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Manfried Hartmann did his best to ignore the voice that came from behind the heavy oak door. He stood at attention, on the opposite end of the corridor, shivering slightly. Even with his mail shirt and the padding underneath, he was still chilled by the damp, mildew-thick air.
But maybe chilled even more by the pathetic weakness of the woman's voice coming from the cell he was guarding.
It was hard not to see this guard duty as anything more than a punishment detail. Perhaps, in a more charitable moment, he could think of it as a form of mortification, his Teutonic masters seeing to it that his soul was purified through labor and obedience. Still, despite what the sergeant might say about "prisoners of a certain status," there was little about this that Manfried could see as particularly elevating. He certainly didn't feel any closer to God in this hole.
If he brought up the subject with one of the priests, or-Lord help him-one of the knights of the Order, Manfried knew from long and onerous experience that the answer he would get would involve prayer, penitence, and probably a long meditation on their Lord's suffering on the cross.
But, by God, if he wanted to say that many Pater Nosters he would have stayed in Lübeck and joined a monastery.
This wasn't to say that he hadn't spent five nights down here as a heathen, his back to God. But expecting a soldier to spend the entire night from Compline to Prime in silent contemplation of Christ was expecting a bit much.
A bit much, especially with a young woman's voice pleading with him. And thanks to this woman's keeper-province commander of the Teutonic Order, Landkomtur Erhard von Stendal-and his commandments not to talk to, or even look at, the prisoner, the boredom was maddening.
"Sir? Just a word? Some water?"
Perhaps the knights of the Order thought their soldiers would fear Hell more if they allowed them a foretaste.
This was not why Manfried had made the trek north. As the third son of a minor landgrave-very minor-he had only martial skills to trade upon. He had come to the wilds of Prûsa as a soldier of Christendom, to defend the church and win new lands and peoples to the way of Christ.
He told his mother that he would bring home honor for his family name, and possibly gain his own estate in the newly Christian lands of Prûsa. He had not thought his crusade might end in this dank corridor, breathing niter and mold, listening to the echoed pleas of some pagan prisoner. However, by the grace of God, here he was, standing in the bowels of a keep in a town that had honored the cross for eight years now, guarding a woman who barely had the energy to speak.
He wondered at what point he had annoyed God so much as to deserve this fate.
"Sir?" Her voice was weaker this time.
Even though he had been left here, grating under the command of the Prûsan converts left to man this keep, Manfried did know enough to remain obedient. While he had not taken the oaths of a religious order, and was absolved-by law if not by circumstance-from the binds of chastity and poverty, he was still bound by the tenet of obedience. Fealty was expected of all in service to the Order; priest and knight, serf and slave, religious and secular.
He was not to converse with the prisoner or approach the door.
Why this was so was none of his concern. He knew nothing of the prisoner other than rumors. All he really knew of her was her voice. He was never present to see anyone else approach the cell door to see that the prisoner was fed, or exercised, or questioned. He simply changed places with one man at Compline and with another upon leaving at Prime.
Her voice was quite young, just barely a woman's. It was also painfully dry, cracked, and becoming weaker with each passing day.
Manfried thought of his own sister, barely two years his junior.
The prisoner is probably her age…
Just the thought-comparing the unknown, unnamed woman to his younger sister-made him feel a sickness in his soul as black as the mold growing on the stone floor.
What has she done to place her here? Someone's sister? Someone's daughter?
This seemed unnecessary, even for a pagan. If the woman did not accept baptism, she should be granted death, or sold to some estate where she might be put to useful work. Abandoning her here seemed cruel and pointless.
There were the rumors, of course. Even though the Order frowned on gossip, some sins were just too minor to expend the effort to expunge.
Manfried had heard from several men who claimed to have talked to members of Landkomtur Erhard's retinue. The provincial commander had been en route northeast, toward Balga, pausing here in the fortified town of Johannisburg to leave this woman in the care of this garrison. Everyone agreed that this was not originally Erhard's intent, as he was supposedly joining forces that were massing for a spring assault in the wilds north of Warmia.
The general belief was that Landkomtur Erhard had been called back to Marienwerder to meet with the Landmeister of Prûsa.
As to the girl he had left, theories abounded. Many thought that she was some barbarian princess, taken as hostage to assure that some pagan duke or captain took his baptism seriously. Others thought that she was being taken as some bribe to encourage one tribe against another-since, unlike the Infidel in the Holy Land, the pagan tribes inflicted wars as savage on each other as they did upon the lands of Christendom. Yet others thought that she was a reward for some great landed knight who had donated land or men to the Order's mission.
Erhard's command not to speak to or approach the girl inspired other rumors: she was such a beauty that any man who viewed her would be instantly seduced and forced to free her; she was so hideous that she might strike a man dead with a look; perhaps she was rich enough to offer bribes or other favors.
The last one, Manfried thought, would be high on Landkomtur Erhard's list of concerns. The knights of the Order were as concerned for the virtue of their servants as they were for their own. And while they did not force secular soldiers to emulate their brothers and sleep in common rooms that were perpetually lit to prevent the concealment of sin, they did pay close attention to their conduct.
Many of the men left in this garrison were converts, only a few years Christian, and probably more than likely to accept, or simply take by force, such inappropriate favors.
Such men did not take boredom well.
After a moment, Manfried reproached himself for feeling such concerns. This woman was some unchristian pagan, serf or slave, unbaptized and unworthy of such worries.
Also, these thoughts only served to increase his sense of unease. Developing sympathy for his prisoner was akin to showing mercy on the battlefield. He was a soldier. He had a duty. He had come here to serve God and the Order.
But down here, he didn't feel very close to God at all. He could be righteous facing a pagan army that slaughtered priests and burned churches-but a single girl?
He whispered a Pater Noster for strength of spirit.
When he finished, the words sed libera nos a Malo died in the still, fetid air, leaving silence behind.
The silence continued.
"What?" he whispered, instead of "Amen."
There was no answer; not even a whimper from behind the banded oak door that he was not permitted to approach.
His unease deepened. No one had told him what crimes this prisoner may have committed, or why she was so important. Only that, according to Landkomtur Erhard and Manfried's Prûsan sergeant, this was the most important post he would ever fill.
Still, she did not speak.
For four nights, her voice had been his constant companion down here, echoing off the damp gray stone; asking for water, asking his name, sometimes singing in a low voice he could barely hear. Sometimes in Prûsan, sometimes in German, never answered, but always talking.
It crossed his mind that if she died down here, his awful, tedious job would come to an end and they would have to find him something else to do. That thought, and the brief flash of cruel optimism it brought, made the sick feeling in his soul even blacker.
How horrible to die down here.
Several long minutes of silence passed, perhaps as long as a quarter hour, before he violated his first order.
"Hello?" he called out in Prûsan. He didn't know that language beyond a few words, so he asked in German, "Are you well in there?"
What a preposterous thing to ask, he thought as his query went unanswered. He wasn't well down here, and he was the guard.
But what if there was something wrong with the prisoner? If she was so important, shouldn't he do something?
He was within reach of the alarm cord, which would ring the bells for the watch. That's what he should do. He should sound the alarm.
But what if she's just sleeping?
Manfried was already looked down on by his barbarous comrades, his German blood a liability in the midst of the near-pagan community of this garrison. His duty here was intolerable as it was. Giving them an actual reason to look down on him? That would be positively excruciating.
And calling an alarm in error wouldn't only be embarrassing, it might result in a reprimand. Such a mistake might not concern his soul, but the Order was a military organization as well, possibly the best in Christendom, and they did not get to be so by tolerating such error, however well intentioned. He could lose the chance to serve as a proper soldier, and be trapped the whole season as a glorified prison guard.
But if something was wrong, that could just as easily result in the same fate. He knew enough of the world to know that when inconvenient things happened to important people, saying you had followed orders would not excuse you of being held responsible, no matter how unearned the responsibility.
Deep in the shadows he heard water drip with a sound barely louder than his own breathing. The quiet made the air feel that much heavier, the damp pulling the warmth from the skin on his face and hands.
He needed to know what was happening in the cell.
So he broke his second order.
The door was at the end of the corridor opposite Manfried's post, lurking in the shadows of a narrow vault where the flickering glow of the lanterns barely reached. The door was heavy oak, banded with iron. In the whole keep, only the main siege door was stronger.
Two lanterns kept his guard post lit. Manfried took one lantern from its brass hook and walked down the vaulted corridor, toward the door. It was heavy, the iron bands ocher with rust, studded with egg-sized rivets. A small iron hatch covered a window set at eye level. The flat slab of metal resisted his pulls, grinding with a metallic screech that set Manfried's teeth on edge. Flecks of corrosion fell from the little-used mechanism, dusting the backs of his hands and giving the appearance of some swamp-borne plague.
Does no one use this at all?
He looked through a square barred window that was barely two hands' breadths wide. Beyond, the cell was dark as a well.
"Hello?" he called into the dark, first in Prûsan, then in German.
"Please, help." Her voice spoke barely audible German.
Manfried lifted the lantern, opened its shutter as wide as he could, and held it up to the portal, shining light into the cell beyond.
He stared in for a long while before he finally whispered, "Jesus wept."
Sprawled facedown in filth that was unfit for a slaughterhouse was the young woman he had imagined. She was naked, her smooth white skin blemished by the filth she was forced to wallow in, her head hidden by a halo of hair that might once have been long and flowing, but was now defined by ragged layers of encrusted mats.
Seventeen, Manfried thought her age, perhaps eighteen at most. The same as his sister.
In response to the light, she stirred, raising her face from the floor to look at him.
"Please, some water."
Under the dirt, the face that looked up at him was smooth, unscarred by time or labor.
She had to be of noble birth. It was the only explanation for such unmarked hands, face, and skin. Even his sister, who had married well, had hands that were hard from maintaining a small house that wasn't landed enough to afford servants.
"Do they provide you with nothing?" Manfried muttered more to himself than to the prisoner. She appeared beyond hearing him. Her eyes were unfocused, their unusually deep green hue reflecting into a void that was invisible to him.
Her left leg trailed behind her, and that ankle was caked with blood and rust where a gray-black metal manacle had rubbed it raw. The blood was awful, and the stench worse, the foot swollen with infection and turned at a nasty angle. At some point she had broken the bone, and it looked as if she had collapsed in an attempt to walk toward the door.
The sight was so appalling that he never once considered the fact that he had never heard her cry out in pain.
"By Christ," he cursed, "is the Order not the Hospital of St. Mary?" Even an unrepentant pagan should not have her wounds fester without succor.
The manacle was connected to an iron chain that seemed more of a weight to anchor a drawbridge or lower a portcullis than something meant to restrain a girl half Manfried's size. Despite its weight, the chain was taut, leading back to a massive staple in the cell floor. Just tripping with that weight could have broken her ankle. As mortified as the flesh was, and how weak she appeared now, it could have happened days ago.
Manfried considered himself a hard man. He had never been one to wince at pain or blood. Pitched battle held no terror for him. But this?
This was not how women were treated.
They were Christians here; they were supposed to be better than the idolaters, better than those who sacrificed their women and infants to their demonic gods, better than those who preyed on the weak, pagan and Christian alike, only to aggrandize themselves.
But he wasn't looking upon the acts of a Christian.
He had no name for this kind of obscenity, but he was certain that it was at the hands of these half-pagan Prûsan brutes. His disdain for them flared into full-blooded hatred.
"Hold on, I'll get you some water."
Manfried forgot his orders. He might be a soldier serving the Teutonic Order, but he was also a human being.