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The Wallenstein Gambit: Chapter One

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 28, 2003 02:59 EST



The Bohemian Opening

    March, 1633

    "So what's this all about, Mike?" asked Morris Roth, after Mike Stearns closed the door behind him. "And why did you ask me to meet you in Edith's home?"

    Grantville's jeweler looked around the small living room curiously. That was the part of Mike's request that Morris had found most puzzling. By the early spring of 1633, Stearns was usually so busy with political affairs that people came to see him in his office downtown.

    As soon as he spotted the young man sitting in an armchair in the corner, Morris' curiosity spiked—and, for the first time, a trace of apprehension came into his interest. He didn't know the name of the young man, but he recognized him even though he wasn't in uniform.

    He was a German mercenary, captured in the short-lived battle outside Jena the year before, who'd since enrolled in the army of the United States. More to the point, Morris knew that he was part of Captain Harry Lefferts' unit—which, in reality if not in official parlance, amounted to Mike Stearns' combination of special security unit and commandos.

    "Patience, patience," said Mike, smiling thinly. "I'd apologize for the somewhat peculiar circumstances, but as you'll see for yourself in a moment we have a special security problem to deal with." He glanced at the man sitting in the armchair. "I think the best way to make everything clear is just to introduce you to someone. Follow me."

    Stearns turned and headed for the hallway, Morris trailing behind. Edith Wild's house wasn't a big one, so it only took a few steps before he came to a closed door. "We're keeping him in here, while he recovers from his latest round of surgery. Edith volunteered to serve as his live-in nurse."

    Morris restrained his grimace. Edith Wild was capable enough as a nurse, so long as it didn't involve any real medical experience. Like many of Grantville's nurses since the Ring of Fire, she'd had no background in medical work. She'd been employed in a glass factory in Clarksburg.

    Her main qualification for her new line of work, so far as Morris could tell, was that she was a very big woman, massive as well as tall, and had much the same temperament as the infamous nurse in a movie he'd once seen, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Not the sadism, true. But the woman was a ferocious bully. She was normally engaged in enforcing Grantville's public health laws, a job which required a firm hand given the huge influx of immigrants who had a 17th century conception of sanitation and prophylaxis.

    A "firm hand," Edith Wild certainly had. Morris had, more than once, heard Germans refer to her as "the Tatar." When they weren't calling her something downright obscene.

    And who is "he"? Morris wondered. But he said nothing, since Mike was already opening the door and ushering him into the bedroom beyond.

    It was a room to fit the house. Small, sparsely furnished, and just as spick-and-span clean as everything else. But Morris Roth gave the room itself no more than a cursory glance. Despite the bandages covering much of the lower face, he recognized the man lying in the bed within two seconds.

    That was odd, since he'd never actually met him. But, perhaps not so odd as all that. Like many residents of Grantville, Morris had a poster up in his jewelry store which portrayed the man's likeness. True, in the form of a painting rather than a photograph. But he could now see that it was quite a good likeness.

    He groped for words and couldn't find any. They'd have been swear words, and Morris avoided profanity. The poster in his shop was titled: Wanted, Dead or Alive.

    The man was studying him with dark eyes. Despite the obvious pain the man was feeling, his expression was one of keen interest.

    Abruptly, the man raised a hand and motioned for Morris to approach him.

    "Go ahead," said Mike, chuckling harshly. "He doesn't bite, I promise. He couldn't anyway, even if he wanted to. His jaw's wired shut."

    Reluctantly, much as he'd move toward a viper, Morris came over to the side of the bed. There was a tablet lying on the covers—one of the now-rare modern legal tablets—along with a ball-point pen.

    The man in the bed took the pen in hand and, shakily, scratched out a message. Then, held it up for Morris to see.

    The words were written in English. Morris hadn't known the man in the bed knew the language. He wasn't surprised, really. Whatever other crimes and faults had ever been ascribed to that man, lack of intelligence had never been one of them.

    But Morris didn't give any of that much thought. His attention was entirely riveted on the message itself.






    For a moment, it seemed to Morris Roth as if time stood still. He felt light-headed, as if everything was unreal. Since the Ring of Fire, and Morris came to understand that he was really stranded in the 17th century, in the early 1630s, not more than a week had ever gone by without his thoughts turning to the Chmielnicki Massacre of 1648. And wondering if there was something—anything—he could do to prevent it. He'd raised the matter with Mike himself, several times before. Only to be told, not to his surprise, that Mike couldn't think of any way a small town of Americans fighting for its own survival in war-torn Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War could possibly do anything to stop a coming mass pogrom in the Ukraine.

    "How?" he croaked.

    Again, the man scrawled; and held up the tablet.






    Morris looked at Stearns. Mike had come close and seen the message himself. Now, he motioned toward the door. "Like he says, it's complicated. Let's talk about it in the living room, Morris. After the extensive surgery done on him, the man needs his rest."

    Morris followed Mike out of the bedroom, not looking back. He said nothing until they reached the living room. Then, almost choking out the words, could only exclaim:


    Mike shrugged, smiling wryly, and gestured at the couch. He perched himself on an ottoman near the armchair where the soldier was sitting. "Have a seat, Morris. We've got a lot to discuss. But I'll grant you, it's more than a bit like having a devil come and offer you salvation."

    After Morris was seated, he manage a chuckle himself.

    "Make sure you use a long spoon."

    Seeing the expression on Mike's face, Morris groaned. "Don't tell me!"

    "Yup. I plan to use a whole set of very long-handled tableware, dealing with that man. And, yup, I've got you in mind for the spoon. The ladle, actually."

    "He wants money, I assume." Morris scowled. "I have to tell you that I get awfully tired of the assumption that all Jews are rich. If this new venture of ours takes off, I might be. Faceted jewelry is unheard-of in this day and age, and we should get a king's ransom for them. But right now... Mike, I don't have a lot of cash lying around. Most of my money is invested in the business."

    Mike's smile grew more lopsided still. "Wallenstein's no piker, like the rest of them. He wants a lot more than your money, Morris. He doesn't want the gold from the goose, he wants the goose himself."

    Morris raised a questioning eyebrow.

    "Figure it out. Your new jewel-cutting business looks to make a fortune, right? So where's that fortune going to pour into? Grantville—or Prague?"

    Morris groaned again. "Mike, I'm over fifty years old! So's Judith. We're too old to be relocating to—to— A city that doesn't have modern plumbing," he finished, sounding a bit lame even to himself.

    Stearns said nothing, for a moment. Then, harshly and abruptly: "You've asked me four times to think of a way to stop the coming massacres of Jews in the Ukraine. Probably the worst pogrom in Jewish history before the Holocaust, you told me. This is the best I can manage, Morris. I can't do it, but Wallenstein... maybe. But it's a hell of a gamble—and, frankly, one which has a lot more parameters than simply the Jewish problem in eastern Europe."

    Morris' mind was finally starting to work clearly again. "To put it mildly. Am I right in assuming that Wallenstein came here secretly to propose an alliance? He'll break from the Austrian Habsburgs and take Bohemia out of Ferdinand's empire?"

    Mike nodded. "That—and the best medical care in the world. Julie's bullets tore him up pretty good, Morris, and the man's health was none too good to begin with. The truth is, Doctor Nichols—he did most of the actual surgery—doesn't think Wallenstein's likely to live more than a few years."

    "A few years..." Morris mused. "Do you think—?"

    "Who knows, Morris? Immediately, the alliance is a God-send for us, as weird as it looks. I've discussed it with Gustav Adolf and he agrees. If Becky's mission to France can't get us a peace with Richelieu, we're looking to be at war again soon. A revolt in Bohemia—sure as hell with Wallenstein in charge—will at least take the Austrians out of the equation. As for the Ukraine..."

    He shrugged. "We've got fifteen years, theoretically—assuming the butterfly effect doesn't scramble so-called 'future history' the way it usually does."

    "It'll maybe scramble the timing," Morris said grimly, "but I doubt it'll do much to scramble what's coming. The Chmielnicki Massacre was centuries in the making, and the ingredients of it were pretty intractable."

    Mike nodded. Morris knew that after the first time he'd raised the subject with Mike, Stearns had done some research on it. He'd been helped, of course, by his Jewish wife and father-in-law. By now, Morris thought Mike probably knew more than he did about the situation of eastern European Jewry.

    "Intractable is putting it mildly. If it were just a matter of religious or ethnic prejudices and hatreds, it'd be bad enough. But there's a vicious class factor at work, too. Polish noblemen are the landlords over Ukrainian peasants—whom they gouge mercilessly—and they use the Jews as their rent collectors and tax farmers. So when the Ukrainian peasants finally revolted under Cossack leadership—will revolt, I should say—it's not too hard to figure out why they immediately targeted the Jews."

    Morris sighed. As much as he was naturally on the side of the Jews in the Ukraine, he knew enough about the situation not to think for a minute that there was any simple solution. In fact, he'd once gotten into a ferocious quarrel with one of the Abrabanel scions who, like a number of the young Jews who had gravitated into Grantville, had become something of a Jewish nationalist.

    Arm the Ukrainian Jews! the young man had proclaimed.

    "For what?" Morris had snarled in response. "So they can become even more ruthless rent collectors? You stupid idiot! Those Ukrainian peasants are people too, you know. You've got to find a solution that they'll accept also."

    He stared at the large bookcase against one of the walls, where Edith kept her beloved collection of Agatha Christie novels. For a moment, he had a wild and whimsical wish that the great detective Hercule Poirot would manifest himself in the room and provide them all with a neat and tidy answer.

    Neat and tidy... in the 17th century? Ha! We never managed "neat and tidy" even in our own world.

    "All right," he said abruptly. "As long as Judith agrees, I'll do it. I'll try to talk Jason Gotkin into coming with us, too, since he was studying to be a rabbi before the Ring of Fire."

    Having made the pronouncement, he was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy. "But—Mike—I don't..."

    "Relax, Morris," said Mike, smiling. "You won't be on your own. Just for starters, Uriel Abrabanel has agreed to move to Prague also."

    Morris felt an instant flood of relief. Rebecca's uncle was probably an even more accomplished spymaster and political intriguer than her father Balthazar. And if he was elderly, at least he didn't have Balthazar's heart problems. So far as anyone knew, anyway.

    "Take those young firebrands around Dunash with you, also."

    Morris grimaced. Dunash Abrabanel was the young man he'd had the quarrel with. "I'm not sure they'll listen to me, Mike. Much less obey me."

    "Then let them stay here and rot," Mike said harshly. "If nothing else, Morris, I want to give those fellows something to do that'll keep them from haring off to the Holy Land in order to found the state of Israel. I do not need a war with the Ottoman Empire on top of everything else."

    Morris chuckled. "Mike, not even Dunash is crazy enough to do that. It's just a pipedream they talk about now and then, usually after they've had way too much to drink."

    "Maybe so. Then again, maybe not. They're frustrated, Morris, and I can't say I blame them for it. So let's give them something constructive to do. Let them go to Prague and see if they can convince Europe's largest Jewish community to throw its support behind Wallenstein."

    Morris was already thinking ahead. "That won't be easy. The Jews in Prague are Ashkenazim and they're Sephardic. Not to mention that Prague's Jewry is orthodox, which they really aren't—well, they are, but they often follow different—and... Oh, boy," he ended lamely.

    "I didn't say it would be easy, Morris."

    "Dunash will insist on arming the Jews."

    Mike shrugged. "So? I'm in favor of that anyway. As long as those guns aren't being used to help Polish noblemen gouge their peasants, I'm all for the Jewish population being armed to the teeth."

    "Will Wallenstein agree to that? As it stands, Bohemian laws—like the laws of most European countries—forbids Jews from carrying weapons."

    Mike jerked at thumb at the bedroom door. "Why ask me? The man's right in there, Morris. Negotiate with him."

    After a moment's hesitation, Morris squared his shoulders and marched into the bedroom.



    When he came back out, a few minutes later, he had a bemused expression on his face.


    Mutely, Morris showed Mike a sheet of paper from Wallenstein's legal pad. When Mike looked down at it, he saw Wallenstein's shaky scrawl.





    "He's not the nicest guy in the world," Morris observed. He folded up the sheet and tucked it into his short pocket. "On the other hand..."

    Mike finished the thought for him. "He's ambitious as Satan and, whatever else, one of the most capable men in the world. Plus, he doesn't seem to share most of this century's religious bigotry. That doesn't mean he won't burn down the ghetto. He will, Morris, in a heartbeat. But he won't do it because you're Jews. He'll do it because you failed him."



    Judith agreed more quickly than Morris would have thought. Indeed, his wife began packing the next morning. But the first thing she put in the trunk was the biggest ladle they had in the kitchen.

    "We'll need it," she predicted.



    "It looks a little weird without the statues," mused Len Tanner, adjusting his horn-rim glasses. He leaned over the stone railing of the Charles Bridge and looked first one way, then the other. The bridge was the main span across the Vltava river, and connected the two halves of the city of Prague. It had been built almost two centuries earlier, in the 14th century—though not finished until the early 15th, moving as slowly as medieval construction usually did—and had been named after the Holy Roman Emperor who commanded its erection. The Karlüv most, to use the proper Czech term, although Tanner said they hadn't given it that name until sometime in the 19th century. In this day and age, it was still just called the Stone Bridge.

    Watching Tanner, Ellie Anderson almost laughed. Something in the little twitches Len was making with his lips made it clear that he'd have been chewing on his huge mustache, if he still had one.

    But, he didn't—and wouldn't, as long as Ellie had anything to say about it. However many of Len Tanner's quirks and foibles she'd grown accustomed to and decided she could live with, that damned walrus mustache was not one of them. She preferred her men clean-shaven and always had, a quirk of her own she suspected came from memories of a great bearded lout of a father. Dim memories. He'd been killed in a car wreck when she was only seven years old, caused by a drunk driver. Him. It was a one-car accident and the only other casualty had been the oak tree at the sharp bend in the road near their house.

    Fortunately, the oak tree had survived. Ellie's memories of the oak tree were a lot more extensive, and a lot fonder, than those of her father. Years later, she'd even built a treefort in it. The neighbors had been a little scandalized. Not so much by the implied disrespect for her father—truth be told, nobody in that little eastern Kentucky town had had much use for Dick Anderson—but because it was yet another display of the tomboy habits which had already made her the despair of the town's gentility.

    "Gentility" as they saw themselves, anyhow. Ellie had thought then—still did—that the term was ludicrous applied to seven matrons, not one of whom had more than a high school education and only two of whom had ever been anything more than housewives and professional busybodies.

    She wondered, for a moment, what had happened to any or all of them. She hadn't been back to her home town in ten years, since her mother died of cancer and her two brothers had made it clear they'd just as soon not be burdened with her company. Since the feeling was mutual, she'd simply come in for the funeral and left the same evening.

    And what do you care, anyway? she asked herself sarcastically. They're a whole universe away, so it's a little late to be thinking about it now.

    But she knew the answer. Hers had been a self-sufficient life, and she was not sorry for it. Still, it had often been a lonely one, too.

    It wasn't now, because of Len Tanner. Ten times more aggravating, often enough, but... not lonely.

    "Looks weird," he repeated.

    "Oh, for God's sake, Len! Doesn't it strike you as a little eccentric to call a city 'weird' because it doesn't have statues from three and half centuries later, in another universe, that only you remember because—far as I know—you're the only resident of Grantville weird enough to go to Prague on vacation?"

    The jibe, not to Ellie's surprise, simply made Tanner look smug.

    "Not my fault the rest of 'em are a bunch of hicks. 'Vacation,' ha! For most of 'em, that meant fishing somewhere within fifty miles or—oo, how daring—a trip to the big city called Pittsburgh." Again, his lips made that wish-there-was-a-mustache-here twitch. "Ha! I remember, back when Mike Stearns went to Los Angeles for three years. Everybody else in Grantville—'cept me—thought he'd gone to Mars or something. The only 'furrin country' most of those boys had ever been to was Vietnam. And that was hardly what you'd call a sight-seeing trip."

    It was one of the many odd little things about Len Tanner, Ellie reflected. To her surprise, she'd discovered that he was probably the most widely-traveled man she'd ever known. Tourism was one of the man's passions. His main passion, probably, leaving aside that grotesque mustache. For his entire adult life, every vacation he'd gotten—and he'd always been willing to work extra hours to pile up vacation time—Tanner had gone somewhere outside the old United States. Some of them pretty exotic places, like China and—

    Ellie chuckled. One of Tanner's little brags was that he was the only American veteran in Grantville who'd made it all the way to Hanoi. True, he was a veteran of the Grenadan conquest, which the Vietnam vets in town didn't consider a "real war." Still, they didn't begrudge him the boast. They even chuckled at it, themselves, partly because most people who got to know him tended to like Len Tanner, and partly because...

    He was a lonely man, and, what was worse, a man who was uncomfortable in his loneliness. So, for years, his friends and drinking buddies had indulged his little oddities.

    Loneliness had been at the heart of his compulsive traveling, Ellie suspected. Tanner had adopted tourism as a hobby, the way other lonely people adopt other things. And if it was a more expensive hobby than most, it had at least made Tanner less parochial-minded than most people of Ellie's acquaintance. He actually had seen the "big wide world," even if his ingrained awkwardness with learning foreign languages always kept him at a certain distance from the people whose countries he'd visited.

    Now, Tanner was staring up at the Hradcany. The hill upon which Prague Castle was perched overlooked the entire city. It wasn't much of hill, really, but it hardly mattered. The Pražský hrad—to use the Czech term for "Prague Castle"—seemed to dominate everything. It was an ancient edifice, begun in the ninth century AD by the rulers of the Slavic tribes who had migrated into the area a century or two earlier, and added to in bits and pieces as the centuries passed. But, always, whether the rulers of the area that eventually became known as Bohemia were Slavic princes or German Holy Roman Emperors, the seat of power was in Prague Castle.

    "At least that's still pretty much the same," Tanner said. "Except for that stupid, boring façade they added in the 18th century. Good riddance—or riddance-never-come, I guess I should say." He exuded an air of satisfaction, studying the hill. "Even when I visited it, though, that gorgeous cathedral was the centerpiece. Now, even more so."

    Ellie wouldn't have used the term "gorgeous" to describe Saint Vitus Cathedral, herself. As far as she was concerned, the immense Gothic structure which loomed over the entire Hradcany belonged where everything Gothic belonged—in a romance novel, preferably featuring sexy vampires.

    Womanfully, though, she restrained herself from calling it "ugly and grotesque." One of Tanner's many little quirks was that he invariably defended—ferociously—each and every architectural or artistic endeavor of the Roman Catholic Church. That was to make up, she'd once accused him, for the fact that he was never found in church more than once a year.

    I ain't a "lapsed Catholic"! he'd responded hotly, at the time. Just, y'know, not around as much as maybe I oughta to be.

    Well, that's one way to put it, Ellie had retorted. Is that why Father Mazzare greets you with "howdy, stranger?"

    Remembering that minor fight, she smiled a little. She and Tanner bickered a lot, but, truth be told, he really was a hard man to dislike. Once you got to know him, at least. Most of his vices and character flaws he wore on his sleeve. What lay underneath—assuming you could cut your way through that damn crust—was... really pretty nice and warm.

    At least, Ellie Anderson thought so. More and more, in fact, as time went on.

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