“And what about them?” asked Sigismund.
The swarthy captain to which the knight was inquiring turned to the column trailing him, “Damn Danes, don’t want to get their boots wet.” He tugged gently on the reins of his mount; the bottom edge of its barding absorbing the pungent water of the swamp below.
“The Swedes don’t seem too enthusiastic either…maybe I should warn them, the pits can be quite dangerous here,” Sigismund wondered. With a half-hearted protest, the captain continued marching on, biding Sig catch up when he finished corralling the mighty Danes. Loosely tying off the reins to his own horse to the trunk of a long dead tree, he marched slowly back through the marsh to the Nordic platoons struggling through the flooded forest floor. “I recommend you dismount your horses. They will be of little use here in the event of an ambush,” he explained as he approached the decorated head of the Danish riders.
“Your horses… dismount… bad for fighting in swamps”
The Dane returned only a puzzled look. “Jeg taler ikke tysk.”
“They don’t speak German,” a gentler voice called in broken German from behind the Danish column. After some seconds of scanning the length of the troop through the twisted wood, Sig spotted a younger, blonde solider carrying an ornate long bow dip between the sluggish Nordic procession to reach him. “My name is Halvar,” the soldier offered with a youthful smile.
“Well met,” Sig responded as he returned a smile and offered a proper Teuton handshake. “You speak German, are you with the Danes? He almost instantly answered his own question, as a cursory scan of the young man offered more than enough information. A distinct lack of house heraldry, no riding gear when the Danish host were mounted troops, Baltic-style padded armor with leather accoutrements, all shrouded by a cloak of an off green befitting of the northern Romuva wood.
“No, I’m a Kur,” he gripped Sig by the forearm, accepting the offered respect and turned to the sinking Danes before releasing his hold of the arm of the knight. “tyskerne vil have dig til at gå dine heste.” His translation of the message Sig attempted to convey to the Nords was met with dismissal. He turned back to Sigismund, released the handshake and apologized on behalf of the platoon of which he was certainly not a member.
“Oh! You’re from Courland? I was born in Winhau. My mother was a Kur.”
“Then well met!”
“Is a blessing that I met you. Want to know whether we can offer the enemy Kurs terms of surrender. They surrender, then save their lives. I fear men will not fight without your promise.” He looked, wide-eyed, at the Teutonic knight.
It took a moment for Sig to think through the request of the Kur before responding, “I am afraid I am unable to make such a decision. Nevertheless, I will take your request to the Landmeister, cousin.”
“Thank you, cousin,” the Kur returned. He appeared momentarily deflated before donning his smile once again and turning back to rejoin his portion of the eight thousand man marching order.
“Of course, my –” Sig was cut off by the low hum of a horn resounding from the dark of the wood. He pulled the shield from his back and spun to the east, and just in time, as an arrow plunged into the oak covering what would have been a shot into his heart.
He was not perfect. His anger was tempered only by violent punishment of Sig and his mother. He passed nights at the Rebane tavern and cared little for sanctity of matrimony. He was certainly not perfect…but he was Sig’s. He was the man who broke the nose of the Leppik boy’s father when he knocked Sig around a fortnite ago. He did not let his family pass an evening without a meal, even when there was no coin left to purchase the stale bread from the miller. He turned a blind eye to the absences of Sig at Ceremony every week and even covered for him when the vaidila sought punishment for his truancy. For all of him that could be redeemed and all that could not, the sum of the man could be aptly described in four words: He was Sig’s father. The words were burned in the mind of young Sigispar for now the man could only be described in a darker four words: he is a corpse.
A burly knight stood over the corpse of the Baltic man and his wife. Both pushed a constant stream of scarlet through the sword wounds adorning their chest, stomach, and, in the case of his mother, throat. Though, he paid no mind to the dead Kurs, instead electing to rummage through the few containers the hut contained, searching for something.
It is probably better he be occupied so. Sigispar had never killed man, and his confidence though bolstered by hatred may yet fade should he have to look the man in the eyes. With a series of careful steps he stalked the barbarian. His deft fingers found the family carving knife that dressed so many elk, and with two white-knuckled hands, the boy drove the blade into the back of the killer.
“Carajo!” the monster shouted. The blade clattered to the floor, leaving only a tear in the hauberk of the beast, exposing his iron-mail shirt covering the whole of his back. Turning, the steel-faced giant locked gazes with the young boy and reached for his arming sword left on the oak table. “¡Ven aquí, hijo de puta! Déjame mostrarte a tus padres ,” it growled at the Kur.
Sig dove to the right, both to evade the grasp of the beast and to recover his only weapon. “Ma tapan su, sa kuradi koletis! ” the boy cried in a cracking voice before shuffling into the only other room of his looted home.
Sig turned to slam the door, to afford himself a moment to plan his next ambush, but the knight was larger and more agile than his monstrous size and chattering armor implied. When the boy spun to reach for the door, the monster had already stomped hallway through the opening.
His gauntlet found its mark, slapping Sig across the right cheek. The boy fell unto his back with a gashed face and his knife slid just below his childhood bed. “Te tengo ahora, cabrito,” he snarled through gritted teeth as he pinned the boy to the dirt floor with one armored knee. Both hands now clamped down on the throat of the boy. His vision pulsed with black spurts of color obscuring vision from the peripheries first as they moved inward. The black slit of the helm of the creature was as void of light as the encroaching darkness consuming Sig. He was a dead man – a dead boy. And the last thing he will see is the abyssal black that usurped the eyes of this beast.
Perhaps it was better his vision fade, for it saved him the sight of gore to come. In the zeal of the monster, he paid no mind to the desperate flailing of young Sig. It was the longest finger of his left hand that first felt the cold of the iron blade. It was his pointer that felt it next, quickly followed by ring, little, and thumb. With six inches of a ferrous blade, Sigispar plunged the point of the knife into the abyss that was the slit in the great helm of the knight. Crimson sprayed through the gap, caking the face and gasping mouth of the Kur with a metallic taste. Iron for iron.
“Mierda, mierda, MIERDA, mis ojos!”
Sig knew not what he was stabbing, cutting, gauging, but he knew it was working. The iron grip on his throat relinquished at the man fell back to protect his face. Sitting on his rear, back against the wall, he swung wildly, hoping to grab the child again, hoping to gut him like he should have. Sig learned though, he ducked between swings and found his openings in the mental garments.
First, it was below the right arm. A painful, shrill scream released. But Sig sought silence. His next strike, the final strike, dug deep a discovered gap between coif and hauberk layers at their meeting on the clavicle. Spirited thrashing must have severed something important for not long after the iron man slumped dead. Sigispar was a killer.
“They’re going to take you from me,” Kesseler wept over his desk. “Have I taught you nothing in nine years? Of all the lessons I have imparted have you not learned to use your FUCKING WORDS! ” The ire of his voice was somewhat tempered by the constant trembling in his tone.
“I wasn’t thinking, I –“
“No, you weren’t thinking. You acted on basal instinct and now another Livonian is dead at your hand and you’re not a FUCKING BOY anymore. They’ve recalled me to Bavaria, THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO TO SAVE YOU THIS TIME!” His pace quickened, “You’ll be a marked man, and they’ll hunt you, and arrest you, and…” The sound of another cascade of tears welled in the throat of the aged Bishop. “And they’ll kill you,” he squeezed out before returning to a state of inconsolable sobbing.
“Father, I’m – I was only trying to help,” Sigismund mumbled. “I’m sorry”
The Landmeister stepped forward and placed his gauntlet on the shoulder of the wailing man. The other knights exchanged glances of uneasiness at the sight of the weeping Bishop, save for the silver haired captain. Scratching his snow-white beard, he inspected the outlaw from top to toe. Well kept, broad shoulders, strong sword arm, and…a sadness in his eyes. A genuineness unfamiliar to this harsh land.
“My Landmeister,” Captain Ulrich began. “Any word on replacements for the four men lost in the raid last month?”
The Landmeister responded, slightly confused at the timing of the inquiry, “Yes, two brothers from a house in Trier are riding north, and another just took his oath in Berlin this Sunday. He should arrive within the month.”
“So, I am still in need of a man?”
Understanding the implication, the Landmeister affirmed, “Indeed, Captain. Should you find a freeman of a noble house recognized by the Throne of Saint Peter possessing favorable martial aptitude, do send him to me.”
Bishop Kesseler looked up from his tear stained desk.
The Landmeister continued, “At your recommendation, I would be delighted to swear him in as a brother, with the customary charges of the Order: absolution of any Earthly crimes preceding our oath and forbiddance from the acquisition of lands, titles, and children.”
Sigismund followed the words of the Teutonic veteran carefully but did not know what role he could play in enacting this plan. He had been interred as a thrall for nine years and had naught an ounce of noble blood.
Even still, Kesseler, with trembling hands stamped two parchment letters and shakily passed them to the Landmeister without an utterance.
Clearing his throat, the Landmesiter proclaimed, “It has come to my attention… that you, Sigismund, on the second of March in the year of our lord 1251, have been released from serfdom in the Bishopric of Courland as a reward for faithful service by its lawful administrator, Bishop Albrecht Kesseler of Schwartz bestowing upon you the status of freeman in all lands that bend the knee to His Holiness. As a further demonstration of the Throne’s gratitude, by witness of Bishop Albrecht Kesseler of Schwartz, the Holy See recognizes you as a man of noble blood and the founder of House Friedman, and are thus entitled to all rights and privileges this status provides. ”
“My Landmeister,” a brother shouts, opening the bronze doors to the office of the Bishopric. “The new Bishop has arrived with the Livonians.”
“Sigismund of House Friedman, the Holy Order of Teutonic Knights recognizes your desire for spiritual enlightenment through fraternal military service. If you would swear faithful adherence to the Throne of Saint Peter, do kneel before me.”
“Sig?” Riina charged him, letting her long coat drag through the Kuldig mud.
“Hey Rii.” He let his helm splash unto the ground. She slammed into him with near a decade’s worth of pent emotion. Her hands found the painted oak of a shield resting on his back and quickly fell around his waist. The only measure preventing her hair from catching in the rings of his hauberk was the layer of linen tabard he wore denoting the Order. Even still, she pressed her cheek into the breast of the knight who stood nigh a head taller than she, before reluctantly retreating half a step to look into his eyes.
“By Dievas and Saulia and Perkunas and –” he cut her off with a kiss. “It’s been too long,” she managed to squeeze out in gasps between breaths.
“Nine years,” Sig released with a heavy sigh.
The ignored armor and longsword draped at his side now registered with Riina. “You’re a –“
“I am.” He nodded.
“I thought you were –“
“So did I” A now solemn visage overtook him as he replayed the memory in his mind.
The two stood for a moment, taking in the presence of one another. The gray of the storm clouds and persistent falling of snow sapped the city-scape of color and life. Though, just as a hearth gathers all around, the deep vermillion of her coat and rich honey of her hair radiated a warmth that drew Sig from afar. Her sapphire eyes melted not only his heart but any semblance of coherent explanation for his absence she was seemingly expecting.
“Where did you go?” She asked innocently.
“Memel first. We spent some years dealing with the Lithuanians while the Livonians took charge of almost everything north under the new Bishop . This is truly the first time I could ever return.”
A tear welled in each eye. “We.” She frowned.
“This was the only way, Rii. If not for the Teutons, I’d be…dead.” He looked down at his sword and felt a sudden, encumbering weight spawn from his shield. Pulling it from his back he explained in a soft voice, “But look, we are Teutons.” He tapped his finger on the black eagle soaring over a golden field. “We aren’t the Livionians and there’s a lot of good men who welcomed me as a brother.”
This response seemed to placate her somewhat. “I would have liked if you wrote me…if only just to say you weren’t dead.”
“Rii…if I could have,” he began a hardy laugh “…in the most broken German you’ve ever read.” That made her smirk. “Or maybe you wanted it in Latin. I have to warn you though, the only words I know are bread and wine.”
She smiled. “Sounds like a good night to me.” Riina inspected the knight from spur to shaved head. “Are you staying?”
“Not officially,” Sig explained, “I was only authorized to help with the conscription…of which I did nothing.” He released a nervous laugh. Scratching his head and turning left, then right, searching for other knights in earshot and finding none, he offered, “The column will be on foot so catching up on horseback should not be difficult. I could…stay for a night.”
If her eyes were sapphires, her cheeks were rubies. “We have a lot of time to make up and,” she looked to the position of the sun, “about a night and half this day to do it.”
The Teuton whistled and a heavy-footed Friesian stomped through the slosh, parting passing files of village folk and mustering troops alike. Sig extended a hand and whispered, “Then I’m all yours.”
“No ! Stop! Stop !” The shrieking voice of his closest friend was unmistakable. Sigismund hurried from the brazier-side steps of the chapel on which he was finishing his write-ups and turned a sharp right toward the sounds of the cries. Under torchlight and in the alley, he could discern a half-armored figure hunched over a pinned female frame. His left held hers in the dirt and his right now covered her mouth while hers smacked at his exposed ear.
Enraged, Sig lunged at the knight, barreling into his ribs and driving him to the ground unto his back. Sigismund attempted to strike his face, to smash it into the Earth, but the trained fighter caught his blows and tossed him off. Recovering the blade the knight seemingly discarded before his assault, Sigismund positioned himself between his friend and the assailant.
“So you’re the Kesseler boy,” the Livonian spit, releasing a beer-coated stench. “Yea, yea, you’re the one we always have stumbling through the pit with that blunted sword they let you swing around.” The knight that had been accosting Riina staggered to his feet, chuckling with the other two who had arrived hearing the commotion. “How’s it feel Kur boy? Swinging a real man’s sword?”
“Go,” Sig commanded Riina.
“Sig, they’re going to –“
“Go.” His intention was clear. She squeezed his hand tightly before reluctantly releasing and running eastward, opposite the position of the Livonians.
The other two Livonians moved to draw their own weapons, but were discouraged at the behest of their drunken brother. “No, no, no need. I’ll have this boy in two and then I’ll have his little girlfriend.”
“Mora, if the captain catches you with that smell of alcohol –”
“Captain,” he belched, “Captain won’t catch shit but a little, dead Kur boy who,” his tone became comically regal, “assaulted a knight keeping the Bishop’s peace in this most unrestful land.”
“Give it here.”
One of the two Livonians drew his blade and handed it to the intoxicated soldier with eyes locked on Sig. “Alright, Kur boy. Let’s see what those Teutons taught ya.”
Sig let loose three powerful blows, the first from above his head, the second from the right, and the third a, hopefully unpredicted, slash from the left. Sig was wrong.
The knight blocked the first two and seeing the telegraphed third, chambered it, taking Sigismund off-guard. Now it was his turn to attack. Overhead after overhead slammed down on Sigismund as if he was a bill of hot iron to be hammered. Understanding that the boy of eighteen could scarcely defend against the trained flurry of strikes, the Livonian hammered away at his crumbling defense.
What could he do? The drunken man had more strength and at least a decade of muscle memory to guide his arm. The drunken man. Sigismund, in a desperate attempt to throw something unexpected at the veteran, jabbed with his left when the next swing came down upon him. His knuckles connected a disorienting blow with the now bloody nose of the man.
“Lucky, Kur bastard,” the beast snarled. With a lunging step, it charged Sig with strength he could not hope to match.
The answer of the Kur boy was a blinding strike. A blinding kick. He dug his foot into the wet dirt and kicked up at least a fistful of mud at the face of the man. Now with the position of Sigismund lost, Sig stepped to the right and brought his blade down on the drunk, cutting through half his neck and colliding with the vertebrae.
“What the fuck is going on?” shouted the Bishop flanked by two Teutonic knights marching from the chapel.
They’re in the bind, Sig thought to himself. That’s what they call it, when two blades collide and catch on one another, the bind. It only happened with sharp swords, he knew that. And axes, but only with an axe against sword. Sig never saw two axe blades collide, that, he was sure, never happened. Just an axe and a sword.
Each day, Sig watched the Teutons spar in the pit near the chapel with the oversight of that one with the white beard and the bright thing. He did not know the word for the thing they wore over their chain shirts. It resembled a dress, but sported no sleeves. Most of the men had great white ones while the man with the white beard had one dyed as gold as the sun with stripes as black as night.
He did not seem the kindest man, though. Sometimes men would swing with poor form or be struck by an opponent and the bearded man would march over and shout.
Sig become quite adept and noticing when swings came too early, or too late. He had grown a sense for when the bearded man would come to yell.
Today was different, though. There was no white beard to be seen and all the knights trained a little lighter once they realized there was opportunity for respite. This, Sig thought, was his chance. He had to do it now, now or never, right? He just had to stand up. Just had to go over there and –
“Kesseler’s boy!” Two knights caught sight of the staring boy, mumbling to himself by the chapel wall.
Stunned Sigismund replied reflexively, “Aye sir!”
“Entertained are we?”
Sig stuttered, “No, no, I –”
“No? Not good enough?”
“That’s not what I meant. I was meaning to say…I wasn’t…er…I wasn’t trying to intrude, my apologies.” Sig collected his stack of missives and turned to rejoin his route and errands before one called out to him.
“Want to take a few swings?”
Sig turned slowly. “Me?” Excitement welled inside his chest.
“Is there another Kesseler boy around here?” The two laughed and turned back to the errand boy of the Bishop. “Put those papers down and Lorentz, here, will show you how to fight like a real knight.” The one speaking pulled a blunted blade from stand by the fence of the pit and tossed it to the boy.
Mimicking the form of the men he had seen over the last few months, Sig took a defensive stance as the knight named Lorentz took some slowed, though still staggeringly powerful, strikes at the guard of the boy. Then, Lorentz relented, beckoning Sig to go on the offensive. Under then over, left than right, Sig swung from varied directions, never wanting to become too predictable, just like the bearded man would say.
“Quit keeping those elbows out…er…and quit leaning so much,” the other knight called from the side before stepping between them. “Listen, er, what’s your name?”
“Okay…Sig-ismund. Lorentz here’s blocking all ya swings because ya showing him too much. Think he can’t read ya? If ya fighting someone better, ya got to do something he doesn’t know how to read.”
Sigismund thought for a moment and nodded. “Watch this swing, I know the perfect angle,” Sig proclaimed aloud. He was lying. Both knights exhaled a breath, part-laugh and part-sigh before Lorentz went in. Sig blocked, sidestepped, and swept the leg of the advancing knight.
“WOO! That’s what we’re talking about!” Lorentz let out a torrent of laughter from the dirt and the other nearly fell next to him due to his own. ‘Those Lithuanians won’t know what hit ‘em,” the two continued to giggle.
For all the squirming, wriggling, and writhing, there was no escape. With binds this tight and boots on his back this heavy, Sigispar was not surviving this. They had pulled him from the back room where it had been done, the carving knife still resting in the neck of the man he had slain. They dragged him from his home, kicking and screaming, torching the hut and the bodies of both his parents. And now his story ends. Nine years on Earth to be cut short by the tempered steel of a Livonian blade. With the boy held on his knees, a burly captain raised his sword, prepared to swing –
“In which book?” shouted a severely balding man accompanied by three additional knights. These knights dressed different from the ones that were to execute the killer boy, from the one into which Sigispar had driven the blade three times. Their tabards all were primarily white, save for one flanking the balding man. He had one of gold with black striping. As for his executioners, theirs boasted a crimson cross whereas the two by the gold man carried a black eagle soaring over a yellow crest.
“In which book did the Lord kill children? Was it that of John? Or of Luke? Wait, perhaps Mark recorded the summary executions performed by our Savior.” As he approached the balding man grew in tone and intensity. Sigispar could see a necklace draped over his robes, a necklace with a cross similar to the emblem of the executioners.
“Bishop Kesseler,” he one with the sword stammered while pointing to the corpse of the knight they dragged from the same room Sig was found.
“And what of the boy’s parents?” The fire of the hut reflected in the eyes of the bishop has he stared down the two Livonians.
“Dead when we found them.”
“Do you think he killed them too? Is this one of Satan’s demons come to drag us all to hell?” The knights seemed surprised at the protests of the bishop. It was just a Kur boy. “Answer me!”
“He killed one of us. He must be put –”
“And you killed one of his. To be specific, two of his people.” The knights removed their helmets and stared in shock. “I did not come here to rule GRAVES OF DEAD FUCKING CHILDREN.” A silence fell over both parties of knights and those marching by the adjacent road. With a deep breath, the bishop declared, “We are here to spread the word of the Lord, to covert the peoples of this land…you cannot covert a corpse. As punishment for the crime of the boy he will be interred in my service as a servant of the Bishopric.”
“A thrall? You’re going to let him live?” The Livonian captain tightened the grip on his blade.
“And we’re going to let you live,” interjected the Teuton captain. “Let the boy go. He belongs to the Church now.”
After a moment of intense staring, the Livonian sheathed his sword and threw the boy at the feet of the bishop. Disgusted, he spit on him and marched onward.
The holy man knelt and helped the nine-year-old to his feet. “What’s your name, boy?” Kesseler asked in German.
Guessing at the question posed, he responded, “My name is Sigispar.”
“Sigispar? First step of your new life is learning some German. Good German boys speak German.” Speaking slowly and pointing at the heart of the boy he conveyed, “Now…You are Sigismund. A new German name for a new, German boy.”
In the darkness he moved like a shadow. No man in his party carried a torch, reserving the torch bearing responsibility for sentries posted along the length of the central road approaching the chapel. As he rode to the Piltene chapel steps against a growing northerly wind, his overcoat waved high behind him like the great black wings of a descending vulture. Atop a Friesian so dark, it appeared to the folk of Piltene that their new Bishop was carried on by the Abyss itself. The hue of its hair was not colored black so much as it seemed to sap color from its surroundings as it strode forward. A new Livonian guard met the Teutonic garrison before the bronze chapel doors when the moon reached its height.
“Blessed Bishop Kesseler,” his voice stabbed through the vacuum of silence his arrival created. “How are you this fine evening?”
“Most wonderful, Bishop Heinrich. I trust your ride north was both relaxing and spiritually enlightening.”
“How could it not be with wilderness such as this, as unmolested by the industry of man as it remains? Tell me, why do our armed brothers, bearers of a sacred oath to defend us, tell me most troubling news?
“What might that news be, dear Bishop?”
The Friesian crept forward, crossing the four meter distance in a single stride. With the head of the monster breathing down on Kesseler, Hienrich elaborated, “They tell me you harbor a criminal, a killer. They tell me he’s killed before and you have only encouraged such behavior and now he has slain but another of our young heroes.”
“Ah. Yes, the Livonians are a tired troop. For all the beauty of this land, it is a harsh one on the soul. I am afraid some of us are simply not cut for bearing the weight of the stress this country inflicts. Perhaps the strain of life here has worn on such overworked minds. For none have taken action here not sanctioned by both the Throne of Saint Peter and, more importantly, the word of our Lord.”
As Kesseler spoke, it was clear both the Bishop and his steed were focused on the boy behind him, the boy flanked on his right by a line of armed Teutons and on his left by a silver-haired captain. “If I am to have understood the literature presented to me, the killer of which I speak is property of the Bishopric…not you.” Heinrich bid his mount step past his peer, but Kesseler made no effort to move, blocking the horseman and his passage.
“I am woefully afraid that you have not been informed of the most recent decrees of the Church.”
Swallowing the anger spurned by the refusal of Kesseler to part from his path, Heinrich inquired, “And what might that be?”
From his robe Kesseler produced a hastily written copy of the documents presented earlier that evening to the Landmeister and held them before his breast. “It weighs my heart so to inform you, dear Bishop, that my aged arms cannot reach Heaven. You’ll have to come down to Earth if you wish to read it.” It took a willpower Sigismund previously thought was inhuman to hide a smile.
The vulture dismounted and the Livonians drew in distastefully close. Snatching the copies from the wrinkled hand of Kesseler, Heinrich snapped, “What game are you playing Kesseler, hand the damned boy over and let us be done with this. Your last day as Bishop was yesterday, this holds no merit before the eyes of the Church.”
“’Fraid that cannot be done my Bishop. His governance ends with the dawn of the next day. So…” Ulrich referenced the moon, “looks like we have about five hours, give or take one, before any guard need be changed.”
“You speak out of turn, Captain.”
“He does,” Kesseler asserted. “Allow me to make clear my position as Bishop of this domain.” He extended an open hand to the right, expecting something to fill it. Sigismund passed forward the sword recovered in the duel. With it, Kesseler drew a crude line inches from his boots and those of Heinrich. “For the remainder of my lawful rule, no armed man may be permitted to cross this line without my approval.” Booming now, he shouted, “Should any man cross it before we have set off for the South,” he turned to the Landmeister and Captain, “kill him.”
“He wants us,” the knight said, kneeling before the Kesseler boy, “to walk you eight miles by road, to deliver that letter?”
Five years in the service of the Bishop did not wholly alleviate the discomfort Sig felt in their presence. Breathing deeply, Sig affirmed, “Yes, sir.”
“He doesn’t want us to just… take it ourselves?”
“No, fath—” Sig hesitated before correcting himself, “Bishop Kesseler wants me to learn the roads. He says if this is to be my job as a man then I should know the garrisons around Piltene.”
Placated, the knight looked to the other two on his flank, shrugged, and agreed, “Fine. You’ll be riding with Sewastian, here.”
Mounting their armored horses, the three knights formed a column and began a slow trot eastward. “So, Kesseler boy, what’s your name?” the one named Sewastian asked.
“Sigismund.” His response was purposefully curt. As they rode, Sig preferred to grip the saddle instead of the knight seated before him.
“I heard you practicing your reading when I was making my rounds this morning. Your German accent is quite good,” Sewastian added, only to hear a short “Thank you” from the Kesseler boy.
Sig made little effort to mask his uneasiness. In response, the knight at the rear of the column chimed, “Should have heard him in Latin. I was breaking fast with Lorentz and I heard someone reciting Psalms. I turned around, expecting Brother Moritz or maybe Caspar, but there the boy was. Little Sigismund reads better than I,” he chuckled.
The leading knight joined, “I think the whole of Piltene reads better than you, Jorg!”
As the men bantered, Sig felt unfamiliarly safe. The paths grew more uneven and threatened to shake the boy off the rear of the horse. To the surprise of Sewastian, Sig placed his hands on the hips of the man to steady himself.
The revelry would not last though, mid riff, the leading Teuton was struck by a volley of rocks that streamed from both flanks of the path. At least two struck his helm, causing the man to lose balance and fall from his horse. Seeing their opportunity, five men lept from the tree line. Sig spun to see his attackers. Two charged Sewastian, two Jorg, and the last the lead. Those who moved for the mounted men carried rectangular shields and axes in their right hands while the man who approached the downed Teuton marched with a bearded axe that required both hands to wield.
The mount of Sewastian reared, throwing the surprised boy into the dirt. Dazed, Sig looked first to the man who he had rode with. With a powerful swing he knocked aside the shield of one of the inexperienced tribesmen and battered the other with strikes fueled by the sudden rush of adrenaline. The rear knight was less fortunate, however. The tribesmen had been too fast and reached his steed before he could draw his blade. With all their strength, they wrested the knight from his horse and made wild swings at his armored frame. It was the leading knight that Sig expected to meet his end first, though a glance to the front of the column conveyed hope. He had not been able to draw his weapon, but the aim of the axeman was poor. With a desperate roll and a spirited lunge, he managed to grapple his ambusher and the two wrestled for the weapon.
It that moment Sig had a choice… Sigismund chose the Germans. Scrambling on his stomach, Sig snatched the lost sword of Jorg and struggled to his feet. In a series of undisciplined swings, he sliced at the unsecured back of a man battering the downed knight. Blood sprayed in his mouth as he screamed.
With one guerilla dead, the tide of the struggle swung heavily in the favor of the Order. The lead wrestled control of the axe and sunk it deep into his would-be assassin. Sewastian, from his elevated position, faced little difficulty routing poorly armored opponents. The last tribesmen, caked in the blood of his friend, ran for the safety of the Labyrinthine wood he knew well. The cries of the butchered man sent a shudder through Sigismund.
The Lithuanian campaigns were not perfect. When it was hot, there was no shade, when it rained there was no cover, when it froze you did not know if your mount would slip on ice and toss you or trot unknowingly off a steep bank obscured by a great mound of powered snow. These were only the elements, however. Lithuanian horsemen were as deadly as they were swift. Lithuania, though, was a world better than this.
Nine years it had been since he rode north into the northern Baltic country. Nine years of flat, navigable riding. Today he was slogging through a bog that made the worst days on a flooded Nemunas seem a holiday. The swamp only thickened as his Friesen trudged northward. Well, perhaps Lithuania did have some swamps he rode through? There was that one battle, he thought, er, no, that was not considered quite a swamp was it? It was flooded, though it had just rained hard so it might not have been –
Sigismund and his thoughts were abruptly interrupted by an unexpected jerk forward of his steed. The knight held tightly and maintained his balance, though it was clear he was not riding forward any longer. Carefully lowering himself into the verdant water, his investigation revealed that his horse had stepped into what was an unseen pit and been caught in a particularly thick swath of mud.
Keep careful of swamp pits. Sigismund would remember that.
“Someone looks a bit stuck, ain’t he?” A grizzled Baltic voice barked from ahead. Stomping through the water came four men, each from a different cardinal direction, as they revealed themselves from concealed positions near the pit. “That one’s a bitch ain’t it?”
“Aye. Are you my rescue?”
The four tribesmen seemed stunned that the knight spoke their tongue. “You sound a Kur, is ya?” They traded worried glances.
“Aye, again.” Sigismund switched between his mother tongue and his learned German with each sentence. “And it is because I am a Kur that I won’t insult you by requesting assistance from men clearly positioned with intent to take my life and possessions. I may ride under a cross you despise, but it is my hope you and yours will agree this bog is no grave you desire. Sink back into the wood and make yourselves as ghosts. I will not offer such again; pure-blooded Germans would not be so kind as to offer any amicable terms.
“It would be a Kur to turn traitor!” With that dismissal and an emboldened confidence from their superior numbers, the woodsmen closed on the knight.
Their need to drag feet through mud gave Sigismund precious more seconds to consider his defense. With his shield hanging upon the opposite end of the horse, he would be unable to both reach and equip it before an axe cleaved into him. His attackers, however, had not shields of their own, wielding axes and clubs with two hands. It mattered not, he concluded; they would have needed a shield more than he. Drawing his steel and placing his right upon the pommel. Sigismund would fight as if left-handed. What he lacked in natural ability compared to his right-hand would be compensated by training and his confidence that these men had little experience fighting, let alone against such an uncommon stance. Then, Sigismund trudged three steps from his steed. He would need ample room for the maneuvers planned.
Sig swung wide, forming an arc that deterred two of the advancing clubmen. Aiming to capitalize on the exposed flank, an axeman rushed with a hardy overhead strike, exposing his chest. Sigismund punished him, swiping across the length of the chest of the man. Being at the edge of his reach, the cut was superficial though the fear it inspired was not, causing the man to stumble back and fall into the water. The second axeman was no luckier than the first. Redirecting his blade as if it was an extension of himself, Sig sliced low at poorly covered thighs. His steel met bone and with a spirited pull it was free again to batter those with clubs. They had stopped the assault of the knight with the wood of their weapons, though, their exposed hands became enticing targets for the veteran. Quick cuts severed a finger, perhaps two, on a hand of each man, sending them reeling for fear of more grievous injury. Carrying his crippled comrade, the axemen slunk back into the stinking swamp, following their fingerless friends.