“What brought you to Prussia, brother?”
It was the first time Draga had been asked the question directly. Even after his arrival in Prussia, even after his acceptance into the Teutonic Order, none had asked his reasons for leaving Saxony.
Not that they cared. The Pope had issued the Bull for crusade in Prussia to spread the Word of God and bring the heathen to heel, and the Teutonic Order were desperate for help after a series of costly losses. Beyond Draga’s horse, armor, and sword the Teutonic Order had cared little about his past.
That was all fine and well with Draga.
Now Draga, and the other Teutonic Knights, were making their way up river, rowing against the current in flat-bottomed boats to reach their intended target: a village of Yatwingians that was a stopping point for raids into the Order’s lands and harassment of their shipping. Besides, the villagers refused baptism.
Draga turned to the originator of the question, a Brother Fadiko, of some minor noble family – near the Rhineland? Or around Bavaria? Draga had met so many in the last week that he was having trouble remembering all their backgrounds and Fatherlands.
“Why does anyone join the Teutonic Order?” Draga replied as he rowed.
Fadiko emitted joyless chuckle. “Redemption. The full remission of sins, or so they say.”
“So they say,” Draga replied.
“And what are you seeking redemption from?” Fadiko said, continuing to press Draga. “Did you massacre a village? Caught lying with a woman whom you weren’t married to?” Fadiko paused a moment and wrinkled his nose. “Caught lying with a man?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’m just looking to get out from under my brother’s shadow,” Fadiko said with no prompt from Draga. “He wanted me to join the priesthood so I would not challenge his claim to our father’s lands.”
“And here you are,” Draga said, pointing to the white linen that covered Fadiko’s body and armor, the black cross of the order sewn to the left of his white surcoat.
“In a sense,” Fadiko said. “Though ask a certain pagan woman in Koenigsberg and she would whole heartedly disagree that I’m anything like a priest.”
Draga emitted a grunt and shook his head.
Normally on horseback, for this raid Draga, Fadiko, and the handful of other brother-knights would embark on foot. Like Draga and Fadiko, the other Teutonic Knights were each clad in their armor and long white surcoats, the black cross of the order emblazoned on the left. Each knight’s helmet was set beside them so as not to be cumbersome during rowing. Going to war with the Teutonic Knights were auxiliaries of Old Prussians, from tribes friendly with the Teutonic Order, and more importantly enemies of the Yatwingians.
The sky above was an ominous gray, the clouds pregnant with rain. It was late Spring, and, as in much of Prussia, the rains came more frequently this time of year.
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t bring our horses,” another brother, Ernulf, said. Though his voice was quiet, the keen whine within still raked on Draga’s nerves.
One of the Old Prussian auxiliaries, an elder by the name of Herk, responded from the front of the vessel, behind Draga.
“My lord,” said Herk, his voice laden with a Prussian accent, “the way is too heavily forested. The horses could not maneuver and the Yatwingians would easily kill you.” Herk took a breath mid-stroke before continuing. “And though the land looks solid, in many places the ground beneath is saturated with water, and you would be forced to drag your horse out of the mud.”
Ernulf didn’t respond to Herk’s explanation, instead mumbling something to himself about the “damned heathens”.
And on they rowed. The Teutonic Knights and their Old Prussian auxiliaries had been rowing for two days. Though always on the look out for attacks from the riverbanks, the constant rowing became monotonous, and Draga’s mind would wonder. Draga’s mind would take him away from these dreary Prussian lands, back to Saxony, back to his home. Back to his wife and children.
Back to that day.
Back to the heat of the raging inferno.
Back to the pleading screams of the woman.
Back to the distraught cries of the child…
Draga shook his head, banishing the memories – for now.
“This is the place, Brother-Sergeant,” the Old Prussian warrior, Herk, said from the front of the boat.
Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt von Wolfsburg, the commander of this expedition, grunted a confirmation, then gave the order to put ashore.
Three of the flat-bottomed boats travelled together, and each carried roughly a score of men. In short order, all three boats had ground against the river bank, and Draga and the other warriors within leapt overboard into the cold river to help pull the boats in. Once the boats were secure on the riverbank, the three-score of Teutonic Knights and Old Prussian Auxiliaries secured their war gear, then gathered around Gisilbehrt and the Old Prussian leader, Herk.
Gisilbehrt was a bear of a man, a full two heads taller than the tallest man standing in the ranks. His brown beard was so dark that it looked black, and his head was shaved to the scalp. Bright, zealous blue eyes raked across the ranks of brothers and auxiliaries. Rumor had it that Gisilbehrt could peer into a man’s soul with those eyes.
Draga wasn’t so sure of that, but he had to admit that Gisilbehrt’s dark glare and excellent oratory awoke a fiery zeal in many a man’s heart.
“Draw your blades, brothers,” Gisilbehrt said. Though he whispered, his deep bass voice carried to the ears of every man.
“Won’t the glint off our swords give us away to the pagans?” Ernulf asked, and that damned whine in Ernulf’s voice scraped Draga’s nerves again.
Herk replied to Ernulf’s question. “If the Yatwingians have scouts in the forest, they’ll spot us regardless. Better to have your sword ready than trying to draw it as you die.”
“Wise words that shall be heeded,” Gisilbehrt said before Ernulf or any other brother could say anything else. Then Gisilbehrt turned to Herk. “Send your scouts ahead.”
Herk said something in the Prussian tongue and five men, lightly armed and with no armor, broke from the group and instantly seemed to melt into the forest.
“Move out,” Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt said with a wave of his hand, and the knights and auxiliaries fell into several columns to follow the progress of the scouts through the woods.
Draga was unsure how long they trudged through the thick vegetation and the sucking mire. Each step was a battle with Mother Earth as the seemingly solid ground would quickly give way under foot as if grasping him around the ankle, and Draga had to wrench his foot out to take even a single step, and then repeat the process. Watching the other Prussian auxiliaries struggle along with their Teutonic Knight masters, Draga wondered how the Prussian scouts were able to move through the woods so nimbly. But, according to Herk and his men, this was the most navigable path. So the knights and the Prussian auxiliaries trudged on.
After what seemed like hours, one of the scouts reappeared. The man – he seemed more of a boy to Draga – practically pranced around as he reported to Herk.
“He says the village is a short ways ahead,” Herk said, translating. “And that no Yatwingian scouts were encountered.”
“Very good,” Gisilbehrt replied.
With the struggle of travelling through the wood many of the brother-knights had carried their helmets beneath their arms. Now, though, with the battle nearly at hand, they donned their full-face helmets and whispered prayers to the Lord for protection. Gisilbehrt’s winged helm stood out among the rest – the crimson painted bat-like wings a powerful psychological instrument for friend and foe alike.
The brother-knights moved forward. Draga’s heart began to race, and it seemed as if his steps were easier now that he was prepared for imminent battle.
A short ways ahead the Teutonic Knights and their auxiliaries were halted by the scouts, and the five Prussian scouts guided them forward in silence. The three score warriors halted again, and this time the lead scout, an elderly Prussian with gray in his hair and beard, pointed to a clearing. There sat a collection of longhouses, their roofs thatched with bundled sticks, their sides made of stacked logs. Some of the hovels were dug into the earth, the roof the only thing sticking up from the ground. Surrounding the buildings were pens with goats. A large stream meandered by on the far side of the village from where Draga and the other Teutonic Knights now hid, and Draga could see where the Yatwingians had set up fish catches.
Other than the shuffling of the knights and the auxiliaries, the little village was peaceful. Almost idyllic. In another lifetime, Draga thought, he could have lived in such a place and been happy. And, he thought, they were bringing the sword and fire to this quiet place.
Draga shook his head as Gisilbehrt spoke.
“Spread out and surround the village,” Gisilbehrt said. “Let no one escape. Only kill if attacked.” Gisilbehrt met eyes with Herk. “And no rape.”
Herk nodded, but Draga could tell that something had just passed between the two men. Probably an old quarrel, Draga thought. Heathens, it was said, were known to be more apt rape their female victims.
Draga knew that Christian armies could be just as lecherous.
In short order the knights and auxiliaries spread out into a rough semi-circle on the forest’s edge. Gisilbehrt looked up and down his line, his left hand up, his sword in his right.
Gisilbehrt’s left hand fell, and the warriors of the Teutonic Order broke from the cover of the trees and charged into the village. War cries from three score throats crashed upon the serenity of the village.
Immediately, men rushed from out of the wood buildings. Some were ready with axe, spear, and shield. Others jostled their weapons and gear, caught unprepared. Others still were mere boys, only just coming of age, the hairs on their chins and cheeks only just showing, wide eyed with fear yet held fast in place by honor, the other men of the village, and fear of what would happen to their families.
Draga roared as he charged forward, sword drawn. A Yatwingian man of middling age met Draga, and Draga quickly dispatched him by ramming his sword through the man’s chest before the Yatwingian could react.
There was a victorious howl from the other knights and Old Prussians as they cheered Draga’s kill and began to lay into the other Yatwingian defenders.
Combat was not hard for Draga. He had been trained for it since he was a child in his family’s castle. Draga had been baptized in blood shortly after his sixteenth birthday. He had seen battle for years. Though the death cries of men and the stink of blood and corpses assailed him, Draga was able to deal with it and move on.
Now Draga moved onto his next opponent, a boy who, in a flash, reminded Draga of himself at that age. The boy roared a challenge before leaping upon Draga with two axes. Draga caught the bottom of both axe blades on his sword, and pushed the young Yatwingian back. As Draga and the young Yatwingian man circled one another, numerous other small duels were being fought around them.
Draga feinted left, and his Yatwingian opponent followed him just as Draga knew he would. But when Draga stepped in for the kill, the young Yatwingian man reacted quick as a flash and pushed Draga’s sword aside, though only barely. Draga and his opponent circled again, eyes wide, blood up. Draga felt the ghost of a smile on his own lips.
Now it was the young Yatwingian’s turn to feint. But Draga had years of experience on this youth, and was prepared. As the Yatwingian moved to Draga’s left a fraction of a step, Draga swung his sword up. Draga was rewarded with the rip of fabric, the spray of crimson blood, and the pained yowl of the young Yatwingian man.
Draga’s Yatwingian opponent collapsed on the ground, the youth’s chest heaving rapidly. As Draga watched he could see he had only wounded the younger man, and that, if he stayed down, this Yatwingian would live.
“Submit,” Draga said, his voice deep and harsh, and he leveled his sword point at the youth’s throat.
The young Yatwingian man took Draga’s meaning and, though clearly in pain, raised his hands in submission.
Around Draga the Teutonic Knights and Old Prussian auxiliaries were finishing up their opponents. Some of the Yatwingians had stood and fought bravely – and died. Some, like Draga’s opponent, had submitted, and their lives were spared. A small handful of Yatwingian defenders had taken the cowards way out and fled, and Draga could hear Herk ordering his men to pursue.
“A victory for Christendom!” Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt said, yelling to the heavens. “God be praised.”
“God be praised!” roared the other knights, and Draga found himself joining in their jubilation.
“Search the buildings,” Gisilbehrt said. “Take any still hiding within. We will take them back to Koenigsberg. Gather the livestock. Then burn the buildings. Leave nothing for the pagan armies. Herk, have your men capture those that fled, and find anyone hiding in the woods.”
Herk set his men to the task Gisilbehrt had given them, and several of Herk’s Old Prussian auxiliaries secured Draga’s young opponent.
“Gave him quite a lesson, my Lord,” one of the auxiliaries said in broken Low German as he grabbed the young Yatwingian man’s legs.
“He was an excellent opponent,” Draga said, then saluted the young Yatwingian with his sword.
The Old Prussian auxiliary translated for the youth, and, though still in pain, the younger man smiled and nodded to Draga.
“Shall we see what these heathens have hiding?” Brother Fadiko said, walking up beside Draga.
“Probably not much,” Draga said, leading Fadiko to the nearest longhouse. “Though poorly prepared, it seems that someone notified this village of our arrival.”
Fadiko shrugged. “Still a decent fight, though my opponent fled.”
Draga and Fadiko entered the first house, swords up. Within were discarded blankets, some arrows, and the scattered leavings of food. In the center of the home was a fire pit, and the burned logs there still showed some heat.
Empty. Not even a place for anyone to hide.
Draga wrapped a discarded cloth he had found on the dirt floor around the top of a piece of wood that had been propped against the longhouse wall, and placing it into the orange embers, coaxed heat from them with his breath. It took a moment, but soon the rag burned and Draga began touching his makeshift torch to spots he knew would catch fire quickly.
Exiting the now burning longhouse Draga could see that the other knights had begun to do the same, and the village was transforming into an inferno.
Draga and Fadiko moved to the next house. Fadiko had to kick the door in, and inside they discovered a few weapons and some cured meat.
“Would hate for this to go to waste,” Fadiko said, sweeping up the pieces of meat.
Unlike the previous house Draga and Fadiko had searched, this house had more storage areas built into its structure. Something nagged at the back of Draga’s mind, and he made a point of searching every nook and cranny.
“There’s nothing here,” Fadiko said, clearly bored. “Let’s just burn it.”
“Indulge me a moment,” Draga said as he moved some baskets.
Draga was unable to find anything, save some discarded barley here and there. Still, though, the nagging feeling at the back of Draga’s mind tormented him.
Outside the longhouse, Draga heard Gisilbehrt call to the knights.
“Let’s go,” Fadiko said.
Reluctantly Draga grunted an affirmation and followed Fadiko out of the longhouse, setting areas alight as he went.
As Draga and Fadiko joined the other brother-knights and the auxiliaries, Draga noted that many of the fleeing Yatwingian warriors had been captured. With them were a handful of womenfolk and children, and a few elders of the village, most likely captured when discovered hiding in the surrounding forest. Though surrounded and defeated, Draga sensed a great deal of agitation and uneasiness in their captives.
Gisilbehrt noticed it, too. “Herk, what’s wrong?”
Herk asked the captives a question in the Prussian tongue, and a man about Draga’s age came forward, a worried look on his face, and knelt before Gisilbehrt and Herk. Though Draga could tell the Yatwingian man attempted to remain calm, there was a waver in his voice that betrayed fear.
“He says he cannot find his son,” Herk said after a short exchange with the Yatwingian man. “None of the villagers that hid in the woods have seen him, either.”
Gisilbehrt was about to say something when a long cry came from one of the burning houses.
The last house Draga and Fadiko had searched.
Suddenly, a sinking feeling filled Draga, and it was as if he was transported back to that day.
The screams of the mother.
The cries of the child.
Before he knew what he was doing, Draga dashed through the village toward the burning longhouse. Gisilbehrt and Fadiko called to Draga, but he paid them no heed. Draga burst through the door of the longhouse he had searched last. The searing heat of the flames pressed upon Draga. He coughed as he tried to breath, and his eyes filled with water from the smoke.
“Hello!” Draga called. “Where are you?”
The crying of the child, fearful and in pain, filled the burning longhouse.
Draga threw open baskets and turned over bedding. It was becoming harder to breathe as he attempted to search every nook and cranny of what was now a blazing inferno. Draga’s heart raced, and in his mind he barely managed to keep the flood of panic held back.
As Draga’s frustration threatened to overwhelm him, his foot hit something hollow on the dirt floor. Draga had missed it in his first search, but now he saw the outline on the ground. With a triumphant yell, Draga dug at the ground with his bare hands, and was rewarded when his nails struck wood. Draga heaved the hidden cover off the floor and looked down. There, in a shallow hide hole, sat a young boy no older than three years, huddled with his knees to his chest, his eyes wide, his soot covered cheeks streaked with tears.
Draga had no words of comfort, nor did he have time for them. He swept up the Yatwingian boy in his arms, cradling him like Draga used to cradle his own son, and charged out the flame-wreathed door.
Just as Draga stumbled out of the burning longhouse, the roof collapsed inward.
There was a cheer from the Yatwingians. The boy’s father, forgetting the knights and Old Prussian auxiliaries, rushed to Draga, tears in his eyes. Draga handed the boy to the father and, though Draga couldn’t translate the Yatwingian man’s words, he could understand them well enough.
“That was a brave thing you did,” Fadiko said. “Even though you didn’t have to do it.”
“Brave indeed,” Gisilbehrt said, approaching Draga. “An act of mercy in the midst of war. God bless you, Brother Draga.”
It was dark when the Teutonic Knights and their Old Prussian auxiliaries herded their Yatwingian captives toward the boats. Gisilbehrt ordered camp made, a constant guard on their prisoners, and preparation for travel the next morning.
Once fires were lit, those knights and auxiliaries not guarding the Yatwingians huddled around the welcome heat and ate and drank.
“Going back should be nice,” Fadiko said, taking a seat next to Draga on the river’s edge. “We won’t be rowing upstream. Hopefully be back in Koenigsberg before nightfall tomorrow.”
Draga grunted a response.
“Is everything alright, brother?” Fadiko asked.
“Well enough,” said Draga. He wasn’t in the mood to talk at that moment.
“You may be alright physically, but there seems something weighing on your soul,” Fadiko said. “Some demon clinging to your back?”
Draga was silent, and after a while Fadiko shrugged and pulled some of the cured meat he had found in the Yatwingian village from a pouch on his belt.
“Several months ago,” Draga began, “I took my knights to support the Duke of Saxony against Danish interlopers in the Nordalbingian lands. Once we had pushed the Danes out of Saxony, we drove North into Denmark to teach them a lesson.” Draga paused a moment to gather his thoughts before continuing. “We came to a village, no bigger than the one we raided today. There was little fighting. A few deaths on their side. We terrorized the people and drove them from their homes.”
Draga stopped as the memories flooded back to the fore of his mind, and with them came the anger and pain he had attempted to bury for so long.
“Once the villagers had fled we burned their village, but. . .” Draga stopped as he felt something catch in his throat.
“But?” Fadiko asked.
Draga collected himself before speaking again. “One woman ran back, screaming and crying. She couldn’t find her son, and begged us to help her.”
Draga stopped then, and the silence stretched out for several long moments.
“The child had been hiding somewhere in the house. . .his cries of fear and pain haunt me to this day. There was nothing we could do, and the child slowly burned to death.” Draga hung his head. “I have seen battle, killed men, unleashed troops upon unsuspecting villagers, and witnessed all the ravages war brings. But that day something snapped inside me. I returned to my castle, but when I saw my own children I couldn’t look them in the eye. I went to confession for my sins, and yet still I felt. . .unclean.”
“And you haven’t forgiven yourself since,” Fadiko said.
Draga shook his head.
“I am a poor priest, as many a woman will tell you,” Fadiko said. “And my words are biased from a lifetime of war myself. To me, it seems, your soul has suffered a great deal, and God knows you did not mean to let that child burn that day in Denmark. And today God gave you the opportunity for redemption.” Fadiko placed his hand on Draga’s shoulder. “God has forgiven you, Brother. It’s time you forgave yourself.”
Fadiko took his hand off of Draga’s shoulder and motioned to the Yatwingian captives.
Draga looked over and saw the Yatwingian boy he had saved and the father, huddled together in the group of captives. Though their lot was deplorable just then, and they were tired, muddy, and hungry, the Yatwingian father looked at his son as if he was more precious and valuable than a priceless gem or a hoard of gold.
It was in that moment – not plunging into the fires to save the boy, but in the loving embrace of the boy and his father – that Brother Draga found his redemption.
Praise be to God.
* * *
It was Spring when Count Draga stepped back into his castle. Following in tow were the Yatwingian man, his name Vaitīns, and his son Budrys, whom Draga had saved that day almost a year ago, and was now four years of age, as well as the young man Draga defeated in combat in the Yatwingian village, name Kazys.
As Draga walked through the hall he laid eyes upon his beautiful wife, Regana, planted in her seat above the court.
“My lady,” Draga said, his voice strong. “Your husband has returned.”
Though Regana attempted to keep a straight face, her lips cracked into a smile.
“Welcome home, my Lord.”
And then Draga felt something impact his legs. He looked down, and there was his son, Roland, shaggy haired and all smiles. Roland may have defied the rules of the court, but at that moment Draga didn’t care. All propriety forgotten, Draga lifted his son in his arms and hugged him tight. Immediately, Draga’s eldest son, Hrodulf, and his daughter, Berhta, rushed to embrace their father.
“I am home,” Draga said.
Holding Roland back, and looking at his children, Draga found he could look them in the eye once more.
“Thank you, God, for my family,” Draga said.
And thank you for my redemption.