After some moments, the surprise melted from his face, and his gaze turned inward. He stroked his chin silently, and there was a sadness about him that I had not seen before. He was revisiting something painful from the past.
“My father was a knight, a soldier, who dedicated his life to the defense of the commonwealth’s southern borders,” he said at length. “I grew up moving with him and my mother from one posting to another, living in a succession of garrison towns. It was a difficult life, full of danger and constant change, but I loved it because I was proud of my father’s role in keeping the Moldovan and Tatar encroachments at bay.” He paused, and the muscles of his jaw worked as sought to master some powerful emotion. “In the spring of 1522, we had been living in a small outpost, an old wooden enclosure not far from Vinnytsia, for several peaceful months. It was not a place where anything was expected to happen, but Mikołaj Firlej, who as Crown Hetman at the time, liked to rotate his troops among the different locations as a signal to potential attackers that we had a strong defensive posture.”
He hunched and lowered his head. His right fist closed around a section of his chain mail, and for a moment I expected the small iron links to snap. But then he let go, smoothing them into place. He took a deep breath and went on. “One night we were awakened by a sudden clash of weapons, screams of men, women, and horses, and truly otherworldly howls of a band of raiders who had busted out of the surrounding forest. My father didn’t even have the time to put on his armor, he just ran into the central tower with a sword in his hand, yelling for us to stay inside our quarters. My mother fell to her knees and started saying her rosary, while I slipped out and climbed the stairs to the top of the inner wall. From there, I could see that the invaders had already broken into the outer ward, mercilessly cutting down any living creature in their path with their curved swords.”
His gaze, now fixed somewhere on the wall behind me, was unmoving; it was as though the hellish scene was playing out in front of him again. Across the span of more than twenty years, the terrified youth was recounting the horror he had witnessed that night. “The swordsmen were backed by archers whose skill was such that they could shoot with precision from atop galloping horses. Many of the archers were shooting flaming arrows. That was the key to their success—there weren’t enough of them to defeat us on their own, but the old wood of the tower and the outer buildings was like tinderbox, and their arrows set them ablaze in no time.
“When I realized that the wall was on fire, I ran back to our house, but I could not come close anymore—it was burning, too. I tried to find my father, but he was in the tower with the other defenders, and soon the fire damage to the wall was such that gaps began to open, through which the Tatars poured into the inner courtyard. I tried to escape through one of the gaps, when a raider slashed at me with his sword.” He absently fingered the scar that ran from his temple to his collarbone. “I fell and he moved on, thinking I was dead, but I crawled through the ruins and out into the safety of the forest, from where I watched the outpost burn to the ground.
“At dawn the Tatars rounded up the few survivors, mainly women and children, tied them together with ropes and marched them away. I’d heard enough stories to know that those who managed to live through the journey would be given as slaves to the khan or his cronies, or sold off to the Turks. It was then that I made a vow to my parents—whose bodies were still smoldering among the ashes—that I would devote my life to protecting our borders from these barbarians.”
I shivered, and it was not just because of the cold embers in the hearth. “What a terrible thing to have witnessed at such a young age.” I whispered.
If you like the excerpt, check out Silent Water, a Jagiellon Mystery Book 1, set at the 16th century royal court in Cracow. It’s available in ebook and paperback on Amazon and FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited.