Vienna’s Last Jihad

Chapter One

June 20, 1683

Mathis Zieglar paced between the limestone pillar and the shaded side of the lecture hall, clasping and releasing his hands as he strode back and forth. A summons from the Jesuits meant they were going to either honor or threaten him.

He paused a moment to gaze over the vibrant orange tiles of Vienna’s rooftops. Beneath them, laughter floated upward from young men leaving class. Despite the peacefulness of the scene, his stomach knotted. Instead of holding this senseless meeting, the priests should busy themselves by pulling the students aside and warning them that the largest Muslim army in eighty-seven years was marching toward the Holy Roman Empire.

A latch at the far end of the colonnade clicked and a door opened to reveal a black robed Jesuit. The hem of his garment hung so close to the floor that Mathis couldn’t see the man’s feet. The figure seemed to float toward him like a flashing ghost, appearing dark and bright as it passed through shade and sunlight.

Does he bring me ill or welcome news? Mathis asked himself, squinting to make sure he had the right man. “Grüss Gott, Reverend Father Schneidermann.”

“And to you,” the priest replied, licking his lips nervously. “The council is ready, Doctor Zieglar.”

Mathis followed his escort into a room filled by four men sitting on each side of a cherry table. The rector of the College of the Jesuits, Father Sistini, rose to his feet at the far end, followed by the others. His eyes glowed like a blacksmith’s forge above expressionless, sphinx-like lips.

“The peace of Christ be upon you,” Sistini said, his greeting echoed by the others.

Mathis nodded. “The peace of Christ be upon you.”

They all sat. Mathis took the chair at the end facing the rector. The men on Mathis’ left were dressed in dark secular academic gowns. Those on his right wore narrow white cloths draped over black cassocks; the stoles were emblazoned at the bottom with a solar disk containing IHS—the Jesuit emblem. He pressed his fingernails into his palms. Some he knew were friends, others were strangers.

Sistini cleared his throat. “The purpose of this meeting is to review your progress toward tenure, Doctor Zieglar, and to see if you should continue another year. There is no denying your accomplishments. At age nineteen, you mastered the requirements for a professorship. These are things rarely achieved by one so young.”

Once again, Mathis nodded. “Thank you.”

A faint smile crept over the rector’s lips. “We are pleased to tentatively endorse your appointment to the School of Oriental Languages and Koranic Law. All that remains is for us to determine the correctness of your spiritual beliefs. After all, if the ability to teach Turkish were the only qualification, we would hire a Mohammedan.”

A ripple of menacing laughter on the clerical side of the table tightened Mathis’ chest. What kind of meeting was this?

The rector continued. “We must be sure you are a son of the church. Do you consider yourself a son of the church, Mathis Zieglar?”

“I do. I do indeed.”

“Good. Not all of our professors here are priests, but we look with favor upon those who have taken the vows. Are you called to this vocation?”

Mathis thought of Magda, the sable haired beauty who waited for him outside, anxious to know the outcome of the meeting. He could never deny himself the soft contours of her hips and breasts, the sweetness of her mouth. He would sooner fall on his dagger than sever the psychic bond between them. “When there’s a snow storm in hell,” he muttered beneath his breath.

“What was that, Doctor Zieglar?”

Mathis cleared his throat. “I am flattered the Society of Jesus would consider me a candidate for their order. But I will best serve the Lord as a married man.”

A priest with bushy eyebrows and a sallow complexion crouched forward and shot him a sour look. “Doctor Zieglar imagines himself a son of the church, yet he ignores the examples of our Lord and St. Paul.”

“By no means,” Mathis said with a pained smile. “I simply prefer to follow St. Joseph and St. Stephen, both of them married men. And I am inspired by your example, Father Bauer. You have never let your vows of chastity prevent you from ministering to the women of the church.”

The secular professors winked and snickered at one another.

Bauer smacked the table with both palms and rose, “How dare you imply I . . .”

Sistini cleared his throat loudly again. “That’s enough. Doctor Zieglar. We all know your talent for debate. Do not make another comment like that.

“Let us return to our original question. You say you are a son of the church. A son of the church reveres the Holy Father in Rome and repudiates heresy. Will you therefore renounce Copernicus’ teachings about the earth revolving around the sun?”

Warning bells clanged in Mathis’ head. He didn’t expect this challenge. “I agree with Giovanni Cassini and the Jesuits who assist him at San Petronio. They’ve studied the planets long enough to know the truth about Copernicus.”

Sistini’s face flushed. “That’s an evasion. Give us your reaction to the book of Joshua, young doctor.” He picked up a Bible and read, “‘And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed until the nation took vengeance on their enemies . . . Joshua 10:13.’ The Word of God says it was the sun that stood still, not the earth. Dare you contradict the Pope and teach heresy?”

Mathis’ pulse raced. He had debated the subject in a university exercise and saw no reason to repudiate the stand he had taken and been judged the champion. “If the esteemed rector wishes to take this scripture literally, perhaps he understands Jesus the same way. He said ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ I doubt, however, that Christians have become actual twigs or that the sun moves around the earth.”

Sistini squirmed in his chair and Mathis continued. “If the Jesuits in San Petronio are busy proving Copernicus’ ideas, how can you condemn me for refusing to denounce him?” Let the Reverend Father get himself off the hook on that one.

“Condemn heresy or be party to it,” Sistini bellowed.

One of the secular professors to his left, a giant of a man named Tannenberg who wore a bristling beard, lifted his eyebrows. “No matter what his private beliefs are, Doctor Zieglar has avoided criticizing the church. We shouldn’t censure him for that.”

“The Pope speaks for God and says that the sun revolves around the earth!” Sistini said. “Doctor Zieglar’s implications are blasphemy. Before I conclude this hearing, does he wish to change any of his statements?”

Mathis shot to his feet, shaking with rage. “When I was hired at this university, Reverend Father, you told me to expose my students to the world of ideas. Jesus and Socrates used ideas to spread their message, not the mailed fist of an Inquisition. You should follow their example and open your mind so that God can fill it. The Scriptures say ‘Come, let us reason together.’ Think about that before you repeat the Jesuit motto Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. Only then will you act for the greater glory of God.”

Cries of “Aye! Aye!” rose from the left side of the table; angry murmurs rippled along the right.

Sistini tensed. “Listen to me, young doctor. Listen to me well. We will meet here next week and decide your fate. Recant your ideas and embrace the church. Otherwise, we will try you for heresy.”

With that, Sistini and all of the men in the hall rose. Schneidemann walked to the door in front of Mathis and opened it.

“The peace of Christ be with you,” Sistini murmured half-heartedly, looking down as he departed.

Mathis trudged down the walkway, heaving angry breaths. He found his way out into the street where Magda stood, her shining black tresses flowing in the wind that wrapped her slate blue skirt around sculpted hips. Her almond-shaped eyes lit with anticipation. His cousin, Alfred Zieglar stood beside her, dressed in the pearl gray overcoat becoming popular with the Habsburg army. Their gaze intensified as he drew close.

“Mathis, is everything all right?” Magda asked.

She would insist on the truth. Magda understood him like no one else. Her face sagged in sorrow as he discussed Sistini’s impossible demands. “I had no idea the Jesuits were so intent on forcing the secular professors out of the university. Why didn’t they make that clear before I slaved like an ox to win that chair? God only knows the sacrifices I made.”

“Because they thought they could turn you into one of them!” a voice thundered behind him. It was Tannenberg, the professor who had spoken in his defense. He laid an arm across Mathis’ back and squeezed. “But you decided to be a man, instead. And you tied that pretentious rector in knots.”

“What will we do now?” Magda sniffed as tears trickled down flush cheeks. “Papa will never consent to our wedding unless you’re employed. Why can’t you bite your tongue for once instead of proving yourself right? You always have to win.”

His heart sank. He had never imagined he could be at fault. Mathis expected Magda to support him against the hypocrites. But now, she wept in disappointment.

“This isn’t so bad,” Alfred sang out with an optimistic lilt. “The army can use a man of your talents. As a matter of fact, I talked to a feldwebel just this afternoon. The Duke of Lorraine put out a call for anyone who knows how to speak Turk or Tartar, offering them a position. You know those languages, don’t you?”

Mathis would have to look up the sergeant Alfred referred to.

“No one at the university speaks Turk better,” Tannenberg boomed.

“No, Mathis!” Magda said, her eyes growing wide. “I don’t want you to run off fighting the Turks. I need you here.”

“Darling,” he took her hands in his. “We don’t have a choice. It’s that or the Inquisition.”

Magda shook loose from his grasp. “What kind of future will I have with a husband who risks his life for a living? You can’t join the army and have a family. Don’t do this, Mathis.”

Mathis looked her in the eye and set his jaw. “No, Magda. A man can do both.”

Two days later, Mathis found himself inside a tent pulling off his overcoat and rolling back his sleeves. It was one of many temporary shelters pitched in the border area of Deutsch-Jahrndorf. A strong gust swept under the walls and stretched them as far as they could expand, scattering papers off a table. As the wind intensified, the ropes securing the canvas groaned. Mathis gripped the back of the chair in front of him. This was his arena, where he would face his opponent. Would he prove his worth, or fail and be sent home?

A soldier pulled back the door flaps. A gaunt, mustached captain dressed in a red great coat with black cuffs stepped inside.

Mathis saluted and clicked his heels. “Hauptmann Hauser.”

Hauser nodded. “This is the last step, Zieglar. I don’t know why the duke gave someone so inexperienced a chance at this. Remember, you’re under contract and not a soldier. If you fail, we can dismiss you at any time. Yank the information out of the prisoner, or we’ll torture him. The Turks are breathing down our necks and we have to know their intentions. Let’s see how good you are.”

Two soldiers wrestled a threatening, cursing Tartar through the entrance and attempted to tie him to a chair. “Stay put and shut up!” said one, smacking him across the mouth. But the prisoner continued to grab at the ropes until they hit him enough times that he slumped in his seat. Sunlight penetrated the dim space and revealed his solid, muscular features. A reverse U-shaped mustache framed his clean cut chin. Mathis sat down and faced him.

Another Tartar, he thought as an instinctive fury welled up. A monster who lines his pocket by dragging women and children off in chains. Most of whom die before they reach the slave market. We’ll see how powerful his tongue is.

The Tartar revived and rocked his chair. The longer he struggled, the hotter Mathis’ face glowed. He fought against the urge to take one of the ropes and wrap it around the warrior’s neck. “Ghazi! You say you’ll kill these men when your friends attack. When do you plan on doing this?”

The prisoner stilled, apparently stunned. Then his face twisted in contempt. “Christians use boys to question captives? How do you know Tartar?”

Mathis was not surprised at the comment; his boyish face and lithe frame belied the steeled biceps beneath his tunic, the results of being raised on a farm. He turned to the captain beside him and translated the prisoner’s words. After he finished, the officer nodded to one of the soldiers who wrapped a small chain around the Tartar’s mouth, drawing it tight across his teeth and squeezing his neck. The captive grunted in agony. It brought Mathis out of his anger and back to himself. I need to get him on my side.

“I don’t like this type of questioning,” Mathis said slowly and deliberately, “because I want to speak to you, man to man. Talk to me so I don’t have to turn you over to these men. Once again, when will your friends attack us?”

Mathis motioned and the soldier relaxed the chain. The Tartar growled, “Answer my question, first. Tell me how you learned my language.”

After the translation, the captain nodded to the soldiers to resume applying pressure, but Mathis stopped them with a raised hand. “It’s all right, Hauptmann, this’ll help the interrogation.”

Mathis turned to the prisoner. “My father served in the army several years ago and brought a Tartar girl home as a slave. Her name was Aglinur, the daughter of Ali, but we call her Mary. She taught me the language.”

“Then you were taught by a traitor and a whore.”

“On the contrary, she’s a member of our household and treated with great kindness. It can go the same way for you. Start by telling me your name.”

The captive eyed Mathis suspiciously for a long moment. His eyes darted to the men surrounding him. Finally, he huffed out a breath. “Feth. My name is Feth. I am the son of Galim.”

Mathis smiled. “Galim? Your father was considered wise by his tribe?”

“Yes. He was a village elder.”

“Feth, what would your father tell you if he were here? What would he say about your friends, the Turks? They send you into enemy territory in front of their army and expect you to risk your neck, just so they can move in and pocket the loot. Then they show their gratitude by calling you a savage.”

The Tartar twitched angrily at mention of ‘savage.’

“Feth, we know your army is close to Györ, where we captured you. How many horsemen do the Tartars have?”

Feth’s lips pouted in scorn. “Christians are as ignorant as pigs. You only know where we’ve been after we set your villages on fire. We’ll turn you into a land of slaves. Whatever’s left we’ll toss to the Hungarians.”

“How many Tartar horsemen will ride against the imperial army, Feth?” Mathis pressed. But the Tartar clamped his jaws shut.

“Feth, you don’t owe the Turks anything. What do the Tartars get for the blood they shed? Half your people go into debt to afford a horse or sword. The Turks overthrow your khan whenever they please. Answer me and you’ll get food and water.”

Feth’s jaw relaxed. “We have enough men to annihilate you.”

“Do you Feth? Then your people will have to stop hiding behind the Ottomans and stand up to us on your own. You don’t have enough men to do that.”

“Stand on our own? We outnumber you by ourselves, infidel.”

“With what?” Mathis shrugged. “Ten, maybe fifteen-thousand men?”

Feth’s eyes blazed. “With forty thousand.

Mathis decided not to translate the information immediately, lest Hauser smile with satisfaction and alert Feth that Mathis was gaining the upper hand.

“Ah, I see. Your numbers are considerable. How many Turks are backing you up?”

“Are you so blind you can’t count on your own? Ninety thousand Turks will follow us and pick up the pieces. You’ll be lucky if we leave the squirrels behind.”

The questioning had reached the critical point. Mathis paused and spoke in a near whisper.

“Feth, are the Turks going to stop at Györ, or will they attack Vienna?”

The Tartar smirked. “Allah only knows. The decision is up to the grand vizier.”

Mathis ground his teeth in determination. He was not going to let Feth deflect his question. It was time to take a different approach.

“Feth, your people refer to Vienna as ‘the Golden Apple’, do they not?”

The warrior snorted.

“When does your leader promise to take his men home?”

“October, perhaps.”

“After you have enjoyed eating the apples from our mountains?”

Feth raised his brows at the question. “If we can stand the fruit in this wretched area.”

Mathis rose to his feet, raised his voice, and switched from a questioner into an accuser. “My father killed scores of your brothers at St. Gotthard! Do you know what he says about you people? You’re brave on horseback, but cowards on foot. You’d rather shoot arrows from a distance than go man to man with a Christian.”

Mathis’ new approach shook Feth. “What . . . ?” he sputtered.

“You know what my people call the Tartars, Feth? ‘Renner und Brenner.’ That’s right, runners and burners! You burn villages full of women and children, but flee like jackals in front of real soldiers! You may eat apples, my friend, but you will never be man enough to taste the Golden Apple!”

The Tartar strained against his ropes and lifted the chair off the ground. “Scum of Satan!” he screamed. “Make your taunts four weeks from now when we pull Vienna’s walls down. I’ll tie your mother in chains and screw her myself. We will see who the real men are then. We will see!”

Mathis grinned triumphantly as he translated the information to the officer, speaking loudly over Feth’s rants. I’ve won the tournament. The hours I spent practicing argumentation have finally proven useful.

As a sentry threw a hammerlock around the Tartar, Mathis realized there was another piece of vital information he needed. “Calm down, Feth, if you want things to go easier for you,” he said in a soothing voice. “Just tell me how many Turks are staying at Györ and how many will attack Vienna.”

When the guard relaxed his grip to let Feth speak, the left side of the Tartar’s cheeks trembled and drooped, the end of his mouth sagged and his speech garbled incoherently. Sweat poured down his forehead.

As Mathis leaned forward for a closer look, Hauser put a restraining hand on his chest. “Let him go, he’s going into apoplexy. We have to get this to the duke right away. Good work, lad. You’ve proven yourself an interrogator.”

The two strode to the tent of Charles, Duke of Lorraine and commander of the imperial army. Grim-faced guards met them at the entrance, barring their way. One of them asked their business, then announced in a loud voice “Captain Hauser and his assistant are here to report on the interrogation of the prisoner.”

“Send them in,” came the reply.

Mathis and the captain entered to face three men in pearl gray uniforms hovering over a map spread across a table. A cuirass’s blackened armored plates hung on a nearby stand, ready to wear. An officer in the middle of the three had a high forehead and narrow face with an aquiline nose. His cheeks were pitted from smallpox and a frayed wig draped over the back of his neck. Mathis instinctively recognized the all-too-familiar lines creasing his face from melancholia: this was the duke.

“Your recommendation was sound, Your Excellency,” Hauser said. “This young man has a talent for questioning prisoners.”

The duke smiled knowingly. “Like father, like son.”

Mathis gave his report of the interrogation and summarized, “If Your Excellency would indulge me, I believe the Turks intend to wage holy war, jihad, against our capitol. If Vienna doesn’t surrender, they’ll slaughter the population.”

Charles’ brows knit in concern. “All this time the Turks made it look like they were going to besiege the fortress at Györ, but their real objective was Vienna. The emperor must know as soon as possible, Europe is at stake.”

Duke Charles ordered Mathis and a dragoon to ride as soon as possible and carry the message to Vienna. Mathis packed quickly and strode into the stable, bags and supplies bundled in his arms. “Prepare my horse,” he ordered a stable boy.

The attendant jumped up repeatedly in a vain attempt to snag horse’s reins dangling from a rafter. Mathis threw a saddle over a horse and knotted his leather scabbard on his sash.

The boy turned his gaze to Mathis. “Why do you have the shape of a coil etched into your sheathe, Doctor Zieglar?”

Mathis was about to brush him off when he saw the youngster’s bruised cheekbone and bleeding lip. Mathis backed up a few steps, sprang forward, making a complete turn in midair, grabbed the reins from the rafter, and landed on his feet.

The boy’s jaw dropped. “Mein Gott!”

Mathis looked him over, noting his long and sturdy legs. He has potential.

“Do you know what a mainspring is, young man?”

“Some kind of coil inside a watch?”

Ja. After you twist the mainspring, the coil unwinds and powers the watch. You can use the same motion to defend yourself, if you practice.”

“How do you do that, sir?”

Mathis chuckled. “I used to take bets when I was your age. No one thought I could knock apples off the higher branches without a ladder. All I needed was a stick and a running start to put a few pfennige in my pocket. Later on, I learned how to turn around in mid-air. A watchmaker called me Hauptfeder because he said I moved like an uncoiling mainspring. As I grew older, I used the move to surprise bullies and knock them on their ass. ”

“Older boys picked on you, too?”

Ja. Come with me a moment.” Mathis walked his horse out of the barn and stopped before a fence.

“There. Do you see that corral, boy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Build a ramp and practice jumping over it twenty times a day until you can do it without the ramp. Can you do that?”

“I would do anything to help myself, sir.”

“After this, learn to spin in midair as you swing a stick. Remember, the motion comes from the shoulders and the hips. When you learn to jump, twist and strike, you will never fear anyone.”

“Anyone, sir?”

“Anyone. Remember, the only thing a lout respects is someone who never backs down. Never cower before a bully.”

The young boy saluted Mathis as if he were an officer, not realizing he was a civilian interpreter. Mathis joined the dragoon and galloped away from the stable, his laughter over the boy’s innocence rose over the pounding of the horse’s hooves. But once out on the trail, Mathis’ mood changed to iron determination and he urged his horse relentlessly. There were only two hours of daylight left after which he faced another day or two of travel time to Vienna, depending on the weather.

Mathis had another reason for making the most of what was left of the afternoon. He knew when he awoke, a mental fog frequently struck in the morning. Mathis described it  as “the darkness that can be felt,” after hearing a sermon from Exodus 10:21: “And the LORD said unto Moses, stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even  darkness which may be felt.” During those times, he lost his razor sharp perceptions and was distracted by every noise around him. A hot, scorching darkness clouded his thoughts.

Thank God I only have to ride and not deal with something complex. He wondered how he had made it through the university’s morning lectures and what he had done to deserve this plague.

The two rode only an hour when the dragoon’s stallion stumbled forward and threw the man off. Mathis reined in his horse and dismounted. He walked over to the rider, who slowly forced himself into a sitting position, clutching his left shoulder.

“Are you injured?”

The dragoon nodded. “He must have stepped into a rodent hole.” He turned to his horse, who thrashed in agony, unable to stand. “You had better go on by yourself. I’ll manage.”

Mathis reluctantly agreed. He didn’t like leaving an injured man alone, but his mission was too important to delay. Remounting, he rode until nightfall. He made camp beneath a fir tree part way up a hillside, using the remaining rays of twilight to blacken his leather riding boots before munching hardtack. “At least I will enjoy a good night’s sleep,” he muttered as he felt the soft bed of needles beneath his blanket.

A shaft of light from the rising sun woke him the next morning. The vision repeated itself as it did so many mornings. First, the scent of a surrounding hayloft lodged in his nostrils. He struggled to move, paralyzed by the screams of women below. He couldn’t bottle the rage that boiled inside, or the scorching, dark despair that followed. Despite the cool air enveloping him, he fought to overcome his lethargy and stripped off his coat and stuffed it in his saddlebag.

Mathis fumbled through his belongings and pulled out bread and cheese for breakfast. He groggily saddled his horse and rode northwest toward Vienna, fighting to keep his eyes open. The Danube River next to the trail cast a thick dome of fog over him, limiting his vision to a few meters. The horse’s hooves sank into the soft ground. He drew in the heavy air with short gasps; it was as if a blanket smothered his mouth. He had to stop a moment to keep the earth from reeling. “Push on.” Mathis chanted between heavy breaths, “Vienna depends on you.” He grabbed his ear and twisted until it hurt, forcing himself to concentrate. “Push on. Vienna depends on you!” He shouted again. He dug his fingernails into the reins, then urged the horse forward. “Vienna depends on you.”

He lifted his drooping lids minutes later when his mount stepped faster. The trail rose higher as the ground firmed and the mist thinned. He rode for an hour until the sun burned away the overcast and revealed hills coated in green. A slight breeze wafted the scent of damp meadows into his nostrils.

Hoofbeats from behind made Mathis turn in his saddle. Two Tartars bore down, one fitting an arrow to his bow. “Damn!” he shouted, spurring his horse as he crouched as close to the animal’s neck as possible. “I thought this morning would be simple.”

They sped away from the river. Mathis wanted to avoid getting stuck in another patch of marshy land. He spotted a thicket to the northeast and headed for it, hoping to find cover. The Tartars fanned out, one to the left, one to the right. 

An arrow sank into the back of his saddle as Mathis reached the edge of the grove. He tapped the infantry sword at his side for reassurance, but feared it would be a poor match for his enemy’s shafts. Terror shot through him. “What the hell can I do?”

Mathis dashed a hundred yards into the trees, wheeled around and doubled back out of the woods the way he came. That lost his pursuers until they saw him and resumed the chase, though at a greater distance. He had to put more space between himself and them.

The Tartars gained on him just as he spotted blackberry bushes beside a stream. His horse whinnied as he circled the growth. Mathis found what he was looking for just as the Tartars closed in. This animal path leading into the berries might bring me friends.

His horse’s nostrils flared and the animal reared as Mathis dismounted. It bolted before he could pull his coat from his saddlebag. The only protection against the bush’s thorns in front of him was the shirt on his back and his brimmed hat. There was no time to hesitate. He got down on all fours and scampered into the blackberries like a hound.

Mathis pulled his hat low to protect his eyes. Spikes tore into his back. The Tartars called out to one another as they circled the bushes, trying to find him.

“Let’s smoke him out!” one yelled.

This doesn’t make sense, why are they going to all this trouble? He decided to appeal to their greed. “Look you two, if it’s money you want, I can throw you my coin bag,” he said, keeping low.

“We don’t want your silver, little Zeegar,” one mocked him, mispronouncing his last name. “You’re worth more dead than alive.”

Mathis was thunderstruck. They knew him!

“Captain Tyrek has a price on your head, Christian,” the other Tartar crowed. “You won’t live to see Vienna.”

Someone has informed on me.

The raiders ignited the dry bush that crackled in the heat. Mathis crawled deeper into the thorns as sweat poured down his forehead from the rising temperature, but the smoke followed and choked him. He stopped after a minute, his flesh throbbing from the barbs. Salty tears stung his cheeks.

“When we catch you, you’ll sprout arrows like a hedgehog sprouts quills,” a tormentor called. “You’ll see what happens when–”

The taunt was interrupted by a bear’s ear-splitting roar. A horse whinnied in agony; the Tartars screamed. Mathis took his sword and hacked the bush away. He rose to his feet for a look.

Two bears bit into one of the Tartar’s mounts, blood spurted over their fur.

Mathis saw his opportunity and cut his way out of the tangle until he reached a meadow on the far side of the fracas. The terrified noises intensified as the raiders fought for their lives and their horses.

“My guess was right.” Mathis muttered, shaking like a leaf, “An upset horse and a path into a blackberry patch means bears are nearby. What an insane way to make a living! Magda is right. I must be dreaming to think I can have a family and a military career.”

He said a prayer of thanks. The rush of excitement had cleared his ‘darkness’. Though the immediate danger was over, his goal was farther away than ever. He had lost valuable time and his horse, could he get to Vienna in time to warn the defenders?