Back | Next

Chapter 3

Ruy’s alacrity never failed to startle Mazzare, though he had seen it in action several times. Before the American priest could have even formed the thoughts necessary to give orders, the hidalgo was shouting abbreviated commands, racing forward. The Wild Geese suddenly became an outer security cordon, with several of its senior members trying to reign in the Burgundians.

But if the militia or regular soldiers had heard Ruy—or Owen Roe O’Neill, whose long-legged sprint carried him toward the unresponsive sergeant of the Burgundians—they gave no sign of it. They closed in on the strange group that had emerged from the line and seemed to be striving to reach Bedmar.

“Damn it,” Sharon hissed. She turned toward the young Hibernian who both carried a portable radio, and was detailed as her assistant. “Are your snipers ready?”

“Ready, ma’am,” he said, glancing up at the various vantage points where the elite troops were already sighting along the barrels of their large-bore Winchesters down toward the ragged pack that was approaching Bedmar.

However, to get to Bedmar, the unruly ragtag group had to brush alongside the Russian horsemen. Who, seeing the trajectory of these unlikely threats, drew weapons and, with admirable swiftness, reformed so that three of their number were countercharging while the remainder closed ranks around their glittering patriarch, faces and blades affirming a fell readiness to take on the entirety of Besançon.

Bedmar’s own group had halted. In the next instant, the veiled sedan chairs each emitted a ready warrior in a most nonclerical rush of plate-armored limbs and readied swords. Which meant one of three things: that Bedmar was not traveling with his entourage, that he was disguised as one of its lesser members, or that he was one of the redoubtable combatants now positioning themselves behind the charging Russian horsemen.

Larry Mazzare had proven his mettle and resourcefulness defending Pope Urban in Italy, but the suddenness with which the open space before the toll-house was turning into a battlefield caught him so off-guard that all he could do was accept the certainty that a bloodbath was imminent. Ruy, despite his speed and agility, was not going to be able to reach the point of contact in time, not before the Russians had charged headlong into the slowing, and possibly startled, group that had emerged from the line. He glanced over the stunned faces of tradesmen and fishmongers toward Owen Roe O’Neill.

Who turned, nodded at an adjutant, then pulled a weapon from where it was slung across his back: a Russian SKS. The adjutant raised what looked like a cumbersome trumpet and blew a shrill, sustained peal on the instrument.

The tatterdemalion detachment from the line halted; the Russians drew up their protesting horses; Bedmar’s troops looked over, uncertain what this clarion call might signify. And in the moment of silence that followed:

“Halt! Arrêt! Detener!” Ruy’s sword came out along with this high, clear shout, and if his French accent wasn’t much better than his German, it did not seem to impede anyone’s understanding of his command or the presumption of authority in his voice.

The drawn weapons lowered slightly, and if the faces of the various groups were still fierce and furrowed in wariness, the expressions were now more defensive than aggressive. The voice of the trumpet—a call to attention recognized by fighting men of every nation—had paused them, reflex keeping them momentarily poised and expectant for a signal to further action.

By the time the first of them were recalling that, because they recognized none of the local authorities, they had no reason to heed this foreign trumpet, Ruy had managed to work his way between the brooding Russian cavalry and the bewildered ragtag collection of what appeared to be commoners playing at soldier. Raising a hand to hold back the Russians, the hidalgo half raised his sword in the direction of the ragged group who were clutching their weapons. “What is the meaning of this display?” He scrutinized them; even at his greater distance, Larry could now discern that many of them were quite young.

Their apparent leader—a good looking young fellow with golden hair and a nose like a perfect right triangle—bowed. “If it please the captain, I am Ignaz von Meggen, the great-great-grandson of Yost von Meggen.” He said it with studied humility.

Ruy, who had been admirably prepared for every eventuality that had presented itself so far, suddenly seemed at a loss. “I see,” he said frowning.

Larry started moving forward, Sharon trailing a step behind him. Ruy was still struggling to find an adequate response. Clearly, the young man presumed that his family name would make his presence and intent clear. It was equally clear that he was coming to realize that this could not be further from the case.

More earnest than before, he attempted to provide greater clarity. “I refer to Jost von Meggen of Luzern.”

Larry spread his arms as he approached: a gesture someplace between a greeting and a blessing. “Young Herr von Meggen, I am not familiar with the families of the Swiss cantons. Perhaps you would be so kind as to acquaint me with the details of your own.”

Ignaz made another slight bow—both a polite response to the introduction and a signal of his intent to comply with the request—and then stopped, glancing more closely at Mazzare. “Your accent is peculiar, Father—er, pardon, Your Eminence. Might I ask where you call your home?”

Well, now was as good a time as ever. “Perhaps you have heard of the town of Grantville?”

Young von Meggen was suddenly very straight. “You are an up-timer.” Larry could see the deductive dominoes falling behind the young fellow’s eyes: he might be ingenuous, but he was not slow-witted. “You are the cardinal-protector of Thuringia-Franconia!” And he was on one knee with remarkable speed. His younger companions followed his lead promptly; the older ones in the rear seemed less enthusiastic doing so. “Your Eminence, I apologize for having had no means of identifying you from the outset.”

Larry stepped forward, took the young man by the shoulders, and raised him up. “Well, that makes us equal, then. So tell me of the family von Meggen of Luzern.”

Ignaz complied quickly. And loquaciously. However, although it was long in the telling, it also had the effect of boring, and thereby calming, the various armed men who had been ready to commit mayhem only scant minutes earlier.

“So,” Larry said, in an attempt to summarize, “your great-great-grandfather was the first Swiss commander of the Papal Guard after the Sack of Rome in 1527.”

Ignaz nodded; his hair bobbed and shone. Well back in the crowd, some young female voices murmured appreciatively. Whatever else you might say about Ignaz von Meggen, he was a good looking young man. Ignaz, oblivious to the signs of attention from the opposite sex, stared expectantly at Larry. “So, clearly, you know why we are here.”

Suddenly, Larry found himself in the same situation as had Ruy. He put on his best smile and shook his head.

Ignaz von Meggen’s face grew very pale, then very red. “Is it possible?” he said loudly, staring back at the crowd as if seeking their sympathy. “Can it be that the sacrifice of so many fine men is so quickly forgotten?” As his volume built, so did his passion; as surprise became bitter disappointment, a measure of anger crept in as well. The militia’s and Burgundians’ stances began a subtle shift back into combative readiness; just behind, Larry could hear the Russians shifting in their saddles, the horses moving restlessly in anticipation of renewed action. Mazzare swallowed, decided to risk stepping closer in an attempt to calm the charming young hothead…

A stooped, almost hunchbacked, figure stepped sideways out of the line. “If it please Your Eminence, Your Lordships, I think I can explain.”

Ruy’s sword came up slightly. “And who are you?”

“A fellow traveler with the lad and his companions.”

Larry stared at the man’s rough clothes; the mule-drawn cart and large, sleepy-eyed assistant he had been standing with; and his own unfortunate facial features. They might have been at least plain, once, but now they were dominated by a nose that resembled a squashed turnip and an uneven jaw that worked with a sideways motion and occasionally revealed an uneven row of mostly shattered teeth.

Ruy tone was dubious. “You are part of his company, then?”

“Sorry, no, my lord, I am not. I started out closer to Zug, heading to Zurich, then the Bozen pass to Basel and so to here. Same route the young freiherr was on, if’t please you.”

“I see,” Ruy muttered. “You mentioned an explanation?”

Young von Meggen’s chin came up with his obvious intent to try again, but he accepted a deferential stilling gesture from the turnip-nosed man. “Yes, lord. It’s a matter of the date, you see. May 6. Tomorrow.” Even he seemed a bit surprised when this did not kindle any discernible flickers of understanding in the eyes around him. “No doubt it’s more significant to us in the cantons—the Catholic ones, that is—than elsewhere. That’s the day that almost all of the first Pontifical Swiss Guards were slain defending Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome. Since then, it’s been the day that new members of the Guard are sworn in.”

Ruy did not manage to keep all the incredulity out of his voice. “And these…young men…intend to present themselves here, to Pope Urban, for that purpose? To take service with him?”

This time, Ignaz would not be stilled. “As did our fathers before us, sir! And having word that the Holy Father is here, and of the new massacre that befell our countrymen in his service last year, we felt it our duty—both to our families and our faith—to offer our swords and our blood to him and to Mother Church.”

Ruy swallowed, looked helplessly back at Larry, who managed not to shrug.

Turnip-Nose took a shuffling step closer. “My Lord, Your Eminence, a word, if I might.”

Ruy nodded, waved him forward with the hand that he had been using to hold the Russian cavalry motionless. A stern look kept the militia and Burgundians back…but Ruy pointedly did not glance at Larry’s two Wild Geese guards, who drifted slowly, unobtrusively, closer. “Be quick,” the Catalan murmured when the fellow had approached.

“Yes, lord. There’s more at work here than youthful impetuosity. Service to the pope runs long in some of our families, particularly the ones who’ve shed blood as pikemen. But the wealthiest families…well, they often secure a place in Rome at the expense of the lesser ones.”

Larry frowned. “How does that impact Ignaz? He indicated his family was one of the first to serve in the Papal Guard.”

The tradesman bobbed once. “Yes, Your Eminence. That is true. But it is also the last time they served. Other, more influential families shoved this lad’s aside. At least that’s how we heard it in the towns outside Luzerne itself.”

Mazzare crossed his hands. “And now, in the wake of the destruction of the Swiss Guard at the Castel St. Angelo last year, he hopes that the von Meggen family might once again have the opportunity to serve?”

“That’s the gist of it, sir. Don’t know much beyond what he shared over campfires on the trail, Your Eminence. Can’t say I know much about his family, either, except to say that none of it is bad. Can’t say the same for some of the others who’ve always had sons carrying halberds and wearing papal colors south of the Alps.”

Ruy looked narrowly at the crooked man. “And what is your interest in this, that you stand forward to take his part?” Mazzare almost started at the sudden accusation in Ruy’s tone.

So did the man. “My lord, I’m…I’m a father. I have idealistic sons. Fewer now than before, to speak plainly. And I’ve seen where their grand ideas and big mouths can land them, early graves being not uncommon ends. So why should I let some other man’s son share that fate, especially when the son’s father is no longer on this side of the grave to help?”

Ruy was clearly trying to maintain his hard exterior, but his voice belied a softening behind it. “He is the eldest male von Meggen remaining?”

The other looked down, scuffed in the dust. “I was not so bold as to ask it that directly, sir. But it seems so. Family’s fallen on hard times.” He looked up. “Most of the battles of the past ten years were south, in the Valtelline, but they sent us their share of hardship, too. If you take my meaning, my lord.”

Larry took a half step forward. “We take your meaning and appreciate your willingness to help a fellow traveler. Don’t we, Colonel Sanchez?”

Ruy nodded but peered more intently at the tradesman. “What is your business here in Besançon?”

The man hitched around, favoring what seemed to be a bad hip, gestured at his donkey cart and enormous assistant. “Nails and ironmongery, my lord.”

“You will no doubt welcome our inspection of your goods?”

The man looked stunned. “You are more than welcome, my lord.” He bowed out of the way, hastily gestured to his assistant, who fumbled uncertainly in response. “Apologies, sirs; Otto does not always understand what I ask him to do. With your leave, I shall have him open the casks so you may—”

Ruy shook his head sharply; Larry couldn’t be sure if he was annoyed at the turnip-nosed man or at himself. “No need. We thank you for your assistance.” He motioned Ignaz closer. “Young Freiherr von Meggen, you are fortunate in the acquaintances you have made along the road, for without this one’s intercession, your actions might have led you to a bad end.”

Ignaz nodded. “My regrets, sir. I was overcome by my ardor and eagerness to serve my pope.”

Ruy’s left eyebrow raised slightly. “I do not see why that would inspire you to suddenly fly in pursuit of the sedan chairs.” He gestured behind at Bedmar’s entourage.

Von Meggen nodded in the same direction. “I saw that, sir.”

Ruy and Mazzare turned.

The rearmost of the papal sedan chairs, which had been left at the aerodrome for the express purpose of carrying Bedmar through the gates incognito, no longer had its concealing shroud firmly attached to the back. Instead, having slipped, it revealed the crossed keys symbol of the Holy See.

Ruy shared a rueful look with Mazzare, then turned back to Ignaz. “While your enthusiasm to serve your pope is laudable, Herr von Meggen, your impetuosity was nearly your undoing—yours and all your men. You must learn to temper your passions, if you are to become an officer worthy of the position to which you aspire.”

Ignaz almost came to attention. “Yes, sir.”

Ruy nodded, seemed to be trying to suppress a grin as he lifted his chin, spoke so all around him could hear. “And since you have now all been questioned, you may enter Besançon at your leave. Be warned: lodgings are sparse, now. Secure rooms swiftly.”

Ignaz pressed a half step closer. “But Colonel, Your Eminence, there is the matter of presenting ourselves to the Holy Father on the morrow, to swear obedience to his…”

Ruy held up his hand. “I have no authority in these matters, Herr von Meggen.” Then his eyes were suddenly lost in a crush of mischievous crow’s feet: “However, Cardinal Mazzare is one of His Holiness’ closest and most trusted counselors. Surely he will be able to offer you guidance in this matter.” The spry hidalgo moved off to shoo the shabby imitation Swiss Guards out of the line, while gesturing for two militiamen to help Turnip-nose and his sizable assistant Otto move their recalcitrant mule.

Larry stared after him, tamping down uncharitable thoughts that he was ultimately able to constrain to, Thanks a bunch, Ruy.

Ignaz actually had his hands clasped in some mixture of anxiousness and supplication. “We are entirely at your disposal, Your Eminence. We will happily wait upon the Pontiff’s pleasure—in the street, if necessary—so that we might—”

“No, no; that won’t be necessary.” Mazzare thought quickly. “Tomorrow morning, before first mass, come to the square just south of St. John’s cathedral. Your first test will be patience, as I have no idea what the first half of the day will hold, or even if the pope may see you and receive your oaths of service. In the months since the Second Sack of Rome, he has had to take on a new guard, and it may not be immediately convenient to take on more. However, the Holy Father holds his children of the Swiss Cantons particularly dear and would not wish to send you away without a better idea of how your love may best serve Mother Church. So present yourself on the morrow, as I have directed, and we shall proceed from there.”

Ignaz’s face had cycled through crestfallen frowns and almost trembling smiles of hope while Larry had spoken. He ended on the latter. “Yes, Your Eminence. Your words shall be our law.” With a swift nod, he bowed himself back and in the direction of his men.

Who were being impeded by a thin fringe of militia and Burgundians, backed by the sergeant of the regulars. Larry looked for Ruy: he had joined Sharon over by the Russians in an attempt to forge enough of a conversational link to explain the misunderstanding and calm them. A few gusty laughs from the horsemen told Mazzare that Ruy was succeeding in his soldier-to-soldier communicative efforts. Larry turned toward the militiamen. “Stand aside, my sons: these Swiss are our friends and devoted to the pope.”

The besontsin guards eyed them darkly. The Burgundian sergeant looked like he was ready to spit. If a cardinal hadn’t been standing in front of them, Larry had no doubt he would have. “You mean these Protestants?”

Larry felt a flash of anger ring his neck where his collar touched it. “These men have professed themselves as Catholics. But all you need to know is that these Swiss pikemen have been cleared to pass.”

One of the besontsins sneered. “More like Swiss pikeboys.”

Larry saw Ignaz von Meggen turn, red-faced, with his hand moving toward his sword.

A very loud, authoritative voice froze him in mid motion, startled the militia and Burgundians into something approaching attention: “Where did you get the gear?” It was Owen Roe O’Neill, who had just wound his way across the line of commoners, one of his men, Oliver Fitzgerald, in tow. He nodded at the sword that Ignaz had been about to draw.

The young Swiss sounded defiant and pained, all at once. “Our dead fathers and brothers.”

“And how did they die, again?”

“Most of them…defending the pope during the sack of Rome, last year.”

Owen Roe didn’t change the position of his head, but his eyes flicked over to stare at the Burgundians. “So you’d be eager to skewer the sons of men who fought and died for the pope?”

“They did it for coin, Colonel. Might have claimed a different faith to get it, too. Lots of those Alpine valleys are pretty poor.”

Before von Meggen could offer a retort, Owen shook his head. “Not what I heard about the mess in Rome, last year. And I heard it from one who was there, who saw the Pontifical Guard die, almost to a man.”

“Oh,” drawled the Burgundian sergeant, almost dismissively, “and who would that be?”

O’Neill’s eyes were untroubled, but started forward quickly. “You’ll be watching your tongue, lad. Or I’ll be having it out of your head.”

The sergeant looked away. When he spoke, his voice was no longer that of a man barely concealing contempt, but beating a hasty retreat to save what face he could. “I’d still know who saw this sacrifice of the Pontifical Guard.”

A familiar voice came from behind Larry. “Why, that would be my own undeserving self, Sergeant.” Ruy concluded on a smile, then glanced at O’Neill. They exchanged knowing looks.

And suddenly Mazzare understood: this too had been a contingency, had been a planned response to a possible discipline problem among the local troops. Which meant that O’Neill’s very loud voice had been a signal, that this countermove against insolence from the Burgundians and besontsins—neither of whom liked being outplaced (and obviously outclassed) by Sanchez’s and O’Neill’s men—was yet another contingency that they had put in place.

Ruy had fixed the Burgundian sergeant with an intent stare. “In my experience, coin alone does not buy loyalty unto oblivion. Honor, love, integrity: those are the virtues that compel men to serve unto their own death. They are also virtues that Our Savior extolled.”

Sharon had arrived to stand alongside her husband. She looked down the line, chin in the air. “I see we have some genuine Protestants back there. Famous ones, too.” She smiled and waved several modestly-dressed gentlemen forward. “Reverends, I’m sorry I didn’t see you waiting in the main line. I wonder: could we trouble you to shift over into the line for arriving dignitaries?”

Two middle-aged men did as Sharon asked, each followed by an assistant.

Mazzare saw their faces, started, leaned toward Sharon. “Are those—?”

“Not a word yet, Father,” Sharon whispered out of the side of her mouth. As the newly detached group came forward, she raised her voice so all could hear. “Reverends, I wonder if I could trouble you to share your names and credentials?”

“Certainly,” replied the older one. “I am Johann Gerhard, Senior Professor of Theology at Jena and not entirely unknown to Cardinal Mazzare, I think!”

He and Larry exchanged smiles.

“And my shy English friend here has less confidence in his French, but he is—”

“—but he is quite capable of speaking for himself, Johann!” The younger man turned to Sharon, made a deep bow, and, in Oxbridge English, announced, “The Reverend John Dury, Ambassador Nichols. A disciple of Calvin. My credentials are—dubious, Madame.”

Larry smiled “A unifier of faiths is frequently an itinerant: hard to come by a title that way. But we know your work, Reverend, and are glad you consented to come.”

“So,” Sharon concluded, turning to the Burgundian sergeant with a smile that was anything but one of gladness. “Since you seem determined to ascertain the religion of the people who want to enter Besançon, here are a half dozen Lutherans and Calvinists who also happen to be our guests. Are you going to detain and question them?”

The Burgundian sergeant stammered but ultimately fell quiet.

Owen Roe O’Neill came level with the soldier and patted that worthy on the shoulder. “A wise reply. Now, find such militiamen as can be trusted to help all these men to find lodgings.”

Back | Next