1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 34
There comes the dark dragon flying,
In his wings he carries corpses
“The Seeress’s Prophecy,” The Poetic Edda
Capital of Lower Silesia
Gretchen stared out the window of the town hall at the market square below. She’d been drawn to the window by the sounds of a large group of horsemen. She was puzzled since, so far as she knew, Lovrenc Bravnicar and his Slovene cavalrymen were still out on patrol and weren’t expected to return for several more days.
Her eyes were drawn to the stone pillory to the southeast, where people convicted of crimes were subjected to public flogging. Probably because she was tempted to order the commander of the troops below, who was just now dismounting, to be dragged over there and whipped for–for–
However many times a Lady Protector could have her own husband flogged. There might not be any limit at all. The legal authority of a Lady Protector was… vast.
Accompanied by a wordless squawk made up of equal parts glee, anticipation and fury, Gretchen raced out of her headquarters office. Within seconds she was pounding down the stairs, two steps at a time. Some part of the brain reveled in the fact that she could do so again. She’d given birth to her new son recently.
She reached the entrance just as Jeff came through. He was a big man, but she almost knocked him over from the force of her embrace.
“Why didn’t you–” She broke off for a kiss. A long and fierce one.
“–tell me you were coming this soon?”
Jeff was trying to breathe. The impact of Gretchen’s hurtling form had knocked the air out of him, and she’d been hugging him too tightly for his lungs to work properly. Not that he was inclined to complain.
“Op–ratio–nal. Curity,” he managed to get out.
“Security!” she scoffed. “Who would be listening to a radio message?”
She knew the question was stupid the minute she asked it.
“Poles, for sure,” came the answer. “By now, probably the Turks too. Those people are no slouches.”
Still holding her in his arms, he looked around the square. “I only brought this detachment with me. But within a week–two, at the outside–Ulrik will be here with the rest of the regiment. All told, a little under twelve hundred men. And around four hundred horses.”
She smiled. “You rode all the way, I take it. Have you finally made peace with the creatures?”
“Horses are brutes. Always will be. I don’t trust them any farther than I can throw them.” He heaved his shoulders in what would have been a shrug if he weren’t still holding her tightly. “But it beat the alternative, which would have been to walk the whole way from Ostrava.”
Finally, their mutual clasp relaxed a little and she pulled away from him. An inch or so. “Ostrava? Why take that route? I would have thought you’d go through Saxony.”
“Most of the army will. But Wallenstein finished the train route from Prague to Ostrava–just three weeks before we got there. I wanted to get here ahead–well, Ulrik talked me into it–so I could get billets ready for the troops.”
He looked around again. “Have you got room for them in Breslau? If need be, they can camp outside the city, but I’d rather have them in better quarters.”
“Yes, of course. It might be a hard winter.”
She could feel Jeff tense up a bit. Anyone other than she wouldn’t have noticed it, but she knew her husband very well by now. They’d been together more than five years.
“What is it?” she asked. Not what is wrong? because she could tell the difference between Jeff being concerned by something and being worried about it. He was a thoughtful man, but not one much given to anxiety.
He didn’t answer immediately. Just pursed his lips.
“If you tell me again that operational security is involved…” Gretchen pulled back her head and jerked it in the direction of the pillory. “I have immense and arbitrary powers here, you know.”
Jeff grinned. “Hell hath no fury like a Lady Protector told she doesn’t have a need to know.”
Finally, he broke off their clasp and took her by the arm, heading toward the entrance of the town hall. “It’s a secret but you have to be in on it anyway. Let’s wait till later, though. Right now, I want to see Larry. He’s okay, right?”
Gretchen shook her head. “Up-timers! The way you worry about babies is ridiculous. We down-timers don’t, even though we have–had–much more reason to be.”
That wasn’t really fair on her part, and she knew it. When it came to children, Gretchen had the fatalism of people born in an era of fifty percent child mortality. Her brother Hans had survived until adulthood, before being killed in combat. And her sister Annalise was alive and well. But by the time she was fourteen, Gretchen had seen a younger sister die at the age of four and a baby brother who’d never made it through his first year of life.
As a mother herself, though, she had never had to live through the experience of watching one of her children die. The death rate for small children has started dropping as soon as American medicine and–even more importantly–sanitation practices had started taking hold. Her first child had been only one year old when she and her family were taken in by the newly arrived Americans of Grantville. Since then, she and her children had been shielded by the medical knowledge of the up-timers.
“I told you he was well,” she said a few minutes later, watching Jeff cradle his son. Lawrence Higgins, he was, but they’d call him “Larry.” They’d named him after Jeff’s best friend Larry Wild, who’d been killed in the Battle of Wismar three years earlier.
“I didn’t doubt you, love,” Jeff said softly. “For my money, you’re the best mother in the world.”
He looked around Gretchen’s quarters–his quarters too, now, at least until the regiment had to move out. The quarters were…
“Who used to live here?”
“Nobody, exactly,” was her reply. “The town’s notables used it as a place to put up visiting dignitaries. There weren’t many, of course, and they usually didn’t stay long. If they were Polish or Lithuanian, they’d want to stay in Krakow, not here.”
That explained the fancy four-poster bed and even fancier armoire and the really fancy free-standing copper bathtub in one of the corners–and the absence of anything else except Larry’s crib, which was obviously a later addition and much more cheaply made.
He grimaced. “There’s no way I’m going to fit in that bathtub. I’m surprised you can.”
She shook her head. “I’ve never tried. Leaving aside whether I’d fit or not–and I certainly wouldn’t fit comfortably–it would be too much work to haul hot water up from the kitchens on the ground floor.” She nodded down at Larry. “I use it for him, not myself. I just use one of the showers I had built in a room next to the kitchens.”
Jeff set Larry down in his crib. “We can have a bookcase made for you,” said Gretchen. “I’m always amazed at how many books you insist on traveling with.”
Jeff chuckled. Gretchen was a printer’s daughter, so she was not only literate but well-read, at least by the standards of her time. But Jeff was an up-time geek who’d been devouring books since he first learned to read. There was just no comparison between the way each of them looked at the necessity of bringing books along when you traveled.
For Gretchen that meant one or two books. None at all, if she wasn’t going to be gone long. Jeff measured his necessary reading material when he left home in terms of chests and crates.
“There’s no point,” he said. “I won’t be staying that long.”
She frowned. “Why not? Surely you’re not planning to march your regiment about in the countryside in midwinter.”
“No, of course not. But that brings us to the Secret Plan.”
She could practically hear the capital letters. She took a deep breath, but suppressed the sigh that would normally have followed. “Let me hear it, then.”
By the time he finished, Gretchen was at the window, staring down into the market square below.
“You can’t possibly hold Krakow with just the Hangman Regiment,” she said. “I’m not sure you could take the city in the first place, even as poorly guarded as it is now. By the accounts we’ve collected, at any rate. The garrison is not big, and its soldiers are hardly what you’d call an elite unit. Still, it’s a fortified city and by the time you could get there at the earliest….”