Back | Next

Part Four

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Chapter 37

Word of Breitenfeld reached Grantville toward the end of September. The town erupted in celebration, which went on for two full days.

The fact that the Catholics—who now constituted well over half the population—participated fully in the festivities was a sign of just how little religious affiliation lay at the center of the war. Germany's commoners, by and large, tended to be indifferent to their neighbors' Christian denomination. It was the aristocracy and the princes—above all, the Habsburg dynasty—who had forced the issue upon the Holy Roman Empire. And while each one of those noblemen claimed to be acting out of nothing more than piety, it was really their own power and privileges which were at stake. The great mercenary armies which ravaged central Europe were willing enough to enlist Protestants or Catholics into their ranks, regardless of their official allegiance. Any number of the "Catholic" mercenaries defeated by the Americans and then incorporated into their new society proved, once the dust settled, to be Lutherans or Calvinists.

So, everyone celebrated. Even Simpson and his coterie, for once, refrained from their usual recriminations and protests. Not even an ox was dumb enough not to understand that the king of Sweden's great victory at Breitenfeld removed most of the immediate military pressure from Thuringia.

Most, but not all. There were no official imperial armies squeezing the province any longer. But Tilly's army, in shattering, had produced a number of splinters. One of them, under the "command" of a self-appointed "captain," had decided to seek refuge for the winter south of the Harz mountains.

That ragged army numbered perhaps a thousand men, accompanied by twice that many camp followers. They marched—in a manner of speaking—into southern Thuringia, desperately seeking food and shelter from the coming winter. They had heard that the region was still largely unravaged by the war. They believed those rumors.

They had also heard that a band of sorcerers lurked thereabouts. But that rumor they dismissed. Witchcraft was a thing of old women, casting malicious spells on their neighbors—not powerful sorcerers shattering entire armies.

They learned otherwise before they got within thirty miles of Grantville, at a small crossroads not far from Jena.


Jena was a university town, famed throughout Germany as a center of learning. Its Collegium Jenense had been founded in 1558 with the help of the Protestant reformer Melanchthon. Jena had a population numbering in the thousands but, unlike Badenburg, the town was unwalled and essentially unprotected. When word arrived of an approaching army of mercenaries, the townsfolk were thrown into panic.

The notables conferred, debated, squabbled, bickered. What to do? The traditional remedy for the coming ill was to pay what amounted to extortion money. But there was no guarantee the measure would shield the town from such an undisciplined and half-leaderless force. It was a moot point, anyway. Jena's coffers had already been drained dry by Tilly.

Resistance? With what?

To be sure, the university's students mobilized in the streets, brandishing their cudgels fearlessly and demanding to be led into battle. The notables refrained from public sarcasm, since university students had a tendency to become riotous when mocked. But they did not take the offer seriously. A few hundred students armed with clubs—against a thousand real soldiers, armed with pike and arquebus?


Then, there came an unexpected offer of assistance. From the mysterious new town to the southwest called Grantville. A sorcerers' town, some said. A den of witchcraft and deviltry.

The notables consulted privately with the university's leading professors. Theologians, to a man. Experts on the Devil and his works.

The theologians, of course, also debated and bickered and squabbled. But not for long. Divine intention has a way of becoming very clear, when the alternative is a city sacked.

God's will. Accept the offer.


Three days later, the military contingent from Grantville passed by the town, on their way to confront the oncoming mercenaries. The townsfolk were relieved when the leaders of that force stated they had no intention of entering Jena. They were even more relieved when the leaders—"Americans," they called themselves; odd name—reiterated that they sought neither payment nor tribute. Only, as they had said in their offer, a desire for trade and commerce. Oh, yes—and a desire to exchange knowledge with the university's faculty and students, and take advantage of their famous printing facilities.

What could be the harm in that?

Half the town, and all the students, turned out to watch the Americans march by. They lined the road leading to Leipzig, cheering wildly. The applause was not diminished by the relatively small size of the American army. There were only four hundred men in that force, but they marched in good order and seemed full of confidence. So did the two hundred or so Scots cavalrymen who accompanied them.

The onlooking burghers and their wives were disturbed by the passing army. Well disciplined and unthreatening, yes. But the gear and equipment! Especially—

The university students, on the other hand, were not upset in the least by the huge vehicle which led the procession. To the contrary, they were quite charmed by the grotesque-looking thing. And once a few of their bolder number ascertained the name of the contraption, its further progress was greeted by a new cheer:


The older residents were less enthusiastic. Mutters were heard in which the name of the Devil was bandied about. But even the town's notables were ready enough to accept the explanation of the students. They had heard of Leonardo da Vinci, even if they had never seen his sketches.

The rifles, oddly enough, caused more distress. The coal-truck-turned-armored-personnel-carrier was too outlandish for the townspeople to gauge. But many of them were quite familiar with firearms, and the American-style arquebuses brought a chill to their spines. Not much to look at, true. But there was something reptilian and deadly about the serpentine slenderness of the things.

The camouflage hunting apparel also caused comment, as did the motorcycles. Couriers and scouts, apparently, although the onlookers were puzzled by the nature of the small black boxes into which the motorcyclists were seen to speak. The more perspicacious of the students spotted the similar device in the hand of the American leader riding in another vehicle. Inquiries were made, in stumbling English, to the passing American soldiers. Once it was ascertained that some of those soldiers were actually Germans themselves, additional charming acronyms were added to the students' cheers:

Four by four! Four by four!

* * *

Squatting in the back of the armored pickup, Mike grinned. Frank, the operational commander of the little army, was riding up front. As soon as Frank stopped talking on the radio, Mike leaned forward and hissed at him through the small window in the back of the cab.

"See?" he demanded. "What did I tell you?"

"All right, all right," grumbled Frank. "You don't have to rub it in."

Satisfied, Mike leaned back. But his grin never faded. He transferred it to the six other occupants in the back of the truck.

" 'Familiarity breeds contempt,'" he stated. "Give something a label and it stops being mysterious and devilish. It just is, that's all. That's why I told Heinrich and his guys to spread the word, if anybody asked."

The interior of the truck bed, enclosed by welded quarter-inch steel plate, was dark and gloomy. But there was enough light coming through the firing slits to allow Mike to see the faces of his companions. They responded to his cheerful grin with their own smiles, which were nervous in every case but one.

The nerveless—say better, insouciant—smile was actually quite wicked. The eyes above it gleamed with amusement and glee.

"You hear that, Frank?" the smile's owner demanded. "'Familiarity breeds contempt!' "

Frank turned his head and glowered through the back window. At the nerveless smile, first; then, at the others.

"I still say girls have got no business here!" he snapped.

"'Girls'?" snorted Gayle Mason. "I'm thirty-two, you old geezer. I remember you saying the same thing the first day I showed up at the mine. What was that—ten years ago?"

Frank glared; Gayle glared back. Gayle was an attractive enough woman, in a stocky and muscular manner. Her face was too plain to be considered pretty, but no one had ever suggested she was ugly. Still—excepting the absence of jowls—when she glared, Gayle bore a fair resemblance to a pugnacious bulldog.

"What I say," she continued, "is that broken-down old farts have got no business on a battlefield."

"Now, Gayle," murmured Mike. "Be nice."

Frank's eyes moved away from Gayle, and focused on the other women in the truck. "Gayle's hopeless," he growled. "She's doing this just to spite me. But you other—you girls—should have more sense."

The young women in the truck abandoned their nervous smiles, in favor of stubborn jaws. Except for Gayle, they were in their late teens or early twenties. The youngest of them, Julie Sims, managed a fair imitation of Gayle's glare.

"This is a hell of a time to bring up that argument, Uncle Frank!" she snapped. "We've already been through it, and it's settled." Unkindly: "You're just pissed because I'm a better shot than you are, and you know it!"

Grumbling: "I'm tired of being a cheerleader."

"Beats being dead," came Frank's immediate reply.

"You were quick enough to put my boyfriend in the front line!"

Frank was just as stubborn as his niece. "That's different. He's a guy. And I'll tell you something else, young lady. If that stupid damned boyfriend of yours breaks ranks 'cause he's worried about you, there'll be hell to pay! That's one of the reasons I don't want—"

"Chip?" demanded Julie. "Ha! I already told him what'd happen if he did. He's hunted with me too, you know. I'll nail him before he takes a step."

Watching the interplay, Mike's grin faded. In truth, despite his genuine amusement at his older friend's knee-jerk outrage, Mike was uneasy himself with the arrangement. Mike thought he possessed little of any traditional "male chauvinism"—and what little there was had long ago been beaten out of him by his spunky sister—but he could still recognize a certain crude reality to Frank's opposition. It was a simple fact that, by and large, women were not as physically suited for infantry combat as men.

By and large . . . 

Mike remembered a phrase from a play he had just seen two weeks ago. Shakespeare's Hamlet, staged by the high school's drama class in front of a packed audience in the school's auditorium, and then rebroadcast on TV. (They had kept the author's name. Balthazar had not objected; he had even had kind words to say about the performance, which, as was his custom, he had seen on the opening night.)

By and large . . . 

Ay, there's the rub. What happens to the individual, when they get locked within that dangerous "by and large"? Generality is a slippery slope.

Mike studied the women in the pickup's bed, steadying himself with a hand against the truck's jolting progress down the dirt road.

Julie Sims, for all her cheerleader prettiness, had the physique of someone who was as well trained athletically as any of the boys she cheered on. Mike didn't doubt for a minute that she was in better physical shape than ninety-five percent of the men in the American/German army. Not as strong, no doubt, as many of them. But—

He eyed the rifle held casually in her hands. By universal acknowledgement, Julie Sims was the best rifle shot in Grantville. In all of Marion county, for that matter. Maybe even in the whole state. There had been talk of sponsoring her for the Winter Olympics biathlon. The talk had been serious enough that Julie had taken up cross-country skiing, and applied herself to it with her usual energy. Her skill on skis would be her downfall, she was convinced. Certainly not the shooting!

Mike's eyes met those of Gayle. The glance they exchanged was warm and friendly. When Gayle had started working in the mine years ago, she had encountered a certain amount of harassment from some of the male miners. Not much—and nothing in the way of physical abuse—but enough to make her defensive. "Defensive," for someone with Gayle Mason's temperament, was indistinguishable from belligerent. Then Mike had returned to West Virginia, gotten hired at his father's old job, and the harassment had ended within a week. They had wound up becoming good friends.

His eyes moved to the woman sitting next to Gayle, and the concern in them deepened.

"Relax, brother of mine," said Rita. "We'll stay out of trouble. I promise."

Mike smiled ruefully. Promises be damned! He knew his sister too well.

In the front, Frank was still muttering. "Damn Melissa Mailey, anyway," he was heard to grumble. "Stupid pinheaded liberal feminist peabrained—" On and on.

Bouncing around in the semidarkness of the truck bed, Mike and his sister exchanged grins. Melissa, of course, was taking the public blame for this latest outrage. Simpson, especially, seemed to spend half his time cursing her name from the rooftops. He had long since, in his relentless political campaign, elevated Melissa Mailey to the status of Ba'alzebub to Mike's Satan.

But Melissa was quite innocent, in truth. The middle-aged schoolteacher had been as surprised as anyone, when Rita and Gayle and Julie Sims advanced their demand to be incorporated into Grantville's armed forces. In the raucous debate which erupted in the emergency committee, Melissa had waffled and wavered—quite unlike her usual self. On the one hand, her feminism inclined her to support the proposal. On the other . . . 

At bottom, Melissa Mailey had the soul of a pacifist. A semipacifist, at least. A Boston Brahmin, born and bred in a certain other-worldly atmosphere. The thought of carrying a gun herself had never seriously crossed her mind. Not even in her days as a radical college student, when she had been much more attracted by the tactics of civil disobedience.

No, Simpson could denounce Melissa all he wanted. Here, as in so many things, the rich man from the big city simply failed to understand the mentality of the "poor white trash" he had found himself placed amidst. Unsophisticated they might be, in some respects. But generations of poverty and hard times had also bred a certain hard-headed practicality, and a willingness to accept reality for what it was. Nor did the proposal seem all that strange, come down to it. Many of Grantville's women had already served in the U.S. military, after all, drawn by the same blue-collar motives which impelled their brothers and cousins to volunteer.

Our army's too small? Well, then—enlist women.

Squawk, squawk, squawk. By and large . . . 

Fine. They've got to pass the same physical tests.

By and large, the women who volunteered failed to pass Frank's rigorous regimen. And Mike refused all pleas to ease the training. That far, he was not prepared to go.

By and large . . . 

Ay, there's the rub. Because a fair number of women did pass even Frank's disgruntled scrutiny—and some of them with flying colors. Six of them, to be precise. All six were now riding in the pickup with the army's official commander. Mike had decided he should accompany them, in their first test in actual battle.


"Just stay out of trouble," Mike said, loud enough to be heard by all the occupants in the back of the truck. "Do us all a favor, will you? Stay out of trouble."

Gayle and Julie grinned. The other three girls smiled. Rita seemed to ignore the remark completely. She was peering through one of the firing slits.

" 'Stay out of trouble,' " she mimicked sarcastically. "Jeff's just dropping Gretchen off. Now there's the woman you oughta be worrying about."

She turned away, bestowing her brother with a glare. "Why is it," she demanded, "that men shit their pants at the idea of a woman in a battle—but have no trouble at all sending Mata Hari into the lion's den?"

Mike laughed. "Mata Hari? Get real! Gretchen's not going to be batting her eyes at any diplomats and generals."

His sister's gaze was unwinking. "No. That'd be safe, compared to what you want her to do."

Mike looked away. To his relief, Gayle came to his rescue. "Give your poor brother a break, Rita," she said, chuckling. "He backed us up, didn't he, push come to shove?"

His sister's reply was inaudible. But Mike wouldn't have heard it, anyway. He had caught sight of Gretchen, still kissing her new husband as she stood alongside Jeff's motorcycle. He almost laughed again, seeing the shocked expressions on the faces of the German burghers and their women alongside the road. In public! Outrageous!

"You ain't seen nothing yet," he whispered. "Notable men and women of Germany—heeere's Gretchen!"



Back | Next