1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 30

Gyor, Hungary, near the Ottoman border

Janos Drugeth felt an urge to wrap a cloak around himself, even though the temperature atop the bastion was quite warm. As you’d expect on a sunny day in July. He didn’t have a cloak with him anyway.

That was just a reflex, from the considerable time he’d spent in his life in one of these Balkan fortresses. The fortifications were of the so-called trace italienne design. Medieval perpendicular stone walls, circular or square in design, had been unable to withstand gunpowder artillery. They’d been replaced by fortresses that were generally star-shaped, with triangular bastions that gave the defenders a good field of fire at any enemy getting close to the wall. Later designs — not applied to this particular fortress — added features like ravelins, hornworks and crownworks.

The walls were quite different, too. They sloped rather than being perpendicular. The construction materials used were earth and brick, whenever possible, rather than stone. In every particular, they were designed to absorb artillery fire rather than shed it. Each cannon ball digging into the walls simply became another piece of the structure.

All well and good. But come winter, these new-style fortresses seemed every bit as frigid as their medieval predecessors.

Below him, the Raba River meandered through the town of Gyor. The view was pleasant, as was usually the case in the Balkans. Janos had often wondered what God’s purpose might be, to couple such a lovely region with so much in the way of strife and misery. Of course, he imagined a Frenchman or an Englishman or a Spaniard — certainly a German — could have recited at least as long a litany of woes as any inhabitant of the Balkans.

Not long ago, Noelle Stull had sent Janos a book of essays written by a famous American writer of the past. The author called himself Mark Twain. That was apparently not his real name, though, which Janos found a bit odd. To be sure, many Europeans of this age and ages past wrote under pseudonyms. But the up-timers insisted they’d had no inquisition in their nation. Why, then, the need for pseudonyms? But perhaps he was missing something.

Among the essays, most of which had been shockingly irreligious, had been one titled The Damned Human Race. Try as he might, Drugeth had found it difficult to quarrel with Twain’s thesis. He’d seen too much cruelty and brutality in his life, some of which — the brutality if not, he hoped, the cruelty — he’d inflicted himself.

He wondered still why Noelle had sent him the book. She was herself a devout Catholic and could not possibly have agreed with Twain’s viewpoint, especially that displayed in his Letters From the Earth. Had Twain been alive today, that text alone might have gotten him burned at the stake in some countries and in serious trouble with the authorities in most others.

Well… maybe not. In fact, almost certainly not. The manner in which heresy was handled — even the way it was looked upon — had been undergoing a rapid change in Europe since the Ring of Fire. Today, it would be highly unlikely that any nation, even Spain, would actually execute an American for heresy.

Americans themselves would attribute that reluctance to fear of their military capabilities. Which, to be sure, was real enough. But the source of the unease was deeper, something which few Americans really understood themselves. Most of them considered themselves Christians and many of those considered themselves very devout. But with very few exceptions, not even the most religious up-timers really had the same outlook as most people born and bred in the seventeenth century.

The up-timers were, at bottom, a profoundly secular folk. To them, the Ring of Fire had been some sort of cosmic mystery. The more religious would add that God’s hand was clearly at work — but they would say the same about almost anything. If they became ill and recuperated, they saw God’s hand at work. If their favored sports team won a game, for that matter, they saw God’s hand at work.

But there would be no miracle involved. Just God’s mysterious ways.

People in the seventeenth century, on the other hand, believed in miracles. And they believed just as firmly — or had, until the Ring of Fire — that the age of miracles was over, and had been over for sixteen hundred years. Every theologian had told them so — and it didn’t matter if they were Catholic or Lutheran or Calvinist. On that subject, there had been no real dispute.

True, there were still miracles of a sort. The Catholic Church to which Janos himself belonged required evidence of a miracle before it would canonize someone who had not been a martyr. But the sort of miracles one expected to be associated with such “Venerables,” as they were called, were modest in scale compared to the miracles that had happened in ancient days. Typically, it would be found that a person was gravely ill, with a disease for which there was no cure or remedy; prayers were then sent to the Venerable, by the victim or by relatives; the afflicted one was cured, spontaneously and completely; for which doctors had no explanation due to natural causes.

Well and good. Janos did not doubt the reality of such miracles. But they were hardly on the order of the parting of the Red Sea or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Such things had been absent from the earth for over a millennium and a half.

Until the Ring of Fire.

The issue had agonized theologians for years now. There was simply no getting around it. Thousands upon thousands of people — Janos himself was one of them — had gone to Grantville and seen the miracle with their own eyes.

Nor was it just the appearance of a mysterious town of peculiar folk with near-magical mechanical powers. That might possibly have been explained away. But you couldn’t explain away the land itself.

There were great cliffs there, nine hundred feet tall — three times the height of the famed White Cliffs of Dover — and completely unnatural in their design. Absolutely sheer, absolutely flat, and with nothing in the way of a scree slope at their base.

More than four years had passed since the Ring of Fire and those cliffs had begun to wear down. But Janos had spoken to eyewitnesses — and there were many of them; Thuringia was a well-populated area — who swore that on the day it happened, those cliffs had gleamed and shone like mirrors. They were simply stone and earth, like any other cliffs, but on the day of the Ring of Fire they had been cut by a blade sharper than any razor. A blade huge enough to cut a perfect circle six miles in diameter.

A blade that no one in his right mind could believe had been wielded by anyone but the Almighty.

So, no American would be burned at the stake. Not even in Spain. As harsh as they might be, not even the inquisitors of the Spanish crown would be willing to take such a risk. Whatever His purpose might have been, God had brought these people here. Executing them for heresy seemed rather perilous.

Theologians all over Europe — as well as political leaders, of course — were still arguing over the meaning of the Ring of Fire. A few even held to the belief that Satan had caused the Ring of Fire. Not in Rome, though, and certainly not in Spain. The Manichean heresy involved was obvious and both the Holy and the Spanish Inquisition were quite willing to subject such persons to auto-da-fé.

Most opponents of the up-timers had settled on some version of Cardinal Richelieu’s thesis: that God had certainly created the Ring of Fire, but had done so as a subtle caution to princes and peoples. By showing them a world of the future which had clearly not been created by demons, he was warning mankind of the folly of subverting the natural political order.

Janos’ own emperor, Ferdinand III, inclined to that belief. Janos himself had done so, once. Now… He was no longer sure.

And that, he thought, was the reason Noelle had sent him the Twain book. Not because she agreed with Twain, but as a gentle reminder to Drugeth that God’s ways were subtle and mysterious. So how likely was it that an inquisitor — much less a political leader with obvious vested interests and biases — could determine the truth?

Not very, he’d come to conclude.

His musings were interrupted by the sound of boots clattering up the stone stairs behind him. From the pattern of the sound, he knew who was coming. Agoston Meszaros, one of the four junior officers who had accompanied him on this expedition. Meszaros was the most junior of the group, which meant that he invariably got the assignment of carrying messages.

Just as well. Agoston was a stout fellow, but not someone you wanted to assign tasks which required much in the way of thinking.

As soon as the young officer came onto the bastion, he extended a slender dispatch. “Just arrived, sir.”

Janos broke the seal. The contents of the dispatch were brief. He read it through, and then read it through again.

So. Johann Schmid could not come himself. Janos was not surprised. Schmid served most of the Catholic countries as their informal ambassador to the Turks. He was believed to have the best intelligence network of any European in the Ottoman Empire. Schmid had been a slave of the Turks for twenty years, eventually serving them in the position of dragoman. He had contacts inside and outside of the Ottoman government, and at multiple levels of Turkish society.

Drugeth had met him twice, and wasn’t sorry he wouldn’t be meeting him again. Schmid was a thoroughly unpleasant man. Potentially dangerous, too. It was believed that he’d tried to poison the young apprentice diplomat Bratutti, probably in collusion with the Venetians, for no more sublime reason than some sort of personal or professional rivalry.

Instead, according to the dispatch, Janos would be meeting with one of Schmid’s agents. The name was not given, of course, any more than Schmid had put his own name on the missive. No one spied on the Turks casually, unless he wanted to find a strangler’s cord around his neck.

If Janos was lucky, the agent would be the Ragusan physician, Doctor Grassi. The man had probably as extensive a knowledge of Ottoman affairs as Schmid himself and was far more pleasant to deal with.

Janos read through the dispatch a third time. No names were specified when it came to location, either. But from subtle hints, he was quite sure that Osijek was the place the agent would meet him.

That was within Ottoman territory, but Janos had expected as much. In some ways, he would have preferred to meet in Belgrade. There’d be many more Ottoman soldiers there, but the city was also huge — with one hundred thousand inhabitants, it was the largest city in the Turkish Empire except Istanbul itself — and had a polyglot population. Serbs, Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Ragusans from Dubrovnik, traders from everywhere. Drugeth would be able to blend in easily. He could probably even do so as a Hungarian merchant.

Still, Osijek would do well enough. It was much smaller than Belgrade, but it was a trade center in its own right. Six roads led into the town. And it was close enough to Hungary that Hungarians were probably more common there than in Belgrade.

“Should we prepare to leave, sir?” asked Agoston.

Janos shook his head. “No, you’ll all be staying here. I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. I should be back within a week or two.”

He’d have to go alone. A party of several Hungarians would stand out in Osijek . Besides, none of his subordinates had much experience as anything other than cavalry officers. He doubted any of them could pass themselves off as humble merchants. Meszaros would be hopeless.