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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 5
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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 5 Post by :GaryMcLeod Category :Long Stories Author :Henryk Sienkiewicz Date :July 2011 Read :3081

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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 5


They arrived very early at Niewiazy where they crossed the river, some on horseback, some upon bundles of osier. Everything went with such dispatch that Macko, Zbyszko, Hlawa and the Mazovian volunteers were astonished at the skilfulness of the people; only then they understood why neither woods, nor swamps, nor rivers could prevent Lithuanian expeditions. When they emerged from the river none had taken off his wet clothing, not even the sheep and wolfskin coats, but exposed themselves to the rays of the sun until they steamed like pitch-burners, and after a short rest they marched hastily toward the north. At nightfall they arrived at the Niemen.

The crossing of the great river at that place, swollen in the spring, was not an easy matter. The ford, which was known to Skuwoilla, changed in places into deep water, so that the horses had to swim more than a quarter of a furlong. Two men were carried away quite near Zbyszko, and Hlawa tried to rescue them, but in vain; owing to the darkness and the rushing water they lost sight of them. The drowning men did not dare to shout for help, because the leader had previously ordered that the crossing should be effected in the most quiet manner possible. Nevertheless all the others fortunately succeeded in reaching the other side of the river, where they remained without fires till the morning.

At dawn, the whole army was divided into two divisions. Skirwoilla at the head of one went toward the interior to encounter the knights at the head of the relief train for Gotteswerder. The second division was led back by Zbyszko, toward the island, in order to attack the people coming from the castle to meet the expedition, upon the elevated ground.

It was a mild and bright morning, but down in the woods the marshes and bushes were covered with a thick white steam which entirely obscured the distance. That was just a desirable condition for Zbyszko, because the Germans coming from the castle would not be able to see them in time to retreat. The young knight was exceedingly glad of it, and said to Macko:

"Let us get to our position instead of contemplating the mist yonder. God grant that it is not dissipated before noon."

Then he hurried to the front to give orders to the _setniks_,(116) and immediately returned and said:

(Footnote 116: _Setnik_, captain over one hundred.)

"We shall soon meet them upon the road coming from the ferry of the island toward the interior. There we shall hide ourselves in the thicket and watch for them."

"How do you know about that road?" asked Macko.

"We got the information from the local peasants, of whom we have quite a number among our people who will guide us everywhere."

"At what distance from the castle do you intend to attack?"

"About one mile from it."

"Very well; because if it were nearer, the soldiers from the castle might hurry to the rescue, but now they will not only not be able to arrive in time, but will be beyond hearing distance."

"You see I thought about that."

"You thought about one thing, think also about another: if they are reliable peasants, send two or three of them in front, so as to signal when they descry the Germans coming."

"Bah! That also has been attended to."

"Then, I have yet something else to tell you; order one or two hundred men, as soon as the battle begins, not to take part in the fight, but hasten to the rear and cut off their retreat to the island."

"That is the first thing," replied Zbyszko. "Those orders have been given. The Germans will fall into a trap and be snared."

Hearing this, Macko looked approvingly at his nephew; he was pleased that in spite of his youth, he understood much of warfare; therefore he smiled and murmured:

"Our true blood!"

But Hlawa, the shield-bearer, was more glad than Macko, because there was nothing he loved more than war.

"I don't know the fighting capacity of our people," he said, "but they march quietly, they are dexterous, and they seem to be eager. And if Skirwoilla yonder has well devised his plans, then not a single foot shall escape."

"God grant that only a few may escape," replied Zbyszko. "But I have given orders to capture as many prisoners as possible; and if there should happen to be a knight or a religious brother among them, he must absolutely not be killed."

"Why not, sir?" inquired the Bohemian.

"You also take care," Zbyszko replied, "that it be so. If there be a knight among them, he must possess much information, owing to his wanderings in many cities and castles, seeing, and hearing much; much more so if he is a religious member of the Order. Therefore I owe to God my coming to this place so that I might learn something about Danusia, and exchange prisoners. If there be any, this is the only measure left for me."

Then he urged his horse and galloped again to the front to give his final orders and at the same time to get rid of his sad thoughts; there was no time to be lost, because the spot where they were to lie in ambush was very near.

"Why does the young lord think that his little wife is alive, and that she is somewhere in this neighborhood?" asked the Bohemian.

"Because if Zygfried, at the first impulse, did not kill her at Szczytno," replied Macko, "then one may rightly conclude that she is still alive. The priest of Szczytno would not have told us what he did, in the presence of Zbyszko, if she had been killed. It is a very difficult matter; even the most cruel man would not lift up his hand against a defenceless woman. Bah! Against an innocent child."

"It is a hard thing, but not with the Knights of the Cross. And the children of Prince Witold?"

"It is quite true, they have wolfish hearts. Nevertheless, it is true that they did not kill her at Szczytno, and Zygfried himself left for this part of the country; it is therefore possible that he had hid her in some castle."

"Hey! If it turns out so, then I shall take this island and the castle."

"Only look at this people," said Macko.

"Surely, surely; but I have an idea that I will communicate to the young lord."

"Even if you have ten ideas, I do not care. You cannot overthrow the walls with pikes."

Macko pointed toward the lines of pikes, with which most of the warriors were provided; then he asked:

"Did you ever see such soldiers?"

As a matter of fact, the Bohemian had never seen the like. There was a dense crowd in front of them marching irregularly. Cavalry and infantry were mixed up and could not keep proper steps while marching through the undergrowth in the woods. In order to keep pace with the cavalry the infantry held on to the horses' manes, saddles and tails. The warriors' shoulders were covered with wolf, lynx and bearskins; some had attached to their heads boars' tusks, others antlers of deer, and others still had shaggy ears attached, so that, were it not for the protruding weapons above their heads, and the dingy bows and arrows at their backs, they would have looked from the rear and specially in the mist like a moving body of wild beasts proceeding from the depths of the forest, driven by the desire for blood or hunger, in search of prey. There was something terrible and at the same time extraordinary in it: it had the appearance of that wonder called _gnomon_, when, according to popular belief, wild beasts and even stones and bushes were moving in front of them.

It was at that sight that one of the young nobles from Lenkawice, who accompanied the Bohemian, approached him, crossed himself, and said:

"In the name of the Father and Son! I say I am marching with a pack of wolves, and not with men."

But Hlawa, although he had never before seen such a sight, replied like an experienced man who knows all about it and is not surprised at anything.

"Wolves roam in packs during the winter season, but the dog-blood of the Knights of the Cross they also taste in the spring."

It was spring indeed, the month of May; the hazel-trees which filled the woods were covered with a bright green. Among the moss, upon which the soldiers stepped noiselessly, appeared white and blue anemones as well as young berries and dentillated ferns. Softened by abundant rains, the bark of the trees produced an agreeable odor, and from the forest under foot, consisting of pine-needles and punk, proceeded a pungent smell. The sun displayed a rainbow in the drops upon the leaves and branches of the trees, and above it the birds sang joyfully.

They accelerated their pace, because Zbyszko urged them on. At times Zbyszko rode again in the rear of the division with Macko, the Bohemian and the Mazovian volunteers. The prospect of a good battle apparently elated him considerably, for his customary sad expression had disappeared, and his eyes had regained their wonted brightness.

"Cheer up!" he exclaimed. "We must now place ourselves in the front--not behind the line."

He led them to the front of the division.

"Listen," he added. "It may be that we shall catch the Germans unexpectedly, but should they make a stand and succeed in falling in line, then we must be the first to attack them, because our armor is superior, and our swords are better."

"Let it be so," said Macko.

The others settled themselves in their saddles, as if they were to attack at once. They took a long breath, and felt for their swords to see whether they could be unsheathed with ease.

Zbyszko repeated his orders once more, that if they found among the infantry any knights with white mantles over the armor, they were not to kill but capture them alive; then he galloped to the guides, and halted the division for a while.

They arrived at the highway which from the landing opposite the island extended to the interior. Strictly speaking, there was no proper road yet, but in reality the edge of the wood had been recently sawed through and leveled only at the rear so much as to enable soldiers or wagons to pass over them. On both sides of the road rose the high trunked trees, and the old pines cut for the widening of the road. The hazelnut growths were so thick in some places that they overran the whole forest. Zbyszko had therefore chosen a place at the turning, so that the advancing party would neither be able to see far, nor retreat, nor have time enough to form themselves in battle array. It was there that he occupied both sides of the lane and gave commands to await the enemy.

Accustomed to forest life and war, the Zmudzians took advantage of the logs, cuts and clumps of young hazelnut growths, and fir saplings--so that it seemed as if the earth had swallowed them up. No one spoke, neither did the horses snort. Now and then, big and little forest animals passed those lying in wait and came upon them before seeing them and were frightened and rushed wildly away. At times the wind arose and filled the forest with a solemn, rushing sound, and then again silence fell and only the distant notes of the cuckoo and the woodpecker were audible.

The Zmudzians were glad to hear those sounds, because the woodpecker was a special harbinger of good fortune. There were many of those birds in that forest, and the pecking sound was heard on all sides persistent and rapid, like human labor. One would be inclined to say, that each of those birds had its own blacksmith's forge where it went to active labor very early. It appeared to Macko and the Mazovians that they heard the noise of carpenters fixing roofs upon new houses, and it reminded them of home.

But the time passed and grew tedious; nothing was heard but the noise of the trees and the voice of birds. The mist hovering upon the plain was lifting. The sun was quite high and it was getting hot, but they still lay in wait. Finally Hlawa who was impatient at the silence and delay, bent toward Zbyszko's ear and whispered:

"Sir, if God will grant, none of the dog-brothers shall escape alive. May we not be able to reach the castle and capture it by surprise?"

"Do you suppose that the boats there are not watching, and have no watchwords?"

"They have watchmen," replied the Bohemian, in a whisper, "but prisoners when threatened with the knife will give up the watchword. Bah! they will even reply in the German language. If we reach the island, then the castle itself...."

Here he stopped, because Zbyszko put his hand upon his mouth, because from the roadside came the croak of a raven.

"Hush!" he said. "That is a signal."

About two "paters" later, there appeared at the border a Zmudzian, riding upon a little shaggy pony, whose hoofs were enveloped in sheepskin to avoid the clatter and traces of horses' hoofs in the mud. The rider looked sharply from side to side and, suddenly hearing from the thicket an answer to the croaking, dived into the forest, and in a moment he was near Zbyszko.

"They are coming!" ... he said.

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