That evening, in Edinburgh, Robert Mackay gazed down on the sleeping form of his daughter-in-law. She had brought his grandchild to him, once the fever finally broke and it was certain Alexi would survive. This disease, at least. Then, exhausted by her own travails over the past days, Julie had fallen asleep herself, lying on the bed next to Robert and cradling Alexi in her arms.
It was a large enough bed, so Robert had made no attempt to rouse her. Nor, truth be told, had he had desire to.
"She must have struck you like a thunderbolt, the first time you saw her."
Sitting on a chair next to the bed, his hand caressing Julie's hip, Alex smiled. "Oh, father, aye and she did. I could not keep my eyes from her. 'Twas a bit awkward, given the circumstances. What with her people standing about with those frightening guns of theirs."
"Life is an awkwardness, son. Why should its most precious moments be otherwise?"
The infant was beginning to stir. Ignoring the pain, Robert leaned over and plucked her out of her mother's arms. Then, cradled her in his own.
"You've still got your first winter ahead of you, babe," he murmured. "But we've a fire, and you've a spirit. So I think God will wait, for the pleasure of your company. For a time, at least."
* * *
That same evening, in London, the fate of other children hung in the balance.
"Your Majesty," said the earl patiently, "you cannot—"
"Cannot! Cannot! You—Wentworth—cannot use that word! Not to me!"
Charles was in full and peevish fury, stomping back and forth in his private chambers—insofar as his somewhat mincing steps could be described as "stomping" at all.
"There was nothing in the books about this! Nothing! And I read them all!"
"Please, Your Majesty. We must deal with the matter using our reason. You cann—" He broke off, for a second or two, almost grinding his teeth. "The history in those books presupposed the events in those books. Change one—and others change also. As I was saying, it is not possible to bring thousands of mercenary soldiers from the Continent without the risk of disease coming with them."
The queen interjected her own comments. As usual, casting confusion onto muddle. "There was no mention of a plague in the books! None! Not this year! I read them also!"
"Of course not, Your Majesty. There was no sudden flood of mercenaries into the island in those books either. Coming from a continent awash in epidemics."
Henrietta Maria glared at him. Nothing odd in that, of course. The queen of England disliked the earl of Strafford at the best of times. For the past week, since he'd refused to give another of her favorite courtiers a military post—as if the soldiers didn't have enough grief on their hands as it was, trying to contain the unrest swirling throughout the island—the dislike had become open hostility.
"Nothing in the books!" she repeated. "I read them all!"
Strafford realized it was pointless. Best to move on to practical things.
But the king forestalled him there also. "The queen and I will leave London immediately. On the morrow. The city will be a pesthouse within days. We'll winter over in Oxford."
"Your Majesty, I beg you to reconsider. England is still in something of a turmoil. Unrest everywhere. In London, I can guarantee your safety. The new troops have been concentrated here—"
"Exactly why there's a plague!" shrilled the queen. "What were you thinking?"
It was all Strafford could do not to lose his temper completely. What was I thinking, you mindless idiot? I was thinking that every rebellion in England stands or falls on London, in the end. Didn't you read that also, in those books? Lose London, and soon enough—surely as sunrise—you will lose it all.
Again, there was no point. He tried to plow on. "The Trained Bands have been dispersed. They no longer even dare to come into the streets. In Oxford . . . I cannot be certain what might happen. Besides, there are many who have welcomed the new turn of things, even here in London. If Your Majesties remain, that will signal confidence. With proper procedures—"
A sudden thought came to him. He tried to pursue it, but the king's petulance drove everything under.
"Not possible! My subjects should have confidence in me because I am king, not because of where I choose to reside or what I choose to do. To claim otherwise borders on treason. The dynasty is what matters, Wentworth. Our very lives are at stake. We leave tomorrow—and that is final."
The earl bowed his head. "Sire."
"Not you, of course," snapped the king. There was more than a trace of spiteful glee in the words. "You will remain in London. Your family also. Since you seem so concerned with providing the people with confidence." He waved his hand. "Now be off, about your business. The queen and I have much to do, thanks to your negligence."
By the time Strafford reached his home, his rage had passed, if not his bitterness. He was able to think clearly again.
So be it. I can hardly complain, after all, since it was what I was going to propose to the king himself.
His wife Elizabeth greeted him in the hallway. Nan's hand was held in hers.
Strafford allowed himself a moment simply for affection, such as his stiff manner could manage. Then, stiffly, gave instructions to his wife.
"Pack up whatever you can. I am moving all of you into the Tower. I'll remain here, but I want you safe. As safe as London can be, at least."
"The Tower?" Elizabeth's face was creased with confusion.
"Trust me, wife. If there's any place in London that will weather this new storm, it will be the Tower."
* * *
"Will he be all right?" Andrew asked anxiously. His eyes were fixed on the two-year-old child Rita Simpson had just finished examining. Not far away, leaning against a wall in the cramped quarters of a Yeoman Warder, Andrew's wife was standing, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her face was pale, perhaps, but composed. If little George died, he would join one of his siblings in the Tower's graveyard. She still had two others, who seemed healthy. One of them was already seven, and the other five. The odds for them were good now.
"I think so, Andrew," Rita replied. Then, sternly: "If you follow my instructions. But for the sake of God—and little George—don't let them bleed him."
She studied the infant for a moment, her lips pursed. "I don't know exactly what he's got, but I'm sure it's neither plague nor typhus. Could be . . . oh, lots of things. But the deal is, Andrew, even if I can't cure the disease itself, I can probably treat the symptoms. And with most diseases, it's usually the symptoms that kill off the kids so quickly."
"Oh, yes, Lady Stearns. We'll follow you in this. Don't much trust the doctors meself."
"I'm not 'Lady Stearns,' " she snapped. "Dammit, I'm tired of hearing that silly phrase. The name's Rita Simpson. Mrs. Simpson, if you want to go all formal about it. My mother-in-law's the lady in the family. Ask her yourself, if you don't believe me."
Andrew did not argue the point. But, seeing the set expression on his face, Rita realized that she'd not moved him in the least. Indeed, had just finished confirming him in his opinion.
"Dehydration's the big killer. What the kid needs is plenty of fluids. Water, basically, with electrolytes. Salt'll do, but I'll see if we can scrounge up some sugar also. I'll set up a regimen for you, and I'll check in every day. Okay?"
"Yes, La—ah, Mrs. Simpson."
Rita didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Somehow, Andrew managed to make the term "Missus" sound like "Duchess."
"Guess they've decided to just look the other way," Darryl announced, as soon as he heard the bar drop across the door. "Gave me no argument at all."
He walked over and squatted next to the prisoner. "Melissa says it's because the Warders have heard enough to know you're apparently some sort of demon. I think they've already come to that conclusion about us too. But since we seem like friendly enough demons—or at least calm, cool and collected like you—they've just quietly decided it's best not to rile us any. Demons remember shit. And, who knows? If they ever get loose . . ."
Quickly, he swapped the batteries. Then, drew a photograph out of his pocket.
"It took me a while to finagle it out of her, but this is what she looks like. Why the hell she bothered to hang on to a driver's license in the first place . . ."
He shook his head at the folly of women, and handed over the little card. Then, as the prisoner began studying the small picture filling one portion of it, Darryl shifted uncomfortably.
"Look, it's a shitty picture of her. Those damn things always are. I think they must have some kinda exotic high-tech camera designed especially to make everybody look as bad as possible. Mine looked like Jesse James with a hangover."
He wasn't sure the prisoner even heard him. "I'm telling you—trust me—she's really not bad looking."
He was cramping the truth here, at least as far as Darryl was concerned. Stocky women in their thirties with plain faces and mouse-brown hair—okay, yeah, pretty damn good figure; especially the jugs—just weren't to his taste. In general, Darryl's tastes ran toward young women with blond hair, slim figures, and long legs. In particular, especially lately, toward a certain young woman in the Tower with—what else?—blond hair, a slim figure, and legs he couldn't see but was starting to have lots of fantasies about.
Alas, she was the youngest sister of the Yeoman Warder Andrew. Who was a rough-looking customer in his own right, even leaving aside his two brothers and his uncle. The uncle especially . . . Darryl managed not to wince. Then, thinking of Melissa, he did wince.
Give peace a chance, my ass. Melissa catches me making a move . . .
The prisoner didn't seem to have noticed any of Darryl's hesitation, though. So he plowed on confidently.
"We'll start looking for your kids, too. Make plans for them, when the time comes."
That brought the prisoner's eyes from the photo. "And how will you do that?" he asked.
"Well . . . I'm not sure yet. But, reading between the lines of the latest radio messages, I think—"
He paused, trying to figure out where security began and ended. Then, with a little shrug:
"I think an old buddy of mine is on his way. Not soon, of course. But when he gets here . . ." Darryl grinned evilly. "Hell on wheels, that country boy. Take it from me."
" 'Hell on wheels,' " echoed the prisoner, smiling faintly. "There are times, Darryl McCarthy, when I find myself fearing for your soul. Of course, 'tis true—as an Irishman you're most likely damned anyway."
Darryl jeered. "You wish!" Again, he shifted uncomfortably. "And that's something else. I want a promise from you."
"You don't ever go to Ireland without me coming along. In an of-fi-cial capacity, that is. I checked with Tom—he knows this stuff—and he tells me the Russkies even got a name for it. It's called 'political commissar.' "
The prisoner's smile was no longer faint. "An Irish watchdog, is it, set to keep the demon on a leash?"
"Yeah, pretty much. Promise me, Ironsides."
"Done, Darryl McCarthy. My word of honor."
"Good enough for me." Darryl gave him a little clap on the shoulder and rose to his feet.
Then, seeing the prisoner's eyes drop again, he uttered a protest. "Hey, I'm telling you, it really is a terrible picture."
The prisoner didn't even seem to hear him. Watching the way he studied the photograph, Darryl winced again. Like most men his age, he didn't like to think he'd someday be afflicted by that dread disease.
" 'Tis a strong face," the prisoner murmured. "I like the lines of it."
Darryl fled, as if from the plague itself.
That same evening, in Amsterdam, still another child's fate was decided. Or, at least, subjected to debate.
All the members of the U.S. embassy were gathered in the main room, as they had been since the news had come from Wismar. After sundown, at least. During the daytime, Gretchen had channeled her own grief into sheer willpower, driving forward the organization of Amsterdam's new Committee of Correspondence with a literal vengeance.
Already, a situation of dual power was emerging within the city. In theory, while the prince of Orange was away marshaling his forces in Overijssel, Amsterdam was under the authority of its city council—what the Dutch called the vroedschap. In practice, however, real power was beginning to slip more and more into the hands of Gretchen and her rapidly growing band of Dutch comrades. The civic militia's soldiers, if not many of the officers, were beginning—tacitly, if not openly—to consult with the leaders elected by the new CoC. Many of the soldiers were joining the CoC themselves.
The process was neither uniform nor smooth, of course. There had been any number of angry shouting matches, in the streets and in the civic militia's assemblies. But, so far, only one of those confrontations had escalated into outright violence.
And, even then, not much violence. A flurry of fists on a city corner, followed by a pause. Into the pause Gretchen had come stalking down the cobblestoned street. The news of Wismar had by then spread throughout Amsterdam as well, and with it the name of Hans Richter. That she was the older sister of the hero of Wismar was just as well known. As was her reputation for being the more ferocious of the siblings.
She had neither threatened with words, nor drawn her pistol. Simply stared at those who had taken it upon themselves to assault a handful of CoC streetcorner orators.
The infant Rebecca had snatched from carnage was the center of attention in the room. That had also been true, since the news of Wismar came. Grief at the loss of brothers and friends, salved by the sight of a smiling babe.
A cheerful sort of boy, he seemed. Very curious, too, the way his fresh eyes seemed to study everything.
There came a knock on the door. Heinrich answered it.
"For you, Rebecca. A rabbi says he wants to speak to you. In private, he says."
Rebecca rose from the couch, handed the child to Gretchen, and went to the door.
Standing outside, looking very uncomfortable, was a man she recognized. She couldn't remember the old man's name, any longer. But she was certain it was the same rabbi who, two and a half years earlier, had led Amsterdam's Jewish community to expel her father Balthazar for heresy. Excommunicated and banned—what the Jews called in herem.
"Yes?" she asked coolly. "You have discovered the child's identity?"
"We knew that almost immediately," he replied. "The difficulty has been in deciding what to do."
"What is there to decide, for the sake of God? If he has family, we will return him to them. If not, we will care for him ourselves."
The rabbi glared at her. "Do not speak of 'God,' heretic. You do not have the right. Nor—" The old man's hard eyes went past her shoulder, looking into the interior of the house. "—does that boy. So we have decided. Even his kinfolk have agreed. He is in herem. Best you take him yourself."
"What?" Rebecca groped for the logic. The insane logic. "He's not even a year old! He can't be!"
"He was born less than a year ago. What does it matter? He is destined for heresy anyway. Best for all of us if we deal with it now."
Rebecca's temper was on the verge of cracking. She had to grit her teeth for a moment. Then, almost hissing the words:
"Let me explain something, you arrogant old man. Not even such as you can claim to read the future. And it gives me great pleasure to inform you that, centuries from now, you will be quite forgotten by everyone except for—if you are lucky—a handful of scholars. There is only one Jew from the Amsterdam of this era who will be remembered by the world, and that is—"
She slammed to a halt, almost choking.
"My God. But—"
Wildly, she turned her head, staring back at the infant perched on Gretchen's lap. "But he was born in . . ." This time she did choke.
"Oh, God," she finally managed to whisper. "What is his name?"
He told her. Then added: "November of 1632, yes. We have copies of those books also, heretic. Those which we found of interest. So take him now. We cast him out."
Vaguely, Rebecca felt him leave. Vaguely, she closed the door. Her eyes were fixed entirely on the child.
No one had ever heard Rebecca whoop with glee. It was quite a piercing sound, actually. Something of a cross between sheer unadulterated joy and a warrior counting coup—or collecting a scalp.
By the time they finished wincing, Rebecca had crossed the room and snatched up the baby. Then, holding him high:
"Do you know who this is?One of the world's dozen greatest philosophers! Baruch de Espinoza!"
She clutched the baby to her chest—the rather bewildered baby, judging from his expression—and babbled on:
"Better knowm as Benedict Spinoza, after they expelled him and he went to live with the Mennonites who took him in—an expert lens-grinder too, he was—although that's what probably killed him, ruining his lungs with the dust—and that won't happen now—be sure of that, my husband's a union man—oh, I must tell Michael! We'll adopt him ourselves!"
She thrust the child back into Gretchen's arms, and raced for the stairs leading up to the radio room. "Who is on duty? Jakob?"
"Yeah, he's up there, Becky. He's—"
No point in continuing, so Jimmy fell silent. Rebecca had already reached the first landing, her footsteps—normally so light—sounding like a herd of stampeding buffalo. They could hear her shouting to the radio operator in the room above. "Quickly! Quickly! While the window lasts!"
Everyone still in the room stared at the baby. The infant returned their scrutiny with one of his own. He seemed a bit puzzled by it all.
Which would not be surprising, of course, since the adults were more than simply puzzled. As the minutes went by, in fact, and the enormity of the event came into clear focus, they were downright aghast.
"We can't let this happen, buddy," muttered Jimmy. "I mean . . . it's like a crime against nature, or something."
"You got that right," said Jeff firmly. He reached over and lifted the baby out of his wife's arms. Then, holding him up, gave the little boy a look of stern resolve.
"Don't worry, kid. We'll protect you. Think of us as your uncles, or something."
"First thing we do is get him a little Caterpillar hat," opined Jimmy. "Then—fast as possible—teach him D&D."
Jeff nodded. "And I'll tell you what, Jimmy. I actually tried to read the Ethics once. Got through the first chapter. This kid is gonna make a great dungeon master."
"You idiots," growled Gretchen. "Think big for once, can't you? If the boy can write great metaphysics, sure as hell he can write great political tracts."
"Naw, screw that," countered Jeff. "I've still got my dirt bike, y'know. Get this kid up on it—fast as possible, before he's totally ruined. Betcha I can take up a collection and have a little leather jacket made up for him. Then—"
"Oh, yeah!" exclaimed Jimmy. "That's perfect! I even got a spare one at home!"
"—put a Harley-Davidson decal on it. Plastered right across his little chest. For the arms, maybe—"
That was as far as he got. Rebecca, moving in her usual light-footed and graceful manner now, had come back into the room. Just in time to hear the last exchange.
"Hillbillies!" she shrieked. Snatching Baruch from Jeff's hands, she retreated into a corner; clutching the baby to her chest and bestowing upon everyone in the room the glare of a mother determined to save her child from the Devil's horned and cloven-hoofed minions. "You have no respect!"
The next day, the destiny of yet another child was determined; and those of all the world's children poured into a new mold.
When he came to Luebeck's Teuffelsorth Bastion, shortly before noon, Colonel Ekstrom found his king already there; leaning on the wall and gazing out over the Trave River toward the Baltic. The colonel was not surprised. In the middle of a campaign, Gustav Adolf frequently took only a few hours sleep. The king, at such times, seemed to have an almost boundless store of energy.
Ekstrom had not gotten much sleep himself, the night before, and was still feeling the effects of it. As Gustav Adolf's only staff adviser in Luebeck, Ekstrom had been a part of the seemingly endless negotiations which had kept both him and his monarch in Luebeck's radio station until well after daybreak.
The negotiations were over. This initial round, at least. The terms of the bargain were established. Clearly enough, at any rate, to get them through the current war. And perhaps beyond it—perhaps, even, well beyond it.
It remained for Gustav Adolf to make his decision. Yes or no. At the close of the negotiations, the king had announced that he would make the decision only after having gotten some sleep.
The man at the other end had not objected. That also had not surprised Ekstrom. He had never personally met Michael Stearns, but hours of nonstop negotiations give one a sense for such things. Stearns had not only the skill of an expert negotiator, he also had its vital secret: confidence.
Not bluster, not threat. Confidence. Confidence in himself, first. Then, as well, the calm certainty of a man that his demands were just—the core of them, at least—and that he would get what he wanted. Sooner or later, so why not make it sooner and save everyone time and grief and trouble?
The king of Sweden, of course, possessed that same confidence in himself. Until the past twelve hours, Ekstrom would have sworn he had the same calm certainty in the justness of his cause.
Today, however, he was not sure. He studied his monarch for a moment, as the huge king himself was studying the horizon. Trying to find perspective, perhaps, in that great vista.
Gustav Adolf must have heard his footsteps. Without taking his eyes from the horizon, the king spoke.
"Yes, I was right. Best to make this decision after some sleep. Most of all, make it in the sunlight. Richelieu is wrong, you know."
Ekstrom wasn't certain what the king meant by that remark. But he asked no questions. He was quite sure Gustav Adolf would explain.
"Yes, the Ring of Fire was a warning from God. But it was not a warning concerning ends. It was a warning—to the world's princes—of what means He would tolerate. I am quite sure of it, now. It is as clear to me as that horizon."
The horizon was actually a bit murky, as was common for the Baltic this time of year. But Ekstrom understood that the king was not referring to clarity of vision, so much as depth of perception.
He nodded. "So, you will accept."
"Yes," announced the king. "I will accept."
Ekstrom's eyes moved further east along that horizon, in the direction of his own homeland. "Well. We will still have Sweden, of course."
Gustav slapped the top of the wall. "More than that, Nils! Soon enough!" He pointed toward Denmark. "I will have the Union of Kalmar, damn me if I won't. On Swedish terms, this time, not Danish. And just to make sure that drunken bastard Christian understands what is coming—and soon!—I have decided to create a new Swedish peer. There were only twelve, before I made Julie Mackay a baroness. Time to add another."
He turned his head and gave the colonel a very cheerful grin. "I think it has a nice ring to it, myself. Sharon, baroness of Bornholm."
Ekstrom matched the grin. The large island of Bornholm was perhaps the single most strategic position in the southern Baltic. It was also Danish territory.
"Send the message, Colonel. One word will suffice. 'Yes.' "
Still, Ekstrom hesitated. "Are you—" He steeled himself. He was the only royal adviser in Luebeck, after all. True, the king could speak to Torstensson over the radio. True again, Torstensson had advised the king to accept the terms. But Oxenstierna was absent and unreachable, and Ekstrom felt a certain responsibility to try his best to fill the great chancellor's place.
"Enough, Colonel. I say the answer is 'yes,' and I will not quibble. Besides . . ."
The king returned his gaze to the horizon. "Let the world think of her as a 'hostage,' if they will. I do not. And neither, I am quite certain, does Michael Stearns. I have studied the man, Colonel. Very carefully, these past two years. I do not believe—any longer, if I ever did—in predestination. That, too, is the message of the Ring of Fire. I do, on the other hand, believe in character."
Slowly, and with what appeared to be great satisfaction, Gustav Adolf's eyes scanned the entire vista. "This is a man who killed as few Spaniards as he could, at the Wartburg. Prevented his own people from unleashing poison into the world. Managed to reconcile his most bitter enemy, once the time came and that was possible. Such a man will not murder a child, simply for the sake of small political gains. He might be ruthless enough, but he is not that stupid. Because he understands that certain ends preclude certain means. Or victory becomes a meaningless word."
Ekstrom thought upon it; and found himself agreeing.
"There is more," the king continued. "A 'hostage' is also a pledge. And has not Michael Stearns made that same pledge, to the world? Pledged his wife to one nation, and his sister to yet another? There is no triumph without risk, Colonel Ekstrom. Never trust a man who thinks there is. Down that road you arrive at John George."
The king's lips peeled back in a smile which was barely distinguishable from a snarl. "The elector of Saxony, who is about to discover that he is no longer the greatest of Germany's princes. And will soon enough discover—the stinking treacherous swine—that he is no prince at all. I remember all my wounds. Especially those in my back."
He pushed himself away from the wall and gave Ekstrom a hearty slap on the shoulder. "Go now! Besides, think how thrilled Kristina will be at the news. She won't mind at all, I can assure you of that."
Ekstrom didn't have to think upon that. "She'll be jumping for joy," he predicted, smiling himself. "As long as they let her keep a good horse."