1636: The Saxon Uprising — Snippet 69
Dresden, capital of Saxony
Jozef Wojtowicz had never worked so hard in his life. Thankfully, he’d been blessed with a naturally strong and sturdy frame, so he was able to bear up under the heavy labor long enough to start getting in better condition. But all that really meant was that he was burdened with still more work.
The city’s defenders maintained and even strengthened the fortifications, despite the relentless Swedish bombardment.
That was no doubt how the future history books would depict the situation he found himself involved in. His thoughts on the matter were dark, dark, dark. In the pantheon of liars, he ranked historians second only to outright swindlers — without the excuse of honest greed as a motivation.
Here was the truth behind those innocuous-sounding words, he’d come to discover.
Truth One. In a siege, able-bodied men fall into two categories — and the definition of “able-bodied” is loose to begin with. There are soldiers, who stand guard on the ramparts vigilantly watching for any sign of enemy action. That is to say, do nothing more strenuous than rub their hands to ward off the chill. And there are civilians, whom said soldiers dragoon into doing all of the work.
Truth Two. The work involved in “maintaining and even strengthening the fortifications” consists of nine parts staggering under the weight of rocks and other rubble, and one part staggering under the weight of water casks needed to keep said able-bodied civilians from collapsing while carrying out the other nine parts of the labor.
Truth Three. Rocks come in only two sizes. Too big to carry without great strain, or, if they are on the smallish side, too many to carry without great strain.
Truth four. Shovels were invented by Moloch.
Truth five. Picks were invented by Ba’alzebub.
Truth six. Wheelbarrows were invented by Belial.
Truth seven. The notion that there would someday be an end to toil and suffering was invented by Satan himself.
Truth eight. Beware of Polish compatriots —
Wojtowicz was jolted out of his gloomy mental recitation of the Great Truths. Carefully, so as not to lose his balance under the weight of the basket of stones he was carrying, he turned to see who had shouted at him.
Ted Szklenski, as he’d thought. “What is it?”
Szklenski hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “They want to see you in the castle.” The huge form of the Rezidenzschloss loomed behind him.
Jozef frowned. He did not like the sound of this. So far, he’d managed to remain reasonably inconspicuous — in large part, by staying away from the Rezidenzschloss, which was the center of CoC activity and held their headquarters.
On the positive side, he had a legitimate excuse to put down the basket.
That took a few seconds, and would have taken longer if Szklenski hadn’t lent him a hand.
“Who wants to see me?”
Szklenski shrugged. “Got no idea. I’m just passing along the message from Waclaw.”
Waclaw — his last name had turned out to be Walczak — was the leader of the Polish CoC contingent in Dresden, insofar as the term “leader” could be applied to the group at all. Even Polish CoC members tended to have a liberum veto attitude toward the principles of majority rule.
Under these circumstances, though, Jozef couldn’t just ignore the summons. That would draw more attention than anything else.
Besides, no one would expect him to carry rocks to the Residenzschloss. At the moment, Jozef was willing to risk outright crucifixion for that blessing.
He had to wander around the corridors for most of an hour before he finally found Walczak. In the process he got completely lost twice. He’d never been in the huge building before. Like many palaces which dated back hundreds of years, the structure was a composite; haphazard in much of its design and complex to boot. The original castle had been a Romanesque fort built around the year 1200 — over four centuries ago. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the famous master builder Arnold von Westfalen extended it considerably. A century later, a new addition was constructed, this one in the Renaissance style. At no point along the way did anyone seriously try to remove what already existed. The back-breaking labor involved would have been insane. Only idiot Poles stupid enough to come to Dresden…
He finally spotted Waclaw.
Naturally, Waclaw chided him for being late.
When Walczak ushered Jozef into the large chamber on the top floor facing the river, Wojtowicz’s worst fears were realized.
Richter herself, looking up from a large table where various maps were spread and studying him intently for several seconds.
“He’s the one I was telling you about, Gretchen,” said Waclaw.
Stabbed in the back. Ever the story of poor Poland. Who needed enemies when Poles had themselves?
“You’re szlachta, yes?” That came from Richter. It was more of a statement than a question.
Jozef made one last desperate attempt to weasel out of his fate. “Yes, but so what? Two of the other Poles here in Dresden are szlachta also.”
One stab in the back deserved another. He pointed at Walczak. “He’s one of them.”
Richter shook her head. “Yes, I know. But Waclaw doesn’t have any military experience. Like most szlachta, his family has four pigs where his lowly commoner neighbors have only three. We Germans would say they’re putting on airs, but what do we know?”
Waclaw was grinning. Jozef was tempted to grin himself. Richter’s sarcastic depiction of the state of affairs for most of Poland’s so-called nobility was accurate enough. Where most countries had a small aristocracy — that of the Germanies was no more than five percent of the population; that of England, an even smaller three percent — no fewer than one Pole in ten counted themselves part of the szlachta. Inevitably, that formal claim fell afoul of economic reality. Most szlachta families really weren’t much if any wealthier than the peasants among whom they lived.
But he resisted the temptation, easily enough. There was peril lurking here somewhere, like a leviathan beneath the waves.
“Neither does the other szlachta, Radzimierz Zawadski,” Richter continued. “But he and Waclaw both think you probably do. They say you’re from a better class, associated with one of the magnates.”
That was always the problem with running into fellow Poles. From subtleties of dress, carriage, speech — who knew, exactly? — they could deduce things about another Pole that a foreigner would miss entirely.
There was no point trying to deny it. Jozef decided he’d skirt as close to the truth as he possibly could.
“Yes, that’s true. The Koniecpolskis, as it happens. But I’m from one of the bastard offshoots of the family.” He shook his head. “I’m no hussar, I can tell you that.”
Richter continued to study him. Her eyes were a naturally warm color, a sort of light brown that wasn’t quite hazel. But they didn’t seem the least bit warm, at the moment.
Not cold, either. Just…dispassionate, the way a student of natural history might examine a curious-looking and possibly interesting new insect.
“I didn’t expect you to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have any use for a hussar anyway.”
For the first time, she smiled. It was thin affair, with no more in the way of warmth than her gaze. “We’re likely to have a better use for horses before winter is over than putting a hussar on top of one. And to do what, anyway? Sally out of the gates and smite the foe? All one of him against fifteen thousand? No, better to keep the horses for food, if we need them.”