Chapter 8: The Battle of Mohacs
Afternoon turns to Evening
Sonia’s visitor, Basha, was a Jew. Even Sonia could see that. Her black robes and pointed hat marked her as one. Her wrists and ankles were delicate, her face was smooth and pale and her eyes large and dark. They sat in a corner of the kitchen and whispered.
“I’m sorry,” the visitor wiped her teary eyes on her cloak, “to be the barer of such ill news.”
“Be not sorry,” Sonia reached out to touch her visitor’s hand and comfort her, “I am grateful. I have lost a brother but have gained a sister. And my mother saw fit to tell me nothing of it.”
“Tell me,” said Basha, “I am surprised at your indifference. Did you not know, Joseph, your brother, well?”
“In truth, sister, though I loved him, I knew him only by memories. I was allowed no visitors in the tower.”
“I find that sad,” said Basha. “he was most gentle. Tears formed again in the corners of her eyes and she choked on her words as she spoke. “Will you help me?”
“Of what help can I be?” asked Sonia, “I am of little consequence and less wisdom, all I know is books, prayers and needle work.”
“You have the ear of the bishop. He has power. Tell him they have pinned the murder on my father Heinrich son of Mendel. Plead with him to intervene. I believe the bishop knew my father. He is our only hope.”
“Oh, sister, I shall try.”
“Many thanks,” Basha rose from the stool and adjusted her hat, “I must depart and attend to my duties. My kinsman waits for me.”
“Before you go,” said Sonia low and urgent.
“Will you come and visit me again?”
Basha smiled. “I should like that. I shall come whenever I am able. I am at your service.”
Felix refused the wine and began his story. “I am the bastard son of an Iberian lord, and having nothing to inherit, I joined the ancient order of Saint Dominic. But in the monastery I was tempted by youthful sin and was seduced by a woman, so caught up were we in our sin, that the abbot caught us. I expected punishment but none so great as that which was given to me.”
Felix paused. “I was sent to sea on a ship bound for India. There are men who are willing to risk dangers barely imaginable to bring back a ship of spice, wealth assured for all time. That was my punishment, a journey to take God to distant lands. South, south went the ship to kingdoms where there is no winter. There is no dawn and no dusk for the sun seems to disappear and appear at the edge of the horizon in an instant. The men there are black as pitch and inhabit great festering jungles filled with birds and beasts most strange. I know not how many days I spent on that ship lulled to sleep each night by the waves and woken each morning to the ringing of the quartermaster’s bell, eating nothing but salted fish, and yams bought from feathered kings. Foul winds and icy nights did we endure in the vast southern ocean. Whales and sea serpents writhed around our ship, singing and diving. It seemed to me a miracle that we at length came India, to the fortress of my countrymen at Cannanore.
“No sooner though had we arrived than our fortress was put under siege. The old king, friendly to our traders, had died and the new ruler desired to expel us. As Fortune would have it the fortress was strong and well stocked with muskets, powder and shot, and protected with heavy cannon. Again and again the Indians attacked, and I saw the mighty war elephants that are talked of in antiquity, but they could not penetrate our walls. The dead filled the trenches and the siege went on. Food ran scarce. Men dropped from sickness and starvation. All would have perished had God not saved us with a storm so fierce that many lobsters were washed ashore and even within the fort. Thus we ate the flesh of lobsters and survived until the king’s fleet relieved us. So ends the tale of my first voyage, and I hope your ladyship will judge it with favour. But more wonderful and terrible things befell me before I returned home.”
“You tales are wonderful.” Greta clapped. “I insist that you remain here as my guest until I have satisfied my curiosity about all the lands you have visited.”
It was lightly raining as the grey day turned to a colourless evening. The constant rolling crash of the Turkish cannons and the crack of their heavy muskets covered the wet flat ground with a mist of alchemical smoke.
Everybody seemed to be dead. Krum was dead. Three of every four men he had known were dead or dying. There were piles of them and the sound of their agony filled the silences between the shots. Peter stood above the body of Krum. He had been shot through the neck in the first enemy volley and had slumped to the ground beside Peter as blood poured out of him on to his ermine cloak. If the bullet had flown two spans to the right it would have been Peter. A boy lay bleeding to death, propped up against two corpses, slashed by a scimitar. He groped his open belly. Peter knew him. He was one of his men, a candle maker’s son from Eisenberg. Peter cut his throat with a quick, piteous slash of his sword.
“The king has fled.” It was the rasping voice of Captain Sokol, the champion swordsman. His face, hands and sword were covered with blood. “Do you hear that?”
Beneath the moans of the dying another sound emerged, a gentle rumbling which seemed to rise up from the earth beneath them. And as the rising wind cleared the hanging wafts of smoke in the darkening sky Peter saw a mass of advancing horsemen.
“The sipahi,” said Sokol, “faster than a Christian knight, they will skewer us, slice us, they will fill us with arrows, and any who live will be enslaved.”
Peter felt fear, fear that he would die. He felt grief for slain friends, and relief, relief that it would soon be over. But beneath the turmoil he felt something else, wonder. The mighty kingdom of Hungaria, bulwark of his world, was no more. The great plain now belonged to the Muslims, all the way to the mountains of Germania.
“We must run,” said Sokol, “run or die.”