How Katrina Obermann Became a Slave

12 July 1683

17 minutes read

Perchtoldsdorf was like any other smaller, walled town in Austria when the Turks came knocking in 1683. It was surrounded by a wall of four sides, which was a faded and chipped, dirty off-white in colour, and capped from gate to gate in steep, red-tiled roofs. It had also, like any other town in that part of Austria, been subject historically to the ravages of Turk, Hungarian, bandit and just about anyone else who could muster the energy and the men to go on a bit of a killing and pillaging spree.

Hence the wall.

When Perchtoldsdorf wasn’t being besieged, which it usually wasn’t, it could easily have been described as being sleepy. Not a lot happened. People woke up, sort of, went about their walking and waking hours just like the day before – and the thousands of days before that – and eventually died. If you were born in Perchtoldsdorf, you typically also died in Perchtoldsdorf, and that was that.

That never quite sat right with Katrina. Katrina Obermann was young, slight, fair-skinned but freckled, and of average height. She was average enough to not seem out of place, but pretty enough to survive your typical selection of soon-to-be-slaves during a village-wide massacre. The daughter of a failed merchant and, from there, a shoemaker, she had one brother, Hansi, whom she hated, but who had thankfully been sent off by their father to Vienna to be an apprentice to a shoemaker to whom he owed money.

Adventure came quickly – mainly because adventure to anyone from Perchtoldsdorf those days meant crossing the Danube. Or seeing a Protestant.

The Turks had been to Perchtoldsdorf before. In 1529, they had rolled through on their way to hammer away at the Gates of Vienna with the zeal and determination of dogs that hadn’t eaten for a week and were on the other side of a fence from a bunch of chickens teasing them about the state of their coats and breath. It was always feared that they would come back, and every day the church bells they called the Türkenglocken rang to remind the villagers that they needed to beseech God, Jesus, Mary and the litany of saints for protection and give eternal thanks that they’d managed to go over a hundred years without an invasion: Saint Leonhard had answered their prayers the last time the Turks had swarmed their squat but solid walls; every day since, the Türkenglocken rang to call them to their rosary devotions from their fields and workshops, and remind them that the Turk was one mere rosary away, as the townspeople eyed the Wehrturm tower and their village’s squat walls, in which they placed an inordinate amount of trust.

Amongst all this, Katrina Obermann had an Idea. Some would say that it was surely a foreign Idea; others would describe it as a malady, surely, from the West, where they were busy crossing the seas to create colonies, and hated the Holy Father in Rome.

That malady, or Idea – likely the product of the Devil, Turks, Protestants, alchemists or, worse still, Humanists – was Ambition.

Katrina just couldn’t see her life continuing in Perchtoldsdorf, no matter how hard she tried. Whether walking to their family parcel of land up the hill to the Western forest with her friend, Ina, and reclining in the fields searching in the clouds for images of knights, valour, adventure and a steady supply of food in winter, her thoughts were always far away from Perchtoldsdorf, while her days and months and years plodding along from street to field looking and walking away and never getting there left her cold.

Katrina walked fast, too fast for most people of Perchtoldsdorf, especially her neighbours, the Adlers. Father Klaus, the local pastor, asked perhaps too frequently about her habits and her speed. It was he who gave tongue to the rumour that she was given to Ambition – potentially, in his view, a minor and easily curable demonic possession. Or even, dare say it, Calvinist leanings, which were often discussed whenever she breezed through. She walked fast to the baker, fast to fetch water, and fast to deliver shoes to the magistrate – who seemed to have way too many women’s shoes being a widower – and always hurrying away, back turned, never looking back.

Katrina also liked her wine. So did her mother. So did her father. This was one of the few things, besides their name, that they had in common.

Her pensive and sober brother didn’t. Curly-haired Little Hansi Obermann wanted to be a soldier, a soldier like in the tales, sober and strong, alert and chaste. This stood, of course, in deep contrast to real-life soldiers, as well as his parents, who could only tolerate each other when a bottle was on the table or when they were in someone else’s beds. This was especially the case when Octobers swung in with their short, crisp nights and St. Martin’s Day which generally marked the drinking season to welcome the imminent hangovers that would keep them occupied during the long, white winter.

Most of the time, word travelled slowly, usually on the backs of donkeys and tucked away in the mouths of mercenaries, merchants, vagabonds and priests. But when the word was ‘Turk’, it travelled on the wind. The late spring had brought fresh air filled with flowers and sunshine, and news that the largest army ever assembled in history had left Belgrade, had crossed the Sava into the borderlands, and was now headed their way. Hordes of Tatar horsemen were now freely roaming Hapsburg lands and burning anything dry enough to light, even just random trees, giggling with sadistic glee (there were rumours that in the Crimea far, far away, they didn’t have trees and didn’t want anyone else to have them either). From certain hillsides to the south it was said that you could see the dust from 300,000 men marching north from half a world away.

War was on and, with that news, Katrina walked even faster.

She never imagined that her Ambition would come at the cost of the entire town laid to waste: man, woman and child shot, stabbed, slashed and trampled in heaps from square to square, alley to alley, pile upon pile of bodies heaped high between blood-stained stone and plaster. She hadn’t really thought it would turn out like that.

The town council had met the week before to decide what to do. Word from Vienna was that the city was surely able to hold off the Turks, as they had a century or so before. In contrast, the village of Perchtoldsdorf knew enough to know that this time they didn’t stand a chance in Hell. The most they would do was slow down the Turks long enough to give Vienna an extra couple days – which, of course, was exactly what Vienna wanted. The council decided, after promising enough coin to Father Klaus to be absolved of their soon-to-be sins, to surrender the city – without quarrel – to the Sultan and Islam, and hope for the best.

The dragoman spoke excellent German. Many assumed that he was Hungarian, which he probably was. It was also assumed that he was Protestant, which he probably was. Many remarked that he seemed to hide his horns rather well. They seemed to get on, the Protestants and the Muslims – it was assumed that they found common comfort in knowing that they were all going to eternal hellfire and shared a common taste for infant blood.

He came with the man who led the army, holding the black flag with its squiggly embroidery. He was tall, lithe and handsome, with oiled, curly black hair poking out from beneath his silken blue turban, fronted with bushy white feathers. Many assumed he was the Sultan, but he was, it turned out, what they called the vizier.

He seemed to have a sword hilt poking out from under his robes.

He called for the surrender of the city and promised that they would be left alone in peace and that if any chose to convert, they would be given fancy new hats like the one he was wearing, of the colour of their choosing (except green), and a sack of sugar.

A number of people in the crowd exchanged nods and approving ‘hmmms’ at the offer and the mayor, sensing the approval, was visibly relieved enough to then toast the vizier with a fresh but early vintage, offering him a drink, and complementing him on his ability and politeness in carrying his sword under his robes.

His naivety was to prove the village’s undoing. The vizier gave an angry nod to a soldier in a tall, white hat and in one swift unsheathing, he had the mayor’s throat opened up. There followed, without orders, planning or much of any sort of organisation, the random slaughter of Perchtoldsdorf.

The town was overrun in a little over an hour, with only women and children under ten being spared, to be herded up and eventually sold off in the slave markets of Istanbul.

Sort of nice for a slaver

It had been a week or so since Katrina had become a slave. She couldn’t really tell. Some of the women were insistent on counting the days – to figure out when they would end, she figured – but Katrina knew the only way to proceed now was to choke back the bile, blood and hate roiling in her stomach, purse her lips and widen her eyes into a dead and long gaze, and go along with things.

Just as she had in Perchtoldsdorf, and as she had with every other bit of her then life.

Being a slave wasn’t that bad, she kept on telling herself. Even with all the ambition she had deep inside her, she was a practical girl and she soon resigned herself to the facts around her, whether those facts were town life with parents who didn’t care, a brother who did too much, or slavery. They were fed, sheltered – and not raped, as she had thought they would have been. She had already accepted the fact that the rest of her days would be spent in some mysterious land, that would soon become familiar, and she would have to clean up after, have sex with and be beaten by some guy she barely knew.

It wasn’t too far off what would have happened to her if she had stayed in Perchtoldsdorf. And at least it was somewhere new.

There’s not a whole lot to do in a slave camp. There’s a lot of waiting: to see what is going to happen to your life, what will happen to anyone left, and hoping you continue to not get raped.

The women of Perchtoldsdorf were in a stockade on a rise, somewhere to the west of Vienna, hemmed in by rough-hewn logs and the odd bit of what looked to be part of the local houses, slip-shoddily joined together. They had no shelter, although they were promised it was coming (as soon as the right signature could be obtained), and so they baked in the noon sun and froze under the moon. They were corralled in the slave camp with women and children from much further south – from every nation, and speaking every language, that Katrina had ever heard of. The Perchtoldsdorf children, though, were gone, rumoured to already be on their way to slave markets in Bosna Saray or Buda. Many of the women bided their time crying, some by praying, and the rest wandering about the stockade in loose circles muttering to themselves, staring into space.

Another favourite pastime for the slave women was wondering to whom they would be sold, and what they would end up doing in their new lives. ‘I’ll be a washerwoman, I’m sure,’ or, ‘They’ll want me to cook – I just need a chance to make my schnitzel and I’ll be given to the kitchens of a wealthy, kind man,’ or, ‘I heard that if they make you a concubine, you’re given jewels and a bath.’

Fortunately enough for Katrina, Perchtoldsdorf, which was known all the way to Hungary for having excellent wine, had cellar upon cellarfull at the time of the siege. Most of the Turk soldiers had celebrated the slaughter and plunder by drinking and setting things on fire. She had heard the Mussulmen weren’t supposed to drink, which explained how little they could handle, and how there was now still wine left. It also explained why she was, as yet, unpillaged herself: the first two to try had passed out before they could do much on top of her. In fact, her main memory of the event was that their breath had reeked of parsley and mint, and they had had very neatly trimmed moustaches.

Katrina had spotted who she determined was probably the man in charge in the first couple of days. He was not dressed like a soldier, nor carried any arms, and was always smiling like someone he hadn’t seen in a long time had just told him good morning and really meant it. He would trade jokes with the white hatted guards, pat the shorter ones on the back and saunter into the stockade like he was going to buy some strawberries, more than a few times whistling a meandering tune, smiling at the sunshine. It didn’t seem like a slave camp really, she told herself.

With the spirit of Ambition still alive in her, Katrina already had ideas about how to make the most of her current situation as a slave. She had had slavery dumped on her lap just as she had had the village and her parents dumped on her lap, and it would all fit into the big picture she insisted to herself. Maybe she was going places, and this was just a port of call on the way. She had never been to a port or on a ship, but had heard about people going places this way, so this phrase made sense. She looked at the sky and thought about the sea, imagining a Neusiedler See that just kept on and kept on going into the horizon.

When the shorter guard with the lazy eye came for her one day, she knew that she was going somewhere. He was not drunk and looked worried.

She had three options, she thought. The first was the easier one: she could pray. That, of course, wouldn’t do much of anything because any presumption of God’s existence had by now been proven false. The second option was she could wait for a guard to mount her and just as he spread her legs, thus occupying both hands, she could grab his dagger from the front of his belt, turn it quickly and drive it up and into the crevice between his neck and chin. The third option was that she could stare into the sky and go along with things and wait for the chance to get to that place she didn’t know but knew she had to get to.

As it transpired, however, she didn’t have to beg a saint or kill anyone just yet, as she was simply taken to the boss-with-the-fancy-robe’s tent, seated in a low, cushioned, red velvet chair, and tied up.

Bariş had a kindly face, rounded but not fat; nice, straight, white teeth; and a neatly trimmed black beard framing his olive jawline and covering his weak chin. He was of average height and average weight, but carried himself with an easy dignity. He was always smiling. He wore a purple silk turban and white and blue silk robes. He looked and acted as if he was used to having money and an easy time with people, but wasn’t bothered that much by either. He seemed to float over the dirt into the tent, without a worry in the world, passing the guards and their axes and pikes. He had the easy, subtle swagger of a fairly satisfied, huggable squirrel that didn’t quite spell out ‘slaver’.

‘Get up,’ he asked Katrina, rather pleasantly. ‘Please.’

‘I’m tied to the chair,’ Katrina answered plainly, jerking her head to remove stray strands of her coveted blonde hair from her eyes.

She needed to amplify the puppy dog eyes, she quickly realised.

‘Why, oh, yes, it seems you are. Well. Right then.’

‘Just get it over with,’ she said, looking him straight in the eye, exhaling loudly and strongly enough to blow of the last few strands out of the way.

Bariş was momentarily crestfallen but then brightened. ‘Look, I’ve brought a bottle of your local vintage.’

‘It’s covered in blood.’ The bottle was indeed covered in blood.

‘Oh, right.’ He quickly pushed it out of the way, behind a silver lamp on the table. ‘Well, I’ll make amends, I promise. Shall we have the servant flogged? That might be nice.’ He smiled at her enquiringly. ‘So, your name?’

‘How do you speak German?’

‘I don’t know, I just sort of picked it up. I’m a people person and I like to make sure things go smoothly. I pride myself on knowing my customers and my clients. I had a woman from some dorf teach it to me a while ago. There isn’t a lot to do on the march back east, you see. It takes weeks, sometimes months, of columns and horses, oxen and wagons, woods and fields. So, so boring. I had made enquiries into trading back women for profit to the Austrians, but the business didn’t really work out. Too much transport cost and they didn’t seem terribly interested in having to pay what we were asking to get their women back. I spend too much on protection and food, you see. I’m way too nice.’ Bariş nodded self-pityingly. ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name—?’

‘So, you’re a slaver,’ said Katrina, realising she was now suddenly somehow slightly bored and not sure why.

‘I prefer ‘Trader of the Absconded.’ Look, this is what it says on my card,’ he said, stooping graciously to her as he smoothly slid a card out from a fold in his robes.

‘My hands are tied, remember?’ Annoyed, she motioned with her eyes down at her hands.

‘Right. Well, hmmm. Okay, well look.’ He held the card up for her in front of her eyes.

‘I can’t read this,’ she said, squinting at the squiggles on the stiff, small piece of parchment he gently flipped back and forth. It was filled with their curled lines – not like her straight words.

‘Look, on the back it’s in Greek. You Christians read Greek, don’t you?’

‘Not all of us, you should know that shouldn’t you? I don’t read at all.’

‘Oh. Hmmm.’ He stood up, paused and itched behind his ear, smiling. ‘Your name, incidentally?’

‘Does it really matter? Don’t you give me a name now?’

‘Not necessarily. It’s a lot of work – you have a lot of thinking to do about things like that, lots of people who could take things in certain ways. Just easier to leave it be, in my experience. You ask quite a lot of question for being a slave. Its okay’ – he smiled winningly – ‘you’re new and not very good at this whole business.’

‘And how exactly am I bad at being a slave?’ Despite herself, Katrina was slightly piqued at being found wanting at something.

‘You know, you’re not very obedient, are you? Not that you have to do a lot at this point, but maybe the questions … we’re not used to all the questions. Chalk one up to difference, I say.’

Katrina looked at the man. She really had nothing to lose. ‘Hmm, let’s see – my parents and everyone else is slaughtered after surrendering the city, you put our neighbours’ heads on pikes, and then you’re curious as to why I have an attitude—?’

Bariş grimaced slightly. ‘Well, that was the Tatars, you see. They’re a rough bunch. Uncouth, to say the least. I’m not like them at all, no, not me. Easterners they are, you know. Terribly crude. Crimeans are barely more civilised than their ponies. I’m from Constantinople, city of riches, learning, beauty and culture. Its the inheritor of Rome.’

Katrina looked at him scornfully. ‘I think it was you guys. I didn’t see any ponies. Regular-sized horses and lots of these big, floppy, white hats like your guards have.’

‘Huh. Well, I’m not so sure about all that.’

With that Bariş dodged the barbs and stabs and the evil eyes thrown his way and continued to try to charm Katrina about the big city and everything that didn’t have to do with the campaign, the war, the Sultan, slavery or the last two weeks of either of their lives. Bariş eventually even opened the blooded bottle – making Katrina smirk as he tried to open it with his teeth – and soon tucked into what seemed to be her new life.


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