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By Leo Frankowski
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 Leo Frankowski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFROM THE DIARY OF TADAOS KOLPINSKI
My people was always boatmen on the Vistula. My father was a boatman and his father before him, and my great-grandfather was one, too. I still would be, except I lost my boat a few years back. I would have lost my life with it, if it hadn't been for Baron Conrad Stargard.
I was maybe the first man to meet him in Poland, next to the priest, Abbot Ignacy at the Franciscan Monastery in Cracow. I was stuck on the rocks on the upper Dunajec with no one but a worthless little Goliard poet to help get me off. It was the poet's fault that we were hung up in the first place, since the twit rowed to port when I yelled starboard, but that's all water down the river. It was late in the season, and the weather was cold. Another day, and the river would be froze over and I'd lose my boat and cargo, all I owned, and maybe my life, too.
Then along comes this priest and with him was Sir Conrad. He was a giant of a man, a head and a half taller than I am, and I'm no shorty. He was pretty smart, and after I'd hired them two, we got the boat free in jig time with a line bent around a rock upriver, following Sir Conrad's directions. Never saw the like of it.
He told me he was an Englishman, but I never believed it. He didn't talk like no Englishman andhe'd never seen an English longbow!
Now me, I'm a master of the English longbow. There's no one no where who can shoot farther or straighter or better than me, and that's no drunkard's boast. It's a gift, I tell you, and many's the time I've hit a buck square in the head at two hundred yards from a moving boat. I did it in front of Sir Conrad, and he helped me eat the venison.
And if you don't believe me, you meet me down at the practice butts some time, and I'll show you what shooting is all about. Only you better be ready to bet money.
We got that load to Cracow and I paid off my crew, me spending the night aboard to ward off thieves. Good thing, too, because three of them tried to rob me that night and kill me, besides. I was asleep, but at just the right time Sir Conrad shouts me awake, while he was holding a candle to me.
I tell you there was three of the bastards on my boat, coming at me with their knives drawn! I killed the first one with a steering oar, broke it clean over his head and his head broke with it. I threw the broken end at the second one and when he raised his arms to ward the blow, I caught him in the gut with my own knife, just as slick as you please.
The third one, he tried to get away, but in that kind of business, where you're a stranger in town, you best not leave no witnesses! Any thief would have a dozen friends swear that he was an honest man and I was the murderer.
So I bent my longbow and caught the bastard in the throat as he ran along the shore. Nailed him square to a tree, I did, and he stuck there, wiggling some.
Sir Conrad, he had his own funny knife out, that one that bends in the middle, but I wouldn't let him finish the thief. After all, it was me they was trying to rob and kill, so the honors was mine. Anyway, that was a good arrow, and I didn't want the fletching messed up. I cut the thief's throat and saved my arrow, and I guess Sir Conrad, he was a little mad because he wouldn't help me slide the three bodies into the river current to get rid of them. He even threatened to call out the guard!
But I got him calmed down just fine and he went back to the inn where he was staying at. That was the second time he saved me, because if them thieves had of caught me asleep, I'd be a dead man, and my cargo gone besides.
Well, I got me a good price for my cargo of grain and spent the winter in Cracow with a widow of my acquaintance.
The next summer a friar brought me this letter. He was the same kid what used to be a Goliard poet and worked for me the last fall. He read it to me, and it was from Sir Conrad and it had Count Lambert's seal on it. They wanted me to come to Okoitz and teach the peasants there how to shoot the longbow. I was sort of tempted because I'd heard of beautiful things about Okoitz. They said that Count Lambert had all the peasant girls trained to jump into the bed of any knight that wanted them, and if Sir Conrad could qualify for them privileges, then why not me as well? At least I could dicker for it, if they really wanted me that bad, and they must have, since they wrote that letter on real calfskin vellum. Not that I was about to give up my boat and the Vistula, you know, but it might make a fine way to spend a winter.
But just then I had a contract to deliver a load of iron bars to Turon, and two other ones to buy grain on the upper Dunajec and sell it in Cracow. I didn't have the time to find someone who could write me a letter to Sir Conrad, so I told the friar, him what brought me the letter, that I'd reply to Sir Conrad when I got back, in a few weeks, like.
That trip went just fine until I was heading down the Dunajec again. The water was high, so I was working the boat alone, and I saw a buck at the water's edge in the same place where I'd bagged two other ones before, where a game trail comes down to the water. I was out of meat, so I shot that buck square in the head and pulled for shore to get it aboard before I got caught poaching.
Only it wasn't a buck I shot! It was a stuffed dummy with a deer skin on it, and the baron's men, they had me surrounded before I knew what was happening. They stole my boat and cargo, "confiscated" it, they called it, and I never did see it again. They would have hung me except I had that letter, written on good calfskin vellum it was, with Count Lambert's seal on it.
The baron said he wasn't about to offend a lord as high as Count Lambert, not without finding out what that man would pay for my life. They was all eating and drinking while I was tied up in front of them, and every round of wine they drank, they'd decide on a higher price for my ransom. By the time they was near dead drunk, they had this priest write up a letter to Count Lambert saying that if he didn't come up with four thousand pence in six weeks, they'd hang me for poaching, and I knew I was a dead man. I'd never seen that much money in one spot in my whole life, and the count didn't even know me. Who'd spend a fortune to save a man they'd never even met?
So they chained me with shackles riveted around my wrists and ankles and threw me into this tiny cell in the basement, with barely room to lay down. The only food I got was some table scraps every third day or so and they was stingy with the water. They wouldn't even give me a pot to piss in, and I had to piss and shit on the floor of my cell. But that whole castle stank so bad that they didn't even notice the stench I added. In a month's time, I was covered with my own shit, and being hung didn't seem like such a bad thing after all. At least then I could stop smelling myself!
Then along comes Sir Conrad, all decked out in red velvet and gold trim, with good armor under it. There was another knight with him, Sir Vladimir, and two of the prettiest girls you've ever seen, Annastashia and Krystyana. He paid out four thousand pence in silver coin and got my bow and arrows back, too, but I had no such luck with my boat and cargo.
A blacksmith knocked the shackles off me and it was strange to stand there in the bright sun with clean air to breathe, trying to make myself understand that I was going to get to live again.
Sir Conrad said I owed him four thousand pence, and I'd pay it off by working for him at three pence a day, the same pay that I'd given him the last fall. That was five years pay, even if I saved every penny of it, and many's the time I wished I'd paid him the six pence a day he'd asked for in the first place, instead of dickering him and the priest down to something reasonable.
They all stayed upwind of me until we got to an inn, and the innkeeper wouldn't let me inside until they'd given me a bath in the courtyard. They burned my clothes and I had to make do with a set of Sir Conrad's with the cuffs rolled up.
So we headed north and west, and when we got to Cracow, the ferryboat there had been changed at Sir Conrad's suggestion. It had a long rope running upstream to a big tree on the bank, and by adjusting that rope, the ferry master could take the ferry back and forth without needing any oarsmen!
I'd known Sir Conrad was smart, but this amazed me. I was still staring at it when we was attacked by a band of unemployed oarsmen. They blamed Sir Conrad for robbing their jobs, and maybe they was right. Sir Conrad, he got knocked off his horse by a rock that hit him square in the head, but Sir Vladimir, he went out and started smashing them oarsmen, and darned if Sir Conrad's mare didn't go out there and help him with the job. That horse is spooky, smarter than a lot of men I've hired. Sir Conrad says she's people, and he even pays her a wage for her work, swearing her in just like she was a vassal, but she scares me sometimes. It just ain't natural.
I got my bow bent, but I noticed that Sir Vladimir was using the flat of his sword on the oarsmen, so I didn't kill nobody either. I just nailed a few of their arms to some trees and buildings, me being that good a shot.
Once Sir Conrad got his wits back, he talked to the oarsmen and said that if any of them couldn't find work in Cracow, well, they could come to his lands at Three Walls and get work there. Most of them took him up on it, too. So did a lot of others that never was oarsmen, but it wasn't my place to say nothing. Why should I cost a man his job?
Sir Vladimir, he led the party right up to Wawel Castle, and all the pages and grooms scurried around like our party was real important. I got put up in the servants' quarters, of course, not being quality folk, but it wasn't bad. Them castle servants eat good, and I was still a month behind on my eating.
Besides filling me up on food, them servants filled me in on what was happening. They said that Sir Conrad got on the right side of Count Lambert by building all sorts of machines for him, and the count gave Sir Conrad a huge tract of land in the mountains near Cieszyn. Sir Conrad was building a city there when he heard I was in trouble and he got into a cesspool of trouble hisself on the way to get me.
They said he met a band of Teutonic Knights what were taking a gross of young heathen slaves to the markets in Constantinople, and Sir Conrad wouldn't allow them to do it. He said they was molesting children, so him and Sir Vladimir chopped up them seven guards and took the children back to Three Walls.
The trouble was that them Teutonic Knights, or Crossmen they're called, are the biggest and orneriest band of fighting men within a thousand miles, and they wasn't about to let Sir Conrad get away with robbing them. There was going to be a trial by combat, and Sir Conrad was going to get hisself killed, sure as sin. Nobody beats a Crossman champion in a fair fight, and mostly they don't fight fair.
I tell you that if you ever want to know something, you just ask a palace servant. They know everything that's happening, which is probably the reason that Sir Conrad won't have any. Lots of people works for him, you understand, but he gets up and gets his own meals just like everybody else.
We went to Okoitz, and I could see why Count Lambert was so impressed with Sir Conrad. There was a huge windmill, taller than a church steeple, and it sawed wood, worked hammers, and did all sorts of things, and there was this big cloth factory chock-filled with the damndest machines you ever saw, making cloth by the mile.
It was also filled with the finest collection of pretty girls in the world, and didn't none of them wear much. They was all crowding around Count Lambert and Sir Conrad, hoping to get their butts patted or their tits pinched. Not that any of them would pay any attention to the likes of me. I wasn't a knight and they didn't have time for us common trash.
Then, like there wasn't a gross of pretty girls after his body, and the Crossmen wasn't going to kill him, Sir Conrad invents a flying toy called a kite, and spends a week building them. He's a very strange man, that one.
Then we went to Three Walls and I got put to work, mostly doing guard duty at night. It wasn't so bad, since Sir Conrad let me hunt all I wanted, just so that everything I shot went into the pot, which was fine by me. I ate my share of it, and so did Sir Conrad. One of his rules was everybody ate the same, and there was always plenty of it. I respected him for that, even though a lot of the others just thought he was crazy.
At first, there wasn't much at Three Walls but a big sawmill and some temporary shacks, but they got some fine buildings up real quick before the snow flew, and since Sir Conrad planned it all, you just know they was full of odd things.
The strangest were the bathrooms, where they had flush toilets and hot showers and more copper pipes than you ever seen in your life. And some damn fine scenery, since the girls used the same showers we did. Not that any of the young ones would have much to do with me, no, they was all wanting a real knight and maybe even Sir Conrad.
But I found me another sensible widow and just sort of moved in with her. Nobody said anything about it and in a few weeks somebody else was using my bunk in the bachelors' quarters, and that was fine, too.
Come time for Sir Conrad's trial by combat, everybody in Three Walls went to Okoitz to watch it. I got to talking with Sir Vladimir and Friar Roman-him what used to be the Goliard poet-along with Ilya, the blacksmith. We all allowed as how it was a rotten shame that a fine man like Sir Conrad was going to get hisself killed, and especially by them filthy German Crossmen.
And we came up with a plan to do something about it. The friar had a painting kit with some gold leaf in it. He was going to cover some of my arrows with gold, and the blacksmith, he had some steel arrowheads that could cut any armor. I was going to be up on top of the windmill, and if Sir Conrad got into trouble, I planned to shoot me the Crossman champion. Once I did that, and golden arrows came down out of the sky to punish the evildoers, the others would be in the crowd shouting "An Act of God!", "A miracle!", and such like nonsense, since who'd look for the perpetrator of a miracle? How could they punish me or Sir Conrad for an Act of God?
When the time came, we was all ready. Sir Conrad got hisself bashed out of the saddle on the first pass, and the Crossman, he came around to finish him off. I let fly and then hid myself, but somehow I must have missed him clean because when I looked up, him and Sir Conrad was locked in a close fight. Since I missed once, I was afraid that the weight of the gold leaf was throwing off my aim, and I didn't shoot for fear of hitting Sir Conrad. Just as well, because Sir Conrad kicked the Crossman's smelly arse! He played with the bastard, first throwing away his shield and then killing him with his bare hands!
Then when the fight was over and I was getting ready to climb down, four more Crossmen charged onto the tourney field at Sir Conrad. I had my bow bent real quick and let four arrows fly as fast as you can blink! This time, I watched them fly through the low clouds and come out again to hit every one of them Crossmen square in the heart! I tell you I got four out of four, and every one of them straight in at three hundred yards! I killed every one of them fouling bastards and their empty horses ran past Sir Conrad on either side.
Then, right according to plan, everybody was shouting "A miracle!" and "An Act of God!" The blacksmith ran out on the field, to be the first one there to recover my arrows, since we figured that nobody would believe God using gold-covered arrows. God would use real solid gold if He used anything. It was best to get rid of the evidence.
But when Ilya tried to pull out the first arrow, it bent in his hand! It really was real solid pure gold!
I got religion about then, saying my prayers every night like the priest taught me and going to mass every morning. I did that for about a month and then was my old self again, or pretty near. Only I don't make jokes about the stupid priests anymore and I try to watch my language, except when the shitheads push me too hard.
So Sir Conrad lived and them kids all grew up proper at Three Walls instead of being slaves to the Mussulmen. And nobody thought to catch me for killing them Crossmen, if it was me that shot them and not God. It was some damn fine shooting, Whoever did it.
Excerpted from Conrad's Lady by Leo Frankowski Copyright ©2005 by Leo Frankowski. Excerpted by permission.
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