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Chapter 6

Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, had a form given to him by his ancestry. His skin was pale, perhaps a bit ruddy. His short-cut hair, eyebrows, upswept mustache and goatee were blond. His eyes were blue, slightly protruding, and were alive with intelligence. His features, dominated by a long, bony and powerful nose, were handsome in a fleshy sort of way. He was a very big man. He stood over six feet tall. His frame was thick and muscular, and tended toward corpulence. He looked every inch the image of a Nordic king.

So much came from nature and upbringing. The rest—the spirit which filled that form at the moment, striding back and forth in his headquarters tent pitched on the east bank of the Havel River—came from the hour itself. The chalk-white complexion came from horror. The closely shut eyes, from grief. The trembling heavy lips, from shame. And the manner in which the king of Sweden's powerful hands broke a chair in half, and hurled the remnants to the floor, came from outrage and fury.

"God damn John George of Saxony to eternal hellfire!"

The king's lieutenants, all except Axel Oxenstierna, edged away from their monarch. Gustav Adolf's temper was notorious. But it was not the rage they feared. Gustav's anger was always short-lived, and the king had long ago learned to keep that rampaging temper more or less under control. An excoriating tongue-lashing was usually the worst he permitted himself. And, on occasion, venting his spleen on innocent furniture. This occasion—this monumental occasion—was shaping up to be a veritable Sicilian Vespers for the seating equipment.

Gustav seized another chair and smashed it over his knee. The sturdy wooden framework dangled in his huge hands like twigs.

No, it was not the rage which caused those veteran soldiers to quake in their boots. And they were certainly not concerned with the chairs. Axel Oxenstierna, the king's closest friend and adviser, never stocked Gustav's tent with any but cheap and utilitarian furniture. This was not the first time, since they arrived in Germany, that the Swedish officers had seen their monarch turn a chair into toothpicks.

"And may the Good Lord damn George William of Brandenburg along with him!"

It was the blasphemy which frightened them. Their king's piety was as famous as his temper. More so, in truth. Much more. Only Gustav's immediate subordinates ever felt the lash of his tongue. Only those of his soldiers convicted of murder, rape or theft ever felt the edge of his executioner's ax. Whereas many of the hymns sung by Sweden's commoners, gathered in their churches of a Sunday, had been composed by their own king. And were considered, by those humble folk, to be among the best of hymns.

The chair pieces went flying through the open flap of the tent. The two soldiers standing guard on either side of the entrance exchanged glances and sidled a few feet further apart. On another occasion, they might have smiled at the familiar sight of broken furniture sailing out of the king's headquarters. But they, too, were petrified by the blasphemy.

The king of Sweden seized another chair, lifted it above his head, and sent it crashing to the floor. A heavy boot, driven by a powerful leg, turned breakage into kindling.

"God damn all princes and noblemen of Germany! Sired by Sodom out of Gomorrah!"

The blasphemy was shocking. Terrifying, in truth. None of the officers could ever recall their monarch speaking in such a manner. Not even in his worst tirades. It was an indication of just how utterly enraged Gustav was, hearing the news of Magdeburg.

The king of Sweden stood in the middle of the tent, his great fists clenched, glaring like a maddened bull. His hot eyes, glittering like sapphires, fell on the figures of three young men standing a few feet away. The men were all short and slim, and dressed in expensive clothing. Their hands were clutching the pommels of their swords. Their own faces were pale.

For a moment, Gustav Adolf glared at them. The bull challenging the yearlings. But the moment was brief. The king of Sweden inhaled deeply and slowly. Then, expelling the breath in a gust, his heavy shoulders slumped.

"Please accept my apologies, Wilhelm and Bernard," he muttered. "And you, William. I do not, of course, include you in that foul tribe." The king had blasphemed in Swedish, but he spoke now in German. Gustav was as fluent in that language as he was in many others but, as always, his accent betrayed his Baltic origins.

The dukes of Saxe-Weimar and the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel nodded stiffly. The tension in their own shoulders eased. Very quickly, in truth. For all their aristocratic lineage, they were more than ready to accept Gustav's apology in an instant. The three noblemen were the only German rulers who had rallied to the Protestant cause, in deed as well as in word. In large part, their attachment to Gustav was due to youthful hero worship, plain and simple. Italians were beginning to refer to Gustav II Adolf as "il re d'oro"—the golden king. Wilhelm and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar and William of Hesse-Kassel would put the matter more strongly. As far as those young men were concerned, Gustavus Adolphus—as he was known to non-Swedes—was the only European king worthy of the name.

So, it was more with relief than anything else that they accepted his apology. Their own easing tension was echoed by everyone in the room. Gustav's temper, even today, was proving to be as short-lived as ever.

The king of Sweden managed a smile. He glanced around the interior of the large tent. There were only two chairs left intact. "Best send for some more chairs, Axel," he murmured. "I seem to have outdone myself today. And we need a council of war."

Axel Oxenstierna returned the smile with one of his own. He turned his head, nodding to an officer pressed against the wall of the tent. The young Swede sped out of the tent like a gazelle.

Gustav blew out his cheeks. His eyes flitted around the room, as if he were assessing the quality of the twelve men within it. Which, indeed, he was.

It was a quick assessment. More in the nature of a reassurance, actually. None of those men would have been in that tent in the first place, if they had not already matched the king's high expectations of his subordinates.

"Very well, gentlemen, let's get to work." Gustav's gaze went immediately to Wilhelm and Bernard. "The imperialists will march on Saxe-Weimar next. That is a certainty. The two of you, along with William, have been my only German allies worthy of the name. Emperor Ferdinand will demand your punishment."

Wilhelm, the older of the two dukes of Saxe-Weimar, winced. "I'm afraid you're right, Your Majesty." A trace of hope came to his face. "Of course, Tilly is on Maximillian of Bavaria's payroll, not the emperor's, so perhaps—"

William of Hesse-Kassel snorted. Gustav waved his hand. "Abandon that hope, Wilhelm. And you, Bernard. Maximillian is even greedier than the emperor himself. He has already demanded the Palatinate for his services to the Habsburg dynasty and Catholicism. He will certainly want to add Thuringia and Hessen. Parts of them, anyway. The emperor can hardly refuse him. Since Ferdinand dismissed Wallenstein, Tilly's army is the only major force left at his disposal."

Wilhelm sighed. "I can't possibly stop Tilly," he said, wincing. "He will ravage the Thuringian countryside and take every one of its cities. Weimar, Eisenach and Gotha, for sure. Erfurt may be able to buy him off." The nobleman's face was drawn and haggard, giving him an appearance far beyond his tender years. "The people will suffer greatly."

Gustav clasped his hands behind his back and squared his shoulders. His face was heavy. "I can do nothing for you. I am sorry, bitterly sorry, but that is the plain truth." The next words came leaden with anger. And, yes, shame. "I will not make any promises I cannot keep. Not again. Not after Magdeburg. I simply don't have the forces to save Thuringia from Tilly. And the geography favors him entirely. He is closer and can use the Harz Mountains to shield his flank."

Bernard nodded. "We know that, Your Majesty." He straightened, clutching his sword pommel. "My brother is the heir, and he must remain here with you. But I will return to Weimar, and do what I can. I will reestablish contact with you by courier as soon as I can, but—"


Startled, Bernard's eyes went to Axel Oxenstierna. The Swedish chancellor spread his hands apologetically.

"Excuse my abruptness, lord. But that is really a very bad idea." Axel raised his hand, forestalling the duke's impetuous protest. "Please, Bernard! I admire your courage. All the more so, since courage seems a rarer substance than gold among the German aristocracy."

Again, the Swedish officers in the room barked angry, sarcastic laughter. Axel plowed on:

"It would be a very romantic gesture, Bernard. But it would also be sheer stupidity. You can accomplish nothing in Thuringia beyond dying or being captured. You have few forces of your own, and—"

Axel fixed the young nobleman with keen, intent eyes. "You are inexperienced in war, lad." He almost added "a virgin, in truth," but bit off the words.

Bernard of Saxe-Weimar's face was pinched, tight. His eyes flitted to Gustav Adolf, pleading.

Gustav breathed heavily. Then, stepping forward, he placed a huge hand on Saxe-Weimar's slender shoulder. "He's right, Bernard." The king's face broke into a sudden, cheerful smile. "Stay here instead. With me. I would be delighted to add you to my staff, along with Wilhelm. I am certain you would be an asset"—Gustav blandly ignored the barely veiled skepticism on the faces of his Swedish officers—"and, in exchange, I believe I could teach you something of the art of war."

The last part of the sentence did the trick, as Gustav had expected. Saxe-Weimar's adolescent admiration for the king's military prowess had become a minor embarrassment.

Bernard's eyes moved to the other men clustered about. Veterans, all. Men of proven valor. Plain to see, the young man was concerned for his reputation. His gaze settled on the youngest Swedish officer in the tent. That was Lennart Torstensson, the brilliant commander of the Swedish artillery.

Torstensson chuckled. "Have no fear, Bernard. Let the imperialists taunt you as they will. Soon enough—within a year—they will taunt no longer."

The laugh which swept the tent, this time, was neither angry nor sarcastic. Simply savage and feral. So might northern wolves bark, hearing that reindeer questioned their courage.

Torstensson's response, and the accompanying laughter, was enough. Saxe-Weimar's nod turned into a deep bow, directed at the king. "It would be my honor and privilege, Your Majesty."

Gustav clapped his hands together. "Excellent! In the meantime—" He turned to one of his cavalry commanders, Johann Banér. "That small garrison is still at Badenburg, I trust?"

Banér cocked his head. "The Scots, you mean? The cavalry troop under Mackay's command?"

"Yes, them. Alexander Mackay, as I recall. A promising young officer."

Oxenstierna, judicious as ever, refrained from commenting on that last remark. You spent less than an hour in his company, Gustav. Based on that you call him "a promising young officer"? But he left the words unspoken. The king, he was quite sure, was under no illusions. He simply wanted—almost desperately—to bring confidence and good cheer into a day of gloom and horror. Besides, unlike Banér, Axel knew of Mackay's real mission.

Gustav continued: "Send a courier to Mackay, ordering him to remain in Thuringia. I don't expect him to hold Badenburg against any serious assault, of course. If he's pressed, he can retreat into the Thuringen Forest. I simply want him there to report on Tilly's movements." He gave Oxenstierna a quick glance. "But have that courier report to me, before you send him off. I'll have more detailed instructions."

Banér nodded. The king turned to Hesse-Kassel.

"William, I can provide you with nothing in the way of direct assistance either. But your situation is less desperate. Tilly will move on Thuringia first, not Hessen. And—"

Hesse-Kassel snorted. "And Tilly moves like a slug under any circumstances. The great and mighty General Slow."

Gustav smiled, but the smile faded very quickly. "Don't underestimate the man, William," he said, softly and seriously. "He may be slow, but remember this: Jan Tzerklas, Count Tilly, has been a professional soldier all his life. Most of that time as a commander of armies. He is over seventy years old, now—and has yet to lose a major battle."

The king's face grew solemn. "He is the last, and perhaps the greatest, of a breed of generals going back to the great Gonzalo de Cordoba."

"The butcher of Magdeburg," snarled Torstensson.

Gustav glanced at his artillery officer. When he spoke, his tone was sad. "Yes, Lennart, so Tilly will be known to posterity. And everything else forgotten." The king squared his shoulders. "I do not say it is unjust, mind you. A general is responsible for the conduct of his troops, when all is said and done. But all reports of Magdeburg are agreed that Tilly attempted to restrain his soldiers. He certainly had no reason to put the city to the torch."

Torstensson, accustomed to the ways of Swedish monarchy—Gustav's Sweden, at least—did not retreat. "So?" he demanded. "Tilly chose to lead that army. No one forced him out of retirement. An army of sheer wickedness. He cannot complain if his devils got loose." The young artilleryman's anger became mixed with admiration. "Your army, Highness, has no Magdeburg to stain its banner. Nothing even close."

Gustav's temper began to rise, but the king forced it down. He did not disagree, after all. "I am not of that old breed, Lennart," he replied mildly. "But I can still admire it for its virtues. So should you."

Then, smiling wryly: "I believe I have started a new line of generals. I hope so, at least."

Several of the officers chuckled. The Swedish chancellor did not.

"You, yes," murmured Oxenstierna. "A new breed. But Wallenstein is doing the same, my friend Gustav. Don't forget that. Some day you will break Tilly and his legacy. Only then to face Wallenstein. Like you, he scorns the old ways. And—like you—he has yet to find his master in the art of war."

Mention of Wallenstein brought silence. The great Bohemian general had retired to his estates, since the emperor dismissed him at the demand of Austria's nobility. The Catholic lords of the Holy Roman Empire despised the man, as much for his low birth as his great wealth and power. But Wallenstein was still there, lurking, ready to be called forth again.

Gustav's face grew ruddy, but his response was very calm. "You are quite wrong, my friend Axel. I have always had a master, in war as in peace. His name is Jesus Christ." The piety in that statement was deep, simple—and doubted by no one who heard. "Wallenstein? Only he knows his master."

Torstensson looked down between his feet. "I can guess," he muttered softly. The officers standing on either side chuckled.

Gustav turned back to Hesse-Kassel. "William, your forces are much stronger than Saxe-Weimar's, and you should have months to prepare your defenses. So I think you will be able to hold Tilly at bay."

There was a small commotion at the tent's entrance. A squad of soldiers was bringing in new chairs.

The king glanced at them, smiling. "Actually, I think those may be unneeded. I don't believe there's much more to discuss. Not today, at least."

Gustav looked past the incoming soldiers, to the plains of central Germany. His jaws tightened. "For the moment, William of Hesse-Kassel, the best assistance I can give you is to put some steel into the spines of certain Protestant rulers. We will start with the Prince of Brandenburg."

"Steel in his spine?" demanded Torstensson. "George William?" He sneered. "Impossible!"

Gustav's smile was a thin spreading of lips across still-clenched teeth. "Nonsense," he growled. "He is my brother-in-law, after all. He will see reason. Especially after I give him a simple choice. 'Steel in your spine—or steel up your ass.' "

The tent rocked with laughter. Gustav's thin smile became a shark's grin. He turned his head to Torstensson. "Prepare for the march, Lennart. I want your cannons staring at Berlin as soon as possible."

The officers in the tent took that as the signal to leave. Hesse-Kassel and the brothers Saxe-Weimar lingered behind, for a moment. The first, simply to shake the king's hand. The others, to present themselves for their new duty. Gustav sent them scurrying after Torstensson.

Soon enough, only Oxenstierna was left in the tent. Gustav waited until everyone was gone before speaking.

"There has been no word from Mackay?"

Oxenstierna shook his head. The King scowled.

"I need that Dutch money, Axel. As of now, our finances depend almost entirely on the French. Cardinal Richelieu." His heavy face grew sour. "I trust that three-faced papist as much as I'd trust Satan himself."

Axel shrugged. He tried to make his smile reassuring. Not with any great success, despite his skill as a diplomat.

"The French—Richelieu—have their own pressing reasons to support us, Gustav. They may be Catholics, but they're a lot more worried about Habsburg dynastic ambitions than they are about reestablishing the pope's authority in northern Germany."

The king was not mollified. "I know that!" he snapped. "And so? What Richelieu wants is a long, protracted, destructive war in the Holy Roman Empire. Let half of the Germans die in the business—let them all die! Richelieu does not want us to win, Axel—far from it! He simply wants us to bleed the Austrian Habsburgs. And the Spanish Habsburgs, for that matter." He scowled ferociously. "Swedish cannon fodder, working for a French paymaster who doles out the funds like a miser."

He slammed a heavy fist into a heavy palm. "I must have more money! I can't get it from Richelieu, and we've already drained the Swedish treasury. That leaves only Holland. They're rich, the Dutch, and they have their own reasons for wanting the Habsburgs broken."

It was Oxenstierna's lean and aristocratic face which grew heavy now. "The Dutch Republic," he muttered sourly.

The king glanced at his friend, and chuckled. "Oh, Axel! Ever the nobleman!"

Oxenstierna stiffened, a bit, under the gibe. The Oxenstiernas were one of the greatest families of the Swedish nobility, and Axel, for all his suppleness of mind, was firmly wedded to aristocratic principles. Ironically, the only man in Sweden who stood above him, according to that same principle, was considerably more skeptical as to its virtues. Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, had spent years fighting the Polish aristocracy before he matched swords with their German counterparts. The experience had left him with a certain savage contempt for "nobility." The Poles were valiant in battle, but utterly bestial toward their serfs. The Germans, with some exceptions, lacked even that Polish virtue. Most of them, throughout the long war, had enjoyed the comforts of their palaces and castles while mercenaries did the actual fighting. Paid for, naturally, by taxes extorted from an impoverished, disease-ridden, and half-starved peasantry.

But there was no point in resuming an old dispute with Axel. Gustav had enough problems to deal with, for the moment.

"If Mackay hasn't reported, that means the Dutch courier hasn't reached him yet," he mused. "What could have happened?"

Axel snorted. "Happened? To a courier trying to make it across Germany after thirteen years of war?"

Gustav shook his head impatiently. "The Dutch will have sent a Jew," he pointed out. "They'll have provided him with letters of safe-conduct. And Ferdinand has made his own decrees concerning the treatment of Jews in the Holy Roman Empire. He doesn't want them frightened off, while he needs their money."

Oxenstierna shrugged. "Even so, a thousand things could have happened. Tilly's men are rampaging through the area already. They don't work for the emperor. Not directly, at least. What do those mercenaries care about Ferdinand's decrees, if a band of them catch a courier and his treasure? Much less Dutch letters of safe-conduct."

The king scowled, but he did not argue the point. He knew Axel was most likely right. Germany was a witches' sabbath today. Any crime was not only possible, or probable—it had already happened, times beyond counting.

Gustav sighed. He laced thick fingers together, inverted his hands, and cracked the knuckles. "I worry sometimes, Axel. I worry." He turned his head, fixing blue eyes on brown. "I worship a merciful God. Why would He permit such a catastrophe as this war? I fear we have committed terrible sins, to bring such punishment. And when I look about me, at the state of the kingdoms and the principalities, I think I can even name the sin. Pride, Axel. Overweening, unrestrained arrogance. Nobility purely of the flesh, not the spirit."

Oxenstierna did not try to respond. In truth, he did not want to. Axel Oxenstierna, chancellor of Sweden, was eleven years older than his king. Older—and often, he thought, wiser. But that same wisdom had long ago led the man to certain firm conclusions.

The first of those conclusions was that Gustav II Adolf was, quite probably, the greatest monarch ever produced by the people of Scandinavia.

The other, was that he was almost certainly their greatest soul.

So, where the chancellor might have argued with the king, the man would not argue with that soul. Oxenstierna simply bowed his head. "As you say, my lord," was his only reply.

Gustav acknowledged the fealty with his own nod. "And now, my friend," he said softly, "I need to be alone for a time." Regal power was fading from his face. Anguish was returning to take its place.

"It was not your fault, Gustav," hissed Oxenstierna. "There was nothing you could do."

But the king was not listening. He was deaf to all reason and argument, now.

Still, Axel tried: "Nothing! Your promise to the people of Magdeburg was made in good faith, Gustav. It was our so-called 'allies' who were at fault. George William of Brandenburg wouldn't support you, and John George of Saxony barred the way. How could you—?"

He fell silent. Hopeless. The human reality which the warrior king had put aside, for a time, was flooding into the man himself.

The huge, powerful figure standing in the center of the tent seemed to break in half. An instant later, Gustav Adolf was on his knees, head bent, hands clasped in prayer. His knuckles were white, the hands themselves atremble.

The chancellor sighed, and turned away. The king of Sweden was gone, for a time. For many hours, Axel knew. Many hours, spent praying for the souls of Magdeburg. Oxenstierna did not doubt that if his friend Gustav knew the names of the tens of thousands who had been slaughtered in that demon place, that he would have commended each and every one of them to the keeping of his Lord. Remembering, all the while, the letters they had sent to him, begging for deliverance. Deliverance he had not been able to bring in time.

Many hours.


At the entrance to the tent, Oxenstierna stared out across the plains of central Europe. Millions had already died on those plains, since the most horrible war in centuries had begun, thirteen years before. Millions more, in all likelihood, would die on those plains before it was over. The horsemen of the Apocalypse were loose, and drunk with glee.

There was some sorrow in his own eyes, but not much. The chancellor did not pretend to have his king's greatness of soul. He simply recognized it, and gave his unswerving loyalty.

So the eyes were hard, not soft. Cold and dry with future certainty, not warm and wet with past knowledge. Better than any man alive, Axel Oxenstierna understood the soul kneeling in prayer behind him. That understanding brought him all the solace he needed, staring across the plains.

I would damn you myself. But there is no need. A greater one than I—much greater—is bringing you something far worse than a mere curse.

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

Tremble. Tremble!


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