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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Thirteen
Last updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2016 19:07 EDT
Lower Silesia, near Boleslawiec
By the time he got to the outskirts of Boleslawiec — or Bunzlau, as the town’s mostly German inhabitants called it — Jozef Wojtowicz was in a quiet rage. Once he’d gotten beyond Görlitz, which marked the easternmost outpost of Saxony, the area he was passing through had quickly come to resemble a war zone — and a very recent war, at that.
What infuriated him was that the destruction had not been caused by Poland’s enemies but by soldiers who were officially employed by King Wladyslaw to protect the area. That would be the army commanded by Heinrich Holk, a man who had one of the worst reputations of any mercenary in Europe — which was saying a lot, given how low that bar had been set by now.
Holk had been employed by the Elector of Saxony, John George, right up until the moment that Gustav Adolf invaded Saxony and John George had need of his services. At that point — he might have taken ten minutes to decide, but probably less — Holk immediately fled across the border into Lower Silesia and offered his services to the king of Poland.
Who, for reasons known only to himself and God, had chosen to accept them. Jozef’s best guess — which did not mollify his anger in the least — was that Wladyslaw had been preoccupied with the threat that Gustav Adolf posed to Poland and had no troops he was prepared to send into Silesia to deal with Holk. So, he hired him instead. In essence, he bribed Holk to leave him alone.
The up-timers had a term for this sort of arrangement. They called it a “protection racket.” Which wouldn’t perhaps have been so bad if Holk had been an honest criminal and satisfied himself with the bribe. Instead, he’d made no effort to keep his soldiers under control and they’d set about plundering the countryside.
And that was another thing which enraged Jozef. Silesia was a borderland between the Germanies and the Slavic nations, and had been for centuries. At one time or another Silesia or parts of it had been under the control of Poland, Bohemia and Austria. Its inhabitants were a mix of Germans, Czechs and Poles. The rough rule of thumb which held generally through most of the region was that the towns and cities were heavily German, sometimes with a Czech and/or Jewish element, and the countryside was mostly Polish.
The largest city in Silesia was Wroclaw, known to its mostly-German inhabitants as Breslau. By 1518, the city had joined the Protestant Reformation but a few years later, in 1526, it came under the control of the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs. Until the Bohemian revolt of 1618, however, the Habsburgs had allowed a considerable degree of religious freedom. Thereafter, Ferdinand II had imposed his harshly Catholic policies over the area, although the brunt of those policies had initially been borne by Bohemia more than Silesia.
The war itself — what the up-time histories called the Thirty Years War — didn’t reach Silesia until 1629, when it was invaded by a Protestant army under the command of the German mercenary Ernst von Mansfeld. In response, the Austrians sent their mercenary commander Albrecht von Wallenstein to drive Mansfeld out, which he did — and followed by imposing his own harsh rule.
And then, just five years later, Wallenstein himself rebelled against the Habsburgs and restored Bohemia’s independence with himself as the new king. At the same time, he laid claim to all of Silesia — but that had been mostly a gesture, since the Polish monarchy seized Lower Silesia and Wallenstein was too pre-occupied with the Austrian attempts to restore Habsburg rule to pay much attention. All he really cared about was Upper Silesia, anyway, which was still largely under his control.
And there things stood. Most of the peasants were Polish Catholics, who lived in reasonable amity with the inhabitants of the towns and cities, who were mostly German Lutherans. Both Poland and Bohemia claimed to rule Silesia, but the Bohemians made no attempt to enforce their claim except in some immediate border areas and the Polish claim was enforced by a German mercenary thug whose real allegiance was to lucre and liquor.
As stinky situations went in the already quite smelly continent of Europe, Silesia was a veritable cesspool.
The worst of it was born by the Polish peasants. The German towns and cities generally governed themselves and had sizeable militias at their disposal. Jozef thought Holk’s army was large enough and strong enough that it could have overrun any of the cities of Silesia except possibly Breslau — but only at a significant cost. That was the sort of cost in blood and treasure that even very competent mercenary commanders tried to avoid. Holk and his men satisfied themselves by extorting bribes from the towns to leave them alone and periodically ravaging the villages.
As he passed through one small and deserted village, Jozef’s angry musings were interrupted by an odd little sound. Turning quickly in his saddle, he saw a small foot vanish around the corner of a house — not much more than a shed, really — that hadn’t been as badly damaged as most of the village’s buildings.
That had been a child’s foot. He got off his horse, tied it to a nearby post, and went to investigate.
Coming around the corner, he saw the foot again — the foot and most of the leg — sliding under a pile of debris that looked to be the burned remains of another shed.
“Come out, child,” he said in Polish. “I won’t hurt you.”
Moving slowly, making sure to keep his hands outstretched a bit so the child could see that he held no weapons, he advanced on the shattered and burned wreckage.
As he got close, he heard a little whimpering sound. He leaned over and — carefully, he didn’t want to dislodge a pile of wooden slats to fall on whoever was hiding there — lifted the largest of the intact boards and peered beneath.
Looking up at him, their faces full of fear, were two small children. A boy and a girl. The boy was perhaps six years old, the girl no more than four. From the mutual resemblance, he was pretty sure they were brother and sister.
“Where is your family?” he asked.
The children stared up at him, mute and silent.
He moved the board entirely aside. “Come out, children. I won’t hurt you, and you must be hungry. I have some food.”
He glanced around the village square — such as it was, which wasn’t much — and saw there was no well. “And water,” he added. There was stream fifty yards away which the village had probably used as its water supply. But the children would have been too frightened to leave their hiding place except at night — and possibly not even then.
The children seemed paralyzed with fear, still. Jozef knelt down and gave the girl’s face a gentle caress. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. But you can’t stay here forever. Come with me and I’ll take you someplace safe.”
He had no idea where that might be, but he couldn’t simply ride off and leave them here. They were too young to survive for very long on their own. The boy might, but the girl would surely die.
“Why does God seem to have such a grudge against poor Poland?” he muttered. Jozef had an insouciant temperament and was generally good-humored. But by now the contrast between Poland’s feckless rulers and the people he’d come to know in Dresden was becoming downright grotesque. Were he not a son of Poland and quite attached to his homeland, he’d have instantly traded King Wladyslaw and the whole miserable worthless Sejm for a printer’s daughter named Gretchen, a former tavern maid named Tata, and a one-time gunmaker become quite a good officer named Eric Krenz.
The children were still frozen in place, like two little statues. Josef got back on his feet, leaned over, and picked the girl up in his arms. She did not try to resist, nor did she make any sound.
“Don’t hurt Tekla!” the boy cried out, reaching out his hand. “Please don’t!”
His Polish had a heavy rural accent, but was obviously his native tongue.
Jozef cradled the girl in one arm and reached down with his other hand. “I won’t hurt her. Or you. Now come, boy. We have to leave here. What’s your name?”
Hesitantly, the boy reached up, took Jozef’s proffered hand and levered himself upright.
“I’m Pawel. Pawel Nowak.”
“Where is your family, Pawel?”
The boy looked distressed. His eyes moved toward one of the wrecked buildings and then shied away. “Gone. All of them except me and Tekla. They killed my father and uncle. My older brother Fabek also. My mother I don’t know what happened to her. The soldiers took her away. I think she was hurt.”
By the end he was starting to weep. So was the girl. Jozef put an arm around Pawel’s shoulders and drew him close, while cradling Tekla more tightly.
So he remained for a while, until the children were cried out.
“Come on, now,” he said. “We have to get moving.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’ll spend tonight in Boleslawiec.” Since the children were Polish, he used the Polish name for the town. “After that I have to get to Wroclaw.”
Pawel’s eyes widened. “But that’s so far away!”
The distance from Boleslawiec to Wroclaw wasn’t actually that great. Perhaps eighty miles — certainly not more than a hundred. A few days on horseback, no more. But for a Silesian village boy, it would have seemed almost as far away as Russia or France. If he even knew where those countries were located, which he probably didn’t.
After some experimentation, Josef found that the best way for the three of them to ride was with Pawel sitting behind him holding on and Tekla perched on his lap. It was awkward and it was going to be uncomfortable for all them, especially the poor horse. But at least today they didn’t have very far to go.
Tomorrow and the days thereafter were tomorrow and the days thereafter. There were advantages to having Jozef’s temperament. He wasn’t given to worrying overmuch about what the future might hold.
He found a fairly decent tavern in Boleslawiec that had a room to rent. The food was mediocre but edible. The biggest drawback to the situation was that the tavern’s barmaids seemed quite friendly but with two children in tow he found himself unable to proceed as he normally would.
So, he retired for the night sooner than usual. When he got back to the room he’d rented, he found that Pawel and Tekla were already sound asleep. They were cuddled together so tightly that he’d have more space on the bed than he’d expected.
He’d already placed the batteries in the radio before he’d left Dresden. So all he had to do was place the antenna out of the window. Then, patiently, he began spelling out the Morse code.
“You wanted me, Grand Hetman?” Lukasz Opalinski didn’t quite come to attention — Polish military protocol was fairly relaxed about such things — but his tone was respectful and alert. Koniecpolski was not in the habit of summoning one of his junior officers on a passing whim. Something important must be brewing.
The top commander of the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth looked up from a piece of paper in his hand. Silently, he extended the hand to give the paper to Lukasz.
In radio contact again. In Bunzlau. Need to meet with someone in Wroclaw. Have two children need care. Nephew.
“Two children?” Lukasz couldn’t keep from laughing out loud. “I wouldn’t have thought even Jozef could have sired two bastards in the time he’s been gone.”
Koniecpolski smiled. “I don’t understand about the children either. But if he says he needs to meet with someone, we must see to it. My nephew is brash but he’s no fool.”
Lukasz had already thought ahead. “I’m free at the moment — not much for a hussar to do in this sort of siege — and I’ve been to Wroclaw. I wouldn’t say I know the city well, but I do know it.”
Koniecpolski nodded. “Off you go, then. It’s about a hundred miles or so. If he’s in Boleslawiec with two children you’ll get to Wroclaw about the same time he does.” The Grand Hetman frowned slightly. “I don’t know why he used the German name for it.”
Lukasz shrugged. “They’re a rude and abrupt folk, so their names are usually shorter. That matters when you’re using Morse.”
“Ah. I hadn’t considered that.” Koniecpolski was aware that there was some sort of code usually involved in radio transmission, but he’d probably never actually heard it used. He would have simply been given already-translated messages.
Lukasz was in very good spirits on his way out. Sieges were boring.
Lower Silesia, between Legnica and Wroclaw
“There’s someone up on the hill,” Tekla said. Her tone was anxious. “In the trees. I think they’re trying to hide.”
“I see them,” said Jozef. He’d actually spotted the men before the girl had, half a minute earlier. The “hill” she referred to was more of a slight elevation just a few yards off to the left side of the narrow road they were following. The landscape was mostly flat, as was generally the case in the basin formed by the Oder river. They were quite a ways north of the Sudetes Mountains which formed most of the southern border of Silesia.
But there were occasional rises in the terrain, often wooded, and at least three men were on the one just ahead of them. They were indeed trying to hide — none too adroitly — and it was quite obvious the reason they were doing so was because this clumsy effort was their idea of an ambush.
Jozef felt a fierce surge, almost one of exultation. His fury had been building for days and he’d finally have someone to unleash it upon.
But first, he had to take some care of the children.
“Tekla, Pawel, I’m going to stop very soon and you both have to get off the horse.” He nodded toward some brush off to the right a short distance away. “Go hide in there. Keep your heads down.”
“What are you going to do, Uncle?” Pawel asked nervously. In the three days of their travels, Wojtowicz had undergone a transition from scary stranger to nice man to uncle Jozef.
“Make these bad men go away. Far away.”
Oh, so very very far away.
He brought the horse to a halt. “Now, children. Off you go — and on the right side of the horse, where they can’t see you well.”
Pawel was on the ground in less than two seconds. He reached up to catch his little sister as Josef lowered her with one hand.
His right hand, unfortunately. But he didn’t think it was really going to matter because with his left hand he was already drawing out one of the two pistols he carried at his waist.
He thought the world of those weapons. Even with the money provided him by Grand Hetman Koniecpolski, Josef hadn’t been able to afford actual up-time pistols. But these were close to the next best thing: Blumroder .58 caliber over-and-under double-barreled caplock pistols. He’d opted for the longer eight-inch barrels despite the extra weight and somewhat more awkward handling because he wanted to be able to fire from horseback — while moving, at a canter if not a gallop — with a good chance of hitting his target.
He’d been able to practice a fair amount with them, too, before he left Dresden. After his participation in the sortie that marked the height of the battle between the besieged forces and Báner’s men trying to get back into the trenches, he no longer bothered hiding the fact that he’d trained as a hussar.
He watched while the children scurried off into the shrubbery, without so much as glancing at the wooded rise where the ambushers were waiting. He didn’t need to. Part of the training he’d gotten — which had been reinforced by his later experience as a spy — had been to quickly scan and memorize terrain and whatever forces might be located there.
There were three beech trees crowning the rise, all of them mature with thick trunks and plenty of room for horsemen beneath the lower branches. It was the sort of place careless and lazy soldiers would pick for an ambush. They’d have done better to use one of the groves of fir trees that dotted the terrain.
As soon as the children were out of sight he spurred his horse and charged the rise, angling to the right in order to take as much advantage of the road as he could before the final moments.
Part of his mind registered the squawks of surprise — there was some fear there, too — coming from the men half-hidden among the trees. But he paid little attention to that. His concentration was now visual, keeping everything in sight, in his mind’s eyes — where everyone was, how they were moving — how many were there?
Three, he thought at first. But then a fourth man came out of hiding and began running away on foot. Clearly, the fellow hadn’t been expecting this reaction from a lone traveler with two small children — and wanted no part of it.
He was a dead man, but Josef ignored him for the moment. He’d already shifted the pistol from his left hand to the right and taken the reins in his left. He now guided his horse off the road and straight up the rise into the trees.
The pistol came up — the range was less than ten yards now — and he fired.
His target jerked and yelled something. Now six yards away. He fired again and the target went down.
He shoved the empty pistol into a saddle holster — quickly, the range was down to three yards and one of the men was aiming his own pistol — and drew the one on his right hip.
Then, rolled his upper body down next to his horse’s flank. The enemy’s shot went somewhere over his head. The fool should have tried to shoot the horse.
He was back up again. Visualizing everything. One enemy was clambering onto a horse — and not doing a good job of it. He must be rattled. A second was fumbling with his pistol — probably the one he’d just fired, proving himself a fool twice over.
Josef drove his horse over him, trampling him under. Distantly he heard the man scream but he was now concentrated on the one getting onto his horse.
He ducked under a branch and came up right next to him. Fired. Fired. The man slid out of the saddle, smearing blood all over. The horse panicked and raced off, dragging him from one stirrup. If he wasn’t dead already he would be soon, being dragged like that.
Jozef wheeled his horse around. The man he’d just trampled was moaning and clutching his belly. Something in his body had been ruptured, probably. He’d keep for a while.
The first man he’d shot was lying on his back, staring up at the sky with lifeless eyes. The second shot had passed through his throat and probably severed his spine.
Josef wheeled his horse back around and set off after the man trying to run away. By now, he was perhaps thirty yards distant.
The fleeing soldier didn’t stop and try to stand his ground, the way he should have. He just kept running — as if he could possibly outpace a warhorse. Lukasz had told Josef that routed infantry usually behaved this way but he hadn’t quite believed him.
Stupid. Jozef’s saber was in his hand. It rose and fell. The fleeing soldier’s head stayed on his body but not by much. Blood gushed from his neck like a fountain.
On the way back, Josef stopped at the rise, got off the horse and finished the business with the trampled one. He used the man’s uniform — such as it was — to clean the saber blade.
Then he walked his horse back to the bushes where the children were hiding.
The boy stood up before he got there. “Were those the men who killed my father and the others?” he asked.
Jozef shook his head. “Probably not, Pawel. But they belonged to the same army. Holk’s men.”
“I’m glad you killed them, then.”
“So am I.” He tried — probably failed, though — to keep the ferocity out of his voice.
Tekla came out of the bushes and rushed up to him. He held her for a while, until she stopped crying.
“Come now, children,” he said finally. “We want to reach Wroclaw by nightfall.”
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