Article Category Archives: Fiction

Barbie and the Musicians of Bremen

Bremen

April 1635

 

“Marieke! Come here now, girl!”

Marieke cringed in her bedroom, looking out the blue curtain-framed window at what had begun as a sunny spring day. Her father’s bellow told her the day was probably getting worse rather than better.

Marieke’s stepmother quickly confirmed Marieke’s suspicions when she peered around the bedroom door with a worried look on her slender face. “Marieke, dear, your father would like a word with you in the library. Please come with me.”

At that moment, her father released another elephantine bellow from the floor below. Marieke thought she saw the painting of the flowers on the wall over her lace-covered bed quiver but surely, she told herself, she imagined it. Didn’t she?

The picture could stay calmly perched on her wall but she must follow her stepmother to confront the man calling for her. At eighteen, Marieke was very much an adult but her father still ruled the house and held sway over his unmarried daughter.

Marieke loved her sometimes bombastic father but ever since he had retired from Prince Frederick’s service a few months back, her father had been a man with no purpose. Instead of spending hours every day managing affairs for the prince, her father wandered around the house, and sometimes all of Bremen, like a rooster with no hens. That meant that he was all too free to attend to the affairs of his small family, most especially including Marieke.

Stepmother and daughter went down the wooden staircase to the richly appointed library where the red-faced bürger paced in front of a huge stone fireplace. His green silk doublet had wrinkled where his ample belly had stretched the material as he sat at his leather-topped desk. But now he was apparently too agitated for any sitting.

“Marieke, my dear, I have something I must ask you.” His whole demeanor told both daughter and wife that the man was having to make a major effort to contain himself and control his temper. He spat out his question like it tasted bad on his tongue. “I have been told that there are rumors of you still being involved with the ludicrous, demon-spawned Committee of Correspondence in town. Is this true?” Herr Knaub’s grey eyes bored into her, his ferocious beetling eyebrows framing their anger.

Herr Knaub stood in front of the unused fireplace as if he could not move until his daughter answered. Frau Knaub gasped and held her breath, waiting for Marieke’s reply. The color drained from her face and neck as Marieke pushed back her white blonde bangs, dropped her cornflower blue eyes to the wool rug under her feet and gripped the light blue skirt under her brown bodice. She had known she would have to tell her parents some time but had hoped it would be later. After all, the confrontation about the now-traveling Hans had been but four weeks back. Hardly enough time for the hurt feelings to heal. Even though she knew Hans had planned to leave and go study engineering, Marieke still blamed her father for running the young man off sooner than she wished.

All this flashed through her mind as she stood in front of her father and her stepmother wrung her own hands.

“Well? Answer me, child? Is my daughter still consorting with revolutionaries and atheists? Is this a lie by those who wish us ill?”

There was no help for it. She could not outright lie to Papa. He would find out and then, then he would not trust her. No, she must, as the up-timers said, make a clean breast of it.

“Yes, Papa, I have been spending time at the Freedom Arches in town. They are good people and have been helping the flood victims. You have always told me it is our Christian duty to help others.” Marieke could see the storm clouds suffusing her father’s face as the rest of her pitch poured from her lips. “They do so much good and they help so many people. Besides, Aunt Betlinda volunteers there, too.”

At the mention of his sister’s name, Herr Knaub became, if possible, even more enraged. His chest puffed out even further, endangering the silver buttons. “Do not use your aunt as an excuse or example of anything. That apostate holds queer ideas about life and has always been an embarrassment to this family!”

He paused to calm himself, running a pudgy paw through his thinning grey hair, pushing the once-neat shoulder-length hair back from his sweating face.

“What am I to do with you? First, you take up with a young man from a family of night soil workers. Now I find you are spending time with up-time revolutionaries. Do you not see how your actions besmirch us all? I am a man of some importance in our town! Your mother is known as a beacon of righteousness! Your brother is . . .”

Marieke could stand her father’s self-righteous tirade no longer. “My brother is a pompous, primping, two-faced lout who only cares for himself! The stories I could tell . . .”

She was ready to declare a litany of her brother’s sins and missteps when her father stopped her with a raised hand as he turned his back. “Stop now, girl, before you overstep yourself. This discussion is about you, not Ebbe! He has not been called in fault!”

Now Marieke’s face was as flushed as her father’s. “It is time to discuss him. He had no right to attack Hans and no right to say anything about how I live my life!”

“Yes, he does on both accounts. You are unmarried and still the responsibility of this household. It falls to us, your mother, brother, and I, to ensure you are able to make a good marriage when the time comes. Running with the reprobates of the CoC could dirty your reputation, making it impossible for you to find a good match short of frozen Russia or God-forsaken Ireland! No! There will be no more discussion! You will not go back to the CoC, and you will stay away from Betlinda.”

Marieke heard her stepmother sob behind her, knowing she could not reason with her enraged father. Afraid of losing her own temper beyond reason, Marieke turned and fled the room, running up the stairs to her bedroom. She slammed the door behind her and threw herself on the bed.

Whether from anger or frustration, tears filled Marieke’s eyes, dampening the down pillow she cried into. She did not want to give her father the satisfaction of hearing her cry so she pushed her face into the pillow.

What was she to do? Marieke had always wanted a true job, a true purpose. Working with the CoC gave her that purpose. She could well and truly help people who needed aid. She had been raised to be a pretty, yet vacuous housewife, a trophy for some well-heeled businessman or noble. She was trained to serve tea and social niceties. But always, even before the up-timers arrived and showed her world that women could do more, be more, she had wanted better. No, she couldn’t captain a ship to explore the world but through the CoC she could change things for the better! Couldn’t her father see this?

Maybe she could convince her stepmother . . . She and her stepmother were not close, but they also were not open enemies. Their relationship was more like two boats docked at the same port.

Aunt Betlinda would help her if she could. She understood. She herself worked with the Committees of Correspondence and had avoided the chains of marriage so she could stay free. Maybe if Marieke declared her intention of doing the same her parents would leave her alone and give up on making a marriage match for her. It was worth a try . . .

Marieke lay on her bed as the sun rays shifted and the day passed. Intent on planning her escape from matrimony, she did not hear the first few rappings on her door.

“Marieke! Marieke!” A quiet female voice called from the other side of the wooden barrier.

Her sister, Katrin, slowly opened the door and stepped halfway into the room. “Are you going to throw something at me?” Katrin’s lips curled into an impish grin. “Your row with Papa was quite impressive. I don’t want to come in if you are going to use me for pitching practice like the up-timer baseball players. Are you, or is it safe?”

“You are quite safe, Dumpling. Come in and sit with me.” Marieke was the only family member that Katrin let call her by her baby name, Dumpling. When she was young, Katrin with her round face and body did bear a passing resemblance to a potato dumpling. As she grew older, Katrin had lost most of her baby fat and with it, the baby name.

“I only caught part of what was said but it seems Papa does not agree with the way you spend your time?” Katrin had seated herself on the bed, pushing off her silk indoor shoes and putting her bare feet on the bed. Her hair was a darker blonde than Marieke’s but she had the same clear blue eyes. It being a housework day, Katrin had on some of Marieke’s hand-me-downs. At fourteen, Katrin was almost as tall as her older sister.

Marieke reached out to affectionately tug on one of Katrin’s fuzzy braids. “I think you heard enough. Papa is concerned for the household reputation and demands that I avoid the CoC.”

A sly smile spread across Katrin’s sweet face. “Yessss, I am sure he said that. I am also sure you will not do that. Am I wrong?” The smile grew to a toothy grin.

Marieke met her sister with a smile of her own as she reached for a small, clean cloth on the night stand next to the bed. She blew her nose and gave a short laugh.” You know me too well, Dumpling. I have been making other plans.”

Katrin giggled and hugged her sister. “Good for you! It is a new time and a new world. It is time that women make their own destinies and not be forced into marriages as their life’s work.”

“That is what I have been learning from Aunt Betlinda.” Marieke nodded and dabbed at her still-dripping nose.

“I am so glad to hear that! There is something I have just been dying to tell you, and it seems that now is the time.” The younger girl glowed with anticipation.

“Tell me, silly goose! What could be that important?”

Katrin drew herself up on the bed, sitting as tall as she could, patted her yellow skirt and straightened it across her knees. “Two things, actually. First, I have decided what I want to do with my life. You know I love up-timer rock and roll. I have always been able to sing.”

“Yes, and?”

“I have joined a rock and roll band as a singer.”

Marieke clapped her hands and hugged her sister. “How lovely! Have you told Mama or Papa?”

“Not yet. The band has only started rehearsing together. We have a drummer. It’s not really an up-time drum set. It is an empty ale barrel. Then we have a lutist. We hope to add a few more players in time.”

“Does your band have a name?”

“Not yet, but we are trying out several that sound like up-time bands. I can’t tell you now because it might jinx it. But I can tell you something else.”

“And what would that be? I can’t wait!”

“Well, I cannot tell you one name but I can tell you another.”

“Stop being so mysterious and tell me!” Marieke gave her sister’s arm a small shake.

“I have given myself a new name. Katrin is sooo down-timer. My name is now Barbie, like the dolls. I can’t think of another name that sounds more up-time.”

“Well, Barbie, this will definitely help my cause.” Marieke giggled and shook her head.

“Why?”

“After you tell Papa your new name he’ll be so apoplectic with anger he will forget all about me. Either that or he will feel relieved that all I want to do is talk with up-timers, not become one. So, thank you, Barbie.”

The two girls looked at each other and broke into gales of laughter.

****

 

In a barn outside Bremen

A few days later

 

The newly-renamed Barbie stood amongst a group of young male and female musicians in a large wooden barn. The only animals in attendance were a few chickens pecking the ground in search of a late lunch and four grey goats wandering among the humans cadging for treats from bags and pockets. Midafternoon sunlight slipped through the open slats here and there.

The young music makers spread themselves on the bound hay bales stacked in the center of the barn.

“Let’s get this going, shall we?” Barbie stood in the center with a tall, gangly young man a few years older than the young Knaub. His large hands emerged several inches beyond his slightly dirty cotton sleeves. His dark brown hair brushed the top of the expensive, lace-touched white collar. His up-timer jeans tucked into well-worn leather boots, and a blue patterned doublet completed his attire.

The young people scattered around him and Barbie ranged in age from thirteen to nineteen and carried a wide selection of instruments, even one or two that their instructors might not recognize as musical instruments like an ale barrel or two.

All the young eyes were fixed firmly on Barbie.

“So you want to be in an up-timer rock and roll band?” The young man scanned the musicians arrayed around him.

All the heads nodded in unison. A few shuffled their feet.

“How many of you are already in an orchestra or another group?”

Several of the young men raised their hands. The young women sat with widened eyes. One spoke up, a girl with auburn plaits wrapped around her head like a crown. “If we have not been playing with another group does that disqualify us?”

Barbie and the young man next to her, Carl, conferred quietly then turned back to the teenager. He spoke in a surprisingly deep voice. “Of course not, Brigitte. Rock and roll is about new things, breaking new ground, celebrating the music in all of us. We do ask everybody to try out so we can see how you fit n with the band. What do you play?”

She scrunched up her courage. “Recorder.”

Carl turned to the girl next to her. “And you, Gisela, was it?”

The young woman with short light brown hair smiled shyly and mumbled. “Sackbut.”

Carl continued around the loose circle, receiving a variety of answers. “Trumpet.” “Flute.” “Guitar.” “Lute.” And others.

“It sounds like we have the making of a kickin’ band!” Barbie clapped her hands in delight.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with the group talking about what up-time music they liked and getting to know each other.

****

 

The Knaub household

A little over a month later

 

Marieke heard light steps coming toward her bedroom door. She thought it might be the young maid bringing in the laundry or some other morning chore. Marieke turned back to her book. She had been reading a book copied from the Grantville library. She knew her father would not approve of the title so she hid it in her skirts when she heard steps.

The steps stopped outside her door. She slid the thin book into her skirt pocket and picked up the needlework she kept nearby.

She barely recognized the apparition that slid into the room through a half-opened door. Marieke gasped, drawing her hand across her open mouth.

“Katrin?”

Was this really her sister? Was this a joke? Marieke had never seen anyone dressed like this. It could be Katrin, or maybe not. Should she laugh or not? Frankly, she had no idea how to act.

A familiar voice called her name. “Marieke, it’s me. How do you like the new look?”

“Katrin, Barbie, whoever. What have you done? What are you wearing? Where is the rest of your hair?” Mielke did not know where to look first or what to ask. All she could do was gape.

The last time she had seen her younger sister the girl looked like many girls in Bremen. Long, braided hair with a nicely embroidered brown bodice laced over several sets of cotton skirts accented with lace on her starched blouse. Light shoes on her small feet finished the picture.

But that was this morning. Obviously, something had changed. Katrin had made a full transformation into a rock and roll diva.

Every strip of clothing Marieke could see on Barbie/Katrin was black. She wore a black stretchy turtleneck under a black leather bodice over a series of black cotton skirts. At the bottom, Marieke could see black hosen and heavy black leather boots peeking out. Her sister had cut her beautiful blonde hair! Her hair, when loose, had reached past her bottom but no longer. Now, the shiny blonde hair barely covered the girl’s ears with a straight bob. Perhaps the most shocking details danced across the black bodice –white and silver skulls grinned their way across in a macabre yet delicate chain!

“Katrin!”

“No! Please, it’s Barbie now.”

“All right, Barbie . . .” Marieke held her tongue and ran through all the things she might say.

“Marieke, will you come to our first gig? That’s what up-timers call a recital, a gig. It will be so much fun! We are going to play real up-timer rock and roll songs! It is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me! Please, say you will be there! Please!”

“I don’t know, Ka . . . Barbie. No, I will be there. Girls have to stick together, right?” Marieke stood up and walked over to her dark-clad sister and hugged her.

****

 

Bremen, Rathaus

Morning, September, 1635

 

Betlinda Knaub paused, took a deep breath, and sailed into the office of the Bürgermeister und Präsident des Senats, as the mayor of Bremen had been known for centuries. The occupant wasn’t the man known from the histories—he’d fled with the prince-bishop. The new officeholder was a widowed functionary named by Prince Friedrich, a man named Emil Jauch who was from a famous family in Hamburg. He was stout, and in the warm weather of early September, he was florid and sweating through his expensive red silk doublet.

“And what may I do for you, Frau Knaub?” Herr Jauch unfurled one of his broader smiles to welcome Betlinda into his office.

“I have an important treat to offer the citizens of Bremen. You will recall the story of the ‘Musicians of Bremen’?”

“Yes, and I just was overseeing the placement of the statue that is based on the up-time photo of the statue they say stood in the Rathausplatz in their time. It is near the holy statue of the paladin Roland.”

Betlinda smiled back. “We have a group of young people, what the up-timers call ‘teenagers,’ who have formed a musical group, a band, and they call themselves the Musicians of Bremen. They would like to perform for the city.”

“Well, I hope their musicianship is better than the cat, the dog, the rooster, and the donkey!” Jausch thought his witticism the height of humor and let loose a friendly guffaw.

“They would like to perform in the Rathausplatz next month. May we have your permission?”

“What kind of music do they play?”

“Music to dance a brawl by.”

Jausch leered at Betlinda, who was a very good-looking older woman. “Do you dance a brawl, Frau Knaub?”

“Oh, call me Betlinda, and may I call you Emil? Yes I love a good brawl. If you approve the concert, I will surely save a dance for you!”

Jausch grinned, and stood. Beneath his doublet he was wearing up-timer blue jeans, stuffed into high brown boots. He held his hand out and she shook it. “You have your concert, Betlinda. I hope they are good.”

“I’m sure you will see . . . they play up-timer rock and roll!”

****

 

Bremen town square

An early October evening in 1635

 

Between the statue of Roland and the new statue of the Musicians of Bremen, the assembled townspeople shuffled their feet as they sat on every available space. Those still standing pressed forward to see the stage lit by candles and torches. Vendors wove their way through the crowd with sweets, mulled wine and pastries. Mothers tossed their little ones on their laps to keep them amused while everyone waited for the new music.

The crowd held people of all ages, from babies in arms to almost toothless grandfathers. Several shopkeepers had rolled carts outside where they peddled ale and brats, pretzels and candies. Everyone wanted to be at Bremen’s first rock and roll concert!

Several fires had been lit on either side of the low wooden stage. Some people had brought out candles in holders they held or stood upright in the dry ground. An array of instruments was arranged as if waiting for their musicians. There was a lute, a harpsichord, a clavichord, a sackbut, a dudelsack, a recorder on a stand, a guitar, and even several ale barrels of varying sizes arranged in a circle.

Then a tall, young man took the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you . . . Barbie and the Musicians of Bremen!” The tall man in his late twenties stood in the middle of a raised platform, surrounded by an array of musical instruments. The silver buttons and chains strewn across his black leather jacket, pants, and boots reflected back the flickering candlelight.

The audience watched as a procession of young musicians filed onto the stage and took up their instruments. A burly teenage male pulled up a straw bale behind the well-used ale kegs and started a backbeat. The rest of the musicians picked up their instruments. As the rest got going, Barbie in her blackest finery danced on stage, pounding a tambourine. She got into the first song—Geboren in Bremen. The few citizens who had heard up-time music and any up-timers in the crowd would recognize the tune as “Born on the Bayou.”

Barbie belted it out at the bottom end of her sweet alto register. The male harpsichordist joined in on the chorus, adding more depth. All the musicians, male and female, got lost in the tune and missed the hoots and calls from the attending family and friends. Some of the instruments were a little too light to be easily heard but all the musicians played, letting the music flow through their instruments.

One clump of listeners stood in shock near the back of the crowd. Herr and Frau Knaub stood flanked by their son, Ebbe, and several retainers. Silence swathed the small party as Herr Knaub’s face grew redder and redder. His wife kept glancing between her husband and the stage where his youngest sang and banged her tambourine as if the world were ending.

The scrawny, ginger-haired young man, Gunter, made his dudelsack sing like a moaning cow. Gilbert, in a dapper dark blue doublet with embroidered skeleton edging, played counterpoint on the harpsichord with a strong backbeat, echoed by blonde, chunky Metta on the flute. Other teens joined in on guitar, clavichord, sackbut and underneath it all like a giant heart was Bernhardt of the massive arms, the smith’s son, pounding the driving beat while sweat poured off his dark curls.

Marieke and Aunt Betlinda sat on a bale at the front of the audience where Barbie could see them. Shortly after the music started she saw them drawn along by the musical flood with the rest of the increasingly appreciative crowd.

By the end of the first song, the happy Bremenites were clapping and stomping, their legs carrying them through polkas and simple stomps, as they made largely unsuccessful attempts at singing along with the rousing chorus.

The song stopped, and Barbie swiftly swung the Musicians of Bremen into their next one, “Stolz Maria” or “Proud Mary” to the English speakers. Nobody seemed to care too much about the words as the young band carried the song to a rousing crescendo.

The Musicians of Bremen kept up their concert, bewitching the town square. By the end of an hour of up-time-based songs their black costumes were drenched in sweat, and the townspeople were dancing on and around the bales, with ersatz polka and waltz steps and some that resembled nothing more than an outright brawl.

Halfway through the gig, the Musicians of Bremen took a few minutes to grab some water and air. A few audience members had left, mumbling, “Devil’s music” and “Never want to hear that again!” But most of the townsfolk, of all ages, were just catching their breath and waiting for another round. They were saying things like, “Best polka I ever heard!” or “I haven’t danced a brawl that good in a long time!” The children universally took advantage of the chance to dance unabashedly across the square with their parents using more traditional steps. The older people seemed split, with a few leaving, complaining this must be devil-inspired, but most staying to clap hands and tap toes.

As soon as Barbie felt the band members could hit a beat again, she started into the second half. Now the audience was ready for them. There was no hesitation as there had been at the beginning of the first set. Bernhardt, sweat plastering his light linen shirt to his body like a wet second skin, hit the top of his ale barrel and everyone was on their feet.

The Musicians of Bremen kept the crowd dancing through several more songs ending with a fully German version of “It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It.” All the band members not playing an instrument that required their mouths joined in on the final chorus.

Then, just as suddenly as the music started it stopped. The young players were so tired they resembled nothing more than clockwork figures that had merely run down. Sweat dripped off their clothes and hair. They seemed almost too tired to hold their instruments. The crowd milled about, exhausted but too energized to stop talking. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Bremen!

The susurrus of the crowd rolled across the square. Then, one voice, one word, resounded from the back of the happy crowd. “Katrin!!!”

Herr Knaub, looking like an expanded red balloon, stood staring at his bedraggled youngest daughter. Her stepmother sat on the bale next to him, fanning her face with a Spanish lace fan.

Barbie was still on the stage, chattering happily with her band mates. Her father’s voice cut through everything, dragging her attention to the other end of the square where he stood, ready to explode.

She looked at each of the other musicians then stepped off the platform and headed toward her family. Barbie walked past where Marieke and Aunt Betlinda stood.

Marieke grabbed and hugged her as she drew near. “That was wonderful! You were wonderful l!”

“That you were, my girl!” Betlinda stood nearby, beaming with pride. “I have not had that much enjoyment in ages!” Her greying braids frayed where the hair had escaped as if to better enjoy the music. Her embroidered brown dirndl was unfashionably damp.

Fully aware that her father still loomed at the back of the milling crowd, Barbie hugged them and promised to talk more later. Then she headed to meet her father.

“Papa! Did you enjoy the show?” Barbie cast her lot by pretending she did not see her father’s impending explosion.

“Katrin, we MUST talk.” The words seemed to push their way past his clenched jaw rather than being propelled.

“Wasn’t it marvelous!?” Barbie looked from her father to her stepmother, even glancing at Ebbe who loomed at the back of the family. She hoped her status as youngest daughter would protect her from the worst of Herr Knaub’s ire.

“Not the words I would choose, Katrin. We will discuss this at home. In private.” With that he turned to his wife and then Ebbe. “Enough of this for now. We are all going home now. You, too, Katrin.” Herr Knaub walked off, somehow seeming to stomp without actually doing so, followed by his wife and son.

Ebbe grinned maliciously at Barbie as he pulled up the rear of the small procession. He had always been jealous of her. Barbie figured this was his chance to become the favored one. Fine with her! She never wanted to be a pampered princess. She wanted to have a real life! She was going to be a rocker! Imagine! The first down-time rock diva!

****

 

The Knaub Household

Later that evening

 

Barbie walked slowly up to the front door of her brightly illuminated home. Light poured out of the windows on the first and second floors.

This told her everything she needed to know, or feared, about her father’s anger. Normally, the house would be dark at this time of night. Maybe Old Albruna would be in the kitchen baking the morning’s pastries. But Barbie had never seen the house lit up like a lantern this late. Maybe she should wander outside for a while, hoping her father would fall asleep, and everyone else would follow.

Barbie started to move away from the ornately carved front door and back into the late night shadows. Too late.

Unseen, Ebbe had stationed himself at the library window as lookout. “Katrin, Father is looking for you.” His voice boomed out across the front yard like a foghorn.

As if waiting for the right sign, her stepmother swept out the front door, directly at Barbie. “Katrin, we were all so worried. Where have you been? You are still dripping wet and in this cool air, too.”

Before she could physically drag Barbie in the doorway, Herr Knaub’s voice reverberated through the house, out the windows and down the lane toward town. Somewhere in the back of her mind Barbie wondered if the band members could hear him, too. “Katrin!”

Barbie felt herself being dragged, gently, by her stepmother into the house and down the hallway to the library where her father radiated anger like some ancient battle lord. Her stepmother waited for Barbie to get all the way into the library and then left her standing in front of her father, who was also standing.

“Katrin. You are to begin a new life tomorrow. Or rather, you are to return to being my beloved daughter. I do not know this skull-bespangled, black-draped apparition that shrieks in public. This is not my Katrin! I demand to have my Katrin returned to me! With the morning light! Am I clear?” All of that he had ejected in what seemed like one breath. Then, with a deep “Hrumph!” he sat in his red leather desk chair with air of a king who has just made a kingdom-wide pronouncement. His dark grey eyes bore into her blue ones.

Barbie was silent, stunned by her father’s reaction. She had expected him to be upset but she had never seen him this angry. What should she say? What should she do? What could she say or do? She loved her rock and roll. How could she make him understand? This was who she was, what she wanted to be. No words came.

“Well, Katrin, you are home now, and the morning will see the return of my girl. You may go to bed now but make no mistake. I do not want to see you like that again. Am I understood?” The anger seemed to have bled away a little bit but Barbie could still hear the steel in her father’s words. With that, he waved his hand, motioning her towards the door. Then he put his head in his hands, feeling the anger replaced by exhaustion.

Barbie turned and left, climbing the stairs to her room. She noticed Ebbe and her stepmother had vacated the hallways. Where was Marieke? Barbie told herself she hoped she was already out of the way of their father’s temper.

Once in her room, Barbie disrobed, secreting her precious outfit away where, she hoped, no one could find it. She knew her father would order one of the servants to search her room for it so she planned to take it to one of the band members’ houses in the morning. Then she curled up in her bed, falling swiftly into an exhausted sleep.

****

Sure enough, Barbie woke as Old Albruna rummaged through her closet, obviously looking for something. Barbie noticed that various piles of clothes had been moved since the night before.

“Young Katrin, Guten Tag! I am looking for your dirty clothes. It is wash day and, after your raucous night, I suspect you have at least a few things to wash, do you not?” The old woman continued to cast her eyes across Barbie’s room as if the offending clothing would raise its hand to be recognized and collected.

Barbie thought quickly. She hated lying, but it had taken quite an effort to get that outfit together and if it went with Old Albruna she knew it would disappear. Her father would have already ordered it to be destroyed. No! She would not give up her dream so easily!

“I changed elsewhere before I came home and left last night’s clothes elsewhere.” She hoped the old woman would not check her story with anyone who had seen Barbie come home.

“Ach! Well, bring them home for cleaning when you go out. There are fresh buns in the kitchen for your breakfast, so come on, sleepyhead.” Old Albruna had been with the family since before Barbie was born so she could take such liberties with the young mistress.

Albruna bustled out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Barbie knew she couldn’t hide much longer in her room. She had to get up and out. She had to figure out what to do. Besides, by looking at the height of the sun, she realized it was mid-morning. Someone had decided to let her sleep in. Could this be a good sign? She could hope, couldn’t she?

She slipped out from under the voluminous, cream-colored comforter with a small whimper. The chill in the air caught her by surprise. Barbie wrapped a woven woolen blanket around her so she could perform her morning ablutions without shivering. Albruna or someone had brought a pitcher of clean water and set it next to the basin on her washtable. It could not have been too long before because a slight trail of steam still rose from it.

Barbie started to wash her face then stopped, startled by the image in her looking glass. Was that her with the huge black circles around her eyes? Oh, that was it . . . She had gone to bed so late and upset she had forgotten to take off her rocker makeup. Giggling at herself, Barbie started scrubbing her face, removing makeup and sweat alike. She would have to remember to wash after the shows, she told herself. If there were any more shows . . .

There had to be more shows! She would find a way no matter what it took! She had never felt more alive, more right! She knew the chill she felt now had less to do with a fall morning and much more to do with last night. The first night of her life as a rocker.

As she dried her face and pawed at her newly shorn hair with a wooden comb, Barbie began gathering her thoughts and strength for the battle ahead with her Papa. Surely he wanted her to be happy. Couldn’t he see this made her happy? She had to show him, convince him, that this was the best for her. But how? He was a traditionalist. He believed that the best thing for his girls was to marry well. Ebbe could do as he liked, but she and Marieke must obey Papa. That is what he believed.

And where was Marieke?? She should have heard from her by now. Normally, Marieke would have woken her, refusing to let her sleep so late. Oh well, that’s a question for later . . .

She silently argued her case to her clean-scrubbed image in the glass. The Ring of Fire had changed everything! The up-timers showed us women could do and be something other than hausfraus with retinues of servants. Look at Rebecca and Gretchen, the heroines who were changing the world! They did get married but they were not tied down to a house like a horse to a plow. Oh, no! She would be free, too!

Barbie felt her courage slowly creeping back in when someone knocked on her door. “Katrin dear, are you ready to come downstairs? Everyone else is up.” Her stepmother knocked again, this time a little harder.

Guten Morgen! I am up and dressing. Give me a few more minutes to properly prepare myself.” Barbie wanted to stick her tongue out in rebellion at the door but didn’t. She was above such childish displays. Besides, she must prepare herself to be a rock diva, and surely rock divas did not partake of such displays!

Listening to make sure the older woman walked back down the hallway, Barbie checked for her hidden clothing. She moved her painted dresser and found the now-dirty black bundle where she had placed it last night. “Good! I still have my rocker clothing!” She threw a glance around as if someone might have snuck in while her back was turned then returned the bundle and the dresser.

Under her breath Barbie mumbled, “I guess I must play the good girl at home and dress the part. But there is no growing my hair back overnight so I guess he will have to accept that part of me.”

She pulled on a blue skirt with yellow edging, a white linen blouse and her old dark blue bodice with embroidered edelweiss. “Don’t you look like the proper fraulein now?” Barbie allowed herself one display of tongue extension at the neatly-dressed girl she saw in her looking glass. “Papa will just LOVE you!”

She turned around, opened the door and walked into the hallway to meet today’s fate.

She had not even reached the bottom of the stairs before her father bellowed, “Katrin, please come to the library.”

Marvelous! He was not going to even let her break her fast before commencing with the lecture. Just great! Well, at least she looked the way he wanted her to look. He couldn’t complain about that. Except her hair.

Barbie walked down the hall to the already crowded library. An odd tableau met her view. Walking in she wasn’t surprised to see her father in his usual leather throne. But what did surprise her was who else awaited her. Aunt Betlinda, Marieke, and the Bürgermeister und Präsident des Senats himself! What was his name? Somebody Jausch . . . Never mind! What was happening?

All except her father seemed happy to see her. The bürgermeister stood in his warm fur-lined red doublet beatifically surveying the scene. Aunt Betlinda and her sister grinned like, like cats out of that up-timer book Alice in Wonderland. Aunt Betlinda kept looking, sidelong, at Herr Jausch and smiling in a peculiar way. Her father smiled with that tight-around-the eyes expression she had seen him use when he was avoiding telling the prince a hard truth. All too odd! What was happening? And what did they want with her?

Herr Knaub started to speak. “My dear Katrin, the bürgers . . .”

Before he could finish the sentence Herr Jausch broke in, offering his hand to Barbie as if she were a princess. “Katrin or Barbie, I must tell you I and my family thoroughly enjoyed your performance last night! I and my darling wife danced like we were bewitched! You and your band must perform again and often! That is why I am here.” He seemed to have completely forgotten Herr Knaub, now standing at the desk looking forlorn.

The bürgermeister continued to hold Barbie’s small hand in his large, somewhat hairy one. “The bürgers met right after the performance. None of us could have slept so soon after that invigorating music, could we? So we voted and decided that you and the Musicians of Bremen must be asked to perform at least once a month in Bremen. Your band will set Bremen apart from all the other towns, nay cities, in Germany! We will be the envy of the others because we have a real up-time style rock band! We will be the talk of Europe! We will have real Musicians of Bremen!”

As he talked the bürgermeister spoke faster and faster, obviously warming up to his topic. Meanwhile, Herr Knaub became more and more deflated. What was he to do? He could defy the bürgers and require Katrin live a life of quiet anonymity, or he could please the bürgers, and probably his prince who wanted to please the bürgers, and let her become that wild thing.

Finally, Herr Knaub could hold quiet no longer. “Sir, we are greatly honored by your offer . . .”

“Herr Knaub, this not an offer as such. Please consider this as more of a request. Barbie and the Musicians of Bremen are the most exciting thing to come out of Bremen in many generations. We do not believe what these young people are doing should be lost or go elsewhere. They are Bremen-bred and the whole world should know it!”

Barbie could not believe her ears! Not only did the town like their music, they wanted more! She noticed her Aunt Betlinda said nothing, but the grin on her face could not have been wider. She was enjoying this moment way too much! What part had she played in this scenario? Marieke stood behind Betlinda, grinning widely.

Herr Knaub gave up. He knew from long experience with the bürgers that he could not outtalk this one. He needed time to consider his options. He did not like being shoved into allowing Katrin to become a whirling, screeching display. Even if it would be good for his beloved Bremen.

“Indeed, Herr Bürgermeister, it was a long night for us all. As you can see, Katrin is as startled by your reaction to the performance as I am. I need some time to talk with her.”

Seeing he was not to get an immediate approval, the bürgermeister‘s face clouded over but he hung on to the remains of his smile. “Of course, we can understand, Herr Knaub. But please do not keep us waiting long. We want to publicize our jewel as soon as possible. The Christmas season is pressing close, and we would want to draw in visitors at least once during that time.”

He turned his attention back to Barbie, her hand still caught in his grasp. “Barbie, I hope that you can prevail on your esteemed father to do the best for his city.” With that, he leaned down, kissed her hand, bowed to the other women present and processed out into the hall, where someone led him to the door.

The air seemed to rush back into the library with the bürgermeister‘s exit. Herr Knaub fell rather than sat into the leather seat behind the desk. No one spoke.

He seemed to not know whom to glare at first, torn between Barbie and Aunt Betlinda. Herr Knaub had forgotten Marieke was still in the room, half-hidden behind an elaborately detailed clock.

“Is this your doing, Betlinda?” Herr Knaub spit out the words like they tasted bad. Now he only had room to glare at his sister.

“Not quite. He only asked me to come along because he suspected that you might not welcome the idea. Everyone DID hear you last night, after all. But now I must return home. I have some duties to attend to, and . . .”

“And you are done sticking your meddlesome nose in my family’s life for today, aren’t you?” It was a good thing that he could not really throw daggers out of his eyes, or he would have been charged with sororicide. At the moment, the penalty would not have distracted him. He was beyond furious with his older sister. She denied it, but he knew she had some guilt in this matter.

Enough time to deal with her later. For now, he was in a quagmire with Katrin. He needed time to think. “So be it, Betlinda. You have most certainly done enough here for now. But know, this matter is not done.”

Betlinda took that as her cue to leave, taking Marieke with her. Marieke seemed perfectly content to leave and put distance between herself and an exploding father.

That only left Barbie standing in front of her father. She had no idea what to say or do. She began the morning expecting it to go one way and something happened. But what? What would her father say! Would he allow her to openly play rock and roll? Would he demand she remain his Katrin?

Time stood still as Barbie stood in front of her temporarily silent Papa. The tall clock ticking was the only sound in the room for more breaths than she noticed. Both people were lost in their own thoughts.

Then Herr Knaub broke the silence with his quiet hammer of a voice. “What am I to do?”

****

Small is Good

Nürnberg City Hall

April, 1635

 

“You can’t be serious?” Master Grünberg just couldn’t believe his ears. “You really want to leave all rifles to these . . . these . . . people?” His voice sounded like what he really wanted to say was “northern barbarians,” but in the end, his sense of propriety had taken over.

Ratsherr Hans Petzold, a famous master goldsmith and member of the city council, tried to calm him. “Listen, Master Grünberg, it’s a temporary measure. We currently cannot compete with Suhl and Magdeburg on rifles. With our traditional methods it simply takes too long to produce a single one, and even if ours are prettier, there aren’t many noblemen left that are willing to wait that long and able to pay twice the price just for a pretty exterior. If we are lucky, they buy their guns in Suhl and then ask us to ‘improve’ on it. Until we get the needed machines produced in Essen, we will have to learn and pass the time by making handguns. Small is good, for now. Getting all the information on the necessary steps to reproduce the new Dutch pepperboxes was expensive enough. Let’s not waste that investment. We have an order for 600 of them from a cavalry regiment in Berchtesgaden. That’s enough work for all of us to keep busy for months.”

Ferdinand Grünberg shook his grey head. “If you want to go ahead and concentrate on those pistols, fine. They sure are impressive and effective weapons. But I have been a Büchsenmacher all my life. Long rifles are my specialty and I will continue making them.”

“You will go broke making them.”

“Let that be my problem. I am 55 years old, a widower, and I do not have an heir. I have saved enough over the last dozen years to last me for ages. So I’ll let you gentlemen worry about your own affairs. Look at it this way: Now the 600 ordered pistols will employ everyone else even longer. Good night to you.”

For a moment, the Ratsherr was tempted to involve his colleagues to make it a formal order. But in the end he figured Grünberg was right: it did mean more work for everyone else.

 

Nürnberg, Grünberg house

April, 1635

 

The next morning at sunrise, Master Grünberg sat at his table at the window, studying all the papers he had been able to acquire on the topic of up-time rifles, thanks to the efforts of a former apprentice of his who now was a journeyman in Suhl. He went through them one by one, stopping after each page, considering what he had seen and how it related to what he already knew. From time to time his eyes moved to the remains of an up-time shotgun he had bought cheaply last week. The stock and lock were still in very good shape, but some giant seemed to have squashed the two barrels. He got up and put the distracting thing into a bag that he put on a shelf, then sat down again.

He was halfway through the stack when Matthias Heckler, his journeyman, entered the workshop, with their single apprentice tagging along. Moritz Maus was fourteen and in his second year of apprenticeship. An orphan at age twelve, he very rarely smiled, almost as rarely as his master. As always, Heckler had bought fresh bread rolls and a couple of broadsheets.

“Good morning, Master Grünberg!”

“Good morning, Matthias. Moritz.”

As he had done every day for the last years, Heckler put the bread rolls and the broadsheets on the table, then went downstairs to the shortest of the three dry caves that reached into the stone of the mountain Nürnberg castle was built upon, to fetch some cool milk and cheese. The longest one served as Grünberg’s shooting range (with the ‘range’ part being defined rather loosely), while the third was used for storing his black powder and guns. Meanwhile, Moritz set the table.

They were eating in silence, Matthias and Moritz reading the broadsheets, Master Grünberg continuing through his bundle of sheets on up-time guns. Once he was through with them, he looked at his journeyman.

“Anything important happening in the world?”

“Not really. But after his fifth beer someone who shall not be named told me yesterday evening that Master Kotter is making progress with his cartridge project. It seems the trick is to use just the right amount of silver in the mix and to seal them with shellac when the cartridge is completed, to keep the bullet more firmly in place and the powder dry.”

“So, how close is he to be able to actually produce workable brass cartridges?”

“Pretty close, I think, as long as we are talking about small numbers. From what I gathered, they need a lot of soldering and other work to come out right, and he still has to buy the primers from Grantville. So he will be hard-pressed to compete with U.S. Waffenfabrik once they get their production facility up and running. It’s frustrating, really. Whenever one of us has a bright idea, we get trumped by up-timer technology.”

Master Grünberg looked out of his window and down to the wall. “Maybe. And maybe not. If I understood you correctly last week, the Suhl people will have a few production lines, concentrating on cartridges for their most common guns.”

Heckler nodded. “That is my understanding, at least. These machines are really expensive. So you need to produce large batches to pay for them.”

“Which means that all that Master Kotter needs are small series of special guns he can concentrate on.” Grünberg frowned slightly. Then he picked through the bunch of sheets he had looked through before. Slowly, a grin started creeping up his face. Heckler raised an eyebrow.

” ‘Small is good’ said our revered Ratsherr yesterday. I think he might be partially right. Just not in the way he thinks about it. Let’s go to the arsenal.”

****

Like many weaponsmiths, Grünberg had elected to pay most of his taxes to the city by equipping the city guard with weapons. His specialty in this respect had been, for a long time, all kinds of Hakenbüchsen. Those were huge rifles (unlike their earlier smoothbore predecessors of the same name which became known as harquebuses in French), about two yards long, which would be used as wall guns. Those were either equipped with trunnions that could be locked to swivel mounts on city walls or with hooks (Haken) or spikes that could be rammed into the top of an earthen rampart to keep the weapon there and transfer the enormous recoil into the earth instead of the shoulder of the user. Most of Grünberg’s guns were especially long and had both options; they were thus called Doppelhaken. Unlike many of his colleagues in other cities, he had rather soon, after some experimentation to find the optimal bullet, settled on a single bore size and caliber of balls. His guns thus had very similar performance profiles.

Traditionally, those very precise guns were used to snipe at enemy generals (who rarely came into range of the walls any more, though) and, more importantly, sappers and the crews of siege guns and mortars. At five hundred yards, the heavy bullets the gun fired could still cut through most provisional fortifications put up by enemy sappers. Recently however, Hauptmann Reinhold Gerber, captain of the city watch and an old friend of Grünberg, had told him that due to the increased range of the USE artillery, his Hakenbüchsen had lost most of their tactical value and they would soon have to require him to deliver normal rifles instead. Grünberg had been rather upset when he received that news.

Sure, he could easily afford to pay his taxes in cash and not even feel any effects. This was not about money; it was about pride. The pride of a man who had until recently made some of the best rifles in the world and now was relegated to amateur status. That would be hard to accept for anybody. For Grünberg, whose only wife had died giving birth to a stillborn son years ago, his work was all he had left. By now, though, he started to suspect that that dark cloud had a huge silver lining to it. Or was it a golden lining?

***

As Grünberg had expected, Hauptmann Gerber was at the city arsenal, inspecting part of the weaponry. Since the guard was well-acquainted with the master weaponsmith, he had no problem being admitted, while Matthias and Moritz waited at the entrance.

Gott zum Gruße, Hauptmann Gerber!” Given that he visited his friend in his official capacity, there was no way he would address him by his given name.

Gerber raised his eyebrows for a moment, then smiled. He knew Grünberg well enough to understand the reason for the formality and to feel that he had overcome his righteous anger at Gerber’s decision not to employ Hakenbüchsen any longer.

“Master Grünberg. A pleasure to see you here. How can I help you?”

“I wanted to talk with you about my Hakenbüchsen.” He held up a hand. “No, don’t worry. I am not trying to convince you to keep them in service when they can’t perform their task any longer.”

“That is very understanding of you. So what about these guns?”

“Well, you know, you might not have much use for them anymore. But when making them I gave them my very best, each time. Every single one of them is worthy of a master, I think.”

“No doubt about that. It really is a shame they have lost their defensive value for us. And of course they are too heavy to use in the field.”

“Still, they are my children and I don’t want to see them melted down to make muskets out of them—or pistols for that Scottish colonel. So I want to buy them back.”

Gerber grinned. “Hm. So you mean to pay the taxes you avoided by giving us the guns?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You got years of good service out of them. A decade, for some of them. No, I am going to pay you what you’d get from a metal collector.”

Gerber considered the demand, but only for a moment. While not a guild in the formal sense, the weapon makers were quite influential in the city. Having good relations with them was especially important for the city watch. Given the insult Grünberg must have felt when he was informed of the new tactical realities, this offer was the perfect way for all concerned to save face. And if the deal lost the city council a few thaler, it was still worth it.

Einverstanden. Last time I checked, there were 24 of your long guns here at the arsenal. Let’s see if we can find them all . . .

****

After Matthias and Moritz had dragged a little wagon filled with the guns up the hill to Grünberg’s house, they took the time for a second breakfast, consisting of a glass of beer, some bread, and a little bacon.

“So what are your plans for these guns, Master Grünberg?”

“Plans?”

“Don’t look at me like that. I have known you for years now. You are up to something.”

Grünberg only smiled in response. It always had been difficult to keep a secret from Matthias, but by now it was near impossible. So he simply put a sheet of paper in front of the two. Moritz whistled when he finally understood what he saw.

“That is a pretty big gun,” was all he could say. And he was right. The 1918 T-Gewehr was a big gun. For a shoulder-fired weapon, the first anti-tank rifle in the world was simply massive. Still shorter than a Doppelhaken, though.

“We’ll start smaller. As I said: small is good.”

“Say rather ‘small is relative,’ ” intervened Matthias. “If I understand you correctly, you want to transform your Doppelhaken in something like an up-time sniper rifle, modeled after this monster?”

“Exactly. After all, they are the closest thing we have to sniper rifles down-time. The barrels are already there, and rifled all in the same identical caliber. I did a quick check of the two oldest ones while you were washing your hands. They were well cared for, and their steel barrels still look perfect. That’s most of the work already done. Now we simply need to add on the other parts to transform them into reliable breechloaders able to shoot brass cartridges.”

Moritz snorted. “Simply.”

“The T-Gewehr is really a simple weapon. Ingenious in its details, but simple. Which is why I chose it as a model.” Grünberg smiled again. In fact, he might have smiled as often today as he had during most of the year to this date. Thus was the power of inspiration.

Matthias had a more practical concern: “Let’s say we are able to complete these ‘small’ versions of that monster. Though, if I understand these numbers here right, unless we cut down your Doppelhaken a lot, the end result won’t be any smaller than that. A little more slender, maybe, but possibly even heavier. Bigger caliber, definitely, though with black powder it will be less powerful overall. And let’s assume you get Master Kotter to make brass cartridges for them. The question remains: Who do you want to sell them to? Our city guard won’t want them, especially after you tricked old Gerber to sell them to you for scrap value. The USE Army and the SoTF National Guard have their own sniper rifles. But if we sell those to Bavaria, in addition to the pistols, we might start a war of annexation by the USE. Then there is Bohemia, but I think Wallenstein wants to build up his own, independent weapons industry to compete with us, so he is out, too. Who does that leave?”

“Salzburg, Tyrol, or—most likely—Swabia. More precisely, the Count of Hohenrechberg. My masterpiece as a journeyman was a hunting rifle for his father, so he should know my work. They are basically next door, and he is building a nice little army in his part of the province. As the official head of a provincial military force, he might even  have simplified access to Grantville technology. More importantly, as vice-administrator, he controls most of the ironworks of the Aalen area. We are already getting more iron from them than from our traditional suppliers in the Oberpfalz. They are planning to modernize their foundries soon, in order to produce serious amounts of high quality steel. So I can see lots of potential for cooperation in future weapons projects.”

“Like a real T-Gewehr, you mean?” Matthias deadpanned, his amusement still shining through his eyes.

Moritz couldn’t help himself, he had to jump up and clap his hands together. “Yes!” he cried out, with the biggest smile anybody had ever seen on his face.

Maybe small wasn’t that good, all things considered, thought Master Grünberg.

****

“After two bottles of my best wine, Master Kotter is on board. In fact, he is as enthusiastic about the project as Moritz,” Grünberg told his crew the next morning with a wink. “Now, I showed you yesterday how to separate the barrels and how to shorten them. Moritz, the remainder of the week you will separate as many of them as you can. Matthias will help you with the first two. After that, he will cut them down to the right length. Meanwhile, I will work on a related project.”

“A related project?” asked Matthias.

“I think I found a good use for the cut-offs. Not telling yet. You’ll find out soon enough, if it works.”

Matthias looked at a bag sitting on Grünberg’s workbench. “I guess the content of that bag is related to your new project?”

“Right you are. But I’ll take both the cut-offs and that bag with me downstairs.” Grünberg had a second workroom on the underground level attached to the caves. It got lots of light, especially during the afternoon hours, and he used it when he wanted some quiet and could count on Matthias to keep an eye on Moritz upstairs. “Get to work!”

****

By Saturday afternoon, Moritz had detached all twenty-four barrels, and Matthias had cut down most of them from slightly over seven feet to about five feet, when Master Grünberg called them downstairs to his shooting range. On the shooter’s table, they could see something under a big piece of cloth. Strangely, at the end of the short range stood not the usual target, but an old, worm-eaten table lying on the side, top towards them.

“Please put on your ear protectors,” Grünberg ordered.

Once everybody, including himself, had his ears covered, he picked up the package and stepped behind the bar separating the entrance area from the shooting range proper. When he dropped the cloth, his back still covered its contents from sight.

BOOM! Crack! BOOM! Crack!

The whole cave was reverberating from the two blasts that had come within half a second—and the table that had served as a target was reduced to splinters. Grünberg turned back to his team and looked into wide-open eyes and even wider mouths. “What . . .” both started asking, then stopped, looking at the small object in Grünberg’s hand.

Grünberg grinned, pushed on a button, snapped the weapon open and turned it upside down. Two big brass cartridges, still smoking, dropped to the ground. “Given the unusual caliber, Master Kotter found it easier to start with shotgun shells. The up-timers call this a coach gun, I think. While they used longer barrels, at short range the one-inch caliber is devastating enough, as you have witnessed. And for every sharpshooter, an observer would need an easily-portable weapon of his own. Matthias took in the gun, especially its broad but short barrels—at one foot long they were closer to those of a contemporary cavalry pistol than a real shotgun. Well, you could still call it a sawed-off version of a shotgun. Then he looked at the stock and lock more closely. “Is that . . .”

Grünberg nodded. “Yes. The remains of the up-time shotgun I bought. Its caliber was close enough that I could get it to fit after some fiddling. Wouldn’t hold the pressures of an up-time smokeless cartridge, but as you have seen, I got it to fit closely enough that outgassing is not a problem. So what do you think?”

He looked at Moritz who was still standing there, eyes wide, but with another huge grin now spreading across his face.

Maybe small was good, after all?

****

Master Kotter and Ratsherr Petzold are historic down-timers.

Everyone else is invented or a blend of different down-timers.

A contemporary Doppelhaken from Suhl can be seen here: http://www.engerisser.de/Bewaffnung/weapons/Doublehackbut.html

Master Grünberg’s guns would be a little longer, but not much.

****

 

The Monster Society: From the Ashes

Henrietta crossed the muddy yard between the house and the barn, weaving back and forth to avoid the worst of the puddles. It was barely an hour past dawn, and already she was exhausted. No matter how hard she tried to put the Monster Society and the loss of Ray out of her head, she had lain awake all night thinking of things she might have done differently—things she might have done that would have saved him.

She ducked into the barn and stood for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light. It was warmer than the yard, at least. The ox and pigs gave off heat, and the hay in the loft above held it in, even when the wind whispered against the roof.

Henrietta tucked her braid up under her cap and grabbed the two-pronged pitchfork from beside the door. On any other day she might have been resentful of doing this work alone and the knowledge that she might not be able to see her friends. But with Ray gone, she no longer had friends, and the work was at least an outlet for the anger and grief that held her so tight she wondered if it would ever fade.

She murmured to the ox soothingly as she used the fork to pull the dirty straw from his stall. Her arms and back aching as she worked with a feverish determination – tossing the soiled bedding over her shoulder into the middle of the little barn. Thrust. Lift. Toss. Focusing on the work so she would not have time to think of anything else.

The door to the barn creaked open, light spilling in for a moment before it shut again. Henrietta shoved the fork into another mound of straw. “I’m not done yet, Papa.”

“It’s not . . . Hey!” Natalie dodged sideways as a clod of straw and manure hurtled toward her.

Henrietta turned and looked at her with a scowl. “I’m busy.”

“I can see that.” Natalie shuffled her feet. “But we need to talk.”

“About what? The Monster Society? I told you. I’m done with that.” She dug the fork into another pile of straw and hurled it over her shoulder.

“Hey!” Natalie sidestepped again. “No, it’s not about that.” She moved closer, leaning on the top rail of the stall. “It’s about John.”

Henrietta paused, a new wave of anger making her cheeks flush. She had known from the moment she first saw John and Natalie together that he was more interested in the up-timer than he ever had been in her. But now, with Ray gone, hearing Natalie say his name was just a reminder that she was alone.

She scraped the last bits of dirty bedding out of the corners and tossed it onto the pile, looked at Natalie, ready to tell her to get out. But Natalie’s normal shy demeanor was gone—a serious wrinkle across her forehead.

Henrietta sighed. “What about John?”

“He’s not taking Konrad’s . . . passing very well.”

Henrietta shook her head. “Some of us were his friends. Not just in the Monster Society. Some of us knew him. Some of us . . .” She stopped, throat burning with the effort of holding back tears.

Natalie reached out impulsively and laid her hand on Henrietta’s shoulder. “You loved him.”

Hearing it out loud hurt more than anything else, and Henrietta tried to shake her head, but tears spilled over, and she reached up to take Natalie’s hand. “Maybe.” She took a deep breath. “Yes.”

Natalie rubbed at her own eyes fiercely, but didn’t let go of Henrietta’s hand, still leaning awkwardly across the top rail of the stall. “I am so sorry, Henrietta.”

Henrietta looked at her, trying to say something sharp and nasty. Because she knew that being around Natalie and John again would only make Ray’s absence more obvious. But she couldn’t. Deep down she didn’t want to—she wanted her friends back, even if it meant thinking more about Ray. She realized that as much as it hurt to remember him, trying to forget him hurt even more.

She let the pitchfork fall to the ground and took Natalie’s other hand. “I’m sorry, too.” For a moment they stood, tears running across their cheeks in hot and sticky lines.

Finally Henrietta let go and wiped her face on her sleeve, then took a few deep breaths of the warm and pungent air inside the barn. “Tell me about John.”

“I think he’s lost it, Henrietta,” Natalie told her.

“Lost it?”

“We both know John walked a razor’s edge sometimes between what was real and what he had built in the Monster Society, but—” Natalie frowned as Henrietta interrupted her.

“John always knew what was real and what wasn’t,” Henrietta protested. She had seen firsthand what happened when someone got lost in the games the Society played. Her brother, Van, was the reason she had joined the Society. Van had never been right in the head. That and his age had drawn her to follow him in the Society to watch over him. With each passing adventure, Van had become more dangerous and more caught up in the world that the Monster Society had helped create in his mind. Ultimately, Van had injured another new recruit that John had brought in and was booted from the Society altogether. She had stayed, though. She had found more than she bargained for in the Society and fallen for John at first sight. The Society had become her family.

Natalie shook her head. “I got to know John better than any of us guys did, Henrietta, and you know it. I loved him too,” Natalie paused so she could keep her voice under control. “Trust me when I tell you that he was . . . troubled. Something happened to him during his time in the army. He never told me what but whatever it was, it shook him to the very core of his soul. I think the Monster Society was his means of coping with his past. It was a new start for him that gave him purpose. Through it, he wasn’t alone anymore either. He had us . . . all of us. When Ray died, all that shattered for him.”

“He’s hurting,” Henrietta said, “We are, too.”

Natalie couldn’t argue that. “Yes, we are, but John . . . I think John believes he can really bring Konrad back from the dead.”

Henrietta stared at Natalie for a long moment before she spoke again. “And you think he may hurt himself or someone else trying to do it.”

Natalie nodded. “John has never fit in anywhere but the Monster Society, Henrietta. He’s always lived on the edge and thought outside of the box. There’s no telling what he may do if he believes it could bring Konrad back to us. We have to stop him before something bad happens.”

“Fine,” Henrietta consented. “I’ll help you. Do you know where he is now?”

“No,” Natalie admitted.

“We’ll find him together then but not right now,” Henrietta told her. “I have to finish my chores around the farm first. You go on. I’ll meet you at the edge of town in a few hours.”

“Thank you,” Natalie said and left, leaving Henrietta to her work.

Henrietta finished her chores as quickly as she could. After she was done, she popped into the house long enough to tell her parents she was heading out for the evening to see her friends. As she left, Henrietta carried a shovel with her.

When Konrad died, she had buried her Monster Society costume nearby and swore to never put it on again. That was a promise she had known even then that she might not be able to keep.

Henrietta found the spot where she had buried her costume and set about digging it up. Sweat poured from her skin as she dug into the earth. Soon, she would be “Red” again. When she wore her hood and her cloak, she always felt stronger than she ever did as plain old Henrietta. It was as if the character of the wolf slayer that she portrayed became a part of her.

She flung the shovel aside in the wake of uncovering her costume. She cleaned it as best she could flapping the cloak about in the air to fling the dirt from it. Her hands trembled as she clasped the cloak around her throat. As she flipped its hood up over her head, her hands stopped shaking. The features of her face hardened with determination. Losing Konrad had been enough. She wasn’t going to stand by and let John destroy himself if there was anything she could do about it. Leaving the shovel lying where she had thrown it, Red set out towards the edge of town where she knew Natalie would be waiting.

****

Natalie paced a slow circle around the tree where the members of the Monster Society always met up. She had already eaten one of the sandwiches out of her backpack. It was the second time in a month that she’d skipped school without telling anyone, which meant she hadn’t gone home after she left Henrietta, but had stayed here—near the edge of Grantville—trying to pass the time while she waited.

She considered eating the other sandwich, but she wasn’t really hungry, just bored. And cold. She breathed into her gloves to warm her fingers and plodded another circle around the tree.

Up the road, something flickered. A splash of scarlet among the grey-brown winter trees. “Ah.” Natalie snatched up her backpack and broke into a run. There was no need to wait and see who it was; the red cloak could only belong to one person.

“Red!” Natalie sidestepped a puddle and skidded on the muddy road, struggling to stay upright as her arms flailed around for balance. “Whoops. Hey, I’m glad you’re here.”

Red nodded. “I’m glad you waited.”

Natalie looked at her more closely. “Are you all right? You’re a little , , , uh . . . ” She waved a hand at the muddy cloak.

“Oh. Yeah. I’d buried it.” She smoothed her hands across each shoulder, coaxing the wrinkled fabric to lie flat. “I guess some things shouldn’t stay dead.”

“Cool.” Natalie stuffed her hands in her coat pockets, suddenly wishing she’d brought her costume, too. But that would have made Mom suspicious.

“So.” Red looked at her intently. “Now what?”

“Now we go talk to John.” Natalie stamped her feet, boots squelching in the mud. “I do miss paved roads, you know. We could have taken my bicycle.”

Red nodded. “But our legs work. And it’s not that far if we go together.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Friends make things easier, right?”

“True,” Natalie said. She hitched her thumbs through the straps of her backpack and started walking. “And at least if we’re walking my feet won’t be so cold.”

John had been kicked out of his relative’s tavern and now lived in a tiny hut tucked back in the woods. There was a path that led from the main road, but it was narrow and the trees on either side tended to snag and catch at anyone walking that way.

When Natalie and Red finally reached the little clearing around the hut they were both red-cheeked and brushing bits of twigs from their clothes and hair.

“Oof.” Natalie untangled a particularly stubborn piece of a branch from the flap on her backpack. “Stupid trees.”

Red thumped on the door with her fist.

There was a muffled clatter from within, then silence.

Red frowned and knocked on the door again, surprised that doing so didn’t cause it to fall from its hinges. “John.”

Natalie leaned down close to the door jam. “We know you’re in there. Answer the door.”

There was more clattering, like pots or crockery being shoved to one side, and the floorboards creaked.

Red was just raising her fist to knock a third time when the door flung open and John burst through. “Hello.”

He pulled the door shut behind him and looked at both of them with a ragged smile. “I wasn’t expecting . . . And Red. I thought you were finished with the Monster Society?”

Red shook her head. “Maybe not. You look terrible.”

“What? Oh.” John raked his fingers through his hair, and tugged at his shirt. It did little to hide the black circles under his eyes or the dirt crusted under his fingernails.

Natalie wondered about the reddish tint to the stains on his shirt. “Is that blood, John?”

“No. No.” He flinched back as Red stepped closer. “I mean, yes. But I cut my finger the other day and I must have, you know, wiped it on my shirt.” He blinked and rubbed his sleeve across his face. “What are you doing out here?”

“I’ve been worried about you, John.” Natalie looked at Red. “And so is Red.”

“Worried? Why?” He looked back and forth between them.

Natalie fidgeted. “You told me you were going to . . . fix things. With Konrad. And you’ve been shut up in here for days now doing something. Getting dirty.”

“And bloody,” Red said quietly.

“Oh.” John flung his arm around Natalie’s shoulders, a gesture she would normally have found comforting, but today was only stiff and cold. “You don’t think I’m trying to do magic, do you?”

“Are you?” Red asked.

John laughed uneasily. “Magic is pretend, Natalie. You know that, right?”

“Yes.” She looked up at him. “Do you?”

“Of course. There’s no such thing as a proton-pack or aliens or magic.” His fingers dug into Natalie’s shoulder. “I know that.”

“Then you won’t mind if we come inside for a minute.” Red stepped toward the door and John leapt sideways to put himself between her and his little house.

“No. Ah. I mean. It’s kind of a mess.” He licked his lips. “You’re right about . . . I’ve been trying to . . . well, I needed some time to myself. And losing Ray was very hard. So, it’s messy in there. And you wouldn’t . . . there’s no need to come inside.”

“We could help you clean up,” Natalie said.

“No!” He wiped his mouth on his hand and forced a smile. “Thank you. But I’m all right. I just need to be alone right now. Okay?”

Natalie looked at Red, hoping she would push past John and throw open the door, wanting her to confront him about whatever it was he was doing. But Red was quiet, her face nearly hidden beneath her hood.

Natalie cleared her throat. “We just want to help, John. Red and I are both upset about Ray, too.” Her eyes stung with tears. “We all miss him. Just tell us what we can do to help. Please.”

“You can leave me alone,” John snapped. “If you want to help, then go away. Let me . . . let me do what needs to be done.”

“And what’s that, John?” There was an edge to Red’s voice that Natalie had never heard before.

John chewed on his lower lip for a moment, as though trying to find the right words. “Grieve,” he said finally. “And I don’t need either of you around for that.”

“Ah.” Red slipped her arm through Natalie’s elbow. “All right.” She tugged Natalie back towards the path.

“Red?” Natalie looked at her in confusion. “What—”

“We’ll leave you alone, John. Just like you’ve asked,” Red said loudly. Then softly, to Natalie. “He needs to think we’ve given up.”

Natalie nodded, drying her eyes with the back of her glove. “Goodbye, John.”

They pushed their way back along the little path, until Natalie, glancing back over her shoulder now and then, saw the white blur of John’s shirt disappear. “I think he’s gone back inside.”

Red stopped, head tilted as she listened for any sign that John was following them. “I think you’re right.”

“So, now what?”

“You’re right. He’s up to something stupid.” Red looked around for a moment. “There.” She pointed to a fallen tree, the trunk nearly covered in a drift of old leaves. “We’ll hide and wait to see what he’s up to.”

“Don’t we need to be closer to the hut?” Natalie asked as they squeezed slowly between the trees on either side of the path.

“No. Whatever he thinks he’s going to do, he’ll need Ray at some point.” Red climbed over the fallen tree and settled on the other side.

“But he’s . . . oh.” Natalie flushed as she understood. “He’ll have to go to the cemetery.”

“That’s right.” Red pulled some of the leaves over her cloak so the red was mostly hidden, lying down on the ground so only the top of her head poked above the fallen trunk. “And then we’ll follow him.”

The sun had long sunk from the sky when John emerged from his hut. Natalie knew she was way beyond just getting trouble for ditching school now. Her parents were likely freaking out. She’d be lucky to see the light of day, outside of school, for months when she got home. There was nothing for it, though. If they didn’t find out what was going on with John and help him, no one would. They were his only friends left in the world.

Just as Red predicted, John headed for the cemetery. Quietly, ever so careful not to be seen, they crept along after him.

When John reached the cemetery he made a beeline for Konrad’s grave. Once there, his hands vanished into the depths of his trench coat to re-emerge with five small candles in them. He positioned one atop Konrad’s grave and the others around it at four fixed points. John picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dirt around the four candles, muttering something in a bizarre language as he did so.

“I told you he’d gone off the deep end,” Natalie whispered to Red, shooting her a look where they hid in the trees at the edge of the cemetery.

“Shhh,” Red hushed her.

John lit all five of the candles and moved to kneel at the edge of Konrad’s grave within the circle. He began to chant as he removed his shirt. Natalie gasped as she saw the wounds that covered his chest. Red moved quickly to grab her and slap a hand over her mouth. Natalie was thankful she had; otherwise she might have screamed.

His voice rising, John cried out at the moon and stars above, still speaking in the strange language he had been muttering. One of John’s hands slipped down to the top of his right boot. He drew a small knife from it and brought the blade up in front of him, holding up and out into the light of the moon.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen next.

“I think we’ve seen enough,” Red told Natalie in a gruff voice.

Red stood up and launched herself from the trees. “John! You put that knife down right now!”

John spun about to face them. His cheeks were slicked with tears as he stared at them as if he wasn’t sure they were really there. “Red? Natalie?”

“I thought you said you didn’t believe in magic John?” Natalie challenged him, anger thick in her voice.

“Put the knife down,” Red ordered him again, more firmly.

John looked at the knife he held and then at Red. “You don’t understand, Red,” he started but Natalie was on him before he could finish. Her hand shot out to knock the knife from his grasp. It went flying to land in the grass nearby. “How could you?” she rasped as she hauled back and slapped him across his cheek with all the force she could muster.

Staggering back a step, John caught himself before he lost his footing and toppled over.

“Look at what you’ve done to yourself!” Natalie raged thrusting a finger towards his wounded and scarred chest.

At that moment, John broke down, collapsing to his knees in front of Natalie. Tears streamed from his eyes. “I don’t . . . I don’t know how to bring him back Natalie. I’ve tried everything.”

Red stepped up to stand beside Natalie. “That’s because you can’t bring him back, John. Konrad is dead. There is no coming back from that.”

“It hurts so much,” John sobbed. “Please . . . Please help me.”

Natalie and Red exchanged a look of pity for the broken former leader of the Monster Society and friend.

Natalie dropped to her knees and pulled John into an embrace. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted to do John, help you.”

“Come on,” Red told the two of them. “Let’s get you home, John. We need to take a better look at what you’ve done to yourself and make sure those wounds aren’t infected.”

Natalie helped John to his feet and tried to lead him after Red, who was already heading for the trees. John stopped her, looking over at shoulder at Konrad’s grave, to which he said, “I’m sorry, Ray. I am so sorry I let you down again.”

Taking hold of him gently by the underside of his chin, Natalie pulled his face around towards her own. “You didn’t fail him John. You gave him a life of friends and fun. You were there for him to the very end and even beyond. Konrad loves you, John, even now, wherever he is, he loves you just like we do.”

It was going to be a long night, Natalie knew, as she and Red tended to John and a worse day afterwards as she faced the wrath of her parents, but it was all worth it. The Monster Society was together again and it took care of its own, no matter the price.

****

 

 

 

An Iconic Mystery

Limoges Cathedral, France

February, 1636

 

“Glorious, Master Renoir, simply glorious,” François de Lafayette said, trailing a finger down the palm-sized icon. “Their Majesties cannot help but be pleased when I present your gift to them at the christening.”

Master Renoir bowed, his face hard as he bowed over his worn, but serviceable, workman’s clothes. Renoir was a surprisingly thickset man, given his place as Limoges’s premier artist in a craft that required delicate skill. It was also, Bishop de Lafayette thought, caressing his own fashionable costume, surprising that a head of an important guild had come in work clothes instead of the finery both the artist and his wife affected at Mass.

“If the child is born and lives, Monsieur de Lafayette. And is a Dauphin. Her Majesty has been pregnant before without a live child. What matters most to me, my lord Bishop, is how their Majesties will show their pleasure to Limoges,” Master Renoir said gruffly.

De Lafayette sighed. If I could count the number of times I have tried, he thought, repressing the urge to run his hands through his thinning grey hair. Sighing, he smoothed his doublet over his belly. He was getting too old for this, de Lafayette told himself. Too old to do much of anything in a world that had turned upside down.

“Master Renoir,” de Lafayette said, “I assure you I shall do my utmost for my beloved city . . .”

Master Renoir scowled at the icon, refusing to answer the bishop’s obvious platitude, and tugged on his leather apron. That was deliberate, de Lafayette thought sourly. As representative (purely unofficial) of the town’s enamel workers, Master Renoir should have presented himself in a doublet and pantaloons, the clothes he wore to Sunday Mass. But his worker’s garb (which de Lafayette doubted he actually worked in) felt like a reminder that the Committees of Correspondence, if there were Committees in Limoges (or anywhere in France), were always there to rouse the disaffected.

Sighing, de Lafayette turned to the triptych.

It really was a masterpiece, de Lafayette thought. Not even the Byzantine or Russian masters of the Orthodox Church, or the up-timers of Grantville with their mastery of mechanization, could produce such a work—Saint Anne and Saint Martial on either side of the Virgin and Child, all created by Limoges’s greatest enamel artists.

And the cathedral nave was the perfect place to admire such a treasure, de Lafayette thought. The glorious rose window poured light over the altar, bare at the moment of everything but the golden cross and the icon, as if God Himself was blessing the work of human hands.

No candles though, not during the day, even if it left the rows of benches worn smooth by generations of worshippers lit only by the light coming from the high gothic arches. If he could, de Lafayette thought, he’d replace the rood screen and the frescos on the Romanesque crypt with icons like these, maybe even a gilded iconostasis? But no, he decided for the hundredth time, his parishioners might think it too Byzantine.

“It may have been more appropriate,” de Lafayette thought out loud, “for Saint Louis instead of Saint Martial.”

“Saint Martial is the patron saint of Limoges and the name of our great abbey,” Master Renoir said stiffly. “The guild felt . . .”

“Forgive me, Master,” de Lafayette interrupted softly. “I agree with the guild’s artistic judgment, of course. But perhaps the guild might consider a second commission? A private one, from myself, not as Bishop of Limoges?”

Smiling, de Lafayette put his arm around the master artist’s shoulder. “Come, my friend, come. Let’s discuss it over some refreshment. I have some excellent Bordeaux . . .”

****

Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges

 

“Gabriel-Nicholas de Traslage! Get down from there right now!” Frère Jacques shouted as he limped through the abbey gardens toward the boy, his Benedictine black robe flapping around his spare frame.

Gabriel grinned from a branch in the abbey’s oldest apple tree at the edge of the apple grove. “I’m all right, Frère,” he called down at the monk, swinging his legs.

“I don’t care if you’re the healthiest young man in France! I said get down! Not only is that tree older than you, but you’re late for your Latin lessons!” Jacques called, waving a fist at the boy.

That tree really should have been cut down years ago, Frère Jacques thought crossly. It was old and twisted and hadn’t borne fruit for years. It served no purpose but to give sanctuary to students who should have been in their lessons.

Gabriel groaned from his perch. He hated Latin, almost as much as he hated Mathematics and Fencing. “But Frère . . .”

“Don’t ‘but’ me. Do I have to tell Father Pierre you’re due an extra penance?”

Gabriel shuddered and launched himself out of the tree, barely missing the monk as he landed. Father Pierre’s ‘extra penances’ always involved the wood paddle he kept in his office. Gabriel’s friend Charles had nicknamed it Dante after the class had read The Divine Comedy.

“What is this?” Jacques said, picking up the tattered bundle of papers Gabriel had dropped when he jumped.

“Something I was reading . . . for Literature . . . Frère,” Gabriel reached for the booklet, but the monk turned away too quickly, thumbing through the loosely-tied pages.

The Hound of the Baskervilles? That doesn’t sound like something Frère Michel would assign as class reading,” Jacques said sternly.

“It’s an up-time book by an Englishman,” Gabriel said. “The main character is paid by people to investigate mysteries. This one’s about a nobleman’s estate that is haunted. Monsieur Holmes . . .”

“Ah,” Jacques said, “it is one of their immoral novels.” The monk shook his head. What were the young coming to, infected by this godless up-timer fiction? he thought. When Jacques had been a novice . . .

“No, no,” Gabriel said, reaching for his booklet, “Monsieur Holmes uses the scientific method of observation to help. He frequently plays the violin to focus his thoughts, Frère Michel said . . .”

“That is not what I meant,” Jacques countered, holding the booklet away from Gabriel’s grasping hands. “Belief in ghosts and other so-called manifestations are superstition and heresy. It seems, young man, you need correction before you fall into serious error. I think I shall start by burning this piece of trash.”

“Frère Jacques! Frère Jacques! You must come quickly!” Turning, Jacques frowned as a novice ran across Jacques’s prize herbs, distracting him enough that Gabriel snatched his book from the monk’s hand. Reaching out, Jacques caught Gabriel’s arm as the novice stopped, panting on the path between the garden beds.

“What’s the matter boy?” Jacques growled, scowling at the broom-thin novice’s dirt-covered sandals.

“Frère Jacques . . .” The novice heaved as he bent over, placing his hands on his knees.

“Yes,” Jacques said, annoyed at both the novice and Gabriel. “What is it?”

“The bishop is here, Frère! Abbot Daurat is calling the chapter!” the novice said, practically jumping up and down in his excitement.

“Yes,” Jacques said dryly, “he does that frequently. Suppose you tell me why?”

“Bishop de Lafayette has arrived! There is important news!” the novice said, looking as if he was about to spontaneously explode.

Gabriel looked excited, too, which was bad, Jacques thought. Two seconds after he dismissed young Gabriel, the news that the bishop had arrived and the abbey chapter called would be all over the school, and it would be impossible for anyone to get the students to settle to their studies for the rest of the day.

Jacques sighed. “Gabriel, get to class. No, you may not have your book back, at least not yet. I shall turn this . . .” He waved the booklet. “. . . over to Father Pierre and see what he has to say. Now scoot!”

****

“It’s in the chapel on the altar,” Claude d’Aguesseau whispered to Gabriel. “I heard the bishop said an up-timer couldn’t have done better.”

“Of course not,” Henri de Lafayette said indignantly. “The up-timers are good at machines. This is art, and Limoges is the greatest center of French art! Bertrand de Born . . .”

“Shut up!” Gabriel hissed, and not just because Henri tended to go on (and on) about Bertrand de Born as if the medieval troubadour was an up-time rock star. It wasn’t as if de Born could compare to Queen anyway. Just because Henri was the bishop’s great-nephew . . . Gabriel started as he realized he was tapping the rhythm to “We Will Rock You,” the song that a group of soldiers had shouted out at a recent handball game.

Trying not to make too much noise, Gabriel pushed open the door to the choir loft, and the three boys crept into the chapel and down the tight spiral staircase to the floor.

The chapel was dark, the sconces and candelabra making pools of light along the walls at each end of the aisle, and at the foot of the stairs, but leaving most of the altar in the shadow of the choir monk’s stalls. There was some moonlight coming from the stained glass windows on the far side of the chapel, but not enough.

“Just like in one of our Mystery Book Club novels,” Claude whispered to Gabriel and Henri. They nodded absently as they crept along the benches to the aisle.

“That’s strange,” Gabriel whispered to his friends. “Didn’t you say Frère Joseph was supposed to be doing penance about now, Henri?”

“Novice David said the Abbot told Frère Joseph he was to pray for forgiveness all night for his blasphemy,” Henri said.

“What did he say?” Claude asked with a smirk. He’d had to serve penance for blasphemy a lot lately, ever since their teachers caught on to what OMG meant. Claude claimed he’d heard the expression from a lefferti, but Gabriel suspected it was from one of the pamphlets Claude kept hidden under his mattress.

Henri shrugged. “I don’t know. David just told me he’d be here now and I thought this would be a good time to come to see the triptych. You know how deaf Frère Joseph is and how he falls asleep at mass.”

Gabriel nodded, and turned toward the altar. He wasn’t really interested in the triptych itself, but in the adventure. But the triptych wasn’t on the altar. Or rather part of it was. The frame was still there, but the jewels were gone, and only the center icon of the Virgin and Child remained.

“What have you three done?” Abbot Daurat’s voice rang out, echoing in the stone chapel.

Gabriel whirled around. “Father Abbot, we didn’t . . . We just got here . . .”

The abbot scowled, looking like a bird of prey with the other choir monks behind him, candles in hand. “And who gave you permission to be here and out of the dormitory? Where is Frère Joseph?”

“I don’t know,” Henri answered. “We thought Frère Joseph was doing penance . . .”

“And you thought he wouldn’t hear you entering the chapel,” Father Pierre said caustically from behind the abbot, “or mind you destroying a treasure commissioned by our bishop for the royal house! How did you get in?”

“We didn’t come to destroy the triptych!” Claude shouted. “We just wanted to see it . . .”

The Abbot held up a hand. “I repeat, how did you get in, and where is Frère Joseph?”

“I’m here, Father Abbot,” Frère Joseph said from the side door of the chapel. The old monk looked around at the crowd curiously. “I had to relieve myself.”

Abbot Daurat sighed, but nodded. Frère Joseph was one of the oldest monks in the abbey, and as the abbot before him had remarked when Daurat was a novice, God had to forgive a person for interrupting his penance to answer the call of nature because, after all, God had designed a man’s bowels. But, he wasn’t about to let the boys off the hook yet.

“That only leaves the matter of how you got into the chapel,” the abbot said sternly. “I assume you used the side door like Frère Joseph? Since we came through the front doors.”

“No, Father Abbot,” Gabriel said, looking at his friends. It was better to come clean, he thought. If they were honest about how they gotten into the chapel without being seen, as well as why they’d come, then maybe the abbot would stop suspecting them.

“We came in through the choir loft,” he finished. “Henri said it would be unlocked and . . .”

“Oh?” the Abbot interrupted. He looked at a guilty Henri. “And just how did you know the door in the loft would be unlocked? I thought I gave orders for that door to remain locked?”

Henri shrugged. “One of the novices told me, Father Abbot. I forget whom.”

Abbott Dauret nodded gravely, not believing Henri’s evasion. “Well, well.” He cupped his chin in his hand as he stared hard at the boys. “Maybe a week of serving penance with Frère Stephan will help you remember, Henri?”

Henri groaned, and Gabriel felt bad for his friend. Frère Stephan ran the abbey’s infirmary, and helping out with the sick was one of the least favorite ‘penances’ available since the infirmarian used his young helpers to empty and clean the bedpans.

“It was David, Father Abbot,” Henri said hopefully.

The abbot nodded. “Thank you for your honesty, Henri. I hope you will contemplate its virtues as well as the pitfalls of gossiping instead of attending to your prayers over the next week and a half in the infirmary. And as for you, Jean-Claude and Gabriel-Nicholas . . .”

Gabriel looked at the Abbot with horror,

“. . . I think you should join your friend in the infirmary while you contemplate the consequences of being out of bed after hours.”

Gabriel and Claude groaned. But, Gabriel realized, at least the abbot believed they hadn’t destroyed the triptych.

“Father Abbot,” Father Pierre’s hard voice said, “about the triptych . . .”

Abbot Dauret nodded. “Yes,” he said, turning to the thickset novice master who oversaw student discipline, “However, I think for the moment . . .” He turned and gave the boys a stern look, “. . . we shall proceed as though everyone here is innocent until proven guilty.”

****

“Tough luck, guys,” Charles said as he helped himself to his third pastry from the tray in front of the boys. Another tray, empty of everything but crumbs, rested at the other end of the huge table Gabriel shared with his friends in the half-empty refectory. “At least Father Abbot didn’t expel you. You would have caught it then. I told you not to go. All this trouble for a stupid picture!”

“A stupid picture that might mean something more than tax-farming or marrying some pockmarked heiress,” Gabriel said bitterly. If Their Majesties had liked the triptych enough to grant Limoges their patronage, then maybe Gabriel could do something other than marry the heiress his parents had betrothed him to and spend his life as a provincial magistrate. Something special for France, like Monsieur Holmes or the Vicomte de Turenne.

“Well, now it’s ruined,” Charles said, reaching for a fourth pastry, but Claude slapped his hand away. “And it doesn’t matter anyway. My father told me there isn’t going to be a Dauphin except for Monsieur Gaston, and Queen Anne is going to be locked in a convent with her bastard.”

The boys groaned, Charles’s father, a tax farmer, was a convinced Orleanist.

“That’s foolish,” Gabriel said. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Limoges’ gift to the crown is gone, and there’s no way the craftsmen could make replacements in time.”

Charles snickered. “They’d have to replace Saint Anne with Saint Marguerite, anyway. Madame la Duchesse won’t want a portrait of someone else’s saint.”

“Will you shut up, Charles?” Gabriel asked angrily. “I think we should find out what happened to the icons.”

Henri shook his head. “My great-uncle will do that. There’s no need for us to get involved.”

“I agree with Gabriel,” Claude said. “After all, Father Abbot suspects us—you, me, and Gabriel—of destroying it. If we can find out who really did it, we can prove it wasn’t us.”

Henri smiled as he nodded. “And maybe get out of carrying bedpans for a week and a half?”

Gabriel shuddered. It wasn’t that he hated the sick, or thought the poor who inhabited the abbey infirmary were bad, but the stench of anyone‘s chamber pot was enough to make him retch.

“All right,” Gabriel said to Henri and Claude. “If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to have a plan. We’ve got to be methodical and thorough in our investigation, like Monsieur Holmes.”

The other boys rolled their eyes at Gabriel’s mention of the English sleuth, but Gabriel ignored them and reached for his notepad and pencil. The notepad was thin newsprint and expensive, but the abbey school required each student to purchase several to take notes in class and write reports.

“Who’s our first suspect?” Gabriel asked, writing “Suspects” at the top of the page.

“Frère Joseph,” Claude and Henri said together.

“Not even Frère Joseph should have to take a piss when he’s been praying and fasting since Nones.” Charles snickered.

Ignoring Charles, Gabriel put Frère Joseph’s name beside the numeral 1. “What about David, Henri? The novice who told you the choir loft would be unlocked?”

Henri nodded. “Now that I think about it, how did he know? Put Father Pierre on the list, too Gabriel. He was so determined to point the finger at us.”

Gabriel nodded and added Father Pierre and Novice David to the list. “Anyone else?”

When the other boys shook their heads, Gabriel sighed and pointed at Henri with his stylus. “Henri, since David is your friend, why don’t you ask him some questions? Ask him where he was, that sort of thing.”

“No, really?” Henri asked sarcastically. “We read those up-time detective stories too, Gabriel. Remember, it was all of our money that paid for the Mystery Book Club subscription? Though I liked those ones about the Belgian more, not to mention the ones about the English monk.”

“Welsh,” Charles corrected him, “not English. Frère Cadfael was from Wales.”

“Claude, why don’t you tackle Father Pierre since Charles isn’t interested?” Gabriel asked, ignoring Charles. “And I’ll investigate the crime scene and talk to Frère Joseph.”

“Why do you get to investigate the crime scene?” Claude whined. “You don’t even know what you’re looking for, or have any of the materials to do it. How are you going to photograph the scene or dust for fingerprints? You can’t even draw.”

Gabriel nodded. It was a definite problem.

“Photographing the scene won’t help us even if we could afford a camera,” Charles said, looking superior. “As for fingerprints . . .” Charles pulled a box out of his satchel. “I . . . um . . . borrowed . . . this from my mother the last time I was home. For science experiments.”

The other boys grinned as they saw the unmistakable red tint of rouge in the box.

“Yeah, science experiments,” Gabriel said. “Funny though, I haven’t seen you taking any prints.”

Charles flushed. “Do you follow me around every second of every day, Gabriel? Besides, I haven’t figured out how to transfer the prints to something that’ll stick yet. Do you want me to help or not?”

Gabriel glanced at the other boys, who nodded, then held out his hand to Charles. “The game’s afoot, my friends!”

****

“So, Frère Joseph, where were you when the triptych was damaged?” Gabriel asked, trying to sound ingenious. Gabriel knew that Frère Joseph had told the abbot where he was, since Gabriel had been there, but Gabriel wanted to be thorough.

“What does it matter to you?” the monk asked sourly as he adjusted himself on the chapel’s stone floor.

The chapel was only a little warmer in the day than it had been last night, Gabriel thought, as the cold ate through his doublet and up though his shoes. Gabriel had no idea how Frère Joseph could stand kneeling on the icy floor day and night.

“You novices are all the same,” Frère Joseph said, hitching at his robe. “Nosy about things that don’t concern you, in places you shouldn’t be. Take my advice, young man, and stay out of the abbot’s private rooms.”

“I’m not a novice, Frère, I’m one of the students. I’m asking about the triptych the bishop commissioned for the Dauphin. I’m . . . doing a report,” Gabriel lied, looking over the monk’s shoulder to where Charles was brushing furiously at the chapel altar, which had begun to turn pink. Gabriel doubted Charles had found anything yet.

“What dolphin?” Frère Joseph shouted, and Gabriel winced. The old man’s voice was loud enough to wake the dead.

“The Dauphin, Frère Joseph. Queen Anne’s baby. She’s supposed to deliver any day now,” Gabriel said, trying to speak loudly and clearly enough.

“Nonsense, boy, you’ve got it wrong. The novice master ought to be whipped, and you along with him! Fancy a novice not knowing who the Queen of France is! Well let me tell you, whoever you are, the Queen of France is Marguerite de Valois!” Frère Joseph said with an air of finality as he clapped his hands together and screwed his eyes shut.

Gabriel stared. “Ummm, Frère . . . La Reine Margot is dead . . . And she was divorced . . .”

“Nonsense!” Frère Joseph countered, opening one eye. “Young boys these days! If my poor bowels …”

The monk suddenly blanched and ran for the side door. Gabriel followed, motioning to Charles. Even if he had to put up with the stink of an old man’s plumbing, Gabriel vowed, he’d find the truth.

Frère Joseph barely made it down the short hallway to the necessary before crouching down to relieve himself with a groan. Gabriel perched in the doorway, trying to breathe through his mouth. “Frère Joseph, you must remember the other evening? My friends and I came into the chapel to see the triptych . . .”

Frère Joseph groaned. “Young man, if I could remember what I had for dinner I probably wouldn’t be in such pain now. Will you please leave?”

Frère Joseph let out a loud fart, and Gabriel retreated into the corridor, holding his nose.

“At it again is he? Poor old man,” a voice said from behind Gabriel.

Gabriel turned and saw one of the lay brothers standing nearby with a mop and bucket.

“Was he here last night?” Gabriel asked, pulling out his notebook.

The monk shrugged. “Not my night on duty. Matthew usually cleans up after Frère Joseph, poor sod.”

“Who’s Matthew? What does he look like?” Gabriel asked as he pulled his pencil out from behind his ear. There were so many lay brothers, he thought. The students had little to do with the monks who did the work of running the abbey, except at mealtimes. Mostly they interacted with their teachers, who were all choir monks.

The monk snorted and shrugged. “Tall guy, red hair. If I could find him, I’d strangle him for leaving me to take care of the old man like this.”

“Where did he go?” Gabriel said, his ears picking up.

The monk shook his head and slung his mop over his shoulder. “Last time I saw him he said he was done with this place. Can’t say I blame him,” the monk said, pinching his nose at the stink coming from the necessary.

Gabriel gagged and ran down the hall toward the garden where he found Henri and Claude. “Heh, guys! Learn anything?”

“Yeah, Frère Pierre did it with the Dante in the cupola,” Claude said sarcastically. “Frère Pierre told me to get lost, and I wasn’t about to argue, not when he was chewing out Marc for throwing spit wads in the scriptorium. Not a conversation I really wanted to interrupt if you know what I mean.”

“I found out something,” Henri said, kicking at a pebble on the path. “My friend David said the choir loft door is regularly left unlocked. The choir master keeps forgetting to lock it, and the choir doesn’t like reminding him. They’d rather practice in the music room where it’s warmer, but the master wants to practice in the chapel because of the acoustics. But the choir master is supposed to lock the choir loft even though the main doors are left open. Father Abbot doesn’t want someone breaking a limb on those stairs in the dim light.”

Gabriel nodded and scribbled the information down. “Great. At least one of us got something.”

The other boys nodded gloomily. So far, Gabriel thought, their investigation was turning up nothing.

Then Gabriel heard shouting coming from behind him.

“Ah, guys?” Henri asked. “Where’s Charles?”

****

“I can’t believe you deserted me like that,” Charles said as he emptied a bedpan into the garden cesspit. “I thought we were supposed to be in this together like the Three Musketeers.”

“We never said ‘All for one, and one for all,’ ” Henri said as he emptied his pan. “And that book has been overdone since the Ring of Fire!”

“Guys, come on!” Gabriel said, joining his friends. “We’ve got to come up with a plan. So far the only things we’ve learned is that the choir loft is left unlocked, the lay brother who regularly helps Frère Joseph is gone, Frère Joseph has a bad case of the runs, and rouge powder turns the chapel altar pink. We don’t have a clue what happened to the missing icons, let alone the jewels in the frame.”

“They must have fallen out,” Claude said. He scratched his head. “My father’s always complaining about the quality of Limoges jewelers whenever I’m on a visit.”

“They may have fallen out,” Gabriel countered, “if the frame fell or someone broke it trying to get the icons out.” Gabriel sighed. “It would have been so cool if Charles had been able to find some fingerprints, but I think we should stick to Monsieur Holmes’s method of observation and logic.”

The other boys nodded in agreement.

“Here’s what could have happened,” Gabriel continued. “Someone entered the chapel between the time Frère Joseph went to the necessary and the three of us entered. They ruined the triptych frame and either stole or destroyed two of the icons.”

“And stole the jewels from the frame . . . maybe,” Henri interjected. “They could have fallen out. It isn’t as though we got to look around before the Father Abbot caught us.”

“I hate to interrupt your skull session,” Frère Stephan said dryly, “but those bed pans aren’t cleaning themselves.”

Gabriel looked at Frère Stephan thoughtfully. The monk had been with the abbot when the destroyed triptych had been found . . .

“Frère Stephan,” Gabriel said, trying, not very successfully, to appear angelic, “we were wondering about what happened to the triptych . . .”

Frère Stephan sighed. “Boys . . . please leave these matters to your elders and God’s hands. His Grace the Bishop will make sure Limoges is not forgotten when a Dauphin is christened or a king crowned.”

“Yes, but, Frère,” Henri said, pushing forward. “One day we’ll be peers of the realm, magistrates, or officials. I might be Bishop of Limoges like my great-uncle. Don’t you think . . .”

“No, I don’t. I think you should mind your own business, which, my fine gentlemen, is how you ended up under my supervision.” Frère Stephan said. “Matthew!”

The boys traded glances as an older lay monk walked over with a stinky bucket. He was taller than the boys and the other lay brother Gabriel remembered, but Gabriel wouldn’t describe his hair as red so much as orange.

“Yes, Frère Stephan?” Matthew answered politely.

“Our young penitents need some supervision, if you please. See that they stay on task,” Frère Stephan commanded as he swept away.

“Frère Matthew?” Gabriel asked as the monk handed his bucket to Henri to empty.

“Yes. Gabriel, is it?” Frère Matthew answered with a small smile.

“Yes sir. I was wondering whether to look after Frère Joseph?” Gabriel asked, trying not to breathe in the stink of the bedpan he still held. It seemed to be getting worse the longer he held it. Frère Matthew reached out and emptied it into the pit, after setting his bucket down.

“I do sometimes, poor soul. Frère Stephan and I think he’s not long for this world if his bowels remain so loose. He’s not keeping enough inside to keep a bird alive.” Matthew shook his head. “And he sleeps all day then insists on keeping vigil alone all night in the chapel even though the abbot says he must follow Frère Stephan’s advice and rest.”

“Why don’t you send him to Italy or the Germanies where he might get up-time medical help?” Charles asked.

Frère Matthew shook his head. “There’s no cure for old age, even among the up-timers. You should have emptied these bedpans into a bucket like I did, then changed them for one of the newly cleaned ones. Come along, boys.”

Gabriel and the others followed Matthew through the main infirmary to the corner where the monks kept the cleaning supplies. The cots on either side of the center aisle were practically empty, Gabriel thought resentfully. There shouldn’t be a pile of bedpans waiting to be cleaned with sand and vinegar.

“But did you see Frère Joseph go to the necessary that night? If you were looking after Frère Joseph why weren’t you in the chapel or with him when he came back?”

Matthew raised his eyebrows, but unlike Frère Stephan, he smiled. “I did see Frère Joseph go to the necessary that evening, boys. I did my best to help him, and when he finished I stayed behind to clean up. Now are there any other questions?”

“Did you see the triptych? What about the jewels from the frame?” Henri asked.

Matthew’s face became closed and stern. “I did see the triptych and the jewels in the frame. It’s a pity what happened.”

“What did happen?” Gabriel asked eagerly.

Matthew shook his head. “I’ve said enough. You need to get to work cleaning the bedpans.”

“That was suspicious,” Charles said as they turned to follow Matthew. “You’d think he’d just say ‘The abbot knows everything, everything’s all right.’ And tell us what happened. Why all this secrecy?”

“I think it’s because they don’t want both settlements finding out their gift to the royal family was stolen,” Claude said, leaping over a branch. “I think we should take a look at the necessary.”

Gabriel wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Even if it hasn’t been used lately it’ll still stink. Charles, while you were trying to dust for fingerprints did you see anything, any clue?”

Charles shook his head, and stopped in the path. “Nothing. But then I wasn’t looking. Maybe I should take another look while you guys are looking in the necessary?”

“No. Any evidence that might have been there is probably long gone by now.” Gabriel scratched his head, trying to think of an idea that might work. “Charles, why don’t you try Frère Pierre? He might talk to you since you weren’t in the chapel the first time.”

“I have a better idea,” Charles said. “Why don’t I go with you and Henri goes to see Frère Pierre? He’s the bishop’s nephew and you know how Frère Pierre respects connections.”

The boys grinned at each other. It was an open secret that Frère Pierre wanted to be abbot when Abbot Dauret died or stepped down and hoped to convince Bishop de Lafayette to support him. It was an equally open secret that the Bishop didn’t interfere with the chapter vote.

“No way,” Henri said. “I’d rather face the necessary than Frère Pierre.”

“But the necessary isn’t that big,” Gabriel pointed out. “All four of us wouldn’t fit.”

“So you and I will examine the necessary and Claude and Charles will keep watch,” Henri countered.

The other boys nodded, and Gabriel looked around them. Apparently both Frère Stephan and his assistants had given up on making the boys clean the pile of filthy bed pans, he thought, because they were all busy with the patients. Gabriel nodded to his friends.

“Okay, let’s go,” he said, and the boys crept out of the infirmary and through the corridors to the necessary by the chapel.

Gabriel started to pull open the door and suddenly stopped. Frère Joseph was sprawled on the floor, a small streak of blood at one side of his mouth and a larger pool drying where the brother’s head met the floor.

“Mon Dieu!” Gabriel shouted as he jumped back, hitting something solid as he did. A pair of large hands grasped at his arms as he over-balanced and nearly fell onto Frère Joseph.

“For the love of . . .” Frère Jacques sputtered as he pulled Gabriel out of the necessary.

“I didn’t hurt him,” Gabriel shouted as the monk hauled him into the corridor.

“I know that, Boy,” Frère Jacques sputtered. “I was two seconds behind you, coming to see what the four of you were doing in the corridor instead of in the infirmary. Or did Stephan let them go, Matthew?”

Gabriel turned and saw Frère Matthew coming toward them. Matthew shook his head as he joined the group, slightly out of breath. “No, Frère Jacques. I was just coming to get them.”

“Frère Matthew,” Gabriel said, “Frère Joseph is in the necessary unconscious, I think something’s wrong.”

The lay brother blanched, and pushed his way through to Frère Joseph. Kneeling down, Matthew pressed his fingers to Frère Joseph’s neck, then shook his head.

“He’s gone,” Matthew said slowly as he looked up at the boys. Tears began to form in the younger monk’s eyes.

“Someone killed him?” Charles asked, trying not to sound excited.

“I doubt it,” Frère Matthew said, glaring up at Charles. “Frère Joseph had been ill a long time. Most likely he had another seizure.”

“Another seizure?” Gabriel asked at the same time the other boys asked, “Frère Joseph had seizures?”

Frère Jacques sighed. “Frère Matthew, please go get Frère Stephan. You know what he’ll need. As for the three of you,” Frère Jacques gave the boys a hard look, “I think Father Abbot should deal with you. Again.”

****

“So you see, Father,” Gabriel said, “we decided to investigate. Just like the people in the mysteries.”

Gabriel’s father nodded slowly and exchanged a look with Abbot Dauret that Gabriel didn’t understand.

“As you can see, Young Gabriel,” the Abbot said, waving at a tall chest, “the settlement’s triptych is perfectly fine.”

Gabriel flushed as he examined the triptych as it sat in isolated splendor on Abbot Dauret’s carved prie deau. It was a lovely thing, Saint Anne cradling Saint Mary, her blue veil embroidered with fleur-de-lys on the right, Saint Martial in gold on the left, the Virgin and Christ child in the center. Worthy, Gabriel thought, of a future king.

It was so lovely and new it made the rest of the Abbot’s office look faded and shabby. But then the plain, uncarved desk, the ordinary straight-backed chairs, rickety bench, and brass candelabra looked like they belonged in a peasant’s hut, Gabriel thought disdainfully. Even his parent’s home, as poor as they were for a noble family, was better furnished.

“But what happened, Father Abbot?” Gabriel asked, unable to stop himself.

“Frère Jacques knocked the triptych over when he had a seizure,” Gabriel’s father said, putting a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “May God bless his soul.”

“Indeed,” Abbot Dauret said, folding his hands into the sleeves of his habit. “The jewels and icons were knocked loose by the violence when Frère Jacques thrashed out. I believe he was reaching for the Host when the seizure took him. He often did that,” the Abbot told Gabriel’s father, “forgetting he was no longer able to function as a priest. Poor Frère Matthew has had to take communion from Frère Joseph several times, fearing stopping him would do more harm than good.

“Frère Jacques found the icon of Saint Martial in the necessary,” Abbot Dauret continued, looking at Gabriel. “The icon of Saint Anne was found by Frere Pierre with the jewels behind the altar.”

“But . . .” Gabriel started, then stopped when he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“There’s nothing wrong with healthy curiosity, Gabriel-Nicholas,” his father said. “And it’s good for a magistrate to know how an investigation is run. But . . .” Gabriel flushed at his father’s stern look. “There is a difference between curiosity and interference. The next time one of your elders tells you not to interfere, you should listen.”

“Yes Father,” Gabriel said. “But what if the person telling me not to interfere is hiding a crime?”

“Hmmm,” Gabriel’s father said, nodding. His displeased expression softened slightly. “It depends, I suppose, on whether you’re investigating a real crime or indulging your curiosity. What do you say, Father Abbot?”

Abbot Dauret smiled softly. “I agree, Monsieur.”

“I think I understand,” Gabriel said, then paused. “Father? Can I ask you something?”

His father chuckled. “You already did, but go on.”

“Do I have to be a magistrate?” Gabriel asked in a rush. “What if I became a private investigator like Monsieur Holmes? Maybe I could go to Grantville or Magdeburg to study up-time police things? When we’re not at war with the up-timers anymore? Please?”

His father exchanged a strange look with Abbot Dauret and tugged on his doublet’s worn sleeve. “I don’t know. If we can afford it. Maybe when the war ends. But, Gabriel-Nicholas, there’s no place for a private investigator in Limoges.”

“But I could go to Paris,” Gabriel countered, his mind filling with dreams. “Paris could use an investigator.”

Abbot Dauret rubbed his chin. “Hmmm. Monsieur, I think you should have a talk with His Grace about the information we spoke about earlier. I think he might have an idea or two about young Gabriel’s desire to study in Grantville or Magdeburg when he’s a little older.”

Jean-Nicholas de Traslage, Seignior de la Reynie smiled down at his son. “Perhaps. If he stops cutting Latin class.”

****

The Marshal Comes To Suhl

The Marshal Comes To Suhl banner

Early April, 1634

Suhl

 

Dusk came early that evening with a light, intermittent rain. Four, in the shadows, watched the old man walking down the alley. He used a cane and wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long coat of some heavy cloth that shed the rain like feathers off a waterfowl. He was softly singing to himself.

Compared to the watchers, he was richly dressed and easy prey for those in need. A short run, a shove, some blows, sift his pockets, and take his purse and that coat. A knife would be the finish. They were four to his one. It would be easy.

The old man stopped and appeared to listen. Had they given themselves away? He left the alley and stepped towards the entrance of a shop—a well-lit shop.

He was getting away! Run! Catch him!

****

The old man thought he heard someone behind him. His leg ached with every step. His destination, a cabinet shop, was just a few yards away, across the cobblestoned street and two doorways down, when he heard a splash. Someone had stepped into a puddle. He turned to look back behind him, back down the alley where he had walked a few moments before.

Four men were running towards him not more than fifteen yards away. Two of the men had knives in their hands; the others had bludgeons or some sort of metal-shod truncheon. Their intent was obvious. He completed the turn, dropping the cane and sweeping back the oilskin coat that uncovered the up-time pistol that had been holstered at his waist.

As the coat flipped away from his belt, he drew the pistol. When the sights leveled on the nearest attacker, he fired. The sound was loud and distinctly different from the boom of a down-time weapon. It echoed, the sound reflecting off the nearby buildings. He shifted his aim slightly and fired again . . . and again . . . and again.

The last attacker staggered, tripped, and fell only a few feet away. His knife skittered across the cobblestones as he slid to a stop at Archie Mitchell’s feet. Archie remained in a slightly crouched stance, pistol sights sweeping from side to side searching for any further threats. There were none. He heard nothing other than the ringing in his ears from the reports of the pistol.

Archie stepped forward, ready for any movement, and checked the bodies. Young men, he thought, out for an evening’s fun, mayhem and profit. Or . . . mercenaries, perhaps? They were not as young as he thought at first glance. They were well-muscled and well-fed. No, they were not ordinary cutpurses. He kicked the knives and bludgeons away from the bodies in case one was shamming.

He scanned the surrounding buildings. Some were dark, abandoned, not uncommon in this part of Suhl. No faces peered from windows; no lights appeared in darkened rooms, no sound of someone running to investigate the shots in the night. Curious. And where is the watch?

Archie looked at the bodies. They had sought a victim and had found something else. He replaced the half-empty magazine in his pistol with a fresh one and holstered the pistol. Next, he stooped to pick up his cane, the scattered fired brass, and then, grunting softly, he straightened and placed the spent brass in a pocket. With cane in hand, he continued towards his destination where Heinrich Buch was waiting. Someone there could fetch the watch. As he walked, he resumed singing softly, “St. James Infirmary,” alert for others who might wish to interrupt his walk. He did not notice that his leg no longer ached.

Friedrich Achen watched silently from the shadows. Frustrated, he stepped back further into the darkness and slipped quietly away.

****

 

Early March, 1634

Grantville

 

Judge Riddle sat behind his office desk. Harley Thomas, Dieter Issler, and Max Huffman were present, seated in well-padded side chairs. Archie Mitchell, however, was late.

Harley, Max, and Archie had been discharged from the Army just three hours previously. An hour before, with their families watching, Judge Riddle had sworn Max, Harley and Archie in as new SoTF marshals and Dieter as a SoTF deputy marshal.

The day was bright with a light southern breeze that brought a warming hint of spring. The warmth was a welcome break to the cold of winter and had melted the season’s last snow. Vina Thomas and Greta Issler had decided to hold the ceremony on the Thomases’ front lawn followed by a small reception. They prepared a selection of light pastries accompanied by a punch made from apple cider and ice cream. Frank Jackson had provided some unknown punch ingredient of approximately 100 proof. The new officers had been sworn in using the Issler family Bible, an enormous book that appeared to be old enough to have been printed by Gutenberg.

The marshals and deputy were now in Judge Riddle’s office. Everyone was present except Archie Mitchell. Judge Riddle was about to ask Harley if he knew where Archie was when he heard footsteps in the hallway—footsteps that included the tinkle of jingle-bob spurs. The door opened and Archie Mitchell stepped into the office.

“Good God Almighty!” the judge exclaimed. “What the hell is that?”

Archie walked into the room and said, “Sorry I’m late.” He wore Tony Lama boots with spurs, dark brown canvas pants, and a white shirt with an accompanying black string tie. Over the shirt was a five-button leather vest; on his head was a light gray Stetson hat. Around his waist was a wide leather belt and holster on the right containing a Colt single-action .45 caliber revolver and a second pistol, in a cross-draw configuration, on his left-front side. The pistol belt contained a number of large, fat cartridges in leather loops. He carried an oilskin coat called a duster over one arm. The other hand held a cane.

Judge Riddle glanced at Max and Harley. Max’s face was turning red and his shoulders were shaking. Harley was not as constrained and was openly laughing—loudly.

Archie stepped up to the desk. “Since you’ve made me a marshal, I thought I’d wear my marshal’s uniform.”

Max spoke up, “That’s Archie’s SASS costume. He was a member of the Single Action Shooting Society up-time. They dressed up like that.”

Riddle looked at Archie, his face turning red in anger. “Be very glad I’m not in court. If I were, you’d be looking at five days for contempt.”  He was not sure if he was being mocked or not. He needed this character, so he decided to overlook this affront to his dignity.

Archie’s look of surprise and hurt finally convinced Judge Riddle that Archie’s intent was innocent. Well, maybe not innocent, but at least not contemptible.

“Sit down, Archie, and don’t try my patience.”

Archie sat.

After a moment to collect his thoughts, Judge Riddle said, “I have your badges here. I asked Morris Roth to design and make them. My initial thought was to make them from some silver dollars I had collected, but Morris convinced me that would only attract thieves. Morris got together with Ollie Reardon and made these. Ollie had some stainless steel and brass stock left over from some job. Morris designed these badges. I had in mind something like the Texas Ranger badge, a five-pointed star inside a circle. Morris had other ideas. He likes six-pointed stars.” He gave a slight grin.

“Dieter, come here,” said the judge. “This is your badge. As a deputy, your badge is entirely stainless steel. Morris stamped your name, today’s date, and the serial number on the back. Your badge is number four.” Dieter stepped up, and Judge Riddle pinned the badge on Dieter’s shirt.

“Max, Harley, and you, Archie, stand up,” he said again. “The marshal’s badge, like Dieter’s, is made of stainless steel. The difference is that the points are brass-plated leaving the center as polished stainless steel. You are all equals as Marshals so we decided to assign the serial numbers in alphabetical order. Max, you have serial number one. Archie, you’re number two, and Harley is number three. Wear them in good health.”

He pinned the badges to the three new marshals and motioned them to sit down. “After much discussion with the other judges, Mike and Rebecca, Ed, and Frank, we decided to initially assign each of you marshals to some specific tasks as we build the larger service. Max, Doc Nichols doesn’t want you to do much fieldwork for awhile. Since you were a first sergeant in the US Army, we believe you would be ideal as the executive officer of the Marshal’s service. Harley, we thought the best area for you would be the marshal in charge of training since you did most of the tactical training for the old Marion County Sheriff . . . among other duties yet to be assigned. You’ll be in the field, too. Since you hurt your knee again you’re on leave until Doc Adams clears you for full duty.”

Judge Riddle paused for a moment, looking at Archie and shaking his head slightly. “Archie, we had thought that you would be the best for the marshal in charge of field operations. I’m having some second thoughts after seeing you in that outfit, but the decision has been made. Don’t disappoint me.”

“Uhhh, yes . . . I mean no, Judge, I won’t.”  Perhaps, Archie thought, dressing up wasn’t such a good idea.

“By the way, how’s the leg?”

“Well, for the most part, it’s healed. Doc Nichols is being cautious, I think, but he said it will get better if I continue with the PT.” Archie had been wounded in the leg the previous spring, and the wound had gotten infected, laying him up for months. The infection had caused some permanent muscle damage to his thigh and hip, hence the cane. He no longer needed it but he had become attached to the cane. It was made of hickory with molded alloy ball on one end and a steel cap on the other. It could be handy at times, he had decided—a knobknocker his grandfather would have called it.

Nodding to Archie, Riddle agreed, “That’s what Doc Nichols told me; you’ve been released for duty.”

Judge Riddle continued, “Max, for the time being, I want you to set up an office down the hall. The first task is to build a table of organization and equipment. All of us will be involved in that. One of the first tasks will be recruitment.”

Turning to Harley and Archie, he said, “Harley . . . don’t go hurting that knee again! I know he deserved it but next time, get someone else to kick the SOB in the ass.”

Judge Riddle paused and looked at Dieter. “You are the only deputy marshal available, at the moment, to take cases. Fortunately for us, everything’s quiet at the moment.”

Riddle looked at the quartet again before he continued. “Archie, I would like you and Dieter to go to Suhl and find a suitable place for a court. Suhl has been a thorn in our sides since last year so we think one of the first courts should be there—establishing a presence of law and order so to speak.”

“The district court system is still being designed, how many courts, how many judges, their area of responsibility, all that. The current plan is each court will have a presiding judge who’s in charge and two or three associate judges to help and take cases. You’ll need to keep that in mind when you look for a courthouse. We’re planning to place a troop of Mounted Constabulary there as well but that’s not your concern once they’re in place. They’ll use the old Swedish garrison barracks. It’s been turned over to us. Check it out when you get there, hire some people to clean it up and make any needed repairs. See if there is a site nearby for the court.”

“How many constables will be in the troop?”

“Here is a copy of the proposed table of organization. It’s still subject to change. Officially, it will be the 1st Mounted Constabulary Troop when it’s all said and done.”

Archie read the document.  A captain, a sergeant, and ten constables, plus a saddler, farrier, blacksmith, medic, radio operator, and file clerk.

“Some of the headquarters folks, like the blacksmith, farrier, and saddler may be local people hired to fill just those functions,” Riddle continued. “I would like you to spend some time with my son, Martin. He will go over everything in detail to answer any questions you may have. Do you think you could leave Monday for Suhl?  That will give you nearly a week to get ready for the trip. We’ll hire a bailiff to take over the admin for the court in May.”

“Yes, Sir,” Archie replied. “Monday will be fine. Dieter?”

“That is fine with me, too.”

“Well, that’s it, everyone. Any questions? If not, then the meeting’s over.”

****

 

Late April, 1634

Grantville

 

The sky was slightly overcast as Dieter rode up to Archie’s home trailing a packhorse. In front of the house was a light wagon with a horse already hitched and another horse tied to the rear. In the back of the wagon were a saddle, worn and cracked, saddlebags, and two of Archie’s old footlockers. Marjorie Mitchell was standing on their porch giving Archie a kiss and hug. They had been married over forty years and weren’t used to being apart.

It was time to leave. “Bye, Marj. See you in a month?”

” ‘Bout that, I think. Be careful, Arch.”

Archie nodded and carefully stepped down his front steps using his cane to support his weakened leg and carried his lever-action Winchester rifle in his other hand.

“Where did you get this wagon, Archie? I’ve not seen one like this before.”

TMCSbckbrd“I had it built in Saalfeld last year. It’s called a buckboard. The wainwright built it from some pictures I had. A hundred years ago, Grantville time, these wagons were as common as automobiles were in the twentieth century.”

“It doesn’t appear too sturdy.”

“It’s not designed to carry heavy freight, just people and stuff, like a small pickup truck. Plus, I can haul more stuff than using a packhorse. Doc Nichols suggested that I not ride a horse yet.”

“What are you doing with that old saddle?”

“That was my grandfather’s. He used to be a cowboy in Oklahoma before he married my grandmother. I’ve heard about a saddle maker in Suhl. I’m going to have him make me a new one based on this design. I did some horse swapping last week and got a couple of good, sturdy riding horses. This is mine,” Archie said pointing to the horse tied to the back of the wagon. “Marjorie’s old saddle fits her roan, but mine, the pinto here, needs a new saddle. My old saddle doesn’t fit.”

Dieter wasn’t too familiar with horses or saddles. He just rode whatever was available. The new horse was a mottled white and brown.

He knew Archie had owned several horses before the Ring of Fire. He’d not thought about it much. Now that he had seen the wagon, he could see how useful it could be. Maybe he should talk to Greta about a wagon and some horses? He was well paid as a deputy marshal. Perhaps they should invest some of that money.

“Dieter, why don’t you put your gear in the back of the buckboard and tie your pack horse to it. It’s forty-five miles or so, a two-day trip to Suhl. That’ll free your hands if it becomes necessary.”

Dieter did so. The packhorse was to be his spare. Both of the horses had been assigned to him with his transfer to Suhl. Everything he and Archie needed for the trip, until their wives arrived, was now carried in the wagon. He frankly stared at the footlockers and bags that Archie had loaded in the wagon.

Archie, seeing Dieter’s expression said, “One of those footlockers is full of ammo, .45 Long Colt for my Winchester ’73 and my revolvers, and .45 ACP for my two Colt Commanders.”

“I brought .45 ACP and 12-gauge double-ought, too.”

“Good, I’ve some 12-gauge, too, a mixture of double-ought and slugs. Ammo weighs a lot. That’s why I decided to take the buckboard—and I can haul enough fodder for all our horses. Grazing won’t be all that good yet this time of year. Help me get this tarp over the bed and we’ll be off.”

Archie made sure the tarp covered the wagon bed in such a way that it would drain rainwater before he climbed into the wagon. A thick pad covered the seat to provide more comfort than would just hard wood. The steel leaf springs under the seat creaked. The pad helped soften the ride but Archie wasn’t going to complain. Marjorie had made it using an old foam rubber camp mattress.

Once seated, he inserted the rifle against the front mudguard into a clip designed for that purpose next to his Winchester Model 1897 pump shotgun.

“Let’s get going.” He released the brake and snapped the reins. The wagon started off down the street. Dieter kicked his heels, caught up with the wagon and rode along side.

Marjorie watched the wagon and rider depart down the street toward Highway 250 and the road that would eventually take them to Suhl. She stood on the porch, watching, until the two turned the corner down the block and passed out of sight..

She gave a sigh. She and Greta had work to do to move two households to Suhl. Time to get busy.

****

 

Late April, 1634

Suhl

 

Archie and Dieter arrived in Suhl in mid-afternoon. The sky had gotten darker. They had been rained upon a few times during the trip. Both wore their oilskin dusters to help shed the light rain. The string of wagons they had joined continued on towards Franconia leaving them at the gate.

After passing through the east gate, Dieter and Archie separated. Dieter proceeded to the inn where they would stay while Archie drove the wagon towards the saddler’s shop.

He guided the buckboard through the streets towards the shop of the saddlemaker, Johann Zeitts. Archie would leave the pinto with Zeitts to allow him to make sure the saddle would fit. The new saddle would cost about the equivalent of forty dollars and the old cowboy saddle, he guessed. We’ll haggle some. Archie suspected that Johann would get the better side of the deal with a template for a new style saddle. I wonder if I could get a new saddle for Marjorie if I traded that old McClellan cavalry saddle?

Johann Zeitts’ shop was located in the southern edge of town. He had started life as a cobbler. In fact, his son, Hans, still worked as a cobbler in a corner of the shop. Johann had become a saddlemaker by accident. One of the leading members of the Suhl council wanted a new saddle, and Johann had made a bid for the job.

He made saddles using techniques learned as a cobbler. His technique, using small brass nails and hand stitching, was new. Several competitors in the area were copying his methods, but Zeitts was more skilled. His business had grown and he was able to acquire a combination shop and home for his wife, married elder son Hans and younger son Christian.

Hans Zeitts saw the wagon pull up in front of the shop and walked out to welcome Archie. His father wasn’t present, he said. Hans led Archie with the wagon and horses through the gate into the fenced-in area behind the shop where a small stable was located. The stable had room for several horses, with three already present. Hans helped Archie stable and groom his pinto.

“Your wagon and horse will be safe here while you meet with my father. My younger brother Christian normally takes care of the horses and the stable, but he’s shoeing some horses at the moment. He’s a farrier and journeyman blacksmith,” Han explained.

Johann arrived just as they finished with the horses. The elder Zeitts entered the front of the shop at the same moment Archie entered from the back, followed by Hans carrying the old saddle.

Wie Gehts, mein Herr!  Guten Tag. I’m Marshal Archie Mitchell from Grantville.”

“Welcome, welcome, Herr Marshal Mitchell. I see you have arrived safely.”

Why would I have not arrived safely? There’s been no outlaws anywhere near here, Archie thought. The comment surprised him. He was under the impression that Suhl was mostly quiet and peaceful after the late unpleasantness with the gunsmiths and the CoC the previous year.

He dismissed the comment and followed Zeitts into the main workroom where Hans placed the old saddle on a wooden trestle that could be adjusted to meet the size of different horses. Johann lifted the stirrups, examined the leather fenders, skirt, cantle, and seat.

“Hmmm,” he muttered. He flipped the saddle upside down on a nearby table to see the saddle’s wooden tree visible through holes in the rotten leather. Hans rubbed his chin and hummed again.

Ja! Now I see the differences. It is similar to some Spanish designs.”

“True,” Archie agreed. “The design evolved from saddles used by Mexican vaqueros up-time and they had Spanish ancestors. It is a working design to allow a horseman to ride comfortably all day.”

“Do you want any embellishments? Any silver?”

“No!” Archie chuckled, “I’m not rich. I just want a good working saddle . . . well, maybe a bit of leather tooling and embossing if it isn’t too expensive.”

“Very well.” Johann seemed a bit disappointed.

“When could you give me an estimate for cost and delivery?”

“Oh, yes, uhhh, tomorrow? Noon?”

“Noon, it is. I’ll be here. I’ve other business in Suhl, but I’ll make a point of being here at noon or as close to it as I can.”

“Would you be available for dinner tonight, Herr Mitchell? Our quarters are above the shop, and I would like you to meet my wife and family.”

“Thank you! I would be grateful, Herr Zeitts, but I’m not alone. Deputy Marshal Issler is with me.”

“Bring him, too. We would like to have both of you. Besides, it does me honor to  host the new marshal and his deputy.”

****

Archie drove his buckboard back into town to the Boar’s Head Inn where Dieter waited. The State of Thuringia-Franconia had a contract with the innkeeper to house them and their horses and gear until permanent quarters could be found. The innkeeper was being exceedingly helpful. He wanted them to remain at the inn as long as he could keep them. The SoTF was paying half again his current rate. More coins in his pocket.

Whoever had made the arrangements had requested a ground floor room in light of Archie’s injury. When Archie arrived, the innkeeper led him and Dieter to an area in the back of the inn where three rooms had been reserved for them.

It’s a suite! Archie thought when he entered. The front room contained a desk, chairs, a table that could be used for conferences, a sideboard that appeared to be well stocked, and waist-high cabinets. A strong-room had been built out of a small windowless closet-like room off the main room for storage of their guns and ammo. It would also keep secure the funds that had been given to him for the purchase of the new courthouse and incidentals. Off the central room were two others made up as individual bedrooms. A door on one side of the central room led to the inn’s bath, jakes, laundry, and an exit to the inn’s stables in the rear. Someone had made an excellent choice in choosing this inn. He was surprised the innkeeper was so accommodating.

The innkeeper appeared and asked for permission to take Archie’s buckboard and horse to the rear stable. “My stableboy will feed and groom your horse, Herr Marshal Mitchell. It will be in the stall next to Herr Deputy Marshal Issler’s horse.”

Danke, Mein Herr. I appreciate your courtesy.”

The innkeeper left.

“Nice place, Dieter,” Archie said.

“Ja. He bowed to me when I arrived. I almost thought he was going to add a von und zu to my name. I think he’s glad to see us.”

“I got the same impression from Johann Zeitts. It makes me curious. Everyone is happy to see us. It makes me wonder why.”

“Perhaps I should wander around and listen to gossip? No one would think twice about me . . . at least for the next day or so, until I become known.”

“Start tomorrow . . . and dress like you live here.” Dieter was dressed much like Archie: oilskin duster, Western-style boots, pants, shirt, leather vest, and a copy of Archie’s Stetson hat—Archie’s unofficial idea of a marshal’s uniform. “Tonight, we have dinner invitations with Johann Zeitts and his family.”

****

It was dusk when Archie and Dieter arrived at the Zeitts’ shop and home. Darkness came early this time of year. Johann welcomed them and introduced his wife Elizabeth, his son Hans and Hans’ wife Lena and Johann’s younger son Christian. Hans and Lena’s two children were already in bed.

Johann and Elizabeth’s ages were betrayed by their white hair but both appeared to be quite fit. Hans and Lena were in their late twenties. Christian was several years younger and had the shoulders and grip of a blacksmith. Hans was slighter than his brother although his hand was as calloused as that of the elder and younger Zeitts.

“Welcome to our home,” said Elizabeth. “We are very happy that you accepted our invitation. Follow us, please.”

She led them upstairs to the family area. It was much larger than it appeared from outside. Johann and Elizabeth had a separate room for themselves. Christian had his room, as did Hans and Lena. The rest of the upper floor was for common use by the entire family.

Dinner went well. Elizabeth and Lena had prepared a leg of mutton, roasted to a crisp, and a form of bread pudding for dessert. They had finished the dinner when, from the stables outside, they heard a scream from a horse. Everyone hurried downstairs, led by Hans and Christian who grabbed a lantern before leaving the shop. Hans saw two men in the stables with one of the horses. One had a knife in his hand.

Christian outran his older brother and yelled at the two intruders. One ran out of the stable and into the darkness. The other, the one with the knife, was slower. Christian threw the lantern at him and it hit with an audible clonk! The man stumbled, and fell to his knees.

Dieter arrived next and rolled the man over. A bloody dent in the man’s temple from the heavy brass lantern was clearly visible.

Christian ignored the other man who had disappeared in the darkness. He ran into the stable checking the horses.

“He was trying to hamstring the horses!” he called, pointing to a slash on the leg of one of the Zeitts’ horses. He soothed the shivering horse and examined the wound closely. “It’s deep, but I don’t think he cut the tendons.”

Dieter checked the other horses. “The rest appear to be all right. I don’t see any wounds.”

Archie and Johann were the last to arrive. Hans picked up the lantern and relit it. He held the lantern closely to the face of the body. He, like Christian, was shocked. Christian clearly had not intended to kill the intruder, just stop him from hurting the horses.

“You know him?” Archie asked.

“No,” replied Johann.

“Nor I,” added Hans.

Christian walked over and looked closely. “He’s one of Achen’s men. I’ve seen him around.”

“Who is Achen?” Dieter asked.

“He’s . . . well . . . I . . .” Christian was hesitant to say more.

“Friedrich Achen is . . . uh . . . a . . . he calls himself a businessman. He has, what he calls ‘a private security firm.’ You pay him a fee and he guards your home and business,” Johann said.

“If you don’t, things happen,” Christian added.

“His men came around wanting me to sign up for their protection. I refused. That is what the watch is supposed to do.” Johann said.

“Except the watch is seldom seen after dark,” said Hans.

“It isn’t seen much during the day, either,” Christian added.

Archie nodded. It was the old protection racket. He hadn’t expected to see it here, in this time, but there was no reason why it shouldn’t have occurred to someone.

“Did you report it?” Dieter asked.

“No. Why? It isn’t illegal,” Johann replied.

“It is if it includes intimidation and extortion.”

“What do we do with the body until the watch comes?” Archie asked.

“Leave him there,” Christian said. “The watch will show up eventually.”

“Okay. Be sure it’s reported in the morning if they don’t come tonight.”

****

Dieter Issler rose early the next morning. The sky was still gray. It was that time of morning just before dawn. He dressed as a down-timer, hiding his pistol inside his knee-length coat. His wide-brimmed hat would not draw attention. His boots were of up-time design but were unlikely to draw attention.

He left the inn and headed toward the riverside gate. That gate was not the one they had passed through yesterday. He was curious if it was manned at this time of the morning. Some cities in the SoTF had become complacent and failed to keep their gates well-guarded. As he walked, he kept an eye out for anyone about to dump their night soil. He didn’t want to get splashed.

****

Archie, having finished an early breakfast, had one of his Colt Commander pistols disassembled on a large cloth on the table when the innkeeper announced a visitor. “Herr Marshal, Bürgermeister Feld would like to see you.”

“Send him in,” Archie said rising to greet the burgermeister.

Guten Tag, Herr Marshal.”

“And to you, too. I’m glad to see you. I had planned to see you later this morning but now will do. Please sit and please excuse the mess. I like to clean my weapons after they’ve gotten wet. It rained often on the way here.”

Feld glanced at the pieces of the pistol, a collection of small, finely engineered pieces of a Model 1911 pistol, one of Archie’s Colt Commanders, laid out neatly on the thick cloth. “Ruben Blumroder would like to get his hands on that.”

“Ruben Blumroder?”

“He is the . . . not the guildmaster because there is no guild as such here. He’s the leader of the Suhl gunsmiths. He’s also our representative to the new legislature. He’s quite influential.”

“I wouldn’t object if he wanted to examine it. The pistol is easy to copy, the springs aside. It’s the ammunition that is difficult. How did you know I was here?”

“Word gets around. The militia guard on the east gate sent word that you had arrived. A message from Grantville said you were coming. We didn’t know when.”

“Well, it isn’t any secret. My deputy and I are here to secure a site for the new SoTF district court.”

“Court?”

“Yes. It will provide justice and legal services for the district—administer SoTF law. The judges will report directly to Judge Riddle, the chief justice of the SoTF Supreme Court.” Archie removed an envelope, wax-sealed with Riddle’s official court seal, from his saddle bag on the floor.. “I have a letter for you and for the city council.”

Feld took the envelope. It was addressed to him and to the Suhl council. He weighed it in his hand. It was impressive. The envelope was heavy paper. Up-time, perhaps. He looked up to see Archie watching him.

“Should I open it now?” he asked hesitantly.

“If you wish . . . as soon as you sign this receipt,” Archie replied extending a form letter and pen to Feld.

Feld looked at the receipt form as if it were a serpent. After a silent moment, he reached for the form and signed it with Archie’s pen.

“Thank you, Herr Bürgermeister. I’ve already given you a quick review of its contents,” Archie said, nodding toward the envelope in Feld’s hand.

“I suppose our . . . difficulty last year is why the court is being established here.”

“I wouldn’t know. There are difficulties in Franconia and I assume the Mounted Constabulary will be sending many patrols there.”

“They won’t stay here?” Feld said with some alarm.

“There will always be some here at headquarters, but most of the troopers will be patrolling the main roads and areas away from the larger cities.”

“We don’t have many watchmen. The militia mans the gates and the city wall.”

“That reminds me. I noticed the militia on my arrival. Who is the wachtmeister? There was an incident last night. A man tried to hamstring some horses and was killed during the commission of the crime.”

“Crime! Uh, we don’t really have much crime. Herr Heinrich Buch, one of our council members, oversees the watch and represents them, among others, in the council.”

“How many watchmen do you have?”

“I’m not sure of the actual number. Herr Buch is the de facto watchtmeister. I think they’re thirty-five or forty.”

“That’s all?”

“Well, the militia protects the city; the gunsmiths take care of their part of Suhl. The rest of Suhl is quiet. There haven’t been any complaints and the cost is expensive.”

“Suhl looks to be prosperous. You shouldn’t have any difficulty raising the funds to add more.”

“There are . . . concerns.”

Archie watched the bürgermeister sitting across from him. The situation wasn’t new. Cities always seem to shortchange their safety whether external or internal, especially when no danger was on the horizon. “Neither the SoTF Court, the Marshal’s Service nor the Constabulary is responsible for running Suhl. You are. It’s up to you and the council.”

“Yes, yes, we know. When we heard the rumor that the Mounted Constabulary was coming we thought . . .”

Archie said nothing. He was beginning to understand why he and Dieter were being welcomed so enthusiastically. “My deputy and I work for the court and answer to them. Suhl is your responsibility. I would suggest you and the city council review your needs. I believe you have some. That said, to whom should I report the incident?”

“Oh, well, Herr Buch, I suppose. We rarely have anything untoward reported.”

“Very well, I’ll pay him a visit. By the way, would you suggest someone I could see about what is available for a courthouse? The constabulary will use the former Swedish barracks.”

Feld seemed startled at that piece of information. “I’ll check with the council. One of them should know. I’ll ask them to see you.”

“Good, good. I appreciate your assistance.”

Feld glanced at Archie, looked down to the envelope still in his hand and nodded. Rising, he said, “I’ll present this to the council. Guten Tag, Herr Marshal.”

Guten Tag, Herr Bürgermeister.”

****

Dieter found the riverside gate manned by a very young militiaman, an apprentice to a local gunsmith he discovered. The youngster had a blue cloth tied to his sleeve and he was watching a farmer pass through the gate in an ox-drawn cart. The gate guard was unarmed as far as Dieter could see. He was just standing at the side of the gate watching people go and come. After a brief conversation, Dieter discovered the name of the inn favored by the journeymen and master gunsmiths. It was helpful. He decided to check the barracks next. He expected them to need minor repairs being unused over the winter.

****

After Feld departed, Archie had some time before his appointment with Johann Zeitts. The hard wooden chair made his hip ache, and he felt tired. He hadn’t slept well. The bed here was a simple pallet on a wooden frame. He would be sixty this year and he seemed to feel every one of those years. God, I miss the twentieth century. Marjorie was bringing some of their furniture when she and Greta came to Suhl. He hoped she would be able to bring his recliner. Hard beds made him restless and cost him sleep. Sleeping on the ground these last couple of days didn’t help, either. It seemed the only time he could sleep well was in his recliner.

The innkeeper’s wife cleaned up the remains of breakfast and swept the floor and the hallway to the stable. Archie made a mental note to tip her for her efforts.

He reassembled the Colt Commander, inserted a loaded magazine, chambered a round, and slipped it into his shoulder holster. The other Colt Commander was already on his belt. Rising from the table, he picked up his hat and walked through the inn’s common room and out the front door. Johann Zeitts would be waiting for him at his shop. Archie hadn’t taken but a few steps before he saw a familiar face.

“Hi, Archie. How are ya?” Anse Hatfield said. “I heard you were in town so I came over to visit.”

“Anse! Good to see you. It’s been, what, a year or more since we last met?”

“Yeah, ’bout that. It’s good to see a familiar up-time face.”

“I was just going out. I have an appointment.”

“That’s OK, I’ll come along if that’s all right? We can talk along the way.”

****

Dieter approached the barracks and was surprised to see a number of workers on the site. They appeared to be tearing down the palisade walls. He walked up to the one who seemed to be in charge and asked what was going on.

“None of your business,” Dieter was told.

“I’m Deputy Marshal Issler.” Dieter showed them his badge. “That is SoTF property and the barracks of the Mounted Constabulary troop that should be arriving shortly. That makes it my business.”

“Don’t know anything about that. I was told to tear down the walls and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“That’s none of your business, either. Now go or we’ll make you go.”

Dieter saw that he was outnumbered by six to one. He’d better pass this to Archie. “I’ll be back. I strongly suggest you have your boss here when I return.”

****

“. . . I managed some leave to talk over some business with Pat Johnson, on condition I bring back more guns,  so I’ll be leaving in a few days to rejoin the army. There won’t be many up-timers here after that, just Pat, the Reardons, Gary and Gaylynn, and maybe one or two others,” Anse Hatfield said.

“Marjorie is coming in a few weeks along with Dieter’s wife, Greta. I don’t think there will be any more up-timers here after she arrives.” After a pause, Archie said,

“You just didn’t come to see me because we’re old friends. What’s on your mind?”

“There’s a problem here, a gang. I was starting to get a handle on it but now I’m leaving. I wanted to fill you in and ask if you’d look into it.”

“A gang that’s running a protection and extortion racket?”

“Yeah, among other things.”

“I’ve heard. I met one of them last night who was trying to cripple a horse. I understand he’s one of Achen’s men. Who is this Achen?”

“I don’t know too much. I’ve heard that he’s the new son-in-law of one of the city councilmen. They don’t try much in my part of town but they work the rest of Suhl and outside the gates. The watch never seems to be around when something happens. When they finally show up, they don’t do much. No one is caught and things just seem to get worse. It’s getting so that it’s not safe on the streets after dark.”

“I thought the Jaegers were helping to take care of things?”

“Only in our part of town, and most of them are gone.”

“That’s twice you’ve said, ‘my part of town.’ What do you mean?”

“Where the gunsmiths are, their shops and homes. After the, ahhh, incident last year, they’ve kept the peace in their area. The city council is supposed to handle the rest of town. They don’t. They think the militia is enough . . . you can’t keep the peace by manning the walls and gates with unarmed boys.”

“And the watch?”

“They seem more interested in patrolling the ‘better’ parts of town. The homes and businesses of the council members and others.”

“I met with Feld, the bürgermeister, this morning. He said they only have thirty-five to forty watchmen for the whole town.”

“I know. It’s one of the problems here in Suhl. Saves them money, don’cha know. I’m surprised the council hasn’t called for help. I’ve heard rumors that the council is deadlocked on that.”

“They need about seventy-five to a hundred men if they are to have good day and night patrols,” Anse continued. “They think the militia will fill in for their lack of watchmen. The militia has to provide their own weapons, and most militia members work for the gunsmiths and their families.”

“Where have I heard this before?”

“Yeah. Almost like old times.”

“Dieter Issler is my deputy—do you know him?”

“No . . . don’t think I do.”

“He’s out scouting the town. I’d appreciate it if you’d have a talk with Pat and Gary and ask them to keep their ears open and give us a holler if they hear anything we should know.”

“I can do that. I’m glad Pat and Gary aren’t in the army. I don’t really want to go but I haven’t a choice.”

“They kicked me, Max Huffman, and Harley Thomas out of the army and made us marshals. Frankly, I’m glad I’m not in anymore.”

“I better get back. I’ll drop by one more time before I leave.”

“Thanks, Anse, I appreciate it.”

****

Ruben Blumroder looked up from his workbench when Anse walked through the door. “Did you meet him?”

“Yep. I think ol’ Arch will do. He asked me about Achen before I had a chance. He’s already got some feelers out gathering information.”

“Tell me about him.”

“He’s hard to describe. He’s a SoTF marshal now. He was a deputy sheriff up-time, an army vet, up-time, not just here. He’s a combat vet, too.”

“What’s he like?”

“Well, like many up-timers, Archie has some . . . eccentricities. He has always been a cowboy fan. Have you heard about Westerns?”

“Ja, but I don’t think I understand.”

“Westerns are stories about the American West in the nineteenth century—the American Frontier. Archie lives it. Up-time he was a member of a group that had action shooting matches using old-style weapons—revolvers, rifles, usually lever-action, double-barreled shotguns, weapons that were common in the nineteenth century. Sometime they even shoot from horseback, and they dressed up in costumes like those from the West. Archie, too.  Like I said, he lives it.”

“Is he crazy?”

“No. Absolutely not. But, when we up-timers arrived here in the middle of the Thirty Years war, it was a shock. People reacted differently. Some did well, some didn’t. Everyone was affected in some form or another. Living as a real Old West marshal is Archie’s way of coping—but don’t doubt his competency. That would be a mistake. His, uh, eccentricity aside, he’s a tough lawman.”

“Good! We need someone like that.”

“I think Archie will do.”

“I have a meeting tonight with some of the other craftmasters. I’ll tell them about our new marshal.”

****

Guten Tag, Herr Zeitts,” Archie said as he entered Zeitts’ workshop.

Guten Tag, Herr Marshal.”

“Well, what do you think.” Archie pointed to the disassembled saddle on Zeitts’ workbench.

“I can do it,” Zeitts affirmed.

When the haggling was over, Zeitts and Archie had an agreement. Zeitts would finish the saddle in two weeks unless there was an unforeseen circumstance to delay delivery.

Archie and Johann Zeitts were shaking hands on the deal when Christian entered the workshop with the aid of his brother. Christian had been badly beaten, one eye almost closed.

“What happened?” Johann asked rushing to Christian’s side.

“Achen’s men caught him outside. They were looking for their man who didn’t come home last night. It was their two on Christian until I arrived.”

“Where are they?” Archie asked referring to Achen’s men. “Are they still around?”

“They ran up the street. I don’t know where. Don’t go after them,” Han said. “They outnumber you.”

“I think I can handle them.” Archie said as he left the shop. Outside he surveyed the scene. Zeitts’ shop was next to the city’s wall. A ring road ran parallel to the wall with homes and shops lining the cobblestoned street. A number of people were out walking the street but none appeared to be watching Zeitts’ shop.

“They ran that way,” Hans said, pointing to the left. The street ended where it met another that led to the eastern gate.

Danke. Tell your father I’ll look into this.” With that, he stepped into the street and proceeded in search of Christian’s assailants.

The buildings on the left side of the street abutted but did not actually touch the city wall. This gap provided space for wall maintenance and access in time of need. The right side of the street was like the left with narrow alleys appearing from time to time between buildings giving access to another alley to the rear.

I need a map, Archie thought. This place is a maze. You could hide an army in these alleys and no one would know.

Archie reached the intersection without seeing anyone or anything suspicious. He had stopped a few passersby, asking if they had seen two men running down the street and no one had . . . or at least would not admit that they had.  That was the problem with a gang. People were intimidated. Individually, they were at the gang’s mercy. If they united, the gang would be ineffective and would soon be removed or would leave for easier pickings.

Archie headed back to the inn. He’d not had any lunch, and he was getting hungry. After he had eaten, he thought he would visit Ruben Blumroder. He seemed to be the real leader of Suhl. Maybe Blumroder would have more information.

****

Achen’s two men watched the marshal walk past the alley where they had hidden themselves. Achen would not be pleased with their failure to extract information from the younger Zeitts.

Friedrich Achen was sitting in a corner of the taproom of Der Bulle und Bär, his favorite inn, when his two men entered. They walked over to Achen’s table and sat.

“What did you find?” he asked.

“Nothing. We were interrupted. Zeitts’ brother and some neighbors came before we had the younger one softened up. The new marshal was there, too, so we left.”

“Conrad’s dead. One of the Zeitts, maybe the marshal, killed him.”

“How did you know?”

“Feld told my father-in-law who told me. Also, the other marshal, the deputy, was nosing around the barracks. He told the men to stop working. They refused but the deputy will be back, probably with the marshal to stop them.”

“Shall we be there, too? Together we would have enough to take both of them.”

“Do so. Keep watch. When the workers refuse, join them and overwhelm the marshals. Don’t let them get away.”

“You want them dead?”

“No, not yet. I need to know why they’re here.”

“Your father-in-law doesn’t know?”

“He says not. I’m not sure I believe him.”

“We’ll find out. The marshal doesn’t look all that strong. He uses a cane.”

“Go. Wait for them as long as it takes.”

****

After following the directions from several people, Archie arrived at Ruben Blumroder’s shop located on the same street as Pat Johnson’s US Waffenfabrik. He heard a shot from the rear of the building. Instead of entering the front, Archie walked down the adjacent alley to the rear where Blumroder and a couple of men were testing long arms. He stood watching them load the long guns with patched balls. Rifles, he assumed. The target was a wooden board attached to a large square wooden post that was at least a foot on each side.  There were numerous holes in the board.

Bam! One of the men fired the rifle which produced a cloud of white smoke. Archie noticed the rifle produced significant recoil.

Guten Tag! Archie called as another shooter stepped forward to the line.

Ruben Blumroder, at least that is whom Archie assumed the older man was, appeared startled when Archie called. He turned his head swiftly and gave Archie a quick inspection. He stepped away from the other two, who ignored Archie’s interruption once the elder man started walking towards the visitor.

“Herr Marshal Mitchell, I presume?”

“The same. I assume you are Herr Ruben Blumroder?”

“The same,” he said with a grin. “I was going to visit you when I had some time. Herr Hatfield told me you arrived yesterday. And here you are. What is the occasion for your visit?”

“I don’t want to interrupt your work but I would like to talk with you about Suhl. I understand you will be the city’s representative to the SoTF legislature.”

“Ja, that’s so. The craftmasters and their people elected me. We outvoted our opponents.”

“The craftmasters were able to control fifty percent of the votes?”

“Not alone . . . but with some other allies, we did.”

“Politics?”

“Politics,” he confirmed. “Come, let us go inside. I have some cider that I’ve been thinking about all day.”

Archie chuckled and followed Blumroder into the rear of his shop. Inside the door, Archie stopped to let his eyes become accustomed to the unlit room. The few light sources were the open door and two windows facing the alley that Archie had used to reach the rear of the shop.  To one side were three rifling machines next to a small forge that appeared to be used to make small metal pieces that would eventually become parts for the rifle’s lock.

Blumroder walked down the aisle to a table where rifles and long arms were assembled. He picked up a rifle and handed it to Archie. “This is a copy, as best we can determine, of your Kentucky rifle. It’s .50 caliber. Pat Johnson had a . . . magazine? . . . catalog? . . . that had an exploded view of this rifle. We created our molds from that and refined the final product to be this rifle.”

To Archie, it appeared to be very much like a flintlock Kentucky rifle he had once fired. The smooth honey-colored wooden stock, forearm and ramrod were expertly finished and varnished with fine checkering at the grip behind the trigger and at two points along the sides of the forearm. The brass side-plates and patch-box were polished to a mirror-sheen that brought out the detail of the light engraving depicting a hunting scene. He hefted the rifle and found it to be perfectly balanced. “A fine piece of work,” he told Blumroder.

Danke. It is intended as a gift for the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. A working rifle, not some pretty piece that will never be fired. I can’t say who ordered it but the commission was very welcome.”

“I repeat, a very fine piece of work.”

“A man who knows his weapons, I see.”

“Of necessity. A reliable, accurate firearm can mean the difference between life or death. A man can be known by his weapon. I’m used to mine.”

“If I may ask . . .”

Archie chuckled. “I’ve nothing fancy. He pulled his duster aside from one side to reveal a Colt Commander in a side holster, then pulled the other side of the duster aside to reveal a second Colt Commander in a shoulder holster.

“Ah, yes, the Colt model 1911A1. Anse Hatfield carries one.”

“Almost, these are the Commander model,” he said pointing to his two pistols in turn. “The 1911 has a five inch barrel, the Commander a four and one-half inch barrel. It’s not much shorter but it can make a difference if you have to draw quickly.”

Blumroder walked into the shop where he had an office—a side room from a larger space where his apprentices and journeymen worked small pieces of metal to insure they fit exactly into molds. This was the current method of standardizing parts. It worked well enough and helped keep parts interchangeable, more or less—a new concept introduced by up-timers. Using molds wasn’t as precise as using a milling machine but would do until those tools became available.

After they were seated, Blumroder asked, “What can I do for you, Marshal?”

“I came, mainly, to introduce myself. Anse Hatfield, whom I’ve known for years, paid me a visit this morning. He mentioned that you were one of the city leaders. I’ve found it’s best to know the PTBs.”

“Excuse me, Herr Marshal, ‘PTBs?’ ”

“Powers That Be. Folks like Herr Feld—and you. I keep forgetting few here know all our language foibles.”

Blumroder chuckled. “I’m not in the same category as Herr Feld. I’m just a local craftmaster.”

“Who effectively controls at least a third of the city.”

“Um, uh, well, yes.”

“And is the recently elected member to the SoTF legislature.”

“True, as well.”

“I think that qualifies you as being one of the PTBs, don’t you Herr Blumroder?”

“Anse said you were different, Herr Marshal.”

“Just call me Archie, if you would.”

“Very well . . . Archie, and please call me Ruben.”

“Thank you, Ruben.”

“Now, what can I do for you, Archie?”

“Information, really. Anse alluded to some troubles here in Suhl—different from last year. A gang, he said.”

“Yes, Friedrich Achen. He arrived a year or so ago. Married the daughter of  Heinrich Buch, one of the city council members. No one seems to know from where he came. He has, as Anse had said, no visible means of support. He hangs out at Der Bulle und Bär, one of our more disreputable inns. He has a gang that extorts money from the shopkeepers, selling ‘protection.’ The watch, really the city council, hasn’t done much to curtail Achen’s activities. It’s not our, the militia’s, responsibility, either. Achen knows better than to bother us.”

“Your militia?”

“The city’s militia. However, we—the gunsmiths and the remaining Jaegers, are the largest contingent of the militia. The Jaegers answer to us . . . me . . . for the moment. Patrolling is not a responsibility I—we want. It’s been thrust upon us. We ensure our people are safe. That’s all we can do.”

“I see. It’s not my responsibility, either. But, like you said, sometimes it is thrust upon us.”

“Have you met the council, yet?”

“I met with Herr Feld this morning. He arrived on my doorstep bright and early. I had some documents for him and the council and gave them to him. The SoTF will be establishing a district court here in Suhl. I’m here to find a suitable building for the court. And a troop of the SoTF Mounted Constabulary will be stationed here in the barracks.”

“I suspect the documents may disappear if he doesn’t like their contents.”

“I don’t think so. He signed a receipt . . . and I have copies.”

“I see Herr Feld’s reputation has gone before him.”

“Don’t know about that. It’s just a standard precaution.”

“I wouldn’t wait, Archie, to meet the council. I’ve been told there are workmen dismantling the barracks. If you don’t lay claim, there may be no barracks, shortly.”

Archie sat silent for a moment. “Danke, Ruben. I’ll get on that.”

“I have a meeting tonight with other gunsmiths and craft masters. If you don’t mind, I’ll tell them about the new court and the Mounted Constabulary.”

“Feel free. It’s no secret.”

“Thank you for coming, Archie, but if you don’t mind, I have some apprentices to oversee. Some need to be constantly supervised.”

Archie chuckled. “I understand, Ruben. That is true even up-time. Guten Tag.”

Guten Tag, Archie.”

****

Dieter arrived at the Boar’s Head Inn in time to see Archie enter before him. “Archie!” he called. “There’s a problem.”

Archie turned at the entrance to their rooms and asked, “The barracks?”

“Ja. It’s being torn down.”

“I know. Ruben Blumroder told me. He’s the head of Suhl’s gunsmiths. He’d be the master of the gunsmith guild if there was one.”

“I told them to stop but they refused and there were six of them to my one.”

“Get your gear. Let’s pay them a visit.”

Dieter disappeared into his room to shortly reappear dressed much like Archie—boots, canvas pants, white shirt and badge, leather vest, gun belt, shotgun on a sling and covering all, his duster. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

They arrived at the barracks a few minutes later. “There they are. That one,” Dieter said pointing to a man in a leather coat watching the others, “is the leader.” To one side were two other men leaning against a partially dismantled palisade wall.

Archie walked up to the man in the leather coat. “Are you the boss of these men?”

“I’m their overseer. So what?”

“Then I’m ordering you to stop work and leave—immediately.”

“I don’t take orders from you.”

“You do now. That’s SoTF property, and it’s my responsibility. I have my authority here,” he said exposing his badge.

The man turned and shouted to the workers, “Get them!” and drew a large knife from under his coat.

Archie stepped back, shifted his grip on his cane and swung, knocking the knife from the overseer’s hand. He slid his hand down to the other end of the cane, and on the backstroke hit the overseer’s forearm with the alloy head breaking both bones. The overseer shrieked at the sudden surge of pain.

Archie heard a click behind him. Dieter had switched off the safety of his shotgun that had been unseen under his duster. He had it leveled at the rest of the workmen. From the corner of his vision, Archie saw the two leaners running towards him. He turned and punched one in the stomach with the steel foot of his cane. That one bent double from the punch blocking the path of the other before falling to the ground in a huddle. By the time the other attacker had stepped around the first, the cane’s alloy head was swinging towards the attacker’s jaw. It hit with a crunch and both attackers were out of action and on the ground.

The fight was over. Two men on the ground. One standing clutching a broken arm and five others with hands up, eyes on the muzzle of Dieter’s shotgun. Archie was panting and wheezing. I’m outta shape.

“Do you happen to know if Suhl has a jail, Dieter?” he asked between pants.

“No.”

“I don’t, either. Let’s tie their hands and march ’em to Ruben Blumroder’s place. I think he’ll have a place to put them or tell us where’s the jail.”

Archie only had one pair of steel handcuffs. He and Dieter carried rawhide thongs instead of cuffs. Between the two of them, they had enough for the six men still standing.

“Archie, I think this one is dead,” Dieter said examining the one huddled on the ground.

“Well, crap.”

Archie checked to two on the ground. The first one, the one he’d punched with the steel foot of his cane was clearly dead. He opened the man’s shirt to reveal a purple blotch covering most of his stomach. His cane punch must have ruptured some internal organ and the man had hemorrhaged to death. He checked the second man. He was dead, too. The alloy head of the cane had impacted the hinge of his jaw. His skull had caved in. Hit him too hard. I need to practice with this cane more often.

“Dieter, take the bossman’s coat and cover these two. We’ll send someone for ’em later.”

****

Anse Hatfield was standing in the doorway of Ruben Blumroder’s shop when he saw Archie and Dieter approach with their prisoners. “Ruben!” he yelled.

Blumroder, hearing the urgency in Hatfield’s voice, strode quickly to join him.

“Archie’s been busy,” Anse said, “Told you so.”

“Ruben, do you have somewhere to stash these folks?” Archie asked when they reached the doorway.

“I could find a place, a storeroom I suppose.”

“Neither Dieter nor I know if Suhl has a jail. I assume there is one?”

“Yes, below the council chambers in the rathaus. I don’t think it’s been used much, not since last year.”

“I don’t think that jail would be the best place just now. Can you keep these people out of sight for awhile, until the Mounted Constabulary arrives?”

“I can do that.”

“Good. Dieter, go with them and get our cuffs back. I think we’re going to need them.”

Blumroder spoke briefly with one of his journeymen. He and a couple of apprentices armed themselves with pistols and marched the six down the street.

Archie sighed. “There are two dead men at the barracks, Ruben. Could you send someone to get them?”

“What happened?”

“They were waiting for us. The one with the broken arm was the boss of the crew tearing down the barracks. He refused to stop work and drew a knife on me. I have a sneaking suspicion the two deaders may have been a couple of Achen’s men. While Dieter and I were taking care of the workmen, those two joined the fight. They rushed me and I got careless. I hit them too hard—with my cane.”

Ruben eyebrows rose. “You killed them with a cane?”

“Unintentionally. I hit one too hard in the head with this—” He raised the cane to show the molded alloy knob. “—and punched the other too hard with this.” He pointed to the steel-capped foot of the cane. “They got too close to me. I had to use what I had. I was rushed.”

Ruben nodded. “I understand.”

“Does Suhl really have a watch? I’ve been here two days and I haven’t seen one yet.”

“They do. I don’t know their patrol schedules. They don’t come here because we take care of ourselves. The council has not asked the full militia for help. Truthfully, I haven’t really paid much attention.”

“I’m thinking the watch should be rebuilt from scratch with a professional wachtmeister who can properly train, organize, and lead the watchmen. The only ones I’ve seen on watch are your militiamen at the gates.”

“There are some on the walls, too.”

“Guess I didn’t look hard enough. While I’m thinking of it, I need someone to help me survey the barracks and see how much damage has been done. I’ll need to hire some workmen to fix it up, repair any damages, and ready the place for the constabulary troop.”

“I’ll speak with some of the other craft masters. It’s about time for our weekly meeting. I’ll ask them to send you a man or two—tomorrow?”

“Good. Tell them we’re staying at the Boar’s Head Inn. If I’m not there Dieter Issler, my deputy, will be. Feld is arraigning a meeting for me with the council sometime tomorrow.”

****

A messenger from the burgermeister arrived early the next morning. The council would meet with Archie later that morning. Archie sent a messenger to Anse Hatfield asking Anse to join him at the meeting. Anse knew, at least by reputation, many of the council members. Archie would have preferred to have Ruben Blumroder there, too. But that would appear to be political favoritism, Ruben being an SoTF official. If he needed a local representative, they would not be surprised to see Anse standing next to Archie. These folk understood family ties. They’d view the two up-timers as kith, if not kin.

Ruben had been good to his word. A master carpenter arrived early. He and Archie discussed the issue with the barracks. “Herr Heinrich Buch owns the barracks property,” the carpenter said. “I heard he bought it from the council. He said he planned to build a warehouse on the site. It is prime property.”

“I’m going to find out about that. It wasn’t the council’s property to sell. It belongs to the SoTF.”

“I only know what I’ve been told.”

“Is that going to be a problem with you? Herr Buch claiming it?”

“Nein. You said you would pay for the survey. It’s guilders in my pocket either way.”

“How long will you need for the survey? A day? Less?”

“Not a day. A couple of hours at least.”

“Would this afternoon be good?”

Ja.”

“Have you met my deputy, Dieter Issler?”

Ja, when I arrived.”

“Come back this afternoon. I have a meeting later this morning. If I’m not here, Dieter will go with you. He’ll keep anyone off your back in case someone objects.”

“I’ll be here.”

The carpenter departed. Archie glanced at his watch. It was time to meet Anse at the rathaus.

Archie was limping slightly when he arrived at the rathaus. He had been more active than usual. He had not been in a fight since he was wounded the previous year. He realized age was creeping up on him.

Anse Hatfield was waiting when Archie arrived. “Hurtin’, Archie?”

“Some.”

“Feelin’ mean and ornery?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You’ll need that with these folks.”

The rathaus was a three-story building, the only one in Suhl as far as he knew, Anse said. The ground floor was an open space used for large meetings, weddings, and festivals. The city council met in a room on the second floor. The top floor contained offices of city officials and departments.

Archie’s leg hurt more after climbing the stairs. If he needed to be feeling mean and ornery, he was ready. He and Anse walked into the council room. Herr Feld sat at the head of the table. Six other councilmen sat along both sides leaving Archie and Anse to sit at the end, opposite to Feld.

“Welcome Marshal, and you, too, Herr Hatfield,” he said. Without giving Archie the opportunity to respond, Feld introduced the other six members of the council. Heinrich Buch sat to Feld’s right, Archie noticed. Each councilman nodded in turn as he was introduced.

“We are here at your request, Herr Marshal, ” Feld said.

“I appreciate you acting so swiftly, ” Archie began. “I am SoTF Marshal Archie Mitchell,” he said speaking to the entire council. “I assume you have read the documents I gave you, Herr Feld. Has the entire council read them?”

“No, I’ve not had time to make copies. A couple of the councilmen have read them but not all.”

“By chance, I have a copy with me. I’ll read it to the council.” Which he proceeded to do.

Several councilmen interrupted as he read asking for clarification of one point or another. When Archie came to the part about renovating the barracks, Councilman Heinrich Buch interrupted. “That’s my property!”

“No it isn’t. It is owned by the government of the State of Thuringia and Franconia.”

“Noelle Murphy transferred ownership to the city council. I bought it from the council!”

“Noelle Murphy didn’t have that authority,” Anse replied. “She was very aware of the limits of her authority. No one knew it had been transferred to the SoTF until Marshal Mitchell arrived.”

“I have the document here. Right here! It’s proof that she did, whether she had the authority or not. You can’t take back what she has done.”

“May I see that document?” Archie asked.

“No! It is my only proof.”

“It is a transfer of ownership to Suhl, not you, Heinrich,” Feld said. “Give it to him.”

Grudgingly, Buch gave the document to the councilman sitting next to him. It was passed, councilman to councilman, until it reached Anse Hatfield.

Anse glanced at the document and looked up. “It’s a forgery.”

“What!” exclaim Heinrich Buch jumping to his feet.

“Look at it, Archie,” Anse said. “Look at the signature.”

“What about it?” Archie asked.

“Look at it. Is it written by someone who is right-handed or left-handed?”

Archie looked down at the document again. “Right-handed. Why?”

“Noelle Murphy is left-handed. I carried messages for her whenever I went back to Grantville. Whoever wrote this was right-handed.”

“You’re a liar!” Buch shouted.

“If I am, it can be refuted in a few days. I can send a radio message for samples of Noelle Murphy’s signature. They can get here by courier in a couple of days.”

“They’ll be fakes! You just want to steal my property.”

“Now why would we want to do that when no one outside Suhl even knew you claimed the barracks?”

Buch stood white-faced, trembling. Abruptly, he sat. He muttered something to Feld who in turn said, “We await your proof, Herr Hatfield.”

“In the meantime,” Archie said, “I’m having the barracks surveyed to determine what is needed for its full restoration. No work will be done until the council has proof the transfer of the barracks to Suhl was fraudulent. I also warn you now that the Court of the State of Thuringia-Franconia will be very interested how this all happened.”

****

“. . . that was the end of the meeting,” Archie told Dieter. “I’m very glad Anse was there. Otherwise, we’d be in a mess, a big lawsuit probably. Just the thing to kick off the new court here in Suhl. So how was your afternoon with the carpenter?”

“Interesting. A stonemason joined us at the barracks. Apparently, the Swedes had built a stone armory for their munitions and a stone outbuilding that could easily be converted to be a jail, guardhouse, whatever you call it. Strong fitted stone walls and floors, and thick iron studded doors. A little dark, no windows, but the stonemason said those could be added if we wanted.”

“I think we’ll have to do that. If we make that the holding prison for the court, the prisoners will need access to light and air.”

“He’s coming by here tomorrow. I can tell him then. He and the master carpenter will draw up some estimates for us, cost and time to do all the renovation.”

“Good. Now, we have to find a courthouse.”

“I think I found one.”

“Oh? Where?”

“Right next to the barracks. You remember that building right next to the place where the wall had been torn down?”

“Vaguely.”

“It’s part of the barracks. It was quarters for the officers and their headquarters. They didn’t like the spaces in the barracks proper so they included that building when they appropriated the property for the barracks. I was told Buch had owned it before it was seized by the Swedes.”

“That explains much.”

“Yes, it does.”

“I didn’t go in today but I think we should give it a look over as soon as we can.”

“I agree. Tomorrow?”

“Let’s see, the carpenter and stonemason are coming in the morning. We could go with them. I don’t remember any other appointments, do you?”

Their conversation was interrupted by a knock on their door. The innkeeper entered. “Herr Marshal, this message just arrived for you.”

Danke. I appreciate your promptness.”

The innkeeper left to return to the taproom in the front of the inn. Archie tried to read the message but it was handwritten, and poorly at that. “Can you read this, Dieter?”

“Well. Uh, it’s from Heinrich Buch. I think he is offering an apology and would like to meet you tonight at . . .” he glanced at his watch, a gift from Greta, “at around 9 PM, if I’m reading this right. His handwriting is terrible!”

“Huh! I wonder what he wants? After the meeting today, I wouldn’t think he wants to meet for hugs and kisses.”

“What?” It was another of Archie’s witticisms that always surprised Dieter.

“Never mind. Ask the innkeeper to send a messenger to Buch and tell him I’ll be there. Remind me that we need to budget for messenger service.”

“I’ll do that. Is it alright if I don’t go with you? One of my horses has cast a shoe. I’d like to take it to Christian Zeitts and get it shod.”

“Go ahead. I don’t think Buch is going to try anything, not now that all has been exposed.”

****

Archie entered Buch’s shop. The smell of burned powder still lingering on his duster and clothes.

Heinrich Buch approached from the rear of the cabinetry shop. “Herr Marshal.”

“Herr Buch. I think you have a mess out front. There are four dead bodies.”

“I heard.” He sighed. “I need to confess.”

“Luring me here to be killed?”

“No! No, I . . . I didn’t know what was planned. My son-in-law told me to invite you here. He . . . uh . . . he forced me.”

“How?”

“My daughter. She’s six months with child. Achen beats her. I’m afraid he’ll kill her.”

“Isn’t that frowned upon?”

“Yes, no, the church won’t interfere. It’s not against the law if it’s just a beating. There’s no one.”

“I know how that can be. I’ve seen it often enough. Back up-time, if something like this occurred, a man gathered his friends and family and fixed the problem, put the son of a bitch in the hospital. No one talks, nothing can be proved.”

“I don’t have anyone that I could trust to not talk. This whole scheme with the barracks is his idea. He told me to build a warehouse and storefront at the barracks. When finished, it and the building next to it could be sold for three times what it cost me.”

“And what did it cost you to buy the barracks?”

The price Buch gave was astonishingly low. “Who pushed this through the council? You?”

“Feld. He gets a percentage of the profit when the buildings are sold.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

“Now, where can I find your son-in-law?”

“He’s usually at Der Bulle und Bär this time of night. He lives, sometimes, here with my daughter. They have rooms upstairs. But most of the time he’s there.”

“Will he be there tomorrow?”

“He should be.”

“Don’t warn him I’m coming.”

“No—no, I won’t.”

“I think Suhl needs a new councilman and bürgermeister, don’t you?”

Buch didn’t speak but just nodded and hung his head. He’d be lucky to get off with some jail time and a heavy fine. He and Feld both. The SoTF was hard on public corruption.

****

Archie wished he hadn’t given Dieter time off to get his horse shod. He wasn’t up to bracing Achen in his own territory. He didn’t know how many men Achen had. Seven of them were now pushing up daisies. He could easily have more. Tomorrow would do. He and Dieter would scout Der Bulle und Bär. If Achen was there, he and Dieter would arrest him . . . one way or another.

He headed back to the Boar’s Head. He felt fine. The adrenaline hit made his aches and pains slip away.

He walked through the Boar’s Head doorway and made his way over to a table in the corner. He didn’t drink much but once in a while, he liked a beer. “Ein bier, Mein Herr,” he called to the innkeeper. The beer arrived in a large mug, still foaming. The innkeeper brewed it himself. It wasn’t what he liked, but in the time since the Ring of Fire, he had become accustomed to the down-time brew. It would do.

****

Archie slept late the next morning. He had left Dieter a note on his bedroom door to postpone the follow-up with the carpenter and stonemason for a day. He and Dieter had law business to attend to today.

TMCStrnchA visit to the jakes, a bath, and he was ready. He retrieved his Model 1897 shotgun from their makeshift armory and dumped a handful of double-aught shells in his side coat pocket. He loaded the shotgun with five more shells of double-aught buck. The shotgun was once known as a trench gun. It had a twenty-inch barrel, and, at one time, a bayonet lug. Archie had never owned a bayonet for the shotgun. He was well off without it. All a bayonet did, in close quarters, was get in the way.

Dieter stood waiting. He, too, had his double-barreled shotgun ready and his Colt 1911 on his belt. The two walked out through the front of the Boar’s Head Inn, Archie in front with Dieter following. The innkeeper did a double-take as they passed. They were armed and appeared ready for business.

Der Bulle und Bär was in a part of Suhl that Archie had not yet visited. It was nestled  in the shade of  the city wall. Archie and Dieter walked up to the entrance. Dieter opened the door and stepped aside to let Archie enter first.

Archie walked in and stepped to one side. Dieter followed and stepped to the other side. Neither were silhouetted against the open doorway.

Schlick-schlock! The strange sound caused Achen to look up, interrupting his conversation with his last two men.

“Friedrich Achen,” Archie said. “You are under arrest for fraud, extortion, assault on a SoTF marshal, and murder. Place your hands on your head and stand up!”

Achen looked into three shotgun barrels, the double-barrel in Dieter’s hands and the one in Archie’s. Both marshals stood covering the inn’s common room, their six-pointed badges clearly visible in the dimness of the inn.

No one moved. Then, Achen slowly raised his hands, put them on his head and slowly rose. The other two sitting at his table didn’t move, neither scarcely breathed.

“Step forward and turn around.”

Achen did so.

“I’m using my good steel handcuffs on you, Achen. The rest of you—don’t interfere. Stay where you are and don’t move until we’re gone. Don’t follow us either. We can take you all out if necessary.”

The room remained silent. None doubted his word. Archie and Dieter pulled Achen with them and backed out of the room. Dieter kept watch as they headed for Ruben Blumroder’s shop.

“We REALLY need a jail, Dieter.” Archie said as they neared the gunshop. “This is just getting repetitious.”

****

Mid-May, 1634,

Suhl

 

A Mounted Constabulary trooper dismounted outside the entrance of the Boar’s Head Inn. The inn’s stableboy took the horse’s reins and led it to the stables in back for watering while the trooper went inside the inn. “Where may I find Marshal Mitchell?” he asked.

“He’s in back. Wait. I’ll get him,” the innkeeper replied and disappeared into the rear of the inn to reappear a few minutes later with the Marshal.

“I’m Marshal Mitchell.” he told the trooper.

“Sir, the 1st Mounted Constabulary Troop with Frau Mitchell and Frau Issler should arrive in two hours. Captain Gruber sent me ahead to tell you.”

“That’s very good news, trooper.” Archie, walked back to the rear doorway and shouted, “Dieter! They’re here. Want to ride out to greet them?”

“Yes!” Dieter replied from the rear of the inn.

Archie returned to the trooper and said, “Have a beer on me while we saddle our horses. We’ll ride back with you.”

Danke, Herr Marshal.” The trooper never refused a free beer. He took his time to finish it and then walked out the front entrance in time to see Archie and Dieter appear on horseback with the stableboy leading the trooper’s horse.

“Lead off,” Archie instructed after the trooper had mounted, and the three departed.

They rode down the road that ran along the river until they found the troop and several accompanying wagons coming towards them. Archie saw Marjorie sitting on one wagon. Greta was seated on another. Both wagons, covered by waterproof tarps, were heavily loaded and driven by MC troopers.

“I think Majorie and Greta brought everything but the kitchen sink,” Archie said to Dieter as they approached the troop. Archie greeted the officer in the lead and then rode down the column until he reached Marjorie’s wagon. Dieter rode on to the next wagon and Greta.

“Hi, Marj, I’ve missed you,” Archie said pulling up next to the wagon.

“Arch, I missed you, too…I’m glad to be here. You’re looking good.”

“Feel good, too. I was really whupped when I first got here. Dieter and I had some troubles but that’s all cleared up.”

TMCSsddl“I see you got a new saddle.”

“Yeah, I made a good deal. Where’re your horses?”

“My mare and the gelding are in the string back behind the wagons with the MC’s spare horses. I rode most of the time, but too much made my rear hurt. I’m not up for long rides on horseback anymore.”

“I hear ya. Dieter and I found a nice house in town. It’s two stories and big enough for all of us with room to spare. It’s not far from some new friends of mine, Johann Zeitts and his family. I think you’ll like them.”

“I brought your recliner and our bed. I had to disassemble them to get everything in the wagon but I knew you’d want them.”

“Thank you. I really miss that recliner. The beds here are OK, but my leg starts hurting in the middle of the night.”

Captain Gruber rode up next to Archie and introduced himself. “Is the barracks ready, Marshal?”

“Almost. The workmen should finish up today—just minor stuff. The trooper barracks and the stables were finished first. I left two tall trees standing for the radio antenna according to the instructions I received.”

“Good. I brought a permanent radio station with me and two radio operators. They’ll work for the court. Did you find a blacksmith, farrier, and saddler?”

“Yes, I did. Johann Zeitts and his son, Christian. I have them under contract to give you twenty hours each, each week. Johann Zeitts is a saddler. He made the saddle I’m sitting on. His son, Christian, is a journeyman blacksmith and farrier. I don’t think you’d need them more than twenty hours a week.”

“No, that should be sufficient. The horses were all shod before we left.”

“Before I forget, I did make one commitment for you.”

“Oh?”

“There’s been a shakeup in the Suhl city council. The city watch has been pretty much ineffectual. They’ve not been competently led. The militia has been manning the gates and the walls but that’s all. The new city council has asked for some suitable watchtmeister candidates. I told the council that you would provide troopers to help train the watch and help patrol the city until a new wachtmeister takes over or for two months whichever occurs first.”

“Hmmm. I think I can do that. Some of them can do double-duty for a while.”

“I’m glad you agree. I was put into a spot, and I hate to make commitments for other people. My deputy and I have been helping to improve the watch’s overall capability and with some on-the-job training on a few promising watchmen. We’ve been making random patrols through the city with them but we’re just two and when the court is established, we’ll have our own work to do.”

“I must start sending out patrols as soon as I can, but we’ll need some time to get everything set up and to rest the horses and men before we start. I think we can work something out.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“You are very welcome, Herr Marshal.” Gruber kicked his heels and rode up to the head of the column. Archie stayed with the wagon and Marjorie.

They rode silently for some time, he on horseback and she on the wagon seat next to the driver. Archie broke the silence, “I really missed you, Marj. I don’t like living alone.”

“What? No dancing girls in that inn?”

Archie laughed, “No, no dancing girls. I hope you like the place Dieter and I found for us. It was a bakery at one time. I had some walls added to divide it into two apartments, one for us and the other for Dieter and Greta.”

“It sounds good, Arch . . . Arch, I’m ready to go home.”

“Me too, Marj, me too.”

****

 

The Monster Under the Bed

 The Monster Under the Bed banner v2

On Top of a Little Boy’s Bed, Bamberg, July, 1636

 

Joseph Drahuta knew how old he was—nine, but he also knew how old he felt—older.

First, there had been the entire Ring of Fire thing, when his entire life changed down to his underwear. Who would have thought elastic waistbands were such a big thing?

And socks! Who would have thought that even socks would change?

From toilet paper to a change in diet, he had grown used to the lack of television and no cell phones and riding horses instead of cars.

Then there had been his adopted brother and sister, which led to the whole sharing a bed thing.

Ulrich snored lightly beside him.

Joseph Drahuta was used to sharing a bed by now. It certainly was warmer on cold nights when there was no heating like he was used to, only creeping cold that seemed to be everywhere. In the summer, though, things were different. Joey turned toward the edge of his bed where it was cooler.

“Hey,” Joseph whispered, “do you still hear ‘em?”

The silence from under his bed was disturbing. The initial sounds, when they came, startled him even though Joseph knew well this ‘monster’ under his bed.

This ‘monster’ was, after all, the shortstop on his little league team. At least baseball had survived the Ring of Fire.

“Yes,” the monster answered, finally, “but not so loud and not so much. I think the tea was stronger this time. The tea tastes horrible.”

Joseph listened to Ulrich’s soft snoring. Ulrich was used to crowded beds and bedrooms and could sleep through almost anything.

“Momma says you’re . . . schiz . . . schizophrenic . . .” Joseph struggled but he had been practicing for some time. The word was even harder to spell but he could, at least, say it.

“I thought the voices were God . . .” the monster whispered with a certain determined reverence. “. . . if the voices were from God . . . the tea would not stop Him.”

“What do the voices say now?”

“The same. They are just softer now. I can pretend they aren’t real now. Playing baseball helps. You have to keep thinking in baseball. Thank you for letting me hide under your bed.”

“Sure,” Joseph stated, “any time. There’s a big game tomorrow.”

The silence from the monster under his bed was unnerving.

“I know,” the monster said, finally. “The voices don’t like me playing baseball. The voices say it is a sin against Hashem to play when I could be reading the Torah. I tell them it is a sin to pretend to hear the voice of God. Amen.”

Joseph took a deep breath. It was always dangerous to talk religion with Shabby, the monster under his bed, when he was like this—in the middle, between listening to the voices and ignoring them.

“It scares the other team when you shout verses from the Torah.” Joseph laughed slightly.

TMUtBzb“I know . . .” Shabbethai Zebi, the monster under the bed, said with a smile you could almost see in the darkness of the bedroom, even when it came from the monster under the bed.

****

A Somewhat Larger Bedroom, Bamberg, July, 1636

 

Meanwhile, in another bedroom, larger with a larger bed that refused to move despite what was happening upon its surface . . .

“Thank you for not trying to wear the spurs this time,” Julie stated breathlessly. “The arguing just wastes time, Norman, and they ruin the blankets . . .”

“I could still get them . . .”

The answering slap was quite loud.

“How do you still find this all funny, Norman? Talk about mental health issues . . . You are a walking, talking DSM full of psychiatric problems, Norman. Worse, you got your daughter thinking it’s funny, too. Karla has enough problems with simply heating water on a stove let alone wearing armor like her dad.”

“Funny? Sex? With you? That’s never funny . . .”

This time the slap was intercepted. Norman Drahuta giggled and even avoided the other hand.

“Norman . . . let go of my hand . . .”

“Never!”

There were, in the dark room, the sounds of a largely friendly struggle then silence.

“At least the bed doesn’t squeak,” Julie finally stated, somewhat breathlessly.

“This bed would stop a tank. They don’t even bother to dress the trees in this century. They chop it down and force it into furniture here. It’s like . . . trying to sleep in a bunker. I think I could get the horse on this bed and it wouldn’t squeak. You know . . . didn’t Catherine the Great . . .”

This time, the slap connected. There were, in the dark room, the sounds of a largely friendly struggle then silence.

The knock at the door was largely anticlimactic but accepted with a certain reluctance.

“You think it’s the neighbors?” Norman giggled.

“No,” Julie growled, “it’s probably Karla. I bet her face hurts. Who is it?”

“Ma . . .” came the muffled reply. The doors, even the interior ones in a place like this, were not hollow core garbage found up-time. You could, conceivably, bar this door and guarantee all but the most determined attempt at entry would be dissuaded. “. . . Ma . . .”

“Pull the blanket over yourself, for Christ’s sake . . . come in!”

The door opened slowly but not for dramatic effect. It was heavy, and Karla was barely seven. There weren’t even the sounds of scampering, childish feet. The floor wouldn’t notice a herd of Karlas stampeding across it. You required a solid, thick floor to support a bed like this one.

The bed barely noticed her pouncing upon it and clambering across its rumpled expanse.

“What is it this time, Karla?” Julie demanded of her daughter.

“Joey’s got Shabby under his bed, Ma,” Karla said breathlessly. The bed was not something to be crossed lightly. Such things took time.

“Shabbethai does that, sometimes, after he takes his medicine, Karla. We’ve had this discussion before. Now why are you up?”

“I heard them giggling in there,” Karla stated suspiciously. “He’s scary when he giggles like that. He’s like a monster under the bed.”

“They are probably talking baseball. Now, why are you up? How’s your face? Is it bothering you?”

“It stings little. I miss my bed . . . back home in Grantville. And Sibylla snores. Sometimes she talks in her sleep, too. She talks in German. You got Joey a little brother why did you have to get me an older sister? She’s mean. We could still adopt a younger sister. Can’t we?”

“Sibylla put out the fire, didn’t she?” Norman was trying very hard not to laugh.

“That wasn’t my fault! If Sibby wasn’t always yelling at me I would’ve been able to concentrate more . . . and it wasn’t really a fire . . . really. It was just real . . . Stop laughing, Daddy! My whole face almost burned off!”

“At least you have one eyebrow left,” Julie muttered. “Snuggle up and don’t get the goop on the blankets.”

There were, in the dark room, the sounds of a largely friendly snuggle then silence.

“What are we going to do about that monster under the bed?” Julie whispered.

“Get him his own bed?” Karla asked, nestled between her two parents.

“People in town are watching you and him like cats watching twitching string. They want to see if this ‘medicine’ thing works or not. It seems a lot of people ‘hear voices’ in seventeenth-century Germany. That ‘tea’ is gonna be popular, I bet. I can’t believe my little wifey is introducing pysch-meds to the world.”

“Call me wifey again, and I will introduce the world to level four trauma centers,” Julie growled.

“Mom didn’t mean that, Daddy,” Karla stated from her position of authority. “That was her funny voice.”

“If you are going to be here, Karla, then less talking and more listening. Better yet . . . go to sleep. Sleep helps healing time. If you think real hard maybe you’ll grow a new eyebrow before your brother makes a comedy routine out of it.”

“Is the lithium working?” Norman asked.

TMUtltm“He says the voices aren’t as loud. That goes along with what I know, which isn’t that much, about schizophrenia and lithium treatment. I just don’t know how much lithium I am giving him. I am driving on ice, on a mountain road, blind here. I have to talk to Stoner about extracting lithium. I heard you can get it from sea salt or something . . . seaweed . . . I remember hearing some holistic guy talk about natural supplements and treatment of schizophrenia. That’s how I heard about the seaweed thing. I am going to have to be the whole damn FDA, too.”

“You shouldn’t use bad words . . . hey!” Karla whined.

“Next time it will be your face I slap. Now be quiet and go to sleep.”

“That’s child abuse . . .” Karla muttered.

“She has a point, dear,” Norman nodded ‘loudly’ enough to almost be seen in the darkness of the room. The bed, far too sturdy, didn’t move at all despite his nodding.

“In this day and age I would use a stick and be considered affectionate,” Julie grumbled. “The definitions of child abuse and even the term ‘child’ are very different now.”

“And human experimentation,” Norman told his wife, “don’t forget that. I doubt you would get anyone to support you testing drugs on a kid up-time. Now? Even the pack of Rabbis are listening and watching carefully. Hell, some of the Germans think you should use Jews to experiment on. Makes for some interesting conversation, let me tell you. The CoC gets involved, and things get tense from there.”

“They are not a pack of Rabbis,” Julie grumbled.

“Shabby calls them . . .” Karla began.

“Do not repeat what he calls them. It isn’t nice . . . even in Yiddish. There are some who think I should dose him with something stronger . . . like Drano or something. Solve the whole ‘Son of God’ thing once and for all.”

“Do you think Shabby was really hearing the voice of God?” Karla asked in stark, though largely unseen, defiance of her mother’s previous and horrific edict concerning silence and the punishments for violating it.

“According to the histories . . . a lot of people thought so,” Julie said softly. “He was a worldwide sensation.”

“Wow, you shut up God, Mama,” Karla whispered.

“Yeah, but I can’t seem to shut you up or stop you from trying to go all Joan of Arc in my own damn kitchen!”

There were, in the dark room, the sounds of careful consideration, then silence.

“Go to sleep, Karla. Tomorrow is a new day full of opportunities to incinerate more meals,” Julie Drahuta grumbled. “And, Norman, you say one more damn thing and I will slap you someplace as painful as Karla’s face! Now let’s get some sleep!”

“You say that now but a little while ago you . . .”

“Norman?” Julie whispered. “Do you want your daughter to see her mother kill her daddy?”

“That’s her serious voice, Daddy. I’d listen to her.”

****

A Little Help From His Friends

A Little Help From His Friends banner

Near Magdeburg

November, 1634

 

“Hey, Linus! Where is the sergeant?”

Becker sighed. The party had gone on until around two in the morning, and somewhere in that time, Hartmann had vanished. “Josef, does it look like I have been assigned to keep track of him?” He picked up the stack of plates, carrying them over to the tray that had held snacks, and was now filling up with dirty dishes. “If he felt the need for company, he could ask. Now take this tray to the women before I thump you.”

Jawohl, Herr Wachtmeister!

Becker looked toward the door. He didn’t even have to think about where his sergeant had gone. He knew. Poor bastard.

****

Snow had begun to fall, the graveyard becoming a white expanse in the early morning. One set of feet were walking through it, and they paused at the gravestone. Hartmann knelt, then sat, leaning on the stone, only it and death separated him from the people he loved the most. He set down the rifle, drew out his new pipe, and filled it. Then before he took out his lighter, he drew a flask from another inner pocket, pouring schnapps into a small glass he had dug into the soil in front of the stone.

“I love the present. I wish Alexander were still alive; I would have liked to thank him.” He sighed, looking up into the clouds. “I miss you.” He opened the flask, tapped the glass with it. “To us forever.”

****

Hartmann looked at the sign; Die graue Katze. He snorted. Because all cats are gray in the dark. Maybe there was a more stupid name for a whorehouse, but he couldn’t think of one. What in the hell was Hamner of all people doing here?

He pushed open the door. The inside was all warm wood, tapestries, and the smell of furniture polish. One man, built like an ox and looking about as bright, watched him. If he had begun chewing a cud, Hartmann would have turned and walked right back out.

“Welcome, Sergeant!” The woman who came into the hall was full-fleshed, with a wide open face and brilliant smile. “You I have not seen. Are you new to Magdeburg?”

“I have been here almost a year,” Hartmann replied. “I am looking for someone.”

“Everyone who graces our establishment is looking for someone, Sergeant. It is the nature of the business.”

He sighed. “Madam, I am looking for a man.” Even as he said, it, he knew he had stated it wrong.

The smile slipped. “Sergeant, we do not serve your kind here. However—”

She stopped as Hartmann raised his hand. “No. I am looking for a particular man. Wachtmeister Hamner, who told his friends he would be here.”

At the name, the woman’s smile returned. “Ah! Michel! I am sorry, Sergeant, we get all kinds of people coming here. I am Sophia, the proprietor.” She hooked her arm through his, and like a tugboat began to drag him. They passed into another room.

There were six women in the next room, all under-dressed to show off the wares. The women watched him with the same predatory air he had seen from wolves in winter, wondering how he might taste. The madam pulled him through, and the instant they reached the halfway point, the women ignored him as if he didn’t exist.

Down a hall, then to a door that led into a dining room. Instead of men and women enjoying a meal before their sport, a dozen boys and girls from around eleven to seventeen were seated heads down, writing. The woman motioned for silence. At the other end of the table, Hamner sat in uniform, glancing up, then at an hourglass before him. He stood, walking quietly to where his sergeant stood. “Just another few minutes please, Sergeant.”

Hamner returned to the end of the table, and as the last sand fell he spoke. “Pencils down. Pass the papers to this end, please.” Obediently the children did as instructed. “Now, go to your work. I will grade these tonight.” He motioned, and they stood, the lines of silent, attentive students suddenly becoming a swarm of giggling children as they fled.

“When I heard you were in a whorehouse this early in the evening, I imagined something else.”

Hamner blushed. “I am affianced, Sergeant, and she lives less than three blocks away. I will allow you to imagine what she would do.”

“So what you have been doing?”

“I made my living as a tutor before I joined the Army, Sergeant. Madam Schreiber had spoken to the CoC here in the capital, hoping to find someone who could help the older children who had no chance of an education so they would not fall too far behind. They are paying me a stipend per student.”

“Which he spends here on tea and snacks for the children,” the madam commented. “And once a week he teaches my girls how to speak and read other languages.”

“I don’t know how your new commanding officer will feel about that,” Hartmann said softly.

“Sergeant?” Hamner looked stunned. “You are going to kick me out of the company?”

“Nothing so harsh.” Hartmann pulled a folder from his tunic and passed it over. “You have been transferred to the Third Division.”

“What?”

“Some of their regiments are still being organized. All of us from officers down to sergeants have been asked to recommend men to transfer.”

“Oh.”

Hartmann smiled, but it was that gentle smile those who had known him for a while rarely saw. “As a sergeant, Michel. They may call it something else, but the top enlisted man in the company.”

Hamner clutched the folder to his chest. “I will try to follow your example.”

“Oh, I am not done with you yet.” Hartmann commented, hands behind his back, rocking heel to toe in what his noncoms had begun calling the sergeant’s training pose. “Since you are leaving, who would you suggest for a replacement?”

“Kohlner.” Hamner said instantly.

“Explain your choice.”

“Sometimes he is adamant that he is right, and it took time to teach him otherwise. However, he pays attention when he is instructed and asks good questions. If others are too slow to understand, he is willing to explain until the last trump, though after four or five times, he does get a bit upset.”

“Will he grow out of it?” Hartmann’s eyes bored into the younger man.

“In time,” Hamner grinned. “I did.”

“I agree.” Hartmann stuck out his hand. “Do me proud, Sergeant.” Hamner shook his hand. “Now I have to tell Becker he is going to Third Company. I wonder if he is as observant as you.”

“But first, we must celebrate!” The madam bustled out, then returned with a dusty bottle. She pulled the cork and poured. “Madeira wine, Sergeants.” She handed them the glasses, then lifted her own. “Would you decide the toast, Sergeant? Or shall I?”

Hartmann looked at the earnest face. “Absent friends.” He drained the glass, set it down, and left.

“Such a self-controlled man. He walked through the antechamber without leering even once! His wife must be proud.”

“She was.” At her look, he added, “She died days before Ahrensbök.”

The woman looked at the closed door. “There must be something we can do about that.”

****

Suddenly, it seemed, Hartmann was a prize catch for a dinner partner.

He’d had dinner with his lieutenant and of course Colonel Ludendorf, both with family. But considering his relationship with them, it would have been a surprise only because of his rank. But suddenly he was inundated with invitations even from civilians who would come up to him on the streets! He had gone to three before he saw the pattern.

All had an unmarried woman younger than him as his table partner. If asked from that point on, he merely said he was busy—which was true. The personal invitations stopped, but that wasn’t the end of it. Instead, there came letters.

Frankly, it was beginning to irritate him. He had one of the feldwebel from his company going through them and told him that if any of them mentioned “perhaps you would like to meet my sister-cousin-niece-good friend Frau Whatever-the-hell-her-name-was,” they would be set aside to use to start the fire in the orderly room after he dashed off a quick note saying he was busy. If someone slipped one in without the mentioned woman, he would arrive, stay a polite amount of time, make his apologies, and leave.

Worse yet, both the company and the training company had found out, and there was a lot of whispering that stopped when he was seen.

He was lucky about Christmas at least. One of the letters had been from Bobby Hollering to invite him to Grantville. By then almost all of the training for his present unit would be done.

 

Grantville

December, 1634

 

Hartmann climbed down from the train. It was a wonder. A seven-day trip in less than two. He swung the scabbard of his rifle aside to allow those boarding for the return trip to Magdeburg to pass. Ahead was one of the horse-drawn carriages, and he whistled.

He stopped the cab at the bottom of the hill. While one of the cars the up-timers used could have taken the hill, a horse-drawn one would have struggled. He climbed it on foot with few problems.

The shack was still there, and he noticed the smoke rising from the small metal chimney. Had Kirsten and the others stayed this long? He was about to knock when he heard a plaintive meow. Kočka stood there, her paws on his boot, looking up at him.

ALHfhFct“Kočka.” He knelt beside the door, her head pushing against his hand. But she kept walking toward the rear looking down the hill, meowing, then returning for more stroking. “You miss her, too.” he whispered. The cat allowed him to pick her up—a rare event—and he held her to his chest. Hartmann felt his eyes tear up, and he buried his face against her fur. “I cannot bring her back,” he whispered.

“Minuette? What is wrong this time?” The door opened, and Hartmann looked up. Kirsten stood there, the baby held against her hip. “Oh, Richard!” She stepped down, then hugged the man as he stood. She let him go, backing up. “Henri!”

Poirot looked out, then stepped down, hand out. “Please be welcome to enter our home,” he said in halting German.

“Thank you.”

The younger man smiled and ushered him in. The shack had been cozy with just Marta and Hartmann, well, and Kočka. But he got a glimpse of what could have been. One of the up-timers had made a hanging cradle for little Marta, with enough space for her to grow into for a year or more.

But with three adults, it was like being in a full closet.

Even crowded, Hartmann felt content, watching them both while sitting at the table with Henri perched on the edge of the bed sharing tea. Kirsten stood to go to the tea kettle, and for a moment, when she turned back with a teapot and cups, Hartmann saw himself watching Marta as he held his son, and she looked at him in happiness.

“Richard?”

“Sergeant?”

He shook his head. “Sorry, just letting my mind wander.”

Kirsten leaned across, touching his hand gently. “You saw her for a moment.”

“Yes, and our son.” He smiled sadly. “It was the most peaceful I have been since she died.”

“Well . . .” Henri tried to break the melancholy mood. “If you give us a day, you can have your home back again.”

“Nonsense. I am only in town for a few days. Stay here with my blessing. I will talk to the landlady and let her know.” Hartmann flinched when Kočka jumped up onto his lap.

“I see Minuette likes you. It had taken weeks before she accepted us.” She looked stricken. “But that is not her name, is it?”

“I always just called her Kočka, which is Czech for cat. You gave her a real name.” He smiled gently scratching her ears. “I also called her žárlivý žena, which is jealous wife. Does she still sit on the table and steal butter?” The grins they gave him were answer enough.

“I did not know you were here. I just came by to see her,” he said, stroking the cat the way she liked it. “So I will be on my way.”

“Wait!” Kirsten leaped up, went to a chest in the corner, and brought him back a book. He took it, and opened the cover. “Polyxandres: The Trip to the Future.”

“My master had it printed here first to assure you would get the very first copy,” Henri commented. He opened the book to a page entitled “The Ferocious Yet Gentle Warrior” bookmarked with a letter. “And he said farewell to you in his letter.”

“Did he at least stay long enough to see the railroad completed?”

“He left the town just after it had been announced. In fact, he probably rode it to Magdeburg on his way home.”

“And you stayed?” Hartmann asked gently.

ALHfhFcrssHenri reached into his shirt and pulled out an oddly shaped cross. “Monsieur, I am a Huguenot. If this were seen in public in Catholic France, I could be dragged before the Inquisition.” He put it away. “I would like to stay alive.”

“And we could get married here, even if we are of different faiths,” Kirsten said. “Marta was christened in the Presbyterian church, so her soul is safe. Now Henri and I work for the library, translating books written in German into French and Danish.” She giggled. “We even think of future demand; when one of us is asked to translate, I read it, and as I do, I translate it into Danish, he into French. Then we tell the library so if anyone asks, the translation already exists, and we get royalties when they purchase it.”

Hartmann stood. “I must go.” The couple stood, and Hartmann reached out, gently rubbing the baby’s cheek. “Long life, little one.” Then he hugged the girl, shook hands with the man, and headed down the hill.

“I feel such sorrow for him, Kirsten whispered.

“He feels the pain, but will let no one know it is there,” Henri commented.

They looked to each other. “We cannot leave him in such pain,” Kirsten said.

****

His next stop was at the home of Bobby Hollering. Cassandra hugged him with their young son in her arms, which as an almost five-year-old, he protested at the top of his lungs. “Hush Bobby Hay, or you’ll get swatted.”

The child kept complaining loudly.

Hartmann knelt down, eyes even with the struggling boy until he had the child’s attention. “Stop that,” he said sharply. The boy shut up, and Hartmann continued in a tone of voice that can only be called You-Will-Obey. “Now I have some business to conduct with your father, and I see no reason I should have to shout because you want to scream. So we will make a contract, you and I. You will sit silent and obedient until my business is done, and afterward if you have behaved, and your parents agree, you can see this—” He lifted his shoulder to make the sheathed rifle bounce. “—in action.”

The boy considered and his wriggling stopped, then he tapped his mother’s arm. “I accept, Sergeant. Would you please put me down, Mama?” Cassie gave a bemused smile as she set him down. “May I escort you to my father, Sergeant?”

“Lead the way.”

As they headed toward the entrance to the garage, Cassie shook her head and chuckled. “I expected him to tan little Bobby Hay’s hide! It’s a pity his wife died—he would have made one hell of a father.”

****

“Hello, Richard.” Bobby Hollering leaped to his feet and shook his hand. Then he looked at his son standing quiet. “And that ain’t usual. Why did you stop caterwauling?”

“I had a discussion with the boy.” Hartmann looked down. “And he agreed to behave, at least as long as I am here.” The boy’s head bounced a nod like a bobble-headed doll.

“Pity you don’t live in town. You could start a military school, and he would be your first student. So, let me see her.”

Hartmann opened the flap on the doeskin case and drew out the rifle he had gotten as a birthday gift. Bobby took it, opened the breech and looked down the barrel. “What does she fire?”

“Fifty-two caliber, four hundred forty grain bullet, with a powder charge of eighty grains.”

“Workable. Though back in 1997 when they tested the Sharps rifle they found out that the heavier five hundred and fifty worked better for long range.” He went to a box against the wall. “I bought a Creedmoor Vernier sight for a friend in Fairmont. Of course, he got left up-time.” The gunsmith, like a wizard of legend, ignored him as he marked the stock of the rifle, drilled two holes, and anchored the long-range sight. “Looks like they just copied the Buffalo rifle cartridge. Sharps made a cartridge that could take up to one hundred grains. Means we can too. But no loads from them, right?” Hartmann nodded. “I have a reloading kit made up for the rifle. So that is not a problem.” He worked silently. An up-timer had commented once, “Never meddle in the affairs of a wizard,” and Hartmann understood it now.

Bobby Hollering turned around. “Now the rubber hits the road. We can shoot using their top load of eighty grains of powder. You will have to use it in combat to figure the difference with one hundred grains. That needs a decent range. I have permission from the city council, so I have a section of the ring wall as a backstop.” He looked down at his son, who was bouncing on his toes like someone preparing for a race. “Got something to say, squirt?”

“Sergeant Hartmann said I could see the rifle shooting!”

He looked at the boy, then at Hartmann. “Well, Richard? Bobbie Hay don’t lie unless it’s something he really wants.”

Hartmann smiled. “I did say that he could watch, with your permission.”

“Then get your winter gear, Boy! We’re goin’ into the snow!” The boy squealed with glee, running into the house. Bobby watched him. “You made his day, Richard.”

Hartmann watched him as well. “Can you load one round light so he can shoot it without being hurt?”

Bobby looked at him, then grinned. “Hand me one of yours. I’ll reload it afterward.” By the time the boy returned, the special cartridge was in his father’s pocket. The trio headed out to Bobby’s shooting range. There were targets from a hundred yards up to five hundred.

To someone who was not an aficionado, it was as interesting as watching paint dry. Hartmann would fire a round, Hollering would comment either up or down, check the wind, and give directions left or right. Hartmann would adjust the sight and fire again. Then Hollering would say, “Good enough,” and Hartmann would make a note of where the sight was set. They did it at every range from two hundred yards out to five hundred. After the third or fourth shot, Bobby Hay just paced back and forth grumbling.

Bobby Hollering nodded. “It’s all good, now.” He leaned away from the spotting scope, then glanced at his son. “Want to let him shoot one?”

Hartmann didn’t answer the man. “Robert.” He lifted the rifle and waggled it. “Want to fire it once?”

“Can I?”

“It’s may I?” Hollering corrected, and the boy repeated obediently.

Hartmann had the boy kneel, using the sandbag rest. He lowered the long range sight; the round was only twenty grains of powder, less than half of the original Sharps rifle. He patiently walked the boy through it—rifle tight against the shoulder, aligning the sights, breathing, being gentle, and squeezing the trigger-

The gun fired. The bullet hit the one hundred yard target about two inches low, punctuated by Bobby Hay grumbling, “Owie!” over and over.

“Good enough for a first shot. I can teach you to improve that.”

“Now?” The boy was rubbing his shoulder, but had eyes seeing a future where he was as good a shot.

Hartmann chuckled, hefting the boy up into the air. “When you get older, perhaps” He poked the boy in the stomach causing him to giggle. “First, you need to get some more meat on your bones. A stiff wind would blow you away.”

“Airplane!” The boy cried.

Hartmann looked to the gunsmith, who told him how to do it. So for five minutes, he held the cheerfully screaming boy by one arm and leg, spinning in a circle.

****

“I don’t believe it.” Cassie said, putting her arms around Bobby from the back as they watched Hartmann splitting wood and Bobby Hay grabbing the pieces to carry to the stacked cordwood. “Most of the time I think Bobby Hay just puts up with people. But you should have seen it—him in the middle of one of his tantrums, and Hartmann just knelt down, gave him that sergeant look, used that sergeant voice of his and the boy just shut up.”

“No threats?”

“He didn’t have to. After all, he was here for the sight and staying until just after Christmas, and that meant shooting. He just offered that if Bobby Hay behaved, he might get to take a shot. It seems he just treats a kid like a half-trained recruit and talks to them as if they were adults.” She looked wistful. “It’s a pity about his wife. He’d be a wonderful father.”

“Well, we do have the Christmas party.” Bobby looked down at her stiffened arms. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, my God. The presents!” She charged inside as Hartmann and the boy came up on the porch, setting down the last of the wood. Before Bobby could try to stop him, Hartmann was inside.

Cassie was digging frantically in the presents under the tree. She had grabbed out two, turned, and saw him watching her curiously. She looked at them, then dropped to her knees, crying silently.

“Cassandra? What is wrong?”

She looked at him, and if anything the waterworks went into overtime. The three men just looked at her. “Bobby Hay.”

“Yes, Sergeant?”

“Get your mother a handkerchief.”

The boy ran off, returning with the item.

“I’m sorry, Richard.”

“About what?”

She held the gifts up helplessly. “I don’t buy Christmas presents at the end of the year like a lot of people. I see something I think they will like and pick it up.” She hiccuped, looking at him sadly. “I saw something m-Marta would have liked right after she left to join you, so I bought it. When I heard she was pregnant, I went over to the Bowers home, and Mary Sue knitted some things for . . .” She dropped the brightly wrapped packages and held her face in her hands as she cried.

Hartmann knelt, facing her. “And you thought I would be offended.” He took out the pipe Marta had sent literally from the grave. “But she sent me a birthday present. Why should you doing this bother me?”

“But you don’t keep poking at a wound!” She looked up as if seeing if he understood, then down again in her misery. “How can you heal from losing the woman you love, and the baby you never got to see if we won’t let you?”

Hartmann lifted her chin. “She is with me now.” He touched the bowl where Marta’s face still smiled at him. “She is part of me and will be, always.”

Cassie threw her arms around his neck and cried for his loss.

****

The family decided to go to the annual Christmas party, and while he didn’t feel in a holiday spirit, Hartmann went with them. The room was buzzing, and the most recent Santa was passing out presents. Unlike the second such event, the people understood better what the up-timers meant, so there were dolls, toy trucks carved out of wood, even large ones that looked like the APCs.

Cassie had spent several minutes huddled with some of the women. He shook his head. Would he have to put up with being the prize bull here as well?

Hartmann stood in the corner, watching the festivities as they cleared a space for dancing. The first song was something called the Tennessee Waltz.

Someone approached. One of the up-time women, he couldn’t remember her name.

“Don’t you dance, Sergeant?”

ALHfhFdns1“Never learned how except for some folk dances when I was a child.” He motioned toward the waltzing couples. “But nothing like that.”

“And without a wife, you really have no partner.” She grinned, taking his hand. “Come on, there’s one dance that anyone can do. I will just do what she would have done if she were here.”

Bemused, he allowed her to pull him into the dance floor. She set his hands on her waist, resting her hands on his shoulders. Then she began to move, and he followed. It didn’t look like anything he had ever seen. “We call it elevator dancing.”

“Ah, you do it only on the elevators like they have at the Higgins?”

She chuckled. “No, it’s because you’re moving, but not going anywhere.” She paused, looking over her shoulder. “Damn.”

“What?”

“Up-time when you want to dance with someone, but they are with a partner, you tap the one dancing to let them know you want to cut in.” She glared at the woman, then stepped aside. The other woman moved in, setting Hartmann’s hands on her more ample hips, and the dance continued.

This woman had barely gotten comfortable when she also flinched. Hartmann shook his head, eyes closed. “Ladies, if there is a slow dance, I will dance. But give each woman one dance unmolested, agreed?”

It seemed that the ‘get the poor sergeant married again’ bug had hit Grantville. All of the women he danced with had met him, and some had expressed attraction, but their actions were more to get him back in the habit of dealing with women. Except for fast songs (some of which he asked for once he found that they took requests) or when he went out to have a smoke or to join the men drinking, he spent the night dancing.

****

Christmas morning dawned over gently falling snow. Hartmann came down to find Bobby Hay waiting impatiently. “Why have you not attacked your objective?” he asked.

“We have rules for Christmas morning.” Bobby Hay shook his head making the face that said they had rules for everything. “Mama and Papa like to sleep in when they can. So the first rule is I have to wait until an adult is here. The second rule—” As he said that, a sudden strident ringing interrupted. “Papa forgot the alarm again!”

There was a sudden silence, and Bobby Hollering came down in his pajamas and slippers as he pulled on his robe. He yawned and waved absently at them on his way toward the kitchen.

“Papa?”

Bobby looked back. “Thought you’d be up already.” He glanced at Hartmann. “You didn’t ask the sergeant for permission?”

“I was explaining the Christmas rules to him when the alarm went off.” The boy marched over to the tree, picking up a box, which he brought to Hartmann. “The second rule, everyone gets to open one present before you open any more.” Hartmann watched the obedient boy walk over and choose a present to hand to his father when he came out of the kitchen with a pot of tea and cups. He looked at the stairs plaintively, then went and got only one of his, which he attacked like a dieter faced with an unprotected cheesecake.

Hartmann opened his rather heavy one carefully and opened the box inside it. There was an up-time made powder flask with three narrow screw-on tubes, a box of primers, and a reloading kit.

“Made that up for you. The tubes—” He took the longest one, screwing it into the fitting on the flask, then with his thumb sealing it, flipped his wrist while pressing the spring valve at the bottom. He released it, turned it upright, and displayed the powder in the tube. “Automatically measures the right amount. Smallest one is for your pistol; largest for the load you’re using now. Added the fifty grain one in case you want to try it at ninety or a hundred; just use the forty with the fifty, or a double fifty. Try it in action then decide.” He pushed the valve, and the powder whispered back down into the flask.

The men sat quietly, talking. The boy hopped what looked like a Brillo doll around for the better part of an hour before Cassie came down. Before long the floor was covered in scattered paper, and as Cassie went to make breakfast, Bobby Hay obediently cleared away the mess.

Since he had orders, the next morning Hartmann packed the gifts, including the unopened ones, hugged Cassie, shook the hands of both men, and walked into the still falling snow. Bobby Hay watched him until he was out of sight.

****

Magdeburg

Late December 1634

 

The snow was still falling when he arrived back in Magdeburg. Hartmann carried the bag and the rifle to his quarters, where he put down the weapon, took out the two presents, and walked to the graveyard. He poured libations, then carefully opened the one marked for the child. There was a knitted woolen blanket, a pair of booties, and a gown, all green. He smiled gently, then laid them on top of the grave. Then he opened Marta’s gift.

He looked at the royal blue angora wool shawl, letting it flow through his hands before wrapping it around the stone. “Merry Christmas, my love.”

He sat there for a long time, picturing a Christmas tree, Marta looking at her present, setting it around her shoulders then throwing herself into his arms. He missed her so much. Finally, he stood, walking back to the camp.

He spoke with the sentry for a moment, trading holiday greetings.

“Sergeant Hartmann!”

He glanced over at the heavyset woman walking toward him. For a moment, he wasn’t sure; then he recognized Brigadier Dortmunder’s wife. She came up and hand him an envelope. “My husband is having a party for the new year, just a few men he respects. You are invited to attend.”

He wanted to groan. Not again! “Frau—”

“No excuses! You will be there!” She turned and bustled off.

Hartmann looked at the envelope, then at the sentry. “Do you know where the brigadier is?”

“Sergeant?”

“Just tell me.” Once he knew, he walked toward the division headquarters. At the moment, he felt like a boy trying to get one parent to contradict the other.

The brigadier looked up.”Sergeant?” Hartmann saluted, then held out the envelope.

Dortmunder looked at it, then sighed. “Sergeant, I spoke to my wife about you. She decided that such a brave man should have a better selection of eligible women than the merchants of this city can offer. So she arranged a brigade party for the new year, and you are one of the guests of honor.” He grimaced in disgust. “As is every unmarried officer.”

“Permission to speak freely, Sir?” The officer nodded. “I would rather not go to this party, Sir.”

“You and I both. I did not meet your wife, but mine could teach the emperor lessons in stubbornness.” The older man sighed. “We will have to survive the evening as we may.”

Hartmann left the office in a deep depression. Would they never leave him alone? He heard someone calling him, and looked over his shoulder. Luftmann, who had taken Becker’s place as wachtmeister was coming from the side.

“Sergeant! I was not sure you would be home in time. My family wanted to invite you to a new year’s party to meet—” The man stopped talking when Hartmann raised his hand in a gesture for silence.

“If they wished to introduce me to an unmarried woman, I am no longer amused.”

For a long moment, Luftmann merely looked at him. “Sergeant, my sister who is seven, wished to meet you. I have told her so much about you she almost considers you our older brother. She wished to meet you. I will tell them.”

Hartmann looked at the man for a long moment as a sudden thought came to him. If he did this, perhaps the women would stop bothering him. “I will go to your family home tonight instead. I wish to talk to this girl and your parents about my problem.”

****

 

Magdeburg

New Year’s Eve, 1634

 

ALHfhFlndlrSo at eight in the evening, the party began. Every wife of the officers of the Wolverine, the Black Boar, and the newly-formed Gray Wolf Regiments had brought women they felt would be suitable as possible wives for Hartmann and the five unmarried officers.

Those other unfortunates had already arrived and were jostled into proximity when the majordomo announced in an amused tone, “Sergeant Richard Hartmann and Frau Gerta Luftmann!”

The brigadier’s wife turned. The man no doubt had picked up some street beggar or harlot to make this a laughing stock. She spun, and her jaw dropped. Her husband began coughing to hide his urge to laugh.

Hartmann stood paused at the door to be introduced. Beside him stood a young girl, straight and tall, dressed in a nice middle-class dress, with her hand on the sergeant’s arm. They walked in the sudden silence, and the girl was obviously both elated and terrified. But she walked with him.

Conversations began again, but Hartmann ignored the crowd as he led the girl through, pausing to introduce her to his officers. He reached Colonel Ludendorf, who was grinning. “Colonel, may I introduce Gerta Luftmann?”

“Ah, your new wachtmeister‘s younger sister no doubt.”

The girl curtsied prettily.

“Yes. She wished to meet me, and since this was when her parents had invited me, I felt it was not fair to her to refuse.”

Ludendorf introduced his wife and daughter to the young girl who acknowledged each just as gravely. “Aloyse, Veronica, perhaps you could escort the young miss to the punchbowl. I wish to talk with the sergeant for a moment.”

The women took the girl in tow, leading her away.

“Now you have let the fox loose in the henhouse, Richard.”

Hartmann shrugged. “Until I am over Marta’s death, I see no need to look for another wife, Sir.”

Ludendorf looked around at all of the women glaring daggers at his subordinate. “You know there is supposed to be dancing. How will you handle that?”

“I only know one dance, what the up-timers call an elevator dance. Anyone who wishes to dance with me will have to learn it,” Hartmann said with a perfectly straight face.

“We will see how that works out. Some women will try to teach you.”

****

Henrietta Friedlund stormed toward the buffet, snatching up a plate. She had seen the sergeant from a distance several times and had been attracted to him. But he had been hard to approach, and never seemed to wish to go anywhere she could encounter him more openly. Honestly, it was as if he had no use for women at all!

She had just accepted a glass of wine when she heard a voice saying, “I met his wife a few times before her death.”

“You did? Please, tell us about her.”

Henrietta turned slightly and saw the girl Hartmann had brought, seated with Ludendorf’s wife and daughter. She was the center of half a dozen women, all of whom she knew had set their sights on the man. If being the focus of so many eyes bothered Gerta, you would not have been able to tell from her expression.

“My brother was one of the men of his unit who were always curious about the sergeant. They wondered why he lived in one of the inns rather than at the base. So they followed him one evening. They found that he had paid for the uniforms for the Wolverine camp followers out of his own pocket.”

“On a sergeant’s pay?”

“Oh he actually has quite a bit of money.”

The women leaned forward.

“When he was living in Grantville, his wife bought pipe tobacco there, and they have been selling it for over a year now. Anyway, my brother was impressed. His wife was staying there.” She sipped in the sudden awkward silence. “So Eric would go there. I asked, and he brought me, too. That was when I met Marta, but I did not meet the sergeant himself until yesterday.” She started to stand to fill her cup, but a servant silently handed her a full one.

“I liked her. She was gentle and polite. She treated the men like family, and me like a sister. When they marched, I was afraid for my brother. She comforted me, even though I knew she feared for her Richard as much. She told me we were all in God’s hands, and what must be would be.

“Then she died.”

The girl looked down. Every woman in the now much-expanded silence could hear the tears in her voice as she continued without raising her head.

“Eric told me they were at Segeburg right before Ahrensbök when Richard was told. How something seemed to have died inside him. But he had his duty to his men. He could not come home until they did. So he stayed, and the brave charge?” She looked up. “It was a man wanting to die to join his love. When he charged, his men could not let him die alone. They loved him—they loved her that much.” She began to cry again. “He still loves her. He visits her grave every day to talk to her as if he were just a man coming home from work. Some people in Grantville had bought presents for her and the baby before her death, and he draped the shawl they had given her over the stone. And the baby clothes, the blanket . . .” Veronica hugged the girl as she cried.

Henrietta looked at the small plate, then set it down. She looked at the other women, all with varying looks of embarrassment. We are like carrion crows over a battlefield, dropping on one corpse and trying the eyeballs. She looked at the sergeant, so composed, dealing with the officers who had surrounded him almost like a palisade to protect him. He deserves the time to heal. And by God, I for one will make sure he does.

While she didn’t know it, every one of those women had come to the same conclusion.

The dancing began, but Hartmann was left alone as he led her onto the floor. Other dancers gave them a wide berth so everyone could watch. She did dance that odd elevator dance with him, her eyes shining as if she were the guest of honor, and the chastened women watched the sad man doing his duty yet again.

Aloyse walked out as the first dance ended. “Richard, may I introduce Henrietta Friedlund of Quidlenburg? Henrietta, this is Richard Hartmann, the senior sergeant of the Wolverines.” They bowed to each other.

Henrietta knelt. “May I have your partner for one dance, my dear?”

Gerta looked to Hartmann. “Yes. But he has promised to dance with me again.”

Aloyse led her back to her seat.

“You are from Bohemia?” Hartmann nodded. “Some of us have been taking lessons in up-time dances at the Imperial School of Ballet here in Magdeburg. One dance we learned is an Austrian dance called the Ländler.”

“I do not know it.”

“Then with the permission of your partner, we will watch before we dance.” They stood side by side. As with most things introduced by the up-timers, some of the people embraced the dances, especially the waltz. After watching them dance it twice, Hartmann allowed himself to be brought onto the floor as they began another. Slowly, with a lot of confusion on his part, they were able to go through the dance. At one point, his face grew sad. She moved closer over their crossed arms; hands pressed together. “I do not mind if you see your wife in my place. She cannot be here, so imagine it is her,” she whispered.

Through the rest of the evening, Hartmann alternated, dancing with Gerta, then with another woman. In each case, they all admonished him that they were there to allow him the dream that it was Marta in their place. The one thing he noticed was that unlike the up-time Christmas party, no one broke in to take a dance away from another. By the fourth dance with an adult partner, they were able to teach him the interlocking arms portion of the Ländler, and everyone stood watching as he danced it with Gerta. They giggled when the arm gestures caused a lot of additional shifting because he was so much taller. When the girl began to nod off because of the late hour, Hartmann took his leave, carrying the sleeping girl.

****

Hartmann walked through the night with the girl wrapped in his greatcoat. It was snowing again, and he thought of what had happened. He paused at the sound of bells.

“What is it?”

He looked at the drowsy girl in his arms.

“It is the new year,” he told her.

The girl looked around, then leaned up to kiss him gently on the cheek. “Happy New Year, Richard.” Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and went back to sleep.

Hartmann looked at her with a gentle smile. For a moment, it was Marta he held, who had kissed him, and offered that greeting. Then he continued walking.

****

 

Even Monsters Die

Even Monsters Die banner

Early Spring, 1635

 

Natalie pulled on her boots and grabbed her backpack off the bed. The weather had been mostly wet and grey as spring slowly replaced winter, so she hoped the puddle-filled streets would be enough of an excuse to be wearing boots instead of her normal sneakers. If Mom even notices.

She shoved her textbooks a little further under the edge of her bed with her foot, then stepped out into the hall. “Hey, Mom. I’m headed for school. I’ll see you this afternoon.” She headed for the door, trying not to look like she was in a rush. Trying not to look guilty.

“Wait a minute, Natalie.” Mom poked her head out of the kitchen. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Natalie paused, fidgeting. “Uh . . .”

“Lunch,” Mom said with a smile. She came down the hallway with the lunchbox.

“Oh. Right.” Natalie took it from her with a nod. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You’re in a hurry this morning.” Mom paused, looking at her more closely. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Fine. Just . . . there might be a pop quiz this morning.” It wasn’t a lie. There might be a pop quiz, but even if there was Natalie didn’t plan to be there.

Mom nodded. “All right. I’m sure you’ll do fine.” She gave Natalie a quick hug. “Go on, then. And be careful. There’s still ice in some places.”

“Right, Mom.” Natalie waved as she hurried down the steps toward the street. “See you this afternoon.”

She waited until she reached the street corner before she stopped to unzip her backpack and stuff the lunchbox inside. There was already other food in the bag where her school books would normally be. She zipped it back up, glanced over her shoulder to make sure Mom wasn’t still watching her from the house, then turned left at the corner and headed for the edge of Grantville instead of continuing up the street toward the school.

There were some other folks out, but none of them paid any attention as Natalie hurried past. Not even the other kids headed to school seemed to notice she was headed in the wrong direction. She wasn’t even sure they noticed her at all. One advantage to having no friends. No one really cared where she was going.

She tucked her thumbs through the straps on her backpack, pulling it more snugly against her back so it wouldn’t jostle as she walked, and hurried on.

By the time she reached the edge of town and the big tree by the crossroad, she was breathing hard—cheeks and nose prickling from walking in the chilly morning.

“Red? Henrietta?” Natalie paused, wondering if the other girl had already left without her. “Henrietta?” she called again.

“It’s about time you showed up.” Henrietta stepped out from behind the tree. She was wearing a plain gray cloak, her red hair hidden under a white cap with frayed ribbons that tied loosely under her chin. A sack containing what looked to be her Monster Society costume rested in the grass beside the tree.

Natalie blinked, barely recognizing her without the trademark crimson cloak she wore when they were campaigning. “Hey. Didn’t see you there.”

“I was just about to give up on you.” Henrietta crossed her arms over her chest.

“Yeah. Sorry. Mom wanted to chat right before I left.” Natalie shook her head. “Thanks for waiting. I’m not sure I know where . . . Konrad lives.”

Henrietta nodded. “We should probably get started. It’s a bit of a walk and you said you have to get back by the afternoon.”

“Yeah. By the time school gets out. Otherwise my mom’ll start to worry.” Natalie fell into step beside her longer-legged friend.

“You sure it’s okay for you to . . . skip? I thought that school was important to you.” Henrietta looked at her, part frown and part curious.

“Yes. But I’ve been doing all the extra credit for the past week so it’s not like I’m falling behind or anything.”

“Extra credit?”

Belated, Natalie remembered that Henrietta didn’t go to school—not even the old-fashioned school in the down-timer village. “They send home work each day. A kind of review of what we’ve studied so we can practice at home. There are always a few extra questions that we don’t have to do unless we did bad on a test or missed a day or something.”

“Oh.” Henrietta nodded.

They walked a little further, squeezing over to the muddy verge of the road as a man with a cart passed them going the opposite direction.

Natalie stuffed her hands in her coat pockets. “Are you okay?”

“What?” Henrietta looked at her with a frown.

“You just look worried. It is okay that we’re going to visit . . . Konrad?”

“Yeah.” She made a face. “You say his name funny.”

“Just not used to it. But I figure his mom might not like me calling him Ray.” She grinned. “John called me Scully in front of my mom and her face . . .” She puckered her mouth up in an imitation.

“Yeah.” Henrietta nodded. “Sure.”

“You don’t sound—”

EMDvllg“When I saw John last week he said Konrad was pretty sick, but he should be better soon. But I overheard a couple of folks in the village talking and they seemed to think . . . he was still really sick.” She looked at Natalie, and she looked more than worried.

Natalie swallowed hard. She looks scared. “John would have told us if it were something serious, right?” She put her hand on Henrietta’s shoulder awkwardly. “I’m sure they were just gossiping. My dad says anytime a down-timer has a cold for more than a couple of days everyone starts wondering if it’s the plague.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Henrietta twitched her cloak closer, folding her arms up in it.

“It’s not the plague, right?”

“If it were, everyone would know.” She started walking again, and Natalie hurried after her.

Her backpack was getting heavy, and she wondered if maybe she should have left some of the stuff behind. She’d figured Ray . . . Konrad would like the cookies, but seeing that Henrietta hadn’t brought anything except a sack which looked to have her costume in it, she wondered if maybe she should have left the food at home. Maybe down-timers didn’t give each other gifts while they were sick. Maybe she doesn’t have anything to give.

Natalie hitched at the straps and took an extra couple of steps so they were walking side by side again. “Is it much further?”

“Just around that bend.” Henrietta pointed ahead to a curve in the muddy road.

“Okay. Hold on a second.” Natalie pulled her backpack around and unzipped the front pocket. Inside was a card she had drawn. It had taken a few tries, but the front had a drawing of Konrad in full Monster Society gear on it.

Henrietta peered over her shoulder. “That’s pretty good,” she said grudgingly.

Natalie blushed. “Thanks. I know it doesn’t look too much like Konrad, but . . .”

“No. It’s good. He’ll love it.” She slipped her arm through Natalie’s. “Come on.”

Konrad’s house sat back a little way from the road, a rutted path that was mostly mud and puddles leading in between the bare-limbed trees. There was smoke drifting from the chimney, but the house itself seemed oddly quiet. Grantville had brought with it a new era of prosperity for the lands around it but there were always, always, those who fell through the cracks, even in the good times. The house was little more than a hut compared to the houses that lined the streets of Grantville. Natalie felt ashamed that she had never been here before. How many times had Konrad, in character as Ray, visited hers? Maybe if she had known just how poor Konrad’s family was before now she could have asked her parents if they could have helped them somehow. Konrad was always so happy and giving though. It was hard to imagine he lived in a place like this. Natalie promised herself that she would talk with her parents about Konrad and his family when she got home. Surely, there had to be something they could do for them.

Natalie and Henrietta both stopped at the edge of the yard, uncertain.

The door of the house opened, and John stepped out, a basin of cloudy water in his hands. He tossed it out along the side of the house and then stood for a moment staring up at the empty trees.

Natalie clutched the handmade card, the paper crumpling in her fingers. Something is wrong.

John looked exhausted with deep shadows on his face, almost as though someone had blackened his eyes. And his face was pale and drawn, like he hadn’t been outside in days.

Henrietta pulled her arm free of Natalie’s and strode forward. “John.”

He flinched and moved toward her hurriedly. “What are you doing here?” The muscle in his jaw trembled as he saw Natalie was there too. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“We wanted to see Ray. I mean K-Konrad.” Natalie stumbled over his name more than usual.

“He’s still sick. You should go.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the house.

Henrietta stood her ground. “You told me he would be getting better by now.”

“Well, he’s not and you need to go.” John grabbed her by the arm, trying to turn her away from the house.

She knocked his hand away. “Tell me what’s wrong, John. What’s wrong with Konrad?”

In the house someone screamed though it sounded muffled somehow. It was a raw and agonized sound that rose up and then abruptly stopped, but Natalie recognized the voice anyway. “Ray.” She clapped her hand over her mouth as tears welled up.

“John.” Henrietta grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

The door of the house opened again and a woman stepped outside. She looked even more worn than John, her eyes bloodshot and pale cheeks streaked with tears. “John?”

“I’m coming.” He looked at Natalie. “Please. Go home.”

But Henrietta pushed past him. “Agnes. Tell me what’s happened to Konrad.”

Agnes swayed, looking up at her in confusion. Then her eyes flickered with recognition. “Henrietta, isn’t it?” She smoothed a wisp of hair back from her face automatically.

“Agnes. What’s wrong with Konrad?”

The older woman glanced at John and her mouth twisted as though she tasted something bitter. “You haven’t told them?”

John shook his head. His hands dangled limply by his side and Natalie thought she’d never seen him look so old.

“Told us what? Haven’t told us what, Agnes?” Henrietta was yelling.

“It’s lockjaw,” Agnes said. “Konrad won’t . . . he’s not . . .” Tears slid down her face, but her voice remained steady. Wooden. “It’s almost over.”

Henrietta turned and glared at John. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He lifted his hands, helpless. “What would I have said? That he was as good as dead? I thought it would be better . . .”

She shook her head. “No. No.” She caught her dress in her hand and ran back down the path.

Natalie jumped as a horrible noise of pain drifted out of the house again.

John’s shoulders sagged and he went back inside without a word. Without looking at her. For a moment, Natalie wondered if she should follow him, but she knew she couldn’t.

Agnes stood by the door, swaying a little and looking at Natalie. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought John had told you.”

Natalie shook her head and stepped closer. “No. I . . . uh.” She was still clutching the card in her hand. She smoothed the wrinkles out of it and held it out. “I made that for Konrad. I didn’t know . . .” She rubbed her face on her sleeve. “I’m so sorry.” Then she dropped the card and ran after Henrietta.

****

The inside of the house was warm, but sour with sweat. John huddled on the stool next to the bed, wishing he could throw the shutters open and let clean air blow through. He closed his eyes, imagining wind sweeping away the darkness, the stink. Wind pouring over and through the house and taking Konrad’s sickness with it.

But when he opened his eyes nothing had changed. His friend still lay in the bed, dying.

Konrad’s entire body arched up off the bed as another convulsion twisted and shook him. The same terrible scream building in his throat, then cutting off abruptly as he strained for breath as his own muscles tightened to the point his bones creaked under the strain.

John clung to his hand. “Hold on, Ray. It’ll pass. Just hold on, mate.”

After what seemed like hours, Konrad went limp, sagging back against the sweat-drenched sheets.

John wet a cloth in the basin and wiped a dribble of saliva from Konrad’s mouth. “Easy, Ray. Just rest for a minute.”

The door opened, and Agnes came inside, shutting the door quickly to keep the cold spring air outside lest it trigger another spasm. She came and sat on the other side of the bed, a muddy piece of paper in her hand. “Some more of your friends came by, Konrad. They brought you . . . this.” She held the card up uncertainly.

Konrad’s eyes, blurry with fever, trembled, but John wasn’t sure his friend was aware of much.

Agnes smoothed the quilt over her son. The sickness had melted away his rolls of fat as he had lost the ability to eat, as the fever had consumed him, leaving him gaunt and even more fragile. She set the card on the shelf above the bed. “It’s all right. I’ll just put it there and you can look at it when you . . . when you’re feeling better.” At first John had thought Agnes had said those things because she didn’t want to admit what they all knew—Konrad was dying. She always said When you are better. She’d even promised, when he had first lost the ability to open his mouth, that she would try and make him a proper costume once he was well. All your friends will be jealous, she’d said. John had wanted to shake her, to yell at her and remind her that Konrad would not be Ray ever again. That soon he wouldn’t even be Konrad.

Then he’d realized the things she said were not for her own benefit. The lines around her mouth, the redness of her eyes, the way her shoulders sagged every time she looked at her son wasting away in her bed, all of them told John that she talked of getting better because it was the only way she knew to comfort Konrad. And he knew, when she held her son’s hand and prayed through the night, she was no longer praying he would get better, but that he would be released from his agony soon.

“John,” Agnes said in almost a whisper.

John looked over at her, not knowing what to expect.

“I just wanted to say thank you for all you’ve done for my son,” Agnes explained. “Your Monster Society . . . It’ s everything to Konrad. I didn’t realize just how much it meant to him until . . .”

Suddenly, Konrad shuddered, another spasm forcing him into the brutal arch—only touching the bed with his heels and head. But this time he made no sound other than the guttural wheeze of the breath slowly being forced from his body, he just clutched John’s hand—fingers squeezing tighter and tighter.

John winced, but held on. “Easy, mate. It’ll pass.” He’d said the same thing, over and over again, in the past few days. Anything to try and fill the silence. He was usually good at talking, good at filling in the silent spaces when things were awkward, but now, even he was at a loss for words. Ray’s hand went limp and John knew, even before he looked up and saw his friend’s eyes staring into nothing, that he was gone.

Agnes began to sob, the first time John had seen her cry in front of Ray. Only now she was just crying beside him.

John stood up and went outside, unable to stand the heat and the smell inside the house. Unable to watch Ray’s mother weeping for her dead son. With Konrad gone, he felt like an intruder in Agnes’ home. He had done all he could for them, and it hadn’t been enough.

He wanted to smash something, to tear the whole house down with his hands as if maybe, once the house was gone, the rest of it would be, too. But he couldn’t and there was nothing in the muddy little yard to break, nothing to bear the brunt of the grief threatening to turn him inside out.

John doubled over and vomited, mostly bile and spit.

It was not fair. Ray was too young to die. Especially like this. Stabbing his hand on a bit of rusted metal while they had been prepping their last game. Not fair. Ray should have been hanging out with Red—the Monster Society’s round little ghost hunter and the big, tough warrior having stumbled on something more than their first strained friendship.

But Ray was dead and Red . . .

John straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He knew he should have told her and Natalie the truth, but he’d thought it would be easier on them not to have to share in the grief of watching Ray wither away in the unforgiving grip of lockjaw. Now he realized all he’d done was deny them the opportunity to say good-bye.

The door of the house opened, and Agnes emerged. She was wearing her cloak, face pale but unnervingly calm. “I have to go and make arrangements for the burial,” she said. “Will you sit with him while I’m gone?”

He didn’t want to but how could he refuse? John nodded. “Of course, Mother Agnes.”

“Good. He shouldn’t be alone.” For a moment her lips trembled, fresh tears welling up, but she brushed those away with her fingertips and squared her shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

John went back into the house slowly. Ray was tucked under the quilt, his hair combed neatly across his forehead. Almost as though he were sleeping.

John sat down beside the bed. Glanced over his shoulder, but he was alone. Agnes would be walking into the village to find the priest and hire gravediggers.

He reached out and touched Ray’s cheek, but it was already growing cool. Not fair. He rubbed his fingers through his hair, wishing again for magic that would have kept all this from happening. He paused. Magic. It had always been pretend when they campaigned, but maybe . . .

John leaned close to the bed. “I’m going to find a way to make this right, Ray. You hear me? I’m going to fix this.”

The candles on the table flickered, nearly guttering out before the flames stretched up tall and straight. He wanted so badly to believe the flicker was more than just a random coincidence.

John sat back in his chair with a sigh. I’m going to fix this.

****

The sun was almost gone from the sky by the time Henrietta made it home. She had left Natalie hours earlier, wandering about the woods alone, trying to process what the two of them had discovered at Konrad’s house. Henrietta had heard Natalie calling after her as she ran but ignored her. The pain had been so sharp then that she had just wanted to be alone. She felt guilt over leaving Natalie like that especially since she had lied to Natalie about how long the walk to Konrad’s house would take. There was little chance of Natalie making it home in time for her parents’ liking even though they lived near the edge of Grantville. Henrietta had just wanted to see Konrad so badly but had lacked the courage to go alone. She hoped Natalie was okay. Natalie was an up-timer, after all. But, Natalie was smart, though, and tough, Henrietta reminded herself.

Henrietta knew she would never see Konrad again. Fresh tears stung her eyes as she remembered the night he had gone on and on about kissing her. She cursed herself for not doing it then while she had the chance. Now, she never would. All the moments they could have shared had been stolen from them and by what? Bad luck? The devil? Was she being punished by God for being a part of the Monster Society? She knew very well how the church felt about the Society even if it hadn’t taken any action against them . . . yet.

In a fit of rage, she threw the sack containing her costume onto the ground. She left it there as she went and got a shovel. When she returned, she attacked the dirt with its blade like a demon-possessed maniac. Covered in sweat, her gray cloak smeared with dirt, and her white cap gone from her head, she stood staring at the hole she had dug.

The shovel slid from her grasp as she sunk to her knees. She reached out and pulled the sack containing her costume over to her. “Goodbye, Konrad,” she whispered as she stuffed the sack into the hole and then stood again. She buried her costume deep and her pain deeper as she finally, shovel in hand, headed for her house.

****

EMDprstThe funeral was a small one. As soon as it ended, Natalie made a dash to catch Henrietta before she left. Henrietta saw her coming but made no move to stop. Natalie wasn’t going to let her get away though. She outpaced Henrietta and put herself directly in the larger girl’s path.

“Henrietta . . .” Natalie started and then realized she didn’t really know what to say. “I just . . . I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your pity, Natalie. Konrad is gone and nothing you can say will change that,” Henrietta told her.

“You don’t have to be alone Henrietta,” Natalie said.

“I’m not alone. I have my family. Now please get out of my way.”

“John and I miss you,” Natalie pleaded. “The Monster Society needs you.”

“The Monster Society died with Konrad, and you know it, Natalie. It’s time we all grew up and put those kind of games behind us,” Henrietta told her. “I’m going home, Natalie. I suggest you do the same and get out of my way before you force me into doing something we both will regret.”

Natalie looked into Henrietta’s eyes and saw that she meant what she said. Stepping aside, Natalie watched Henrietta leave, holding back her tears. If Henrietta wanted to be left alone, in truth, there was nothing she could do about it.

“We’ll be around if you change your mind!” Natalie called after her. “You’re a part of our family, too!”

Henrietta didn’t even look back at her. She just kept on walking until she disappeared into the trees and Natalie lost sight of her. Natalie clenched her hands at her sides, so tight that her knuckles went white and her nails dug into the flesh of her palms.

Natalie had to remind herself that however much she was hurting that Henrietta had to be hurting more. Henrietta had known Konrad a good deal longer than she had and they were both down-timers. On top of that, Natalie had watched how the two of them had seemed to be drawing closer to each other after the last movie night at her house. She had hoped that Henrietta and Konrad would find the same happiness she and John had without all the drama that came from John being John.

The dark clouds overhead opened up. A heavy rain began to fall in waves that splashed down over her.  Natalie felt John slip his trench coat over her shoulders without saying a word. She hadn’t seen him coming and wondered if he had seen what had happened between her and Henrietta.

She turned to stare into his eyes. All that was in them was pain.

“I’m sorry,” John said after a moment. “I should have told you. I should have told you both. I just didn’t want . . .”

“Ssshhh,” she pulled him into a hug, clinging to him.

John gently wormed his way out of her embrace. “I love you, Natalie,” he said. “But this isn’t over.”

“What?” Natalie asked, both confused and stunned by John’s statement. “What do you mean it’s not over?”

“You’ll see, love,” John tried to shoot her his trademark grin but it broke apart on his lips. “It can’t end like this.”

With that John darted away, disappearing through the rain into the woods.

“But it already has,” Natalie sobbed, standing alone with John’s trench coat on her shoulders and fresh tears mixing with the rain that ran over the curves of her cheeks.

****

NESS: Krystalnacht on the Schwarza Express

NESS Krystalnacht on the Schwarza Express banner

Tuesday, June 19, 1635

West Virginia County

Astrid Schäubin puttered around her room, straightening everything. She tugged at the solid but inexpensive table beside her bed, trying to square it up. It creaked across the wooden floorboards.

“Astrid, are you still up?” Her brother Hjalmar leaned around the corner of the doorway.

“Obviously.”

“Why? We have to be up early.”

Astrid sighed. “I do not know.” She looked at her pack. “I have everything ready. Pistol, gun belt, neckerchief, hat, four days of clothes even though we should return Friday morning.”

“Is everything okay with Georg?”

Astrid smiled. “Georg is fine. We had a nice dinner.”

“Uh-huh.”

Now she was a little annoyed. “Hjalmar, when have you ever known Georg Meisner not to be a perfect gentleman?”

Hjalmar’s head bobbled in acknowledgment of her point. “So what is it then? Lukas getting shot?”

“Well, ja, sure. This is my third Saxon Run since those bandits tried to hijack the train. And Krystalnacht.”

“That is not anywhere near here,” her brother pointed out.

“I know. But I have a bad feeling.”

Hjalmar frowned. “So do not take chances and do not wander off.”

Astrid threw her pillow at him. “I said I had a bad feeling, not that I had forgotten everything you and Neustatter ever taught me.”

Hjalmar handed back the pillow he’d caught. “Maybe you noticed something you have not figured out yet. Sleep on it.”

“Maybe. Thanks, Hjalmar.”

Hjalmar went back to his and Ditmar’s room. Astrid tucked her .22 under her pillow, doused the lamp, and went to bed.

****

 

Wednesday, June 20, 1635

Schwarza Junction

Astrid hadn’t slept particularly well. Nor had she been able to put her finger on what was bothering her about this mission. All her fellow NESS security consultants looked alert but comfortable.

“I am looking for Neustatter’s European Security Services!” a man in an SoTF blue uniform called out in Amideutsch. He had a cloth armband with the letters MP around his right sleeve.

“You found us,” Neustatter answered in the same language.

“Sergeant Johann Sandhagen, SoTF National Guard, military police.”

“Edgar Neustatter.” They shook hands. “Hjalmar Schaub here runs Team Two for me. Karl Recker, Otto Brenner, Jacob Bracht. Astrid Schäubin—she is Hjalmar’s sister—will be running Team Three. Me. Phillip Pfeffer. Wolfram Kuntz. Wolfram is our medic, certified EMT.”

Sandhagen shook hands all around. “Good to meet y’all. How many of these have you done? This is only my second one.”

“We are on a schedule with the other security contractors and mercenaries,” Neustatter told him. “Every seventh trip. This is NESS’s fourth Saxon Run and my third personally, not counting the attempted hijacking.”

Sandhagen nodded. “So y’all were on the train that was hit?”

Ja. Astrid, Wolfram, Phillip, Lukas Heidenfelder, and I,” Neustatter confirmed. “Lukas is still in the hospital.”

“How is he?”

“He will pull through,” Neustatter said.

Astrid knew that was what the doctors said, but she was still worried.

“Good.”

Neustatter nodded his appreciation. “How do you want do this? A team in each railroad car?”

Ja, that is good. How did you train for this? You have done more of these than I have.”

“I watched Murder on the Orient Express last night.”

The MP looked shocked.

“Relax. I have also seen Breakheart Pass.”

****

Astrid listened to the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails while she watched the left side as the train rolled north to Jena. The cars were about half-full, which she understood to be average for recent weekday runs—although that was still down a bit compared to before last month’s attack. So far the ride was uneventful. Which is not surprising, Astrid reminded herself. It’s always uneventful south of Jena.

But as the train slowed to a stop alongside the platform in Jena, Phillip called out from the back stairs, “Neustatter! Squad of men approaching the platform!”

Astrid quickly reached for her pistol. Neustatter’s was already out. But then her boss called out, “Their weapons are shouldered. And they have tickets.”

The approaching men sorted themselves into a file, and the first one swung aboard. He caught sight of Neustatter’s pistol right away. Astrid saw his hand tighten on his rifle sling, but he had the presence of mind not to make a sudden move.

“Who are you?”

“Neustatter’s European Security Services. Train guard on this run. And you?”

“The Yellow Circle Regiment.” Astrid noted that emblem on his coat.

“In civilian clothes?”

“We are specially trained to operate behind the lines.”

Astrid had to strain to hear Neustatter’s response, even from three feet away.

“No, you are not. Who are you?”

Equally quietly, the man replied, “CoCs. We are returning to Magdeburg.”

“Yellow Circle because you are defending the Jews.”

Ja, preemptive attack.”

“What I said. Like Esther, ja?”

The CoC soldier cracked a smile. “We have ten rifles. Let us work together.”

Neustatter nodded and called forward. “Sergeant? Five in each car? I will show you where the Saxons tried to hijack the train when we get there.”

****

When the train pulled into Naumburg Station, most of the passengers disembarked. Some made a beeline for the restrooms, others for the food cart.

Neustatter indicated the food cart. “Sergeant Sandhagen, you should come with us. Good food, good information.”

NESSKotSEkshrWhen they got to the front of the line, Neustatter said, “Nine of the kosher sausages on buns, Herr Kraft.”

“Good to see you again, Neustatter. The Saxon cities east of the river caused some trouble earlier this week, but all is quiet today.” Kraft used some English idioms and word order, but retained der, die, and das and inflected the German nouns if not the occasional English one. He nodded toward a pair of men with green armbands. “We Saale Levies have two of the oversized squads we call heaps near Weissenfels, with a radio. They checked in this morning, as did Camps Terror and Destruction.”

“Good enough for me,” Neustatter declared.

Sergeant Sandhagen raised an eyebrow, as if to say, “This is an extremely well-informed sausage dealer.”

Astrid indicated the jars of pickles and relishes along the side of the food cart. “I have seen these in Grantville.”

Kraft smiled. “We hope to have more varieties after this year’s harvest. Safe run.”

“All aboard!”

****

The train picked up speed out of the station and clattered across the Unstrut River bridge. The engineer gave a long blast on the horn as they passed Camp Terror. Astrid saw SoTF National Guardsmen on the corner watchtowers waving. She watched the ridgeline to the left carefully as the train negotiated the S-curve and headed north toward Eulau and the site of the attempted hijacking.

“Neustatter, it looks like the Saale Levies have almost finished that watchtower on the ridge, but the second floor is crooked.”

Neustatter crossed to her side of the train and studied it. He whistled. “It is turned forty-five-degrees from the walls of the first story to remove all the blind spots.”

The train sped past the site of the ambush and continued north with a steady clickety-clack. A couple passengers boarded at Weissenfels, and the train rumbled on toward Merseburg.

Neustatter crossed to Astrid’s side of the train again. “We are approaching Camp Destruction. Tell me what you see.”

The engineer honked the horn again, and the soldiers in the watchtowers waved. The steady clickety-clack on the rails continued as the train continued on toward Merseburg.

“They are alert,” Astrid observed, keeping her voice down as Neustatter had. “Those two new buildings look almost finished.”

“I have never seen anyone at work on them. Nor have Hjalmar nor Ditmar.”

“Yet progress is steady.”

“Makes you wonder who does the work, and when, does it not?” Neustatter asked.

Astrid mulled that over until Merseburg came into sight. No one sees the work being done. So they stop work when trains go by, and get out of sight. No reason for von Hessler’s Saale Levies to do that. No reason for the SoTF National Guard—Oh!

“I figured it out, Neustatter.”

Neustatter nodded. Astrid figured half of that was approval for keeping her mouth shut about who it was.

The Weissenfels passengers disembarked at Merseburg, a couple other passengers boarded, and the train rumbled on toward Halle.

One of the CoC men came over. “I heard your men call this the Saxon Run,” he said. “Does that mean you get off in Halle?”

Nein,” Neustatter told him. “Trouble is less likely beyond Halle, but a determined opponent could still cause some. We ride all the way to Magdeburg.”

“As do we,” the CoC man said.

“I thought the CoCs were generally moving outward from Magdeburg,” Neustatter observed.

“We finished our assignment. They want us back in Magdeburg. We were not in time to make it to Güstrow, but if anything else like that happens . . .”

Astrid managed not to cringe at the matter-of-fact way he said it. Krystalnacht had started a couple weeks ago. The Committees of Correspondence attacked anti-Semites and witch hunters—the sort of people responsible for the deaths of Mayor Dreeson, Enoch Wiley, Buster Beasley, and far too many police officers in Grantville. In Mecklenburg Province, the nobles had attacked the CoCs—but then CoC reinforcements shattered the nobles’ army at the Battle of Güstrow.

A couple passengers boarded at Schkopau, and a few minutes later, the train pulled into the station at Halle. Most of the passengers disembarked; there was a half-hour stopover, and Halle’s station had restrooms.

“You and Wolfram first,” Neustatter told Astrid.

Wolfram was already back at the train when she returned—the line for the women’s restroom had been a bit slower.

“Miss Schäubin, you are in charge.” Neustatter informed her. “Hjalmar and I will see if Sergeant Hudson is on duty.”

“Understood, boss,” she replied.

A few minutes later, she saw Neustatter, Hjalmar, and two CoC men come out of the railroad station. Makes sense. They must want news, too.

“All aboard!”

The clickety-clack of the wheels increased as the train picked up speed.

****

The train pulled into Magdeburg Central at dusk.

“That was uneventful,” Sergeant Sandhagen remarked.

“That is how we like them,” Neustatter agreed.

“We need to report in. Good working with you,” the CoC leader said. “You might have a drink at Green Horse Tavern and see if Frau Linder is singing. She is an up-timer, very popular with the Committees.”

Neustatter nodded his thanks.

“Safe journey.”

Neustatter nodded. “To you, as well.” He watched as the CoC men set out toward the walled part of the city.

“You are concerned,” Astrid observed. “Krystalnacht?”

“I do not doubt that the anti-Semites and witch hunters had it coming. But such a large operation depends heavily on its small unit commanders . . . It is very easy for something to go wrong. People make mistakes, after all.” He sighed. “Shall we go find this Green Horse Tavern?”

Green Horse Tavern was crowded, but the NESS teams found a table in the back. They spent the next couple hours listening to Marla Linder and her fellow musicians play what they called Irish music.

When Marla finished singing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Neustatter turned to Astrid. “It sounds like the Irish had a hard time of it in the up-time but persevered. I should have a researcher look into whether there is anything we can adopt for NESS.”

Astrid shook her head. “If so, you will find at least one John Wayne movie about it.”

****

Thursday, June 21, 1635

Magdeburg

The NESS teams slept late. It was mid-day before they all assembled and wandered about Magdeburg in search of food.

Astrid found herself checking her surroundings frequently.

“Nervous?” Hjalmar asked.

“The city feels different.”

“You are correct,” Neustatter said. “But tell me how you know. What do you see?”

Astrid watched people for a few minutes. “Many are glancing around. Some are hurrying with their heads down.”

“Exactly.”

A few minutes later, Hjalmar asked, “Are we going back to Green Horse Tavern, Neustatter? We have passed at least three places where we could eat.”

“You may eat anywhere you wish. I am going to Syborg’s Book Store,” Neustatter said. “There’s an inn with good food a couple blocks north of it.”

Hjalmar rolled his eyes.

Astrid just smiled. She wanted to see the inside of this bookstore. She’d heard about it from the men often enough.

Half an hour later, she was still smiling in amusement as Neustatter and Herr Syborg carried on an animated discussion of westerns in Amideutsch. Syborg had sent his son and the sales clerk off to lunch a while ago.

“You must see the latest from Haas and Seitz,” Matthias Syborg urged him. “The characters are masterfully done.”

“I agree Haas and Seitz write great characters,” Neustatter acknowledged, “but I do not think they get the geography right. The American West didn’t have villages every couple miles. Not in the up-time movies, anyway.”

Naturally that led into a discussion of those movies. Astrid half-listened to Syborg’s quick, chopped-off Amideutsch and Neustatter’s adopted drawl as she wandered around the bookstore. She felt crowded as she maneuvered around three other patrons. The whole shop would easily fit inside the Calvert High School library, so why did it seem to have so many books? Train your power of observation. The voice in her head sounded just like Neustatter. So she followed orders.

One shelf in each stack had a book open, propped up on a little wooden lectern, with a stack of the new magazines to either side. That meant fewer books per shelf, and it also meant the shelves had to be spaced further apart than at Calvert High, so there were fewer shelves per stack. And the bottom two shelves had literal stacks of books. She bent down to check. Yes, they were more copies of the titles on the upper shelves. Astrid looked around and realized that the bookstore had no back room. The bottom two shelves were inventory storage. That meant nobody had to get down on the floor to read book titles. She counted the books on one shelf, the number of shelves in a stack, and the number of stacks in the store. No, there were not nearly as many books as it seemed.

Neustatter and the proprietor were still talking, so Astrid kept browsing. A lot of the non-fiction was reprints of up-time books, mostly technical subjects and histories. But some were newly written by down-timers. Most had Dewey numbers printed right on the spine.

The fiction was grouped by genre. Astrid skipped the romance. She’d get recommendations. That would save her no end of frustration trying to figure out whether a given book was the up-time “in love” style, the down-time family alliance style, or a mix of clashing expectations. She’d read one of those that was quite good and a few that were bad enough that she’d moved along to mysteries. She liked those where she had a reasonable chance of figuring out the culprit.

Astrid looked up when she heard the door open. A young woman maneuvered a teenage boy into the bookstore, then quickly pulled the door closed behind her. Astrid kept a book in front of her as if she were fascinated by how the dowager freifrau was narrowing down who could have killed the church sexton. But really she was assessing the new arrivals. The young woman looked like she was in her mid-twenties, about her own age. She was expensively dressed and carried herself confidently. More confidently than I would expect of a burgher’s daughter. Probably of the adel. But she looks worried. The teenaged boy wore similarly fine clothes, a sword, and a stubborn expression.

“Welcome,” Syborg said. “May I help you find a book?”

Nein,” the boy said.

Ja, bitte,” the woman said at the same time.

“What kind of book are you looking for?”

Astrid watched her falter for a couple seconds and realized the woman hadn’t really come in for a book. But she recovered quickly and said, “An adventure.” With a nod toward the young man, even.

“What sort of adventure?” the proprietor asked. “Foreign lands? Science fiction?”

“Science fiction?” The woman pronounced it carefully. “What is that?”

“A genre popularized by the up-timers. The stories feature much technology, often in space.”

“That is boring.” Whether it was the dismissive tone or the casual flip of his hand, Astrid was suddenly seized by an urge to smack him a new attitude.

“What about a Western, then?”

“What is that?” The boy’s lip curled dismissively.

“They are set in North America, in the up-time.”

“Pfffffffttt. Stupid stories.”

“Do you even know what you are calling stupid?” Neustatter rumbled. He stepped up in front of the boy. “I study westerns carefully, the real thing and the stories. They help me understand the up-timers, and because of it my men and I make a better living as security consultants.”

“Ha! You are nothing but a mercenary! I am an imperial knight! Stand aside, or—”

“Or what?” Neustatter interrupted.

Astrid tossed the book on a random shelf, took three quick steps, and yanked the woman aside.

NESSKotSEm1At the same time, the young man’s hand flashed to his sword. It was halfway out when Neustatter staggered him with a quick left jab to the chin. To his credit, he actually managed to finish drawing the sword while flailing wildly to recover his balance—and found himself staring down the barrel of the M1911 .45 that had streaked out of Neustatter’s holster.

“I think you need to study the Westerns, too.” Neustatter’s voice was calm. “You are good. If you can control your noble temper, you will be better.” Without turning his head, he asked, “Herr Syborg, do you have the novelization of Rio Bravo?”

The proprietor swallowed. “Ja, ja, I think so. Right over there.”

Astrid was closest. She passed a copy to Neustatter.

“Add it to my bill, bitte,” Neustatter told him. He handed the book to the young man. “For you.”

The woman—by now Astrid was assuming she was his older sister—curtseyed, thanked them graciously, and swept the boy out of the shop.

Neustatter grinned as he holstered his pistol. “I don’t know as I’ve seen someone elegantly hustle before.”

“Neustatter—” Astrid began.

Neustatter shrugged with both hands palm up. “He drew on me. And he got out of it with a punch in the mouth and a book. I think it went okay.”

Matthias Syborg burst into laughter and clapped Neustatter on the shoulder.

****

After she and Neustatter eventually got some lunch, Astrid wandered around Magdeburg with the others for a bit. Then they returned to their rooms, and Astrid lay down for a nap. She wanted to be as well-rested as possible before she stayed up all night on the train. Around five, the NESS agents assembled for dinner in the inn’s main room before making their way to the train station. Sergeant Sandhagen was already there.

“How were the barracks?” Neustatter asked.

“Tense. New prime minister, Krystalnacht, upcoming war. Wars, maybe.”

“We noticed the same thing,” Neustatter stated. “What do we know about tonight’s train?”

“It is the regular overnight express to Schwarza Junction. Semi-express, actually, with stops at Halle, Naumburg Station, and Jena. Steam engine and three passenger cars.”

“Three?” Neustatter asked quickly.

“Two sleepers and a regular car. They added the third a couple hours ago. A lot of people want to go to Grantville.”

“It is a safe place.”

“Exactly. Three men to each car. I will be in the middle one.”

As far as Astrid could tell, Neustatter didn’t even hesitate. “Hjalmar, your team has the first car, but I need Karl in the second one.”

Astrid’s brother nodded. “You want me up front with the rifle and Jakob watching my back. Otto in the rear.”

“Exactly. Karl, you are the rifleman in the second car. Sergeant Sandhagen is in charge. Phillip, you will be in the back of that car. I will be in the front of the third car. Wolfram, you have a rifle. Astrid, watch his back.”

One rifle in each car, Astrid noted. We will be stretched thin . . .

“I know we will be thin.” Neustatter seemed to read her thoughts. “Stay alert. And do not get comfortable on the stairs. The sleeping compartments block line of sight, so make sure you are up in the aisle frequently. Open the doors between cars if you need to pass a message.”

The NESS agents fanned out to their respective cars. Neustatter took his station at the front of the third car. Astrid started to follow Wolfram to the back, but Neustatter signaled her to wait.

“Miss Schäubin, please look into purchasing more long arms. I want at least one more with your team, two if we can. And one more with Hjalmar’s team.”

“I will see if NESS can afford what is available,” Astrid agreed. “Maybe SRGs.”

“What I would really like is a Winchester.”

“I think only the Hibernian Battalion can afford those.”

The train soon began filling up. Astrid noted some of those boarding were checking large amounts of baggage. When they boarded, she could see they were richly dressed. Adel or at least well-to-do, she thought. Are they that afraid? The Crown Loyalists won the election, and Krystalnacht has done very little in Magdeburg itself. No real reason to flee.

She noted that in some cases, servants were preparing compartments for nobles or burghers in the first two cars and then coming back to the third car themselves. To sleep sitting up. And they won’t be able to go help their masters while the train is moving. Smarter to buy the servants tickets for a second compartment.

“All aboard!”

Astrid checked her side of the train. “Two more!” she called out. “Running!”

She had just realized that the first figure was a woman, running in full skirts when she caught sight of a whole group of figures.

“Neustatter! Pursuit! No polizei in sight!”

She heard Neustatter throw open the door to the next car as the train’s brakes released. The figure was within twenty yards now, and— It was the woman and the boy from Syborg’s Book Store!

Astrid stood on the bottom step with one hand outstretched and the other firmly around the hand rail. The woman caught her hand as the train began to move. She hurried up the stairs. The boy ignored Astrid’s hand. She grabbed him instead and hauled him aboard.

The sound of boots on the stairs behind her told her one of the pursuers had made it aboard. She turned to see two more pursuers leap aboard and quickly backed up the aisle. Everything was happening at once: the woman was pulling her brother up the aisle, passengers were turning around, one woman screamed, and the fourth and fifth pursuers were rapidly outpaced by the train. But most of Astrid’s attention was on the first one. He was reaching for a weapon. Threats. Her pistol was out and rising, left hand coming up to meet it . . .

“Freeze!” Neustatter barked.

The man froze mid-draw, so Astrid froze in a two-handed stance. She saw that Wolfram, on the back left steps, had his rifle leveled at the other two, both of whom had rifles. Neustatter’s voice had come from the front right, so he’d have a line of fire over the heads of the seated passengers.

The second pursuer spoke in the clipped Amideutsch of Magdeburg.

“We arrest them in the name of the Committees of Correspondence.”

Astrid stared in shock. But Neustatter just snorted. “I did not realize the Committees have police powers.”

“It is best you step out of our way.”

Nein, it is best you explain yourselves. Now.” Neustatter delivered the last word with a certain menace.

“If you interfere, we will report it to Gunther Achterhof.”

That’s definitely a threat, Astrid realized.

“Do not make me explain to Gunther why I had to put three of his men in the ground,” Neustatter responded.

So is that.

The first man’s hand tightened on whatever he had half-drawn.

“Uh-huh,” Astrid told him. “Let go of it. Or I will shoot you.” Clients—the train and passengers.

The second man held his left hand up. “Put it away, Gebhard.” He faced Neustatter. “Your guns are going to get heavy.”

Astrid took a couple steps backwards toward the front the car. She remembered two women seated together on the left side.

Frauen, slide over, bitte,” she requested without turning her head. She knelt on the seat, resting her pistol on the back of the seat. “I can stay here a really long time. So explain yourselves.”

The second pursuer glanced upward and sighed. “Fine,” he snapped. “These are the children of Heinrich von Kardorff. He was a ritter in Westphalia.”

“We got him,” the first man said.

“They killed Father,” the boy said. His hand slid toward his sword.

“Don’t move,” Neustatter growled. “I’m Neustatter. My teams are train guards on this run. Kid, I assume you are now Ritter von Kardorff.”

“I am.”

“And I assume this is Frau von Kardorff, your sister.”

“Half-sister.”

“Ah, so you are mad at her, too,” Neustatter observed. “Westphalia. That explains your very proper Plattdeutsch. And over there we have Gebhard in front, the CoC team leader—what is your name?”

“Klaus Eggers. And that is Hans behind me.”

“What are you waiting for?” a man seated on the right side next to a window demanded. “Shoot them!”

“For being CoCs? That would be right unneighborly,” Neustatter drawled.

“Take care, old man!” Gebhard threatened. “You could be next.”

A man on the right side of the train stood up. “There are more of us than there are of you,” he said in Hochdeutsch.

“Sit down,” Neustatter told him.

“I will not be spoken—”

“I will speak to you any way I choose,” Neustatter told him.

Astrid couldn’t see him; he was toward the front of the car, and she was halfway back, facing the rear. She wasn’t about to look away from where she aimed her pistol.

“I am not going to listen to a peasant.”

“That is mighty big talk from a burgher in front of so many neideradel,” Neustatter observed. “They think the same of you as you think of peasants.”

Klaus laughed harshly. “The adel took their privileges under a supposed agreement to protect everyone else. But here is a burgher standing up to you while the adel remains seated.”

“But as the Constitution says, we are all citizens here,” Neustatter countered. “I know the Committees believe that. So tell me about von Kardorff and his children.”

Gebhard spat on the floor. “Von Kardorff was the worst kind of scum. Oppressing his villagers. Crooked deals, cheating on contracts, taking advantage of the young women . . .”

“But that is not why we killed him,” Klaus interrupted. “Only two things put someone on the target lists: anti-Semitism and witch hunting. Von Kardorff was guilty of both.”

“Go on.”

“He was typical of the adel, living above his means, taking advantage of the labor of the villagers,” Klaus growled. “But even that was not enough money. He borrowed heavily from Jews, then made false accusations against them when they tried to collect.”

“Give me money or I will arrange an accident—a legal one,” Neustatter summarized.

Ja, you understand.” Klaus was really getting warmed up now. “He used accusations of witchcraft the same way. That is how he took advantage of the young women in the village. Sleep with him or be accused of witchcraft. Or mother or grandmother accused of witchcraft. He had four Jews and three women killed. That we know of.”

Ritter von Kardorff, Miss von Kardorff, do you have anything to say?” Neustatter asked.

“What is ‘Miss‘?” the woman demanded. “I wish to know if I am being insulted.”

“You should be more worried about being killed,” Gebhard stated.

“Shut up,” Astrid told him. “Frau von Kardorff, ‘miss’ is how up-timers address unmarried women. Neustatter calls me miss whenever I call him herr.”

Frau von Kardorff laughed once. “He is no herr. Even the burgher saw he is nothing but a . . .”

“Citizen.” Astrid spoke loudly since she still wasn’t going to turn her head to address Frau von Kardorff.

“Bah!” Frau von Kardorff burst out. “What good is being a citizen when the city watch stood aside for the CoC? Is ‘citizen’ limited to them?”

“Normally there’s no reason for the polizei to stop the CoCs,” Astrid stated, still not facing her.  “Again, we are all citizens. Which part of that do you not understand?”

“How dare you turn your back to me!”

“Frau von Kardorff!” Neustatter snapped. “Step back. If you strike Miss Schäubin, I will shoot you myself.”

“You will have to shoot me first!” the young ritter declared.

Ja, I would,” Neustatter said. “Since my team are the ones keeping the CoC from killing you and your sister, maybe she should not be raising her hand against us.”

For a few seconds, Astrid heard nothing but the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks. Then Neustatter said, “Sehr gut.” Evidently Miss von Kardorff had enough self-control to stand down.

“Now, Miss von Kardorff, do you have anything to say about the CoCs’ charges?”

Astrid heard nothing for several seconds. She is either furious or ashamed.

“Our father was not a pleasant man,” she finally said.

Hearing her very controlled tone, Astrid realized it was shame.

“I cannot speak to the particulars,” Miss von Kardorff stated, “beyond hearing him complain about the Jews.”

“An anti-Semite then,” Gebhard stated. “So let us shoot them.”

“Suppose first you explain how Ritter von Kardorff’s children are involved?” Neustatter requested.

“They are his children!” Gebhard blurted out.

Ja, I just said that. But how are they involved?”

“If we do not kill them, they will rule over the village. The same things will keep happening.”

Nein, they will not,” the boy stated.

“We are not going to take that chance,” Gebhard countered.

Astrid heard a train car door squeak open. She realized it was the door to the next car ahead. Someone had made the somewhat dangerous crossing between cars while the train was underway. Then she heard Karl’s voice.

“Where do you want me, Neustatter?”

“Middle of the aisle,” came Neustatter’s voice. Once Karl was evidently in position, Neustatter called, “Wolfram, order arms!”

“Clever,” Eggers allowed. “Hans, you cover the one at our backs while I cover the new one. And be alert when the train pulls into Halle. He will have more men in the first two cars.”

After the discussion continued for a while, Neustatter signaled Wolfram. His rifle came back up, and Karl crossed back to the second car. Klaus and Hans took the opportunity to rest their rifles, one at a time.

Astrid’s legs were starting to cramp by the time she heard Karl return.

“We are five minutes from Halle,” he announced. “Sergeant Sandhagen is aware of what is happening back here.”

Eggers turned his head and told Hans something, speaking too quietly for her to hear.

“The train will stop at Halle just long enough for passengers to disembark and board,” Neustatter reminded them all. “You will not have time to bring the local CoC to the station.”

“You will not have time to summon reinforcements, either,” Eggers countered.

“True,” Neustatter allowed.

Half-true, Astrid thought. She had already figured out why Karl had been gone so long. Of course, the CoC men didn’t know that Karl had been assigned to the front of the second car, not to the back . . .

“Since we seem to have a stalemate, I suggest we all find more comfortable seating arrangements,” Neustatter suggested. “If we ask all the passengers to move to the right side, Ritter and Miss von Kardorff can sit in the front on the left. You men can sit in the back, and Miss Schäubin and I will sit in the middle.”

Astrid listened to the clickety-clack of the train as Eggers thought that over for a full minute. “Okay, but we will take the front and put the reactionaries in the back.”

“Makes no difference to me,” Neustatter stated.

But it does, Astrid thought. Now they will be the ones facing backwards in their seats.

Und we will lock the door to the next car,” Eggers added.

Ah, so he saw that part.

“Fine. I will keep Wolfram on the back stairs. Got to have a rear guard. Which side do you want him on?”

Clever, Neustatter. Clever. Astrid wasn’t sure if there even was a right answer.

“Left,” Eggers said after another minute. “Most of the stations are on the left.”

“What about us?” the burgher who had stood up earlier asked.

“I regret that our conversation will probably keep most of you awake,” Neustatter answered. “But at least you will be out of the line of fire.”

****

 

Friday, June 22, 1635

Halle

It was after midnight when the southbound Schwarza Express was shunted off onto the second line and rolled into Halle Station. At the same time, the northbound Magdeburg Express pulled away from the station on the main line.

“Halle Station! Anyone disembarking?”

“You could all leave the train here,” the burgher suggested.

“Train guards,” Neustatter said. “We cannot leave.”

“I am not getting off the train,” Miss von Kardorff declared.

“Then we stay, too,” Eggers said.

Several passengers left the third car, including the vocal burgher. Two or three people looked like they intended to board but were quickly pulled aside by those leaving the train. Only one man boarded. He found a seat in the back. Neustatter just shook his head.

“I see no reason to involve the stationmaster,” Neustatter said. “If all the rest of you would please move to the right side of the car? And Wolfram, if you would step down and let the Committeemen pass?”

“Hans, you first,” Klaus directed. “And the reactionaries move down the aisle to the back.”

Hans left by the rear door and reentered at the front of the car. Klaus followed, and finally Gebhard, so that at least one of them was always in a position to cover the von Kardorffs.

“You suckered me!” Neustatter declared when he saw that Gebhard had finally been able to draw his pistol while outside the train.

Ja, I did,” Eggers acknowledged. He locked the door to the next car as the conductor’s cry of “All aboard!” rang out from somewhere forward. Just as he sat down looking fairly satisfied, Sergeant Johann Sandhagen came up the car’s front steps. He held a lantern in each hand.

“I am not armed. But once we cross into Thuringia-Franconia, you are my problem. So I ought to be back here.”

“There is a soldier on the train!” It was the first thing Astrid had heard CoC Hans say.

Ja,” Neustatter answered. “One military police liaison per train. Surely you knew this?”

Surely they did not, Astrid realized as the train started to move.

Sandhagen replaced the lantern hanging at the front of the car, slipped past the CoC men to replace the lantern in the back, and then found an empty seat in the middle on the left side. Neustatter dropped into the seat ahead of him and moved all the way across to the window, his pistol still up, momentarily in a one-handed grip. Astrid took the one behind the sergeant, grateful to finally be sitting down properly. She sat next to the aisle, gun hand casually resting on the back of Sandhagen’s seat.

She heard Wolfram tell the von Kardorffs, “Your turn to sit down. Two seats up from the back, bitte. I have recent experience with hand-to-hand fighting on a train, and I must insist on an empty seat between us.”

Dank schön, Wolfram. Just what I need to be thinking about—Lucas getting shot in the ambush last month. Especially when we roll right past the spot, in the dark, with a swordsman behind me . . . Oh! Astrid realized something.

“Did you speak with the stationmaster, sergeant?” Klaus Eggers demanded.

Nein. If I wanted to force an end to this, I would have had him hold the train while I summoned help from the camp outside the town. But I did not.”

Astrid saw an expression cross Egger’s face. Evidently Neustatter did, too.

“You boys are not AWOL, are you? Those are SRGs.” Neustatter’s voice was casual. He held up his left hand when Hans started. “Not my watch. I got out of soldiering. Mostly.”

“So we are back to Ritter von Kardorff’s children,” Klaus Eggers stated. He was speaking even more quickly.

Trying to lead us away from that comment about being AWOL, Astrid figured.

“We cannot let them live,” Gebhard said.

“Why?” Neustatter asked. “Are they anti-Semites? Or witch hunters?”

“Probably.”

“Probably is not good enough. Everyone has heard of the Committees of Correspondence lists. Either they are on the list, or they are not. Show us,” Neustatter challenged.

Again there was a pause in the conversation, with the clickety-clack of the train the only noise.

One of the passengers finally broke the silence. “Obviously they are not on your list. Sergeant, I insist these men be arrested at the next stop! And these incompetent guards replaced!”

Mein Herr, so far these guards have kept anyone from getting hurt,” Sandhagen pointed out.

“If you will not, I will! I know men in the new prime minister’s government!”

Klaus Eggers shifted to cover the man with his rifle. “You are neideradel!”

“Sure sounds like it,” Neustatter agreed. “Astrid, you have a better angle on him. Wolfram, you cover the von Kardorffs. I have Gebhard and Silent Hans.”

“Neustatter,” Eggers warned.

“What? I have one gun on you and your men instead of two. Stop complaining.”

“If you have contacts in Prime Minister Wettin’s government . . .” Miss von Kardorff began.

Klaus Eggers interrupted her. “That will mean nothing in the SoTF.”

“Are you of the adel?” the boy demanded. “And you have been sitting here silent the entire time?”

“He does not want to get involved,” Klaus told him. “You are not worth it to him. That is how the adel is.”

“You would let them take us?” The boy’s voice rose.

“Of course he would! He is a coward like the rest of them!”

The newly-discovered noble reached for something.

“Freeze!” Neustatter barked. “Either drop that in the aisle or very slowly come over here and sit down next to Sergeant Sandhagen.”

“I will not!”

“Wolfram, cover the CoCs.” Neustatter lunged across the aisle and pistol-whipped the noble. With his left hand he stripped the dirk out of the noble’s hand while his right—pistol still in hand—snaked under the man’s arm and around the back of his neck. Neustatter hauled the man out into the aisle by brute force and deposited him next to Sandhagen.

“Astrid, shoot him in the back of the head if he tries anything. Wolfram, you have the von Kardorffs.”

“Impressive,” Eggers allowed.

“The rest of us all seem willing to talk,” Neustatter noted.

“I will . . . I will . . . You will hang for this!” The noble started to lunge to his feet, but Sergeant Sandhagen grabbed him by the bicep and shoulder and drove him back into the seat.

“Let us kill him, too,” Gebhard proposed.

He is driven, almost unhinged, Astrid thought. Why?

“Astrid?” Neustatter asked.

Ja, boss?”

“We are in Saxon County now, are we not? If someone was killed on a train, who do you think would get to the murderer first, Colonel von Hessler or the Saxon Ghost?”

Astrid thought about it. “I say von Hessler.”

“Why?”

“He has the Levies spread out along the river. Which means they are right along the railroad, too. He would hear anything very quickly.”

“The Ghost finds out everything in Saxon County,” Neustatter countered.

Klaus gave them a very skeptical look.

Astrid rushed her next question a bit. “What do you think would happen?”

Von Hessler would probably just shoot them,” Neustatter said. “The Ghost? Who knows? I heard he hanged Saxon officers last year.”

“He is not real,” Eggers stated.

“Sure he is. We met him last month—and the troop of dragoons that rides with him. Miss Schäubin? Five bucks on the Saxon Ghost.”

“Five bucks on Colonel von Hessler,” Astrid agreed.

“Neustatter.”

“What is it, Wolfram?”

“I saw a light when the train came around the bend. We are coming up on Schkopau.”

Dank dir,” Sergeant Sandhagen said. “This is the Saxon Run. Von Hessler and the Saxon Ghost are not the only ones out there. The SoTF thinks members of the Saxon adel were behind the attack on the train last month. So I need you to point your guns away from each other and cover the doors.”

“The sergeant is correct,” Neustatter stated. He got up and moved backward down the aisle, pistol pointed straight up. “Wolfram, keep the left. I have the right. Ritter von Kardorff, I am going to trust you to not draw your sword. Eggers, one of you can watch the nobles, but the other two need to cover the forward doors.”

“This is a trick!” Gebhard exclaimed.

“No trick,” Neustatter said. “We need to be on the alert all the way to Camburg.”

“I will watch the reactionaries,” Gebhard declared.

“Fine.”

“If it is a trick, Neustatter, you would be the decoy.” Klaus spoke slowly. “So I will watch the door on the right.”

“Fine.” Neustatter said it like he didn’t care.

He probably doesn’t, Astrid thought. Oh, yes.Herr von Adel, remember I am right behind you,” she said aloud.

Facing outward toward a possible external threat put a damper on conversation as the Schwarza Express passed Merseburg, Camp Devastation, and Weissenfels. Sergeant Sandhagen got up and shuttered the lanterns.

After a few minutes, Astrid’s night vision came back. “Coming up on Eulau,” she observed. “Just beyond is where the train got attacked last month. Watch the ridgeline.”

“I see a torch!” Klaus called out.

“That is von Hessler’s watchtower,” Neustatter told him.

“What is next?” Klaus asked.

“Camp Terror. It will be on the right. Then we cross the bridge over the Unstrut and stop at Naumburg Station.”

“What is this camp?” Ritter von Kardorff asked.

“It was a railroad construction camp,” Astrid heard Neustatter tell him. “Then the USE regiments built it up when they marched through in ’33. Now it has a garrison of SoTF National Guard and Saale Levies.”

“And the name?”

“A joke made by a Saxon soldier, but the Levies kept it.”

Miss von Kardorff suddenly recoiled from the window. “There is nothing out there!”

Astrid had felt the clickety-clack of the train change. “We are on the bridge, up over the river.”

“This is unnatural,” the woman declared.

The sound changed again.

“We are back on land,” Astrid offered, still not turning her head. She heard Miss von Kardorff sigh in relief.

“I see lights,” Klaus announced.

“Naumburg Station.”

A few of the passengers stirred as the train coasted up to the platform. Astrid heard one quietly asking another, “Shall we find an inn here and finish the journey tomorrow, on a safe train?”

Nein. This is Saxon County. It is no safer for us than this train.”

Astrid was pretty sure he was wrong, but saw no reason to butt into their conversation.

The conductor came up the steps. “We are going to add a fourth car here,” he announced. “Once it is hooked up, I will ask all of you passengers to move to that car.” He leaned back out the door and waved.

The train was moving before anyone could protest. It rolled a little way from the station and stopped again.

“What is happening?” Gebhard demanded. “Neustatter, you planned this!”

“I have been right here with you, Gebhard. How would I have done it?”

Gebhard’s aim shifted from the von Kardorffs to Neustatter. “Who else could have?”

“That is a good question,” Klaus Eggers agreed. He turned away from the door. “How does this extra railroad car happen to be here?”

“It is for emergencies,” the conductor told him. “Camp Destruction was raided a year ago in the spring. There were no trains nearby to transport troops. Since then there is always an engine and an extra car either here or at Halle.”

As if to punctuate his words, another train rumbled. Then there was a heavy thud against the back of the car.

“They are hooking up the fourth car now.”

No kidding, Astrid thought.

“The engineer and I know what is going on back here,” the conductor informed them. “We are not stupid. You must work this out among yourselves, but we must move our passengers to safety.”

“That makes sense to me,” Sergeant Sandhagen declared.

Someone banged on the rear door. Neustatter unlocked and opened it.

A beefy man dressed in brown stood there. He had a green cloth tied around his upper right arm. “We are ready for your passengers,” he said.

“Who are you?” Klaus Eggers demanded.

Ich bin Peter Hofmann. I am a farmer in Kleinjena, a mile up the road. But I am in the Saale Levies, too.” He pointed at the green cloth around his arm and continued in the same almost-Hochdeutsch that wasn’t quite the same as the Grantville Amideutsch they’d heard from Heinz Kraft yesterday. “Colonel von Hessler ordered me to take five men and protect the train to Grantville, then come back in the morning. He said to stay out of whatever was going on, just keep the train safe from outside attack.”

“I do not believe you,” Gebhard stated.

“This is part . . . what do they call it? Krystalnacht, is it not? Not our problem,” Hofmann stated.

“Weak sisters,” Eggers snarled.

Hofmann matched him glare for glare. “There are no witch hunters in the Unstruttal. Since last fall, Jews live in our village—a minyan or something like that. I think it means ‘a whole bunch’ in Jewish. We do not mind if men from the Yellow Circle Regiment march through or ride the trains. More and more men and women work in shops and factories along the rivers. Most of them belong to unions. We are you.” He pointed right at Eggers. “War with Saxony is coming. Do not start anything right here on the border. Not unless you intend to stay and help finish it.”

Hofmann’s tirade silenced everyone.

“Guess I owe you five bucks, Miss Schäubin,” Neustatter spoke into the silence. “Well, Herr Eggers, I agree to Hofmann’s terms if you do.”

Astrid could practically see the man thinking.

“We are now behind schedule,” the conductor announced.

“We cannot have that.”

The conductor gave a firm nod. He’d evidently missed Eggers’ sarcasm. “Since it is all settled, I will move the passengers now.”

“Go ahead,” Eggers agreed.

The passengers quickly gathered up whatever they had brought with them and moved to the fourth car.

Gebhard pointed at the noble Astrid was still covering. “He stays.”

“Why?” Neustatter asked.

“Because he is one of them,” Gebhard stated.

“He was not going to help until you forced the issue. He appealed to Sergeant Sandhagen and was not going to defend the von Kardorffs. How does that set him against you?”

“He spoke against us!”

“I speak against you, too. Gebhard, you are a dummkopf. Free speech.”

Gebhard swore at Neustatter.

“And the horse you rode in on,” Neustatter returned.

“Silence!” Klaus Eggers ordered. “Get the noble out of here!”

“Your call,” Sergeant Sandhagen said. “Herr, this way.”

The noble shied away as he passed Neustatter.

“Now you come back here and sit down, Sergeant,” Eggers instructed. “I do not want you planning anything against us.”

“Fine.” Sandhagen looked at Hofmann. “Neustatter has another team in the first two cars. Try to work together if anything happens.”

Hofmann nodded. “Good luck.”

They shut and locked their respective doors as the train began to move.

As the clickety-clacks came closer and closer together, Gebhard said, “We cannot make an example of the reactionaries without witnesses.”

Neustatter glanced away from his door. “Do you seriously want to kidnap an audience?”

Eggers smacked Gebhard in the back of the head. “Nein.

“Next item. You need to convince me that the von Kardorffs are legitimate targets,” Neustatter stated.

“We told you. The father—”

“But they are not on your list, are they?” Neustatter’s tone was harsh. “What makes you think you can kill them?”

“We have to cut out the rot,” Gebhard answered. “Like father, like child.”

“You are just like them,” Astrid blurted out. “They know of one lazy villager, and treat us all like that. You know of one rapist and murderer and treat them all like that. But the Constitution forbids corruption of blood. I thought the Committees followed the Constitution.”

She had the satisfaction of watching Klaus’s mouth open and close a couple times. And Silent Hans flushed.

“They are . . . Not . . . On . . . Your . . . List,” Neustatter stated. “You are not allowed.”

“Do not presume to tell the Committees what we can and cannot do,” Eggers snapped. He turned away from his door as well. “We are past the camp and approaching Jena. That is the Committees’ territory. You have no one else you can call upon.”

“Do not be too sure,” Neustatter told him. “But since we are not in Jena yet, what do you have to say about Miss Schäubin’s point from the Constitution?”

“The anti-Semites and the witch hunters are not going to follow the Constitution, so neither are we,” Gebhard stated. Now weapons came up all around.

“Herr Eggers, that does not explain why you seek to kill people not on your list. Something else is going on here, and I want to know what,” Neustatter demanded. “Right now.”

Astrid noted that Eggers and Gebhard exchanged looks while Silent Hans looked uncomfortable. Gebhard finally spoke up.

“One of the women that von Kardorff had killed was the grandmother of a CoC member.”

“So this is private justice.”

“He is not on this mission. Someone has to see to it.”

“You are committed to this,” Neustatter observed. “Against orders. Why?”

“My grandfather was killed by the adel.”

“I see,” Neustatter said. “This CoC man whose grandmother von Kardorff killed—would he happen to be on the team going after the adel who killed your grandfather?”

Astrid saw Gebhard’s eyes widen and knew Neustatter had scored a hit.

“How do you know that?” Gebhard blurted out.

“Because Sergeant Hudson made me sit through Strangers on a Train,” Neustatter said.

Astrid couldn’t help it. She started laughing.

“You find this funny?” Eggers demanded.

“That Neustatter figured it out from an up-time movie?” she asked. “Ja, I do.”

“So why are you permitting it, Klaus?” Neustatter asked. “Do you approve? No, I see you do not.” He paused and thought. “Does he have something on you? No. You are not a man to blackmail. Honorable . . . He saved your life, did he not? During Krystalnacht? Or before?”

For the second time, Astrid saw the CoC men’s eyes widen in surprise.

“First week of Krystalnacht.” Eggers’ voice was gruff. “A man not on our list shot at me after I let him go.”

“Ah. So Gebhard’s belief that none of the adel can be trusted rings true. Dank schön, Herr Eggers. Now I understand.”

“We are going to take them off the train here in Jena,” Eggers stated as the train began to slow down. “Stand up!”

Astrid heard the young Ritter von Kardorff stand. Then she heard the hiss of a blade being drawn. Gebhard came down the aisle, pistol raised. She stepped in front of him.

“Gebhard!” Klaus warned.

“Stand aside!” a deep voice called out on the platform.  “CoC!”

Gebhard smiled menacingly.

Another voice shouted. “National Guard! Herr Engineer, keep that train moving!”

The train began to roll.

Klaus Eggers glared at Neustatter, his rifle coming up again. “You cheated!”

“I and most of my men are National Guard,” Neustatter told him. “That includes Miss Schäubin’s brother. So if you shoot her, Gebhard, I am going to let Hjalmar kill you. Personal vengeance cuts both ways.”

“Gebhard, step back,” Eggers directed.

Nein. It is time to end this.”

“Stop!” Von Kardorff tried to pass Astrid. She stepped in front of him. The boy half-sighed, half-growled in frustration. “Do you think I am so stupid that I would take vengeance on my village for your crimes?”

“Of course that is what they think,” his sister spat out. “They do not think of us as people. Not one of them knows anything about us except what lands we own!”

Eggers began to argue, but she spoke over him. “What are our names?” she demanded.

“Von Kardorff.”

“Our names. Not our lands.”

After an awkward silence, Neustatter said, “It is clear they do not know your names.”

“Nor do you.”

“That is true. I have been too busy saving your life.”

She sniffed.

“Neustatter,” Eggers said, “you do understand that we cannot let the boy rule over the village, do you not?”

“You could educate him instead of killing him,” Neustatter pointed out.

“Not much chance of that in a village.”

“Maybe the CoC should open a school.”

“I am not going to a school,” von Kardorff declared.

“Why not?” Astrid asked. “I take classes in Grantville. English, civics, finance.”

“The best education is in Grantville,” Neustatter agreed. “Herr Eggers, if you want him to rule the village well, those classes will be a good start.”

“I do not trust him or his sister. They will go back to the village.”

“Listen to you,” Miss von Kardorff interrupted. “The village. We are not of the hochadel. We own a village. We know everyone there.”

“And who does all the work administering it?” Gebhard asked.

“Herr Reimers oversaw most of it for Father,” von Kardorff stated.

“And will he oversee most of it for you?” Astrid asked.

“Of course.”

“Perfect,” Neustatter said. “You can attend school in Grantville and learn to rule well. Reimers can continue overseeing the village.”

“I told you we own a village,” Miss von Kardorff reminded everyone. “One small village. One hundred sixty-two tenants, only one hundred twenty-seven of them ours. We cannot afford to live in Grantville.”

Klaus Eggers laughed. “Get a job.”

“A job?” Astrid wished the young ritter hadn’t shouted from right behind her ear. He sounded outraged. “That is dishonorable.”

“So find an honorable one,” she told him.

“The only honorable occupation for a ritter is to be a soldier,” he stated.

“Or some other job where you carry a weapon,” Neustatter said slowly. “Kid, I got an idea. How about you come work for me while you are taking classes?”

Nein!” Gebhard shouted.

“Neustatter, you are wahnsinnig,” Eggers told him.

“Why not?” Neustatter asked. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“You have kept your cool as well as anyone could expect from a sixteen-year-old,” Neustatter told him.

“I will not leave my brother alone,” Miss Kardorff stated. “What would you do with me?”

“Do you intend to help your brother govern the village?” Neustatter.

“Yes, of course—until I marry.”

“Then you should take classes, too.”

“Will you give me a job, too? Hand me a sword?” The questions were definitely sarcastic.

“Miss Schäubin?”

Astrid was still looking at Gebhard. She rolled her eyes, because she knew what was coming. “Ja, Neustatter?”

“You handle NESS’s finances and are a security consultant. Do you want to train her?”

“Sure, why not? But, Neustatter, you can forget about buying any Winchesters if you are going to add two more staff. Maybe not even SRGs.”

“The Committees must have some guarantees,” Eggers began.

Three more staff, Miss Schäubin,” Neustatter corrected.

“I am not working for you!” Gebhard declared.

“And I am not inclined to take you,” Neustatter agreed. “Besides, Gebhard, you are concerned about the villagers. Why not go there and help them? You promised your comrade you would make things right, did you not?”

Klaus Eggers laughed. “So why do you say three, Neustatter?” After the briefest of pauses, he said, “Nein! Not me!”

“Why not?” Neustatter asked. “The Committees seek assurances that Ritter von Kardorff will learn to govern well. Who else would the CoCs send? Gebhard made a promise about the village. Hans . . . you plan to return to your volunteer regiment before the war starts, do you not?”

Ja,” Hans confirmed. “I am going back. This had to be done, but our assignment is over, except for these two.”

“The Committees are strong in the cities and larger towns,” Neustatter pointed out. “Not so much in farming villages. Let Gebhard work with the village. Klaus, you can figure out what ritter and freiherren should learn from the up-timers. I could use another rifleman. You could use some contact with the Grantville Committee of Correspondence. You can keep an eye on von Kardorff here, and he can keep an eye on you.”

“I do not approve of this,” von Kardorff proclaimed.

“Nor do I,” Klaus Eggers concurred.

“So it is settled, then,” Neustatter stated.

“I think we need to discuss this further,” Eggers protested.

“It is dawn,” Neustatter stated. “We will arrive at Schwarza Junction in a few minutes. I think we need to have everything settled by then.”

“You will pay us enough to live in Grantville?” Miss von Kardorff asked.

NESSKotSEapt“In an apartment building,” Astrid clarified. “Not a schloss.” She described the apartment she shared with her brother and her cousin.

“You must let my brother call it his grand tour,” she demanded.

Klaus sighed. “Fine. What do I care?”

“Klaus?” Gebhard asked.

“I think we should do it, Gebhard,” Klaus told him.

“You are a CoC team leader.”

“Neustatter has outmaneuvered me since we jumped on this train,” Klaus admitted. “Perhaps I should learn from him. And you could help Johann’s family.”

Gebhard finally stepped back. “I want regular contact with the Committees,” he said. “And with you, to make sure they do what they say.” He pointed at the von Kardorffs.

“Okay.”

Hans spoke up again. “You. Wolfram. Let us order arms.”

Weapons were slung, holstered, and sheathed while the clickety-clack on the rails lessened. Secure the area, Astrid thought, happy to mentally check off Neustatter’s third principle, even if it had taken all night to accomplish.

As the Schwarza Express pulled into the station, Astrid saw four Mounted Constables waiting on the platform. As they all filed out of the third car, one of the constables stepped forward, hand on his holster. “What’s the problem?” he asked in Amideutsch.

“No problem, Officer,” Neustatter said. “Just train guards going to breakfast after the overnight.”

“That’s a big group of train guards,” the constable stated.

Neustatter pointed at Hjalmar, Jakob, and Phillip disembarking from the first two cars. “Team Two.” Hofmann and his Levies poured out of the fourth car. “Some reinforcements from Colonel von Hessler, up in West Saxony.” Neustatter’s gesture took in his own group. “Team Three—and my new hires.” He pointed at Hans. “One soldier on leave.” At Gebhard. “And a CoC village liaison.”

“So no trouble?”

“No trouble. From Magdeburg, with love, you might say.”

Astrid wasn’t sure if the constable believed Neustatter or not, but he made no effort to stop them when Neustatter asked, “Breakfast in Grantville? I’m buying.”

As the group moved off the platform, Otto Brenner inserted himself next to Neustatter.

“Everything okay, boss?” he asked.

Ja,” Neustatter told him. “Everything is fine.”

He is one of yours?” Eggers demanded. “He sat right there from Halle to Naumburg Station, and we never had him covered!”

Gebhard looks a little pale, Astrid observed.

Ja,” Neustatter said. He looked to Astrid’s brother. “Hjalmar, I assume you are the one who got off the train at Halle and arranged for Hofmann’s men and the extra car at Naumburg Station?”

“I just got a message to Sergeant Hudson,” Hjalmar said. “He set up the rest.”

Ja, I definitely need to work for you,” Eggers told Neustatter, “and learn your tricks.”

Astrid knew Neustatter was grinning. But her brother’s embrace kept her from seeing it. She did hear what Neustatter said next.

“You need to get a message to that other CoC team and call off their private vengeance. And probably let your other two men know what happened—the ones who missed the train.”

Ja.

“All right,” Neustatter declared. “I need to know my employees’ names.”

Ich bin Friedrich,” the ritter said. “Just like Gebhard.”

“You may call me Miss von Kardorff,” his sister told Neustatter. “It would be improper of you to use my given name. I will be Miss von Kardorff, whom you encountered during Krystalnacht.”

“That is quite a long title,” Neustatter noted. “Longer than the whole village, as you describe it.”

“There are up-time women named Crystal,” Astrid offered. “If I am going to train you as a security consultant, you could use that name.”

“Lots of agents have code names,” Neustatter agreed. “Let us find a tram.”

Miss von Kardorff lagged behind the others. “A code name?” she asked Astrid.

Ja.” Astrid explained.

“Very well. I will be Krystal von Kardorff for now.”

Astrid started to follow them toward the tram.

“Miss Schäubin?”

She turned. Neustatter still had his pistol out. He held it out, but pointed safely away.

“Holster it for me, please. I can still shoot. Just cannot let go.”

Astrid pried the weapon out of his fingers, checked the safety, and holstered it for him.

“That whole train ride is a long time to almost get shot,” she observed.

Ja. A few hours at gunpoint gets tiring,” Neustatter allowed. “I do not want you to get hurt, but we take risks to protect others.”

“I know,” Astrid told him. “You are getting warm broth with breakfast, and you are going to hold onto it until your fingers uncramp.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Neustatter agreed.

****

A Szekler in a Kilt

a-szekler-in-a-kilt-banner

Gyulafehérvár, Transylvania

January 15, 1634

 

Later they said it all had happened because of the good looks of copper-haired Mary.

Pretty she was and kind, as a daughter of a Saxon innkeeper should be. The generous way she cast her eyes from below her light copper hair was attracting the thirsty folks to this place better than the much-diluted Solymos wine from Transylvania’s famous vineyards.

The evening had fallen early, and only a few gloomy guests were sitting around the drinking room where Mary had just spread fresh straw on the floor. It was a small tavern near the town’s wall edge where poverty colored the streets with dirt but her father kept the floor clean all the same. The girl was wiping the tables and dreamily peering through the window into the swirling snowflakes that had imprisoned the city in a cold grip.

There was a loud bump as the door opened, and two dark shadows were silhouetted against the snow-bound street, letting in a draft of cold wind and sleet. The two figures merrily thumped the mud and ice off their boots and their hearty laughter betrayed the fact that they were far from sober.

It could be seen from their clothes and lofty airs that they were gentlemen, not often seen in a lowly place like this. The first man looked like a German in his fine thick cloak and broad-brimmed hat that sported a golden ostrich feather. He carefully shook the snow off the brim and turned his long face decorated by a goatee beard toward his companion. In badly-accented Hungarian he said, “My friend Selim, this is the tavern that sells wine to Turks like you. . . and she is my extra ‘treat’. . .” and he nodded and grinned at the young maid with visible lust.

The tall man he addressed had finished brushing the snow from his expensive fur coat and undid its gilded straps. When he removed his fox fur hat, it was clear he was a Turk as his head was almost fully shaven, with a long tuft of hair left on the top that came down to his shoulder. His long black moustache also fell in Eastern fashion down almost to his chest. He darted his quick small eyes to his partner and grumbled something incomprehensible.

At that time it was not a small thing to see a Muslim drunk in public. In the prince’s town it was even forbidden to sell wine to the Turkish traders or the envoys of the Padisah, so as to not offend them.

Beside his thirst for wine, the fact that Selim used the Hungarian language was a telling sign that he was a renegade, a pribék as the Hungarians degradingly spoke of those who traded their faith and fortune in exchange for a better faith and fortune. Knaves and traitors, they were cast out even from Transylvania, not just from the borderland of Royal Hungary. When caught, they were mercilessly and painfully put to death. In King Ferdinand’s country anyone, even a peasant, had right to kill them in broad daylight.

However, he was at ease and strutted confidently to an empty table where he dropped his heavy outer garments carelessly onto it. His green velvet kafthan and bejeweled fingers showed off his high position in the service of a Turkish envoy. Turkish delegations were not uncommon in the town of Gyulafehérvár or “Erdel Belgradi” as they called it.

“You, my beauty, just give me some wine and two goblets.” The German fished a coin from his purse and flipped it at her. “And take this double thaler for your smiles.”

Both grinned as they watched the girl trying to catch the silver coin. It eventually fell before their legs, and Mary had to scramble to find it among the straw.

When they were settled and wine was served, he offered a full goblet to the Turk, raising his voice as he spoke clearly enough for the entire room to hear.

asiakmrd“Take this delicious drink of sherbet and taste it, Selim, be my guest! Let us drink first to the health of your Padisah Murad and then, to the health of Emperor Ferdinand, long live them both.”

The Turk drained the goblet and equally loudly replied. “Ha! The sherbet you bought, Hans, has turned into the burning liquid of the houris in paradise when you spelled the name of the great Sultan Murad. Give me more of this magical sherbet, Hans, my true friend, may Allah be praised for his miracles.”

The few Saxon and Hungarian customers of the inn could see that the Muslim envoy was not committing a crime against his faith since he was offered sherbet. Yet, the Hungarians spat and turned away their heads. Some swords were rattled angrily when the renegade made his toast, but though every sane able-bodied man wore a sword in these times of danger, drawing a blade on each other was banned by Prince Rákóczi.

The dark-faced Turk and Hans continued chatting and drinking merrily until they spotted the only person in the tavern who paid no attention to them.

The strange man—rather a lad—was leaning above a big sheet of unfolded paper. He pulled out a pair of small spectacles and balanced them on his nose, folding the paper outward so that those who cared and could read English could read its title: The Grantville Times.

“Look what we have here, Selim. He is your countryman, isn’t he?”

“Nay, his skull is shaven in the stupid Hungarian fashion. Faithless giaur dogs don’t grow a decent long mop of hair to praise the Prophet, rather they leave an inch-wide ridge that grows from the forehead to the nip of their neck. Look, his blond mustache is waxed horizontally and not descending over his chest. He is a Hungarian pig, worse than that, he is a Szekler, I know this because of his grey coat, trimmed with those black braided fasteners.

“And now you think yourself very smart, my jolly friend, but you need to look more closely at him. As a clerk of a diplomat who had travelled much with my noble Lord, Maximilian Hoffe, I’ve encountered many weirder folks than you. You may have missed his blue and green maidenly skirt. This man right here is a Scot, no doubt about that.”

They continued arguing the pros and cons and seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. Finally, they put out some gold coins to wager who was right and decided to investigate further.

Hans stood up, goblet in hand, tasted it and made a sour face, spitting and spilling the content all around him, as he shouted at the barmaid.

“What sort of wine is this that you poison us with, you Saxon witch?”

His words had hardly left his mouth when dozens of red wine drops rained down on the white pages the lad was studying.

Instantly a very angry cry emerged from the lad followed by a long and complex Hungarian curse. This proved the Szekler origin of the young man.

****

Selim pondered to himself that decent European folks stabbed each other for less and softly caressed his Persian scimitar’s grip.

Clearly his German ally had no strong command of the Hungarian language for he was yet to be convinced, poking his sheathed rapier under the boy’s plaid kilt and lifting it.

“And who do we have here…? A boy or a little girl perhaps? A nasty girl, with a rather bad tongue? Selim, what is under the skirt . . . ? A Protestant Scottish arse or a pretty Szekler male-whore’s member . . .?”

Selim had no time to warn his stupid companion that he had better not mess with a Szekler for everything happened in a blur.

A fist landed and a nose was bloodied. Chairs were kicked out and a basket-hilted sword was drawn on the German, who staggered back, wiping his face.

“Eat my sword, you peasant dog!” Hans shrieked and his long rapier slipped out quicker than one would expect, seeing how drunk the German was.

Selim hurled himself between the two and roared at the red-faced young man who was ready to stab Hans on the spot.

“Come out into the snow, and let me take your blood for insulting the Sublime Padisah, you coward Szekler or whatever you might be!”

The three men rushed out of the inn, along with the onlookers who trampled the snow outside and drew a circle around them.

Even the barmaid ran out with them, putting a warm shawl around her shoulders. She gripped an older guest, a strong Saxon in a butchers’ apron and pleaded with him to help.

****

“Uncle Michael, please do something, we don’t need the trouble we will get from the city guard if they kill the lad!”

He nodded at her in agreement and shouted out in German.

“You all slow down, damn it. Can’t attack two on one—there are rules to dueling.”

“You must fight one on one and only until first blood. Saber against saber or rapier against rapier.”

“I am the first,” the sobering Hans replied in German.
“Give this peasant’s offspring a proper sword.” He waited until someone offered an old rapier to the boy who put his Scottish sword aside.

The lad was steaming with rage and hefted the rapier, trying out its grip and balance. Saying nothing, he just stepped into the circle. he wore only his Szekler coat above his blue and green kilt.

He made the sign of the cross but gave no sound. Instead, he took up a low guard with his rapier and leaned forward.

Hans fleetingly wondered how this lowly creature seemed to have a knowledge of Fencing Master Meyer’s art of the rapier . . . at least as far as his guards were concerned.

He then dismissed this as nonsense and carelessly dashed at him with his well-practiced master thrust that aimed at the neck but usually pierced the liver.

Not this time.

The strong thrust wasn’t parried but was allowed past the defending blade. The momentum carried Hans forward, past the young man’s left side and while struggling to steady himself on the slippery ground he felt a burning pain from behind. Then a kick that sent him sprawling on all fours.

“Remember, your German lordship, when you try to sit again that it was a Scot who made a second hole in your arse . . .” he heard the young lad cry out, and his words were accompanied by the loud laughter of the onlookers.

****

Selim was watching the fight solemnly and quickly assessed the boy’s martial skills. He shrugged and exclaimed, “Bismallah! Let Allah’s will be done.”

The Turk was a man well into his thirties, and he not only knew the Szeklers’ way with the saber, but he had also learned from the best Turkish masters of Istanbul and so knew much more than what the janissary schools would teach to an ordinary soldier. Besides, he trusted the thin chainmail shirt that was hiding under his kafthan.

asiaksbrThe lad had already been given a broad-bladed Hungarian saber, a wicked cavalry weapon that, unlike rapiers, was usually used from horseback. Yet, each saber-wielding nation had their own way of fighting on foot. Szeklers were no different. . . Moreover, these ancient mountain folk preserved their age-old martial traditions that went back to the shadowy past—when all Hungarians were still Huns, using a runic alphabet and curved bows.

Selim knew all about this and the Szeklers’ impulsive and hotheaded nature.

“Come, giaur dog, dare to attack the servant of the Padisha’s envoy . . .” he said. They began the saber-dance anew; circling around each other to have a feel of their distance, while taking up the rhythms of war.

“Let dogs lick up your blood . . .” He kept talking as he watched the darkening face of his opponent, “Your mother was a whore who serviced a thousand mercenaries, wasn’t she?”

A loud cry. A flash of light and a metallic clash, was followed by an excited murmur.

“Easy, my son . . . perhaps I am your real father . . . you might kill me!”

The boy’s eyes shone like the prongs of pitchforks and he was gritting his teeth. Now they entered the second circle, drawing nearer to each other. Three rapid steps and one quick strike and parry. Circling on. It was just a game, for the moment.

The elegantly curved Persian blade turned aside the heavier sword with little effort yet all the while the Szekler was pressing Selim fiercely.

Now the Turk feigned a surprised face, as if he had slipped on the snow, and revealed an opening under his right armpit. The Szekler’s saber took the offered opportunity and the lad’s eyes shone triumphantly when the sword’s edge cut into the green kafthan.

However, the rigid blade did not tear apart the Turk’s ribs and lungs as expected. Instead, the sound of steel on steel rang in the street. The young man was confused and paralyzed for a moment and in the next instant the grinning Turk sliced at the boy’s head, but not with a killing intent. He wanted to humiliate the lad first. Perhaps killing, too—but later.

Blood flooded the Szekler’s head but he just shook the gore from his eyes. Instead of falling into a retreat he struck back as if nothing had cut his skull.

Selim wasn’t expecting such a fast riposte, so he was caught unguarded and now his head was also bleeding. Angry, he wanted to finish the boy off.

It was a duel to death now, and both of them knew it. The onlookers tried to separate them but when Selim threateningly swung his scimitar towards them, they shrank back in terror.

****

There was no laughter anymore, and no one noticed the slender figure who ran away through the falling snow, her copper hair flying behind. Now she wanted to call the city guard before it was too late.

The fighters renewed their circling, but there were no more games. Blades flew rapidly back and forth, sometimes parried but sometimes not. Selim’s kafthan was in tatters and the chainmail glittered through the gaps. The lad was entirely covered in red and was already stumbling from the loss of blood.

Usually saber duelists did away with each other by repeatedly wounding their opponents so as to weaken them—the constant jumping and moving literally pumped the blood out of the body during the few minutes while the fights lasted. The very same was taking place here and now, and all foresaw the outcome.

Selim didn’t hurry to finish with the boy. He deliberately chose targets and struck with a deadly precision.

“You wretch,” he said. “You disgraceful puppy. You underling. Take this for the Padishah. You swine. You wine-drinker. This for the True Faith. And this for Hans, you nameless . . . ”

The lad feebly dealt with every second blow and then just stood, gazing forward.

“I am a Szekler and a Scot,” he said. “My name is Bálint. Bálint Felföldi. You may kill me, but you will remain the pribék of your own land.” With that he spat at Selim’s eyes. With hatred and spittle clouding his vision, Selim raised his arm high to deliver the final blow. Shadows and torchlights were moving and voices cried around him when his slim scimitar savagely sliced downward.

Two halberds fell from the sky, blocking the deadly strike. Arms grabbed his kafthan and pulled the Turk back, while a shaft of a spear tripped him from behind. Suddenly Selim’s sight was blocked by helmeted heads and angry voices filled the air as he lay in the befouled snow.

The city guards had arrived.

****

 

Gyulafehérvár, capital of Transylvania

January 23, 1634

 

“His name is Bálint Felföldi, he is a petty nobleman from Szeklerland,” said Péter Alvinczi, the preeminent Calvinist leader in the country and advisor to Prince Rákóczi. Alvinczi was making his report to the Prince’s chief spymaster, Gáspár Bojthi, in his office within Prince Rákóczi’s palace.

The walls of the spacious and elegantly appointed room were decorated with paintings, and the grim faces of ironclad heroes were all peering down at the two men. The one who was tall and aesthetically thin was dressed in grey robes; the other, shorter and heavier, wore a dark red embroidered cassock known as a dolman.

Alvinczi went on, “His late father was, indeed, a Highlander, a lieutenant, and a piper, too. Yes, a follower of the Stuarts, a staunch Papist.” Breaking from his dry recital of the facts, he inserted a passionate opinion of his own. “Our wrathful God is punishing our poor country, using the Turks’ hand, for the sins of Catholics like this one!” But at a stern look from Gáspár, he reverted back to stating the requested facts.

“Yes, your Lordship, the English word highlander translates as Felföldi in Hungarian. This man’s father served with the Scottish mercenaries who distinguished themselves defending Lippa and Temesvár castles in 1595. There were a hundred and fifty of them. A pity that only thirty of them survived the sieges, good soldiers they were. Later those few survivors mingled with the Szeklers. General Mikó knows more about them since he is the Szeklers’ leader. Bálint’s father was ennobled for his valiant deeds in 1611 by Prince Báthory. So it would not be wise to hang him. Beheading is more befitting to his position.”

“Reverend Alvinczi, would you give away the life of this poor lad so lightly?” asked the spymaster, with a tired sigh. He knew of Peter Alvinczi’s burning hatred against the Catholics and privately despised him. Alvinczi, the chief Calvinist pastor of the city of Kassa was infamous for having eagerly assisted in the execution of three Jesuits in Prince Bethlen’s time.

Spymaster Gaspar had too many troubles since the sudden arrival of the small American town of Grantville almost three years before, and he really wanted this pastor out of his hair.

According to the Americans’ encyclopedias, Alvinczi should die this very year, he thought to himself, but the bony man in his audience room looked very healthy and thirsty for more blood.

“Sir Gáspár,” he protested, “he is a rogue. Would you risk the principality’s fragile reputation for the sake of a criminal?”

“Certainly you don’t want to give him to the Turks, do you, Reverend Alvinczi? Their ambassador wants to have him impaled. On the other hand, the Holy Roman Emperor’s envoy, being a Christian, would simply send him to the gallows.”

“Then, it seems we need a proper trial.” Alvinczi sniffed. “We shouldn’t waste more time with this issue when we have a large amount of information to evaluate. Sir, our enemy is devouring Europe with those devilish ideas and devices before our very eyes. We have no time for toying around,” he snorted.

“There will be no trial, I say,” Sir Gáspár said decisively. “Reverend Alvinczi, do you know the details of the incident at that tavern?”

The pastor made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“A hotheaded young drunk insulted the men in service of the Turkish and the Austrian ambassadors and dared to wound them with his sword, violating the ban on duels at the same time.”

“Clearly you don’t know that they asked for trouble? That the Turk was a pribék?”

“Sir Gáspár, you should know best that we also use informers who sell secrets for money . . .”

“The Turk was drinking wine and violated the rules by doing so…”

“Sir, he says it was his friend who bought it, and he was offered the drink as a sherbet. There are witnesses to it. He says it must have been the barmaid who turned it into wine by using witchcraft. You should rather put her to the question about that, though . . .”

“Reverend,” Sir Gáspár frowned “it seems after all that you know more about the details than one would have thought. Do you also know what the lad was doing before their argument?”

When there was no answer, Sir Gáspár pulled out a sizable sheet of paper and presented it.

“He was reading The Grantville Times, the newspaper that is being printed and distributed by those people who have turned the world upside-down.”

The thin man of faith was quick with his reply.

“Now I see, Sir Gáspár, why you don’t want a trial. You have caught an agent! Very well, we don’t need to give him up, we can have our ways with him to make him speak.”

This was too much for Sir Gáspár Bojthi. His head felt the tension building up in him. He jumped up from behind his richly carved desk and snatched up the newspaper on it. Then he held the broadsheet in front of the sour-faced reverend’s nose.

“Read it! Read it out loud!” His hand was shaking.

Alvinczi went pale and said nothing.

“Can’t you read it, damn it? No? But he can! Tell Professor Pál Keresztúri Biró to put the lad on our payroll immediately as a teacher of English and interpreter. He is assigned to work on the materials Count Csáky had sent from Grantville. The lad is not to leave the palace and must swear the same oath as the rest of the scribes. And I make you personally responsible for his well-being as well as for his quick recovery from his injuries. Now be off with you.” With a wave of his hand, Sir Gaspar dismissed the pastor from his presence and his thoughts.

****

 

Gyulafehérvár, Transylvania

February 12, 1634

 

It was late night when Bálint sank down on his knees before going to bed in a small servants’ room in the southern wing of the palace. Finishing his prayers, he carefully eased himself to the mattress, placing his aching limbs to rest. The stitches held but his wounds were burning . . . all eleven of them.

Had Mary not run after him when he was taken away, he would have perished in the dungeon of the city hall. She had sewn him up the best she could and seemed to have shed a tear for each drop of his blood. When she left in the morning, she had appeared unsure if he would make it. Yet, it was her silver that bought him fresh clothes and drier cell. She sent around the city barber-surgeon to visit him twice a day to replace the bandages, and every morning there was a new basket of food filled with bread and cheese, the good Saxon sausages, and the heavy red wine of Eger. He saw her no more—but she was in his prayers every evening. She was a fixed point where his exhausted mind could gain some rest after the days when his head was spinning and full with hundreds of new words and pictures.

****

Some ten days after the duel, a visitor appeared in front of his bed—no less a personage than Chief-Pastor Péter Alvinczi.

Bálint recognized him at once from a picture that had been circulated on a pamphlet that had portrayed Alvinczi as the executioner of the martyrs of Kassa, the three Jesuit priests who had died for refusing to recant their faith. Now that the minister has moved to Transylvania, he was close to the staunchly Protestant prince’s ears and was one of his most influential advisors.

There had been pity in the reverend’s eyes as he looked Bálint over.

“My poor son, God has visited you for your crimes. Your enemies want your life badly.”

Bálint had already guessed this much but he was utterly puzzled why the man should care. Silently he kept looking at his visitor, becoming more alarmed as the priest continued.

“How fortunate you are, however, that I happened to hear about you. I might well be convinced that you were innocently accused and perhaps then, I could help you. Just perhaps.”

“What am I to do to make you believe, Reverend?” Bálint asked as he looked up at him. “I was provoked to engage in an unfair duel where my opponent had chainmail hidden under his robes.” The pastor puffed his cheeks and made a pious face.

“I know you are still an idolator and haven’t come to know our Lord. If I saw your willingness to repent your sins and embrace the new and clear faith in fear of the wrathful God, I’d be possibly inspired to save a true man’s life.”

Since Szeklers speak little and Scots talk just as much, Bálint pursed his lips and said nothing.

“Do you know, my poor son, that the Turkish envoys’ servants are already looking for the place where they can impale you? The Austrians are also readying the gallows-tree for you. Only God can save you now.”

“Reverend, tell me please . . . is it true that the third Jesuit you murdered finished his life after being left for three days in a cesspit? What was his name? Will I have a trial, unlike them?”

The thin man leapt to his feet as if bitten by a snake.

“You, you will be sorry for this—very, very sorry,” he said. Alvinczi left the cell in a fury.

Bálint sighed and thought of his late father and smiled. “He would have liked this jest,” he said aloud, to no one in particular. “I might tell the old bugger soon, in person, while drinking his favourite ale.” And he hoped sincerely that there was beer in heaven.

****

The next morning he was not surprised when two blue-clad Hajdus, the uniformed palace guards of the prince of Transylvania, came for him.

“Is the hangman Turkish or German?” he asked.

“Why should it matter?” The first soldier shrugged. “You Szeklers are very funny folks. Rather tell me—can you walk or should we give you a hand?”

Bálint snorted at the question and mused aloud. “Once a man was being taken to Hell by the Devil, he met his pal on the way who felt sorry for him. But the Devil pointed out that it would be really sad if the friend was made to carry them both all the way to Hell. So why should I complain?”

After taking a moment to catch his breath, Bálint struggled into a standing position and left the cell on his unsteady feet.

To his great surprise, outside he was gently helped into a sedan-chair and the guards carried him to the huge palace that had been newly built by Prince Gábor Bethlen.

It was not for nothing that the previous Prince of Transylvania had been called the man who had turned his realm into a prosperous Fairy Garden in an age when half of Europe was busy killing their neighbours or their own people who happened to be of a different faith.

The palace had been built in the late Renaissance fashion, its four wings enclosing an elegant square surrounded by a circular gallery in the Italian style. A baroque fountain, now covered for winter, adorned the centre with four stone benches around it. The rest of the square was divided by a labyrinth of neatly trimmed evergreen hedges that opened up to small courtyards where green wooden benches awaited the noble guests and residents when the weather was mild.

Bálint was led to the southern wing where he soon learned that he was not to leave the palace without permission and was never to venture to the northern wing as that was reserved for his Highness, György Rákóczi I, his lady wife, and his two sons.

Bálint was looking around in awe while he was ushered into a reception hall where a clever-looking, bald man dressed in simple grey robes with a delicate lace collar had just finished the briefing of a large group of scribes . . . all but one of whom hurried away to their duties.

“Good morning to you,” the man said pleasantly. “Please come with me to the library on the second floor. Later, you will be shown your room on the third floor where the rest of the lads have their lodgings.” Gesturing to the young man who remained at his side as he walked, he continued. “This is Johannes, a very bright apprentice of Herr Professor Alsted. He will supply you with all the necessary things you need. But forgive me, my name is Pál Bíró of Keresztúr, but please just call me Professor Bíró . . .”

Darting eyes were assessing him, making Bálint acutely aware of the sorry state of his bristling skull which was neither properly shaved in normal Szekler fashion, nor fully grown out in the manner of the palace servants. Bálint could find no words for a moment—for he had been addressed in English.

“Professor Bíró . . . I am honored to make your acquaintance instead of a hooded figure in black,” he responded, also in English. “I am called Bálint the Highlander or Felföldi, and I am gladly in your service unless you wish to convert me.”

“Very well.” Bíró nodded approvingly. “You can really speak the tongue, I see. No, I don’t need your soul but your brain. You have had the good fortune to meet Reverend Alvinczi, haven’t you?”

“I think he might have not felt it so.”

“So I heard, so I heard,” Bíró said as he shook his head sadly. He was also a Protestant pastor, as Bálint was to learn later, but in his teachings he focused on the individual’s personal experience of a loving God and was not liked by Reverend Alvinczi for it. He had studied in England so his position in court had greatly appreciated since the appearance of Grantville.

“I am hopeful that you will join our community of scholars. Our rules here are simple and clear enough. Johannes will tell you the details. As much as I know of you, you like reading and stand against injustice,and you don’t abandon your faith,” he added. “So far, so good. I promise to introduce you to the greatest intellectual challenge a Scot or a Szekler might face. To tell you the truth, we need your language skills quite badly, but if you are afraid to join us, you are to be given a horse and a saddle so you can go back to General Mikó and continue to serve—as an honest Szekler would.”

“Sir,” Bálint said hesitantly, “Professor Biró . . . what about my duel?”

“What duel? I know nothing of the sort. Just go ahead, and Johannes will take care of you. Report back to me in the evening, Bálint.”

With that, Biró squeezed his hand where it was not bandaged and strode off, leaving Bálint staring after him.He started when his sleeve was tugged and looked around to find the young scholar still at his side.

“Come with me, friend,” he said in Hungarian. “I am Johannes Deák but call me Jancsi. Did you really cut the Turk’s head off and throw it before the legs of that beauty called Mary? Is her hair reaching down to her ankles as they say? We have prepared you a snug little room upstairs, and I wager you have had not had breakfast yet.”

****

The scribes lived on the third floor, two to a small room, but their daily routine kept them busy at various places of the building. Bálint listened eagerly to Jancsi’s chatter while systematically devouring the flavorful bacon and white bread. The youngster had black hair and matching eyes that sparkled with intelligence and good humor as he related the information Balint needed to know along with a good amount of palace gossip.

Jancsi’s master was Professor Heinrich Alsted, the theologist-philosopher from Germany. Renowned for his encyclopedic works, he had come to Transylvania in Prince Bethlen’s time. He was accompanied by two of his German colleagues, Heinrich Bisterfeld and Ludwig Piscator. Initially, their task had been to collate all the information gathered from Germany, and their scribes tried to summarise it in Hungarian. Now they had the task of researching the American “up-timers”.

Like Jancsi, these scribes were students who had studied in Wittenberg or in the Netherlands and had a strong command of either German or Dutch. Their numbers were ever increasing—currently there were more than one hundred twenty of them, not counting the servants and the palace guards, but there was still a great need for more teachers of English.

asiakhdjEvery Friday Reverend Alviczi called them together to summarize their weekly work. Jancsi grinned as he talked about it, but he said that Bálint would see the thing for himself in due time. Jancsi also told him about the pretty serving maids who lived and worked in the western wing, and if anybody needed anything, the chief-butler arranged it without a question. Scribes were not allowed to leave the palace, except when they visited their churches on Sundays and even then they were guarded by the hajdus. No weapon was permitted, except during the regular fencing lessons.

Jancsi also made his dislike of Reverend Alvinczi clear as he let Bálint know that the reverend had a network of informers reporting on all behavior that undermined discipline. He dropped his voice to a whisper to tell of lads who just happened to disappear all of a sudden. It was said they were taken to Déva castle where dangerous “laboratories” had been set up and “field experiments” were being conducted.

He admitted he found the work hard. Sometimes whole sections of texts made no sense, and there were dozens of new terms and words appearing every day.

“Sometimes I feel hurled into the depths of a well made by demons,” he said. “It is one thing to hear about the Americans from the future but touching their objects gives all of us goose pimples. The up-timers’ pen that was issued to me to work with is a smooth, flexible, and transparent stick that writes by itself, without having to mess with ink and constant dipping. And there are small pictures called photographs that open a window to peep into another universe.” Jancsi was slowly shaking his head as he poured some wine for his friend. “I prefer the books, above all. With their small type and thin pages and the wonders they talk about. These books and newspapers that we are given to translate and read aloud fly us to a land of fairies and impossible miracles. I warn you, there are hundreds of words and terms that make understanding very hard, and sometimes we can only guess what they mean.”

“Is the reverend so hostile with all new ideas?” Bálint asked when Jancsi had paused to take a breath.

Jancsi nodded. “Why, it is not for nothing we call him the ‘Old Vampire.’ Unfortunately, Reverend Alvinczi seems to have a ready explanation for everything. During his weekly summaries he puffs his cheeks, like this, and spends the first hour by cooling down the more enthusiastic researchers. He thinks there are many of us who have been dangerously infected by the new ideas and fantastic scientific facts we are learning. He goes into great detail as to how these concepts will be put to use by hostile and evil envoys of Satan to create horrible devices to destroy the true believers in the wars of the future.”

“What does he conclude?” Bálint asked as he finished the last morsels before him and looked around for more wine . . . in vain.

Jancsi made a sour face and began imitating the pastor again.

“—’Why, don’t the up-timers themselves admit that they were our enemies in both terrible world wars? Didn’t President Wilson’s intervention turn the balance of the Great War against us? Without the Americans’ intrusion, Hungary would have become the leading power of the continent . . . maybe even of the world! Think on that! Which country suffered the greatest injustice after that first World War? We have just learned that in the future three-quarters of our country will be torn off and given to riffraff, upstart, never-heard-of countries like Romania or Yugoslavia . . . and let us not speak of that creature called Czechoslovakia.”

Bálint couldn’t help laughing.

“You say Ceczho . . . sclovo . . . or what? You are pulling my leg!”

But Jancsi could not abandon his role as teacher and he continued.

“In the second great war they just repeated this crime and after twenty years of that they were still our enemies. Count Csáky recently put his life in danger to bring us a few pages from one of their encyclopedias. Brothers, the Americans considered Hungary was their deadly enemy just because we were ‘Communist.’—” Jancsi was rolling his eyes as he spoke.

Bálint was afraid his wounds would tear again because of his laughter.

“But—” Jancsi held one finger up in the air as he continued his narration. “—who might Communists be other than humble Protestant folks who shared their possessions in their communa as it was done by the first Christians before the Catholics corrupted the holy religion? The Americans admit that their presidents and bankers are all shape-shifters!”

Bálint’s eyes widened at this revelation.

“They are lizards, the demons from hell!” Now Jancsi gave out small whining sounds to indicate Alvinczi’s terror and said, “If somebody catches a glimpse of their terrible true nature, he is instantly eaten up alive. So don’t let yourself be misled by their glittering object and lies. Besides, they are openly trafficking with the Turks to get coffee!”

“Jancsi, stop it please. And send for the barber!” replied Bálint, choking.

 

 

Gyulafehérvár, Transylvania

March 22, 1634

 

Bálint’s wounds were nicely healed by the time the fields were all dressed in green. He was fidgeting like a badger in the thorn-bush and was just grumbling about everything in the palace. His hair had grown out and both it and his moustache were trimmed short. He had a new kilt obtained from the palace tailor after he’d given a careful explanation of how his clan tartan should be woven.

When he began to attend the nearest Catholic church, accompanied by two of the palace guards, he was pleased to find copper-haired Mary in the congregation, and they exchanged warm smiles. The next day he begged a special dispensation from Spymaster Böjthy so that he could have his Sunday afternoons free as well. From then on he and Mary spent their Sunday mornings attending Mass and the afternoons in her father’s tavern.

Some other afternoons, Bálint gave his friends fencing lessons in the palace’s wide corridors or in the yard if the weather was good. It was on one such occasion he met Achmed.

As Bálint was explaining a particular stroke to Jancsi and two other scribes he became aware of a stocky man in a kafthan with a small silk turban on his head. Seeing Turks in the palace was not unusual for quite a few of them served there as musicians, scribes, or cooks but Bálint became annoyed when the Turk began shaking his head.

“What’s wrong with this saber-turning?” he asked him, putting his limited Turkish to use.

“Young man,” came the answer with a friendly smile. “It is a nice drill for the parade ground but such a stroke can be outsmarted with ease.”

“Then show me how you do it . . .”

As soon as the soft-looking, plump Turk was offered a saber the tip began flying about his opponent’s head like a butterfly, and Bálint found himself disarmed in a heartbeat.

A deep and sincere friendship developed from that first fencing lesson. Bálint was happy to pick up more Turkish while they were discussing many interesting things they had in common. Every Sunday they met, sometimes practiced a bit or just talked.

It turned out that Achmed was a musician and had seen many battlefields for the Turks never fought without music. Bálint’s father had been a piper and taught the skill to his son. Achmed brought out his Turkish clarinet, and they played for each other. Bálint also knew the Szekler flute and showed him all the Scottish and Szekler tunes he could play.

Achmed had been a war prisoner of Prince Bethlen. Some years ago he had been freed for his musical skills, and he had decided to stay on and serve the prince of his own free will. Bálint slowly realised that not all the Turks were evil—at least not those ones who were not the subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Gyulafehérvár, Transylvania

March 23, 1634

 

Professor Bíró and Spymaster Gáspár Bojthy silently regarded the tall young man before them. Bálint was not offered a seat since both gentlemen were pacing the length of Sir Gáspár’s elegantly appointed reception room.

The professor’s voice finally broke the silence. “Tell us freely. What do you think of the intentions of these folks called up-timers, according to your observations?”

“Pray, make it short,” added Sir Gáspár.

Bálint took a deep breath and looked into their eyes.

“I entirely disagree with Reverend Alvinczi. These Americans may have come from the future but they did not ask for it. Therefore making them our enemies is the greatest wrong that can be done against both our nations. They could be powerful allies, and with their assistance we could chase the Ottomans out and build up a stronger state than even King Matthias’ had been. With their scientific knowledge there would be neither poverty nor epidemic anymore. Their ideas would be certainly welcome compared to how Reverend Alvinczi views the world.”

Professor Bíró was nodding his bald head in agreement but Spymaster Gáspár seemed to have some doubts. So far, Reverend Alvinczi had refused to send anyone to Grantville after Count Csáky had returned, but perhaps Sir Gáspár believed the time was now right. Finally, after another long pause, he gave the instructions to Bálint Felföldi as if he was talking to a soldier:

“You are to go to Grantville, accompanied by Johannes, the apprentice of Professor Alsted. He has stronger German skills and he speaks Dutch, too. You must observe how these American people live and worship, spending enough time with them before you contact and greet them officially, on behalf of Prince Rákóczi. Tell them we are not friends with the Austrians, and the Turks are our enemies. We seek peace and trade, first. Their ambassadors are welcome. You can show them the way. Here are your credentials and traveling letters. Take this ring. Use it to seal all the reports you send.

“Your contact in the Netherlands is Gábor Haller. He has had a well-built intelligence network from the time of Prince Bethlen. You are to accept orders or instructions if you see the sign of the same ring or the ring itself. Your contact in Vienna is Cardinal Péter Pázmány. Again just show him your ring and he will provide you with everything you may ask for.

“In short, make your best attempt to prove to the up-timers that the Principality of Transylvania is a strong power in the civilized part of Europe and has plentiful resources. Tell them that our land has remained untouched by those terrible wars that have laid waste to half the continent. Moreover, we offer asylum to religious refugees fleeing England and Switzerland because we have given shelter to everyone since our first Prince Johannes Sigismund introduced the freedom of religions in 1568. Since the time of Prince Gábor Bethlen even the Jews are free to trade and live unmolested without having to wear the signs of Solomon.

“Now go, Bálint Felföldi, with God’s blessing but take this gold for your expenses. You are to leave tomorrow at dawn along with Scribe Johannes and you may choose two good horses from the Prince’s stables. Questions?”

“Sir Gáspár, there is someone to whom I have to say farewell if it is granted.”

“Go, young man,” he said with a wink, “but no more trouble with that girl or we will reintroduce the laws for punishing witchcraft . . . five hundred years after King Kalman the Bookish abolished them!”

****