Here is a peek at what I’ve been up to. The first two chapters of the historical romance set during the Great War ended up being deleted, but it helped me to set the mood the book. Enjoy!
“…every face was ablaze— the look of
a people who have been trampled on for hundreds
of years and have not learned to submit.”
On the Belgian people
Hugh Gibson, American Diplomat, 1914
Papa deserved a better daughter. Madeline Thevenet dug her short fingernails into the worn wooden seat bench. Papa deserves a better daughter. She had no reason to believe he was dead. No reason to believe her family was dead.
Except the rumors of slaughter by the German army.
And the endless destruction.
The wheels of the high wagon bounced in a rut. Holes pitted the dirt road. Hastily dug trenches gouged the smoldering fields on her left and right. Dirty, blood-red bricks marked the graves of farmhouses. No families poked through the ruins. No clothes flapped from the line garroting the willow tree. No smoke curled from the chimney.
Everyone had fled.
Or had been killed.
Madeline’s stomach clenched. She slapped her hand over to mouth and fought to swallow the bile souring her tongue. Please, merciful Lord, let my family be safe.
The wagon driver switched the reins to one hand. The sway-back horse plodded onward, parallel to the setting sun. The driver lifted his pipe from the worn, yellowed teeth accustomed to holding it and tapped the mouthpiece against his chin. “I thought you were returning home.”
“I am.” Madeline gathered her black shawl tighter around her head. The bitter fall wind scratched her cheeks and stung her nose.
At the fork in the road, Mynheer Van der Ernst guided the old nag to the right. “Yet, this all seems new to you.”
“It is.” New and awful. She should have been here with her family not hiding in Brussels so they wouldn’t learn of her disgrace. She should have stood by Papa and Mama’s side, defended their little farm from the Bosche invaders.
Hadn’t King Albert said Belgium would resist to the last man? But he had also said not to attack the German army.
Her heart stuttered inside her chest. Beside the road, white crosses grew from mounds of freshly turned dirt. Civilian graves. Eight. Ten. She stopped counting at the fifteenth. Sister Marie Theresa. Abbe Chavignon. Merciful heavens. The Germans had killed nuns and a priest.
What monsters were these Bosches?
Her fingers sought the wooden crucifix at her neck. Closing her eyes, she prayed the refrain engraved on her heart since that sunny August day when the enemy crossed the frontier and thrust war upon her nation. Please, let Papa, Mama and Mathieu be safe. Please. Lord, answer my prayer. I promise to never lie again. I promise—
A moment passed. Then two. Madeline opened her eyes. The mare swished her tail at the buzzing flies around her bony rump. “Why have we stopped?”
The driver’s cloudy blue eyes narrowed. His gray mustache twitched; the motion transmitted down his scraggly beard. “Mynheer Goltz vouched for you. Said I was taking you to your people.”
Her breath snagged in her throat. No! He couldn’t think…
He reached under the seat and tugged out a tree limb. Splinters of bone-white wood protruded above the tip and ash-gray bark flaked onto her sabots.
“You are.” Pinching her shawl closed with one hand, she raised the other, flashing her palm at him. “I’ve been in Brussels.”
He thumped the branch against his thigh. “Lots of folks from Brussels hereabouts. New folks. They come and they go quickly.”
Agent provocateurs. Spies who bartered their country for gold. And he clearly thought she was one. She shivered.
“I was training to be a nurse.” The half-truth choked her.
His forehead pleated, suspicion sunk deep into the established grooves of his tanned skin.
Leaning forward, she fumbled with the ties on her bag. Cold cotton brushed her fingers before she dug out the white brassard. Thank God, Madame had been too busy to insist Madeline return the badge. Turning the arm band so he could see the red cross, she thrust it at him.
“Doesn’t prove you’re not a spy.” He clucked, but lowered the stick a little.
“No, I suppose not.” Air flooded her lungs. Belgians respected the Red Cross, but she’d seen more than a few Germans wearing both the insignia and a gun at the hospital. Keeping the driver’s weapon in her peripheral vision, she returned the brassard to her valise and knotted the leather ties. “But Brussels was full of charming gray-beards who wheedled secrets out of folks then turned them over the the oppressors.”
The driver’s bushy eyebrows wiggled like gray caterpillars on his leathery forehead. The stick dropped to the floorboard with a bang.
Madeline shuddered. From her window in Brussels, she’d seen men, women and children dragged across darkened streets to stand before a table of officers. While the trial proceeded in the cafe, a handful of soldiers marched into the alley. Always, always the Belgian followed them. Then came the volley of bullets and…
The driver slapped the reins on the horse’s rump. “You think I’m charming?”
“Your beard hasn’t enough gray.” She lurched into the present, but the memories lurked in the back of her mind like specters waiting for darkness. Being home would banish them. Wouldn’t it? Cupping her hands over her mouth, she blew into her palms. Warm, moist air clung to her skin before she tucked her hands under her thighs.
“Just as well, I’m married.”
Madeline’s lips twitched. How could she consider smiling? Her country was at war, its people suffering. Ahead the belfry of her village church soared above the tops of the willows. The outline looked untouched.
Had her village been spared during the German march?
Eyes straining, she scanned the horizon.
She scanned the fields again, looking for what she hadn’t seen. “There are no trenches.”
Mynheer Van der Ernst urged his horse faster. “The Boches didn’t pause long enough to dig them.”
“And our soldiers had fled before the gray-green wave.” Bitterness flooded her mouth and she spat. Town after town, village after village had fallen. Liege. Brussels. Aerschot. Louvain. Stars danced in her vision. Her lungs sawed for oxygen.
“They stopped the Boches from reaching Calais by the week’s end.”
“For what?” Her beloved Antwerp had fallen. And where were her country’s allies? The British had marched in only to run back out. As for the French… She hadn’t seen one of them.
But she’d treated plenty of wounded Belgians, heard of the terror inflicted by the German army, and now… Now, she seen the destruction for herself.
Mynheer Van der Ernst patted her shoulder. “The French have the kaiser on the run in Marnes. The English and our boys are pushing back at Ghent. We’ll have our country back by Christmas.”
A beautiful dream. Too bad she was awake. Belgium would never be the way it had been in July, before the war. Its people had seen too much.
Glancing down, she studied her chapped hands. She’d washed away the blood from her skin, scrubbed it from her soaked white cuffs and spattered pinafore. So why did she still see it? Smell the metallic sweetness? The deep-throated cannonading rumbled in the distance, sowing Bible-black clouds on the blood-soaked sunset.
Mynheer Van der Ernst stopped the wagon at the next fork in the road. No birds sung in the pines. No rabbits rustled in the hedge. Aside from the bombardment, all was silence.
Before he rose from his perch, Madeline tossed her valise to the ground and jumped after it. Soft puffs of dust danced around her ankles. “Merci, Mynheer.”
He lifted his floppy hat. “It’s nice to know we have a nurse about.”
“The Boches shot the one we had for helping an Englishman.” He lurched forward.
“I’m just one year into my—” Madeline choked on the fog of dust. Scooping up her valise, she stumbled into clear air.
The rickety wagon trundled down the lane.
“—training.” Hugging her bag to her chest, she squared her shoulders. Five more minutes and she would be home. Then she would see.
Then she would know.
God only knew what had happened in the six weeks since she’d last heard from her mother. Madeline shuffled down the lane. Not too fast. Not too slow. Her heart winged ahead, past the Dermonts and Undines with their green shudders closed tight. On the right, soot blackened the white exterior of the Laiguts’ and a hole punched through the red tile roof.
Her wool-encased feet slipped inside her sabots. One hedge. Two. Barbed wire tangled with the third. The next house lay in the rutted driveway. So did the next. Two large graves lay next to them—big enough to hold the families who had once lived inside the farms.
Girls she’d played with. Boys she’d chased.
Her parents’ house was next.
She rushed forward. Her lungs wheezed air across dry lips as she rounded the windbreak of willows. The next house was intact! She stumbled over her wooden shoes, staggered a few paces into the yellow grass before righting herself.
A shadow pierced the dead grass on the far side of the house. Fallen tree limbs and a shattered shutter distorted the silhouette into broken steps.
Her attention cut to the head. It fluctuated between round and oval but the top… An arrow seemed to sprout from it. Her heart stopped and her feet rooted to the spot.
A German soldier was in her yard!