Chapter 32: Shots in the Dark
Poland, West of Poznań
“Moritz,” the mortally wounded Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel wheezed.
“Yes, brother, I’m here.”
Moritz took a hesitant step closer. The overwhelming smells of death and up-time disinfectant in the medical tent made him want to gag. His brother—half-brother to be exact—wouldn’t live much longer. Wilhelm’s wounds were so serious, even up-timer magic couldn’t save him.
“Take . . .” Wilhelm whispered, and Moritz knelt down to hear him better. “Take my body to Kassel.” He coughed weakly, and blood dribbled out of his mouth. “Don’t let me rot in this foreign ground.”
Moritz looked around with tear-filled eyes. One of the other men in the tent offered him an embroidered handkerchief. He nodded his thanks and used it to wipe his brother’s mouth. “Yes, brother, I’ll do it.”
A cold hand gripped his wrist. “Take the rest of my troops with you,” Wilhelm whispered. “Amalie will need them more than the Swede. And—” He breathed heavily. “And tell her that . . . I . . . love . . .” His hand went limp, and his eyes stared lifelessly at the ceiling.
After a few moments, Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg, took his brother’s dead hands and crossed them over his chest. Then he pushed the dead landgrave’s eyes closed.
He rose and straightened. Then he took off his hat and turned around to face the other men in the tent. Taking a deep breath, he firmly said, “A great man has gone. We need to honor his last wishes.”
The men nodded in agreement.
It hadn’t been easy to find a Calvinist pastor in the Lutheran army, but at last, the dead Landgrave’s organs had been removed and buried, and his corpse sewn into a waterproof bag.
In the meantime, Moritz tried to answer the difficult question of how many still lived of those his dying brother had called “his troops.”
Hesse had joined the Swedish army with a force of ten thousand men, in accordance with his five-year-old contract with the Swedish king. However, only a small number of those had been Hessian troops; the rest were volunteers hired by Hessian recruiters all over central Germany.
Eight thousand had been lost in the catastrophe: dead, wounded, missing, and scattered. The able-bodied remnants consisted of small fragments of companies.
Ensign Moritz von Hessen always had expected to be in command of a regiment one day—after five more years of war perhaps. Now, all of a sudden, he was, if not in command, at least responsible for that number of soldiers.
Of course, even a younger son of a ruler’s second wife had an education preparing him to lead other people. Papa had even created a new school in Marburg to give all his sons and other nobles a thorough training in knightly virtues.
And fortunately some of the older officers, whom he could trust to handle the real tasks, had survived.
“What does the Swede intend with that behavior?” Moritz looked around and was greeted by similarly clueless faces. The surviving officers and a handful of senior noncoms sat together in a tent dubbed the “Hessian Regiment Headquarters.” At least it was dry and warm here.
“He could have contacted the landgravine by radio,” Johann Geyso said, former quartermaster in Wilhelm’s staff. As the most senior surviving officer he had been appointed colonel of the regiment, although his last active fighting experience occurred a decade ago. “But he didn’t. He told me he wanted to ‘come to terms’ with his councilors before publishing the bad news.”
“We could be out of Poland and west of Berlin by now,” Moritz said thoughtfully, “but instead we’re still sitting here biting our nails.”
“Perhaps he’s waiting for a Polish counterattack and will order us to fight again.”
“We could fight,” Moritz said. “Couldn’t we?”
“Of course,” Geyso said firmly. “We have reorganized the men and formed new companies. We have at least a lieutenant in command of each of them. Perhaps he fears the landgravine would call us back to Hesse.”
“Why should she do that? Do you think the French will stab us in the back? Would our troops even make any difference in that case?”
Geyso shrugged. “I’m not in the Swede’s shoes and not in hers. He might be a little panicky. Before now he hadn’t lost a battle in the last decade. And the news of his wife’s murder didn’t help with his mood.”
Moritz frowned. “Do you think he needs an assertion? I know I actually don’t have the formal right to decide in my brother’s place, but I could promise the emperor to talk to my sister-in-law and convince her to leave you at the front for now.” He grinned. “You are certainly better off here when winter comes than somewhere on the march back to Hesse.”
Moritz, at twenty-one barely of age, and as an ensign not really mentally equipped to just talk to his supreme commander, nearly stumbled over his feet when he entered the Emperor’s tent.
Gustavus Adolphus, the great idol of his youth, sat in a wooden chair behind a table reading sheets of paper, which looked like official reports, and frowning all the way.
Moritz thought he could well imagine the kind of mood the Emperor might be in. On top of all that had happened recently the weather was still too bad to continue the campaign, and a third of his army had been lost or was cut off. Moritz didn’t dare guess which of all this bad news was the worst for the Swedish King.
Moritz stopped. He had discussed with the older officers how to address the Swede. The man was his superior in the chain of command, so a military greeting would be appropriate, too, but he was here in dynastic duty for the House of Hesse, and so he bowed before his liege lord.
The emperor looked up from his papers, his face worried with deep furrows on his forehead. Nevertheless, he looked down his enormous nose, smiling jovially. “So you’re the younger brother of Wilhelm? Moritz of Hesse, right?”
“Half-brother, Your Majesty. I’m the younger brother of Hermann, who serves as your prime minister’s secretary of state.” I’m not totally unconnected to the new government.
“Ah, yes, I understand.” The jovial smile disappeared. “And you come to deprive me of a full thousand seasoned veterans.” Now the Lion of the North looked fierce, like his namesake.
Moritz hesitated. Then he straightened. “In accord with the last wishes of the deceased landgrave of Hesse I should do that, but I decided otherwise.”
The emperor looked puzzled. Moritz had discussed with Geyso if he should present the decision as what it was, a kind of consensual vote of the surviving officers with a small margin in favor, but then that would perhaps show them in the wrong light. Bartering was a thing for market women and politicians. Noble rulers and military leaders decided for themselves.
“And . . .” the emperor said slowly.
“And I will leave in two days with a hundred cavalry and a hundred infantry of the landgrave’s own troops to fulfill my brother’s last wishes. Colonel Geyso will take over the Hessian troops until the landgravine sends a ‘real general.’
“His words, not mine,” Moritz added hastily, when he saw how the frown on Gustav Adolph’s face deepened. “He has spent the last years in my brother’s staff caring for the logistics.
“I will talk to my sister-in-law and try to convince her to send new troops before the winter. If that fails for whatever cause, I will talk to my mother, and we will fulfill the Hessian duties.”
The fierce expression deepened, as did the furrows in the Emperor’s forehead, but Moritz did not cower away under this gaze. That Wilhelm hadn’t abdicated in 1630 but had instead become the Swede’s first open supporter among the German princes had been an achievement of his branch of the family.
When Landgravine Juliane—Moritz’s mother—had received a depressing letter from her stepson she had sent her confidant Hermann Wolff first to the Netherlands for secret consultations and then to Stralsund, where the Swedes had settled for the winter. Officially, Wolff had been sent to deliver a letter asking if it would be possible to have her children educated at the Swedish court, but while he was there he also secretly negotiated a mutual contract of support.
Little Moritz had been present when Wolff told the anecdote of how he spent the whole journey back seated on a velvet cushion he had bought in Bremen and filled with the top-secret papers. The same papers, which finally brought the Calvinist Hesse-Kassel on the Lutheran Swede’s side, the ten thousand men paid half by Wilhelm and half by Hesse-Rotenburg—or better from Juliane’s private coffers.
Moritz had been only a boy when the secret meetings took place in Rotenburg, but his mother had thought that would be a better education than spending time with his father, who, after his forced abdication, had become more and more unpredictable.
After such an upbringing, Moritz had no problem enduring the Swede’s fierce expression. Hesse had done its duty at the front since 1631. Hesse had the right to take a leave now that their sovereign had passed away. And Hesse did all this as a Calvinist principality, while the man they were allied to was a militant Lutheran. Other German principalities—Lutheran principalities—had shown a much worse image of supporting their own goals and still did.
Suddenly the emperor started to laugh. “You’re not easily impressed, young man.”
Moritz shrugged. What should he answer?
“Your wish is granted.” Gustavus Adolphus continued smiling.
Moritz shrugged inside. That hadn’t been a wish, but if the emperor needed that to save face . . .
“Take the landgrave back home. Give him his deserved rest. Fulfill his last wish. I’ll write you a corresponding order.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Moritz saluted.
“But I can’t let a mere ensign command two companies.”
Moritz frowned. “Umm, I understand, Your Majesty.” So a senior officer would have to lead the troops. No problem for Moritz.
“So, you’d better get yourself an officer’s uniform, Colonel von Hessen.”
Moritz felt his eyes widen. “I . . .” Then he closed his mouth again.
Rauschenberg Coaching Inn, near Marburg
A Few Weeks Later, Two days after the events in Episode 22
“We won’t catch him,” Oberförster Otto Clott said thoughtfully. “He’s too quick.”
Peter Hagendorf could only nod, sighing. The fugitive they were following from Kassel south—they had at least verified that they were on his track—was constantly increasing his lead. He had switched horses here one day earlier.
Gianbaptista Zenno, the man they were pursuing, was an astrologer by trade, but now obviously working as spymaster. For whom was not clear, but the direction he was going supported the suspicion that he was on his way to Darmstadt. That would suggest the landgravine’s assumption that he was working for Georg II, former landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and the fiercest opponent of the house of Hesse-Kassel, was valid.
“Well,” Peter said, “what shall we do now?”
“Contact the landgravine,” Clott answered. “Inform her about what is happening and ask for new instructions.”
Having met Friedrich Hauschild in Kassel, Peter hadn’t held the Hessian Hunters in high esteem. However, he’d revised his opinion quickly after he had left Kassel in the company of what amounted to a platoon of them.
For once their green attire, which had looked pretentious when Hauschild wore it on police duty, was extremely reasonable as they advanced through the thick forest of the lower county of Hesse. Even with the fading canopy of leaves, now that autumn was about to turn into winter, the color let them blend into their surroundings very well. The large-meshed camouflage nets now sitting rolled up behind their saddles could add another level of stealth.
And their equipment basically left him drooling. Their leader had a hand-held “CB” radio, which didn’t have a long range, but they were followed by another detachment with a larger one. So Clott’s reconnaissance unit could move quickly without being seen or losing contact with their colonel back in Kassel.
This troop, founded by the late landgrave in the year 1631, was vastly different from all Peter had come to know during his time as a mercenary and later in Grantville’s mounted constabulary. Most of the members were experienced hunters or foresters from Hesse, their weapons of choice rifled guns and large knives. They couldn’t stand against a company of infantry or cavalry in an open battle, but they could severely hurt an army’s support trail from ambush. Not the most honorable kind of warfare, but Peter had seen enough comrades die at Breitenfeld fighting a futile honorable battle. At that time, he had been on the wrong side when the Swedes’ cannon balls had mown down the soldiers to his left and right. Half a year later he had seen what one sharpshooter could do in Rain am Lech, when Julie Sims had single-handedly killed half the skirmisher unit Peter had served in.
The USE Army couldn’t outfit all their infantry with that kind of rifle at the moment, and in an open battle, gunsmoke quickly made shooting over a long distance impossible, but the Hessian Hunters wouldn’t be deployed in battles. Reconnaissance was their main duty, fighting against bandits, or stopping small enemy units.
While Peter still was still thinking his own thoughts, they had reached tonight’s destination. A small hill next to Rauschenberg gave them a line of sight to the radio unit three miles or so behind them.
Clott didn’t have to say more than “Dismount, make camp,” and the men worked like a well-maintained car engine.
Darmstadt, Former Capital of the Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Georg von Hessen-Darmstadt exclaimed. “Why now, just when my plans are just starting to come together?”
Gianbaptista Zenno read the papers the landgrave had thrown into his lap. Under the seal of strict confidentiality, Georg was invited to attend a meeting in Berlin to “discuss the future of Europe.”
Most of the letter was phrased in utter legalese, but the sender certainly suggested the foundation of an interim parliament of concerned citizens of the USE while “the government in Magdeburg is not able to fulfill its constitutional duties due to the temporary loss of its head of state.”
Gianbaptista shook his head. Why the government should be paralyzed only because the Swede lay unconscious escaped his understanding. The invitation pointed out how long the issue of an established church within the USE had been under discussion—and was still not decided.
But while he was still trying to see reason, and doubted there was any, the invitation had certainly hit home with Georg’s desire for orderly rule. If the Swedish chancellor Oxenstierna—and Gianbaptista was convinced that no other was behind that scheme—wanted to set up the Corpus Evangelicorum in the USE, he’d just pushed at the landgrave’s gaping door.
“I need to travel to Berlin immediately,” Georg said, pacing the room. “I need to lead my troops into Kassel immediately as well. What shall I do?”
Well, those two tasks didn’t go together well.
“Can I trust my generals to fulfill their orders?” Georg ranted on. “Can I trust my bureaucrats to correctly phrase my opinions in that convention?”
Gianbaptista cleared his throat. “If Your Grace would allow me to advise . . .” Georg stopped and stared. Then he nodded in the Italian’s direction.
“The stars are favorably disposed towards you and your plans concerning Hesse-Kassel. I can’t yet see what will come of this new development in Berlin, but . . .”
“You’re right!” Georg interrupted him. “I can trust that everything goes well in northern Hesse.”
That was not at all what Gianbaptista had wanted to say.
“But my personal charisma will be absolutely necessary to steer that USE cart out of the mud it has been led into by those . . . republicans.” He spat out the last word as if it had singed his tongue.
Gianbaptista’s mind worked at top speed. He needed to stay clear of the mess an attempted counter-revolution in Berlin might turn into. Nobody, not even an experienced astrologer like him, could foresee how that American “prince,” whose birthdate lay in the far future, might react to that, now that he commanded a whole well-armed division of ten thousand devoted warriors who didn’t hesitate to kill even their peers on his word.
“So you will travel to Berlin in person, Your Grace? What about sending a confidant to advise the troops in the north of your will?” Andreas Wulff might be a good choice for that. He was a very clever politician, and not inexperienced in warfare either.
Georg stared again. “You’re right,” he said. “You will do that.”
Me!?! On a battlefield? What the . . .
Kassel, Capital of the Province of Hesse-Kassel
“Well,” Amalie said smiling, “at least we’re on the same track with this one subject. Aren’t we?”
Ten men, aged between fifty and seventy, nodded, some of them eager, some of them thoughtful, but none of them had any further objection at the moment.
Christine sat in a corner of the room, following Amalie’s staff meeting without interfering. Not yet at least.
“In accordance with this decision, Herr Doktor Deinhard,” Amalie continued, addressing the vice chancellor of her council of advisers. “Would you please supervise the creation and distribution of these questionnaires to all Ämter? Inform me of the state of affairs in—let’s say—one week from now.”
Deinhard nodded, and made some notes on a sheet of paper.
Christine was full of awe about her niece-in-law’s management skills. When Johann Ernst talked that way to his government, it came from decades of ruling experience. Amalie was a young woman thrown into the deep end, and she was managing to keep her head above the water very well.
“The next matter, gentlemen,” Amalie continued, “I want to bring to your attention is some disturbing news we have collected over the last week. Some of you might have heard parts of it, but I want you all to have first-hand information now, and afterward tell us about your conclusions.”
She turned to Christine. “Would you please . . . ?”
“Of course.” Christine rose and approached the large meeting table Amalie’s council had gathered around. She laid down some sheets of paper, and in that moment really wanted to have reading glasses like Johann did to play with. It was always difficult to find a good way to start.
“One week ago,” she then said without introduction, “I was visited during my sleep by a man who carried a plague-infested rat in a sealed bag, and obviously wanted to . . .”
If those men were affronted by the extreme number of females—two to be exact—attending and even presiding over a meeting, which was male in nature, they hid it well. Christine had heard that several of them had vented their displeasures of serving a female regent. On the other hand, Wilhelm had selected them in his last will, with the outspoken intention to support his widow. He had never considered anyone else in her place. So they might be suspicious, but they were at least cooperative.
“. . . and eventually, we secured a number of radio messages addressed to Zenno, which were signed ‘GLGHD’. I leave the conclusion to you who the sender was.”
Christine’s last statement was received with silence. The men looked at each other; obviously none of them wanted to speak the accusation out loud.
Finally, Melchior von Lehrbach, president of the chamber, cleared his throat and rose. He had by now outlived two landgraves; his time with Wilhelm’s father Moritz especially hadn’t been easy for him. Christine still remembered how her brother had always resorted to giving commands instead of discussing the grave situation he had maneuvered the landgraviate into.
“We don’t need to beat around the bush in that regard,” von Lehrbach said in his deep and calm voice. “We all knew halfway through this presentation—and I think I speak for all of us when I thank you, Landgravine Christine, for this concise summary—whose money most likely is behind all these actions. Fortunately, his money is limited, and his power in Magdeburg restricted by the sheer number of delegates not supporting him.”
He stroked his full beard. “But methinks we should take the current situation seriously. We should collect food from the Ämter in advance of the results from this questionnaire. If we don’t experience an attack in the next weeks, we can return it or keep it as advance payment. The people in the villages will certainly understand it.”
He sat down, frowning deeply.
“There is,” Christine said, “one point in your very profound statement I need to comment on.”
She took another sheet of paper. “Based on a hint from the regent I surveyed a number of current newspapers, and not the political ones, but rather the so-called tabloids.”
The common, only partially suppressed, groan among the men on the table didn’t come as a surprise.
Christine suppressed a chuckle. “As flat and dull as these news articles might be, they show an irritating trend. All over the provinces of the USE a large number of men from the lower nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie, most of them known for their sympathy to the so-called hardliner faction among the Crown Loyalists, are reported to having left their respective homes.”
The facial expressions around her suddenly changed from ostentatiously shown boredom to genuine interest.
Amalie used the silence to speak now. “The reasons they gave the journalists range from ‘visiting my cousin twice removed’ to ‘inspecting newly purchased property’. Accidently, I know of at least two cases, where these statements are completely unbelievable.” She nodded to Christine.
“I contacted,” Christine continued, “some very good friends among their wives and heard that they all received a kind of invitation, delivered by a courier, to be kept ‘strictly confidential.’ ”
Christine smiled. “Fortunately, this secrecy normally doesn’t include their wives, so I could finally get two rather important pieces of information. For one: the invitation came from the bureau of the emperor, and was signed by a close confidant of the Swedish chancellor.”
A surprised murmur made its round among the men.
“The other is the mention of Berlin as the destination of these short-noticed journeys. So, Your Excellency—” she nodded in the direction of von Lehrbach “—it might be that our presumed adversary can get more power in the future.”
Now the murmur became louder.
“Your Highness—” von Lehrbach turned to Amalie “—have you asked the Prime Minister about those suspicions?”
“In fact, I did,” Amalie said. “Judging from his partly cryptic answer, he seems to know something, but he’s not the driving force, but basically, whatever might happen in Berlin or elsewhere, it is not our most pressing problem. We really need to prepare for a possible invasion. And at the moment, we don’t have any troops to stop it in time.”
“This, Your Highness,” interjected Nicolaus Sixtinus, privy war councilor, “is perhaps not completely true.”
A Forest near Eifa on the Northern Slope of the Vogelsberg
“You were right, Sergeant,” Clott said appreciatively, lowering his binoculars. “They are using the Short Hessians.”
The road below them was a part of the old trading route called the Via Regia from Frankfurt to Leipzig. In Hessen there were several parallel routes, two of them called the Long and Short Hessians. This one here was the shortest connection between Frankfurt and Eisenach, but also the most troublesome, containing a lot of sharp curves and slopes. Most merchants nowadays tried to reach the State of Thuringia-Franconia with its superior roads as quickly as possible, and used the southern road along the river Kinzig.
So the assumed invading army trying to stay undetected would use another, less populated road.
Peter, with his years of experience as a mercenary, ascribed to himself a better nose for strategy than to the hunters, who normally thought tactically only. And his nose had been correct.
There, down in the valley below them, several hundred foot soldiers made their way east, accompanied by what amounted to a small cavalry company. This wasn’t the shortest route to Kassel, but it led through the part of the Province of Hesse-Kassel, which had belonged to Hesse-Darmstadt, and was completely inhabited by Lutherans. The Darmstadt troops could depend on the people to feed and shelter them.
“Uh-huh. What do you think?” Peter asked. “Three companies of infantry, one cavalry, no artillery?”
“If those are the only ones, which I doubt. I’d rather tell the colonel ‘at least four companies.’ ”
Peter nodded, then froze. “And what is this? Flying artillery?”
Clott put his glasses back to his eyes and looked. His face showed a deep scowl. “I hope not.”
In the middle of the convoy, surrounded by cavalry, four large wagons moved, drawn by teams of eight horses each. This number suggested that they were intended to travel fast if needed. Unfortunately, the wagons were covered with canvas.
“They’re not high enough,” Lieutenant Otto von Nassau chimed in. “If they don’t have some mechanism to extend it, they’ll kill their horses, when shooting straight ahead.”
“You were at Ahrensbök, Lieutenant?” Peter asked.
“Sure that,” was the answer. Von Nassau grinned. “Serving in the second division for half a year, then returning back home to fight Lutheran scum.”
“Lieutenant!” Clott said reproachfully. “You know that the landgravine doesn’t like the use of such terms, don’t you?”
“Okay, so what should I call them, Herr Oberförster?” von Nassau retorted snidely.
Peter felt a little bored by this—um—length comparison. Sure, von Nassau was noble, and by military tradition that should make him the leader of that troop. On the other hand, the Hessian Hunters were selected according to their skills and not their birth. Senior Forester Clott didn’t hold a noble title, but had been leading this company from the very beginning and had been a close confidant of the late landgrave.
Otto von Nassau was a pain in the ass, but he was a useful one with his experience in the USE Army. He was also the youngest brother, ninth of fourteen siblings, of Wilhelm Ludwig, count of Nassau-Saarbrücken, another Calvinist, and another staunch supporter of the new emperor of the USE. None of the American books mentioned Otto’s name, which was a typical reason for feelings of inferiority among all the nobles sharing this fate.
“Herr von Nassau,” Clott said, obviously restraining himself. “I can’t tell you what to do and say when you’re off-duty, and you are of course free to leave at any time, but as long as you are serving in my company, you’ll refrain from such behavior. Is that understood?”
Peter scrutinized von Nassau’s face, saw contradicting emotions surface and disappear again, and then the young man seemed to cave in under the older man’s authority. “Yes, Captain, it’s understood,” he said flatly.
“Well, Lieutenant,” Peter said pointing down into the valley, “we could bring that experience of yours to good use. Those weird wagons have to spend the night somewhere, and between us two veterans, we should be able to find out what exactly they are.”
“Your Grace.” Moritz bowed. “Let me express my most heartfelt sympathy for your husband’s much too early departure from our Lord’s earth. I held his hand during that time, and want to tell you that his last thoughts were directed at you, dear sister-in-law.”
Amalie took a deep breath; she tried to keep the tears in check that were threatening to well up, but miserably failed. “Thank you,” she whispered. She’d thought that she’d overcome those emotions unseemly for a regent, but to see Moritz, whose face bore so much similarity to Wilhelm’s, and to be reminded of what she’d lost, was simply too much.
Only after more than a minute she could gather herself enough to straighten. “Thank you, Your Grace. Your condolences are most appreciated.” But then she couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Oh Moritz, thank you very much for bringing my Wilhelm back to me,” she sobbed more than she said.
Then she felt a little hand grasp hers. Looking down she saw her son’s tear-filled eyes. “Don’t cry, Mama,” he sobbed, “or I can’t stop, too.”
“Yes, Wilhelm,” she whispered. “Hold my hand, and I’ll try.” She turned her head around. “Herr von Boyneburg,” she addressed her court marshal firmly, “can you please care for the late landgrave’s mortal remains. And see that those veterans who brought him back are well fed and otherwise provided for. Maybe we’ll need them soon.”
She turned back, just in time to see Moritz looking up in astonishment.
“Colonel von Hessen, please follow me. We need to talk.”
Moritz was shocked, but tried not to let it show. “An invasion?” he asked. “Well, he didn’t waste time, but, Your Grace . . .”
“Please, Moritz,” Amalie interrupted him. “Drop the formalities for now.”
“Well, Elsie,” he said smiling, “since we’re alone. You certainly don’t want to hand me the overall command of Kassel’s troops on a silver platter. This colonel rank the Swede gave me is completely unearned.”
A tiny smile had appeared on Amalie’s face when she heard his nickname for her, but it quickly disappeared afterward. “Opposite to common belief,” she said, “we are not completely devoid of experienced officers at the moment. However, we lack a leader. Even if you can only serve as a figurehead for the family, you’re very welcome in that position.”
Moritz frowned. Elsie’s idea was not far wrong. There were lots of examples how young, inexperienced nobles had won battles when depending on an experienced staff. And while Mike Stearns wasn’t exactly young, or noble, his successful example was still fresh in the Germans’ minds.
He cleared his throat. “But what exactly do you expect from me?”
“Oh,” Amalie said, sighing audibly, “not very much. Only to save my sorry ass and yours and those of all the people of Kassel and the rest of the landgraviate.”
Kirchheim, Stift Hersfeld
The two men had exchanged their uniforms for worn clothes from a group of locals and were leading a “borrowed” ox-drawn cart through the dark streets of Kirchheim.
The invasion troops had entered the town shortly before sundown and not left in the morning. Only a rider, obviously a courier, had departed, most likely on his way back to Darmstadt. So there was a good chance that they now waited for a final order to start besieging Kassel. The colonel’s last radio message had confirmed their wish to discover the secret of those weird wagons the Darmstadters carefully hid from prying eyes.
While the small barrels of a volley gun couldn’t force Kassel to surrender, they still could wreak havoc among the populace on their way north through the landgraviate. If there was a chance to neutralize this threat and reduce the invasion army to just infantry and cavalry, they had the order to arrange that.
Kirchheim, while not a large town, was still protected by well-built walls, and now had a large garrison supporting the militia. Attacking here was not reasonable, but they really needed to know what to expect, and so Otto and Peter made their way into town.
It was early in the evening, but it was mid-November, and so the sun had set an hour ago, leaving the whole town dark. From time to time there was a window not completely barred to the slowly creeping cold of late fall, which gave them a tiny amount of light in addition to their pathetic lantern, but that was all.
Peter smiled inwardly when he noticed how spoiled he was from living in Grantville. All those gaslights or even electrical street lights made the town from the future visible from afar like a bonfire. Each afternoon tourists even walked the steep road up to Schwarzburg only to watch Grantville below them light up on sundown.
At least his eyes were good enough to notice potholes in the street and navigate the ox around them, while the lieutenant-slash-count followed keeping an eye on their backs.
They rounded another corner and suddenly met an obstacle.
“Halt,” a uniformed man ordered them. Behind him several soldiers lifted their weapons. Soldiers, no town militia.
“Brrrr!” Peter brought the wagon to a stop.
The weaponry of those guys spoke volumes. Peter identified a small number of SRGs, but the others still carried old muskets—no ready fuses, so perhaps refitted to flintlocks—and those behind them had honest-to-God pikes. No up-time weapons as far as he could see.
Only the leader of the patrol wore a large first-generation down-time made revolver in his belt. He wasn’t a real threat either. If Peter and Otto were forced into a quick retreat, they would be covered by the wagon, and could easily disappear in the dark.
And on the other hand . . .
“Where are you going to?” the officer asked.
“Th’ market place,” Peter said, trying to imitate the local dialect. That guy wasn’t from here, either, so the difference shouldn’t be too notable.
“What is in your wagon?”
“That a load o’ yew handles f’r brooms, axes and pikes.”
“Why do you arrive so late today?”
“Wheel broke ‘n the way.”
Peter was relieved that Otto had agreed to leave the talking to him. His noble West-Hessian accent would certainly have aroused suspicion.
The officer slowly circled the wagon. “We could use some spare shafts for pikes,” he said.
“You can buy them at tomorrow’s market,” Otto von Nassau said.
Peter froze. That noble asshole! Why couldn’t he keep his damned mouth shut?
“May I ‘ffer you,” Peter said with a daggerlike side glare to Otto, “couple o’ them to show our appreciation for th’ people defending our home country?”
“Five!” the officer hit back curtly, but there was a kind of leering on his face.
Peter grinned. Bargaining was far better than shooting. “Can give y’ three and an axe handle.”
“Deal,” the officer said. “It’s nice to deal with people who know the ropes.”
“Can you please keep to our orders, Herr Leutnant?” Peter hissed when they were out of the patrol’s earshot. “That could have busted our whole mission.”
Otto glared at him. The young noble wasn’t stupid, but he would never have admitted that he made an error. At least he didn’t start shouting.
“How far do we have to go?” he changed the subject.
“Not far”, Peter answered. “In fact . . .”
They turned around another corner and the small marketplace lay before them. There were more wagons lined up along the edge, awaiting tomorrow’s event. A large campfire had been lit to fight the iciness of the night.
Peter’s eyes found a corner in the shadow of another wagon. They had to be careful not to blow their cover; traveling merchants knew each other rather well. That had been the reason to catch a local dealer from Eifa instead. Merchants normally had individual and recognizable wagons.
Otto led the ox to the trough in the middle of the square while Peter went to pay the stand fee. Fortunately, he was the only late arrival, and so the clerk was happy to have someone to gossip with.
“These soldiers behave as if they own the town,” the clerk lamented. “They blew my whole routine. It took me two hours longer to organize the market layout today, because they had trouble driving their bulky wagons around the corner of Sonnengasse and blocked all the traffic.”
“Yes, they’re a foot wider than normal. I had to shift four merchant wagons around to create enough space for them.”
A foot wider than normal. That alone was valuable information for Peter. Furthermore, now he had a lead where to look for them.
“I can’t believe,” Otto greeted Peter, when he came back to their place, “that you made me lead this murderous monster.”
“This stupid thing tried to kick me. I nearly fell into the trough.”
“Well, you didn’t,” Peter said dryly. “And I’ve got information on where we have to look.”
They secured the ox and made their way into the darkness, around more corners and finally to the edge of town. There the soldiers had made camp. A number of campfires surrounded a large barn. The “bulky wagons” were nowhere to be seen, so they would have found cover in the barn.
But how could they pass those campfires? Wait until everyone was asleep? But then there certainly would be guards, and any movement would easily be spotted.
“We can make a virtue out of necessity,” Otto murmured, pointing to a group of people in ragged clothes similar to those they were wearing. Those people were just unloading a couple of wagons, and hauling the content into the barn.
Peter nodded. Then they went casually closer and lined up with the queue of workers. Peter looked to the left and right, anxious to see one of the faces from the patrol, but there was none.
In the first moment, Otto seemed to collapse under a fifty-pound bag of flour, but then he straightened and followed the man before him into the barn. Peter grinned while accepting his own load. The nobleman wasn’t weak, but he hadn’t expected how heavy the sacks those scrawny workers carried with ease really were.
Perhaps his view of the world might change a little from now on.
The barn was sparsely lit, and so the two spies had no problem getting lost after delivering their loads.
“There,” Peter whispered.
“Shit!” Otto hissed.
Four wagons surrounded by guards. No chance to pass by them unseen. However, there were four more wagons standing unguarded in the near dark.
“Let’s check the other wagons,” Peter offered. “Perhaps we can get a hint of what we are dealing with.”
“Rockets, Herr Oberförster,” Peter said to Clott. “A lot of rockets made from cardboard.”
“Three feet long, three inches in diameter,” von Nassau added.
“And they have four of those multiple rocket launchers the Americans call katyusha,” Peter continued. “They were covered with canvas, but judging from the bulkiness perhaps a dozen barrels each.” He looked to Otto. The noble nodded agreement.
“Four dozen rockets in one volley,” Clott said thoughtfully. “That can deliver a lot of damage in a short time, even if only half of them hit home.”
“They also have a kind of large frame, perhaps for preparing the next volley. I think they can reload in less than a minute,” Otto said.
Clott nodded. “Those are bad news. They can’t conquer Kassel without cannons, but they can ignite fires within and kill everyone trying to leave the city. From what I know of the landgravine she won’t have that for her people. She’d rather surrender quickly.”
“We should take them out before they reach Kassel,” Otto suggested.
“What about their conventional arms?”
Peter shrugged. “We couldn’t see much, but judging from that patrol we met, less than half of them have SRGs. The cavalry has revolvers. The rest . . . not really up-to-date, but even pikes can do well in defending a wagon train.”
“So that is not an option, Lieutenant von Nassau. I won’t bleed my troops to death just to disable some newfangled weapons, even if I were certain that they pose a real threat to the capital.”
“Yes, Sir, I understand.”
“Nevertheless,” Peter chimed in, “Lieutenant von Nassau’s assessment is reasonable. Someone should take those launchers out of the equation if possible.”
Borken, Thirty miles south of Kassel
“I don’t think our advance was completely undetected,” Gianbaptista Zenno said.
General von Groschlag nodded. “That’s a reasonable assessment.”
“So why haven’t they attacked yet?” Gianbaptista continued.
“Hesse-Kassel has most of its troops in Poland,” Captain von Groschlag, the general’s cousin said. “Lost in Poland,” he added, and the assembled officers laughed heartily.
If Gianbaptista’s sources in the USE army were correct—they had been very reliable so far—the Hessian troops in Poland had reorganized by now, and had even been reinforced by the equivalent of two regiments of fresh recruits. Two companies of the Landgrave’s own had left three weeks ago with the corpse but they hadn’t resurfaced yet, and they consisted mainly of slightly wounded men, anyway.
The landgravine still had the Hessian Hunters, but they weren’t really suited to win an open battle. Von Groschlag had made sure that his troops on their way north had used open roads, camped in fortified towns, and avoided forested slopes, which could have been used for ambushes. He’d lost a number of supply wagons, but it was not clear if they really were caught by pursuing Hunters or just deserted with their load.
“They will wait on the other bank of the Eder to catch us when we try to cross.” Von Groschlag pointed at the map on the tavern table. “I would do that at least, and our scouts have verified troop movement.”
“We can outmaneuver them and stay on the right bank,” Gianbaptista said.
“Captain, can you tell our civilian friend why that is a bad idea?”
“Sure, General. Herr Zenno, that is most likely what they expect from us. If we avoid that confrontation, they can follow us on the shorter way inside this large bow of the Eder. We’d have to stay far away from the creek, or they would start to pick targets for their rifles among us. And their proficiency with those guns is well-known.”
Gianbaptista nodded. “I stand corrected, but if they wait for us . . .”
“They probably expect us to lead our men and animals through the icy water of the Eder, but that would be within their range, and they could decimate us easily.”
“Instead,” the general took over again, “we’ll appear on the south side of the creek long before dawn. The banks are muddy during the day, but at night they will freeze to a solid foundation. First we drive them into hiding with rocket volleys. We’ll use incendiary rounds to set the forest on fire where they take cover.
“Then we lay those large wooden planks over the narrowest points of the creek and force the crossing quickly. We will flood them with cavalry and stop them from picking easy targets.”
He straightened and turned to address the other officers. “I want to give the troops one more day here in Borken to check all their equipment and grease their boots. The temperature at night drops far below freezing at the moment, so I think we have an advantage here over units that need to stay out in the open. Make sure that they are all wearing their best pairs of socks tomorrow.”
By four o’clock in the morning, the launchers were freed from their canvas camouflage and loaded with explosive rockets. The crews made sure that the wax-covered fuses were connected and were the correct lengths.
Then they made their way under the light of the nearly full moon down to the south bank of the Eder. When they got closer to the creek, fog was starting to rise from the water. Within a few minutes the visibility dropped to zero.
“Perfect,” Captain von Groschlag whispered to Gianbaptista. “They can’t see us coming, but we have enough local guides so we always know where we are.”
Gianbaptista had some doubts. The fog was creeping into his clothes. Even though he wore two layers of the finest wool, his fingers were becoming numbingly cold. How might the soldiers do, if their fingers suffered as much, too?
He looked at the rocket launcher before him. The shiny barrels were covered with hoarfrost, but the crews had used blankets to keep the fuses dry. Everything looked good. So, why did he still have a bad feeling about this?
They reached the meadows bordering the creek on both sides. Here, they should be far enough from the forest on the other side of the meadows, where the landgravine’s troops were said to be hiding.
The launchers spread out to the left and right, and Gianbaptista could barely hear the whispering of their crews. Tiny scratching sounds could be heard, when they adjusted the elevation of the barrels.
The pairs of horses carrying the large planks they would use to cross the creek were held back before reaching the meadow, so wouldn’t be frightened when the rockets launched. The soft creak of well-greased boots was the only sound as the infantry professionally spread out to the far left and far right.
Everything seemed to be working like clockwork, but still Gianbaptista couldn’t suppress his concern. Would this really be the first battle whose plan did survive contact with the enemy?
“Officers, check your clocks,” von Groschlag commanded softly. “We’ll start the attack in five minutes from . . . now.”
At the edge of the forest on the other side of the meadow
The CB crackled softly. Twice. Then a short pause. Then another crack-crack. Then silence. They have arrived.
Moritz could not see anything in that foggy soup. Even his up-time binoculars were useless. Their opponents were professionals. The moon was bright enough for them.
But the message the radio had just delivered told him and the men in his vicinity that the enemy was down there. And Moritz had spent enough time during the last days to see a complete image before his inner eye. The Eder creek was flowing in meanders through a shallow valley. A meadow used for feeding the nearby village of Borken’s livestock. Forest at both sides. Hills covered with a mixture of fir, oak, and beech.
He’d personally thought they would avoid the confrontation on such slippery ground, but his more experienced staff had been absolutely certain. Von Groschlag was not a man to lead his troops along a path where they could be hit by sharpshooters without a chance to shoot back.
And most likely the general was under pressure to create a fait accompli before anything in Berlin could be decided. The “convention” had started some days ago, and now the cat was out of the bag. Oxenstierna and his minions wanted to take the USE on a path to strong centralized government and Lutheranism, pushing the republicans out of the way.
Not long ago, Moritz would have completely sympathized with this goal. So what had changed to make him think otherwise? Well, the Ring of Fire had happened, and Moritz had had long talks with Wilhelm before his half-brother’s demise. Wilhelm was certain that the changes that had happened were beneficial for the future of Germany. He’d read about how his own landgraviate had descended into mediocrity over the following centuries while the Prussians had taken over, forming a military-oriented nation and then led Germany into two devastating wars.
Wilhelm had believed that there was a royal road between democracy and absolutism, avoiding the bloodshed of revolutions like the French one, if—and only if—nobility became noble in the original sense again. Oppression of underlings was outdated. Especially if those underlings could easily exchange their hayforks for revolvers and shotguns when push came to shove.
Well, from his lips to God’s ears.
Moritz called himself to order. The fog was moving; a slight breeze had started to push it away. The troops on the south bank of the Eder would certainly start soon with one or more rocket volleys. Then their infantry would advance and secure the crossing. They didn’t know yet that Moritz’s engineers had flooded the whole valley with water from an upstream reservoir the day before. He’d made sure that no enemy scout returned to inform their general about this.
The water wasn’t deep, but enough to pose an obstacle for advancing troops. And then it had frozen hard during the night, and the light snowfall around midnight had covered the ice. The cavalry in particular would be in for a bad surprise.
Moritz took a deep breath. Hopefully that was enough to turn the tables.
Suddenly several small lights showed up in the darkness. Showtime!
He heard his people moving, readying the makeshift rocket-shields they had built from wet wood. They had no idea if they’d work, but the people in the front row were all volunteers and knew about the risks they were taking.
The lights became stronger when the fuses lit up. Moritz’s lips moved “five . . . four . . . three . . .” The light became eye-piercing as the first battery ignited. With an unexpected result.
Moritz’s eyes widened.
“What the hell?” the man next to him asked.
Moritz for once could forgive his blasphemy.
Instead of dozens of rockets launching and raining down on Moritz’s men like a hailstorm of fire, the whole launcher started to move. It seemed as though the rockets were stuck in their barrels.
The wagon moved faster and faster, followed by its three companions. Moritz started. Were those contraptions not simple rocket launchers but rocket-driven flying objects? Would they launch now, jump over the creek, and drop between Moritz’ troops?
The startled neighing of horses and shouting of men spoke against that idea. Men and animals—the latter still tied to the moving launchers—were irresistibly pulled across the ice. The men finally dropped the reins, but the poor horses were certainly in for a worse fate.
The men from Moritz’s bodyguard to his right and left started to laugh. He himself wasn’t yet sure that this would end well.
When the first launcher with still-firing rockets reached the creek it first looked as if it would manage to jump across, but then gravity took its toll. The contraption toppled over and fell into the water. Some rockets were still firing, but vertically into the air, driving it even deeper, and then they went out.
The pair of horses closest to the launcher had been pulled over the edge and the animals were futilely trying to reach the banks. Maybe they had a chance to survive if they weren’t shot during the impending battle.
But even that could be avoided.
Moritz looked to the radio engineer. “Start the amplifier,” he ordered. Then he took the microphone. “This is Moritz von Hessen, speaking for Amalie Elisabeth, landgravine of Hesse-Kassel, and acting governor of the Province of Hesse-Kassel.” His voice rolled over the meadow and made his ears tingle.
He still hadn’t understood how this thing worked, which made his voice so loud that perhaps the people back in Kassel could hear him, but he was very willing to use it to his advantage.
“General von Groschlag. We know about your plans, and we know your number. The people around me are willing to kill all your men and keep them away from our home country at all cost. If you surrender now, nobody has to die today, and I guarantee that all of your soldiers will be back home with their families for Christmas.”
He switched off the microphone, and took the radio. “Clott, do you hear me?” he asked.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“What are they doing?”
“Discussing options it seems.”
“Will they surrender?”
“One moment . . . No, we think they aren’t shocked enough. It seems that Groschlag’s lieutenants are rousing their men for an attack.”
“Shit. This is madness.” They had no chance to cross the creek without rocket volleys keeping his men in check.
He switched the microphone on.
“Soldiers of Hesse-Darmstadt. Fellow Hessians. This mission is illegal. By the constitution of the USE war between members is forbidden. Take your officers prisoner, and you will be allowed to return home freely. If you advance across this creek, you will be killed with no chance to return fire.”
He switched the microphone off, and sucked on his lower lip. If they followed his order, all would go well, but he doubted they would. Perhaps they had been told there would be no substantial resistance to be expected. The officers might think he was bluffing. Well, there was a lot of bluff in his action, nevertheless . . .
“I know it’s risky, but I want six half-volleys directly in front of them on my command. Five seconds interval.”
“Colonel? Hmmm, yes, I understand.”
The captain slid back and delivered his command.
They had three guns and a lot of ammunition for each skilled shooter, mostly Hunters. Two men, mostly wounded veterans from the honor guard he had brought back from Poland, were tasked to load the SRGs and hunters’ rifles as fast as possible. They could deliver continuous accurate fire three times as fast as a normal unit, but only a third of them would be firing. All of the guns were loaded to begin with, so each shooter could fire three times in short succession. After that, they had to start reloading, and the first round of the real continuous fire wouldn’t come until after at least one minute of action. If von Groschlag or one of his lieutenants smelled a rat, Moritz was lost. The enemy had at least five times as many shooters as he.
“Colonel? They’re advancing.”
He took his binoculars. Shit! Men were slipping on the thin ice, but still they advanced.
“Captain, have the first group shoot those horses carrying the planks. They mustn’t cross the creek, but have the rest fire just in front of their feet.”
He took the radio. “Clott, tell your men not to shoot. I still want to keep this as bloodless as possible.”
“Understood, Your Grace.”
He dropped the radio. “All ready, Captain?”
He switched the microphone on. “This is my last warning. Fire!”
The effect was interesting at least. The eight horses carrying planks went down in the first volley. The second volley made those hardened soldiers jump, when the ice in front of their feet exploded. By the third they were accustomed to it, but the advance had stalled. The fourth volley made them wonder what they had against them. The fifth volley pried cries of anger and pain out of them. Several men went down, when some stray bullet hit their feet. The sixth volley was devastating for their morale. While the blood toll was still negligible, they now were convinced that their opponents had up-time guns or repeating rifles against them.
“Cease fire!” he shouted into the microphone. It was purely for show, since it would at least take thirty seconds before the next volley could be delivered, and only if none of the loaders made an error.
He looked through his binoculars. The advance seemed to have completely stopped. The wounded were being pulled over the ice to the edge of the slope behind them. The other soldiers were standing around talking to each other.
He grinned. Soldiers talking instead of fighting were always an advantage for the other side. Should he wait for their decision or should he push them further?
“Clott, what’s happening on your side?”
“We can’t see very well. It seems as if they’re discussing things again.”
Well. He took the microphone. “Soldiers of a renegade. Fellow Hessians. This is your last chance. Surrender all your weapons and return to your recent camp in Borken. Then we will negotiate the conditions for your safe return to your families. You have five minutes to decide.”
“The rockets froze in the barrels?” Amalie Elisabeth said, giggling. “And dragged the launchers into the water?”
“That’s at least our assessment.” Moritz lay relaxed on a sofa and had—on his sister-in-law’s explicit order—removed his heavy boots to let some air get to the large blisters his feet sported. He should have worn his old boots for this campaign, and not the shiny new ones that had come with his colonel’s uniform.
He sipped from his glass of wine. “We left a detachment of engineers there to salvage those launchers. And we’ve got their supply of rockets.” He frowned. “This isn’t a flawed weapon. Their crews just lacked the scientific background to anticipate what might happen when the fog set in.”
“What a pity you didn’t have a camera with you to record their faces for posterity.” They looked at each other and laughed.
“And then they really surrendered?” Amalie said, sobering. “Just from your words?”
Moritz shrugged. “I can be convincing if I try hard. Half of them joined our ranks. The rest are locked up for now in Hersfeld without weapons. Georg will explode when he hears that.”
The door opened, and Moritz hectically tried to get into a more respectful position.
“Stay put, boy!” his aunt said grinning while entering the room. “You deserve it.”
“Thanks,” he said and took another sip of wine. “Have you heard from your husband since I left?”
“He and Max are safe in Magdeburg. Max enjoys talking to salespeople from several industries to get some more modern technology into West Thuringia. Johann less enjoys talking to members of the more moderate factions of the Crown Loyalists. He tries to get them to refrain from commenting on the events in Berlin until the situation is settled one way or the other.”
Amalie smiled. “So everything is back to business as usual.”
“Welcome back, detective and sergeant,” Lieutenant Himmel greeted Gloria Papenheim and Peter Hagendorf, when they entered his office. “I heard everything went well in Kassel.”
“Yes, Sir,” Gloria said and snapped to attention.
Peter exchanged an amused smile with Himmel. If she had to do this to feel right, he wouldn’t stop her.
“I’ve got a package for you, Lieutenant,” he said and put it on the officer’s desk. Then he stood casually next to Gloria.
Himmel didn’t look surprised. He cut the sealed tape and opened the thick brown paper wrap. The package contained two small boxes made of dark wood and a sheet of paper.
“Sergeant,” he then said, winking at Gloria, who still stood at attention. “Why don’t you follow the detective’s lead?”
Peter frowned. Himmel normally didn’t stand on formality. Well . . . He carefully took the same pose as Gloria.
Then Himmel rose, holding the sheet of paper in his hand. “Detective Gloria Papenheim, Sergeant Peter Hagendorf. On behalf of the acting governor of the Province of Hesse-Kassel, for extraordinary diligence in saving her from a hostile invasion, I have the privilege to bestow on you both the newly created order Pour le Mérite of the landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel.”
All named down-timers (apart from Gloria and Lieutenant Himmel) are historical.
Moritz von Hessen (*1614), half-brother to Wilhelm, died OTL in 1633 in Swedish service from smallpox. Certainly some measures have been taken by then to avoid that, or he hadn’t been in the same place by luck, and so he survived.
The anecdote of how the Hessians became the Swedes’ first committed supporters is historical, even Hermann Wolff’s ride back on a cushion containing the secret treaty.
Johann (Giese, Geise) Geyso (* January 29, 1593 in Borken) OTL became Amalie’s strategic councilor after Wilhelm’s death, and later grudgingly returned to active duty. He fought a number of more-or-less successful battles in the later years of the Thirty Years’ War. In 1644, he led two thousand soldiers to Aschersleben near Magdeburg, freeing Lennart Torstensson from the siege General Gallas had laid on the town. He was ennobled and settled down after the end of the war.
Oberförster (Senior Forester) Otto Clott received a land grant by Landgrave Wilhelm in 1631, so he might have been one of the captains of the Hessian Hunters.
The names and positions of Amalie’s council were fixed in Wilhelm’s will from the year 1634. OTL there were a number of corrections due to intermediate deaths among them until the year 1640, when Amalie finally took over the regency.
Otto von Nassau-Weilburg (* February 24, 1610 in Saarbrücken), OTL died in Neuweilnau in 1632 shortly after the Battle of Lützen.
The von Groschlag family lived in and around Dieburg near Darmstadt. There is no detailed information of the members in the 1630s, so I left the first names off here.
Art Director’s Note: I would like to thank Rainer for providing the source images for his story, he is always a great help! -Garrett W. Vance