Pressburg Pop

pressburg_popPozsony County, May 1242:

Snorri braced his arms on the rain-slicked sides of the embrasure and leaned out over the wall. The last of the Mongol rearguard were winding their way out of sight, around the hills of the MalĂ© Karpaty. “I wonder if there’s any value in hitting them from behind?” he asked.

“In the rain?” his younger companion replied, adjusting the cowl of his monkish habit against the incessant drizzle. The two conversed in Latin. Snorri’s native Norsk, and the monk’s Anglisc shared many words, but the pronunciation was rather different.

“I suppose we don’t want to give them an excuse to come back,” Snorri said.

“Three sieges in two years,” said the monk. “I’d imagine not.”

“I wonder why they just left?” said Snorri. “The weather has held out a lot better than the last few springs…”

The monk looked at him quizzically. “You were hoping to face the brunt of their assault?”. He rubbed at his aquiline nose with the back of his hand.

“No,” said Snorri. “Well, yes, actually. I was hoping to try those out.” He gestured at the rack of captured fire arrows safely tucked under layers of protective sacking against the damp.

“We could still try to fire them.” The monk laughed. “I have a better idea though. I’ve been trying to duplicate the powder that they use.”

“You know the ingredients?”

“Roughly,” said the monk. “The granules in the fire arrows separate out, if you shake them, so I can see what is inside. There’s charcoal, and brimstone, and niter, which the Mongols apparently call Chinese Snow. I don’t have the proportions quite right yet though. I had to twist the arm of the apothecary to get what I could of the brimstone. You don’t want to know where I obtained the niter.” He gestured towards a small barrel lying nearby. “That is full of my leavings. We can experiment, if you’re so anxious to play with fire.”

“What do you think would happen if we set it on fire?”

The monk shrugged. “I suggest we stand a few paces back, just in case.”

Snorri stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly, to attract the attention of a guard who was sheltering from the drizzle inside an enclosure within the wall. “I need a lit torch,” he called.

The guard pulled a torch from its holder within his shelter, and walked over with it. “The rain is going to put it out,” he muttered in German. He rolled his shoulders in disgust, as droplets fell down the back of his neck, into his tunic.

“We just need it for a moment,” Snorri responded in the same language.

“Whatever,” said the guard. He handed the torch carefully to Snorri, and then walked back to his shelter, shaking his head.

“Do you want to do the honors?” Snorri asked. “It’s your barrel.”

“Be my guest,” said the monk.

Snorri tossed the torch onto the top of the barrel, and then rapidly stepped back to join his companion. The barrel began to burn. For a moment, nothing further happened. Then came a vast sound, louder even than a thunderstrike directly overhead. Snorri dived, and tackled the monk to the ground. The sound echoed again and again off of the nearby hills, making the fortress walls ring, scaring flocks of crows into the sky. Then silence.

The monk coughed, and batted weakly at Snorri. “Are you okay?” he said.

“What?” said Snorri. “My ears are ringing. I can’t hear you.” He rolled off of the monk, and then slowly levered himself up to a seated position.

“Next time I’ll step back a little bit further,” said the monk, still lying flat on the ground.

Snorri didn’t respond for a moment. He was exploring something on the wall with his fingers. “Take a look at this,” he said. “There’s a piece of the barrel, and it’s embedded right into the stone.”

The monk whistled. “That might have hit me if you hadn’t knocked me down.”

“I wonder what else your powder can throw,” said Snorri, thoughtfully.

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In later years, the great English cannon-founder and clergyman, Roger Bacon, would often write about how the historian Snorri Sturluson had saved his life, and at the same time provided the inspiration for his life’s work.

Author’s Note: The difference between this world and that of my story mainly boils down to normal weather, believe it or not.

In our universe, the climate was “off” for three years – 1239 to 1242. Spring came very early in each of those years, and involved an unusual amount of rain.

The Mongol retreat (there were only two sieges of Bratislava – Pressburg or Pozsony to people back then – in our universe) apparently was mostly due to disgust at the muddy ground, which interfered with their ability to ride. They pulled back several months before a messenger could have reached Europe with news of the Khan’s death.

Oh, and Snorri. I was always infuriated by the manner of his death (September 1241). Writers should never have to exit that way. In an ideal world, perhaps, he would have asked for assistance in interpreting the runic warning message that somebody sent him, and then chosen exile instead of death.