1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 09:

The young man standing next to Jozef, Lukasz Opalinski, came from the same class of the high nobility. And if the Opalinski family was not as wealthy as the Koniecpolskis and many of the other great magnates, they made up for it by their vigorous involvement in the Commonwealth’s political affairs.

They were not stupid men, either of them. Not in the least. Just men so ingrained with generations of unthinking attitudes that Jozef knew how hard it would be for them to even see the problem, much less the solution. He suspected the only reason he’d been able to shed his own szlachta blinders was because he wasn’t exactly szlachta to begin with.

“You’re smiling, Jozef,” said Opalinski. “I don’t think I care for that smile.”

Jozef chuckled. “I was contemplating the advantages of bastardy.”

“What’s to contemplate? You get all the advantages of good blood with the added benefit of an excuse whenever you cross someone.”

Jozef shook his head. “It seems like an elaborate way to go about the business. Samuel Laszcz manages to cross almost everyone without the benefit of bastardy. Granted, it helps that he has the hetman’s favor and protection.”

A scowl came to Opalinski. “Laszcz! That shithead.” He used the German term, not the Polish equivalent. Like Jozef himself, Lukasz was fluent in several languages. He was particularly fond of German profanity.

So was Wojtowicz, for that matter — although, in recent months, he’d also grown very fond of American vulgarity. He didn’t think any other language had a term quite so charming in its own way as motherfucker.

“Finally! He’s finished,” said Opalinski.

And, indeed, the mounted archer had sheathed his bow and was trotting toward them.

When he drew close, he smiled down at the two young men. “I see from his scowl that Lukasz had not budged from his certainty that I am indulging myself. And what’s your opinion, nephew?”

Jozef squinted up at his uncle. And, as he’d known it would, felt his resolve to break with the man if he couldn’t bring him to understand the truth crumbling away. Stanislaw Koniecpolski had that effect on people close to him. Say what you would about the narrow views and limitations of the Grand Hetman of the Commonwealth, but Jozef didn’t know a single person who wouldn’t agree that he was a fair-minded and honorable man.

The simple fact that he referred openly to Jozef himself as his nephew was but one of many illustrations of Koniecpolski’s character. Jozef was a bastard, born of a dalliance by Stanislaw Koniecpolski’s younger brother Przedbor. After Przedbor died at the siege of Smolensk during the Dymitriad wars with Muscovy, the hetman had taken in the boy and his mother and raised him in his own household at the great family estate in Koniecpol.

“I wouldn’t presume to judge, uncle.”

Koniecpolski laughed. “Always the diplomat! Well, nephew, I will explain to you the truth, in the hopes that you might see it where stubborn young Opalinski here sees only a pointless melancholy for things past.”

He stumbled over the word “melancholy” a bit. The hetman suffered from a speech impediment, and had since he was a boy. He usually avoided long words, in fact, since he tended to stutter on them. That habit of speaking in plain and simple words led some people to assume Koniecpolski was dull-witted, an assumption which was very far from the truth.

Using his bare hands, the hetman mimicked an archer drawing his bow. He twisted sideways in the saddle as he did so, as if aiming at a target off to his left. “Notice, youngster, how the innate demands of using a bow properly while in a saddle almost force the archer to fire to his side, or even” — here he twisted still further in the saddle, imitating a man aiming behind him — “to his rear. In the nature of the thing, it is very difficult to fire a bow straight ahead while sitting in a saddle — and impossible to do it well, even for an excellent archer.”

Jozef nodded. “Yes, I can see that.”

The hetman beamed. “Well, then! You now understand — should, at least — what somehow still remains a puzzle to young Lukasz. The reason to practice mounted archery is to ingrain intelligent tactics in a soldier. The pike, the musket, the sword — pfah!” His pronounced mustachios wiggled with the sneer. “These teach a man to be stupid. Straight ahead, straight ahead, straight ahead.”

Opalinski sniffed. “That may well be. But that will still be the way the Swede comes at us — and not even you think he can be defeated with bows and arrows.”

“Well, of course not. But I also know that I have no chance of defeating the Swede — not so mighty as he has become — if I simply try to match him head to head, like two bulls in a field.” Koniecpolski gazed down at the young nobleman, very serenely. “This is why I am the Grand Hetman of Poland and Lithuania, and you are not.”

Opalinski chuckled. “Point taken.” He shivered a little, and drew his cloak around him more closely. “And, now, it’s cold. Your poor horse looks half-frozen himself. I propose we retire indoors.”

In point of fact, the horse — like the hetman — had been exercising far too vigorously to be chilled. And it wasn’t really even that cold, for the time of year. Still, the idea of retiring to a comfortable salon and warming one’s innards with a stout beverage appealed to Jozef. So, he too drew his cloak around him more tightly, and faked a shiver.

“Weaklings,” jeered Koniecpolski. “And at your age! Just another reason to practice mounted archery.”


After Koniecpolski left for the stables, Jozef and Lukasz began walking toward the manor, some distance away. Fortunately, they were on one of the Koniecpolski family’s smallish estates, this one located near Poznan. Had they been at the great family estate in Koniecpol, their walk would have been much longer. Fortunately, also, it had been a sunny day, so the ground was dry. Had there been a thunderstorm recently, their boots would have been caked with mud by the time they reached their destination.

Still, it was not a short distance, even if the walk was easy. That suited Jozef well enough, though. He needed the time to compose his thoughts.

“So solemn,” Opalinski murmured, after a while. “Is it really that bad, Jozef?”

Wojtowicz gave his friend a sideways glance. “Well. Yes, actually. I’m afraid the hetman’s not going to like what I have to say. Or you, for that matter.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m going to tell him that it’s sheer folly to weigh in on the side of the Saxons and Brandenburgers against the USE. Those are German lands, not Polish. We should just stay out of the whole business. All that an intervention on our part will accomplish is to given the damn Swede an excuse to invade Poland.”

“Not that he’s ever needed much of one,” grunted Lukasz.
“True, true. Still and all, if we stay out — but!” He lifted his hand. “I may as well save it for the hetman. No point giving the same speech twice. It’ll probably be wasted on you anyway, dull-witted soldier that you are.”

Lukasz called him a very unfavorable term in Lithuanian.

Jozef grinned. “I have the most marvelous American expression.”

After he spoke it a few times, Lukasz began practicing the pronunciation. “Modderfooker… mudder — yes, it is nice.”