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First USE Division sector, Siege lines around Posnan

14 November 1635

 

Sergeant Richard Hartmann heard a muffled shout moving toward the latrine ditch. He took one look, then roared, “Halt!” The three men who were holding another man over the trench turned, staring at him. The twenty-nine-year-old NCO pointed at the ground without a word. The soldiers immediately put the man they held down, but as he tried to flee, Hartmann caught him by the neck of his uniform blouse, dragging him back to where he had been.

Hartmann looked them over. They weren’t part of his platoon, but that didn’t matter. “An explanation would be good about now.” When all four started to speak, he merely glared them back to silence. Then he pointed at the one who had been about to go latrine diving.

“They attacked me for no reason!” Hartmann looked at him, noticing the eyes that were still looking for a way to escape. He pointed at the largest of the attackers.

“This schwein was going to use a letter from home as toilet paper!”

“A letter from home? If he wants to use a letter from his family that way—”

“May I speak, Sergeant?” The smallest of the three interrupted.

Hartmann looked at him mildly. No one who knew the senior sergeant of the First Company, Second Battalion, Third Regiment First USE Division was fooled by his expression. He was the kind of man who would look calm even as he was breaking your teeth with his boot. Almost sixteen years of war had taught him that. “It is impolite to interrupt another, especially a superior,” he commented. “However I will let the matter go this one time. Speak.”

The man gulped, but pulled a letter from his blouse, and extended it. Hartmann looked at the addressee, then looked again.

Soldier of the USE Army

The return address was I. Schiller at the grade school in Grantville.

“It is not addressed to anyone.”

“It is from someone in Grantville,” the one who had tendered it said. “We heard this schweinhund commenting that if it was not a woman willing to service a soldier on her back, he would find a use for it when he went to the latrine!”

Hartmann looked at the letter, putting it into a pocket on his own uniform blouse. “The second thing you will do, is notify your platoon sergeant of what he has done. I will deal with this letter.”

“I beg your pardon, Sergeant?” the last of the attackers asked nervously.

Hartmann looked at him, an eyebrow cocked in question.

“Second?”

“You were about to throw him into the latrine as punishment. Continue. But not head first. He might drown, or get sick.”

Hartmann turned as the man began to plead. As he walked away, he considered the letter. While in Grantville, he had heard that the up-time children would write letters to Santa Claus. This letter had been just as undirected. Why would a child write such an undirected missive? How did it end up here?

 

Hasenheide, five miles West of Poznan

 

Frau Zwinkov, the lady who ran the gasthaus, turned as he entered. “Are you hungry, Sergeant?”

“No, Frau Zwinkov, I am not. But a cup of broth would not be amiss.”

She nodded, bustling out. A moment later, her seven-year-old daughter came back, the tip of her tongue extended as she carried the mug to him. “Thank you, Svetlana.” The girl blushed, bobbed a quick curtsey, then vanished back into the kitchen.

Strybk-whtmntnbttlHartmann sat at the empty table, sipping his broth. Ever since he had been captured by Johann Tserclaes, Count Tilly, before the Battle of White Mountain, Hartmann had been first a boy among the camp followers, then a soldier. When Tilly had divided his army into parties to forage after Magdeburg, he had been a sergeant arquebusiers at the Battle of the Crapper and had been badly wounded. He had survived because of the up-timers, and been allowed to stay because Gretchen Richter had marked him as a man to be trusted.

When given a choice between leaving the army or staying, he had raised his hand in the up-time manner, and been inducted into their army. Afterward, speaking with the up-timers, he had learned a phrase he had cherished ever since.

He had seen the elephant. By horrid chance, at the cost of his entire family slaughtered or dying on the march, he had found his one skill in life, that of a soldier.

He had proven his skill and worth since. Because of his manner and skills at training, he had been assigned to stiffen a CoC regiment before Ahrensbök, and his men, nervous and terrified, had held.

But it had cost. His father and older brother butchered when the emperor’s army had slashed through toward White Mountain. His mother, still bleeding from being gang-raped, dying that night. Anna and Hans dead that first horrible winter.

He took out the letter and looked at it. Mainly the officers received letters, though there were some enlisted who did now. But for him his family was his unit, home the place wherever that unit was assigned. His work reaping the souls of those who faced him until he embraced death to be with his family again.

He opened the envelope, taking out the one sheet of paper.

 

Dear Soldier,

My name is Ilse Schiller. My mother brought me to Grantville when I was very young, but I am nine now! Soon I will be all grown up! I am in the third grade here in the town.

Yesterday in class Frau Clinter, my teacher, said we who remain home should send letters to those who fight to protect us. I was so excited I could not sleep, so I wrote this letter, and surprised her when I asked that it be sent to you. I did not know who would receive it. I know so few families that include a soldier. I am sorry I did not have a name to make it more personal. Forgive me.

I know I am not really old enough to interest you. One of my classmates tells me that soldiers are only interested in girls with breasts or who serve beer, and I understand that . . . a bit. But I felt that if you just needed a friend we could write to each other.

Awaiting your reply,

Ilse.

 

The letter was in a scrawl, as if she were excited as she claimed. He smiled gently. He was reminded of Anna, of how she would also say she would soon be grown up. The smile vanished. He remembered Anna’s face, gaunt with hunger, tired from the marching, coughing her life away as her fourteen-year-old brother carried her. He did not know a lot about what the up-timers called disease, but perhaps it had been Anna carrying young Hans when he was sick that had made her sick. Richard had not cared. She had carried the two-year-old boy until he died. He had carried the eight-year-old girl until she joined his brother in death, and he had buried both with his own hands as the priest spoke of God’s will, and Richard had silently cursed a god that murdered children, and left him alive.

He started to crumple the letter, then stopped. He walked over to the desk where the NCOs had their paper for reports. He took a sheet, and considered. Then he bent to the desk.

 

Fräulein Ilse,

The person who received your letter was not a nice man. It was taken from him by members of the CoC, and was given to me before they punished him. I had intended to pass your letter to someone else, then decided to write you myself.

I am Richard Hartmann, the senior sergeant of the first Company, Second Battalion, Third Regiment First USE Division. I am sorry that my title is so long. There are many men in a division, and many smaller units with many sergeants.

I am twenty-nine years old, and was born in Bohemia in a village that was destroyed before the first battle of White Mountain. My family is all dead now. Your letter reminded me of my younger sister who died during the winter of our first year as camp followers. She would perhaps be a married woman today if she had lived.

So, what shall we talk about?

Sincerely,

Richard

 

He took the letter and sealed it in an envelope. It took only a moment to cross the small village to the orderly room, and he sent it.

 

First USE Division section, Siege lines around Posnan.

28 November 1635

 

“You are an idiot!” Hartmann roared, his punch throwing the offending sentry off his feet. “Your weapon, your duty, your comrades, before anything else!” He looked at the guard he had caught drunk on duty. “Get up!”

The man staggered to his feet.

“Pick up your weapon, you poor excuse for a soldier!”

The man bent over, and Hartmann kicked him in the bottom, throwing him onto his face. “I said get up!”

The man scrambled to his feet out of range of another blow, then slowly moved back to where Hartmann pointed directly in front of him. “I will not report you today. But I warn you now. The next time I find you drunk on duty, this boot—” He motioned to his right foot. “—will be shoved so far up your ass, I will see the sole in your mouth. Do you understand?

“Yes, Sergeant!”

“Assume your post!”

The man walked to his position in the trench leading to the Battalion Headquarters.

“You have such a way with the men, Sergeant.”

Hartmann turned. His lieutenant, Heinrich Reicher waved idly at the salute. “Stand at ease.”

The sergeant relaxed.

“I was just at regiment, and was told you received a letter.” The lieutenant held it out. “I thought your family was dead.”

“They are, sir.”

“Then why is this Ilse Schiller writing you?” The lieutenant grinned. “A young woman of your acquaintance, perhaps?”

“Yes, sir.” Hartmann lowered his voice. “But she is a young girl in Grantville. She is only nine.”

“Ah.” The officer passed the letter to him. “What does she look like?”

“I have no clue, sir,” Hartmann replied. “She wrote using just ‘soldier of the USE’ as an address.”

“Such an optimist. But like any gambler, you sometimes win. Such luck deserves a reward, on both your parts. Why not take time to read it? Except for shelling the enemy, we don’t have a lot to do this morning.”

“Yes, sir.” Hartmann snapped another salute. This one the lieutenant actually returned. He looked at the sentry he had chastised. “Not a word. Remember I have two boots, and I can shove the other one down your throat to meet the first.” He spun, walking away. He didn’t go far, just enough that the sentry would not see him. He leaned against the trench wall and opened the letter.

 

My Dear Richard,

It is good that you answered, and so quickly! The rest of the class, for that matter the entire school is jealous of me! They even mentioned it in the paper this morning that I sent a letter, and you replied!

One of my classmates suggested that the man you took the letter from was going to use it in the bathroom. Is that the case? I would have been saddened that I was that unimportant to the brave men who fight for us. Now everyone in my class is working on letters, and a lot of them from my school will be going to your unit because of your response.

I do not understand how the army is put together. Is a company a large group of men? Should we send not to the company, but to one of the larger units?

Oh, my teacher had me read your reply in front of the class, and she laughed when she heard what your name is. The up-timers have copies of a movie named Casablanca, with a man named Rick and his girl friend was named Ilse!

The last section had been lined through.

Sorry, I blushed and scratched out that last, when my class heard of their relationship, I was teased about my lover. But I am far too young to have a boyfriend according to everyone I know, both my age and older. According to Frau Clinter, Rick in the story was a man betrayed by the woman he loved. I promise never to betray you. May I call you Rick?

I have heard the weather there is bad. That it snows often. I hope you will not get sick.

So what would you like to talk about? I am getting extra credit, because of these letters. What is it like being a soldier?

Awaiting your letter,

Ilse

Included was a clipping from the newspaper in Grantville. Just a small one about a local girl who was the first to send a letter. He folded the letter back, and put it in his pocket. He would write to her later.

****

Strybk-sldrwrtngAs the sun set, he sat at the table.

Dear Ilse.

It is nice to have received such a prompt reply, and I am happy you have received praise for your actions. Praise is what keeps a soldier from becoming a pig in war. As for being teased, friends always tease those they like, or when it is just fun.

The division is only a part of the army facing the Poles, only nine thousand of the almost twenty thousand men that encircle this city. My company is only a hundred men. We could not answer all of the letters from your school! I do not know who you would speak to, but you could have someone talk to the High Command in Magdeburg and ask that the letters be divided between all of the armies. That way men facing our enemies wherever they are will get a chance to receive a letter.

I would also suggest they ask for men to volunteer to receive them. But I think even the most warlike of our men would enjoy the chance to read of a place that is not filthy, cold, and where death is not something they expect.

It is hard here. It is cold, and we face freezing winds and snow. Men get sick, and some die because of it. If it were not for the rules the up-timers taught us about sanitary conditions, we would have many more sick. High Command makes sure we get the food we need, and hot broth to drink. Last month I had the chance of tasting coffee when one of our men who was from Grantville got a package from home. I am not sure I like the taste. I am told it is good with honey and milk, but it is too bitter otherwise.

Being a soldier is a hard job. It is very hard for people such as myself and the officers because part of our job is to lead the men into battle. I spend most of my time right now assuring that they are dressed warmly, and eat, because when it is cold, and you are outside all day as we sometimes are, the men get tired, and the cold makes them forget. If you do not try to stay warm, if you do not eat, you will get even colder, and may die.

Some fools drink, and while it makes your body feel warm, it also makes you stupid. I had to punish a man who was drunk today, and if he is sick tomorrow, or dies from the cold, I will have failed in my duty to him.

What is this extra credit? Is it something you can use to go to a store and buy things?

Stay safe, my girl,

Rick

 

First USE Division section, Siege lines around Posnan.

21 December 1635

 

Hartmann stepped into the house, shaking off his hat, then hung up his great cloak. The weather had been clear for part of the day. Except for a small firefight between some cavalry probing their positions, the area he was in was quiet, though there had been reports of cavalry trying to break through the siege lines over in the next battalion sector. A package the size of a shoebox was sitting on the table, and George Himmler was looking at it. The sergeant looked up then pointed. “Something from your little girlfriend, Rick.”

He sighed. “She is not my girlfriend. If I were a father, she would be young enough to be my daughter.” He scraped the mud off his boots, then took them off, walking to the fire to set them down to dry. “Why was it not delivered to me in the trenches?”

“It just came. One of the men working at the airfield delivered it.” Himmler looked impressed. “It was sent in one of the Gustavs!”

Hartmann walked over, looking at the brown oilcloth wrapping tied with twine. He sat and carefully untied the string. Private Kohler could use the twine. Inside the wrapping was a box made of cardboard they were now manufacturing, and he opened it. Right on the top was a pair of mittens, and the letter. He took the letter out first.

Dear Rick.

I was in the paper again! I was even mentioned on the radio show! There is even a picture of me one of the people who does pictures for it took. I do not understand the entire process, but they call it daguerreotype. I actually had the man spell it out the word for me. What it meant for me was that I had to sit still for a long time, which is hard for me. I wanted to move, turn my head, even jump up and down, it was so hard! Somehow they printed it in the paper, but the editor of the paper allowed me to have the picture to send to you.

I intended to spend some of the money I make helping out at one of the old folks homes on some coffee for you, and went to the McAdams Mining Company, where they process it for sale. I did not have enough money, but the woman I spoke to asked if I was Ilse Schiller. I said I was, then she asked if the coffee was for ‘my Richard.’ I laughed, and said yes. So she gave me half a pound of it! And even gave me a pot of honey to sweeten it! All because we have started people caring about our soldiers! We have become famous!

My mother knitted you some warm socks, and I knitted a pair of mittens. I am not good yet, but one of my classmates who is an up-timer said it is the thought that counts. If they are too poorly made, I will understand if you do not wear them. But my mother is making money knitting socks, and everyone buys them as fast as she can knit.

I have included a copy of the paper, and some sausage. I know you have food there, but I was also told by my up-time friend that sending things from home, especially foods. is part of what I should be doing. After your comment about being sure to eat, I worried. Are you keeping warm? There is also a surprise in the box, but I will let you find out when you open it. I only hope it arrives before Christmas.

Stay safe, my dear Richard. You are in my prayers every night.

Ilse

He sighed, then looked into the box. He chuckled when he took out the mittens. They were uneven, thick in some places, thin in others. And she obviously didn’t know that a soldier cannot fire his rifle with them on. But he tried them on. They were snug, and he felt a warmth from them far beyond the simple wool. The socks looked warm, and he knew they would be.

He stopped, then with a gentle hand lifted out the picture. It showed a blonde girl, sitting on a chair, looking into the camera. She was dressed simply, and except for how clean she looked, could have been any village girl he had seen in his years of war. He could see a little rebellion in her eyes, or perhaps it was because she had said she liked to move. He set it down reverently.

Then the paper. He opened it, and found the same picture above a headline:

LOCAL GIRL A DRIVING FORCE IN LETTERS FROM HOME!

Beneath it was a small package marked MCADAMS MINING COMPANY CHICORY BLEND with a folded paper which explained how to make coffee. He was glad they had explained. He expected he would have to just throw the ground mixture into a pan of boiling water, which was how Corporal Zimmer had made it. Then a glass jar full of honey. Beneath it was a wrapped bundle of sausages.

There was another small package at the bottom, and he opened it. Cookies, wrapped in paper with the same scrawl. Made with love! Ilse. Beneath that in a much more refined hand was the addition, I had her mix the ingredients, and let her time them. But I supervised, signed by Hannah Schiller.

He looked at all of it, eyes blurry. A hand slapped on his shoulder. “What is this? The most terrifying sergeant of the entire army crying because he gets a gift!” Himmler asked.

“Shut up, George.” Hartmann wiped his eyes. “Have a cookie.”

 

First USE Division section, Location classified

15 January 1636

 

Richard marched in and stood at attention before the desk. “Sergeant Hartmann reporting as ordered, sir.”

Colonel Krüger looked at the papers on his desk, then at the man before him. “Stand at ease, Sergeant.” then he held out a message form. “You are being sent to Grantville.”

“Sir?” Richard looked at the message.

From: First Division

To: Third Regiment Command

Re: Hartmann, Richard, Sergeant.

INFORM THE SERGEANT THE YOUNG GIRL HE HAS BEEN CORRESPONDING WITH WAS INJURED 10 JANUARY IN AN ACCIDENT. HIGH COMMAND HAS ACCEPTED THE REQUEST OF THE PRESS THAT HE BE ALLOWED TO BE WITH HER BRIEFLY FOR THE MORALE BENEFIT TO THE NATION.

THE ABOVE NAME MAN IS GRANTED COMPASSIONATE LEAVE NOT TO EXCEED THIRTY (30) DAYS TO GO TO GRANTVILLE SOTF. MOTOR TRANSPORT AUTHORIZED.

Hartmann felt as if he had been hit in the stomach. He had gotten used to receiving a letter from Ilse every two weeks like clockwork. It was a glimpse of a gentler life he had not known he hungered for. Somewhere that didn’t include having people he didn’t know trying to kill him. In fact, he had begun to worry because she had been so punctual in her replies and had never missed a day. He looked at the officer numbly.

“You have done good work with this, Sergeant.” the colonel told him. “You are used as an example everywhere these letters have been sent. I am told you made sure other units are getting them?”

“Yes, sir. When she asked if she should send them all to my own unit, I imagined higher command wondering why one company was doing nothing but answering letters. So when the first large number arrived, I spoke with the other sergeants in first the battalion, then regiment, then the division.”

“Very well done. Morale has improved thanks to your efforts.”

“Thanks to her efforts, really.”

“Yes.” Krüger stood. Hartmann was looking at the message. He was not responding at all. “Pack your gear and get to division. They will expedite.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

****

The next morning was a blur. Hartmann arrived at Division headquarters, and a Lieutenant had him get in one of the pickup trucks. “Are you afraid of heights, Sergeant?”

“No, sir.”

“You will be!”

Hartmann looked at him curiously, then his eyes widened as the truck pulled in at the small airfield. Before he really understood, he was stuffed into a Belle, and was in the air. He found yes, he was afraid of heights.

Finally the pilot pointed, and he saw Grantville as he never had before.

The field was crowded. In fact, it was a madhouse. As he climbed down, it got worse, because most of those madmen it seemed were there to see him. Questions were shouted by people from as far away as Hamburg and the Rhine. The only paper he recognized was the one of Grantville itself, though he heard the name Associated Press in one shouted question.

“Sergeant Hartmann, is Ilse seriously injured?”

“Sergeant, have you been called home because the girl is dying?”

He wanted his rifle, and the bayonet. He was sure he could force his way through with them!

Finally, city police had to force their way through the crowd to one of the up-time vehicles, and he was hurrying now faster than a horse could run with a siren blaring to clear the streets ahead.

He had heard of the Leahy Medical Center, and was amazed by it. They had only been building it when he marched off to war, but now it stood on its own precious acreage, and again, it was packed with reporters. He forced his way through the crowd to the entrance where he found blessed silence at last.

“Sergeant? I am Nurse Kimmel. Come with me, please,” a short, attractive brunette said.

“Ilse. What happened to her?”

“She slipped on the stairs at school,” the nurse replied. She saw his face, and smiled gently. “It was not that bad an injury. She broke her right arm, and it is in a cast. But she was worried that you would wonder what had happened, and the press found out, causing this madness.”

“Ah, good.” A burden lifted from his shoulders.

Finally they came to a door. The nurse motioned to it, then bustled off. Hartmann looked at it, then gently pushed it open.

A small blond girl lay on the bed, a platform of some kind before her, with a book open. She looked up to see who had come in, and her eyes widened. “May I help you?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” Hartmann asked. “I am looking for Ilse Schiller?”

The girl’s eyes grew sad. “Are you here to tell me that Rick is dead?”

He was shocked. “Dead? Why would I be here to tell you that?”

She looked down, tears on her cheeks. “When Rudi’s father died at Ingolstadt, they sent a soldier to tell him. Ever since then, I have dreaded that someone would one day come to tell me that Richard was dead.”

“No.” He walked over to the bed. “When you were injured, high command ordered me here.” He wasn’t sure what to do. Finally he said, “I am Richard Hartmann.”

She looked at him in amazement, then suddenly began to grin. “Oh! I am going to have the entire class jealous again!”

Grantville Train Station

4 February 1636

 

The departure was more subdued than his arrival. Hartmann walked down toward the train, Ilse skipping along beside him, her mother following. He stopped, kneeling down to look the girl in the eye. “I have to go now.”

“I know.” Ilse sniffled, then flung her arms around his neck. “Oh, be safe, Rick! Come back to us.”

He hugged her back, then wiped the tears from her face. “We’ll always have Paris.”

“Oh, you!”

****