All their schemes were broken like cobwebs, especially with Prince Witold. The evening after Hlawa's arrival, fresh news reached Warsaw. Bronisz of Ciasnoc, courtier of Prince Janusz, whom the prince had previously sent for information from Lithuania, arrived, and with him were two important Lithuanian princes. They brought letters from Witold and the Zmudzians. It was terrible news. The Order was preparing for war. The fortresses were being strengthened, ammunition manufactured, soldiers, (knechts) and knights were gathering at the frontier, and the lighter bodies of cavalry and infantry had already crossed the frontier near Ragnety, Gotteswerder and other border strongholds. The din of war was already heard in the forests, fields and villages, and during the night the woods were seen on fire along the dark sea. Witold finally received Zmudz under his overt protection. He sent his governors, and wagons with armed people he placed under the most famous warrior Skirwoillo. He broke into Prussia, burned, destroyed and devastated. The prince himself approached with his army toward Zmudz. Some fortresses he provisioned; others, Kowno, for instance, he destroyed, so that the Knights of the Cross might find no support. It was no more a secret, that at the advent of winter, when the swamps should be frozen, or even earlier than that, if the season was dry, a great war would break out, which would embrace all the lands of Lithuania, Zmudz, and Prussia. But should the king rush to the assistance of Witold then a day must follow in which the flood would inundate the German or the other half of the world, or would be forced back for long ages into its original river-bed.
But that was not to happen yet. Meanwhile, the sighs of the Zmudzians, their despairing complaints of the wrongs done to them, and their appeals for justice were heard everywhere. They also read letters concerning the unfortunate people in Krakow, Prague, in the pope's court and in other western countries. The nobleman brought an open letter to Prince Janusz, from Bronisz of Ciasnoc. Many a Mazovian involuntarily laid his hand on his sword at his side and considered seriously whether voluntarily to enroll under the standard of Witold. It was known that the great prince would be glad to have with him the valiant Polish nobles, who were as valorous in battle as the Lithuanian and Zmudzian nobility, and better disciplined and equipped than they. Others were also impelled by their hatred toward the old enemies of the Polish race, whilst others wanted to go out of compassion.
"Listen! Oh listen!" They appealed to the kings, princes and to the whole Zmudzian nation. "We are people of noble blood and free, but the Order wants to enslave us! They do not care for our souls, but they covet our lands and wealth. Our need is already such that nothing remains for us but to gather together, or kill ourselves! How can they wash us with Christian water when they themselves have unclean hands. We wish to be baptized, but not with blood and the sword. We want religion, but only such as upright monarchs shall teach,—Jagiello and Witold.
"Listen to us and help us, for we perish! The Order does not wish to christen us for our enlightenment. They do not send us priests, but executioners. Our beehives, our flocks, and all the products of our land they have already carried away. We are not even allowed to fish or hunt in the wilds.
"We pray you: Listen to us! They are just bending our necks under the yoke and force us to work during the night in the castles. They have carried off our children as hostages; our wives and daughters they ravish in our presence. It behooves us to groan, but not to speak. Our fathers they have burned at the stake; our lords have been carried off to Prussia. Our great men, Korkucia, Wasigina, Swolka and Songajle, they have destroyed."
"Oh listen! for we are not wild beasts but human beings. We earnestly call upon the Holy Father to send us Polish bishops to baptize us, for we thirst for baptism from the very depth of our heart. But baptism is performed with water and not with shedding of human living blood."
This was the kind of complaint the Zmudzians made against the Knights of the Cross, so that when they were heard by the Mazovian court, several knights and courtiers immediately presented themselves ready to go and help them; they understood that it was not even necessary to ask for permission from Prince Janusz, even if only for the reason that the princess was the sister of Prince Witold. They were specially enraged when they learned from Bronisz and the noblemen, that many noble Zmudzian young ladies, who were hostages in Prussia, but could not endure dishonor and cruelty, had taken their own lives when the Knights of the Cross were about to attack their honor.
Hlawa was very glad to learn of the desire of the Mazovian knights, because he thought that the more men from Poland that joined Prince Witold, the more intense would be the war, and the affair against the Knights of the Cross would be more potent. He was also glad of his chances of meeting Zbyszko, and the old knight Macko, to whom he was much attached and whom, he believed, he was worthy to meet, and together see new wild countries, hitherto unknown cities, and see knights and soldiers never seen before, and, finally, that Prince Witold whose great fame resounded then throughout the world.
Those thoughts decided him to undertake the long and hurried journey—not stopping upon the road more than was necessary for the horses to rest.
The noblemen who arrived with Bronisz of Ciasnoc and other Lithuanians who were present at the prince's court, and who were acquainted with the roads and all passes, were to guide him and the Mazovian knights, from hamlet to hamlet, from city to city and through the silent, immense, deep wilderness which covered the greater part of Mazovia, Lithuania and Zmudz.
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 whole night, only on the following evening he went out to greet the old knight who looked fatigued and ill-humored and received him angrily, and asked him why he had not remained at Spychow as ordered. Hlawa restrained himself till Zbyszko had left the tent, when he justified his conduct, which was owing to Jagienka's command.
He also said that apart from her order, and his natural inclination for war, he was urged by the desire, in case of emergency, to carry the news to Spychow at once. "The young lady," he said, "who has a soul like an angel, is praying against her own interest for Jurandowna. But there must be an end to everything. If Danusia is not alive, then let God give her eternal glory, because she was an innocent lamb. But should she be found, then it will be necessary to let Jagienka know it immediately, so that she may at once leave Spychow, and not wait until the actual return of Jurandowna, which would seem as though she were driven away in shame and dishonor."
Macko listened unwillingly, repeating from time to time: "It is not your business." But Hlawa had resolved to speak openly; he did not entirely agree in this with Macko; at last he said:
"It would have been better if the young lady had been left at Zgorzelice. This journey is in vain. We told the poor lady that Jurandowna was dead and that something else might turn up."
"Nobody but you said that she was dead," exclaimed the knight, with anger. "You ought to have held your tongue. I took her with me because I was afraid of Cztan and Wilk."
"That was only a pretext," replied the armor-bearer. "She might have safely remained at Zgorzelice, and those fellows would have hurt each other. But, you feared, sir, that, in case of Jurandowna's death Jagienka might escape Zbyszko. That is the reason why you took her with you."
"How dare you speak so? Are you a belted knight and not a servant?"
"I am a servant, but I serve my lady; that is the reason why I am watching that no evil betide her."
Macko reflected gloomily, because he was not satisfied with himself. More than once he had blamed himself for taking Jagienka with him, because he felt that in any case, under such circumstances, it would be, to a certain extent, to her disadvantage. He also felt that there was truth in the Bohemian's bold words, that he had taken the girl with him in order to preserve her for Zbyszko.
"It never entered my head," he said, nevertheless, to deceive the Bohemian. "She was anxious to go herself."
"She persisted because we said that the other was no more in this world, and that her brother would be safer without than with her; it was then that she left."
"You persuaded her," shouted Macko.
"I did, and I confess my guilt. But now, sir, it is necessary to do something; otherwise we shall perish."
"What can one do here?" said Macko, impatiently, "with such soldiers, in such a war?... It will be somewhat better, but that cannot be before July, because the Germans have two favorable seasons for war, viz: winter when everything is frozen, and the dry season. Now it is only smouldering, but does not burn. It seems that Prince Witold went to Krakow to interview the king and ask his permission and help."
"But in the neighborhood are the fortresses of the Knights of the Cross. If only two could be taken, we might find there Jurandowna, or hear of her death."
"But Zygfried brought her to this part of the country. They told us so at Szczytno, and everywhere, and we ourselves were of the same opinion."
"But did you observe these soldiers; go into the tents and look for yourself. Some of them are armed with clubs, whilst others with antiquated swords made of copper."
"Bah! As far as I have heard they are good fighters."
"But they cannot conquer castles with naked bodies, especially those of the Knights of the Cross."
Further conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Zbyszko and Skirwoillo, who was the leader of the Zmudzians. He was a small man and looked like a boy, but broad shouldered and strong, his chest protuded so much that it looked like a deformity, his hands were long, they almost reached his knees. In general he resembled Zyndram of Maszkow, a famous knight, whom Macko and Zbyszko had formerly known in Krakow, because he also had a tremendous head and bowed legs. They said that he too understood the art of war very well. He had spent a lifetime in fighting the Tartars in Russia, and the Germans, whom he hated like the plague. In those wars he had learned the Russian language, and later on, at the court of Witold, he had learned some Polish. He knew German, at least he repeated only the three words: "Fire, blood and death." His big head was always filled with ideas and stratagems of war, which the Knights of the Cross could neither foresee nor prevent. He was therefore banished from the lands on the other side of the frontier.
"We were talking of an expedition," said Zbyszko to Macko, with unusual animation, "and that is the reason why we came here so that we too might learn your opinion."
Macko sat down with Skirwoilla upon a pine stump covered with a bear skin. Then he ordered the servants to bring little tubs full of mead from which the knights drew with tin cups and drank. Then after they had taken refreshment, Macko asked:
"Do you want to undertake an expedition?"
"Burn the German castles...."
"Ragnety, or Nowe (new) Kowno."
"Ragnety," said Zbyszko. "We were three days in the neighborhood of Nowe Kowno, and they beat us."
"Just so," said Skirwoilla.
"Wait," said Macko, "I am a stranger here, and do not know where Nowe Kowno and Ragnety are."
"From this place to Old Kowno is less then a mile," replied Zbyszko, "and from that place to Nowe Kowno, is the same distance. The castle is situated upon an island. We wanted to cross over yesterday, but we were beaten in the attempt; they pursued us half the day, then we hid ourselves in the woods. The soldiers scattered and only this morning some of them returned."
Skirwoilla stretched his long arms, pointed toward the north, and said:
"Just for the reason that it is distant," replied Zbyszko, "there is quiet in the neighborhood, because all the soldiers were withdrawn from there and sent to this place. The Germans there expect no attack; we shall therefore fall upon those who think themselves secure."
"He speaks reasonably," said Skirwoilla.
Then Macko asked:
"Do you think that it will also be possible to storm the castle?"
Skirwoillo shook his head and Zbyszko replied:
"The castle is strong, therefore it can only be taken by storm. But we shall devastate the country, burn the towns and villages, destroy provisions, and above all take prisoners, among whom we may find important personages, for whom the Knights of the Cross will eagerly give ransom or exchange...."
Then he turned toward Skirwoillo and said:
"You yourself, prince, acknowledged that I am right, but now consider that Nowe Kowno is upon an island, there we shall neither stir up the people in the villages, drive off the herds of cattle, nor take prisoners, the more so because they have repulsed us here. Ay! Let us rather go where they do not expect us."
"Conquerors are those who least expect an attack," murmured Skirwoillo.
Here Macko interrupted and began to support Zbyszko's plans, because he understood that the young man had more hope to hear something near Ragnety than near Old Kowno, and that there were more chances to take important hostages at Ragnety who might serve for exchange. He also thought that it was better to go yonder at all events and attack an unguarded land, than an island, which was a natural stronghold and in addition was guarded by a strong castle and the customary garrison.
He spoke as a man experienced in war, he spoke in a clear manner, he adduced such excellent reasons that convinced everybody. They listened to him attentively. Skirwoillo raised his brows now and then as an affirmative sign; at times he murmured: "Well spoken." Finally he moved his big head between his broad shoulders so that he looked like a hunchback, and was absorbed in thought.
Then he rose, said nothing, and began to take leave.
"How then will it be, prince?" inquired Macko. "Whither shall we move?"
But he replied briefly:
"To Nowe Kowno."
Then he left the tent.
Macko and the Bohemian looked at each other for some time in surprise; then the old knight placed his hands upon his thighs and exclaimed:
"Phew! What a hard stump!... He listens, listens and yet keeps his mouth shut."
"I heard before that he is such a man," replied Zbyszko. "To tell the truth all people here are obstinate; like the little fellow, they listen to the reasoning of others, then ... it is like blowing in the air."
"Then why does he consult us?"
"Because we are belted knights and he wants to hear the thing argued on both sides. But he is not a fool."
"Also near Nowe Kowno we are least expected," observed the Bohemian, "for the very reason that they have beaten you. In that he is right."
"Come, let us see the people whom I lead," said Zbyszko, "because the air in the tent is too close. I want to tell them to be ready."
They went out. A cloudy and dark night had set in, the scene was only lit up by the fire around which the Zmudzians were sitting.
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.
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, and immediately returned and said:
"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.
Zbyszko inquired hurriedly, how many horsemen and infantry were among them, in what manner they were advancing, and above all the exact distance; and he learned from the Zmudzian that their number did not exceed one hundred and fifty warriors and that about fifty of that number were horsemen led by a Knight of the Cross, who appears to be of the secular knights; that they were marching in ranks and had empty wagons with a supply of wheels upon them; and that at a distance in front of the detachment were bodies of archers composed of eight men who frequently left the road and searched the woods and thickets, and finally that the detachment was about one quarter of a mile distant.
Zbyszko was not particularly pleased with the information of the manner of their advancing in battle array. He knew by experience how difficult it was to break the ordered German ranks, and how such a crowd could retreat and fight in the same manner as a wild-boar that defends itself when brought to bay by dogs. On the other hand, he was glad of the news that they were only a quarter of a mile distant, because he calculated that the people who were detached to cut off their retreat had already done so,—and, in case of the Germans being routed, not a single soul could escape. As to the outpost at the head of the detachment he did not care much, because he knew from the first that such would be the case and was prepared for them; he had given orders to his men to allow them to advance, and if they were engaged in searching the thickets to capture them quietly one by one.
But the last order seemed unnecessary; the scouts advanced without delay. The Zmudzians who were hidden in the growths near the highway had a perfect view of the advancing party when they halted at the turning and took counsel. The chief, a powerful red-bearded German, who signalled to them to keep silence, began to listen. It was visible for a moment that he hesitated whether to penetrate the forest or not. At last, as there was only audible the hammering of the woodpeckers, and he apparently thought that the birds would not be working so freely if people were hidden among the trees. Therefore he waved his hand for the detachment to go forward.
Zbyszko waited until they were near the second turning, then he approached the road, at the head of his well-armed men, including Macko, the Bohemian, and the two noble volunteers from Lenkawice, and three young knights from Ciechanow, and a dozen of the better armed Zmudzian nobles. Further concealment was not necessary. Nothing remained for Zbyszko but to station himself in the middle of the road and, as soon as the Germans appeared, to fall upon them, and break their ranks. If that might be accomplished, he was sure that his Zmudzians would take care of the Germans.
There was silence for a little while, which was only disturbed by the usual forest noises, but soon there were heard the voices of people proceeding from the east side; they were yet a considerable distance away but the voices grew little by little more distinct as they approached.
Without losing a moment's time, Zbyszko and his men placed themselves in the form of a wedge in the middle of the road. Zbyszko himself formed the sharp end and directly behind him were Macko and the Bohemian, in the row behind them were three men, behind those were four; all of them were well armed. Nothing was wanting but the "wooden" lances of the knights which could greatly impede the advance of the enemy in forest marches, instead of those long handled lances; theirs were shorter and lighter. Zmudzian weapons were well adapted for the first attack, and the swords and axes at their saddles were handy for combat at close quarters.
Hlawa was wide awake and listening; then he whispered to Macko:
"They are singing, they shall be destroyed."
"But what surprises me is that the woods obscure them from our sight," replied Macko.
Then Zbyszko, who considered further hiding and silence unnecessary, replied:
"Because the road leads along the stream; that is the reason for its frequent windings."
"But how merrily they are singing!" repeated the Bohemian.
One could judge from the melody that the Germans were singing profane songs indeed. It could also be distinguished that the singers were not more than about a dozen, and that they all repeated only one burden which resounded far and wide in the forest, like a thunderstorm.
Thus they went to death, rejoicing and lusty.
"We shall soon see them," said Macko.
Then his face suddenly darkened and assumed a wolf-like and savage expression. He had a grudge against the knights for the shots which he had received at the time when he went to Zbyszko's rescue, on that occasion when he was the carrier of letters from Prince Witold's sister to the grand master. Therefore his blood began to boil, and a desire for vengeance overflowed his soul.
The fellow who first attacks will not fare well, thought Hlawa, as he looked at the old knight.
Meanwhile the wind carried the sound of the phrase which the singers repeated:
"Tandaradei! Tandaradei!" The Bohemian at once recognized the song known to him:
"Bi den rosen er wol mac Tandaradei! Merken wa mir'z houlet lac...."
Then the song was interrupted, because upon both sides of the road was heard such a croaking noise that it seemed as if the crows were holding parliament in that corner of the forest. The Germans were wondering whence so many crows came, and why they proceeded from the ground and not from the tops of the trees. In fact the first line of the soldiers appeared at the turning and halted as though nailed to the spot, when they observed unknown horsemen facing them.
At the same moment Zbyszko sat down in his saddle, spurred his horse, and rushed forward, crying:
The others galloped with him. The terrible shouting of the Zmudzian warriors was heard from the woods. Only a space of about two hundred feet separated Zbyszko from the enemy, who, in the twinkling of an eye, lowered a forest of lances toward Zbyszko's horsemen; the remaining lines placed themselves with the utmost dispatch on both sides to protect themselves against an attack from the direction of the forest. The Polish knights might have admired the dexterity of the German tactics, but there was no time for contemplation, owing to the great speed and impetus of their horses in their charge upon the close phalanx of the Germans.
Happily for Zbyszko, the German cavalry were in the rear of the division near the wagon train; in fact, they hastened at once to their assistance, but they could neither reach them in time nor pass beyond them so as to be of any assistance at the first attack. The Zmudzians, pouring from the thickets, surrounded them like a swarm of poisonous wasps upon whose nest a careless traveler had trod. Meanwhile Zbyszko and his men threw themselves upon the infantry.
The attack was without effect. The Germans planted the ends of their heavy lances and battle-axes in the ground, held them fast and even so that the Zmudzian light horses could not break the wall. Macko's horse, which received a blow from a battle-axe in the shin, reared and stood up on his hind legs, then fell forward burying his nostrils in the ground. For a while death was hovering above the old knight; but he was experienced and had seen many battles, and was full of resources in accidents. So he freed his legs from the stirrups, and grasped with his powerful hand the sharp end of the pike which was ready to strike him, and instead of penetrating his chest it served him as a support. Then he freed himself, and, springing among the horsemen, he obtained a sword and fell upon the pikes and battle-axes with such fury as an eagle swoops upon a flock of long-beaked cranes.
At the moment of attack Zbyszko sat back on his horse, charged with his spear—and broke it; then he also got a sword. The Bohemian, who, above all, believed in the efficacy of an axe, threw it in the midst of the Germans. For a while he remained without arms. One of two wlodykas who accompanied him was slain in the onset; at the sight of that, the other lost his reason and raved so that he began to howl like a wolf, stood up upon his blood-covered horse and charged blindly into the midst of the throng. The Zmudzian noblemen cut with their sharp blades the spearheads and wooden handles, behind which they observed the faces of the knechts (common soldiers) upon which was depicted alarm, and at the same time they were frowning with determination and stubbornness. But the ranks remained unbroken. Also the Zmudzians, who made a flank attack, quickly retreated from before the Germans, as one runs away from a venomous snake. Indeed they returned immediately with yet greater impetuosity, but they did not succeed. Some of them climbed up the trees in the twinkling of an eye and directed their arrows into the midst of the knechts, but when their leader saw this he ordered the soldiers to retreat toward the cavalry. The German ranks also began to shoot, and from time to time a Zmudzian would fall down and tear the moss in agony, or wriggle like a fish drawn from the water. The Germans, indeed, could not count upon a victory, but they knew the efficacy of defending themselves, so that, if possible, a small number, at least, might manage to escape disaster and reach the shore.
Nobody thought of surrendering, because they did not spare prisoners, they knew that they could not count upon mercy from people who were driven to despair and rebellion. They therefore retreated in silence, in close rank, shoulder to shoulder, now raising, now lowering their javelins and broad axes, hewing, shooting with their crossbows as much as the confusion of the fighting permitted them, and continuing to retreat slowly toward their horsemen, who were engaged in life and death battle with another section of the enemy.
Meanwhile something strange occurred which decided the fortune of the stubborn fight. It was caused by the young wlodyka of Lenkawice, who became mad at the death of his companion; he did not dismount, but bent down and lifted up the body of his companion with the object of depositing it in a safe place to save it from mutilation, and so that he might find it after the battle was over. But at that very moment a fresh wave of madness came over him and he entirely lost his mind, so that instead of leaving the road, he rushed toward the German soldiers and threw the body upon the points of their pikes, which penetrated the corpse in various parts, and the weight caused them to bend, and before the Germans were able to withdraw their weapons, the raving man fell in, breaking the ranks and overturning the men like a tempest.
In the twinkling of an eye, half a score of hands were extended toward him and as many pikes penetrated the flanks of his horse, but the ranks were thrown into disorder, and one Zmudz noble who was near, rushed through and immediately after him came Zbyszko, then the Bohemian, and the terrible confusion increased every moment. Other bojars followed the example, seized corpses and thrust them against the enemies' arms, whilst the Zmudzians again attacked the flanks. The order which had hitherto reigned in the German ranks wavered; it began to shake like a house whose walls are cracked; it was cleft like a log by a wedge, and finally it burst open.
In a moment the fighting turned to slaughter, the long German pikes and broad axes were of no use at close quarters. Instead of it the swords of the horsemen fell upon helmet and neck. The horses pressed into the midst of the throng, upsetting and trampling the unfortunate Germans. It was easy for the horsemen to strike from above and they took advantage of the opportunity and ceaselessly cut the enemy. From the woods on both sides continually arrived wild warriors, clothed in wolves' skins, and with a wolfish desire for blood in their hearts. Their howling drowned the voices praying for mercy and those of the dying. The conquered threw away their arms; some tried to escape into the forest, others feigned death and fell to the earth, others stood erect, their faces white as snow, and bloodshot eyes, whilst others prayed. One of them, apparently demented, began to play the pipe, then looked upward and smiled, until a Zmudzian crushed his head with a club. The forest ceased to rustle and death dominated it.
Finally the small army of the Knights of the Cross melted away; only at times there were heard voices of small bands fighting in the woods, or a terrible cry of despair. Zbyszko, Macko and all their horsemen now galloped toward the cavalry. They were still defending themselves, placing themselves in the form of a wedge. The Germans were always accustomed to adopt that manoeuvre when surrounded by an overwhelming force of the enemy. The cavalry were mounted upon good horses and were better armed than the infantry; they fought manfully and obstinately and deserved admiration. There was none with a white mantle among them, but they were of the middle classes and small nobility of the Germans who were obliged to go to war when called upon by the Order. Most of their horses were also armed, some had body armor; but all had iron head covers with a spike of steel protruding from the centre. Their leader was a tall, sturdy knight; he wore a dark blue coat of mail and a helmet of the same color, with a lowered steel visor.
A rain of arrows was showered upon them from the depths of the forest. But they did but little harm. The Zmudzian infantry and cavalry came nearer and surrounded them like a wall, but they defended themselves, cutting and thrusting with their long swords so furiously that in front of the horses' hoofs lay a ring of corpses. The first lines of the attackers wanted to retire, but they were unable to do so. There was a press and confusion all around. The eyes became dazzled by the glint of the spears and the flash of the swords. The horses began to neigh, bite, rear and kick. Then the Zmudz noblemen charged down; Zbyszko, Hlawa and the Mazovians fell upon them. By dint of the press, the German throng began to waver, and swayed like trees before a storm, but they hewed like choppers of firewood in the forest thickets, and advanced slowly amidst fatigue and excessive heat.
But Macko ordered his men to gather together the long-handled German battle-axes from the battlefield, and armed with them thirty of his wild warriors pressed on eagerly toward the Germans. "Strike the horses' legs!" he shouted. A terrible effect was soon apparent. The German knights were unable to reach the Zmudzians with their swords, at the same time the battle-axes were crushing the horses' legs. It was then that the blue knight recognized that the end of the battle was at hand, and that he had only two resources left—either to fight his way through the army and retreat, or to remain and perish.
He chose the first plan, and in a moment his knights turned their faces in the direction whence they came. The Zmudzians fell upon their rear. Nevertheless the Germans threw their shields upon their shoulders and cut in front and to the sides, and broke through the ranks of the attacking party, and hurricane-like, fled toward the east. But that division which had been despatched for that purpose, rushed to meet them; but by dint of superior fighting and the greater weight of the horses, they fell in a moment like flax before a storm. The road to the castle was open, but escape thither was insecure and too far away, because the Zmudzian horses were fleeter than those of the Germans. The blue knight was quite aware of it.
"Woe!" he said to himself. "Here none will escape; perhaps I may purchase their salvation with my own blood."
Then he shouted to his men to halt, and himself turned around toward the foe, not caring whether any one overheard his command.
Zbyszko galloped up to him first, the German struck him upon the visor, but without breaking it or harming Zbyszko. At the same time, Zbyszko, instead of giving stroke for stroke, grasped the knight by the middle, but, in the attempt to take him alive, engaged in a close struggle, during which the girth of his horse gave way from the intense strain of the contest, and both fell to the ground. For a while they wrestled; but the extraordinary strength of the young man soon prevailed against his antagonist; he pressed his knees against his stomach, holding him down as a wolf does a dog who dares to oppose him in the woods.
But there was no need to hold him, because the German fainted. Meanwhile Macko and the Bohemian arrived at a gallop. Zbyszko shouted: "Quick, here! A rope!"
The Bohemian dismounted, but seeing the helplessness of the German, he did not bind him, but disarmed him and unbuckled his armlets and his belt, and with the attached "misericordia," (dagger of mercy) cut the gorget, and lastly he unscrewed the helmet.
But he had scarcely glanced in the face of the knight, when he started back and exclaimed:
"Master! master! please only look here!"
"De Lorche!" shouted Zbyszko.
And there lay de Lorche pale and motionless as a corpse, with closed eyes and face covered with perspiration.
Zbyszko gave orders for him to be laid upon one of the captured wagons which were laden with spare wheels and axles for the expedition coming to relieve the castle. He mounted another horse, and with Macko they continued the pursuit of the fleeing Germans. It was not a difficult pursuit, because the German horses were not speedy enough, particularly upon the ground softened by the spring rains, more especially for Macko, who had with him a light and fleet mare which belonged to the deceased wlodyka of Lenkawice. After a distance of several furlongs he passed almost all the Zmudzians. He soon reached the first German trooper, whom he at once challenged according to the then prevailing custom among the knights, to surrender or fight. But the German feigned deafness. He even threw away his shield to relieve the horse, and bent in the saddle and spurred his horse. The old knight struck him with his broad axe between the shoulder-blades, and he fell to the ground.
Thus Macko avenged himself upon the fleeing Germans for the treacherous shot he had once received. They ran before him like a herd of frightened deer. They had no thought of continuing the fight or defending themselves, but of fleeing before that terrible man. Some dashed into the forest, but one stuck fast near the stream: him the Zmudzians strangled with a halter. Then a hunt as if after wild beasts began after the crowd of fugitives which sprang into the woods.
The depths of the forests rang with the shouts of the hunters and the shrieks of the hunted until the latter were exterminated. Then the old knight, accompanied by Zbyszko and the Bohemian, returned to the battlefield upon which lay the hacked bodies of the German infantry. They were already stripped naked. Some were mutilated by the revengeful Zmudzians. It was an important victory, and the soldiers were drunk with joy. After the last defeat suffered by Skirwoilla near Gotteswerder, a sort of apathy had seized the Zmudzians, more especially because the promised relief from Prince Witold had not yet arrived as quickly as expected. However, now hope revived and the fire was kindled anew as when wood is thrown upon glowing embers. The number of slain Germans, as well as Zmudzians to be buried, was very great, but Zbyszko ordered a special grave to be dug for the wlodykas of Lenkawice, who contributed so much toward the victory. They were buried there among the pine-trees, and Zbyszko cut a cross with his sword upon the bark. Then he ordered the Bohemian to keep watch over de Lorche who was still unconscious; he stirred up the people and hurried on along the road toward Skirwoilla to lend him affective assistance in case of emergency.
But after a long march he came across a deserted battlefield that resembled the former, being covered with German and Zmudzian corpses. It was easy for Zbyszko to conclude that the terrible Skirwoilla had also gained an equally important victory over the enemy, because if he had been defeated, Zbyszko would have met the victorious Germans marching to the castle. But the victory must have been a bloody one, because for some distance a great number of dead were met with. The experienced Macko was able to deduce from this that some Germans had even succeeded in retreating from the defeat.
It was difficult to tell whether Skirwoilla was pursuing them or not, because the tracks were mingled and confused. He also concluded that the battle had taken place quite early, perhaps earlier than Zbyszko's fight, for the corpses were livid and swollen, and some of them torn by wolves, that scattered in the thickets at the approach of armed men.
In face of these circumstances Zbyszko resolved not to wait for Skirwoilla, but to return to the original safe camp. He arrived there late at night and found the leader of the Zmudzians who had arrived somewhat early. His face, which usually wore a sullen expression, was now lighted with fiendish joy. He asked at once about the result of the fight, and when he was told of the victory he said in tones that sounded like the croaking of a crow:
"I am glad of your victory, and I am glad of mine. They will send no more relief expeditions for some time, and when the great prince arrives there will be more joy, for the castle will be ours."
"Have you taken any prisoners?" inquired Zbyszko.
"Only small fry, no pike. There was one, there were two but they got away. They were pikes with sharp teeth! They cut the people and escaped."
"God granted me one." replied the young knight. "He is a powerful and renowned knight, although a Swede—a guest!"
The terrible Zmudzian raised his hands to his neck and with the right hand made a gesture like the up-jerk of a halter:
"This shall happen to him," he said, "to him as well as to the other prisoners ... this!"
Then Zbyszko's brow furrowed.
"Listen, Skirwoilla," he said. "Nothing will happen to him, neither this nor that because he is my prisoner and my friend. Prince Janusz knighted both of us. I will not even permit you to cut off one finger from his hand."
"You will not permit?"
"No, I will not."
Then they glared fiercely into each other's eyes. Skirwoilla's face was so much wrinkled that it had the appearance of a bird of prey. It appeared as if both were about to burst out. But Zbyszko did not want any trouble with the old leader, whom he prized and respected; moreover his heart was greatly agitated with the events of the day. He fell suddenly upon his neck, pressed him to his breast and exclaimed:
"Do you really desire to tear him from me, and with him my last hope? Why do you wrong me?"
Skirwoilla did not repel the embrace. Finally, withdrawing his head from Zbyszko's arm, he looked at him benignantly, breathing heavily.
"Well," he said, after a moment's silence. "Well, to-morrow I will give orders for the prisoners to be hanged, but if you want any one of them, I will give him to you."
Then they embraced each other again and parted on good terms—to the great satisfaction of Macko, who said:
"It is obvious that you will never be able to do anything with him by anger, but with kindness you can knead him like wax."
"Such is the whole nation," replied Zbyszko; "but the Germans do not know it."
Then he gave orders for de Lorche, who had taken rest in the booth, to be brought to the camp-fire. A moment later the Bohemian brought him in; he was unarmed and without a helmet, having only his leather jacket upon which the marks of the coat of mail were visible. He had a red cap on his head. De Lorche had already been informed by Hlawa that he was a prisoner and therefore he came in looking cool and haughty, and the light of the flames revealed defiance and contempt in his countenance.
"Thank God," Zbyszko said, "that He delivered you in my hands, because nothing evil shall happen to you by me."
Then he extended a friendly hand; but de Lorche did not even move.
"I decline to give my hand to knights who outrage knightly honor, by joining pagans in fighting Christian knights."
One of the Mazovians present, who could not restrain himself, owing to Zbyszko's importance, on hearing this became excited and his blood boiled.
"Fool!" he shouted and involuntarily grasped the handle of his "misericordia."
But de Lorche lifted up his head.
"Kill me," he said. "I know that you do not spare prisoners."
"But, do you spare prisoners?" the Mazur who could not restrain himself, exclaimed: "Did you not hang on the shore of the island all the prisoners you took in the last fight? That is the reason why Skirwoilla will hang all his prisoners."
"Yes! they did hang them, but they were pagans."
There was a certain sense of shame in his reply; it could easily be seen that he did not entirely approve of such deeds.
Meanwhile, Zbyszko controlled himself, and in a quiet and dignified manner said:
"De Lorche, you and I received our belts and spurs from the same hand, you also know well that knightly honor is dearer to me than life and fortune. Listen, therefore, to my words which I say under oath to Saint Jerzy: There are many among this people whose Christianity does not date from yesterday, and those who have not yet been converted stretch out their hands toward the Cross for salvation. But, do you know who hinder them and prevent their salvation and baptism?"
The Mazur translated all Zbyszko's words to de Lorche, who looked into the young knight's face questioningly.
"The Germans!" said Zbyszko.
"Impossible," shouted de Lorche.
"By the spear and spurs of Saint Jerzy, the Germans! Because if the religion of the Cross were to be propagated here, they would lose a pretext for incursions, and domination and oppression of this unhappy people. You are well acquainted with these facts, de Lorche! You are best informed whether their dealings are upright or not."
"But I think that in fighting with the pagans they are only banishing them to prepare them for baptism."
"They are baptizing them with the sword and blood, not with water that saves. Read this letter, I pray, and you will be convinced that you yourself are the wrongdoer, plunderer and the hell-starosta of those who fight religion and Christian love."
Then he handed him the letter which the Zmudzians had written to the kings and princes, which was distributed everywhere; de Lorche took it and perused it rapidly by the light of the fire. He was greatly surprised, and said;
"Can all that be true?"
"May God, who sees best, so help you and me that I am not only speaking the truth but I also serve justice."
De Lorche was silent for a moment and then said:
"I am your prisoner."
"Give me your hand," replied Zbyszko. "You are my brother, not my prisoner."
Then they clasped hands and sat down in company to supper, which the Bohemian ordered the servant to prepare.
De Lorche was greatly surprised when he was informed on the road that Zbyszko, in spite of his letters, had not got Danusia, and that the comthurs had refused important and safe conduct on account of the outbreak of the war.
"Now I understand why you are here," he said to Zbyszko, "and I thank God that He delivered me into your hands, because I think that through me the Knights of the Order will surrender to you what you wish. Otherwise there will be a great outcry in the West, because I am a knight of importance and come from a powerful family...."
Then he suddenly threw down his cap and exclaimed:
"By all the relics of Akwizgran! Then those who were at the head of the relief train to Gotteswerder, were Arnold von Baden and old Zygfried von Loeve. That we learned from the letters which were sent to the castle. Were they taken prisoners?"
"No!" said Zbyszko, excitedly. "None of the most important! But, by God! The news you tell me is important. For God's sake, tell me, are there other prisoners from whom I can learn whether there were any women with Zygfried?"
Then he called the men to bring him lit resinous chips and he hastened to where the prisoners were gathered by order of Skirwoilla. De Lorche, Macko and the Bohemian ran with him.
"Listen," said de Lorche to Zbyszko, on the way. "If you will let me free on parole I will run and seek her throughout the whole of Prussia, and when I find her, I will return to you and you will exchange me for her."
"If she lives! If she lives!" replied Zbyszko.
Meanwhile they reached the place where Skirwoilla's prisoners were. Some were lying upon their backs, others stood near the stumps of trees to which they were cruelly fastened with fibre. The bright flame of the chips illuminated Zbyszko's face. Therefore all the prisoners' looks were directed toward him.
Then from the depths of the road there was heard a loud and terrible voice:
"My lord and protector! Oh, save me!"
Zbyszko snatched from the hands of the servant a couple of burning chips and ran into the forest toward the direction whence the voice proceeded, holding aloft the burning chips, and cried:
"Sanderus!" repeated the Bohemian, in astonishment.
But Sanderus, whose hands were bound to the tree, stretched his neck and began to shout again.
"Mercy!... I know where Jurand's daughter is!... Save me."
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 could get no information from him, because either from his terrible experiences or from the relaxation which usually overpowers weak natures when the threatening danger has passed, Sanderus burst into long and uncontrollable weeping, so that for some time he could give no answer to the questions put to him. He was choked with sobs, his lips trembled, and tears flowed down his cheeks so copiously that it seemed as though his very life was flowing out with them.
Finally he succeeded to some extent in controlling himself, and he strengthened himself a little with mares' milk, which mode of refreshing themselves the Lithunians learned from the Tartars. He began to complain that the "sons of Belial" had thrust him with their pikes against a wild apple-tree; that they had taken away his horse which was laden with relics of priceless virtue; and finally when they had bound him to the tree, the ants had attacked his feet and body so that he expected to die from it, if not to-day, to-morrow.
Zbyszko's anger overcame him and he could restrain himself no longer, and he interrupted Sanderus and said:
"You vagabond, answer the questions I am going to put to you and take care that you tell the truth, or you will fare worse."
"There are red ants yonder," said the Bohemian, "order them to be pat upon him, and he will soon find a tongue in his mouth."
Hlawa did not say this seriously; he even smiled as he spoke, for his heart was well inclined toward Sanderus. The latter, however, was terror-stricken, and shouted.
"Mercy! Mercy! Give me some more of that pagan drink and I will tell you all that I have and that I have not seen."
"If you tell lies, even one word that is not true, I will drive a wedge between your teeth," said the Bohemian.
They brought him another skin full of mares' milk; he grasped it and fastened his lips to it with the avidity that a child does to its mother's breast, and began to gulp it down, alternatively opening and closing his eyes. When he had drank from it about half a gallon or more, he shook himself, placed the skin upon his knees, and as if submitting himself to the inevitable, he said:
"Vile stuff!..." Then he turned toward Zbyszko. "Now, deliverer! ask."
"Was my wife in that division with you?"
Sanderus' face assumed a certain air of surprise. In fact he had heard that Danusia was Zbyszko's wife, but it had been a secret marriage, and immediately afterward she had been abducted, and he had always thought of her as Jurandowna, (Miss Jurand).
He replied quickly:
"Yes, voyevode! She was! But Zygfried von Loeve and Arnold von Baden broke through the enemy's ranks and escaped."
"Did you see her?" asked Zbyszko, with beating heart.
"I did not see her face, sir, but I saw a closed litter made of brushwood, suspended between two horses, in which there was somebody, led by that very lizard, the same servant of the Order who came from Danveld to the Forest Court. I also heard sad singing proceeding from the litter...."
Zbyszko grew pale with emotion; he sat down on the stump and was unable to ask another question for a while. Macko and the Bohemian were also much moved at this great and important news. The latter, probably, thought about his beloved lady who remained at Spychow, and upon whom this news would fall like a doom.
There was silence for a moment. Finally, the shrewd Macko who did not know Sanderus, and who had scarcely heard of him previously, looked at him with suspicion, and asked:
"Who are you and what were you doing among the Knights of the Cross?"
"Who am I, powerful knight?" replied Sanderus. "Let this valiant prince answer for me," (here he pointed toward Zbyszko), "and this manly Bohemian noble who has known me long."
The effect of the kumys (mares' milk) upon Sanderus apparently began to show itself, for he grew lively, and turning to Zbyszko he spoke in a loud voice and showed no trace of his previous feeble condition.
"Sir, you have saved my life twice. If it were not for you, the wolves would have devoured me, or the punishment of the bishops who were misguided by my enemies. (Oh, what a wicked world this is!) They issued an order to hunt me for selling relics which they thought were not genuine, simply because they took me for one of your people. But you, O lord, protected me, and thanks to you I was not destroyed by the wolves, nor shall their persecution harm me. Food and drink was never lacking whilst I was with you—better than the mares' milk here which makes me sick, but I drink it in order to show how a poor but pious pilgrim can stand all kinds of privations."
"Speak, you bear-trainer; tell us quickly what you know, and do not play the fool," exclaimed Macko.
But he lifted the skin to his mouth again and entirely emptied it; apparently not hearing Macko's words, he turned again to Zbyszko: "This is another reason why I love you. The saints, as it is written in the Scriptures, sinned nine times an hour, consequently, sometimes also Sanderus transgresses, but Sanderus never was nor shall be ungrateful. Therefore, when misfortune came upon you, you remember, sir, what I told you; I said, 'I will go from castle to castle, and, instructing the people along the road, I will search for your lost one.' Whom did I not ask? Where did I not go?—It would take me a long time to tell you.—But, suffice it to say, I found her; and from that moment on, burrs do not cling as tenaciously to the cloak as I attached myself to old Zygfried. I became his servant, and from castle to castle, from one comthur to another, from town to town I went with him without intermission until this last battle."
Zybszko meanwhile mastered his emotion and said:
"I am very thankful to you and I shall surely reward you. But now, answer my questions. Will you swear, by the salvation of your soul, that she is alive?"
"I swear by the salvation of my soul that she is alive," replied Sanderus, with a serious air.
"Why did Zygfried leave Szczytno?"
"I do not know, sir. But I surmise that as he was never the starosta of Szczytno, he left it; perhaps he feared the grand master's orders, which were, they say, to give up the little lamb to the Mazovian court. Perhaps that very letter was the cause of his flight, because his soul burned within him with pain and vengeance for Rotgier who, they say now, was Zygfried's own son. I cannot tell what happened there, but this I do know, that something turned his head and he raved, and determined not to surrender Jurand's daughter—I meant to say, the young lady—as long as he lives."
"All this seems to me very strange," suddenly interrupted Macko. "If that old dog thirsts so much for the blood of all who belong to Jurand, he would have killed Danuska."
"He wanted to do so," replied Sanderus, "but something happened to him and he became very sick, and was at the point of death. His people whisper much over that affair. Some say that upon a certain night when he went to the tower intending to kill the young lady he met the Evil Spirit—some say it was an angel whom he met—well—they found him lying upon the snow in front of the tower wholly lifeless. Now, when he thinks about it, his hair stands up upon his head like oak-trees; this is the reason why he does not himself dare to lift up his hand against her, he even fears to order others to do it. He has with him the dumb executioner of Szczytno, but it is not known why, because the executioner as well as others, are equally afraid to harm her."
These words made a great impression. Zbyszko, Macko and the Bohemian came near Sanderus, who crossed himself and then continued:
"It was not well to be among them. More than once I heard and saw things that made my flesh creep. I have told your lordship already that something was wrong with the old comthur's head. Bah! How could it be otherwise, when spirits from the other world visit him. He would have remained there, but some presence is always near him which sounds like one who is breathless. And that is that very Danveld, whom the terrible lord of Spychow killed. Then Zygfried says to him: 'What shall I do? I cannot avenge you on anything; what profit will you get?' But the other (the ghost) gnashes his teeth and then pants again. Very often Rotgier appears, and the odor of sulphur is noticeable, and the comthur has a lengthy conversation with him. 'I cannot,' he says to him. 'I cannot. When I come myself then I will do it, but now I cannot.' I also heard the old man asking: 'Will that comfort you, dear son,' and other expressions of the same character. When this happens, the old comthur speaks to nobody for two or three days in succession, and his face seems as if he is suffering intense pain. He and the woman servant of the Order watch the litter carefully, so that the young lady is always unable to see anybody."
"Do they not torture her?" asked Zbyszko, in hollow tones.
"I will tell your lordship the candid truth, that I did not hear any beating or crying; the only thing I heard proceeding from the litter was sad melodies; sometimes it seemed to me like sweet, sad warblings of a bird...."
"That is terrible," exclaimed Zbyszko, his voice hissing between his set teeth.
But Macko interrupted further questioning.
"That is enough," he said. "Speak now of the battle. Did you see how they departed and what became of them?"
"I saw and will give a faithful account. At first they fought terribly. But when they saw that they were surrounded on all sides, then only they thought of escape. Sir Arnold, who is quite a giant, was the first to break the ring, and opened such a road, that he, the old comthur and some people with the horse-litter succeeded in passing through it."
"How is it that they were not pursued?"
"They were pursued, but nothing could be done, because when they came too near them, then Sir Arnold faced the pursuers and fought them all. God protect those who meet him, because he possesses such extraordinary strength; he considers it a trifle to fight against a hundred. Thrice he thus turned, thrice he kept the pursuers in check. All the people who were with him perished. It seems to me that he too was wounded, and so was his horse, but he escaped, and meanwhile the old comthur succeeded in making good his escape."
When Macko heard the story he thought that Sanderus was telling the truth, for he recollected that when he entered the field where Skirwoilla had given battle, the whole stretch of the road on the line of the Germans' retreat, was covered with dead Zmudzians, so terribly hacked as though it had been done by giant hands.
"Nevertheless, how could you observe all that?" he asked Sanderus.
"I saw it," replied the vagabond, "because I grasped the tail of one of the horses which carried the litter, and held on until I received a kick in my stomach. Then I fainted, and that was the reason that you captured me."
"That might happen," said Hlawa, "but take care, if anything you say turns out to be false; in such case you shall fare badly."
"There is another proof," replied Sanderus; "let one who wishes take a note of it; yet it is better to believe a man's word than to condemn him as one who does not tell the truth."
"Although you sometimes unwillingly tell the truth, you will howl for simony."
And they began to tease each other as they formerly did, but Zbyszko interrupted their chatter.
"You have passed through that region, then you must be acquainted with the localities in the neighborhood of the castles; where do you suppose Zygfried and Arnold hide themselves?"