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1636: The Saxon Uprising: Prologue

       Last updated: Saturday, October 9, 2010 10:50 EDT



An idle king

November, 1635


    Colonel Erik Haakansson Hand gazed down at the man who was simultaneously King of Sweden, Emperor of the United States of Europe, and High King of the Union of Kalmar. There was no doubt any longer in Hand’s mind, as the year 1635 came to a close, that Gustav II Adolf was the pre-eminent monarch of Europe.

    To be sure, the Habsburgs would dispute the claim. And if that powerful dynastic family could by some magic means recombine their splintered realms into the great empire ruled a century earlier by Charles V, they could probably made the claim stick. But the great Holy Roman Emperor was long gone. Today, it would take genuinely magical methods to reunite Spain and Austria — not to mention the newly emerged third branch of the dynasty in the Netherlands.

    France was now weak, too. Gustav Adolf’s general Lennart Torstensson had crushed the French at the battle of Ahrensbök a year and a half ago. Since then, Cardinal Richelieu’s control of France had grown steadily shakier. King Louis XIII’s younger brother Gaston, the duke of Orleans — usually called “Monsieur Gaston” — was and always had been an inveterate schemer who hated Richelieu with a passion. In times past, the cardinal had easily out-maneuvered him. But the disaster to which Richelieu had led France in his ill-fated League of Ostend’s war against the United States of Europe had produced widespread dissatisfaction and unrest, especially along the nobility and the urban patrician class.

    In short, Gustav Adolf ought to be basking in the most glorious sunlight of a life which had been filled with a great deal of glory since he was a teenage king. Instead, he was lying on a bed in a palace in one of the most wretched cities in the Germanies with his mind apparently gone.

    Gustav Adolf’s blue eyes stared up at Hand. Did he recognize his cousin? It was hard to say.

    You certainly couldn’t tell anything from his speech.

    “Bandits have knighted almost walrus,” said the king of Sweden. “Is there jewel?”

    It was very frustrating. Gustav Adolf didn’t seem addle-pated, exactly. His words made no sense, but they weren’t pure gibberish, either. This last sentence, for instance, had clearly been a question, and beneath all of the meaningless sentences you could detect a still intact grammar.

    But what was he saying? It was as if his vocabulary was completely jumbled.

    Before he left Magdeburg for Berlin, Colonel Hand had spent several hours with the American Moorish doctor, James Nichols. By now, four and a half years after the Ring of Fire which had brought the Moor into this world along with the other Americans in Grantville, it was the generally accepted opinion throughout Europe that Nichols was the continent’s greatest living doctor. Probably even the world’s.

    One might ask, therefore, why Hand had had to interview Nichols in Magdeburg — instead of here in Berlin, at the bedside of Europe’s most powerful ruler and Nichols’ own sovereign. Or, perhaps even more to the point, why it was that Gustav Adolf had not been brought to Magdeburg with its superb medical facilities, instead of being kept in primitive Berlin.

    He’d posed those questions directly, in fact. The answers had been… interesting.



    “Ask your blessed chancellor,” replied Nichols. His tone was blunt, to the point of being almost hostile. “It was Axel Oxenstierna who insisted on keeping Gustav Adolf in Berlin. Just as it was he who insisted — oh, sure, politely, but he had about a dozen goons with him to enforce the matter — that I leave Berlin and come back here, once I eliminated the risk of peritonitis.”

    “What reasons did he give for his decisions?”

    “Bullpucky and hogwash.” Hand didn’t know those particular Americanisms, but their general meaning was clear enough.

    “The bullpucky was that it was too risky to move the king to Magdeburg,” Nichols continued. “That’s nonsense because General Stearns had already transported Gustav Adolf by horse-litter to get him to Berlin in the first place. That took almost a week, in rough conditions — which the king still managed to survive, didn’t he? As opposed to spending another two days, tops, moving him to Magdeburg in a luxurious river barge.”

    The black doctor took a deep breath. An angry breath, you could even say.

    “As for the hogwash, it’s true that I told Oxenstierna that there wasn’t much that could be done for the king. But ‘much’ isn’t nothing, and however much or little can be done for Gustav Adolf in his present condition, you can be damn sure — to hell with false modesty — that I can do it better than that bunch of quacks he’s got up there in Berlin. For Christ’s sake, Colonel Hand, one of them is an outright astrologer! The jackass seriously thinks you can make diagnoses and prescriptions based on whether Mars is humping Venus or getting buggered by Jupiter while either Sagittarius or Pisces is making a porno movie about it.”

    Erik burst into laughter. He was not fond of astrologers himself. As one of Gustav Adolf’s cousins, he had had close contact with many of Europe’s courts. True, he was the son of an illegitimate cousin, but the fact of his royal blood counted for a lot more in such high circles than the picayune matter of his mother’s bastardy. Europe’s courts were full of bastards, literally as well as figuratively.

    Those same royal courts were also full of credulous people, who gave their trust to the advice of astrologers and soothsayers. Not all of them were mere courtiers, either. To name just one instance the colonel was personally familiar with, the new king of Bohemia was positively addicted to astrology. This, despite the fact that in all other respects Wallenstein was an extremely shrewd and intelligent man.

    “Can you explain to me what’s wrong with my cousin?”

    Nichols grimaced. “He suffered a bad head injury in that battle at Lake Bledno, and there was some brain damage done as a result. Whether it’s permanent or not, we just don’t know yet. And if it is permanent — or some of it, at least — we don’t know how much and in what areas.”

    He shook his head. “Even back up-time, Colonel Hand, brain injuries were often mysterious.”

    “Can you be more specific?”

    “Yes, in at least one respect: whatever other damage may have been done, the emperor clearly suffered damage to his right temporal lobe.” Nichols reached up and touched his head just above his right ear; then, moved the finger back and forth an inch or so. “It’s located here.”

    “And this means…?”

    “The temporal lobes play a major role in the way our brains process language.” Nichols cocked his head slightly. “I take it you haven’t seen your cousin yet?”

    Hand shook his head. “No. I decided to stop off here on my way to Berlin. I was stationed in the Oberpfalz and Magdeburg was directly on my route.”

    He hesitated; then, added: “I would appreciate it if you would not mention this visit to anyone, Doctor Nichols. I, ah… Let us say that my assignment from the king — given to me before his injury, of course — is of a very confidential nature.”

    Nichols studied him for a moment. The Moor’s dark eyes seemed very shrewd, as Hand had feared they might be. He’d been hoping that Europe’s greatest medician would be a naïf in all other matters. No great hope, though, given what he knew of the doctor’s history.

    Suddenly, Nichols smiled. “Do I take it that when you meet Chancellor Oxenstierna you will be equally discreet, Colonel?”

    Erik stiffened. “Of course! It is well known among Sweden’s highest circles — it is certainly known to Axel — that I serve Gustav Adolf as his personal agent. My business is with the king, and the king alone.”

    That was true enough, as far as it went. But Hand was fairly certain that Nichols saw through the subterfuge involved. Hand was now operating entirely on his own, a fact which he would try to conceal by referring to his longstanding and close relationship to his cousin.



    But the doctor made no further reference to the matter. His smile vanished, and he continued with his medical assessment.

    “What you will discover when you come into your cousin’s presence is that he speaks — quite easily, in fact — but his speech makes no sense. It’s as if the mechanism which translates thoughts into words has been broken. The technical medical term for the condition is ‘aphasia.’ Beyond that…”

    He leaned back in the chair in his office. “He’s apparently still not recognizing anyone. The temporal lobes are involved in handling visual content, too. He’s apparently had no seizures yet, but he might have them in the future. And he’s apparently suffering from occasional onsets of blind fury.” Sourly, he added: “You’ll have to forgive my excessive use of the term ‘apparently.’ I’m no longer on the scene and the few reports I’ve gotten since I left are skimpy at best.”

    “Will he recover?”

    “He might, yes. But there’s no way to know yet, Colonel—nor, even if he does recover, do we know how long it might take.”

    “Your best estimate, please.”

    Nichols shrugged. “Assuming he recovers at all, and given that it’s now been several weeks since the injury, I don’t see much chance of any major improvement until a few months have gone by. I could easily be proven wrong, you understand.”

    “Could it take years?”

    “Possibly. But…” Nichols made a little face. “Look, here’s how it is with brain traumas. Strokes, too. There are some outliers, true enough. There have even been a few cases where people recovered after almost twenty years in a coma. But the general rule of thumb is that once what you might call the normal recovery period has passed, the odds that the patient will recover start dropping pretty quickly. So my gut feeling is that if Gustav Adolf doesn’t recover — mostly, anyway — within a year, then he’s not going to recover at all.”

    Hand nodded. “Thank you. That’s quite helpful, I think.”



    Now that he was on the scene in Berlin, Hand could see that the doctor’s assessment had been quite helpful. It gave him what he most needed as a guide to action: a time frame.

    Six months, Hand decided. That would be his framework.

    Chancellor Oxenstierna had escorted the colonel into the room in the former Elector’s palace where Gustav Adolf was kept. He’d been silent since, allowing the king’s cousin to interact as best he could without distraction.

    Now, finally, he spoke. “As you can see, Erik, he does not have his wits about him any longer.”

    Hand thought it would be better to say that the king’s wits were wandering somewhere inside his brain, trying to find a way out. But under the circumstances, the less he said to Oxenstierna, the better.

    So he simply uttered a noncommittal sound. A hum, you might call it.

    Oxenstierna turned to face him. “Will your current assignment…?”

    Hand raised his hand a few inches. “Please, Axel. Despite my cousin’s current condition, I feel obliged to maintain his confidentiality.”

    “Yes, of course.”

    Hand hesitated for a moment, to give the chancellor the impression that he was thinking through the complexities involved in his current assignment, whatever that assignment might be.

    “I will be traveling quite a bit over the next few months, Axel. I can say that much, I think.”

    “I see. Can you give me any indication as to where?”

    The colonel shrugged. “Hard to know. Here. Magdeburg. Grantville, perhaps. Possibly Bohemia. Poland… not likely, I think.”

    The chancellor seemed on the verge of saying something — a protest, probably, by the expression on his face — but after a few seconds satisfied himself with an equally non-committal grunt.

    He then gave Hand a polite little bow. More in the way of an exaggerated nod, really. “And now I’m afraid I must be off. Urgent affairs of the realm, as you can imagine.”

    Hand returned the not-quite-a-bow. That was slightly rude, on his part. King’s cousin or not, Oxenstierna still ranked him in Sweden’s hierarchy. But Hand couldn’t afford to give any impression, especially to Oxenstierna, that he was in the least bit intimidated by Gustav Adolf’s predicament.

    After the chancellor left, Hand glanced at the one other person in the room. That was Gustav Adolf’s personal bodyguard Erling Ljungberg, who was perched on a stool in a corner.

    Ljungberg was new to the assignment. Silently, Erik cursed the fates on that evil battlefield that had not only stuck down the king but slain his bodyguard as well. That had been Anders Jönsson, a man whom Hand had known very well indeed. Had Anders still been alive…

    But, he wasn’t. And Erik simply didn’t know Ljungberg well enough yet — he’d correct that as soon as possible, of course — to speak freely to him.

    He was moving in perilous waters now, which the ancient Roman poet Ovid had described very well indeed. If treason prospers, none dare call it treason.

    So, he did no more than give Ljungberg the same not-quite-a-bow, and then left the room. As he was passing through the door, he heard Gustav Adolf call out behind him.

    “Weather not a wagon! Be drunken blue! Can empty trolls whisper crow?”

    A protest? A question?

    Probably both, Erik thought. What else would be coming from a king trapped in the chaos of his own mind, while those in power around him plotted treason?

    For treason, it surely was. Hand was certain he knew what Oxenstierna and his cohorts were planning — and it was no accident that none of them would have dared propose those same plans to their sovereign while he still had his senses.

    Six months. By then, one of them would be publicly given the label of traitor.

    That might very well be Erik Haakansson Hand himself, of course, but he’d always enjoyed a challenge. No assignment his cousin had ever given him was as challenging as the one that he hadn’t because he could no longer speak.

    Six months, then.

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