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Chapter 36

The king himself led the charge up the slope, heading toward the imperial guns. "Gott mit uns!" he bellowed, waving his cavalrymen forward with his saber.

Behind him, Anders Jönsson rolled his eyes with exasperation. Gustav Adolf carried two wheel-lock pistols at his side, holstered to his saddle. But he never used them in battle. He claimed it was because the weapons were too inaccurate, but his bodyguard was skeptical. The king of Sweden was sensitive about his myopia. Jonsson thought his unwillingness to use pistols was simply because Gustav couldn't hit the proverbial broad side of a barn.

Anders spurred his horse alongside the king's. "I'm supposed to be guarding you, Highness," he snarled, "not the other way around."

Gustav grinned. "Get a faster horse!" he bellowed. Again, he waved the saber. "Gott mit uns!"

Behind them, the Smalanders and East Gothlanders echoed the words. From either side—the Finns were already curling around the slower Swedes—came the blood-curdling Finnish battle cry.

"Haakaa päälle!"


Ahead of the cavalry charge, positioned almost at the crest of the shallow slope, were the imperial batteries. As slow as the tercios were, the big guns were slower still. Tilly's order for an oblique advance had caught the artillerymen by surprise. They were still hitching up the horses and oxen when Gustav started his charge.

The Catholic gunners stared at the thousands of Swedish and Finnish horsemen galloping toward them. They had no protection left beyond a small force of pikemen.

One of the gunners began hurriedly unhitching the lead horse from the trail of his six-pounder. "What are you doing?" demanded his comrade.

"I'm getting out of here," the gunner hissed. "You'd better do the same, if you're smart. Those Finns are as savage as Croats."

His partner blanched. The rammer had no experience with Finns, but he knew Croats. They formed a large part of the Habsburg dynasty's light cavalry, and were as famous for their cruelty as their horsemanship. Croats had no use for prisoners.

The gunner had unhitched the horse and was awkwardly climbing onto it. The horse had neither a saddle nor stirrups, and was guided by a simple halter. From a distance, his partner heard the faint sound of the Finnish battle cry. Haakaa päälle? He didn't know the words.

"That means 'hack them down,' " grunted the gunner. "In case you were wondering." He pounded his mount's flanks with spurless heels. The confused artillery horse broke into an awkward trot. Seconds later, inspired more by the fear and fury in his rider's voice than the naked boot heels, the horse lurched into a sudden gallop.

The gunner, riding bareback and without stirrups, was flung to the ground. He died soon thereafter. His broken neck was trampled by his partner's horse, as it made its own uncontrolled exit from the scene. Unlike the gunner, his comrade managed to stay on the horse's back by clutching the beast's mane. But it did him little good. The horse, unaccustomed to being ridden, was so terrified and confused that it galloped in a circle and brought the rammer into a knot of Finnish cavalrymen. Haakaa päälle!


Most of the imperial artillerymen lacked the option of fleeing—or trying to—on horseback. There were few horse-drawn six-pounders in Tilly's army. Catholic armies favored twelve-pounders and huge twenty-four-pounders, drawn by oxen. The gunners simply escaped on foot—successfully, in all but a few instances. For all their savage reputation, the Finns were under Gustav's command and were accustomed to his discipline. The king had a short way with cavalrymen who went off on wild charges when there was royal work to be done.

"Take the cannons!" Gustav roared. Ignoring the imperial gunners and rammers scattering to the rear, the Finns stooped onto the guns like hawks. The few knots of artillerymen still trying to stand their ground were butchered within a minute or two. By the time Gustav Adolf and the slower Swedes galloped onto the scene, Tilly's entire artillery had been seized.

Gustav trotted back and forth on his charger. He had scabbarded his saber and was back to waving his hat. "Turn them around!" he bellowed. His powerful voice, as always, carried well in a battle. "I want those guns turned on Tilly! Now, d'you hear? Now! Move, move, move!"

The Finns ignored the command, knowing it was not intended for them. While they maintained a guard against enemy cavalry, hundreds of Smalanders and East Gothlanders dismounted. Hurriedly, they picked up the spikes discarded by the routed Catholic gunners and began levering the great weapons around. Even before the guns were repositioned, other cavalrymen were already beginning to load the pieces.

They were slower and less adept than Torstensson's men would have been, of course. But, unlike the cavalry of other armies, Gustav's men were cross-trained to serve as artillery or even, if need be, as infantry. Swedish cavalry, like the cavalry of other nations, was dominated by noblemen. But the Swedish aristocracy had little in the way of continental hauteur—and what little they began with was soon drummed out of them by their king's training and discipline.

Soon enough, the huge cannons were brought to bear on their target. Gustav did not wait to fire a coordinated volley, as Torstensson's artillery was trained to do. Each gun fired as soon as possible.

The fire was ragged, slow, and indifferently aimed. It mattered not at all. Tilly's army was now a crumpled and half-broken thing, distorted almost beyond recognition by the pressure of the battle. The rigid formations of the tercios had collapsed, compressed between Horn's unyielding line and the battering of Torstensson's artillery. Now, adding to their destruction, came the heavy fire of their own cannons. The huge mass of Catholic soldiers—not much more than a mob—was a target impossible to miss, even for the cavalrymen manning the captured guns. And the size of the cannonballs made up for their lack of accuracy. Unlike Torstensson's well-trained and experienced gunners, the cavalrymen failed more often than not in making the grazing shot. But against thousands of men packed so tightly they could barely move, the twelve- and twenty-four-pound balls which landed caused pure havoc.

For one of the rare times in his life, even Gustav was not tempted to launch another charge.

Well . . . Not much.

"Perhaps . . ." Jonsson heard him mutter. "Perhaps . . ." The king was squinting at the distant enemy, raising himself up in his stirrups. His huge frame seemed like that of a brown bear, eyeing a crippled moose.

His bodyguard spoke hastily. "It's a done thing, Your Majesty." Jonsson pointed at the imperial forces with his saber. "They're finished. It's over."

The king took two or three deep breaths, and then eased himself back into the saddle. "Yes."

He heaved a sigh. "They should surrender now. Their cavalry has all fled. No chance of making a sally. They're trapped."

Jönsson said nothing. There was no chance at all of their enemy surrendering. Not with Tilly in command.

"Poor Tilly," mused Gustav. "Pappenheim has ruined him twice. The butcher of Magdeburg. And now—forever—"

The king's near-sighted blue eyes scanned a landscape that could have been nothing but a blur. But the sight still seemed pleasing to him.

"And now, forever. Breitenfeld."


"God damn Pappenheim," hissed Tilly. The old general's face grew pinched as his aide tightened a bandage, but he made no sound of protest. Just another hissing curse:

"God damn Pappenheim."

Tilly was lying on the ground near the center of his army. He had been wounded twice already. The first wound was minor, not much more than a bad bruise caused by a musketball glancing off his cuirass. The hip wound which his aide was now bandaging was more serious. A pike head sent flying by those infernal Swedish guns had torn him badly. His entire leg was soaked with blood.

Tilly's verbal curse was for Pappenheim. His silent one, for himself.

I should have listened to Wallenstein. So fast! So fast! I never saw an army move that fast. How did that Swedish bastard do it?

The old man was tempted to close his eyes, from sheer anguish and humiliation. But he resisted the impulse, even when—not forty yards distant—he saw another dozen of his men turned into a bloody, bone-splintered mess by a bouncing cannonball. No man would ever say that Tilly—Jan Tzerklas, Count Tilly!—could not face ruin with the same fearlessness with which he had always faced triumph.

Two of his officers approached and knelt at his side. The faces of both men were haggard.

"We must surrender, General," said one of them.

"There is no possibility of retreat," added the other, "not without cavalry to cover us. The Swedish cavalry and their Finns will butcher us."

Still lying on his back, weak from loss of blood, Tilly shook his head. For all the general's exhaustion and age, the gesture was firm as a bull's.

"No." Hissing: "Damn Pappenheim and his precious Black Cuirassiers!" For a moment, he closed his eyes. Again: "No. I will not surrender."

The aides began to protest. Tilly silenced them with a clenched fist held high. His eyes reopened, staring at the sky.

"How soon is nightfall?" he asked.

One of the aides glanced up. "An hour. Perhaps two."

"Hold till then," growled Tilly. "Till nightfall. After that the men can retreat. It will be a rout, but in the darkness the damned Swedes will not be able to pursue. We can save most of the army."

"What's left of it," muttered an aide.

Tilly glared at him. Then at the other. Then at three more officers who had come to their side.

"Useless," he snarled. "As bad as Pappenheim. All glory and no stomach."

He turned to his aide. "Get me up," he commanded. "Onto my charger."

The aide didn't even think to protest. It was the work of a few minutes to lever the old general onto his horse.

From the saddle, Tilly sneered down at his officers.

"Surrender, you say? Damn you all! My men will stand with me."


And so it proved. Till nightfall, Tilly took his place near the front of the imperial line, holding his men by force of will and example.

Jesu-Maria! they cried, dying. Father Tilly!

At dusk, Tilly was struck down again. No one saw the missile which caused the wound. A musketball, perhaps. But by the look of the terrible wound in his shoulder, it was probably another broken piece of the battle, sent flying by those horrible Swedish guns.

His aide and several soldiers rescued him. Improvising a stretcher, they hurried to the rear. Until he lost consciousness a few minutes later, Tilly cursed them for cowards. As the stretcher passed through the broken tercios, clusters of Tilly's soldiers formed a defense guard, escorting their commander to safety.

For the rest, Tilly's fall signaled the rout. The Catholic veterans could stand the butchery no longer. In less than five minutes, the lines which had stood unyielding for hours broke into a stampede. Discarding their weapons and gear, thousands of imperial infantrymen began racing for the shelter of darkness and distant woods.

Most of them made their escape. Gustav ordered no pursuit. Tilly's sheer courage, by holding the Swedes at bay until nightfall, had made the complete destruction of his army impossible.


As he knelt in prayer after the battle, the king of Sweden was not aggrieved and never thought to curse his foe. He understood what Tilly's purpose had been, in that seemingly insane stand, and found nothing in it except admiration.

And, truth be told, a certain satisfaction. The last of a great line had fallen. But he had toppled like a great tree, not rotted like a stump. Something in the pious Lutheran king saw the hand of God at work, in the broken but glorious ruin of his Catholic enemy. God's will worked in mysterious ways, not understood by men. But Gustav thought he could detect something of that divine purpose, in the manner of Tilly's downfall.

No matter, in any event. Gustav Adolf had not completely destroyed his enemy, true. But he had won the greatest battlefield victory in decades, perhaps centuries. And if Tilly had prevented total ruin, the wreckage was still incredible to behold. The proud imperial army which had defeated every opponent they faced since the White Mountain was nothing but rubble.

At Breitenfeld, the Swedish forces suffered barely two thousand casualties. Their opponents?

Seven thousand dead.

Six thousand wounded and captured.

All the artillery, captured.

The entire imperial baggage train, captured.

Ninety battle flags, captured.


The road into central Europe was open. Vienna, Prague, Munich, Mainz—anywhere the king of Sweden might choose to go. Breitenfeld opened the way.

The Lion of the North was no longer penned in the Baltic. Emperor Ferdinand was penned, now. He and his cohorts in the Inquisition.


"Send for Wallenstein," Ferdinand sighed, when he heard the news. His courtiers began to protest, but the emperor scowled them down. "I distrust and despise the man as much as you," he snarled. "But what choice do I have?"

Silence. No choice at all.


Cardinal Richelieu did not sigh, when he was told of Breitenfeld. Sighing was not his way. He said nothing; his lean, intellectual's face remained expressionless; he gave no hint of his sentiments or thoughts.

He dismissed his assistants immediately. Then, sitting at his study, began to pen a letter.

My dear Wallenstein,

Greetings, and may God's blessing be upon you. By now, you will have heard the news of Breitenfeld. You will recall, I am certain, a conversation which we had once. I regret that I did not listen more carefully to your advice and warnings. It seems to me that there might now be a mutual advantage in working toward the end which you suggested at the time. I will say no more of that here. Surely you understand my purpose without further elaboration. If you are still of the same mind, send word to me by courier.


While his enemies—open and hidden—plotted against him, the king of Sweden solidified his hold on central Germany. He left Leipzig to be recaptured by the chastened Saxons, while he himself followed Tilly's retreating army. He captured three thousand more of those men in a small battle outside Merseburg two days later. On September 21, four days after Breitenfeld, he occupied Halle and allowed his army to rest and refit.

The future was unclear, his ensuing course uncertain. Already the king was being urged in many different directions by his various allies and advisers.

No matter. Whichever course he decided upon, Gustav Adolf was certain of one thing. At Breitenfeld, the world had changed forever.

Breitenfeld. Always Breitenfeld.



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