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Chapter Eight

The beer sack was empty and I was about talked out, when it started snowing. In the twentieth century this area would be all factories and apartment houses, but we had not seen a soul all morning. We had worked out—in our heads—the tables for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division required for base-twelve arithmetic. Boris had them all memorized and was doing long division by noon. It was an incredible display of intelligence.

In fact, almost all the people I had met in the thirteenth century were intelligent, way above average. They were ignorant, to be sure, but smart. Was intelligence a natural compensation for ignorance? Or was there something about modern education that destroys the mind? I had certainly been bored enough in school. Or were we just breeding for stupidity? You could see where the priesthood was encouraging that. The clergy was the only educated class here, and for a lot of peasant boys it was the only way up in the world. Making them celibate, as the new Gregorian reforms demanded, was biologically equivalent to killing them. The reforms had not been accepted in Poland yet, but they would be. The monasteries had been celibate for centuries.

The cities attracted the bright kids who didn't join the clergy. Filthy as the cities were, they had to be cauldrons of disease. Were seven hundred years enough to make a difference? Possibly.

I was pondering this while Anna was at her calm, steady walk. A horse is a lot like a bus in that you really don't have to pay attention to where you are going. I was thinking and sharpening my sword. Yesterday's fight had made the other guy's weapon look like a saw blade, but mine was uninjured.

The falling snow was muffling sound, and we proceeded in silence until I heard muted hoofbeats and the jingling of armor. Bemused, I looked up absently to see an armored knight galloping toward us. He rode a massive black horse that was plunging hard, its eyes wide and bloodshot. His surcoat was red with black trim. His barrel helm was polished and had an eye slit only two centimeters wide. His shield was red with a black double-headed eagle. His lance bore a red and black pennant.

And his shield was raised, and his lance was pointing directly at me!

Suddenly, Anna became completely uncontrollable. This was a game she had been taught well. She took off at a full gallop, directly at the attacking knight!

She might have known what to do, but I didn't. From what little I had seen of this type of fighting, I had to sheath my sword, get my shield out from in back, and level my lance at him. I was then to brace myself on the stirrups and prepare to take part in an imitation train wreck.

I dropped the sharpening stone and tried to put away my sword, wasting precious seconds; at a full gallop it is not possible to sheath a sword. The sword was the only weapon that I knew how to use, and I didn't want to drop it. I looked up, and the knight was entirely too close. No time for the shield!

With my left hand I reached across the saddle for my lance. It was riding point up with the butt in the right stirrup socket. As I swung it out, it naturally ended up with the butt forward, barely in time to beat the knight's lance away from my chest. His lance head ripped into the mail above my left elbow, but I barely felt it.

The eye slit of his helmet was the only obvious target, so I thrust at it with my sword, our left knees bashing as the horses passed to the right.

I felt the sword grate on bone and iron as my opponent flashed by, the blade was almost pulled out of my hand. I twisted, looking over my left shoulder, and saw his helmet turn fully 180 degrees before my sword was yanked out. By brute luck, I had stumbled onto a tactic for which the knight wasn't prepared.

Anna stopped and turned while the knight fell from his horse, red blood gushing on white snow as his helmet bounced off. The top of his skull with half of his brain skidded in yet another direction, leaving a third scarlet smear on the snow.

But Boris was in trouble. Two armored footmen were hacking at him with long halberds as he desperately defended himself with his sword. Without a signal from me, Anna charged to his aid.

Someone in blue ran from the forest and grabbed at my horse's reins. I slashed with my sword, dropping my lance in the process, but apparently I missed. I saw the flash of a knife swinging toward my left leg. I managed to lift my leg high while trying awkwardly to swing my sword again.

Then suddenly the blue bandit was gone, trampled beneath Anna's hind legs.

We continued toward Boris, but something felt very wrong. Still firmly in the saddle, I was slowly rotating off from the back of my horse.

The cinch strap was cut! As I tried to untangle myself from the oversized warkak, Anna turned sharply and was actually skidding sideways on the snow so that she wouldn't trample me as she had the bandit.

I came down hard and felt the saddle crack between my legs. For a moment I was stunned. I saw Anna pulling away the saddle with her teeth. I got to my feet, shaking a bit, as an axeman landed a blow on the top of Boris's gelding's neck. Blood sprayed, and the animal suddenly froze and then started to topple.

Sword in hand, I ran to my employer's aid. Anna, without saddle or baggage, was trotting at my left side. I blessed the man who had trained her. She acted as though she really cared about what happened to me and was staying close for my protection.

Boris was still in the saddle when his horse fell on its side. The axemen jumped away from the crash and then were on him.

Boris lost his sword in the fall and was pinned under his dying mount as one of the axemen prepared to deliver a death chop.

I shouted to attract the attention of the would-be murderer, and the man turned to face me, slipping slightly on the blood-stained snow. As I ran to meet him, he swung a three-meter-long halberd down at me.

A weapon that big is much slower than a sword, although it hits a whole lot harder. If I had tried to parry it, it would have just kept coming into me, so I chopped at it with all my might and managed to cut through the hickory shaft and its iron reinforcing strips.

The axe head glanced off my back as I skidded, trying to stop on the slippery snow.

I realize now that what I had accomplished was to cut my opponent's halberd down to a quarterstaff. As it turned out, he was very good with a quarterstaff.

He took a quick step backward, found solid footing on Boris's chest, and gave me a quick jab in the solar plexus, which knocked the wind out of me but didn't break my momentum.

Boris grabbed the man's leg as I was skidding. I slammed into them, knocking the man down and propelling myself over the motionless body of the gelding. From flat on my back, I caught a blurred image of the second axeman coming up to take me out.

Suddenly the sky darkened and Anna's hoofs came down centimeters from my face. She had jumped entirely over our struggling bodies to bowl over the second axeman.

I lurched to my feet to see Anna taking on the second axeman in single combat. She danced aside from his axe swipes and then delivered a kick to his left arm that I was sure broke it.

Then a whack on the side of my helmet knocked me down yet a third time. The first axeman had kicked his way free of Boris and was putting his newly made quarterstaff to use.

I was hit twice more, across the back and the ribs, before I regained my feet. My opponent swung his staff in a blur of figure eights and twice parried my lunges by slapping my sword aside.

I once read that the great Japanese swordsman Musashi fought sixty duels before he was thirty years old. In most of those fights to the death, his opponents used real swords while he used a wooden stick. I put it down as a fine example of Japanese embroidery. Or perhaps Musashi's real talent was in finding incompetent opponents.

That, of course, was before I encountered a man who really knew how to use a stick.

My opponent was grinning at me through the open face of his helmet. Blood was running freely from my slashed left arm, I was staggering, and he knew I was beaten.

Well, if I couldn't get at him past that quarterstaff, I could damn well chop it up. I made it my target, focused on it, and cut the damn thing in half.

The bastard was still grinning! Suddenly he had half the quarterstaff in each hand and was fighting with two single sticks—Florentine style, I think it's called.

Something inside me snapped. He had no bloody right to be grinning at me! I was absolutely enraged, and in my rage I forgot everything I had ever learned about fencing. I snarled like an animal and started swinging like a drunken sailor.

He must have hit me three or four more times; I neither felt the blows nor cared. In moments his single sticks were reduced to pungi sticks, so he reached for his dagger. I slashed his right hand off at the wrist.

Suddenly, all fight was gone from him. He plunked down to a sitting position on the snow, staring at the blood spurting from the stump of his right wrist. The look on his face was one of astonishment.

I kicked his shoulder, and he just rolled over onto his side, still staring at the bloody stump.

I looked up and saw that Anna had her man on the run. He was dodging between the trees, both arms dangling at his sides as if broken. He ducked behind a massive oak and then peeked out around the opposite side to see what had become of her.

She outguessed him. As he stuck his head out, she put a forehoof in his face. I could hear the crunching squish from fifty meters away.

Then she looked at the body, calmly stepped on its neck, and trotted back to me.

I was just standing there, breathing hard, feeling the rage drain out of me and exhaustion take its place. Anna stopped, observed that I was reasonably alive, and then looked at the first axeman. The man was so intent on staring at where his hand had been that I don't think he noticed as she stepped on his neck.

How do you train a horse to do such a thing? I thought about it and decided that I didn't want to know.

The Black Sea. I could have gone to a nice resort on the Black Sea with girls in bathing suits and been back at my comfortable chair in the Katowice Machinery Works. My mother told me I should have gone to the beach . . .

"Uh, Sir Conrad," Boris said. "If you have a moment . . ."

This brought me back to reality. I was beaten, bloody, and certainly not unbowed, but there was work to do. I went to help Boris, still pinned under his gray gelding. The axe chop to the neck had partially severed its spine; the body was completely motionless, but the head was writhing.

"Well fought, Sir Conrad! But not me, yet. Dispatch my horse first. He has been too good a servant to leave in pain."

I opened my Buck jackknife, put it to where I thought the arteries were, and said, "Here?"

"No, no. Up a bit. That's it. Good night, old friend."

We had to tie a rope around Anna's neck and drag the carcass from Boris's leg. Dead leaves and snow had cushioned his fall; his leg was stiff, but it worked.

My knee hurt, but I could walk. I hurt all over, but no bones were broken. My arm was another matter. The cut wasn't bad, but in a world without antibiotics, a scratch can kill. I dug out my first-aid kit to dress it as Boris began methodically stripping the dead.

Somehow, that fight didn't bother me as much as yesterday's killing had. Perhaps it was because the highwaymen had been so obviously in the wrong. Perhaps it was because my soul was scar tissue and I was becoming brutal.

My saddle was destroyed, but the dead knight's was about the same size and of considerably better quality. A beautiful thing; I wondered whom he had stolen it from.

I had just finished saddling Anna when I heard a cry. "Was that a child, Boris?"

"Sounded more like a cat in heat!"

"I'm going to check it out."

"As you wish, sir knight." He had mistaken my luck in battle for prowess and was willing to forgive my squeamishness afterward.

I mounted up and rode in the direction of the cry. It sounded a few more times before I found the deserted camp. Now much there. A few brush huts, a cooking pot over a dying fire, and this kid. It must have been less than a month old, though I was no judge of age. It was wrapped up in a collection of rags and furs, with a fur flap covering its face.

I yelled to see if the mother was around. I shouted that I was friendly, but no one answered.

I could hardly leave the kid out in the snow. I yelled out my name and said that I was taking the kid west. Still no answer. I remounted with the kid in one arm and rode back to the trail.

"Not a bad haul, Sir Conrad," Boris called as I approached. He had packed up our latest loot. "Horse, equipment, three sets of armor and clothing! Five thousand worth, I'll wager. What was that you were shouting about a child?"

"I found their camp. There was a baby in it."

"Ah! Such a poor child to be alone in this heartless world. Best baptize it and leave it with its mother, Sir Conrad."

"I tried. She must be hiding in the forest."

"You don't know? I didn't see it happen, being engaged at the time, but in your path as you came to my rescue there was a woman in a blue cloak. Trampled, she was, with a cut on her hand. Here, I'll show you."

The bodies were naked now, stripped even of their underwear. The knight's head was cut completely in two at eye level, yet his helmet was undamaged. My sword must have spun around in there like an apple slicer.

The woman might once have been pretty, but you couldn't tell. Her limbs were all broken, and there were puffy dents in her chest and stomach. Her face was a ghastly, flattened caricature. The fresh stretch marks on her belly told of recent birth.

"I didn't know," I sobbed. "I saw that you were in trouble, and I was coming to help. She grabbed my reins. I didn't know I killed a woman."

"Sir Conrad, again I am in your debt. Again you have saved my life. But you could not have done so if you had stopped for this woman. Another moment and I would have been dead."

"So she is dead instead."

"And what of it? She had a quick death, which was better than she deserved! Man, she was living with highwaymen, aiding and abetting their murders. Anyway, you didn't kill her. You only made that cut on her hand, and that's no mortal wound. It was an accident, her falling under your horse, or maybe a suicide.

"I'm going to look at that camp. You pull yourself together, man. And do what's right by that child. If you don't have water, melt a few drops of snow with your hand and see that it's baptized." He rode off on the horse that we had "found" the day before, dragging the naked axemen behind him.

In an emergency, any Catholic can perform the sacrament of baptism. I still had some water in my canteen, and I dribbled a few drops on the kid's forehead.

"I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. I name thee . . ." Whom should I name him after? Of course! "I name thee Ignacy!"

I had the bodies off the road when Boris returned.

"Their loot, Sir Conrad! We're both rich! They had more than a hundred thousand in silver and gold, robbed from travelers like us! Damned if you didn't step right over their chest!"

Somehow, I really didn't care. "I'm taking the kid with us."

"Sir Conrad, you are the damnedest combination of wisdom and ignorance that I have ever encountered. You are an absolutely deadly knight yet maudlin as a pubescent girl in a convent. But to torture a child is senseless! How do you plan to feed it? Are your male nipples going to spring forth with milk? How do you plan to keep it alive this very afternoon? It's getting colder, and the snow is deeper. It grows dark, and it's a long way to shelter."

He was right. I knew he was right. The kid would die. Why cause needless pain? And why bother with it? "I'm taking the kid."

"Sir Conrad, as your employer I order you to put that child with its mother! Oh, damn you! Give it here. I'll do it." He leaned forward.

"Boris, do you really want to fight me?"

He stopped. "Oh, all right! Keep the child if you wish. But now we must ride if any of us is to live."

That afternoon was horrible, but the evening was worse. The snow slashed into our faces, blown by a westerly gale. The trail was all but invisible, and without Anna's strength we would never have broken through the drifting snow. I was leading the knight's war-horse, our second strongest mount. Boris followed on his captured horse, leading the mule.

I wrapped the kid up with my cloak, at the expense of my legs. Hours later, I reached inside his bundling, and his body was as cold as my hand. This wouldn't do.

Working under my armor, I unzipped my close-fitting windbreaker, stretching out the mail, my sweater, and my underwear. I put the kid inside, next to my skin. He was cold. I packed his bundling around me as best I could and wrapped my cloak tight.

Shortly, he returned the favor by urinating on me. I guessed that meant that he was still alive.

We floundered on in the starless darkness. I couldn't even read my compass. To stop was death, and it was impossible to continue on. But we did go on. And on.


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