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Kinderspiel

by Charles E. Gannon


(the author wishes to express his profound gratitude to that tireless and peerless researcher,

Virginia DeMarce, to whom this story owes the largest measure of its authenticity)


April, 1635, south of Ulm, Swabia


“Colonel, riders coming.”

man holding cameraThomas North, one of the two colonels of the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion, turned in his saddle and squinted.

Sure enough, just as his batman Finan had reported, two mounted figures were catching up with them, following along the same route: south on the Swabian Jakobsweg—arguably the most reliable way south from Ulm to Biberach, even though it wasn’t a road. Or more accurately, because it was now mid-April, the Jakobsweg was the most reliable path because it wasn’t a road. Leaving Ulm yesterday, North and his rump platoon had witnessed three wagons hopelessly mired in the spring mud, the struggling teamsters up to their hips in the brown ooze.

North’s senior lieutenant, Hastings, leaned closer. “Orders, sir?”

“Take a fire team into the brush on the left. And don’t get bloody eager, Lieutenant: these two aren’t trouble.”

“Too few of them?”

“Too obvious. But you never know when wolves might be shadowing unsuspecting sheep. Off with you, now.”

Hastings tossed his reins to Finan, dismounted, and gathered his fire team from the front of the formation, ensuring that his actions were unobservable by the oncoming riders. The hastily assembled group disappeared into the sparse undergrowth.

Several of the other Hibernians saw Hastings’ small screening force vanishing and hefted their .40-.72 black-powder Winchesters higher into a ready cradle posture.

“Easy, men,” said Thomas in a gruff but even tone that was, for him, a soothing croon.

That was the same moment that the taller and wider-shouldered of the two riders stopped and put up a hand, whether in greeting or invitation to parley, North couldn’t be sure.

But the larger of the two resumed his approach without waiting for Thomas’ gesture to do so, making the rider clearly suicidal. Or insane.

Shortly thereafter, North discovered that insanity was indeed the cause of the unbeckoned approach and that the oncoming rider had no hope of ever recovering his wits. By dint of his origins, his madness was endemic and permanent.

In short, he was an American.

And not just any American. As soon as the rider called a greeting, “Hello, Colonel North,” Thomas knew who it was: Larry Quinn. Now Major Larry Quinn, if recent scuttlebutt was to be believed.

North waved at the bushes to his right; Lieutenant Hastings and his men emerged.

Quinn approached, riding up along the short column of North’s men, exchanging nods of recognition with those he had met when he accompanied the Hibernians to retrieve a Mughal princeling from Austria two years ago. The men had seemed to like Larry well enough then, and the smiles now were genuine and lingered after he passed.

North rested his hands on his saddle horn—riding with a Western saddle had been another up-time habit he had happily acquired—and studied the slightly younger man. Immediately after the mission to Austria, he had seen a fair amount of Quinn: the powers that had then guided the fate of the State of Thuringia-Franconia—Mike Stearns and Ed Piazza—had made him the regular liaison to the Hibernians.

But then, Quinn all but disappeared. He was rarely seen even in Grantville’s favorite watering hole, the Thuringen Gardens. Word had it that he had shifted away from his military duties and become a scholar, studying law with an elderly up-timer whose name seemed especially appropriate to an educator of jurisprudence: Riddle.

Thomas had been puzzled and a bit disappointed by Quinn’s choice: although the Englishman had been unwilling to admit it openly, the up-timer had promise as a soldier. And if twentieth-century assumptions of what soldiering meant had hindered him a bit at first, Larry had shed those misperceptions shortly after the jaunt to Austria. With that leavening experience, North expected that Quinn’s up-time military service with the West Virginia National Guard would stand him in good stead. Indeed, as the Hibernian Company expanded into the Hibernian Battalion and made the acquisition of near-up-time capabilities its hallmark characteristic, North had more than once wished that Quinn would become a regular at the Gardens, once again . . . for professional reasons. Although North had infinitely more field experience, Quinn had been trained to use rapid-firing weapons at both short and long ranges. The relevant tactics that had been drilled into the American by rote were unknown in this world—and Thomas’ evolving unit had urgent need of such knowledge. Far more than the Englishman was able to acquire from his assiduous viewing of—not to say addiction to—the movies that the up-timers had brought with them

Quinn drew up to North and extended a hand. “It’s good to see you again, Colonel.”

“It won’t be if you insist on being so bloody formal, Larry.”

Quinn smiled. “Okay, Thomas. So, you’re on your way to Biberach.”

“Evidently you can read a copy of my orders as well as I can. Which means you also know that I’m to see to the safe establishment of the first airship ground facility there.”

“Which you just finished doing in Nuremburg.”

“Yes. Dull work. Indeed, the only noteworthy event since leaving Grantville is finding you riding around in the same patch of country we are. Pure coincidence, I’m sure.”

“There’s no fooling you, is there, Thomas?”

“No, Larry, there isn’t.” North smiled. The excessively earnest and often anxious young man of two years ago had grown up a great deal: he was as easy in his banter as he was in his saddle. “And although your appearance here is a mystery, I suspect I can be sure of one thing: that I’m not going to like the reason for it.”

Larry grinned crookedly and urged his horse to resume its shambling progress toward Biberach, pulling ahead of the formation. He cast a meaningful glance at Thomas.

Who thought, Great. Just great.


***


The reason for Larry’s decision to precede the column at a confidentiality-ensuring distance revealed itself soon enough. And it also explained why the pace he was setting was a leisurely one: according to the latest news, Biberach’s town fathers had suddenly reversed their decision of three months ago and were now refusing to host the aerodrome.

“And how did you hear about this problem when even I haven’t?” North wondered.

Larry hooked his thumb back at the smaller rider who had been with him, and who was now trailing behind Hastings. “That guy, Kurzman, arrived in Nuremburg about three days after you left. I got there a day later and heard the news from him. He was the USE factor for establishing the aerodrome in Biberach.”

“And what reason did the burghers give him for changing their minds?”

“That’s part of the problem: they didn’t. He had been staying down there, doing the groundwork, gathering the necessary supplies and fuel—”

“Some of which we need to take on to Chur in the Alps, I suppose you know.”

Quinn nodded. “Yep. And then, about six weeks ago, the regular confabs with the big shots ceased. No sign of a problem; Kurzman just figured they had pretty much ironed out the last of the wrinkles and were in a holding pattern until you arrived. Then ten days ago, the burgers show up at his inn and tell him that unfortunately, the arrangements must be rescinded. No timetable for resuming discussions, no reason. Just the implication that Kurzman had no further reason to remain in Biberach and therefore, shouldn’t.”

“My,” observed Thomas, “such friendly people. I suspect they’ll be welcoming us with garlands. Of slip-knotted hemp.”

“Doubtful, but not impossible.”

“Larry, you were not supposed to agree with me. As the sunny-dispositioned American, your role is to dissuade me from my excessive pessimisms and ensure me that Everything Is Going To Be Just Fine.”

“Sorry.”

“Yes. Well, I wouldn’t have believed you anyway. So Kurzman went up to the aerodrome in Nuremburg?”

“Right. Figured they’d have a radio. Ran into me the day after he arrived, told me his sad story, and here we are.”

Thomas considered the American from the corner of his eye. “And why were you in Nuremburg to begin with, Larry? Rather far from Grantville.”

“Well, yes. About that. I’m actually preparing to travel even farther from Grantville. Much farther.”

“About which you can say no more.” Larry’s response to Thomas’ jocularity was a somber nod, causing the Englishman to reassess: so Larry is down here for some other reason, found out about this snag, was retasked to handle it. Probably via radio in Nuremburg. Which means that Larry has become a confidential agent for Stearns, or Piazza, or both. Poor sod. Aloud: “So fate redirected you to me.”

Larry looked at Thomas. “No: I was coming down here to find you, already.”

To find me? Well, this is becoming far too personal for comfort. “And to what do I owe the honor of your undisclosable interest?”

“Well, I can disclose some of it: I’m interested in hiring four of the men in this unit. For a little job I have.”

North raised an eyebrow. “I’m always interested in new business contracts—but not pertaining to men already in the field. Take up the matter of appropriate staffing with my business partner, Liam Donovan.”

“I already have—and with Ed Piazza. From what I understand, you’d be quite pleased at the deal they struck.”

North stared at him, appalled. “You’re going to take the men from me. While I’m in the middle of an operation.”

Larry stared at the fleecy clouds overhead. “Now would I do that?

“Of course you would.”

To which Larry had no rebuttal other than a sheepish smile.


***


When they stopped to water the horses, take a brief meal and rest, North’s temper was even enough to resume the conversation.

“Which four of my men are you taking, Larry?”

Quinn answered around a mouthful of bread. “Templeton, Volker, Winkelmann, and Wright.”

How nice: cherry-picking the very best among the regulars. Which means Larry had detailed advice from—“Donovan made the recommendations?”

Quinn chewed, nodded.

“So why are you still riding with us, then? Why not depart with your human loot, you pirate?”

“Because—as you no doubt suspect—I’ve also been asked to help resolve the situation in Biberach. And that will give me a chance to see the four men in action.”

Thomas’ eyebrows rose. “‘In action’? Do you suspect it was foreign influence that undermined Biberach’s commitment to the aerodrome?”

Quinn shook his head, gnawed on a small wedge of cheese. “Nope. Stearns and Piazza have pretty much ruled that out. The likely culprits lack sufficient motivation to go to the trouble of trying to sew dissension in our ranks. Bavaria’s preoccupied with internal post-war problems, Austria has adopted a posture of cordial entente, and it’s hard to see what the French would stand to gain. Besides, if there was an attempt at subornation by a foreign power, it would probably be aimed at the disgruntled Catholic population of Biberach. But Kurzman reports that all the burgermeisters—both Protestant and RC—were in lock-step about rescinding the aerodrome deal.”

“But you’re still expecting that our men might see some ‘action’?”

“Well, given how they tossed Kurzman out on his ear, there’s no knowing just how unfriendly a reception we’re going to get.” Quinn popped the last morsel of cheese into his mouth. “And besides, if the town fathers won’t reconsider their decision, it’s not like we’ve got a lot of options regarding what we have to do next. Biberach has been using our seed money to gather the oil and ethanol that’s needed further south at the aerodrome you’ll be establishing in Chur. And Biberach itself is at the transport sweet-spot the airships need. It’s less than one hundred miles to Chur, and not much more to Nuremburg. That makes it the essential hub between the two, given the airship’s operational range.”

North frowned. “Essential? What about other nearby towns? It’s not as though the region is sparsely settled. Quite the contrary.”

Quinn shook his head, moistened his finger, ran it around the paper that the cheese had been wrapped in. “Other locations have already been considered. Ulm isn’t stable enough, either economically or politically: they didn’t get spared by the Thirty Years’ War the way Biberach did just after Grantville fell out of the future into Germany. And Buchau and Schussenried are too far south.”

“What? Just another ten miles or so—”

“Thomas, these blimps have really tight range limits. Biberach is already a little too far from the Nuremburg aerodrome—by about five miles or so. So pushing the aerodrome farther south would endanger the airships. A bad alpine headwind pushing against you could mean a forced landing in a field—or worse. And if Biberach is actually a little closer than it needs to be to Chur—only eighty miles—well, let’s just say the place you want the most margin for error is when you’re actually entering or leaving the Alps. Far more surprises there than in flat-land flying. Or so I’m told.”

Thomas shrugged. “Well, I suppose that ties it, then. And since Biberach has the safest market south of Nuremburg, it’s the logical cachement hub for the fuels these airships need.”

Larry nodded. “It’s also the best town in terms of being receptive to our polydenominational culture. Although there’s no love lost between Catholic and Protestant, they’ve managed to maintain a joint government. Not always with perfect equity, of course. Three years ago, the Swedes given the Protestants the upper hand—a position they’ve used to beat up on the Catholics a bit. But it’s still a joint government, say what you will. That’s a hell of a lot better than most other places.”

“Well, Larry, I suppose Biberach is the pearl of great price, then—particularly given recent news.”

If Quinn heard the leading tone, he didn’t let on. “Oh? What news?”

“The news coming out of Italy. That the Spanish cardinals are getting singularly restive. That Naples seems to be an armed camp squatting upon an incipient rebellion.”

Quinn checked the belly straps on his saddle. “And your point would be?”

“Well, I’m sure Mssrs. Stearns and Piazza might find it somewhat reassuring to be able to initiate a fast transalpine connection to Italy in such tense times. Given all the up-time friends they have down there.”

Larry turned to face North and smiled. “Let’s ride, Thomas.”


***


An hour later, they drew within sight of Biberach’s walls, but on the advice of Kurzman, stayed on the west bank of the river Riss. Larry Quinn looked at the narrow ribbon of water and made a remark about creeks being promoted to the status of rivers in Germany.

Kurzman nodded, but stuck doggedly to sharing his recommendations. “Herr Quinn, you should choose only a few men to go into Biberach. A large number will not be welcome. Nor will I.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow. “So we are to expect the singular joys of bivouacking in the delightfully moist fields of early spring?”

Nein, Herr North. You vill go to Ringschnaitt. It is the little village just to the west, beneath the walls of Biberach. A farm village; a garden and dairy market for the town, ja?”

“And do you particularly recommend any of Ringschnaitt’s fine establishments for our custom?”

“What?”

Thomas slowed his Amideutsch, pruned out the idioms of his youth. “Will we be more welcome in some barns than others?”

“If you haff money, you vill be welcome.”

“Ah, well that simplifies matters. Hastings?”

“Sir?”

“You will procure lodgings for our men. Rations, as well. Double-guard, and everyone stays within the perimeter.”

“Are we expecting trouble, sir?”

“No, but we do not want to be surprised by it, either.”

Larry cocked an eye at North. “And where will you be, during all of this?”

“Why, with you, of course,” North scoffed. “You don’t think I’m going to trust you to the tender mercies of the locals on your own, do you?”

“Or let me have the sole enjoyment of a warm tap-room and hot food?”

“That, too.”


***


After having settled the detachment in Ringschnaitt and enduring multiple rehearsals of the titles and names of the various town fathers with Kurzman, Thomas had Finan and Volker accompany them over the Riss and toward the entry known as the Ulmer gate. As they approached, the long shadow-finger of the portal-straddling tower held them in its narrow gloom, pointing the way home for a trickle of workers and older farm-children.

Volker grunted as a small group of more somber, muttering youngsters pushed a produce-vendor’s handcart toward the purpling blue of the eastern horizon.

“What is it, Volker?” asked Thomas, wondering when the guard at the tower was going to get around to challenging them.

“Those kids. They’re Swiss.”

“Swiss? All of them.”

Ja. Spring workers, down from the Alps. Usually about ten to fourteen years old. Folks send them down here along the Jakobsweg to make money. Not enough work up-country at this time of the spring, but plenty down here.”

Quinn stared, shook his head.

Thomas noticed. “Not common in your time, I take it?”

“Kids that young sent a hundred miles from home to work for someone else? That would probably have been breaking about a hundred up-time labor laws.”

Thomas shrugged. “You would perhaps have preferred them a bit older, so that the girls might be pressured to provide more than field work?”

Quinn’s voice was low and hard. “As if ‘employers’ like that are picky about age, anyway.”

Volker spoke up. “Sirs, it is not as you are thinking. The children travel in groups, and go to families they have worked with before. Mostly.” He fell silent as the officers stared at his ominous addition of “mostly.”

Quinn asked, “But you’re not from around here, are you, Volker?”

“No, sir, but a cousin from Nuremburg traded down here, knew people who had traveled the pilgrim’s route—the Jakobsweg—all the way down to Santiago de Campostela in Spain. The custom of child-workers from the Alps is traditional. It is no more subject to abuse than similar traditions.”

Thomas nodded back toward the gate: they were so close that they could make out the facial features of the single guard. “The town militia certainly doesn’t seem to be worried about trouble, does it?”

“No, indeed,” agreed Quinn quietly.

That was about the same moment that the armed worthy at the gate noticed the four armed men approaching. He flinched, pulled himself upright, and, almost as an afterthought, reached behind him and produced a weapon that made Thomas stare, and then grin. “Oh my,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth toward Larry, “they are clearly ready for all threats from any quarter.”

Quinn was silent, kept moving towards the man who was brandishing a tarnished arquebus in a poor parody of stalwart readiness. Rather than asking who the newcomers were, or their business, he nervously proclaimed, “Biberach is under the protection of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and the United States of Europe, and is garrisoned by the men of General Horn.”

Thomas shrugged. “We certainly do not dispute those facts.”

This left the gate guard—such as he was—speechless.

As Larry produced their respective papers and explained the reason for their visit to the town, Thomas continued sizing up the guard. Who, he confirmed quickly, was not really a guard at all. An ill-fitting cuirass and helmet from the prior century were the only clear military gear upon him. Although uniforms had been little known before the up-timers began to spearhead their adoption, the garb of soldiers was nonetheless distinct from that of townsmen and workers: it was generally more rugged and furnished with belts and straps from which to hang items needed in the press of combat. Gloves were not uncommon, nor were a variety of camping tools that could double as secondary weapons in a pinch.

None were in evidence on the man at the Ulmer gate. Dressed as a tradesman—possibly a weaver, from the look of him—he lacked the lean look of a soldier, and was utterly without the wary businesslike posture and tendency towards taciturnity. He was all too glad to discover that the four oddly armed men before his town’s gate were in fact legitimate emissaries of the greater powers to the north; his sudden and relieved volubility were arguably the clearest of the many signs that he was merely a townsman impressed to temporary duty as a gate guard.

Thomas nodded at the now-forgotten arquebus leaning against the gate-house wall. “You know, “ he observed sagely, “I am told those work best when there’s a lit match somewhere nearby. Preferably in the weapon itself.”

The civilian stopped, stared, and then blushed. “I am as much a guard as you men are weavers.”

Thomas frowned. “Then why are you on guard duty? Where is the town watch? Better yet, where is the garrison that General Horn left here?”

“Well,” said the fellow, leaning on the gun-rest as he spoke, “the garrison was actually put in place by General-Major von Vitinghof three years ago, although he was only in town for one day. Most of the work was done by an assistant of his, Hauptmann Besserer, who left twenty Swedes in charge. There were also thirty German soldiers: Lutherans, mostly from Ravensburg.”

“And where are they?”

“Gone.” He waved west. “Back with Horn, fighting Bernhard, I suppose.”

Larry frowned. “And there were no replacements sent?”

“Yes, but they came late. And not many of them. They contracted Plague on the way to us”—he crossed himself ardently—“and almost half were dying as they got here. The rest were very weak.”

“And so there are too few left to man the gates?”

The guard looked east. “Well, I do not know. They are not stationed in the town, you see.”

“Not in town? Where are they?”

“The abbey at Heggbach, about six miles east.”

“There is a hospital there?”

The fellow looked uncomfortable. “No.”

“Then what?” snapped Thomas. “Why send them to the abbey?”

“To keep them away from us,” the man mumbled. “The abbess and many of the nuns—they had already died of the plague, there. The survivors had gone elsewhere: there weren’t enough of them left to maintain the abbey. Besides, they were too weak to live on their own.”

“And none of you helped them,” finished Larry in a flat tone.

The guard stared back in faint defiance. “There was nothing we could do. By the time we learned, a third of the nuns were dead or nearly so. And besides, they are not our responsibility. At times, they had been most troublesome. The abbess of Heggbach was frequently in dispute with the abbey’s tenant farmers, many of whom live much closer to our walls, and who sought our intervention. Which made for trouble with the abbey.”

Larry stared at the man. “So when the sick replacement garrison showed up, you sent it into quarantine at Heggbach Abbey. Where I presume you expected them to die.”

“I expected nothing!” shouted the weaver-watchman. “I am a simple man given an old gun to guard a gate. I am not consulted on such things. I just hear news like everyone else. If you wish to complain to the Burgermeisters, they should still be in the Rathaus—although not for much longer.” He sent an appraising squint toward the end of the tower’s lengthening shadow.

“Fine,” said Larry with a sharp nod, “we’ll do that.”


***


Following the guard’s directions, they moved toward St. Martin’s cathedral, angling south through the reasonably wide streets once they came upon it. Thomas chose his calmest tone, and began. “I say, Larry—”

“I know,” the American shot back, “I was pretty tough on that poor guy at the gate.”

“Rather. Why?”

“I guess because what he said pushed my buttons. Yeah, I understand why they did what they did: they had the plague at their gates, and a reasonable chance of keeping it out if they were careful about how much external contact they had. But damn, so many towns around here made such an easy accommodation with turning away people in need, with turning a blind eye upon human suffering. Just like they did during World War II, up in my time.”

Thomas considered. “Larry, I claim no expertise in what your histories call the Holocaust. I will simply observe that villainy, bigotry, and genocide have a long history of traveling together. The same up-time processes that enabled mass production were no less an enabling factor for mass destruction.

“However, in this time, what you see as an easy accommodation with cruelty may simply be the exhaustion of hoping for fairy tale endings. I notice in your American history that things almost always came out right in the end, as though there was some guardian angel watching over the fate of your nation. As best as I can tell, some of your more gullible leaders actually believed there was. But here, you are dealing with persons brought up on unremitting rounds of war and plague, of whole generations sucked into the maw of death.” North looked up as they fell into, and then out of the shadow of the cathedral. “You Americans never had a reason to lose hope. These poor sods were born into a world where there wasn’t any hope left.”

Quinn nodded slowly, pointed. “There’s the new Rathaus, at the head of the market place. Ready for a frontal assault on close-minded and quarrelsome bureaucrats?”

Thomas sighed. “Oh, yes: I live for the thrill of that particular battle.”


***


After navigating the closing bakers’ stalls crowded along the arcades of the Rathaus, they made their way inside. It was the same scene of impermanence and frenzy that Thomas had seen in small city Rathauses throughout Germany. Often used for general meetings and other large gatherings, the ground floor of such buildings were rarely furnished with fixed partitions. Field chairs, stools, and folding tables abounded, as did arguments, exhortations, and idle chatter. Quinn waded manfully into the chaos, fixed upon a young fellow who was just preparing to run a message, flashed a kreutzer at him.

The fellow’s stride broke, swerved in the direction of the American. His eyes roved over the group’s gear. “Yes, Herr Hauptman?”

“I wish to speak with either the Burgermeister or the Stadtamtmann. Where will I find them?”

The reply—“upstairs”—earned the fellow the kreutzer: his reaction was a quick smile and a quicker departure.

Progress through the diminishing crowd in the Rathaus was still slow, due to the frenzy of the remaining workers as they redoubled their efforts to wrap up and head home. An outbound scribe descending the northern staircase attempted to dissuade them from ascending, saw that his entreaties were pointless, gesticulated toward their destination, left them to their own devices.

Thomas was content to let Quinn continue to walk point: that way, the American would hit the first political tripwire, and they were deep in what was, for all soldiers, enemy country: the tortuous warrens of bureaucrats.

Quinn knocked on the jamb of an already-open office door. “Herr Burgermeister von Pflummern?”

A youngish, fit man looked up from his pile of books and papers. “Yes?” In the next second he was on his feet, his eyes slightly wider and much more cautious. “And who, may I ask, are you?”

While Quinn presented their bona fides, their papers, and their business, Thomas scanned the room and the hallway surreptitiously. Another man, older and thickly built, emerged from a larger office halfway down the hall, two other men in tow. Brows lowering, they glanced hastily at the strange group around the entrance to von Pflummern’s office, and hurried toward the southern staircase.

Von Pflummern’s office was half chaos, half order, leaving Thomas with the impression that it was being used by two different men. Judging from the way that pristine orderliness seemed to be encroaching on dust-covered layers of entropy, the neatness was logically a characteristic of the newcomer. A glance at von Pflummern himself, and Thomas knew him to be the recent arrival.

It was not just his comparative youth: it was his immaculate dress, hair, and hygiene. The pen he was using was neatly and newly cut, and the ink, quill knives, and blotting paper were arrayed evenly along the margins of his workspace.

Just as Burgermeister von Pflummern was about to correct Larry’s (and therefore, Ed Piazza’s) ostensible misunderstanding of what had, and had not, been offered and promised by the inner council of Biberach’s Rat, Thomas intruded a quick question: “Excuse me, Herr Burgermeister von Pflummern, but how recently did you replace the former Catholic Burgermeister?”

Von Pflummern’s jaw froze, then thawed into a surprised stutter: “How, how do you—? Two months. And a few weeks.”

“So you were not a Burgermeister at the time the aerodrome agreement was made, is that correct?”

“It is, but as the senior Catholic member of the inner council, I was fully aware of all the particulars.”

“I did not mean to imply otherwise. I just noted that your office has—well, has the look of transition.”

Von Pflummern flushed slightly, nodded, looked around: had there been enough space and chairs, Thomas intuited that the man’s innate congeniality would have had him inviting them all to take seats. But then he stood straighter and extended a hand toward the door, back in the direction of the stairs.

“You are correct. We have had many losses, this past winter. My predecessor died of a fever, and the former Protestant Burgermeister, Johann Schoenfeld the Elder, died of the plague late last year. He was one of the few to contract it and he refused to come back within the walls. Now I will thank you gentlemen to see yourselves out; I must close my office and return home.”

North was going to press for one more tidbit of information about the prior Roman Catholic Burgermeister when Quinn stuck out a hand with a slight bow. After a moment’s hesitation, von Pflummern took it. Quinn bowed slightly: “I am sorry we have intruded so late in the day. As you see from my orders, I will need to speak to you at greater length, as well as the town’s other Burgermeister and its Stadtamtmann.”

“The Protestant Burgermeister is Hanss Lay. My brother Christoph is the Stadtamtmann. We will make what time we can for you tomorrow. Good evening, gentlemen.”


***


Before heading back to their beddings of hay and the smell of ordure, Quinn suggested they visit a tavern a few blocks south of the market place that was known as far as Ulm for its beer. Thomas offered no resistance and made a silent footnote to inquire upon returning to Grantville if the up-timer’s modest means had improved in recent days, or if he was on a rather generous operating account. If the latter, that suggested he had garnered an unusual measure of trust from the notoriously frugal (not to say miserly) Ed Piazza.

The inside of the Grüner Baum was tidy and nicely appointed: the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War had indeed visited this town lightly, if even its taverns were no worse for wear. Thomas downed his first pint before the beermaid could escape the table: “noch ein” he ordered with a wide smile and turned to Larry. “Very nice of you, standing us a drink.”

“I find your use of the singular—‘a drink’—particularly ironic.”

“As was intended. Now, what do you think that was all about, back there?”

“Don’t know,” answered Quinn, staring at a spare, morose-looking fellow across the room. “Hopefully, we’ll get a better idea tomorrow.”

“I doubt it,” said Thomas, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the beermaid and thereby gauge when the next frothy stein might arrive. “I get the distinct impression that the town fathers are concealing something. Possibly even in cahoots across denominational lines, if I read that little closing scene correctly upstairs at the Rathaus.”

“You might be right,” Larry agreed. His tone suggested his attention was elsewhere.

Thomas followed his gaze, which was still fixed—and with greater intensity—upon the morose fellow sitting alone across the rapidly filling room. Who, Thomas noticed, was wearing well-worn clothes, but not of the typical, almost stolid, local cut. His garments and gear emphasized line and flow: Thomas discerned that they were not only easier to look at, but also, probably easier to move in.

In short, they were almost certainly Italian. The look of the leather, the faint hints of color and the detail of worksmanship all suggested those origins, now that he studied the man more closely.

He also noted that the fellow kept his head turned slightly, eyeing the world from one side more than the other, rather like parakeets did.

Thomas was about to remark on this odd feature when Quinn rose with a muttered, “I’ll be damned,” and began moving across the room. Thomas, flustered, rose, and—after a moment of desperate and disappointed scanning for his inbound pint—followed.

He arrived at the table in time to see Larry offer a quick half-bow and inquire, “I am sorry to intrude, but may I inquire: are you an artist?”

The fellow—younger than Larry—started, and in that moment, Thomas saw why he held his head peculiarly: he was blind in the left eye. There was no sign of injury or deformity, and it tracked dutifully after the sighted eye, but it was clearly dead.

More surprising still was the fellow’s response. “Why, yes: I am. Or so I style myself. Who, may I ask, is inquiring?” The smile was congenial but also far too old and world-weary for the young face. “A factor for a patron, perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” Larry answered with a grave nod. If he noticed Thomas start in surprise along with the half-sighted fellow, he gave no indication. “There are several people where I’m from who are very interested in your work.”

“‘My work?’ At present, what few canvases I painted I was compelled to leave behind in Rome. How could anyone here know of my work?”

“Not here, Herr Schoenfeld. I am referring to up-timers in Grantville—and some of their Dutch acquaintances.”

Now the younger man sat up very straight. “If this is a jest, it is in very poor taste, and I will ask you to leave. If not, I will thank you to indicate who you are, who you represent, and how you know me.”

Larry answered Schoenfeld’s first two queries and concluded with, “As for knowing you: in my time, Johann Schoenfeld was known as the father of Baroque art in Germany. You, sir, are famous.”

Schoenfeld stared, then laughed, his tilted head back. “Famous?” he barked so loudly that several other heads in the Grüner Baum looked up from their steins. “If I’m famous, it’s for failing my family and my craft. Famous for fleeing before the black tides of war.”

“I assure you, Herr Schoenfeld, in my time, sketches from your early career were sought-after treasures of art history.”

Schoenfeld studied Larry with his good eye; Thomas knew he was being thoroughly scanned as well, albeit peripherally. “And so this is how you knew me?”

Larry nodded. “Before coming down here, I was briefed on everything we knew about Biberach from this time period. Other than a few brief mentions about events in the Thirty Years’ War, it was best known for being your birthplace and family residence until you left for Italy.”

Johann Schoenfeld leaned back, his long nose seeming to accuse them. “I am sorry to tell you that your histories are incomplete. I apprenticed in Ulm and then Basel before returning here—just before stories began circulating about the wonders of Grantville. And just when it also seemed possible that Wallenstein or the Bavarians would finally pillage Biberach. And so I fled to Italy. To escape. And yes, to work, also, but mostly to escape.”

Larry shrugged. “Why should one remain in the path of war when it approaches?”

Schoenfeld’s one good eye stabbed at him. “To support one’s family. Which I did not. And thanks to that, my father is dead of plague.”

Thomas blinked: so, the late Burgermeister Schoenfeld and the artist’s father are one and the same. It was not beyond possibility that there could be two such men of the same name, and same generation, who would have died of the plague in Biberach. But it was pretty unlikely, and besides, a Burgermeister would have the wealth and authority to send a talented son—particularly a son who was blind in one eye—off to a safer place, a place to which a journeyman artist would logically go. Similarly, a Burgermeister who thought that way was also likely to be the kind of selfless man who, once infected, would quarantine himself outside the town rather than risk bringing the plague into the streets where all his loved ones and friends lived their crowded, wall-bound lives.

Thomas’ hypotheses received an additional boost when the young artist took up his own drink and continued gesticulating with the other hand—which was clearly withered. “If I had not been so—so weak, so useless, this would never have happened.”

Thomas, who had resolved to let Larry handle this on his own, found himself objecting: “Herr Schoenfeld, I have known many cowards. You are not among their number.”

Schoenfeld looked at Thomas. “And how would you know this?”

“Because I have been in more battles than you have lived years and I can tell you this about cowards: they spend most of their time making excuses for themselves. The last thing they do is take blame upon their own back for fear that others will see them for what they really are.” He considered his next words carefully. “What I see right now is a man whom god, fate, or chance—your choice—intended for a different greatness. Perhaps to inspire men through your visions of the world, rather than to cause men to expire out of it.”

“As has been your lot in life,” Schoenfeld added the unspoken footnote.

“Unfortunately, yes. And I will tell you that nine out of every ten so-called ‘deeds of valor’ were merely acts of desperation that came out well. And that there is very little glory picking your way among the dead and dying after a battle.”

Schoenfeld’s answer was a strange, small, poignant smile. “As you say these things, my mind’s eye shows me what I have always wished to paint.”

“Come to Grantville,” put in Larry, “and I will show you that you did. I saw some pictures of your paintings before I came here: they are heroic, but always haunted by the horrors of war. Some critics said they could sense Breughel and Bosch lurking just beyond the margins of your canvases.”

Schoenfeld’s eyes—including the sightless one—were suddenly bright. “I would like to see these canvases—if for no other reason to know what now I will never paint.” Then the vitality seemed to ebb out of him. “But there is too much to settle here. Too many troubles.”

“Something that we can help with, perhaps?” Larry offered carefully.

“Maybe. I don’t know enough, yet. I just arrived yesterday and learned—well, about my father. And the other problems. It is difficult, adapting to so much, so quickly. Perhaps, if we were to meet here again tomorrow, at about this time—”

“We shall.” Quinn’s voice was firm and friendly. “And now, tell us about Italy. We have heard that there is trouble there.”

Schoenfeld rolled his eyes. “That is like saying that water is wet. I had been thinking of pursuing an invitation to go to the court of Count Orsini of Naples, but—”

Thomas managed to catch the eye of the beermaid and guide the lost beer to his waiting hand: listening to traveler’s tales was thirsty work, after all . . .


***


It was also thirsty work listening to German Burgers say “no” in half a dozen different ways, as Thomas discovered the next morning. It certainly made him want to have a drink. Or three.

The return to von Pflummern’s office was cordial but brief. The brother Christoph —the Stadtamtmann and the decidedly less-congenial sibling—did not even sit, but stood behind his brother, arms crossed, his frown as firmly fixed upon his face as his sharp-bridged nose. When asked if he had been part of the negotiations, he shook his head once and spat out a crisp, “Nein.” And that was all.

Unfortunately, the meeting with the Protestant Burgermeister wasn’t going much better. Another town functionary, Hans Kaspar Funk, was sitting stolidly in a chair beside the Burgermeister’s vast desk. As the town’s Pfarrpfleger, Funk ensured the timely and adequate external maintenance of Biberach’s churches, and he was also a member of the Innere Rat, or inner council. Not surprisingly, he had been named in the documents in Quinn’s possession: his involvement in the aerodrome negotiations was a matter of record. Indeed, he had been Kurzman’s primary point of contact for sorting out the details, once the general agreement had been reached.

Except now it sounded as though the agreement—which was written in clear black and white on the sheets that Quinn had politely advanced across the table toward Burgermeister Hanss Lay—had never been an agreement at all. Thomas felt the need for a drink redouble as Lay spread his hands expressively and continued his enumeration of unresolved contractual impediments. “Then there is the matter of gold.”

“Gold?” echoed Quinn. “Did you expect additional compensation?”

Nein, nein, nein: not gold coins. Gold that one works. Gold for goldsmiths.” Lay threw up his heavy hands. “Biberach’s weavers are its most famous craftsmen, yes, but what is our second most famous product?”

Aggravation, Thomas answered silently.

Lay provided the response to his own question. “Fine work in gold. We have a considerable goldsmith’s guild here, and my predecessor was its senior member. His nephew, Hans Jakob Schoenfeld the Younger, is a member of the Rat and has made his guild’s special problem very clear, we feel.”

“Special problem?” Quinn repeated quietly. And somewhat helplessly, Thomas thought.

“Yes, of course. The problem with Venice.”

The sudden, powerful increase in Thomas’ already strong desire for a drink triggered a fleeting concern that perhaps he was becoming an alcoholic, after all.

Quinn’s voice was admirably level. “Tell me about the Venice problem.”

“Is it not obvious? Your airship will create easier access to Venice. This will increase the flow of raw gold stocks to this area. That increased supply will depress prices on all gold objects. It would be disastrous.”

Quinn held up a pausing hand. “But as I understand it—and as Herr Kurzman explored with you—cheaper raw stocks of gold are actually good. If the finished items sell for a little less here in Biberach itself, that is only a small percentage of your final market, the rest of which lies well beyond the effects of the greater influx of raw gold. Besides, the airship means your finished gold products have much wider markets—including those in Italy. According to Herr Kurzman, you saw that advantage before he pointed it out to you.”

“Yes, well, we all said a great many things. I believe Herr Kurzman is quite mistaken in this recollection of them.”

Funk spoke sepulchrally from his wide-armed chair. “Besides, there is also the originally undisclosed nature of our primary business partner. We had been under the impression that the airships were being created and run by the up-timers of Grantville. But we have since learned that the true owner of these balloons is this fellow Estuban Miro.”

“That is true. This was made clear during the negotiations.”

“Not the fact that he is a Jew,” Funk sniffed haughtily. “We are not . . . comfortable dealing with one of his kind.”

Thomas forgot all about the drink he wanted. “Certainly you are not serious. This town deals with ‘his kind’ all the time. Jewish communities are the largest suppliers and conveyors of both raw and finished gold in this entire area. How could you be—?”

But Quinn was rising. He interrupted Thomas with a bow and a “Guten Tag,” and was then towing the Englishman toward the door.

“But this is sheer rubbish, Larry. This is—”

Low and hasty, Quinn whispered. “Thomas. Let it be. The problems here are not about Venice, not about Miro, and not about his religion. There’s something else going on here.” Larry continued after they had closed the door behind them and were walking toward the stairs. “They’re nervous now because their objections are all bullshit. And they know that we know they’re bullshit.”

“And do they know that we know that they know that we—?

“Okay, Thomas: that’s not funny.”

“Really? I found it exquisitely amusing.”


***


By the time Thomas had a stein in front of him at the Grüner Baum, he was ready for a drink again. “I think this constitutes a dead end, Major Quinn. What is our next option? Removal of the civilian government?”

“Don’t tempt me. But what’s standing in our way is simple ignorance.”

“They are a blinkered bunch, I’ll give you that.”

“No, Thomas: not their ignorance. Our ignorance. Since the reasons we got were pure bullshit, that means we haven’t seen the real reason for their change of mind. I just wish we had access to someone who knew what was going on in their minds between the time they agreed to the deal and then went back on it.”

“You mean, someone like him?” Thomas pointed toward the bar, where a young man in military gear had just placed an order. The exchange with the owner was cordial, but not familiar.

Larry looked at Thomas. “An officer from the garrison?”

North sipped, shrugged. “You know any other soldiers in town? But why wonder when we can just ask?”


***


The young officer was glad for the invitation to join them and introduced himself as Georg Prum, commander of the Protestant Garrison of Biberach.

Quinn raised an eyebrow. “Commander, you say?”

Prum smiled: he was a good-looking fellow, the kind that was always presumed to have “aristocratic blood” even if he was the lowest-born pauper’s bastard in a town. “The plague has a way of promoting us before our time, Major. Consider the youth of the town’s Rat.”

“I thought they were spared the plague.”

“Yes—thanks largely to your uptime methods of quarantine, as I understand it. But diphtheria struck, too, and is a much subtler infiltrator of towns. As is often the case, the old and the young had a particularly hard time of it. As did we.”

“And so you are the ranking officer remaining?”

“I am. And we lost our senior sergeant, as well. Not that there were many of us to begin with. From what our late commander, Captain Grieg, told me, General Horn deemed this area largely secure by the onset of winter last year and wanted all his Swedish troops back west where the primary action was. So although a garrison of fifty were withdrawn from Biberach, he only sent twenty-five of us as replacements for it. The plague and diphtheria cut us down to almost half that.”

Quinn shook his head sympathetically. Thomas took a meditative sip before commenting, “You know, we were contemplating coming out to visit the abbey .”

Prum pushed back one dark black wing of a trim moustache. “You’d be the first. And most welcome. Although if you do so, I doubt you’ll be very welcome back here, anymore.”

“Why?”

“Because you might pick up whatever stench was apparently thick upon us when we arrived.”

“I take it you were not met with open arms?”

“We were turned away at the gate. Seems our predecessors had not made themselves very welcome in the town: they were such ardent Lutherans that they made the joint government difficult to maintain in any practical sense of the word. And of course, we showed up sick and too weak to really debate the matter: the half of us who were healthy enough to move under our own power had our hands full supporting those who were not. So they sent us off to the abbey—probably to die. The abbess there had died not too long before; plague also. It cleared the abbey.”

“Well,” Larry offered, “at least you have plenty of room.”

“Not as much as you think. Toward the end, the nuns obviously had no way to bury their own dead. Half of the rooms still have one or more corpses in them. And I am not about to order my plague-panicked men to do anything other than close the doors, seal those buildings off, and let the rats have their way.”

“Sounds charming,” Thomas said with a barely-suppressed shudder. “We’ll be sure to visit your pestilential abode.”

“I’m sure you will,” Prum responded with admirable good humor.

Larry leaned forward. “Why haven’t you sent word back to Horn’s staff? Being forced to live in a plague-hole is simply unacceptable. Besides, you can’t carry out your orders from there. How would you even know if Biberach was being endangered?”

“We wouldn’t. And you are absolutely right: there’s little enough we could do from out there. We maintain a patrol between the Abbey and Ringschnaitt, but even that earns us wary looks. The town—well, particularly the Rat—wants us to keep to ourselves, so we do.”

“What brings you to town, then?”

“Man may not live by bread alone, but one has to have it, nonetheless.”

“Ah. Provisioning.”

“Just so. My men will fetch it tomorrow, but I must arrange for it today. Which requires a drink—often stiffer than this one—first: the local merchants are none too happy providing us with our daily needs in exchange for the promise of General Horn’s coin. Coin they’ve never seen.”

“Which is a violation of the revised conduct code of the USE,” murmured Larry.

“Yes. Well. I am not sure how much General Horn believes in the authority of the USE. He certainly does believe in the authority of King Gustav, however. Perhaps if you were to bring up the matter with His Majesty . . .” Prum trailed off with a rueful grin.

“Yes,” Quinn answered with a matching smile. “I’ll make it the first agenda item for our meeting next week. In the meantime, I don’t suppose you could shed any light on why the local Rat changed its mind on a business arrangement it made with Grantville about three months ago?”

Prum frowned, then his eyebrows lifted in understanding. “Ah. This is the airship I’ve heard mentioned once or twice?”

“It is.”

Prum shook his head. “I am sorry. I would not be aware of it at all except for some overheard conversations amongst common workers. And the arrangement has come undone? A pity: I should have liked to have seen such a miracle.”

Thomas nodded understanding. “Any advice on what to do?”

Prum seemed surprised. “Me? About getting them to re-accept a balloon? Here?” He shook his head sadly. “If you have a long time to wait, I suppose you could try to use the power of sweet reason. But if you’re in a hurry, I think you’ll be disappointed. The town fathers are most intractable.” Seeing the looks on their faces, Prum hastened to add, “I’m sorry to be discouraging. But now I must see to securing food for my men.” He rose. “If there’s any assistance I can offer, do not hesitate to ask.”

“We won’t,” grumbled Thomas.

Larry stood, put out his hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Herr Kapitan Prum.”

“Likewise, Major Quinn, Colonel Thomas.”

Thomas muttered a pleasantry that even he couldn’t hear as the trim young officer exited the taproom. Once he was gone, the Englishman stared up at the American. “Well, your impressions, Major?”

“Only nice guy we’ve met so far.”

“Which is precisely why I’m suspicious of him,” North grumbled.

“There is that,” Quinn conceded with a small smile.


***


One meal, two hours, and three drinks later, Johann Schoenfeld entered with a relative whose family resemblance was unmistakable. However, the newcomer—the artist’s younger brother Ferdinand—spent a great deal of time in a dark distraction, missing bits of the initial conversation in his somber preoccupation.

Granted, Thomas reflected, the evening’s small talk about weather, trade, politics, trade, and oh yes, more trade, hardly made for riveting conversation. But Ferdinand seemed not merely bored or disinterested: he was fretful and barely touched his beer. Even Johann’s good-natured ribbing about his sibling’s second bout with impending fatherhood elicited only wan smiles.

However, Ferdinand became suddenly alert when, with the dinner hour, their server changed and the new one—a slightly older woman who was more concerned with the patrons as customers than potential husbands—clapped a friendly hand down on his shoulder and asked, “So, how is your little Gisela enjoying the new school in Nuremburg? I’ll bet she misses her Vati!”

Ferdinand muttered congenial pleasantries that sounded both pained and evasive. The server smiled and frowned simultaneously and then swept on to the next table.

Thomas watched the brother as Quinn asked. “So, how is your daughter doing in school?”

“Well,” was the brittle answer, “quite well.”

“What made you decide that she start studying so young, and away from home? Are the schools in Nuremburg so much better?”

Ferdinand drew himself up. “Our schools are every bit as good as those in Nuremburg . . .” Then he faltered, became furtive again. “But it’s a bigger town. It’s a city. It’s safer.”

“Safer?” his brother Johann wondered. “Safer than here?”

Ferdinand was openly nervous now. “Ja, safer. At least in the ways that matter most.” He rose quickly and bowed. “You gentlemen will excuse me. I have a pregnant wife and it is getting late.”

Thomas and Quinn rose, returned his bow, saw Johann’s face folded in creases of concern as Ferdinand made for the door. “I think I should see him home. Something has been bothering him.”

Ya think? Thomas wondered silently, cherishing the sassy up-time idiom.

Quinn frowned after the departing brothers. “You know, Thomas, given Ferdinand’s strange answers and jittery nerves, it might be helpful to have a chat with his wife tomorrow.”

And now, with a smile, Thomas got to say it aloud: “Ya think?”


***


The next morning, their ruse to speak with Ferdinand’s wife at home was a dismal failure. Their claim that they were trying to return what might be Herr Schoenfeld’s lost pipe (it actually belonged to Thomas’s batman, Finan) was rebuffed by the a crone-like servant who answered the door and avoided sharing her name. She indicated that her young mistress was indisposed and added the unsolicited observation that men should not come calling to see pregnant women unannounced, and particularly when the husband or another male family member was not present. It did not perturb her sense of indignation in the least that they had started by asking to speak to the husband (whom they knew to be at work), not the wife, and that it was difficult to send word ahead when one was trying to return a lost object as promptly as possible.

Still, Larry proved a source of unflappable, underplayed charm: well, then might they make an appointment for later?

The crone shook her head once and responded in her limited English: “Not possible.”

Well then, would the servant herself consent to allow them in to show her the pipe, so that she might describe it to Master Ferdinand for his subsequent consideration?

Again, this was “Not possible.” But then came one tantalizingly unusual piece of information. “I am house servant. I do not meet with outsiders. And I do not leave.”

Really? wondered Larry. Never?

“No more. Not now. You are going now.”

Larry’s tone was the epitome of reasonableness; his foot was also in the gapped door. Well, what about one of the other servants? The ones who brought in the food, the water?

Kein. None. The only other servant ist gone. It is well: she vass lazy.”

Oh? And who might that have been?

A wicked glint illuminated the crone’s one visible eye: she would not share much, but would be happy to advertise the failings of the younger, discharged servant. “Ursula Bodenmüller. The granddaughter, I mean. A weaver’s daughter who cannot weave. Dumbkopf. Now you go.”

Larry got his foot out of the way just in time to avoid losing it.

“So,” said Thomas with a smile. “Ursula Bodenmüller, dumbkopf. She shouldn’t be too hard to find.”   


***


And indeed, she was not.

But extracting information from her was difficult and exceedingly dull. After countless digressions into the difficulties of being a weaver’s daughter, of the intellectual challenges of weaving, of the comparable intellectual challenges of shop-cleaning for a butcher, and of the intricacies of being a twenty-seven year old woman whose virtue was daily threatened by various suitors (of whom there was no material evidence), Larry and Thomas finally found a way to keep her talking about the household of Ferdinand and Anna Schoenfeld. Luckily, the key to their continued conversation was the daughter, little Gisela, the darling of her eye who had gone off to school in Nuremburg just before turning three. Which was rather odd timing, Ursula reflected: why send such a small child off to school in the last month of winter?

“Why indeed?” prompted Thomas, who knew not to speak further. One more phrase from him and Ursula was sure to be off on some other tangent.

But Ursula’s focus remained on Gisela. “Do you know, this is what I wondered, too. There had been no talk of school for her; her mama Anna was looking forward to having her around when the new baby comes.” Ursula looked crestfallen. “And to send her off in the middle of the night that way. So strange.”

Thomas looked at Larry; Larry looked back at Thomas. Who urged, “They sent Gisela off to school in the middle of the night?”

“Yes, and it was as though they had forgotten they were going to do so.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, you see, Herr Schoenfeld spoilt his little girl rotten.” Ursula smiled happily at the recollection of this dubious parenting. “But even so, Gisela was always so sweet. And she always liked sweet things. So he made sure she had a fresh sweet roll every morning. Which means I always had to buy them late the day before. Which is just what I did the day before Gisela left.” Ursula sighed and stopped.

Thomas thought he was going to swallow his own teeth in frustration. “And then, the next day? The sweet roll?”

Ursula’s eyes got watery. “Gisela was gone, and that old witch Mathilde had given the sweet roll to the chickens. And she wouldn’t tell me why she hadn’t packed it for Gisela’s trip, or who had taken her to Nuremburg. And Herr Schoenfeld fired me. And Mistress Anna was sick in bed. And they took Mathilde in to live with them. The witch.” Ursula’s full, quivering lip threatened the onset of full-blown weeping.

Larry’s voice was patient. “And you haven’t heard from Gisela? You seem to have been very close.”

“Oh, we were. We were. She liked me much more than that—”

“But you haven’t heard from her?”

“No. How could I? She’s only three, and if they have news of her, they don’t tell me. Which is very hurtful. I loved her like she was my own—”

Thomas saw the lower lip become unsteady again, jumped in. “And you say Frau Schoenfeld was suddenly ill?”

“Yes.” Ursula paused, frowned. “Although—” And then she thought.

Unwilling to disrupt this rare event, North and Quinn waited.

“Although,” repeated Ursula with a great frown after what seemed like the world’s longest ten-count, “Frau Schoenfeld took no medicines that I saw, and Mathilde was the only one allowed in her rooms, other than Herr Schoenfeld. Who was there all day. But he never sent for the doctor. But I was scared that Mistress Anna was very sick indeed. That maybe her new pregnancy was putting her in danger.”

“Why did you think that?”

“Well, because her family came to the house for a long time, that day. And it was such a busy day, too. All the Swiss children had arrived, and some were already being sent out into the fields and others were being sent further north, all the way to Ulm. And even so, Mistress Anna’s brothers came, even the oldest one—despite all the work he had to do with the children.”

“He works in the fields with the children?”

Ursula scowled at Thomas’ unthinkable stupidity. “No: he is in charge of recording their contracts at the Rathaus. Anna is the sister of Hans Kaspar Funk. Didn’t you know?”

Larry and Thomas looked at each other a long time before Thomas said. “No, we didn’t. And did anything else unusual happen that day?”

“No. But the next day, the other girls went to school also. No one saw them leave, either. And their families fired most of their servants too.”

Thomas managed not to look over at Larry again. “And what two girls were those?”

“Liesel Lay and Agatha von Pflummern. But with all those Swiss children running around, settling into their jobs in town, or traveling further north or east, it’s no surprise no one remembers seeing them leave. They are pretty much the same age as the ones who were arriving. It was all very confusing, that day.” Ursula paused, looked puzzled. “What was I saying? Was there something else you need me to tell you about Gisela?”

Larry rose, extended his hand. “No, Fraulein Bodenmüller. You have told us everything we need to know.”


***


Thomas and Larry walked in silence. They hadn’t discussed a destination upon leaving the bloodstained backroom of the butcher’s, but of one mind, they seemed to be heading for the Grüner Baum. At least that’s where Thomas hoped they were heading.

Larry spoke up as they turned into the narrow street which led to the tavern. “We’ve been looking at this all wrong. We’ve been looking for a business angle, for some in-town cartel that had something to gain by undermining the aerodrome deal.”

Thomas nodded. “But this doesn’t smell like that. It smells more like—”

“Extortion.”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed, suddenly completely uninterested in a drink. “Extortion.”


***


Sitting by the window looking out on the small lane that led around behind the Grüner Baum to various victualers, Thomas and Quinn nursed almost untouched beers. “What now?” the Englishman wondered aloud. “Try to get in to see the mothers of the other two children?”

Thomas himself knew it was a futile ploy, but nodded in agreement with Quinn’s response. “We won’t get access there, either. According to Ursula, it sounds as if they’ve also gone to a ‘closed house’ servant model.”

Thomas pushed his beer back and forth. “Reducing all routine contacts with the outside world. All in order to conceal whatever happened to their children.”

“Which, judging from Mathilde’s extreme protectiveness, still has Anna Funk in a state of depression.”

“Probably all of them. I hadn’t thought anything of it before now, but I’ve overheard mention that this was an ‘off’ social season among the high and mighty.” Thomas took a sip; the beer he had been enjoying so much during the past two days had a suddenly sour taste to it. “Apparently, the top levels of government aren’t in the mood for celebration. Both Burgermeisters and one of the inner council are too busy trying to act like nothing is wrong.”

Quinn looked around at the patrons of the Grüner Baum. “You think anyone else knows something’s wrong?”

Thomas considered. “Probably not yet, because it hasn’t been going on long enough. Whatever happened occurred within the last two months, if Gisela’s sudden departure for ‘school in Nuremburg’ marks the beginning of the change. But if it goes on much longer—well, a big secret is hard to keep in a small town.”

Quinn nodded out the window. “I wonder if any of them could shed some new light on it.” Thomas turned, saw Schoenfeld approaching, slightly faster than a donkey cart being led by—if he wasn’t mistaken—a pair of genuine soldiers. One of the them was wearing a Swedish-style helmet.

Schoenfeld’s one good eye must have been quite good indeed: he spotted Larry and Thomas staring at him, waved a brief hello, and accelerated his approach to the Grüner Baum.

“Walking like a man with a mission,” commented Quinn.

Thomas nodded as the artist entered and came directly toward their table. “Meine Herren, may I join you?”

“We were hoping you would, Herr Schoenfeld,” replied Thomas. Who was happiest being generous with other peoples’ money: “A drink?”

“No, thank you. No time for that.” He sat and leaned forward briskly: all business, he seemed to forget that one of his hands was withered. “I have been encountering some puzzling circumstances, which may or may not bear upon the frustrations you have been experiencing as well.”

“Oh?” asked Larry mildly.

“Yes. My sister-in-law Anna, usually so cheery, has been quite depressed. According to those who know her, it has been going on for some time now. They fear for her coming child. But at my other brother’s house—Hans Jakob, who is also a member of the Rat—I am now expressly forbidden to speak of it. And I had only asked if it might help to bring little Gisela back for a visit with her mother: by all accounts, they were inseparable, a smile from one being sure of receiving a like return from the other.”

Larry nodded. “And that was when you were told not to speak of Gisela any more.”

“Exactly. Or of Anna’s depression.” Schoenfeld looked from one to the other. “And neither of you are surprised at this. In the least.”

Thomas was wondering how best to respond to that frank observation without giving too much away when the door banged open and the two garrison soldiers entered. Their swagger and bold sweeping glance about the room stopped when it fell upon Thomas and Quinn. Suddenly circumspect, they made their way to the bar and ordered.

Schoenfeld kept to the topic. “You have encountered something similar. You have suspicions.”

Thomas kept his eyes on the soldiers, watched the exchange at the bar. “Suspicions, yes. But no answers.”

“What else have you learned?”

Larry seemed to gauge Schoenfeld carefully. “That Gisela isn’t the only little girl who was sent to school suddenly, just before the Rat decided to cancel the aerodrome deal. It seems that the daughters of Hanss Lay and Ignaz von Pflummern also departed for Nuremburg without anyone noticing.”

Schoenfeld banged his good hand on the table. “I knew it!” he announced.

“Knew what?”

“That there was something odd about this early schooling nonsense. Gisela is a little strip of a girl, barely three. So how would she get to Nuremburg without special arrangements being made long beforehand? It is not as if Biberach has one of your marvelous trains running to and from Nuremburg, after all. Even so, someone from the family would travel with her. And when I offered to bring a letter to her, my younger brother seemed ready to throttle me.”

Quinn leaned forward. “You are traveling to Nuremburg? Why?”

Schoenfeld actually blushed. “Since I was not to become an artist in Italy, then perhaps in Germany, in Grantville, maybe in the Netherlands . . .”

Quinn smiled. “Perhaps so. But at least travel with me, when you go: I would not like to see you hazard the Jakobsweg on your own. And travel is always more pleasant with company, no?”

It was Thomas who answered. “And it is always far more pleasant to travel with well-funded friends.”

Quinn quirked a sour smile. “You mean, like me?”

“Actually, right now, I meant like them.” Thomas pointed surreptitiously at the backs of the two soldiers at the bar.

Larry frowned. “What do you mean?”

“While you’ve been discussing disappearing daughters with Herr Schoenfeld, I’ve been watching those two. Who have already knocked back two of the house’s finest. And are now chasing it down with a double helping of schnapps, each. And they paid full price. For all of it.”

Quinn’s frown went away, replaced by a carefully neutral expression. “Hmm. Not such a poor, threadbare garrison after all.”

“No, indeed. And look at their gear.”

Quinn did. “All new. Local manufacture, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You’re not,” put in Schoenfeld. “I know the work of our weavers and tanners, their marks, their cuts and patterns. That’s their work all right. Of course, they’d have had plenty of time to purchase some, by now. From what my brothers tell me, they’re in town twice a week to pick up provisions.”

Quinn turned, saw where the soldiers had left the wagon, which was now being loaded—none too eagerly—by a handful of the nearby victualers. “But why get their goods here? Why not in the market?”

Schoenfeld shrugged. “My brothers tell me that the Rat is worried that there could be a riot. Biberach has not had it so bad as other towns, but food is still dear. If the townspeople had to routinely watch soldiers who do nothing but sit on their hands six miles away, getting food for free—”

“I see their point,” allowed Quinn, “but still, it’s peculiar.”

Schoenfeld shrugged. “Perhaps not, particularly given how much the people fear any contact with the abbey. So, what they don’t see doesn’t stir up their anger or fear. That’s not even one of our town’s wagons out there: that came from the abbey. And the soldiers come with it, to drive it back and forth.”

Quinn rubbed his chin meditatively, glanced at Thomas. “Because no one from town wants to get anywhere near the abbey, of course.”

“Of course,” agreed Thomas. Yes, it’s odd how distant and socially isolated the garrison is and yet how well-heeled its individual soldiers seem to be.

“And look who’s here to lend a hand.”

Thomas looked up, followed Quinn’s eyes out the window: Hanss Lay had arrived, conferring with the victualers who were loading the wagon. North smiled. “I wasn’t aware Burgermeisters made a special point of counting out the beans and bacon for their garrisons. Perhaps a few questions are in order—”

But Schoenfeld was shaking his head. “Nein, alles ist Ordnung—it is correct that he does this. He is also the Stadtrechner.”

“The what?”

“You would say . . . cashier? No, more like your word ‘purser.’”

“So,” said Larry with a mirthless smile. “Hanss Lay handles Biberach’s accounts payable.”

“Well, of course he does,” agreed Thomas with a similar smile.

Schoenfeld looked from one to the other again. “What are you saying? What do you suspect?”

Larry leaned his chin in his hand and looked out the window. “Why speculate when we might see for ourselves?”

The soldiers at the bar tossed back the last of their schnapps, and, leaving more coin than was strictly necessary, strode outside. Thomas suddenly rediscovered his taste for the Grüner Baum’s fine beer as he turned to watch the end of the loading.

As the last space in the wagon’s bed was filled—with improbably choice foods, drink, and some outright frippery—an assistant appeared beside Burgermeister Lay bearing a weighty box from which the ends of loaves and corked bottles protruded.

Quinn grinned. “That’s a mighty heavy meal, he’s carrying there.”

Thomas nodded. “Evidently Prum’s men are used to a very, very rich diet.”

The soldiers appeared, exchanging curt nods with Lay, but no words. Thomas cheated the shutters open a little wider, strained to catch any conversation that might arise.

None did. The soldiers walked around the wagon slowly, inspecting its contents. When they were done, they stood at the front, expectantly.

Lay and his assistant approached. The Burgermeister nodded crisply at the box the smaller man was carrying. “Speiserest,” Lay almost spat at the soldiers.

One of whom nodded, and jerked his head at the wagon’s seat.

“‘Leftovers?’” translated Schoenfeld quizzically.

As the box hit the seat, Thomas clearly heard the faint jingle of coins. Many, many coins.

“Leftovers,” confirmed Thomas. “Or, to be more precise, it is what is left over from Captain Prum’s steady depletion of your treasury.”


***


It took a few moments of whispered explanations to make matters clear to the initially bewildered, and then outraged, Schoenfeld. “So you believe that Prum and his men kidnapped all three girls?”

Quinn nodded. “Let’s add it up. Lay just sent a secret payment to a handful of men who are holed up in a fort-like building that no one goes near. His daughter is one of the three missing. The other two are also children of the highest ranking men in your Rat. And with Lay as the Stadtrechner, they could manage this all from the top without anyone under them being any wiser.”

“But eventually it would come out. And why would Prum not simply extort the families themselves?”

Thomas shrugged. “Probably because Prum’s a right greedy bastard. He knows the real money in this town is not in the hands of any one of its citizens: it’s in the hands of the Rat. The taxes and tariffs. Besides, this way, he can shift from extorting cash to goods however and whenever he likes. He’s a clever parasite: he can feed from a number of sources, for as long as this lasts.”

“But then why would he pressure the Rat to reverse its decision about the aerodrome? It means less income for the town, and Prum must have anticipated that it would bring an inquiry from Grantville.”

Quinn frowned. “Well, to start with, an inquiry is a whole lot less troublesome than having us set up business on your doorstep. As long as traffic through Biberach is moderate and overwhelmingly local, Prum can probably control the situation. But if Biberach became a more dynamic hub of commerce, that would change: more people would be trying to make deals, ask questions.

“As far as income increase from the aerodrome goes, I don’t think Prum plans to be around long enough to really see that. How long can he realistically hold on to those girls? How long before people start becoming less fearful of the abbey and traveling out there again, or the nuns come back to take possession? My guess is that he’s not planning on being here come Christmas, or even first harvest. So if he can delay us from setting up the aerodrome for just half a year, he’ll have achieved everything he intended to.”

“Which is?”

“What else?” said Thomas, draining the last of his beer. “To bleed your treasury and merchants dry, while also keeping his wealth as portable as possible.”

“And the girls?”

Thomas glanced at Quinn, who had a hard look on his face. “I doubt that Prum has a strong taste for needless killing. On the other hand, I also doubt that he would hesitate to do so if it suited his ends—or was simply more convenient.” Which it almost certainly would be, given the situation.

Schoenfeld was pale. “I hadn’t meant that,” he said. Thomas thought the smaller man might be on the verge of vomiting. “I meant, how did Prum get them in the first place?”

Quinn started thumbing a stream of coins onto the table. “I imagine they used the chaos of the arrival of the Swiss child laborers to cover their actions. Lots of people running around with kids, not all of whom were happy, I’m sure. They probably got Gisela first, because the house was the smallest and had only two servants. A night time grab, probably. It wouldn’t have been hard to plan it out. Prum and his men had plenty of lead time to know who held what positions in the Rat, where everyone lived, how many kids they had, what age, and all the rest. And once they had one child, they probably went to Lay’s house under the guise of reporting on their progress in ‘locating’ Gisela. And when they left his house, they had his daughter. And probably had him in tow as well, to get access to von Pflummern’s house: a frantic knock on the door in the middle of the night, a familiar face—and they went in right behind. And then they had the daughters of both the Catholic and Lutheran Burgermeisters.” Quinn stood. “Let’s go.”

“What? Go where?”

Thomas was making sure that the straps and flaps that secured and hid his various weapons were untangled and ready for fast access. “Wherever Prum’s wagon goes. But much further behind.”

“But won’t we lose them, then?”

“No,” smiled Quinn, “we won’t. Thomas, how many binoculars in your unit?”

“Two, counting my own. But why ask me? You have one of your own. And unless I’m much mistaken, that Ruger bolt-action you’ve tried to conceal from me looks to have a scope.”

Quinn smiled. “No fooling you, is there Thomas?”

“No, there isn’t. As I’ve told you before. Now let’s be after them.”


***


Templeton leaned away from the Ruger’s telescopic sight. “They just turned into the abbey, sir.”

“Patrols?”

“One man in a blind outside the complex. About fifty yards up the road from the main entrance.”

Schoenfeld stared wide-eyed at the scope, at Templeton, and back at the scope. “He can see all that? From a mile and a half away?”

“He most certainly can,” Thomas assured him, before turning to Quinn. “So. Prum is not sending his ill-got gains anywhere else, at least not directly.”

“Nope. And any of his men can be deemed complicit, given the size of their unit and the fact that they all seem to rotate through the privilege of coming to down to pick up the payola.”

Schoenfeld frowned. “I admit their guilt looks certain. But, as a man who makes a living tricking human eyes into believing they have seen something they have not actually seen, I must point out: looks can be deceiving. It is not proven that the daughters are at the abbey, just that there is some kind of underhanded business going on between Prum’s men and Lay.”

Thomas was about to rebut that sometimes things are exactly as they seem, but Quinn nodded. “You have a point, Johann. And there’s one last bit of evidence which will tell us whether or not the girls are in Nuremburg, instead.”

Thomas kept from rolling his eyes. Six months studying under a lawyer and the once-daring and decisive Lawrence Quinn had almost been unmade as an officer and a man.

“What is this evidence? How do we get it?” asked Schoenfeld eagerly.

“Well, actually, Johann, it was you who gave us the answer to that question.”

“I did?”

“Yes. So here’s what we’ll do tomorrow morning . . .”


***


By the time Thomas and Quinn had emerged from the Rathaus, Johann was already waiting for them at the head of the market place. His stance and flushed cheeks suggested barely contained agitation.

“I hope you fared better than I,” he snapped when they drew near. “The moment I asked the servants if the mothers had any letters for me to carry to their daughters, it was as if I had become a plague carrier. All three doors were shut in my face. And you?”

“The same with the fathers,” answered Quinn with a nod. “But with the added deceitful details you’d expect from nervous politicians.”

Thomas smiled. “It was strange. When we indicated that we would have to return north to report the failure of our mission here, they were relieved. That changed around entirely when we indicated that we were returning via Nuremburg and thus would be happy to accept responsibility for delivering letters to their daughters at their respective schools. All of a sudden, all three corrected us: their daughters were not at schools, but under the guidance of private tutors.”

“Did they give you names?” pressed Schoenfeld ingenuously.

“They couldn’t,” Quinn answered gently, “since it’s pretty clear there are no names to give.”

Schoenfeld nodded. “So they are concealing something.”

Quinn nodded. “And now, we’ll double-check it from the other end.”

“How?”

“We have a radio with us. We’ll use it to contact the personnel at the new aerodrome in Nuremburg. Some of the local staff there are well-connected with a number of the more affluent groups in the city, who do have enough personnel to make a quick round of the gates and travel-houses. Places which would not fail to notice and remember three girls of such young ages, arriving in the dead of winter in a big city, waiting for a tutor to meet each of them and take them in hand.”

Schoenfeld nodded. “Absolutely. One, they might miss. But all three? It would probably be a safe assumption that if they were not seen, it is because they were never there.”

Larry nodded, turned to North. “Let’s get back to the men at Ringschnaitt. Are they ready to move?”

Thomas shrugged. “They were ready before we left this morning.”


***


As Metzger, the radio operator, looked up, Thomas knew the answer before the squat man even shook his head. “So,” the Englishman said turning to Quinn and Schoenfeld, “Not a whisper of them.” He turned to Volker and Wright, whom he’d sent out early that morning to keep the abbey under closer observation. “Report on reconnaissance?”

Wright—who was even taller than North—spoke with smooth precision. “The garrison, such as it is, is still maintaining reasonable watchfulness, colonel. Although from the attitude of the men we’ve observed, they don’t seem too accustomed to guard duty, and don’t much like it.”

Probably on alert only because we’re still in the area, Thomas conjectured.

Wright hadn’t finished. “They’ve taken some minor steps to increase the defensibility of the abbey. As seen yesterday, they keep one man in a hidden outpost on the roadway in. They send out irregular walking patrols into each quadrant of their perimeter; never more than two men, often only one. Judging from the morning cooking fires, I suspect the small patrol complement is due to their small numbers. We also caught a brief glimpse of one man just a mile from Biberach, we think with a mount, in a concealed position, watching the roads into town.”

“Keeping a close eye out for any movements by our unit, I’ll wager. And the discipline at the abbey?”

Wright’s smile was pinched. “Not such as I’d call it, sir. They seem to be following their orders, but in a casual fashion.”

“And the girls?”

“Sorry, sir. Not a sign of them. But the abbey itself is large, even though they’ve closed up all the outbuildings except the stables. They could be anywhere, sir.”

If they’re still alive, he could hear Wright thinking in unison with him. “Well done, Mr. Wright. You and Volker should get yourself some breakfast.” Which, for all we know might be your last with me, since Quinn already has his acquisitive hooks into the two of you.

Schoenfeld had crossed his arms, was looking from North to Quinn. “So. Prum and his men have apparently become common bandits. What do we do? Scout the abbey more closely, try to find the girls? ”

Quinn shook his head. “We can’t go any closer. They know we’re in Biberach, and until we leave, that one nearby lookout will be watching us. Which means that the moment we move directly toward the abbey, we are putting the girls at risk. We need the element of surprise, if we are to save them.”

“So then we approach under the cover of night, and charge them head on?”

Quinn shook his head. “We might manage to approach undetected, and we could probably overcome them, but not before they killed the girls. Or put guns to their heads and compelled us to withdraw.”

Schoenfeld’s composure disintegrated: his shout turned heads among North’s men. “Then what do you plan to do?”

“Us?” Thomas said mildly. “Why, we plan to leave.”

“To get reinforcements?”

“To get a fresh perspective,” said Quinn.

Schoenfeld stared, livid, from one to the other. “So this is how the great and powerful United States of Europe defends the interests of one of its newest affiliates?” His withered hand trembled as he pointed it at them. “Then I will attempt what you soldiers will not. I will secure the release of those girls myself!”

North allowed one eyebrow to rise skeptically. “Indeed?”

“Yes,” the rather wiry artist retorted hotly. “Judging from the clever planning that went into carrying off this scheme, Prum is a clever man—clever enough to realize that once his crime is known, his only logical alternative is to turn the girls over to me and flee the area at once.”

North struggled to keep a grin off his face—but Quinn leaned forward with an earnest frown. “Johann, don’t do that. It won’t work. If we thought talking to Prum would work, that would be our first approach—“

“Your first approach is to flee.” Johann almost sneered. “I concede your point that an outright attack would endanger the girls. But instead of considering any other solution—and particularly a solution that relies upon brains instead of brawn—you decide to give up. But I will not. I will do what must be done. Alone, if need be.”

Quinn leaned forward even more urgently, evidently ready to make further entreaties that Johann not pursue such a course of action—but North took a step toward Johann with a smile and an extended hand. “And we wish you luck, Herr Schoenfeld. You are indeed a brave man, and we hope that your mission succeeds.”

Johann blinked, stunned by such a rapid approval of his plan—and the de facto confirmation that his friends were not, in fact, going to provide any material assistance in the attempt to free the girls. Then, with a grimace and narrowed eyes, he turned on his heel and stalked away.

North appreciated Quinn’s modicum of composure: the American did not round on him until Schoenfeld had turned a corner, leaving them quite alone in one of Ringschnaitt’s narrow lanes. “Thomas, you just sent that poor unsuspecting artist to his death. Once he’s revealed that he knows about the girls and has seen the inside of the abbey’s defenses, Prum will never let him go.”

North shrugged. “Of course he won’t; Prum may be an amoral monster, but he’s no idiot. He’ll figure right enough—and right away—that poor Johann is not particularly gifted at playing high-stakes poker with extortionists. In fact, what Herr Schoenfeld believes to be his ace in the hole—the threat of external intervention—is worthless, as Prum will quickly teach him.”

“North, if I didn’t know you any better, I’d swear you are as heartless a bastard as Prum himself.”

“Nonsense; I was the legitimate product of a church-consecrated marriage, so I am not a bastard. Technically. However, you may be right about the rest. But mark me, Larry: Prum has no reason to kill Johann immediately—and, more importantly, Johann’s abortive visit will actually allow us to prepare the surprise attack we need to use against Prum.”

Quinn crossed his arms. “Enlighten me.”

“Shh. No talking during Professor North’s lecture. Let us begin by admitting that Prum will be aware that, if Biberach’s town fathers were sending Schoenfeld as some kind of envoy, he would not be traveling to the abbey alone. There’d at least be a small escort, hanging back a few hundred yards. So the absence of that escort will tell Prum that Johann is acting on his own, naively convinced that the bastard will not harm him for fear of bringing searchers out to the abbey. Which Prum knows will not happen, since we can be sure the town fathers have been told—in grisly detail—what will happen to their daughters if they reveal or confirm Prum’s extortion to anyone else.

“So as long as Prum refuses to allow poor Johann to return to Biberach, there’s still no danger of the truth getting out. And even if Schoenfeld had gone to the town fathers first—which he is likely to claim—Prum will interpret the lack of an escort as a sign that those same civic worthies have sent the artist out the abbey as they would send a lamb to the slaughter: to be silenced before he tells anyone else what he knows. Which you may be sure Prum will do—eventually.”

“Which means we’ve just signed Johann Schoenfeld’s death warrant.”

“An overly-hasty conclusion, Mr. Quinn. Attend and learn the delicate art of dealing with inhuman monsters. Prudent creatures like Prum are also cautious creatures. So he will want to speak with Johann. Furthermore, Prum is also a proud creature—and so he will also want to gloat: it is an almost invariable characteristic of such blackguards that they must preen a bit when they feel themselves completely safe.”

“And why will Prum suddenly feel himself completely safe?”

“Well, Mr. Quinn, by the time Herr Schoenfeld arrives at the abbey, the fellow Prum has watching our movements from a mile outside of town will have seen us depart northward and will ahve ridden back to inform his despicable master that we have all left the area. Which means that the only plausible threat to Prum is gone. And we will have departed in such a blasé fashion that he will be forced to conclude that we not only failed to resecure a site for the aerodrome, but that we remain unaware and unsuspecting of Prum’s extortion. Logically, awareness of such a crime would compel us to take action rather than slouch back the way we came. All reasonable, so far?”

Quinn was still frowning, but he nodded. Grudgingly.

“So when Johann arrives with his naive threats of disclosure, Prum will no doubt press him—perhaps unpleasantly, I grant you—to confirm that we actually have left the area. Which our now-resentful friend will either emphatically confirm or unconvincingly deny—because he now believes it to be true also. That is why I couldn’t let you share our plans with him.”

Larry nodded. “Because now, having two separate but identical reports of our departure, Prum will be doubly assured that he is safe.”

Thomas nodded. “Just so. And the moment that Prum begins basking in that mistaken sense of security, that is when we must strike. After we see how he handles Johann, that is.”

“What?” Quinn’s eyes had opened wide.

“Larry, the lecture is over: now we must confront brute reality. Prum will have to pull some of his already meager sentries off the line to escort and guard Johann when he approaches the abbey. And because Prum will feel himself safe, he should be pretty relaxed about doing so. And when he does, those movements will show us precisely where most of his men are positioned, how they react when the abbey is approached, and will possibly help us determine the best sightlines for a sniper.”

“So that we can take out Prum immediately, when we attack.”

“Exactly. If our first blow takes off the head of the serpent, the body is likely to thrash around purposelessly for a while. So before it can grow a new head, some of us will rush in and secure the girls—and Johann—while the rest of us chop its writhing coils into tiny pieces.”

Quinn nodded, but he was still frowning. “Well, that all sounds fine. Except for one thing.”

“Which is?”

“Which is: what if you are wrong about Prum letting Johann live for a while? What if Prum decides to simplify his hostage-holding tasks: one less person to guard, one less mouth to feed?”

North shrugged. “It’s not a logical course of action, Larry. They have plenty of food and they can just let Johann sit in a cell while they wait to see if they have further need of him: as a hostage, a liaison, or an information source for subsequent dealings with the town.”

“Granted—but those are all conjectures. We’re talking about putting a man’s life in certain danger.”

“We’re also talking about the lives of three young girls—and all the men in our platoon who would unnecessarily die in any frontal assault. Which would almost certainly result in the deaths of those young ladies, as well. So this way, we risk one to save all.”

Quinn’s eyes were unblinking and, North had to admit, rather unsettling. “And you wouldn’t even let me warn him what he was walking into.”

“Larry, Prum will believe Johann because, as things stand now, Johann himself is not only convinced that we are gone, but that we do not care about local problems. His genuine bitterness toward us is what will lead Prum to believe him, to believe that we are truly out of the picture. And once he believes that, we have the best chance of making a surprise attack that should save the hostages’ lives. Now, let’s get the platoon ready to pull out north toward Ulm.”


***


Four hours later, sitting in a copse a quarter mile due north of the abbey, Quinn handed the binoculars to Thomas. “There he goes.”

Johann Schoenfeld, having approached the abbey along the east-west road, did not see the man at the observation post wave to the sentries at the main building.

“Have you marked their picket?” Thomas growled behind him.

“Marked, sir,” answered Lieutenant Hastings, who passed a second set of binoculars along the line to the unit’s best marksmen: Volker and Templeton.

Schoenfeld was met and brought into the abbey by two armed men. Thomas relayed the key information as he saw it: “One wheel lock, one flintlock. Or possibly a snaphaunce. Can’t tell at this range.” Assessing the firearms they were up against was crucial tactical intelligence, gathered more easily when the members of the garrison came out from the walls and shadows of the abbey. Or leaned out the window in amused curiosity, as several others did now. “A pretty even mix of wheel locks and flintlocks throughout,” Thomas added, based on the new appearances. “Are you marking their positions, Hastings?”

“They are marked, sir.”

Quinn produced his own binoculars. “I want to get my own close look at how this next part goes down,” he explained. Thomas lay elbow to elbow with the up-timer and watched.

After some delay, Schoenfeld appeared in a high-ceilinged upper-story room, made commandingly expansive by its several wide windows. They had heard about this room from locals. It had evidently been, at different phases in the abbey’s history, a chapel, a library, and a convalescent sun-room. It was hard to tell what it had been most recently, given the chaos of pompery that had been pushed into it. An ornate chair was on a makeshift dais. An altar had been pushed off to one side, serving as a combination side-board and weapons-rack. Prum appeared from the dark at the back of the room, wearing a red cape—a cardinal’s?— and began walking in a circle about Schoenfeld, asking short questions. The answers he received seemed to instigate long responses, replete with grandiose gestures.

“Damn: poor Johann,” muttered Quinn. “Trapped in the court of the Crimson King.”

“Eh? What?”

“An up-time reference Thomas. Just a way of saying that Prum is completely out to lunch.”

“Don’t use up-time idioms to explain up-time idioms, damn you. But if you mean that Prum is mad, well—no, I don’t think so. I’ve seen a lot of this kind of behavior, particularly once the wars became perpetual and the armies started to become desperate and disorganized. Little men, having lived a life beneath the boots of their ‘betters,’ suddenly come into a moment of power. It’s an intoxicating opportunity to play the part of those whom they have hated—and envied—for so long, and to exact vengeance from all who are too weak to resist, as they themselves had long been. But Prum does not stand to gain anything by killing Schoenfeld—not right away, at any rate.”

“So you say. But after he’s questioned him thoroughly, which might eventually include torture—”

“—Prum might indeed kill Schoenfeld and drop the body down some convenient well, where it won’t be found for several months.” Thomas shrugged. “Frankly, if you’re trying to find a lunatic in this whole dance macabre, I nominate Schoenfeld. Granted, civilians often completely misread situations like this one, but Johann seemed sensible enough up until he did this.”

Quinn sighed. “Thomas, you heard Schoenfeld the first night we met him. He’s wracked by guilt, by not being here when the shit hit the fan. This isn’t just about having a plan to save the girls; it’s about the expiation of what Johann considers his sins, of not being in Biberach when his family and town needed him. Johann stated quite clearly that he holds himself responsible for his father’s death. Feels guilty to have fled before the approach of war. And now, he’s probably convinced himself that if he’d been here, he’d have been able to do something to stop this.”

“So he goes to present himself for evisceration by renegades while also inadvertantly providing Prum with a tactical update on our departure.”

Quinn shrugged. “Yes, but if pressed, he’ll probably also point out that we’ll be back.”

“Yes, which will only lead Prum to wrap up his extortion racket in a month or two, while the coast is still clear. Which means that the usefulness of the hostages will end sooner, rather than later.”

“Listen: Johann doesn’t understand our line of work, but he has a good heart—” Larry stopped and stared intently through the binoculars. “Damn, is Prum making Johann get down on his knees?”

North looked, nodded. “Yes. I think he’s making him swear to something. Probably giving him his parole.”

“Hmm.” mused Quinn. “That’s interesting. A military habit Prum’s retained. Probably to give his captives—which is to say, his eventual victims—a false sense of security while he decides what to do with them.”

“You sound like you’re scheming, Larry.”

“Me? I’m a guileless American, remember? Anyhow, I’ve seen enough. As you’ve said, now we need to mount an attack as soon as possible.”

North nodded, looked over his shoulder: dispersed back along one-hundred and fifty yards of open woods, the platoon was hiding as best it could. “Moving them all up to attack positions is not going to be a short job, unfortunately.”

Hastings, hanging a few feet back, shrugged. “We could advance at night, attack under cover of darkness.”

North shook his head. “A night attack is no good, particularly since we don’t have detailed information about the interior of the abbey. Major Quinn and I asked Herr Schoenfeld about the layout: he’d never been inside. Not surprising for a Protestant. Not surprising for a Catholic, either: the sisters and townsfolk were not mutually welcoming. Besides, any earlier layout could have been changed dramatically by now.”

“Then sir, should we move at night and attack at dawn?”

“Hastings, what part of the phrase ‘quick attack’ is confusing you? With every passing minute, there is an accumulating chance that one of the enemy—either a walking patrol, or another mounted lookout--will alert Prum to the fact that we never really left the region and are now poised, weapons drawn, on his doorstep. Being discovered that way—or by some other bit of bad luck—would constitute a situation that we can safely characterize as Very Bad Indeed. Besides, moving at dark could give us away just as surely as moving in daylight: we don’t know this ground, Hastings. And we’ve not been close enough to the abbey itself know the best positions to assault from, or the most concealed avenues of moving into them.”

Quinn thought for a moment. “I think I can help with that.”

“What? How?”

“Well, you’ve groused about my taking four of your very best soldiers, so I guess I’ll see if they live up to the hype. I’ll take the four of them forward as a pathfinder force. We’ll blaze a trail along the best-concealed pathways to assault positions. Give us about an hour. Once we give you the signal to get the rest of the platoon moving up in drips and drabs, we’ll start looking for ways to get a sniper into an optimal position and, if possible, wriggle into some far forward positions for directing the start of the attack.”

North frowned. “So you’re going to go bounding off into the bush—the rather sparse bush—with Volker, Templeton, Winkelmann, and Wright—on your own?”

Quinn shrugged. “Yeah. You said they’re the best. And you need to manage traffic back here. Got a better plan?”

North looked at Quinn, found the subtly diffident cheeriness of the American unnerving, and studying his eyes for a second, resolved never to play poker with him again: he had learned how to become well-nigh unreadable.

Quinn crossed his arms. “I’ll ask again: do you have a better plan?”

North sighed. “Damn it, no: I do not. So get moving—and no foolish risks, Larry.”

Larry beamed. “Only sensible risks: I promise.” And then he was gone into the thickets that led away from the copse and down the slight incline toward the abbey.


***


As North waited for Quinn to meet him and point out any new details about the abbey and where he’d positioned of the sniper, the Englishman scanned the skirmish line of his troops. They were fanned out along the edge of the smaller but thicker copse to which Larry’s pathfinders had brought them. Wright, clearly the shrewdest of the four troopers that the American had selected, had waved them into the positions, outlined the broad outlines of the attack his commander was recommending.

Peering over the one hundred twenty-five yards separating them from the abbey’s walls, North had to admit that the American’s attack concept was a good one, and he had selected good positions from which to spring it. Likewise, the concealment on the approaches had been more than adequate, and, best of all, Quinn had them positioned due east of the abbey. This put them well away from the primary source of traffic—the west-leading road to Biberach—and therefore, to the notional “rear” of the hidden sentry who kept watch over it.

The ground between the copse and the main building was mostly clear, but a smattering of low bushes had grown wild in the year of its abandonment, providing a few points of cover for a conventional approach. But at this range, and with the element of surprise against troops armed with single-barreled, muzzle-loading weapons, North and his lead squad would make a straight rush over the ground. His two supporting squads would provide covering fire until the lead squad was ready to enter the main building, at which point they would deploy to the cover of the bushes. Eventually, a few men would head down the road to set up a flanking position to the south and—

—and why the hell was Larry Quinn emerging from those overgrown bushes and walking toward the abbey, a white handkerchief held high?

“Damn it all, what is that lunatic doing?”

Thomas had expected the question to be rhetorical and inspire fearful silence among his men, but from just behind him, a voice answered his query: “He’s getting inside, sir.”

North turned, dumbfounded, discovered that Wright had caught up to him again and was regarding him with patient blue eyes. “And what in the name of all that is both holy and unholy does that damned Yank think he’s going to achieve if he does get inside?”

“The element of surprise, sir.”

“Surprise? Well, yes, I’m sure Prum will be surprised: the person who could do him the most harm is now simply walking in his front door, unarmed. I know I’m surprised.”

Wright’s smile was small. “I think Major Quinn has something else in mind, sir.”

“I doubt Major Quinn has enough of a mind to have something else in, Corporal Wright. Now, you’d better tell me—”

“No time, sir. Looks like the party is starting. Watch carefully, now; you’ll need to act quickly.”

“I’ll need to—? Oh, bloody hell. Hastings, Finan: word down the line. We go with the plans we discussed upon arriving here, but they could be changing as we move. Everyone’s eyes on me. Assign the covering squads their marks. Designate reloaders.”

“Done, sir,” answered Hastings.

Oh. Well. Why the hell am I here at all, then? “Very well. Be ready.”

“For what?”

“As if I bloody know? Just be ready to follow my orders and my lead.”

“Yes, sir.”

Quinn was disappearing through the front door after a hasty body search by the guards. Only one of the two sentries went in with him. An audible commotion rose up a moment later: several of the other sentries at the windows disappeared inside, their duty overridden by their curiosity. Well, that does help us by clearing the field a bit, admitted Thomas. But still— “Finan: report. The enemy’s patrol status?”

“None out right now, sir. And while one or two of the sentries might look a bit more alert, most of them are trying to see who the visitor is. They probably don’t get a lot of excitement out here.”

“Well, they’re about to get more than they bargained for. Hastings, I want this to be absolutely clear: you do not charge with the last two squads right behind me. You keep your men back here until the lead squad is safe under the walls.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Finan?”

“Sir?”

“Pass the word to the lead squad: rifles back-slung, revolvers out. Except for Arnfauss and Schiltung: if we need close supporting fire on the way in, they’ll provide it with their Winchesters. The rest of us will charge headlong to get to the walls before—”

“Sir,” interrupted Wright, who, it turned out, had Quinn’s binoculars. “The major is inside.”

Thomas swiveled to look through his own glasses. Sure enough, the hare-brained American was in Prum’s own Grand Receiving Room of Tawdry Squalor. Prum was already pulling out all the theatrical stops, lording it over his new, hapless captive.

Which is when Thomas noticed how calm and utterly collected Quinn was. And how calm Wright was. As if none of this were a surprise to either of them. But what purpose, what scheme, could possibly—?

“Sir, get ready,” hissed Wright.

The largely-one-sided conversation in Prum’s audience chamber was becoming less cordial: Prum gestured at the floor imperiously. Quinn looked away, said something brief. Two of Prum’s men came forward. Larry, do as the homicidal poppinjay says; don’t get him angry. He might—

The prior exchange was reprised: Prum pointed at the floor, Larry seemed to resist again. One of the two men who had stepped closer lifted a sword—whereupon, reluctantly, Larry sank to his knees—

Wright’s breath stopped in mid-draw.

Thomas understood what was happening just before a sharp, distinctively up-time report sounded from the upper third of one of the higher trees in the copse. Almost instantly, Prum spun around, evidently hit in the shoulder. Thomas heard Templeton’s voice utter a ferocious curse—“Bollocks!”—from that same location, accompanied by the faint clatter of the Ruger’s bolt action being worked.

Thomas was raising up as the second shot barked out over their heads and Prum went down, a puff of dusky red marking the impact point just to the right of his sternum.

“Charge!” yelled North, and, nine-millimeter up-time automatic in hand, he began a long-legged sprint toward the abbey. First squad, emerging from the trees, was right behind him, cap and ball revolvers at the ready.

Prum’s men appeared at the windows of the abbey: each one was greeted by the slow but steady roars of two, sometimes three, pre-sighted Winchesters. Half of the renegades sprawled back. The door guard returned fire from deeper in the archway, but did not even have an angle on—or probably know about—most of the squad that was charging in his direction. Winchesters snapped rounds at his muzzle flash. It was impossible to tell if he was dead, wounded, running, or reloading.

Wright was pacing Thomas on the charge, Quinn’s own nine-millimeter in his long-fingered grip. Volker and Winkelmann rose up out of the bushes in front of them, leading the way to the gate by about ten yards. Damn it, how did Quinn manage to get those two positioned before I had even—?

But there was no time to wonder at the obvious—that Larry Quinn had indeed grown proficient as a soldier—because they were coming upon the archway. The fellow in its shadows—the one who had returned fire at the other squads—cast away the musket he was reloading and drew his small sword. He went down under a flurry of bullets from the four lead attackers. To the south, a single musket spoke; Winchesters answered, probably announcing the end of the soldier manning the road outpost.

Thomas, panting, threw himself against the interior wall of the arched entrance to the abbey. “Wright, Volker, Winkelmann: according to what little we learned of the interior from the farmers in Ringschnaitt, we’ll go up the stairs to the—”

“We know, sir; Major Quinn told us. Leapfrog advance?”

Damn smart alecks. “Stop asking the obvious, Winkelmann. Start us off.”

The rest of the First Squad arrived as the four of them rounded the doorway and started up the staircase.


***


They encountered only three men on the way to Prum’s audience chamber—all trying to run away. One made the mistake of bringing up his weapon; the other two sensibly surrendered. However, Thomas reflected, perhaps the first one was the most sensible of the three: the quick bullets he got were infinitely preferable to what the townspeople of Biberach were likely to visit upon any survivors.

As Thomas’ men dodged into Prum’s audience chamber, a familiar voice spoke from the darkness along the rear wall: “Donner.”

Blitz,” replied Volker and Wright in unison.

Quinn leaned out of those shadows. “Quickly, back here. I’ve been covering the approach to the girls, but I can’t get them out.”

The dark at the rear of the room concealed a passageway to a row of hermitage cells. All locked. All with sounds of whimpering coming from behind the thick, dark timbers. Thomas started snapping orders. “Volker, get some men up here and take these locks off. Presuming, that the mutinous Major Quinn will allow you to take orders from me any more.”

Volker slunk away like a child detecting the first impatient tones of what might turn into a full-blown parental argument.

But Quinn just smiled. “I wasn’t in the least mutinous, Thomas: I did exactly what I said I’d do. Just not the way you envisioned it. And actually, let’s be clear about one other thing: for this operation, you were my employee.”

“Don’t distract me with the facts, you impertinent Yank. Why they hell didn’t you tell me what you had in mi—?”

“Because, Thomas, would you have agreed to this plan quickly?”

“What, are you mad? Agree to this—?” Thomas had planned to indicate Prum’s awkwardly-fallen corpse along with the others of his makeshift court who had not known to keep their heads down and out of Templeton’s scope-aided field of fire. But then the three girls emerged from their prisons with grateful sobs, and Schoenfeld was heard raging in a further cell, obviously none the worse for wear. “Well, um, I suppose I wouldn’t have.”

Quinn smiled. “Right. And there wasn’t time to argue. You agreed that there was no way to be sure how long Prum would let Johann live. And the only reason Johann had his head in Prum’s noose was because we didn’t explain things to our artist friend before he went off on his quest.. So every minute mattered, and I didn’t have the right to ask anyone else to go in and get our sniper a shot at Prum. I was the one who put Johann in there: it was on me to start the wheels moving that would get him out.”

North looked away, wondered if he’d have had the nerve—or more to the point, the fine sense of ethics—to have done what Larry had done. “Well, you may be a lunatic, but at least you’re an admirable one.”

Larry shrugged. “Not so much of a lunatic to miss that we really did need a pathfinder group to find a concealed route to some reasonable assault positions. And as soon as I realized that, I saw how I could put the rest of my plan in place while you were bringing up the platoon. So either way, the best thing was for me to go on ahead with my four men.”

“Your men?”

“Sorry, but they are for now. And you might not see them again for quite a while.”

“Well, I suppose you’re not taking them to invade some other world, are you?” And then, judging from Larry’s patient gaze, North understood. Yes, they were going to another world. The New World, to be precise. “The Americas, then?”

Quinn shook his head. “Thomas, you know I can’t say.”

“No—but you just did. Well, none of my business and not for me to repeat.” With which Thomas set about putting things in proper military order: “Finan, bring Hastings in. I want a head-count of the defenders, dead and alive. If it doesn’t match or exceed our pre-attack estimate, he’s to organize pursuit teams. As soon as you’ve got that squared away, send a mounted courier back to Biberach. Message follows . . .”


***


By the time the rider to the town was dispatched, the survivors had filled in the blanks of how the garrison had evolved into a pack of blackmailing thieves.

Their group had not started out as part of a regular formation, but as members of a mercenary regiment that had been broken, reconstituted, and broken again in the years leading up to the creeping peace that had begun to break out a year after Grantville appeared. Mostly Swabians, those that had joined from some sense of religious loyalty had, by the end of 1634, found billets with more legitimate units, or directly in Swedish regiments. And those that remained—

Well, the dregs always went somewhere, and in this case, they remained with the regiment that Horn allowed to be battered down to company size, and then a single platoon after sharp exchanges with Bernhard over various contested tracts further to the west.

With the unit exhausted and threadbare, Horn directed his staff officers to move it off the line: it was too weak, too unreliable, and too ill-equipped to be an effective fighting force. Rear-area security or garrison duty: that was its only role, now.

The unit’s senior officer, a well-respected fifteen-year veteran by the name of Grieg, was all that was keeping them together. But on the journey to replace the garrison at Biberach, he showed signs of coming down with some kind of fever. By the time they reached Biberach, he was barely able to sit his horse long enough to formally relieve the garrison’s commander. Already weak, he was one of the first victims of the plague that had been festering unknown in the unit, and which broke out even as the burgermeisters were trying to decide where to house their new garrison. Indeed, it was in dealing with them directly that Johann’s father had evidently contracted the disease himself.

In the wake of the death and misery of the plague, the only officer left was the young, charismatic, ambitious, and utterly ruthless Georg Prum. The unit’s senior remaining NCO tried to restrain his new commander, but he too was weak with fever. Although not afflicted by the plague itself, the fellow nonetheless died, possibly aided by some poison from Prum, it was hinted.

And so, without a moral compass, resentful of the town that had left them to die in a plague-house, and with no prospects of coming out of long years of warfare with any better prize than their own vermin-ridden hides, Prum’s soldiers willingly became blackmailers. And once little Gisela was in hand, it was easy to leverage each town leader to compromise the next. And so they had become wealthy at last.

Schoenfeld had, in his few short hours among them, heard enough of the story to be able to make a full report back in Biberach, but when offered the opportunity to travel there along with the courier, he shook his head. “No,” he said, “I don’t think I’ll be going back there—not if the offer to travel with you to Grantville still stands, Major Quinn.”

Larry looked a bit sheepish. “I’m surprised you’d travel anywhere with me at all, Herr Schoenfeld.”

“Johann, please. I cannot say I like the gambit you used here, but I see the wisdom of it—and I did not miss the worry in your eyes when I set out on my own.” Schoenfeld pointedly did not look at North during this exchange. “So, I take it I am welcome to accompany you, then?”

Larry smiled. “You most certainly are. We’ll start on our way at once.”

Thomas frowned. “What? No victory parade through Biberach? No basking in the ardent hero worship of a grateful town?”

Quinn’s smile broadened. “I’ll let you be the recipient of that well-deserved adulation, Thomas. I’ve got to get back to Grantville. And you’ve got an aerodrome to set up.”

“Well, yes, so I do. And the last thing I need under foot is a meddling Yank who shows up to change my mission, steal my men, and then ruin my battle plans. You made all of this most difficult, you know. Things will be much simpler now.”

“I’m sure,” said Quinn with a farewell wave, “that from here on, accomplishing the rest of your mission will seem like child’s play.”

Thomas scowled. “And I won’t miss your so-called jokes either, Larry. Get on with you and your foolishness, now: I have an aerodrome to set up.”



Copyright © 2012 by Charles E. Gannon



Charles E. Gannon is the coauthor with New York Times best seller Eric Flint of Ring of Fire series entry 1635: Papal Stakes. Gannon is also the coauthor of Starfire novel Extremis and the upcoming solo science fiction adventure, Fire with Fire