The Saale Valley, near Hof


            “Stop complaining,” Janos said. He gave the wagon a cold, experienced eye. “The likelihood of having an axle break was very high, given the route we’ve taken and the speed we’ve made.”

            “And that’s another thing,” complained Billie Jean Mase. “You’ve been wearing everybody out.”

            Janos didn’t bother replying to that accusation. In point of fact, while the pace he’d set had been hard by the standards of a commercial caravan, it was nothing compared to the pace Hungarian cavalrymen and their supply trains were accustomed to while on campaign. He was feeling perfectly well rested, himself. Granted, he’d been in a saddle, but Gage and Gardiner had been driving two of the three wagons and they were holding up well also.

            Of the three drivers, the one in the worst shape was Mickey Simmons. He’d gotten the assignment because he’d boasted of the wagoneering skills he’d developed as a result of being the coordinator of training for the transportation department.  Naturally, within less than four days he’d broken an axle.

            “There’s no time for this,” Janos said curtly. He glanced up at the sun. “We’ll camp here. We have perhaps three hours of daylight left to sort through the wagons, jettison whatever is least important, and repack the two surviving wagons.”

            Needless to say—he didn’t think he’d ever met such self-indulgent people; they were even worse than Austrian noblemen—the Americans set up a round of protests and complaint. The gist of which was we need all of it.

            He gave them no more than a minute before cutting the nonsense short.

            “We have no means of repairing the axle. Nor can we seek the assistance of a wainwright in Hof, because there is a USE garrison there. By now, the alert will have reached them. Like most such garrisons, they will not exert themselves to search the surrounding countryside—but it we show up in the town itself, which is quite small, they will be almost certain to spot us.”

            He gave the assembled up-timers perhaps five seconds of a stony stare to see if any were stupid enough to argue those points.

            None were, apparently. He revised his estimate of their common sense. Higher than carrots, after all.

            “That leaves two options. The first is that we unload the contents of the broken wagon and pile them onto the two others.”

            “Yeah, that’s what I was figuring,” said Jay Barlow.

            Sadly, the level of common sense did not attain that of rabbits.

            Janos half-turned and pointed southeast toward a low range of mountains. “By tomorrow, we have to be well into the Fichtelgebirge. That terrain is considerably worse than we’ve been passing through, and the roads are worse yet. We are certain to break another axle, or a wheel, with overloaded wagons—and these are already dangerously burdened as it is. I leave aside the fact that we are now into late autumn. The weather has been good, so far, for which we can be thankful. But who knows when the weather might turn?”

            The Americans squinted at the mountains. “We gotta go up there?” whined Peter Barclay’s wife Marina. By now, Janos had come to recognize her as a champion whiner. She almost put his great-aunt Orsolya in the shade. Not quite.

            “Why?” demanded her husband.

            Janos shook his head. “This close to Bayreuth, we can’t stay in the lowlands or we run the risk of being spotted by a cavalry troop. Even in the Fichtelgebirge, there may be an occasional patrol. Once we enter it, we have only a few days—no more—to reach Cheb by following the Eger.”

            Their daughter Suzi frowned. She was a bizarre-looking creature, who would have been an attractive young woman if it hadn’t been for the short cropped hair dyed a truly hideous color, five earrings in her left ear and three on the right, two metal studs through her right eyebrow—and, capping it all, a tattoo of flames done in black ink reaching from the wrist of her right arm to the top of the right side of her neck. The woman was so attached to the grotesque decoration that she insisted on wearing a sleeveless vest instead of a coat, despite the November temperatures.

            “That can’t be right,” she said. “I know somebody from Cheb, one of the girls—well, never mind that, but she’s Bohemian.”

            “That is hardly surprising, since Cheb is in Bohemia. It’s an old fortress town that guards the northwestern approaches. Good for us, in this instance, since the garrison is a mercenary company and its commander has been well-bribed. We’ll abandon these wagons in Cheb and replace them with several smaller ones, much better designed for travel in the mountains. We’ll even have a cavalry escort while we pass down part of the Bohemian Forest until we re-enter the USE near Kötzting. There, we will follow the Regen down to Regensburg, where we will exchange the wagons—that has also been arranged—for a barge that will take us down the Danube into Austria.”

            He’d already explained this to the leaders of the up-timers, the older Barclays and O’Connor and his son. But it seemed they either hadn’t paid attention or hadn’t considered all the implications.

            “Hey, wait a minute,” said Allan O’Connor. “We’re coming back into the USE? What the hell for? I know my geography, dammit. Once we’re across into Bohemia, let’s just stay there until we get to Austria.”

            Janos stared at him. “Indeed. As a geographical proposition, that is certainly feasible. Follow the rivers down to Pizen. From there we could take a good road to ÄŒeské BudÄ›jovice, the largest town in southern Bohemia. From there, of course, it is a short distance to Austria—and along a very good road, given the long and constant intercourse between Vienna and Prague.”

            O’Connor nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”

            No rabbit had ever been this stupid, for a certainly. “You have missed the news, then. Of the war between Bohemia and Austria. Which has been going on for a year and a half, now.”

            The up-timers frowned at him. They looked like a pack of confused rabbits. All except Suzi Barclay, who just looked like a crazed rabbit.

             Janos grit his teeth, reminding himself that he needed to remain on the best possible terms with these—these—people.

            “Not a good idea,” he said thinly. “The reason I could bribe the commander of the Cheb garrison is because no one expects hostilities to erupt between the USE and Bohemia, so that frontier post was given to a man who was competent enough but needed no further qualifications. Such as… what you might call a rigorous sense of duty. At Pizen and ÄŒeské BudÄ›jovice, on the other hand, we would be dealing with Pappenheim’s Black Cuirassiers.”

            The up-timers seemed to draw back a little.

            “Ah. I see you have heard of them. Yes. We do not wish to have dealings with the Black Cuirassiers.”

            Enough! Still more time had been wasted. He pointed stiffly to the broken wagon. “So let us begin unloading it. Now. And discard from the other two wagons whatever is not essential.”