Eventually we did as best we might what Nicholas Hat had felt so strongly to be right. We found the iron-hard ground impossible to dig, so we laid the bodies in the roadside ditch and covered them over with rocks, the bishop offering a short service. By the time that had been done and the hateful cauldron roped onto our cart, we feared that we would not reach the next inn before night fall, and we durst not risk the cart on the rutted roads in the dark. We remained and spent a second watchful night in the desolate White Hart inn.
The Poor Folk
The next morning offered cold greeting, with driving winter rain which persisted throughout the morn and showed no sign of surcease as our cart trundled slowly on towards the grey outline of the mountains the road must cross.
By midday we were cold and miserable enough to throw ourselves into a cauldron if it but promised to be warm, when we came upon a small hamlet. A couple of peasants scurrying between the huts hastened indoors at the sight of us, and before we drew nigh the first outbuilding we were met by a delegation of four men bravely grasping pitchforks and scythes.
“Dark news from the north,” I called out in my halting Polish, met with stubborn silence. I said that we were English merchants and our guards, who had been attacked by a band of outlaws at the sign of the White Hart, but had won through. I gained a measure of sympathy and the makeshift weapons were lowered.
“You are not who we thought,” said the leader in a rural dialect I found difficult. “We feared you were some of her soldiers,” he added, the pronoun somewhat mystifying. But, though still wary, he invited us to pull into a barn out of the rain. They watched in reticent silence as we shed our sodden cloaks and tended the mule and Sam’s and Jonas’ horses, but at an offer of sharing our meal if they could offer a hearth over which to cook it, and through the course of arranging same, they became more amenable. But as I asked about the road southward, as we wished to know whether to journey on for the rest of this day, they crossed themselves in their papist fashion. The leader stepped to the doorway and pointed out into the rain at the dark ridge of mountains some leagues distant. “Her castle guards the pass,” he said, pointing, whereupon an ominous crack of lightning split the sky above it.
“It will be safe for a party such as yours,” he said, not entirely without resentment, “for they prey only on the weak. But we poor folk live in the shadow of great evil – the Devil’s Mistress rules over our lives! We durst not oppose our szlachcianka’s soldiers, who punish any resistance.
“The villages around these parts were normal once,” he sighed. “Yes, we were poor but we were free and even the serfs had three days a week to tend their own land. Then the Devil’s Mistress began taking girls. At first we thought it a blessing, for the soldiers told us the girls would be trained as servants. A lowly post to people such as yourselves, perhaps, but the money we were paid could feed a family for a whole year.
“That was five years ago. We tried to visit to see our daughters, but were always refused. Then the next year the soldiers took more girls, and the next – as she hired more soldiers, the worst kind of men willing to commit any foul deed – still more. Last year they stopped paying, and took our children by force.
“We began hiding our girls, but the soldiers burned down houses and killed livestock to force us to reveal where they were. Now we send our children away, to the town.
“We would defy them, but they have our daughters! And the dark threats of the soldiers hint at the Devil’s Mistress inflicting punishments worse than death upon any who oppose her.” And none of their daughters had ever set foot outside the castle after they once went in through that gateway.
On hearing my translation, Kato said that such treatment of peasants in his own land would cause them to take up their rice flails and rise against the oppressors. But in truth he used many words I did not know, and I refrained from translating his ranting incitement that these Poles do the same.
Too humble a fellow to speak on his own part, Sam York pointed out that a dignitary such as Bishop de Winkler should be welcome to the hospitality of the noblewoman’s castle, rather than being expected to endure the common inns of the road. Meeting the eye of Nick Hat, I said that we should pay this szlachcianka a visit, as it was clearly the right thing to do.
Rescuing the Woodcutter’s Daughter
Driving onward after our meal, by the middle of the afternoon our road was climbing steeply up the mountain pass, between a plunging pine-forested slope on one side and an open precipice over the river valley on the other. Rounding a bend we beheld a young woman sprawled in the roadway at the feet of four burly pikemen in breastplates and surcoats emblazoned with a black eagle whose talons dripped scarlet blood.
The girl looked our way, revealing a large purple welt on the side of her face. “Help!” she cried, and at this one of the soldiers stepped forwards, raising a clenched fist and barking some order in Polish too rapid for me to follow.
“Unhand that woman!” I demanded, undaunted, to their evident surprise.
“You idiots should leave now,” was the leader’s retort. “This is official business.”
Kato sprang from the footboard of the cart and sprinted forwards, his intention plain on his face. As two of the soldiers stood flanking their victim the other two came at Kato, but he danced easily aside from the tips of their lowered pikes, and tried to punch at the unprotected throat of the leader. An arrow from Nick Hat’s good English longbow struck the other in the armpit, felling him instantly and, fluidly drawing Grace Sam York shot from the saddle, taking the one who had spoken square in the chest. His breastplate was proof against the shot, but the brute reeled back from its force.
Down from the cart myself, I persisted. “Back off, and leave the girl!” But they showed no inclination to comply so I hobbled forward, raised my cane and struck the dazed brute up under the chin, knocking him cold!
Seeing their two comrades unceremoniously felled, the other two did belatedly start to back away up the road. I tried to demand that they escort us to their mistress, but in the heat of the moment faltered in my translation.
Standing tall on the footboard with another arrow nocked, Nick Hat called out in English, “Drop your weapons or we shoot!” Sam York gave no corresponding pause, but dropped his reins and though confident with Favour in his left hand, narrowly missed as one of the soldiers cringed aside.
“Tell them to surrender,” Nick urged me as Sam drew his curved sword and spurred forward. Kato drew both swords and fenced with the points of the two pikes confronting him, as the soldiers continued to try and withdraw.
“Drop your weapons or we shoot!” I translated, showing my own pistol also. But the pair made no move to surrender to Kato’s unlikely mercy. Nick loosed, but only grazed the pikeman’s thigh, which scarcely seemed to slow him. He followed fluidly with a second shot, sacrificing finesse for full-draw force, and the second arrow punched through the centre of the solder’s breastplate to fell him instantly.
Kato leaned away from the lunging pike-point of the last soldier standing, ran up inside his guard and past him, katana slicing out at arm’s length as he passed. He held his pose, not even looking back as the soldier’s head thumped to the roadway behind him, then smartly flicked the blood from his blade and sheathed it again.
Not the Spanish Inquisition
The peasant girl was all grateful tears, her thanks coming too thick and fast for me to catch every word. But then she collected herself and looked fearfully up and down the road. “Come away! More soldiers might come,” she said, gesturing to a path that climbed into the forest. “Our house is but a short way up this path.”
We bound, gagged and blindfolded our captive and concealed the bodies of his comrades in the undergrowth, that the scene of their demise need not lead to reprisals upon the homes of the nearest peasants. (No Christian burial for these, already identified as wilful ruffians rather than men pressed into service.) Nick Hat took as booty a morion helmet and the breast-and-back armour of the man nearest to him in size. I told Helga, the girl, to ensure that no one spoke in the soldier’s hearing, then we roughly woke him and marched him up the path, leaving Bishop de Winkler, Michael Tremayne and Bob with the mule cart rather than have an unoccupied cart attract unwanted attention from any other soldiers.
We arrived shortly at a level clearing in the steep forest, where smoke issued from a crude woodsman’s cottage, and took our captive aside to bind him to a distant tree trunk before approaching. We entreated him to silence, lest the next rope not be around his chest but around his neck.
An old man emerged as we stepped into the clearing. “Child!” he cried. “I told you never to go out in the day! When I heard that soldiers were nearby I feared the worst. Praise to God for delivering you safely to me.”
Helga released his grasp and indicated us. “Were it not for these brave travellers, I would have been on my way to… Well, they saved me, but they have killed three soldiers.”
“Bah!” spat her father. “May the Devil take his own with speed. Please,” he gestured toward his house, “join us for something to eat. We are not rich, but we can offer hospitality.”
We accepted the hospitality of Klaus the woodcutter, but more to get within doors and out of sight than to impose upon his and Helga’s no doubt meagre stock of bread, cheese and cold meat. After they had given their gratitudes a second time, they answered our questions about the castle of the Devil’s Mistress. They confirmed Nick Hat’s estimate that the garrison was fully fifty men, of whom all would be present bar maybe three or four squads out on ‘patrols’ preying on the countryfolk. Though only one squad of four men stood on watch in the gatehouse, the rest were housed in guardrooms well within earshot, and the alarm could easily be raised.
We returned then to the soldier tied to the tree, and loosed his gag. We told him brusquely that we could not suffer him to return to his szlachcianka’s castle, but that if he answered us truthfully he could hope to be set loose when we reached our journey’s end in Warsaw.
I asked him why his mistress took so many young women from amongst the commoners in her demesne. Though cowed by our threats, he merely replied that they go to the dungeon, and when pressed claimed that he didn’t do dungeon duty, and that the guards who pulled that duty never spoke about what befell the young women there. They must still all be down there. At further questioning he reluctantly, almost vaguely, owned that not enough food was ever taken down into the dungeon for all the girls who had been taken in there, but that they never came back out either, living or dead.
Disbelieving such apparent ignorance amongst the soldiers of the castle we threatened him with having to answer to God for his crimes, but he stubbornly replied only that he had done his duty to the szlachcianka, as he had served her father the szlachcic before her. We forcefully reminded him that that service was now over and that he would be in Warsaw before he next saw the light of day. He could not fear his mistress there. But even such distance seemed meaningless to him, and he maintained, in a voice devoid of emotion, that those who betrayed the mistress were ‘dealt with’.
As for our party paying a visit to the castle, he replied that the mistress did not encourage visitors, and that even tradesmen only entered when their services had been invited.
We withdrew for a space to discuss the situation amongst ourselves. Clearly something here was terribly amiss, but we were unable to gain anything more than veiled hints of ‘fates worse than death’, and betrayers being ‘dealt with’. The inquisition lacked structure. We had not yet got this soldier’s name, nor a name or a description of the wicked noblewoman and her manner. We hadn’t yet asked whether there had been anything irregular in the fashion of the Devil’s Mistress’s succeeding her father, nor whether she was known to have a consort.
I shared with my companions my hope that this was not some distant cousin of ‘the Blood Countess’, Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary who dwelt only a day’s journey from where I had stayed with the Count of Brno. That one sought immortality, and it was whispered that she bathed in the blood of virgins in the ridiculous but terrible belief that it would prolong her youth. I was minded that the Báthorys would have connections in Poland, as the szlachta of nobles of the realm had elected Stephen Báthory of Hungary to be King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. He had been a popular ruler until his death not two decades ago, at which the current Sigismund III Vasa was voted to the throne.