The Germans were coming! Madeline rose on brittle legs. Any moment now, she’d collapse into a heap. But she had to face the enemy. The roll of bandages dropped from her numb fingers, bounced once on her coat then rolled to a stop in the matted grass. Her hand trembled when she reached for her coat.
“Is the electric torch out, Sister?” Luc rolled onto his back and whipped out his pistol.
“Yes. Of course.” She stuffed her arms into the stiff sleeves and shivered from the cold. Papers. She needed to find her travel papers. The Boches would shoot her if she didn’t have them.
They might shoot her anyway.
Don’t think that way. Her plan would work. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she patted her chest. Paper crinkled in her left breast pocket. Thank God, she still had them.
On the ground near her sabots, Mille rose up on his elbow. “What are you doing?”
“I have to go out there.” Pinching the wooden coat buttons, she tried twice to shove them through their holes.
Luc rose to his knees. “No. You don’t know what those savages do to women.”
“I do.” All too well. She’d been on duty in the clinique when peasants had been carried in—bruised, bayonetted and violated. Age hadn’t spared anyone from the violence. She brushed her pass and identification papers before stuffing her head scarf in her collar.
Luc grabbed her hand. “You need to stay here. I will protect you.”
The heat from his palm sowed tingles across her skin. She tugged free and cold stung her fingers. “I need to be with the cart.”
Out there. On the road. She stared over the hedge into the moonlight and shivered. So much darkness. It would practically swallow her once she reached the cart.
“Lieutenant.” Mille clawed at the ground under him and sat up, his injured leg stuck out in front of him. “We can’t let her go out there alone.”
Raising her chin, she took a steadying breath. “And I can’t let them find you.”
Papa would never forgive her. These soldiers were fighting for her, for Belgium. Grabbing her valise, she waded through the grass.
Luc crawled after her. “At least take the dog.”
“No. I don’t want him getting shot.” She didn’t want any of them to be shot. She pushed aside the hedge. Leaves crackled and crumbled. Branches scratched at her coat, tore her skirt. Stepping through, she glanced left then right.
Twenty meters away, cigarettes floated like demon eyes in the night. The tromp of hobnailed boots and the clang of a soldiers’ kits prodded her heart to a faster tempo. She could do this. She had to do this.
Lives depended upon her.
Holding her skirts, she scrambled onto the road. Each footfall echoed hollowly in her chest. She’d come to no harm. Her papers were in order. A rock jutted from the dirt road, caught the toe of her boot. She stumbled a few steps toward the cart.
Dropping her valise, she raised her arms and froze. She would give them no reason to shoot her. Not that they needed a reason… Everyone was a franc-tireur, a saboteur, in German eyes.
Fingers of light raked the road until they caught her wooden shoes. Dead grass and mud clung to her sabots. They would know she’d stepped off the road. The steel banding her chest snared her breath in her lungs.
More electric torches clicked on. Spike-helmeted silhouettes arrowed down the road. Bayonets stabbed the night. The clomp of boots rolled like a snare drum.
Was the whole of the Kaiser’s army descending upon her? God Almighty, please protect me. Stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. She gulped air and resisted the urge to shield her eyes. She’d be well. They would not hurt her.
Please, don’t let them hurt me.
Underneath the smell of cabbage and beans swirled the hint of blood. Four soldiers surrounded her in an arc, bayonets ready to puncture her chest. They shone their torches in her face, burned the back of her skull.
“What is it?”
“Is it a franc-tireur? Will she scoop out our eyeballs with a spoon and slit our throat when we are asleep?” The soldier raised his rifle and stepped back.
“Nein, it is a Fräulein.” One after the other, they shoved their faces into hers. Helmets and thick noses cut their features into blades of shadow and light.
“I’m not a saboteur.” They were executed. Her voice broke over the denial. Wincing, she licked her dry lips. A wall of light separated her from the rest of the troops. Her heart raced. Could they see Luc, Mille and Leopold hiding behind the hedge? “I’m a nurse. Red Cross.”
She dipped her chin to her valise.
The man on her right swooped down. Cutting the ties with his bayonet, he opened the suitcase and dumped the contents on the dirt. He kicked the belongings with his foot before unearthing her arm band. “A nurse.”
The soldier on her left hustled toward her dog cart and threw open the trunk in the bed.
She bit her lip to stop the protest. Let them take what they wanted so long as they left quickly.
Waving her arm band, the soldier dashed away.
The remaining two closed in, scanning her while talking, deciding her fate.
Madeline struggled to find a familiar word in the garble. What were they saying? Would they shoot her? Oh, why hadn’t she paid more attention when Lisle tried to teach her German?
Fabric rustled and the lights dipped and swayed. A black form blotted out the light. Broad shoulders solidified. With his face masked in darkness, impressions hit her. Male. Authority. An officer. He barked orders with the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire.
She stepped back, her heels sinking in mud.
The two original soldiers snapped to attention then marched behind the wall of lights. Her Red Cross badge floated to the ground.
Officer Shadow stopped directly in front of her and lowered his head, shielding her from the light. Dark eyes glittered, his full mouth turned down at the corner and his nostrils flared. “Papers!”
Madeline jumped but quickly yanked her travel documents from her breast pocket. Paper ripped. With a shaky hand, she presented them to the officer.
He snatched them. Twisting at the waist, he held them to the light. “Where have you come from?”
“Brussels.” Her teeth clicked together. She had to say as little as possible, give them what they wanted and they would leave.
The officer left a dusty boot print on her white apron. “And you are a nurse?”
“Are the citizens so healthy in Brussels that they do not need to train any more nurses?”
“N-no.” She cleared her throat and clamped her lips together. Even if the German governor of Belgium hadn’t made it a crime to speak ill of the Boches, the invaders had a way of twisting one’s word to their own advantage.
“Then why are you not at your post?” He crushed the papers in his fist.
“T-the clinique where I trained was closed and I was ordered to return home.”
He shoved his face in hers. “And do you live in a field, mademoiselle?”
Sour wine filled the cloud of words.
“No, sir. I live in the village.”
Even white teeth glowed in the darkness. “And does your village still stand?”
Fear spiraled down her back. She locked her knees to keep her legs from buckling. “I—I do not know. I haven’t been back since…”
“And you’ve been traveling this road since the tram stop?”
“I’ve stayed off the main roads to stay out of the way.”
Officer Shadow raised his hand.
Madeline reared back.
He chuckled and tugged on her hair. Moving his arm, he twirled a leaf between his index finger and thumb. “A wooded trail?”
He knew. He couldn’t know. He was trying to trick her. She’d seen it done, seen folks executed for falling into their trap. “I had to, um…”
Dropping her gaze, she studied her boots, keeping him in her peripheral vision.
“Ahh…” The officer cleared his throat and looked away.
He couldn’t be embarrassed, could he? She’d seen other Boches strip wounded Belgian soldiers down to skin, cut off their blood-soaked bandages and force them to stand on smashed limbs.
Movement caught her eye.
The officer stiffened then snapped his fingers.
A soldier marched over, holding an embroidered nightgown against his gray-green uniform.
Officer Shadow fingered the tatted collar. “This is hardly fitting for a nurse.”
Madeline’s cheeks burned. “It was for my trousseau.”
The officer’s gaze bounced between the negligee and her. “I suppose your fiancé is now a soldier in service to King Albert.” He switched from French to German and shouted at the soldier, who wadded up the clothing and stormed back to the trunk.
She blinked. He wasn’t going take her things? The men at the depot hadn’t hesitated in plundering her finer clothing items.
Paper crinkled. The officer held the ball out to her. “I suggest you do not tarry any longer. Any Belgians out after dark are presumed to be franc-tireurs.”
She was no spy; she was a patriot.
“I won’t.” She plucked the documents from his hand.
He manacled her wrist and pried her fingers open. Her pass and identification papers drifted to the ground. With his thumb, he teased the raw, blistered skin.
Fire blazed up her arm and she drew cold air over her teeth.
“I suppose even Belgian nurses aren’t used to pulling dog carts.” He dropped her wrist. “We shall take over that task.”
He snapped off orders. Fabric swished, dirt crunched and armaments clanked. The lights clicked off and the many-headed shadow lump began to march toward her town.
“Oh.” Oh, dear. She needed the cart to help Mille reach her parents’ farm. “That’s not necessary. I’m accustomed—”
“You misunderstand. I am requisitioning the cart and its contents.” The officer stroked her cheek. His callused index finger traced the curve of her bottom lip. “You and your fiancé may count yourself fortunate that we found nothing else of value tonight.”
“I understand.” Pulling away from him, Madeline shuddered.
“Perhaps you do.” He bowed his head once. “You may retrieve your belongings once my men have passed. I wouldn’t recommend you move before then.”
“Naturally.” She wouldn’t want to be one more dead franc-tireur.
With a click of his heels, he dissolved in the current of his marching soldiers. A wagon wheel squeaked. Boots pounded. One by one the electric torches clicked off and the night dropped over her like a shroud.
She wrapped her arms around her waist as the first tremor hit. Wave after wave shook her from her heels to her head as if to thresh the skin from her bones. She was safe. Safe. The word pulsed inside her skull, mingled with the echo of her breathing. Safe. The shuddering subsided.
The thud of feet faded.
Safe. She crumpled to the ground; a soft cry escaped her lips. Her nails sunk into the clammy mud, gouged furrows as she raked her belongings into a pile. Her vision blurred and tears pricked her nose.
Luc eased through the hedge. “Did they harm you?”
“No.” The denial was acid on her tongue. Her fingers dug into the fabric, crammed handfuls into her valise.
He touched her shoulder, his hand soft as the flutter of butterfly wings. “Madeline.”
She leaned into him for a moment before shaking him off. She had to be strong. She swept her hand along the rutted area before stuffing the last of her belongings into the soggy cardboard suitcase. Sniffing, she blotted her cheeks with her sleeve. “I’ll see to Mille’s wound then tend yours.”
“Mille’s tending his own injury, Sister.” Luc waved his hand in front of her face.
She liked it better when he used her name. She slid her palm against his. Mud squished between her their pressed skin when he wrapped his fingers around her hand. She rose, swayed on unsteady legs.
“My injury will wait until you are safe at the farm house.” He cupped her waist.
His strength infused her and chased the chill from her limbs. I mustn’t give in. I must be strong. “None of us will be safe until the Germans are driven from Belgium.”
Leopold stuck his snout out of the hedge.
Leaning heavily on a crooked tree limb, Mille hopped behind the dog. “I think we should move out and avoid any more encounters with the Boches.”
“I am sorry you lost your clothes.” Luc squeezed her hand before releasing it. He quickly walked to Mille’s side and supported the other soldier. “But you are worth far more than fine linen and bits of lace.”
A flicker of warmth licked her insides. She hadn’t known what was in the trunk; she wouldn’t miss it. Madeline scooted to Mille’s other side and wrapped her arm around his waist and immediately detected his fever.
He transferred his makeshift crutch to Luc. “I’m not sorry that you won’t have to face the enemy again.”
She didn’t want to face the Germans ever again. Next time, she might not be so lucky.