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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, August 27, 2016 15:56 EDT



Dresden, capital of Saxony

    The look that Gretchen Richter was giving Eddie Junker fell short of friendly. Way short.

    “The first and only time I flew in an airplane, you crashed the plane. I barely got out alive.”

    In point of fact, she’d been completely unharmed. The plane had landed on soil that was too wet and soft, causing it to upend. But there had been no great speed involved and when things settled down Gretchen and Eddie had simply found themselves suspended upside down in their safety harnesses.

    Still, it had been… startling, to say the least.

    Eddie scowled. “That wasn’t my fault.” Since his girlfriend wasn’t there to take umbrage, he added: “Denise told me the airfield was suitable. Ha! If you have a quarrel, take it up with her. Besides, it’s irrelevant.”

    He rose, went over to the open window and pointed to the southwest. “The new airfield is farther from the river and elevated a bit. Much better constructed, too, even if it hasn’t been macadamized yet.”

    Gretchen didn’t bother to get up and look herself. She knew there’d be nothing to see even if she did. The large chamber in the Residenzschloss — also called Dresden Castle — that she’d established as her headquarters had a nice view of the city and the countryside. But the castle was close to the Elbe, not to the city’s walls. From that distance, the most she’d see on a very clear day was the elevated hut that passed for a “control tower” — which controlled nothing; ridiculous name — and possibly the outlines of the landing strip. But if the sky was overcast, as it was today, the airstrip would be indistinguishable from the surrounding farmlands.

    “There won’t be any problem taking off, unless it rained very recently. And there will be no problem at all landing at Magdeburg because that field is in excellent condition. A macadamized airstrip — and radio capability, so they can warn us ahead of time if there is any problem with the weather.”

    “And if there is?”

    Eddie shrugged. “Then we fly back here. Or land somewhere the weather is clear. For Pete’s sake, Gretchen, Magdeburg is only one hundred and twenty miles from here as the crow flies — and we fly the way crows do. In a straight line. We can be there in an hour. No weather patterns change that quickly.”

    Gretchen was distracted for a moment by Eddie’s use of the expression “for Pete’s sake.” The American euphemism had become widely adopted because it allowed the speaker to skirt blasphemy.

    But only skirt it. A number of theologians claimed that the expression was still inappropriate since the “Pete” in question was clearly a reference to St. Peter. Whether taking the name of a saint in vain qualified as “blasphemy” could be disputed, of course, and there were other theologians who dismissed the argument on the grounds that “Pete’s sake” was clearly a reference to “pity’s sake” and therefore…

    The distraction lightened her mood. She even smiled, being reminded of her husband. Jeff was known, when a theologian or cleric annoyed him, to refer to the present time as the miserable seventeenth be-damned century and if the preachers don’t like it they can kiss my rosy up-time ass.

    Despite being what people called a lapsed Catholic, Gretchen had quite a bit more in the way of religious faith than her husband did. But she didn’t disagree with him very often on the subject of priests and parsons and their defects.

    There was no point in her pining for her husband, however. He was off in Bavaria, leading one of the regiments in the Third Division. She had no idea when she’d see him again — leaving aside the possibility that it might be never, since he could get killed in the fighting. So, she forced her mind back to the issue at hand.

    And then… forced herself to agree. She had a real dread of flying again, but the issue at stake was too important for her to be guided by fear.

    Besides, it was the first time in her life that Gretchen had ever been summoned to an audience with an emperor. Somewhere underneath the hard revolutionary shell she’d constructed around her soul there was still a provincial printer’s daughter. She could remember the excitement in her town in the Oberpfalz — she’d been nine years old at the time — when Archduchess Maria Christina passed through once.

    Despite herself, she felt traces of that same excitement now — and cursed herself for it, of course.

    But all that was irrelevant. For her to refuse to answer Gustav Adolf’s summons — especially since it had been worded quite politely — would be a serious political mistake. And it would be almost as bad a mistake to delay her response by refusing to accept Francisco Nasi’s offer to provide her with his private airplane to make the trip. If she insisted on traveling overland the journey would take days — maybe even a week or more, depending on the state of the roads.

    The prospect of doing so wasn’t attractive anyway. While Gretchen wasn’t afraid of horses she didn’t much like to ride them, either, any more than her husband did.

    “Fine,” she said curtly. “We’ll leave tomorrow afternoon.”

    “We could leave today, if you wish. There’s still plenty of daylight left and the weather’s good.”

    “No. I have business to attend to before I leave.”

    Eddie shrugged. “Whatever you say.”



    “It may be a trap — a trick,” said Georg Kresse. “When you get there, they will toss you into a dungeon.”

    Captain Eric Krenz shook his head. “I doubt if they even have a dungeon in Magdeburg. Most of the city is new, you know, built since the sack. That’s true of the Royal Palace and Government House, for sure.”

    “So what?” demanded Kresse, scowling. He and Krenz didn’t get along very well. The leader of the Vogtland rebels found the young officer’s insouciance annoying.

    “So what? The construction took place right under the nose of Mike Stearns, that’s what. If they’d tried to include a dungeon he’d have put a stop to it. He could have, too — he was Prime Minister back then.”

    Gretchen intervened before the dispute could escalate. “I’m not concerned about its being a trap, Georg. Gustav Adolf would have to be an idiot to do something like that, and whatever other faults he may have he’s not stupid. What concerns me is simply what the purpose of this summons might be. I don’t see what the emperor and I have to talk about.”

    Kresse immediately veered from being suspicious of the emperor to being suspicious of… Gretchen herself.

    “He plans to suborn you. Turn you traitor to the cause.”

    Krenz barked a laugh. “What part of ‘the emperor is not stupid’ are you having trouble with, Georg?”

    “It’s not funny!”

    “Yes, it is. The next thing you’ll be saying –”

    “Enough!” said Tata. She didn’t quite shout, but given Tata that hardly mattered. She was a young woman and short to boot, but had a very forceful personality. “There’s no point to this argument.R#8221;

    She gave the Vogtlander a fierce look. “Even if Gretchen were to be swayed to treachery by the emperor’s mystical force of will — that would be in between his seizures, I guess — it would take a bit of time. By then she’ll be back and can give us all a report and we can make up our minds whether your worries are well-grounded or –”

    “Stupid beyond belief,” Krenz muttered.

    Tata glared at him. “I said ‘enough’! I meant it! Don’t try my patience, Eric!”

    Krenz seemed suitably abashed. Gretchen doubted if he really was. More likely, he’d just decided that risking Tata’s wrath wasn’t worth the pleasure of baiting the Vogtland leader any further. When all was said and done, after all, Tata was the one in the room in position to expel Eric from her bed. Krenz might not view that possibility as a fate worse than death — not quite — but he’d certainly not be happy about it.



    She herself didn’t find Kresse’s dark thoughts more than mildly exasperating. The leader of the Vogtland rebels was a capable man, but he tended to be rigid and prone to suspicion. He reminded her a lot of Gunther Achterhof — except Gunther at least had a good sense of humor. If Kresse had one, she’d never seen any evidence of it.

    “Are we all agreed then?” she asked, looking around the table. “I will accede to the emperor’s summons and go to Magdeburg tomorrow.”

    Her expression got rather sour. “By airplane. May God have mercy on my soul.”

    Which he might or might not, she thought. She hadn’t been inside a church in years. In her defense — assuming it would carry any weight with the Creator, which it might or might not — she felt she’d been betrayed by the Catholic Church she’d been raised in. The soldiers who broke into her father’s print shop, murdered him and then subjected her to more than two years of torment had claimed to be defending the Catholic cause, had they not?

    Gretchen wasn’t an outright non-believer like her husband, but she’d never found another church that suited her. The Protestant denominations all seemed… drab. Reverential but joyless.

    She gave everyone at the meeting plenty of time to register any further objections or raise any questions. Since there didn’t seem to be any, she declared the meeting adjourned.



    “I need to talk to Jozef before I go,” she said to Tata after everyone had left the room. “Do you know where he might be found?”

    Tata sniffed. “Wherever there’s liquor available and young women whose tits are bigger than their brains.”

    Gretchen smiled. It was true that Jozef Wojtowicz was an incorrigible womanizer. The Pole was handsome, charming, quick-witted — rather tall and well-built, too — and never seemed to lack female companionship.

    Well… “Incorrigible” was a little unfair. He wasn’t stupid about it. He’d never once tried to seduce Gretchen, for instance, although it was obvious he found her attractive. He’d never chased after Tata, either. Unlike most womanizers Gretchen had known, Jozef — to use an American quip — generally thought with his big head, not his little one.

    “Find him, would you?” As Tata started to leave, Gretchen stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Not you, yourself. You and I have other things we need to discuss before I leave. Get someone else to do it.”

    Tata sniffed again. “I have just the person.”



    “Why you?” Tata gave Eric Krenz a squinty look. “Two reasons. First, because you’re handy. Second, because you know every tavern in Dresden, including the ones with the prettiest barmaids that Wojtowicz will be chasing after.”

    She held up a hand, forestalling Eric’s protest. “I didn’t accuse you of chasing after them yourself, did I? But don’t tell me you don’t notice these things because you do. I’m tolerant — I used to be a barmaid myself; it’s a necessary skill in the job — but I’m not blind. Your hands may not roam but your eyes do.”

    Eric’s open mouth… closed. “Um,” he said.

    “Be off,” Tata commanded.



    Wojtowicz arrived a little over an hour later. Krenz’s guesswork had been good — he’d found Jozef in the second tavern he’d searched.

    Then, of course, half an hour had been needed to negotiate with the fellow. Like all Poles of Eric’s acquaintance, Jozef was inclined toward stubbornness. Happily, like all Poles of Eric’s acquaintance, he was also inclined to drink. So, a pleasant if too brief time had passed in which a Pole and a Saxon commiserated on the unreasonableness of women.

    “What does Richter want with me now?” wondered Wojtowicz.

    “Don’t know, but it’s probably nothing good.” Eric drained a fair portion of his beer stein. “As I recall, the last time she summoned you into her presence she talked you into leading a reckless sortie against besieging troops.”

    Jozef looked a bit apprehensive — but only a bit. “It can’t be anything like that. We’re not at war at the moment. Well… not here, at any rate.” He waved his hand in a vaguely southwesterly direction. “Over there in Bavaria they are, but we’re not involved with that.”

    Eric shrugged. “There’ll be some unpleasant task that needs doing. There always is. It’s because of Adam’s fall, I think. Although I’m not sure. I’m not a theologian.”

    Jozef’s laugh was a hearty, cheery thing. A passing barmaid gave him a second look. For probably the fourth time that evening, Eric suspected.

    “‘I’m not a theologian,'” Jozef mimicked. “Indeed, you are not. I, on the other hand, am an accomplished student of the holy texts so I know that it was all Eve’s fault. It’s always the woman’s fault, you heathen.”



    After Gretchen explained her purpose, Jozef didn’t find the quip amusing any longer.

    Damned woman!

    “I really think you’re… what’s the up-time expression?”

    “‘Spooking at shadows’?” Gretchen supplied. “You’re probably right — but I still want to find out what’s happening over there.”

    “Why me?” Jozef asked, trying not to whine openly. It was a stupid question, because the answer was obvious.

    “Don’t be stupid. You’re a Pole. I want you to go into Polish territory and spy for us.”

    “And that’s another thing! I am Polish, just as you say.” He tried to put on his best aggrieved expression. “And now you’re asking me to be a traitor –”

    “Oh, stop it! I’m not asking you to sneak into King Wladyslaw’s palace in Warsaw and steal state secrets. I’m asking you to go just over the border — well, a bit farther — and see what that swine Holk is up to in Breslau, or wherever he is now. Holk’s Danish, I think, or maybe German — and most of his men are Germans. So stop whining — which is phony and you know it — about your Polish pride. You know perfectly well you’ll get most of your information from other Poles on account of Holk’s men will have been plundering and raping and murdering them in the name of protecting them.”

    Jozef made a face. Heinrich Holk’s reputation as the worst sort of mercenary commander was something of a byword by now in central Europe. What in God’s name had King Wladyslaw been thinking, when he hired the bastard?

    “All right, I’ll do it,” he said. A sudden thought came to him. Maybe…

    “But I want a favor in return.”

    “What is it?”

    “I want some batteries.”

    Gretchen frowned. “Batteries? You mean… the electricity things? That store the electrical power?”

    “Yes. Those.”

    “What for?”

    He tried to look simultaneously secretive and mysterious. “I’m not saying. It’s my business.”

    That was fairly lame, but it was better than the alternative: I want the batteries so I can start using my radio again and get back in touch with my uncle and employer Stanislaw Koniecpolski, the Grand Hetman of Poland and Lithuania and the commander of the army facing the forces of the USE at Poznan, so I can resume spying for him on you.

    Not wise.

    After a moment, Gretchen shrugged. “I suppose I can spare one or two batteries.”



    Later that night, having finished her preparations for the trip to Magdeburg — that hadn’t taken long; just packing a small valise — she mentioned Jozef’s request to Tata.

    “What in the world would he want batteries for? — that he’d be so close-mouthed about?”

    Tata sniffed. “Wojtowicz? He probably got his hands on one of those up-time sex toys — what do they call them? Bilbos, or something like that — and figures if he can get it working again he can impress one of the town’s — what do they call them? Bimbos, I think. Or dumbos.”

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