1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 29
Prague railroad station
Colonel Jeff Higgins finished his scrutiny of the train drawn up to the new station the king of Bohemia had had built in his capital. Wallenstein had situated it in that part of the city that would have someday in another universe been called “Wenceslas Square.” In this universe, it had been named Wallenstein Square–which Jeff thought was a little ridiculous since there was no square there yet.
The section of Prague where the train station was located did exist by this time. It was called Nové Město–New Town–and had been established by Charles IV almost three centuries earlier. Protected by a fortified wall, New Town had grown rapidly, partly because the king decreed that all noisome trades had to be located there. The banks of the Vltava River in the area were soon lined with structures suitable for tanners, dyers, fishermen, carpenters and woodworkers of all sorts, brickmakers–you name it and if it was practical and/or loud and smelly, it would be in New Town.
The area that was now Wallenstein Square had been known as the Horse Market, and was still used for that purpose. The only large building yet constructed was the train station at the southeast end of the square, abutting the Horse Gate which led out of the city.
The train station was called–what else?–Wallenstein Station. Jeff was a little puzzled that Wallenstein kept naming things using his original cognomen, when he now had much more prestigious ones he could use, such as Venceslas V Adalbertus. But he was pretty sure Prince Ulrik’s analysis was correct: “Wallenstein has read the famous-in-another-world poet Schiller’s play about him, which Schiller titled Wallenstein. He probably thinks the name is some sort of lucky charm. He’s very superstitious, you know.”
As the years passed since the Ring of Fire, Jeff was finding that “other universe” to be increasingly fantastical. He still had moments when he deeply missed his parents, but not many of them anymore. He had a wife and family of his own now. Perhaps most important of all, he had a life–and not one he could ever have had in the world of his origin.
As for the lucky charm business…
“Good luck with that,” Jeff muttered. Ulrik was standing close enough to him to overhear and cocked his eye quizzically.
“I was just thinking that Wallenstein’s looking pretty bad these days.” Jeff and the prince had had an audience with Bohemia’s ruler the day before, right after they arrived in Prague city. Most of the Hangman Regiment was camped outside the city, of course, since no ruler in this century–well, any century–wanted a lot of foreign troops stationed in his capital.
Wallenstein had been quite cordial and pleasant. But only Jeff and Ulrik had been allowed to see him, since he was now more-or-less permanently confined to his bed. He’d looked…
Awful. At death’s door, as the saying went.
“I don’t think he has much longer to live,” said Ulrik, nodding his agreement.
“And then what’ll happen?”
The prince shrugged. “Nothing too dramatic, unless I’m greatly misreading the situation.”
“And your reading is… what?” Jeff was genuinely interested. Over the past few weeks in Ulrik’s company, he’d come to have a lot of respect for the Danish prince’s political acumen. That boded well for Ulrik’s ability to absorb military lessons in the future.
“The key is that Pappenheim seems to have no political ambitions of his own and he seems genuinely attached to Wallenstein. Without Pappenheim leading or at least lending his support to a coup attempt, I see no way it could succeed.”
Jeff grunted. “Yeah, no kidding.” Pappenheim was the commander of Bohemia’s army and was utterly ferocious in battle. He was universally considered one of the premier generals of the day.
“So I think a regency would be–will be–set up, given that the king’s son is still a small child. Queen Isabella Katharina will be the official regent, but the power will actually be wielded by a privy council. Say this much for Wallenstein, he’s a good judge of talent and has picked capable subordinates and advisers.”
“None of whom are going to be stupid enough or rash enough to piss off Pappenheim. He’d be part of the council but mostly there as the queen’s watchdog.”
“Precisely so.” Ulrik gave the train another quick examination–which really didn’t take long given its modest dimensions.
“What’s your conclusion, Colonel?” he asked. Whenever their discussion ventured onto military issues–which Ulrik defined quite expansively–he was punctilious about getting Jeff’s advice.
“Forget it,” said Jeff. “It sounded like a great idea in the abstract, but now that we’ve been able to see the actual reality…”
He gave the train a look that wasn’t quite disgusted but was certainly wading into those waters. “There is no way this rinky-dink barely more than a Lionel toy train is going to move an entire regiment with all of its horses, weapons, ammunition and equipment from here to Breslau without taking weeks and weeks to do it. One little shuttle at a time, carrying a relative handful of soldiers”–he eyed the locomotive–“and doing it none too swiftly.”
The locomotive was newly-built, but to Jeff it already looked like an antique, something that belonged in a museum.
“Assuming it didn’t break down–and I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that–it’d still take longer than the tried and true old-fashioned method. What’s called ‘marching’.”
Ulrik smiled. “I suspect the men would give me a different opinion.”
“Sure. Lazy buggers. That’s why officers were invented.”
Ulrik stroked his beard. Like his father and Gustav Adolf, he favored a Van Dyke, but he kept his cut shorter than usual. Quite a bit shorter than Jeff’s own, for that matter.
“There’s no reason you couldn’t take the train, though, Colonel,” he said, “along with a bodyguard detachment. I’m sure I can manage overseeing the regiment while it’s just marching through friendly territory. I wouldn’t really have to do much, since you have such good officers.”
Ulrik left off the beard-stroking and swept his finger down the length of the train. “There’s room for at least thirty men and their horses and equipment.”
Jeff frowned. “What would be the advantage of my going ahead?”
Ulrik smiled again. “Aren’t you the one who keeps stressing to me the importance of having your soldiers end a long and tiring march with good quarters?”
“Well, yeah. Troops get cranky when they finish plodding along carrying a third of their body weight in backpacks and discover they’re supposed to sleep in a hole in the ground or a tent made of scraps and held up by a couple of twigs.” He stroked his own beard. “It’s true that if I got to Breslau a week or so before the regiment did that I could probably wrangle us some decent quarters.”
Ulrik’s smile widened. “Especially since you’d be wrangling with your own wife. Whom you’d be seeing earlier than either of you expected.”
The beard-stroking got more vigorous. “Yeah, there’s that too.”
Jeff left the next morning, with one of the regiment’s platoons. The train didn’t take them the whole way, since the line ended at Ostrava, which was becoming a major coal and steel center for the kingdom. In terms of pure distance, they hadn’t actually gained much since they’d traveled east instead of northeast. But the train got them across the Sudetes Mountains and put them on the Amber Road. That ancient trade route would take them straight to Breslau. Men on horseback could handle it easily.
Jeff still wasn’t all that impressed with the train. But it had done its job well enough–and he would allow that it had a dandy whistle.
The Amber Road had a reputation for being plagued by highwaymen, but Jeff wasn’t concerned about that. In fact, he was hoping some robbers would be foolish enough to attack them. The Hangman Regiment had just recently been equipped with the USE army’s new rifle, the Hockenjoss & Klott Model C, shortened to H&KC, but which the troops themselves were starting to call the Hocklott. It was a .406 caliber breech-loading bolt action rifle and had been modeled on the Chassepot rifle which the French used to great effect in the Franco-Prussian War. (Which explained the “C” in “Model C.”)
It was probably the most advanced rifle anywhere in Europe for the moment, but it had never been used in action. Not by the Hangman Regiment, at any rate.
“C’mon, brutal bloodthirsty robbers,” Jeff would mutter from time to time. “Do your thing.”
But if the train hadn’t failed him, the highwaymen of the Amber Road certainly did. They never made an appearance.
One of his soldiers did shoot a bear which he claimed was looking at him in a threatening manner. Jeff was dubious of the claim but didn’t make an issue about it. In the seventeenth century the concept of “endangered species” was about as familiar to the average person as “quantum mechanics.” And bears wouldn’t qualify anyway. In the year 1636, the critters were as thick as thieves. Thicker, actually, judging from appearances.
The Hocklott did a fine job on the bear, though. That was a good sign.