The Astrologer - By Scott G.F. Bailey

{ Chapter One }


GUSTAVUS HAD LOST A GREAT DEAL OF BLOOD. THE spots and trails of crimson that stained the surface of the frozen lake all came from his wounds and he was now sluggish and dragged his left foot. Even I could see that he would not survive the contest, that his heart would soon beat its last. Gustavus’s opponent—Christian son of Rorik, king of Denmark—was unharmed. He laughed and swung his great sword as if it weighed no more than the leg of a roasted goose, as if the last hour of bashing and being bashed had taken no toll on him whatever. This was most vexing to me. I had cast the king’s horoscope the night before and the heavens had declared some great misfortune was his destiny on this day. I looked for a lucky turn for Gustavus; it was not too late for the Earl of Jutland to strike a fatal blow against the king.

I let my eyes be drawn down to the patterns formed by the blood on the ice. It is a star chart, I thought. The king stands in Orion while Gustavus drags his wounded foot through Cassiopeia and spits a mouthful of blood onto the Pleiades. I wondered if Gustavus had any regrets. If he did, he did not have time to think of them. Christian son of Rorik swung his sword in a bright, deadly arc that Gustavus could barely arrest. The king’s blade rebounded at a sharp angle and struck a glancing blow against Gustavus’s right shoulder. Something came spinning across the ice, hitting my left boot. It was one of the buckles from Gustavus’s cuirass, fashioned from steel and brass in the shape of a rampant bear. The bear’s head had been struck off.

If that fool Gustavus was about to die, it was his own doing. A month earlier, he had sent a messenger to the royal palace, armed with a long and passionate letter that questioned King Christian’s legitimacy as ruler and made a claim to the crown of Denmark. Gustavus demanded that King Christian abdicate, abandon Copenhagen, and swear fealty to him. The messenger’s head, his mouth stuffed with the treasonous letter, was sent back to Gustavus in Aalborg. Carved into the dead man’s forehead was an answer from the king: “I come.” And so he went, with his terrifying Swiss mercenaries, an army of five thousand conscripts, and a dozen German cannon for good measure.

I rode with the royal party in the king’s ship, a carrack christened the Odin. We set off from the harbor at Copenhagen and sailed around the northeast coast of Zealand. I squinted into the morning sun, straining to make out the old observatory on Tycho Brahe’s island in the middle of the Sound. I could see nothing before the island passed out of sight, and soon the Odin turned northwest to sail across Kattegat Bay toward Aalborg. The king remained below with his generals and advisors while I stayed on deck with his son, Prince Christian. We were wrapped in furs and stood along the port deck rail below the bow castle, holding on to the rigging as the ship rode the bucking sea. By midday, the coast of Jutland, flat and dull and buried under a layer of fresh snow, lay to our left. On our right was the Bay, a kaleidoscope of grays and greens that shimmered and rolled out to the horizon beneath the uneven white of the sky. A score of warships with glistening black hulls followed the Odin across the water. The atmosphere was festive, like a foxhunt.

The prince was in high spirits. He was home for Yuletide from school at Wittenberg and this little war was a welcome entertainment for him. Christian was one-and-twenty years old and I had not seen him except at holidays for nearly three years. I had been his tutor before we went our separate ways, he to university in Germany and I to the island of Hven, where I had explored the heavens with Tycho Brahe.

“This is most exciting, Soren,” Christian said.

“I have been aboard ship before, my lord.”

The waters were choppy and rough. Every few minutes, a wave broke against the ship’s hull and a cloud of spray washed over us. Our furs and hats were beginning to ice over. Beneath his furs, Christian wore his finest armor.

“Nay, not the voyage,” Christian said. “The coming battle, as you know I meant. Great armies move into position, ready to