1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 41
The ancient tree groans and the giant is loose;
All are terrified on the roads to hell
“The Seeress’s Prophecy,” from The Poetic Edda
Getting to PoznaÅ„ proved to be harder than getting into the besieged city. They had to take shelter from the season’s first storm for three days–in a village so small they had to share a cottage with its owners. A cottage that was barely more than a hut to begin with.
The owners themselves were delighted at their good fortune. The payment they received from Jozef was more money than they’d see in a year; in currency, at least.
Most people, when they heard the word “siege,” thought of a city completely surrounded by enemy troops, with all entry and exit barred. In many sieges, though, there was a part of the city that was not being invested at all by the enemy or, if it was, not by very many soldiers.
In the case of the siege of PoznaÅ„, the USE was no longer trying to seize the city, although for public consumption they kept referring to it as a “siege.” Torstensson and his two divisions were really there to keep the main Polish army fixed in the north. That was partly so that Gustav Adolf could concentrate on fighting the Turks. Partly also–this was a more recent development–it because he was beginning to think that the USE might be able to gut the PLC’s underbelly. Between seizing Lower Silesia, and supporting the Bohemians and the Galiciansâ€¦
It was a gamble, of course, but one that he thought had good odds. “Worth a try,” as his up-time allies would say. But in order for the revolt brewing in southern Poland to have any chance of success, the USE had to keep most of the PLC’s armed forces in the north. For the moment, at least, the rebels weren’t strong enough to face those forces if they were assembled into one army.
So, orders had been sent to Torstensson to shorten the siege lines and make them as strong as possible. By this time that was done, no more than two-thirds of the city’s circumference was really being invested any longer. The USE army was just squatting down for the winter, strengthening and improving its fortifications and keeping its soldiers warm, well-fed and healthy. Those fortifications were now designed more to fend off a Polish sortie than to serve as a base to assault the city.
Torstensson did send out cavalry units to intercept any large supply trains that the Poles tried to get into the city–and he had the airplanes to spot them long before they got near to PoznaÅ„. But he didn’t bother with any supply attempts that weren’t too ambitious. As long as it avoided enemy patrols, which rarely went out after nightfall, it was possible for a small party to make its way to one of the city’s entrances. And in the case of Jozef and Christin, they had an extra advantage: Gretchen had sent word to Torstensson over the radio that they were coming, and the general of the USE troops besieging PoznaÅ„ had passed that on to the officers in charge of the troops guarding the northern gate.
That gate was so lightly guarded to begin with that it was possible Jozef and Christin could have slipped past them anyway. But they had no need to make the effort. The evening before they planned to enter the city, they got in touch with Torstensson again and code signals were established. Early on the morning of the following day, before the sun had even rose, they made their way to the entrance.
They did encounter one of the USE cavalry patrols, but there was no difficulty getting past them.
The grasshopper has no food.
It should have prepared for the winter.
“Who comes up with this stuff?” Christin demanded quietly, once the patrol was out of sight.
“A student of the classics, I assume.”
“‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ is a classic? It’s a kid’s story.”
“A very very old one. That makes it a classic.”
“No, it just makes it very very old. Like my great-aunt Ava. She’s very very old–was, anyway; I haven’t seen her since the Ring of Fire–but if anybody thought she was a classic it’s news to me.”
Once at the city gate, of course, they had to persuade the Polish guards to let them in.
But that proved to be no great task, either. For a start, just as Christin had foreseen, the presence of the two children served to allay suspicions. Would evil-doers bring children along on a mission to commit evil? It didn’t seem very likely.
In addition, Jozef had the three necessary attributes for the task.
A goodly-sized bribe.
An indefinable air of szlachta arrogance.
A loud voice.
“Open the gates, you stupid bastards! Or I’ll have my uncle skin you alive!”
One of the soldiers tried to take a stand.
“The Grand Hetman’s dead, you dolt!”
“Then I’ll have his ghost skin you alive! Open the fucking gates!”
At that point, the sergeant in charge intervened. It is unlikely that he was intimidated by the threat of Koniecpolski’s ghost. He was a devout man whose priest had once explained to him that the common belief in ghosts was a sin, being as how it called into question the divinely proclaimed fates of eternal salvation or eternal damnation.
But the priest hadn’t said anything about bribes, one way or the other, and the most devout commoner in Poland was also going to be practical. If his wife found out he’d spurned a good bribe, he’d never hear the end of it.
“Let them in,” he commanded. “And that’ll be enough from you, Mateusz, or you’ll forfeit your share.”
Two soldiers standing not far from Mateusz indicated their support of the sergeant’s position, one by growling and the other by raising his musket. He didn’t exactly aim it at Mateusz, but the barrel was in the vicinity. Mateusz was suitably cowed and the business could proceed.
Once they were through the gates and far enough from the guards not to be overheard, Christin said: “Now what? I’m warning you, Jozef, if you don’t find us a place to sleep soon with a half-decent bed–that means no bugs, most of all–I’m not going to be happy with you.”
“Fear not. That was my very thought.” He reined in his horse and looked around. The street they were in was not all that wide and the buildings on either side were crowded together. To make things worse, at least half of the space available was taken up with jury-rigged dwellings and ramshackle vendors’ shops. The street now had the functional width of an alley. By now, the sun had come up so there was plenty of light, but Jozef couldn’t see anything beyond the street itself. He headed toward an intersection ten yards further on. Christin followed, with their pack horses trailing behind her.
Their progress was slow, because even this early in the day the street was jammed with people. Jammed with carts, too, most of them drawn by hand. Between the soldiers sheltered in the city and the civilian population that had remained, PoznaÅ„ reminded Jozef of a bee hive.
By the time Christin forced her horse through the mob and got to the intersection, Jozef had a pleased expression on his face. “I was disoriented at first, because I’ve never used that gate before. But now, look.”
Christin followed his pointing finger and saw a big structure that seemed to rise above the city.
“That’s the royal castle,” he said. “They built it on top of Castle Mountain–it’s really just a hill–so it’s easy to find if you can get into an open area. Now all I needâ€¦”
He rose in his stirrups and swiveled his head, looking. The motion woke Tekla, sitting in front of him, but only for a few seconds. Not finding what he was looking for, Jozef made his horse turn further around to give him a wider range of vision. Almost immediately, he had his finger pointed again. “Yes, there it is. Those are the spires of the famous cathedral, the Archcathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul.”
Christin had never heard of it. Seeing the expression on her face, Jozef smiled. “Well, it’s famous to us Poles, anyway. It’s the oldest cathedral in Poland. Goes backâ€¦ I can’t remember when it was started. More than half a millennium.”