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Chapter 61

Alex Mackay and his cavalrymen arrived in Grantville the next day. Immediately, upon learning that his beloved fiancée—crazy girl!—had been involved in the thick of the fight at the school, Alex went in search of her. Desperate to assure himself that she was truly unharmed.

But his betrothed was hiding from him. "He's gonna kill me when he finds out I'm pregnant," she moaned. "I'm dead."

"Leave the matter to me," intoned her new protector. "No harm will befall you."

Nor did it. When Alex finally found Julie, hiding behind the huge form in the library, the king of Sweden set him straight.

"Won't tolerate such behavior on the part of one of my officers," gruffed Gustav, in blithe disregard of his own not-entirely-reputable history. "Bastardy is a shame before God!"

As it happens, Alex was not angry with Julie at all. He was quite delighted at the news, in fact. But he had no time to reassure his betrothed. The king marched him directly to the parson and oversaw the rest of the preparations himself. Karen Reading was quite overwhelmed by his presence. Overwhelmed—and ecstatic. Her bridal shop had just gotten a royal boost.

They were married the following day. The king himself stood in the groom's party. For all the impromptu nature of the event, most of the town showed up for the wedding. Julie and Alex were quite popular, which accounted for some of the crowd. But most of them came to get a glimpse of Gustav Adolf. Or Captain General Gars, to use what would soon become his correct title whenever the king of Sweden visited the United States in an official capacity. Word of the negotiations was spreading rapidly, and everyone wanted to make their own assessment of this mysterious new figure in their political pantheon.

On balance, they were quite impressed. The more so when it was announced that the Captain General had given his finest horse as a gift to the groom, and an actual title to the bride. Julie Mackay, nee Sims, former cheerleader, sharpshooter in the U.S. army, was now also the baroness of a small domain somewhere on the edge of Lappland in northern Sweden.

The king also promised her a pair of skis. "You will need them," he assured her, "if you ever plan to visit the place. The hunting is excellent, incidentally. But I do not propose to provide you with a new rifle. Anyone else, but not you. Your rifle is already the best in the world."


A week later, Axel Oxenstierna arrived in Grantville. Just as Gustav II Adolf had foreseen, his chancellor was apoplectic when he heard the king's new political plans. Axel ranted and raged, desperately trying to convince his monarch that a Confederation of Europe with a republic planted at its center—don't think I'm fooled by this Captain General rigmarole! and you gave them Franconia also?—would assuredly be the death knell—sooner or later!—for the aristocracy of Europe.

But the king refused to budge. After two days, he took Oxenstierna to visit a place in Thuringia. A place called Buchenwald.

"In another universe, Axel, this will be a place of slaughter." Gustav's heavy jaws clenched. "And by no means the worst!" He pointed to the east. "The real killing will take place in Poland and Russia. At places called Auschwitz and Sobibor and Treblinka."

He glared at his chancellor. "In that universe, my new president's grandfather will be forced to fight his way into this place, that a handful might survive. And do you know why?"

Now, the king pointed to the northeast. "Because in that universe, chancellor of Sweden, I will die. Less than three months from now, at a battlefield called Lützen." His lips quirked. "Leading a perhaps reckless cavalry charge."

The brief moment of humor vanished. Gustav took a deep breath, resting his hands on the pommel of the saddle. His eyes scanned the entire landscape; unfocused, as if he were looking in his mind's eye at all of Europe. "My death will end any chance of rescuing Germany from the clutches of the princes. You will try, Axel—strive well, and mightily—to salvage what you can. But it will not be enough. Germany will be doomed to the centuries which came after, and the world will be doomed to that Germany."

He sat erect in the saddle. "Not now! No longer! Not in this universe!"

His next words ended any further argument. "I understand God's will, Oxenstierna. It was for this purpose, in His mercy, that He created the Ring of Fire. This, and no other. Only a blind man, or an impious one, could fail to understand that now. So I will hear no further words on this subject. Do you understand, chancellor of Sweden? I am Vasa!"

Axel bent his head. Accepting, if not the wisdom of his king, the will of that king's soul.


Accepting the will, of course, did not mean accepting all the fine points. So, in the weeks which followed, Axel Oxenstierna—Sweden's canniest diplomat—immersed himself in the final negotiations. And, by the end, found himself in much better spirits. True, he disapproved in principle of the entire scheme. But Oxenstierna was a practical man, also. And he had discovered, in the political shrewdness of such men as Ed Piazza—now recovering from his injuries—and Francisco Nasi and the Abrabanel brothers, as well as Michael Stearns and especially his wife, a new asset for the cause of his king.

So, although he remained dubious of the final outcome, Oxenstierna could still console himself with a certainty.

Tremble, lords of Germany. A new breed has come into the world.


A month after her wedding, Julie would use the best rifle in the world. As the armored column of the United States smashed its way through the imperial fortifications which Wallenstein had erected on the Burgstall, Julie took out Wallenstein himself.

The king of Sweden did not approve, of course. By the semifeudal military protocol of his day, deliberately targeting an enemy commander was considered low and foul. But the Captain General was already beginning to accept some of the attitudes of his U.S. soldiery. To whom it seemed far more sensible—not to mention moral—to shoot the commander of a vicious army like you would a rabid dog.

So, the Captain General made no protest while Julie and her spotter went to work.

"It's a good one thousand yards, girl," muttered Karen. "This Wallenstein character sure as hell don't believe in leading from the front."

Karen could make out the figure easily enough through the spotting scope, standing on the battlements of the Alte Veste.

"Are you sure it's him?" asked Julie.

"Yep. There's a portrait in one of the books in the school library. I musta studied it for an hour, memorizing his ugly face. That's him, all right."

Reassured, Julie studied the enemy commander through her scope. He was an ugly bastard. Reminded her of a cartoon version of the Devil. "Wind?" she asked.

"Hard to tell," muttered Karen. "Nothing here, but on top of that hill?" She shrugged. "Start by figuring no wind. I'll try to spot where the first bullet hits."

Silence followed, while Julie gauged the elevation. The shot was at the outermost limit of the rifle's range. It would require her utmost skill and concentration. She blocked everything out of her mind—the sound of the APCs smashing through the lower fortifications, the fiery flares of napalm clearing the side trenches—everything except the devil in the distance.

As always, squeezing the trigger, her shot came as a bit of a surprise.

"Four feet off!" cried Karen. "Nine o'clock! That's wind! Elevation's dead on!"

Julie had seen it herself. One of the officers standing to Wallenstein's right had been struck down by a bullet in the chest. Wallenstein himself, his mouth open, was staring at the man's body.

Julie adjusted for the wind. Wallenstein's head came back around, staring directly at her. His mouth was still open.

The sniper's triangle. You're dead, motherfucker.

The only thing that saved Wallenstein's life was the extreme range. The shot was perfect. But, traveling that distance, the bullet slowed enough to go transonic. It began to tumble, and missed by inches. Wallenstein's jaw was shattered, instead of his throat.

The imperial general's head spun, spraying teeth and blood on his subordinates. He staggered into General Gallas' arms.

"Damn," growled Julie. She jacked another round into the chamber. Fired again.

That shot splintered Wallenstein's shoulder. Gurgling with pain and fear, Wallenstein tried to shout orders to Gallas: Put me down, you idiot! But he could not get the words through his mangled mouth, and Gallas was too confused to understand what was happening. Wallenstein's frantic attempt to force Gallas to the ground brought the general's own head into the path of the next bullet. Now finally in the safety below the battlements, Wallenstein stared at the pieces of Gallas' brains scattered over the stones.

Good riddance was his last thought, before pain and shock dragged him into unconsciousness.

A thousand yards away, sighing regretfully, Julie lowered her head and muttered a few curses. The Captain General knelt by her side and consoled her with a heavy hand on the shoulder. Due to the sports spectacles which Julie had presented him as her own gift, Gustav's eyesight was good enough to have followed the action.

"No matter," he said. "He will not be there to rally his men. All that matters."

The Captain General raised his head and studied the battle. The U.S. armored column had now broken through the outer fortifications on the lower slope of the Burgstall. The M-60 in the lead APC was shattering the counterattack coming down from the Alte Veste. Thousands of Swedish cuirassiers and Finnish light cavalry were pouring into the breach. For a mile on either side of the armored thrust, Swedish pikemen and arquebusiers were launching a massive charge. The Captain General smiled, seeing the U.S. infantrymen at the fore of that charge. Even from the distance, he could hear their incredible rate of fire.

"No matter," he repeated. "Wallenstein's army will break—and very soon. We are on the verge of an even greater victory than Breitenfeld. Trust me, girl. I am experienced in these things."

Julie raised her head and glared at him. "And I suppose you're going to lead another idiot cavalry charge?"

Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden and the Baltic Territories, newly crowned Emperor of the Confederated Principalities of Europe, and Captain General of the United States, shook his head.

"Please! Do I look like a madman?"


When Mike returned from the Alte Veste that evening, the Captain General ordered him to return home. He would brook no argument.

"I command the armies of the United States in the field!" he roared, driving over Mike's protest. "That was the agreement!"

He settled down, a bit. "Besides," he gruffed, "there is no further need for you here. The battle is won—decisively. And you have a situation at home. We just got word over the radio."

Mike's face paled. The Captain General chuckled. "Relax, man! It happens. A bit early, in this case, but that is not so unusual in a first—" The rest of the words went unheard. Mike was already racing out of the command tent, looking for his vehicle and official driver.

Hans got him back to Grantville in record time, even on those roads. The pickup, of course, needed extensive body work afterward. But they were still late. The baby had been born many hours earlier.

"Relax, fer Chrissake," said James, as he trotted alongside Mike down the corridor of the town's new hospital, trying to keep up with the frantic new father. It was a long corridor. The hospital had only been completed two months earlier, and its builders had planned for the future. Halfway down, Mike almost trampled Jeff as he emerged from one of the wards, his arm in a sling. Gretchen, coming right behind her husband, called out a greeting. But Mike only responded with a vague wave of the hand.

"She's fine," the doctor insisted. "No complications at all. So's the baby."

James gave up. "It's a girl, by the way!" he shouted after Mike's retreating back.


"Isn't she beautiful?" whispered Rebecca, cradling the sleeping baby in her arms. "Kathleen," she murmured.

That was the name they had agreed on, if the child was a girl. But Mike had been thinking about it during the endless drive back from Nürnberg with ferocious concentration, trying to keep his mind on future hope rather than today's fear.

"No," he said, shaking his head. Startled, Rebecca looked at him.

Mike smiled. "We can call our next girl Kathleen. But this one—" Gently, he stroked the tiny head. "This one I'd like to name after a promise kept. So let's call her Sepharad."

Rebecca's eyes filmed with moisture. "Oh, Michael," she whispered. "I think that would be wonderful."

She reached up her free hand and drew Mike's head down. But halfway through the kiss she started laughing.

"What's so funny?" he demanded.

"Sepharad!" she exclaimed. "It's such a splendid name. But you know they'll be calling her Sephie before she's two months old."

Laughing, laughing. "Hillbillies! You have no respect."


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