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A Mankind Witch: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Monday, April 25, 2005 19:43 EDT



A Chapter-house on the Svear borderland

    After the rapier-winnowing Erik and Manfred walked across to the main dining hall, to take the evening meal together. The Monastic Knights lived simply. In theory, anyway. Erik had found it true enough in the Chapter Houses he and Manfred had served in on the Eastern frontier. But here, as at Lödöse, the food and drink were more what one expected in a minor nobleman's manor.

    Their fencing companion chose to come and sit across from them. "So," he said, "I gather I have been fencing with people of high degree -- who expect special treatment, although this is contrary to our oath."

    His voice was guardedly neutral -- but he had chosen to sit with them, although there were other vacant places.

    Erik pushed at the platter of highly spiced pork in front of him. "Is this food then specially prepared for our benefit, then?"

    "I'm enjoying it, if it is," said Manfred cheerfully. "It's a sight better than the food at Norburg in Prussia was. Not a patch on Venetian cuisine though."

    The broad-faced knight looked a little taken aback. "No. This is about the usual standard. I was surprised when I joined too."

    "You should try the houses in Eastern Prussia," said Manfred with a grimace. " We were there for our novitiate. They eat nothing but boiled cabbage, turnips and gruel half the winter, I swear."

    The local Knight looked distinctly surprised. "I did not know that you had served a novitiate just like the rest of us, Prince Manfred."

    Erik's shoulders shook slightly. "He did his best not to, believe me. He certainly did his best not to."

    "Yes," said Manfred ignoring him loftily. "I ate boiled cabbage, turnips and gruel... In between praying and drilling. Or drilling and praying. Your abbot here must be an easy-going one."

    "He probably doesn't have reprobates like you to plague him," Erik said, dryly.

    The Ritter looked somewhat taken aback. "They made a Prince drill and eat cabbage?" he said bemusedly. The idea of the cabbage especially seemed beyond him.

    Erik could support that, anyway. Cabbage was something that should forever be removed from the diet of anyone who was going to be confined to armor. "As you said earlier, the order sets aside worldly rank, Ritter. The Archbishop himself decreed that Manfred should be just another knight, anonymously enrolled." Erik smiled wryly. "Unfortunately, the Prince just hasn't stayed anonymous enough. Word leaked out. People have a problem with leaving off the title, as the Emperor doesn't look kindly on lese majesty and we're just serving our time as confreres. They think that next year they might have to please explain why they treated the prince like a lummox who eats too much," he said, pushing the pork platter away.

    Manfred reached across him and helped himself to some more of the meat, anyway. "I have a big body to keep up. And I've a lot of cabbage and gruel to get over. To say nothing of the drilling."

    "Oh. That was not the impression that the Proctor-General gave me a little while back." The Ritter gave them a brief embarrassed smile. "I've been hauled into our abbot's office and told to watch over you and stop you infecting our Squires with silly newfangled and undisciplined ideas. I am the Proctor of Instruction."

    "Usually a penance position," said Manfred. "Erik here was given the same task -- until they realized that he liked it."

    The broad-faced man acknowledged a hit with another smile. "Fortunately, the abbot hasn't caught on to that yet. I was worried that that was why he'd called me in. I was told instead to come and converse with you, and to report back. It is not something that I am accustomed to being asked to do."

    So: thought Erik. This was a 'fishing' mission. The Knight Proctor was not too sure of which side of the conflict he stood on. So, instead of being a good spy he was letting them know what he was doing here.

    "Well, Ritter, let us introduce ourselves formally, seeing as you have orders to converse with us," said Manfred, letting his amusement show now. "I am Manfred of Brittany. The morose one complaining about good food is Erik Hakkonsen."

    The Knight nodded."My name is Juzef Szpak." There was something very... odd about the way he said it. As if expecting trouble, and ready to meet it half-way if need be. Only the very observant would have noticed any change in Manfred's manner. But then, Erik was very observant. It had kept him alive, and, because of this, he'd tried to train his charge to be observant too. Sometimes he even thought he'd succeeded. "Well, I am pleased to make your formal acquaintance, Ritter," said Manfred easily, giving him a friendly buffet and a grin. Manfred was plainly going out of his way to be engaging, and to treat Szpak as an equal. "You've the makings of fine rapier artist."

    There was a slight lessening in the tension in Szpak's shoulders. No answering smile, yet. "It is good training. But I think I am too big, Prince Manfred. This Ritter here," he gestured at Erik, "makes me look like an ox."

    "Well, he tells me I look like a cross between a donkey and fat slug," said Manfred. "Szpak. It sounds like a Polish name. Is it?"

    "I am Polish yes. My father was a merchant from Danzig," said the Ritter. His voice was even. His eyes said: 'make something of it, even if you are a Prince.'

    No wonder he was in the Abbot's black books, thought Erik. The Pomeranians and Prussians from whom the Knights now drew most of their membership were the most feudal and downright medieval in the Empire. The Junkers would just love a Pole, and a self-confessed son of merchant, to boot. It was different in Venice, Iceland or Vinland where 'nobleman' and trader were often synonymous. Here a 'true noble' took at sword's point and would cheerfully kill you for implying he might sully his hands with vulgar chaffering This Juzef must be a tough lad to have even made it to being a Knight Proctor.

    "You've fallen in bad company associating with all these Prussians," said Manfred, plainly also understanding this. "Speaking as a Breton who has fallen in with an Icelander, I am an expert on bad company."

    "You are bad company," said Erik, pushing his trencher aside and standing up. "Come and talk to us in our quarters, Ritter Szpak. Seeing as you have orders to do so."

    "Satisfy my curiosity," said Manfred, once they'd reached the privacy of the chamber that he and Erik had been assigned to. "Just what is a Pole doing here in the among the knights of the Holy Trinity."

    Juzef Szpak looked at Manfred thoughtfully. "You do not wish to know what a merchant's son is doing polluting the ranks of the noble order?"

    "I'm a Breton," said Manfred digging in his saddlebag. "Things are not quite the same as in the Empire among the Celts, for all that I've spent a lot of my life in the court at Mainz. After all, Erik's father sells ponies and goats. And I put up with him," he said with a good-natured grin. Manfred pulled the metal flask that he'd been looking for out the saddlebag, unstoppered it with his big square teeth, and offered it to the startled Ritter. "Armor polish flavored with caraway. It's good for you. The caraway is a great antidote to the cabbages you seem so worried about."

    The unsuspecting knight took a mouthful. "Whuff..."

    Erik snagged the flask before Manfred could get to it. "Sheep. My father sells ponies and sheep. We haven't risen to goats yet. And we are here to talk, not drink."

    "I can do both, even if you can't," said Manfred. But he made no attempt to take the flask.

    Szpak looked at them, his blue-gray eyes round. He shook his head. "The Abbot and the Proctor-General of Skåne seem to have misled me. I was told you had demanded special deference to your rank, and that you were an idle Princeling probably here to cause trouble for the Order."

    Manfred snorted. "I'm here to cause trouble, all right. But I've seen more concern for worldly rank among the knights here in Skåne and Småland than in all the Chapter-houses in the Empire. It's part of the problem here, in my opinion."

    The Polish Knight-Proctor did not disagree with him. "It is not like this in the other Chapter-houses then? I have only served here and in Lödöse."

    "There is always a bit of it," admitted Erik. "It is inevitable, I suppose, as a fair number of the Knights are confreres, merely doing three or five years service. People carry grudges, and a minor landholder has to be wary about, say, offending his overlord's son. But to be fair, the Abbots and the senior proctors tend to crush it, hard. They're not confreres merely serving the church for a short time, and the Knights have their own lands and charters."

    "That doesn't seem to be the case here anyway, Erik," said Manfred. He sat back on the bed. "So, Juzef. Tell me how you came to be here. Tell me about the Knights and their work here in Southern Sweden. You were told to nose out what you can. I will tell you directly that we've been sent over here for the same purpose. The Danes have complained to the Emperor Charles Fredrik. There are two sides to every complaint, so I'm here to have a look-see."

    "And the Emperor sent someone else to soothe the Danes on her own, which is which is why Manfred is so irritable," said Erik.

    Manfred shook a beefy fist at the Icelander.



    Gradually, they got the Polish Proctor to talk. Eventually he even told them how he came to be here among the Knights. And they found out why the cabbages elicited such a response.

    "Mama came from a good Pomeranian Ritter family. Impoverished, yes. But landholders, who trace their ancestry back sixteen generations. My grandfather had made his fortune dealing in barge loads of cabbages. My great grandfather was probably a runaway serf. My father still dealt in cabbages, and timber and barley... maybe if he'd dealt in fine liquors, or rare perfumes and spices he would have been a little more acceptable. But cabbages!" Juzef waved a languid hand under his nose. "Only the Szpak money did not stink."

    Erik snorted. "Isn't it odd how if you pile enough money onto any one spot it loses its taint."

    Juzef nodded. "True. Especially when a true nobleman must spend money faster than he can obtain it. My father always said that we never saw them unless they'd come to scrounge. Still, Mama liked to see her kin, and we were happy enough not seeing them that often. But when I was a lad of fifteen, that all changed. You remember the sacking of Breslau? Jagellion decided to punch into the Holy Roman Empire, and as misfortune would have it we were trapped by a party of raiders on the road between Schweidnitz and Hirchberg. They killed our outriders. My older brother Czeslaw died in the fight. But the rest of us were taken prisoner. And my father attempted to talk, or, more probably, buy our way out of it. But he was a devout man, and this lot were from some of Jagellion's pagan tribes. He must have said something wrong."

    "They sacrificed him. Hung him on a pole with the horse skulls and hides. Had the knights not come to our rescue then my mother, sister and I would have been next. My mother had us kneel and pray for his soul." He looked a little ashamed. "I'm afraid I did not pray for papa. I prayed for our deliverance instead." he sighed. "When I saw those three crosses on the banners -- the sun shining on their armor... well, I knew then that I owed the same deliverance from evil to others." There was something very intense about the way he said that, that said his hero-worship of the order was not quite dead.

    He sighed. "Afterwards... My mother went back to her family: now that she was a very wealthy widow, she was acceptable again," he said dryly. "They were only too glad to use their influence to get me a novitiate. It got that awkward Polish name out of the family."

    "I wished to be on the Lithuanian Front. But..." He pulled a face. "Instead, I was sent here. I thought that I would be defending the people and the Holy Church against the forces of darkness. Instead, I seem to be a master of squires."

    Erik shrugged. "Without squires, learning to be knights, there'd be no defense for anyone, Juzef. Someone has to do it."

    Szpak nodded. "And the truth be told, I enjoy doing it. But I don't like training them up... so that they can be part of a lot of minor fights with petty pagan chieftains. So the Order can acquire more land and some more reluctant thralls to become serfs on the Orders lands." He paused and looked at them, as if considering his audience. "If you ask me -- and nobody does -- all they're doing is uniting the Götar against us."

    "Hmm," said Manfred. "And how goes the pastoral work among the Götar? We are, after all, supposed to be guards for the shepherds."

    Juzef shrugged unhappily. "The Servants of the Trinity are here, yes. But the monks make poor inroads. There are one or two minor Götar chieftains who have been converted by Danish missionaries with their tribes. They're a thorn in the flesh of the ex-confreres, who claim that their settlements are hideouts for escapees. On the estates the serfs are all herded into the churches every Sunday. But there are still hidden temples to their Wodens found from time to time. There is a Sunday service. The tithes are collected.. And that is where it ends."

    "And what is the role of the Knights in all this?" asked Erik.

    Szpak snorted. "Raids and counter-raids. Petty little skirmishes. We win if they try to fight in the open. So now it's always sneak attacks in heavily forested areas. The Götar Jarls and their hearthmen, and a few Karls have horses, but mostly they fight on foot. Their horses are smaller and lighter than ours and they're mostly not even shod. So when it is a cavalry-to-cavalry encounter we always win. So they choose their ground. Then there are reprisal raids against the nearest settlement." He sighed. "But nothing happens at this time of year, at least. Everyone is concentrating on the big enemy now."

    "Winter," said Erik with a wry smile.

    "Yes. The weather-wise are saying that as the frosts were late, it'll be a bad one. Last year they said the frosts were early so it'd be a bad one," said Juzef with a shrug. "It's a bad time for the peasants regardless, and a good time for me. I get a lot of skills drilled into their thick heads before the boys go out to fight in the springtime."

    "Well," said Manfred, "it'll give me a few more weeks to look around and get a complete picture of everything, before there is too much bad weather to move. The combat side might have told me a bit more, but I think I'm getting the idea. We need a few more weeks to think about what needs to be done here." "You don't seem to be in any hurry to act, Prince Manfred," said Juzef.

    Manfred folded his powerful arms. "My... other strategy advisor," he said giving Erik an amused smile, "put it to me like this: When you act on the Emperor's behalf, you'd better be sure, and very sure, that you act according to his wishes. You must act in such a way that any credit reflects on the Empire, and any blame is shouldered by yourself. It's not something you can take lightly."

    Erik snorted. "Francesca. I give her credit for managing to get it into your thick skull in a mere couple of years. Anyway, I think we should seek our rest, Ritter Szpak. Tomorrow will be more drill, and we can talk further."

    The broad-faced Pole got up. "Yes. Thank you, gentlemen." He bit his lip. "I hope... well I hope you can resurrect my reason for joining the Knights of the Holy Trinity. I was thinking of abandoning my vows. It has been troubling me for some time now. Good night." He walked briskly out, closing the heavy door behind him.

    When he was well down the passage, Manfred looked at Erik and said: "We'll need some more like him. But he's a good start, eh, Erik."

    "His being a Pole will not help. The Prussians won't take kindly to him."

    "With any luck, come spring, Francesca will have a few hundred Danish second sons ready to join up. We decided that would be the easiest way of soothing the Danes and helping the order. Danes don't have anything against Poles."

    "Ah, but your problem may be convincing that Pole that everyone in the world doesn't have anything against him," said Erik, with a yawn.

    "True," said Manfred. "But then Francesca said that in her assessment our problem here was that the Danes and Knights had nothing to offer the locals. Remember. She was saying how in Catalunia the local barons bought into the Empire, because they kept their lands and it was better than that mad Archduke of theirs. Strikes me that we have the same problem with the Poles on the border there. The serfs like the Knights better than Jagellion, once they get used to it. And the Knights are not gentle on them, as you remember. It's the minor gentry we need to look at seducing too. In the longer term this Szpak might be useful there too."

    "She's got you thinking in her terms, anyway," said Erik, sardonically. "Be realistic, Manfred. Jagellion's nobles -- even the minor knights, are even more hidebound than even the Prussians about their birth. Now, lets get some sleep. We'll winnow some more wheat in the morning, and move on to the next chapter-house."

    Erik was usually right. But he was wrong this time.

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