibility of fighting them. Who can prevail against them? Who can oppose them and break their power?"

"We must destroy them," exclaimed the Bohemian, who could restrain himself no longer.

Zbyszko's words appeared strange also to Macko, and although he was anxious to hear all the adventures of the young man, nevertheless, he interrupted him and said:

"Have you forgotten Wilno? How many times we threw ourselves against them, shield against shield, head against head! You have also seen that, how slow they were against us; and, at our hardiness, they exclaimed that it was not enough to let the horses sweat and break the lances, but it was necessary to take the strangers by the throat or offer their own. Surely there were also guests who challenged us. But all of them went away with shame. What has caused you to change?"

"I am not changed, for I fought at Malborg where also they tilted with sharp weapons. But you don't know their whole strength."

But the old knight got angry and said:

"Do you know the whole strength of Poland? Did you see all the regiments together? Well, you did not. But their strength consists in the people's wrongs and treachery; there, they do not even possess one span of land. They received our princes there in the same manner as a beggar receives in his house, and they presented gifts, but they have grown powerful, they have bitten the hand which fed them, like abominable mad dogs. They seized the lands and treacherously captured the city; that is their strength. The day of judgment and vengeance is at hand."

"You requested me to tell you what I have seen, and now you get angry; I prefer to tell no more," said Zbyszko.

But Macko breathed angrily for a while, then he quieted down and said:

"But this time, thus it will be: You see a tremendous tower-like pine-tree in the forest; it seems as it will stand there forever; but strike it fairly with your axe and it will reveal hollowness and punk will come out. So is it with the strength of the Knights of the Cross. But I commanded you to tell me what you have done and what you have accomplished there. Let me see, you said you fought there with weapons, did you not?"

"I did. They received me at first in an ungrateful and arrogant manner; they knew of my fight with Rotgier. Perhaps they had planned some evil against me. But I came provided with letters from the prince; and de Lorche, whom they honor, protected me from their evil designs. Then came feasts and tourneys in which the Lord Jesus helped me. You have already heard how Ulrych, the brother of the grand master, loved me, and obtained an order from the master himself to surrender Danuska to me."

"We were told," said Macko, "that when his saddle-girdle broke, you would not attack him."

"I helped him up with my lance, and from that moment he became fond of me. Hey! Good God! They furnished me with such strong letters, that enabled me to travel from castle to castle and search. I thought then that my sufferings were at an end, but now I am sitting here, in a wild country, without any help, in sorrow and perplexity, and it is getting worse daily."

He remained silent for a moment, then he forcibly threw a chip into the fire which scattered sparks among the burning brands, and said:

"If that poor child is suffering in a castle, somewhere in this neighborhood, and thinks that I don't care for her, then let sudden death overtake me!"

His heart was evidently so full of pain and impatience that he began again to throw chips into the fire, as though carried away by a sudden and blind pain; but they were greatly astonished because they had not realized that he loved Danusia so much.

"Restrain yourself," exclaimed Macko. "How did you fare with those letters of safe conduct. Did the _comthurs pay no attention to the master's command?"

"Restrain yourself, sir," said Hlawa. "God will comfort you; perhaps very soon."

Tears glistened in Zbyszko's eyes, but he controlled himself, and said:

"They opened different castles and prisons. I have been everywhere; I searched up to the breaking out of this war. At Gierdaw I was told by the magistrate, von Heideck, that the laws of war differ from those in time of peace, and that my safe conduct was of no avail. I challenged him at once, but he did not accept, and he ordered me to quit the castle."

"What happened in other places?" inquired Macko.

"It was the same everywhere. The Count Koenizsberg, who is the chief magistrate of Gierdaw, even refused to read the letter of the master, saying that 'war is war,' and told me to carry my head--while it was intact--out of the place. It was everywhere the same."

"Now I understand," said the old knight, "seeing that you got nothing, you came here at least to avenge yourself."

"Exactly so," replied Zbyszko. "I also thought that we should take prisoners, and also invest some castles. But those fellows could not conquer castles."

"Hey! It will be otherwise when Prince Witold himself comes."

"May God grant it!"

"He will come; I heard at the Mazovian court that he will come, and perhaps the king and all the forces of Poland will come with him."

Further conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Skirwoilla who unexpectedly appeared from the shadow, and said:

"We must be on the march."

Hearing that, the knights got up with alacrity. Skirwoilla approached his tremendous head to their faces, and said in low tones:

"There is news: A relief train is moving toward New Kowno. Two knights are at the head of the soldiers, cattle and provisions. Let us capture them."

"Shall we cross the Niemen," inquired Zbyszko.

"Yes! I know a ford."

"Do they know at the castle of the relief train?"

"They know and will come to meet them, but we shall pounce upon them too."

Then he instructed them where they were to lie in ambush, so as to attack, unexpectedly, those hurrying from the castle. His intentions were to engage the enemy in two battles at the same time, and avenge himself for the last defeat, which could easily be effected, considering that owing to their last victory the enemy considered himself perfectly safe from an attack. Therefore Skirwoilla appointed the place and time where they should meet; as for the rest, he left it with them, for he relied upon their courage and resource. They were very glad at heart because they appreciated the fact that an experienced and skilful warrior was speaking to them. Then he ordered them to start, and he went to his _numy where the princes and captains were already waiting. There he repeated his orders, gave new ones, and finally put to his lips a pipe, carved out of a wolf's bone, and whistled shrilly, which was heard from one end of the camp to the other.

At the sound of the whistle they gathered around the extinguished camp-fires; here and there sparks shot up, then little flames which increased momentarily, and wild figures of warriors were visible gathering around the stands of arms. The forest throbbed and moved. In a moment there were heard the voices of the ostlers chasing the herd toward the camp.

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PART SEVENTH: CHAPTER III In the woods, about a mile to the east of Kowno, which Witold had destroyed, were stationed the principal forces of Skirwoillo, extending in time of need from point to point in the neighborhood. They made quick expeditions sometimes to the Prussian frontier, and at others against the castles and smaller fortified places which were still in the hands of the Knights of the Cross, and filled the country with flame of war. There the faithful armor-bearer found Zbyszko and Macko only two days after the latter arrived. After greetings, the Bohemian slept like a rock the