The Legend of Madame Hilda
By: Bill Diamond
The young Count shouted, "Fire" and cannons flamed from the castle walls through the early fog. It was a morning ritual since the Ottoman invaders arrived the previous month.
This was the latest thrust between empires during the endless wars of the Fifteenth century Balkans. The Croatian town straddled a river valley protecting the Empire's southern flank. It had strategic importance astride a trade route between Europe and Constantinople. To deter the interlopers, Count Bunik had led a raid on the first elements of the enemy in a notch South of the town. It ended in an impasse yet slowed their progress. When the larger force arrived, he'd withdrawn to the safety of the walled fortress.
Atop a hill, the walled city was well-positioned for defense. The cannons commanded the road along the river. The Count's castle was within the citadel, along with the church, and the oldest buildings and shops. It was not impregnable, but, surrounded by steep slopes, it was daunting. Beyond the walls, the town stretched in an unplanned jumble of meandering lanes down to the river's edge. The valley opened downriver to an expanse of productive fields.
The invaders had mounted a few attempts at the bastion. Artillery repulsed the attacks. Outnumbered, the defenders refused to leave the stronghold to engage the attackers. The battle had settled into a stalemated siege. The Turks couldn't advance without taking the fortress. If they tried, a withering bombardment would decimate them.
The Ottoman plan was to keep the Croat soldiers and townspeople trapped behind the walls. In time, privation would drain and demoralize the defenders. As the castle's supplies were depleted, the town would face a choice between starvation and surrender.
The invaders camped upriver at the edge of the forest beyond the reach of the cannons. The castle's daily shots acted as a deterrent. They were ineffective at inflicting damage. But, like a lion's distant roar, they warned of the danger they presented. Yet, the daily blasts also rattled the locals. It was a reminder of their desperate situation. The Ottomans surrounded their camp with a defensive trench and a wall of pointed logs to discourage any thoughts of a rash Croat attack.
After Sunday mass, Count Bunik assembled the town. They gathered in the cobbled main square under deceptively peaceful blue skies. The town leaders stood on the elevated church steps as a wizened Monsignor beseeched god to provide victory over the infidels.
The Count stepped forward in battle regalia. He quieted the anxious crowd and began, "For the moment, we are safe. We have water from our wells. We moved food stores from the town and the fields inside. There is plenty of powder and shot for the cannons."
There were some nods of agreement and a few nervous smiles in the crowd.
Bunik continued in a serious tone. "However, we don't have as much food as we do cannonballs. Since we can't plant the fields, there is no hope of new crops." The audience reacted with murmurs and fearful expressions. "We must take further measures to ration our supplies and stretch them as long as possible."
There were token shouts of opposition. Someone asked, "Can the Emperor send troops?"
The Count shook his head. "We can't rely on the capital for relief. The main army fights the enemy to the East. We are on our own."
The gathering became more agitated and louder. His guards stepped forward to dissuade any aggressive outbursts. The Count continued, "These measures will be difficult. But it will give us more time. If the Emperor defeats the Ottomans, relief is possible." Even he sounded dubious.
"Why don't we attack?"
The Count explained what everyone knew. "That would be a disaster. Our soldiers are brave fighters. But the Turks are also good warriors. And there are far more of them. We would have little chance of victory."
Another yelled, "Then, let's escape."
"Their cavalry would race past our cannons. We couldn't stop them all. Once they caught us in the open field, it would be a slaughter. Our best chance is behind these walls which have always protected us. Here, we have the advantage of our cannons and the cliffs. With God's help, we will prevail."
There were more futile suggestions. The questions were rife with fear. They knew surrender to the ruthless foe likely meant carnage. The gaunt faces testified that the alternative of slow hunger was no better. A despairing silence gripped the plaza.
A tall woman stepped forward from a group of females huddled in the shadows of the square. The crowd parted as she pushed to the steps of the church where the Count and the Monsignor stood. Hilda was strong-bodied and with an air of immovable sturdiness. She turned to address the crowd. In a booming voice, "You all know me."
Everyone nodded. A cleric, dripping with disdain, shouted, "You're Hilda the Harlot!" Another said, "Leave. We don't want to hear from your kind."
Undeterred, Hilda held her ground. "Yes, I'm a harlot." She pointed to the other prostitutes in the back. "But you will hear us. Our families live in this town and will suffer as much as any if it is destroyed."
When guards moved to stop her, voices in the crowd called out, "Let her speak."
The Count was about to have her hauled away when the Countess touched his arm. She whispered, "At least listen." Given their desperation, he waved away his soldiers.
Hilda spoke, "No one has a plan. It's more of the same. Do nothing and await our horrible fate."
There was a quiet acknowledgment of the dismal truth.
"Every day we will have fewer supplies and grow weaker. I say it is time to attack and drive these heathens away."
The Count moved to cut her off. "Foolish woman. Didn't you listen. We are far outnumbered. If our men leave these walls, they'll be cut down." There were grunts of agreement from the soldiers.
Despite his dismissive reproach, Hilda retained the pretext of respect, "Sire. I am no soldier, but I am no fool. I know a direct attack is madness. But a surprise attack at night when they are drunk and asleep. That is a different matter." Eyes widened at the brazen suggestion.
She forcefully continued, "Each night, my girls and I enter the enemy's camp. We know when they are drunk."
Some in the crowd gasped. The Count looked to his Captain for confirmation. The Captain grimaced but nodded in agreement.
The Count hesitated. When he recovered, he said, "Even if we could surprise them, their walls are formidable and guarded. We wouldn't breach their first line."
Hilda rose another step and said to the crowd. "Aye, your soldiers can't get inside. But they welcome us in their camp." She spoke with a lascivious twinkle. The other ladies from her brothel guffawed and thrust their hips. "We know it well."
Turning to the Count, she asked, "If we opened the gates, could you attack?"
Everyone was stunned.
Bunik studied her with new appreciation. "Continue."
"Tonight, the Turks will celebrate a feast day. They've told us to be sure to come for the celebration. Later, they will be drunk and tired. Since we haven't attacked, they don't fear that we will act. There will be few guards."
The Count was impressed. He had a grave expression and moved to consult his lieutenants and wife.
The Monsignor was aghast and waved his arms in agitation, "You can't be contemplating this scheme from this ... sinful strumpet! It could be a trap. They sleep with the enemy. Why should we trust them?"
Placing fists on her hips, Hilda answered acidly, "It is true we sleep with them. As we sleep with any in this town who have coin or food. But this is our home. If they enter the town, they will kill us like the rest. Because we are familiar to them, we could likely sneak away at night and escape the bloodbath. We would rather stay if it doesn't mean waiting for death."
Count Bunik ignored the vicar and pressed for more information. "What would you do?"
Hilda elaborated. "We will enter their camp. When they are well-sodden, we'll move to return to town." She pulled a sharp knife from her robe. "Then, we'll slit the guards and throw open the gates. While our soldiers attack, my girls will set fire to the camp and cause chaos. Before they organize, you can butcher them."
His face signaled serious consideration. "That is a worthwhile idea."
The monsignor stepped to the Count, ‘This is madness. Everyone knows the Koran forbids alcohol."
Hilda pressed her advantage, "What is madness, is ignoring the truth. Men are men. Like every army, the Turks drink every night." She continued to drive home her point about the weakness of men against moral strictures. "The church prohibits priests from fornicating. But we all know those who share our beds."
The Count had traveled with enough armies, and seen enough priests, to know she was right.
The rector feigned shock, but a wave of agreement swept the crowd. When the cleric moved to rebut, Hilda shouted him down, "What do you have to offer, priest? Prayer? Where has that got us these many weeks?"
Bunik signaled for her to approach. "Your strategy has merit. We will study it."
Hilda shook her head. Speaking so only the Count and his Captain could hear, she said, "There is no time for study. It must be tonight during their festival." Looking around, she added. "We don't want word of this plan getting to the infidels."
Before he could protest her suggestion of treachery, she stared into Bunik's eyes. "We all know, there are those in every town who can be bought."
The Count made a decision. He stepped forward and spoke so everyone could hear. "Hilda, can I rely on you and your ladies to take up arms and kill?"
"We survive every day by our cunning and by moving in the shadows." Madame Hilda stood taller and thrust out her ample chest. "Croats have a long history of fighting women." With a deadly stare, she lifted her dagger and made a slicing motion across her throat. "We will do what's necessary to protect our families." The rest of the prostitutes thrust their own knives into the sky. The crowd began to sense hope.
The Monsignor made a last plea. "How do we know these woman can distract and overcome the Turks?"
Hilda boiled at the doubt. She ripped open her shirt to bare her set of large breasts. "This is how we'll overcome them. Men are powerless when faced with these. The spell of women is irresistible!" she shouted.
Standing stark and determined, Madame Hilda turned the Count's question back on him. "We will risk our lives. Will you do what's necessary? If you're not there, we will surely be killed."
The Count stared in respect at the confident woman. Pulling his sword from its scabbard, he slashed the air, "With Hilda and her warriors!" The town roared and the din reverberated off the walls.
Preparations moved swiftly.
After nightfall, the sky was overcast and moonless. Hilda and the girls exited the castle. She gave a backward glance at her family and home.
They were greeted by the Ottomans who had commenced their bacchanal. As promised, it was wilder, and more alcohol flowed than usual. The ladies did their best to encourage the drinking, especially among the officers. Several of the wenches brought drinks to the guards at the gate. They hoped the alcohol would lessen the soldiers' diligence and skill.
At the appointed early morning hour, the group gathered as if for their departure. Some separated and prepared for action. A slight mist filled the air.
Hilda led the approach to the guards. The sentries huddled under an awning to stay dry. It made it easier to surround them. The ladies acted boisterous and drunk. The guards relaxed and engaged with salacious suggestions. The prostitutes flaunted and solicited. When the guards were encircled, Madame Hilda whistled. Knives flashed and blood flowed. There was a brief struggle and then quiet. No alarm had sounded.
The women moved to the gates. Hilda paused and crossed herself. They lifted the heavy wood beam and opened the gates. Hilda stared into the black void. There was a disquieting emptiness.
The Count emerged from the dark. The soldiers swarmed through and dispersed among the tents. Bunik saw the madame's blood-soaked hands and nodded his approval.
Hilda mounted the dirt rampart and waved a torch. Throughout the camp, braziers were overturned, and tents ignited. The attack began.
Racing through the camp, Hilda led the Count to the general's quarters. They overcame the surprised guards and entered. The Count moved to take him prisoner. Hilda pushed past him and plunged her knife deep before the Pasha could rise from his bed.
Seeing Bunik's shock, Hilda said, "Treat them as they planned to treat us. Come." She led them to the back gate. Bunik posted men to deter escape and joined the battle.
The fight descended into the chaos of close combat. The Turks were disoriented by their heavy drinking and the fires. The Croats pressed their advantage. Despite the element of surprise, some of the Turks began to rally. Hilda saw the turning tide. With two associates, she fought through the fray and the flames. At the stable, she mounted a horse. Her friends used torches to spook the steeds. Hilda led a rush of frightened horses toward the flank of the Ottoman line. The stampede crashed into the troops and scattered them in disarray.
The Count pointed toward Hilda and shouted, "Be as brave as our lady!" Inspired by Hilda's reckless charge and the broken Turks, his soldiers charged. The Croats moved efficiently to kill and maim.
The Count executed his plan to sweep the enemy to the river. There was no wall along this flank. The Ottomans crowded against the swift and deep torrent. They fought fiercely rather than drown. However, many had no weapons, and they were packed so closely on the slippery bank, they couldn't move effectively. Their survival passion was matched by the Croats bloodlust and the invaders were pushed into the deluge.
The river ran red with blood and thick with bodies. As the battle waned, Bunik relinquished the back gate to avoid further casualties to his men. Demoralized Ottoman survivors retreated in defeat.
The aftermath extended for weeks. The Count chased and harassed the stragglers so they could not re-organize. Croat soldiers collected abandoned weapons. People gathered food and supplies. They burned enemy dead. Town deceased were honored and buried. Fields were planted.
After a month, Count Bunik proclaimed a victory celebration. There would be a feast in his castle and a festival throughout town.
At the banquet, the Count searched for Madame Hilda. He asked the Monsignor. The priest answered, "I assume she is reveling in town. Since God granted us this victory, it would be wrong to offend him by having those sinners at your feast."
The Countess spoke to her husband. He nodded and walked to the rowdy plaza. Hilda and her friends sat on the square drinking. "Madame. I would be honored if you and your heroes would join us inside for the celebration."
They cheered and he led them to the hall. The women joined dignitaries. Bunik ordered a chair placed next to his wife at the head table. The Countess welcomed Hilda warmly.
When it was time to speak, the Count solemnly toasted those lost in battle. Then, he raised a goblet. "Madame Hilda, we are in debt to you and your brave warriors. In this land, we judge people by their character and heart. No one has a stronger will or a better heart than our Hilda." The Monsignor scowled. The rest shouted their approval.
Bunik asked Hilda to stand. He said, "It is our tradition to award an honorary scepter to those who perform a valuable service. I would like to bestow them on you and your women. What would you like it to depict?"
Hilda hesitated a moment. Then, with a boisterous, "These!", she revealed her breasts.
The Countess blushed, then laughed.
Bunik shouted, "So shall it be!"
The wood carvers were ordered to produce a wooden cane for each of the women. The Count's seal emblazoned the scepter. A large, naked breast topped each shaft. Under the Count's protection, Hilda's tavern and brothel prospered. Her woman lived in safety for the duration of his reign.
Hilda's fame grew in local lore. A larger than life bronze statue of Hilda guards the main entrance to the walled old town. The figure is bare-breasted. The chest glimmers in the sun from the constant rubbing that is said to bring good luck.
An annual feast commemorates the triumph. Officially, the exuberant carnival is called The Battle of the Maids. Yet, in the community, it is said to celebrate the Victory of the Bosoms.
In the opening parade, a venerated carving of Hilda is carried through the streets. Inspired by her example, empowered young ladies follow topless. They brandish knives that are their traditional coming of age gift. A side effect of this assertive, female history, and the personal weaponry, is that few women are harassed in the town. The museums and shops do a robust business selling Hilda knives and breast topped canes in honor of their savior.
From her perch, Hilda smiles with a protective countenance.