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June 1637, Office of the Commander, Lübeck Naval Base

 

“Captain Kruger, there is a man here to see you, but he won’t tell me his name or what he wants. He said the supply office at navy headquarters sent him and that you are expecting him.”

Kruger frowned. “Perhaps now I’ll find out what all this mystery is about. Show him in, Albert.”

The man who was ushered into Kruger’s office looked like any ordinary merchant you might pass in the streets and not remember later. His manner, however, was brisk, almost brusque, as he closed the office door in the clerk’s face and marched over to Kruger’s desk.

“Major Kellner, army intelligence,” he announced crisply. The identification card he took from his pocket was far beyond what any commercial printer could do.

Kruger studied it carefully, and compared the likeness on the card to the man in his office, then handed it back. “All right, Major Kellner. Is there something we can do here at Lübeck for army intelligence?”

MitB-nrv“Yes, sir! You can have a naval vessel at Narva in Swedish Estonia on July first.”

“Major Kellner, I am not accustomed to having army majors walk into my office and order me around, intelligence or not. In case you didn’t notice, the fleet is not here at the moment, and we have no naval resources currently available. I’m afraid you will have to find some other ship. In any case that’s a five- or six-day sail, and it’s already too late to get there by July first.”

“Excuse me, Captain Kruger, but as I was coming into the building I saw a small ship coming to anchor. Is that one available? This mission is urgent!”

“I haven’t seen that ship yet, but if it’s the one I think it is, it’s fresh out of a Swedish shipyard and does not have an assigned captain nor a trained crew, and the armament is not yet installed. It would be a month or more before it would be able to go on any mission. And that assumes I could even find a qualified captain. There are none available that I know of.

“Now, why don’t you take a deep breath and tell me just what all this rush is about,” Kruger said. It was not an invitation.

Kellner visibly calmed himself, and did take a deep breath. “I’m sorry, sir. There is a great deal riding on the outcome of this mission, and I let it influence me. Please accept my apologies.

“Much of what I am about to discuss is highly classified. Please treat it as such.

“There is a class of minerals called mica that is particularly useful in fabricating certain radio parts, especially parts for long-range marine radios, but also army and air force radio equipment as well. It is still possible to make that equipment without it, but with mica that equipment can be smaller, cheaper, and more rugged. I’m sure you can understand why it is important to all the services.

“Up-time it was widely available and almost all countries had deposits of it. However, in our own time the only source of that material we know about is in Muscovy.

“I’m sure you are aware of the turmoil going on there, and the people currently in power have chosen to block shipments of that material for the last two years for internal political reasons. The issues do not appear likely to be resolved soon. We have now reached a point where the availability of that material is critical to our military efforts.”

Kellner stopped for a moment, considering how to phrase what was to follow. “We were made aware of the problem some time ago, and conveyed that information to our contacts within Muscovy. It just happened that our contact in Novgorod became aware of an opportunity to divert a domestic shipment of that material and deliver it to Narva. Given the difficulty of communications, our contact acted on his own initiative to do just that.

“It was not until two days ago that word of that arrangement reached us, and we have been in a full-swivet panic since then trying to get this particular mission authorized and launched because the delivery that our contact authorized is already en route.

“The ruling faction there is determined that none of this material should leave Muscovy, fearing that it would strengthen their political opponents. That is not really true, but they don’t understand that. In any case, they are prepared to use armed intervention to interdict that shipment without particular regard to political boundaries. Because of that, we chose not to hire a commercial shipper, but feel we must use a naval vessel that is armed and prepared to deal with that problem.

“Although several hundred pounds of that material is, in itself, significant and important, there is more at stake. We cannot do anything to affect the vulnerability of the delivery person enroute, and once he reaches Narva we must be prepared to take the delivery person and some family members aboard right away, and get them safely away from the area to avoid having them captured and compromising our network of contacts in Muscovy. That is vital! There are methods of getting people to talk, whether they want to or not.

“The USE is loath to be seen as meddling in the internal affairs of Muscovy. Therefore, the ship used should not obviously be a USE ship, and it should not be a ship that has been commonly seen here before. We have arranged for it to be able to fly the Swedish flag for this trip if necessary, since that is Swedish territory, but perhaps it would be better if it did not fly any flag at all, and remain as anonymous as possible. We will, of course, provide the funds for payment for the delivery in the agreed amount.

“The government would prefer that only those who have a need to know be aware of this mission. Otherwise it might cause further deterioration in USE relations with Muscovy.”

Kruger steepled his fingers and thought for several moments. “I hope you are prepared to finance this mission. Our budget is severely strained at this time.”

Kellner reached into another pocket. “You will receive the needed documents for this mission through normal channels, probably tomorrow. That will include a funding source.” He placed a piece of paper on Kruger’s desk.

“Where and how will our personnel be able to meet your ‘delivery person’?”

“Your ship needs to be there on July 1st. Just anchor at the mouth of the river and wait, several days if necessary. If they’re not there within a week, I’m afraid they won’t ever be. The delivery person will approach you and give you a sign, probably during the evening hours. Your person will answer with a countersign, and they will reply with a third. At that point you can take delivery and make payment.”

“And just what is this sign and countersign, and will we be able to do it? Nobody here speaks Russian.”

A tight smile passed over Kellner’s face. “You won’t have to speak Russian. I don’t think anybody will be able to guess this.

“The sign is a nonsense set of words: ‘Mairsy doats.’

“The countersign is: ‘and dozy doats.’

“And the counter-countersign is: ‘and liddle lamzy divey.’ ”

Kruger stared at him in horror. “Heaven forgive me, nobody will remember that!”

In response, Kellner smiled a rather large smile and broke into song, in English! “If the words sound queer . . .”

English was not Kruger’s first language, but by the time Kellner stopped singing he realized he knew enough to understand the key elements of the song. It was nonsense, but it also had a way of sticking in one’s mind, too. In fact it was almost addicting. He even found himself humming the melody. He blanched at the thought of passing this along to the captain of whatever ship he sent. No one had ever accused him of being a singer, but he knew immediately that was the only practical way to remember it. “Once this shipment gets here what do we do with it?”

“Not to worry, I will meet it with transport.”

 

Dock, Lübeck Naval Base, That Afternoon

 

“Good afternoon, Mister Faber. Does your presence here indicate that the guns are ready?” asked Ensign Nils Larsson, project officer for the prototype Fearless-class escort schooner, as he stepped from the ship’s boat onto the dock.

Chief Gunner’s Mate Michael Faber smiled faintly and looked down at his feet for a moment. “Well, yes and no, sir. The guns are ready, but the ammunition is not.”

Nils had been afraid of that. The ammunition was of a new and special design and was having teething problems. He shook his head and sighed. “Oh well, it was all going too well to last. I had hoped we could deliver a fully operational escort schooner on schedule this summer, but perhaps that will have to wait.”

He noticed Faber’s downcast expression. “Not your fault, Michael. You’ve delivered the guns, and the ammunition is someone else’s responsibility.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen Hubert? I guess I need to know whether the radios are behind schedule, too, before I go see the exec.”

Faber grinned as he looked up at Nils. “Actually, sir, I did see Hubert last night at the inn. He says he’s got the initial issue of radio equipment all set to install. There’ll be more coming along later, but he says the CW system is ready to install and that the voice system—he calls it TBS for ‘Talk Between Ships’—is on schedule for later this summer.”

Nils grinned. “I guess all is not lost. You’ve done your job, and just maybe the ammunition will be ready by the time the TBS is.

“Have you seen Commander Dengler? How is his leg?”

“Yes, sir. I went to see him just last week. They managed to save his leg, but they haven’t been able, yet, to get his knee to work right. They’ve been trying all sorts of physical therapy, but so far it’s so painful that he can barely stand on it, and not walk at all. He’s afraid they’re going to stick him with shore duty, or worse, retire him.”

Their attention was caught by the pounding of footsteps and they turned to see a marine running toward them. He pulled up in front of them and saluted Nils.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you from that ship out there?” He pointed at Fearless.

“Yes I am, Private,” Nils said with a puzzled look on his face.

“Please come with me, sir. The base commander wants to speak to you.”

 

Narva River

 

“Shhh!” hissed Vanya. “Keep your head down and keep the boy quiet.” He guided the boat over against the river bank under some overhanging roots where it wouldn’t be visible from the track that was laughably called a road.

Anna heard the thump of horse’s hooves going by just on the other side of the trees above them. She listened with her heart pounding until the hoofbeats faded completely from her hearing. She wondered how much longer they’d be in the boat. They hadn’t eaten since yesterday, and not much then, and she was beginning to worry about Ivan. He was less and less responsive, and seemed to just stare dully straight ahead, not taking any interest at all in what was going on.

She was beginning to worry about Vanya, too. His coughing seemed to be getting worse, and he didn’t seem to be rowing as fast. He was stopping more often to rest, too.

 

Office of the Commander, Lübeck Naval Base

 

Nils brought himself to attention in front of the commander’s desk. “Good afternoon, sir. Ensign Larsson reporting as ordered.”

Nils was a trifle nervous. He didn’t travel in the same social circles as lofty captains, like the commander. Just over a year and a half ago he had been a junior petty officer on a courier schooner. The prospect of having to meet with Admiral Simpson back then had terrified him. Simpson had the reputation of eating captains for lunch. Nils thought a lowly petty officer probably wouldn’t even make an appetizer, but Simpson had been surprisingly pleasant, and Nils had found himself opening up to him and freely answering all his questions. Nils’ promotion to ensign and assignment as the project officer for Fearless came as a complete surprise.

“Ensign Larsson, what can you tell me about that little escort schooner? I understand they are relatively fast?”

“Yes, sir, Fearless is quite fast. During trials we averaged about ten knots in any decent wind over all points of sailing, and I have logged almost fifteen knots with a brisk wind on her best point of sailing. We exercised her substantially during her sea trials, so we have a pretty well-documented report of her performance.”

“Mmmm.” Kruger glanced at the other person in the office for a moment. “How long do you think it would take Fearless to get to Narva in Swedish Estonia from here?”

“I’m afraid I am not familiar with Narva, sir. Do you know how far it is?”

Kruger pursed his lips and thought for a minute. “I would say it’s about six hundred nautical miles.”

“For that distance, sir, with a typical Baltic wind, I would estimate about three days, or a little less.”

Kruger nodded slowly. “What sort of shape do you think the crew is in?”

“I really have no basis for comparison, sir. The deck division and a couple of the ratings, the cook and the motorman, have been living aboard for about six weeks. For the last month we have been conducting sea trials, and the crew performed quite well during that time. The sail handling has been crisp, and there haven’t been many, if any, instances of fumbling for the right line. I think they’re pretty good, but I’ve never been a captain so, as I said, I have no basis for comparison.”

“What’s Fearless‘ weapons status?”

Nils eyebrows rose. “There are absolutely no weapons aboard, sir. Fearless is fresh from the shipyard. No small arms, and no ship’s weapons. The new Hotchkiss cannon are here and ready to install, but we have no ammunition for them as yet. The gunnery division is here, ready to come aboard, too. ”

“Stores?”

“None, sir. All we took aboard was enough to get down here from Västervik.”

Captain Kruger sat back, pursed his lips, and stared into space for several moments. When he shifted his attention back to Nils he was all business.

“Ensign Larsson, as of this moment you are acting captain of Fearless. After this meeting I want you to go directly back to Fearless and bring her alongside. I will direct the supply officer to begin loading stores as soon as you are alongside.

“While the stores are loading, I want you and your chief gunner to go to the armory and arrange for small arms and some form of ship’s guns to be brought aboard tonight, along with ammunition. I will direct the armament officer to meet your schedule.

“Tomorrow, Fearless will set sail for Narva in Swedish Estonia, to arrive no later than late afternoon on 1 July.”

“What about our radios, sir? They are here and ready to install, as well.”

“If you can get them aboard before you sail and install them underway, fine. If not they’ll have to wait. Your mission is classified, and only those who have a need to know should know any of the details . . .”

 

Aboard Fearless, Later

 

“That’s what I can tell you about this mission. I’m sorry it’s so little.

“Michael, we may have to deal with boarders and we don’t have anything on the ship to fight with. Any ideas?”

MitB-cnnnMichael shrugged. “We should be able to get small arms from the armory.” He stopped for a moment, and his eyes narrowed. “Hmm . . . When I delivered the Hotchkiss guns to the armory for storage, I saw something there that we might be able to use. Back when they were trying to figure how to defend the new ships from boarders, the master gunsmith at the Phantom Works made a couple of updated swivel guns for that purpose, but they were rejected in favor of the mitrailleuse and the big shotguns. These are pretty nice swivel guns, made from gunmetal and equipped with a two-handed grip, with a trigger on one grip that fires a cap in a caplock. They’re small enough to mount on the bulwark, not any bigger than a Hotchkiss, except they don’t have the same accuracy and range, or rate of fire.

“He had some experimental ammunition made up that was essentially one-piece. He enclosed both the powder and the ball in a tight, lightweight linen sock, so all you had to do was stick it in the muzzle and ram it once. I think he made some canister the same way. If we can get those two guns and their ammunition, we should at least be able to deal with boats and boarders.”

Nils nodded. “That sounds worthy of consideration. We may not have any choice. You and I will go see them as soon as we’re alongside.”

 

Next Morning, Early

 

It was dead calm at sunrise and Fearless got underway on her auxiliary engine just as the sun was coming over the horizon. Most of the crew had been busy all night, and Fearless was still a hive of activity on deck, aloft, and below.

Now that things had somewhat subsided on the quarterdeck, Nils turned to the man in battle dress standing nearby, trying to stay out of the way.

“Sergeant Lambert, I appreciate you coming with us on such short notice. Those pistols are new to everybody and we need to learn how to use them.”

The marine gunnery sergeant smiled. “When the base commander says ‘jump’ we say ‘how high?’ If you don’t have time to come to the range for training, I guess we can bring the training to you, sir.”

Nils nodded. “Still, I appreciate it. I suspect we won’t be ready for pistol training until tomorrow morning. We’re still getting the swivel guns mounted, and the generator lines and antennas strung for the radio, so the decks are going to be obstructed off and on until that’s finished.

“I’d really prefer too that the hands get some sleep before they try to learn about these pistols.”

“I think I would too, sir. It’s hard enough keeping them from shooting each other when they’re more or less awake.” Sergeant Lambert chuckled.

The breeze began to pick up from the west-north-west.

“Mister Brandt, please set all plain sail.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Gus headed forward, bellowing commands to the hands.

Nils turned to the helmsman. “Eric, have Hans secure the engine and rig for sailing.”

“Secure the engine and rig for sailing, aye.” Eric bent to the speaking tube.

It was only a matter of minutes before Fearless was heeled over and racing along in her element. As tired as he was, Nils still got a thrill when Fearless was allowed to do what she was designed to do. It called out to the Viking blood in his veins, and it seemed to him that, in some sense, they were part of each other.

The wind was still rather gentle, and there was only a small swell running. Nils studied the sails and assessed the heel with his body, so when Gus came back to the quarterdeck, he turned to him. “Gus, this breeze is pretty light. I think she can carry more sail. What do you think?”

Gus took a moment to consider the heel and the wind in the shrouds. “Yes, sir, I think she can carry more in this light a breeze.”

“All right, Mister Brandt. Let’s set everything but the fisherman. We have an urgent appointment somewhere north of here.”

 

Gulf of Finland, Mouth of the Narva River

 

Nils had a lead line going to ensure adequate water under the keel as they sailed into the estuary of the Narva River. The town of Narva was some distance up-river from the mouth and they wouldn’t be going that far. There was no problem finding a place to anchor, the estuary was large and there were no other ships.

They arrived in early evening, but it would still be a long time until sunset this far north. Indeed, there would be little or no night at all here, this time of year, and the sun would just go behind the hills on some islands in the gulf and not actually “set.”

They’d made the run in just two and a half days, despite having had the breeze die a number of times enroute. Fortunately, even a light breeze would move Fearless, and with a good breeze they sailed faster than anything else afloat, so although Nils had some anxious moments, Fearless had kept her appointment on time.

Nils had revolvers with holsters issued to all hands and had Michael and Sergeant Lambert assure they were all loaded correctly. Their training sessions had gone well, but the guns were still new to everybody. These were a new design for a pistol, replicas of up-time Remington .44 caliber black powder revolvers. In between pistol sessions, Michael exercised his gun crews with the swivel guns. Once the guns were cleaned, Nils had Michael load both of the swivel guns with canister.

After evening meal most of the crew came up on deck to enjoy the late evening sunlight and unwind a little from the day’s activities. Gus and Michael kept a close eye on their men to ensure that nobody was playing “cowboy” with their revolvers, but by and large it was a quiet, peaceful, evening. One by one, the men went below and turned in for the night.

The men on the anchor watch circled the deck nearly continuously, turning the glass at half-hour intervals and ringing the appropriate number of bells. It was true that they had a precision chronometer on board for navigation timekeeping, but tradition dies hard at sea, and the glass and the bells still signaled the routine of life on shipboard.

Nils went below early to compose his arrival report and gave it to Hubert to send when the conditions were right. Then he crawled into his bunk and attempted to sleep. He heard Gus and Michael come below and turn in sometime later.

****

Nils didn’t think he had slept at all when the anchor watch knocked softly on the door to his cabin, but then realized he must have. It was just past midnight and the watch had changed.

“Captain, there is a boat approaching.”

“Thank you, Hans. I’ll be right up.”

Nils slipped his feet into his shoes and was topside in a few moments. When Hans pointed out the boat it took him a little while to see it. While it wasn’t exactly dark, it was still twilight, and the shadows were very long and black, and the boat was hidden in a shadow.

“All right, Hans, I see it now. Continue with your watch. If you see another boat let me know right away. That could signal trouble.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

The boat approached slowly, and it wasn’t until they were quite close that Nils heard a low call, in Swedish.

“Ahoy the ship.”

“Ahoy the boat. Identify yourself.”

He heard a cough.

“Mairsy doats.”

“and dosey doats,” Nils responded.

Another cough.

“and liddle lamzy divey.”

“Come aboard.” Nils turned to the nearest anchor watch.

Just then the other man in the anchor watch sang out, “Captain! More boats approaching!”

Nils’ head snapped up and he stared in the direction Hans was pointing. There they were! At least two boats. He turned to the two men of the anchor watch.

To Hans he said, “Sound General Quarters!” He turned to the other man. “Get a line aboard this boat, hurry!”

Nils leaned over the bulwark and called out to the boat. “We have company. We’ll have to take you in tow until we can get away from them.”

Even with a beard, the man’s face looked white in the twilight, but he nodded and secured the line to the bow of the boat.

Nils turned back to the anchor watch. “Make the line fast to the cleat where we tow the ship’s boat. Leave them enough scope to tow comfortably.”

The raucous sound of the klaxon rang out over the ship, and soon thumps and running feet could be heard.

Gus came up on deck tucking his shirt into his waistband, with his shoes still unbuckled.

“Mister Brandt, detail someone to cut the anchor cable as soon as possible!”

“Aye, aye sir!” Gus ran forward bawling: “Johansson! Get an axe!”

Michael came on deck in just his trousers. Nils waved him over.

“Michael, how long would it take to move a swivel gun aft where it can shoot at a pursuer?”

Michael thought for just a moment. “Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, sir.”

“Go ahead and do it as fast as you can! Try and put it where we don’t have to shoot directly over the tow.”

“Aye, aye, sir!” Michael whirled and raced off yelling for gunners and the ship’s carpenter.

Nils turned to Eric, who’d just reached the quarterdeck. “Tell Hans to start the engine and set it ahead as soon as possible. As soon as you have steerage way, make your course northwest.”

“Start engine and set ahead, aye. Course northwest, aye.” Eric bent to the speaking tube.

Nils could not think of anything further to do right at that moment, so he took that small interval to study the relationship of the four vessels. Their pursuers were perhaps a half mile away, and were closing, but not terribly fast. Once Fearless got underway she might make as much as three or four knots on the engine. A well-crewed boat might be able to match that for a while, but as long as the fuel held out Fearless could probably stay ahead of them, and they would eventually tire. How much depended on how soon the engine was started, and how soon the cable was cut.

There was a thump forward, and Gus bellowed: “Anchor cable cut, sir!”

“Thank you, Mister Brandt.”

Time seemed to drag, although it was really only a minute or two before he heard a pop from the engine exhaust, followed by several more. It went quiet for a few moments, then it popped once more and began to run more or less evenly, followed by settling down to its usual uneven rhythm. Water began to flow away from the stern, then Eric reported: “Helm beginning to answer, sir.”

Fearless gained way only slowly, and Nils watched the progress of their pursuers anxiously as they continued to close the distance between them. He wasn’t terribly concerned about Fearless. He was pretty sure they could fight off anything that came at them in no more than two boats, but they did not yet have their passengers aboard, nor the cargo they were here to get, and as they were presently disposed those were at the most risk. He needed to get far enough ahead of their pursuers to be able to stop and bring the boat alongside, and offload people and cargo without being threatened by the “mica police.”

Nils turned to check on the progress of moving the swivel gun aft just in time to see men staggering aft with the starboard side gun while another man brought the yoke for the gun. The carpenter was working furiously to remove the mount from the bulwark so he could move that aft, too. Nils hoped he wouldn’t need to do a lot of cutting and fitting to get the mount to seat properly on the bulwark aft.

Nils studied their pursuers, and saw that they seemed to still be closing, but only very slowly. He was surprised to see a musket fire from one of the boats. It was still well beyond musket range, or so he thought. It turned out he was wrong.

Time passed. Fearless was moving about as fast as she was likely to move under engine power now, and their pursuers were no longer gaining on them, but Fearless was not getting further ahead of their pursuers, either. All Nils could do now was hope to wear down the men rowing the boats, so they would cease the chase before Fearless ran out of fuel.

Finally, Michael came up to Nils. “Gun’s moved, sir. What do you want to do with it?”

Nils studied the situation for a moment, then turned back to Michael. “It looks to me like we’re beyond canister range, but you have more experience than I do. What do you think? Don’t forget we need to avoid hitting the tow.”

Michael glanced at the pursuing boats for a moment and then nodded. “I think you’re right, sir. We might be able to reach them with ball, but canister would never make it.”

“Let’s go ahead and empty the gun of canister through the muzzle to starboard, well clear of the tow, then we’ll see if we can’t dissuade those boats with a few rounds of ball.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” Michael grinned. “My boys need the practice anyhow.”

Nils didn’t have a lot of hope that they would hit the boats. Smoothbores were notoriously inaccurate. But it might be enough to convince them that wearing themselves out chasing Fearless was not likely to have a good conclusion.

****

“Startled” was not adequate to describe Anna’s reaction when the swivel gun fired. Her head snapped around involuntarily and her heart skipped several beats, but then she realized that it came nowhere near her, and in fact seemed to be pointing well away to one side, which puzzled her. It would never hit a pursuer pointing that way. She remained turned to that side so she could watch the activity on the back of the big boat, so she was not as startled as she might have been the next time it fired, even though it seemed to be aimed much closer now. She could feel a puff of warm air and something like blowing sand, but nothing much to worry about.

She wasn’t at all sure what was going on. Somebody seemed to be rowing that big boat without being seen, but at last they were firing a big gun at the boats chasing them, and maybe that would get them to stop.

 

Aboard one of the Boats (freely translated)

 

“Hey! What was that? I didn’t sign on to this job to go against cannon.”

“Me neither, and I’m pooped! We’ll never catch them, anyhow.”

“Shut up and row! You already drank my vodka.”

“Yeah, and my head still hurts like hell! You and your cheap vodka! Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of those cannon balls will put me out of my misery.”

They kept on rowing, but they put a little less effort into it, too. Slowly, the boat lost ground on the schooner.

****

Alexi Andrevich sighed to himself. You can only whip a horse so long before it ceases to pull, and men even less. I don’t think we’re going to catch them. Perhaps when we go back to Narva I should lose myself in Estonia. I think that would be better than what Sheremetev would do to me.

 

Aboard Fearless

 

The engine sputtered a few times and quit.

Nils was at the speaking tube in moments. “Hans, what’s wrong with the engine?”

There was a moment’s delay. “I don’t know yet, sir. We still have fuel. Maybe it’s a fouled sparkplug. Maybe there was water or some other substance in the fuel. I need to finish going through the troubleshooting procedure to pin it down.”

Nils sighed. “Get it fixed as soon as you can.”

Nils pressed his lips together and thought for a moment, then his head came up. No time for formal niceties now! “Gus, Michael, come here!”

When both ran up, he started talking without preamble. “I’m going to take our boat and six men and see if I can’t divert the pursuers. Gus, your first job is to get the boat in the water. As soon as that’s done, put some hands to pulling the tow alongside. Once it’s alongside, off-load the passengers and cargo as fast as you can.

“Michael, I’m going to take your portside gun crew. I’ll need all six men. I’ll also need a hundred rounds of paper cartridges for the revolvers and a hundred caps.”

Michael jumped in. “Sir, let me take the boat! You’re needed here!”

Nils gave a quick, sharp, shake of his head. “No! You’re needed here to fight the ship, if it comes to that. I want you to really work the swivel gun to keep the pursuers off the back of the tow while Gus is getting it alongside.

“When we get down there you’ll need to stop firing to keep from hitting us. I need a signal that you’re stopping.” He looked expectantly at Michael.

Michael grinned. “How about this, sir?” He stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle.

“That will do nicely.”

“May I go along with you, sir?” Sergeant Lambert asked quietly. Nils thought for a moment. The boat would carry another man and that would give them four guns per side.

“All right, Sergeant. Sit in the bow and fire with the starboard side. I’ll fire with the port side.”

“Questions?” Nils looked from one to the other. “Let’s move out!”

****

I sure hope this doesn’t turn out to be as harebrained as Michael appears to think it is! With no time to come up with anything fancy, Nils addressed the men in the boat. “Listen up! Our job is to fight a delaying action. When we get closer Mister Faber will stop firing the swivel gun. That will be our signal to move in nearer the longboats. We’ll stop about a long pistol shot away and turn the port side to the longboats. The hands on the port side will fire their pistols at the pursuers first, and I want each man to take his time and shoot carefully. Pick a target for each shot and take the time to aim. Remember what Sgt. Lambert told us, squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it.

“Once the port side guns are empty we’ll turn the starboard side to the longboats and they’ll fire while the port side reloads. During reloading, take your time and do it carefully. Be sure to only load five chambers and make sure they are adequately rammed. Replace the caps only after all chambers are loaded. We’ll keep alternating sides as long as necessary to get them to break off the chase.

“Everybody remember, take your time, pick your targets, and aim carefully. Now put your backs into it! The sooner we get there, the better.”

****

The first fusillade was met by hoots of derision and taunts from the long boats. Not so the second and subsequent. They hadn’t been expecting repeating weapons. As the sailors from Fearless warmed to their task, screams and curses became much more common. In the sternsheets of the nearer longboat, the man at the tiller brought up a musket and fired back at them, knocking Nils’ cap flying.

Too close for comfort, thought Nils. He needed to stop the man with the musket. Very deliberately, he adjusted his position to be as stable as possible and aimed carefully. He fired . . . and missed.

He checked the revolver and saw he had one more round. Okay, settle down. Cock the hammer back. Get a good sight picture . . . squeeze the trigger gently, ‘like you’d squeeze your girlfriend’s tit.’ Gently, gently . . .

Nils was actually surprised when the pistol fired, but was more surprised when his target fell backward against the transom and the musket clattered into the bottom of the longboat.

****

Alexi Andrevich stared down in shocked surprise at the spreading stain on his shirt. He was surprised that it didn’t hurt. He just felt numb. As darkness began to close in around him, his last thoughts were: May God have mercy on my soul.

****

Nils looked back into the boat to see everybody looking at him. “Port side back water, starboard ahead. Give way together . . . Giveway!”

The men on the starboard side were determined not to be outdone by the portside, and once stabilized in position, began firing very deliberately into the longboats.

Nils kept checking the course of the action as he reloaded his pistol, looking up frequently from his task. One such time he saw a flicker to one side and one of his men let out a curse, but continued firing without interruption.

****

The man in the longboat looked up at Alexi Andrevich lying back in the stern with a large bloodstain on his shirt. “Well, shit! We’ll never get paid now. We might as well get the hell out of here. He told us it would be just a little coaster, not a damned warship! He couldn’t have paid us enough to go against a warship, anyhow.” He crawled back to the sternsheets and rolled the body into the water.

Then he threw the tiller hard to port and the longboat swerved to starboard to get away from the small boat that was wreaking so much havoc among them, and collided with the other longboat. There was a tangle of oars and much cursing and swearing as the two longboats attempted to disentangle themselves from each other.

****

Nils kept his men firing into the longboats while the men aboard them struggled to get them separated, not realizing that panic had already set in on the longboats and all they wanted to do now was get back to shore alive. The panic did not help those efforts.

Neither did Nils realize just how uneven the combat had been from the outset. The dregs the Russian operative had hired had never had enough money to purchase firearms of any sort, and normally preyed only on those weaker than themselves, people who were unlikely to have firearms to steal either. Most had only clubs, or knives, and while they outnumbered the people in Fearless‘ small boat by almost four to one, they could not bring their greater numbers to bear in the standoff battle that ensued. Finally, the disciplined boat handling and pistol fire had made them uneasy from the outset, and the demise of Alexi Andrevich had turned that into panic. If they could have run, they would have been far away by now.

****

One of the men stared at Nils. “Sir, are you wounded?”

Nils frowned. “No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“Well, sir, it looks like you have blood on your forehead.”

Nils had felt the trickle of liquid, but thought it was sweat. He reached up and touched it with his finger then pulled the finger down to look at. I’ll be damned! I guess I’m really glad it wasn’t lower. He felt on top of his head and found a small cut. “Well! Thank you, Schmidt. I didn’t think he’d come that close,” Nils said, bemused. That reminded him he was going to have to get a new cap. He looked around. “Is anybody else wounded?”

One man held up his hand. “Sir, I have a little cut where somebody threw a knife at us, but nothing serious.”

“Okay, have Cookie take a look at it when we get back aboard.”

 

Meanwhile, Aboard Fearless

 

It was a matter of just a few minutes to get the boat alongside. Two hands climbed into the boat, and the figure in the bow handed them what looked like a bundle of rags to pass to the deck. It was only when one of the men took the bundle and it let out a low cry that Gus realized it was a child.

Next they lifted the person in the bow, and two sailors reached out and helped a woman aboard.

The man on the rowing bench just sat there slumped over.

Gus didn’t wait. “Jump to it! Get that cargo aboard.”

“Aye, aye sir.”

The men in the boat pulled the weather covering off of the crates and began lifting them up to their shipmates.

Gus stood back to watch the crates come aboard.

****

Cookie was waiting on deck when the child was brought aboard and immediately took him from the seaman and carried him over by the lantern to look at him closely.

****

Anna was exhausted and felt very weak. The man who had snatched up Ivan and carried him over by the lantern was very big, tall with broad shoulders, and rather homely. He turned to her with an expression of something like concern on his face and motioned for her to come over into the light. Moving slowly, but as fast as she could, she walked over by the lantern. He studied her intently, then touched her gently on the shoulder and smiled. He beckoned for Anna to follow him and carried Ivan down a steep stair.

It was confusing, with several twists and turns, but they came to a cozy space with the smell of food cooking. It was brightly lit and painted a warm yellow and white. He pointed to a stool where she gratefully sat down, then he handed Ivan to her and began moving purposefully around the space, folding some things away and putting others in their place. His motions were swift, but deft, with no wasted motions. Shortly, he took Ivan from her and laid him on a sort of bed, where he removed most of his clothes and began doing strange things with some sort of listening device. Then he turned to her and smiled. It was odd, he wasn’t homely at all when he smiled like that. Apparently he was pleased with whatever he had been doing. He held up one finger, took a couple of buckets, and hurried away in the direction they had come.

****

Gus waved him over. “Cookie, I think there’s something wrong with the man in the boat. Would you take a look at him?”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

He climbed into the boat and bent over the man.

Mister Brandt was right, he didn’t seem to be responding to his presence. Cookie checked for a pulse in his neck, but was unable to find any. He lifted the man’s head gently and only then saw the bloodstain down the front of his tunic. He checked for breathing, but there was none.

Cookie looked up at Gus. “Sir, there’s nothing I can do for him. He’s dead. It looks as though he was shot.”

Gus sighed. “All right, Cookie. Go ahead with what you were doing.”

****

The man came back with some buckets of water which he put to heat on a strange iron box. In short order he had removed all the hair from Ivan’s head and washed him thoroughly, then he covered him with a light blanket. Going to the iron box, he dipped some gruel out of a pot simmering there, even adding some meat to the cup, and putting some other potions into it. Very gently he fed the gruel to Ivan, then let him lay back and smiled at him. She was happy to see Ivan smile back. He hadn’t had any expression for several days.

He made another, larger, cup of the gruel and handed it to her. She turned to take it to Ivan, but he stopped her and indicated she should eat it herself. It tasted odd, but it was food and she was grateful for it. It had been a day and a half since she had eaten. It was not a large amount, but it filled her shrunken stomach to a comfortable fullness.

He put Ivan’s clothes into a bucket of hot soapy water, and when he turned back to her he made motions for her to do the same with her clothes. He seemed to be a little embarrassed, but she was not. Privacy was something she had never had. When she got down to her shift, he stopped her and began listening to her back. Then he held out part of the listening thing to her and pointed to where he wanted her to place it on her chest. That puzzled her, but she did as he indicated. His face was very intent as he listened, but then he smiled and put the device away.

Now he stopped and seemed to be thinking. As soon as he started gesturing to her, she realized that he wanted her to shed her shift, cut her hair, and wash all of her remaining hair, including body hair, thoroughly. After that she was to wash her whole body as well. She was to do essentially the same things he had done to Ivan. She shrugged and began to take off her shift, but he stopped her and went to get some other clothes, which he handed to her. Clothes? For her?

She started to disrobe again, but he stopped her and hurriedly hung up some kind of screen across the area. When he spoke from the other side of the screen, she didn’t understand his words, but she realized that now she could go ahead. She was careful to try to do everything as he had pantomimed it, and it felt good to be clean again, but she was happy to pull on the men’s clothes and crawl into the bed. She was exhausted, and it felt good to be able to lie down without her stomach hurting. He turned down the light and she was sound asleep in moments.

****

When Nils came back aboard, Gus took one look and exclaimed, “Sir! Are you hurt? What happened to your head?”

Nils made a face. “Nothing to worry about, Gus. Just a scratch. I’m glad it wasn’t any lower, though.”

Nils looked around. “Where’s the man from the boat? Is he below?”

Gus grimaced. “No sir, he’s dead. Cookie said it looked like he was shot.”

“Damn! How about the other two?”

“The woman and the child are in the galley. Cookie is taking care of them. They looked like they were starved.”

“A woman and a child, huh? I guess the money goes to her, then. Do they know about the man?”

“Not unless Cookie told them.”

Nils bent to check each of the crates. “Well, at least this looks like the sample I was shown in the base commander’s office. We need to get that stowed below, where it’s dry. They told me not to let it get wet.

“Is the engine fixed?”

“Yes, sir. We were just waiting for you to return.”

Nils stretched up to look aft for the longboats, but they were still retreating and were nearly out of sight.

“Let’s go ahead and get underway again on the engine, course northwest. I’m going below to write up my after-action report so Hubert can get it out as soon as practical. Let me know when the wind picks up. Otherwise, call me for the next watch.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Nils headed below, while Gus got Fearless underway again, and called out a work party to stow the crates below.

****

It was feeding time again, four hours had passed.

Cookie fed the boy another small cup of his stew, and the woman her larger cup. Then he rehung the curtain and turned down the lights in the galley, hoping they would go back to sleep. He crawled into his own bunk and attempted to get some sleep before he had to get up and start breakfast. Cooks, like captains, got little sleep.

****

The watch changed again, and Cookie fed his patients once more. They seemed to have relaxed by now and were sleeping more soundly. After a day of this four-hour routine he thought he could feed them a little more, and stretch out the intervals to six hours. A couple of days of that, and maybe they could take meals at the normal times.

****

The Baltic weather was uncharacteristically warm and pleasant with light and variable winds, so Fearless was not doing much more than maintaining steerage way under sail. Nils estimated that if the weather did not change it would take at least a week to reach Lübeck.

****

After breakfast on their third day at sea, Cookie dressed Ivan in his washed and somewhat repaired rags while Anna looked on, laughing at Cookie’s fumbling. They still couldn’t exactly talk to each other, but they knew each other’s names, at least. Anna still had trouble with the idea that ‘Cookie’ was what they called the young man whose name was actually Gustav, but she finally accepted it. They went up on deck for their first exposure to fresh air since they came aboard.

Anna paused at the top of the ladder and just stared around at the scene on deck. She had not realized just how large Fearless actually was. She had never seen anything like this ship, never anything larger than Vanya’s rowboat, really. The masts and sails seemed to her to go up halfway to heaven, and the decks were covered with all sorts of strange devices. Ivan was fascinated by everything he could see, looking around with eager curiosity. He seemed little like the almost-comatose boy who had come aboard just a few days ago.

Cookie led them aft to meet the captain, who seemed very pleased to see them. While they were both still quite thin, they were shaking off the worst effects of starvation and their faces had filled out some.

Anna felt odd with her hair so short, and wearing a sailor’s clothing, but she did not let it concern her overmuch. They were better than rags.

After being introduced, she looked up at Nils. “Vanya?”

Nils’ face fell. He realized that must have been the man’s name, and he solemnly shook his head.

She stared at him for a moment, then nodded slowly with an equally solemn expression. She had been afraid of that when Vanya started coughing so much.

She did not know he had been shot.

Cookie led them on a slow circuit around the deck, introducing them to everyone.

Anna was overwhelmed by all the new names, but warmed by their welcoming smiles. Some of the young men played gently with Ivan, scrubbing the stubble on his head, or poking him gently in the tummy and making him giggle, which in turn made Anna smile.

When they completed the circuit, Cookie let them just enjoy the gentle breezes and the fresh air for a while, then finally he led them back below. This was the first time they had been on their feet for any length of time in the last few days, and he didn’t want to overdo it.

****

That evening, as Cookie was ladling out the evening meal, Andre, a deckhand who had an additional duty as the sailmaker, offered to make Ivan some clothes. He had some scraps of sail cloth, and he thought he had enough to fashion a small jumper and a small pair of breeches. After evening meal he came back with a measuring tape and measured Ivan carefully.

****

Anna was thrilled with Andre’s gift to Ivan and did her best to thank him, but Andre just smiled and watched Ivan strut around in his new clothes while he looked up at Andre with a big grin. That seemed to be thanks enough.

Cookie thought, wryly, that now everybody aboard was in proper uniform, including the woman and the boy.

That prompted another train of thought, and he spent some time worrying that around in his mind. Finally, he went to see the captain.

“Sir? What are we going to do with the woman and the boy when we get to Lübeck? They don’t know anybody there, and they don’t have this Vanya to look out for them. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs. They don’t know the language and they wouldn’t survive another winter, even in Lübeck, without someone to help them.”

“I really don’t know, Cookie.” Nils answered thoughtfully. “Perhaps there will be someone there to take charge of them when we arrive. Maybe they can go to the Red Cross. She’s not exactly a pauper, you know. I still have the money the man, Vanya, was to receive for the cargo to give to her, once we get there.”

“Sir, she might not qualify for Red Cross help if she has money, and if she goes walking into Lübeck with a sack of money in her hand, you can bet someone will steal it within the first few days. Without the language she couldn’t even tell the watch what happened, assuming they left her and the boy alive.”

“I just don’t know, Cookie. Once she’s on the dock, she’s no longer in our charge.” Nils shrugged, regretfully.

Cookie went back below with a worried frown still on his face.

****

The weather continued to be pleasant, but the winds continued to be light as well, so it was eight days later when Fearless finally sailed into the port for Lübeck.

Anna and Ivan had continued to put weight on their spare frames, but they remained quite thin. Nonetheless, it was barely possible, now, to tell that Anna was a woman rather than a skinny sailor, and her face showed just a hint of her real appearance. Ivan added weight proportionally faster and began to show the eager energy of the young, posing a problem because he wanted to race around on deck looking at everything going on. Cookie and Anna managed to keep him from getting in the way of anything dangerous, and the sailors began to keep an eye out for him anytime he was on deck.

The two passengers, usually with Cookie keeping a watchful eye on them, spent a lot of time on deck as their strength increased, and they were on deck, mostly out of the way, as Fearless sailed into the port at Travemünde and came to anchor.

****

Anna’s eyes were huge when she saw that there were ships even larger than Fearless, and then got her first real view of the community of Travemünde, the harbor for Lübeck. She had no reference at all for anything like that. Even going past Narva in the rowboat, they had hugged the river bank, and she had been busy trying to keep herself and the boy from being thrown into the water as Vanya guided the boat through the rapids there, so she hadn’t seen the city. The small mining village where she had lived all of her life was simply a small collection of huts, partially dug into the earth for protection from the cold winters. She had a resilient nature, but this was almost too much for her. Suddenly she was, if not exactly afraid, at least concerned. She had no idea at all what was to come next for her and for Ivan.

She looked up at Cookie with the concern she felt showing on her face.

He smiled a tight smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll work something out.”

Anna picked up a few of his words now, and took some comfort in his smile, but she was still concerned.

****

“Report to the commander instead of the executive officer,” was all the note said. Nils shrugged. His mission had started there, and he guessed it could end there as well. He had Gus get the boat in the water.

****

Nils came to attention. “Ensign Larsson reporting as directed.” Nils noticed that the same ordinary looking man was sitting quietly to one side, but ignored him.

“Ah yes, Ensign Larsson. Do you have the mica?”

“Yes, sir. At least what we brought back looks like the sample I was shown.”

“I understand that you brought only two people back. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir. The, ah, contact person was shot during the engagement. He was dead when we brought the boat alongside.”

The commander nodded. “Yes, your report indicated you had encountered some difficulty.”

“Yes, sir. Two boats attempted to prevent us from taking the passengers and the mica aboard. We were pulling away from them using the auxiliary engine when the engine died. I took some men in the ship’s boat and was able to repulse our pursuers with the new revolvers we were issued.”

“So your report said. Did you have any other activity of note?”

“No, sir.”

“All right, Ensign Larsson. There will be a wagon on the dock tomorrow morning at 0900. If you will have Fearless alongside at that time, and provide a working party, we will offload the cargo then.”

“Aye, aye, sir. Are there any instructions concerning the remaining two passengers, the woman and the boy?”

The commander glanced at the man, who shook his head very slightly.

“No, Ensign Larsson. If you will deposit them on the dock, it will end our responsibility.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

****

“Captain, would it be possible to get liberty overnight?”

Nils looked at Cookie for a moment, thinking. “Yes, I believe so Cookie. Please check out with Mister Brandt, and check in with him when you return.”

“Aye, aye, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Now that all the activity on deck and on the dock had subsided, Cookie knew he had to find something to do with Anna and Ivan. He couldn’t just leave them on the dock and walk away. On that, his mind was made up.

After checking out with Gus, Cookie led Ivan onto the dock by one hand, with Anna following close behind.

Even though the unloading was finished and the wagon gone, there was still the normal activity around the docks, and Anna and Ivan looked around at all that was going on with interest. Cookie slowed his pace to match theirs so they didn’t have to risk falling behind to look around. It was a fairly long trek, and they left the navy base proper, although not far beyond.

Eventually, they came to a group of buildings, and Anna studied them curiously. The weather was nice, and there seemed to be people coming and going from them, children playing, and others standing outside the doors and talking. They seemed to be houses, but Anna had never seen houses like this, all bunched together in rows, and she didn’t know what they were made of. Certainly it was not sod, or even wood.

After walking around a corner, Cookie turned into one path and went up to a door and knocked on it.

Cookie was startled. He had never seen his mother like this except back during the famine. Her face was pale, initially almost expressionless, and she seemed to have lost weight, but when she saw who it was her face lit up and she cried “Gustav!” and threw her arms around him, hugging him to her.

After Cookie had completed his training and been assigned to Lübeck as a home port, he had been able to qualify for a unit of “family housing” at a substantially reduced rent compared to the open market. It was tiny, but more than adequate for his mother, and he was happy to find such a clean, new place for her. Things had been difficult for them ever since Tilly’s troops sacked their village and killed his father, so this was a godsend.

After the clerk at personnel had patiently explained what his options were for getting paid, he had elected to try this new “credit union.” They would automatically pay the small rent for him from his account, and his mother could have access to his account for food, clothing, and other expenses, so he just kept out a small stipend for himself and had the rest deposited each month for his mother.

He’d had to do all that rather hurriedly because he needed to be on the mail boat to Stockholm to get to Västervik and his new assignment. He barely had time to get his mother’s few belongings settled in the small flat before he had to depart, and he feared that she would not understand about his account. Personnel had assured him that they would help his mother at their family affairs office, so he hurriedly explained that to her and had to leave.

“Mother, are you all right? You look so thin. Weren’t you able to get the money from the account?”

“Oh yes, Gustav. There were no problems, and the people at family affairs were very helpful and patient with me. As for me, I am well. It’s just . . . this is not at all like our village, and I just haven’t been very hungry.” She shrugged and looked down.

Cookie had a sudden insight. She was in a strange place, knew no one, and she was lonely! It was a marked change from the village life she was used to, where she knew everybody.

It was then she noticed Anna and Ivan standing behind Cookie.

“Oh my! Who is this?”

Cookie smiled slightly and coaxed Anna and Ivan around in front of him.

“This is Anna, and her son Ivan. They are from up north, and they don’t know our language. They are . . . I guess the closest thing is refugees. We picked them up, up north, but they don’t have anybody down here and no place to go.”

He looked his mother in the eye. “I hoped they could stay here with you for a while.”

“Why, of course they can! I’d be happy to have somebody here. I’ve been kind of lonely anyhow.” She dropped to her knees in front of Ivan. “Hello, Ivan,” she pointed to herself, “you can call me Mamé.” Then she grinned and held out her arms to him. His solemn face blossomed into a smile and he threw himself into her arms.

Anna smiled at Ivan’s response. What Anna didn’t know was that Ivan was about the same age that Gustav’s younger brother was when he died during the famine.

After Mamé had hugged Ivan, perhaps longer than one would normally expect, she stood up and smiled at Anna. “Hello, Anna. You can call me Mamé, too.” She held out her arms to Anna as well.

Anna hesitated only a moment and then hugged her too. She had met very few strangers in her life, and she wasn’t too certain how she should act, but this seemed to please Cookie so she just reacted with what seemed natural.

Mamé stood back and waved them into the house, smiling warmly. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any food warm.” She looked up at Cookie. “Do they have any clothing or anything?”

He shook his head. “No, all they have is on their backs. Well . . . except for this.” He put the sack of coins on the small table and motioned for the two women to sit down.

Carefully, he opened the sack and dumped the silver coins out on the table. Then he stacked them up in small stacks. It was a small fortune. His mother stared at the money, eyes wide. Anna looked at Cookie with a puzzled look.

He pointed to the money, then to her. “Vanya.”

She nodded slightly, but still frowned.

Cookie thought for a moment, then turned to his mother. “I don’t think she knows what money is, or at least the value of it. She came from a very remote village and they probably just traded for things. This makes things awkward. It would be easy for an unscrupulous person to get this away from her without her being aware of its value. There’s more than enough to get clothes and food for the two of them indefinitely, and probably much more besides, but somebody needs to guide her and protect her, and I can’t do it. I have to be back aboard tomorrow.

“Would you be willing to do that for her?”

“Oh, of course, I’d be happy to do that, but I’d be very nervous with that much money here in the house.”

“I think the thing to do is take her down to the credit union and open an account for her, and just let you and her draw on it as she needs it.”

His mother thought about that for a few moments. “Yes, I think that is a reasonable thing to do, but I wouldn’t want people to say that I took advantage of her and cheated her out of her money. I guess I need to keep track of how much of her money I use, and for what, so I can explain if there are questions.”

She stood up. “We might as well go. I need to go down there to the market anyhow, to get food for everybody. There’s almost nothing in the house.”

****

A few months later, Fearless sailed back into port after her first real deployment. Even from where the families and friends were cordoned off near the dock they could see the scrapes and scars on her hull. Cookie helped his wounded shipmate up the ladder and out onto the dock where there was a horse-drawn ambulance waiting to take him to the clinic where they could evaluate the success of Cookie’s work. The two medics with the ambulance complimented Cookie on his treatment and said it looked like his patient was healing well, but Cookie was still haunted by Hans, the man he had lost. Hans had lost a lot of blood by the time they’d gotten him below, and there was just nothing he had been able to do that was successful.

He went back below and cleaned and straightened up the galley, and briefed the man who would be serving the food Cookie had prepared while Cookie was on liberty. He took one last look around, then picked up the small bundle of things he had gotten for his mother, Anna, and the boy. Finally he joined the line of his shipmates checking out with the officer of the deck and heading ashore.

As he started out on the trek to the housing area, he went around the group of people being restrained by the Shore Patrol. As he did so he was startled to hear “Cookieeee!” and a small brown-haired rocket launched itself from the group and tackled him around one leg.

Cookie grinned and tousled his hair, then looked up to see his mother and a young woman following Ivan more sedately. It took him a moment to recognize that the young woman was Anna, her appearance was so changed. He kissed his mother on the cheek and hugged her as well as he could with an impediment swinging on one leg and chanting “Cookie, Cookie, Cookie.”

He grinned at his mother and said, “You look wonderful. I’m glad to see you looking so well.”

She smiled back. “I’m happy to have you home, even if it’s only for a few days.” She noted that he looked tired, and his eyes seemed older, and perhaps a little sad, somehow.

He turned his attention to Anna, and reached out and took both of her hands, just staring at her.

She smiled happily. “Well-come home, Gustav.” Her words were stilted, and accented, but there was no doubting the warmth behind them.

“You’re so pretty! I barely recognized you,” Cookie blurted.

She grinned, a little impishly, at him. “Do not I get kiss, too?”

He stared at her for a moment longer, then leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. One hand went around her back to steady her, and he noted absently that her back was no longer bony.

He stood back and looked her over more thoroughly, seeing the whole woman now, and not just her face. She had filled out in his absence, and there was no longer any doubt whatsoever that she was a woman and not a boy. She was dressed very nicely, not like a high-born lady, but like a proper young woman from their village. Her clothing fitted her well, and was made from good fabrics and machine-sewed. Where her hair peeked out from under her cap it was longer than it had been, but still rather short, and shiny black with soft curls. In their old village, a beauty like this would have had every young buck from anywhere in walking distance coming to court her, and perhaps some of the older men as well.

He finally disentangled Ivan from his leg and led him by one hand off toward the housing area, with a woman walking on each side chattering at him as they went. Anna had developed a decent vocabulary, and while it was apparent she was still thinking in Russian and translating into German, she was obviously on her way to becoming basically competent in the language. Ivan, like many children, was already almost at home in his new language.

MitB-bnhrsWhen they got home, Cookie opened up the small bundle he was carrying. He took out a small box and ceremoniously handed it to Ivan, whose eyes got very big. The little bone horse, a piece of scrimshaw Cookie found in a market, soon had Ivan crawling around on the floor making horse noises.

For his mother he had an unusual tortoise shell comb for her to wear in her hair.

When he turned to Anna, he frowned and began searching around in his sack, his brow furrowed. When he could milk the moment no longer, he pulled out a small pendant on a finely made chain and held it out to her, a slight smile on his face. She took it and studied it minutely, an impressed but somewhat puzzled expression on her face. He took it gently from her hand and carefully placed the chain over her head and around her neck, letting the pendant fall on her chest between her breasts.

She put her hand over the pendant and stared at him wonderingly. “My?” Cookie nodded, grinning.

His mother exclaimed over how beautiful the necklace was on her and went to get her scrap of a mirror so Anna could look at herself in it. The two of them huddled together, whispering to each other as they both looked into the mirror, and then they turned back to Cookie and kissed him on both cheeks at the same time. He blushed a bright red, but smiled happily.

****

That evening, when everybody finally went to bed, Cookie was startled to feel someone crawling onto the pallet with him. It was apparent very shortly that it was Ivan, and it made Cookie feel like he was finally home at last. It was like his brother used to do, and he pulled him close and was soon sound asleep.

Cookie wakened briefly to the sounds of low giggles and whispering, and when he managed to get an eye open, it was to see his mother and Anna giggling about how cute he and Ivan were, sleeping there together. He thought about that for a moment, then drifted off again. It was nice to be able to catch up a little on his sleep.

****

MitB-klThe next day was busy for Cookie. First, he had to let Ivan drag him outside to see his garden. Each unit had a small plot where they could plant a garden if they wanted, but these units had not been finished until just before mid-year, so there was little planted yet. His mother had put in peas and beans, as well as kale, but there was little expectation that the peas or beans would mature. However, they might help condition the soil for next year. On the other hand, the cold-hardy kale might provide them with greens well into the late fall or early winter. Ivan had planted a small plot, too, and Cookie oo-ed and ah-ed over the little shoots coming up, but there was no chance they would amount to anything.

Next, he went down to the credit union with Anna and reviewed her account with her. She had actually done quite well. His mother had made careful use of her account to get clothes for her and Ivan, and Anna had used a small amount of the money for odds and ends, but the interest on her account had done something to redress that.

What was impressive was that the small portion of her account they had decided to invest with OPM had grown substantially in just the few months he had been gone, to the extent that she had almost as much money overall as she had started with, despite the expenditures. Cookie thought it might be wise to take a bit more of her account and invest it, and they decided to do that. Anna was beginning to appreciate the value of money now.

Finally, he went to the clinic to see how Pieter was doing and to find out, if he could, whether there was anything more he could or should have done.

The doctor was busy, but he made the time to talk to Cookie when he found out that he was a medic on a ship. They went over in some detail what Cookie had done for Pieter, and the doctor assured him that he had done all that was possible, and that his examination of Pieter had shown him to be recovering well.

Cookie then asked, hesitantly, what he might have done to save Hans. He described in substantial detail what his injuries had been, and what he had done to try to save him, but in vain. When he was finished, the doctor said he had done everything that was available to him on shipboard, and that even if Hans had been here, in the base clinic, it was questionable whether they would have been successful. The only place Hans might have had a decent chance of survival would have been in Grantville, or Magdeburg, or Jena, where there were more facilities available.

Cookie thanked the doctor for taking the time to talk to him, but the doctor assured him that any time he took with Cookie, or any other medic, could be worth it in lives saved, and was well invested.

****

That evening when he lay down for the night, it was not long before he felt someone creeping onto his pallet again. This time, however, it was not Ivan. Cookie was sure it was not his mother, so he knew it had to be Anna. She was still dressed for bed, so he thought that she was not attempting to seduce him, and he was glad of that because he might have been easily led astray. It puzzled him though, even as he put an arm across her and she snuggled back against him. He knew that in their village betrothed couples had often spent the night together, but he didn’t think he and Anna were betrothed, were they? If they were, he wasn’t aware of it.

She had no father or other male, or indeed any, relative that he could approach for permission to woo her, so he wasn’t sure just what might need to happen in this case.

As he reviewed in his mind what had gone on since he got back this time, he began to suspect he was the subject of a plot between two scheming females.

He would have no objections to marrying Anna, and had they been back in their village he would hardly have hesitated. He realized that he had become quite attached to her in the brief time he had known her, and she was a very attractive woman to his mind. He just had never considered marriage, to anyone as long as he was a sailor going to sea in the navy. It was a dangerous life, even without the threat of hostile action. People were injured or killed all the time on shipboard, and ships were still lost at sea from weather or other causes. It was far too easy for the families to be left with no means of support. They would have to discuss all this in the morning and come to a resolution and a proper course of action.

Still, he thoroughly enjoyed having her cuddled against him, and he liked the smell of her hair. This seemed to him to be something he would like to be able to enjoy indefinitely, as he drifted off to sleep.

He sort of woke briefly to subdued sounds of movement and looked up to see his mother in the dim light grinning down at the two of them as she made her way to the shared toilet for their unit. He felt Anna move closer, and he tightened his arm around her and went back to sleep once more, feeling very comfortable.

****

At breakfast he confronted the two women, and the way they looked at each other immediately confirmed to him that his suspicions were correct. He recited his concerns about a family of his being left without support if anything happened to him, and they promptly brushed them off, pointing out that he and his mother had survived after his father had been killed, and that Anna would be even better off with the money that Vanya had left her.

Next he worried that he would not be in port long enough to post the banns and complete the formalities that were customary. His mother answered by saying she had already talked to the chaplain at the base chapel, and he had assured her that the only real requirement was that the couple truly accept the bonds that would bind them together for life, and that the rest was simply a celebration of their commitment to each other, pleasant and customary but not really necessary.

Cookie was not convinced. He knew, before he could really commit himself, that he had to get away from the sight and fragrance of this woman so that he could think clearly. It was too easy to be distracted here in the house. Marriage was more than a love match, it was a legal and moral obligation on both parties, and he needed to think through just how that applied to the two of them. What did each bring to such a match, and what obligations did each owe?

Regretfully, he shooed Ivan back to his mother, and set off on a path that would lead him down to the dock and along the shore where he hoped he could consider everything more objectively. It wasn’t easy. He walked along the shore with the fresh salt air blowing in from the sea and remembered the warmth of Anna’s body against his, and the fragrance of her hair as she snuggled against him. He was a serious young man, and he liked to believe that he could divorce his reasoning from his instincts, so it took him a while to recognize that it was not going to happen. No matter what he did, that separation was not going to occur. After agonizing for a long time he finally smiled, somewhat wonderingly, to himself and turned back toward the unit. He might as well surrender graciously.

****

That afternoon when he returned to Fearless, Cookie went directly to the captain and asked, apologetically, whether it might be possible to get two more days of liberty to get married.

Nils chuckled at him. “Yes, I think so, Cookie. We’ll be here for a while, so it shouldn’t be a problem. We move back to the anchorage tomorrow so you’ll have to take a boat to and from, but otherwise no problem. Are you marrying someone we know?”

Cookie blushed. “Yes sir. You remember Anna, the lady we brought back from up north? I’ll be marrying her.”

Nils smiled broadly and clapped him on the back. “Congratulations, Cookie! She’s a lovely lady and I’m sure you’ll be very happy together. I’m very glad she found someone to care for her and the boy.”

****

When Cookie went to the chapel the next day he was surprised to find almost the whole crew from Fearless there for the wedding, along with a few neighbors from the housing area.

When the wedding was over everybody gathered around the bride and groom, offering congratulations and best wishes. The sailors quietly made off-color suggestions to Cookie for his wedding night, and played with Ivan, teasing and tickling him.

Cookie was in something of a daze, a happy daze to be sure. He felt like his heart was overflowing with love and, truth be told, his loins were overflowing as well.

Nils met Cookie’s mother, whom he found to be an impressive woman. She was obviously very proud of her son. She reminded him of his own mother, a true Viking princess.

He was also surprised and impressed with the improvement in Anna’s appearance. This was an absolutely beautiful woman who looked very little like the scarecrow he’d seen on shipboard. He spent a few moments talking with her.

“You are getting a very good man. I hope you will take good care of him.”

The glow in Anna’s face was unmistakable. It was clear that this was a love match.

“I will do my best,” she said. “I knew he was a good man when he first took charge of Ivan and began caring for him. The kind and gentle way he treated him was easy to see. He is a very easy man to love. I will be honored and very, very, happy to be his woman.”

She looked seriously into Nils’ eyes. “I hope you will take good care of him, as well.”

****