Krzysztof Opalinski was obviously puzzled by Morris' reference to himself as Gandalf. But, to Melissa's surprise, his companion Jakub Zaborowsky grinned.

“Not exactly, Herr Roth—at least, not from our viewpoint. You are more in the way of our Elrond. Perhaps Galadriel.”

Morris gaped at him. Jakub made a modest wagging gesture with his hand. “I like to read. Although I must say that while I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, the premises are absurd. In that story, everybody loves the king except the forces of evil—and there are no rapacious great noblemen to be found anywhere. A fantasy, indeed.”

Morris was still gaping at him.

“Close your mouth, dear,” murmured Judith. She gave Zaborowsky a smile. “I'll admit the image of my husband as an elf is delightful, but . . . I don't really understand what you mean by it.”

Jakub shrugged. “It is not complicated, really. Gandalf was the leader of the active struggle against Sauron. In Poland and Lithuania, at least—and certainly in the lands controlled by the Cossacks—Herr Roth cannot possibly play that role. The Poles are a fractious people, and the Lithuanians even more so. But if Wallenstein makes the mistake of trying to encroach upon their territory, they will unite against him. And they will have Hetman Koniecpolski leading their armies. He is not a general any sane person takes lightly.”

Morris had closed his mouth, by now. “Well. No, he isn't.”

“To put it mildly,” said Melissa. Stanislaw Koniecpolski had pretty much fought the Swedes to a stalemate from 1626 to 1629, after they invaded Polish territory. In the end, Gustav Adolf had decided it would be smarter to sign a treaty than continue the fighting. “I have never been in such a bath,” had been his comment after the final battle of the war near Trzciana, which was for all practical purposes a Polish victory. Stanislaw Koniecpolski could say that he had defeated Gustav Adolf in battle, a claim which precious few other men could make, if any.

It helped salve Gustav Adolf's pride, of course, that the ensuing Truce of Altmark was mostly in Sweden's favor. As was usually the case, Poland's strength on the battlefield was not matched by equivalent political cohesion. Koniecpolski himself was reported to have opposed the truce—but he'd been sent to the Ukraine to deal with a Cossack uprising.

For the past year and a half, the hetman had been fighting the Ottoman Turks. Again, Koniecpolski's ferocious skills on the battlefield had driven his opponent to seek a treaty. It had just been signed in September.

“As for the Cossacks,” Zaborowsky continued, giving his companion Fedorovych a little nod that seemed half-amused and half-respectful, “I am afraid you cannot take Dmytro here as a valid sample of the lot. He has no animus against Jews at all, so far as I can tell. Not so, for the average Cossack. Even Jewish traders are at some risk in Cossack territory.”

Naturally, that set Morris back to glaring. At the wall, however, since he couldn't very well glare at the only Cossack actually present.

Seeing the nod in his direction, Fedorovych asked for a translation. Once he got it, he grunted. Then, jabbered something that had to be translated back.

“What he says,” explained Zaborowsky, “is that I am exaggerating some. Most Cossacks have no contact with the Jews in the towns and their villages. All they see are the Jewish rent-collectors and estate managers that exploit the Ruthenian peasants. So they take those as representative of the lot, when in fact they are a small portion. Dmytro's been in the towns, and he knows that most Jews are just as poor as most peasants.”

Having finished, he shrugged again. “What he says is true enough. But Dmytro is such a good Christian under the Cossack bandit exterior—you understand, I am being very generous with the term ”˜Christian'—that I think he underestimates the force of sheer bigotry. Especially when it is reinforced weekly, sometimes daily, by priests of the Greek faith.”

Melissa couldn't help but make a face. “The Greek faith” referred to Orthodox Christianity, which, in this day and age, was lagging centuries behind both the Catholics and the Protestants. Where the Roman church and any one of the major Protestant denominations could boast many accomplished and sophisticated theologians, the Orthodox church could count none. Where they were all vibrantly independent churches, even if they often had to tack and veer to deal with powerful secular rulers, the highest Orthodox prelates were under the thumb of either Istanbul or Moscow.

So, it was a church that relied almost entirely on ritual and custom. Good enough, perhaps, for the illiterate or semi-literate peasants of eastern Europe, and the Cossacks. But it had lost the allegiance of the native ruling classes of the vast Ruthenian lands. For all practical purposes, they had been Polonized. Ethnically still Ruthenian, they spoke Polish and practiced Catholicism or, in some cases, Protestantism. Very few of them even dwelt any longer on their Ruthenian estates. They left those to be managed by overseers—often Jewish—while they moved to Warsaw and Krakow and lived in city mansions. The last of the great Ruthenian magnates still of Orthodox faith, Prince Wladyslaw Dominik Zaslawski—perhaps the richest lord in the entire Commonwealth—had converted to Catholicism in the summer of 1632.

The end result was a “Commonwealth of Both Nations” that was actually a commonwealth of three nations—but the third nation, the Ruthenians, had no voice or say in the affairs of state.

Nor did the Poles and Lithuanians bother to be polite about the matter. Just two years earlier, a Cossack delegation had shown up at the electoral convention which chose Wladislaw IV as the successor to the Polish-Lithuanian throne, following the death of his father Zygmunt III. They claimed the right to participate in the convention, pointing to their frequent and valiant role in Poland's battles with the Turks and Tatars as their credentials.

The response had been blunt, and as rude as you could ask for. It was explained to the Ukrainian roughnecks that, yes, they were indeed part of the Commonwealth's body—just as nails are part of the human body, and need to be trimmed from time to time. And they were not welcome in the convention.

Leaving aside the arrogance and bigotry involved, it was hard for Melissa to imagine anything more stupid on the part of Poland and Lithuania's rulers. Bad enough, that they treated their Ruthenian serfs like animals. But to do so when those serfs had living among them a large and ferocious warrior caste like the Cossacks . . .

They were practically begging for a social explosion, and, sure enough, it was on the horizon. In the universe she'd come from, the situation had finally erupted in the great Cossack revolt of 1648, led by the Cossack ataman Bohdan Chmielnicki. The revolt had shaken the Commonwealth to its foundations, leaving it wide open to the foreign invasions that would devastate Poland and go down in its history as “The Deluge.” And, in the end, Poland would lose the Ukraine to Moscow. And with that loss, the power equation between the two great Slavic nations would shift drastically in favor of the Russians.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff