This is the sixteenth part of a fiction serial, in 1340 words.
May 1631. Magdeburg is burning.
His horse was tired, and he stopped on the track to let it rest. Stretching his shoulders, Rudolf looked back at the ruined city, smoke and flames reaching up to the sky. After weeks of siege, Count Tilly’s army had finally broken through the defences. And in the hours that followed, the slaughter and pillage had been terrible to behold. Rudolf had his own reasons for getting into the city, and on this occasion, he had eschewed rape and plunder for something else. He was searching for the sign of The Seven Stars. To find it had taken him most of the day, but when he stepped over the pile of bodies blocking the entrance, he faced disappointment. There was no sign of the man known as the Grey Wizard.
Stamping around the floor in his heavy boots, he eventually detected a hollow sound below. The outline of the trapdoor was concealed under a filthy rug, and easily prised open with his dagger.
At the back of the tiny cellar, he could hear sobbing, and he leaned forward to grab the young man hidden under a pile of rags. “Good sir, I beg you, please don’t kill me. I will convert, I will convert”. Rudolf dragged the boy up the short ladder, to see him in the light. “I have no interest in your conversion, boy. Religion means nothing to me. I have my own quest. What do you know of the Grey Wizard? Tell me true, and I will spare you”. With relief flooding over him, the teenager was happy to talk. “The man you seek is my master, sir. He escaped the city last week, and left me to take charge of his shop.
But I know where he has gone, and can show you”.
Now he was tied to a long rope behind the horse. When Rudolf had recovered the animal from the man he had paid to look after it during the battle, he had grabbed some old rope from the stables, and wrapped it around the boy’s hands. If he thought he would ride behind the fierce-looking soldier, he was sadly wrong.
Rudolf Starck was the third son of a wealthy Hamburg merchant. By the age of twenty, he had already been expelled from university, got two girls with child, and killed a man during a brawl. His antics were costing his father money, and he called his son into his study, to have a serious talk with him.
“I can take no more of your behaviour. My decision is that I will equip you with the necessary means to serve as a soldier. That should suit you well, as you already act in a base and lowly manner. I will write a letter of introduction to a nobleman of my acquaintance in Bohemia. There are rumours of war brewing there, as the Emperor has had his fill of the Protestant League, and the French are also keen to get their hands on land in the Palatinate. I will grant you an allowance, which you can draw with letters of credit from merchants I know. Once you leave here, stay away”.
Father had been generous. A fine black charger, a new breastplate and lobster-tail helmet. A wheel-lock pistol of the finest Austrian manufacture, and a heavy sword that would do good service. With a padded leather suit to wear under the armour, and an oiled canvas cape for bad weather, Rudolf cut an impressive figure as he rode out of the city. It was a long way to Prague, but the excitement of the new life ahead would ease the journey.
Weeks later, he was shown into a room to meet a Captain of Horse. The man looked up at him, then sat back in his chair. “So, you are Starck? You want to join my regiment, young man? See some action? The fighting will start soon, I know it. Buy some provisions for yourself and your horse, and get your clothes washed. Report back here in two days”. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed Rudolf, who had not spoken a word. As he walked out into the crowded street, he had no idea that he was about to participate in one of the longest and bloodiest wars Europe had seen up to then. It would go down in history as The Thirty Years War, but his role in it would never be remembered.
In November of the year 1620, he fought in his first battle, at a place called White Mountain. He was on the losing side, even though he had managed to kill three men, one with a pistol shot, and two more with his sword. In such confusion, he couldn’t even be sure if those men had been on his own side or not. The Protestant Army was in full retreat, and men were dying all around. Survival had overwhelmed any idea of victory, and he kept going until he was on his own.
For the next few years, he wandered around countries stricken by war and disease. Corpses dangled from trees at the side of the road, and bodies of plague victims still smouldered in the pits where they had been burned. There was little chance of plunder, so Rudolf eked out his allowance, and demanded food from terrified villagers he encountered. If they had a comely wife, or fetching daughter, he would pleasure himself with them too, before killing the whole family. He killed them because he could. He would never face arrest, in a land where society had collapsed, and madness ruled. Besides, he had discovered that he enjoyed killing.
Sometimes, he would throw in his lot with one of the wandering bands of mercenaries. They didn’t care what religion he was, as they sold their skills to the side most likely to win, and offer plunder. When there was no fighting to be had, they would just install themselves in a village or small town, demanding food and women in return for not massacring everyone in sight. As the year turned to 1626, Rudolf was settled in the war. He had found his calling. Raping and killing with the best of them, and noticeably better than most. That April, he heard that the King of Denmark had brought his Protestant Army to fight the Catholic League, so he left the weary band, and travelled to try his luck with the Danes. They were attempting to get to Magdeburg, and had to cross the bridge at Dessau, where their opponents were ready to stop them.
The army that Rudolf had joined walked into a trap, and lost half their number. He was wounded by fragments from a cannonball, and was lucky to escape with his life. Tired of serving with defeated armies, he sought refuge in the countryside, and found an old woman to sew his wounds. As he recovered from a fever in her stinking hut, she regaled him with lurid tales of magic and evil, claiming to know many secrets. He gave her some silver coins to encourage her disclosures, and she spoke of someone in Magdeburg. “They say he has the secret of eternal life, young lord. A true wizard, it is said. The master of an ancient order, and leader of a cult. The Grey Wizard. His disguise is as a herbalist, at the shop of the sign of The Seven Stars. It’s surely true, young lord. Magic is as old as life on this Earth, so I swear”.
When he had recovered, Rudolf slit the throat of the old hag with his dagger, and searched the hut until he found the coins he had given her.
Since arriving in Bohemia, he had seen much, and was more than ready to believe her stories. He would go to Magdeburg and find this wizard, make him tell the secret of eternal life.
But there was a war in the way of his plans, and it took him almost five years to get there.