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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 9
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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 9 Post by :ksuth Category :Long Stories Author :Henryk Sienkiewicz Date :July 2011 Read :2812

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The Knights Of The Cross - Part 7 - Chapter 9


The road to the battlefield where Skirwoilla had routed the Germans was easy, because they knew it, and so they soon reached it. Owing to the insufferable stench arising from the unburied dead, they crossed it in a hurry. As they did so, they drove away wolves, and large flights of crows, ravens and jackdaws. Then they began to look for traces along the road. Although a whole division had passed over it on the previous day, nevertheless, the experienced Macko found upon the trampled road without trouble, the imprint of gigantic hoofs leading in an opposite direction. Then he explained to the younger and less experienced companions-in-arms:

"It is fortunate that there has been no rainfall since the battle. Only look here. Arnold's horse carrying an unusually big man must also be exceedingly large; this too is easily observed, that the imprint of the horse's feet on this side of the road is much deeper, owing to the galloping in his flight; whilst the tracks marking the previous march on the other side of the road are not so deep, because the horse walked slowly. Let those who have eyes look how the marks of the horseshoes are visible. God grant that we may track those dog-brothers successfully, provided they have not already found shelter somewhere behind walls!"

"Sanderus said," replied Zbyszko, "that there are no forts in this neighborhood, and it is actually so; because the Knights of the Cross have only recently taken possession of this region and have not had enough time to build in it. Then where can they hide themselves? All the peasants who dwelt in these lands joined Skirwoilla, because they belong to the same stock as the Zmudzians.... The villages, Sanderus said, these same Germans destroyed by fire and the women and children are hidden in the thick forest. Provided we do not spare our horses we shall yet overtake them."

"We must spare the horses, for even if we overtake them our safety afterward depends upon our horses," said Macko.

"Sir Arnold," interrupted Sanderus, "received a blow between his shoulder-blades in battle. He took no notice of it at first, but kept on fighting and slaying, but they were obliged to dress it afterward; as is always the case, at first one does not feel the blows but they pain later on. For this reason he cannot exert himself too much to run fast and it may be that he is even obliged to rest himself."

"You said that there are no other people with them?" inquired Macko.

"There are two who lead the litter, the _comthur and Sir Arnold. There were quite a number of men with them, but the Zmudzians killed them."

"Let our men lay hold of the two fellows who are with the litter," said Zbyszko. "You, uncle, manage old Zygfried, and I will pounce upon Arnold."

"Well," replied Macko, "I shall be able to manage Zygfried, because, thank God, there is still strength in these bones. But as far as your task is concerned, I should say, do not be so self-confident, for that knight seems to be a giant."

"O well! We shall see," replied Zbyszko.

"You are strong, that I don't dispute, but there are stronger men than you are. Did you observe our own knights whom we met at Krakow? Could you conquer Pan Powala of Taczew, Paszko Zlodziej of Biskupice, and Zawisza Czarny, eh? Don't be too rash, but consider the facts."

"Rotgier also was a strong man," murmured Zbyszko.

"Will there be any work for myself?" asked the Bohemian. But he received no reply, because Macko was thinking about something else.

"If God blesses us we shall be able to reach the Mazowiecki wilderness. We shall be safe there, and all trouble will be at an end."

But after a while he sighed when he reflected that even there affairs would not be entirely ended, there would yet be something to attend to for the unfortunate Jagienka.

"Hey!" he murmured, "God's decrees are wonderful. I had often thought about it. Why did it not occur to you to get married quietly, and let me live with you peacefully. That would have been the most happy course. But now we are the only ones among the noblemen of the kingdom, who are wandering in various regions and wilds, instead of attending to our homes as God commands."

"Well, that is true, but it is God's will," replied Zbyszko.

Then they proceeded on their journey for a while in silence. The old knight turned again to his nephew:

"Do you rely on that vagabond? Who is he?"

"He is a fickle man and perhaps he is a rogue, but he wishes me well, and I am not afraid of treachery from him."

"If so let him ride in front, for if he overtakes them he will not be scared. Let him tell them that he is fleeing from captivity, and they will easily believe him. This is the best way, because if they chanced to see us they might evade us and hide themselves, or have time enough to prepare for defence."

"He is afraid and will not travel by himself at night," replied Zbyszko. "But during the daytime I am sure that that plan is the best one to adopt. I will tell him to stop and wait for us three times during the day. If we do not find him at the appointed places then it will be a sign that he is already with them, and following up his tracks we will fall upon them unexpectedly."

"But will he not warn them?"

"No. He is more friendly to me than to them. I will also tell him that when we surprise them we will also bind him, so that he may escape their revenge later on. Let him not recognize us at all...."

"Do you intend to preserve those fellows alive?"

"How else should it be?" replied Zbyszko, somewhat anxiously. "You see.... If it were in our country, at home in Mazowsze, we would challenge them, as I challenged Rotgier, to mortal combat; but this cannot be here in their own country.... What concerns us here is Danuska and speed. In order to avoid trouble all must be done quietly afterward we will do as you said and push on as fast as our horses can go, to the wilds of Mazowsze. But attacking them unexpectedly we might find them unarmed, yes, even without their swords. Then how could we kill them? I am afraid of reproach. We are now both of us, belted knights, so are they...."

"It is so," said Macko. "Yet it may lead to an encounter."

But Zbyszko contracted his brow and in his face was depicted that determination so characteristic of the looks of the men of Bogdaniec, for at that moment he looked as if he were Macko's own son.

"What I should also like," he said, in low tones, "is to have that bloody dog Zygfried crushed under Jurand's feet! May God grant it!"

"Grant it, God! grant it!" immediately repeated Macko.

Whilst conversing, they covered a considerable stretch of the road until nightfall. It was a starry night, but there was no moon. They were obliged to halt the horses, breathe, and refresh the men with food and sleep. Zbyszko informed Sanderus before resting that he was to proceed in front in the morning. Sanderus willingly assented; but reserved to himself, in case of an attack by wolves or people, the right to run back to Zbyszko. He also asked him for permission to make four stations instead of three, because in solitude fear always took hold of him, even in pious countries. How much more so in such an abominable wilderness as the one where they found themselves now?

When they had refreshed themselves with food, they lay down to sleep upon skins near a small camp-fire, which they built about half a furlong from the road. The servants alternately guarded the horses, which, after they were fed, rolled upon the ground and then slept, resting their heads upon each other's necks. But no sooner did the first ray illuminate the woods with a silvery hue, than Zbyszko arose and awoke the others, and at dawn they continued their march. The tracks of the hoofs of Arnold's immense stallion were easily recovered, because the usual muddy ground had dried up from drought. Sanderus went on ahead and soon disappeared. Nevertheless, they found him about half way between sunrise and noon, at the waiting place. He told them that he had not seen any living soul, only one large aurochs, but was not scared and did not run away, because the animal got out of his way. But he declared that shortly before, he had seen a peasant bee-keeper, but had not detained him, for fear that in the depths of the forest there might be more of them. He had attempted to question him, but they had not been able to make themselves understood.

As time went by, Zbyszko became somewhat troubled.

"What will happen," he said, "if I arrive in the higher and drier region, where, owing to the hard, dry road, the traces of the fugitives will be lost? or, if the pursuit shall last too long and lead to an inhabited region where the people have long since accustomed themselves to the servitude of the Knights of the Cross; an attack and capture of Danusia by them is more than probable, because, although Arnold and Zygfried did not erect forts, or fortify their towns, the inhabitants would surely take their part."

Happily that fear turned out to be groundless, because they did not find Sanderus at the appointed second post, but found instead an incision in the form of a cross, apparently newly cut into the bark of an adjacent pine tree. They looked at each other and their hearts began to beat faster. Macko and Zbyszko immediately dismounted, in order to discover the tracks upon the ground; they examined carefully, but it did not last long, because they were plainly discernible.

Sanderus had apparently deviated from the road into the forest, and followed the prints of the huge horse-hoofs, which, owing to the dry condition of the turfy soil, were not so deeply impressed, but sufficiently visible. The heavy horse disturbed at every step the pine needles which were blackened at the margins of the impressions.

Other marks did not escape Zbyszko's keen sight. Then he and Macko mounted their horses, and, together with the Bohemian, silently began taking counsel as though the enemy were quite near them.

The Bohemian's advice was that they should advance on foot at once, but they did not agree to that, because they did not know the distance they would have to traverse in the woods. The footmen, however, had to proceed carefully in advance, and signal in case something occurred, so that they might be in readiness.

They moved onward among the woods in some trepidation, and another incision upon a pine tree assured them that they had not lost Sanderus' tracks. Very soon they also discovered a path, showing that people frequently passed that way, and they were convinced that they were in the neighborhood of some forest habitation, and within it was the object of their search.

The sun was getting low, and shed a golden hue upon the trees of the forest. The evening promised to be serene; silence reigned in the woods because beast and birds had retired to rest, only here and there, among the little top branches of the trees, squirrels moved to and fro looking quite red in the last beams of the sun. Zbyszko, Macko, the Bohemian and the attendants, closely followed each other, knowing that their men were considerably in advance and would warn them in proper time; the old knight spoke to his nephew in not very subdued tones.

"Let us calculate from the sun," he said. "From the last station to the place where we found the first incision, we covered a great distance. According to Krakow time it would be about three hours.... Then Sanderus must be by this time among them, and has had time enough to tell them his adventure, provided he has not betrayed us."

"He has not betrayed us," replied Zbyszko.

"Provided they believe him," continued Macko; "if they do not, then it will be bad for him."

"But why should they not believe him? Do they know of us? Him they know. It often happens that prisoners escape from captivity."

"But what concerns me is this: if he told them that he ran away they might fear he would be pursued, and they would move on at once."

"No, he will succeed in casting dust in their eyes by telling them that such a long pursuit would not be undertaken."

They were silent for a while, then it seemed to Macko that Zbyszko was whispering to him; he turned and asked:

"What do you say?"

But Zbyszko had said nothing to Macko, but looking upward, said:

"Only if God would favor Danuska and the courageous enterprise in her behalf."

Macko also began to cross himself; but he had scarcely made the first sign of the cross, when from the hazelnut thickets one of the scouts approached him suddenly and said:

"A pitch-burning cabin! They are there!"

"Stop!" whispered Zbyszko, and dismounted at once. Macko, the Bohemian, and the attendants, also dismounted; three of the latter received orders to hold the horses in readiness and take care that they, God forbid, did not neigh. "I left five men," said Macko. "There will be the two attendants and Sanderus, whom we shall bind in a moment, and, should any one show fight, then, at his head!"

Then they advanced, and, as they moved on, Zbyszko said to his uncle:

"You take the old man, Zygfried; and I, Arnold."

"Only take care!" replied Macko. Then he beckoned to the Bohemian, reminding him to be ready at a moment's notice to be on hand to assist his master.

The Bohemian nodded assent. Then he breathed deeply and felt for his sword to see whether it could be easily unsheathed.

But Zbyszko observed it and said:

"No! I command you to hasten at once to the litter and not move from it for a single moment whilst the fight is going on."

They went quickly but silently through the hazelnut thickets. But they had not gone far, when at a distance of not quite two furlongs, the growth ceased suddenly, revealing a small field upon which were extinguished pitch-burning heaps, and two earthen shanties, or huts, where the pitch-burners had dwelt before the war. The setting sun brightly illuminated the lawn, the pitch-burning heaps, and the two detached shanties--in front of one of which the two knights were sitting upon the ground; and in front of the other were Sanderus and a bearded, red-headed fellow. These two were occupied in polishing the coats of mail with rags. Besides this, the two swords were lying at Sanderus' feet ready to be cleaned afterward.

"Look," said Macko, forcibly grasping Zbyszko's arm to detain him if possible for another moment, "he has taken the coats of mail and swords purposely. Well, that one with the grey head must be...."

"Forward!" suddenly shouted Zbyszko.

And like a whirlwind he rushed into the clearing; the others did the same, but they only succeeded in reaching Sanderus. The terrible Macko caught hold of old Zygfried by the breast, bent him backward and in a moment held him under him. Zbyszko and Arnold grasped each other like two hawks, with their arms intertwined and began to struggle fiercely with each other. The bearded German, who was with Sanderus, sprang toward the sword, but he did not use it. Wit, Macko's servant, struck him with the back of his axe, and stretched him upon the ground. Then they began to bind Sanderus, according to Macko's order, but he, although he well knew that it was so arranged beforehand, began to bellow as terribly as a yearling calf whose throat is being cut by the butcher's knife.

But Zbyszko, though so strong that he could squeeze a branch of a tree and cause the sap to run out, felt that he was not grasped by human hands, but was in the hug of a bear. He also felt that if it were not for the cost of mail which he had on, in case of having to fight with the sword, the German giant would have crushed his ribs and perhaps the spinal column too. The young knight lifted him a little from the ground, but Arnold lifted him up higher still, and gathering all his strength he tried to throw him to the ground so that he might not be able to rise again.

But Zbyszko also clutched him with such terrible force that blood issued from the German's eyes. Then he crooked his leg between Arnold's knees, bent him sideways and struck him in the hollow of the knee, which threw him to the ground. In reality both fell to the ground, the young knight underneath; but at the same moment, Macko, who was observing all this, threw the half doubled-up Zygfried into the hands of an attendant, and rushed toward the prostrate fighters, and in the twinkling of an eye he had bound the feet of Arnold with a belt; then he jumped, and sat down upon him as upon a wild boar, took the _misericordia from his side, and plunged it deep into his throat.

Arnold screamed horribly, and his hands involuntarily withdrew from Zbyszko's sides. Then he began to moan not only with the pain of the wound, but he also felt an indescribable pain in his back: where he had received a blow from a club in his previous fight with Skirwoilla.

Macko grasped him with both hands and dragged him off Zbyszko, and Zbyszko got up from the ground and sat down; he tried to stand up but could not; he sat thus without being able to rise, for some time. His face was pale and covered with perspiration. His eyes were bloodshot and his lips were blue; and he looked in front of him as though half dazed.

"What is the matter?" asked Macko, in alarm.

"Nothing, but I am very tired. Help me to get up."

Macko put his hands under Zbyszko's arms and lifted him up at once.

"Can you stand?"

"I can."

"Do you feel pain?"

"Nothing, but I am short of breath."

Meanwhile the Bohemian, seeing apparently that the struggle in the farm yard was all over, appeared in front of the hut, dragging the woman servant of the Order by the neck. At that sight, Zbyszko forgot his fatigue, his strength returned to him at once, and he rushed to the hut as though he had never struggled with the terrible Arnold.

"Danuska! Danuska!" cried Zbyszko; but no answer came.

"Danuska! Danuska!" he repeated; then he remained silent. It was dark within, for that reason he could see nothing at first. But instead, he heard, proceeding from behind the stones which were heaped up behind the fireplace, a quick and audible panting, like that of a little animal hiding.

"Danuska! For God's sake. It is I! Zbyszko!"

Then he observed in the darkness, her eyes, wide open, terrified and bewildered.

He rushed toward her and pressed her in his arms, but she did not entirely recognize him, and tore herself away from his embrace, and began to repeat in a subdued whisper:

"I am afraid! I am afraid! I am afraid!"

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PART SEVENTH: CHAPTER VIII The soldiers unbound him at once, but his limbs were benumbed and he fell; when they lifted him up he was seized with successive fainting fits. In spite of Zbyszko's orders for him to be taken to the fire and given food and drink, and rubbed over with fat and then covered with warmed skins, Sanderus did not recover consciousness, but lapsed into a very deep sleep, which continued until noon of the following day when the Bohemian succeeded in awakening him. Zbyszko, who was burning with fiery impatience, immediately went to him, but at first he