Time’s Bending Sickle

Chapter one of this novel may be found in the archives under October 2010; scroll down until it appears.

34. Swift-footed Time

Toby and Mary stood on the board sidewalk of a muddy street looking at one of a number of small, low houses made of squared logs and packed close together. The stench was bad, worse than usual. The smells of the old towns and cities were among the most unpleasant things about my visions. The initial shock to my sense would eventually pass, but sometimes the smell would be so foul that I would end the vision. This time I hung on.
“Can you bear it, lass?” Toby asked.
“Oh, aye. Tis not much worse than Riga.”
They entered and saw a dark, low-ceilinged room dominated by a ceramic stove, a bed, a chest, a stool, and a stiff-looking wooden settle with a high back. There was one other room, which had an open hearth fireplace with hooks and cranes for cooking, a woodbox, a table, two benches, and a cupboard. Each room had one small window with a thick pane of wavy glass. Apparently the glass windows were a luxury feature, for Toby pointed to them with a wan smile.
“Weel, noo, husband,” said Mary, with a humorously determined tone, “dinna stand there wi’ your face hanging oot. Fetch me some wood and find a tinderbox, or ye’ll never get your dinner.”

Prothero and Toby sat in another low-ceilinged room, this one more official than domestic; Prothero was briefing Toby on current affairs.
“And then,” said Prothero, “they burned this Dmitri, charged a cannon with his ashes, and fired them off towards Poland.”
Toby shook his head in amazement. “I wonder what happened to Captain Margeret. He stayed to serve Czar Dmitri.”
“All is coil and right chaos, look you, in Russia. But our General Gardie has recovered his force and has taken Korela, all but the fortress.”
“From the Russians, not the Polonians?” Toby looked puzzled.
“Aye, for there is Russians who wish to deny the agreement Czar Basil made. And there is yet another Dmitri claiming to be Ivan’s heir. He has raised many followers in a place near Moscow called Tushino.”
“And he too is Polish?” Toby seemed to be grasping for clarity.
“I know not. But I hear that most of his followers object to the Polish Ladislaw that is now supposed to be czar.”
Toby shook his head. “Do we then go to the general in Russia?”
Prothero shrugged. “Perhaps. But the council has been urging his majesty to bring our army home. They fear Denmark is about to go to war.”
“Denmark?”
“Aye,” said Prothero. “King Christian has long wanted to unite the kingdoms, and there have been disputes about lands in the north, privateers in the Baltic sea, and fishing rights.”
Toby’s looks grew troubled as well as puzzled. “I played before the King of Denmark, and his sister, our queen, rewarded me graciously for the dedication of my book. I would we should not fight the Danes.”
“Well, we’re as likely to fight Scotsmen and Englishmen as Danes. King Christian has hired as many of our countrymen as King Charles. My prophecy is that we stay here and train recruits to meet the Danes and whoever they send.”

A cold, wet, spring day in a camp surrounded by trenches and wooden stakes. Toby was seated by a fire watching two soldiers who were squeezing grayish lumps of something. They would now and then hold the lumps out over the fire. The soldiers chattered in Swedish while Toby sat silent, glancing at the sinking sun. One soldier held up his lump for the approval of the other. It had taken the shape of a stout man with a large belly. “Christian,” he said, and both laughed. The other soldier held up his figure and said “Rantzau.” I gathered that they were wax. Toby rose and spoke in German, saying that the sun was almost gone, and that they should go. The soldiers put the images in knapsacks, adjusted their swords, and took up their muskets. They followed Toby, who limped slightly, across two rows of trenches and along a path through dense woods. They walked quietly for some time. I sometimes heard ocean sounds coming from their left, and occasionally got a whiff of salt air.
After a long while, the path rose steeply and opened out on a view of a castle by the sea. Beyond the castle, the dark shape of an island lay a few miles off the coast. The castle was under siege. It was surrounded by trenches and earthworks; clusters of tents and huts were set up out of range of the castle, and soldiers milled about. Cannon fired from earthworks or from gabions of wickerwork filled with dirt. Toby squinted into the distance at three ships that were also firing at the castle. Toby pointed and spoke in German to one of the soldiers, saying something about mining the castle wall. The soldier grunted, then patted his bag and said something in Swedish. Toby followed them down a path until they reached a road. After some cautious reconnoitering from the woods, the soldiers stepped out into the road and hurriedly dug two shallow holes with their swords. They put the wax images in the holes, chanted some sort of rhymed incantation in Swedish, then covered them up. Toby looked on, frowning in the fading light.
Back at camp, Toby entered a tent, and was greeted by a young man who stood and doffed his hat.
“Sit you down, lieutenant,” said Toby, collapsing with a sigh. “No word from Nykoping?”
“No, sir. No reinforcements, no food, no pay. No ships either, I’ll take my oath on’t.” His English tanged of the north country, and he had a red complexion and a thin brown vandyke beard on his square jaw.
“We can do no more than harass the beseigers, then. Wax babies instead of bullets!” Toby snorted. “Would our army in Russia were here! But perhaps it is best that no fresh troops come and tempt us to attack, since they are sure to be worse trained than the poor clowns we have now.”
“And if they come without food, we could not feed them,” said the lieutenant.
“Well, maybe the Danes are as hungry as we.”
“The men ate a horse last night.”
Toby rubbed his eyes wearily, then looked up with a flicker of interst. “Is there any left?”

From the point overlooking the castle, Toby and a handful of soldiers watched the scene below. The day was clear and warm, and the trees were fully leafed out. Except for an occasional shout, all was quiet. The besiegers began to form a rough line along the road leading to the castle gate. After a moment, trumpets echoed across the valley, the gates swung open, and a column of soldiers marched out to trumpets, drums, and a flash of banners. They carried their pikes and muskets, and wisps of smoke trailed from their burning matches. There may have been two hundred men, including a half-dozen in carts pulled by their comrades.
Toby shook his head. “And so goes Kalmar.”
Waving his men to follow, Toby struck out through the woods and emerged on the road, where they met the first of the emerging troops. They were plodding along, drums and trumpets silent, banners drooping, muskets weighing heavily on their thin shoulders. There could not have been a man among them who weighed more than a hundred and twenty pounds. Toby greeted them, saying, “Long live King Charles!” in German. A few echoed him wearily, but some only groaned. He asked one man if they left any provisions behind.
The soldier smiled wryly and replied, in a Scots accent, “Only a few pocks of moldy corn. But we salted ’em wi’ ratsbane.”

Toby, Prothero, and a number of people in heavy black cloaks stood in a large hall. They turned and bowed as a tall, blond young man entered. He spoke to several of the guests, not only in Swedish, but in German and Latin. I could see his breath in the chill air. He stopped before Toby and Prothero. “Gentlemen,” he said in clear but accented English, “I go south within the hour. You will attend me.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Prothero bowed.
“No time for music now, Captain,” he said to Toby.
“No, your majesty.”
The young king Gustavus Adolphus smiled slightly under a wisp of moustache. He had turned seventeen only the month before, in December 1611, as I learned from one of my landlord’s history books. He spoke gravely to a dozen more important-looking men, then followed an aide out the door and stepped into a sleigh draped in black. Toby, Prothero, and several others mounted waiting horses and followed.

The air was filled with smoke, and flames broke the monotony of gray clouds and white snow. A pig squealed as a soldier dragged it out of a rickety shed and tied a rope around its body behind the forelegs; another soldier threw a burning stick into the shed. Toby sat on a horse frowning as other soldiers carried bags and bundles out of a small log house. A couple in lumpy brown clothes stood by a tree and watched without expression as a soldier touched the thatched roof with a torch. As the flames and steam spread over the thatch, the woman grasped her husband’s arm. Nearby other houses, sheds, and a barn were also burning. Toby nodded at a soldier who blew a call on his trumpet; the soldiers began to straggle into a column, and Toby led them down a snow-covered road.
At a crossroad they met a larger force, many members of which were also carrying bundles of loot and leading livestock, and they were soon joined by the king and his well-mounted guards. The snow muffled much of the noise of hooves and harness, and the talk of the men comparing their prizes was a low murmur punctuated by a laugh or exclamation. Suddenly shots cracked from the rear of the column, followed by shouts and a trumpet. Men began to press on the part of the column where Toby rode; the king and his party moved to the side of the way and stared back with concerned expressions. The king gave an order, and two of his officers tried to move to the rear against the rush of men, who now began to scatter to the sides of the road. One of the king’s officers stood in his stirrups and pointed toward the rear, shouting something about the Danish. Another grabbed the bridle of the king’s horse and led it off the road toward a low, flat space covered in snow. As the king spurred to a gallop, the officer released the bridle, and a dozen of the mounted guard followed. Toby hesitated a moment and followed the king.
The open space proved to be a frozen lake. The king crossed the lake and turned up a path made by one of the streams that fed it. Something gave an unearthly, deep groan, the king’s horse seemed to lose his legs, and in a moment the king, his horse, and two of his guards and their horses were struggling in black water among chunks of white ice. The rest of the guard pulled to a halt and moved to the treeline; two hurriedly dismounted and rushed to help the king. Toby reined in and looked back. A troop of horsemen, some waving swords and others large pistols, were bearing down on the milling Swedes, some of whom turned to face the attackers while others continued to scatter. A pig trailing a rope slipped and scrambled across the ice.
One of the guards lay on the unbroken ice, stretching his sword out toward the king. A horse had broken a canal through the ice, and had climbed the bank where he stood shivering. Toby looked back toward the skirmishing troops and saw a Danish horseman galloping toward him, sword drawn. He wheeled his horse to meet the attacker and drew the long pistol from his saddle holster, raised it, and pulled the trigger. The wheel-lock whirred, but nothing happened. Seconds away, the horseman lifted his sword as Toby hurled the pistol at his head. The heavy pistol struck the horseman on the bridge of the nose, knocking him backwards and sideways; his right foot caught in the stirrup, and his horse dragged him away, leaving his sword and helmet in the snow.
The guards’ horses had all gained the bank, and one of the guards who had fallen through the ice had managed to get enough of a foothold to help the king reach the other guard’s extended sword. More Swedish horsemen were heading toward the frozen lake, and some of the scattered Swedes had returned and were harassing the Danish flanks. Toby retrieved his pistol and guided his horse away from the cracked ice as the king and one of the guards gained the shore. The other guard who had gone through the ice was not to be seen. When he reached the king and his party, Toby dismounted and whipped off his cloak; but one of the guards got his cloak over the king before Toby could reach him. Toby arrived just in time to hear the king thank the officer who held the sword, one Per Baner.

“Per Baner,” Prothero said to Toby, “is the son of Gustav Baner, whom the king’s father had executed at Linkoping for being loyal to King Sigismund. So old debts were forgotten, or new debts made.” They sat in Toby’s kitchen, smoking clay pipes after a meal. Mary, looking about five months pregnant, washed dishes in a tub by the fire. She patiently fanned away the smoke when it drifted by her. The men’s boots were muddy, and both looked tired.
“Tis hard to uphold a father’s acts, and tis hard not to,” said Toby.
“Aye.” They puffed a moment. “King Christian also came near to capture,” Prothero said. “As we were coming from Varberg, Christian and his army caught up with us at Kolleryd. But they were tired from the chase, and we outnumbered them. Twas not long before we had them on the run. I was close enough to see Christian’s belly bounce as he fled.”
Toby’s eyelids drooped. Prothero rose.
“Mistress Mary, I thank you for your hospitality, and that savory pottage. I must take my leave.”
Mary smiled and allowed Prothero to kiss her hand. Toby struggled to his feet.
“I was wrong in my last prophecy,” Prothero said. “But I think that we will fight no more until the weather breaks. And if our drill goes well in the meantime, the general may come to see that you are more useful teaching recruits than chasing Danes in the wood.”
“I’ll serve as his majesty pleases; but I confess that I would be loath to leave Mary as her time draws near.”
“I cannot blame you. And so goodnight.”
Toby and Mary saw Prothero to the door, and Toby fell into the settle with a sigh. “I grow old, lass.”
“Nay, y’are but weary.” Mary knelt and began pulling off his boots.
“I would we had a ploughgate in Lincolnshire, and peace to raise our babe.”
“We’ll rub along.” She chafed his feet.
“The king talks of giving his officers land since he cannot give us the money he promised. Could you abide a farm in Sweden?”
Mary sat back on her heels and looked thoughtful. “Tis colder than Scotland, but some of the land is fat and rich. If the Swedes can farm it, we can.” She looked up at Toby and smiled. “Come to bed and rest ye noo.”

A montage: Toby drilling young Swedes with pike and musket, some of whom imitate Toby’s limp, snickering; Mary sweating in her childbed and delivering a baby boy; Toby playing his viol softly by the cradle; Prothero telling of the siege and capture of Alvsborg and Goteborg by the Danes; Mary and Toby weeping at a small grave; Mary and Toby silently eating porridge at their kitchen table; Toby guiding a plow behind a small, sturdy, long-haired horse; a pregnant Mary bringing him food; Toby smiling at Mary nursing a baby with a wisp of red hair. These scenes were almost as brief as my descriptions. With some notable exceptions, larger gaps seemed to appear between events in Toby’s life in the visions I had around this time.

Toby walked toward his house reading a letter, stepping over the muddy boards with easy familiarity. He looked up sadly and wiped away a tear. The moment he entered the house, Mary asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Och, my love, my son is dead.”
“So he is,” said Mary sadly, “God give his wee soul rest. But that is no news, love, and we have a lusty babe now.”
“I mean my son in England, that was apprenticed to the printer.” He sat heavily and showed her the letter. “Master Thorpe writes that he ran away soon after we left England. He had not heard of him since, until he was taken up for theft and hanged. The letter is three months old.”
“Poor lad,” said Mary. “I mean you, not him. He had his chance and threw it away.”
“Ah, Mary, be not hard on him. If I had been present at his raising, he would not have fallen into bad company. And if I had been there to see him through his prenticeship–oh, Mary, I pray that our wee daughter be spared.”
“Amen,” said Mary, kneeling and embracing him. “But you must not flog yourself. You did all that you could. And many a man has gone bad despite his well raising.”
“It may be so. But I must grieve.”

Toby, looking glum, stood in a gathering of well-dressed people in a large room with a stone floor and impressive tapestries on the walls. A man of about thirty seemed to be the host; between the fragments of conversation I could understand and the history books I consulted, I concluded that he was Axel Oxenstierna, the king’s chancellor and right-hand man. The historians give him high marks for competence; intelligence did seem to be evident in his eyes, which alternated between quick glances that seemed to take in the shifting makeup of the conversing groups, and intense focus on whoever was speaking to him. Toby followed in his wake at some distance, desultorily sampling the talk of the groups he passed.
He lingered by a knot of men listening to the energetic voice of a young Scotsman with curly brown hair, pink cheeks, and icy blue eyes. With great earnestness, he was addressing an older man, a Swede to judge by his accent, who listened with stern skepticism.
“Och, it might be worrse. You might have Christian ruling both kingdoms, and a Dane wi’ his finger in every pie.”
“The Danes have Jamtland, Alvsborg, Goteborg, Gamla-Lodose, Nya-Lodose, and part of Vastergotland,” said the Swede bitterly.
“What could you do? Your navy was corrupt and cowardly. Smaland and Halland are destroyed, devastated, kaput. Ha’ ye been there to see? There’s scarce a house unburnt, nae a pig nor cow alive. And wi’ an army in Russia, how could you fight on here?”
“How can we pay the ransom for Alvsborg? Ten tunnor of gold?”
“Ask the Dutch,” said the Scotsman, as if the answer were obvious. “Christian has so incensed the Dutch, they might be well disposed to you. And think of this; my master, King James, by recognizing your king, casts a shadow on King Sigismund’s claim to your throne. I ken ye’ve lost much; but ye havena lost all.”
The Swede shook his head and moved on. Toby stepped forward. “Captain Spens, are you not?”
“Aye, James Spens.”
“I am Tobias Hume, captain in his majesty’s service.”
“Ah, Captain Hobble.” He smiled mischievously.
Toby leaned forward, frowning. “Cry you mercy, sir. What did you say?”
“No offence, good Captain. Tis what I have heard some of the lads call you.”
“I was wounded in the service of his late majesty King Charles.”
“No doubt bravely.” Spens looked away, seeming bored.
“Twas in the seige of Parno.”
“Parnu?”
“Aye.” Toby moved with Spens, who seemed about to walk away. He cleared his throat. “I wanted to say that you spoke well, but that tis a hard time for the Swedes now. We–they–have lost many good men and feel the loss sensibly. This peace had to come, but many Swedes think of it as a man does who has just bought a horse–he thinks he could have found a better.”
Spens answered with a note of condescension that Toby and I both noticed. “I welcome advice from a good old soldier like yoursel’. But pray pardon me. Here comes the king.”
Gustavus had entered, making a swirl in the gathering as he moved through the room, greeting various men. As Spens moved in his path and bowed, the king beckoned him. “Captain Spens! A word with you.” They moved off together, the king’s hand on Spens’s shoulder, his ear cocked to Spens’s words. Toby stood grimly still as the crowd moved by.

Toby, at home, dandled his small red-haired daughter and spoke with some asperity to Mary. “I met the famous Captain Spens today, but he had little time for the likes of me.”
“The favor of the king must weaken the humility of a saint.”
“I smelt more the odor of pride than sanctity.” He paused and kissed his gurgling daughter. “Ah, Mary, I do not get on here.”
Mary looked up from her sewing with some impatience. “Captain Spens has the favor of King James as well as King Gustavus. You are an experienced officer and ken your trade; you ha’ respect.”
“Respect? Nay. The men ca’ me Captain Hobble.”
“Wheesht! Show me three young men and I’ll show ye twa fools.”
“I must make a better show.”
The door-latch rattled, and Toby rose to admit the young English lieutenant. His squarish face was ruddy with cold and agitation.
“Your pardon for calling so late, Captain. Mistress Mary, Miss Elizabeth.”
“You are always welcome, Daniel,” said Toby. Little Elizabeth crowed and reached for the young man, who took her and swung her gently. “You have news?”
“Sad news, I fear. The word from Russia is that Colonel Prothero is dead. There has been much sickness at Piskov, and the colonel fell among many others.”
“We have lost a friend, Daniel.” Toby looked down in sorrow, and Mary rose and put her arm around his shoulder. “May God have mercy and give him good rest.”
“Amen,” said the lieutenant. “And there is more news. Our company is commanded to go to Russia. Here is the commission.” He handed Toby a paper. Mary gasped and took back her daughter, as if the lieutenant were infectious. Toby took the paper and read it gravely.
“Tis not all the company,” said Toby without looking up. “You and I and a small troop are to escort emissaries to Novgorod to help negotiate a peace.”
Mary looked somewhat relieved. “And when come ye back?”
“I know not. We stay with the emissaries at the king’s pleasure.” Toby put down the paper and looked at his family. The corners of his eyes drooped, not with innocence, but with weary melancholy. “I could do more good at Piskov, but this will be safer. I must find someone to harvest our crop.”

Toby and Daniel, the lieutenant, wrapped in fur-lined cloaks inside a tent, were trying to carve a piece of meat. “For the life of me,” Toby said, “I cannot fathom why we left Novgorod for this Diderina.”
“What I cannot fathom,” Daniel said, “is how they can talk so long and yet nothing done.” He struggled with his knife. “Look you here, sir. This joint is burnt on the outside and frozen on the inside.”
“At least it is horse. I heard that the Russians ate one of the men that died yesterday.”
“The horses, poor beasts, are eating their manes and tails.”
“Twas all Sir John Merrick could do to get them to meet in his house and not in a tent,” said Toby grimly, looking at the tent walls around him and shivering. “He pled his rheumatism; others of us have it too, but we get no house.”
Daniel sliced some of the burnt surface of the meat. “Where do Sir John’s loyalties lie, captain?”
“He wants the Muscovites’ trade. Twas he that kept the king from pressing the seige of Piskov until we were too weak to accomplish it.”
At that moment shouts and cheers broke out in the camp. Toby and Daniel emerged from the tent and asked a soldier what was the matter. He answered, in Scots, that the negotiators had agreed to a three-month truce, and that they could go home in a few days. Toby and Daniel smiled and beat each other on the back. One of the shaggy horses nearby neighed. Daniel reached out to rub his nose.
“Art eager to ride home, laddie?” he asked the horse. The horse, in answer, nuzzled his chest, then raised his head and champed. Daniel turned in surprise to Toby. “He ate the button from my coat!”
This was in February of 1616.

Toby sat in his kitchen, eating hungrily. Little Elizabeth clung to Mary’s skirt, looking shyly at her father, and getting in the way of her mother as she refilled his bowl. At last Toby leaned back with a sigh.
“Thank you, lass. Tis good to be home.” He smiled at Elizabeth, who ducked behind Mary. “Where’s my wee mousie? Don’t remember your poor father?”
“I’ve tried to keep you in her mind,” said Mary, “but she’s too sma’ to ken.”
“I know,” said Toby. He rose and drew his viol from a corner. It was out of tune, but all the strings were intact. He tuned and then began to play. Elizabeth peeped out. He played a tune I recognized as a version of “Three Blind Mice,” and when the melody repeated, he began singing in canon to his viol. Mary joined the round, and they sang and played until Elizabeth started to dance. When Toby stopped, Elizabeth ran to him and let him scoop her up and hold her tightly for a long time.
Toby looked up at Mary. “James Spens wishes me ill.”

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