Spotlight: Birthright by Nick G. Giannaras

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As an infant, Niklas’s family escaped death when the entire royal bloodline of Livonia was murdered. As an adult, Niklas joined the Teutonic Knights in their bloody crusades across Europe to spread God’s Word. After years of service, he discovers that the army he faithfully served has ill-intentioned motives.

When Niklas and his friend defect from the knighthood, they are relentlessly pursued across the Baltic States by the wickedly led Teutonic Order. His only hope to enjoy a peaceful life is to unify the oppressed populace against their tyrannical rulers. But, political upheavals and looming enemies threaten any chance of peace. When it’s discovered that an heir to the Livonian throne is still alive, Niklas vows to help him regain his rightful place as leader. At best, Niklas’s oath can help bring freedom to people in a lost country. At worst, it can cost him his life.

Excerpt

Chapter One: Flee

The front door flew open, sending a rush of cold air into the warm home and fluttering the flames of the crackling hearth. Andrus slammed the door behind him and threw a piece of worn timber across the iron braces, barring its way. Ignoring the savory aroma emanating from an iron kettle atop the cook fire, Andrus turned around and knocked over a small table near a front window. Keepsakes crashed to the floor as he peered past the curtains.

“Maarja! Maarja!” Andrus called in a frantic tone, scanning the interior for his wife.  “They’re coming!”

Maarja flew out of the kitchen where the fireplace filled the living room in an orange glow. Her flowing black hair bound in a loose bun behind her head bounced as she ran up to her husband. Andrus kept peeking from behind the curtain at the commotion outside.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Maarja asked in a worried tone. Andrus whipped his head around, touching her shoulder with one hand andpointing with the other.

“Quick, get the boy. We must flee.” He turned and grabbed a woolen blanket draped on a thin-cushioned couch and a brown homespun coathanging on a wooden hook by the door.

“Is it the fighting?” Maarja asked, her hands clasped near her ample bosom. Andrus checked his right boot, ensuring the dagger was still in its sheath before turning and shoving past his wife toward the fireplace.

“Yes. Pope Martin’s troops have sacked the keep and killed Jaan. All of the Kasesalu family . . . dead.” He grabbed his longsword by its leather scabbard adjacent to a hand axe and strapped on his weapons.

Maarja’s mouth hung ajar. “Dead? A-All of them are—”

“Dead, Maarja. Now hurry before we are killed as well.” Andrus’s voice was tense. He stole a second look out the window.

“Why all this?” Maarja questioned, a tear escaping from her eye.

“They want the Kasesalu bloodline destroyed. The Pope uses his sinister alliances and the façade of Christianity to bring retaliation against the entire village. Doing so helps guarantee his future under a new regime,” Andrus answered. “Now go and get Niklas or we are all done for!”

Maarja fled down the hall and into one of the bedrooms while Andrus ran to the kitchen, pulled out a burlap bag, and filled it with chunks of bread, raw vegetables, and smoked meats. He snatched several waterskins hanging near the back door and tossed them over his shoulder, knowing he could fill them in the icy creeks.

His wife soon returned with their infant son bundled in warm blankets, a cloth bag with meager supplies strapped across her back.

“I am ready,” she said, her voice shaking.

Andrus glimpsed the quaint dinner placements on the table and the iron pot of hot stew steaming on the wood stove. He had no time to grieve as he opened the back door of their home and listened. Sounds of distant yells, the faint clang of metal, and the smell of smoke assaulted his senses.

“The fighting is getting closer. We will head south along the Duna. The river will give us cover until we can gain the safety of the hills.”

He scanned the outside before stepping out. “Come, come,” he urged with vehement motions of his hand. Maarja followed close with her son held tight against her bosom. The three fled into the night across the cold ground, their breaths escaping as white mists into the air. Across the yard, Andrus cast worried glances over his shoulder as he led his family through the back gate toward a long stone wall bordering several adjacent properties.

Andrus’s eyesight grew accustomed to the darkness once again. He headed for a dark patch of woods on the far end of a field, glancing at his

wife behind him.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Keep moving,” Maarja panted, keeping pace with her husband.

A distant scream drew Andrus’s attention toward his home. Another wail followed by angry bellows and curses forced him to pick up the pace.

“Come, Maarja! We cannot stop,” Andrus cried, the cold breeze numbing his face.

Maarja treaded through the scrub and tall grass, trying not to trip over the rocky terrain. Andrus and his family finally reached the cover of the dark woods before crouching down behind a clump of whispering pines. He stared back at his house in terror. The faint glow of torches grew into numerous smoky columns filling the air. The village crumbled under the assault of Pope Martin’s troops.

“Our house, Andrus,” Maarja said in a saddened voice.

“Not anymore, my dear,” Andrus commented.

“We cannot return to Erlaw. We must find a new home…a place where we can live without fear.”

Maarja sniffled. “Where?”

“I do not know,” Andrus replied.

“What do you mean you do not know? Are we are running blind?”

Maarja asked, irritated as tears streaked her cheeks.

“Do not be angry with me,” Andrus growled in a hushed whisper. “We had no time to plan. We are fleeing for our lives, so forgive me for not being more prepared.”

Maarja cast a solemn glance downward. “I’m sorry.”

Andrus’s irritation ebbed and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“It is okay. We are both upset.” He stood and took her under the elbow, helping her to stand.

She moved the blanket out of her child’s face and broke a soft grin.

“He sleeps as if nothing is wrong.”

“A good thing,” Andrus said, smiling at his son. A faint sound washed any signs of happiness from his face. “Dogs. Quick, we must go.”

Without hesitation, Andrus turned and continued their frantic pace through the woods, dodging deadfall, grasping briars, ankle twisting rocks and knotty tree roots. Moments later they broke out of the woods’ confines and into rolling pastures lined with thick hedgerows. After finding the Duna River, they followed its winding path along the muddy banks for several tiring hours until they collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Andrus led them into a shallow ravine where large rocks and thick scrub hid them from roving eyes. They rested, shielded from the frigid winds by the surrounding foliage and nibbled on cold bread and smoked fish, satiating their hunger for the moment.

After a brief meal, they traveled several hundred yards until the glow of distant fires reflected off tall billowing columns of smoke. Andrus’s

heartbeat thumped in his ears.

“The hamlet is destroyed,” he said, scouring the fields. The longer he stared at the plains, the lower his heart sank as the images of dark figures

lying on the ground came into focus. He pulled his wife down into a kneeling position.

“Stay here.”

He jogged across rows of unplanted crops, leaving Maarja alone with Niklas.

“Where are you going, Andrus?” she cried.

On he moved, disregarding her fearful plea. Andrus approached one of the motionless, dark lumps and knelt down. With his right hand, his cold fingers felt cloth until it moved up to a chin, lips, and a nose. The corpse’s flesh caused Andrus to pull his hand away, yet not fast enough to prevent his fingertips from becoming sticky with dried blood. His spine tingled with fear, knowing the numerous black mounds in the field were the bodies of slain villagers.

“Nolādēt pāvestu,” Andrus cursed in the Livonian tongue. He stayed hunched over, jogging back to Maarja without hesitation. She stood after

seeing the alarm in her husband.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Villagers. Dead . . . all of them,” Andrus answered, glancing at the burning town.

Maarja hugged her son and said nothing.

“They have been dead awhile,” he said.

Without another word, Andrus took his wife’s hand and hurried along the lower portions of the fields, using the sloping ground to cover their escape.

* * *

For two gut-wrenching days, Andrus and his family fled southward using the night to their advantage while finding refuge in thick forests, deep ravines, hidden caves, and long-abandoned farm houses. On the third morning, cloudy skies hid the sun’s warmth from the land. Andrus yearned for the refreshing rays to warm his chilled skin, dampened by rain and river, soiled from their tribulation. Regardless of how he and Maarja felt, their son was well.

Andrus opened the bag carrying the foodstuffs and sighed. “We have enough for one more day. I will try and fish or hunt to supplement our

needs,” Andrus stated.

“With what? You left your bow and most of the animals are in hibernation,” Maarja reminded him.

Andrus rubbed his bearded face, the food bag falling to the ground. He looked around at the sparse woodlands they hid in. “At least we have

water.”

“And the boy?”

“There is enough for him,” he said, stroking the top of the infant’s head as Maarja cradled him in her arms. “Once we cross the border, we should be out of danger. I will not feel safe until we are out of Livonia. The lands we cross are still in the hands of papal authority, and PopeMartin is cruel beyond measure. A man who is supposed to serve God appears more a militaristic fiend than a religious leader.”

He coughed, ignoring the growling in his belly, then spat in disgust. “I cannot see him serving God. The wretch is concerned only for himself and the power he can attain. It is by God’s mercy we have escaped. There is a reason we survived while others did not.”

Maarja looked down at her son and caressed his chaffed forehead.

“There is destiny in this child, Andrus. Many of our friends have perished by the sword either fighting the foe or fleeing as we did. In a few hours, we will enter Lithuania. It is there we will pray to God for continued guidance. He will show us the way.”

Maarja’s words warmed Andrus’s heart like a soothing hearth. He looked upon her stained face and smiled. “Your words encourage me, my

dear.” She grinned in return.

He clutched her hand. “Let us continue.”

Andrus and Maarja stood from behind the rocky outcropping from which they were hiding and stepped onto a narrow deer trail winding its hidden path among the thick underbrush. Before they could take several steps, the jingle and clang of metal echoing through the trees froze them like wild game caught in the open.

He stopped and crouched on his knee. Maarja mimicked him. Andrus placed a finger to his lips and turned his head in the direction of the noise. His heart leapt. Two horsemen trotted on a worn wagon trail a mere twenty yards away.

“Nopelt, I didn’t see them,” Andrus swore through clenched teeth.

He lowered himself closer to the leaf-covered ground and observed the unaware horsemen through the crisscrossed branches. Maarja did the same.

A red sword upon their tunic . . . Schwertbroder! Andrus thought and then whispered to Maarja. “Schwertbroder, Brethren of the Sword, men-at-arms who fight for Pope Martin and our enemies to the last.”

Moments later, the troopers disappeared into the woods. Andrus rose from his prone position onto both knees, allowing his heartbeat to slow.He looked back to see Maarja standing up covered in leaves and dirt.

“Too close for my pleasure,” Andrus confessed.

“Aye,” she agreed, pressing the child to her chest.

As they moved farther south away from the enemy, the infant burst into an unexpected loud cry, startling his parents.

“What’s wrong?” Andrus asked in a worried tone.

Maarja’s face streaked with panic. “I do not know.”

The boy cried louder.

“Keep him quiet,” Andrus ordered, sending a troubled look in the direction of the horsemen.

Niklas’s pain-filled wail forced Maarja to hush the child by putting a blanket over his mouth to muffle the sound. She held the blanket in place as they raced through the woods in a desperate pace.

Andrus pointed. “Look, the trees are thinning. The border is just over those knolls.”

Branches and twigs slapped at Andrus’s clothing and clawed his face during his pell-mell scamper through the trees. His chilled skin amplified the sting of the scratches while Niklas’s incessant screaming caused Andrus to think they would be caught before they were able to make it to safety.

“Hush the boy,” Andrus grumbled.

“I’m trying!”

Escaping the shadow of the forest, they ran down the short hill into a shallow swale and up the opposite knoll. Andrus was short of breath, but he managed to squeeze out a few words.

“We made it, Maarja! We are safe.”

It was then that the angered yells of the enemy horsemen rang through the air. Andrus turned to see the two Brethren of the Sword breaking out of the woods, weapons drawn.

“Run, Maarja! Run!”

Maarja did the best she could until she collapsed from fatigue. Down she fell, rolling on her right shoulder while trying to protect the crying

infant.

Andrus’s eyes bulged. “No!”

He fled back to his fallen wife. With his sword drawn, he waited in a guarded stance for the charging soldiers to close in. Maarja’s screaming pleas for Andrus to run reverberated over the hills, yet to no avail. Andrus was determined to stand.

“We have no choice. Either we fight or we die here,” he said, scowling at the onrushing enemy. Maarja stood with the child far enough behind Andrus to allow him to battle the closing enemy.

One rider charged up the slope faster than his counterpart. Andrus, crouched low, waited with a white-knuckled grip upon his longsword. When the soldier was within range, Andrus whipped out his axe and hurled it with all his might. The cavalier failed to parry the whirling blade. The axe sunk deep in the soldier’s face above the left eye, a crunch of bone and a spray of blood proving his demise. The horseman tumbled backward off his mount and thudded on the ground, sending his horse fleeing across the plains.

Seeing his comrade slain, the second cavalier hesitated before continuing his attack. Andrus unsheathed his dagger to compliment his longsword. Bellowing curses at Andrus, the trooper charged and swung his sword in a downward arc. Andrus blocked the overhead strike with both blades as the rider thundered past. The horse spun in a sharp pivot, kicking up dirt and grass behind him. He attacked once more. Andrus waited while Maarja repositioned herself behind him. Fear streaked across her face. As the soldier came in for the attack, he chopped downward in a wicked arc. Andrus, anticipating the move, fell to one knee and severed the horse’s right front leg in one bloody swing. The foe’s blade swung over Andrus’s head as the fumbling mount catapulted the rider forward into a tumbling heap. Andrus ran over to the enemy and plunged his sword through the disoriented man’s upper chest. A small fountain of blood gurgled from his mouth, ending the fight.

Andrus caught his breath before looking back at Maarja. His wife lay motionless in the grass near the thrashing horse. He bolted toward her as fear welled in his throat. After ending the steed’s agony in one swift stroke, he found his son still bundled in his blanket, lying in the grass at her side. Andrus stroked Maarja’s hair, her eyes staring at the sky.

“Maarja . . . Maarja,” Andrus whispered. He struggled to resist a well of tears from springing forth. He turned her head to the side and found a softened area on her skull, a horrid bruise covering the side of her face and neck.

“I-I have lost you,” he murmured in a quivering voice. Andrus picked up his son and held him close as he fell onto his buttocks and cried. The cold wind fluttered the dry grasses on the hills, chilling the tears on his cheeks.

He looked up. “Why? Why, my God? You let these cursed fools attack us. I cry out of anger, disappointment, and confusion.”

Andrus scanned the woods and shuddered. “There is a reason for all this. Maarja spoke of it. Yet, I did not expect to make this journey alone.” He wiped his eyes and stood. Andrus retrieved his axe and cleaned the gore on the slain enemy’s tunic, then did the same for his sword beforereplacing them on his belt.

“I have lost my country and now also my family.” Andrus picked up his son, noticing a small shimmer within the blanket’s fold. He reached in and pulled out a silver locket Maarja had apparently placed there without him seeing. Andrus opened the oval lid, revealing a picture of Niklas on the left side and Maarja on the right. His lip quivered as he closed the locket and stuffed it back into the blanket. Andrus looked up to the sky once more. “My God, allow this travesty to be avenged.”

After looting the soldiers’ bodies of meek rations and the few coins they carried, Andrus gave his wife one last kiss upon her cooling lips.

“Farewell, my love,” he stated, a tear falling upon her forehead. He covered Maarja’s face with her shawl, caressing her soft hair with his bloody fingers.

With Niklas tucked under his arm, Andrus turned, and walked a hundred yards over the knolls until he entered the rocky foothills of Lithuania.

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About the Author

Nick G. Giannaras has been practicing Chiropractic for 20 years. He resides in North Carolina where he is active in his church, Deliverance Christian Center. He enjoys his great family amid numerous hobbies such as: tabletop wargames, creating music, painting, hunting, and fishing. He was also a Civil War reenactor for 15 years. He never considered writing as a ministry until the endeavor commenced in 2005. Nick views his books as ‘Entertainment with a message’ and prays they will reach the world with a positive impact for those who jump into his words.

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