1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 86:



Chapter 32



            “Are you sure about this, Darryl?” asked Melissa. Both she and Tom Simpson were practically squinting at McCarthy. With pretty much the same expression on their faces they might have had if Darryl McCarthy had just announced he was going to become a monk. Or, perhaps more to the point under these circumstances, he’d announced that he knew a batch of Las Vegas showgirls who’d decided to take holy vows.


            “Yeah, I’m sure. Why is it so goddam hard to understand?”


            “They’re Yeoman Warders, Darryl,” said Tom patiently. “You know. The Tower of London’s Beefeaters—even if they won’t be called that for another half century or so. Renown for their unswerving loyalty to the king. That sort of thing.”


            “Oh, piss on that,” snapped Darryl. He gave Melissa a wary eye. “Meaning no offense.”


            “Good thing for you there’s no blackboard around,” she said, half-smiling. “As I believe I’ve mentioned about twenty times since we got stuck in here. But Tom’s question still stands, Darryl. I’ll grant you that the Beefeater reputation got overlayed with a lot of sentiment by our time. But it’s still true enough—and nothing we’ve seen since we got here has indicated otherwise. Yes, they’ve been very pleasant to deal with. Far more pleasant, God knows, than this bunch of thugs who’ve been running the Tower for the last few weeks. But I’ve never doubted for a moment that the Warders would do their best to stop us from trying to escape.”


            “I ain’t talking about ‘the Warders,’” Darryl pointed out, trying for the same patient and level tone of voice that his commander Captain Simpson always did so well. “I’m just talking about one family among them. More to the point, Stephen Hamilton’s family. You think you’re pissed about these new mercenaries who’ve been running roughshod over everybody in the Tower? You don’t know what the word ‘pissed’ even means, to somebody like him. And it’s a double whammy. Just being angry wouldn’t have given Stephen Hamilton a way to do anything about it. But now, me being part of the family and him having figured out we’re planning to escape… I think from his point of view, that settled the question.”


            Tom rubbed his heavy jaw. “I think Darryl’s probably right, Melissa. All the Yeoman Warders are quietly furious about the situation, not just Hamilton and his kin. I haven’t spent much time out and about in the Tower since the lid came down, because we all agreed we’d be wise to keep a low profile. Darryl and Nelly are the only ones who go out regularly any more, because they’ve both got legitimate excuses that not even that prick Windebank questions. A sweetheart in Darryl’s case—betrothed, to boot—and simply shopping for food in Nelly’s. But I’ve been out there a couple of times, for an hour or so, and all it takes is a few minutes to figure out how mad they are. If word came down from Whitehall that King Charles had tired of Windebank and the Warders could do with him as they chose, they’d have the arrogant bastard staked out naked on the Tower green and be laying bets on which ravens would pluck out his eyes.”


            When Melissa had visited the Tower of London as a tourist, back in the late twentieth century, she’d thought the ancient custom of having ravens as pets of a sort in the Tower was charming. Even then, she’d known the historical origins of the custom. But it had all seemed very far removed, as harmless as a medieval sword displayed in a museum case. Now that she’d been imprisoned in the Tower during its “operational period,” so to speak, she’d developed a different attitude. The ravens were indeed there to pluck out eyes—the eyes of men beheaded on the orders of the English crown.


            Tom was still rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “And Darryl’s also right about Stephen Hamilton. You haven’t met him, not really. I have. That is one scary human being. Not somebody I’d want mad at me, for damn sure.”


            Melissa grimaced. “Tom, I have to tell you that ‘one scary human being’ is not actually a recommendation on a resumé. Not for me, anyway.”


            Tom gave her a thin, rather cold, smile. “We’re in different lines of work, so to speak. From my point of view—being the commander of a military force that you couldn’t call a ‘squad’ without breaking into hysterical laughter—‘scary human being’ looks pretty damn good, unless we’re dealing with an actual sociopath. Which I don’t think is true of Hamilton.”


            Darryl frowned. “Hey, take it easy. He’s really a pretty good guy, you know. Hell of a nice grandpa for all the kids. I know him a lot better than either of you. He’s just… Well, he never talks about it—nobody does in the family—but I think he’s been in some very bad places in his life. The one thing for sure is that he’s nobody you want to cross unless you’ve got a really good reason. ‘Really good reason’ like in: ‘I’ll die if I don’t, so I may as well, even though he’ll probably kill me.’ I could tell that the first day I met the guy. Even Harry would walk carefully around him.”


            He cleared his throat. “Which, uh, kinda brings us back to the point. Is it gonna be ‘would’ or ‘will’?”


            “A miracle,” stated Melissa. “God, they seem to happen every other day in this time and place. Darryl McCarthy just made a clear and correct grammatical distinction.”


            Darryl looked vaguely alarmed, the way a righteous hillbilly will when his credentials are challenged. She might as well have suggested he liked Brie and crackers with dry white wine.




            “Oh, relax, Darryl,” said Tom. “I’m sure it was just a momentary lapse. My lips are sealed.” Then, to Melissa: “But, yeah, you’re right. It is a clear grammatical distinction. So what’s going to be our correct response?”


            Now it was Melissa’s turn to look vaguely alarmed. “Oh, dear. Tom, I’m really not good at this sort of thing. Gauging violent people, I mean. I thought my college boyfriend was really cute until he turned out to be a screwball, fiddling with explosives that he had no idea how to make and even less idea of where and why and how he’d use them. I think it just made him feel like a dangerous anarchist.”


            Darryl sneered. “Ain’t the same thing, Melissa. Stephen Hamilton is the real deal. For that matter, so’s Andrew and the other guys in the family, even if none of ‘em are in the same great gray wolf league that Stephen is.”


            “Got to tell you I agree with him, Melissa,” said Tom. “If Darryl’s right and the veiled remarks Stephen and Andrew have made to him mean that they’re offering to switch sides, we’d be crazy not to accept.” The army captain twitched his head, using it to point across the Thames that ran below one set of the windows in their quarters. “I can tell you for sure and certain that Harry’ll be tickled pink. Even as brash as he is, Harry’s been scratching his head for weeks trying to figure out how to pull off Jailbreak, Version Two, Super-sized. Having half a dozen Warders to work with would make a huge difference.”


            He smiled wryly. “’Course, he’ll also have conniptions when we tell him he’s got to plan for springing another couple of dozen people—all the way down to toddlers.”


            Melissa winced. So did Darryl. Harry’s last remarks on the subject of jailbreakees who kept adding more jailbreakees to the list had started with sarcastic and gone downhill from there.




            In the event, however, Harry Lefferts’ reaction was quite otherwise.


            “Hot diggedy damn!” he exclaimed, after switching off the walkie-talkie. “Guys, scrap plan—whatever number we’re up to. Things are looking up. Way, way up.”


            He’d been using the walkie-talkie in the kitchen, instead of the room upstairs that they’d set up as their radio room. Over the weeks they’d now been in Southwark, once their initials plans for a quick jailbreak had gotten scrapped after the Earl of Cork’s coup d’etat, Harry had soon realized that the radio room was pointless for the walkie-talkies. Just a relic from old habits, when they’d had to rely on fancy communications equipment with tricky antennas and, even then, relaying everything through Amsterdam. The walkie-talkies worked just fine in the kitchen, and that way he didn’t have to repeat everything to the rest of the team.


            Felix didn’t share his enthusiasm. “For Christ’s sake, Harry, twenty or so more people? Three of them babies?”


            “None of them babies,” said Juliet, sniffing disdainfully. “You’ve got to understand the distinctions here. Good thing you have women with you.”


            She began counting off on her fingers. “If I’ve followed all this properly, we’ve got one infant, two toddlers, and five other children. I don’t count the teenagers. They’re not a problem.”


            Sherrilyn Maddox rolled her eyes. “I’d love to hear you say that to my mother.”


            Juliet sniffed again. “I doubt if your mother ever participated in a mass jailbreak. Not a problem, I say. Unless the two boys get too eager and we have to haul them away by the short hairs.”


            “They’ll get too eager and we’ll have to haul them away by their shorthairs,” predicted her husband calmly. “But, yes, not a problem.” He opened a huge hand and closed it. “See? Easy.”


            That brought a little ripple of laughter around the table, from everyone except Felix. As usual, he was the self-designated Cassandra of the team. “Maybe not in the escape out of the Tower—but what then?


            It was his turn to start counting on his fingers. “Let’s add it all up. Start with our own people in St. Thomas’ Tower.” He did a quick count. “Mailey, the Simpsons, Darryl, Gayle, and Friedrich and Nellie Bruch. That’s seven.” He started over again with a new finger count. “Cromwell. Wentworth. Add in Wentworth’s wife and his three children. How old are they, by the way?”


            “The son Will’s the oldest,” said Juliet. “He’s almost eight, I think. The oldest daughter Nan is about six and half years old. The youngest daughter Arabella is only four and half.”


            Felix rolled his eyes. “Marvelous. More kids. Just what we need. But let’s keep going. So far, we’re up to thirteen, three of them children. No teenagers, either, we’re speaking of real children. Then we add Laud to bring us up to fourteen.”


            He broke off the finger count and spread his hands wide, encompassing everyone in the kitchen. It was a large kitchen, but it was still very crowded. “And that’s just the escapees. Since I assume our fearless leader wasn’t planning to have us surrender ourselves into the king’s custody, we’ve also got to plan for our own escape. And there are nine of us—eleven, counting Julie and Alex.”


            Mackay and his wife were in a corner, Alex perched on a stool and Julie perched on his lap. She shook her head. “I don’t know if you should figure us in it. We gotta get out of London, sure—but then we’re headed back to Scotland, where we left our daughter with my father-in-law.”


            “I imagine Cromwell will want to come with us, too,” added her husband. “He’s still got his own children hiding out in the Fens somewhere, don’t forget. I doubt very much if he’d agree to leave England without them.”


            Seeing the gathering storm on Kasza’s brow, Alex barked a laugh. “Oh, leave it be, Felix! You needn’t plan a second escape. It’d have to be weeks or months later, anyway. Let us worry about it. Or Cromwell, if he decides to go on his own after he finds his kids. By all accounts, y’know, he’s a full-grown man and quite capable of handling his own affairs. He did manage to become Lord Protector of England, in whatever other universe his duplicate self is in.”


            Harry coughed. “Ah… I think it’s a little more complicated. I know Darryl is planning to stick with Cromwell—dunno about whether his squeeze Vicky will go with him, though—and I’m pretty sure Gayle is too.”


            Everyone stared at him. “You never said anything about that,” complained Ohde.


            “Yeah, Don, I know I didn’t. Darryl asked me to keep it to myself, until we got closer to Der Tag. Seems he’s gotten to be friends with Cromwell—you gotta know Darryl like I do to understand how completely weird that is, but I’ll skip over it now—and he also thinks he’s got to keep an eye on him.”


            The stares didn’t waver. Harry sighed.


            “Look, guys, this’ll mean a little bit to Julie and Sherrilyn but it won’t mean squat to the rest of you. Darryl’s family are Irish, and they get real fruitcake on the subject. Give money to Noraid, the whole bit. For reasons I am not going into now, Oliver Cromwell ranks right up there with Satan’s top demons, in their book—and here Darryl’s gone and made friends with him. But I guess Darryl figures the guy’s probably still a demon, even if he likes him, so he isn’t letting him out of his sight.”


            Macska shook his head. “Never mind. Politics in this century are bad enough. And Gayle? Is she one of these fruitcakes too?”


            “Ah… no. Seems she’s gotten interested in Cromwell. Personally, I mean. Which is a neat trick, seeing as she’s never even met the guy. Just talks to him on the radio they snuck into his cell.”


            Kacza threw up his hands again. “This is sheer lunacy!”


            Harry grinned. “It’s like Melissa says. We’re in an age of miracles. But you oughta keep going, Felix. I’m finding it actually helpful.”


            Felix scowled a little, but went back to the finger counting. “Fine. So we had already reached the preposterous figure of twenty-five people, for what we laughingly call a ‘jailbreak.’” He gave Julie and Alex a sharp glance. “For the moment, we’ve got to include the two of you also. Regardless of how many parties wind up going in separate directions, we’ve got to get everybody in the Tower out of there and them and rest of us out of London.”


            He looked at Harry from lowered brows. “And now, how many Warders are we talking about? Keeping in mind that if they’re the berserk clansmen they sound like, they won’t agree to leave without bringing every single one in the clan.”


            “I’m not sure, exactly. I’ll have to get Darryl to give me an exact count. Somewhere around twenty is all I know, including all the women and kids.”


            By now, even George Sutherland was starting to look aghast. “Ah… Harry. You’re talking about almost fifty people. Just exactly how many boats did you figure on using?”


            Throughout, Harry had been standing up, leaning back against one of the kitchen walls. Now, he pushed himself off the wall with a little heave of his shoulders and came up to the table.


            “The way I figure it, we get one big boat for all of us except the people heading for the Fens.”


            Matija grimaced. “For the love of God, Harry. A boat big enough to hold something like forty people, even packed like sardines? You’re talking about one of those Thames barges. We’ll be lucky if we make three miles an hour over whatever the current’s doing, unless we’ve got a good wind—and who knows if we will?”


            “Yeah—and so what? I figure there’ll be enough confusion that we can get out of London without any trouble. After that, it won’t actually be all that easy for cavalry—much less infantry—to catch up with us. We’re on the river, doing at least five miles an hour with the current. They’ve got to follow country roads, most of which don’t parallel the river hardly at all. Brit road-makers in the here and now aren’t any crazier than they are up-time. You don’t build roads right next to rivers, especially not a river like the Thames. The soil’s too crappy.”


            “There are tow paths all along the Thames,” pointed out Paul. “Stretches of them, anyway.”


            Harry shrugged again. “Sure. And would you want to take a cavalry horse down one of them? With us on the boat with up-time weapons and plenty of ammunition? And we’ve got enough ordnance here that we can give most of the Warders up-time guns.”


            “They’ve never used them,” protested Gerd. Feebly.


            Harry laughed. “Yeah. I know. They’re also Warders. How long did it take any of you to figure out how to operate a pump-action shotgun? Being delicate and all, I won’t mention the sicko kinky love affairs that followed.”


            That drew a laugh, even from Kasza.


            “I’m not actually worried about any of that,” said George. “The Thames is a wide river, even here in London. By the time you get down to Tilbury, where it narrows a bit, it’s almost a thousand yards wide. Even at Tilbury, it only ‘narrows’ to something like seven hundred yards. Cavalrymen—even infantrymen—standing on the banks at shooting at us with matchlocks and wheel-locks stand almost no chance of hitting us. We’ll stay in the center of the river, of course, just to avoid the shoals in nothing else.”


            He held up a big forefinger in the way of warning. “There’s the fort at Tilbury to get past, too, don’t forget.”


            He didn’t say it with any great alarm, just more in the way of a reminder. Harry and his crew had made it a point to visit the fort on their way up the Thames when they arrived in England. That hadn’t been hard, since they’d sold their boat in Tilbury and therefore had an excuse to be lounging about for a time. Harry and Don Ohde had taken the opportunity to visit the fort while the others handled the commercial transaction. The soldiers manning the fort had been so delighted to have visitors that they’d shown them all about. For their part, Harry and Don had been polite, letting no sign of their professional contempt show visibly. Henry VIII had had the fort built, in the previous century, and it had fallen into a state of almost complete desuetude. The entire garrison wasn’t more than thirty men, and none of the fort’s few cannons looked to have been fired for years.


            Felix being Felix, he rallied and went back to his Cassandra routine. “Fine. So we make it down to the mouth of the Thames. And then what, Harry? I’ll grant you, especially with some initial confusion, that even a barge can probably make it down to the sea before a cavalry force can intercept them. But nobody’s ever accused the Earl of Cork or the men around him of being morons. Greedy assholes, yes; imbeciles, no. They’ll certainly have enough sense to send couriers down to the Royal Dockyard at Sheerness. And there’ll be at least one or two warships stationed there. Once they move into the Thames, we’re fucked. Or do you propose that a shallow-draft barge spilling over with women and children and armed with a few rifles and shotguns can take on a Royal Navy warship? Even one of those reconverted merchant ships.”


            “No, of course not,” said Harry. “But I doubt very much if those warships are going to be in any position to intercept us. In fact, I’ll be surprised if they still exist at all.”


            Everybody was staring at him again. Harry planted his hands on his hips and gave them a look of exasperation. “Give me a break, willya? I treasure my reputation more than anybody—but I’m not actually a loose cannon on the deck. Wildass cowboy, sure; rebel without a cause, no. Obviously I’m not going to do something like this unless we get backup. Like in real serious, Admiral Simpson type backup.”


            “Those ironclads aren’t really seaworthy,” protested Matija.


            “No? Then why is Simpson proposing to sail them out into the North Sea, around the Skaw, and into the Baltic?”


            “Risky. And he’s got four. I’ll bet you—good odds—that at least one of them breaks down and doesn’t make it.”


            “Maybe you’re right,” said Harry, “and maybe you’re not. But I figure that’s the Admiral’s business. And what I know for sure, is that this decision is way over my pay grade. In fact, Melissa told me yesterday it was way over her pay grade. So she relayed the whole thing to Magdeburg.”


            That brought a moment’s silence. Then Felix said: “And the answer was….”


            Harry gave him a very cheerful grin. “What do you think? We’re talking about the Prince, guys. Of course he told us to go for it. He said he’ll make sure we’ve got the backup we need, when the time comes.”


            It was almost comical, the way everyone at the table seemed to simultaneously relax and perk up at the same time. They almost never discussed the subject, simply because it was something taken completely for granted amongst them. But, like Harry Lefferts himself, all of his team had become dyed-in-the-wool partisans of Mike Stearns. It wasn’t really even a political matter for them, or if it was, only tangentially so. True, they all accepted the basic principles of Stearns’ political view, but that was simply a veneer. What lay underneath was simple, rather savage, and completely medieval. He was the Prince and they were the prince’s men. And—once again—he had not failed them.


            Felix clapped his hands together, all traces of Cassandra gone. “Well, then. Now that we don’t have to worry about the women and children—”


            He broke off, his peripheral vision having spotted the Rapidly Rising Backs of Sherrilyn and Julie Mackay—even Juliet’s was coming up—and hastily said:


            “The non-combatants, rather. But let’s move on to the rest. Now it gets interesting.”




            Later that evening, in the kitchen that was used by the small clan of Warders, Darryl spoke quietly to Stephen Hamilton and Andrew Short.


            “So there it is, guys. Up front, and all cards on the table. You’re in or you’re out.”


            He could have added, or you turn me over to the authorities, but didn’t. Partly because he knew it was no longer necessary, but mostly because he knew that saying any such thing would enrage Stephen Hamilton. Now that he’d become part of the clan himself—so much, Hamilton himself had made quite clear—any suggestion that the clan would turn on him would be deeply offensive.


            “We’re in,” said Stephen immediately. Andrew’s nod came not more than a split-second later.


            With someone else, Darryl might had asked if they were really sure. But, again, that was both unnecessary and might quite possibly trigger off Hamilton’ anger. The warder Captain was not a hot-tempered man—quite the opposite, in fact—but if you made the mistake of treading on areas that meant a great deal to him, you ran the risk of stirring up that hidden, incredibly cold and ruthless capacity for fury. Darryl would no more have considered stepping on a cobra, just to see if it was awake.


            “Good. Now, first thing. Since they’re still letting the Warders guard our quarters in St. Thomas—fucking idiots, but there it is—we need to start sending the men over there, one at a time. Whenever nobody looks to be watching.”


            “That’s not a problem,” said Andrew. “We’ve often come into St. Thomas’ Tower, helping Nellie with the groceries. Can’t stay inside for more than half an hour, though, or suspicions might get aroused.”


            Darryl smiled thinly. “With you guys, half an hour will be plenty. Biggest problem will be just tearing you away from your newfound loves.”


            Both Warders frowned at him, puzzled.


            “Won’t be able to fire them, of course. But the noise of working the slides ain’t much, and we’ll only do it when one of your kin is standing guard at the door anyway.”


            Darryl’s smile wasn’t thin at all, now. “Gentlemen. I will shortly be introducing you to a couple of very sleek dames. Lady Pump-Action Shotgun and Lady Automatic Pistol. Several sisters there, actually. I’m personally partial to Ms. Ten Millimeter. You’ll even like their papa, Mr. Dynamite.”