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1632

Eric Flint


Eric Flint

1632

1632

Eric Flint

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2000 by Eric Flint All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form. A Baen Books Original Baen Publishing Enterprises P.O. Box 1403 Riverdale, NY 10471

ISBN: 0-671-31972-8

Cover art by Larry Elmore Interior maps by Randy Asplund First paperback printing, February 2001 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Flint, Eric.

1632 / by Eric Flint. p. cm. ISBN 0-671-57849-9 (hc) 1. Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648-Fiction. 2. City and town life-West Virginia-Fiction. 3. Germany-History-1618-1648-Fiction. 4. Americans-Travel-Germany-Fiction. 5. West Virginia-Fiction. 6. Time travel-Fiction. I. Title.

PS3556.L548 A616 2000

813'.54-dc21 99-055275 Distributed by Simon Schuster 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020 Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH Printed in the United States of America

To my mother,

Mary Jeanne McCormick Flint,

and to the West Virginia

from which she came.

Baen Books by Eric Flint

Mother of Demons

The Belisarius series, with David Drake:

An Oblique Approach

In the Heart of Darkness

Destiny's Shield

Prologue

The mystery would never be solved. It would simply join others, like the Tunguska event or the Square Crater on Callisto, in the catalogue of unexplained occurrences. The initial worldwide excitement waned within a few months, as it became clear that no quick answers would be found. For a few years grieving relatives would, with some success, press officialdom to maintain the studies and inquiries. But there were no lawyers to keep the fires stoked. The courts ruled soon enough that the Grantville Disaster was an Act of God, for which insurance companies were not liable. Within ten years, the Disaster had devolved into another domain of fanatics and enthusiasts, like the Kennedy Assassination. Thereafter, of course, it enjoyed a near-eternal half-life. But few if any reputable scientists in the world held out any hope for a final explanation.

Theories, of course, abounded. But the vague traces on instruments were impossible to decipher clearly. A small black hole, passing through the Earth. That was one theory. Another-popular for a time until the underlying mathematics were rejected in the light of later discoveries-was that a fragmented superstring had struck the planet a glancing blow.

The only man who ever came close to understanding that a new universe had been created was a biologist. A junior biologist by the name of Hank Tapper, attached almost as an afterthought to one of the geological teams sent to study the disaster. The team devoted several months to a study of the terrain which had replaced what had once been part of West Virginia. They came to no conclusions other than the obvious fact that the terrain was not indigenous to the area, but that-this eliminated the once-avid interest of the SETI crowd-it was clearly terrestrial.

The size of the foreign terrain was mapped, quite precisely. It formed a perfectly circular hemisphere about six miles in diameter, approximately half that deep at its center. Once the team left, Tapper remained behind for a few more months. Eventually, he identified the fauna and flora as being almost identical to those of parts of Central Europe. He became excited. That matched the archaeological report, which-very, very diffidently-suggested that the ruined farmhouses on the new terrain had a vaguely late-medieval/early modern Germanic feel to them. So did the seven human corpses found in one of the farmhouses. Two men, two women, and three children. The remains were badly charred by the fire, but marks on the bones indicated that at least two of the people had been murdered by some kind of large cutting implements.

The dental evidence suggested that the dead people were not modern. Or, at least, had somehow never been given any kind of dental treatment. But medical examination determined that the murders were very recent. And the farmhouses were still smoldering when they were found.

Tapper teetered on the edge of the truth. Then, after several more months of work failed to turn up any matching piece of disturbed terrain anywhere in central Europe, he abandoned the study altogether. He had suspicions, but-

The only possible explanation was a transposition in time as well as space. Tapper was a junior biologist. His budding career would be ruined if he advanced his suspicions without evidence. And there could be no evidence, if he was right. Whatever remained of the area of West Virginia which had vanished was lost somewhere back in time.

So, Tapper accepted the loss of a year's work, and went in search of greener pastures. He published his findings, to be sure; but only as dry factual accounts in obscure publications. He made no attempt to draw conclusions, or posit theories, or draw any kind of public attention.

It was just as well. His career would have been ruined-and for no good purpose. No one would have believed him. Even if someone had, the most extensive archaeological search of central Europe would never have discovered the matching hemisphere. It was there, of course, in that region of Germany called Thuringia. But it was there almost four centuries earlier, and only for an instant. The moment those hemispheres had been transposed, a new universe split off from the old.

And, besides, the truth was far stranger than even Tapper ever imagined. Even he assumed that the cause was some kind of natural cosmic disaster.

***

In reality, the Grantville Disaster was the result of what humans of the day would have called criminal negligence. Caused by a shard of cosmic garbage, a discarded fragment of what, for lack of a better term, could be called a work of art. A shaving, you might say, from a sculpture. The Assiti fancied their solipsist amusements with the fabric of spacetime. They were quite oblivious to the impact of their "art" on the rest of the universe.

The Assiti would be exterminated, eighty-five million years later, by the Fta Tei. Ironically, the Fta Tei were a collateral branch of one of the human race's multitude of descendant species. Their motive, however, was not revenge. The Fta Tei knew nothing of their origins on a distant planet once called Earth, much less a minor disaster which had occurred there. The Fta Tei exterminated the Assiti simply because, after many stern warnings, they persisted in practicing their dangerous and irresponsible art.

Part One

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright

In the forests of the night

Chapter 1

"I'm sorry about my parents, Mike." Tom gave the two people in question a look of resentment. "I'd hoped-" He broke off, sighing faintly. "I'm sorry, I really am. You spent a lot of money on all this."

Mike Stearns followed his gaze. Tom Simpson's mother and father were standing near the far wall of the cafeteria, some fifty feet away. Their postures were stiff; their faces, sour. Their very expensive clothing was worn like suits of armor. They were holding the cups of punch in their hands by thumb and forefinger, as if determined to make as little contact with the surrounding festivities as possible.

Mike repressed a smile. Ah, yes. The dignitaries from civilization, maintaining their savoir faire among the cannibals. They'll hold a cup of blood, but damned if they'll drink it.

"Don't worry about it, Tom," he said softly. Mike's eyes moved away from the haughty couple against the wall and surveyed the crowd. The gaze was filled with satisfaction.

The cafeteria was a very large room. The utilitarian gray and cream walls had been festooned with an abundance of decorations, which made up in cheerfulness and festive abandon whatever they lacked in subdued good taste. Many of the cafeteria's plastic chairs had been moved against the walls, providing a bright orange contrast-those few of them that were not holding someone. Long tables ranged near the kitchen were laden with food and drink.

There was no caviar, and no champagne. But the crowd which packed the room wouldn't have enjoyed the first-fish eggs, yuk!-and the second was prohibited by high-school regulations. Mike was not concerned. He knew his folk. They would enjoy the simple fare which was piled on the tables, thank you, even if it was beneath the contempt of wealthy urban sophisticates. That was true of the adults, even, much less the horde of children swarming all over the place.

Mike gave the younger man standing at his side a little pat on the shoulder. It was like patting a slab of beef. Tom was the first-string nose guard for West Virginia University's varsity squad, and looked the part. "My sister married you, not your parents."

Tom scowled. "Doesn't matter. They could at least- Why did they even bother to show up at my wedding, if they were going to act like this?"

Mike glanced at him. For all Tom's immense size, Mike didn't have to look up. Tom was barely over six feet tall, about Mike's own height, even if he outweighed him by a good hundred pounds.

Tom was back to glaring at his parents. His own face was as stiff as theirs. Unobserved, Mike studied his new brother-in-law.

Very new brother-in-law. The wedding had been held not two hours earlier, in a small church less than a mile away from the high school. Tom's parents had been just as haughtily rude at the church as they were being now at the reception. Their son should have been married in a properly discreet ceremony in a proper Episcopalian cathedral, not-not This yahoo preacher! In this yahoo-shack!

Mike and his sister had abandoned the stark faith of their ancestors in favor of quiet agnosticism. Years ago, in Mike's case. But neither of them had even once considered having Rita married anywhere else. The pastor was a friend of the family, as his father and grandfather had been before him. The Calvinist fundamentalism of the ceremony had bothered them not in the least. Mike choked down a laugh. If nothing else, it had been worth it just to see the way the pastor's fire and brimstone had caused obvious constipation in Tom's sophisticated parents.

His humor faded quickly. Mike could sense the pain lurking within Tom's eyes. An old pain, he thought. The dull, never-ending ache of a man whose father had disapproved of him since he was a small boy.

Tom had been born into one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburgh. His mother was old Eastern money. His father, John Chandler Simpson, was the chief executive officer of a large petrochemical corporation. John Simpson liked to brag about having worked his way up from the ranks. The boast was typical of the man. Yes, he had spent a total of six months on the shop floor, as a foreman, after he retired from the Navy's officer corps. The fact that his father owned the company, however, is what accounted for his later advancement. John Chandler Simpson had fully expected his own son to follow in those well-worn footsteps.

But Tom had never fit his family's mold and expectations. Not when he had been a boy, and not now when he was of age. Mike knew that John Chandler had been furious when his son chose WVU over Carnegie-Mellon-especially given the reason. Football? You're not even a quarterback! And both his parents had been well-nigh apoplectic at their son's choice for a wife.

Mike's eyes scanned the room, until they fell on a figure in a wedding dress, laughing at something being said by the young woman at her side. His sister, Rita, sharing quips with one of her bridesmaids.

The contrast between the two girls was striking. The bridesmaid, Sharon, was attractive in a slightly heavy and buxom sort of way. She was very dark complected, even for a black woman. Tom's sister was also pretty, but so slender that she bordered on being downright skinny. And her complexion-very pale skin, freckles, blue eyes, hair almost as black as her brother's-betrayed her own ethnic origins. Typical Appalachian mongrel. The daughter and sister of coal miners.

Poor white trash. Yup. That's what we are, all right.

There was no anger in Mike's thought. Only contempt for Tom's parents, and pity for Tom himself. Mike's father had a high school education. Jack Stearns had worked in a coal mine since he was eighteen, and had never been able to afford more than a modest house. He had hoped to help his children through college. But the mine roof-fall which crippled him and eventually caused his death had put paid to those plans.

The quintessential nobody. On the day he finally died, Mike had been like a stunned ox. Years later, he could still feel the aching place in his heart where a giant had once lived.

"Let it go, Tom," he said softly. "Just let it go. If it's worth anything, your brother-in-law approves of you."

Tom puffed out his cheeks, and slowly blew out the breath. "It is. Quite a bit."

Abruptly, he shook his head, as if to clear his mind for other concerns. He turned to face Mike squarely.

"Give it to me straight, Mike. I'm graduating in a few months. I've got to make a decision. Do you think I'm good enough to make it in the pros?"

Mike's reply came instant and firm. "Nope." He shook his head ruefully. "Take it from me, buddy. You'll be right where I was-the worst possible place. Almost good enough. Good enough to keep hoping, but…"

Tom frowned, still hoping. "You made it. In a way. Hell, you retired undefeated."

Mike chuckled. "Sure did. After all of eight professional fights as a light heavy." He reached up and stroked the little scar on his left eyebrow. "My last fight I even made it to the second card at the Olympic Auditorium. Pretty big time."

The chuckle came again-more of an outright laugh. "Too big! I won-barely-on points. The kid demanded a rematch. And that's when I finally had enough sense to quit. A man's got to know his limitations."

Tom was still frowning. Still hoping. Mike placed a hand on his thick arm. "Tom, face it. You'll get no farther than I did. Realizing that you only beat the kid in front of you because you were a little more experienced, a little savvier, a little luckier." He winced, remembering a young Mexican boxer whose speed and power had been well-nigh terrifying. "But that kid'll learn, soon enough. And the fact is that he's a lot better than you'll ever be. So I quit, before my brains got scrambled. You should do the same, while you've still got healthy knees."

Again, Tom puffed out his cheeks and, again, blew out a slow breath. He seemed on the verge of saying something, but a motion caught his eye. His brand-new wife was approaching, with people in tow.

Tom was suddenly beaming like a child. Watching that glowing smile, Mike felt his own heart warming.

Hell of a sweet kid, to come from such cruddy parents.

Rita arrived with her usual thermonuclear energy. She started by embracing her new husband in a manner that was wildly inappropriate in a high-school cafeteria-springing onto him and wrapping both legs around his thighs. Wedding dress be damned. A fierce and decidedly unvirginal kiss accompanied the semi-lascivious embrace. Then, bouncing off, she gave Mike a hug which, though it lacked the sexual overtones, was almost as vigorous.

The preliminaries done, Rita spun around and waved forward the two people lagging behind her. Outside of the accompanying grin, the gesture resembled an empress summoning her lackeys.

Sharon was grinning herself. The man next to her wore a more subdued smile. He was a black man somewhere in his fifties, dressed in a very expensive looking suit. The conservative, hand-tailored clothing fit the man perfectly, but seemed at odds with the smile on his face. There was something a bit rakish about that smile, Mike thought. And he suspected, from the man's poised stance, that the body beneath the suit was far more athletic than its sober cut would suggest.

"Mike, this is Sharon's father. I want to introduce you." She reached back, more or less hauled the parent in question to the fore, and moved her hand back and forth vigorously. "My brother, Mike Stearns. Doctor James Nichols. Be very polite, brother of mine. He's a surgeon. Probably got four or five scalpels tucked away somewhere."

An instant later she was charging off, hauling Tom and Sharon toward a cluster of people chattering away in a corner of the cafeteria. Mike and Dr. Nichols were left alone.

Mike eyed the stranger, unsure of how to open a conversation. He opted for low humor. "My new brother-in-law's in for a long night," he said dryly. "If I know my sister."

The doctor's smile widened. The hint of rakishness deepened. "I would say so," he drawled. "Is she always this energetic?"

Mike shook his head fondly. "Since she was a toddler."

Having broken the ice, Mike took the time to examine the man next to him more carefully. Within a few seconds, he decided his initial impression was correct. Sharon's father was a study in contradictions. His skin was very dark, almost pure black. His hair was gray, kinky, cut very short. His features were blunt and rough-looking-the kind of face associated more with a longshoreman than a doctor. Yet he wore his fine clothing with ease, and the two rings on his fingers were simple in design and very tasteful. One was a plain wedding band, the other a subdued pinky ring. His diction was cultured, but the accent came from city streets. Then James Nichols was not a big man. No more than five feet, eight inches tall and not particularly stocky. Yet he seemed to exude a certain physical presence. A quick glance at the doctor's hands confirmed Mike's guess. The faint scars on those outsized hands had not come from working in the medical profession.

Nichols was returning Mike's examination with one of his own. There seemed to be a little twinkle in his eyes. Mike guessed that he would like the man, and decided to probe the possibility.

"So, Doc. Did the judge give you a choice? Between the Army and the Marines, I mean."

Nichols snorted. There was a twinkle in his eyes. "Not hardly! 'Marines for you, Nichols.' "

Mike shook his head. "You poor bastard. He let me pick. Since I wasn't crazy, I took the Army. I wanted no part of Parris Island."

Nichols grinned. "Well… You were probably just up for assault and battery, I imagine. One brawl too many." He took Mike's smile for an answer. His own headshake was rueful. "They couldn't prove it, since I fumbled the thing like a Laurel and Hardy routine, but the authorities had their dark suspicions. So the judge was hard as stone. 'Marines, Nichols. I'm sick and tired o' you. Either that or six years downstate.' "

The doctor shrugged. "I admit, that judge probably saved my life." His expression became filled with mock outrage. The accent thickened. "But I still say it ain't armed robbery when the dumb kid drops the gun on the way into the liquor store and gets caught running five blocks away. Hell, who knows? Maybe he was just looking for its rightful owner. Not realizing, the poor cherub, that it was a stolen piece."

Mike burst into laughter. When his eyes met those of Nichols again, the silent exchange between them was warm and approving. The way two men, meeting for the first time, occasionally take an instant liking to each other.

Mike glanced toward his new in-laws. He was not surprised to see that his riotous gaiety had drawn their disapproving eyes. He met their stern frowns with a smile whose politeness barely covered the underlying mockery.

Yeah, that's right, you rich farts. Two scapegraces, right before your eyes. As close to outright ex-cons as you can get. Heavens!

Nichols' voice broke into Mike's silent test of wills with the Simpsons.

"So you're the famous brother," the doctor murmured.

Startled, Mike's eyes left the Simpsons. "I wasn't aware that I was famous," he protested.

Nichols shrugged, smiling. "Depends on the circle, I imagine. From what I can tell, listening to them gabble over the last couple of days, every one of your sister's college friends has a crush on you. You're quite a romantic figure, you know."

Again, Mike was startled. And, again, it must have showed on his face.

"Oh, come on, Mike!" snorted Nichols. "You're still in your mid-thirties, and look younger than that. Tall, handsome-well, handsome enough. But, most of all, you've got that glamorous history."

"Glamorous?" choked Mike. "Are you nuts?"

Nichols was grinning, now. "Give me a break. You can't fool me." He made a little sweeping gesture with his hands, indicating himself. "What do you see here? A very prosperous-looking black man in his mid-fifties, right?" His dark eyes glinted with humor and knowledge. "And what else?"

Mike eyed him. "A-let's call it a history. You weren't always a proper doctor."

"Certainly wasn't! And don't think, when I was your age, that I didn't take full advantage of it." Nichols' wide grin changed to a gentle smile. "You're a classic, Mike. It's that old tale which always tugs at sentiment. The reckless and dashing black sheep of the family, leaving town before the law could nail him. An adventurous lad. Soldier, longshoreman, truck driver, professional boxer. Disreputable roustabout, even if he did manage to tuck away three years in college. Then-"

The smile faded away completely. "And then, when your father was crippled, you came back to take care of your family. And did as good a job of that as you'd done scaring them to death earlier. Quite respectable, now. Even managed to get yourself elected president of your local miners' union a couple of years back."

Mike snorted. "I can see Rita's been telling tales." He started looking for his sister, ready to glare at her, when his eyes fell on the Simpsons. They were still frowning at him, so he bestowed the glare on them.

"See?" he demanded. "My new in-laws don't seem to feel any 'romantic attraction.' Me-respectable? Ha!"

Nichols' own gaze followed Mike's. "Well… 'Respectable' in an Appalachian sort of way. Don't think Mr. Blueblood over there is mollified that his new daughter-in-law's brother is a stone-hard union man as well as a damned hillbilly. Not hardly."

The Simpsons were still maintaining the stare. Mike was matching it, and adding a grin to the bargain. The grin was purely feral. A sheer, brazen, unyielding challenge.

***

Nichols would remember that savage grin, in the years to come. Remember it, and be thankful.

The Ring of Fire came, and they entered a new and very savage world.

Chapter 2

The flash was almost blinding. For an instant, the room seemed filled by sunlight. The accompanying thunder rattled the windows.

Mike ducked, hunched. James Nichols' reaction was more dramatic. "Incoming!" he yelped, flinging himself to the floor and covering his head with his arms. He seemed utterly oblivious to any possible damage to his expensive suit.

Half-dazed, Mike stared through the plate-glass windows of the cafeteria. The afterimage was still glowing in his eyes, as if the greatest lightning bolt ever heard of had just struck right next to the school. But, blurrily, he couldn't see any actual damage. The windows hadn't even been cracked. None of the multitude of cars and trucks in the parking lot seemed damaged. And if the people in the parking lot seemed like a bunch of squawking chickens, none of them seemed to have been hurt.

The men in the parking lot were mostly coal miners from his local, who had come in from all over the area for his sister's wedding. Partly, that was because the United Mine Workers of America never missed a chance to flaunt their solidarity. The UMWA sticks together. Mike thought that almost every single member of his local had shown up for the wedding, with their families in tow.

The sight of the startled men in the parking lot almost caused Mike to laugh, despite the sudden shock of that incredible-sheet lightning? What the hell did happen? The men were clustered at the back of several pickups, making precious little attempt to hide the fact that they were sneaking a drink in clear and flagrant violation of the high school's firm policy against alcoholic beverages anywhere on the premises.

A motion in the corner of his eye caught Mike's attention.

Ed Piazza was scurrying toward him, frowning like Jupiter. For a half second, Mike thought the high-school principal was about to lecture him on the unseemly behavior of the coal miners in the parking lot. He choked down another laugh.

No, he's just wondering what happened too. Waiting for Ed to reach him, Mike felt a moment's warmth for the man. Wish he'd been the principal when I was in school. Might not have gotten into so much trouble. Good-humored, Ed is.

"I know they're gonna drink in the parking lot, Mike," Piazza had told him the day before. Snort. "Bunch of coal miners at a wedding reception? But puh-leese keep 'em from waving the bottles under my nose. I'd feel downright stupid, all five and a half feet of me, marching out there to whack 'em with a ruler."

Ed was at his side now. "What happened?" The principal glanced at the ceiling. "The lights are out too."

Mike hadn't noticed until Ed mentioned it. It was still broad daylight, and the plate-glass windows lining the entire side of the cafeteria made the room's fluorescent lighting almost redundant.

"I don't know, Ed." Mike set his cup of punch-unspiked; he hadn't felt he could break the rules himself-on the table nearby. Dr. Nichols was starting to rise. Mike lent him a hand.

"Lord, do I feel stupid," muttered the doctor, brushing his clothes. Fortunately for his finery, the cafeteria floor had been mopped and waxed to a shine. "For a moment there, I thought I was back at Khe Sanh." He, too, asked the inevitable question. "What the hell was that?"

The large and crowded room was now in a muted uproar, everyone asking the same thing. But there was no panic. Whatever that was, nothing immediately disastrous seemed to have occurred.

"Let's get outside," said Mike, heading toward the cafeteria's door. "Maybe we'll get a better idea." He glanced around the room, looking for his sister. He spotted Rita almost at once, clutching Tom's arm. She seemed a bit alarmed, but was obviously unhurt.

By the time Mike reached the door, Frank Jackson had pushed his way through the babbling crowd. Seeing the stocky, gray-haired form of the union's secretary-treasurer, followed by five other miners from the local, Mike felt a flash of pride. UMWA. Solidarity forever.

Meeting Frank's eyes, Mike shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know what happened either. Let's go outside and check around."

A few seconds later, the little group of men was passing through the entrance to the high school and making their way onto the parking lot. Seeing him come, dozens of Mike's local union members started moving in his direction. Most of them even had enough self-possession to leave their drinks behind in the vehicles.

Mike's first concern was for the high school itself. His eyes ranged up and down the long row of buildings, looking for any signs of damage. But none of the beige and white structures seemed to have been harmed at all.

"Everything looks okay," muttered Ed with heartfelt relief. The relatively new consolidated high school-built not much more than two decades ago, using a lot of voluntary labor-was the pride and joy of the rural area. For no one was that more true than its principal.

Mike looked to the west, toward Grantville. The town itself, two miles away, was hidden behind the hills which gave northern West Virginia its distinctive landscape. But Mike couldn't detect any obvious indications of trouble in that direction either.

His eyes moved to the south. The high school had been built on a gentle slope north of Buffalo Creek. At the bottom of that slope, just beyond the end of the parking lot, U.S. Route 250 ran parallel to the small river. The hills on the other side of the little valley were steep, covered with trees, and uninhabited except for a handful of trailers.

Nothing. His eyes began following the highway at the bottom of the slope, toward the large town of Fairmont some fifteen miles to the east.

Stop. There was a hint of smoke…

He pointed to the hills southeast of the school. "Something's burning. Over there."

Everyone followed his finger. "Sure enough," muttered Frank. "C'mon, Ed. Let's call the fire brigade." The union's secretary-treasurer and the high-school principal started moving toward the double doors leading into the school. Then, seeing the man coming through those doors, they stopped.

"Hey, Dan!" Frank pointed to the thin columns of smoke rising in the distance. "See if you can get hold of the Volunteers. We've got trouble here!"

***

Grantville's police chief didn't waste more than two seconds staring at the smoke. Then he was hurrying toward his vehicle and its radio.

The radio wasn't working, for some reason. Nothing but static. Cursing under his breath, Dan looked up and spotted Piazza.

"You'll have to use the phones, Ed!" he shouted. "The radio isn't working."

"The phones aren't working either!" responded Piazza. "I'll send someone down there in a car!"

The principal hurried back toward the school. "And get hold of Doc Adams while you're at it!" the police chief shouted to his retreating form. "We might need medical help!" Piazza waved his acknowledgment.

By then, Mike and Frank and several other coal miners had already started up their trucks. Dan Frost was not surprised at their instant assumption that they would be accompanying him to see what the problem was. In truth, he took it for granted.

Dan had once been offered a position in a large city's police force, at a considerably larger salary. He hadn't thought for more than three seconds before turning it down. Dan Frost had seen police work in big cities. He'd rather stay in his little town, thank you, where he could be a cop instead of an occupying army.

As he climbed into his Cherokee and started the engine, Dan checked the interior of the vehicle quickly. The shotgun was in its gun case in the back, and there was extra ammunition for his pistol in the glove compartment. Satisfied everything was in place, he leaned out of the window. Mike Stearns pulled his truck alongside. Dan was surprised to see a black man riding in the passenger seat.

"Dr. Nichols here is a surgeon," Mike explained, half-shouting. "He volunteered to come along." Mike hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "His daughter Sharon will ride with Frank. Turns out she's a trained paramedic."

Dan nodded. An instant later, he was driving the Cherokee down the asphalt road leading to Route 250. Three pickups and a van followed, carrying eight coal miners along with James and Sharon Nichols. Behind them, in his rearview mirror, Dan could see a mob of people pouring out of the high school. There was something slightly comical about the scene. Squawking chickens, wearing their Sunday best for the wedding.

Once he reached the road, Dan turned left. Route 250 was a well-built two-lane highway. Even winding through the hills and hollows, it was easily possible to drive fifty miles an hour at many stretches. But Dan took it more slowly than usual. He was still uncertain what was happening. That flash had been truly incredible. For a fleeting instant, Frost had been certain that a nuclear war had started.

Everything seemed normal, though, as far as he could see. He was driving alongside Buffalo Creek now. On the other side of the creek, at the foot of the hills, railroad tracks ran parallel to the road. He caught a glimpse of two house trailers nestled away in the woods. They were old, weather-beaten, ramshackle-but otherwise unharmed.

Coming around a bend, Dan threw on the brakes. The highway ended abruptly in a shiny wall, perhaps six feet tall. A small car had skidded sideways into the wall, caving part of it-dirt, Dan realized-over the hood. Dan could see a woman's face staring at him through the driver's side window. The woman was wide-eyed.

"That's Jenny Lynch," he muttered. He stared at the wall across the road. "What in the hell is going on?"

Dan got out of the Cherokee. Behind him, he could hear the miners' trucks coming to a halt and doors opening. When he reached the car, he tapped on the window. Slowly, Jenny rolled it down.

"Are you okay?" The youngish, plump-faced woman nodded hesitantly.

"I-I think so, Dan." She reached a shaky hand toward her face. "Did I kill anybody? I don't know what happened." The words started coming out in a rush. "There was a flash-some kind of explosion-I don't know… Then this wall, where did it come from? I hit the brakes, car started skidding-I… I don't know what happened. I don't know what happened."

Dan patted her on the shoulder. "Relax, Jenny. You didn't hurt anybody. I think you're just a little shaken up." He remembered Nichols. "We've got a doctor with us. Hold on just-"

He started to turn, but Nichols was already there. The doctor gently shouldered Dan aside and gave Jenny a quick examination.

"I don't think there's anything serious," he said. "Let's get her out of the car." He opened the door. A moment later, he and Dan were helping Jenny. Other than being shaky and pale, the woman didn't seemed harmed.

"Come here a second, will you Dan?" said Mike. The union president was squatting by the strange wall, digging into it with a pocket knife. The police chief walked over.

"This thing is just dirt," Mike stated. "Nothing but plain old dirt." He spilled another scoop out of the wall. As soon as the cohesion was broken, the shiny substance turned into nothing but a pile of soil. "The only reason it looks shiny is because-" Mike groped for words. "It's as if the dirt's been cut by a perfect razor." He poked at the wall again. "See? As soon as you break through the surface, it's nothing but dirt. What the hell could have done that? And where did it come from?"

Mike glanced right and left. The "wall" continued on both sides of the road. It was as if two completely different landscapes had suddenly been jammed together. He could see the side of a typical West Virginia hill to the south-except the side was now like a perpendicular cliff. Just as shiny as the wall across the road, except where pockets of soil were falling loose.

Dan shrugged. He started to say something when he heard a sudden shriek. Startled, he rose and stared at the wall. An instant later, a body hurtled over the top and crashed into him.

The impact sent Dan sprawling on the pavement. The body-a young girl, he realized dimly, a raggedly dressed teenager-landed on top of him, still shrieking. The girl bounced off him and scrambled down the bank, heading for the creek. Still screaming.

Half-dazed, Dan started to rise. Mike was at his side, extending a hand. Dan took it and got back on his feet.

Everything was happening too fast. He had just started to turn, looking for the girl, when he saw two new figures appear on top of the wall.

Men. Armed.

Mike's back was toward them, half-blocking Dan's view. Dan pushed him off and reached for his pistol. One of the men-then the other-began raising his rifle. Rifle? What was that strange-looking weapon?

Dan's pistol was clear of the holster. Coming up. "Halt!" he shouted. "Drop your weapons!"

The first rifle went off. The gun made a strange, booming sound. Dan heard the bullet ricochet off the pavement. He caught a glimpse of Mike throwing himself down. Dan had his pistol up-levered the slide-two-handed grip The round from the second rifle slammed into his left shoulder, knocking him sideways.

His mind felt suspended. Dan had never actually fired his weapon in a live situation. But he was an instructor in police combat tactics, and had spent uncounted hours on the firing range and in simulated drills. His training took over. Using his right hand, he brought the pistol back on target.

Detached, his mind recognized that the man was wearing some kind of armor. And a helmet. Dan was an expert shot. The range wasn't more than thirty feet. He fired. Fired again. The.40-caliber rounds practically severed the man's neck. He flopped backward, out of sight.

Dan swung his pistol to the left. The other man was still standing on the wall, doing something with his weapon. He, too, was wearing armor. But he had no helmet. Dan fired. Fired again. Fired again. Three shots, in less than two seconds. The head which absorbed those rounds was nothing but a ruptured ruin. The man collapsed to his knees, dropping his weapon. A second later, both the man and his firearm were sliding over the wall. The firearm landed on the pavement with a clatter. The body landed with a sodden thump.

Dan felt himself slumping. He sensed that his arm-his whole body-was soaked with blood. Mike caught him and lowered him to the ground.

He was fading out now. Shock, he realized. I'm losing a lot of blood. Dimly, he recognized the face of the black doctor, looming over him. His vision was getting blurred.

There was something he had to do. Urgent.

Oh, yeah. "Mike," he whispered. "I'm deputizing you. You and your guys. Find out what the hell-" He faded out, back in. "Just do whatever you've got to…"

Faded out.

***

"How is he?" Mike asked.

Nichols shook his head. The doctor had pulled out a handkerchief and was trying to staunch the wound. The cloth was already soaking through.

"I think it's just a flesh wound," he muttered. "But-Jesus-what did that bastard shoot him with, anyway? A shotgun slug? Damned near ripped his shoulder off. Sharon-come here. Quick!"

As his daughter hurried up, Nichols was relieved to see she was carrying a first-aid kit. Frank Jackson must have had one in his truck. The doctor spotted another miner hauling a first-aid kit out of his own vehicle. Thank God for country boys, came the whimsical thought.

While Nichols and his daughter started tending to Dan Frost, one of the other miners picked up his assailant's weapon. Ken Hobbs, that was. He was in his early sixties and, like many of the men in the area, was an enthusiast for antique black-powder guns.

"Will you look at this thing, Mike?" he demanded, holding up the firearm. "I swear to God-this is a fucking matchlock!"

Noticing Sharon working at her father's side, Hobbs flushed. "Sorry, ma'am. 'Bout the bad language."

Sharon ignored him. She was too preoccupied helping her father. Dan's eyes were closed. His face was as pale as a sheet.

Mike turned away. Hobbs came up to him, extending the captured weapon. His wizened face, scrunched up with puzzlement, was a mass of wrinkles. "I swear, Mike. It's a matchlock. There's pictures of them in one of my books at home."

Another miner, Hank Jones, came up. "You oughta be careful handling that," he muttered. "You know. Mess up the fingerprints."

Hobbs started to make some vulgar retort. Then, remembering Sharon, turned profanity into a simple hiss. "For what, Hank? So we can nab the culprit?" He gestured at the corpse lying at the foot of the peculiar embankment. "Case you didn't notice, Dan already blew the SOB's head off."

Another miner had scrambled onto the wall, and was studying the corpse of the other man. He barked a harsh laugh. "Same here! Two rounds, right through the neck."

Darryl McCarthy was in his early twenties. He had none of Hobbs' old-fashioned qualms about using bad language in front of a woman. Not under these circumstances, anyway. "Only thing holding this asshole's head to his body," he announced loudly, "is maybe three little strips of meat."

McCarthy rose. Standing on the lip of the wall, he stared down at Dan Frost's unconscious form. His look was full of approval. "Both rounds hit the bastard right in the throat. Blew his fucking neck all to hell."

All the coal miners were gathered at the scene, now. All of them were staring down at Frost. All of them with approval.

"Remind me not to lip off to him at the Happy Trails, next time he says I've had enough," murmured Frank Jackson. "Always heard he was a hell of a shot."

Mike straightened up, remembering the girl. His eyes ranged down the creek where she had fled.

"She's probably half a mile away, by now," said Hank. He pointed southwest, across the creek. "I saw her scramble over to the other side. Creek must be low. She went up somewhere into the trees."

Hank's face twisted into a ferocious scowl. "The whole back of her dress had been ripped off, Mike." He glared at the corpse lying on the pavement. "I think those guys were trying to rape her."

Mike's eyes went to the corpse. Then looked at the wall and the unseen territory beyond. Thin columns of smoke were still rising.

"Something bad is happening here, guys," he stated. "I don't know what it is. But it's bad." He pointed at the corpse. "I don't think this is all of it."

Frank stalked over to the corpse and stooped over it. "Look at this weird armor. What do you think, Mike? Some kind of crazy survivalists or something?"

Mike shrugged. "I've got no idea, Frank. But if there were two of them, there's no reason can't be more." He gestured at Dan. Dr. Nichols seemed to have the blood flow stanched. "You heard the chief, guys. He deputized us, and told us to do whatever's got to be done."

The miners nodded, and crowded a little closer.

"So get your guns, boys. I know damn well you've all got something stashed in your vehicles. We're going hunting."

As the men started moving toward their trucks, Mike reconsidered. "Except you, Ken. You've got to get Dan back to the high school. They've got a clinic."

Seeing the elderly Hobbs' look of suspicion, Mike elaborated curtly. "Don't argue with me! It's not your age, dammit. You've got the only van here." He pointed at Frost. "Better than tossing him into the bed of a pickup."

Mollified, Hobbs nodded. "I'll get my gun. Leave it with you guys."

Mike heard Nichols murmur something to his daughter. A moment later the doctor was rising.

"Sharon can do as much for him right now as I can," he said. "It's just a flesh wound. Big one, but nothing worse. She'll go back with him to the clinic."

Mike cocked an eyebrow. Nichols smiled thinly. "I'm coming with you." Nichols nodded toward the wall. "Like you said, something bad's going down here. I suspect you'll need me down the road a ways."

Mike hesitated. Then, studying the hard, rough face-a very thin smile that was-he nodded. "Okay with me, Doc." He looked down at Frost. "Can you get that holster off him? You better have a weapon yourself."

While Nichols occupied himself with that task, Mike went over to his own pickup. It was the work of a few seconds to haul his gun from its place of concealment behind the seat. And a box of ammunition. He hefted the big.357 magnum. The weapon was a Smith Wesson Model 28 Highway Patrolman fixed-sight revolver, tucked into a clip holster. Fortunately, Mike had insisted on dress pants using a belt instead of suspenders. He attached the holster to the belt and shoved the ammunition in the rented tuxedo's deep pockets.

Then he went over to Dan's Cherokee and took out the shotgun. He also found two boxes of ammunition. One of them contained rounds for the.40 caliber. The other held double-ought buckshot. The same rounds would be in the shotgun's magazine. He pried out a half dozen shotgun shells and stuffed them in his pants pockets. The box of.40-caliber ammunition he kept in his hand. Between the revolver and all the ammunition, he felt like a waddling duck.

Screw it. I'd rather be a well-armed duck than a sitting one.

By now, Sharon and Hobbs had gotten Dan into the back of the van. Jenny Lynch had recovered enough to lend them a hand. Less than a minute later, the van was turning around and heading back to the high school.

Mike's union members were gathered around him. All of them were armed. Most of them with pistols, except Frank's beloved lever-action Winchester and Harry Lefferts' "For Christ's sake, Harry," Mike snapped, "don't ever let Dan catch you with that."

Harry grinned. He was the same age as Darryl-they were best friends, in fact-and shared Darryl's carefree youthful attitudes. "And what's wrong with a sawed-off shotgun?" he demanded. He jerked his head around, pointing to everyone else with his chin. "It's not as if every damn one of these guns isn't illegal, when you get right down to it. So what's another concealed weapon-among friends?"

A little chuckle swept the group. Mike made a face. "Yeah, well-you better be damn close, with that thing. Don't forget these guys were wearing armor."

He turned now to the doctor, and handed him the box of.40-caliber ammunition he'd found in the glove compartment. Nichols put down the first-aid kit he was carrying. Mike was not particularly surprised to see the quick and expert way in which Nichols reloaded the automatic pistol.

"Well-trained, you Marines," he murmured.

Nichols snorted. "Marines, my ass. I knew what to do with one of these before I was twelve." He hefted the automatic. "This is Blackstone Rangers' training. I grew up within spitting distance of Sixty-third and Cottage Grove."

Suddenly, the black doctor was beaming wickedly at the white men around him. "Gentlemen," he said, "the Marines are at your side. Not to mention Chicago's worst ghetto. Let's deal."

The miners grinned back. "Nice to have you along, Doc," announced Frank.

Mike turned, and strode toward the embankment. "Like you said. Let's deal."

Chapter 3

Mike used Jenny's car, still dug into the embankment, as a stepping stone to climb onto the embankment. When he planted his foot on the peculiar wall, it immediately gave way, showering more dirt on the car. He sprawled awkwardly, cursing under his breath, and dragged himself over the edge.

Once he arose, he gazed down at his tuxedo. Between his recent mishap and the effects of throwing himself onto the pavement when the shooting started, the elegant outfit was looking more than a little scruffy.

The rental company's not going to be happy with me, he thought ruefully. But-

Mike gave Frank a hand climbing up. "Be careful," he urged. "That wall looks solid because it's so shiny, but it's nothing but loose earth."

Once Frank was atop the wall, he turned to help the others. Mike took the moment to examine his surroundings.

His new surroundings. What he saw confirmed his suspicions.

But I think a ticked-off tuxedo rental company is probably the least of my problems.

The "wall" wasn't a wall of any kind. It was simply the edge of a plain stretching into the distance. Everything about that landscape was wrong. There was no level stretch that size anywhere in northern West Virginia. And the sun Frank vocalized the thought. "Mike, what's happening? Even the damn sun's in the wrong place." He pointed to the south. "Should be over there."

Or is that the south? wondered Mike. At a guess, I'd say we're facing north instead of east, like we should be.

He thrust the problem aside. Later. There were more pressing problems to deal with. Much more pressing.

The plain was heavily wooded, but not so much so that Mike couldn't see one-two-three farmhouses scattered among open fields. One of the farmhouses was not more than a hundred yards away.

Close enough to make out some details…

"Jesus," hissed Frank.

The two farmhouses in the distance were burning fiercely. The one nearby was not. It was a large and rambling structure. Unlike the wood-frame farmhouses which Mike was familiar with, the construction of this one leaned heavily toward stone. Hand-fitted stone, from what Mike could see. If it weren't for the fact that the farmhouse had all the signs of current occupancy-that unmistakably ragged-respectable air of a place where people worked-Mike would have sworn he was looking at a something out of the Middle Ages.

But he didn't spend more than two seconds studying the farmhouse itself. The farmhouse was still being "worked," but not by farmers.

His teeth were clenched. He could sense that Frank, standing next to him, was filled with the same outrage. Mike looked around. All of his miners were on the plain now, standing in a line staring at the scene.

"All right, guys," he said softly. "I count six of the bastards. May be more inside. Three of them are assaulting that poor woman in the yard. The other three-"

He looked back at the horrendous sight. "Don't know exactly what they're doing. I think they've got that guy nailed to his door and they're torturing him."

Slowly, as softly as possible, Frank levered a round into the chamber of his rifle. Despite its incongruity with the suit he was wearing, the action was quietly murderous. "So what's the plan?" he demanded.

Mike spoke through tight jaws. "I'm not actually a cop, when you get right down to it. And we haven't got time anyway to rummage around in Dan's Cherokee looking for handcuffs." He glared at the scene of rape and torture. "So to hell with reading these guys their rights. We're just going to kill them."

"Sounds good to me," snarled Darryl. "I got no problem with capital punishment. Never did."

"Me neither," growled one of the other miners. Tony Adducci, that was, a beefy man in his early forties. Like many of the miners in the area, Tony was of Italian ancestry, as his complexion and features indicated. "None whatsoever."

Tony, like Mike, was holding a pistol. He reached up with his left hand and quickly removed his tie. Angrily, he thrust it into a pocket. The rest of the miners did likewise with their own. None of them took off their jackets, however. All of them were wearing white shirts and all of them were experienced hunters. Their suit jackets, gray and brown and Navy blue, would make better camouflage. After removing their ties-a bow tie, in Mike's case-the miners simply loosened the top collar buttons. For the first time in their lives, they would "hunt" in their Sunday best, wearing dress shoes instead of boots.

Mike led the way, working toward the farmhouse through a small grove of trees. Birch trees, a part of his mind noted idly. That's odd too. Most of his mind was simply wishing that the slender trees provided more concealment. Fortunately, the criminals at the farmhouse were too preoccupied with their crimes to be paying any attention to the area around them.

The miners got within thirty yards of the house without being spotted. They were now squatting down, hidden in the trees at the very edge of the farm yard. The woman being raped was not more than forty feet away. Mike's eyes shied away from the sight, but his ears still registered her moans.

And the coarse laughs of the men assaulting her. One of them, the man holding her arms to the ground, barked a jeering remark at the man on top of her. The rapist grunted some sort of reply.

Mike couldn't understand the words, but they sounded German. He'd been stationed in Germany for a year, while he'd been in the Army. But he remembered little of the language beyond the essential phrase, ein bier, bitte.

"Those guy are foreigners," muttered Darryl. The young man's face was tight with anger. "Who do they think they are, coming here and-?"

Mike made a short, curt gesture, commanding silence. He went back to studying the criminals.

All of them wore that same peculiar armor and those weird helmets, although the men assaulting the woman had removed theirs. The discarded gear was lying on the ground nearby. The men torturing the farmer still had their armor and helmets on, but they had stacked their firearms against the wall of the farmhouse. From a distance, the "rifles" looked like the same kind of weapons carried by the two men killed by the police chief.

The helmets and armor reminded Mike of pictures he had seen of old Spanish conquistadores. The helmets were metal pots, basically, with flanges tapering into points toward the front and back. The armor, if he remembered right, was called a cuirass. Steel breast and back plates, tied on with leather strips. Outside of the antique-looking firearms, the only weapons they had in their possession were Swords? Swords?

He looked back at the three men asaulting the woman. They were not wearing swords, but now that Mike knew what to look for he spotted the weapons immediately. The scabbarded blades had been unbuckled and tossed onto the ground near the firearms. Mike had never once in his life considered the practical mechanics of rape, but he could understand why a sword would be awkward. These men, he was suddenly quite certain, were not committing this crime for the first time. There was a relaxed and practiced casualness about their activity.

You are dead men. The thought was grim, final.

He turned his head and whispered in Frank's ear. "You've got the only rifle. Can you take out the bastards at the door? Don't forget, they're wearing armor. Can't go for a body shot."

Mike and Frank stared at the three men torturing the farmer. The heavy door of the house had been opened wide and pressed against the wall. The farmer's wrists were pinned to the door with knives. A man in front of him was digging another knife into the farmer's thigh, while his two companions shouted at him. The shouts, Mike thought, were some kind of interrogation. It seemed a pointless exercise. The farmer was screaming with pain, oblivious to any questions.

"Forty yards?" Frank snorted. "Don't worry about it. A.30-caliber slug in the ass will take anybody down."

Mike nodded. He turned the other way and motioned toward Harry Lefferts. Harry crept up to him.

Mike scowled at the sawed-off double-barreled shotgun in Harry's hands. "Forget that stupid thing. We've got innocent people mixed up with these thugs." He handed Harry the riot gun he'd taken from the Cherokee. "Use this. It's loaded with buckshot. The magazine's full-I already checked. When Frank shoots those guys at the door, you back him up. He's going to be aiming for their legs, on account of the armor. You finish them off after they're down."

Harry nodded. He tucked the sawed-off shotgun under a nearby shrub and took the riot gun. After passing over the additional shotgun shells in his pocket, Mike glanced around at the rest of his men. All of them, like himself, were armed with nothing more than pistols and revolvers.

He decided there was no point in developing any more of a battle plan. Besides I can't bear listening to this any longer.

"Just back me up, guys," he whispered. To Frank: "Don't start shooting till I do."

A second later, Mike rose to his feet and strode out of the trees toward the rapists. He held the revolver in his right hand. His steps were quick, but he was not running. Mike hadn't boxed professionally in years, but the old training and experience had taken over. Steady, steady; don't lose your cool; it's just another fight. A stray, whimsical part of his mind told him how foolish he looked, marching toward mayhem in wingtips and a tuxedo, but he ignored it.

The first man who spotted him was the one squatting on his heels about three feet from the woman. The man had been simply watching the scene, leering. When Mike's movement caught his eye, the man turned his head. His eyes widened. He was not more than thirty feet away, turned sideways.

Mike stopped. He crouched slightly, in a firing-range stance, bringing up the revolver. Some part of his mind noted the instant reflexes of the man he was going to kill, and was impressed. No tyro, he. The man was already rising, shouting a warning.

Both hands, firm grip, cock the hammer. Steady, steady. Center of mass. Squeeze the-

As always, the magnum went off with a roar and bucked in Mike's hand. He watched just long enough to see that the slug had slammed into the man's turning shoulder and knocked him flat. A split second, no more. The man might still be alive, but he was clearly out of the action.

Mike could hear the flat crack of Frank's Winchester, and Harry shouting. He ignored the sounds, blocking them out as easily as he had blocked out the roar of the crowd while he was in the ring. He was swiveling, now, ready to take out the man holding the woman's arms. That one was facing him squarely. Mike could see the man's mouth gaping wide open, but his face was a blur. The man was still on his knees, but he had released the woman's arms and was rearing back on his heels.

Just another fight. Cock the hammer-single-shot's more accurate. Center of mass…

Again, the.357 roared. The shot took the man square in the chest, slamming him back as if he'd been run over by a truck. Mike knew he was dead before he hit the ground.

One left, and he's tangled up in his dropped trousers.

The rapist was shouting something. Again, Mike couldn't understand the words. Nothing registered except fear. The man was scrambling off the woman. He tried to rise, tripped on his trousers, sprawled on his face.

But he was clear of the woman now. Mike raised the revolver, ready to kill him, but stopped when he saw Dr. Nichols was already there. There was something surgically precise about the way Nichols, from close range, leaned over and shot the man in the back of the head. Once, twice.

So much for that. Mike turned away, looking to the farmhouse. He could remember, now, hearing several shots from Frank's rifle.

All three men at the door were lying on the ground. One of them was not moving. He was on his knees, sprawled against the wall of the farmhouse. His buttocks were covered with blood. Mike was certain that he was the first one Frank had shot. For all that he teased Frank about that silly damned lever-action, Frank was both an excellent marksman and one of the most reliable men Mike had ever met. Got his deer every season, usually on the first day. Frank would have shot for the lower spine, just below the cuirass.

Paralyzed, for sure. Probably dead or dying.

The other two were writhing on the ground, screaming, clutching their legs. They didn't scream or writhe for long. Harry was already there, racing forward. The young miner stopped abruptly, a few feet away. He pumped a shell into the chamber, aimed the shotgun and fired. For all that Harry was obviously in a rage, he hadn't lost his composure. He aimed for the neck, unprotected by either helmet or armor. The man was almost decapitated. The buckshot sent his helmet bouncing off the farmhouse wall, the straps broken and flailing about.

Harry swiveled. Pump, level, fire. The other man was silent. Unmoving, dead. Blood and brains everywhere. Another helmet sent flying, straps flapping. For good measure-there would be no mercy here-Harry pumped another round, stepped forward, and shot the paralyzed man sprawled against the farmhouse wall. The range was not more than three feet. This time, the helmet stayed on-but only because the man's head was removed entirely. Blood gushed out of a severed neck, painting the rough stones with gore.

Mike caught a glimpse of motion, somewhere in the darkness within the farmhouse. He ducked.

"Harry-down! Fire in the hole!"

Mike's warning probably saved Harry's life. The young miner was lunging aside when the gun in the farmhouse went off. The bullet took him in the side and knocked him down, yelping. On the ground, Lefferts clutched his ribs, still yelping. But there was more surprise and outrage in the sound than anything else. Mike was pretty sure the wound was superficial.

"Cover me, Frank!" he yelled, racing to the side of the door. He could hear Frank's Winchester firing again. He couldn't see the shots themselves, but knew that Frank would be firing through the door, driving back whoever was inside. In the corner of his eye he saw James Nichols and Tony Adducci leveling their pistols and firing shots into the small windows alongside the farmhouse. He could hear the wooden shutters splintering.

Once he reached the door, Mike pressed himself against the farmhouse wall. He was on the opposite side of the door from the farmer. The man was unconscious, now, soaked with blood and sagging. His weight-he was a middle-aged man, heavy in the gut-was tearing his wrists badly. Blood spurted everywhere.

Christ, he'll bleed to death. Mike's decision was instant. He sprang across the doorway to the farmer's side, momentarily exposing himself to fire from within the farmhouse. But there was no gunshot. Two quick powerful jerks withdrew the knives. As gently as he could, Mike lowered the man to the ground.

That was all he could do for him at the moment. Mike hesitated, then, for a second or two. The interior of the farmhouse was so poorly lit it was impossible to see anything inside. Caution and his Army training urged him to wait until his companions could come up in support. On the other hand All these guns are those weird antiques. Single-shot muzzle-loaders. I'll bet that son of a bitch hasn't had time to reload.

Again, decision was sharp, immediate. Mike dove through the door and landed rolling.

Good decision, bad luck. His enemy hadn't had time to reload. Unfortunately, Mike rolled right into him.

For a moment, everything was chaos. Mike felt a body landing on top of him. The surprise, as much as the collision, jarred the pistol out of his hand. Frantic now, he lunged to his feet, hurling the man off his back.

Tried to, at least. The man, whoever he was, clutched Mike like a wrestler. Mike snarled and slammed his elbow backward.

Damn! He'd forgotten the cuirass. His left elbow was aching from the impact. But at least he'd knocked the man loose.

Mike had never been in a gun battle before in his life. He had a boxer's training and instincts, not a gunfighter's. He didn't even think to look for his pistol. He just pivoted and drove a right cross into his enemy's chin.

Eight pro fights. The first seven had been won by knockouts, none of them later than the fourth round. Mike had quit the game because he'd realized he didn't quite have the reflexes. But nobody had ever said he didn't have the punch.

The thug, whoever he was, sailed across the room and slammed against a heavy table. His jaw hung loose, broken. His head lolled to the side.

That dazed helplessness brought no mercy. Neither that, nor the fact that the man was quite a bit smaller than Mike. This was not a fight governed by Marquis of Queensbury rules. Mike bounced forward on his toes and slammed another right hand, low into the man's abdomen below the cuirass. Another. If there'd been a referee, Mike would have been disqualified by either punch. His next blow was a left hook, which shattered the man's jaw and lifted him right off his feet. Mike was a very strong man, and-unlike most-he knew how to fight. The blows were like sledgehammers. Mike started to slam another right into the thug's face but managed to stop the punch.

Christ, Stearns-enough! He's done.

He forced himself to step back, as if being driven off by an invisible referee. The trained reaction brought some clarity to his thoughts. Mike was shocked to realize how much fear and rage had taken possession of him. He felt like a vial of pure adrenaline.

His opponent collapsed to the floor in a heap. Mike dropped his arms and let his fists open. His hands hurt. He'd forgotten how much punishment bare-knuckle fighting inflicted on the victor as well as the vanguished.

He was starting to tremble now, from delayed reaction to the entire fight. The gunplay was affecting him more than anything else. For all that he'd been something of a roughneck in his youth, Mike had never killed anyone before.

A hand fell on his shoulder, turning him around. He saw Dr. Nichols' concerned face. "Are you all right?"

Mike nodded. He even managed a wan little smile, and held up his hands. Three of the knuckles were split and bleeding. "Far as I know, Doc, this is all that's wrong with me."

Nichols took the hands and examined them, kneading the joints. "Don't think anything's broken," he muttered. The doctor cast a quick glance at the unconscious thug on the dirt floor of the farmhouse. "But as hard as you punch, young fellow, I'd really suggest you use gloves from now on. That bastard looks like somebody took an ax handle to him."

For a moment, Mike felt a little light-headed. He could sense other miners ranging through the farmhouse, looking for more enemies. But there weren't any. The blood rushing through his ears blurred the words they were speaking, but Mike could sense from the tone that all danger was past.

He took a deep, almost shuddering breath. Then, with a quick shake of the head, he cleared away the sensation of dizziness. Nichols released his hands.

"Thanks, Doc," he said softly.

Nichols' face broke into a sudden smile. "Please-call me James! I believe we've been properly introduced."

The doctor turned away. "And now I've got some badly injured people to deal with. I think I've tattered the Hippocratic Oath enough for one day." In a mutter: "Christ, Nichols. 'First, do no harm.' "

Guiltily, Mike remembered Harry Lefferts. And the farmer and the woman he assumed was his wife. He started after Nichols, ready to lend assistance. Then stopped and turned, looking for Frank.

Jackson was standing by a large fireplace, slowly examining the interior of the room. Most of the farmhouse seemed to consist of a single chamber, although Mike could see a slender staircase-more like a ladder-leading to the upper story. Very little light filtered into the farmhouse, since the few windows were tiny. But Mike could see that the place was a complete shambles. The thugs had obviously been looting, along with their other crimes. Now that he'd seen how thoroughly the farmhouse had been ransacked, Mike realized that the farmer had been tortured in order to reveal whatever hidden treasures he might possess.

Not much, from the looks of this place. For all its size and painstaking construction, the house was poorer-looking than any farm Mike had ever seen. There wasn't even any interior lighting. Nor plumbing, from what he could tell. No glass in the windows. Even the floor was simply packed earth.

Frank's eyes met him. "I'll see to this, Mike. Tony's already checking upstairs. You go help the doctor."

Outside, Mike found Nichols working on the farmer. The doctor, having apparently gone through all the bandages in the first-aid kit, had removed his suit jacket and was tearing his shirt into strips. He was now bare from the waist up. For all that Nichols was in late middle age, there was almost no fat on his wiry musculature. The hard black flesh, covered with a thin film of sweat, gleamed in the sunlight.

Mike looked around. Darryl was tending to Harry Lefferts. Lefferts also had his shirt off, and was goggling at the wound in his side. It was quite spectacular-his entire thigh and hip were soaked with blood, along with his ribs-but Mike didn't think it was really serious. The wound was already bound with a bandage roll. The bandage was bloodstained, but Mike thought the bleeding had stopped.

"It's just a flesh wound," he heard Nichols say. Mike turned. The doctor had cocked his head toward him. "I treated Harry first thing. He'll have a truly amazing scar to boast to his grandkids about, but the bullet just traveled along one rib before passing out. No internal bleeding, so far as I can tell."

Nichols' head jerked toward the woman. She had rolled over onto her side, her hands covering her face. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, in fetal position. She was sobbing quietly and steadily. Her shabby dress had been pulled back down over her legs and two jackets were covering her further. The miners who had contributed those jackets-Don Richards and Larry Masaniello-were squatting nearby. Their expressions were confused and distressed. Beyond what they'd done, they obviously had no idea what other help they could give her.

"She'll be all right," murmured Nichols. His face tightened. "As much as any gang-rape victim, anyway." He looked back down at the farmer. "But this guy might not make it. There are no major arteries severed, but he's lost an enormous amount of blood."

Mike squatted by the doctor. "How can I help, James?" He saw that Nichols had bound up all of the farmer's wounds. But blood was already soaking through the cloth. The doctor was tearing more strips from his ruined shirt, ready to add new bandages.

"Give me your tuxedo jacket, for starters. See if there are any blankets inside. Anything to keep him warm. He's in shock."

Mike took off his jacket and handed it to the doctor, who spread it over the farmer. Then Nichols blew out his cheeks. "Get me an ambulance, so we can take this poor guy to a hospital. Short of that, I've done all I can here without medical supplies and facilities."

The doctor raised his head and slowly studied the surrounding area. "But somehow I've got a bad feeling that ambulances and hospitals are going to be hard to come by."

His eyes met Mike's. "Where the hell are we, anyway?" He managed a smile. "Please don't tell me this is what West Virginia's really like. My daughter's been pushing me to move my practice here." Again, his eyes ranged about. "Not even that movie Deliverance was this crazy. And that was somewhere in the backwoods, if I remember right. We're only an hour and a half from Pittsburgh."

Mike copied the doctor's examination of the surrounding area. Softly: "I don't think we're in West Virginia anymore, Toto." Nichols chuckled. "Nothing's right, James-not the landscape, not the trees, not the people, not-" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing to the farmhouse which loomed behind them. "There's nothing like this in West Virginia, I'll tell you that. For all the poverty of this place, the farmhouse itself is no rickety shack. Anything that big and well-built and old would have been declared a historical monument fifty years ago."

He leaned over and seized one of the thugs' guns, still leaning against the farmhouse. After a quick scrutiny, he held it out for Nichols.

"You ever seen anything like this?" The doctor shook his head. "Neither have I," mused Mike. "Ken Hobbs says it's a matchlock. He'd know, too. He's made a hobby of antique weapons his whole life. They haven't made guns like this in-oh, must be two hundred years. At least. Even by the time of the American Revolution, everybody was using flintlocks."

He eyed the weapon's bore respectfully. "Look at this thing, will you? Must be at least.75 caliber."

He started to add something else, but was interrupted by Frank, coming out of the door.

"All clear," he said. Jackson seemed as unflappable as ever. Some of that was simply his personality, but some of it was due to the fact that the union's secretary-treasurer was the only one of them besides Nichols who had real combat experience.

Mike examined the other men he could see. All of them except Jackson and Nichols, now that the fight was over, were starting to react. Lefferts was lying on his back, clutching the bandage to his side and staring at the sky. The young miner, who had been so murderously ruthless in the heat of the action, seemed like a stunned steer. His eyes were wide, empty of all thought. Kneeling next to him, Darryl's head was slumped between his shoulders. He was gripping his knees so tightly that his knuckles were white. Off to the side, near the rape victim, Don Richards and Larry Masaniello were no longer squatting alertly with their guns in their hands. Both men were now sitting flat, their legs sprawled out in front, supporting themselves with their hands. Their weapons were lying on the ground. Both men were breathing heavily. Richards was cursing softly. Masaniello, a devout Catholic, was muttering the Lord's Prayer.

Mike blew out his breath almost like a whistle. "I think most of us are in a bit of shock, James. Except you and Frank."

The doctor barked a little laugh. "Don't kid yourself. Sometime tonight I'll wake up in a panic. So will Frank, I imagine."

Jackson, leaning against the door post, shook his head. "Not tonight. Not tomorrow night, either. But the day after that'll be real bad. I'll get the shakes, sure as shooting." He surveyed the scene grimly. "Christ, this was a worse firefight than anything I saw in Nam."

He shrugged himself off the doorpost. "But at least we did almost all the firing." He stared down at Mike, who was still squatting next to the doctor. "And how are you?" he demanded. Before any reply could come: "And don't give me any shit, Mike. You're not that tough."

Mike chuckled humorlessly. "I wasn't about to claim it. Truth? I feel like a truck hit me. Still trying to figure out how come I'm still alive." He had a flashing image of himself marching forward into the farmyard like a killing machine, cold as ice. Bang. Bang. Just like that. One dead, one-

He looked over at the body of the first man he had shot. In the shoulder. He didn't need to be a doctor to know that the man was dead, dead, dead. The magnum round must have blown right through into the heart.

Well, that's why you bought that monster in the first place. Stopping power, they call it. Jesus!

He pursed his lips, trying to decide exactly how he felt. Frank cut through the fog.

"Don't," his friend said. "You won't make any sense of it today, Mike. Trust me. Let it go for a time."

"Truth," echoed Nichols. The doctor rose to his feet. The motion reminded Mike that he was supposed to look for blankets.

"Sorry," he muttered. Mike got up and started toward the farmhouse door. "Frank, did you notice any blankets while you were-"

Suddenly, a shout came from above. Tony Adducci's voice. Mike looked up. Tony was leaning out of a small upper-story window, pointing his finger.

"We got more trouble!" he exclaimed. Mike followed the pointing finger. There was a small dirt road leading away from the farmyard, bending around a grove. From the ground, Mike couldn't see anything past the trees.

Apparently, Adducci could see over them. "There's a-ah, hell, Mike, I swear it's true-there's a stagecoach coming this way, escorted by four horsemen. They aren't more than a quarter of a mile away. Be here any second."

His voice rose with excitement. "With about another twenty men pounding after them on foot! Some of those are carrying goddamit huge spears! I kid you not-spears, for Christ's sake."

Leaning over the window sill, Tony glared down at the dead thugs lying in the farmyard. "Look just like these bastards. So do the ones riding the horses, for that matter."

Mike stared in the direction Tony had pointed. The dirt road was more in the nature of a cart path. Two furrows worn into packed earth. The trees blocking his sight of the area beyond were twenty yards away. But Mike could now hear the sound of pounding hooves.

Seconds later, four horsemen came into view around the trees. These men were also wearing helmets and cuirasses, with swords scabbarded to their waists. Mike could see what looked like very large pistols slung from the saddles.

The lead horseman spotted him and shouted something. All four riders drew up the reins, bringing their mounts to a skittering halt. A moment later, they were followed around the bend by a vehicle drawn by a team of six horses. The driver frantically sawed on the reins, barely bringing the vehicle to a halt before it rammed into the stationary outriders. As it was, the vehicle slewed sideways across the road. One of the wheels caught a furrow, almost tipping the thing over.

Tony had called it a "stagecoach," but it was like no stagecoach Mike had ever seen-not even in a movie. The vehicle, for all its elegant woodwork and ornate trappings, reminded him more of a small covered wagon.

Again, the lead horseman shouted something. As before, the words were foreign, but Mike was now almost certain that the language was German. At least, if his memory wasn't playing tricks on him.

A moment's silence followed, as the horsemen stared at the Americans. The two miners by the woman had risen to their feet and were holding their guns half-raised. So was Darryl. So were Frank and Tony. Nichols rose to a half-squat, the police pistol held loosely but easily in his hands. Even Hank, still sprawled on the ground clutching the bandage to his ribs, was groping for the riot gun. The last miner, Chuck Rawls, was in the farmhouse. Mike heard him whisper through the door: "I've got 'em covered, Mike. Just say the word."

Mike held out his hands. "Hold everything! Let's not start shooting without cause!"

He could see the four horsemen reaching slowly for the pistols slung at their saddles. Mike remembered-uneasily and belatedly-that his own weapon was lying somewhere on the floor of the farmhouse.

That moment, the curtain on the side of the coach was drawn aside. A face popped through, staring at Mike. The face was that of a young woman, looking very distraught. A few strands of long black hair had escaped the cap over her head. Her eyes were brown and her complexion was dark, as if she were Spanish. She was also Mike suddenly smiled. Cheerful as could be. Strangely so, perhaps. But, then again-perhaps not. Instincts will work sometimes, after all, even when logic and reason have fled.

"Ease up, guys! I think we've got a damsel in distress here. The way I see it, that makes figuring out which side we're on a piece of cake."

Frank chuckled. "You always were a romantic. And a damn fool for a pretty face."

Mike shrugged. Still smiling, he started moving slowly toward the carriage. He kept his hands widespread, so that the outriders could see he was unarmed.

"You call that face 'pretty'?" he demanded over his shoulder. "You're nuts, Frank. Me, I think we just got promoted. We were on the set of that movie Deliverance." With a snort: "Or maybe it was Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now-"

The woman's face was closer. "Now we're in Cleopatra," Mike said. The words came out much more softly than he'd intended. And he realized, with a little start of surprise, that he was no longer joking at all.

Chapter 4

The carriage's sudden lurch threw Rebecca against her father. Balthazar Abrabanel hissed with pain.

"Gently, daughter!" he admonished. He pressed his hand more firmly against his chest. Balthazar's gray-bearded face was drawn and haggard. His breath came short and quick.

Rebecca stared at him. Her own heart was racing with a fear so great it bordered on panic. Something was wrong with her father. His heart…

The sound of a shouting voice came from outside the carriage. Rebecca recognized the voice. It belonged to the leader of the small group of Landsknecht whom her father had hired in Amsterdam to escort them to Badenburg. But the man's German was so thickly accented that she didn't understand the words themselves. Clearly, though, the man was startled by something.

Another shout. This time she understood. "Identify yourselves!"

Balthazar moaned softly. Then, with an obvious effort: "See what is happening, Rebecca."

Rebecca hesitated. Her father's condition was frightening. But, from long habit, she obeyed within a moment.

She fumbled with the sash which held the curtain closed. The hasty action brought its own exasperation. The carriage was open-sided. Rebecca would have preferred to keep the curtain open at all times, to enjoy the breeze. But her father had insisted on making the entire trip closed off from exterior view.

"This journey will be dangerous enough, child," he'd told her, "without men getting a look at you." The statement had been accompanied by an odd smile. Fondness and pride, partly. But there had been something else…

When she had realized what that "something else" was, Rebecca had been startled as much as shocked. The shock came from understanding the crime her father feared. Do men actually do such things? The startlement, from realizing that even her father thought she was beautiful. Others had told her so, but- The notion still seemed odd. She herself never saw anything in the mirror but a young Sephardic woman. Olive skin, long black hair, a nose, two dark eyes, a mouth, chin. Yes, the features were very regular and symmetrical. More so than most, perhaps. And she sometimes thought, in her rare moments of vanity, that her lips were attractive. Full, rich. But still-beautiful? What does that mean?

Finally-it took but seconds, though it seemed an eternity-she had the sash undone. She brushed the curtain aside and thrust her head through the window.

For a moment, she did not understand what her eyes were seeing. Her mind was still fixed on her father's plight. His heart…!

Then, she saw. She gasped and drew back. A new terror came, crashing onto the old. Some of that fear was caused by the sight of bodies scattered everywhere. Or so it seemed to her, in that first glimpse. Rebecca had never witnessed scenes of violence before. Nothing beyond scuffling ruffians, at least, and the authorities in Amsterdam tolerated little even of that. She had certainly never Blood everywhere! And that's-that's a head lying over there. And that woman-what? Has she been-? Oh, God!

But so much only caused fear. The terror-the hot spike sent down her spine-was caused by the sight of the man standing right before her. Advancing toward her. Not thirty feet away, now.

Rebecca watched the man come, paralyzed. Like a mouse watching a serpent.

An hidalgo! Here? God save us!

"What is it, child?" demanded her father. Hissing: "What is happening?" She sensed him lurching forward on his seat behind her.

She was torn between fear of the hidalgo and fear for her father. Then-was there any end?-came yet another terror. She heard the leader of her father's hired Landsknecht shout again.

"Let's go!" she heard him cry. "Come on! We're not getting paid enough for this!"

Rebecca heard pounding hooves set into motion. An instant later she felt the carriage rock and realized that the driver had leapt off also. She could hear him thrusting through the bushes alongside the road, racing off.

They're deserting us!

She turned back into the carriage, staring wide-eyed at her father. Her lips began to open. But the gentle and wise man upon whom she had relied all her life would be no help to her now. Balthazar Abrabanel was still alive. But his eyes were shut, his jaws tight with agony. Both hands were now pressed to his chest. He was slipping off the cushions onto the floor of the carriage. A faint groan came.

The child's terror overrode the others. Rebecca was on her knees in an instant, clutching her father. Desperately trying to bring comfort and aid, not knowing how she could do either. She stared at the heavy chests resting on the seat bench opposite her. Those contained her father's books. His translation of Galen's medical writings was in one of those chests. But it was hopeless. There were thirty-seven volumes of Galen. All of them written in Arabic, which Rebecca could only read poorly.

She heard a voice. Startled, she turned her head.

The hidalgo was standing at the window of the carriage, pushing his head through the window. The man was so tall that he had to stoop a bit to do so.

Again, the voice. The words registered, barely. She thought she understood them, almost. But it was not possible. He couldn't be speaking The hidalgo spoke the same words. This time, they registered fully. Most of them, anyway. His accent was very strange, unlike any she had ever heard in that language.

English? He speaks English? No hidalgo speaks English. It is beneath their contempt. A tongue for pirates and traders.

She stared at him, now as confused as she was frightened. The man was every inch the hidalgo. Tall, strong, erect, handsome. He exuded the certainty and self-confidence which only a Spanish nobleman possessed. Even his clothing, a ruffled white shirt-silk, she was sure of it-over dark trousers, was not dissimilar. True, she thought there had been something odd about his boots, but He smiled very widely. Who else has such perfect teeth?

And then, he spoke again. The same words, repeated for the fourth time. "Please, ma'am, do you need help?"

***

Rebecca Abrabanel would always wonder, in the years to come, why she spoke the truth then. Spoke it-babbled it. She would spend hours remembering that moment, sitting quietly by herself. Wondering.

Some of it, she would decide, was ancient heartbreak. For all the savagery of the Holy Inquisition and the pitilessness with which the hidalgos enforced the expulsion, Spain and Portugal's Sephardim would never be able to forget Iberia, the sun-drenched land they had come to love, spending centuries helping to build, convinced that Jews had finally found a place of welcome and refuge. Until Christian royalty and nobility decreed otherwise, and they were driven out to wander again. Yet they retained the language, and recited the poetry, and cherished the culture for their own. Ashkenazim could huddle in their ghettos in central and eastern Europe, shutting the outside world from their souls. But not the Sephardim. Almost a century and a half had gone by since their expulsion from the land they called Sepharad, but it was still the highest praise, amongst them, to call a man hidalgo.

So she would conclude, as the years went by, that some of her response had been a child's, discovering-hoping to discover-that legends were not lies, after all. That there did exist, somewhere in the world, a nobility that was not simply cruelty and treason, veiled beneath courtesy and custom.

But there was more. That, too, she would conclude. There had also been the reaction of a woman.

For there had been the man himself. Handsome, yes, but not quite in the hidalgo way. Even in that moment of terror and confusion, she had retained enough of her wits to sense the difference. The man had possessed none of a hidalgo's raptor beauty. Simply a good-looking man-almost a peasant, come to it, with that blunt nose and open smile. And if his eyes had been such a pure blue as to give despair to hidalgos, there had been nothing in them but friendship and concern.

So Rebecca Abrabanel would conclude, over the years. But she would still find herself wondering about that moment. Hour after hour, at times. It was self-indulgence, perhaps. No other moment in her life, when she looked back, would ever bring quite such a glow to her heart.

***

"Yes-please! My father…" She lowered her head for a moment, shutting her eyes. Tears began leaking through the lids. Softly: "He is very ill. His heart, I think."

She opened her eyes and raised her head. The man's face was blurred by the tears.

"We are alone," she whispered. "No one-" A shuddered breath. "We are marranos." She sensed his puzzlement at the term. Of course. He is English. "Secret Jews," she explained. To her surprise, she managed a chuckle. "Not even that now, I suppose. My father"-she pressed her fingers down, as if to safeguard the gray head in her hands-"is a philosopher. A physician, by trade, but he studies many things. Maimonodes, of course, but also the arguments of the Karaites on the Talmud. And Averroes the Moslem."

She realized she was babbling. What did this man care? Her lips tightened. "So he was expelled by Amsterdam's Jews for heresy. We were on our way to Badenburg, where my uncle lives. He said he could provide us shelter." She jarred to a halt, remembering the silver hidden in the chests of books. Fear came again.

The man spoke. Not to her, however. He turned his head and shouted: "James, get over here! I think we've got a very sick man here."

He turned back. His smile was thinner, now, not the gleaming thing it had been earlier. But even through the tears Rebecca could sense the reassurance in it.

"What else do you need, ma'am?" he asked. His face tightened. "There are some people coming this way. Men carrying weapons. Who are they?"

Rebecca gasped. She had utterly forgotten about the band of mercenaries they had encountered earlier.

"Tilly's men!" she exclaimed. "We didn't think they had come so far from Magdeburg. We encountered them two miles up the road. We were hoping to escape down this path, but-"

"Who is-Tilly?" the man demanded. The smile was gone completely. His face was tight, tense, angry. But the anger did not seem directed at her.

Rebecca wiped the tears away. Who is Tilly? How can anyone not know? After-Magdeburg?

The man seemed to sense her confusion. "Never mind," he snapped. There came a shout from a distance. Rebecca couldn't make out the words, but she knew they were in English. A warning of some kind, she thought.

The man's next words were quick and urgent: "I only need to know one thing. Do those men mean to do you harm?"

Rebecca stared at him. Was he joking? The honesty in the face reassured her.

"Yes," she replied. "They will rob us. Kill my father. Me-" She fell silent. Her eyes flitted toward the place where the woman had been lying on the ground. But the woman was not there now. She was on her feet, walking slowly toward the farmhouse. Two of the hidalgo's men were helping her along.

She heard the hidalgo's voice, snarling. "That's good enough. More than good enough." She was startled by the sheer fury in his tone.

An instant later, the door was being opened. A black man, naked from the waist up, was climbing into the carriage. In one hand, he held a small red box emblazoned with a white cross. Despite her astonishment, Rebecca made no protest when the black man gently moved her away from her father and began examining him.

The examination was quick and expert. The man opened the box and began withdrawing a vial. Rebecca, a physician's daughter, recognized another. She felt a vast sense of relief. Thank God-a Moor! Her father thought well of Islamic medicine. His opinion of Christian physicians bordered on profanity.

The Moor turned to the hidalgo. The hidalgo, after shouting a few commands-Rebecca, preoccupied with her father, had not caught their meaning-had his head back in the carriage.

The Moor spoke in quick and curt phrases. His accent was different from the hidalgo's, and he used strange words. Rebecca could only understand some of his English.

"He's having a (meaningless word-coronation?-that made no sense). Pretty bad one, I think. We need to get him to a (hostel?) as soon as possible. If we don't get some (meaningless phrase-the first part, she thought, sounded like 'clot-busting,' but what could dirt have to do with anything?) into him, there won't be any point. The damage will have been done."

Rebecca gasped. "Is he dying?" The black physician glanced at her. His dark eyes were caring, but grim. "He might, ma'am," he said softly. "But he might make it, too." ('Make it?' Survive, she assumed. The idiom was strange.) "It's too early to tell."

Another shout came from one of the hidalgo's men. Rebecca thought it came from the farmhouse. This time she understood the words. "They're coming! Take cover (meaningless-the hidalgo's name, she thought)!" Maikh?

The hidalgo was staring down the road. Rebecca could now hear the sounds of racing footsteps and other shouting men. Germans. Tilly's men. Baying like wolves. They had spotted the carriage.

The hidalgo shook his head and shouted back. "No! You all stay in the farmhouse! As soon as they come up, start shooting. I'll draw their fire away from the carriage!"

Quickly, he thrust his head into the carriage, extending his hand toward the physician. "James, give me your gun. I haven't got time to find my own."

The Moor reached back and drew something out of the back of his trousers. Rebecca eyed it uncertainly. Is that a pistol? It's so tiny! Nothing like those great things the Landsknechte were carrying.

But she did not doubt her guess, from the eager way the hidalgo seized the thing. Rebecca knew very little about firearms, after all, though she was struck by the intricate craftsmanship of the weapon.

Now the hidalgo was striding away. Not more than five seconds later, he had taken his stance many yards from the carriage. He stopped, turned. Briefly, he inspected the pistol, doing something with it that Rebecca could not make out clearly. Then, squaring his shoulders and spreading his feet, he waited.

Rebecca was at the carriage window now, watching. Her eyes flitted back and forth from the farmhouse to the hidalgo. Even as inexperienced as she was, Rebecca understood immediately what the hidalgo was doing. He would draw the attention of Tilly's men to himself, away from the carriage. His men in the farmhouse would have a clear angle of fire.

The mercenaries charging toward the farmhouse were on the other side of the carriage. Rebecca could hear them but not see them. All she could see was the hidalgo, facing at an angle away from her.

In the battle which followed, she watched nothing else. Her eyes were fixed to a tall man in a farmyard, standing still, in a ruffled white blouse and black trousers. A humble setting, and there was something odd about his boots. But Rebecca did not care. Samuel ibn Nagrela, reciting Hebrew poetry to the Muslim army he led to victory at the Battle of Alfuente, would have been proud of that footwear. So, at least, thought a young woman raised in the legends of Sepharad.

So confident he seemed-so certain. Rebecca remembered lines from Nagrela's poem celebrating Alfuente.

My enemy rose-and the Rock rose against him.

How can any creature rise up against his Creator?

Now my troops and the enemy's drew up their ranks

Opposite each other. On such a day of anger, jealousy,

And rage, men deem the Prince of Death

A princely prize: And each man seeks to win renown,

Though he must lose his life for it.

The hidalgo fired first. He gave no warning, issued no commands, made no threats. He simply crouched slightly, and brought the pistol up in both hands. An instant later, to Rebecca's shock, the gun went off and the battle erupted.

It was short, savage and incredibly brutal. Even Rebecca, an utter naif in the ways of violence, knew that guns could not possibly be fired as rapidly as the hail of bullets which erupted from the hidalgo's pistol and the weapons of his men. She could not see the carnage which those bullets created, in the small mob of mercenaries, but she had no difficulty interpreting their cries of pain and astonishment.

Literature kept her soul from gibbering terror. She took courage from the hidalgo's own, that day, and the poetry of another at Alfuente.

These young lions welcomed each raw wound upon

Their heads as though it were a garland. To die-

They believed-was to keep the faith. To live-

They thought-was forbidden.

She held her breath. Not all the weapons fired belonged to the hidalgo and his men. She could recognize the deeper roar of the mercenaries' arquebuses. She fully expected to see the hidalgo's white shirt erupting with blood.

The hurled spears

Were like bolts of lightning, filling the air with

Light… The blood of men flowed upon

The ground like the blood of the rams on the corners

Of the altar.

But there was nothing-nothing beyond an unseen wind which tugged the hidalgo's left sleeve and left it torn and ragged. She hissed. But there was no blood. No blood.

No blood.

Suddenly-as shocking, in its way, as the beginning-the battle was over. Silence, except for the sound of footsteps running away and the shouts of fearful retreat. Rebecca heaved a deep breath, then another and another. The motion drew the physician's eye. After no more than a glance, the Moor turned back to her father. A slight smile came to his face. Rebecca, recognizing the meaning of that smile, flushed from embarrassment. But not much. Just an older man, whimsically admiring a young woman's figure. There was no threat to her in that smile.

Rebecca collapsed, falling back from her own crouch onto the cushioned seat of the carriage. She burst into tears, covering her face with her hands.

Some time later-not more than seconds-she heard the door of the carriage opening again. She sensed the hidalgo entering the carriage. Gently, he eased himself onto the seat next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. Without wondering at the impropriety of her action, she leaned into the shoulder and turned her face into his chest.

Soft silk, over hard muscle. No blood.

"Thank you," she whispered.

He said nothing. There was no need. For the first time since the terror began that day, Rebecca felt all tension and fear fade away. For the first time in years, perhaps.

Has a flood come and laid the world waste?

For dry land is nowhere to be seen.

It was odd, then, what came to her mind. Recovering from terror in the shelter of a strange man's arm, all she could think of was a sun-drenched land of poetry and splendor, which she had never seen once in her life. Drying her tears on a silk shirt, she remembered Abraham ibn Ezra's ode to his cloak:

I spread it out like a

Tent in the dark of night, and the stars

Shine through it: through it I see the moon and the

Pleiades, and Orion,

Flashing his light.

Chapter 5

The hidalgo did not stay in the carriage for long. Two minutes, perhaps. Rebecca was not certain. Several of his men came up the carriage. There was a rapid exchange of words. Rebecca could not understand much of it, partly because of the accent and partly because they were using terms unfamiliar to her. Odd, that. Rebecca had been born and raised in London. She had thought herself familiar with every flavor of the English language.

But she understood the gist of their discussion. And that, too, she found peculiar. The hidalgo and his men seemed puzzled, as if they were disoriented by their location. They were also confused, apparently, as to what course of action to pursue.

Strange, strange. Again, fear began to creep into Rebecca's heart. The hidalgo's men, for all that they clearly respected him and sought leadership, were not addressing him as a nobleman. That meant, despite his courtesy of manner, that he must be a leader of mercenaries. A bastard son of some petty baron, perhaps, from one of England's provinces. That would explain the accent.

Rebecca shrank back in her seat. Mercenaries were vicious, everyone knew it. Criminals in all but name. Especially here, in the Holy Roman Empire, which had been given over to the flames of war.

Her eyes flitted to her father. But there was no comfort to be found there. Her father was fighting for his life. The Moorish physician was holding him up and giving him some small tablets from the vial he had taken out of his box. Rebecca did not even think of protesting the treatment. The black doctor exuded an aura of competence and certainty.

The hidalgo came back to the carriage. Timidly, Rebecca turned her head toward him.

Relief. There was still nothing in his eyes but friendliness. That, and She found herself swallowing. She recognized that look. She had seen it before, in Amsterdam, from some of the more confident young men in the Jewish quarter. Admiration; appraisal. Desire, even, veiled under courtesy.

But, after a moment, she decided there was no trace of lust. At least, she thought not. Lust was not something Rebecca was really familiar with, except the flowery version of it which she had found in some of her father's books. The romances which she tucked into great tomes of theology, reading in the library of their house in Amsterdam, so that her father might not notice her unseemly interest.

She felt a flash of pain, remembering that library. She had loved that room. Loved its quiet, its repose. Loved the books lining every wall. Her father's mind lived in the past, and tended to be disdainful of the present. But for one modern device her father had nothing but praise-the printing press. "For that alone," he was wont to say, "God will forgive the Germans their many crimes."

And now here they were, in the land of the Germans. Adrift in time of war, seeking shelter in the eye of the storm. Or so, at least, they had hoped. She would never see that library again, and for a moment Rebecca Abrabanel grieved the loss. Her childhood was gone with it, and her girlhood too. She was twenty-three years old. Whether she wanted them or not, the duties of a grown woman had fallen upon her shoulders.

She straightened those shoulders, then, summoning determination and courage. The motion drew the hidalgo's eyes. The admiration lurking within those blue orbs brightened. Rebecca didn't know whether to cringe or smile.

As it happened, she smiled. And did not, somehow, find that unthinking reaction strange.

The hidalgo spoke. His words came clipped, full of peculiar contractions and idioms. Automatically, Rebecca translated into her own formal English.

"With your permission, ma'am, we need to use your carriage. We have injured people we must get to proper medical treatment."

"And quickly," muttered the Moor, still crouched on the floor next to her father. "I've given him some-" aspiring? Rebecca did not understand the word.

The hidalgo's eyes moved to the chests and crates piled on the other side of the carriage's interior. "We'll have to remove those, to make room."

Rebecca started. Her father's books! And the silver hidden within!

She stared at the hidalgo. As he recognized her fear, she thought to see a flash of anger. But if so, it was gone in an instant.

The hidalgo's large hand tightened on the carriage door. His right hand, she noted idly. One of the knuckles was split, scabbed over with blood. An injury from the battle?

But it was his face that she was concerned with. The hidalgo looked away for a moment, scanning the distance. His jaws seemed to tighten. Then, with a faint sigh, he turned back to her.

"Listen to me, lady." Pause. "What is your name?"

"Rebecca-" She hesitated. "Abrabanel." She held her breath. Of all the great family names of Sepharad, Abrabanel was the most famous. Notorious.

But the name, apparently, meant nothing to the hidalgo. He simply nodded, and said: "Pleased to meet you. My name is Mike Stearns."

Mike? Then: Oh. It's those bizarre contractions again. Michael.

The hidalgo flashed a smile. Then, as quickly as it came, the smile vanished. His face became stern and solemn.

"Listen to me, Rebecca Abrabanel. I do not know what this place is, or where we are. But I do not care." Fiercely: "Not one damn bit. As far as I am concerned, we are still in West Virginia."

Rebecca's mind groped at the name. West-what?

The hidalgo did not notice her confusion. His eyes had left her for a moment. Again, he was scanning the countryside around them. His look was fierce. Fierce.

Growling, now, almost snarling: "You-and your father-are under the protection of the people of West Virginia." His eyes moved to his men, clustered nearby. They were watching him, listening to him. The hidalgo's jaw tightened. "Specifically," he stated, "you are under the protection of the United Mine Workers of America."

Rebecca saw the hidalgo's men lift their shoulders, swelling their own determination and courage. Their sleek, delicate-looking weapons gleamed in the sunlight.

"Damn straight!" barked one of the younger men. He cast his own hawk glare at the countryside.

Rebecca was heartened by that reaction, but her confusion deepened. America? Her jaw grew slack. There are almost no English in America. True, that little wretched colony of theirs is called Virginia, if I remember correctly. But America is-

Hope flared. Spanish, of course. But Sephardim are there too. Since the Dutch took Brazil, eight years ago, America has been a refuge. My father told me there is even a synagogue in Recife.

Rebecca stared at the hidalgo. Was he a hidalgo? She was completely adrift, now. Her mind groped for reason and logic.

Her confusion must have been apparent. The hidalgo-Michael, think of him as Michael-chuckled. "Rebecca, I am just as puzzled as you seem to be."

The brief moment of humor passed. Severity returned to his face. Michael leaned forward, placing both hands on the open window of the carriage. "Where are we, Rebecca? What place is this?"

Her eyes went past his shoulders. She could not see much, they were so wide. "I am not certain," she replied. "Thuringia, I think. Father said we had almost reached our destination."

Michael's brows furrowed. "Thuringia? Where is that?"

Rebecca understood. "Oh, of course. It's not well known. One of the smaller provinces of the Holy Roman Empire." His brows were deep, deep. "Germany," she added.

His eyes grew wide, almost bulged. "Germany?" Then, half-choked: "Germany?"

Michael turned his head, staring at the landscape. "Rebecca, I've lived in Germany. It's nothing like this." He hesitated. "Oh, I suppose the countryside's a bit the same. Except for being so-so raggedy-looking." He frowned, pointing a finger at the corpses still lying in the farmyard. "But there are no men like this in Germany."

Michael barked a sudden laugh. "God, the Polizei would round them up in a minute! Germans love their rules and regulations." Another barked laugh. "Alles in ordnung!"

Rebecca's own brows were furrowed. "Alles in ordnung?" What is he talking about? Germans are the most unruly and undisciplined people in Europe. Everybody knows it. That was true even before the war. Now-

She shuddered, remembering Magdeburg. That horror had taken place less than a week ago. Thirty thousand people, massacred. Some said it was forty thousand. The entire population of the city, except the young women taken by Tilly's army.

Michael's blue eyes were suddenly dark with suspicion. No, not suspicion. Surmise.

"Guess not, huh?" He shook his head, muttering. "Later," she thought he said. "Deal with it later, Mike. For now-"

There was a shout. Several. Michael pushed himself away from the carriage, looking toward the woods. Rebecca leaned forward, craning her neck.

Many more men were coming out of the woods. For an instant, Rebecca was paralyzed with fear. But seeing the odd costumes and weapons, she relaxed. More of Michael's men. More of these-Americans?

Then Rebecca saw the first women coming through the trees, their faces filled with worry and concern. Like a child, she burst into tears.

Michael. And women.

Safe. We are safe.

***

For Rebecca, the rest of that day-and the next, and the next, and the next-passed in a daze. She was lost in legends not even Sepharad had ever dreamed. All she ever remembered were glimpses and flashes.

***

Bizarre vehicles, not drawn by anything other than a roar from within. But those roars, soon enough, she understood to be machinery. She was more fascinated by the speed of the vehicles-and still more by the smoothness of their progress. A carriage traveling at that speed would have been shaken to pieces. The secret was only partly contained in the incredible perfection of the road itself. There had also been When she climbed out of the vehicle, in front of a huge white-and-beige building, curiosity overcame concern for her father. She stooped to examine the vehicle's wheels. Odd-looking, they were. Small, squat, bellied-almost soft-looking. She poked the black substance with a finger. Not as soft as she thought!

"What is that?" she asked the hidalgo. He was leaning over her, smiling.

"Rubber. We call those 'tires.' "

She poked it again, harder. "It is filled with something. Air?"

The smile remained as it was. But the hidalgo's eyes seemed to brighten. "Yes," he replied. "That's exactly right. The air is-ah, pumped-into them at high pressure."

She nodded, and looked back at the tire. "That's very shrewd. The air acts as a cushion." She looked back up at him. "No?"

There was no reply. Just a pair of bright blue eyes, staring at her intensely. Very wide, too, as if he were surprised by something.

What? she wondered.

***

Into a room now, buried somewhere within the labyrinth of that huge building. The building was a school, she realized. She had never heard of a school so big.

The equipment was odd, dazzling. Rebecca realized that she was in the presence of a people who were master mechanics and craftsmen-far more so, even, than the burghers of Amsterdam.

But she had no time to wonder. The room was filled with people, urgently moving furniture and equipment aside in order to create a makeshift hospital. The badly injured farmer and his wife were being attended by several women. The doctor was easing her father onto a table covered with linen and removing his clothing. There was a rapid exchange of words between him and the women. Rebecca couldn't follow the conversation. Too many of the words were unknown to her. But she understood the meaning of the womens' head-shaking. Whatever the doctor wanted was not available. She saw his black face tighten grimly.

Despair washed over her. She felt the hidalgo's arm go around her shoulder. Unthinkingly, again, she leaned into that comfort. Tears began filling her eyes.

The doctor saw her face and came over to her, shaking his head. "I think he will survive, Miss-ah-"

"Abrabanel," said the hidalgo. Rebecca felt a moment's surprise that he had remembered the name.

The doctor nodded. "Yes. I think your father will live. But-" He hesitated, making vague gestures with his hands. As if groping for something. "We do not have the medication that I wanted most. The"-again, that strange term: clot-busting?-"drugs."

The Moor sighed. "He will lose some of his heart capacity. But I have sent people into town to get"-she recognized the Greek term beta; not the rest; and there was a substance he called niter-something. "That will help."

Hope flared. "He will live?"

"I think so. But he will be incapacitated for some time. Days, possibly weeks. And will have to be very careful thereafter."

"What can I do?" whispered Rebecca.

"For the moment, nothing." The Moor turned away and went to the farmer. A moment later he was back at work, surrounded by assistants. She saw that he was going to suture the man's wounds, and was deeply impressed by his obvious skill and confidence. She felt her anxiety begin to lift. Whatever could be done for her father would be done.

***

The room was now packed with people. Rebecca realized that she was in their way and edged to the door. A moment later, unprotesting, she allowed the hidalgo to lead her out of the room. Out of the room, down a long corridor, down another, into a library.

She was stunned by the number of books. There were many young people gathered in the library, talking excitedly. Most of them were young women-girls really. Rebecca was amazed to see so many prostitutes in a library, wearing clothing more immodest than any permitted even in Amsterdam's notorious brothel district.

She glanced up at the hidalgo. Odd. He seemed to take no notice of the girls.

They are not prostitutes, Rebecca realized immediately. That scandalous show of bare leg is simply their custom.

She pondered the matter, as the hidalgo gently steered her onto a couch. "I will be back in a moment," he said. "First I have to make a"-garble-"call, in order to arrange for you and your father. They've got the"-garble-"system working again."

He was gone for a few minutes. Rebecca pondered the strange term he had used. She recognized the Greek prefix "tele." A long call? she wondered. No. Distant.

Mainly, however, Rebecca spent the time trying to settle her nerves. It was not easy, with all those youngsters staring at her. They were not impolite, simply curious, but Rebecca was relieved when the hidalgo returned. He sat next to her.

"This all seems very strange to you," he said.

Rebecca nodded. "Who are you?"

Fumbling, obviously confused himself, the hidalgo began to explain. They talked for at least two hours. Rebecca became so engrossed in the conversation that she was even able to ignore her fears for her father.

By the end, Rebecca was answering far more questions than she asked. She seemed to accept the reality, in some ways, much better than the hidalgo. She was surprised, at first, because of the man's obvious intelligence. But eventually she understood. He had none of her training in logic and philosophy.

"So you see," she explained, "it is not really so impossible. Not at all. The nature of time has always been a mystery. I think Averroes was right-" She flushed, slightly. "Well, my father thinks-but I agree-"

She stopped abruptly. The hidalgo was no longer listening to her. Well, not exactly that. He was listening to her, but not to her words. Smiling with his eyes even more than his lips.

Blue eyes held her silent.

"Keep talking," he murmured. "Please."

Flushing deeply, now. Silent. Flushing.

***

The Moorish doctor rescued her. He strode into the library and came up to them.

"Your father is stable, Miss Abrabanel," he said. "The best thing to do is get him into a bed and make him comfortable." The doctor smiled ruefully. "Away from this madhouse." He cast a questioning eye at the hidalgo.

Michael nodded. "I already sent word into town." He gave Rebecca a glance which combined care with-puzzlement? "Under the circumstances, I thought-"

There came another interruption. An elderly couple was entering the library. They spotted the hidalgo and approached. Their faces were creased with concern.

Michael rose and introduced them. "Miss Abrabanel, this is Morris and Judith Roth. They have agreed to provide lodgings for you and your father."

***

The rest of the day was a blur. Her father was carried into a large vehicle shaped like a box. The words "Marion County Rescue" were emblazoned on the sides. She followed with the hidalgo, in his own vehicle. The hidalgo's men had already loaded all of the Abrabanels' possessions in the back of the vehicle. In a very short time-so fast! so smooth!-they drew up before a large two-story house. Her father was carried up the stairs on a stretcher, into the house, up the stairs into a bedroom, and made comfortable. Rebecca and he whispered for a few minutes. Nothing more than words of affection. Then he fell asleep.

The hidalgo left, at some point. He murmured something about danger needing to be watched for. He gave her shoulder a quick reassuring squeeze before he went. His departure left her feeling hollow.

Everything was rolling over her now. Her mind felt adrift. Mrs. Roth led her downstairs into the salon and eased her into another couch. "I'll get you some tea," she said.

"I'll get it, Judith," said her husband. "You stay here with Miss Abrabanel."

Rebecca's eyes roamed the room. They lingered on the bookcase for a moment. For a longer moment, on the strange lamps glowing with such a steady light.

Everything seemed vague to her. Her eyes moved on to the fireplace. Up to the mantel.

Froze there.

Atop the mantel, perched in plain sight, was a menorah.

She jerked her head sideways, staring at Judith Roth. Back to the menorah. "You are Jewish?" she cried.

A day's terror-a lifetime's fear-erupted in an instant. Tears flooded her eyes. Her chest and shoulder heaved. A moment later, Judith Roth was sitting next to her, cradling her like a child.

Rebecca sobbed and sobbed. Desperately trying to control herself, so she could ask the only question which seemed to matter in the entire universe. Choking on the words, trying to force them through terror and hope.

Finally, she managed. "Does he know?" she gasped.

Mrs. Roth frowned. The question, obviously, meant nothing to her.

Rebecca clutched her throat and practically squeezed down the sobs. "Him. The hidalgo."

Still frowning, still uncomprehending. Hope burned terror like the sun destroys a fog.

"Michael. Does he know?" Her eyes were fixed on the menorah. Mrs. Roth's gaze followed. Her own eyes widened.

"You mean Mike?" The elderly woman stared at Rebecca for a moment, her jaw slack with surprise. "Well, of course he knows. He's known us all his life. That's why he asked us to put you up, when he called. He said he thought-he didn't understand why, he just said he had a bad feeling-but he thought it would be best if Jewish people-"

The rest of the words were lost. Rebecca was sobbing again, more fiercely than ever. Purging terror, first. Then, touching hope. Then, caressing it. Embracing it, like a child embraces legends. Hidalgo true and pure.

***

With the morning, blue eyes came again. As blue as the cloudless sky, on a sun-drenched day. In the years after, Rebecca remembered nothing else of the two days which followed. Simply blue, and sunlight.

Always sunlight. Drenching a land without shadows.

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-"

"No."

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 Banйr. "That small garrison is still at Badenburg, I trust?"

Banйr 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 Banйr, 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."

Banйr 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!

Chapter 7

The high school's gymnasium was designed to hold 1,500 people. Looking around, Mike estimated that twice that number were packed into the place. Almost the entire population of the Grantville area was present, with the exception of a handful of men at the power plant and perhaps two dozen members of Mike's mine workers.

The disaster-what everyone had taken to calling the Ring of Fire-had occurred three days ago. Since then the UMWA had become, willy-nilly, the area's impromptu defense force. There was no other body of armed and well-organized men available to patrol the area. Grantville's police force consisted of only five officers, including its chief. Even if Dan Frost had not been wounded, he couldn't possibly have handled the problem of overall defense. Grantville's police force was more than busy enough as it was, maintaining order in the town itself.

There had been no major problems with the townsfolk themselves, beyond an initial run of panic buying which the town's mayor brought to a halt by a quick and decisive order to close all the stores. The police department was patrolling the town, to make sure the order was obeyed, but there had been no significant opposition. Privately, everyone admitted that the mayor's decision had been sensible.

The real problem-which was developing very rapidly-was the influx of refugees who were beginning to creep into Grantville's outskirts. It appeared that the entire countryside was being ravaged by undisciplined mercenary soldiers. So far, none of the soldiers themselves had come near the town, but Mike's men were alertly watching for any sign of trouble.

Mike was standing on the floor of the gym, next to one of the tiers of seats near the entrance. Frank Jackson, along with a small group of other miners, were clustered about him. To his immediate right, perched on the edge of the lowest tier of seats, sat Rebecca Abrabanel. The Jewish refugee was still in a bit of a daze, confused by the strange people-and stranger technology-around her.

Perhaps fortunately, Rebecca had been too preoccupied with her father's medical condition to panic at the bizarre experiences she was undergoing. Most of the other refugees were still cowering in the woods surrounding the town, fleeing from any attempt to coax them out of hiding. But Mike suspected that the woman's steadiness was innate. While Rebecca had all the earmarks of a sheltered intellectual, that did not automatically translate into cringing helplessness. He chuckled ruefully, remembering their conversation in the library. He had barely understood a word, once she plunged into philosophy. But he had not sneered-not then, not now. Mike decided he could use some of that philosophical serenity himself.

Still, Rebecca was hardly blasй about her situation. Mike watched as, for the tenth time in as many minutes, Rebecca self-consciously smoothed her long, pleated skirt, tugged at her bodice, touched the full cap which covered her hair. He found it mildly amusing that she had adjusted well enough to her circumstances to be concerned about her appearance.

The person sitting next to Rebecca, a small gray-haired woman in her sixties, reached out and gave the refugee's hand a little squeeze of reassurance. Rebecca responded with a quick, nervous smile.

Mike's amusement vanished. Understanding Rebecca's fears concerning her Judaism-if not the reasons for it-he had asked Morris and Judith Roth to take Rebecca and her father into their house. The town's only Jewish couple had readily agreed. Balthazar Abrabanel had been there ever since. He had survived his heart attack, but both James Nichols and Jeff Adams, Grantville's resident doctor, had agreed that he needed plenty of bed rest. Balthazar had barely survived the experience as it was.

The next day, when Mike dropped by for a quick visit, Rebecca seemed calm and almost relaxed. But Judith had told him, privately, that the Abrabanel woman had burst into a flood of tears when she spotted the menorah perched on the Roths' mantel. She had spent the next half hour collapsed on a couch, clutching Judith like a drowning kitten.

Mike glanced again at Rebecca. The woman was listening intently to what the town's mayor was saying. He was relieved to see that her expression was simply calm. Intent, curious. Wondering, at what she was hearing. But without a trace of panic.

Mike scanned the sea of faces in the gymnasium. Truth is, she's doing way better than half the people here.

The thought was whimsical, in its origin. But the accompanying flush of fierce, half-possessive pride alerted Mike to a truth he had been avoiding. His feelings for the Abrabanel woman had obviously taken on a life of their own. The image of runaway horses came to his mind, bolting out of a broken corral.

Good move, Stearns. As if you didn't have enough trouble! The runaway horses paid as much attention to his admonition as they would have to a field mouse. Since the first moment he saw her, the exotic beauty of the woman drew him like a magnet. Some men might have been put off by the obvious intelligence in Rebecca's dark eyes, and the hint of sly humor in her full lips.

Mike sighed. Not me. With difficulty, he forced himself to look away and concentrate on the mayor's concluding remarks.

"So that's about it, folks," Henry Dreeson was saying. The mayor nodded toward a small group of people sitting on chairs near the podium. "You heard what Ed Piazza and his teachers told us. Somehow-nobody knows how-we've been planted somewhere in Germany almost four hundred years ago. With no way to get back."

A man stood up on one of the lower tiers. "Are we sure about that, Henry? The 'getting back' part, I mean? Maybe whatever happened could-you know, happen again. The other way."

The mayor gave a glance of appeal to one of the teachers sitting next to the principal. Greg Ferrara rose and stepped up to the microphone. The high school's science teacher was a tall, slender man in his mid-thirties. His speech patterns, like his stride and mannerisms, were quick and abrupt-and self-confident.

Greg was shaking his head before he even reached the podium's microphone. "I don't think there's the proverbial snowball's chance in hell." He gripped the sides of the podium and leaned forward, giving emphasis to his next words. "Whatever happened was almost certainly some kind of natural catastrophe. If you ask me, we're incredibly lucky we survived the experience. Nobody suffered any serious injuries, and the property damage was minimal."

Greg glanced at the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling of the gym. A fleeting smile crossed his face. "The power plant's even back on-line, so we've got all the conveniences of home. For a while, at least." The smile vanished. "But we're still in the position of a trailer park hit by a tornado. What do you think the chances are of another tornado coming by-and setting everything back the way it was?" Greg took a deep breath. "Personally, I'd have to say the chance is astronomically minute. Let's hope so. Another Ring of Fire would probably destroy us completely."

The crowd jammed into the gymnasium was silent. Greg took another deep breath, and concluded with simple, forceful words. "Face it, folks. We're here to stay."

A moment later, he had resumed his seat. The mayor took his place back at the microphone. "Well, that's about it, people. As far as that goes. What we've got to do now is plan for the future. The town council has been meeting pretty much nonstop for the past three days, and we've come up with a proposal we want to put before everybody." He paused for emphasis, just as the teacher had done. "We'll have to vote on it. This is way beyond the council's authority. So every registered voter here-"

The mayor stumbled to a halt. "Well, I suppose everybody here, registered or not." The sour look on his face caused laughter to ripple through the gym. For as many years as anyone in Grantville could remember, Henry Dreeson had been admonishing people to register to vote.

The mayor plowed on. "We need to figure out a proper structure to govern ourselves by. We can't just stick with a mayor and a town council. So what we want to propose is that we elect an emergency committee to draw up a plan-kind of a constitutional convention. The same committee should oversee things in the interim. And we need to elect somebody as the committee's chairman. He-or she-can make whatever immediate decisions are needed."

Someone in the crowd shouted out the mayor's own name. Dreeson shook his head vehemently. "Not me! The town council raised that idea already, and I turned 'em down. I'm sixty-six years old, folks. I'm a small-town mayor, that's it." The elderly man at the podium stood a little straighter. "Been pretty good at it, if I say so myself, and I'll be glad to stay on in that capacity. But there's no way I'm the right man to-" He waved his hand. The gesture was neither feeble, nor hopeless. But it conveyed the sense of impending catastrophe nonetheless.

A motion at the edge of the crowd drew Mike's attention. John Simpson, his sister's new father-in-law, was stepping forward to the microphone. The well-dressed man moved with the same self-confidence with which he had addressed numerous stockholders' meetings. He did not push the mayor aside so much as he forced him to yield the microphone by sheer authoritativeness.

"I agree with Mayor Dreeson," he said forcefully. "We are in an emergency. That calls for emergency management."

Another, less self-confident, man would have cleared his throat before proceeding. Not John Chandler Simpson. "I propose myself as the chairman of the emergency committee. I realize that I'm not well-known to most of you. But since I'm certain that I am better qualified than anyone here, I have no choice but to put myself forward for the position. I've been the chief executive officer of a major corporation for many years now. And before that I was an officer in the United States Navy. Served in the Pentagon."

Next to him, Mike heard Frank Jackson mutter: "Gee, what a self-sacrificing gesture."

Mike repressed his own snort of derision. Yeah, like Napoleon volunteering to take the throne. For the good of the nation, of course.

Quickly, he scanned the faces in the crowd. Mike could detect some signs of resentment at a stranger's instant readiness to take command. But not much. In truth, Simpson's decisiveness was obviously hitting a responsive chord. People floating in the water after a shipwreck are not inclined to question the origin of a lifeboat. Or the quality of its captain, as long as the man seems to know what he's doing and has a loud voice.

He brought his attention back to Simpson. "-first thing is to seal off the town," Simpson was saying. "Our resources are going to be stretched tight as it is. Very tight. We're going to have to cut back on everything, people. Down to the bone. We certainly aren't going to have anything to spare for the refugees who seem to be flooding the area."

Mike saw Simpson cast a quick glance toward him and his little cluster of coal miners. Simpson's face was tight with disapproval. Over the past three days, Mike and his coal miners had made no effort to drive away the small army of refugees who were beginning to fill the surrounding woods. Once he was satisfied that a new group was unarmed, Mike had tried to coax them out of hiding. With no success, so far, except for one family which had taken shelter in the town's outlying Methodist church.

"I say it again," Simpson drove on. "We must seal the border. There's a tremendous danger of disease, if nothing else." Simpson pointed an accusing finger at the south wall of the gymnasium. The banners hanging there, proudly announcing North Central High School's statewide football championships-1980, 1981, and again in l997-seemed to be surrogates for his damnation. "Those people-" He paused. The pause, as much as the tone, indicated Simpson's questioning of the term "people." "Those creatures are plague-carriers. They'll strip us of everything we own, like locusts. It will be a toss-up, whether we all die of starvation or disease. So-"

Mike found himself marching toward the podium. He felt a little light-headed, as he always had climbing into the ring. Old habit forced him to ignore the sensation, drive it out, bring his mind into focus.

The light-headed sensation was not nervousness so much as sheer nervous energy. And anger, he realized. That too he drove aside. This was no time to lose his temper. The effort of doing so brought home to him just how deeply furious he was. Simpson's last few sentences had scraped his soul raw.

First thing we do, we put the lawyers and the suits in charge. Then we hang all the poor white trash. As he approached the podium, he caught sight of James Nichols standing next to his daughter. Oh, yeah. String up the niggers too, while we're at it. The image of a beautiful face came to him. And fry the kikes, of course.

He was at the podium. He forced Simpson away from the microphone with his own equivalent of assertive self-confidence. And if Mike's aura carried less of authority, and more of sheer dominance, so much the better.

"I agree with the town council's proposal," he said forcefully. Then, even more forcefully: "And I completely disagree with the spirit of the last speaker's remarks."

Mike gave Simpson a glance, lingering on it long enough to make the gesture public. "We haven't even got started, and already this guy is talking about downsizing."

The gymnasium was rocked with a sudden, explosive burst of laughter. Humor at Mike's jest was underlain by anger. The crowd was made up, in its big majority, of working class people who had their own opinion of "downsizing." An opinion which, unlike the term itself, was rarely spoken in euphemisms.

Mike seized the moment and drove on. "The worst thing we could do is try to circle the wagons. It's impossible, anyway. By now, there are probably as many people hiding in the woods around us as there are in the town. Women and children, well over half of them."

He gritted his teeth, speaking the next words through clenched jaws. "If you expect mine workers to start massacring unarmed civilians-you'd damn well better think again."

He heard Darryl's voice, somewhere in the crowd. "Tell 'em, Mike!" Then, next to him, Harry Lefferts: "Shoot the CEO!"

Another laugh rippled through the gym. Harsher, less humorous. The title Chief Executive Officer, for most of that blue-collar crowd, vied in popularity and esteem with Prince of Darkness. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, rolled into one, wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and holding a pink slip in his hand.

Sorry. No room in the Ark for you. Nothing personal. You're just useless in today's wonderful global economy.

Mike built on that anger and drove on. "His whole approach is upside down and ass-backwards. 'Seal off the town?' And then what?" He swept his hand in a circle. "You all heard what Greg said earlier. He estimates the disaster-the Ring of Fire-yanked an area about six, maybe seven miles in diameter with us. You know this countryside, people. We're talking hills, mostly. How much food do you think we can grow here? Enough for three thousand people?"

He let that question settle for a moment. Simpson started to say something, angrily pushing toward the microphone. Mike simply planted a large hand on the man's chest and pushed him back. Simpson stumbled, as much from the shock of being "manhandled" as the actual shove itself.

"Don't even think about taking this microphone from me, big shot," growled Mike. He hadn't intended the statement to be public, but the microphone amplified his words through the gymnasium. Another laugh came from the crowd. Almost a cheer, actually-as if they were applauding a dramatic slam dunk by the high school's favorite player.

Mike's next words were spoken softly, but firmly. "Folks, we've got to face the truth. We're here, and we're here to stay. Forever." He paused. "Forever," he repeated. "We can't think in terms of tomorrow, or the day after. Or even next year. We've got to think in terms of decades. Centuries."

Simpson was gobbling something. Mike ignored him. Drive on. Drive it home.

"We can't pretend those people out there don't exist. We can't drive them away-and, even if we could, we can't drive away the ones who'll come next." He pointed a finger at Melissa Mailey, the high school's history teacher. "You heard what Ms. Mailey told us earlier. We're smack in the middle of one of the worst wars in history. The Thirty Years War, it's called. Not halfway into it, from what she said. By the time this war is over, Germany will be half-destroyed. A fourth of its population-that includes us, now, 'cause we're here in the middle of it-dead and buried. There are gigantic armies out there, roaming the countryside. Plundering everything, killing everybody. We've seen it with our own eyes. Our police chief's lying in his bed with half his shoulder blown off." He glanced at Lefferts, up in the stands. The young miner was easy to spot, because of his bandages. "If Harry had any sense, he'd be lying in bed, too."

Another laugh rang through the gym. Lefferts was a popular young man, as much for his boundless energy as anything else. Mike turned and pointed to Rebecca. "She and her father were almost massacred. Robbery, rape and murder-that's standard operating procedure for the armies roaming this countryside.

"You don't believe me?" he demanded. He gestured angrily at the door leading out of the gym. "Ask the farmer and his wife we barely kept alive. They're not thirty yards from here, in the makeshift hospital we set up in the school. Go ahead, ask them!"

Simpson was still gobbling. Mike turned to him, snarling. "I guess this clown thinks we can keep those armies off by blowing hot air on them."

Another roar of laughter. Most of the crowd was with him now, Mike could sense it. Rooting for the home team, if nothing else.

"Sure, we can fight them off for a while. We've got modern weapons, and with all the gun nuts living around here"-another mass laugh-"we've got the equipment and supplies to reload for months. So what? There's still only a few hundred men who can fight. Less than that, once you figure out how much work's got to be done."

Now he pointed to Bill Porter, the power plant's manager. "You heard what Bill had to say. We've got enough coal stockpiled to keep the power plant running for six months. Then-" He shrugged. "Without power, we lose most of our technological edge. That means we've got to get the abandoned coal mine up and running. With damn few men to do it, and half the equipment missing. That means we have to make spare parts and jury-rigged gear."

He scanned the crowd. When he spotted the figure he was looking for, he pointed to him.

"Hey, Nat! How much of a stockpile do you keep in your shop? Of steel, I mean."

Hesitantly, the owner of the town's largest machine shop rose to his feet. He was standing about half a dozen tiers up in the crowd.

"Not much, Mike," he called out. "We're a job shop, you know. The customer usually supplies the material." Nat Davis glanced around, looking for the other two machine shop proprietors. "You could ask Ollie and Dave. Don't see 'em. But I doubt they're in any better position than I am. I've got the machine tools, and the men who can use them, but if we aren't supplied with metal-" He shrugged.

A voice came from across the gym, shouting. That was Ollie Reardon, one of the men Davis had been looking for. "He's right, Mike! I'm in no better shape than Nat. There's a lot of scrap metal lying around, of course."

Mike shook his head. "Not enough." He chuckled. "And most of it's in the form of abandoned cars in the junkyard or somebody's back yard. Have to melt them down." He emphasized his next words by speaking slowly. "And that means we have to build a smelter. With what? And who's going to do the work?"

He paused, allowing the words to sink in. Simpson threw up his hands and stalked angrily back to his seat. Mike waited until Simpson was seated before he resumed speaking.

He suppressed a grin. Kick 'em when they're down, by God! Mike gestured toward Simpson with his head. "Like I said, I disagree with everything about his approach. I say we've got to go at this the exact other way around. The hell with downsizing. Let's build up, dammit!"

Again, he swept his hand in a circle. "We've got to expand outward. The biggest asset we've got, as far as I'm concerned, is all those thousands of starving and frightened people out there. The countryside is flooded with them. Bring them in. Feed them, shelter them-and then give them work. Most of them are farmers. They know how to grow crops, if they don't have armies plundering them."

His next words came out growling. "The UMWA will take care of that." A chorus of cheers came up, mostly-but by no means entirely-from the throats of the several hundred coal miners in the gym.

Drive it through. "We'll protect them. They can feed us. And those of them with any skills-or the willingness to learn them-can help us with all the other work that needs to be done."

He leaned back from the microphone, straightening his back. "That's what I think, in a nutshell. Let's go at this the way we built America in the first place. 'Send me your tired, your poor.' "

Angrily, Simpson shouted at him from the sidelines. "This isn't America, you stupid idiot!"

Mike felt fury flooding into him. He clamped down on the rage, controlling it. But the effort, perhaps, drove him farther than he'd ever consciously intended. He turned to face Simpson squarely. When he spoke, he did not shout. He simply let the microphone amplify the words into every corner of the gymnasium.

"It will be, you gutless jackass. It will be." Then, to the crowd: "According to Melissa Mailey, we now live in a world where kings and noblemen rule the roost. And they've turned all of central Europe-our home, now, ours and our childrens' to come-into a raging inferno. We are surrounded by a Ring of Fire. Well, I've fought forest fires before. So have lots of other men in this room. The best way to fight a fire is to start a counterfire. So my position is simple. I say we start the American Revolution-a hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule!"

Before Mike had taken more than three steps away from the podium, a large part of the crowd-a big majority, in fact-was on its feet applauding. Not just shouting and clapping, but stamping their feet. He almost laughed, seeing the look of consternation on Ed Piazza's face. The principal was clearly worried that the stands might give way-but not so worried that he wasn't clapping and shouting himself all the while.

So much Mike had hoped for. Even expected, down deep. He knew his people-a lot damn better than some arrogant big shot like John Simpson.

But what he hadn't expected-certainly not hoped for!-was the immediate aftermath. He heard Melissa Mailey's voice behind him, speaking into the microphone. Melissa was in her mid-fifties, and spoke with all the self-assuredness of a woman who had been teaching her whole adult life.

"Mayor Dreeson, I'd like to nominate Michael Stearns as chairman of the emergency committee."

Mike stopped in his tracks and spun around, his jaw dropping. The crowd's applause deepened, grew positively fierce. Through the din, he heard Ed Piazza quickly second the motion.

Then, behind him-et tu, Brute?-he heard the stentorian voice of Frank Jackson: "Move the nominations for chairman be closed!"

Frank's motion drew more applause. Mike's brain was whirling around like a top. He hadn't expected-hadn't so much as "The nominations are closed!" announced the mayor firmly. "Call for a vote."

Mike gaped at him. Dreeson was grinning like an imp. "Under the circumstances-running unopposed and all-I think we can handle this with a voice vote." He pulled out a gavel from the shelf underneath and smacked the podium once. Firmly. "All in favor?"

The shouts ringing through the gymnasium were like a deafening roar. In a daze, Mike found himself staring at John Simpson and his wife. He was relieved to see that they were scowling as fiercely as mastiffs.

Well, thank God. At least it's not unanimous.

***

Moments later, Mike found himself shepherded up to the podium by Melissa Mailey, greeted cheerfully by Ed Piazza, and having the gavel thrust into his hand by Henry Dreeson. Before he knew it, he was chairing the town meeting.

That task, in itself, posed no particular difficulty. Mike had chaired plenty of UMWA meetings. Coal miners were as famous for their knowledge of the arcane forms of Robert's Rules of Order as they were for the often-raucous content with which they filled those forms.

No, the problem was simply that he hadn't caught up with the reality of his new position. So, after a time, he stopped worrying about what he was going to do, and simply concentrated on who he was going to do it with.

"This isn't going to work, folks," he said forcefully at one point. "You've already nominated a hundred people for the committee, and I don't doubt half of them will get elected. I've got no problem with that-but I'm still going to need a working committee to actually help me out. Fifty people can't get anything done. I need a-a-"

He groped for the right term. Melissa Mailey provided it: "You need a cabinet."

He gave her a sour glance, but she responded with nothing but a cheerful smile. "Yeah, Melissa. Uh, right. A cabinet." He decided not to argue the point at the moment. Remember, Mike-it's just a temporary committee.

Mike scanned the crowd. "I'm willing to pick the-uh, cabinet-out of the people elected to the committee." Half-desperately: "But there are some people I've just got to have."

A loud male voice came from the stands: "Who, Mike? Hell, just name them now! We can vote in your cabinet right here!"

Mike decided to accept that proposal as a motion. And the crowd's roar of approval as a second. All in favor? The ayes have it.

The gymnasium, for the first time, became silent. Mike's eyes scanned the crowd.

His first selections came automatically, almost without thought.

"Frank Jackson." Several dozen coal miners whistled.

"Ed Piazza." Hundreds of voices applauded-many of them teenagers from the high school. Mike felt a moment's whimsical humor. Not too many principals in this world would get that kind of applause. Most would have gotten nothing but raspberries.

His eyes fell on the teachers sitting next to Piazza. Mike's face broke into a grin. "Melissa Mailey." The history teacher's prim, middle-aged face broke into a moue of surprise. Ah, sweet revenge. "And Greg Ferrara." The younger science teacher simply nodded in acknowledgment.

"Henry Dreeson." The mayor started to protest. "Shut up, Henry! You're not weaseling out of this!" A laugh rippled through the gym. "And Dan Frost, of course, when he's up and about."

Mike's mind was settling into the groove. Okay. We need production people, too. Start with the power plant. That's the key to everything.

"Bill Porter." The power-plant manager's face creased into a worried frown, but he made no other protest. Machine shops. Critical. I'd rather work with Ollie, but his shop's the smallest. "Nat Davis."

Need a farmer. The best one around is- Mike spotted the short, elderly figure he was looking for. "Willie Ray Hudson."

His eyes moved on, scanning the sea of faces. Mike was relaxed, now. He was accustomed to thinking on his feet, under public scrutiny.

Need some diversity, too. Nip that in-group crap right in the bud. Out-of-town and- He spotted the face he was looking for. Which was not hard, since the face stood out in the crowd. "Dr. James Nichols."

Okay. Who else? Like all union officials, Mike was no stranger to politicking. It would be a mistake if his cabinet appeared too cozy and cliquish. I need an enemy. In appearance, at least.

His gaze fell on John Simpson, still glaring at him. The gaze slid by without a halt. No appearance there. I don't need an endless brawl.

When Mike's eyes came to a burly, middle-aged man sitting not too far from Simpson, he had to force himself not to break into a grin. Perfect!

"And Quentin Underwood," he announced loudly. The name brought instant silence to the gym. Utter, complete silence. Followed, a second later, by Darryl's loud "Boo!"

And, a second later, by Harry Lefferts' even louder bellow: "Treason! I say 'treason!' Mr. Chairman, what's the procedure for impeaching your sorry ass?"

That produced a gale of laughter, which went on for at least a minute. Throughout, the newly elected chairman of the emergency committee exchanged a challenging stare-fading into a mutual nod of recognition-with the manager of the coal mine in which he had formerly worked as a miner.

Mike was satisfied. He's a stubborn, pig-headed son of a bitch, pure and simple. But nobody ever said he was stupid, or didn't know how to get things done.

Henry Dreeson's voice came from behind him. "Anybody else, Mike?"

Mike was about to shake his head, when a new thought came. And there are the people outside. Thousands and thousands of them.

He turned his head and stared into a corner of the gym. Then, pointing his finger, he named the last member of his cabinet. "And Rebecca Abrabanel."

***

To his dying day, Mike would claim he was driven by nothing more than logic and reason. But the counterclaim began immediately. No sooner had the town meeting broken up into a half-festive swirling mob, than Frank Jackson sidled up to him.

"I knew it," grumbled his older friend. "I knew all that stuff about the American Revolution was a smoke screen. Admit it, Mike. You just engineered the whole thing to impress the girl."

With great dignity, Mike ignored the gibe. With considerably less dignity-almost with apprehension-he stared at the girl in question. She was staring back at him, her hand still gripping Judith Roth's hand. Rebecca's mouth was open, in stunned surprise. But there was something other than surprise in her eyes, he thought. Or, perhaps, he simply hoped.

"Oh, come on!" he snapped. Even to him, the reproof sounded hollow.

Chapter 8

Mike and his "cabinet" held their first meeting an hour later, in Melissa Mailey's classroom. Mike began the meeting with a fumble. Of the hemming and hawing variety.

"For God's sake, young man!" snapped Melissa. "Why don't you just come out and say it? You want me-the only woman in the room, except Rebecca-to be the committee's secretary. Take the notes."

Mike eyed her warily. Melissa Mailey was a tall, slender woman. Her hair was cut very short, and its color matched the conservative gray jacket and long dress she was wearing. Her hazel eyes were just as piercing as he remembered them, from days gone by when he stammered out an unstudied reply to a stiff question. She looked every inch the stern and demanding schoolmistress. The appearance was not a pose. Melissa Mailey was famous-or notorious, depending on who was telling the tale-for her acid tongue and acerbic discipline.

She was also famous for being Grantville's most unabashed and unrelenting liberal. Flaming irresponsible radical, according to many. As a college student, she'd been a participant in the civil rights movement. Arrested twice. Once in Mississippi, once in Alabama. As a young schoolteacher, she had marched against the Vietnam war. Arrested twice. Once in San Francisco, once in Washington, D.C. The first arrest had cost her first teaching job. The second arrest had done for the next. Boston Brahmin born and bred, she'd wound up teaching in a small town in West Virginia because nobody else would hire her. Her first year at the newly founded high school, she'd organized several of the schoolgirls to join her in a march on Washington demanding the Equal Rights Amendment. A clamor had gone up, demanding her dismissal. She held onto her job, but she'd been treading on very thin ice.

As ever, Melissa didn't give a damn. The next year, she got arrested again. But that was for denouncing an overbearing state trooper at one of the UMWA picket lines during the big 1977-78 national strike. When she got out of jail, the miners held a coming-home party for her in the high-school cafeteria. Half the student body showed up, along with their parents. Melissa even snuck out, halfway through the proceedings, and joined some of the miners for a drink in the parking lot.

Melissa Mailey had finally found a home. But she was still as unyielding and acerbic as ever.

"Look, Melissa," Mike muttered, "I know it looks bad. But we've got to have accurate records, and-"

Melissa broke into a smile. That expression was not seen often on her face. Not in Mike's recollection, at any rate. But it was quite dazzling, in its own cool way.

"Oh, relax," she said. "Of course we have to keep meticulous records." Again, the smile. "We're the Founding Fathers, you know. And Mothers. Wouldn't do at all not to have accurate notes. I know-I'm a history teacher. Historians would damn us for eternity."

The smile vanished. Melissa's eyes flicked around the faces gathered in the center of the room. Her expression made plain just how sloppily and carelessly she thought men would keep important records.

When her eyes came to Rebecca, Melissa's frown deepened. The young Jewish refugee, hands clasped nervously in her lap, was sitting on the edge of her seat. Her chair was pushed back several feet from the circle.

Melissa stood up and pointed her finger imperiously to a spot next to her own chair. "Young woman," she stated, "you move that chair here. Right now."

If Rebecca had any difficulty with Melissa's Boston accent-still as pronounced as ever, after all these years-she gave no sign of it. Hastily, like a thousand schoolgirls before her, she obeyed the voice of command.

Melissa bestowed the smile upon her. "Attagirl. Remember: United we stand, divided we fall."

Melissa sniffed at the men. "Do something useful, why don't you?" She pointed to a row of long tables lining the back wall. "Move those together into the center of the room. Make a big conference table out of them. Then push these silly desks away and go get us some real chairs. Ed'll show you where they are. We'll be meeting here from now on, I imagine. May as well set things up properly."

She turned away, briskly striding toward a cabinet. "I, meanwhile, will demonstrate the marvels of modern technology." Over her shoulder, with a snort: "Stenography. Ha!"

The next few minutes were taken up with a flurry of activity. When the meeting resumed, a large and expensive-looking tape recorder occupied a prominent place in the center of the jury-rigged "conference table."

Melissa turned it on, recorded the time and date, and turned to Mike.

"You're on, Mister Chairman."

Mike cleared his throat. "All right. The first thing I want to take care of is this 'constitutional convention' business. It's important, of course-more important, in the long run, than probably anything else. But we've got way too much emergency business to take care of for this entire committee to spend any time on it."

He could see Melissa's gathering frown out of the corner of his eye. Hurriedly: "So what I want to propose is that we set up a small subcommittee to work on it. When they come up with a proposal, we can discuss it. Until then, the rest of us will concentrate on immediate matters."

"Sounds okay to me," said Nat Davis. "I wouldn't know where to start, anyway. Not with that problem. Who do you want on the subcommittee?"

Mike's first two names came instantly. "Melissa and Ed. She's the history teacher and Ed used to teach civic affairs." Pause. "One or two more people."

Everyone's eyes glanced at everyone else's. Melissa cut through the hesitation. "Willie Ray. He served a few terms as a state representative, way back in the Stone Age. Give us some practical experience, even if he was a chiseling politician like all the rest of them." Everyone chuckled except Hudson, who laughed aloud. "And Dr. Nichols should be on it too."

Nichols' eyes widened. "Why?" he demanded. "I don't know anything about constitutional law." He cocked his head. The gesture was both quizzical and half-suspicious. "If it's because I'm the only-"

"Of course it's because you're the only black man in the room!" snapped Melissa. Her eyes challenged Nichols, and then the other men. "Grow up-all of you. I didn't propose him out of tokenism. There's a good and simple reason to include someone whose people had a different history than most of ours. Whether he knows any law or not, I suspect Dr. Nichols won't be quite as complacent as everyone else about the received wisdom of the ages."

Mike wasn't sure he agreed with Melissa's reasoning. In general, that is. But he realized that he would feel a bit more confident himself, knowing that Nichols had a hand in shaping their new constitution.

"I've got no problems with that. James? Do you accept?"

Nichols shrugged. "Sure, why not?" Grinning: "Man does not live by chitlins alone, after all."

When the laughter died down, Mike moved on to immediate business. He started with the power-plant manager.

"Bill, the way I see it, power is the key to everything. As long as we have electricity, we'll have a gigantic edge over everybody else in this new world of ours. All the way from modern machine tools to computers. So-how long? And what can we do to keep the power coming?"

Porter ran fingers through his thinning hair. "I don't know how much anybody here knows about power plants. The truth is, the design of steam-water cycle power plants hasn't changed much in a long time. They're simple machines, when you get down it. As long as we're provided with water and coal, we can keep running until we use up our small stock of critical spare parts. That'll probably happen somewhere between a year and a half and two years from now. After that, we're shut down for good."

He shook his head. The gesture was both rueful and half-amused. "We've got enough coal stockpiled to last for six months. Water's not a problem at all. We used to get it from the Monongahela. The Ring of Fire cut the pipes, of course, but it turns out-talk about blind luck!-that there's another river pretty much right in the same place. Not as big, but it'll do."

"I don't understand about the spare parts," said Frank. "Can't we make them? We've got three machine shops in town."

Porter shook his head. "That's not the problem, Frank. I wish it was! We've got four machine shops in town, actually. We have a maintenance shop in the plant itself." He glanced at Piazza. "And now that I think about, I just remembered the high school's technical training center has a pretty good shop, too."

Piazza nodded. Porter turned to Davis, the machine-shop owner. "Tell 'em, Nat."

Nat Davis was a pudgy man in late middle age. When he puffed out his cheeks, he bore such an uncanny resemblance to a frog that Mike almost laughed.

"Not a chance, folks. Bill's right." He shrugged. "Oh, sure, I could make lots of parts. Shafts, you name it. But some things-like gears, and bearings, and mechanical seals-are specialty work. I don't think there's a job shop in the country that could handle that stuff. Not without spending years at it. We just don't have the tooling."

Silence. "A year and a half," Ed muttered. "Two at the most." His frown conveyed both worry and exasperation.

Mike leaned forward, tapping the table with a stiff finger. "I don't think the situation's that bad. Remember, we don't need to keep that power plant running. That monster's overkill, anyway. Just any power plant."

Porter stopped running his fingers through his hair. His head popped up. "You're right, Mike!" he exclaimed. Then, chuckling ruefully: "We've got the thing running on minimal load condition as it is. Our plant could have provided power to the whole of Marion County. Over fifty thousand people, including all the industry in Fairmont. We can keep Grantville supplied with anything it needs with what amounts to a trickle."

He was getting excited, now. "Hell, yes-Mike's right! We can use that year or two grace period to gear down." Seeing the blank expressions on several faces, Porter elaborated. "Remember what I said. The basic principle of a coal-operated power plant is damn near ancient. We can build us a new one." Another chuckle, full of cheer rather than chagrin. "An old one, I should say. Forget about high-speed turbines and bearings. All we need, for our relatively modest purposes, is a good old-fashioned steam engine."

He looked at Nat. "We can build something like that, I imagine?"

Before Davis could respond, Willie Ray Hudson was laughing gleefully. "You imagine? Bill, I know of at least four men in this town who build steam engines for a hobby." The old farmer was grinning from ear to ear. "The Oil and Gas Festival contest, you know." He shrugged. "They don't build anything as big as we'd want, of course. But they understand all the principles."

Hudson slapped the table with his hand. "And that's another thing! Let's not forget that this whole area started with natural gas and oil, before the coal mines started working." The farmer pointed to the floor beneath his feet. "We're still sitting on it. Natural gas mostly. I run my farm direct off the gas from my own land. All my vehicles are converted to operate on natural gas instead of gasoline. Don't pay the gas company a nickel for it. So we've got another energy source, right there!"

Frank joined in the excitement. "You're right. Now that I think about, the whole town's heat comes from that gas supply. Even the high school. Right, Ed?"

The principal nodded, but his face was creased with worry. "Yeah, but-" He looked down at the floor. "Is it still there?"

For the first time, Greg Ferrara spoke. "I'm pretty sure it is, Ed." The science teacher made an apologetic face. "I can't be sure, of course. But I examined what I could of the evidence left by the Ring of Fire. As near as I can tell, the-whatever it was-cut out a perfect circle. Right through everything. Dirt, trees-even rail lines and power cables-cut like a razor."

Everybody was staring at the floor, now. "I can't imagine anything that would have just skinned the planet's surface. It's far more likely that the Ring of Fire moved an entire hemisphere. Well, a sphere, actually-but the top half would have just been atmosphere."

Ferrara paused, studying the tiles as if the answer were to be found there. "I'm not positive, but I'll be surprised if we don't discover that we've got the same radius beneath our feet. Three miles down, at the center-maybe more. Way deeper than any gas and oil beds we'll be tapping into. Or coal seams."

"We'll know soon enough," said Mike forcefully. "Quentin, we need to get that abandoned coal mine up and running. Six months from now, the power plant's stockpile will be gone. We've got to get the coal moving by then."

Startled, the former mine manager looked up. "But that belongs to-" He broke off, chuckling. "Ah, screw 'em. I never liked that outfit anyway. And now I guess they're in no position to yap about property rights."

Quentin's harsh chuckle was echoed by others. The abandoned coal mine was located less than two miles out of town. It was practically brand new. The largest coal operator in the United States had built the thing, run it for a few months, and then closed it down. The company claimed it was due to "unfavorable market conditions." Everyone in the town-including Quentin, who managed a competitor's mine-was certain that the mine had been built as a tax dodge.

Frank was grinning. "Tell you what, Quentin. I'll get the bolt cutters, you bring the hacksaw. We'll have that sucker up and running in no time."

"No-not you, Frank." Mike's words were spoken softly, but decisively. "Put Ken Hobbs in charge of it. That old-timer almost goes back to the days of pick-and-shovel mining, anyway. Which is what we're probably going to be reduced to. I doubt very much if the company left any continuous-mining machines down there. Or any long-wall equipment."

He drove over Frank's gathering protest. "I need you here, Frank-not buried hundreds of yards down in the ground. We've got to build us a real little army now. I'm counting on you to show me the ropes. You're a real veteran of a real war, which I'm not."

Frank stared at him. Then at Quentin Underwood, then at James Nichols, and then at Ed Piazza. Those were the Vietnam War veterans in the room.

"I will be good God damned," he mused. "Whaddaya know? The Vietnam 'era' is finally classified as a for-real war."

The other vets chuckled. Quentin eyed Mike. "How 'bout me?" he demanded. "You going to insist on putting me in a uniform too?"

Mike shook his head. "No offense, Quentin, but you were stationed on an aircraft carrier. I need men with combat experience on dry land. James was in the Marines, but he's one of our only two doctors. Ed-"

The short, stocky principal laughed. "Not me! Spent my whole tour of duty as a rear-echelon motherfu-" He broke off the vulgar term, glancing warily at Melissa. She responded with a grin and a wagging finger. "The closest I ever got to action was being caught in a shoot-out in downtown Saigon between the police and some black marketeers. You want a real combat vet like Frank."

Jackson made a sour face. "I was in the Eleventh Armored Cav, Mike. I haven't noticed any tanks parked around town."

Nichols' eyes widened a bit. "You were with the Blackhorse?" he asked. "Good outfit."

Frank returned the doctor's compliment with a brief nod. "So were the Marines. By the way, which unit were you in?" He shook his head. "Ah, never mind. Later."

To Mike: "Sure, I had some experience with infantry tactics. But nothing like what we're going to be facing here." He snorted. "Can't hardly call in an air strike."

"That's still more experience than I've got, Frank," retorted Mike. "The only combat I saw in the service was barroom brawls." He scanned the other faces in the room. When he spoke again, his tone was deadly serious.

"Building our army has to take first priority, people. Without it, we're just another town ripe for plunder. I'm going to need every combat veteran I can get my hands on. That's true of most of the middle-aged miners, fortunately. But-sorry, Frank-they're getting a little long in the tooth for this sort of thing. I want to use them as a training cadre for the younger miners, and any of the younger men in town who aren't absolutely needed for something else. And-"

He took a deep breath. "We're going to have to call for volunteers." Another deep breath. "I'm going to pretty much want every boy in next month's high-school graduating class."

The room exploded with protests from Ed Piazza and Melissa Mailey. Ed gobbled semicoherent and indignant phrases about his kids. Melissa neither gobbled nor was incoherent. She simply denounced Mike. She avoided the term warmonger, but precious little else.

Throughout, Mike weathered the storm in suffering silence. When the protests began to die down, he opened his mouth to speak.

Greg Ferrara cut him off. "Don't be stupid, Melissa. You too, Ed. I agree with Mike completely. Most of the miners are getting on in years, you know that as well as anyone. The mines have done only a trickle of new hiring for the last decade." Bitterly: "Downsizing. Hell, at least half the working miners in this area are Frank's age. Late forties and up. You can't expect men that old to do all the fighting. Not for long, anyway."

Ed and Melissa were staring at their fellow school teacher, jaws open. Their thoughts were obvious: Benedict Arnold.

Seeing their expressions, the science teacher smiled ruefully. "Sorry. But facts are facts. Every country in history, when the fighting starts, depends on its youngsters. I can't see where we're any different."

He turned to Mike. "I know those boys, Mike. Every one of them will volunteer. Even the kids in the special education program."

He waved down Melissa's gathering storm of renewed protest. "Relax! We're obviously not going to put someone like Joe Kinney into the army." Mike nodded his firm agreement. Joe Kinney was a sweet-tempered eighteen-year-old boy. But he had the mental age of a five-year-old, and was never going to get any better.

Greg nodded at Nichols. "Dr. Nichols and Dr. Adams can screen out the boys who are just plain unfit. But most of them can serve, and all of them will. For the duration-just like in World War II."

He squared his slender shoulders. "And some of the male teachers should volunteer to lead them in. Just like in the Civil War. Let's start with me. I'm sure Jerry Calafano will volunteer also. And Cliff Priest and Josh Benton."

Half-unconsciously, the school principal nodded his agreement. Priest and Benton were the two younger coaches for the high school. Calafano was a math teacher in his late twenties. He and Ferrara were close friends, as well as mutual chess fanatics.

Melissa started to say something-a protest, from the sound of the initial stuttered syllables. Then, her shoulders slumping, she heaved a great sigh. "Oh, Lord," she whispered. "Oh, dear God." Her eyes filled with sudden moisture. There was nothing of politics in either the words or the wetness. Just the grief of a woman who had helped to raise another generation of children, and must now see them march toward the dogs of war. Cry havoc! Like so many generations before them.

Mike gave that grief a moment's respectful silence. Then, squaring his own shoulders, he pushed on to new business.

"All right. Greg, I appreciate the offer and I accept it. It'll help if several of the teachers volunteer along with the kids. Help a lot." For a moment, his mind sped off at a tangent. Ferrara, he knew, had organized a rocketry club with some of the science-oriented students in the high school. He could see possibilities Later. He looked at Willie Ray. "Willie, I want you to get all the farmers together and draw up a plan for food production. Inventory our resources, figure out what you're going to need-" He broke off. Hudson had started nodding before Mike had finished the first sentence. The old man was a natural-born organizer. Mike could let him handle it from there.

To Quentin: "Frank will talk to Ken Hobbs and some of the older miners. We'll also see if we can get some retirees back to work. Break into that abandoned mine and see where we stand. Transporting the coal will be a problem, too. We got rail tracks leading most of the way from the mine to the power plant, but as far as I know there isn't a locomotive anywhere around. We may have to haul it by truck."

To Dreeson: "That brings up the problem of the gasoline supply. We need to inventory how much fuel we've got sitting in the underground storage tanks of the town's gas stations. Diesel and kerosene also. And anywhere else it can be found. Which will mostly be in the gas tanks of everybody's cars and trucks."

He paused, pursing his lips. "I can't see any way around it. Starting immediately, we've got to put a complete stop to people using their vehicles for personal transportation. As of right now, all motor vehicle fuel is a vital military resource."

Quentin nodded. "Absolutely!" He looked at Willie Ray. "How hard is it to convert to natural gas?"

Before Hudson could respond, Ed piped up. "Yeah! We could convert a couple of the school buses. Provide the town with a bus service." Apologetically: "Some of the old folks can hardly be expected to walk all the way to the grocery stores." His quick mind seemed to have a life of its own, tripping from subject to subject. "And that brings up the question of groceries. We can't keep the freeze on buying much longer. But how are we going to ration the food? And what do we use for money? I'm not sure U.S. currency's worth much anymore. And-"

Dreeson pitched in immediately, with a proposal to use the town's only bank-85% community owned, remember?-as their new financial clearing house. Quentin agreed. Melissa snapped something about protecting the town's poorer residents. Quentin snapped back. Before that argument could get started, Nat Davis chimed in with a concern for the town's resident businessmen. Not the absentee owners, of course. Hell with them. Nationalize all that stuff. But I worked all my life- Ed and Dreeson immediately assured him arrangements could be made. Property rights would be respected, but the demands of the common good On and on. Mike leaned back in his chair, almost sighing with relief. He had picked this team on the spur of the moment, driven more by instinct than conscious thought. He was pleased to see that his fighting instincts seemed to be as good in this arena as they had been in the much simpler environment of a boxing ring.

***

The meeting broke up three hours later. There was still a lot to be done-all of the actual work, and most of the planning-but at least they'd agreed on an initial division of labor.

Overall command of the political and military situation: Mike Stearns.

Army Chief of Staff: Frank Jackson.

Coordinator of all planning and general factotum: Ed Piazza. The school vice-principal, Len Trout, would assume Ed's old duties in the interim.

In charge of drafting a proposed permanent constitution for the new-nation? Whatever it was. Melissa Mailey.

In charge of the town itself, rationing, finance, etc.: The mayor, who else? Henry Dreeson.

Medical and sanitation: James Nichols, with some help from Greg Ferrara when Greg wasn't too busy being the unofficial "Minister of the Arms Complex." (Which wasn't, of course, all that complex at the moment.)

Power and energy: Bill Porter and Quentin Underwood.

Agriculture: Willie Ray Hudson.

That left only***

Rebecca had been silent throughout the entire meeting. The refugee had simply listened intently. It was obvious that much of the discussion passed by her completely. But the one time that Mike began to explain an unfamiliar term, she simply shook her head and, with a firm little gesture of her hand, urged him to continue. Clearly enough, Rebecca had an excellent grasp on priorities. Explain later. Right now, let's stay alive.

Mike was pleased and gratified by that hand gesture. Quite powerfully, in truth. Charm and exotic beauty are all fine and good in a woman. So, of course, is intelligence. But, like many men born and bred in poverty's hills, Mike treasured hard-headed practicality even more. He could feel his attraction toward her deepening by the moment. Whether the sentiment was reciprocated, he had no idea. But he made the decision, then and there, that he was going to find out.

Rebecca Abrabanel did not speak until the very end. Then, softly clearing her throat, she asked: "I am uncertain. What is it, exactly, that you desire me to do?" Her English had a distinctive accent, a strange blend of Germanic harshness and something of Spain, but her command of the language was fluent and grammatically precise.

Mike hesitated, trying to explain. He blurted out the whimsical thought which first came to him:

"Basically, Miss Abrabanel, I need you to be my National Security Adviser."

Rebecca frowned. "I understand the words. Taken separately, I mean to say. But I am not certain-" She cocked her head slightly. "Can you explain what I am supposed to do?"

Melissa Mailey snorted. "That's easy, Miss Abrabanel. Just do the same thing every National Security Adviser I can remember always does." She pointed a finger at Mike. "Whenever he asks you what to do about any problem, just tell him: Bomb it."

The answer confused Rebecca. But not half as much as the uproarious laughter which filled the room. When the laughter died down, Mike stood up and extended his hand.

"May I walk you home, Miss Abrabanel? I can explain on the way."

Smiling, Rebecca nodded and rose. By the time they had passed through the door and taken three steps down the wide corridor of the school, Rebecca's hand was tucked under Mike's arm.

Frank sidled over to the door and peeked after them. Then, chuckling, he turned back and spoke to Melissa. "In that new constitution of yours, I'd suggest you run a little lightly on the matter of separation of powers. We don't need another scandal in high places, right out of the gate."

Melissa arched her eyebrows. "Whatever are you talking about, Frank Jackson? I certainly don't see a problem with the chief of state walking his national security adviser home." She scowled. "In fact-might be a good idea to put in right there in black and white. The National Security Adviser must be female."

Greg Ferrara curled his lip. "Yeah, the gentle sex. Like Catherine the Great, or the Medici women. Or-what was her name? You know. The English queen who had everybody burned at-"

Melissa waved her hand airily. "Details, young man. Details! You can't get everything perfect. But at least we'd have a modicum of good sense." She scowled. "Not that I don't imagine Miss Abrabanel won't be advocating a certain amount of bombing."

The scowl deepened. "So would I, come down to it. We could start with half the palaces in Europe." Scowl, scowl. "I take that back. Let's start with ninety percent-and work our way up from there."

Chapter 9

When Rebecca and her companion reached his exotic vehicle perched on the flat expanse before the school-the parking lot, they called it-she watched him reach into his pocket for the keys. As if suddenly remembering something, he stiffened.

Rebecca heard him mutter. A suppressed curse, perhaps. She had noticed that American men seemed to avoid the use of obscene terms in the company of women. Quite reticent, they were, compared to the Londoners of her childhood and the men who swarmed in Amsterdam's streets. But she had also noticed how casually they allowed themselves to blaspheme. She found that combination odd.

Odd, and- And what? she asked herself. A bit frightening, of course. But, for the most part, Rebecca had decided that the casual blasphemy was reassuring. Men who did not seem to fear either the wrath of God or-more to the point-the wrath of their God-fearing neighbors, were men who would be less likely to persecute others for their own beliefs. So, at least, Rebecca hoped. And was even beginning to believe.

Michael was speaking to her. An apology, it seemed. "I'm sorry, but we'll have to walk. We just approved a decision to restrict gasoline to military use, if you remember."

She smiled. "Yes, we did. So? It is not far. The walk will be pleasant."

Rebecca almost laughed, seeing his little start of surprise at her answer. So strange, these Americans. They seemed to view the simple exercise of walking as the labors of Hercules. Yet they were quite healthy-much more so, in fact, than any other people of her acquaintance. They appeared to be physically fit, too, other than being even more corpulent than Dutch burghers.

On average, that is. Michael The man standing next to her was not fat at all. No more than any hidalgo of legend. Over the past three days, talking with the Roths, Rebecca had come to understand that Michael was not an hidalgo. Not of any kind, it seemed. Among their many other peculiarities, the Americans had a ferocious commitment to what they called "democracy." They reminded her of the old Anabaptists of Munster, without the bizarre excesses.

Not an hidalgo. But Rebecca, standing there, knew that she would always think of him as such. The knowledge brought a sharp sensation to her heart. Sharp, and confusing. The sensation was partly fear, of course, and partly uncertainty. But she would no longer hide from the rest.

She saw that Michael had, once again, crooked his elbow in a subtle invitation for her hand. Just as he had done, to her surprise, in the school's hallway. Her response then had been timid. Now An instant later, her hand was tucked on his arm and they were walking away from the school.

No longer hide from the rest. There is a reason, Rebecca, you are feeling that sensation in your heart and not in your head.

Understanding the risks and dangers involved-he is a gentile, stupid girl!-but not wanting to dwell on them, Rebecca hastily brought up a new subject.

"The 'gasoline' you seemed so concerned about. I spoke to Mister Ferrara on the subject. For a few minutes only, during one of the recesses in the meeting. If I understand him correctly, I think it is just purified naphtha. Distilled, perhaps. Am I correct?"

She was expecting him to be startled again. That was the normal reaction Rebecca got from older men-any men-when she asked one of her many questions about the natural world. Instead, to her surprise, the expression which came to his face was Pride?

"That's just about exactly right," Michael replied. "The distilling process is pretty complicated, you understand." He frowned. "Probably more than we can manage here, I'm afraid. In any large quantities, at least. But-yes, that's what gasoline is. Simple, really."

"And you then burn it inside the-motors? Is that the right word?" At his nod, she added: "And that is the source of the power which drives your horseless carriages."

Again, he nodded. And, again, that odd expression came to his face. Smiling very broadly he was, too.

Yes. It is pride. Why, I wonder?

***

The distance was almost three miles, from the school to the house owned by the Roths where Rebecca was now living. It took them well over an hour to make the journey, as slowly as they were walking. Most of the time-almost all of it-was spent with Rebecca asking questions. Michael answered them, of course. But his answers were usually brief. He was a good listener, and Rebecca more often than not managed to answer her own questions with new ones.

By the time they reached the Roths' home, that peculiar expression of pride seemed to have become permanently fixed on Michael's face. So had his smile.

But Rebecca no longer wondered at the reason. She knew. And found the knowledge as exhilarating as it was unsettling.

At the door, standing on the porch, she began to knock. Then, pausing, she turned to face Michael. He was very close to her.

This is insane! Insane, Rebecca-do you hear?

She lowered her eyes, staring at his chest. He was wearing a linen shirt today, well-made and dyed in blues and grays. But she knew that she would always see that chest in white silk, drenched by sunlight. For one of the few times in her life, Rebecca Abrabanel was utterly at a loss for words.

Michael spoke softly. "Rebecca."

She raised her eyes to meet his. He was still smiling. Not broadly, however. The smile seemed-understanding, she thought.

"This is difficult," he said. "For both of us, I think." He chuckled. "Sure as hell for me!" Chuckled again. "Dinner and a movie just doesn't seem appropriate, somehow."

She did not comprehend the precise meaning of that sentence, but she understood the logic. Quite well. She felt her cheeks flush, but fought off the urge to lower her eyes. She even smiled herself.

Michael spread his hands in a gesture which combined amusement, momentary exasperation, and-most of all-patience. Rebecca was dazzled by the charm of it. Relaxed, humorous-confident.

"Time," he said. "I think-yes. We need some time."

Rebecca found herself nodding, and fiercely tried to restrain the impulse. Hopeless. Idiot girl! The image of a rabbit came to her mind, sniffing the world's juiciest cabbage. The image, combined with her nervousness, caused her to burst into sudden laughter.

Then, seeing the quizzical expression on Michael's face, she placed her hand on his chest. "Please," she whispered. "It is not- I am laughing at myself, not you."

The humor faded. Staring into his eyes, now, Rebecca fought for the words. So hard, to speak those words, in a world of confusion and chaos. Too hard.

Time, yes. I am not ready for this.

"Do not be angry with me," she said. Softly, pleading: "Please."

Michael smiled and placed a hand on her cheek. She responded by pressing her cheek into the hand, as if she were an automaton. She did not even try to stop herself.

"Why should I be angry?" he asked. And that, too-that simple question-seemed as dazzling to her as the sunlight. His hand was very warm.

He was turning away. "Time," he said, still smiling. Very broadly, now. Very cheerfully-almost gaily. "Time, yes."

Rebecca stared at his departing figure. When Michael reached the bottom of the small flight of stairs, Rebecca blurted out his name.

He turned and looked back at her.

The words came, finally. Some of them, at least.

"I think you are the most splendid man in the world, Michael. Truly I do."

A moment later she was knocking on the door. Almost frantically. She did not look behind her, afraid of what she would see. Or, perhaps, she was simply afraid of her reaction to what she knew she would see. A smiling face can be the most frightening thing in the world. Her world, as she knew it.

The door opened, and she vanished into the safety beyond. Out of the sunlight.

For a time.

Time, yes.

Time-yes!

Chapter 10

Alexander Mackay was a Scotsman and, as such, a Calvinist born and bred. Even if he had lapsed a bit-more than a bit, in truth-from the faith of his fathers, he had not lost the ingrained habits of his upbringing. Thus, staring down at the newest batch of corpses, he did not blaspheme. But he had no qualms about using other terms, so long as the Lord's name was not taken in vain. Perched on the saddle of his great warhorse, the young nobleman cast a wide net of incredibly vulgar terms across the Thuringian landscape in general, and a certain unit of Protestant mercenaries in particular. "Whoreson craven jackals" was perhaps the least obscene.

His second-in-command, a half-bald, mustachioed veteran in his forties, waited patiently until the cavalry commander was finished. Then, spitting casually onto the ground, Andrew Lennox simply shrugged and said: "What d'ye expect, lad? Most o' t'men guarding Badenburg"-the word guarding was accompanied by a magnificent sneer-"ae deserters from Mansfeld's old army. T'most wort'less soldiers in t'world e'en 'fore Mansfeld died."

"Then why did the town fathers hire the bastards?" Mackay demanded hotly. His eyes, still studying the scene of carnage, fell on the corpse of a small boy, perhaps six years of age. The child's body had been charred by the collapsing roof of the burned farmhouse in which he had spent his short life, but not so badly that Mackay couldn't see his entrails stretching across the dirt of the farmyard. The end of his intestines had been pinned to the ground by a kitchen knife, several feet from the body itself. The grotesque display of torture was entirely typical of the way some of Tilly's mercenaries amused themselves.

For all that Mackay had become inured to such scenes in the year since his arrival in Germany, he was glad that the bodies of the farm's womenfolk had been in the house itself. The corpses had been burnt to skeletons in that inferno, so there was no way to determine the exact manner of their deaths. Mackay didn't want to know. At the age of twenty-two, he had learned enough of cruelty and bestiality to last him a lifetime. Even the lifetime of a Scotsman, a breed not noted for their squeamishness.

Lennox did not bother to answer Mackay's question. The question had been purely rhetorical. Young, Mackay might be, but he was not foolish. The cavalry commander knew as well as anyone why Badenburg's notables had "agreed" to hire Ernst Hoffman's small army of mercenaries. They had been given precious little choice. Let them plunder the town all at once, or let them plunder it a bit at a time. Like many other towns in war-ravaged Germany, Badenburg had taken the second option. By now, several years later, most of its citizens had come to regret the choice. Hoffman's men claimed to be "Protestant," but that had proven to be no boon for Protestant Badenburg. With individual exceptions here and there, Hoffman and his thugs could no longer even be considered "soldiers," in any meaningful sense of the term. They were simply a gang of extortionists. Criminals, in all but name.

Mackay's anger faded away, replaced by a weariness of soul which, by right and reason, belonged to a much older man. When it had become clear that Hoffman had no intention of sallying from the shelter of Badenburg's walls to stop the depredations of Tilly's mercenaries, Mackay had led his own soldiers forth to do what he could to protect the farmers in the area.

It was a pointless gesture, in all truth. Mackay and his Scots cavalrymen, employed by the king of Sweden, had arrived in Badenburg less than three months ago. Gustav Adolf had stationed them there as part of his far-flung effort to stabilize his control of Germany's Baltic provinces. But the king was strapped for men-badly strapped. The Protestant princes who had promised him such abundant aid upon his arrival in Germany had, with a few exceptions, proven to be misers with both men and gold. So Mackay had been given not more than a few hundred men to carry out his task. His main task, which was not to attempt the absurdity of guarding an entire province with a small cavalry force.

Memory of that task jarred him out of his bitter mood. He turned to Lennox. "Still no sign of the courier?"

Lennox shook his head. "Nae a trace. Tha' might be good news." The veteran swept his florid mustachios about, as if using the waxed tips as pointers. "Y'can see how little Tilly's swine care 'bout coverin' they crimes. They'll nae ha' buried a ransacked carriage. 'Tis possible t'courier is simply hiding out some'eres." Lennox pointed to the heavily forested hills a few miles to the south. "B'now, tha' must be thousands o' people hidin' in yon hills."

Mackay scanned the Thuringenwald, as that forest was called. He frowned suddenly. "That's odd," he mused. He pointed to a portion of the hills. "I don't remember seeing that before. That stretch there. Looks different."

Lennox squinted, then shrugged. "Sorry, lad. My eyes are nae what they were. I canna make out what ye're pointin' to."

Mackay pursed his lips, trying to think of how to describe that peculiar part of the landscape. Then, spotting movement, he thrust the problem aside. One of his soldiers was coming-at a gallop.

"Something's up!" he exclaimed. As ever, the prospect of action brought immediate cheer. Alexander Mackay was the illegitimate son of a minor Scots nobleman. Destined-doomed, most would say-to a life of penury and peril. But even if he'd been pampered royalty, Mackay would have been a high-spirited adventurer.

"Come on!" he commanded, spurring his horse to meet the oncoming rider. A moment later, Lennox followed. The veteran's mustachios twitched, covering his smile. Lennox approved of Mackay, which was unusual in itself. As a rule, the former peasant viewed nobility with as much enthusiasm as he did manure. Less, really. At least dung didn't give orders. But Mackay possessed little of a nobleman's haughtiness, and almost none of the stupidity. The rambunctious eagerness which remained was relatively harmless-and, in its own way, quite charming. Even for a skeptic like Andrew Lennox.

By the time Lennox came abreast of Mackay, the captain had already encountered the scout. The man was turned halfway around in his saddle, pointing back in the direction from which he had come.

"-bess sey fer youself, sar. Tis varra strange. Ever't'in' 'bout th'place."

Mackay was frowning. He stared at the distant farmhouse to which the scout was pointing. The fact that the farmhouse was still unburnt was odd enough. Tilly's men were ingrained arsonists, even when burning buildings was not in their own interests.

"But no bodies, you say?"

The scout rocked his head back and forth. The gesture was not a negative headshake; more in the way of an expression of uncertainty. "They's nae bodies ey cou'd see, sar. Boot they's ae fresh doog mound-biggun-'minds mey o' ae grafe."

Mackay reared his head back, frowning. "A grave?"

Lennox snorted. "Since when do Tilly's men boory they victims?" he demanded.

The scout shrugged. "Ey dinna say it made sense. Boot shar 'n' sairtain looks leyk ae grafe to mey. Wit' moor th'n one body buried in't. Somebey e'en planted ae headstone." The scout's face scrunched with puzzlement. "Leas', ey think 'tis ae headstone. Boot they's nae crucifix. An' somebey wrote somet'in' all o'er it."

Mackay did not bother asking the scout what the writing said. Many of the soldiers in Mackay's cavalry unit could read-and read well-from their habit of studying the Bible. But the scout's thick Erse accent was the telltale sign of an illiterate Highlander. He would certainly be illiterate in German. To the best of his knowledge, Mackay was the only Scotsman in the area who could read German as well as speak it.

"Let's take a look, then." Again, Mackay spurred his horse into motion. The scout led the way. Lennox followed, after checking to make sure that the cavalrymen behind him were maintaining skirmishers on the flanks. Lennox wasn't really expecting to encounter any of Tilly's men. The butchery they had seen since they left Badenburg this morning was several days old and had all the signs of undisciplined marauders, being too lovingly thorough for men operating under command. Still, things were often not as they seemed in war, and the stakes were very high.

By the time he finally caught up with Mackay, they were entering the farmyard. The house was still standing, but Lennox had only to glance at the door and the outer walls to recognize that murder had been done here. Done and done well, from the look of the bloodstains. Big splotches, now brown and black. Even the flies were sparse. He had also spotted old bloodstains on the dirt road near the house.

"Four days ago," he stated. Mackay nodded. But the gesture was only half-conscious. Mackay was far too preoccupied staring at the fresh mound of earth piled up in the center of the farmyard. And the large "tombstone" planted on its center.

A mass grave, sure enough. But the "tombstone" was no tombstone at all. It was a placard.

Mackay's eyes were practically bulging. He pointed a finger at the placard and turned to Lennox. "What in the world?"

Lennox shrugged. Then, slowly and warily, he gave the woods nearby a very close scrutiny. Whoever had written the warning on that placard was no one he was eager to encounter. Especially since he had no doubt whatever what was buried beneath the soil. He would have known even if it hadn't been for the placard.

Seeing no signs of life or motion, he brought his eyes back to the placard and read the words again.

Simple words. Puzzling words. Deadly words.

We don't know who these murdering raping bastards

are that we put here. Don't much care either. If there

are any more of you out there, be warned.

This area is now under the protection of the UMWA. If you try to harm

or rob anybody we will kill you. There will be no further warning.

We will not negotiate. We will not arrest you.

You will simply be dead.

We guarantee it.

Go ahead. Try us.

Mackay ran fingers through his short beard. "And just exactly who is this-the Umwa?" His face was a study in confusion. "Sounds Polish. Is there a Polish baron somewhere in this area?"

"Nae tha' I ken," responded Lennox. "And I canna say I e'er heard tha' title before." He mouthed the words. "The Umwa." Grunted. "He's nae bashful, whoe'er t'man be."

The rest of the cavalry unit was gathered around by now. Mackay pointed to the mound of earth. "See if there are any shovels around. I want that-whatever it is-dug up." Some of the men winced, but none of them uttered a protest. Mackay was an easy-going officer, as a rule, but when he gave a direct order he expected it to be obeyed.

The soldiers found digging tools quickly enough. And it didn't take them all that long to excavate the mound. Whoever he was, the Umwa had apparently not felt under any obligation to bury the bodies deeply.

They found over a dozen corpses before Mackay told them to stop. The bodies were decomposing, of course, but the causes of death were obvious enough.

Lennox straightened, as much to get away from the smell as anything else. "Well, so much for tha'. This Umwa fellow is nae one to make empty boasts."

Mackay was still peering intently at the corpses. "Those are the oddest gunshot wounds I ever saw," he mused. He pointed an accusing finger to the wound on the chest of one of the corpses. "That hole's no bigger than my finger!" Then, in a tone which brooked no opposition: "Turn him over!"

The soldier next to the corpse grimaced as he obeyed. When the body was rolled over, exposing the back, a little gasp went up from the soldiers standing around the shallow grave.

One of them even lapsed into blasphemy. "God in His Heaven," the man whispered, "fro' this side 't luiks like a three-pounder blew 'm apart."

Mackay straightened, shaking his head. "Never seen anything like it. Have you, Andrew?"

But Lennox gave no reply. He was too busy cursing himself silently. He had become so preoccupied with the excavation that he had forgotten to keep an eye on the woods.

When he did speak, his voice was not loud. But the manner in which he projected that half-whisper had all the experience of a battlefield veteran behind it. Every man in the unit heard him very clearly.

"Do nae move. Do nae touch ae weapon. There are men in those woods."

Slowly, Mackay turned his head. He couldn't see anything until Motion. A man-no, two, three men-stepping out of the trees. They were wearing utterly bizarre costumes. For all his puzzlement, a part of Mackay's mind realized how perfectly those garments were dyed to keep the men almost invisible in the trees. Grotesque rippling patterns of grays and greens and browns, blending with the foliage.

All three men were carrying strange-looking weapons in their hands. Arquebuses of some kind, but like none Mackay had ever seen.

Lennox answered the unspoken question. "I've nae seen guns like tha' ayther, lad. Nor such costumes." Half-admiringly: "Clever devils."

He even managed a bit of humor. "An' how is y'r Polish, Alexander Mackay? I do believe we are about to meet th'Umwa, an' I hope there'll be nae misunderstandings." He saw the men, almost simultaneously, do something peculiar to the rear stocks of their weapons. Their quick hand motions produced faint, metallic clicks. Lennox had no idea, precisely, what they had done. But he had not a doubt in the world that those bizarre weapons were now loaded, primed, and ready to fire. Arquebuses which made finger holes going in, and cannon holes going out. "I really hope there'll be nae miscommunication."

Mackay's face was sour. "I don't speak a word of Polish, Lennox."

The veteran sighed. "Tha's what I was afraid of."

***

As it happened, Polish was unneeded. The strange men in their strange costumes, carrying their strange weapons, proved to speak the most familiar language of all. English!

Well. Sort of.

"Worst accent I e'er heard," complained Lennox. But the complaint was not heartfelt. Rather the opposite, actually, especially after a dozen more of the strangers came out of the woods and joined in the conversation. All of them were armed, and all of them were clearly ready to kill. And most of them-God bless my soul!-claimed Scots ancestry. Within a few minutes, Andrew Lennox knew he would live to see another day. The encounter between Scots cavalryman and-Americans, they called themselves-was turning into something much like a family reunion.

Within a few hours, he was beginning to wonder. Not whether he would live, but what that day would bring. Anything, he thought.

A young woman from Sepharad had found her legends here. So, now, did a man from Scotland. And if his Highland legends lacked the sheer poetry of Sepharad, they had their own attractions. Faeries, indeed, had come to life in the world. Some grim, obscure, pagan part of Andrew Lennox's Calvinist soul took pleasure in the fact. Took pleasure, not so much that faeries existed, but that they were every bit as dangerous as the ancient tales had sworn.

Chapter 11

"-engines are the big problem," Piazza was saying. "Can't really convert diesel to natural gas, and we've got damned little diesel to begin with. You can run diesel engines on vegetable oil, of course." He chuckled ruefully. "But there isn't that much vegetable oil left in the supermarkets, and it'll take us till next year to start making any in quantity. So in the meantime-"

Mike tuned out the rest. He'd already had a preliminary discussion with Ed and knew what the gist of the proposal was going to be concerning the proper use of the town's diesel equipment.

Same as everything else. Gear down, gear down. Use our modern technology, while it lasts, to build a nineteenth-century industrial base. Still put us way ahead of the game, here in the seventeenth century. Steam engines, steam engines. The railroads are about to make a big comeback in the world.

Mike smiled slightly. Or is "comeback" the right word? Maybe I should say "come back around."

He saw Rebecca was looking at him, and his smile widened. She responded with a shy smile of her own, but looked away almost at once. Her attention was back on Piazza. Riveted to his words, by all appearances. Rebecca's hands were clasped in front of her and resting on the big "conference table" in the center of the room. As usual, she was perched on the edge of her chair.

Mike still counted that smile as progress. It was the first time Rebecca had given him so much as a glance since their conversation on the porch the night before. It was plain as day that she was floundering in a strange sea of new emotions and customs, with a weight of her own traditions that Mike could only guess at. In the world he had come from, romantic liaisons between Jews and gentiles were so common as to hardly cause notice. But the seventeenth century, in many ways, seemed as different as another planet.

Remembering a discussion he had had with Morris Roth, two days earlier, Mike felt his jaws tightening. Morris and Judith had spent hours in conversations with Rebecca, since she and her father had moved into their home. Many of those hours had been spent in Balthazar's room, gathered about his bed. Balthazar himself had been too ill to do much more than listen, but he had participated enough to make clear that Rebecca's view of things was fully shared by her widely traveled father. She was not-definitely not-some ignorant country girl filled with mindless fears and superstitions.

"They're worried about the Inquisition, Mike, more than anything else," Morris had told him. "The Inquisition has agents-Jesuits and Dominicans, mostly-attached to all of the Catholic armies. It seems that two years ago Emperor Ferdinand decreed something called the Edict of Restitution. According to that Edict, all property taken from the Catholic church by Protestants since the Reformation has to be turned back over. And the emperor insists on the forcible conversion of Protestants back to Catholicism. The Inquisition is there to carry out the order."

Mike had been puzzled. "All right. But I still don't understand what they're worried about. I always thought the Inquisition was aimed at heresy. Rebecca and Balthazar aren't heretics, Morris. They're not Christians to begin with."

Morris stared at him for a moment, before wiping his face with a hand. "I forget," he murmured. "We Jews live with our history so closely, we sometimes assume that everyone else knows it as well as we do."

He took away the hand and gave Mike a weary look. "The Office of the Holy Inquisition was set up in 1478 specifically for the purpose of ferreting out Jews, Mike. The Spanish forced all Jews to convert, starting in 1391. Dominican monks led mobs in pogroms on the Jewish quarters. Die or be baptized: those were the choices. A lot of Jews chose baptism. Conversos, they were called. Then the Spanish monarchy, with the Pope's blessing, set up the Inquisition to hunt down the ones who were still privately practicing Judaism. Those people were called marranos. 'Secret Jews.' "

Mike remembered the term. Rebecca had used it in the carriage to refer to herself, the first time he met her. "And then?"

Morris looked away. "Trial by torture. Auto-da-fй. That's where they gathered the Christians in a town in order to watch the festivities, complete with sermons and parades. All the heretics were brought out from the prisons. Secret Jews, mostly, along with secret Moslems-those were called Moriscoes-and whoever else had come under suspicion."

Roth shook his head. "The whole thing was insane, Mike. One of the reasons Christians in that era-this era, God help us-were so filthy was because it was dangerous to pay too much attention to cleanliness and personal hygiene. Who knows? You might be a secret Jew or a Moslem. Better to remain in an ostentatious state of Christian grime. And when disease comes, blame it on witches or the Jews."

Again, he wiped his face. "The ceremony-the auto-da-fй-would be climaxed by having the heretics burned alive at the stake." Sarcastically: "If you can call someone who's been in the hands of the Inquisition 'alive,' that is. Plenty of them died in the Church's torture chambers. Those-the corpses, I mean-would be burned at the stake so the Inquisition could legally inherit their property."

Seeing Mike's little start of surprise, Morris had chuckled harshly. "Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that? They have some peculiar notions about legal impartiality, in this day and age. The Inquisition is mostly financed by the seized property of the condemned. So you can just imagine how many verdicts of 'innocent' they ever handed down. Didn't take those holy men very long to become rich."

Remembering that conversation, and the anger it had produced in him, Mike forced his mind back to the business at hand. We'll see who burns who, in the new dispensation. Piazza was moving on to a discussion of the refugee problem, but Mike interrupted.

"Excuse me, Ed, but there's something I want to bring up before we get into that." He turned to Ferrara. "Who's the best chemist in town, Greg? You?"

The science teacher shrugged. "Depends what you want, Mike. For some things, me. For others-"

"I want someone who knows how to make napalm."

Ferrara's mouth snapped shut. Opened. Closed.

"Nothing to it," said Melissa. "There's at least three homemade recipes that I know of."

Everyone, Mike included, stared at Melissa. The prim-looking, gray-haired schoolteacher shrugged. "I never made it myself, you understand." Sniff. "Didn't really approve of such tactics, even back then. But one of my college boyfriends was an anarchist. He used to meddle with the stuff all the time. Claimed we'd need it come the revolution."

Stares. James Nichols burst into laughter. "It's nice to know I'm not the only one here with a misspent youth!" He eyed Melissa approvingly. "But-damn-you white kids were ambitious. I never thought past a simple Molotov cocktail."

Melissa frowned. "What's the point of that?" she demanded. "Surely you didn't think-"

"Okay!" exclaimed Mike. "Enough, already!" He chuckled. "Christ, I didn't expect I'd be kicking off a sixties radicals' reunion."

Rebecca's brow was creased with frustration. Plainly enough, the conversation had once again taken a turn she was unable to follow. "Excuse me," she said softly. "What is-napalm?"

Mike's eyes fixed on her. "It's something we'll make to greet the Inquisition when they show up. Them and their goons." He smiled grimly. "Think of it as portable hellfire."

"Oh." Her dark eyes were very round. And then very bright. "Oh."

There came a knock on the door. Without waiting for a response, Darryl McCarthy came barging in. The young miner was carrying his rifle and was practically bouncing like a rubber ball.

"We got visitors, Mike! Scotsmen! Soldiers!" He caught sight of Rebecca and steadied down. "They say they're looking for you, Miss Abrabanel. Well, your father, actually."

Mike rose to his feet so abruptly that his chair tipped over. His right hand clenched reflexively. "Why?" he demanded.

Darryl stared at him, puzzled by the obvious anger in that curt question. But Rebecca immediately interrupted.

"Michael-please." She smiled at him warmly, but shook her head. "It is not what you think. I imagine they-" She turned to Darryl. "Are these men in the employ of the king of Sweden?"

Darryl's head bobbed. "That's what they say, ma'am. Somebody named Gustav."

Melissa's jaw dropped. "Gustav?" The history teacher rose to her feet almost as abruptly as Mike had. "Are you talking about Gustavus Adolphus?"

Darryl was now utterly confused. "Who's that?" He threw up his hands with exasperation. The rifle, still in his right hand, was waving around like a stick. Frank was about to snarl something when Darryl realized what he was doing and apologetically lowered the firearm. He double-checked to make sure the safety was still on. Then, in a much-aggrieved tone, said: "I don't know what this is all about. All I know is that a whole bunch of horsemen-couple dozen, at least-showed up at that farmhouse where we had the shoot-out with those thugs."

He started to elaborate but broke off. "Oh, hell, why ask me? They're in the parking lot."

Now it was Frank's turn to lunge to his feet. "You let them through the perimeter?" he demanded angrily.

Darryl's face, at that moment, almost caused Mike to burst into laughter. The miner looked like a ten-year-old boy, aggrieved beyond measure by the quirks and whimsies of grown-ups. "They're Scots, for Christ's sake! Practically family. Of course we let them in."

Mike started for the door. "Come on, Frank. Let's just go see for ourselves."

The entire emergency committee trooped after him. Frank brought up the rear. As he passed Darryl, he commented sourly: "Your uncle Jake was family, too. Died in prison, didn't he, serving a murder sentence?"

A much aggrieved boy. "Only second-degree," he protested. "He would've been up for parole in a year, if he hadn't gotten knifed."

"Family," muttered Frank. "Wonderful."

***

They were there, all right. The Scotsmen had apparently arrived in marching order, three abreast, and were maintaining their positions. Twenty-six cavalrymen-there were only two men at the head of the column-still astride their mounts. The horses were skittish, stamping their hooves on the pavement nervously. But they were no more apprehensive than their riders, staring at the hill rising up behind the high school.

Staring at the backhoe and the bulldozer, more precisely. The big pieces of construction equipment were working away, engines roaring, clearing the area for the planned refugee camp. One of the camps, rather. The main refugee center would be built two miles away, next to the power plant, where the shelters could be provided with steam heat exhausted as a byproduct of the plant's operation. The camp on the hill above the high school would be heated from the school's own natural gas supply, with the added advantage that the inhabitants would be able to use the school's cafeteria.

As soon as he saw them, Mike had no doubt the Scotsmen were soldiers. True, their clothing was individually varied. But Rebecca had already explained that soldiers in this day and age rarely wore uniforms. Identification was usually provided on a battlefield by strips of colored cloth used as bandannas or tied around one arm-or even by the simple device of sticking leafy twigs in a hatband.

Everything else about them practically shrieked: soldiers. None of the men were wearing armor, as such. But their buff coats and leather boots were thick enough to protect against sword cuts and even, beyond close range, the heavy but low-velocity bullets of seventeenth century firearms. The boots were well made, and reached up to mid-thigh. The buff coats-armless vests, more often-had skirts which flared out over the hips and reached down just below the tops of the boots. A few of the men were wearing actual helmets, but most of them seemed satisfied with wide-brimmed leather hats. All of the men were armed with swords slung in baldrics, and all of them had at least two huge wheel-lock pistols jammed into saddle holsters. One man that Mike could see had as many as four.

Beyond their gear, the men had a certain grim and dangerous air about them. That was especially true of one of the two men at the head of the column. The man was middle-aged, heavily built, and sported a truly magnificent pair of mustachios. His face, despite its naturally florid color, was utterly expressionless. He, too, was staring at the construction equipment, but without a trace of the awe and trepidation which was so obvious on the other men.

Seeing Mike and his companions emerging from the school, the Scot tore his eyes away from the construction work and muttered something. His companion at the head of the column, a young man wearing somewhat more expensive-looking apparel, jerked his head around. Seeing him full-face, Mike realized that the man was very young. In his early twenties, he estimated. On the short side-even by the standards of the time, which Mike had learned were several inches shorter than the average American. His eyes were green, his hair was red, his mustache and goatee were on the sparse side, his face was pug-nosed, his complexion was pale and-just to make things perfect-he was flamboyantly freckled. He looked like the spitting image of Tom Sawyer. Or, at least, what Mike thought Tom Sawyer ought to look like, after he grew up.

For some peculiar reason, that appearance caused Mike to relax. There was no logic to his reaction, of course. But try as he might, Mike couldn't help but feel a certain warmth toward the young Scotsman.

Melissa verbalized his thoughts. "Good Lord," she chuckled, "I feel like I ought to set him to whitewashing my fence."

The quip caused Mike to smile, and it was with that friendly and cheerful expression on his face that he advanced toward the mounted men. Apparently, he was projecting the right attitude. He could sense the immediate relaxation in the two Scotsmen at the fore and then, moments later, the same easing of tension working its way down the line of horsemen.

As he neared them, the young Scotsman-the officer, Mike assumed; the man next to him had all the earmarks of a veteran noncom-pointed to the construction equipment and demanded: "What is that?"

The young man's head turned, bringing his green eyes onto Darryl's pickup truck. Mike had no doubt that Darryl had led them here behind it, and knew that the truck would have produced the same reaction in these Scotsmen that modern vehicles had on the Abrabanels. Days after arriving in Grantville, Rebecca still tended to stare at every passing motor vehicle.

Mike was impressed by the young Scotsman's ability to connect the construction equipment with the pickup truck. "Yes," he explained loudly, "they're basically the same thing. Motor-driven equipment, we call them. The motors themselves-they're just machines, that's all-are powered by burning naphtha."

The officer's eyes snapped back. "No sorcery then." It was a statement, not a question. Mike saw his shoulders ease a bit. "I had hoped as much," the young redhead added. "Expected it, actually. Your guns are extremely well made, I noticed. A craftsmanly folk. More so than any I've ever encountered in the world." His face flushed a little, highlighting the freckles. Plainly enough, the officer realized how absurd that statement must sound. And just how much of the great wide world have you seen, at your age?

The man at his side, apparently driven by an urge to support his young superior, immediately stated: "Well said, lad. Ne'er seen t'like meself."

Listening to the interchange between the two Scotsmen, Mike found himself grinning. That was probably an undiplomatic thing to do, but he couldn't help it. The Scotsmen's English was perfectly understandable, despite the heavy accents, distinctive inflexions, and frequent use of archaic terms. And why shouldn't they be? There was none of what modern Americans thought of as a typical "Scottish brogue." Instead, the cavalrymen's speech reminded Mike of nothing so much as that of real back-country Appalachian hillbillies.

Just like Darryl said-"family," by God!

"Why don't you all dismount," Mike said. The sentence was phrased like a question but spoken like a command. He pointed to the slender steel columns which held up the concrete awning sheltering the entrance to the school. "You can tie the horses up over there."

The Scotsmen hesitated. Mike waved his hand. "Come on, come on. I imagine you're hungry. We can feed you in the-" Cafeteria, he decided, was probably a meaningless word in this time and place. "In the dining hall," he concluded.

The mention of food did the trick. Within a minute, all of the Scots cavalrymen had dismounted, tied up their horses, and were being led into the school. By the time they got into the large hallway which served the school as its vestibule, a crowd had gathered. High-school students and their teachers, mostly-the Americans had decided to resume classroom instruction-but there were plenty of townsfolk there also. The high school had, willy-nilly, become Grantville's community center in the crisis. It was, by far, the largest and best-equipped facility in the area.

The corridor leading to the classrooms was jammed full of students. Others-boys in basketball trunks and girls from the cheerleading squad-were pouring in from the gymnasium on the other side of the entry hall. The head cheerleader, Julie Sims, was leading that little crowd. She was clutching pom-poms, smiling broadly, and bouncing with excitement. With her pretty face, athletic carriage, full figure-legs bare from mid-thigh to ankles-she was a textbook illustration of the term nubility.

Most of the Scots soldiers ogled Julie and the other cheerleaders, but some had their eye on a few of the older girls in the corridor. Modern American women's clothing, by their standards, bordered on lasciviousness. Rebecca had told Mike that not even prostitutes, in this day and age, would display so much bare flesh in public.

One of the soldiers whispered something to a companion. Mike didn't quite catch the words, but he didn't miss the lewd tone. He was trying to decide how to handle this unexpected little problem, when the mustachioed veteran solved it for him. The man, as still-faced as ever, turned his head and hissed a few choice words of his own. Mike caught the last phrase: "-y'r own cocks f'r sausage. D'ye understand?"

His soldiers stiffened and turned their eyes away from the girls.

Mike smiled. I do believe I'm going to get along with this very tough-looking fellow.

The young officer had been one of those ogling Julie. He must have caught the same words, for he suddenly started and eyed Mike a bit apprehensively. He seemed on the verge of uttering some sort of apology.

Mike kept the smile on his face. "I realize that some of our-ah, customs-must seem a little strange to you." He nodded toward the cheerleading squad. "We're not much given to worrying about appearances. Just the content of morality."

The last words were spoken a bit grimly. Mike's smile faded away. Days ago, Mike had made his basic decision. He would not budge from it.

If the superstitious, flea-bitten, lord-and-priest-ridden bastards don't like it, let 'em choke to death. No surrender, no retreat. This is American soil!

A stray thought made him chuckle. During his three years in college, Mike had been a history student himself. Unlike Melissa, however, with her wide-ranging interests, Mike's attention had been rather narrowly focused on the American Revolution and the first few decades of the republic. The Founding Fathers, especially George Washington, ranked very high on his personal list of heroes.

He took the young Scots officer by the arm and began leading him toward the cafeteria. Up close, he towered over the man. Mike's next words were spoken loudly enough for everyone in the area to hear. "I might mention, as well, that we have certain fundamental political principles. One of those was neatly summed up by one of our early historical leaders, when our young republic was threatened by bandits."

The cafeteria was only a few steps away. Mike paused at the entrance, released the young officer's arm, and turned to address the entire crowd of Scots soldiers and American onlookers.

"Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!"

The Americans in the hallway burst into cheering applause. Julie Sims immediately began an impromptu routine with her pom-poms. "Give me a D!" Her squad mates and the basketball players grinned and responded with a roaring: "Defense! Defense!" A moment later, the entire crowd had joined the chant.

The Scottish soldiers flinched a little from the ruckus. All except the officer and his veteran subordinate.

The noncom, after glancing around, brought his eyes back to Mike. He didn't seem in the least intimidated by the American's six-inch advantage in height.

"Tha's ae proud boast, man. But can ye sustain it?"

Mike's own grin never wavered. "Care to try us?"

Slowly, the noncom matched the grin with one of his own. Crooked teeth gleamed under mustachioes. "No particularly, now tha' ye ask. Much prefer ae more-ah, friendly-arrangement."

Mike nodded. To the officer: "And you?"

But the officer had missed the exchange entirely. For a few seconds, his attention had been completely riveted on Julie Sims. Some of his fixation, of course, was due to the prettiness of the girl and the shapeliness of her very exposed figure. But most of it was caused by her sheer energy and athleticism. He had never seen a girl so-so exuberant.

By some odd causeway, that cheerleader's glorious vigor brought his mind to focus on the heart of the matter. So much so, in fact, that a born-and-bred Calvinist even lapsed into blasphemy.

"Who in the name of God are you people?"

***

Over lunch, Mike explained. Here, too, he had already made his decision days ago. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He would not stoop to superstition, or try to calculate the angles. Just tell it as best he could, based on what little the Americans knew themselves.

The conversation lasted for hours. Long before it was over, at Ed Piazza's initiative, miners had brought every one of Grantville's religious leaders to the cafeteria. By motor vehicle, not by foot-this matter qualified as a military affair.

As the town's preachers and priests began arriving, and joined in the discussion, Mike could see the slow easing of tension in the Scotsmen. It all seemed very strange, but Christians, then. Protestants, even, the most of them. Odd how they manage to live alongside Catholics and Jews and Moors and free-thinkers without quarrel. Still-

Many of the Scots soldiers, having seen the dogs of war and the carnage of religious strife, made their own mental nods of agreement. A sensible arrangement, when you come down to it. (And, oh, those lovely spirited girls!)

Not sorcery, then. No sign of witchcraft.

Master mechanics and artisans, true. And so what? Scotsmen already had their respect for such. Witchcraft was a thing of hailstorms out of season, and mysterious disease, and milk come sour right out of the cow. This milk was so pure it was like drinking nectar. Do these folk look sickly? Not a crone in the lot. Even the older woman-the schoolteacher-looked marvelous in her health. (And, oh, those lovely spirited girls!)

God's will, then. His doing, not Satan's. The Lord Almighty saw fit to bring these people here. Is that not a sign in itself? Plain as day, even to simple soldiers?

(And, oh, those lovely spirited girls!)

Chapter 12

When Rebecca ushered the Scots officer into the Roths' house, she was surprised to see her father sitting in one of the armchairs in the main salon. That was called the "living room." The odd name was typical of Americans, Rebecca thought. For all their near-magical powers, they were in many ways the most practical folk she had ever met. More so, even, than the hardheaded merchants of Amsterdam.

She was relieved to see him sitting up, for the first time since his heart attack. Indeed, Balthazar Abrabanel was having an animated conversation with both of the American doctors, James Nichols and Jeffrey Adams. Morris and Judith Roth were present also.

"Rebecca!" he exclaimed cheerfully, turning his head to his daughter. "I have the most marvelous news." Balthazar pointed to the doctors. "They have just-"

He broke off, seeing the officer standing behind Rebecca. His face, formerly so animated, froze into a mask. There was nothing hostile in the expression. It was simply the face of an experienced diplomat.

Rebecca's lips twitched. Diplomat? Say better-an experienced spy.

She knew her father's history. His branch of the Abrabanels had lived in London for well over a hundred years, since the expulsion of the Sephardim from Spain. Their existence was technically illegal-Jews had been officially banned from the island centuries earlier-but the English authorities made no attempt to enforce the ban so long as the Jews kept their community small and discreet. If for no other reason, English monarchs and high nobility preferred Jewish doctors to gentile ones.

With Elizabeth's ascent to the throne, in what Christians called the year 1558 anno Domini, the position of the Jews became quite secure. Elizabeth's own physician, Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, was Sephardic. The queen came to rely upon him to some degree for political as well as medical advice-particularly with regard to the dangers posed by Philip II of Spain. Dr. Lopez, acting as her intermediary, organized several members of the Abrabanel family to serve the English crown as spies. The Abrabanels, one of the great families of the far-flung Sephardim, were well placed to keep an eye on the doings of the Spaniards.

Rebecca's grandfather Aaron had so served, until his death, and had passed the mantle to his two sons, Balthazar and Uriel. Rebecca still had memories, from her early childhood, of being taken by her father down to London's great harbor to meet with Portuguese seamen and merchants, many of whom were marranos.

With Elizabeth's death and the coronation of James I, unfortunately, the political climate had changed. James was partial to the Spanish, and was inclined to grant their many demands. He even executed Sir Walter Raleigh to placate the Spaniards, though the official charge was treason. Jews were no longer welcome at the English court-not even privately-and the pressure on the Sephardic community intensified. In 1609, James again ordered their expulsion.

A few Jewish families remained, Rebecca's among them. They were sheltered by elements in the British government and, most of all, by the Puritans. The Puritans, a growing force in English society, were much more favorably inclined toward the Jews than the established church. Many of their scholars were keenly interested in the study of Hebrew texts, as part of their efforts to "purify" Christianity.

The Scottish officer stepped into the room and spoke his first words. As soon as Balthazar heard that unmistakable accent, his rigid face softened. Within seconds, Rebecca saw her father's normal warmth and wit returning.

She, too, had felt the charm of that northerly version of the English tongue. It was not the accent itself, but what lay beneath it. On two occasions, once when she was twelve and again when she was fourteen, Rebecca had accompanied her father and uncle to Cambridge, which was a hotbed of Puritanism. The presence of the two learned Jewish doctors-fluent alike in Hebrew and Greek-had been requested to clarify certain obscure passages in the Biblical texts.

"I bring you greetings from Gustavus Adolphus, Balthazar Abrananel."

Hearing that accent, Rebecca remembered those earnest Puritan scholars with fondness. Their branch of the Abrabanels had finally been forced to leave England, not long thereafter. Uriel, always the more adventurous of the brothers, had opted to seek his fortune in Germany. Her father, burdened with a sickly wife and a daughter, had chosen Amsterdam. There, among the Dutch cousins of the Puritans, they had found a haven.

Balthazar Abrananel nodded. "Please convey my deepest respects to His Majesty, uh-?"

"Mackay, sir. Alexander Mackay, captain in the king of Sweden's Green Regiment, at your service."

Stern and stiff they were, those Calvinists-as humorless and cold as the Sephardim were not-but they had a respect for the Bible not shared by the Catholics, or even the Lutherans. God had given the people of Abraham a place in the world. Who were they to question His will?

Behind her, Rebecca sensed Michael coming into the room. He came to stand behind her. Very near, he was. A bit more so, perhaps, than propriety allowed.

Rebecca found her lips curving into a smile, and forced the expression from her face.

Propriety. But whose, exactly? Not the Americans! They seem oblivious to the concept. The most shameless folk I have ever met. Remembering the treatment she and her father had been given: And have perhaps less reason to be shameful, in all truth.

Michael was very close. She felt an almost overpowering urge to lean back against him. Then, seeing her father's eyes upon her, she straightened.

The eyes were knowing. Rebecca had tried to keep her daily reports to her father free of any emotion. She had been especially careful-or so she thought-to keep any trace of warmth from her accounts of Michael and his doings.

Inwardly, she sighed. No doubt she had tried too hard. Balthazar Abrabanel was as shrewd a man as ever existed. She had never been able to hide anything from her father. In truth, she had never really tried before.

There will be a stern fatherly lecture coming, she thought glumly. Very stern.

Balthazar's eyes moved away from her and focused again on the Scots officer. Mackay had been bustled into a heavily upholstered armchair by Judith Roth, and was now resuming his conversation.

The Scotsman glanced quickly around the room. Clearly enough, the presence of the Americans was making him a bit reticent.

"You may speak freely, Captain Mackay," said Balthazar. "Our hosts are quite aware already of the treasure I was bringing with me." He bestowed a lingering look upon Michael. Rebecca was relieved to see that there was no anger in her father's eyes. Simply gratitude, and respect.

"Indeed, had it not been for them-Michael especially-the silver would now be in the possession of Tilly's monsters." He leaned forward and extended his hands. The spread fingers were heavily laden with bejeweled rings. "Along with these, cut from my body." Harshly: "And my daughter, of course."

Balthazar nodded toward the ceiling. "The chest containing the money for your king is upstairs in my bedroom. It is all there, every guilder. I have a receipt, of course."

Mackay waved his hand. The gesture was one of certainty and assurance. No need, Balthazar Abrabanel. Your honesty is unquestioned.

Perhaps oddly, Rebecca's reaction to that little movement was more one of anger than of pride. Of course you trust the Jews with your money. And then, when the mood changes, you accuse us of foul crimes because we can turn a profit without cheating. Unlike your own bankers. Christians!

But her anger was only momentary. In truth, it was misdirected. The various branches of the Calvinist creed were by no means free of intolerance toward Jews. But they had their own firm belief in the value of hard work and thrift, they encouraged literacy, and they tended to view people who acquired wealth more with admiration than envy.

It was not the Calvinists, after all, who forced us to leave Amsterdam's Jewish quarter. My father was expelled by orthodox rabbis, not Christian preachers.

She forced her mind to focus on the moment. Her father would want her advice and opinion. Especially now, in such deep and unknown waters.

Mackay, she saw, was staring at Michael also. There was respect in that look-and more than a trace of puzzlement.

"Why?" the Scotsman suddenly blurted out.

"Why what?" responded Michael. But the question was rhetorical. The American placed his hands on Rebecca's shoulders and gently moved himself around her to come to the center of the room. There, standing straight with his hands on his hips, he gazed down on Mackay. The gaze was almost a glare.

"Why aren't we rapists and thieves?"

Mackay lowered his head and shook it. "That's not what I meant." The Scotsman ran fingers through his thick red hair, his face crunched into a frown. Plainly enough, he was groping for words.

Rebecca's father found the words for him. "It is simply their way, Captain Mackay." Balthazar glanced at the Americans in the room. His eyes lingered on the black doctor for a moment.

"It's not that these Americans are lambs." He smiled. "Some of them, I imagine, have even been known to commit armed robbery. Attempt it, at least." James Nichols grinned.

Again, Balthazar's eyes studied the various Americans. They came to rest, this time, on Michael. "And other depredations, I have no doubt. Brawling, for instance. Drunk and disorderly conduct. Disrespect for the public authorities."

Michael was grinning, now. Rebecca did not understand why, but she was relieved to feel the tension easing from the room.

Balthazar's smile was quite warm when he turned it to Mackay. "But they are also a people who cherish their laws. Which they enact themselves, you know, with scant respect for lineage and rank. From what my daughter has told me, they are the most inveterate republicans since the ancient Greeks."

Balthazar spread his hands, as if demonstrating the obvious. "This is why, I think, that their instinctive response was to protect us, along with our goods. The law was being broken, you see. Their law, not the crown's."

The Jewish physician gave Michael another glance, lifting a finger at him. "Ask him, Mackay. Ask him again. But do not ask: why? Simply ask: did you even think twice? Or even once, for that matter?"

Mackay looked at Michael. The American, after a moment, let his hands fall from his hips. It was a weary gesture. But there was nothing weary in the way the large hands curled into fists.

"I don't know what kind of a world you people have created here, Captain Mackay," Michael growled. "But we will be no part of it. None, do you understand me? Wherever our power runs, the law will be obeyed. Our law."

"And how far does that power run?" asked Mackay.

Michael's response was instant. "As far as we can stretch it."

Mackay leaned back in his chair. "Some questions, then. My first." He pointed to the revolver at Michael's hip. "Are your weapons as good as I-as Lennox-thinks?"

Michael glanced down at the sidearm. "With a rifle, I can hit a one-inch bull's-eye at two hundred yards. Three hundred yards, with a scope. And I'm not the best marksman among us, not by a long shot." He stared out the window, as if examining the town. "There are other things, also, which we can make."

Michael brought his eyes back to Mackay. Blue and cold. "Your next question," he commanded.

Mackay jerked his head, pointing to the ceiling and the rooms above. "There is a small fortune up there, Michael of the Americans. It belongs to the king of Sweden, but he has authorized me to dispense it as I see fit. Will you take his colors?"

"No." Very blue and very cold. "We are not mercenaries. We will fight under our own banners, and no other."

Mackay stroked his beard, thinking. "Would you accept an alliance, then?" Hurriedly: "It needn't be anything very formal, you understand. Just an agreement between gentlemen. And with the funds I now have, I could cover the expenses."

The young Scotsman's gaze moved to the window. He tightened his own hands into fists, for a moment. And, for that moment, his green eyes held the same glitter as Michael's. "Think of us what you will, American. I take no more pleasure than you in seeing farmers and their children massacred, or their women subjected to vile abuse."

His right hand opened, and a finger of accusation pointed through the window to the north. "Tilly's beasts are pouring into Thuringia. They will be taking the larger cities soon, and then plundering the countryside like locusts. I cannot possibly stop them, not with my few hundred cavalrymen. But-"

His eyes fixed on Michael's revolver. Suddenly, startlingly, Michael clapped his hands together.

"Oh-that kind of alliance!" he exclaimed. Michael was grinning from ear to ear. The sheer good humor of the expression, for all the ferocity lurking in it, was like pure sunshine.

"Sure, Alexander Mackay. We accept."

***

Less than a minute later, Michael was out on the street, where dozens of his coal miners were chatting amiably with the Scots cavalrymen. Mackay was at his side. A large crowd was gathered about, most of them students from the high school who had followed them into town.

Rebecca, watching through the window, saw Michael's lips moving. She could not hear the words, but knew he was addressing the coal miners. An instant later, the crowd on the street dissolved into an orgy of celebration and back slapping. Julie Sims and her cheerleading squad again started that bizarre little dance. And, again, the students responded with a roaring chant.

Two-four-six-eight!

Who do we appreciate?

Scotsmen! Scotsmen!

The chant was loud enough to be heard through the window. More than loud enough. Rebecca thought the chant was bizarre, although she could not deny its raucous charm.

Then the cheerleaders began leading the crowd in a different chant and she was completely mystified.

Frowning, she turned to James Nichols. The doctor was on his feet, staring out the window, clapping his hands in time to the chant and muttering the same peculiar, meaningless words under his breath.

"Please," she asked, "explain this to me. What does that mean, exactly?" Her lips formed around unfamiliar words. "On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!"

The doctor grinned. "What it means, young lady, is that a bunch of swaggering thugs are about to get a history lesson. In advance, so to speak."

He turned to her, still grinning. "Let me introduce you to another unfamiliar American expression." The white teeth, shining in a black face, reminded Rebecca of nothing so much as a shield of heraldry.

"We call it-D-Day."

Chapter 13

In the hours that followed, the Roths' home became a whirlwind of activity. Michael and Alexander Mackay, along with Andrew Lennox and Frank Jackson, spent the entire afternoon at the large table in the kitchen, planning out their coming campaign. American coal miners and Scots soldiers trooped in and out as the hours went by. Bearing commands on their way out, and bringing questions on their way in. The Scots soldiers would come and go quickly, but many of the American miners would stay for awhile, chiming in with their own suggestions and opinions.

Julie Sims even showed up, bouncing into the kitchen to greet her uncle Frank and take advantage of that family connection to sate her eager curiosity. Mackay immediately lost his concentration on military affairs. Entirely. Julie had replaced her cheerleader's outfit with a blouse and blue jeans, true. But with her figure, and the energy which filled it, the change of clothing was irrelevant.

Then, seeing the smirk lurking in Lennox's eyes, Mackay flushed and tried to keep his eyes off the girl. But he still did not manage to bring his mind back into focus until several minutes after Frank shooed Julie away.

Mackay thought the extreme looseness of the American command structure-if such it could even be called-was extremely odd. But Everything about these Americans was extremely odd, when you came down to it. Yet there was no question that Michael and Frank had the final authority on any decisions. So, after a time, the two Scottish professional soldiers simply relaxed and-to use one of those peculiar American expressions-"went with the flow."

Others came also, to gather in the living room around Balthazar and Rebecca. The two doctors had remained, along with Morris Roth. Judith, now and again, would sit in on their discussion, but she was generally too busy providing food and drink for the soldiers. Rebecca offered to help in that chore, but Judith wouldn't permit it.

"Melissa will be coming over, any moment," she explained. Smiling: "I'll catch enough hell from her as it is, catering to the men the way I am. If she sees you doing it too-you're the National Security Adviser, remember?-I'll never hear the end of it. Knowing Melissa, she'd probably start picketing my house."

Rebecca's look of incomprehension caused Judith to laugh. "You never heard of women's lib, I take it?"

Julie Sims was standing nearby, listening to the exchange. Judith smiled at her and said: "Explain it, why don't you?"

"Sure! Piece of cake!"

Judith went off to the kitchen. Grinning, Julie gave Rebecca a prйcis on the subject of women's liberation. And if the eighteen-year-old girl's version of it would have caused the more doctrinaire advocates of women's lib to blanch, they certainly couldn't have complained about the enthusiasm of the presentation. By the time Julie finished, the look of incomprehension was gone from Rebecca's face. Her expression was now one of pure and simple shock.

"You must be joking."

" 'Course not!" was Julie's reply. A moment later, her eye drawn by someone on the street outside the window, Julie charged out of the house. Haltingly, Rebecca took a seat on the couch and began to listen to the conversation among the doctors.

At first, her mind was elsewhere. Women's liberation? Absurd! But then, as she caught the drift of the discussion, all other thoughts were driven aside immediately.

And, again, Rebecca's face must have shown her shock and disbelief.

Her father smiled at her. "Yes, daughter. This is what I was about to tell you when you first arrived. So-what do you think of the proposal?"

She was at a loss for words. Are they serious? But a glance at the two American doctors made clear that they were.

It is unheard of! A medical partnership-between gentiles and Jews?

The older doctor, the one Rebecca had first thought to be a Moor, cleared his throat. "You understand, Dr. Balthazar, that while you will be entitled to your full share of the proceeds-one third of what the doctors take in, after the salaries of the nurses and other employees are paid-that you will still, in practice, be-uh-" Nichols hesitated. He was obviously trying to be diplomatic. "For a time, that is, not forever-uh-"

Balthazar held up his hand. "Please, Dr. Nichols!" Rebecca's father leaned over and picked up a book lying on the table beside the couch. "Dr. Adams was so good as to lend this to me yesterday. One of his many volumes on medicine-a textbook, he tells me, from his days as a student."

Balthazar cradled the heavy tome on his lap, almost caressing it with his fingers. "I have not been able to read much of it yet, I'm afraid. There are so many new words-not to mention new concepts-that each page must be studied carefully."

Rebecca stared at the cover of the book. The title was not what drew her attention, however. Something to do with introductory principles of medicine. Instead, her eyes were drawn to the names of the authors.

George White, M.D. Harold O'Brien, M.D. Abraham Cohen, M.D.

Cohen? Her eyes went to Morris Roth. The American Jew seemed to understand the question in her stare. So, at least, she interpreted his little smile and the nod which went with it. Yes.

Her father was still speaking. "-so I understand fully that I will have to learn everything anew."

Dr. Adams shook his head. "That's not true, Balthazar. Not even with regard to theory. Your notions about miasmas being the cause of disease are not that far removed from the truth. And your practical knowledge, in many ways, exceeds our own." He shrugged. "The truth is, I think you'll have much to teach us about the medications available in this time and place."

Nichols chuckled. "I certainly hope so! Just to give one example, our supply of antibiotics will be gone soon, and we can hardly call up the pharmaceutical companies for more." He made a sour face. "Then what? Eye of newt? Bat's wings ground up with coriander?"

Balthazar laughed. "Please! I have always found that Avicenna's great Canon of Medicine has remedies for almost every malady. Many of them even seem to work."

Nichols and Adams were peering at him skeptically. Dr. Abrabanel spread his hands. "Of course, you should examine the text yourself, before we prescribe anything." Hesitantly: "You do read Arabic?" Seeing the expressions on the faces of the two American doctors, Balthazar shrugged. "Well, no matter. I believe I have most of the Canon available in a Greek translation."

Nichols and Adams looked at each other. Adams coughed. Nichols looked like he was choking.

"Dr. Abrabanel," asked Adams, "just exactly how many languages can you read?"

"Fluently?" Rebecca's father wiggled his fingers. "Not more than eight, I'm afraid. Nine, possibly, depending on how you reckon 'fluency.' Hebrew, Arabic and Greek, of course, those being the principal languages of medicine. Spanish and Portuguese are native to my family. And English now, naturally. I spent most of my life on the island. German, French." Again, he wiggled his fingers. "My Dutch is becoming quite good, I think. But it would be boasting to say it was fluent as yet."

He paused, thinking, running fingers through his well-groomed gray beard. "Beyond that? I can manage Russian and Polish, with nontechnical matters. Italian and Latin, the same. I was concentrating on the Latin, actually, but I was forced to interrupt my studies due to the political state of affairs so that I could learn Swedish." He frowned. "It's a charming language, in its own way, but I almost hate to spend the time on it. There is nothing written in Swedish which is not already available in other tongues. Still-" He sighed. "I felt it would be wise, given the role I was asked to play-"

He cut off abruptly and leaned forward, his face filled with concern. "Dr. Nichols? Are you ill?"

"No, no," gasped Nichols, waving his hand weakly. "I am just-" Cough, cough.

"Jesus Christ," whispered Adams. "Almighty."

Rebecca leaned back in the couch. She managed-successfully, she thought-to keep the pride and satisfaction from showing on her face. Much as she had come to like and admire these Americans, she could not deny the pleasure it gave her to see them-for once!-absent their usual smug complacence.

Perhaps she was not as successful as she thought. Melissa Mailey marched in at that point, took one look at her, and demanded: "What are you looking so pleased about?"

Rebecca smiled. Demurely, she thought. Intended, at least. "Oh, it just seems that my father is a more accomplished linguist than these other doctors. Whatever else he may lack."

"Well, of course!" Melissa snorted. "Americans are ignorant louts when it comes to language." The schoolteacher planted her arms akimbo and gave Nichols and Adams the same glare which had cowed thousands of students over the years. "What?" she demanded. "Did you think you were actually smarter than these people?"

Then, spotting Judith scurrying from the kitchen with a plate of food in her hands, Melissa transferred the glare. "And what's this? Two hundred years of progress gone down the drain?"

The glare settled on Rebecca. "You and I are going to have a talk, young lady. Soon."

The response was inevitable, inescapable. "Yes, ma'am."

Chapter 14

Much later that night, the Roth household was quiet and peaceful. Everyone had gone, except Balthazar, Melissa, and the Roths themselves. Even Rebecca was absent. Michael had insisted that she join the campaign planning effort, which had grown so large that it was being transferred to the high school.

Her father, in the event, was glad of her absence. It allowed him to raise a delicate subject freely, in the company of other Jews. And Melissa, of course. But Balthazar had already made his assessment of her.

"My daughter seems much taken by this Michael Stearns," he said. His tone was friendly and mild; the words themselves, an open invitation.

Morris and Judith glanced at each other. "He's a fine young man," said Judith hesitantly.

"Bullshit," snapped her husband. He gave the Sephardic doctor a look which combined apology with belligerence. "Pardon my language, Dr. Abrananel. But I'm not going to dance around about this. Mike Stearns is the closest thing you'll ever find in this world to a genuine goddam prince, and that's all there is to it. Gentile or not."

Morris leaned forward, planting his elbows on his knees. "You read the book I gave you? The one on the Holocaust?"

Balthazar winced, and spread his hand as if to ward off demons. "As much of it as I could bear. Which was not much."

Morris took a deep breath. "The world we came from was no paradise, Dr. Abrananel. Not for Jews, not for anyone. But if there were devils aplenty, there were also those who dealt with them."

He rose and stalked over to the mantelpiece. Perched next to the menorah was a small photograph, black-and-white, set in a simple frame. Morris took down the photograph and brought it over to Rebecca's father.

He pointed to one of the men in the picture. He was a small man, emaciated to the point of skeletonism, wearing a striped uniform.

"That's my father. The place where the photo was taken is called Buchenwald. It's not far from here, as it happens." He pointed to another man in the photograph. Taller, healthy looking despite the obvious weariness and grime-and wearing a uniform.

"That's Tom Stearns. Michael's grandfather. He was a sergeant in the American unit that liberated Buchenwald from the Nazis."

He put the photograph back on the mantelpiece. "Most people don't know it, but West Virginians-in terms of percentage, of course, not absolute numbers-have provided more soldiers for America's combat units than any other state in the nation, in every major war we fought in the twentieth century." He turned back to face Abrabanel. "That's why my father moved here, when he emigrated to the United States after the war. Even though he was the only Jew in Grantville when he first arrived. Tom Stearns had invited him to come, you see. Many others went to Israel, but my father wanted to live near the man who took him out of Buchenwald. It was the safest place he could imagine."

Morris stared down at Rebecca's father. "Do you understand what I'm trying to say, Balthazar Abrabanel?"

"Oh, yes," whispered the doctor. "We had that dream, once, in Sepharad." He closed his eyes, reciting from memory:

"Friend, lead me through the vineyards, give me wine

And to the very brim shall joy be mine…

And should I pre-decease you, friend, select

Some spot where vineyards twist, my grave to sink."

Morris nodded. The nod turned sideways, pointing. "My father is buried in the town's cemetery. Not far from Tom Stearns, and not far from Michael's father, Jack." His eyes came back. "And that's all I've got to say, Dr. Abrabanel."

Balthazar's shrewd eyes turned to Melissa. "And you?"

Melissa chuckled. "I'd hardly call Michael Stearns a 'prince'!" Then, cocking her head sideways, she pursed her lips. "Well… maybe. As long as we're talking about Prince Hal, the rapscallion."

Balthazar was startled. "The prince from Henry IV?" he asked. "You're familiar with the play?"

It was Melissa's turn to be startled. "Of course! But how did you-" Her jaw dropped.

"I saw it, how else?" replied Balthazar. "At the Globe theater in London. I never missed any of the man's plays. Always attended the first performance."

He rose and began pacing about slowly. "I was just thinking of it, in fact. Not Henry IV, but The Merchant of Venice."

He stopped, smiling down at his audience. The expression on the faces of Morris and Judith Roth now mirrored Melissa's. Mouths agape, eyes bulging.

"The most wonderful playwright in the world, in my opinion." He shook his head. "I'm afraid you all seem to be misconstruing my question about Michael. I was not concerned over the matter of his faith."

Balthazar snorted, with half-amused exasperation. "Bah! I'm a philosopher and a physician, not a moneylender. What did you think? Did you really expect me to start wringing my hands over the prospect that my daughter might be smitten by a gentile?"

Suddenly, he clasped his hands and began wringing them, in histrionic despair. With the same theatrical flair, he twisted his head back and forth. "O my daughter! O my ducats!"

Melissa burst into laughter. Balthazar grinned at her. Morris and Judith just stared.

Balthazar dropped his hands and resumed his seat. "No, no, my friends. I assure you that my concern was quite mundane." For a moment, his kindly face grew stern, almost bitter. "I have no love for orthodox Jewry, nor they for me. I was cast out because I argued there was as much to be learned from Averroes the Moslem as from Maimonides the Hebrew."

He sighed and lowered his head. "So be it. I have found a home here, it seems. My daughter also. I only wish for her happiness. That was the sole purpose of my question."

"He's a prince," said Melissa softly. "In all that matters, Balthazar. In the way that such men truly come, in this true world."

"Such was my hope," murmured Dr. Abrabanel. He chuckled again. "It will be difficult for Rebecca, of course. I fear I may have sheltered her too much. Her head is full of poetry."

"We'll fix that," growled Melissa. "First thing."

Judith Roth finally managed to speak. "I can't believe it. You actually-" She almost gasped the next words. "You actually saw Shakespeare? In person?"

Balthazar raised his head, frowning. "Shakespeare? Will Shakespeare? Well, of course. Can't miss the man, at the Globe. He's all over the place. Never misses a chance to count the gate. Twice, usually."

Half-stunned, Morris walked over to a bookcase against the wall. He pulled down a thick tome and brought it over to Balthazar.

"We are talking about the same Shakespeare, aren't we? The greatest figure in English literature?"

Still frowning, Balthazar took the book and opened its cover. When he saw the frontispiece, and then the table of contents, he almost choked.

"Shakespeare didn't write these plays!" he exclaimed. Shaking his head: "Well, some of them, I suppose. In some small part. The ones that read as if written by committee. The little farces like Love's Labour's Lost. But the great plays? Hamlet? Othello? King Lear?"

Seeing the look on his companions' faces, he burst into laughter. "My good people! Everyone knows that the plays were really written by-" He took a deep breath, preparing for recitation: "My Lord Edward, Earl of Oxford, Seventh of that Name, and Seventh in degree from the English Crown."

Balthazar snorted. "Some people, mind you, will insist that Sir Francis Bacon is the real author, but that was a mere ruse to throw off the hounds. The theater is much too disreputable for the earl of Oxford to be associated with it. Hence the use of Shakespeare's name."

He looked down at the book. "Apparently, the fiction has become historical fact. So much for vanity and worldly fame!"

There was now a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. "But perhaps it's simply justice. Edward was in some ways not the best of men. I know-I was his physician."

The stares were back. "Justice, I say. The earl owed me money, and refused to pay his bill."

Dr. Abrabanel stroked The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, like a man might fondle treasure. "This is so much more satisfying a revenge, don't you think, than a paltry pound of flesh?"

Part Two

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

Chapter 15

Hans Richter was awakened by a boot planted on his rump. The boot was abrupt, curt, and just barely short of brutal.

"Get up, boy," he heard Ludwig commanding. "Now. There's work to be done." The laugh that followed was more in the nature of a jeer. "You'll get your first taste of real fighting today, chicklet."

Dimly, Hans heard Ludwig clumping away. As always, the big man's footsteps were heavy and leaden. He sounded like a troll, moving about a cave.

Groaning, Hans rolled over on the dirt floor. His head was splitting with pain. For a minute or so, his eyes tightly closed, he fought down the urge to vomit. The struggle was fierce, not because he cared about the contents in his stomach, but simply because he didn't want to endure Ludwig's ridicule. Had Hans been alone, he would have gladly heaved up the remnants of his meal, even though it had been the first food he'd eaten in two days.

Most of that meal had been wine, in any event. Cheap, bad wine-the kind to be found in a peasant's farmhouse. The other mercenaries, led by Ludwig, had insisted that he drink his share.

More than my share, came the thought. I drank more than my share, on purpose. It made them laugh, how quickly I got drunk. But that's what I wanted. It gave me an excuse.

Memory of the night before came crashing in. Hans opened his eyes. He found himself staring at a corpse, not three feet away. The farmer, that was. The man was staring up at the ceiling of the farmhouse with sightless eyes. The rough clothing was caked with blood all through his midsection. Flies swarmed on the corpse.

Again, Hans felt the urge to vomit. And, again, fought it down desperately. His enrollment in the mercenary company was still very recent, and hung by a thread. If the soldiers decided he was unfit for their trade, they would cast him back into the pool of camp followers. Unarmed. Again.

Better anything than that. He still had what was left of his family to shelter. Ludwig protected his older sister Gretchen from the other soldiers, since he had taken her as his concubine. But Annalise, just turned fourteen, was already drawing their eyes. As a mercenary's sister, she would have some status. So would his grandmother. If Hans lost his place in the company, Annalise would be a tent whore before she saw another birthday. His grandmother would die in a field somewhere, abandoned and alone.

Hans decided he had mastered his stomach. He rose, and staggered toward the doorway. His eyes avoided the two corpses piled in a corner of the house. Those had been the old folk. The farmer's mother and his aunt, probably. Crones, of no interest to the soldiers. Hans remembered how casually Ludwig and another mercenary had murdered them, as if they were a pair of chickens.

He also kept his eyes away from the only bed in the house. That bed had been put to use by his companions, the night before. Hans had guzzled the wine as fast as he could force it down his stomach, in order to avoid the activity taking place there. Ludwig and his cohorts would have insisted that he participate. Drunkenness was the only acceptable excuse.

The bed was empty, now. The farmer's daughter had probably been dragged out this morning to join the camp followers, along with the boy. Her lot would be hard, and her brother's worse. Unlike Hans' sister Gretchen, the girl was not attractive enough to become a soldier's concubine. She would be a laundress and a prostitute. Her brother would be one of many camp urchins, available to run errands and do chores for the soldiers. Beaten for any reason, or, often enough, simply on a drunken whim. If he survived, the boy might eventually become a mercenary himself.

That was unlikely, however. Hans estimated the farm boy's age at ten years, no more. He would get less food than anyone, which was little enough. Hunger and disease would probably carry him off, long before he could reach the relatively secure status of being a soldier.

Hans stumbled out of the doorway into the farmyard. The bright sunlight, for all the pain it brought to his head, was a blessed relief. He could handle pain of the body. He had been a printer's son himself, once, not so far removed from the peasantry. Pain and hunger and hard work were no strangers. But he wondered, sometimes, how long his soul could endure this new world. The sunshine seemed to lighten that burden, a bit.

Ludwig and his men were gathering the camp followers, driving them into a semblance of marching order with shouts and blows. There were about fifty of them, mostly women and children, to service Ludwig's twenty mercenaries. Ludwig held no official rank in that band of soldiers. With his size and domineering personality, the point was moot. The informal arrangement was typical of Tilly's army. The officers didn't care, as long as the soldiers did their duty on the rare occasions when an actual battle had to be fought or a siege undertaken.

The camp followers were heavily laden with the mercenaries' gear and plunder. The "plunder" was pathetic, in truth. There was no gold or silver or jewelry to be found in peasant homes, and precious little in the houses of small German towns. Some of the "loot" would have caused Hans to laugh, if he didn't know of the carnage which had obtained it. One of the women-Diego the Spaniard's "wife"-was staggering under a wrought-iron bedframe. Diego had forced the poor creature to carry that thing for seven weeks now, even though he had no possible use for it. The Spaniard had been furious that the house had held nothing else of any value. He had spent two hours torturing the owner in an attempt to find hidden treasure. But there had been none. There almost never was. Only a bed. After Diego was finished, the pallet had been too badly soaked with blood to be salvageable. But he had insisted on taking the frame.

The small woman staggering under the bedframe stumbled and fell to one knee. Diego, seeing her mishap, snarled with anger. He strode up and delivered a vicious kick to her backside, sprawling her flat on the ground. She did not make a sound. Her face held no expression. She simply drew her legs under her and lurched back onto her feet.

Wincing, Hans looked away. In seconds, he spotted his own family. Gretchen, as always, was at the center of the crowd of camp followers, with his sister and grandmother nearby. His grandmother and Annalise were carrying bundles, but Gretchen always carried the largest, even though she was burdened with her baby. She was a big woman, and young, and strong, and had never allowed her good looks to go to her head.

Hans was not surprised to see the newest camp followers sheltered under Gretchen's care. The farmer's daughter seemed in a total daze. Her little brother was sobbing. There were no tears, however. The tear ducts would have been emptied hours earlier.

Hans took a breath and marched over. Ludwig would be demanding his presence within seconds. But he wanted to speak to Gretchen first.

As he drew near, threading through the little mob, Gretchen turned her head toward him. She was saying something to Annalise, but as soon as she caught sight of Hans her mouth closed. Her face, in an instant, stiffened like a statue. Her eyes, for all the natural warmth of their light brown color, seemed as cold as winter.

When Hans came up to Gretchen, he glanced at the farmer's children. Orphans, now. His words came in a rush.

"I didn't- I swear, Gretchen. I got drunk right away." Almost desperately, he nodded to the daughter. "Ask her. She'll tell you."

Gretchen's stiff face softened into quiet anger. "You think the poor girl remembers faces?" she demanded. Her eyes moved to the band of soldiers now forming into a loose column. The gaze was pure bitterness. "I didn't. Thank God."

The child nestled in Gretchen's left arm turned his head and stared up at Hans, with the unfocused eyes of babies. His mouth curved into a smile, seeing Hans' familiar face. The baby gurgled happily.

The sight, and the sound, melted away Gretchen's anger. Hans felt a surge of warmth toward the child, for bringing that break in the tension.

As he had often before, Hans wondered at that warmth. He had grown very fond of Wilhelm, in the months since his birth. Gretchen positively doted on him.

Odd, really. Wilhelm was Ludwig's son. Probably. After the first day, when their town was sacked by Tilly's army and Ludwig led his men into their father's print shop, Gretchen had been reserved for Ludwig's exclusive use. The baby certainly resembled his presumed father. Like Ludwig, his hair was very blond, his eyes blue. And already he was giving evidence that he might grow to Ludwig's size.

Gretchen's eyes came back to Hans. He was relieved to see that his sister's hostility was completely gone.

"It's all right, Hans. We do as best we can." A shout came. Ludwig's bellow, summoning him. "Now go," she said. "I will see to the family."

Hearing that word, the sobbing ten-year-old boy at her side was suddenly clutching Gretchen's hip. A moment later, his sister joined him, clutching Gretchen's arm. The dazed look in her eyes seemed to lift, a bit.

Hans' "family," plain enough, had just grown. He was not surprised. A third of the camp followers belonged to Gretchen. Adopted, as it were.

Ludwig's bellow came again. Angry, now. There would be a cuffing, sure enough.

"Go," hissed Gretchen.

***

The cuffing was not severe. Ludwig was in a good mood, insofar as that innocent expression can be applied to a troll in human guise. His gaiety, of course, was at Hans' expense.

"A real battle for you, chicklet!" roared Ludwig. "Some of our boys got bloodied down south a ways, so we're going to sack Badenburg to teach these Protestant fucks a lesson." The grin in the big man's bearded face was jeering. "No more lazing about in the lap of luxury. You'll be blooded before tomorrow's over. Or bloody ruin yourself!"

The veteran mercenaries standing nearby echoed Ludwig's guffaws. The laughter was good-natured, for the most part. But Diego the Spaniard's humor, as always, was sadistic.

"A gutted mess you'll be," he predicted. The sneer on his face became a leer. Diego grabbed his crotch. "Annalise's looking better by the day!" he chortled.

Hans felt a spike of rage run down his spine. He detested the Spaniard as he did no other man in Ludwig's band. More, even, than Ludwig himself. Ludwig was a brute, a beast, an ogre. Diego was something far worse. It was no accident that the Spaniard was always the man chosen by Ludwig whenever torture was to be done.

Yet Hans said nothing. He averted his eyes. He was terrified of Diego. The sallow-faced Spaniard was not a big man. Nothing compared to Ludwig. But he was as savage as a weasel, and just as deadly.

Hans braced himself for further ridicule. Fortunately, a small knot of horsemen came cantering up, diverting everyone's attention. The captain "in command" of Ludwig's band had arrived to give the orders.

Hans didn't even know the captain's name. It was meaningless. Hans took his orders from Ludwig. He only gave the captain and his three companions a glance.

But then, seeing the priest in the group, Hans' glance became a stare. Apparently, there was to be a sermon along with commands. The priest would almost certainly be a Jesuit, attached to the Papal Inquisition. He would exhort the troops to fight in the name of holiness.

Hans' guess was confirmed by Diego's muttered words of scorn. The Spaniard was contemptuous of the Jesuits and the pope's Inquisition. Weak-livered punks, he called them. Diego liked to boast about the Spanish Dominicans and their Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition answered to the crown of Spain, not the Vatican. They did as they pleased, and damn the pope's Italian lawyering. Just burn the filthy heretics. They're all Jews and Jew-lovers anyway, the ones who aren't outright Moors.

"Limpieza," the Spanish called it. Pure blood, to be protected from taint. That mattered as much to them-more, in truth-than the pope's concerns over religious dogma.

The captain finished his brief exchange of words with Ludwig. The priest urged his horse to the fore.

A sermon, sure enough.

***

Hans tried to block the sermon from his mind. He did not even look at the Jesuit, lest his eyes betray him. He simply stared at the ground, hands clasped as if in prayer.

The priest was speaking of the need to safeguard the Catholic faith from heresy.

Hans could not help hearing the words. His thoughts seethed with fury.

Liar. We were Catholics ourselves. Our whole town was Catholic.

The priest was advocating the true faith.

We were kneeling in prayer when your "Catholic" mercenaries came into my father's shop.

Denouncing the Protestants.

The Protestants murdered my grandfather, and took away my mother. But it was your good Catholic Ludwig who drove a sword into my father's belly when he held up the rosary.

Denouncing sin, now.

And what was it, priest, when your soldiers sired a bastard on my sister? Was it hers, tied hand and foot to my father's bed?

The rest, he managed not to hear. Hans' thoughts moved far away. Bleak and hopeless. Utterly despairing thoughts, as only those of an eighteen-year-old young man can be.

Hans knew the truth. Satan's rebellion, stymied for so long, had finally triumphed. It was no longer God who sat on the heavenly throne. The Beast had replaced Him. It was the serpent's minions, not the Lord's, who wore the vestments of the clergy. All clergy, of all creeds. The creeds themselves were meaningless. Satan's joke, nothing more. The Lord of Flies was amusing himself, tormenting the land and its folk.

The sermon was done. Hans, had he still retained Gretchen's vestige of faith, would have thanked God. But there was no God to be thanked, any longer. There was nothing.

He managed, barely, to pull himself back from that brink. Suicide was at the bottom of that plunge. Hans had been tempted, often enough. But He flared his nostrils, and took in a deep breath. Still staring at the ground, still with his hands clasped before him.

The hands were not clasped in prayer, for all the strength with which he squeezed the fingers. Hans Richter was simply reminding himself that all was not lost. He still had something. Something to call his own, and something to give what he could.

Family. That I have. That I will protect, as best I can. Whatever else.

Chapter 16

"How many, d'you think?" asked Mackay.

Andrew Lennox squinted nearsightedly. Then, remembering his new gift from the Americans, he took out the spectacles and put them on. It took him not more than five seconds, scanning the field, to pronounce judgment.

"Two thousand. Divided two an' one. Maybe e'en less. Tilly is more conservative than Gustav Adolf, an' this'll be one o' 'is poorer an' weaker units. They've got nae artillery 't'all."

Mackay nodded. "About my estimate."

Next to him, Mike cocked his head. "By two and one-?"

"Pikemen to arquebusiers," replied Mackay. The Scots officer pointed to the tightly packed mass of men slowly approaching their own forces. "See the formation? That's your typical Spanish-style tercio. All the Habsburg armies use it in battle, although the imperials prefer a higher proportion of arquebus than the Spaniards. Impressive, isn't it?"

Mike studied the advancing army. He had no difficulty agreeing with the word. Impressive, it most certainly was. The imperial army reminded him of a gigantic mastodon, bearing down with gleaming tusks.

And they're just about to become as extinct.

Tilly's mercenaries were packed into a rectangle approximately fifty files wide and forty ranks deep, covering not more than fifty yards of front. The men in the ranks were spaced every three feet, and the files were drawn up even closer. The formation was so tight that, even across the clear and level ground of what had once been plowed farmland, they could only move deliberately. Mike knew, from what Mackay and Lennox had told him, that if Tilly himself and his entire army had been here, the oncoming tercio would have been one of sixteen or seventeen such units. They would have been arrayed side by side, like a human glacier. Slow as a glacier, and just as unstoppable.

The pikemen formed the heart of the formation. Their great fifteen-foot spears, held erect, glistened even in the light of an overcast day. The five hundred arquebusiers were arrayed on either flank. The arquebusiers' principal duty was to fend off pistol-wielding cavalry and match volleys with enemy gunmen. But, as had been true for a century and more, it would be the press and charge of pike which would decide the day.

Such, at least, was the accepted theory and practice of the time. Frank Jackson, standing on Mike's left, echoed his own mental opinion. "Talk about candidates for extinction. One cluster bomb would take out the whole bunch."

"We don't have a cluster bomb," pointed out Mike mildly.

Frank snorted. "Neither did the NVA. But I'll tell you right now those tough little bastards in their black pajamas would have loved these guys. Mincemeat, coming up. Complete with nuoc mam."

Mike grimaced at the image. Frank had brought home a Vietnamese wife from the war. In the decades since, Diane Jackson-she had Americanized her name-had blended in extremely well. But she still insisted on cooking at least one meal a month with that godawful Vietnamese fish sauce.

"Nuoc mam," Frank repeated. Under other circumstances, the obvious relish in his voice would have been odd. Much as he doted on his wife, Frank was no fonder of the fish sauce than any other native-born American.

Mackay, listening, understood the essence if not the precise meaning of Frank's words. "You are that confident?" The Scotsman pointed to the oncoming enemy. "They outnumber us two to one." He glanced to the left, where Ernst Hoffman's ragtag Protestant mercenaries were drawn up. About five hundred of them, more or less. Their formation was so irregular and undisciplined that an exact count was impossible. "That's counting that sorry lot, who'll break in a minute."

Mike shrugged. "I'm not relying on Hoffman's goons at all. I just insisted they be here in order to get them out of the town."

He cocked his head around. The little American/Scots/Protestant army was drawn up less than half a mile north of Badenburg. Unusually, for a town its size-the population was less than six thousand-Badenburg was walled. Those walls, as much as anything else, had determined Mike's political tactics over the past two weeks. Hoffman had been reluctant, to put it mildly, to risk bringing his mercenaries into the open field. But Mike had insisted, and Mackay had sweetened the pot with a portion of the king of Sweden's money.

When he turned his head back, he found that the young Scots officer was giving him a very peculiar look. Well… Not so peculiar, perhaps. Mackay still hadn't quite gotten over his shock, once he realized the full extent of Mike's intentions. Defeating Tilly's mercenaries was only the first part of those plans. Liberating Badenburg, Mike had explained, required dealing with the Protestant mercenaries as well. Decisively and, if necessary, ruthlessly. Even Lennox, for all his grisly experience, had been impressed by Mike's cold-bloodedness.

"Yes, Mackay, I am that confident." Mike's eyes ranged up and down his own battle line. The UMWA members, reinforced by high-school seniors, were lying prone behind a log parapet. There were, by exact count, 289 Americans in that line. All of them were wearing hunting camouflage, and all of them were armed with high-power rifles.

Mackay had been skeptical, but he had agreed to let the Americans form up at the center. His cavalry, evenly divided, was marshaled on the flanks. Every one of those Scotsmen had been at least as skeptical as Mackay, once they understood what Mike had planned for them.

Pursuit? Cough, cough. Doesn't that, ahem, presuppose that you've already defeated the enemy?

Mike smiled thinly. A half hour from now, he didn't think the Scots would be skeptical any longer. His eyes moved to the enemy, now less than two hundred yards away. The tercio was marching across the open field almost as slowly as a turtle.

"If I wanted to, Mackay," Mike said softly, "I could end this battle right now. Your arquebuses can't hit anything much beyond fifty yards, even in a volley, and they take a minute to reload. I know you think our tactics are only suitable for skirmishers, but you've never seen breech-loading rifles in action. With our accuracy and rate of fire, we could have half that army dead before they could get in range."

Mike pointed to a small group of coal miners crouched in a rifle pit. The rifle pit was positioned on the left flank of the American line. "I want to do more than just win this battle. I want to terrify them completely-and Hoffman's goons with them. So we'll wait, for a bit, until the hammer falls."

Mackay stared at the men in the rifle pit. They were making last-minute adjustments to the weapon in the center. The adjustments were quite unnecessary, in all truth. But those middle-aged men were nervous. Their Vietnam days were many years behind them. It had been a long time since any of them fired an M-60.

Out of the corner of his mouth, Mike whispered to Frank: "I still can't believe you stole the damn thing."

Jackson was unabashed. "What the hell? I figured the Army owed me." He shrugged. "Hey, I was a piker. I knew one guy who smuggled a howitzer back from Nam."

Mike chuckled. Frank had shown him the machine gun less than three weeks ago. He had been a bit shame-faced, at the time, leading Mike and Dan Frost into the woods behind his house where he had buried it, years before, along with three boxes of ammunition.

"For Christ's sake, Jackson," Dan growled, after Frank hauled the carefully wrapped device out of its hiding place. "That thing is so goddam illegal I ought to put up most wanted posters all over town." The police chief rubbed his left arm, still in a sling. "Good thing for you I'm officially on the sick list."

Yes, then, Frank had been embarrassed. "It's not like I was some goofy survivalist or anything," he'd tried to explain. "Just- Oh, hell. I was a kid. It seemed more like a prank at the time than anything else."

But that was then, and today was now, and Mike was glad to have the M-60. Delighted, if the truth be told.

Tilly's mercenaries were a hundred and fifty yards away, now. They were dividing their forces. The bulk of the formation continued to advance straight toward the Americans in front of Badenburg. But five hundred of them, approximately, were moving toward Hoffman's men. The Protestant mercenaries, skittish as kittens, had insisted on forming up some distance to the left. Right alongside the road leading back into Badenburg and the safety of its walls.

Mike took a last glance up and down the line. He turned his head, looking over his left shoulder to a small knoll some thirty yards behind. Standing on the top of the knoll, Greg Ferrara made a quick gesture. Thumbs up.

Mike looked away. He hoped the confidence of the science-teacher-become-artillery-officer was justified. Ferrara and his precocious students had designed and built the rockets themselves. Whether they would work, in an actual battle, remained to be seen.

Frank, apparently, shared Mike's doubts. "I just hope the damn things don't hit us," he muttered.

"They won't," came a voice from behind them. For all its youthful timbre, the words were spoken with great assurance.

Mike smiled, but didn't turn around.

Ah, yes. D'Artagnan, and the Three Musketeers.

The voice belonged to Jeff Higgins. Jeff was one of Ferrara's "whiz kids." Although he and his three best friends had played a big role in designing the rockets, they had a different assignment in this battle. Larry Wild, Jimmy Andersen and Eddie Cantrell probably had as much talent for science as Jeff himself. They certainly shared the same enthusiasm for off-road motorcycling. Mike had decided to use them for couriers today. Their dirt bikes would be perfect for the task.

Mike didn't really think he would need four couriers, but the boys were well-nigh inseparable. That had been true even before the Ring of Fire. Since the disaster, they had clung together ferociously.

Mike sighed, thinking about their situation. By and large, Grantville's families had come through the Ring of Fire relatively unscathed. Fortunately, the disaster had happened on a Sunday, when almost all the families were at home. Even the coal miners who had come into town for Rita's wedding had, with few exceptions, brought their wives and children.

Still-there were some heart-breaking exceptions. Bill Porter, the power-plant manager, had lost his whole family. He had been at the power plant, but his wife and children didn't live in Grantville. They had stayed behind, wherever "behind" was. A few others faced the same situation. Like Bill, most of them tried to bury their grief in hard work, consoling themselves as best they could with the knowledge-the hope, at least-that their families were still alive and well. Wherever-whenever-they were.

But there was no situation as bad as that of these boys. Jeff and Larry Wild were the only ones who lived in Grantville. They lived right next to each other, in two of the double-trailers in the trailer park next to the fairgrounds. Jimmy Anderson and Eddie Cantrell, who lived in Barrackville, had been visiting them. Jeff and Larry's families had all been gone for the day. The four teenagers had been taking advantage of the situation to enjoy an uninterrupted and adult-free game of Dungeons and Dragons.

None of them except Jeff had reached the age of eighteen. And now, orphans in all that mattered, they were adrift in a world more vicious than any fantasy adventure.

***

"About time," said Jackson.

Mike pushed all other thoughts aside. The enemy, he saw, was a hundred yards away.

"You're the expert, Frank," he said. "It's your call."

Frank cupped his hands around his mouth. "Light 'em up!" he bellowed.

The M-60 erupted, sweeping the front ranks of the tercio. The man firing the weapon was using the three- to six-round bursts of a veteran. The stuttering machine gun started ripping holes in the tightly packed front line of the enemy. At that range, the.308-caliber rounds could punch right through an armored man and kill the man behind him.

The M-60 had been placed on the left flank in order to maximize its effectiveness. The gunner had a semienfilade angle of fire and was taking full advantage of it. In less than two seconds, all of the men behind the parapet added their rifle fire.

The seemingly unstoppable tercio staggered. The front rank fell, like a glacier calving flesh instead of ice. The M-60 traversed back. Another rank spilled and shattered. Back again. Another. It was like mowing wheat.

Mike was amazed at the reaction of the soldiers taking that incredible punishment. He had expected them to break immediately. Instead, the tercio was stubbornly pushing forward. If anything, the pikemen reacted to the horrendous losses by stiffening their determination. The men in the rear ranks were stumbling over the bodies in front of them, but they were still coming on. Some of them even tried to dress their formation.

God, those men are tough! That's just pure balls keeping them up.

Something of his thoughts must have shown in his little shake of the head. Behind him, Jeff Higgins whispered: "That's what this kind of early gunpowder warfare was all about, Mike. Guts, sheer guts. There wasn't-isn't-much skill involved in being a pikeman or a musket-shooter. Slam it out until somebody quits. That's how they're trained."

Mike didn't doubt the words. He knew that military history was one of the enthusiasms shared by Jeff and his friends. But he had none of Jeff's "knowledgeable" nonchalance about it. Mike was not a teenager. He had a much better sense than the boys behind him of what it really took for those men to keep standing under that punishment.

Say what you will about those bastards. Murderers and thieves and rapists, some of them. But don't ever say they lack courage.

As he watched, the enemy arquebusiers on both flanks managed to get off a volley. Few if any of the rounds, at that range, came even close to the Americans. Before the mercenaries could reload, the M-60 hammered their neat front line into shreds.

Yet, for all the wreckage which the machine gun inflicted on the tercio, most of the casualties suffered by Tilly's mercenaries were actually caused by the rifle fire. Almost all the men shooting those weapons were experienced deer hunters. Many of the older ones were combat veterans. They were using modern rifles, firing into a pack of massed men at less than a hundred yards-point-blank range, essentially, for those weapons. Few of their shots missed a target, and the armor worn by the mercenaries was never designed to protect against high-velocity rounds.

By later examination, it would be determined that well over two hundred of Tilly's mercenaries were killed by rifle fire. The same number, wounded. All in less than a minute. The machine-gun rounds, in contrast, caused fewer than two hundred casualties-a majority of whom were simply wounded. If for no other reason, Frank had given orders to be sparing with the ammunition. Those three boxes were all they had.

But It was the M-60 that broke them. One in five of those rounds was a tracer. On that gray and cloudy day, the tracers blazed like streaks of magic fire. To Tilly's men, and the Scots who watched, it seemed as if a sorcerer's wand was smiting them down. Along with, seconds later, the spitfire of a dragon. Ferrara and Jeff's confidence proved to be warranted. The warheads on the rockets were not particularly powerful, but the missiles themselves sped swift and true.

The center of the tercio finally caved in under the M-60's blazing hammer blows. Holes were torn throughout the formation by the rockets. And, everywhere in the first five ranks-and then the next, and then the next, and then the next-men withered under the deadly rifle fire. In less than two minutes after the battle erupted, the proud and confident little army which had marched on Badenburg was an utter ruin.

Alexander Mackay was not the only Scotsmen, then-not by far-who committed the sin of blasphemy.

"Jesus Christ son of God," he whispered. "Jesus Christ son of God."

Andrew Lennox did not join in that violation of the commandment. Not because he was more saintly, but simply because he was more hard-bitten. His ruddy face might have paled, a bit. But his cold eyes never ceased ranging the battlefield.

"Hoffman's men are beaten," he announced. "They dinna fire more than one volley, th' wretchet cowards." His voice carried utter condemnation. Calvin and John Knox, speaking through a veteran, pronouncing the ultimate sin of a seventeenth-century soldier. They did not stand and take it like men.

Mike looked to the left. Sure enough, the Protestant mercenaries were retreating before their Catholic counterparts. Years of garrison duty had turned Hoffman's soldiers into a gang of simple toughs. Extortionists, now facing real soldiers on a battlefield. They were already scrambling toward the road, with Tilly's men lumbering in pursuit.

Mike bellowed an order; then, repeated it twice. Raggedly-his coal miners and school boys were hardly a trained army yet-the American riflemen shifted their aim and began firing at the separate Catholic detachment on the left. The distance was greater, but it was still within easy range for good riflemen. Those mercenaries began dropping too. The men in the rifle pit began shifting the machine gun, but Frank shouted at them to hold their fire. Plain enough, there would be no need for the M-60, and they had to husband the ammunition for the machine gun.

Mike turned to Mackay. "I think…?"

Mackay was still too shocked to think. Lennox shook his arm.

"Yes, lad-he's right. Let's to it." The next word was spoken with sheer relish. "Pursuit."

Both wings of Tilly's mercenary army had collapsed by now, and the survivors were retreating in disorder. Mike called out the order to cease fire. A bit raggedly, again, the American riflemen obeyed the order. Mackay and his two hundred and fifty Scots cavalrymen poured onto the battlefield. Within seconds, they had overtaken the enemy and were calling on them to surrender. Those who resisted or continued to flee were ruthlessly sabered or shot down with wheel-lock pistols.

The battle was over. It had been Mike's first, and he was finding it hard to control his gorge.

"Is it always like this?" he whispered.

Frank shook his head. "This wasn't a battle, Mike. This was just a slaughter." The Vietnam veteran stared out at the bodies littering the field. Mounds of them, in places. "I almost feel sorry for the poor bastards, now. Almost."

Jeff Higgins interrupted. His voice was urgent. "Mike-it's starting." Jeff's finger was pointing to the left.

Mike followed the finger. Hoffman's Protestant mercenaries, seeing the complete and unexpected destruction of their seemingly triumphant opponent, were rallying. Mike could see Ernst Hoffman himself, astride his horse, waving his saber. The mercenary captain pointed the sword to the north. Onward.

Mike did not bother to squint into that distance. He knew what Hoffman was pointing to. The Catholic camp, now unprotected and ripe for the picking. Hoffman's mercenaries hadn't been worth a damn in a fight, but Mike didn't doubt for a moment that they would prove to be experts at plunder, pillage and rapine.

Mackay and Lennox had predicted this scenario, in the event the Americans won. Mike had shaped his plans accordingly.

The battle was won, but the fight wasn't over. He intended to liberate Badenburg. From all its enemies.

"Okay, Jeff," he said. "You and your buddies get over there. Right now. If you can, warn off Hoffman's men. But they probably won't listen to you, and I don't want you taking any chances. Don't do anything else until the reinforcements arrive."

As he straddled his bike, Jeff nodded. His three friends were already peeling off, their engines racketing.

Mike shouted after the rapidly receding boys: "Remember, dammit-wait!"

"Fat chance," muttered Frank. "You're looking at four knights in shining armor. Fucking D D paladins, no less."

Mike turned to him, grinning. "Well, then, let's back 'em up. Call out the armor."

Chapter 17

Gretchen knew the battle was lost as soon as she heard the machine gun start to fire. She had no idea what could be making that bizarre staccato sound, but it was nothing produced by Tilly's thugs. At the age of twenty, Gretchen had already learned life's basic lesson. Expect the worst.

She felt a moment's fear and anguish for her brother. Hans, poor little Hans, was somewhere up there. Near the very front he would be, too, since Ludwig's men were considered part of the "elite," as mercenaries gauged such things.

But Gretchen thrust that concern aside. There was nothing she could do for Hans, and she had other members of her family to protect. Quickly, she scanned the area, looking for a place to hide. The enemy would be here soon, rampaging in their victory.

Her first thought was for the woods, perhaps a mile distant.

Too far. Gretchen herself would be able to make it, before the beasts arrived. Annalise, too, perhaps. But they would have to abandon most of the family. Gramma, the children, the baby, the older girl with her bad leg, the new girl with her vacant mind…

No. What else?

They had pitched camp near a half-burned farmhouse. Gretchen had inspected it the evening before, as a possible sleeping quarters. She had chosen the open ground, instead. The farmhouse had been long abandoned, and she did not trust the condition of the half-collapsed ceiling.

No. The monsters will look there first. What else?

Her eyes fell on a small structure, dismissed it without thought, moved on. Stopped. Came back.

Her mind shrank in her skull, like a mouse huddling in a hole. A spike of horror ran down her spine.

Still…

Long abandoned. Maybe…

She strode over to the outhouse. The thin walls were rickety. Several planks had fallen away. The door hung loose on leather hinges. She pried the door aside and peered in.

She checked the smell, first. Not so bad. Not used in some time.

Then, the seat. It was just as described by one of the other girls in the family, the evening before when Gretchen had sent her to investigate. The wood, with the carved hole in the center, was half-rotted away. That was why they had not used the structure. Someone might fall in.

Gretchen almost tittered a laugh. Might fall in!

Horror and nausea steeled her will. She seized the plank and heaved it up. Looked down. Sighed with relief.

Almost empty. Drained away, the most of it. The stench is horrible, but there would be enough air now.

The hole was dark, but not so dark that Gretchen couldn't see the spiders perched here and there on the walls. She recognized one of them as dangerously venomous.

There are worse things than spiders. Much worse.

Her decision made, Gretchen turned away and stuck her head out the door. A moment later she was shouting orders. The family was confused, but they obeyed instantly. Within seconds, they were clustering around the outhouse, hauling the family's possessions.

As they were handed to her, Gretchen shoved the family's tattered bedding into the hole. It would provide some protection for bare feet. For a while, anyway.

That done, she made her triage. She thought there would be room for the girls old enough to be in danger. She started with her sister Annalise, taking Wilhelm from Gramma's arms and thrusting him into her younger sister's arms.

"Take him and hide in the latrine. Now!"

Annalise turned pale. But Gretchen's scowl was not to be argued with, and she obeyed from long habit. In less than ten seconds, she was being lowered into the pit by her strong older sister. Then, reaching up her hands, she took the baby handed down to her.

She flinched from a spider, whimpering.

"Be still!" hissed Gretchen. "They won't bother you if you don't move. And don't breathe deeply."

Annalise was very pale now, obviously fighting to control her stomach. The stench was truly horrendous. But Gretchen did no more than hold her breath. She was too concerned with gauging the size of the pit to worry about anything else.

Big enough for three more, she decided. Turning away, she called out for Elisabet and Mathilde, the two girls in the group of the same age as Annalise. They squealed and shrieked but, again, Gretchen's will was not to be thwarted.

Who else?

Her eyes fell on the young farm girl who had recently been forced into the camp. The girl was not pretty, not in the least. Her face was so plain it was almost ugly, and her figure was like a sack of potatoes. But she was young-not more than sixteen-and that would be enough.

Gretchen gauged the girl, for a moment. The dazed, half-vacant look on her face convinced her. She will not survive another one. Not her mind, at least. Not this soon.

"Get in," she ordered, pointing into the latrine. The girl stared at her, uncomprehending. "Get in," Gretchen repeated. She extended her hand.

The girl finally understood. Her mouth dropped open.

"Get in." Gretchen's voice was iron with command. "It's just filth, woman. Nasty, but it won't kill you."

The girl was still gaping. "Idiot!" hissed Gretchen. "It's the only place they won't look for women."

Comprehension came, and with it terror. Trembling, the girl came into the outhouse. Her legs were barely holding her up. Gretchen was a big woman, and very strong. She took the girl under the armpits, picked her up, and lowered her into the mess. Soon enough, the task was done.

Gretchen nodded with satisfaction. "If anyone starts to raise the lid," she commanded the four girls, "lower your heads and press against the sides, as far out of sight as possible. Never mind the spiders."

To Annalise: "And make sure you cover the baby's mouth if he starts to cry or scream."

Annalise's eyes were wide. "What if…?" She took a little breath through pinched nostrils. "I can't cover his face for very long. He'll suffocate."

Gretchen shook her head. "If they open the lid, it won't be for more than a second or two. Not as stinky as that is. As for the other-"

Gretchen's face was blank. "There will be so much noise up here that no one will hear a baby."

It was time. Only half of Gretchen's mind had been on the sounds of the battle, but that half now surged to the fore. The other side is winning. They will be here soon.

Quickly, almost violently, she seized the lid and wrestled it back over the latrine. The only opening in the wooden cover was a squat-hole, too small to allow any light to enter the cavity below. The four girls and the baby hidden within were quite invisible.

Satisfied that she had done what she could for them, Gretchen left the outhouse and wrestled the door back into place. Then she gave the rest of the area a quick scrutiny. The entire camp, by now, was in an uproar. Hundreds of people were shouting and screaming. Many of them were starting to flee to the north.

For a moment, Gretchen was tempted to follow them. She was young enough and in good enough health that she could reach the cover of the distant woods before the enemy soldiers arrived. But she would have to abandon her grandmother, and the others.

No.

What else?

It didn't take her more than five seconds to come up with the answer. Nothing. Survive, that's all.

The small crowd was still clustered around her. Gretchen walked off a considerable distance from the outhouse. Then she ordered the older women to take the children and gather in a circle away from the camp's tents and possessions. There, they might be relatively safe. They would be of no personal use to the soldiers, and they obviously possessed nothing beyond the rags they were wearing.

For the rest One of the three younger women fell to her knees and began praying. Within seconds, the others had all joined her.

Gretchen remained standing. What was the point of prayer? She did not fear for her soul. The abuse of her body would end, eventually. She needed only to shield her mind. Prayer provided no help for that purpose.

Blank, blank. She began emptying herself of all thoughts. Nothing. A last glimpse of Hans, marching fearfully into battle, a last flash of grief. Empty.

All that remained was sensation. Eyes open, staring at the small figures of men charging forward from the distance. Her ears heard their whooping and hollering, but her brain made nothing of the words.

Mostly, she focused on the tactile sense. Feeling with her fingers the small knife which Hans had stolen for her many months ago. The knife was hidden away in her bodice, in a sheath under her armpit which she had sewn herself. The soldiers would not look there. They would not even bother to remove the dress.

The feel of the knife brought final emptiness. As she waited, Gretchen never thought once of suicide. She would survive, if at all possible. But the knife was there, should it be needed. If the soldiers-they were nearer now, much nearer-threatened her very life. Gretchen had long ago decided she would not leave this earth without taking a devil with her into the afterlife.

***

It was the comfort of that knife, perhaps, which kept her mind blank for so many seconds after wonder appeared. Or, perhaps, it was simply the peculiarity of the wonder itself.

Gretchen had heard, once, a tale of knights in shining armor. Her grandfather had read her a story from a borrowed book. She had been ten years old. The war had just begun, and was only a rumor out of mad Bohemia. Yet even at that age, Gretchen had thought the tale was ludicrous.

She did not believe in knights. Armed and armored beasts, yes. Knights, no.

So it was hardly surprising that she found nothing strange in the four bizarrely costumed boys who raced toward her on the most bizarre-and noisy-contraptions she had ever seen. Nothing.

Devils, perhaps. She was not afraid of devils.

She fingered the knife.

Chapter 18

The first thing Jeff Higgins saw clearly, in the chaos of the camp ahead of him, was the figure of a woman. Alone, among the hundreds of people shouting and scurrying about, she was standing still. Still, silent, and very straight. Her hands were tucked under her armpits, and she was staring at him.

Jeff's motorcycle hit an unseen obstacle in the field, and he almost lost control of the bike. For a few frantic moments, he could concentrate on nothing else. Fortunately, his skill with a dirt bike was not much less than his boasts, and he kept himself from a very nasty spill.

When his eyes came up, he immediately looked for the woman.

She was still there. Still standing, still silent, and still staring at him.

There seemed to be no expression at all on her face, from what Jeff could tell at a distance. But something about her drew him like a magnet, and he steered his motorcycle toward her. Behind, his three friends followed faithfully.

Afterward, his friends would tease him about that instant reaction. But their jests were quite unfair. What drew Jeff toward her was simply that she seemed to be the one island of sanity in a world gone mad. A serene statue, towering over a horde of squealing people, scuttling through a rabbits' warren of makeshift tents and shelters.

It wasn't until he actually brought the bike to a skidding halt, not more than fifteen feet away, that he finally got a good look at the woman herself.

Goddam. She's- Goddam.

He was suddenly overwhelmed by shyness, as he always was in the presence of very pretty young women. Especially tall young women with an air of self-confidence and poise. The fact that the woman in question was wearing a dress that was not much more than a collection of sewn-together rags, was barefoot, and had a streak of dirt on her forehead, didn't matter in the least. All that registered on Jeff, and closed his throat, was the face itself. Long, blondish hair; light brown eyes; straight nose; full mouth; strong chin; and Oh God she's so lovely.

Choke.

Larry Wild's voice, coming from behind, didn't help a bit.

"Leave it to Higgins to spot her," his friend snickered. "Now watch him blow his opening line."

"Hey, lady," whispered Jimmy Anderson, loud enough to be heard in China, "you wanna see my computer? I got a really great Pentium-"

Jeff flushed. "Shut up!" he snapped, turning his head. The movement brought his eyes to bear on the Protestant soldiers they had swept past on their way to the camp. The mercenaries were much closer, now. Not more than fifty yards away and charging forward like He didn't want to think about that like. Jeff Higgins, for all his precocity, was still a small-town boy at heart. But he wasn't that innocent.

Neither were any of his friends. All three of them were turned around in their bike saddles, staring at the mercenaries pounding toward them.

"What do we do?" asked Eddie Cantrell.

"Mike said warn 'em off," muttered Larry. "But I don't think those guys are gonna listen to any warning."

Jeff brought his eyes back to the woman. She was still staring at him. Her face was totally expressionless. For all that he could tell, she hadn't moved a muscle since he first spotted her. Her mind seemed to be a complete blank. Was she mentally retarded or something?

Then-finally-Jeff noticed the women kneeling in a circle around her. Young women. All of them were babbling something. Prayers, he thought. And all of them were weeping.

His eyes rose back up and met the gaze of the standing woman. Light brown eyes. Empty eyes. Blank.

Understanding came, and with it a rage he had never felt in his life.

Over my fucking dead body!

Deliberately, slowly, he lowered the bike's kickstand and climbed off. Then he removed the shotgun slung over his shoulder. A twelve-gauge pump-action, it was, loaded with buckshot. It had belonged to his father, just like the 9mm pistol holstered to his waist.

Jeff began stalking toward the oncoming mercenaries. They were thirty yards away. He pumped a round into the chamber.

He heard Jimmy shout something about Mike, but he didn't catch the words. His ears were too full of the sound of his own rushing blood. He did hear Larry's response, and felt a moment's rush of comradeship.

"Mike can kiss my ass! Hold on, Jeff-I'm coming!"

Jeff didn't hold on. He didn't even think. When the first mercenary was fifteen yards away, he brought the shotgun to his shoulder. The mercenary stumbled to a halt. The ten or so men with him did likewise.

Jeff moved the shotgun, waving it slowly back and forth to cover the entire little crowd. Dimly, he sensed a tide of other mercenaries breaking around the knot he had stopped. They were spilling around the edges, moving toward other parts of the camp. But they were slowing, he thought. He caught a glimpse of several of them, off to the side, staring at him. One of them was reloading his arquebus. The other two were fingering their pikes.

The men in front of him were all pikemen, fortunately. They could run him down, but not before he killed several.

Then, Larry was standing at his left, his own shotgun leveled. And then, not a second later, Jimmy and Eddie were bracing him on the right. Both of them had their own shotguns up also.

Jeff heaved a sigh of relief. He had acted without thinking, on impulse. Now that some time had elapsed, he realized how insane his situation was.

Their situation, actually. Even with his three friends-even armed with pump-action shotguns-Jeff could no more have held off that mob of several hundred mercenaries than he could have stopped a stampede.

Yet He raised his head a little, taking his eye off the barrel of the shotgun, and swept his head around.

The mob was stopped.

Well… in a manner of speaking. The Protestant mercenaries had poured around the group which Jeff had halted in its tracks. The four American boys were now, for all practical purposes, surrounded. Dozens of mercenaries in the inner ring were staring at them. Others were pushing forward to look over their shoulders. Jeff had a sense that other mercenaries were starting to tear at the edges of the Catholic camp, but he wasn't certain. Everything was very chaotic.

"So what's the plan, kemo sabe?" hissed Larry.

Jeff hesitated. He had no idea what to do. He was amazed that the mercenaries hadn't already attacked them. He decided that they were simply too confused by the situation to know what to do.

So am I, for that matter.

Then, Jimmy's squeal of glee came. And then, the bellowing hoot of the first truck's air horn. And Jeff Higgins found himself fighting not to tremble.

The Seventh Cavalry had arrived, so to speak. In the proverbial nick of time.

***

The coal-hauling trucks which Mike and his men had converted into armored personnel carriers were not really off-road vehicles. But they would do well enough, on flat ground, as long as rain hadn't turned the soil into mud. The drivers were pushing their vehicles at a reckless pace, under the circumstances. It didn't help that the steel sheeting which had been welded over the cabs left them with only narrow slits to steer by.

In the cab of the lead truck, Mike was holding on for dear life. The driver had an air-cushioned seat, but all Mike had was a thinly upholstered one which provided almost no protection from the jolting ride.

The driver yanked on the cord over the door, blowing another blast through the air horn. "You want me to slow down?" he asked.

"No!" shouted Mike. He squinted through the slit in the steel plate over the window. "Damn those kids," he muttered. "Warn 'em off, I said. Instead-" An unseen furrow sent him lurching half off the seat. "They're making like Davey Crockett at the Alamo."

But for all the grousing in the words, his tone was not hostile. Not in the least.

Mike caught another glimpse of the four boys, staring down a huge mob of thugs with leveled shotguns, and felt a surge of pride.

My kids, goddamit!

"Hit that horn again," he commanded. "Just lean on it, lean on it. And step on the gas."

The ride got worse. "Where do you want me to park the truck when we get there?" asked the driver.

Mike laughed. "Don't park it at all. Just drive right into that crowd of goons and start circling the boys." Seeing the driver's frown, he laughed. "What? Are you worried about getting a ticket?"

Harshly: "I don't give a damn if you crush fifty of those bastards. Just do what I say."

He caught a glimpse of a man on horseback, floridly dressed. Ernst Hoffman. The mercenary leader was in the middle of the crowd, giving some kind of speech.

"You see him?" Mike demanded. The driver nodded. "Aim right for him. Try to run him down."

The driver looked startled. Then, seeing the grim and implacable look on Mike's face, he forbore any protest. A moment later, he even grinned.

"Yessir. One road kill coming up."

***

By the time the truck arrived, none of the mercenaries were staring at Jeff and his friends any longer. They had turned around and were gaping at the-monsters?-charging toward them.

In truth, few of those soldiers really thought the oncoming trucks were monsters. Men of their time were already accustomed to machinery and manufacture. Wagons, wheels, gears, crankshafts, glass-everything except rubber and the internal combustion engine. The Bohemian Hussites, more than a century earlier, had even developed their own version of armored personnel carriers. The machines of the time were primitive, of course, and the mercenaries wondered where the horses pulling the things were hidden. But they were still able to recognize the trucks for what they were. Vehicles, not magic beasts.

Still, the oncoming things were larger than elephants and they were charging forward faster than any vehicles those mercenaries had ever seen. As they neared, the armored cabs of the trucks loomed up like battlements.

Then the mercenaries spotted the slits in the front of the things-and the bigger slits along the steel sides-and they knew. War machines. Those slits would be spouting gunfire any moment-the same gunfire which had shattered Tilly's tercio.

They broke even faster than they had when Tilly's pikemen charged. In an instant, all thought of plunder and rapine vanished. The mercenaries were simply scrambling to get out of the way.

***

Jeff didn't start laughing until he realized what the driver of the lead truck was doing. Then, for the next several minutes, he and his friends were howling with glee. Their shotguns-on safety; they had all been well trained by their fathers and uncles-were lowered, held in loose hands.

The lead truck-and then another, and then another-were playing "tag" with Ernst Hoffman. The scene was utterly comical, for all its deadly potential. None of those truck drivers was trying to miss.

The portly mercenary leader's horse pitched him after the first truck roared past. Thereafter, Ernst Hoffman was waddling on his own. He lasted for five minutes, scampering through the torn-up fields of what had once been fertile farmland, before he collapsed from fear and exhaustion.

One truck roared up and stopped just a few feet short of crushing him. A figure clambered down from the passenger's side of the cab and stalked over to Hoffman. The mercenary leader looked like a pig, lying on his side, flanks heaving.

Even from the distance, Jeff could recognize Mike Stearns. He couldn't make out the face, but Mike's athletic stride was unmistakable. He saw Mike lean over, something glinting in his hand. It was the work of seconds to haul Hoffman's arms around to his back and put on the handcuffs.

"Yes!" shouted Jeff, his fist pumping. "My man!"

He looked around. All of the mercenaries within sight were surrendering. There had been twelve trucks in that charge. Three of them were near the Catholic camp, protecting it. The rest, except for Mike's truck, had formed a wide circle around the milling mob of Protestant soldiers. Some of the mercenaries, Jeff suspected, had managed to escape the encirclement. But most of them were lowering their weapons and raising their hands.

"A nice day's work!" exclaimed Larry. The boy-the young man, rather-was filled with elation. "Just like Mike planned. The Catholic mercenaries are whipped, and these so-called Protestant bastards-" He jeered at the huddling knots of soldiers, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing to Badenburg. Some of the surrendering soldiers were staring at the town also, obviously longing for the safety of its walls.

Too far, too far. They had been well and surely trapped.

Jeff stated the obvious. "Ernst Hoffman's reign of terror is over."

***

Then, she was there. Jeff had quite forgotten her, in the excitement of the standoff.

She didn't say anything. Her face still seemed as blank as ever. She just stared at him. Light brown eyes.

She extended her hand. Her hand was large, for a woman, and not at all delicate. The fingernails were blunt, worn short by labor. When she took Jeff's shoulder and squeezed it, he was astonished by her strength.

She spoke. Her words were a pidgin mishmash. German and heavily accented English mixed together.

"Bitte. Pliss. I muss-need he'p."

She pointed to an outhouse nearby. To Jeff, the structure looked like something out of Middle ages. Probably when it was built, too. Yuck! Thank God for plumbing.

Insistently, the woman gave his shoulder a little shake. "Pliss. Need he'p. Pliss!"

Puzzled, Jeff slung his shotgun over his shoulder and nodded. The woman led him toward the outhouse, striding quickly. Behind him, Jeff's friends followed. The cluster of older women and children huddled to one side rose and began running toward the outhouse.

What the hell is going on?

The woman ahead of him reached the outhouse first. She seized the door and practically wrenched it loose, almost snapping the leather hinges. For a moment, Jeff was dazzled by the strong, shapely figure outlined under the tattered and shapeless dress. Even the woman's dirty bare feet seemed lovely to him.

A moment later, the woman-frantically, now, no almost about it-had entered the outhouse and was lifting the wooden seat up. Wrestling with it, pitching it out the door. Jeff scuttled aside hastily, barely avoiding the horrid missile.

What the hell is she doing? Is she crazy or something?

Then, when he heard the first wail, he knew. He was so stunned, he couldn't move. Dimly, to one side, he saw Larry turn away and double up, vomiting. Behind him, he heard Eddie hiss with shock and horror. Jimmy came up alongside him, muttering. "I can't believe this, I can't believe this."

The woman bent over, extending her arms. A moment later, her back arched with effort. Effort. Effort.

Jeff saw her face turning toward him. Saw the look of silent pleading. Pliss. Need he'p.

Jimmy was still muttering. "I can't believe this. I can't believe this." Jeff was paralyzed.

The face. Pliss. Need he'p.

The breath blew out of Jeff's chest. He hadn't realized he'd been holding it. Jerkily, he scrabbled the shotgun off his shoulder and thrust it at Jimmy. "Hold this!"

An instant later, he was stepping forward. Then, seeing the straining frenzy in the face ahead of him, began running. He was at her side in seconds.

Looking over her arm, he saw the face of a young girl staring up at him from a black pit. The girl's expression combined terror and Christ, they must be suffocating in there.

Almost violently, Jeff thrust his arm into the hole. The woman crowded alongside him was holding the girl's hands. He seized the girl's wrist. Between them, heaving, they hauled the girl out in seconds. Jeff, flinching from the smell, almost threw her out the door. But he managed to transform the motion into a simple toss. The girl landed on her knees, gasping for breath. Then, almost immediately, she began vomiting alongside Larry. Her tattered dress was crawling with spiders.

Eddie and Jimmy were staring at him. Jimmy was still muttering. "I can't believe this, I can't believe this."

Angrily, Jeff pointed at the girl. "Help her, goddamit! At least get the spiders off of her!"

He didn't wait to see if they obeyed. He turned back into the outhouse and took his place alongside the woman. Another girl, another heave-out. This one didn't vomit, judging from the sounds coming from behind him. Just gasped and gasped, before breaking into sobs.

Another-out. He and the woman had the procedure down, now. Each take a wrist. Heave. Get them out of here!

Another Jeff almost lost it, then. A baby? Fortunately, the woman could handle the baby on her own. Jeff was locked into paralysis, fighting down his nausea.

Seeing another white face in the darkness-the last, thank God!-he managed to control himself. He didn't wait for the woman to return. Just bent over, seized, heaved. He drove off hideousness with humor. Coach'd be proud of me.

He did not toss the last girl out of the outhouse. Something in him rebelled, demanding that a measure of dignity be returned to a world swirling down into utter foulness. Holding the girl under the armpits, ignoring the spiders on her shoulders and the one crawling down his arm, he carried her out and set her gently on her feet.

The gesture was pointless, perhaps. The girl collapsed immediately and began retching. But Jeff still felt the better for it. He held out his arms, examining. One spider, no more. A quick flick of the fingers did for that.

Jimmy and Eddie were crowding around him. Then, backed away.

"Thanks a lot," grumbled Jeff. "Can you see any more spiders?"

After circling him for a few seconds, his friends shook their heads. Jeff was almost amused by the paleness of their faces. But not much. He didn't doubt his own face was just as pale.

He was feeling a bit giddy, now. He realized that he had been holding his breath. Trying to restore his calm, he turned his head back and forth, examining the scene around him.

The area was now packed with Americans. Two of the coal-hauling trucks had pulled up near the outhouse and disgorged the miners who had been inside manning the rifle slits. Other Americans had begun to arrive in pickups. All of them were being drawn by the commotion at the outhouse.

A young man pushed forward from the crowd. Harry Lefferts. His camouflage was bulked up in his midsection by the bandages he was still wearing from the first day's gunfight. He held his rifle in one hand, muzzle pointing to the ground.

"I can't believe this shit," muttered Harry. He shook his head, turned it, fixed his eyes on a German prisoner standing a few feet away. The man had his hands raised, clasped on top of his head.

"Little girls'd rather hide in a shithouse than deal with these fuckheads." Harry gave the German prisoner a very savage grin. "Go ahead, asshole!" he shouted, hefting his rifle. "Look at me cross-eyed, why don't you? Spit on the ground. Anything. Just give me an excuse so's I can blow your fucking brains out!"

The German obviously didn't understand the words. But, just as obviously, he understood the essence of them. He kept his hands firmly clasped on top of his head, and kept his eyes carefully away from Harry.

Smart move, thought Jeff. He looked around. All the German soldiers were now behaving as meekly as lambs. Harry's reaction to seeing the girls being hauled out of the outhouse was fairly typical. Many of the coal miners were taking the opportunity to express their opinion of Hoffman's mercenaries-usually right in their faces, obviously quite prepared to shoot if anyone gave them any trouble.

Trouble, needless to say, was conspicuously absent. The prisoners were thoroughly intimidated.

Mike Stearns arrived then. After hearing a quick muttered explanation from Harry, Mike walked over to the group of girls and stared at them. The girls were still on their knees, but they were not vomiting anymore. Jeff didn't think there was anything left to vomit. Just four girls, gasping for breath. Old women surrounded them, still brushing off spiders.

Jeff was standing close enough to hear Mike's whisper. "They can't be more than thirteen years old." His face was as pale as a sheet. Mike's faint freckles were normally almost invisible. Now, they shone like stars in the sky. Red stars. Antares-and Mars. Jeff could sense the big man's effort to control his temper.

Hearing the whisper, the young woman whom Jeff had helped stared up at Mike's face. She seemed to flinch, for an instant. Then, rising, she stood straight before him. Hands at her side, back stiff, shoulders square.

She was shielding her family again, Jeff realized. From the blows she expected to come from Mike. He saw her turn her face aside. Still level, but presenting the cheek.

Mike understood also. "Jesus Christ," he whispered. "What a nightmare world." He started to raise his hand, as if to comfort the young woman, but dropped it. The gesture seemed feeble, helpless. What can you do? Say?

***

The leader of the strangers came up just as Gretchen and her family were cleaning the last spiders off of the girls. Gretchen was so relieved to see that all of them were unharmed-filthy, yes, but unharmed-that she never noticed his arrival. Not until he was standing right next to her and whispered something did she realize that he was there.

Startled, she looked up. Then, when she saw his face, she stood erect.

She recognized the leader. He was the one who had captured the Protestant chieftain. He was even bigger, up close, than she had realized. Not as big as Ludwig, but This man could have broken Ludwig in half.

Gretchen didn't doubt that for a moment. The American leader was the scariest man she had ever seen in her life. Much scarier-much scarier-than even Diego the Spaniard.

It was not so much the sheer size of the man-not even when that size contained nothing but bone and muscle-as he himself. He loomed above her like something out of old legends. She barely noticed the mottled clothing and the odd helmet. (Why put a lamp on a helmet?)

She saw only the face, and the anger in it, and knew the ancient warriors of Teuton myths.

Gretchen assumed that the leader was angry at her and her family. The Protestant soldiers also, of course. But mostly she. Because of her, some of his newly captured women were so foul no man would touch them. Not even soldiers.

She felt herself cringing, and fought it down. Cringing before men only fed the flames. She turned her head, bracing herself for the beating. She knew from experience that a blow on the cheek was the easiest to handle.

But the man simply turned away. He muttered something to the young man who had helped her. The young man nodded and turned toward Gretchen. She realized that the leader had instructed him to watch over her.

She glanced around. The victors' camp followers were arriving. She was astonished to see a Moorish physician in their midst. Only powerful people could afford Moorish or Jewish doctors. Then she saw two or three women moving through the camp, and was astonished again. Each of them was wearing a white armband with a red cross emblazoned on it. A religious order, apparently. Gretchen almost laughed. The piety of the insignia went very poorly, she thought, with those brazen bare calves. One of the women had a dress so short it showed her knees!

Then, another thought drove out all humor. She turned, looking for help from the same man who had provided it twice already. The man who had helped save her, and her sister, might help her save her brother. If Hans could be saved at all.

***

"Mein bruder. Hans." The woman pointed toward the battlefield. Jeff, looking, saw that the distant field was now covered with people, moving slowly through He swallowed. There were so many bodies there. So many.

"Pliss," she repeated. "Mein-my-brutter. Hans."

Eddie Cantrell spoke hesitantly. "I think she's looking for her brother, Jeff."

Jeff looked back at the woman. She was not much shorter than he was, he thought. At least, her eyes seemed very level. Light brown eyes.

"Pliss."

"Sure, ma'am," he replied. "I'll be glad to help you look for your brother."

***

He ignored the chuckles, as he and the woman walked away. With great dignity, he thought. He even managed to ignore Larry's parting remark.

"See? That's an opening line, stupe. Flowers'll work, too." Then, half-shouting: "Beats the last stand at the Alamo, you crazy jerk!"

Chapter 19

As soon as Mike left Jeff and the young German women, he headed for Nichols. The doctor was moving through the crowd of frightened camp followers, quickly inspecting the women and children to see which might need immediate medical attention.

"James!" called out Mike. The doctor turned. Mike reached him in a few quick strides.

"I think you should look at those people first," he said, indicating the cluster of people by the outhouse. He gave Nichols a quick explanation.

The doctor winced. "In there? Jesus Christ almighty. What kind of a world-"

Nichols broke off. "They should be all right, if they haven't been bitten by the wrong kind of spiders. Lucky they didn't suffocate, though. And you're right, Mike-we need to get them to the sanitation center right away. I'll see that they get first priority."

"I already told Jeff and his friends to look after them," Mike explained. "So you can have them escort the girls-the whole family-to the school." Mike glanced back over his shoulder. Seeing the way Jeff was staring at the tall young blonde, Mike's spirits lifted. The sight of a young man so obviously dazzled by a young woman was quite refreshing. Innocence and sanity blooming in a field of lust and murder.

Nichols was observing the same tableau. He grinned. "From the looks of things, I'd have to pry him loose with a crowbar."

He began walking toward them. "I'll take care of it, Mike." James pointed into the distance, back toward the original American lines. His grin widened. "Rebecca's here, by the way. Speaking of prying people loose with a crowbar."

"Rebecca!" Mike spun around, staring in that direction. "What in the hell is she doing here?" For a moment, he began to charge off. Then, guiltily remembering his responsibilities, he forced himself to turn back.

For the next ten minutes, while he organized the disposition of the surrendered Protestant soldiers, Mike's mind was only half on his task. Half, at best. He was fretting over Rebecca.

What is that crazy woman doing on a battlefield?!

Fortunately for him, Harry Lefferts and Tom Simpson cheerfully took on themselves the nitty-gritty work. Between Harry's savage grin (go ahead, Kraut-make my day) and Tom's sheer size and extravagant musculature (yeah, go ahead-I need an arm bone to pick my teeth), Hoffman's mercenaries were quickly rounded up and organized into a column. Hands carefully placed atop their heads, eyes front, meek as could be.

Then Frank showed up, along with Lennox-Frank in his pickup and Lennox on his horse.

Lennox spoke first. "We've got t'Catholics neatly tied oop," he announced complacently. "Mackay's seeing to t'last o' t'strays. 'E'll be coomin' in a minute." Mustachioes bristled. "T'en we'll march this lot into Badenburg an' put'm under guard. Don' expect no trooble."

Frank had his arm perched on the open window of the truck. He was studying Mike with half-quizzical/half-amused eyes.

"Oh, why don't you cut the act?" he chortled. He hooked his thumb toward Grantville. "Just go see the lady, Mike. Lennox and I can handle the rest of this business."

Mike glowered. "What's she doing here?" he demanded. "She could have gotten hurt! She's got no business-"

"Are you that stupid?" snapped Frank. "She's worried sick about you, what do you think? You're the one went marching into battle, not her." Frank snorted. "She isn't alone, either. Half the women in town showed up, looking for their fathers and sons and husbands and boyfriends. Did you think they were going to stay home, waiting for a telegram-with a battle being fought practically on their doorstep?"

"Oh." Mike stared into the distance, looking for the log parapet. The parapet itself was not visible, but the small knoll where Ferrara had positioned his rockets made the location obvious. To his surprise, he saw that the knoll was now covered with people. American women and children, he realized, anxiously trying to spot their menfolk in the field below.

He winced, remembering the carnage on that field. None of the bodies were American, but the sight was nothing he wanted to inflict on children. He'd had a hard enough time with it himself.

"I guess I'd better get over there," he muttered. "Reassure everybody."

Frank grinned. "Yeah, guess so." He got out of the vehicle. "Here-take my truck. I can't bear to think of you tripping and falling all the way back. Fast as you'll be running and paying no attention to where you're going."

Mike was already at the wheel. "Do try not to wreck the thing, willya? It's only two years old-" Off with a roar, fishtailing in the dirt. Frank sighed. "So much for the paint job. Not to mention the shock absorbers."

***

Mike spotted Rebecca easily. She was standing on top of the parapet, balanced precariously, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. When she spotted the oncoming truck, her scrutiny focused on it. As soon as she was sure that Mike was the driver, she hopped off the parapet and began running toward him.

Mike brought the truck to a halt and climbed out. Not far away, to his left, was a scene of sheer ghastliness. Americans with medical experience, led by Doctor Adams, were picking their way through the battlefield looking for survivors. Mackay and his Scots, meanwhile, had organized the Catholic prisoners to start burying the corpses. But there were so many torn and ruptured bodies. The soil was literally soaked with blood. Flies swarmed everywhere.

But he had no eyes for that. Just for the figure of a woman, running. He had never seen her run before. For all the cumbersome nature of the long skirt, Mike was struck by the grace of her movements. He always thought of Rebecca as stately, because of the quiet poise with which she stood, walked, sat. Some part of him, finally erupting, realized that he was seeing her for the first time. His heart felt like it might burst.

Rebecca came to a halt a few feet away. She was breathing heavily. Her bonnet had fallen off, somewhere along the way. The long, black, very curly hair hung loose. A mass of glossy splendor. Her face glistened with a slight sheen of sweat, shining like gold in the sunlight that was beginning to break through the clouds.

"I was so afraid," she whispered. "Michael-"

He stepped toward her, extending a hand. The gesture was tentative, almost timid. Her own fingers slid into his palm. There they stood, for a few seconds, saying nothing. Then, so fiercely Mike almost lost his breath, Rebecca was clasping him in an embrace. Her face was buried in his chest. He could feel her heaving against him, and hear the quick sobs, and sense the tears starting to moisten his shirt.

He placed his hands on her shoulders. Gently, stroking. He felt the firm flesh under his hands, separated by nothing more than a thin layer of cloth. He could feel most of her body, she was pressed so closely. Breasts, belly, arms, shoulders, hips, thighs.

They had never touched before, except her hand on his arm during their daily walks. The passion that poured over him drove every other emotion away. Anger and horror and fear-the residue of battle-were like footprints obliterated by a wave. Paw prints. His arms enfolded her, drawing her more closely still.

Her hair was beautiful. Long, black, glossy, curly. He was kissing it fiercely. Then, gently but insistently, he nuzzled the side of her head. When her face came up-so quickly-he transferred the kiss to her lips. Full, rich, soft-eager. As eager as his own.

How long that kiss lasted-that first kiss-neither of them ever knew. As long as it took, before the cheers of the crowd startled them back to awareness.

"Oh," said Rebecca. She craned her neck, looking at the sea of grinning faces standing on the knoll nearby. Watching them. Cheering them. For a moment, Mike thought she was about to bury her face back into his shoulder. Trying to avoid that public exposure. But she didn't. She flushed, yes. But nothing more.

"Oh," she repeated. Then, smiling, she raised her lips again. "It is done," she whispered. "And I am so happy for it."

"Me too," Mike said. Mumbled, rather. Rebecca wasn't letting him get a word out. Not for some time. And he was so happy for it.

Chapter 20

The first one she found was Diego. Gretchen had known the Spaniard was incredibly tough, but even she was impressed. Despite his terrible wounds, Diego had managed to crawl forty yards from the front line where he was struck down.

He was even still conscious. "Give me water," he whispered, when she knelt by his side. He was lying on his back, his arms holding in his intestines.

Diego's eyes opened. They were not much more than narrow slits. "And get me my woman. Where is that stupid bitch?"

Gretchen raised her head and studied the scene around her. The battlefield was littered with bodies, especially where the tercio's front lines had been. Half of them, it seemed, were still alive. Men were moaning, groaning; a few were screaming.

Men, and now a few women, were moving through the field, inspecting the bodies. The men were all garbed in that peculiar mottled clothing which the boy near her was wearing. The women wore white.

Gretchen watched them long enough to make sure she understood their purpose. They were not killing the survivors, she saw. They were apparently trying to save the ones who might still survive. Even now, she could see several small teams of people carrying wounded men away on litters.

That might be good news. If Hans She pushed aside, for a moment, her fears and concerns for her brother. There was Diego to deal with, for the moment. And for that, the people around her might pose a problem.

Diego's spoke again, in a hoarse whisper. "Water, you fucking cunt. Are you deaf?"

Gretchen examined the Spaniard's wounds. She did not think that even Diego could survive them. But she was not certain.

Again, she studied the people around her. None of them were very close, except She turned her head and looked up at the boy she had asked to accompany her to the field. Almost like a cherub, he seemed, for all his size. The boy was tall, his body was on the heavy side-lots of fat there-and his round face was very earnest. An innocent face, with its plump cheeks and blunt nose. Almost a silly-looking face, with those peculiar spectacles. Gretchen had seen spectacles before, but only on rich old men. Never on a young man-and certainly never on a field of battle.

The boy's eyes, magnified through those lenses, were a very bright green. Healthy eyes. They were the one thing about the boy which did not seem childish in the least. Gretchen remembered the light which had flamed in those eyes, earlier, and the anger with which he had marched to confront the mercenaries.

A courageous boy, then. Perhaps now, also. And if not- Perhaps he was simply an innocent. Stupid, in the way such people are. She could remember, barely, being that stupid herself. Two years ago. A lifetime ago.

"Pliss," she said, mustering what little English she had picked up from some of the mercenaries. "Look-" She hesitated, trying to think of the word. Then, remembered. "Away."

He stared at her. "Look away," she repeated. Pleading: "Pliss."

She sighed. He obviously did not understand. His plump face was simply confused. Innocent, unknowing. Gretchen studied his eyes, and decided she had no choice but to trust them.

"Water!" hissed Diego. "And get me my bitch!"

Gretchen nodded to the wounded Spaniard next to whom she was kneeling. "He hurt-" She groped, trying to think of the future tense. Yes. "He will hurt mein Schwester."

The boy frowned. Clearly, the words meant nothing to him. Again, Gretchen groped for the English term. Not finding it, she tried circumlocution: "Mein-my female Bruder."

His eyes widened. "Your sister?"

That was the word! Gretchen nodded. She drew the knife from her bodice. "Pliss. Look away."

The eyes widened still further. Very green they were. She realized they would be, even without the spectacles. The boy's heavy-lipped mouth opened, as if to speak a protest. Or a command.

But, after a moment, the lips closed. The boy stared at her.

"Water, you fucking cunt," said Diego. He added some words in Spanish, but Gretchen did not understand any of them except puta.

Apparently, the boy did. His face flushed with anger. Or, perhaps, it was simply that he was not so innocent after all.

Suddenly, he came down on one knee, looming over them. He leaned forward. In an instant, Gretchen realized that he was shielding her from the eyes of the other people on the field.

He said something in English, but she didn't understand the words. There was no need. His eyes were enough.

Gretchen had slaughtered animals since she was five years old. Diego took no more time than a chicken. The little knife slit the carotid artery as neatly as a razor. Blood started pumping onto the ground on the opposite side from where she was kneeling. Not a drop spilled on her. She was an experienced animal-slaughterer.

Diego was very tough. So, to be sure, Gretchen also drove the knife all the way into his ear. Then, for three or four seconds, she twisted the three-inch blade back and forth in his brains. Diego was not that tough. Not even the Satan who sired him was that tough.

When she was finished, she took the time to clean the blade on the Spaniard's sleeve before slipping it back into her bodice.

Killing Diego had pleased her immensely. Yet, oddly, she was even more pleased with the boy. He had said nothing, throughout. But his eyes had never looked away. Not once.

Healthy eyes. Very bright, very green. Gretchen decided the spectacles were actually rather charming.

She rose. One necessity accomplished, another remained. Perhaps two.

***

Only one, as it happened. Ludwig was already dead. Even his huge torso had been torn into shreds by the powerful guns of the strange men in their mottled clothing.

Gretchen stared down at him. She had been half hoping Ludwig would still be alive, so that she could have the pleasure of killing the man who had murdered her father and subjected her to two years of rape. For a moment, she was consumed by pure hatred.

Then she spotted the little arm-a third arm?-protruding from beneath the great gross body of Ludwig, and hatred was driven away by hope. Maybe, for the first and last time in his life, Ludwig had been good for something.

The boy helped her lever Ludwig's body aside. Beneath, like a kitten under a lion, lay her brother Hans. And he was still alive.

Barely alive. But alive.

As she rolled Ludwig off, Gretchen had seen the great wounds in his back. The strangers' gun-whatever that weapon had been with its horrifying dragon's stutter-had been powerful enough to shoot right through Ludwig and his armor and strike her brother standing behind. But apparently the bullets had been deflected enough, and lost enough of their force, that her brother's wounds were not instantly fatal.

Gretchen knelt by Hans and cut the straps holding his cheap cuirass. Then, as gently as she could, she probed his wounds with her fingers. The momentary surge of hope faded as quickly as it had come. At least one of the bullets had penetrated his chest wall. Even if it could be removed-she would try her best, with her little knife-the wound would almost certainly become infected with disease. She knew that disease. Men rarely survived it, even men much stronger than her spindly little brother.

Her eyes filled with tears, remembering Hans and his spindly little life. Remembering how hard he had always tried, cast into a world for which he was not suited in the least. He had been a studious boy, in love with books, and eager to follow his father into the printer's trade. He had often joked with Gretchen, telling her that if there were any rhyme or reason in the world she should have been the one in the family carrying a pike. Big, strong, tough Gretchen.

Through the tears, and the sorrow, and the hopelessness, Gretchen heard the strange boy's voice shouting something. He was not shouting at her, but at someone farther away. Her English was really very poor. The only word she understood was the last one, repeated and repeated. Over and again.

Now! Now! Now! Now!

Moments later, she heard the sound of clumping feet, rushing toward them. She raised her head and wiped away the tears. Two men were coming, followed very closely by a woman in white.

Then her eyes spotted what the men were carrying, and all other thoughts were driven aside. A stretcher. A thing used only, in her experience on many battlefields, to carry away the men who might be saved.

Startled, she looked up at the boy standing beside her. He was staring down at her. His face did not seem so young, anymore. Or perhaps it was simply his eyes. Green, clear, healthy eyes. There was promise in those eyes.

Chapter 21

After Hans was taken away, Gretchen was torn by indecision. A part of her wanted nothing so much as to accompany her brother, wherever the strangers were taking him. But she still had the rest of her family to look after. They would be relying on her, as always.

The boy made the decision for her. His eyes, rather. She decided she would trust those eyes again.

The boy was not showing any sign that he wanted to leave her. Quite the opposite. Everything in his posture indicated a kind of shy, uncertain, hesitant possessiveness.

Gretchen spent a minute or so thinking about that possessiveness, before she made her decision. The decision came easily enough. She did not really have a choice, anyway, except a choice between different evils. And She liked his eyes. That was something. The rest could be endured, easily enough. Anything could be endured, easily enough, after Ludwig.

The boy Stop. She forced her mind onto a different path.

"Was ist-" Damned English! "What iss ihre-you name?" She pronounced it in the German way: nam-uh.

He understood the question at once. "Jeff Higgins."

So. He is as intelligent as his eyes.

That, too, was a good sign. With intelligence there might also be humor. Good humor. Ludwig's intelligence had been that of a pig. His humor had reminded her of pig shit.

She pronounced the name a few times, until she was certain she had it right. Jeff Higgins. Jeff Higgins. Men-young men, especially-became sullen if you mispronounced their names. Gretchen could not afford any such obstacles. Not now, not here.

Not ever. For two years, Gretchen's life and that of her family had hung by the slenderest thread. But Gretchen had always been self-confident, even as a little girl. So long as there was a thread, she would hold it in a sure and capable grip.

She tucked her hand under his arm and began leading him back to the camp where her family waited. She tried not to make it too obvious. Men resented being led by women.

But the boy-stop; Jeff-didn't seem to mind at all. Soon, to her surprise, he even became very chatty. Fumbling with words, trying to find some mishmash language they could both speak. She was interested to note than he seemed more concerned with learning some German words than with teaching her English.

By the time they reached the camp, Gretchen was almost at ease.

This will not be so bad, she decided. He will be heavy, of course, as big and plump as he is. So what? Ludwig was like an ox.

Then, shouting and threading their way through the chaos of the camp-the people were no longer shrieking with fear, but they were still very confused-three boys came running up.

Young men. Stupid woman. Not boys.

Gretchen recognized them. They were the three young men who had been with Jeff, and had stood by his side when he confronted the Protestant mercenaries. As soon as they arrived, Jeff and his friends began bantering. Gretchen could not follow the conversation, except for a few words here and there. But she quickly understood the heart of it. They were teasing him about his new woman, and he was responding.

She relaxed still further. The teasing was gay, not coarse. Almost innocent, in a way. And Jeff's response was Shy, uncertain. Fumbling and awkward and embarrassed. But most of all, proud. Very, very proud.

Gretchen studied that pride, what she could sense of it under the unknown words. She was accustomed to foreign languages-a mercenary army was a veritable Tower of Babel-and was quite proficient at separating meaning from its verbal sheath.

She relaxed. Ludwig had been proud of her. Like a pig farmer might boast of his sow. There was something else here. Something-fresh. Clean, perhaps.

A sudden image came to her, from a world she had long forgotten. A world she had banished from her mind. She remembered an evening, in her father's house, when he had been standing by the fireplace. Warming his hands, while her mother placed the food on the table. Her father had turned his head, and watched. Gretchen had been sixteen years old. Only four years ago, she realized. A lifetime ago.

Pride, in her father's eyes. Clear, shining, healthy eyes, full of possessiveness. A possessiveness so gentle, and so warm, that it had seemed to light the house more than the flames themselves.

To her shock, Gretchen found herself bursting into tears. Trembling like a leaf. She fought desperately for control.

Stop! He will be annoyed! Men do not like-

Arms came around her, drawing her close. A hand pressed her face into a shoulder. Like a child, unthinking, she wrapped her arms around the body and squeezed it tight. She sobbed and sobbed, feeling, all the while, the muscle under the fat and the bone under the muscle. Feeling-so strange-the sharp edge of the spectacles against her skull. Hearing the whispers and not understanding a word.

There was no need for words. Meaning, from its sheath, was all that mattered.

When she was done, finally, she drew her head away. Her eyes met his. Light brown; light green.

Not so bad at all.

Chapter 22

The first thing Gretchen's grandmother said, upon being informed that they were standing before a school, was:

"Nonsense!"

The stooped old woman peered up suspiciously at the young man standing next to Gretchen. He was holding a sheet of paper in his hands. "He's lying to you," Gramma pronounced. She spoke with the utter certainty of her age and wisdom.

Gramma twisted her head, studying what she could see of the huge structure. "There are not enough noble children in all of Germany for a school this big. He is lying to you."

Gretchen was uncertain herself. She didn't think Jeff was lying to her. She barely knew the man, true, but a glance at his open face reassured her. Whatever vices and wickedness that face shielded, Gretchen did not believe for a moment that a capacity for cold-blooded dissemblance was among them.

Still There wasn't any logical reason for a school this big. At least, she hoped not. A thousand noble children at a time? That was the number Jeff had stated, proudly, in his stumbling German/English pidgin. Could there be that many, even in the entire Holy Roman Empire?

Gretchen almost shuddered. Her one faint hope, over the past years, had been that if enough noblemen killed themselves off the war might someday end. But if there were a thousand more ready to take their fathers' places She took a closer look at the sheet of paper in Jeff's hand. All of his friends held one just like it. So did the old woman who had emerged to greet them when they neared the school and handed the papers to the young men.

Gretchen studied the old woman. A baroness, at the very least. Possibly even a duchess.

To some degree, Gretchen's assessment was based on the woman's clothing. The apparel was simple in its odd and almost scandalous design, but it was very well made and of some unfamiliar fabric that practically shrieked: king's ransom. Mostly, however, Gretchen's conclusion was dictated by the woman herself.

No other women she knew could reach that advanced age without having long since been turned into crones by endless labor, deprivation and abuse. When she first saw the woman, Gretchen had thought her to be not much older than thirty, despite the gray hair. But the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth were those of a much older woman. Forty-five years old, perhaps even fifty. Almost the age of stooped and withered Gramma.

A duchess. The woman was as tall as Gretchen herself. She stood straight, without a trace of stooping. Everything about her blazed health and vigor. Behind her spectacles, the duchess' hazel eyes were as clear and bright as a young woman's.

Then-there was the self-confidence in her stance. Her posture, her bearing, even the way she held her head-all of them announced to the world in no uncertain terms: I am somebody important. Valuable. Precious. Good blood.

Gretchen looked away. Again, her eyes fell on the sheet of paper. It was covered with printed words.

She extended her hand hesitantly. "Pleez? Can I?"

Jeff was startled. But he made no protest when Gretchen took the paper out of his hand.

It took her no more than ten seconds to understand what she was looking at. Almost all of that lost time was simply due to the unfamiliar style of print.

How clever!

It was a miniature dictionary. Gretchen's father had published dictionaries, now and again. Great huge monstrous things. But this was simply one sheet, containing simple phrases in English and their German equivalent. The spelling of the words, of course, was not always what Gretchen was accustomed to, but that meant nothing. In her day, no languages had standardized spelling. Her father had often complained about the problem.

She spotted the one phrase immediately. Oh yes!

So there would be no misunderstanding, Gretchen moved next to Jeff and pointed to the phrase with her finger while she spoke the words.

"Would… you… like… some… food?" Her head began nodding up and down. "Ja! Ja!"

Immediately, Jeff's face was distressed. She saw him glance at the enormous stretch of windows covering the near wall of the building. Gretchen followed his gaze. She was impressed, again, by the sheer size of those windows. Inside the room beyond, she suddenly noticed that a few people were carrying trays to a table. Food!

She had not eaten in two days. And then, only some bread which Ludwig had plundered from a farmhouse. He had not left much, to be divided among the women and children. Hans had offered to share his small portion of food, but Gretchen had refused. Her brother needed to be strong enough to survive battles.

Jeff was looking very distressed. When he saw that the old duchess was marching toward them, his face sagged a little from relief.

There was a quick exchange of words between Jeff and the duchess. Gretchen's English was improving rapidly-she had picked up much more than she realized from some of the English-speaking mercenaries in Tilly's army-but she was still not able to follow an entire conversation. Only bits and pieces:

Jeff: "-starving, Miz Mailey." Odd name for a duchess.

The duchess: "Oh God," how easily they blasphemed! "-of me-didn't think." The duchess slapped her head with a hand, the way a person admits a stupid deed. Gretchen was astonished by the gesture. A duchess? In public? Before commoners? "I'm an idiot!" Gretchen's jaw sagged.

Jeff: "-we do?"

The duchess sighed, shook her head. Her own face was looking very distressed. "-have no-" Gretchen didn't quite catch the last word. Choice?

Again, the duchess shook her head. The distress was still evident, but it was overlain by determination. The royal assurance in her face was unshakable. Absolute. Despite her hatred for nobility, Gretchen was impressed. This was a woman for whom decisions-authority-came as naturally as breathing.

The duchess stared at Gretchen for a few seconds. There was no haughtiness in that expression, simply What?

When Gretchen finally realized, she was as stunned as she had ever been in her life. Not even the friendly (no-comradely) way in which the duchess took her arm and began leading her toward another building was as overpowering as that first moment of shock.

To her grave, Gretchen would carry the memory. Those royal-imperial-hazel eyes. The eyes of an elderly and powerful woman, shining bright with health and self-confidence-and, now, full of recognition. Friendliness also, yes; that, and kindness. But Gretchen had occasionally-not often-encountered a certain Christian charity, even among the powerful. And so? Peasants, too, could be kindly toward their livestock.

Never recognition. Never once. For the first time in her life, one of the world's mighty had gazed upon Gretchen Richter, and seen nothing but another human being.

***

Gretchen did not understand clearly any of the phrases which the duchess spoke as she led her toward the other building. She was only able to grasp the essence of the matter. The duchess seemed much concerned with disease.

Gretchen's entire extended family followed them, as did Jeff and his three friends. They were walking on a peculiar black substance which seemed to cover most of the area outside the buildings themselves. The substance served the same purpose as cobblestones, but it was wondrously flat. Gretchen thought the warm and gritty feel of it under her bare feet was marvelous.

She was puzzled, at first, by the big yellow lines which were painted all over the main expanse of the black stuff. What could be the purpose of that checkerboard pattern? Then, seeing the position of the few vehicles in the area, she realized that the yellow lines were to guide them to rest. Most of the yellow-outlined rectangles were empty. They stretched and stretched for yards and yards.

They own so many vehicles? To need that much space? These people are so rich!

She turned her head and glanced back at Jeff. He had been watching her, she realized. He met her eyes for an instant only, before looking away. Awkwardly, he hitched the sling holding his arquebus a little higher on his shoulder.

So shy. He's nothing but a young soldier, I'm sure of it. But he seems to take all this for granted. So he must be rich, too.

She turned her head back, facing front. Squared her shoulders and marched forward alongside the strange duchess. Heading toward a mysterious future she could not see, but with a fierce determination to bring her family through that storm intact. As intact as possible, at least. Whatever was necessary.

The duchess led them around the building. There, appended to the back, was a long edifice whose roof and walls were made of some unknown substance. Very shiny, almost like metal. But there was something soft-looking about the stuff. It was colored a light green, and Gretchen thought it was almost translucent. She was reminded, a bit, of the tinted glass in cathedrals.

For all the peculiarity of the design and the material, Gretchen knew at once that the edifice had been very recently constructed. The flimsy-looking metal pipes which protruded out of the building and ran off into the distance were still shiny, untarnished by time and weather.

The duchess led them to a small door in the side of the edifice. She opened the door and waved Gretchen forward into the room beyond. The duchess herself remained standing by the door. She seemed to be examining the other members of Gretchen's family as they obediently trooped through the entrance. Three of them she stopped with a gesture of her hand and motioned aside. Uncertainly, but obeying, the three boys stepped back. They were the three oldest boys in the group. All of them were past puberty-not by much-and all were laden with bundles carrying what little the family possessed beyond clothing.

When the rest of the family had entered, the duchess gestured toward the three boys and said something to Jeff and his friends. They, too, had remained outside. Jeff nodded and beckoned the three boys to follow him. He pointed somewhere down the edifice. Toward the other side, possibly.

Immediately, realizing what was happening, the women in the room began shrieking. All except Gretchen. Their words were not a protest-women of their station did not protest anything-so much as a simple wail of anguish.

Gretchen almost joined that squawling bedlam. Almost. But something in the duchess' expression closed her throat. The duchess' mouth was wide open. Her face registered nothing beyond incomprehension and shock.

In an instant, Gretchen realized the truth.

She has no idea what we are afraid of. None! She simply… doesn't understand. How can anyone in this world be so innocent?

But it was true. She had no doubt of it. The image came to her mind, of a young man's green eyes, magnified by spectacles. She remembered those eyes. She had seen fury flaming in them, once, before he stepped forward to face a pack of beasts. Alone. With a strange and powerful weapon, yes, but still alone. Until his friends joined him, not hesitating for longer than a moment.

Gretchen stared through the open door. That same young man was still there. Staring back at her. His mouth, like that of the duchess, was gaping wide listening to the howls of women and children. Gretchen studied his lips. A boy's lips still, plump and soft.

Gretchen knew, then. Knew! Held-in breath erupted.

She had left behind the world of murder, and entered a new land. There were killers in this land, yes, fierce and terrible ones-Oh yes! God still sits in Heaven!-but no murderers.

Before she turned away, to take charge of her family, Gretchen's own light brown eyes shone a message at green ones. He would not understand, of course. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. But she wanted to make that promise anyway.

Gretchen had already decided to become his concubine. Now, she would be his woman also. A man barely past boyhood would get something no man ever had. Certainly not Ludwig.

She turned away and took command.

"Silence!"

Gretchen's bellow almost shook the walls. Instantly, all the children in the room closed their mouths. Snapped them shut. The women also, except the new farm girl. Gretchen sent her sprawling with a buffet. "Silence!" The new girl, landing on her rump, gaped up at her. The mark of Gretchen's hand flamed large and red across her cheek. But she was silent.

Gretchen turned back to the duchess. The woman's mouth was still wide. But the shock, Gretchen realized, had now been caused by her own action.

What? Has she never disciplined a child?

The duchess closed her mouth. Shook her head. The motion was quick, abrupt-a gesture, not of someone denouncing an action but simply trying to clear her mind of confusion.

Understanding that confusion, now, Gretchen haltingly tried to explain. The duchess was very intelligent. It did not take her more than a minute, even with the difficulty of the language barrier, to finally comprehend.

The duchess' eyes widened. Her pale face grew paler still. But she nodded, and turned her head. A few feet away, Jeff and his friends stood waiting. Huddled next to the door, almost at the duchess' feet, the three oldest boys of Gretchen's family were squatting down, staring up at her. Their faces were blank with terror. Numb, knowing death had finally come.

The duchess rattled off a string of sentences in English. She spoke too fast for Gretchen to follow. By the time the duchess finished speaking, the faces of Jeff and his friends were as pale as her own. They stared down at the three huddled boys. One of Jeff's friends touched the weapon slung over his shoulder, like a man might reassure himself that a house pet had not been transformed into a serpent.

The duchess barked another phrase, ringing with authority. Gretchen caught only the last two words.

"-do it!"

Gretchen found it hard not to grin, seeing the haste with which Jeff and his friends obeyed the duchess. Well, no wonder. I bet she never has to slap a child. Not her!

Almost frantically, Jeff and his friends unslung the weapons on their shoulders and leaned them against the wall of the nearby building. A moment later, they had unbuckled the pistols and laid them down on the ground.

Gretchen stepped up to the door and addressed the three boys. "Follow them," she commanded, pointing to Jeff and his friends. "Do whatever they say. Understand?"

The boys stared up at her. Gretchen scowled and raised her hand. "Now!"

The boys scrambled to their feet. As confused and terrified as they were, that familiar voice cut through everything like a knife. They were not afraid of Gretchen, exactly. But nobody-no child or woman in the family, at least-would ever dream of disobeying her. They knew that large hand well, and everything behind it. The hand was hard. The muscles which wielded it were not much softer. But, most of all, the will which commanded the muscles was like iron itself. A steel angel, forged in the Devil's inferno.

Satisfied, Gretchen turned away. "It will be done," she told the duchess. "Lead us where you will."

***

There were still problems, of course, in the time which followed. The women squawled again, when the duchess ordered them to remove their clothing.

It's all we have! We own nothing else!

Gretchen silenced them with a bellow.

The duchess ordered them to place the clothing into large, metal baskets. Then, to push the baskets through a low door. Beyond, as best as Gretchen could understand, the clothes would be boiled and cleaned before they were returned.

The women squawled again.

They will be stolen!

Gretchen bellowed again. It was not enough. She raised her hand. But the duchess stopped her with her own, shaking her head. A moment later, the duchess began to remove her own clothing.

That wondrous act brought silence. The family stared, as nobility disrobed. The duchess did not linger over the task. Gretchen was surprised to see how quickly and easily the garments were removed. She would have thought a duchess needed maidservants.

She was even more surprised by the body which was revealed, once the duchess was naked. An old woman, yes. But if the breasts sagged, they were not withered dugs. If the buttocks were no longer firm and plump, they were still buttocks. And everywhere-arms and shoulders and legs and midsection and hips-the muscles were lean, almost taut. The duchess' body, for all its signs of age, seemed to vibrate with health. If she were a man, Gretchen knew, she would find that body desirable still.

The duchess carried her clothing to one of the baskets. For a moment, she seemed to hesitate. Then, with a wry little smile and a shrug of the shoulders, she pitched the royal garments onto the rags of destitution. She turned away and marched toward a further door, waving her hand in a gesture of command. Pushing the door open, she entered a room whose floor was tiled.

***

Thereafter, there was no further squawling.

Squeals, yes, when the duchess turned a knob and hot water began showering down upon the family.

Moans of fear, yes. When the duchess passed out bars of-soap?-and began demonstrating their use. The Inquisition will think we are Jews! We will be burned!

Blubbers of confusion, yes. When the duchess insisted that they scrub their hair with some harsh and caustic substance. It would kill fleas, apparently. Such, at least, was how Gretchen interpreted her words.

But no squawls. Gretchen was forced to bellow only once. That was to stop three of the children from their gleeful play, squeezing bars of soap at each other like missiles.

***

When the strange ritual was over, and they were all drying themselves with marvelous soft fabrics ("towels," they were called), the duchess came up to Gretchen. She studied her for a moment, her hazel eyes ranging up and down Gretchen's body. Gretchen wondered why. She wondered even more when the duchess started shaking her head. It seemed a wry gesture, almost rueful.

The duchess spoke softly. She seemed to be talking to herself rather than Gretchen. The tone of her voice held an unusual mixture of humor and worry.

Gretchen understood some of it.

"-this problem-what to do-dirt gone, she's a damned-" Here the headshake grew very rueful. "-built like a brick-" The duchess tilted back her head and laughed. It was a gay sound. "Jeff"-something-"drop dead"-something-"sees her!"

The humor faded. Worry remained. The duchess' eyes seemed to bore into Gretchen's, as if trying to probe her soul. Or, perhaps, simply to find it.

Gretchen straightened. The existence of her soul she did not doubt. And damn this duchess if she thought it was not there!

Apparently, the duchess was satisfied. The frown of worry remained, but the rueful twist of the lips returned. Gretchen understood, without quite knowing why. The duchess' concern, whatever it was, did not involve a condemnation of Gretchen. Simply a condemnation of the world which had brought her forth.

The duchess shook her head again. Not ruefully, but almost angrily. Quick, fierce phrases were muttered. "-that young man! -him straight! -be no taking"-something; advance? adage?-"of this poor girl!"

She turned and started to stalk away. Then, catching sight of Annalise, she stopped. Gretchen's sister, coming under that royal scrutiny, shied away a step or two. Hesitantly, she lowered the towel. Her body was fully exposed. Naked, the strips of cloth gone with which Gretchen had bound her chest and hips for the past year, the truth was obvious.

But there was no Diego the Spaniard any longer, from whom that truth had to be hidden. Gretchen had sent the Spaniard back to his homeland. His true homeland, a much hotter place than Spain. Diego was squatting at Satan's feet, now, leaking blood and brains over his master's iron flagstones. Gretchen took that moment to wish eternal agony upon his shade.

There was only a duchess to see, now. Whence that duchess had come, from what homeland, Gretchen had no idea at all. But not Diego's, of that she was utterly certain.

The duchess stared at Annalise. Turned her head. Stared at Gretchen. Ranged her eyes up and down. More muttering. "-her sister soon. Already!" She stared around the room, subjecting all the younger women to a quick scrutiny. "-half of them-that matter."

Her eyes fell on the new farm girl. Now that the dirt and dried blood were gone, and the bruises were fading, the girl's body did not seem quite so shapeless. But Gretchen, unlike the duchess, did not spend any time examining the body. She was much more interested in the farm girl's face. Yes. There was light coming back into those eyes. Not much, but some. For the first time since Gretchen met her, the girl even managed a shy little smile. Yes!

If anything, however, the smile seemed to increase the duchess' obvious agitation. She threw up her hands. The gesture combined despair, exasperation, fretfulness, and-yes, still, some humor.

The duchess marched over to a metal cabinet against a far wall and opened it. Within, hanging tightly side by side, were a row of garments. Very soft-looking and luxurious. She began pulling them forth. Robes.

To the amazement of the women and children, the duchess began handing them out. Hesitantly, at first, then with cries of sheer pleasure as they felt the fabric-so soft! so soft!-they donned their new finery. They stood quietly as the duchess stumbled through an explanation. Gretchen interpreted as best she could. The new clothing would be theirs only for a time. Until their old clothing was returned, and perhaps-Gretchen was not certain, here-new clothing might be forthcoming. But they would wear the wonderful robes for a while. Until others came, others like them, who needed that same comfort.

For all the acquisitiveness of desperately poor people, Gretchen and her family accepted the news willingly enough. They were not Diego the Spaniard, after all, to take pleasure in the pain of others. Certainly not such others as those, who were not other at all.

When they emerged from the building, Jeff and his friends and the three older boys were already standing outside, waiting. The three boys were attired in nearly identical robes. And, like the women and children, their hair was damp with moisture.

Jeff's friends were still dressed as they had been. But Jeff was not. He, too, stood there in a robe, his hair wet. He seemed awkward and ill at ease, especially when he saw Gretchen emerging. His eyes looked away instantly, as soon as he got his first glimpse of her.

Gretchen studied him, at first. But, soon, the study began to transform itself into something quite different. Something much softer and less calculating. Jeff, she realized, had done the same as the duchess. Quelled the fears of others by leading himself.

Something flared, for a moment, inside Gretchen. She was so pleased that it had been him, not one of the others.

She fought down a smile. He would have been awkward, she knew. Shy, fumbling, uncertain. Boylike. Embarrassed by his nakedness, of course. But much more embarrassed by his presumption of leadership.

She could see more of his body now. The robe covered much less than the mottled battlefield gear. A boy's body. A large boy, true, with more muscle than she had realized, lurking under the plumpness. But everything about it was still soft, rounded, childish.

She cared not at all. Quite the opposite. There had been nothing childlike about Ludwig's body. The rock-hard body of an ogre. An ogre, boasting of his manly form, and proving it by the bruises he left on his woman's body.

The flare returned. A little brighter, lasting a little longer. She was puzzled by the sensation.

Finally, Jeff brought his eyes back and looked at her. Then, stared. He was seeing Gretchen for the first time, in a way. Clean of filth, clear of ruin; a woman in a robe, not a murderess on a battlefield. His eyes widened and widened.

Gretchen glanced at the duchess. She was not looking. She glanced at Jeff's three companions. Neither were they.

Quickly, surely, she began to undo the sash and allow the robe to open. The center of her body would be exposed to Jeff's gaze, from her throat down to her ankles. Everything. Breasts, belly, abdomen, pubis, thighs. Everything. Those things meant nothing to her, beyond their health and vigor. But she had seen-more often than she wanted to remember-how instantly Ludwig could be aroused by the mere sight of her flesh. Instantly and ferociously.

Midway through, something stopped her. She tried to force her fingers to complete the task. They refused. It was as if her soul was bypassing her brain, commanding her body against her will.

Why? she demanded. The family must be protected!

No answer came, because no answer was needed.

After a moment, she let her fingers fall away. Gretchen had made a promise. A silent one, true, but a promise nonetheless. She had promised to be his woman, not simply his concubine. The boy-the man-was not Ludwig. She would snare him if she could, but she would not trick him with mere flesh.

The duchess was leading them all away, now, back toward the school building. There would be food, food! For all the hunger gnawing in her stomach, Gretchen did not follow immediately. She lowered her head, closed her eyes, took a deep breath. Luxuriated, for a moment, in cleanliness and softness. Softness of the robe, softness of the body, cleanliness of the heart. Even the black substance beneath her bare feet felt clean and soft.

She raised her head and opened her eyes. She would give Jeff a smile before she went. That much her promise permitted. A simple sweet smile, with just a hint of promise.

But when she saw him, she almost grinned. No pawing bull, here, snorting with lust. Just a young man, standing like a stunned ox.

Gretchen had triumphed, she knew. She had him now, she was certain of it. Snared beyond escape. No trick had been needed after all.

The knowledge brought satisfaction. Some part of it was warm, some cold. Warm, because she had not violated her promise. Cold, because the promise itself was calculation.

Such was life in a maelstrom. Once again, Gretchen had done what was necessary to shelter her family. Shelter it well, she thought. Very well. She hardly knew Jeff at all, yet. But one thing she knew already. The childlike half-boy would provide far more shelter than anything provided by Ludwig the troll. Far, far more.

But-there was something else. The flare came back, again. That sensation was strange. But the sensation which came to take its place was not. Gretchen recognized it at once, of course, and drove it down.

Mercilessly. She had lived with sorrow for years. Why should today be any different?

Chapter 23

Melissa Mailey ate with the refugees, still wearing her own robe. She felt foolish and awkward in that garb, eating in the same cafeteria where, over the years, she had shared thousands of meals with thousands of students. Dressed properly! Ed Piazza had obtained fresh clothes for her, but Melissa had refused to put them on. Not, she insisted, until the refugees were settled for the night and it was time for the committee meeting. The same stubbornness which had once sent a young Boston Brahmin to share a lunch counter with black people in the Jim Crow south, caused her older self to eat a meal in a robe with German refugees. Barefoot, just as they were, even if her own toenails were painted.

She had intended, also, to be there in order to guard against the inevitable danger of the half-starved refugees overeating. But there was no need. Not with Gretchen there, watching like a hawk.

Gretchen imposed food discipline with an iron hand. Melissa winced, several times, at Gretchen's methods of imposing that discipline. She had been opposed to corporal punishment all her life. But she did not protest.

Melissa Mailey was undergoing a conversion, as it were. Her mind was roiling, as she stolidly ate her meal.

She still did not approve of corporal punishment. But Melissa Mailey was not a fool, and could recognize reality when she saw it. Her eyes flinched, but she would not close them.

Gretchen, not she, had seen people eat grass to stay alive. Gretchen, not she, had seen those same people gorge themselves when unexpected plenty arrived. And then seen them die of surfeit, writhing in agony. She watched Gretchen buffet another child, stuffing food into his mouth with both hands, forcing him to sit with his hands in his lap for three minutes before he took another bite. She winced-the child's little face would be bruised tomorrow, and he was weeping bitterly-but she did not protest. Gretchen had kept that boy alive, again, in a world which would have slaughtered Melissa Mailey like a chicken. The boy was not even hers. Gretchen's baby was perched on her lap, feeding happily at her breast. Her own child was a rapist's bastard. The other-who knows? Nothing. Nobody. A piece of dust, sent swirling across a raging landscape by the hooves of noble chargers, until by good fortune it rolled against the dirty feet of a camp follower.

Melissa winced, too, seeing the glances which Gretchen continually sent to Jeff, sitting at the other end of the table. The glances were demure, in a way. Which only made them all the more effective. Jeff was a well-bred country boy. A leering, garish, raucous street prostitute would have scared him off. A young woman in a robe, poised, self-confident-her breast exposed only to feed a child-guiding her family through a meal Sending glance after glance-soft, shining, promising-to a boy only two years younger than she in age, but eons in experience Melissa almost laughed. Leave aside that incredible figure!

The conclusion was foregone. Given. By now, Jeff would be nothing but a raging mass of hormones. Burning with desire. Would he take advantage of the offer? Ha!

Melissa had a sudden image of herself, standing on a beach, ankle-deep in seawater. Queen Melissa-imperious, righteous-ordering the tide to retreat.

Melissa was opposed to sexual harassment. She was opposed to men taking advantage of the weaker position of women in society to satisfy their lust. She was.

She still was. But Despair washed over her. The world she had been plunged into was so far removed from the one she had known that no answers seemed possible. How could she condemn? How could she could reprove? And, most important of all, how could she point a way forward?

The boy Gretchen had buffeted was no longer crying. To the contrary, he was smiling. Looking at Gretchen, eager to catch her eye. Utterly oblivious, now, to the bruise forming on his cheek. Melissa realized that his Gretchen-imposed time limit was over. Gretchen, as if guided by some internal clock, met his gaze, smiled gently, and nodded. The boy stuffed a handful of food in his mouth. Started to reach for another, paused, glanced warily at Gretchen. Sure enough, she was watching him. Frowning.

Angels never sleep. The boy sighed and put his hands back in his lap. The angel smiled. The eyes moved on to another child, another woman-weaker than she-to a crone, feebler than she-and then, to a large American boy at the other end of the table. The promise in those eyes was not angelic in the least.

The eyes moved on. Watching, watching. Sheltering, protecting. Steel eyes, forged in a furnace Melissa could hardly imagine. The eyes of the only kind of angel that could possibly exist in such a place.

Melissa was paralyzed. In the showers, she had been firmly determined to speak to Jeff. Warn him-in no uncertain terms!-that he was absolutely forbidden-

Forbidden? Why? On what grounds?

The answer was a serpent, a snake, a scorpion. A cure far worse than the disease. Good intentions be damned, reality would be something different. Forbid American boys to copulate with German girls-girls who would be throwing themselves at them in order to survive-and you take the first step on the road to a caste society. The copulation would happen anyway, in the dark. On back stairs, in closets. Between noble Americans, and German commoners. Whores again.

Everything Mike-and she-were determined to prevent.

So what to do? Is there any light in this darkness?

***

Abruptly, Melissa stopped eating. Thoughts of corporal punishment and sexual harassment were driven aside by a wave of nausea. She closed her eyes, trying to control her stomach.

The nausea was not caused by the food. It was simply high-school cafeteria food, the same food she had eaten times without number. Nutritious, bland.

The nausea was caused by sheer horror. The horror, by a memory.

She had been able to block it out, for a time. The difficulty of coaxing the women and their children through the sanitation process had kept her busy. The fretting worry over how to handle the situation developing between Gretchen and Jeff-them, today; all the other girls, she knew, within a week, with other American boys carrying the guns which could protect them-had kept her mind preoccupied. A schoolteacher's habit, forged over decades, of maintaining decorum and discipline had kept her tightly focused.

But enough time had elapsed, now. The memory could no longer be held at bay. The memory of three boys, none of them more than fourteen years old, squatting at her feet like animals, their eyes blank, their faces numb, while their mothers and sisters and aunts wailed and shrieked like banshees. All of them, except Gretchen, utterly certain Utterly certain!

- that Melissa Mailey had come to murder them.

***

She was going to vomit.

Not here! They'll think they've been poisoned.

Abruptly, she rose and strode away from the table. She waved away Jeff's look of concern. Just thought of something I need to do, that's all. Jeff, she knew, would reassure the others. He was a reliable boy. A good boy.

Once she was out of the cafeteria she turned left and pushed through the big doors leading to the outside. Melissa was almost running now. She couldn't hold it down much longer and she was determined to be completely out of sight of the refugees. Night had almost fallen, but there was still a bit of purple sky to illuminate the area.

She turned right, away from the cafeteria windows. Now, in the semidarkness, she began to run. Her bare feet slapped the walkway running alongside the school.

She couldn't make it to the bushes near the technical center. Not a chance.

This is far enough.

She stepped off the walkway and fell to her knees. Guiltless cafeteria food surged up, spewed, splattered innocent grass. Murder came out, rape came out, torture came out; cruelty beyond imagining covered the land. Horror spilled, anguish spread. The acrid smell of her own digestive juices was perfume, covering a stench so vile it could not be given a name.

By the time Melissa Mailey finished, her conversion was complete.

***

She leaned back and took a deep breath. Clean air filled her lungs. She probed her mind, pushing beneath the rage, searching for herself.

Still there, she realized, sighing with relief.

Barely. But still there.

***

Mike and Rebecca found her a few minutes later. They had arrived for the committee meeting early, as usual. What was not usual was that they were walking hand in hand. The sight of that affectionate handclasp helped to drive despair out of Melissa's mind.

Mike knelt by her side. "Are you all right?" He glanced at the vomit, glistening in the light of the rising moon.

Melissa nodded. "I'm fine." Then, realizing the absurdity of the statement, she chuckled harshly. "Physically, at least."

Her eyes welled with tears. "Oh God, Mike, they thought I was going to have them killed." A moment later, her head tucked into his sheltering arm, she began babbling the tale. As she spoke, Rebecca knelt alongside her also, listening closely.

When Melissa was done, she took another deep breath. "You know, I'm finding myself in a strange place. Mentally, I mean. Never thought I'd be here."

She tightened her jaws. The next sentence came between clenched teeth. "The way I feel right now, I'd have every single man in that army-both armies-lined up against a wall and shot. Tonight."

Mike smiled, and stroked her hair. "Take it easy, lady. You're the worst person in the world to have to make a decision like that."

Melissa tried to stop herself from laughing. Couldn't-and then realized she didn't want to stop. The humor was cleansing. "God, isn't that the truth?" she demanded. "Nothing worse than a convert when it comes to self-righteousness."

Mike was grinning, now. "Lord save us!" The grin faded. He shook his head. "Melissa, I just talked to James. He spent the last two hours checking over those men. The Scots took the Protestant prisoners into Badenburg. We've got the Catholics under guard out in the fairgrounds."

He blew out his cheeks. "You want to know what he told me? He said those men reminded him of all the tough kids and wild young men he grew up with, that's all. He comes from the ghetto, Melissa. You don't. A man like James understands a lot better than you do how men like that get produced. Put anyone in the right circumstances-wrong circumstances-and you'll get the same result. Some of them are genuine monsters, and probably would have been anywhere. The rest? Most of them?" He shrugged. "Just men, that's all. Fucking up in a fucked-up world."

She giggled. People were always so careful not to use profanity around her-schoolteacher! from Boston!-that it was refreshing to hear it. The truth was, for all her prim-and-proper appearance, Melissa Mailey was very far from a prude.

Mention of James caused her thoughts to veer aside, for a moment. She stared into the darkness, bringing his face to her mind. And now, for the first time since she'd met the man, realized how much she liked that face.

Immensely. Those rough, hard, blunt features would have been ugly, perhaps, on a different man. But with James' intelligence and humor shining through, they simply seemed very masculine.

Her thoughts must have been closer to the surface than she realized. "James," she murmured. The sound had a certain-considering air.

She didn't notice the quick, half-amused glance which Mike and Rebecca exchanged. Rebecca cleared her throat.

"A very attractive man," she said softly.

"A widower," added Mike.

Melissa snorted. "Michael Stearns, there is something absolutely preposterous about you being a matchmaker for your former schoolteacher."

Mike grinned. "True," he admitted. "So what? You could do worse than James Nichols, Ms. Mailey."

"I have done worse," said Melissa. "God, my husbands-"

She shook her head ruefully. Since Melissa's second marriage had failed-as quickly and disastrously as the first-she had restricted her romantic liaisons to occasional, and very brief, encounters. Always out of town. Usually with other schoolteachers she met at union conventions. Very distant, very casual, very-safe. She was fifty-seven years old, and the last such occasion had been Again, she was startled. That long ago? Five years?

Old, familiar, half-forgotten sensations began welling up. Very powerfully. Melissa did not even try to stop the smile from spreading across her face. Not at all.

Well, by God. Whaddaya know? Guess I'm not such a dried-up prune after all.

Her spirits were lifting rapidly, now, as these new thoughts drove horror into the shadows. "I'll have to look into that," she murmured. Then, chuckling: "I notice that you two seem to have stopped dancing around."

Rebecca might have flushed a little. It was hard to tell, between the darkness and her own dusky complexion. But when she spoke, her voice was level and even.

"Yes, we have." She hesitated. "I hope my father-"

"I wouldn't worry about that," interrupted Melissa. Using Mike's shoulder as a support, she levered herself back onto her feet. "I'm glad to see it, myself. And I don't think Balthazar will feel any differently."

Mike and Rebecca rose with her. Slowly, all three of them began walking toward the school's entrance. Before they got there, moved by an impulse, Melissa walked out onto the parking lot. She wanted to see something bright and clean. She felt like looking at the moon. Mike and Rebecca followed.

"It's still so weird," she said, "seeing it come up from that direction. The Ring of Fire twisted us around, on top of everything else."

Her eyes came down, and fell on the cafeteria's windows. Beyond, she could see Gretchen and her family. They had finished eating, and were now staring at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Ogling them, to be more precise. All of them were standing, to get a closer look at these new marvels.

All except Gretchen. She was standing also-she stood taller than any of them-but she was not looking at the lights. She was looking at Jeff, smiling.

"Twisted us around," Melissa murmured. She probed, again, looking for herself. The rage was almost gone, and she found what she was looking for immediately.

Relief came again, and with it a sudden and clear understanding. She knew what to do, now. Melissa Mailey was teacher, not an executioner. A builder, a guide. A person who showed the way out, not a censor who barred the door.

She extended her hands. They were very slender, long-fingered. Elegant hands, for all that the nails were trimmed short.

"What do you think, Mike? Do these look like the right hands to hold the sword of retribution? Lay down the law? Ban this, ban that?"

Mike snorted. "Not hardly." He took a deep breath. "Why don't you leave that to me, Melissa? If there's one advantage to being a former professional boxer, it's that I'll know when I can pull a punch." He glanced at her aristocratic hands. "You won't."

She dropped her hands. "I have come to the same conclusion." The words were final, definite. She took Mike and Rebecca by their arms and began leading them to the door. "Wisdom begins with knowing your limitations. I know mine. I know what I can do, and what I can't."

Mike suddenly slowed. Melissa glanced at him, then followed his eyes.

Gretchen was clearly visible through the window. She was scolding one of the children, shaking her finger. Apparently, the boy had started to climb onto one of the cafeteria's tables in order to get a closer look at the lighting. The celerity with which he climbed down was utterly comical. The imp obeying the goddess.

She looked like a Teutonic goddess, thought Melissa. Bathrobe be damned. Clean, her hair was blond. Dark blond, but definitely blond. The long tresses framed a face that fell just outside of beauty simply because the features were so strong. The finger was shaken by the large hand of a shapely but powerful arm, attached to a shapely and powerful shoulder. Everything about her was cut from that cloth. Her breasts, as large as they so obviously were under the thin bathrobe, looked as if they were held up by armor. Melissa, remembering Gretchen's naked body, knew that the rest of her matched what was visible.

"Who is that?" asked Rebecca. Her eyes widened. "Is that the woman-?"

Happily, Melissa nodded. "Yeah, that's her. You heard the story, I take it?"

Rebecca nodded. "Michael told me. The woman who hid her sisters in a cesspool-and then stood there, straight up, waiting for-" She shuddered. "I can hardly imagine such courage."

Mike stared at Gretchen through the window for a moment longer, before adding: "Jesus, what a Valkyrie."

Melissa shook her head. "No, Mike. You're very wrong." She scowled. "Valkyries!" The word was almost a curse. "Leave it to the sick and twisted mind of Richard Wagner to glorify a Valkyrie."

Again, she took her companions by the arm and began walking toward the door. "A Valkyrie is just a vulture. A death-worshipper. 'Choosers of the slain,' they were called, as if that were something to be proud of."

She stopped abruptly, almost yanking them up short. Her finger, extended, pointed to Gretchen.

"That young woman, on the other hand, is something truly grand and glorious. That woman is a chooser of the living."

She sighed. "I know what I can do, and what I can't. I know what we need, and what I can give. I can help. I can teach. I can guide, hopefully. But I can't do it." A little shrug lifted her slender shoulders. "Even if I wasn't too old, I couldn't do it. I don't come from that world, and even if I did-"

She twisted her head, looking to the north. Beyond the hills was a battlefield. Her next words came in a whisper. "I never would have been tough enough, or had the courage. I'm not a coward, but-not a chance. I would have died myself, much less been able to save anyone else."

Melissa smiled. The expression was one of unalloyed satisfaction-the smile of a person at peace with themselves. "What this new world of ours needs is not a superannuated sixties radical. Except, maybe, as an adviser. We're back at the beginning, where it all started. The days of the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Seneca Falls and the pioneer women."

Her smile became a grin. "Melissa Mailey will sure as hell lend a hand, but she's not what we really need. What we really need is a new Harriet Tubman."

She beamed at the woman in the window. "And I do believe I may have found her."

Gretchen was glancing at Jeff again. He was no longer shying away from those glances. Oh no. He was staring back at her like a lamb. Begging to be slaughtered. "Of course, first I've got to stop her from selling herself to another soldier in order to keep her kids alive. That'll hurt her image, starting off her new life as a camp whore. Again."

Now Melissa was marching them to the door. Her bare feet struck the pavement like boots.

Mike chuckled. "I can't wait to find out how you're planning to do that."

"What is Seneca Falls?" asked Rebecca. "And who was Harriet Tubman?"

By the time they reached the door, Melissa had begun her explanation. She only had time to broach the topic, before the meeting started. But her words were enough to get Mike chewing on the problem, and Rebecca. And that was enough. The two finest political minds of the day-which they were, though they did not realize it yet-would take that germ and transform it into something mighty and powerful.

***

So, in the time to come, Melissa Mailey would take great comfort in the memory of a pool of vomit. Out of that nausea would come something precious to her soul-and just as precious to the souls of thousands of others.

The Inquisition, of course, would feel otherwise. So would a multitude of barons and bishops, and every witch-hunter in Europe.

Chapter 24

Melissa's concerns for Gretchen's image proved to be moot. In the end, the solution to that quandary was provided by another.

It was only a partial solution, of course, as solutions usually are, and addressed only one specific problem, as solutions usually do. But, as was often also true, it opened the door-if only a crack-for the multitude of solutions to follow.

Melissa, in a way, played a role in that solution. Not directly, not immediately. But a genuine role nonetheless. The same role that teachers-good ones, anyway, and she was truly excellent-have always played. The same role, in a different way, that parents play. Parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents-even, when you get down to it, the guy at the corner grocery who, in an idle moment, tosses off his opinion of how the world oughta be to a youngster come in to buy a soda.

Good boys, like bad ones, are shaped. The process is not perfect, and goes astray often enough. The mold is crooked, often warped, cracked-but it's still a mold.

Grantville, West Virginia was the mold that produced Jeff Higgins. All things said and done, it was as good a mold as any and a better one than most.

***

Add to that the boy himself. Sitting alone, now, at the cafeteria table, staring at a window. There was nothing to see in the window. Night had fallen on the countryside beyond the glass.

The others were all gone. Melissa had ushered Gretchen and her family into the classroom which was being used, temporarily, as a refugee quarter. The floor was covered with mattresses and blankets donated by the town's inhabitants. She had shown Gretchen how to operate the toilets nearby, and then hurried to the council meeting.

Jeff's friends were gone too. They were not far away-not more than a few yards. They were in the school's library. The library, like much of the school, was open twenty-fours a day now. Such a valuable resource could not be kept out of circulation for a moment. They were in there, heads hunched together, studying one of the school's few copies of a German language textbook. They also had the school's only copy of a German-English dictionary.

Under any other circumstances, Jeff would have been there also. But tonight he had a much more pressing problem to deal with. A German herself, not the language. A decision was before him, and he knew that it had to be made quickly. Gretchen would wait, for a bit, to hear his decision. She would not wait long. She had people to care for, and nothing to care for them with. She did not have the luxury of waiting. So, at least, it would seem to her. In truth, she had entered a world in which old courses of action were not necessary-but Jeff knew that she would not believe it. Not yet. Not soon enough.

Jeff Higgins was very far from stupid. He was innocent, more or less, but not really naive. Certainly not that naive.

Like all teenage boys, he had his fantasies. Some of those he exorcised playing D D, others with war games, others on computer screens, others living a vicarious life in books, others on his dirt bike. Still others-especially those involving the female sex-mostly in his mind. And a rich and sometimes feverish mind it was, too. Wildly imaginative, and ready at an instant to take flight from reality.

But he could still, quite easily, separate truth from fiction. For all the fantasies about Gretchen which had raged through his hormone-saturated brain in the few short hours since he first met her-today-he understood the reality.

Jeff was not a virgin. But his two brief encounters had not given him delusions of being irresistible. He knew perfectly well that no beautiful young woman was going to fall head over heels in love with him in an instant. If ever. True-here his fantasies tried to rise in rebellion-he had met her in quite a dramatic manner. Rescuing her, almost single-handedly, from the proverbial "fate worse than death." A classic from fairy tales!

But He knew Gretchen. Well enough, at least. For her, that fate was not worse than death. She had already suffered it, and survived. And kept her family alive. He thought she appreciated-sincerely-what he had done. But he understand also that the woman he had watched murder a wounded man in cold blood in order to protect her sister-her, not her "virtue," which would soon be gone anyway-was not going to be bowled over by another brave soldier.

He paused over that, in his thinking. He had been brave, he realized. If he looked at it from the right angle, he could even say he had been heroic. He paused, there, and took deep satisfaction in the knowing.

For himself, however, not for Gretchen-or what she thought of him. It was good to know that courage lay within him. Very good. Courage, in this new world even more than in the old, was something he was going to need.

But he knew, without knowing any of the details, that the man who had formerly "possessed" her was brave as well, whatever his other characteristics had been. Jeff was not one of those foolish sentimentalists who thinks that courage is a monopoly of the virtuous. Like many boys his age, he was an aficionado of military history. The Waffen SS had compiled a criminal record almost unparalleled in modern history. Yet no one in their right mind had ever called them cowards. Certainly not more than once.

Gretchen did not care about his courage on the battlefield. He knew that for a certainty. She was no fairy-tale maiden, to swoon over her rescuer. She was what many people would call a camp whore, who had done whatever she found necessary to keep herself and her family alive. And, he knew, was doing it still. His fantasies could rage and bellow at every glimpse of her flashing eyes, gleaming promise at him. His hormones could rush like Niagara, knowing that her luscious body was his for the taking. But it was all a lie.

Jeff knew the truth. As much as the sight of her exposed breast had fired his imagination, his reason had seen what was real. The breast was real enough, of course. Far more real had been the baby suckling at it. A camp whore's bastard, that the whore would trade her body to keep alive, just as she had butchered a man to do the same for her sister.

He faced the truth, squarely, and came to his decision. Peace poured through his soul.

***

He was surprised, at first, to see that the decision had already been made. Surprised, and then, obscurely pleased.

He had been pondering nothing, he realized. Simply rationalizing an argument that could not be argued at all. It was not rational in the first place. He was quite certain that everyone he knew would be explaining that to him within the next few hours.

He did not care. It was the only decision, under the circumstances, that he could make. Others could think what they wanted, say what they would. He was who he was. Accidentally, in that moment, without knowing he had even done so, Jeff adopted for his own an ancient motto. Here I stand. I can do no other.

Anymore than he could have stepped aside, on the first battlefield of his young life, and let the choosers of the slain pass by, flapping their carrion-eater wings.

Jeff Higgins, too, would be a chooser of the living.

***

The decision made, it remained to carry it out. That would be difficult, but not impossible. Not by any means. He would have help. He knew that just as certainly as he knew the rest. Gretchen would help him.

He rose and marched into the library. Well, padded in. His big feet, flapping nakedly, were no more romantic than the rest of his heavy, awkward, intellectual's body. No one would ever confuse Jeff Higgins for a figure of martial glamour.

When he reached the cluster of his friends, he asked for the dictionary. They handed it over. Their eyes were full of question, but he gave no explanation. They did not press him, for which he was thankful. They would be pressing him soon enough, crushing him under ridicule.

With the dictionary in hand, he walked down the long corridor to the room where Gretchen and her family were preparing to sleep. At the door, he raised his hand. Hesitated, but only for a second, before knocking. Gently, so as not to wake whomever might be asleep, but firmly.

He was relieved when Gretchen herself answered the door. He was even more relieved to see that the room beyond her shoulder was quiet and dark. Everyone in the crowded room must already be asleep. That was not surprising, of course, given all that those people had been through that day. But he was still vastly relieved. He had been afraid he would have to wait while Gretchen went about the task of caring for her folk. The wait would have been very hard.

From the look of her face, he thought he had probably awakened Gretchen herself. But, if so, she recovered at once. Again, her eyes and lips were shining with promise.

At his gesture, she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. Jeff looked up and down the corridor, before deciding that this was as good a place as any.

He sat down on the floor, legs sprawled out before him. Gretchen immediately took the same position, by his side, and nestled against him sinuously. Feeling her body so close, nothing between them but two bathrobes, and seeing the long stretch of bare legs exposed under the robe-long stretch; she had seen to that deliberately, he knew-Jeff felt giddy for a moment. The passion raging in him was almost overwhelming.

But not quite. He took a deep breath, smiled awkwardly at her, and opened the dictionary. Moving from one page to the next, he began spelling out his purpose.

When she realized what he was doing, Gretchen gave a little gasp. Her eyes, startled from the word in the dictionary, came to his. Her mouth opened, shaping a denial. Her head began to shake.

Jeff, seeing that reaction, beamed from ear to ear. He was smiling like a cherub. "Yes," he said. "I do."

She stared back at the dictionary. She seemed paralyzed. Jeff twisted, rising to his knees, and took her face between his hands. Brought her eyes up to meet his own. Light brown; light green. "Yes, I do," he repeated. "Ja, ich muss."

***

Then, of course, Gretchen began nodding. Nodding. Nodding and nodding. Nodding and nodding and nodding and now she was beginning to tremble and then the tears began to flow and then she was clutching Jeff so tightly he thought for a moment his ribs might crack. It didn't matter. He couldn't have breathed anyway, he was so relieved.

The nodding meant nothing to him. It would later, but not now. That first little headshake gave him the world. He had been prepared to live without it, but his heart was singing knowing that he had it.

Her first reaction, when she understood, was the key. That instant denial, that unthinking shake of the head. You don't have to do this!

"Yes, I do," he whispered into her hair, cradling her. "Ja, ich muss." He could feel, now, the years of terror which caused the strong body in his arms to tremble like a leaf. Terror held under such tight control for so long that now, when it was finally breaking loose, the one who held it had no idea how to let it go. For all the tenderness of the moment, some part of Jeff wanted to shake her more violently still, just to hasten its departure. It's over. It's over. I promise.

An uncalculating denial, a little shake of the head. That was all he would need to keep him steady, in the hard years to come. It would not be easy for them. He was old enough to understand that much. But at least he could face those years without suspicion. A woman who had lived with no choices at all had still had the courage, at the end, to hold out one for him.

He had been trapped, snared, caught. But not tricked. The lamb was fair and truly slaughtered. But he could never claim, thereafter, that his executioner had not shown him the blade before he came, willingly, to the altar.

Chapter 25

Ed Piazza underlined the last word on the blackboard, with all the flourish of a former teacher, and marched back to the table. "That's it," he said. "That's the bottom line. Ten thousand people. Able-bodied and able to work. Over and above, you understand, the folks we've already got."

He clasped his hands on the table. "Some of them can include healthy old people and big enough kids. There's a few thousand jobs that don't require any kind of heavy labor. But most of it does. Especially the farming and construction work."

Mike leaned back in his chair and clasped his own hands behind his head. He studied the figures on the blackboard for a few seconds before speaking. "And if we don't get them?"

Quentin Underwood shrugged. The mine manager had been part of the team which, led by Piazza, had developed the production plan. "Then we have to change the equation the other way, Mike. Subtraction."

"Driving people off, in other words," said Mike. "Push the extra mouths back into the furnace." There was no heat in the words, just clarification.

Quentin and Ed both looked uncomfortable. So did Willie Ray Hudson and Nat Davis, the other two members of the planning team.

Nat cleared his throat. "Well, I don't know as I'd put it that way."

"Cut it out, Nat," growled Quentin. "Mike's putting it bluntly, but that's exactly what we're talking about."

He sat up straight, half glaring. "I don't like it any better than you do, Mike. But that's the way it is. It's just an estimate, of course, but I think it's pretty damn close. We need ten thousand workers in order to build the infrastructure that'll keep everybody in this area alive through the winter. Food production and shelter are the big jobs. Even if we meet this schedule, winter is going to be a pure bitch. Pardon my language."

Mike lifted his hands off his head and made a little waving motion. "I'm not criticizing anybody," he said mildly. "I just want to make sure we're all on the same wavelength." He pursed his lips. "Does this include the labor force in Badenburg?"

Piazza shook his head. "Badenburg's not included on either side of the equation, Mike. We're just figuring the people already in town and our best estimate of all the refugees camped out in the area. A fair number of them are drifting in, now. All the churches are already packed to the gills. So's the community center next to the fairgrounds."

Dreeson, the town's mayor, looked alarmed. "That fast? What's that doing to our sanitation program?"

"Straining the hell of it," replied Ferrara bluntly. The science teacher leaned forward. "And that was true even before we got all these newcomers. The prisoners and the people from the soldiers' camp."

Dreeson was looking very alarmed, now. Bill Porter interrupted before the explosion came. "Relax, Henry! The refugee center by the power plant will be operational in eighteen hours. We've got a sanitation system up there that has way more capacity than anything in the town itself. We can cycle hundreds of people an hour through it, easily."

Melissa snorted. "And how are you going to get them through it, Bill? With cattle prods? You did notice that I was wearing a bathrobe earlier, didn't you? Is that the way you think I normally prance around in public?"

Porter shrank a little from the same piercing stare that had abashed teenagers over the years. Melissa relented, after a few seconds. "Folks, I just learned from bitter experience that these people coming in are so-so traumatized-that the only way I got them through the showers was to lead the way personally. Even then-"

She broke off, shuddering a little.

Mike took his hands from his head and set them on the table, palms down. The gesture had an air of authority about it.

"Okay, then. I've been trying to make a decision anyway, and it just got made. We're going to lean on the soldiers. The prisoners, I mean. We don't have any choice."

Ed cocked his head. "Lean on them?"

"Rely on them. There are well over a thousand able-bodied men in that crowd. When the wounded recover-those of them who do-that'll add maybe a couple of hundred more. That's the start of our labor force. We'll run them through the sanitation process at the power plant as soon as it's open for business."

The squawks started immediately.

"That's forced labor!" protested Melissa. "How are you going to get them through the showers?" demanded Underwood. "What about resistance?" queried Ferrara.

Mike scowled. "Melissa, give me a break! I've been a union man all my life, so I'd appreciate not getting any lectures about forced labor. Those guys aren't downtrodden workers. They're prisoners of war captured after launching an unprovoked attack on us. I'm not proposing to work them to death, for Christ's sake. But they will work."

He turned to Underwood, still scowling. "How? Simple. 'Take a shower or a bullet. Delouse your hair or we'll delouse your guts.' How's that for motivation?"

Melissa started to screech, but Mike slammed his hand on the table. The flat palm sounded like a rocket. "Melissa-cut it out!" His scowl was purely ferocious. "These aren't traumatized women and children, goddamit. These are the guys who did the traumatizing! Frankly, I don't care if they drop dead from fear. They will be sanitized, and they will work."

The scowl moved on to Ferrara. "What was that? Something about resistance?"

Ferrara smiled. "Ah-never mind. I think it's a moot point."

Melissa's mouth was still open, ready to speak. Her eyes were slits, her shoulders tense. She'd faced down bullies before, by God! Southern sheriffs and D.C. police and company goons. If Mike Stearns thinks he can intimidate me!

Suddenly, she puffed out her cheeks. For a moment, she looked like a slender, elegant, sophisticated blowfish. Then, with a rush, blew out the air.

"Okay," she said.

Mike eyed her with suspicion. "What is this? Since when do you give up so quick? I was expecting you to throw up a picket line next."

Melissa grinned. "Well… Don't think I'm not tempted." The grin faded. Her face grew a little weary. "I don't like it, Mike. Not one bit. But I imagine you don't either. And-well, you're right, much as I hate to admit it. The alternative is just to drive them and their camp followers out."

Underwood cleared his throat. "Excuse me, folks, but I've got to say here that I think we should consider that alternative." Hastily: "Well, the soldiers anyway."

Frank Jackson started to speak but there came a knock at the door. Ed got up and went to open it. When he saw who was standing there, his eyebrows lifted in surprise.

Jeff Higgins. Flanked by his three friends, Larry Wild, Jimmy Anderson and Eddie Cantrell. All of their faces bore the same expressions. An equal mix of stubborn determination and deep apprehension.

"What's up, boys?" Ed asked. "We're in a meeting, you know."

Jeff took a deep breath and spoke.

"Yeah, Mr. Piazza, we know and I'm sorry to barge in like this but I thought-well, me and my buddies talked it over after I talked it over with them and"-a look of surprise and relief washed quickly across his face-"since they backed me up even though I thought they were gonna give me a hard time about it we talked it over and after we did we all agreed that I should come here first-they said they'd back me up-and tell you about it first on account of there's probably going to be all hell to pay-pardon my language, Ms. Mailey-so we might as well get it over with right away. So there it is."

He braced himself, obviously expecting some sort of onslaught.

Ed frowned, and turned his head to face the adults in the room. They responded with frowns of their own. In the doorway and the corridor beyond, four teenage boys braced themselves.

Ed shook his head. "Jeff, uh-what's this about, exactly?"

Jeff's eyes widened. "Oh. Yeah. Sorry." He took another deep breath and launched. "Well, it's like this and we've already agreed-both of us-and it's over and settled and done with and nobody can do anything about it because I'm legal age and my parents aren't around anyway and neither are hers either. So there it is."

The boys braced themselves.

Silence. Frowns.

Suddenly, Melissa started laughing.

"Oh, Lord!" She bestowed a look of sheer approval upon Jeff. "Young man, I want you to know that I've never inflated a grade in my life, but you are guaranteed an A in any class of mine you ever take."

Jeff frowned. "I'm about to graduate, Ms. Mailey."

"Silly! Adult education. Instruction in German, if nothing else. I've already started learning the language so I can help teach it."

She beamed at Jeff. "Had to use a dictionary, didn't you?"

He looked sheepish. "Well. Yeah."

Ed exploded. "What's this all about?" he demanded, throwing up his hands.

"Isn't it obvious?" Melissa pointed a finger at Jeff, wiggling it a bit. "He just proposed to Gretchen and she accepted." Grinning: "So. When's the wedding?"

All hell broke loose.

Chapter 26

"Yeah, Mr. Dreeson, I know she's only marrying me on account of she needs it to take care of her folks. So what? I've seen people get married for lots worse reasons."

"Yeah, Mr. Piazza, I know I only just met her and we hardly know each other. So what? The way I figure it, we'll have years together anyway with nothing else to do."

"Yeah, Mr. Ferrara, I know we'll probably just wind up getting divorced anyway. So what? Some of you folks have been divorced, haven't you?"

A moment's pause in the ruckus. Not much. Just a little stutter before the voices of adult wisdom plowed on.

"Yeah, Mr. Underwood, I know she's dirt poor and she's just marrying me for my money but that's a laugh because I don't have any worth talking about anyway. So what if I lose it? She's welcome to it."

"Yeah, Mr. Hudson, I know she's a knockout and that's probably at least half the reason I'm dumb enough to marry her. So what? I don't see where that's much different from lots of the other marriages I've seen in this town." Unkindly: "At least my girl is a knockout."

Driven off by the armor of youthful folly, adult wisdom turned on the eccentricities of maturity.

"Melissa!" roared Dreeson. "Will you please stop encouraging this child with your-what are you doing, anyway?"

Melissa paused in her awkward gesturing. "Give me a break. I know I'm not good at it. I was much too refined to be a cheerleader in high school. Got to ask Julie Sims to give me some pointers." She rose from her seat and took a dramatic pose, as if holding pom-poms. "Two! Four! Six! Eight! What do we appreciate? Matrimony! Matrimony!"

By now, James Nichols was laughing gaily. Mike, standing by the window staring out into the darkness, was grinning. So was Rebecca, sitting on her chair.

Frank Jackson, on the other hand, was glaring. Not at Jeff, however.

"All of you just shut up," he snarled. The genuine anger in his voice brought silence to the room. Startled, everyone except Mike stared at him. James stopped laughing and Melissa stopped gesturing.

When Frank continued, his voice was a low growl. " 'She's not good enough for you,' " he mimicked. " 'She only wants American citizenship.' 'She's too different.' 'It won't work.' " Snarling: "Jesus!"

He fixed Underwood with a cold gaze. Underwood had been the most vociferous-and crude-in his opposition to Jeff's announcement. "Let me ask you something, Quentin. Just where in the hell do you think I met Diane, anyway?"

Sarcastically: "You do know who I'm talking about, right?" He held up his hand, palm down, less than five feet from the floor. "Little-bitty woman, 'bout so tall. You may have seen her around town now and then. Woman I been married to for, what is it now, thirty years? Mother of my three kids." His anger faded, for just an instant, replaced by sorrow. Frank and Diane's three sons were all adults, and had moved out of town. The Ring of Fire had left them behind.

The anger returned, along with a half-sneer. "Yeah, Quentin, I'm curious. Did you think I met her at a gala reception at the embassy? Me in my swank uniform and her wearing a slinky evening gown imported from Paris? Did you think she was some kind of Vietnamese princess?"

Underwood looked away. "It's none of my business, Frank," he said, uncomfortably. "I never asked. Nobody knows, I don't think."

Frank snorted. He glanced at Mike. "He knows. A few others." Frank was in one of his very rare tempers. He leaned forward, clenching his fists on the table. "Well, I'll tell you what. I'm going to make it your business. I met Diane at-"

"Frank!" Mike's voice was not loud, just insistent. He turned away from the window and walked back to the table. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Leave it alone. There's no need for this."

He looked at Jeff, still standing in the doorway. "If it's worth anything to you, Jeff, I think you're probably the smartest person in town at this particular moment. You already figured out something the rest of us are trying to catch up with. Except maybe Melissa."

His eyes fell on another figure. Softly: "Or Rebecca."

Startled, Rebecca's eyes widened. Mike smiled. "Especially Rebecca, I think. Why don't you explain it to them?"

Rebecca hesitated. She asked questions at these meetings, but, so far, had rarely offered an opinion. Mike's warm eyes-loving eyes-emboldened her.

"I am not sure, Michael. But I shall try."

She turned her gaze to the other people sitting at the table. "You have a choice here." She took a little breath, and closed a final gap. "We have a choice here. We can take one of two roads. Jeff's road-as 'foolish' and 'impetuous' as it may be-or a different road. Jeff's road leads to a country very much like the one I believe you once had." Sadly: "Like the dream my people once called Sepharad. The other-"

Her voice grew harsh and cold. That tone, coming from soft Rebecca, was quite shocking. "The other leads to a military aristocracy. A land of hidalgos and inquisitors. So-called 'pure-blood' Americans-limpieza-ruling over a horde of German peons."

She gestured with her head toward the window. "What are those people out there going to be for us? Those dirty, diseased, desperate people out there in the camps and the woods. Fellow citizens, neighbors, friends-wives and husbands? Or are they going to be serfs, servants, lackeys-concubines? That is the choice."

Underwood was ogling her. "What? You aren't-" His eyes were very wide.

Melissa's laugh was sarcastic. "Oh, for the sake of Christ, Quentin! Of course she's not proposing that we require anybody to get married. Grow up!" An impish gleam came to her eyes. "Although, now that I think about it-Alexander the Great did, you know? Made his Macedonian officers all marry Persian girls. Hmmm."

Mike chuckled. "Stop feeding the tourists, Melissa."

Quentin's eyes were still wide. Mike shook his head. "The point, Quentin, is not what this or that individual decides to do, but what stance we take toward whatever decision somebody does make. People can think or say or do whatever they want. That's not the same thing as what a society sanctions." He pointed at Jeff. "For the first time, an American young man is going to be marrying a German young woman. So what's it gonna be, 'Fathers of the Nation'? Is it going to be sanctioned, or not? Are you going to handle it publicly the way you'd handle any other wedding, regardless of your personal reservations? Or are you going to tell the world what an idiot he is and how the German girl's a worthless gold digger? Scum-not good enough for American blood?"

All the humor faded from his eyes. "What's it going to be?"

Willie Ray Hudson expelled the breath from his chest. "Aw hell, Mike. Since you put it that way." The old farmer leaned back in his chair and cocked his head at Jeff. "This girl of yours? Has she got a father to walk her down the aisle?"

Jeff's face fell. "I'm not sure, Mr. Hudson. But I don't-I don't think so. If I understood something she said, I think her dad was murdered a couple of years ago."

Hudson winced. "Jesus," he muttered, "I don't even want to think what that poor girl's been through."

"No, you don't," said Melissa forcefully. "Trust me on this one, Willie Ray. You don't."

Hudson rose and walked over to Jeff. "Well, then. Jeff, you tell this girl of yours that-if she wants-I'd be more than happy to take her father's place at the wedding."

Jeff's face was suddenly eager. "Would you, Mr. Hudson? Everybody in town's known you their whole lives. Oh, that'd be great! I'll have to ask Gretchen, of course." He looked back at Larry. "You still got the dictionary?" Larry held it up.

The laughter in the room drew Jeff's eyes. "What's so funny?" The laughter got louder.

"This has got to be a record," chuckled Ferrara. "Meet a girl and propose in one day, maybe. But using a dictionary?"

Jeff flushed. Willie Ray patted him on the shoulder. "Ignore that lout, boy. I'm sure it's not a record. Just a contender."

That didn't seem to help, judging from the color of Jeff's cheeks.

"Ignore that lout, too," pronounced Melissa. She held up her wrist and examined the clock. "All right, that's enough. It's almost ten thirty. Let's not get crazy. We did fight a battle today, remember?" She gave James a serene glance. "And poor Dr. Nichols here has to be back at the hospital early in the morning."

"Real early," agreed Nichols. "Adams agreed to handle the cases tonight, but I've got to spell him first thing. We've got dozens of badly wounded men on top of everything else."

Mike nodded. "Yeah, I agree. Besides-" He looked over at Jeff. "Are you staying here tonight?"

Hesitantly, Jeff eyed Ed Piazza. "Well, if the principal doesn't mind." Jeff waved at his friends. "We decided we'd all like to camp out here. On the library floor, I guess. Gretchen and the others are asleep now, but they'll be waking up early and-and-" He stood a little straighter. "We're going to be their new family, now-all of us, since Larry and Ed and Jimmy live with me and they'll be I guess kinda like uncles or something-so we thought we should be here when they wake up. Just because-" He groped for words.

"Absolutely," agreed Piazza. He dug into his pocket and came up with a set of keys. Quickly, he began removing one from the key ring. "But don't use the library. There'll be people in there all night. Besides, my office has a carpet. You might actually get some sleep. Just try to be out of there before Len Trout comes in so he doesn't trip over you. He'll be groggy like he always is in the morning. Low blood sugar, you know. Makes him a little grumpy until he's had his coffee and you'll be right in front of the coffee machine."

Looking a bit alarmed, Jeff took the key. It was universally known by the high school's students that you did not want to arouse the vice-principal's ire before he'd had his dose of three cups of coffee, laden with sugar and cream. Not.

He and his friends sped on their way. Early to bed, early to rise.

***

When they were gone, Quentin Underwood heaved a great sigh. "Oh, hell. I still think the kid's crazy, but you know what? After this nightmare we've been plunged into, I swear I can't think of a single thing that'd be better for my soul than to watch a young woman walk down the aisle in a wedding dress."

Dreeson nodded. "Goes for me too. The whole damn town, for that matter."

His eyes widened.

Mike laughed. "I'm way ahead of you, Henry. If we can talk Jeff out of getting married as fast as possible-which won't be all that easy, let me tell you, 'cause I've actually seen the girl-then I'd like to hold the wedding four days from now."

Melissa looked startled. "Four days from now?" Her eyes fled to the wall. "What calendar are we using, anyway? Here in the seventeenth-"

"Don't care!" proclaimed Dreeson. "As far as I'm concerned"-he clapped his hands-"four days from now is the Fourth of July!"

Mike grinned. "Yeah, sure is. Just what we need. A celebration, parade, fireworks-and we'll cap it off with the biggest wedding this town ever saw."

Quietly: "It'll remind us what we're all about." He gave Rebecca a very warm smile. "And not about."

***

The meeting broke up then. As Melissa was walking down the corridor to the school entrance, she heard quick footsteps behind her. Turning, she saw that James Nichols was hurrying to catch up with her.

When he arrived, the doctor broke into a smile. "May I walk you home?" he asked.

Melissa grinned. "Shameless!" she exclaimed.

Nichols was startled. "Me? I was just-"

Melissa shook her head and took James by the arm. "Not you, doctor. I would be most delighted to have you walk me home." As they made their way down the corridor, she chuckled. "I was referring to a certain former student of mine. Prizefighter turned matchmaker. Shameless."

Nichols looked a bit embarrassed. "Oh." They walked on a little further. He cleared his throat. "Actually, it was Rebecca who gave me the elbow. Not"-a big smile, here-"that I hadn't been thinking about it."

Melissa turned her head and studied him. His smile, rather. She liked that smile. Immensely. It was a cheerful, happy, relaxed smile. The smile of a very grown-up man, well into middle age. He was fifty-five years old, she knew, only two years younger than she. Secure in himself, knowing himself well, and glad to be in that place. But also delighted to discover that he wasn't, apparently, all that old after all. As delighted as she was.

They were both smiling now. Both enjoying the relaxation of their age. Knowledge, certainty. Fumbling in the back seat was ancient history. Aches and pains of the body had come, but at least guessing was behind them.

Once they left the school and started walking down the parking lot toward the road below, James' arm slid around Melissa's waist. Gently, easily, he pressed her to his side. She leaned into him, covering his hand with her own. Her palm felt the wedding band on his finger.

Melissa knew that James was a widower, his wife dead in an auto crash, but she knew none of the details.

"How long ago-"

Apparently, he could read her mind. "Long enough," was his answer. "I grieved, Melissa. Long and hard. I loved her dearly. But it's been long enough."

***

As they approached the Roths' house-the Roth and Abrabanel house, now, since the arrangement had by mutual agreement become permanent-Rebecca turned and leaned into Mike. He folded her into his arms and they began kissing.

Five minutes later, more or less, they separated. Not far. Maybe half an inch.

"I must speak to your father," Mike said softly.

Rebecca nodded, her head against his chest. "How do you want to do this, Michael?" she whispered.

"Your father?"

She shook her head. "No, no, not that." She smiled, still against his chest. "I do not think, now, that will be the problem I once assumed. I am not certain, but after what Melissa said-"

She nuzzled his shoulder. "He has been reading this philosopher named Spinoza, lately. He smiles a lot. At me, especially. And now and then I see him smiling at you. As if he knows something we do not."

Mike chuckled. "He probably does, at that."

Rebecca leaned back and looked Mike in the eyes. "I will do whatever you wish," she said softly.

Mike studied her in the moonlight. Her eyes were like dark pools, soft, limpid, loving.

"You would prefer it slowly," he said. The statement was a simple declaration.

Rebecca hesitated. Then, ruefully: "Not entirely!" Her hands were suddenly pressing into his ribs, kneading, almost probing. Mike felt the passion flashing from her fingers down to his heels, back to his skull, down his spine. He swayed giddily, and pressed her close.

"Not entirely!" She laughed, turning her face eagerly to meet his. Five minutes more elapsed.

When they broke away-maybe an inch-she was smiling warmly. "But-yes. If you don't mind. I am still-" She hesitated, fumbling for the words.

Mike provided them for her. "You are in a new world, and pushing yourself as hard as possible to grow into it. You would like time, to fill every room properly, before you move into the house."

"Yes!" she said. "Oh, yes. That is exactly it, Michael." She stared up at him. "I love you so," she whispered. "Believe me that I do."

Mike kissed her forehead. "All right, then. That's how we'll do it." For a moment, feeling her shoulders under his hands, he almost hissed. Desire.

Then, laughing softly. "What the hell? My grandpa always used to say we youngsters didn't know what we were missing. Anticipation, he'd say. 'By the time you little twerps get married, you're already bored with sex.' "

Rebecca giggled. How easily they talk and joke about this!

Mike stepped back. Two inches, maybe three. "All right, then," he repeated. "We'll get engaged. A long engagement, just like in the old days. As long as you want, Rebecca Abrabanel."

He stepped back another few inches, slowly and reluctantly, but firmly for all that. "I will speak to your father tomorrow." Then, he was walking away.

Standing on the porch, Rebecca watched him recede until, with a last turn of the head and wave of the hand, he rounded the corner. Her head was straight, her hands clasped together, fingers pressed to her lips. Simply savoring the passion which flowed up and down through her body, like a surging tide.

Not so long as all that, Michael! Oh, I love you so. Oh, I want you so.

Chapter 27

Gretchen awoke in a panic. Disoriented in time, confused in space-but, mostly, petrified by a memory.

Her eyes sped to the door. Closed. For a moment, she was relieved. There was nothing in the door to say that her memory was false. She remembered closing that door, on a smiling face.

Still She sat up. Her eyes scanned the room. That act of long-practiced vigilance brought back a measure of calm. Her family was piled all over the floor, clustered in little heaps, arms and legs entwined in sleep. The automatic snuggling of people for whom winter was a familiar assassin. Even in midsummer, the feel of another body-warm, warm-brought a primordial sense of safety.

Smiling, Gretchen looked down. Her own baby was cradled in her arm. Wilhelm was still fast asleep. To her left, Annalise pressed herself against Gretchen's hip, reacting to the sudden absence of a shoulder. To her right, Gramma did the same. Muttering, now half-awake with the light hold on sleep of the elderly.

Gretchen's eyes went back to the door. The memory poured back in, demanding, insistent.

I must know!

As gently as possible, she disentangled herself from the others. Gramma awoke fully, then. The old woman was obviously confused and disoriented by their surroundings. Gretchen handed Wilhelm to her. Automatically, Gramma took the baby. The familiar act brought reassurance.

Gretchen arose and stepped to the door. She could hear the faint sound of voices coming from the corridor beyond. No words, just voices. She hesitated.

I must know. Firmly, decisively-almost frantically-she opened the door.

There were four young men there. Sitting easily, their backs leaning against the opposite wall of the corridor, legs stretched out before them. They had obviously been engaged in cheerful but quiet conversation.

The suddenness with which Gretchen opened the door startled them. Four faces jerked toward her.

She saw only the face in the middle. Smiling, now; beaming, now; rising to his feet; coming toward her-so eagerly-smiling, smiling. Green eyes like spring itself. Life, enlarged by spectacles.

Gretchen almost collapsed from relief. Shakily, she leaned against the doorframe, clutching it with a hand. A moment later, she was enfolded in his arms.

Safe.

***

She had noticed, without wondering at the reason, that one of Jeff's friends had hurried down the corridor as soon as she appeared from her room. A minute or two later, he returned. With him came several older people.

Two of them, Gretchen recognized-the duchess and the war leader. To her relief, they were both smiling broadly. Gretchen had been half certain that the powerful figures in Jeff's world would ban his marriage to such a one as she. Then, seeing the face of the young woman who accompanied them, her jaw almost dropped.

She had never seen one before-they had all been banned from her town long ago-but she had no doubt at all.

A court Jew-here?

That the woman was Jewish, Gretchen was certain. Her features, her skin tone, her long black hair-so curly!-fit the descriptions she had heard. And men always said Jewesses were beautiful, which she most certainly was.

That she was a court Jew, Gretchen was not so certain. She knew very little about noblemen, and princes and kings, and the life of their courts. But who else would have such poise?

Gretchen brought her surprised reaction under control immediately. She had no personal animus against Jews, and she had no desire to offend the woman. Leaving aside whatever influence the Jewess might have in the American court in her own right, Gretchen was quite certain from little subtleties in body language that the Jewess was the war leader's concubine.

The duchess arrived first, arms spread wide in greeting, and Gretchen lost her self-composure again. The duchess was hugging her!

Gretchen couldn't understand most of what the duchess was saying. She recognized many of the words, but the sense of them was simply gibberish.

"-get you some-garble-first thing! Can't have you-garble-laugh-in a robe! Then-garble-help us. Garble-need good men but-garble-wheat from the-garble (chaff?)."

The Jewess began to speak, translating the duchess' words. Her German was excellent. The accent was a bit odd-Dutch? Spanish?-and the intonation far more cultured than anything Gretchen was accustomed to, but she understood perfectly.

The words themselves, at least. The content of the words was insane.

***

Everything that happened that day was insane. And the next day, and the next. Gretchen obeyed, of course. She had no choice in any event, and the constant presence of Jeff kept her reassured. True, her husband to be was every bit as crazed as the other Americans, but Gretchen was learning to trust those green eyes. Very much.

By the fourth day, the day of her wedding, Gretchen would be reconciled to her new reality. And why not? There were worse things in the world than losing your mind and going to heaven. Much worse.

Chapter 28

Gretchen surveyed the scene in the large new building which the Americans had constructed next to what they called the "power plant." Part of her found it hard not to laugh. The crowd of mercenary soldiers packing the room looked absolutely miserable. Some of that misery was due to their wet condition. The Americans had obviously put them through the same cleansing process which Gretchen and her family had experienced. But she suspected they had been much more abrupt about it than the duchess.

And that, of course, was the major cause of their misery. Men-soldiers especially-wearing nothing but towels wrapped around their waists do not enjoy the sight of other soldiers holding weapons. Especially not those ferocious American guns with their bizarre mechanism for rapid fire. Pump-action shotguns, they were called. A few of the mercenaries had seen the weapons in action on the battlefield, and had quickly spread the word.

So they stood there, silent and unmoving. Shivering more from fear than the wetness.

Gretchen spotted a familiar face almost at once. Her amusement vanished, replaced by pleasure.

So he survived again! "Heinrich!" she called out, and plunged into the mob. "Heinrich-look! It's me-Gretchen!"

Watching her come toward him, Heinrich's jaw dropped. Gretchen grinned. She was not surprised by the reaction. Heinrich had seen her many times. But never so clean, and never wearing such clothing. Gretchen had just obtained them that morning, when the duchess took her entire family into something called the Value Market. The blouse was a bit odd, but not completely outlandish. But the rest!

It had taken Gretchen not more than two hours to make a transition which, completely unknown to her, another world had already made in another universe. She loved her new clothing, especially the "blue jeans" and-marvel of marvels!-the sneakers.

And so, bouncing gleefully on magic feet, Gretchen approached the man who might have once become her own. Kind Heinrich, gentle Heinrich, canny and cunning Heinrich. Tough Heinrich, too. But not, alas, tough enough to dare challenge Ludwig.

***

Melissa gasped. "Is she crazy? We've got no way to protect her in that mob of thugs!"

Next to her, James shook his head. "Protect her? From what?" He pointed to the men beginning to cluster around Gretchen. Smiling men. Relieved men. "Look at them, Melissa. Do those look like thugs? Or-" He snorted. "Like kids running to their momma."

Melissa stared. The crowd around Gretchen was swelling rapidly. The young German woman was becoming the focal point of the entire room. Gretchen and the men around her were now engaging in a rapid verbal exchange. Melissa couldn't understand any of the words, but within seconds she grasped the essence. Much of it was questioning, of course. Frightened and confused men seeking explanations, reasons, bearings. What is happening to us? But then, more and more often, she caught the underlying banter.

"It's like you said," murmured Mike. "A natural born 'chooser of the living.' "

***

The first one she chose was Heinrich. Heinrich, and the twenty or so men who followed him. All of them had survived the battle. Completely uninjured, amazingly enough. Heinrich's group, like Ludwig's, had been in the front line. But they were arquebusiers, not pikemen. By good luck, they had been among the Catholic mercenaries ordered to attack Hoffman's men. They had not faced the M-60. And the ensuing enfilade rifle fire had struck the men on the opposite flank of their separate contingent.

Gretchen would have chosen Heinrich and his men first, under any circumstances. The fact that he spoke excellent English was simply an added bonus.

She introduced them to Frank Jackson personally. Then, allowed Heinrich to speak for himself. Ten minutes later, Jackson nodded and extended his hand.

The American army had just gained its first German recruits.

***

And so the day went. And the next, and the next. On the first day, the Americans were tense. On the second, watching the relief and joy with which the German camp followers who were now packing the area greeted the men who emerged from Gretchen's "choosing," they were beginning to relax. By the third day "Jesus," said Mike, wiping his face. "I don't know how much more of this I can take." He tried to block the sounds from his mind.

Grimly, the doctor surveyed the scene. Knots of women, children, old folks. Squatting on the ground outside the power plant, trying to cope with the news. These were the people who had come looking for men who were not to be found elsewhere. Hoping against hope that they might still be prisoners instead of battlefield casualties, and finding out otherwise.

"Yeah," agreed Nichols. "It's easy enough to kill a man. Something else again to listen to their families afterward."

Mike's eyes fell on a young boy, perhaps eight years old. The face was tear-streaked. Numb. Daddy has gone away forever.

Mike looked away. "How many are left?" he asked, nodding toward the new building attached to the power plant. The "processing center," as everyone was now calling it.

The third man in their party, Dan Frost, gave the answer. "Not that many. A lot fewer than I'd imagined, to tell you the truth."

"I'm not surprised, Dan," said Mike. "Not any longer. From what Rebecca and Jeff have told me, Gretchen and her people had the bad luck to fall into the hands of the worst types among the mercenaries. Most of them-"

James interrupted, pointing to a clot of people moving down the road, following a newly appointed American guide. At the center, still wearing nothing but a towel, was a man in his early thirties. "Most of them are like those." He smiled, cocking his head at Mike. "What did Melissa say you called it? 'Just men, that's all. Fucking up in a fucked-up world.' "

Mike nodded. "I'd say there won't be more than a hundred rejects left, in the end. Gretchen's being one hell of lot more charitable than I probably would have been."

"Are any of their women and children likely to complain?" asked Dan.

Mike and James sneered simultaneously. "Not hardly!" snorted Mike. He nodded toward the small crowd of miserable people squatting outside the processing center. "Those people are weeping for the dead, Dan. The ones who"-angrily-" 'belonged' to the scum still inside have already left. Practically dancing, once they got the news."

Nichols ran his fingers through his hair. "I saw one woman come up to Gretchen and ask her something. The whereabouts of her so-called 'man,' I'm pretty sure. The name Diego was mentioned. When she heard what Gretchen had to say, she just collapsed. Crying like a baby. She kept repeating two words, over and over."

His face was grim. "I don't know much German, but I know that much. Thank God, thank God."

There was silence for a moment. Then the police chief cleared his throat.

"All right, guys. We've got to come to a decision here. I saw the body myself, before we buried it. Doc Adams was right. The man probably would have died anyway, but the fatal wounds weren't caused by gunfire. He was knifed. As neat a butchering job as you could ask for, too."

Mike glanced at him. "You know what my opinion is, Dan. Are you comfortable with it?"

Frost scowled. "Hell no! Comfortable? I'm a law-enforcement officer, for Christ's sake. I've got evidence suggesting first-degree murder and several witnesses placing two known people at the scene of the crime. And you wanna know if I'm comfortable?"

Mike said nothing. James, after looking away for a moment, asked: "Have you spoken with Jeff about it?"

The police chief was still scowling. "No," he said forcefully. "And I've got no intention of speaking to him, either. Not unless we decide to press charges."

Mike said nothing. James looked away again. Then, turning back: "Melissa told me that Gretchen had her younger sister all wrapped up in cloths. Keeping her figure hidden."

Dan spit on the ground. "Dammit, James, that's not the point! I don't have any doubt at all about what happened. Or why." He rubbed the back of his neck. "It's just the principle of the thing, that's all."

A little humor crept into his voice. "Truth is, any jury in this town would return a 'justifiable homicide' verdict in a heartbeat. Especially after I described the so-called victim. I swear, the guy looked so much like a devil I almost shot him two or three times myself, just to be sure he was dead."

Dan sighed. "But who needs a trial, when you get right down to it? Be great, wouldn't it? Do I arrest them right after the wedding tomorrow, or do I wait a day so the kids can get laid?"

Mike said nothing. James looked away. Silence.

The police chief's decision was inevitable. "The hell with it. If the principle bothers me too much, I can always remind myself that it happened out of my jurisdiction."

Mike nodded.

"Okay," said James. "There'll be rumors, of course. Adams is a very good doctor, but he's on the talkative side. By now, must be at least a half dozen people besides us who know the story."

Mike and Dan grinned simultaneously.

"Hell, yes, there'll be stories!" chortled the police chief. His eyes surveyed the surrounding hills admiringly. "We're mountain people, Doc. Always had stories. The more grisly the better. Ain't a man or woman around here who can't trot out their brag about some desperado in the family tree."

"My great-grandfather was a bank robber," bragged Mike. "They say he killed two guards in one holdup."

Dan sneered. "Oh, bullshit! The way I heard it he was just a petty horsethief." He drove over Mike's splutter of protest. "Now, if you want a genu-ine criminal, you gotta go to my great-great-aunt Bonnie's first husband, Leroy. Cut four men, they say, in a knife fight on a riverboat. That was just the gambling side of it. He's also supposed-"

"Pikers," sneered Nichols. "Hillbilly sissies. You want some real stories?" He rubbed his hands. "Welcome to the ghetto! Let's start with my second cousin, Anthony. A beast in human flesh, everybody says so. Started off at the age of thirteen-" He drove relentlessly over Appalachian outrage. "Then, no sooner did he get out of prison-"

***

By the evening of the third day, Gretchen's task was done. The town of Grantville found itself, almost overnight, doubled in population. Some of the soldiers, like Heinrich and his men, enrolled in the American army. But most of them seized the opportunity to take up new trades-or, often enough, return to long-familiar ones: farmer, miner, carpenter, craftsman.

Over the next few weeks, the crowds packed into the refugee centers would start thinning. One by one, hesitantly, tentatively, American families would start taking in German boarders. The process was initiated by men at work, usually. Discovering that the man next to them, for all that he spoke an unfamiliar tongue and was possessed of odd notions and whims, swung a pretty good hammer or dug more than his share of coal. Or, simply, was polite and had a nice smile.

***

The rest? The ones to whom Gretchen would not give the nod?

They expected to be executed, of course. Their actual fate was far more bizarre-and, truth be told, much more unsettling.

None of those men had ever seen a photograph before. Seeing one-seeing their own faces on it-was bad enough. The writing on the posters was worse. Many of those men could read. Most of them, actually, since Gretchen had a low opinion of officers. The ones who couldn't got a translation from their literate fellows.

The posters were identical, except for the photograph and the name.

wanted-dead

this man is declared outlaw

if he is found anywhere in american territory

after july 5, 1631

kill him

no questions will be asked

Heinrich acted as interpreter.

"You've got two days," he growled. "Better move fast. You're on foot with nothing but the clothes on your backs."

The former commander of the tercio cleared his throat. "This is unclear," he whined. "Just how far does this-this 'American territory' extend?"

Heinrich turned to Mike for the answer. Mike said nothing. He just gave the commanding officer a stare.

***

A few months later, the officer found himself another employer. The Tsar. Russia, he thought, would be far enough.

Chapter 29

It may or may not have been July Fourth, depending on whom you asked. The division ran essentially along religious lines, but not entirely. The modern Gregorian calendar had been decreed by a papal bull in 1582, and was immediately adopted by Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. Within two years, most of the Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire had followed suit, along with those portions of the Low Countries still under Spanish control. The Swiss started the process in 1583, but stalled immediately-the new calendar would not be accepted in the entire country until 1812. And the Hungarians took it for their own in 1587.

Then… Nothing, for a century. The Protestant and Orthodox nations dug in their heels and stayed with the Julian calendar.

So, what day was it? Well, according to the Scots cavalrymen and the Protestants from Badenburg who had come for the celebration, it most certainly was not the Fourth of July. Preposterous! It was No matter. Grantville was an American town, and the Americans said it was the Fourth of July. And besides Everybody loves a parade!

***

As official parades go, it was utterly disorganized. Henry Dreeson had tried desperately to bring rhyme and reason to the marching order, but the mayor had been overwhelmed by events and enthusiasm. Events, in that everyone was too preoccupied with integrating the former Catholic prisoners into their new world. Enthusiasm, in that the high-school students had their own opinion on the proper order of things. Especially Julie Sims, who led the rebellion with verve and йlan.

The town's mayor was one man, in his sixties. He lost.

Cheerleaders first.

When they heard the news, the Scotsmen were delighted. They were less delighted-downright disgruntled-when they discovered their own assigned place in the parade.

Tha' far back? We'll nae see nothin' o' those high-steppin' knees! Ridic'lous!

So, the first little fray in the marching order began. Calvinists all, the Scots cavalrymen knew that man was born in sin and they were bound and determined to prove it. A full third of them had left their place in the parade before it even started. The parade route being jammed full of people, the Scots rebels cheerfully trotted their mounts down the side streets and alleys until they found the proper vantage points from which to observe the parade. And why not? It wasn't as if their horses needed the exercise.

Despite his own avid desire to admire Julie's knees, Mackay tried to stop them. But Lennox bade him still.

"Be a' ease, laddie," he said serenely. "Parades are a silly business anyway, an' t'Americans dinna seem to care. Besides-" He gave Mackay a sarcastic flourish of the mustachioes. "Ye look downright silly, wavin' tha' thing around as if t'were a saber on ae battlefield. 'Tis drippin' on y'buff coat, by th'by."

Flushing, Mackay rescued his ice-cream cone in the only manner known to the sidereal universe. He went back to eating it. Perched on his warhorse, a ferocious brace of wheel-lock pistols at his side, the Scot commander made as unmartial a figure as possible.

"Marvelous stuff," he mumbled. "How do they-mumble-it?"

Lennox took that as a rhetorical question, so he didn't bother with a reply. He knew the answer, as it happened, because Willie Ray Hudson had shown him. Simple, really, as long as you could make the ice.

Lennox studied the marching order ahead of them, trying to gauge when the parade would lurch into motion. He couldn't see much of it, however. The huge coal-hauling vehicle ahead of him-the Americans called it an APC, with their peculiar obsession with acronyms-blocked most of his vision.

Armored personnel carrier! Wha' ae laugh! Lennox didn't bother to restrain his grin. The rear of the vehicle was open, and American soldiers were hauling German children aboard for the ride. A few of the bolder German adults followed, curiosity and parental concern overriding their apprehension.

Lennox's grin faded. A glance at his commander, still happily chewing on his ice cream, brought back worry. Lennox had spent many hours in Willie Ray's company, over the past few weeks. The dour middle-aged Scotsman and the cheerful old American farmer had taken a liking for each other.

Ice cream, yes. Willie Ray had shown him the large stock of flavorings still available in the markets. And we can tap the maple trees for sugar. The refined sugar's almost gone.

So was the grain, and the vegetables, and the meat, and the eggs. Even with rigorous rationing, the food stocked in the town's supermarkets had not lasted more than two months, just as their owners and managers had predicted. The small number of American farms which had come through the Ring of Fire could not possibly make up the difference. That had been true even before Grantville's population doubled, after the battle.

Lennox's mind veered aside, for a moment, snagged on another American eccentricity. They insisted on naming their battles.

That much Lennox could understand, even if the practice had fallen out of custom in his day. Most battles in the seventeenth century were sodden affairs. Bruising clashes between armies which collided almost accidentally as they marched across a ravaged landscape looking for food and shelter. No more worth naming than a dogfight in an alley.

But why call it the Battle o' the Crapper? He understood the reference, but not the reasoning. They were a quirky folk, the Americans. Lennox could think of no other nationality which would have found logic in naming a battle in honor of four girls in a shithouse.

He didn't understand the logic, quite. The edges of it, perhaps, and the grim humor which lurked somewhere inside. But not the heart of the thing. It was too contradictory, too American. Only a nation of commoners, he decided, each of whom thought like a nobleman, could find logic there. An ice-cream nation, confident that the grain and meat would be found.

Lennox didn't understand it, no. But he had already made his decision, so the incomprehension was moot. He had never encountered such confident people in his life, and confidence is the most contagious of all diseases.

The APC ahead of him lurched into gear.

"T'parade's startin', lad," he announced. Sourly: "It'd be ae fine thing if t'Scots commander c'd finish his ice cream 'fore he makes fools o' us all."

Mackay mumbled hasty agreement. But he did not relinquish the ice-cream cone until it had vanished, in the only suitable method known to the sidereal universe.

***

Ahead, somewhere in the middle of the parade, Mike and Rebecca walked hand in hand. They were more or less at the head of the UMWA contingent.

A flash of light drew his eye.

Rebecca smiled, and raised their clasped hands. "It's so beautiful, Michael. Where did you get it?"

Michael returned her smile with one of his own. "It's a secret," he replied. And it'll stay one, too, if Morris keeps his mouth shut.

Mike had intended to give Rebecca his mother's engagement ring. But it had been a paltry thing, in all truth, sentiment aside. When he brought it to Morris' shop for sizing, the town's jeweler had been aghast.

"For Rebecca? No way!"

Morris immediately made a beeline for the jewelry case which contained the finest rings in his collection. That case, as it happened, was the only one which still contained any jewelry. The Roths had turned over most of their stock to the town treasury weeks earlier. Roth Jewelry's gold and silver had provided the Americans with their first hard currency.

Morris opened the case and reached in. "I've got just the thing over here. Don't even think I need to size it."

Mike followed, scowling. "If it was good enough for my mother, I don't see why-"

Morris frowned. "Your mother was a fine woman, Mike Stearns. But-but-"

"Nothing but a coal miner's wife? Well, so what? I'm a coal miner."

"Yeah, but-" Still frowning, Morris shook his head. "Yeah, but."

Mike's irritation had vanished, then. He understood full well the meaning of that yeah, but. Understood it, and took pride in the knowing.

Yeah, but-she's also the closest thing this town's ever had to a princess.

There was something amusing in the thought. Rebecca's growing status in the town had precious little to do with heritage and "bloodline." True, the Abrabanels were ranked by Sephardim among their finest families. Finest of all, perhaps. But that meant little or nothing to Grantville's West Virginians. What they knew of the history of the Spanish Jews could have been inscribed on a pin.

Didn't matter. There was the romance of the thing!

And Dr. Abrabanel was becoming a familiar sight, taking his twice-daily walks through the town. Stopping, in his serene and courtly manner, to exchange a few words with every passerby. Everybody knew that he was a philosopher, and looked the part. Only philosopher in the history of the town, so far as anyone could remember. A princely gentleman, if you ever met one. A prince in exile is still a prince, especially when he has a beautiful daughter to prove it. So The high school's one-hundred-piece band was blaring away gleefully not far ahead of them. But the sound didn't disguise the cheers that went up as Mike and Rebecca ambled their way down the route.

Hey, look-it's Becky!

***

So, in its informal way, did a town of West Virginians complete their adoption of an informal princess. And if the Germans standing alongside them thought the matter strange-a Jewish princess?-they kept their mouths shut. They were beginning, just beginning, to settle into an unexpected new world. One thing they had already learned. Their American hosts were not given to formalities and stiff propriety. But they took their principles seriously. Seriously enough, at least, to shatter a tercio. And seriously enough, before accepting new members into their world, to require them to listen to a recitation. The Bill of Rights, the schoolteacher had called it, before she stumbled through the words in newly learned German.

The name, and the concept beneath it, was still a bit bizarre to those commoners. But only a bit. They were quite familiar, actually, with many of the basic principles of democracy. The Dutch and Venetian republics had been in existence for decades, and the Puritan revolution in England was on the horizon. They had simply never seen all those principles put together in one place, and then-this was the key-taken dead seriously.

Odd, that. New. But the Germans had found nothing new or odd or bizarre in the confidence of the elderly woman who recited the phrases. A duchess, sure enough, with the authority to match the appearance. And the armed retainers standing at her side, with those terrible rifles, ready to enforce the appearance.

Here and there, scattered through the crowd, German accents came to join the cheers.

Ey luk-ist Becky!

***

"They should be cheering you," whispered Rebecca, frowning. "And the UMWA."

Michael's smile widened. "Hell, no. I like it this way just fine."

***

By early afternoon, the "parade" had dissolved completely. The official contingents of the parade fell aside and became onlookers. Onlookers marched. Soon enough, the fearsome APCs were pressed into service as tourist buses, hauling packs of German and American children all over town. By noon, Grantville's two downtown taverns were packed to the gills, especially after Willie Ray brought in his newly made stock of moonshine. He'd even provided labels for the jars: "Revenoo-ers Rue." Business spilled out onto the streets.

At that point, six American entrepreneurs formed an on-the-spot partnership with four German ex-soldiers. A Scots cavalryman acted as interpreter and, by the end of the negotiations, had parlayed himself into the partnership as well.

Three of the Americans were farmers who, like Willie Ray, had their own stocks of miscellaneous home brew. The fourth American, Ernie Dobbs, was a beer-truck driver. By bad luck, he had been in Grantville making deliveries when the Ring of Fire occurred. Since there was no one to say otherwise, he had retained possession of the truck's stock of beer-which he now contributed as his capital investment. The remaining two Americans agreed to provide the necessary equipment-which consisted, in the main, of card tables and folding chairs.

The Germans, former tavern-keepers, provided the experienced personnel. By noontime, having expropriated the small park next to the town's community swimming pool by mysterious means, the "Thuringen Gardens" were open for business.

"Ey am t'bouncer," pronounced the Scotsman proudly, as he ushered the mob onto the grounds. But he spent most of his time pressed into service as a lifeguard, after the children demanded the pool be opened also.

***

Henry Dreeson alone, stubbornly faithful to his civic duty, completed the assigned route. But the mayor spent no more than five minutes, glowering at the gas station on the edge of town, before retracing his steps to join the festivities. He didn't even raise a ruckus over the gross violations of several city ordinances represented by the "Gardens." Not even after he saw the German barkeeps, true to their own traditions, start handing drinks to youngsters. Soft drinks only, of course. But as far as the Germans were concerned, beer was a soft drink.

***

The only people who did not participate in the parade, in any capacity, were the members of the wedding party. Which, by then, numbered well over a hundred people.

Most of them belonged to the bride's party. In addition to Gretchen's own "family" of a couple of dozen or so, there were Heinrich and his men, and their camp followers-say, fifty people all told.

Then, there were the "advisers." Melissa occupied pride of place in that coterie, along with the owner of the town's bridal store. Her name was Karen Reading. The rest of the "advisers," truth be told, were gofers. Melissa's high-school students, mostly, along with Karen's two daughters and four nieces.

Karen took care of all the bridal preparations. Melissa took care of bridal discipline.

A difficult task, that last. Gretchen was generally very cooperative, and she was positively ecstatic over her wedding dress. Even after Karen explained that it was "only on loan." The difficulty-the battle royal-revolved around one question only.

Melissa, for the hundredth time: "You are not getting married in sneakers."

Gretchen, sullen: "You people iss wahnsinnig." Surly: "Zat means-"

Melissa, snarling: "I know what the word means! I looked it up, after the tenth time you used it. Insane or not, you are still going to wear them."

Gretchen, glaring at her feet: "Zese sings iss torture."

Melissa, sighing: "I know. I don't approve of them personally, mind you. But-"

Gretchen, gloomy, muttering, trying a few steps: "I vill fall und break mein neck."

Melissa, gloomy, muttering, watching: "I'm a traitor. A quisling." Then, snarling to her "aides": "And where is Willie Ray Hudson, anyway?"

The chorus replied: "In town, getting drunk."

"Get him! Now!" The high-school girls sped from the scene, a flying squad in search of a rascal. Gretchen stumbled. Melissa scowled.

Muttered: "Great. Just great. A bride in high heels and a drunk to give her away. We'll never make it down the aisle."

***

The groom's party was far smaller. Larry Wild was the best man, and Eddie and Jimmy the ushers. Beyond that, there were a handful of other high school boys, acting as gofers for the Grand Old Man of the group-Dr. Nichols.

James admired Jeff's tuxedo. "Good fit."

Jeff flushed. "Come on, Dr. Nichols. It isn't, and you know it." He stared down at the outfit. The tuxedo rental company being now in a different universe, the expensive suits had become the town's collective property, available "on loan" for whoever needed them. "This one was Mike's, 'cause he was the biggest. Ms. Reading still had to let it out. I look like a fat penguin."

James grinned. "What is this? You're getting married today to the prettiest girl in town and you're worried about your weight?"

Jeff's flush deepened. So did the doctor's good humor.

"Relax, Jeff. In a few months, it'll be a moot point anyway. None of us are going to get through this winter with any extra body fat."

Jeff's personal worries were overridden by a general concern. "What do you think? Are we going to make it?"

James peered through one of the windows of Jeff's trailer, looking to the north. "I imagine so," he replied softly. "There's a lot of food out there if we can just manage to bring it in. The area's farmers had finished their sowing before the mercenaries arrived and scared everybody off the land. So-"

He shrugged. "The truth is, it's not actually that easy to starve to death. The biggest problem with a low-calorie diet is that it weakens people, and it's usually deficient in vitamins and minerals. Leaves you wide open for disease."

His good humor returned. "Fortunately, while we're getting very low on food and medicine and antibiotics, the town's pharmacies and supermarkets still have a big stock of vitamins and minerals. We're going to establish a rigorous program of dietary supplements. That should get us through this first winter." He made a face. "Not that we won't be getting sick of gruel and porridge."

James decided to change the subject. He inspected the interior of the trailer. "Looks like you've done a good job here."

Jeff was just as eager as the doctor to leave worrying behind. "We worked our asses off, these past four days. Had lots of help from a bunch of the other kids from school, too. You like it?"

James hesitated, before opting for honesty. "Like it? That's not exactly the word I'd use. You're going to be as crowded as a basket full of kittens. But I approve, even if it does look like the strangest architectural design in the world."

"It'll work," said Jeff defensively. He pointed to the door. "All three of them have been hooked together, with good insulation for the passages."

In times past, that door had opened to the outside world. Now, it connected to a new trailer which had been laboriously inserted between this one and Larry's, next door. The "new" trailer was actually an abandoned one, donated by its former owner. Most of the last few days had been taken up by turning the three trailers into an interconnected complex, cleaning the new trailer, and redesigning the living space. As soon as the wedding was over, Gretchen's entire family would be moving from their temporary quarters in the high school into the complex. Between them and Jeff's three friends, the place would truly be crowded. But everyone would have a place, and "You're happy about it," stated James. "All four of you."

Jeff smiled. The expression combined pleasure with sadness. "Yeah, I guess. We've-" He sighed. "It's been real hard, not having our families. And now we're going to have the biggest family in town."

Worry returned, in full force. "I just hope it works out okay. I know it's going to be hard for all of us, getting used to each other."

James studied him for a moment. "You worried about Gretchen? Think she'll be unhappy?"

Jeff shook his head. "Not really," he admitted. "I showed her the place yesterday, you know."

His thoughts fell aside. James grinned. "Gorgeous, ain't she?"

Jeff nodded happily. But his fretfulness returned within seconds. "You know what she said, the minute she stepped in? 'You are so rich.'

" 'Rich'!" he snorted. "Look at this place, Dr. Nichols. It's nothing but a trailer."

James reached up and placed his hand on the shoulder of the large boy-young man-standing before him. "Are you really worried about that 'gold digger' business?" he asked. "Myself, I think it's a lot of-"

"No, no. It's not that." Jeff hesitated. "I can understand why she'd think the way she does, coming from"-he waved his hand-"all that. It's just that-"

He lowered his head. The next words were sad, spoken in a whisper. "She doesn't love me, you know. I don't think she even knows what the word means. Not in the same way I do, anyway."

***

That very moment, as it happened, Melissa was discussing the same subject with Gretchen. When she finished her awkward, half-English/half-German explanation, Gretchen frowned.

"Zat iss fьr nobles," she protested.

Melissa sighed. Gretchen studied her intently. "But you sink ziss iss important? Fь-for Jeff?"

Melissa nodded. "It will matter to him more than anything, Gretchen. Trust me. As long as he thinks you love him, he'll be able to handle anything."

Not certain if her words had made any sense, Melissa tried to stumble through a German semitranslation. But Gretchen waved her down.

"I understand." The frown on her face cleared away. "Iss not a problem, zen. I vill vork at it. Very hard. I am a good vorker. Very-" She groped for the word, for a moment, before finding it. "Ja. Determined. Not lazy."

Melissa couldn't help laughing. And if some of her humor was rueful, most of it was not. "That you most certainly are, girl!"

She examined the young woman standing before her. "That you most certainly are," she repeated. Smiling, shaking her head: "You know what, Gretchen Richter-soon-to-be-Higgins? I do believe this is one marriage that's going to fly."

Melissa laughed again. " 'Work at it!' I like that!"

Chapter 30

In the end, the wedding went off without a hitch.

Willie Ray showed up on time. And if he wasn't exactly sober, he had a lifetime's experience to lean on. So, stubby and half-inebriated as he was, he managed to get Gretchen down the aisle without mishap. True, it took her quite a while. But she didn't stumble once and the organist didn't mind having the time to show off.

Neither did the audience. The church was packed. Standing room only, and likewise the street outside. At least half the town showed up for the wedding, spilling off the sidewalks.

The huge crowd was in a very festive mood. More so, in truth-much more-than at most weddings. For all of those people, American and German alike, the wedding came like a burst of sunlight. Quentin Underwood had spoken for thousands. After this nightmare we've been plunged into, I swear I can't think of a single thing that'd be better for my soul than to watch a young woman walk down the aisle in a wedding dress.

***

That sentiment, everyone had in common. From there, the viewpoints diverged.

For the German participants and onlookers, the wedding came as something of a promise. Or, perhaps, a reassurance. Although they now numbered well over half of this new society coming into existence, the Germans-former refugees, mercenaries, camp followers-were well aware of their subordinate position within it. They were still groping to understand, much less accept-much less feel they were accepted.

The habit of centuries had shaped them. The acid of hereditary privilege had corroded their souls. Without even being aware they were doing it, the German newcomers automatically reacted to Americans as commoners to nobility. It didn't matter what the Americans said. Words are cheap, especially the promises of aristocracy to their underlings.

What mattered-what had always mattered, more than anything-was what people are. And the Americans, it was plain to see, were nobility. It was obvious in everything they said and did, and didn't say and didn't do. It shone through in their simple carriage.

Had they been told, the Americans would have been mystified. Their own centuries had also shaped them, and healed an ancient wound. Every American, on some level, took a fundamental truth for granted. I am important. Precious. Human. My life is valuable.

That attitude infused them, whether they knew it or not. And it was that unspoken, unconscious attitude which the German newcomers immediately sensed. They reacted automatically, just as Gretchen had instantly assumed that an American schoolteacher was really a duchess. Just as Rebecca had instantly assumed that a coal miner was an hidalgo.

Ingrained habits, beaten into people by centuries of oppression and uncaring cruelty, cannot be removed by words alone. Deeds are also necessary, especially deeds which cut to the heart of the thing.

Some people are really human. Most are not.

Good blood. Bad blood. That simple, vicious dichotomy had ruled Europe for centuries. For more than a decade, now, it had turned central Europe into a charnel house. The nobility, as always when they bickered over the price of their meat, presented the butcher's bill to the common folk. And why not? Those people don't value life much anyway. They don't feel pain the way we do.

Good blood, bad blood. Today, in the clearest way possible, the Americans were making a pledge to their new brethren. We do not care. It means nothing to us.

***

For the Americans who watched and participated, the thing was seen from a different angle. "Blood" was irrelevant. A goodly number of them, after all, had more than a little German ancestry in them. What did matter was a subtler definition of class.

Regardless of Jeff's plebeian Appalachian "stock," he was one of the town's good boys. Everybody knew it, for all that some of them-yahoos-might have ridiculed him in private as a "nerd" or a "geek."

Gretchen, on the other hand The word "trash" had been bandied about in private, often enough, in the days since the public announcement was made. To that coarse term, some had added others even worse. Slut, tramp-whore.

But, as Mike had rightly said, public sanction carries a powerful weight. So, the foul words were spoken only in private. And, even then, not so very often as all that. The days passed, and the terms faded away. By the afternoon of the wedding, they were forgotten by all but a handful. Grantville's Americans had been swept up in a tidal wave of romance.

Yes, yes, yes-it was all very peculiar. So what? There were a thousand fairy tales to fall back upon. Jeff Higgins was one of their own, after all. Everyone knew the story of how he and his friends had stood off a mob of thugs with their shotguns. If you looked at it the right way, he was a knight in shining armor. Appalachian style, of course-and what's wrong with that?

Gretchen? Rapunzel, by God, with the figure and the face and the long blond hair to prove it. Forget about the dirty feet. And if the story of how she had hidden her sisters in a shithouse was gruesome, it was also heroic in its own way. For hill people, at least.

Soon enough, too, the new story was worming its way through the populace, adding its own gory glamour. Oooh… so grisly! Mountain grisly!

The story was garbled, of course. Ludwig and Diego conflated, confused. A desperate young woman and her new paramour, in murtherous conspiracy, doing away with the obstacle to their love. Terrible, terrible, just terrible. On the other hand, the man was a fiend. A monster, whose villainy grew by the telling. The very picture of a devil. Hadn't Dr. Adams said as much himself? (Which he had, in his blabbermouth way. But the rumor that he drove a stake through the heart of the corpse was quite false.)

So, by the afternoon of the wedding, the American half of this growing society had come to accept it also. Embrace it, in truth. In one of history's little ironies, a commoner folk adopted the romantic mythology of nobility and used it to drive home their own purpose. Something new was being forged here, in a place called Thuringia. Something valuable and precious. Their own blood would go into the tempering. As it should, as it must. Good blood joining other. So are true nations made.

***

The wedding took place in the town's Catholic church, since it was the biggest. But the service was Methodist, and was done by Jeff's pastor. The arrangement was unusual, but had been agreed to by everyone. Neither Jeff nor Gretchen cared very much, so long as the wedding was "done right."

As for the pastor and the priest? They were good friends, as it happened. Their friendship had grown over the years, shaped by a mutual interest in theological discussion, foreign films, and-most of all-a shared hobby. Both of them were enthusiastic auto mechanics, in their spare time. They had worked together, often enough, rebuilding good cars out of junk. Let others worry about the fine points and the detail work.

True, Father Mazzare had fretted at one point.

"It's not the wedding that bothers me, it's-" He waved the wrench about. "Everything."

Rev. Jones grunted. His head was half-buried in the engine. "Are you still worrying about the pope?" He extended his hand. Father Mazzare passed him the wrench. His voice continued, half-muffled: "I looked it up, by the way. Papal infallibility wasn't proclaimed until 1869. So the way I see it, you've got almost a quarter of a millennium to argue with him." He grunted again. "Okay, that's done."

His face emerged, grinning, to meet the scowling visage of his friend.

"That's lawyering and you know it," growled Father Mazzare.

Still grinning, Rev. Jones shrugged. "Yeah, of course it is. So what? Lawyering'll work in a pinch."

Father Mazzare was still scowling. Rev. Jones sighed. "Larry, what else are you going to do? If you accept the current situation, you'd be pretty much bound to call in the Inquisition and demand the enforcement of the Edict of Restitution." He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I'd have to take exception, if you tried to seize my church. Very least, I'd insist you return my copy of Rashomon."

Mazzare chuckled. "Oh, well," he muttered. "We'll do the best we can. I would appreciate it, however, if you'd refrain from denouncing the Whore of Rome at the wedding service tomorrow."

Jones grimaced. "Give me a break!" Then, chuckling himself: "Not that the current pope doesn't deserve it, mind you, from all I've heard. But that girl's Catholic herself, and she's gone through enough already."

He peered into another crevice of the engine. "Hand me the quarter-inch drive, will you, with a three-eighth socket?"

As Mazzare rummaged in the rollaway, Jones continued. "Do you think they really did it?"

"That's between them and God," came the reply, along with the socket wrench. "I can't say I'm losing any sleep over it. The way I heard it, the man looked like a vampire."

"Wouldn't surprise me if he was," muttered Jones, diving back into his work. "How's the town stocked for garlic, by the way?"

***

Time, now.

Standing at the altar, his friends by his side, Jeff tried not to fidget. James Nichols, about to take his seat, paused and came back.

He spoke very softly, so only Jeff could hear. "You can still change your mind."

Immediately, Jeff shook his head. "No, I can't. You know that as well as I do."

Nichols studied the young face in front of him. "Just checking, that's all."

Jeff smiled. A bit ruefully, perhaps, but only a bit. "And I don't want to, anyway. I'm not worrying about the wedding, Dr. Nichols. Just-" His hand made a little motion. Groping.

"All the years after."

Jeff nodded. Nichols put a hand on his shoulder and leaned close. "Listen to me, boy. It'll work out or it won't. Doesn't matter, really, as long as you do your job. Forget all you ever heard about manhood. Your job is to give your people-your wife, your kids-a space where they can build their lives. A roof over their heads and food on the table is part of it. So's their own bed, for your old folks to die in. How much more you can do is up to you. Just try your best. If you do that, you can call yourself a man. The rest is all bullshit." He squeezed the shoulder. "You understand?"

The shoulder relaxed, and the man with it. "Yeah, Doc. I do."

"Good enough." Nichols left. A moment later, the organ began to play. In the back of the church, steadying herself on Willie Ray's arm, Gretchen made her appearance.

***

Jeff watched her come, the whole time. He never noticed her mincing, hesitant steps on treacherous heels. He was simply swept up in the ancient ceremony. And discovering, as untold millions of young men had discovered before him, that there is nothing in the world as beautiful as his bride approaching.

Doubts, worries, fears, anxieties-all vanished. I do. Oh yeah, I do.

Chapter 31

They were alone now. For the first time ever, Gretchen realized. After ushering them to the door of the trailer, the family had let Gretchen and her husband enter unaccompanied. For the rest of the day, and the night, the family would crowd into the other two trailers in the complex.

Silently, Gretchen took her husband by the hand and led the way into the bedroom. The bedroom had once belonged to her husband's parents. Now it would be theirs.

Once in the room, she closed the door and began to disrobe. The look on her husband's face stopped her. Very shy, very nervous. Gretchen had intended to get the matter over with as quickly as possible. Now, seeing his face, she realized that would upset her husband. The thought was unbearable. Whatever else, she owed kindness to this man.

So, smiling, she dropped her hands and held out her arms. A moment later, her husband had enfolded her in his own.

The practiced response with which Gretchen accepted that embrace changed almost instantly into something else. This was no Ludwig, to whose embrace she had both to submit and shield herself. Willingly, she lifted her lips to meet Jeff's. Her lips were soft, probing, open; not the shield wall of the past. She felt his tongue and sent her own to meet it. Fumbling the task, even more than he, because Gretchen had no experience at all in kissing.

She relaxed completely, now, and returned both the kisses and the caresses with her own. The hands roaming her body were becoming more and more enflamed. She could sense it. But she did not fear Jeff's passion. Not in the least. Soon, very soon, she would be satisfying it.

And so what? Satisfying a man's lust was a chore, true enough. But there were chores and chores. There was the chore of cleaning blood from a plundered pile of booty. The chore of shaving a rapist, controlling her hand with an iron will, lest her shrieking soul spill his life on the ground, and her family's with it.

And then, there was the chore of swaddling a baby. The chore of wiping spittle from a child. The chore of warming a grandmother in winter. Easy things, caring things. Family things.

There would be no bruises on her body from her husband's lust, she knew. Never. She was safe. But she also knew that she would be called upon to satisfy that lust far more often-far more!-than ever she had been called by Ludwig. The knowledge brought no fear, only a quiet satisfaction. Here, too, family things would prove themselves again. Strong.

What her husband would want, Gretchen would give. Gladly, if not eagerly. If nothing else, while she carried out the family chore, she could entertain herself mocking the shade of an ogre. Sneering at his ghost.

***

Then, Jeff was breaking away. Very reluctantly, she thought. To her surprise, Gretchen found that reluctance mirrored in herself. The reaction puzzled her. Even family chores, after all, are still chores. She was usually glad enough to be done with them.

She ascribed the reaction to lingering fear. Nothing more. That strange flaring sensation, likewise. Though that, too, was odd. Why should she feel this regret, now that it was fading? Fear was nothing to treasure.

Jeff was smiling. She could sense his growing relaxation and confidence, and was glad to see it come. Gretchen had promised the duchess-as she would always think of that woman, whatever her title-that she would work very hard at this odd thing which the Americans called "love." This, she realized now, was part of it. A husband was not a rapist. A husband should feel relaxed in the company of his wife. Confident, not in his power, but in his position.

Jeff sat on the bed and patted his hand next to him, inviting her to sit. Gretchen obeyed. Then, haltingly, he began to speak. She translated the broken words easily enough. She had much greater difficulty understanding his offer. It was the last thing she had expected.

Wait? Because of what I have been through? Until I am comfortable, and at ease? Myself willing?

Gretchen was utterly astonished. Her husband's offer, she knew at once, did not stem from lack of ardor. No, not in the least. She understood the difficulty with which he was restraining himself. Male desire was a thing she knew perfectly, and she did not think any man had ever desired her as much as the man sitting next to her on that bed did at that moment.

Her mind groped for meaning. Meaning came, immediately, but it was so obvious and simple that she ignored it without thought. Then, thinking, came back and examined it.

Yes. It is true. He simply cares.

Tears filled her eyes. A wave of affection more powerful than any she had ever felt in her life poured through her heart. Instinctively, without calculation, she embraced Jeff and drew him down upon her. Her lips pressed against his, soft and open, her tongue entering his mouth.

Suddenly, she felt very hot and flushed. She pushed Jeff away-softly, but insistently-sat up, and tried to remove her clothing. Her fingers fumbled at the cantankerous thing which the Americans called a "zipper."

No need. Her husband would do it for her. She returned his smile with one of her own. Why not? It seems to please him. And I need not fear that he will tear my garments. Not this man.

So, rolling and stretching, she helped Jeff in the disrobing. First herself, then him. When they were both nude, she writhed a little on the huge bed-"king-size," they called it, as if they were kings!-bringing herself to its center. She almost laughed, seeing the way that sinuous motion aroused him. Gretchen knew that her body could affect men so, but she had never seen Ludwig become as instantly inflamed as her husband.

For a moment, the sight of his erect manhood brought an old chill. She could feel the shield closing around her mind, and the blankness coming.

No! I will not be false to my husband. I promised the duchess. I promised him.

The struggle was brief, easy. So easy. Far easier than she would have imagined. She did laugh, now. Not with mockery or ridicule, but simple affection. Gretchen had always enjoyed keeping her family happy. This was simply part of it. No more to be dreaded than combing her sister's hair or feeding her child.

Jeff lay down beside her and began flooding her body with kisses and caresses. Another wave of affection poured through her. Then, an unexpected surge of pleasure. She was quite amazed by the latter. Gretchen was accustomed to caressing others, not being the recipient of that pleasure.

For a moment, she wallowed in the sensation. There had been precious little of sheer pleasure in her life.

It was too much. She shied away from it, recalled by stern duty. It was time to satisfy her husband. Men demanded it. So, half-unwillingly-but not for the reasons of old-she began lifting her husband upon her.

Jeff resisted. Not fiercely, no, but firmly for all that. He moved his open mouth across her breast, and down her belly. Slowly, slowly, while his hand stroked her inner thighs. The hand-hot, soft-moved up. The mouth-wet, and softer still-moved down.

When his fingers reached their destination, Gretchen gasped. Partly from pleasure, but mostly from surprise. So gentle. So-

She realized, then, that he was not very experienced. He was fumbling, she thought. Only half-certain of his end, and less so of his means.

It mattered not at all. He was the only man who had ever tried. Half-accidentally, Jeff's fingers found their mark. Gretchen hissed. She sensed her husband's glowing satisfaction. Back again, trying, trying.

Hiss. Oh!

For the first time in her life, Gretchen felt her own eagerness arrive. She wondered, but only for an instant. Her body seemed to have a mind of its own. She gave it the rein and reached down herself. Guiding-or trying to. She was no more experienced in her own pleasure than her husband.

When the sharp sensation came again, she bit her lip. Then, realizing what she was doing, let the soft moan emerge. After the horror of the first day, she had never let a man hear her moan. Or make any sound. But this moan was the rightful property of her husband. It belonged to him, not her-and was freely given.

Now Jeff's mouth reached its goal, and Gretchen gasped again. With shock, this time. What is he doing? Is he insane?

She seized his head, ready to push him away. But her hands froze in the act. Jeff reacted to the pressure of her fingers in exactly the opposite manner to what she had intended. His mouth pressed down, and open. His tongue followed the path found by learning fingers. Sheer pleasure held her paralyzed.

Gretchen's mind was awhirl. Pleasure, confusion, joy, fear-all of them were contained in her sighing, moaning, wordless voice.

What to do?

Fear and confusion triumphed. Her mind fled down a different path. A well-worn, familiar, hated rut.

Just satisfy him and be done.

With her strength, Gretchen seized Jeff's shoulders and hauled him away. Up now! Across! Here, where you belong! She wrapped her legs around his own, pinning him to the rut.

That, too, he fumbled. But not for long, and even his awkwardness brought another wave of affection. For all his passion, Gretchen understood that Jeff was still trying to be gentle. The flare burst in her heart so brightly she thought it might consume her whole.

In, now. Oh yes! She laughed giddily, gaily, happily. Even in this her husband cast memory into the shade. Oh yes!

Duty fell away, replaced by ancient instinct. She felt her body reacting in ways she had never known. Her muscles stripped away the shield, her nerves broke it into pieces, her mind cast the pieces aside. Blankness filled with swirling color. There was nothing, now, between her and her husband. Nothing but skin and moisture. Nothing but his desire and her What?

Another wave of pleasure drove a hiss from her throat. She started kissing Jeff fiercely. The breath poured over her lips, down her tongue, into his mouth. She felt her husband respond, eagerly, avidly Proudly.

Gretchen finally understood Jeff's purpose, then. For an instant, she froze. Utter shock.

She moved her face away, pressing the back of her head into the pillow. Jeff lifted his own. They stared at each other. Light green; light brown.

Green glowed; brown questioned.

Is it possible? I never thought-

Green assured; brown-accepted.

I will try. Husband, I will try.

She was too confused, at first, to follow him down that path. She simply joined her body to the rhythm. But her mind, soon enough, found the way to join an old rut to a new destination. There was safety and security, for her family as much as herself, in keeping her man satisfied. This was what he wanted, as strange as it seemed. So She began by simply reacting, allowing Jeff's desire for her own pleasure to guide her. Waves of delight, she signaled with her mouth, her hands, her voice. Her husband responded. Learning, learning. The waves came closer, higher.

She was almost frightened, then, but drove away the fear with duty. My husband wants this. New desire found security in old habit. Give him what he wants. Safety lies that way.

Safety fell aside, duty fell aside, reaction fell aside. There was nothing left but Gretchen. The waves became a roaring surf and the surf became the tide. Unstoppable, now. When the end came, Gretchen even managed to accept it. Embrace it. Take it for her own, as something valuable and precious.

Glory in it, as if she were a duchess herself.

A refugee from Sepharad had found her sun-drenched legends in this place, and a Scots cavalryman his deadly faeries. Now, a young woman from broken Germany found her old wives' tales. They were true, after all. All that they had said. All that Gretchen had disbelieved, just as she had disbelieved the tales of knights and chivalry.

A new wife had found herself in her own pleasure. She repaid her husband with feverish kisses, tear-filled eyes, and a voice sobbing years of promise.

***

Satan, she repaid with laughter. Triumphant, exultant mockery, bouncing off the walls of a trailer bedroom and echoing down into the Pit.

Jeff, exhausted for the moment, lay by her side and watched her. Puzzled by the laughter, perhaps, but not caring. He was awash in his own satisfied pleasure and, still more, in the pride of his accomplishment. Whether he understood the savage humor filling his wife-and he didn't, not at all-he was reassured by the joy in her face and the warmth of her hands, stroking his body.

Finally, Gretchen understood the full extent of her victory. Total, complete. She had beaten the Devil. Whipped him like a cur.

She had saved everything from his dark realm. Even the one thing she had thought lost forever. The only thing she possessed of value to the Beast, which she had traded away to save her family. Now, at the threshold of her new life, she reached through the iron gates and snatched back her virginity. Gleefully, she robbed the Robber, and gave the treasure as a gift, to the man who had earned it.

Tears came, too-tears of joy and gratitude-but the laughter remained. Far below, deep, she could hear Satan's howl of rage.

I have been cheated! Swindled!

Laugh and laugh and laugh. Kissing and fondling her husband all the while. He was young, and clean, and glorious, and so fine, and so wonderful. Gretchen was not surprised to see how quickly he returned to her. Nor with what eagerness she joined him.

She had beaten the Devil. Now, she would torture the monster.

***

Satan's torment lasted through the night. Again and again, Gretchen lashed him with her pleasure. Hers and, even more, the delight she gave her husband. For hours, the Devil rampaged through his stone-glowing chambers. Shattering the walls with his horns, lashing the rubble with his tail, stamping his rapists under cloven hooves.

As her husband's ecstasy mounted-more from his wife's love in the doing, than from the doing itself-the Devil fled in despair. Out of his chambers he sped, down and down into the bowels of the Inferno.

Gretchen followed him, like a dachshund after a badger.

Go away! shrieked the Beast. Leave me alone!

But she was remorseless, merciless. Watch, monster. She cornered him in a grotto, dark and dank with refuse.

Satan cowered. Stop it, he whimpered. You're hurting me.

Watch. Her body-warm, wet, soft, loving-crushed vileness against the stones. Watch.

***

She was done with Satan, then. Done forever. Even Gretchen was satisfied with her triumph. Her husband's love filled her, purging every trace of the past. Gone now, all gone. Gone forever.

Gretchen believed in that love, now. It was like a pledge. Never again would she have to measure her life by how bad it might be. Only by how good.

There would be surprises in their life, she knew. Many of them, as they came to know each other. Some of those surprises would be unpleasant, of course. He would be petty at times; nasty; spiteful. Whatever. And so would she, at times.

No matter. There would be no surprises at the heart of their marriage. Of that, Gretchen was quite certain.

She stroked Jeff's face, gazing into his eyes. The green orbs glowed, like the buds of spring in a springtime face. Soft, young, full of promise. Wet, warm, full of life.

***

Gretchen was very pleased with herself, then. She had kept her promise to the duchess.

She laughed. It had been so easy! She had expected years of toil and struggle.

So easy. It was just family, she now understood. That's all. Nothing but the adoration which binds a family. Different in some ways, true. But every member of a family is different, and precious, and valuable. So to each one is given something special. To a baby, a breast. To a child, care and caresses. To a grandmother, comfort and an ear to complaints.

To a husband…

So easy! Just family adoration. Add orgasms.

Nothing to it. In fact…

Gretchen's practical mind worked on the problem, as her hand moved down, working on her husband's adoration. It did not take her long to reach the obvious conclusion. No longer than her hand.

Both felt the confirmation. Growing, firm, strong.

"I love you," she murmured. And set out happily to work on it some more.

***

Whatever doubts Jeff might have had were long gone by morning.

He awoke before she did, and gazed upon her. And discovered, as untold millions of men before him, that a wife is even more beautiful than a bride.

***

They made love again, first thing. After that, Jeff made them breakfast. It was just oatmeal, since that was the only breakfast food still available in the town. Even then, it took him quite some time. Gretchen was being very playful.

When the porridge was done, they wolfed it down and returned immediately to the bedroom. The rest of the morning was spent there. It was a happy morning, full of discovery. Trial and error, some uncharitable souls might have called it. But Gretchen and Jeff cared not the least. They welcomed the trials and laughed at the errors, and, most of all, simply savored the work. Love, like all growing things, also needs to be watered. Who cares if the bucket spills, now and then?

***

Come noon, the family's children could no longer be restrained, especially the youngest. They had fretted for almost a full day. Worried, fearful, anxious. The walls of the trailers were well insulated, but thin. Sound carried right through them.

None of the children had ever heard Gretchen make noises like that. Never. Not Gretchen!

They would have been utterly terrified, except for Gramma. The old woman had reassured them, soothed them, calmed them. Nothing to worry about, children. She had stayed up the entire night, just listening. Smiling, as she had not smiled in years.

Still Noon was enough! Enough!

The children poured into the trailer. Timidly, they approached the door. Timidly, knocked.

Moment! came the command. They heard people moving behind the door. Gretchen's voice, it sounded like, even though it was laughing. Something about robes.

The same cheerful voice-Gretchen's?-now bade them enter. When the children came into the bedroom, they stared at her. Eyes as wide as saucers.

Gretchen? Is that you?

True, the woman in the bed looked like Gretchen. Sort of. But there was not a trace of steel in that angel's face. No armored soul, in that soft body wearing a robe.

Uncertainly, their eyes moved away from Gretchen and settled on the strange creature lying next to her. Also in a robe. And what was this?

***

It was the youngest of them who first understood. Little Johann, not five years old, his instincts still unencumbered by the memory of ogres. That large, round, friendly face-nestled cheek to cheek against the woman who had raised and sheltered them all-could be one thing only.

"Papa!" he squealed. "Papa! Papa!"

A moment later, he was scrambling onto the bed. A small tide of children followed.

Papa was back, sure enough. Right where he was supposed to be. Within seconds, Jeff and Gretchen were half-buried under happy children.

Little Johann, being the first, rightfully claimed pride of place. Like an eel, he wriggled himself between them. It took him not more than a minute to find the newest family treasure. Jeff's big, soft, warm feet.

"Papa," he murmured. Johann's eyes closed contentedly. Winter was no longer something to fear. Not with Papa's feet to keep him warm.

Chapter 32

Hans watched the angels of death for several minutes before he spoke. He was puzzled by the difference between them. It was not the fact that one was male and one female. It was simply that Hans had always thought of angels as being… ageless. So why should one of them resemble a young woman, and the other a gray-haired man?

Their hair seemed strange, too.

But he was not frightened. He knew they were angels of death because of their black color, but he could detect no evil in their faces. Only a sort of calm concern. They seemed to be watching over several souls.

Not Hell, then.

Hans' eyes ranged through the room. That, too, was odd. He would have thought a divine antechamber would have been better constructed. Or not constructed at all. Simply-spoken into existence. But he could see the nail heads holding the wooden framework together. Very sloppy workmanship, actually.

His eyes studied the filmy substance separating him from the dimly sensed soul of another. The other soul, like his own, seemed to be lying on some sort of cot. Hans admired the filmy substance. Very ethereal, he thought. But he was a bit nonplussed by the cot. It did not seem at all heavenly.

He was not dead yet, then. His soul was simply suspended somewhere, waiting to be reaped.

The filmy substance was suddenly brushed aside. One of the angels of death entered into his space. The young female one.

Hans studied her face. Her features were not what he would have expected on an angel. Very large, broad. But he decided she was quite beautiful. He liked the way her tightly coiled black hair framed her forehead. And her dark eyes seemed very warm.

He cleared his throat. "I am ready," he whispered.

The angel leaned closer, turning her head slightly to present an ear. "What did you say?" she asked.

Hans was puzzled. Why would an angel speak English? But he accepted the divine will, and repeated himself in English.

"Take me, angel," he repeated. "I am ready."

The words seemed to register. The angel's eyes widened. Her lips curved into a smile, the smile became a laugh. Hans got his next surprise.

" 'Take me!' " she mimicked. Another laugh. "I've heard of one-track minds before, but this-(strange idiom; something about a cake being taken)."

But English it surely was. Hans was quite familiar with the tongue. The only member of Ludwig's band that he had genuinely liked was a young Irishman. The Irishman was also dead, now. Hans had seen his brains explode.

The angel was still laughing. "You may be ready, honey," she exclaimed, "but I'm not!" Another laugh, quite gay. "Aren't you the randy one!"

She patted his cheek. "Welcome back, Hans Richter. I'll get your sisters."

***

They arrived within an hour, and Hans discovered that he was still alive. Alive-and healing well. But he had spent many weeks on the edge of death. It was now the month of August.

Other changes had taken place, he discovered, and still others were in the offing. By the end of the day, he met Gretchen's new husband. And his new employer.

"You don't have to be a soldier anymore, Hans," explained Gretchen. She gestured to a man standing behind her. He was a large man, rather young, with a friendly smile.

"This is Mr. Kindred. He is-was-the publisher of Grantville's newspaper."

"What is a newspaper?" asked Hans.

Gretchen frowned. "It's like a broadsheet, except it comes out once a week and tells people what's happening in the world."

Hans started to ask another question but Gretchen overrode him. "Later, brother. For now, Mr. Kindred could use your help. He is trying to build a print shop, so that he can resume his publication. But-" She hesitated. "His old methods won't work, so he needs to build one the way father did. He would like your help. Three other former printers have already joined him. If it goes well, you can become a partner if you want to."

Hans stared at the publisher. "I could be a printer again?" he asked, very softly. "Not a mercenary?"

Gretchen nodded. "They will ask you to join what they call the militia, and do some training every week. But unless you want to be a professional soldier"-she laughed, then, seeing the expression on her younger brother's face-"you don't have to."

"Be a printer again," Hans whispered.

***

The next day, the doctor he had thought was an angel of death released him from the hospital. Helped by his sisters and his new brother-in-law, Hans entered a new world.

It was all very strange, but Hans did not care. Not even when he was conscripted into the labor battalions the day after he moved into his new home. The battalions were being mobilized every day to bring in food from the surrounding countryside. Winter was coming, and the teeming town of Grantville was working feverishly to prepare for it. Hans understood the urgency. He understood winter all too well.

And then, acceptance turned into sheer joy. Because he was still weak, the Americans decided he was unfit for hard labor. They were on the verge of sending him home when one of them, hearing that Hans had been a printer, asked if he was comfortable around machinery. The next thing Hans knew he was being trained to operate the most wonderful machine he had ever seen. A "pickup," it was called. Hans fell in love with it immediately. Over the next few weeks, he learned to drive most of the American motor vehicles. And fell in love with all of them. He was almost sorry when he had to start his new job in the print shop.

But the print shop was urgent, now. The American leaders were determined, it seemed, to begin publishing newspapers and broadsides. And books, soon enough.

They called it "propaganda." After Hans read the first pamphlet which came off the press, he fell in love with propaganda also. He liked the Bill of Rights, even if he thought it was probably insane.

A mad, crazed new world. Hans loved all of it, especially after his wonderful new brother-in-law showed him how to operate the machine called a "computer."

***

The best of all, however, came on September 10. That evening, the strange machine in the trailer which his brother-in-law called a "television" came to life. For the first time, apparently, since the divine event which the Americans called the Ring of Fire.

Hans was gathered around the odd glass with the entire family. The room was packed with bodies. His brother-in-law, smiling, reached down and pushed a button. The glass-the "screen," it was called-suddenly came alive.

"Oh, look!" exclaimed Annalise. "It's Becky."

Gretchen pursed her lips, studying the image of the young woman on the screen. True, it looked like Becky. She was standing behind a table, whispering something to her betrothed. Yes, that was Mike, sure enough. But Gretchen was not certain. "She seems awfully nervous," she mused.

"That's nonsense," retorted her sister firmly. "Becky is never nervous."

Chapter 33

"I'm so nervous," whispered Rebecca.

She leaned her head on Mike's shoulder. He put his arm around her waist and gave her a quick reassuring squeeze. Then, nuzzling her ear, whispered in return: "Relax. You'll do just fine." His hand slid down, patting her upper fanny. Rebecca smiled and returned the pat with one of her own.

Janice Ambler, the school's television instructor, started hopping up and down with agitation, fluttering her hands frantically.

At the back of the high school's TV studio, Ed Piazza frowned. "Great," he grumbled. "We finally get this TV station back on the air and what's the first thing the audience sees? 'Grab-ass at North Central High.' "

Next to him, Melissa grinned. "You might remember, in the future, to warn her when she's going on the air."

"Why?" demanded Greg Ferrara. "If you ask me, it beats the old days. There's something nice about a National Security Adviser who lets her hair down in public now and then. In a manner of speaking."

"Good point," murmured Melissa.

Piazza was not mollified. "You people are sick, sick." He cleared his throat loudly. "Uh, Becky, you're live."

Startled, Rebecca raised her head and stared at the camera. The small audience in the room had to fight down a wave of laughter. She looked like a squirrel startled in the act of stealing food.

A moment later, Rebecca was scuttling into her chair. Mike ambled lazily out of camera range, smiling all the while. And a very smug-looking smile it was, too.

"Great," repeated Piazza. "You watch. Every kid and his girlfriend is going to be sneaking in from now on, trying to cop a feel on the air."

Ferrara started to make some jocular response, but fell silent. Rebecca was speaking.

"Good evening. Guten Abend. Welcome to our new television station. Thanks to the hard work of the school's teachers and students, we have been able to come back on the air for the first time since the Ring of Fire. Tonight, we will only broadcast for a few hours. But we hope, within a week, to be on the air for at least twelve hours every day."

She began translating into German. By the time she was halfway into the translation, all traces of nervousness had disappeared and Rebecca was her usual self.

"Smile," muttered Piazza. "C'mon, Becky, smile now and then."

"Naw," countered Ferrara. "I like it just fine the way she is. It's such a relief to see a news announcer who doesn't crack jokes every other line, like they were a stand-up comic or something. Just tell it like it is, Becky."

"Amen," agreed Melissa.

Rebecca resumed in English:

"Most of tonight's program will be entertainment. We felt everyone deserved an enjoyable evening, after all the hard work we have been doing. There is good news in that regard, by the way. I spoke to Willie Ray Hudson just an hour ago, and he told me that he is now quite certain we will have enough food for the winter. Rationing will be tight, but no one will go hungry. But he warned me-I felt I should pass this along-that our diet is going to be awfully boring."

Again, she translated into German. By the time, she was done, Rebecca was frowning. She added a few more sentences in German. Melissa, the only one of the Americans in the studio whose knowledge of the language was becoming passable, began laughing softly.

Piazza eyed her quizzically. Melissa leaned over and whispered: "What Becky said was that since Americans don't seem to be able to cook anything without a lot of meat, she just realized it might be a good idea for some German women to organize a cooking class and do it on TV. So she asked for volunteers. Congratulations, Ed. You've got your first new program for the season."

Piazza's face was a study in contradiction. Humor mixed with outrage. "Sh