Ring of FireEric Flint



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4The first detachments from Holk's army started showing up in the outskirts of the city early the next morning. By midmorning, they were exchanging shots with Kastner's men forted up in the Hradcany; by noon, with his men forted up in the Malá Strana. By mid-afternoon, most of Holk's ragtag army had poured into the city's west bank—as undisciplined as you could ask for—and decided they'd had enough of cracking their heads against Kastner's troops. Holk himself showed up then, on his own big warhorse, and led the charge. He waved his sword to the east, very dramatically. That way! To the Stone Bridge! Tanner stayed in the cathedral the whole time, Saint Len faithfully at his post in case the dragon showed up.Ellie, on the other hand, joined the soldiers on the walls of the Hradcany. She had a better vantage point to see what was happening than Morris and Red did, across the river. So, using her CB, she kept them informed all day of the movements of Holk and his men. Insofar as that rabble could be said to have "maneuvers" at all, other than the mercenary equivalent of Brownian motion.When Holk showed up, though, waving his stupid sword, she put down the CB and drew her pistol. Then, cursing a blue streak, clambered up on the wall and emptied the entire clip at him. "Where'd you go?" Red asked her, when she got back on the CB. Ellie explained in a few curt sentences, about every other word of which was short and had an Anglo-Saxon pedigree."Fer chrissake, Ellie—with a 9mm automatic? What're you, nuts? That's gotta be at least six hundred yards. You'd be lucky to hit the river at that range.""It's the principle of the thing," she stoutly insisted. Chapter VI: Discovered Check
July, 16331
By the time Holk finally got his men organized—using the term loosely—it was almost sundown. He began to send men onto the Stone Bridge, but the small detachments retreated quickly once they started getting peppered by shots fired from the flintlock-armed men now perched behind the barricade.So far as Ellie could tell, looking down on the bridge from the distance of the Hradcany without binoculars, that initial volley—using the term loosely—didn't do more than scare off the thugs. She didn't think a single one of them had even been wounded.Ellie was sure Morris hadn't ordered the volley. The Stone Bridge had a span of some five hundred yards, with a little dogleg in it about one-third of the way across from the west bank. The flintlocks had started firing as soon as Holk's men made it to the dogleg and came in sight of the barricades—a range of well over three hundred yards. Maybe James Fenimore Cooper's fictional marksman Natty Bumpo could hit something with a flintlock at that range, but ghetto-dwellers with meager experience with firearms hadn't much more chance than Ellie had with her 9mm.Red confirmed her assessment. "Naw, just buck fever. Morris is fit to be tied. Good thing he ain't a cursing man. He's doing a pretty good job right now of flaying them alive with proper language. He's even waving his sword around." Ellie stared at the now-darkening western bank, dumbfounded. "Morris has a sword? Where the fuck did he get a sword?"Red's chuckle crackled in the CB. "Judith had it made up for him, believe it or not. Presented it to him this morning, scabbard and everything. She even had a special scabbard made up so he could sling his rifle on the horse." Ellie burst out laughing. "Judith Roth—the gray eminence. It's like they say: 'behind every successful man there's a woman.' ""No shit. And you should see the collection of women she's got around her, right here on this end of the bridge. Every prestigious matron in the ghetto, near as I can tell. Oh, sure, they're all being proper as you could ask for—but you can't fool me. Patriarchy be damned. That's the biggest collection of political clout in one city this side of old Mayor Daley's grave."A moment later he added, in the satisfied tones of an longtime union agitator: "We're pretty well organized over here, actually. If Morris can just keep those eager beavers from wasting all the ammunition. And if he can keep from stabbing himself with the sword. He handles it like a butcher knife. Except he ain't an experienced butcher. Personally, I wish he'd start swinging the rifle around. THAT he knows what he's doing with." Ellie shook her head firmly, even though Red couldn't possibly see the gesture. He was perched in the cab of the Dodge Ram, over half a mile away. "It's the principle of the thing, fella. You don't rally troops with a rifle. You do it with a sword. Haven't you ever seen any movies?"* * *Had Judith Roth heard the exchange, she would have disagreed. She was watching Morris also, and while she'd have admitted that he wasn't exactly handling the sword with panache, he was doing a fair job with it nonetheless. There was certainly no danger that he'd stab himself. Cut himself, maybe. Judith had made sure that the sword's tip had been blunted when she ordered it made. Still and all, everything considered, she thought he looked superb. The horse was magnificent, Morris himself looked very distinguished in his nobleman's garb—the big plumed hat helped a lot—and nobody watching on this side of the river really had any more idea than Morris did how a sword should properly be held anyway. It was enough that he had one and was swinging it around authoritatively while bellowing authoritative-sounding orders.Most of all, he didn't look afraid. Not in the least. In fact, he looked downright fearless. And that was such an odd sensation, for Judith. That her husband was a brave enough man, in those myriad little ways with which people confront the challenges of daily life, Judith had known for many years. But that was the quiet courage of a husband and a father and a countryman, not the same thing at all as the dramatic valor of a commander on the battlefield. She wasn't really that surprised that Morris could do it. But she was well-nigh astonished that he could do it so well in public.One of the women standing next to her, on the far side of the little square where the barricades had been erected, spoke softly in her ear. "I am very glad your husband is here, gracious lady. And you also."That was Eva Bacharach, a woman just about Judith's age. Her brothers Chaim and Napthali were noted rabbis, and Eva herself was the widow of a rabbi who had died almost twenty years earlier. Since her husband Abraham had died, Eva had raised their three daughters and one son, somehow managing at the same time to gain quite a reputation in the ghetto as a noted Hebraist and a scholar in her own right. Even the rabbis were known to consult with her on difficult textual problems.When Judith first learned that, from another woman in the ghetto, she'd been so surprised that her expression must have shown it. The woman had chuckled and said dryly: "Gracious lady, we are in Prague, not Amsterdam."That short phrase had crystallized Judith's growing conviction that her husband's projected head-on collision with orthodox Judaism needed to be sidetracked before the inevitable train wreck ensued. Prague, not Amsterdam. Amsterdam's rabbinate was notorious all over Europe for pigheadedness, intolerance and authoritarianism. Whereas the rabbinate of Prague had been shaped, in the previous century, by one of the few rabbis of the era whose name would be remembered for centuries: Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal. A man who became a legend in his own time for his learning and wisdom—a legend which only grew after his death. One of the great rabbis of the early modern era, a shaper of the orthodox tradition—yet also conversant with the scientific knowledge of the time and on friendly terms with many of its great scientists. One of his disciples, David Gans—a cousin of Mordechai Spira's friend Isaac—had studied for a time with Tycho Brahe.The Maharal. Eva's grandfather, as it happened. And one of Judith's own ancestors.Judith turned to look at Eva. "I am very glad we are here also. And will be staying. But—please—call me Judith. We are related, you know."Eva's eyebrows went up. "Oh, yes," Judith said. "I am one of your descendants, Eva Bacharach. Very distant, of course. And also a descendant of your grandfather—I can remember how excited I was when I learned that."Judith laughed softly. "In the world I came from, they even made what we call a 'movie' about him. True, it was because of the legend that grew up that he created the golem. But I knew enough to understand how much more important he was for all his other work.""The golem!" Eva choked. "That silly story! Do you mean to tell me that—that—in some other world, wherever that may be—people actually believe it?"Judith wagged her head in a semi-jocular manner. "Maybe yes, maybe no. It's one of those stories that people want to believe, even if they really don't."Now Eva was laughing softly also. "My grandfather would have been mortified! Ha! The golem!"When the laughter ebbed, Eva cocked her head and regarded Judith a bit sideways. "The rabbis will probably need to spend a hundred years—maybe two hundred—chewing on the significance of that other world of yours and what we should think about it all. But since we are women, we are not under their obligations. Much easier for us.""Yes, I agree. Much easier. Quicker, too."Eva nodded sagely. "Yes. Much quicker."* * *Perhaps twenty yards away, on the same side of the square as Judith and Eva, Mordechai Spira and Isaac Gans were also watching Morris."We will not be able to ignore this man," Mordechai stated, quietly but firmly. "Never think it, Isaac."His friend and fellow rabbi made a little snorting sound. "I didn't think we would. Or should, for that matter. By now, I don't think even Joseph ben Abraham Khalmankhes retains that delusion. Certainly none of the other rabbis do."Mordechai nodded. "Good. The beginning of wisdom is like everything else. Always the hardest part.""It won't be so bad," Issac predicted. "In some ways, even good. Complicated, though, yes."Spira chuckled. " 'Complicated,' applied to this problem, is like saying the sun is bright. Just for a start, do we decide to accept or not those books of young Jason's? It is one thing to respect wisdom. But are we also obliged to respect the wisdom of another universe altogether?""You know my opinion. Does not the midrash say that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created many universes before this one? Could He not continue to do so?" Gans shrugged. "How can it matter how many universes there are? There is still only one God.""Yes, I know your opinion—and I am inclined to share it. Still . . ."Mordechai Spira shook his head. "I am not one of those Amsterdam blockheads who finds heresy everywhere he looks. But I started reading that translation you made for me of that one book of Jason's—the one by Mordechai Kaplan—and . . ."Gans smiled slyly. "It's interesting, though, admit it.""Oh, yes. 'Reconstructionist' Judaism, if you will! The number of schisms our descendants seem to have managed to find." Again, he shook his head. "Almost as bad as Christians.""On the other hand, there is a lot to admire also. And, whatever else, if Jason's commentaries add to our understanding of Him and his Holy Torah, we must respect them. Subject them to searching analysis and criticism, to be sure, as Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman did to even Maimonides' work. But respect them nonetheless." Isaac's smile widened. "And the truth is, I am particularly taken by the works of the Chasidim that Jason had with him."Mordechai cocked a questioning eyebrow. Isaac made a little apologetic gesture with his hand. "Sorry, I haven't had time to translate those yet. But—"He was interrupted by a commotion on the southern side of the square. As the crowd there parted, Mordechai and Isaac could see that a large group of young men was advancing—somewhat tentatively, almost diffidently—toward the Stone Bridge. All of them were armed, though only a few of them with firearms.They were all gentiles, clearly enough. After a moment, Isaac identified them."Christian students. From the Karolinum."Mordechai brought his eyes back to Morris Roth. The American don was now trotting his horse toward the oncoming students. He had sheathed his sword and was not projecting an aura of menace. But he nonetheless managed to look authoritative. Very authoritative, in fact.Spira found himself quite thankful that Don Morris was handling the situation, which could easily become tense. Then, found himself pondering his own reaction. Indeed, it was so. Don Morris could not be ignored. Nor should he be, even if it were possible. For good or ill, Spira was quite sure that the man would bestride their world in the years to come. Whether as a champion or a menace—or both—remained to be seen. Supported, perhaps; combated, perhaps. Most likely both, Mordechai suspected, at different times. But whatever else, never ignored.Mordechai and Isaac were too far away to hear the exchange between Don Morris and the Christian students from the Karolinum. But, within a short time, the resolution was obvious. With Don Morris on his warhorse prancing in their lead, the students came to join the Jews already on the barricade. "So it is," Mordechai stated. "It will be complicated. But you were saying something?"As he watched the students begin intermingling with the fighters on the barricade, Isaac spoke softly. "There is a lot of wisdom in those pages Jason brought to us, Mordechai. The wisdom of the Chasidic folktales, in particular, I think will serve us well in the time to come.""And what do those stories relate?""I will give you two. In the first, a simple wagon-driver stops his cart at the side of the road to speak the Hebrew alphabet, one letter at a time. 'God,' he cries out, 'I don't know the prayers, so I am sending you the alphabet. You must know the prayers. Make them up out of the letters I am sending.' "Mordechai barked a laugh. "Oh, I like that! And the other?""Ah, that one is my favorite. It seems one day a disciple came to complain to his teacher. 'Rabbi, some of the congregants are gossiping in the midst of prayer!' "Spira smiled crookedly. "Not such a different world after all, then. And the rabbi's response?"" 'O God,' said the rabbi. 'How wonderful are your people! Even in the midst of gossip, they devote a few moments to prayer!' "* * *Shortly thereafter, the first campfires began springing up on the opposite bank of the river. Holk and his men were settling in for the night, it seemed, and would make no further attempt to storm the bridge until the next morning.At sundown, Mordechai Spira returned to his home in the ghetto. The fighters would remain on the barricades, keeping watch through the night, with Don Morris there to lead them and keep them steady. But there was no reason for him to remain. Mordechai would return before daybreak, to do what he could. But he wanted to spend this night—perhaps their last—with his family.Over the dinner, he told the stories to his wife and children. And was still smiling himself when he finally went to bed.* * *The rabbi slept soundly that night, but Holk and his mercenaries did not. Jan Billek took advantage of the darkness to move his Brethren forward, from the positions they'd initially taken farther south in the Malá Strana. From their new positions, skirmishers were able to harass Holk's mercenaries all through the night. Occasionally with gunfire, but usually with grenades and swords, in constant probing sallies. It was a bitter, nasty sort of fighting. And if none of the Brethren were as nasty as Holk's men, they were considerably more bitter. They had been victimized for years by such men, and were finally able to take some revenge.They were also a lot more determined and resolute. Holk's ruffians had come into Prague expecting an easy and pleasant few days of murder, rape, arson and looting. They had not expected to spend their first night in the city worrying about getting their throats cut by dimly seen figures lunging from the darkness—or getting shredded by bomblets suddenly launched into their campfires.Not all that many of Holk's men were actually killed or wounded that night. Less than a hundred. But none of them slept well, and a considerable number didn't sleep at all.Except Holk himself. He was drunk by sundown, and comatose by midnight.2"Okay, Red. Tell Morris they'll be coming any minute. Holk's done with the cursing and he's starting to threaten people with his sword. No, I take it back. I can't see too well from here, but I think he's put the sword away and now he's threatening them with a wheel-lock pistol.""Thanks, Ellie, I'll tell him." Sybolt leaned out of the cab window and hollered the news to Morris. Then, quipped to Dunash in the passenger seat: "It's the old story. 'Go get 'em, boys! You first!' "Dunash was too nervous to appreciate the jest. The young man was doing his best to retain his composure—and doing quite well at it—but only by adopting a stern and stiff demeanor. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. In fact, Red thought, you could probably use it for an icebox."Relax, old son. This is gonna be a cakewalk. Trust me."Dunash made no reply for perhaps half a minute. Then, abruptly, almost harshly: "Why would anyone walk on a cake? And what does that mean, anyway?"Red shook his head ruefully. "Gawd, all the work it's going to take me to recover my reputation as an endless source of wit and wisdom. Oh, well. What it means, Dunash, is that we're going to win this battle. Easily.""Why do you think that?"Red pointed at the roof of the cab. "Because of this thing. Mind you—in general, that is—I think it's about as useless a gadget on the battlefield as you could imagine. I guess the Russians did pretty well with katyushas in the Second World War, but they used jillions of 'em. Just one? Pointless."Dunash was inordinately proud of the katyusha. "Why?" he asked, in a very aggrieved tone."It's an area effect weapon, Dunash. Rockets—sure as hell these—aren't that accurate. If you've got a ton of them the way the Russkies did, that's one thing. Saturation bombardment, they call it. But just one? Pointless. On a battlefield, that is.""Then why did you—""On a battlefield, I said." Red jabbed his finger at the quarter-inch steel plate that covered the windshield except for small viewing slits left for the driver and the gunner. "But that's a bridge, not a battlefield. A bridge that's the only way to cross the Vltava without boats—which Holk didn't think to bring with him, and he can't round up now that he's here because Jan and his boys made sure all the ones in Prague were taken up the river."Red leaned forward over the steering wheel and peered through the viewing slit. "A bridge that I figure is not more than fifty feet wide and at least five hundred yards long. With no cover on it anywhere—not even the statues that Len says used to be on it hundreds of years from now—and only that one little dogleg way over to the other side of the span. Oh, those poor bastards. They've gotta cross about a quarter of a mile in plain sight with only maybe fifteen of them—okay, make it twenty with that mob—in the front line."He leaned back, very satisfied. "Would you want to be one of those fifteen or twenty guys? I sure as hell wouldn't. Not with two hundred flintlocks and a fair number of old-style arquebuses banging away at me." He rapped the roof of the cab with his knuckles. "Not to mention after this baby cuts loose.""Morris won't let them fire until they get within a hundred yards," Dunash pointed out. "So what does the rest of that distance mean?" Sourly, he looked at the firing switches mounted on the dashboard in front of him: "And you won't let me fire this until they get within fifty yards.""All it'll take, boy. You watch." He opened the door to the cab and began climbing out. "But now that you bring it up, I better make sure those hotshots of yours didn't fiddle with my instructions."They hadn't, although Red was sure they'd been tempted to. Most down-timers, in his experience, even ones with considerable military experience, tended to exaggerate the capabilities of American weapons. Enthusiasts like Dunash's followers, even more so. But the young men tending the rocket launcher in the bed of the pickup had left the settings alone. Even though it must have aggravated them to see that Red had lowered the elevation until the rockets were pointed at the ground right in front of the truck.Well, almost. Red estimated that the rockets would hit somewhere between fifty and a hundred yards ahead. Exactly what he wanted."Those rockets could hit the Hradcany from here!" one of them complained, as Red started to clamber down out of the bed.Once he was back on the ground, Red squinted at the fortress in question. He was still without glasses, so it wasn't much more than a blur to him."Oh, sure, they can fly that far. But hit it? Be a pure accident." He pointed toward the Malá Strana. "They'd be just as likely to hit Wallenstein's palace. Just do it my way, boys. Holk's got as much chance of getting across this bridge as a pig does of flying. You watch."After he got back into the truck and closed the door, Red cocked his head and smiled at Dunash. "Pigs can fly, you know."Dunash frowned; as often, not sure whether Red was kidding or not."Sure they can," Red insisted. "Throw one off the highest wall in Prague Castle sometime and see for yourself."The CB squawked. "They're starting the charge, Red! They're on their way!" His eyes came back to the firing slit, as he reached for the CB. "Yup, that pig'll fly. All the way to the ground."* * *Only seconds thereafter, Morris could see the first ranks himself, charging across the bridge. Using the term "ranks" very loosely, of course. Holk's men just looked like a mob.For a moment, he reached for the sword, ready to start swinging it around again as he bellowed meaningless but reassuringly martial words. But, as if it had a mind of its own, his hand went to the stock of his rifle instead. He decided his hand was smarter than his brain. So, he drew the rifle out of the saddle holster his wife had had made for him. Then, with motions than were much surer than those with which he held a sword, jacked a round into the chamber and propped the butt of the rifle on his hip.And said nothing. He just couldn't think of anything to say, since it was all too obvious. The brigands were coming and he intended to shoot them down. Simple as that. What was there to say about it?* * *His hand was smarter than his brain. Morris Roth had no way of knowing it—and never would—but the easy and assured motion, and the silence that followed, had precisely the right effect on the men on the barricades. Almost all of whom had been nervously watching him, once they realized the fight was finally underway.In truth, it had a much more profound effect than any amount of sword-waving and speechifying could have had, at least with that assemblage of warriors-that-weren't. Shopkeepers, butchers, bakers, students—rabbinical students, some of them. With the exception of a few of the former seamen, who'd dealt with pirates, almost none of them had ever been in a battle before of any kind—much less a pitched battle against an army with as ferocious a reputation as Holk's. True, the tactical situation was completely in their favor, but they didn't really have the experience to know that.But Don Morris did—or so, at least, they blithely assumed. He'd told them they could win, hadn't he? In speech after speech given the day before. And, now that the fury was finally about to fall on their heads, wasn't Don Morris sitting on his saddle not more than ten yards behind the barricade, as calm as could be? Not even bothering with his sword—not even aiming his rifle. Just . . .Waiting.* * *He didn't speak until Holk's forces were within two hundred yards. "Fire when I do!" he commanded. Quite sure, this time, that he would be obeyed.* * *Red glanced into the side mirror of the pickup. "Shit," he snarled. "Dunash, tell—"He opened the door. "Never mind, I'll do it myself."Hopping out of the truck, Red took several steps toward the rear, making broad shooing motions with his arms. "All of you get the hell out of the way!" he bellowed. "The backblast on these rockets is fierce!"A number of women and children and old men had started crowding in behind the pickup to get a better look at the oncoming soldiers. They didn't really understand what Red was shouting at them, but they got the gist of it well enough. A moment later, Red had a clear firing lane again.He clambered back into the truck."They're almost here!" Dunash hissed.Red squinted through the slit. "Oh, bullshit. I can't see the whites of their eyes."He glanced over and saw that Dunash's hands were twitching, as if they couldn't wait to flip the firing switches."Whites of their eyes," he growled. "You don't flip those switches till I say so."* * *The day before, just to be sure there wouldn't be a problem, Morris had fired the rifle while in the saddle. The warhorse hadn't even flinched.When the first of Holk's men was within one hundred yards, Morris brought the rifle butt to his shoulder. He'd removed the telescopic sight the day before, seeing no use for it in the coming fray. Peering over the iron sights, he saw that his guess had been correct. At that range, firing into that mob, he could hardly miss with a blindfold on.He squeezed the trigger. Oddly, as he did so, thinking only of the horse. I wonder if Pappenheim would sell it to me? 3The stern control Morris had managed to gain over his motley troops had its effect. This time, the first volley was actually that—a volley. A single, hammering blow at the enemy, shocking men with its power even more than the actual casualties inflicted.The casualties themselves were . . . not as good as they could have been, had experienced troops fired that volley. Many of the shots went wild, more than usual with such inaccurate firearms.So, Holk's men reeled and staggered, but they came on nonetheless, almost without breaking stride. Granted, these weren't men of the caliber of the great armies of Tilly or Gustavus Adolphus. Holk had known what he was doing when he delayed his arrival at Breitenfeld. On that battlefield, his thugs would have been coyotes at a wolf party. Still, they were mercenary soldiers with fifteen years of the Thirty Years War under their belts. They'd charged into gunfire before, and knew that the only way to get through it was just to plunge ahead, pikes leveled.They were all pikemen in the front ranks. The clumsy arquebuses of the seventeenth century would have been almost useless in this kind of charge across a long and narrow bridge. And pikes always had the advantage of sheer terror, in a frontal assault. Outside of a cavalry charge, there was perhaps nothing quite as intimidating as the sight of hundreds of pikes, each of them almost twenty feet long and tipped with a cruel foot-long blade, charging directly at you.Of course, it would have helped if Holk's men had been able to level the pikes. But, in that pressing mob, with no ranks being maintained, that was impossible for all but the very foremost. The first thing a pikeman learned was that a pike could easily kill or main the man in front of him, if not handled carefully. Those who didn't learn it—and quickly—found themselves out of the army. Sometimes, in a coffin. The term "fragging" didn't exist yet, but nobody had to teach seventeenth-century mercenaries how to deal with a fellow soldier who was a danger to his mates—or a sub-officer, for that matter.* * *The second volley was more ragged, but it struck even harder. The range was shorter. Fifty yards. Holk's men were definitely staggering, but still they came on. They had no choice, really, since by now there were thousands of men behind them on the bridge, pushing them forward."Okay, shoot," Red said quietly.Dunash's fingers flew to the firing switches.* * *That volley broke the charge. To Holk and his men, it seemed as if a dragon had suddenly belched. Licking down the bridge with a tongue of fire that just seemed to engulf men whole. Swallow entire ranks of them.The katyusha was firing the second generation of rockets that Grantville had been able to manufacture in quantity. It was a variation on the old nineteenth-century Hale 24-pounder rotary rocket—2.4 inches in diameter, slightly less than two feet long, with a maximum range of 4000 yards. The propellant as well as the warhead were black powder. The rockets were fired from a single-level rack, twelve tubes mounted side by side on an adjustable framework fixed into the bed of the Dodge Ram.Red had foreseen the impact of the rockets fired at such close range on such a narrow target. The maximum flight time for a Hale rocket was about twenty seconds, most of it ballistic. At that point-blank range, the Hale rockets struck the advancing troops in split-seconds. But what he hadn't foreseen—was almost aghast when he witnessed it—was the effect of the stone retaining walls on either side of the bridge.The rockets struck the paving of the bridge, just as Red had foreseen, between fifty and a hundred yards ahead. Some of them exploded instantly, but not most of them. Red had chosen to use contact fuses for this battle instead of the self-lit fuse that had been the standard for the old Hale rockets. But since the somewhat jury-rigged contact fuses available in this day and age made him nervous, he'd adjusted them to fire only in the event they made a direct hit. Which most of them didn't. They struck the stones at a low glancing angle and kept on, sailing and skidding down the bridge—caroming off the low walls—until they finally ran out of fuel and momentum or hit something solid enough to explode. The narrowness of the bridge concentrated the impact, but it was the walls that channeled it into sheer havoc.Without uptime propellant the black powder rockets were occasionally prone to explosion—CATO, as the rocket club kids called it ("Catastrophe At Take Off")—caused by an unforeseen bounce or bump that cracked the grain. Then the rockets were little more than large bombs, more black powder burning than could be safely ejected as the pressure rose. Red preferred not to have twenty pounds of black powder exploding near his head, so he'd inspected them carefully. One of them did burst, nonetheless. But that fact didn't make the charging enemy infantry any happier. The rocket exploded some fifty feet in front of the truck and became a huge ball of fire and flying debris hurtling towards Holk's troops at hundreds of miles per hour. A shot of grape from a six-pounder couldn't have been more effective. Grape didn't set the recipient on fire.Two of the rockets, on the other hand, never exploded at all. Red later found one of them lying on the stones not more than fifty yards from the other end of the bridge. But that didn't matter, either. All twelve of the rockets in that volley did their damage, even those two—and far more damage than Red had foreseen. It was as if the dragon had a dozen serpent tongues, licking down the great Stone Bridge for hundred of yards, racing the length of the span up to the dogleg in less than two seconds. Hissing with fury, belching smoke, upending dozens of terrified men for every one they killed or wounded—which meant dozens of pikes flailing about, gashing and bashing and wounding still more. The sheer weight of the charge would probably have kept it going, struck only by bullets. Men at the front being shoved forward willy-nilly by those at the rear. But the dragon-tongues ravaged the men in the first hundred yards, paralyzed and confused those behind them—and gave those at the very rear the time to do what soldiers rarely have in a frontal assault. Time to think things over.Even the best mercenary soldiers are not given to mindless obedience to orders. And Holk's men were far from the best. The charge staggered to a halt, and the men at the rear began coming back off the bridge. That relieved the pressure on those ahead of them; and, inchoate rank after rank, Holk's charge started disintegrating.It took time, of course. Perhaps fifteen minutes, in all. But the critical furious momentum of the initial charge had been lost, and Holk's officers were neither good enough nor respected enough to rally the army. They did manage, four times, to paste together small charges from those men toward the front who could be convinced or cajoled or bullied into it. But the first three of those charges were driven off, easily enough, by the flintlocks and the arquebuses. By then, Dunash's rocketeers had been able to reload the katyusha, and the dragon belched again. The fourth charge was shredded, and Holk's men had had enough. This was even worse that the Hradcany. They hadn't signed on to fight a damn dragon.So, back they came, in a hurry, leaving hundreds of dead and dying and wounded behind them on the bridge. Two of the corpses were those of sub-officers, too stupid or inexperienced to understand when it was time to stop trying to force mercenary soldiers to do something they really, really, really didn't want to do any more. One of them bled to death from no fewer than five stab wounds.4"For Chrissake, Red, it's obvious even from here. Tell Morris to quit screwing around with his stupid modesty act and start waving his hat. And while he's at it, do the Roy Rogers bit with the fucking horse. Y'know, rearing up on the hind legs. Whatever they call that silly stunt, I don't know. I can't stand big fucking animals. Damn things are dangerous. Even cats make me nervous, with their fangs and shit." 5After Red whispered in his ear—well, shouted in his ear—Morris did take off his big, wide-brimmed plumed hat and wave it around, acknowledging the enthusiastic roars of approval from the crowd. He drew the line, though, at rearing the horse.It didn't matter, really. Ellie was too nervous about a lot of things. After that sunny day in Prague, in July of the year 1633—as Christians counted it; for the Jews who made up most of the crowd it was the month of Av and the year was 5393—it wouldn't have mattered if Don Morris had fallen off the horse entirely—or lost his hat in the river.Don Morris, he was; and Don Morris he would always remain. For them as well as their descendants who heard the tale. It had been a long time, after all—a very long time—since the Ashkenazim of central and eastern Europe had had a martial hero of their own. The ancient Hebrews had had a multitude, of course; and the Sephardim, in their Iberian heyday, more than a few. But for the Ashkenazim of Europe, for many centuries, heroism had been something that could only be measured by martyrs.Martyrs were to be cherished, certainly. But it was nice—delightful, in fact—not to have to do it again.And who was to say? Perhaps never again. There were those other men, after all, who would outlive Don Morris. The much younger Jews who looked very bold and handsome, perched up there on that strange thing that was so much bigger and more deadly than a mere horse. And didn't seem to be afraid of it at all.Perhaps the golem was not simply a silly legend. The Maharal had been a very wise man. One of the wisest, even in a city of wise men like Prague.6As usually happens in history, the famous Battle of the Bridge didn't have a neat ending. Holk and his men never tried to charge across the bridge again. But they did remain in Prague for days thereafter, burning and plundering what they could in the Malá Strana.One part of the plan had not worked. Billek and his Brethren had tried—quite valiantly—to trap Holk's army on the bridge and slaughter them wholesale. But Holk had twice as many men in his army as he could get onto the bridge in one charge, and if he was a drunk and a brute he was not actually incompetent. So, he'd stationed half his army to protect the western entrance to the bridge, and the Brethren were unable to drive them off. Indeed, they suffered fairly heavy casualties in the attempt. And continued to suffer them, the next day. The crude fact, soon evident, was that Billek's inexperienced volunteers simply couldn't stand toe-to-toe with Holk's toughs in a pitched battle. They tried, the next morning, fighting in the open in the streets, but by noon Billek realized his mistake and ordered a retreat. Thereafter, in the days that followed, the Brethren went back to their tactics of harassment and fighting from well-fortified positions. At that, they were extremely capable—just as their Hussite ancestors, from the shelters of their armored wagons, had been very good at breaking noble cavalry. They couldn't defeat Holk—couldn't even drive him off—but they could certainly bleed him. And, what was most important, bleed the morale of his army.* * *Morris, during those same days, lapsed frequently into profanity. Understandably enough, having driven off the charge across the bridge on the first day and being in no real danger thereafter, the Jews of the ghetto were reluctant to get involved in the fighting still taking place in the Malá Strana. That was a goyishe battle in a goyishe part of the city where few of them had ever gone, and fewer still had ever lived. All of Morris' attempts to plead and convince and cajole them—even curse them, which he did more than once—had little effect.But Dunash and his young firebrands came into their own, during those same days. They did participate in the fighting. First, at irregular intervals, by racing onto the bridge—almost all the way across, on one occasion—and firing rocket volleys at Holk's encampment. Then, racing off before Holk's cannons could retaliate. (Holk had finally brought in his artillery, three days too late to do any good.)Secondly, perhaps more importantly, every day after sundown at least some of Dunash's men made their way across the river in a few small boats that they'd kept safely hidden away. Once there, they joined the Brethren in their nightly harassment of Holk's forces. In purely military terms, they were not much of a factor. But the political effect was significant—and, by the fourth day, was starting to result in a steady trickle of recruits to Dunash's miniature army. In any population of fifteen thousand people, there are a fair number of bold youngsters who don't see things the way their sage elders do.* * *Most of the Malá Strana was in ruins, by the end, though civilian casualties were minimal. Fortunately, the inhabitants of that section of Prague had fled before Holk arrived. For that matter—much to the disgruntlement of Holk's troops—they'd taken their valuable belongings with them. The destruction wreaked by Holk's army during the week it spent in Prague was not so much due to looting, as such; it was simply the mindless destruction and arson visited upon a town by frustrated and angry troops. Who became even more frustrated, the more they wrecked and burned, because their own living quarters and rations got steadily worse as a result.Holk would have tried to restrain them, had he not been Heinrich Holk. Being Holk, it never once occurred to him to do so.Then, a week after the siege of Prague began, word came from the southwest. A second battle of the White Mountain had indeed been fought. Actually, the battle was fought a good twenty miles away from the White Mountain, but since victors get to name battles, "the Second Battle of the White Mountain" it was.It seemed that Wallenstein thought it made a nice touch, to inaugurate the new kingdom of Bohemia and Moravia.Oh, yes. He'd won. Pappenheim and his dreaded Black Cuirassiers had pursued the retreating Austrians for miles, slaughtering pitilessly."Practicing for Holk," Pappenheim was reported to have said afterward.* * *The news arrived in the morning. By late afternoon, Holk's army was out of Prague, racing for the north. Holk, it was said, had already opened negotiations with the Elector of Saxony, John George, looking for a new employer. And shelter from the coming storm.7But there was no storm on the day that Wallenstein and Pappenheim finally returned to Prague—other than a storm of applause from the residents of the city who greeted his victorious army, on both banks of the river. Whatever private reservations any of them had regarding the change of power, nobody was willing any longer to speak out in open opposition.Not even the Catholics in the city. First, because the Jesuits dominated the Catholic church in Bohemia. Wallenstein had always been partial to the Jesuits, and had sent them a friendly private note assuring them that they would be able to remain in Prague unmolested—provided, of course, they agreed to cease and desist their activities against Protestants on behalf of the Austrian Habsburgs.The Jesuits hadn't decided yet, how they would react to that last provision. But they didn't have to fear for their own lives in the immediate period.The second reason they decided to stay, however, and abide by Wallenstein's conditions—at least for the moment—would have amazed Ellie Anderson. Whatever she thought of Len Tanner's behavior during the siege, the Jesuits had reacted otherwise. Quirky—even foolish—he might have been. But, as the days passed and the pudgy American kept returning to his self-assigned post of duty in the cathedral, always with that bizarre weapon in his hands, the Jesuits came to the conclusion that whatever Wallenstein might think, his new American allies had their own opinions. And, whatever else, were clearly stubborn about them.That was an interesting datum, with interesting possibilities for the future. The Jesuits in Prague duly recorded their impressions in several letters they sent to their Father General in Rome, Mutio Vitelleschi. They did so, of course, in the full knowledge that Vitelleschi was close to the Pope and would pass along their letters. The gist of them, in any event. So, the Jesuits would be patient. They were trained, and accustomed, to thinking in the long run.* * *Most of the crowd gathered to cheer Wallenstein's army, however, were Protestants of one sort or another—counting the Brethren and the Utraquists in their number, although they predated Martin Luther—and the Jews. Those people were far less ambivalent about the situation. Granted, Wallenstein was still an enigmatic figure, and a somewhat unsettling one. But the Habsburgs weren't enigmatic at all. Most of Prague's residents had had more than enough of the royal bigot Ferdinand II, sitting on his throne in Vienna. And, finally, there was this: Wallenstein did not return alone. He had Pappenheim, of course, but he also brought with him tangible proof that his new regime had secured at least one redoubtable ally: the United States in Thuringia, if not perhaps the entire Confederated Principalities of Europe. The proof came in the form of two APCs that Mike Stearns sent to Bohemia the minute he got word from Morris Roth—yes, there had been a long-distance radio stashed in that great mansion's basement, along with so many other treasures—that the political crisis had finally erupted and it was time for the United States to forego all secrecy. The APCs had not arrived in time to play any role at the second battle of the White Mountain, but they did arrive in time to join Wallenstein's triumphal procession back into Prague.The only unfortunate episode in the day's celebrations—and that, only mildly unfortunate—was that the biggest cheer of all was not reserved for Wallenstein himself. That cheer erupted, quite spontaneously, when the two APCs from Grantville rumbled onto the Stone Bridge from the Malá Strana side and were met halfway by the katyusha coming from the east bank. Now that they could see what a real APC looked like, almost dwarfing the katyusha drawn up before it, Prague's citizens were greatly heartened. Their own little one had driven off Holk, no? Who knew what the big ones could do?* * *Best of all, perhaps—at least for fifteen thousand of the city's residents—was that the katyusha was festooned with banners. One—the largest, of course—was Wallenstein's new banner. But there was also, resting alongside it, the banner of the Josefov. The central image on the flag was that of a hexagram—a symbol that had, in another universe, evolved over the centuries into the Star of David. There was something very fitting about it all, they thought. So far as anyone knew, Prague had been the first city in Europe whose Jews were given the right to fly their own flag. They had been given that right in the Christian year 1354—by the same Emperor Charles IV who had built the Stone Bridge it was now flying over, and which that katyusha had so valiantly defended.* * *Uriel Abrabanel had returned also, with the APCs. He'd come onto the bridge with the war machines, but he'd kept going, walking all the way across.Morris came out of the crowd to greet him. " 'Bout time you got back," he grumbled. "Where were you when all the dust was flying?"Uriel grinned, quite unabashed. "I was busy. Never mind with what, I won't tell you. Besides, flying dust is no place for a proper spy. That's the business of princes and soldiers—and hidalgos, I hear.""Just what I need. More rumors." Morris made a face. "So? Are you staying?""Certainly. Spies are all mercenaries at heart, you know. I also hear that the new hidalgo in Prague is a very generous patron."Morris sighed. "Et tu, Brute? Soak the rich Jew, that's all anybody thinks about. Even other Jews.""Stop whining. You need a good spy. Better yet, a good spymaster."Morris thought about it. Not for very long. "Boy, isn't that the truth? Okay, Uriel, you're hired." Chapter VII: End Game
August, 16331
"That is a ridiculous price for that horse." Pappenheim was smiling when he said it, though. A rather cold and thin smile, true, but—From Pappenheim, that was good enough."All I can afford," Morris insisted. "It's not the horse that's the problem, Gottfried, it's the cost of feeding the great brute.""And that statement is even more ridiculous. Not about the horse's appetite—I know what that costs—but the rest of it."Pappenheim's eyes ranged up and down Morris' figure, examining his apparel. "What, no pearls? They're quite in fashion, I'm told, in Paris and Vienna—and you needn't worry about the sumptuary laws any longer, because the King of Bohemia has abolished all of them."Morris was tempted to state that was because Wallenstein was a clotheshorse himself, but he wisely refrained. It was an autocracy, after all, even if Morris Roth was about as well-respected and well-regarded a courtier—in Bohemia, at least—as any in Europe. And he didn't even have to fawn all over his monarch to maintain the status. Clotheshorse or not, Wallenstein was far more interested in results than flattery.Pappenheim rose from his chair. "Oh, let's be done with it. Morris, I give you the horse as a gift. In fact, I'll even include a full set of cuirassier armor to go with it. In recognition of your valor at the bridge."He grinned at Morris' startled expression. "Don't worry. I promise I won't hold it against you if you never wear it. Miserable heavy stuff, I'll be the first to admit.""It's not you I'm worried about, Gottfried," Morris replied. "It's my wife. She'll never let me leave it stuffed safely away in a chest. You watch. The first big ceremonial occasion—eek."How Pappenheim could manage a grin that wide, and that cold, Morris would never understand."Indeed so," said the Duke of Moravia. "The coronation is less than two weeks from now. Still, that's more than enough time for me to have the armor ready. Do try your best not to trip during the procession, Morris. You'll never get up again, not at your age. Without a winch."2That night, Jason came back from his first Shabbat dinner at the home of Mordechai Spira.He seemed in a peculiar mood, and said very little before he went to bed. Morris didn't notice, but Judith did. The next morning, she pressed Jason about it."I don't know. It's hard to explain. A lot of it I liked—a lot. The discussion was almost exhilarating at times. The rabbi was at his best, too. I learned a lot and I laughed a lot at the same time. But . . ."He ran fingers through his hair, which had gotten very long. "I don't know if I'll ever get used to men dancing alone. And it was weird, having the women do all the serving and cooking as if they were menials. Although I was even more surprised—pleased, but surprised—when the women participated in the Talmudic discussion after dinner. I didn't think they would."Judith was surprised herself, hearing that. Although . . .She reminded herself not to make the mistake her husband Morris was prone to making. People are not categories, not even categories to which they belong. Unusual rabbis were still rabbis, after all. So why should it really be that surprising—in the same city which had produced a woman like Eva Bacharach—that the wife and daughters of Mordechai Spira would be unusual women?"One of the rabbi's daughters even made a joke in the course of it," Jason continued. "Pretty funny one, too."His eyes got a little unfocused. Judith had to struggle not to smile."Tell me about her. The daughter, I mean."Jason mumbled some vague phrases. The only ones that weren't hopelessly murky had to do with the girl's eyes—very bright, apparently—and the fact that her name was Sarah.But Judith let it go. There was no reason to pursue the matter with Jason, at the moment, since it obviously made him uncomfortable. Eva Bacharach would be coming for a visit later that day. Judith could find out everything she needed to know from her. "I just don't know what to think," he complained. "Everything seems gray, and complicated. It's confusing.""And you think that'll change? It won't. Trust me. But for the moment—"She gave the young man a very warm smile. "Welcome to your life, Jason Gotkin."3In late afternoon, Mordechai Spira visited his friend Isaac Gans.After seeing Mordechai to a chair, Gans sat in his own. "And?""You were quite wrong, Isaac. Sarah didn't start pest

ring me until after lunch.""Ha!" Isaac chuckled. "That's because she spent the whole morning conspiring with your wife.""I know," said Mordechai gloomily. His eyes moved to the books on Isaac's study table. "It's a puzzling and tangled problem, given who the fellow is. But I'm sure I can find something in the Talmudperhaps the responsa—to guide me properly.""Of course you can. Everything pertaining to proper conduct is contained somewhere in the Talmud or the midrash or the responsa. I'm more the scholar than you are, though I don't have your stature as a judge." Stoutly: "So I will be glad to help!"Gans leaned forward, spreading his hands wide. "But we must begin by facing the truth, Mordechai my old friend. We're rabbis. Studying the sacred texts takes time—hours and hours, days and weeks, poring over the words—and we are dealing with women."Spira grimaced ruefully. "They're quick.""Indeed. And so, I think, are these new times. We will just have to do our best.""Always."
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