A shot woke him up. A musket? No. He could recognize the sound of a Janissary rifle even in a half-dream. The robust young man sat up in his bed and looked out of the window. Screams. Two more shots. He felt the nails of his young wife, Anna, sink in his upper arm. She was up.
“Menyhárt, what is it?” she asked but received no answer. Lord Balassa jumped out of his feather bed in a trice, snatching his broad-bladed cavalry saber from the corner, leaving its scabbard and his bewildered wife behind.
He ran up to the castle’s ramparts in a frenzy grabbed the first man’s neck he met and shouted into his face:
“Sound the alarm! To arms! Hussars into the saddles and Hajdus to the walls with burning fuse and loaded rifles! Shot at will.”
The soldier first did not recognize his commander in a nightshirt, but the enormous black mustache and the Hussar-style, half-shaven skull, decorated with scars from old battles quickly reassured him who was shaking him as if he was a rag-doll. The Hajdu saluted and picking up the captain’s speed, ran away. Orange light spread from the city below, and the air was filled with smoke. Soldiers appeared and horses were being led out, orders were being obeyed. Two minutes later Lord Balassa was making his stallion dance in front of the locked gate, some seventy riders hastily adjusting their saddles and clambering into them. Many were half-dressed, just a few of them had helmets and breastplates on and the servants were busily handing them weapons and the spiky Hussar shields.
Somebody grabbed the bridle of the Captain’s black horse, and steadied the beast and two invisible servants struggled to pull his riding boots on Balassa’s bare feet. He was just in his long nightshirt and was angrily waiting for the gate to be opened. His Hajdu lieutenant, Amborus Nagy, caught up with him and reported, panting:
“The Turks . . . they had cut the city gate in with axes and climbed the walls. The whole palisade is burning around the city . . . the Turks are looting and killing the city folks.”
“Killing, not capturing? They must be in a hurry. Follow me in one group and do not spread out. We start with the city gate. Kill them, the sneaky bastards, hujj-hujj, hajrá!” he roared with bulging eyes and when the gate was opened, at last, he was the first to spur his mount into a crazy gallop, aiming the city gate at the end of the steep street that led them down there. The fearsome, ancient Hungarian battle-cry was sounded behind him:
“Hujj, hujj, hajrá! At it, At it!”
What seemed minutes to the surprised and bewildered Hungarian warriors, was, in reality, more than an hour. Plenty of time for the experienced pillagers to fill the wagons with booty, let it be cutlery or textiles, strong boxes full of silver, or whatever they could lay their hands on. They spared the time to find joy in the prettiest girls before slitting their throats while their comrades slaughtered anybody else who was pitifully running up and down. A man in a black Hungarian dolman, wearing a red turban, was showing the way to the Janissaries.
The “pribék” led them to the nicest houses of the richest Saxon burghers and helped them shatter the doors. The rest of the buildings were set on fire with long torches they had brought for this very purpose. Busy hands emptied the stables and herded the animals of the burghers out of the town. Wealth, piled up by generations of prosperous decades was hoarded on the Turks’ wagons and hastened through the gate before Balassa’s Hussars rushed into the dense lines of the Jannissary unit that served as a rearguard.
The Janissaries were elite infantrymen with a reputation for standing firm against every storm that attempted to break them. They despised death and never stepped back in retreat whatever fell on them. More were joining them from behind who had finished the looting and killing at the sound of a bugle. After the first clash, Balassa reined in and bellowed:
“Back to the gate and line up again! Wait for my sign before the new attack!”
The sun rose behind them and its beams shone into the eyes of the enemy who were getting ready to receive the second assault with an indifferent face. The moment Balassa made some room between his riders and the Janissaries, a terrible explosion was heard from above. It was Amborus Nagy who had all the old guns brought out and placed his remaining thirty men and all the servants and even the children on the ramparts to give him a hand.
A well-aimed volley of muskets, cannons, and big old arquebuses spat lead, iron balls, and nails into the face of the blinking Turks. Death was harvesting among them but although they were shaken, they stood their ground. Balassa gave the sign and his men charged again.
And three times again before they slowly pushed the stubborn Jannissaries out of the city gate.
The enemy was withdrawing, triumphally, with wagons filled up high with plunder, herding away horses and cattle.
Stepping out of the gate, the Hussars received a strong rifle fire that stopped them and covered the disciplined retreat of the Janissaries. Heavy Sipahi riders appeared and Balassa heard the savage cries of the irregular light cavalry, the Delis. He cursed.
“Back to the castle, men. Amborus, set the alarm tree on fire and pass the warning signals on. Send a lad to Ipolyság and fetch all its garrison here. Word must reach Komárom Castle, too. Tell my inner servant, Godocsi to warn Selmecbánya city, the rich burghers must give some help. After Selmecbánya, he is to go to Sellye, up the Vág River. On the way, alarm the nobles in the stately homes, they are to obey my summons, I am the Comes of this county, damn them.”
When they returned to the castle’s gate and all of them dismounted, Sir Balassa glimpsed back at the corpses of the Janissaries. A Saxon girl was staggering among them. Her skirt was stained with blood. She held a broken yatagan. A Turk was stirring and she struck him once, twice, ten times before somebody jerked her away from there.
He turned and saw his men run with buckets to put out the fires and the women pouring out of the castle to tend the wounded. His lady wife was among them and came to him straight with a jar of diluted wine.
While he drank, he thought that the enemy had set the palisade on fire just to hinder the chase. The wine got into his nose and he was coughing and choking. “They expect me to sit and lick my wounds until reinforcement arrives many hours later.” he thought.
“No. Not me,” he said aloud and turned to his soldiers at the top of his voice:
“All able-bodied men are to don armor, chain mails and shields, fetch their lances and get fully ready and come to the castle gate in a time one tells a Holy Rosary. We will give a chase.”
Anna Thurzó looked at his man, his strong, bull-like muscles that showed under the nightshirt which had been torn into tatters in the combat. smiled at him, and said:
“Give them twice as much time, my Lord. And now I bid you come to your chambers. You must break your fast and change clothes. Think of yourself. And me.” she said proudly and shook her blond, uncombed hair that was freely falling down below her hips. Sir Balassa grinned and followed her. He knew that even the conflagration of Léva town would not stop her from having her way.
Life was too short to waste.
Ninety-six well-fed rested and angry men sat in the saddle, dressed in the flexible steel armor of the Hussars, armed with sabers and longswords, battle-axes that pierced plate armor, holding sixteen-feet long lances which were hollowed out inside for the sake of smaller weight. There was a wooden ball on the lances’ grip to provide good balance and to protect the steel-gloved hands which could aim the long metal spearheads with deadly precision. The helmets looked like the Persian conical helmets of the Ottomans, with a long piece of iron hanging down to protect the nose.
Sir Balassa gave way to Father Balázs, the Franciscan monk who carried a long cross in his hands.
“Dismount, salute the cross. To prayers” he shouted and jumped off his stallion. Legs fell from the saddles and all the soldiers were on their knees. They received Father Balázs’ blessing and heard his Latin words of the public absolution of their sins. They made the sign of the cross and sat back into their saddles again. Sir Balassa gave out his instructions:
“Once we catch up with them, spread out in groups of three and four. We have to slow them down until the reinforcement from Selmecbánya and from the Borderland arrives. Challenge them and play around, provoke duels but do not hold a battle. Taunt them, pinch them, and be noisy. Now, we must make haste, we can rest in the birds’ stomach which is the proper cemetery for the brave warriors of this Homeland’s Frontier.” he paused and thrust his sword up to the sky and cried:
“Jesus, Mary!” roared the Catholic warriors while the Protestants cried “Jesus, Jesus!”
The wasps were out.
Pasha Saban was glad to have put some miles between him and Léva city which was marked by a black smoke pillar behind them. On the other hand, he was dismayed by sighting the enemy appearing from the bend of the gentle hills and bushes. The Hussars immediately spread out and began circling the Turks’ rearguard. The light Deli riders spurred their horses into a gallop and with screaming and yelling, led by the cunning Agha Kubát they fell headlong on the auspicious infidels.
As the terrain generously allowed it, the green fields were soon filled with riders who clashed with each other with their long lances. The heavier Hussars were easily hitting out the Deli horsemen from their saddles so the Delis scattered to the left and to the right, dancing around the Christians. Half an hour was hardly spent when Saban’s keen eyes discovered a dust cloud from the south. A small Hussar unit appeared and the Pasha sent hundred and fifty iron-clad Sipahis to trample them down. He was annoyed because even from this distance he quickly recognized their leader, György Thury, a Hussar lieutenant from the small Palisade Castle of Ipolyság. He had less than thirty men but he was said to be a promising duellist.
Sir Balassa was through his third opponent and the Deli riders jumped away from his proximity. He was happy when a giant Sipahi warrior answered his challenge and rushed on him with a drawn scimitar. Balassa had thrown away his broken lance a few minutes ago and he was wielding his beloved cavalry saber.
“Rá, at it, Pejkó!” he cried at his horse who was clearly having fun in the combat he had been trained for. Pejkó shook his clever head and neighed up aloud, rolling his eyes menacingly. Balassa loosened the reins and trusted his warhorse to do his job without interfering. The Sipahi was rushing straight at them, crying “Allah Akhbar!” and his scimitar rose to sever the infidel’s head. Pejkó slyly side-jumped and was already prancing on his hind legs.
The two iron-covered heavy hooves were wickedly flinging about the head of the Sipahi’s mount. The Turkish horse jerked back and his legs lost the rhythm. It was when Pejkó played his second trick by turning tail and kicking out with his strong hind legs. Balassa was anticipating it and swung his saber from below and caught the face of the warrior with its razor-sharp tip. Blood covered his enemy’s eyes and by the time Balassa spun his horse backward, the Turkish horse was running away with an empty saddle.
Balassa stroked the sweaty head of his horse.
He saw his Hajdu lieutenant, Amborus Nagy rushing past him with four Hussars and he instinctively joined them. His two Hajdu lads were following suit. In a blink of an eye, they found themselves attacking the side of a Sipahi unit which was heading to the south to trample down some thirty Hungarian warriors coming from there.
“Sweet Jesus, they must be more than a hundred . . . ” he thought but there was no time to turn back. The eight riders threw themselves on the Ispahies like wolves attacking a herd of bison. They used their long-shafted battle-axes which were clacking on the Turks’ armor, opening holes on breastplates and on helmets.
“Allah! Jetisin! Help!” The surprise attack cost several lives to the Turk heavy cavalry but they soon realized the power of their numbers. It was Balassa’s Hajdu lad who went down first. Amborus fought against two enemies and Balassa saw his lieutenant receive a spear-thrust in his waist. The Hajdu sank on the neck of his horse, embraced it and the scimitars hacked him to pieces. Balassa tore himself from the shocking sight and saw they were surrounded and pushed by all sides. Only three Hussars were dancing their horses around him.
“Make a star, come on, lads!” he cried and the four riders took up a star formation where the rumps of their horses touched each other. It was a very effective defensive stand and they could evade the strikes of the circling Sipahis with ease.
Balassa knew they could not stay like this for a long time but he needed to take a breath and wait for the chance to break out. When he was just about to give the command he saw an enormous horseman penetrate himself into the Ispahies line with terrible shouts and cries. He was wielding a longsword and used it with such a lethal elegance that left bloody gushes behind at each strike or thrust.
The Sipahis yielded the ground and reined in with frightened cries:
“Thury! It is Thury, the Djinni!”
Lord Balassa so far has never seen a more robust and formidable-looking man than his own reflection in the mirror. Now, he has come to know György Thury, the young Lieutenant of Ipolyság. It was this twenty-two-year-old lad’s reputation as a duelist and not his thirty hussars that made the Sipahis ride back to the wagons waiting on the country road.
The Janissaries climbed on the wagons and white smoke appeared at the end of their long-barreled rifles. A horse whinnied and collapsed and another Hussar cursed when a bullet caught his arm.
“Fifty paces back! Back!” Balassa cried and they skipped away from the danger zone.
“Thank you, son, for coming so quickly. Take my hand. You are a man, indeed.”
“Sir Balassa, the honor is mine to meet you like this,” answered Thury and they warmly shook hands. Thury looked at the dueling riders throughout the field and pointed at a Hussar with a white-red striped spiky shield covering his left side.
“Who is him, Sir?”
The Hussar was nicely maneuvering his horse beside a Deli rider and took his head with a sweeping strike of his saber.
“That is Godocsi, my trusted servant.” answered Balassa and added, “His horse is called Ráró.”
Now, another Deli rider appeared next to Godocsi, a warrior in shining chain mail, obviously an officer. His painted horse was dancing around like a deer and he was swinging a thin-bladed scimitar. The swords crossed each other not once, with terrible speed. Both riders received cuts and blood-colored their clothes. They jumped their horses against each other again and then again. Blades rose and fell, the muscles pumped more blood from the wounds and the warriors’ blows were weakened and feeble but none of them wanted to give up. The Turkish and the Hungarian warriors withdrew and made a circle, everybody was watching the spectacular duel.
The onlooking Turks shouted their encouragement: “Agha Kubat! Agha Kubat!”
Finally, the opponents were swaying in their saddles and just looked at each other. They had no strength to raise their hands. It was Ráró who saved the situation. He snorted, shook his head, and began to nose the painted Arabian horse with interest. Then, the mounts seemed to have agreed and both turned tail and jogged back to their own people.
Busy hands grabbed Godocsi and helped him off the saddle and the same was done with Agha Kubat, the leader of the Deli riders on the other side. In the pause of the skirmish, Balassa looked around and assessed their position. He decided quickly:
“There are too many of them, they will push us down. We have too many wounded. It was a nice fight but there is no sense in letting the injured men die and perishing along with them. Collect them and let us return to Léva until reinforcement from Selmecbánya arrives.”
Pasha Saban allowed the infidel riders to leave for Léva. He sighed and now he was sure they could make it home to Esztergom without further troubles. His men were not that merry, though, the wasps had stung too many of them dead.
He carefully had Agha Kubát laid on a wagon and gave a sign to proceed, following the Ipoly River to the south. When the Ipoly reaches the Danube, they will be very close to the safety of Esztergom’s walls. So far he had lost two dozens of Janissaries and almost seventy riders and would not have liked to push the limits of his luck.
It was the middle of the afternoon when they reached the small town of Szalka where the Ipoly’s confluence with the Danube was just a couple of miles away. He was about to give the order to cross the Ipoly and start the last phase of their trip home when his scouts rode to him from the riverbank and reported that a whole Hungarian army of Hussar riders was silently waiting for them, hiding behind the trees above the ford of the river. Only the small Ipoly river separated them from each other. Saban immediately had the wagons halted and sent the Janissaries with their rifles to line up along the riverbank in two groups. He was soon told that the Hussars had come from Komárom, Surány, Morva, and Sellye castles, according to their flags. Saban knew that it meant some nine hundred infidel riders, very likely led by Ferenc Nyáry of Surány or perhaps by Bertalan Horváth of Komárom Castle.
“They had to leave behind their infantry so as to reach us this soon. It means, they have no firearms and will not dare to face our muskets and rifles while crossing the Ipoly. Yet, make your men known that however close we are to home, they cannot make it alone without the cover of the cavalry. In case of being scattered, the infantrymen will be hunted down one by one.” he told Agha Ramadan, the commander of the Janissaries.
Saban summoned his officers and sent the old and wise Agha Ajvát with his Sipahis to the left of the Janissaries while placing the invincible Agha Musz on their right. He kept the remaining Deli riders under his command and turned to his most trusted man, the fearsome duelist of Arabia, Agha Naszuf:
“It is a pity, that almost all of our soldiers are from the hills of the Balkan and there are so few noble-born Arabian and Anatolian warriors like you or me. The Devil took here that György Thury.”
“I will bathe my saber in his blood if the infidel dog shows up,” said Naszuf, grinding his teeth. Saban summoned a Deli rider and told him:
“Hussein, I make you the commander of the Deli Riders. Take a patrol and go around but be back soon.”
Pasha Saban rose in his high Turkish saddle and looked at his well-deployed small army on the field of Szalka, protected by the line of the Ipoly River from the left. He was not worried, he was still outnumbering the infidels almost two to one.
Ferenc Nyáry was a bandy-legged, fidgeting small man with a quick temper. He saw his scout, the daredevil Lőrinc Zoltai return with his three men. Captain Nyáry did not know that the severed Turkish head, still running with blood, at the tip of Zoltai’s spearhead had once belonged to Agha Hussein. Zoltai saluted him and gave his report:
“Lord Captain, the approaching men of Sir Balassa can be made out. I sent a lad to greet him and inform him of our plans,” said Zoltai and he carefully rolled Hussein’s head before the hooves of his commander’s horse.
“With compliments, Sir,” he added shyly.
“Had I not told you to avoid duels?” the captain scalded him with a little smile. Lord Nyáry turned towards his officers and gave his orders:
“When Sir Balassa’s sixty-seventy men are in earshot, I will give the sign to charge. Now, go and deploy our army into three groups. When you see my flag waved, you, Gáspár Gerei attack the left wing, and you, Zoltai the right wing. I will wade over the river right here and if God grants us to victory, with Sir Balassa’s help from their rear we can win the day before sunset. There is no taking captives and no looting until the end of the battle. Whoever disobeys, must die on the spot. Without Sir Balassa, we have nine-hundred and thirty horses so the odds are with us. God and all His creatures know that ten Hussars can outman fifty riff-raff riders of the Sultan.”
His orders were carried out at once and the Hussars were adjusting their equipment, watering their horses, talking merrily, or praying before the battle. Not much time later they saw Captain Nyáry’s flag waved three times in the air.
The warriors cried “Jesus, Jesus” as most of them were Protestants, and they jumped their horses amid a great splashing and clattering into the shallow water of the Ipoly River. It was a mile-long frontal attack with a forest of lowered lances aimed at the enemy waiting for them on the field of Szalka. The volley of the Janissaries swept many riders off their saddles but Lord Nyáry got through the water and pushed the infantry back.
The Turks fought for each step and gave their ground grudgingly, making the Christians pay with their blood for their advance. As a rule, four Janissaries lived in a tent, three seasoned warriors were training the fourth, a youngster who made their soup and cleaned their clothes. They were not allowed to bring women into their camp, so the young trainees were often the lovers of the three older men. Now, three elite warriors were desperately defending the fourth and died without a word if it was needed. They were the orphans brought up by the Sultan, loved by no one except the Padisah and their own comrades. No wonder that they despised death. Their leader, Agha Ramadan was fighting like a lion of the desert in their front lines.
The Hussar assault was slowed down by the stubborn infantrymen yet, it struck the Turkish cavalry like a thunderbolt.
Agha Ajvát lost his life in the first minute and his opponent, Gáspár Kerei followed his fate some seconds later. The Sipahis got confused because of the Agha’s loss while the Hussars tripled their efforts and gripped the shafts of their battle axes harder, seeing Kerei fall.
The Hussars pushed the Turkish riders into the middle of the field of Szalka as if they were feathers. A tremendous “Jesus, Mary” battle cry from the other side announced the arrival of Lord Balassa and György Thury which spread more havoc. The Sipahis were wavering but Pasha Saban and Agha Naszuf rode through and fro to give them heart. It was when the Arabian Agha met his fate who was nobody else but György Thury.
“Allah Akhbar!” he cried and he was attacking at once the giant infidel whom he had recognized. Despite his size, Thury moved with the swiftness of a beast and his longsword parried the scimitar with a loud clanging sound. The onlookers were not familiar with the teaching of the Italian fencing genius called Maestro Fiore and knew nothing of his elegant tricks. All the Turkish and Hungarian spectators who lowered their swords for the moments of the duel cried out in awe. For all that they saw was that the scimitar flew into the air in a wide arc and Naszuf was gazing at his missing left fist that landed in the grass. “Inshallah!” he cried and Thury finished him off with a stab under his second rib.
It was enough for the Sipahis. Nobody is obliged to fight against djinnies, after all. They fled. Agha Musz grabbed the reins of the stupified Pasha Saban’s mount and dragged it out of the peril with a huge force.
“Spare yourself, great Pasha, we must flee!” shouted and Saban did not reject the will of Allah. By now, the Ottoman cavalry was running away, abandoning the infantry to their fate.
Which fate was cruel to them.
While most of the Hussars gave a chase and killed as many Turks as they could, Balassa and Thury were joined by the savage Hajdu horsemen of Zoltai and began to charge the Janissaries. The long hats of the elite troops of the Sultan did not waver for a second. They stood their ground against the cavalry and their long lances and defended each other with stubborn determination. Some Hajdu soldiers dismounted and joined György Thury who preferred fighting infantrymen on foot. He opened a bloody path with his long, two-handed blade and the Hajdus followed him on his heels. The Janissaries kept on fighting and refused to surrender when in the end it was offered to them with a good heart.
Agha Ramadan was one of the last ones to die on the sword of Lord Balassa. More than five hundred Janissaries entered the Paradise of their Allah on that day in May, in the year 1544, eighteen years after the Battle of Mohács and three years after the fall of Buda Castle.
The Hungarians took no captives until the end of the fight and nobody plundered the dead.
When dusk came and the tired warriors returned from the chase, the wagons of the Turks, and the horses, and cattle were collected along with the weapons and valuables of the fallen enemy. There stood a group of captured Deli and Sipahis, too. A precious ransom was anticipated in exchange for them. Lord Balassa spotted a man in a Hungarian black dolman among them. He recognized the “pribék” of Léva, the spy who was guiding the Janissaries in the city. He sent two Hajdus to fetch him. The man threw himself before his legs and wept. He begged not to be hanged.
“Hanging a “pribék”? By no means. It is not in our habit to hang them, be assured, poor man. We have different treatment for them,” and the Captain of Léva turned to the Hajdus “Go and cut off a young tree and sharpen its top. Impale this “pribék” before the sun goes down.”
While his men dragged the screaming traitor away, Balassa thought of the Saxon girl in the blood-stained skirt with her broken yatagan and his heart sank.
Great bonfires were lit and the booty was quickly divided into three parts as usual, under the watching eyes of Lőrinc Nyáry who said:
“As custom and habit demand it, one-third is given to His Majesty, King Ferdinand. The second third will be given to the widows and the orphans of the fallen warriors. We will have the third part divided among ourselves according to rank and valiance.”
The Hussars and the Hajdus roared with delight and orders were given to prepare a feast on the battlefield from the cattle and food taken back from the enemy. The dead bodies were gathered and piled up, and Turks and Hungarians lay peacefully next to each other. The corpses were covered by thorny branches so as to keep away the meat-eaters. Only the ravens and the eagles could reach them from above, hence the saying that the proper cemetery of the borderland warriors was the stomach of birds. Esztergom was too close and there was no other way to bury them. A Turkish raiding party could show up at any time.
Lord Balassa could not escape the memory of the poor dishonored maiden of Léva. A black mood engulfed him and sought out Lord Nyáry with a darkened face.
“My Lord, what of the burghers of Léva? Everything here had been robbed of them. Should they not get their property back?”
Lőrinc Nyáry was a jumpy and ill-tempered warrior. It suited him well in times of war but served him not in dealing with his fellow captains. He looked at Balassa scornfully and thought to himself how true it was what was said about the Captain of Léva behind his back:
“He has never-ever obeyed any orders coming from rulers, religion, or anybody in his entire life.” Aloud, he said this much:
“Sir Balassa, the burghers should have protected themselves better, now they can look at themselves. Tell them to go and plead before the king, not from us who saved them.”
Balassa was near to a blood-stroke. He replied:
“The king?! You know what sort of help the king sent me from his Selmecbánya city and what support I got from the petty nobles who call themselves the feet-lickers of Ferdinand? Nothing! Nobody came to my aid and the king sent me not a single soldier . . . !” he added:
“Now, now, listen to me you small man.” leaned Balassa down and peered into the eyes of Nyáry from two inches away:
“I swear to God Almighty a solemn oath that I will recollect every single Thaller and Penny from this King Ferdinand of yours and I will squeeze the neck of all the petty nobles until they cough up the money they should have given to the aid of the weak and the innocent. Let me be called a robber knight, I will not rest and no wagons carrying silver and gold to your king’s treasury can safely reach Vienna anymore.
And if you dislike it, my small lord, so much the worse, you may stamp your feet.”
Turning abruptly, he jumped on his horse and rode back to his wife.
It was how Sir Balassa became an enemy of the king, a robber knight, stealing the king`s gold and silver . . .
If you like my writings, please feel free to support me with a coffee here:
This article contains Amazon ads. By purchasing through these links, you can help my work at no added cost to you. Below, you can find my books in various editions (color/black-and-white, paperback, hardcover, ebook) Thank you very much.
My work can also be followed and supported on Patreon:
Become a Patron!