“We’re nearly home.” A dull ache blazed a t-shape across Madeline’s back. Dawn bled across the horizon and oozed tendrils of gray into the inky darkness. Chimneys puffed smoke as cook fires were rebuilt. To the south, the boom of cannons dulled to the crash of ocean surf and the battle lines created a blood-red horizon.
She rubbed the sting from her eyes as a breeze carried the oily residue of smoke toward her. She adjusted her hold on Mille’s slim, hairy wrist, dragging his arm across her shoulders. Her thighs trembled from the extra weight.
Mille pulled slightly away, leaning more on the tree limb turned crutch. It pierced the muddy road. “I’ll be glad to reach your farmhouse.”
On his right, Luc scouted a few steps ahead, the German shepherd, Leopold, trotting next to him. He brushed aside branches of the pitted alder hedge lining the road and peered into the fields beyond. “As will I. I don’t like being in the open. The Boches are everywhere.”
If they were caught by the Germans… Madeline stumbled a step. “We haven’t seen any for hours. They could be close.”
Mille careened into her side then quickly pushed off her. “Apologies.” His injured leg buckled when he put weight on it. Groaning, he dropped the cane and extended his arm. He planted his hands in the mud, stopping his free fall.
Setting her valise on the ground, Luc rushed to his friend’s side. “Which means we’re overdue for an encounter. The Germans are quite fanatical about timetables.”
She reached Mille first and offered him a hand up.
“The lieutenant knows all about Germans and their need for order.” Ignoring her, Mille adjusted his wounded leg so it didn’t bear any weight. A dark stain nearly soiled his entire bandage. “He studied in Berlin before the war. He even speaks cabbagehead.”
Once they reached her home, she would have to attend to Mille’s wound properly before he became too comfortable. Those red streaks radiating from his wound preceded an infection.
“My knowledge of German has saved our lives more than once.” Luc wrapped his arm across his abdomen before bending down, gripping the man under his armpit and heaving. Both men groaned.
She bit her lip. How could she have forgotten that Luc was wounded as well?
Mille’s skin glowed ghostly white as their surroundings lightened. Pushing with his good leg, he clawed up the cane to his feet. “How was I to know that the British anthem sounded so much like a Boche call-to-arms?”
Luc grunted as he adjusted Mille’s weight before staring at her. “How much further?”
The two men staggered in a zig-zag pattern down the road leading to her village.
She rolled her shoulders. Her spine popped with the motion before she raised her arm. “That tall tree marks my family’s property.”
Home. She wouldn’t leave it again until the Germans left Belgium. She wouldn’t leave her family to the Boches‘ brutality. Picking up her skirts, she skipped forward pausing only long enough to scoop up her valise.
Tail wagging, Leopold pranced next to her, tongue lolling out.
Mille smiled as she drew abreast of the men. “I hope your mother has eggs.”
“And bacon.” Luc sniffed the air. “I miss bacon. It’s been a month since we’ve had bacon. I can almost smell it.”
“Thirty-five days.” Mille licked his lips. “Those sausages you stole weren’t bad but they’re not bacon.”
Madeline’s nose quivered. That oily smell underneath the smoke wasn’t animal fat. It was sharp and sour, like petrol. Her heart slammed into her chest. “Oh no!”
Valise swinging, she ran toward home, past the Dermonts and Undines with their houses’ green shutters thrown open, and glass shards glittering like diamonds on the brittle morning light. Wooden legs carried her past the pale shell of the Laiguts’ gutted house.
“What’s wrong?” Luc’s hoarse whisper prodded her onward.
“It’s wrong. All wrong.” Faster. She must run faster. She slipped on a muddy patch at the second hedge, sliced open her coat sleeve on the barbed wire entangled in the third.
“Madeline.” He hissed. “Wait.”
She shook her head. “That smell.” Ice seeped into the marrow of her bones. Only one thing smelled like that. “Bombs.”
The Boches had bombed her village. Her home. No, please, God, not that. Dropping her skirts, she pumped her arms faster. Past the heaps of rubble that had once been homes of her friends and neighbors.
The smoke thickened, drifted like wraiths over the fresh graves.
She skidded around the willows. Low branches slapped her face and ripped at her hair. Pushing them aside, she stumbled into the rutted drive. A tree root grabbed the toe of her wooden shoe. She pitched forward, belly-flopped on her valise, crushing the cardboard suitcase. Darkness crowded her vision as air fled her lungs. Clammy mud sucked at her cheeks. Get up. Check on Mama. On Papa.
Footsteps pounded behind her.
A dog snuffled her neck. Leopold’s wet nose chilled her heated skin.
Dragging air into her lungs, she tugged her arms free then planted her hands on the ground. Dead grass snapped before mud oozed between her fingers. She levered up.
Black smoke drifted in clumps across the yard. A thick pillar soared out of the fireplace toward the Heavens. Two wispy ones joined it on the left. What did it mean? Her thoughts spun but didn’t connect. The pillars meant something, didn’t they?
Fingers curled around her elbow, clamped down on the flesh and bone before dragging her to her knees. Luc’s warm breath cascaded down her cheek. “Madeline, you can’t rush off in these perilous times.”
She nodded. Peril. Danger.
Luc tried to tug her to her feet.
Muddy skirts anchored her in place. Smoke. Fire. Words linked, laying tracks. Was Papa burning the refuse in the yard? But what of the columns on the left? They didn’t come from the chimney, and yet the only thing there was the house. She sucked in a breath and sprang to her feet.
“My house. It’s on fire.” Gaze flying around the yard, she searched the smoke. Where were her parents? Her brother?
“I’ll check.” Luc stumbled back. His grip loosened.
She’d check. Surging forward, she broke free of his hold. She would see. This was her family. Her family. She waded into the smoke. Her sabots trudged along the worn trail winding through the dead grass. A breeze shifted the smoke. In the middle of the yard, flames licked at the triangular edge of a mattress on the rim of the bonfire. Feathers danced on the heat before exploding in red starbursts and disappearing. A spindly chair leg rolled away from the fire, the charred tip smoking.
Why had Papa burned the chair? Her mother loved that chair, loved the entire dining set. The bonfire collapsed. Cinders blazed hot before fading to gray. Ash swirled on the breeze, obscured the rest of the yard. A few flakes landed on her coat sleeve.
She turned toward the house. Waves of heat pushed against her, kept her from getting too close. Sweat beaded her forehead. Orange light poured out of the kitchen window. Smoke chuffed between the jagged teeth of the shattered pane. Her stomach knotted. Why was the light orange? She reached for the door handle.
Luc caught her hand and held it. “Don’t.”
“The Boches set your house on fire.”
She shook her head. No, he didn’t know that. He couldn’t know that. She tugged on her hand.
He jerked back. Stronger.
She stumbled against his chest. His fever penetrated her coat and the layers of clothing she wore. Medicine bottles, sewn into her skirts, thumped against her legs. Movement caught her eye and she faced the kitchen window.
Orange flames writhed over the lump eating at the floor. Fire danced up the walls and along the low beams, devouring the bouquets of herbs hanging from the ceiling. Broken crockery littered the smoldering countertop and shattered shelves.
She blinked. Her house was on fire. Her house was on fire! She jerked back. “My parents! My brother!”
He flattened his palm between her shoulder blades and held her in his arms. “It’s too late.”
“No. No! It can’t be too late.” The roof still stood. The walls were mostly intact. She twisted in his grip.
He fisted the back of her coat.
The fabric banded her chest. A button dug into her throat. She pounded on him. “Let me go. I need to get to them.”
He grunted and winced. His lips rolled back to reveal clenched teeth. “They are not inside.”
“You don’t know that!” She stomped on his foot.
He sucked in a breath and rocked forward.
His weight knocked her off balance. She staggered back a step. His grip slackened. Spinning about, she wrenched free.
“Mama! Papa!” Rising on tiptoes, she peered through the kitchen window. There was so much smoke! How could she see inside? “Mathieu!”
“They’re not inside, Madeline.” Holding his side, Luc lunged for her.
She shoved his hands away.
“I must find my family.” Keeping out of his reach, she retreated, following the length of the house.
He stumbled after her. “Stop!”
She folded her arms across her chest and shuffled backward. “Don’t you want to find your men?”
“I know where my men are.” His lips compressed into a thin line, then he lunged for her. His fingertips raked her forearms.
Her heel slammed into something soft and she stopped.
She glanced down. A still hand lay like a pale, upturned spider near her sabot. A puddle of dark liquid glistened on the gray morning light. A ragged cuff draped around a thin wrist. Dark blue strings, the color of a Belgian uniform, trailed across white flesh.
Her soul partitioned itself from her body. The owner of the hand was dead. She turned more fully. Did she know the dead man? Her attention tripped over his tattered uniform to a blue and white checkered fabric.
Mama had a scarf like that. One that dried tears. One that held fresh picked berries doled out on the long walk home. One that Mama had taken off to tuck around Madeline’s head when she’d been caught outdoors without her shawl. What was the scarf doing outside? Mama would be upset. Leaning over, Madeline reached for it.
“She’s dead Madeline. They’re all dead.”
“Dead?” She shivered. An arm cut across her waist. Her fingers pinched open and closed, missed the blue and white fabric. “Mama’s scarf.”
Lifting her, Luc dragged her backward, cutting off her air. “They’ve been executed.”
Stiffening, she sucked in a breath. Faces came into focus. Mama. Papa. The two soldiers. “Oh God!”
Luc turned her about. Holding her chin, he angled her face toward his. “We must leave here.”
Leave? But this was her home. She shook her head. Molten lead flooded into her belly. Tears cut hot trails down her cheeks. Her nose pricked and her nails dug into her palms. “This is your fault! Your men got them killed.”
She pounded her fists against his chest.
He squeezed his eyes closed. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry! Sorry won’t bring them back.” She pummeled his torso, clipped his chin. Over and over and over until her arms grew heavy and her shoulders ached.
“I’m so sorry.” He kept her in the circle of his arms. Made no move to protect himself from her assault.
She counted time in the soft thud of her fists against him. Grief swelled in her chest until she thought she’d explode. Mama! Papa! Dead. Her blows slowed then stopped. Anger drained away and she shivered. Her knees trembled.
He tightened his embrace. His hard length pressed against hers. Warmth enveloped her.
She sagged against him. Her fingers uncurled to grasp at his jacket and hold herself up. “It’s your fault.”
“I know.” His voice cracked. “We’ll escort you to your neighbors. You need never see us again. Never.”
Never? She clutched him tighter, buried her face in his shirtfront. He smelled of alder, sweat and blood. She’d wanted him hurt, but he’d already been. The war had taken from him just as much as her. She sniffed up her tears and inhaled a shaky breath. “I’ll see to your wound.”
“I can see to my injuries.” Luc clasped her hands between his and placed them between their bodies. “We need to get you someplace safe.”
“I’ll see to it. Papa—” She caught her breath, trapped the pain in a bubble before slowly expelling it. “Papa would have wanted me to.”
Luc opened his mouth.
Mille hobbled around the hedge and into the yard, Leopold at his side. “We have company.”
“We have to hide.” But where? Madeline glanced toward the house. A sob lodged in her throat. No sanctuary there. The barn. She turned. The roof collapsed with a groan. Bricks and sparks spat across the smoking yard.
After emptying the bullets from his gun, Luc tossed it toward the bonfire in the yard. He shoved the smoldering chair leg in her hand. “You tell the Boches you found us on the road and were taking us to town to turn us over.”
“No.” Turn them in? Then her family would have been executed for nothing. “Never.”
Boots pounded on the road. Close. So close.
“There has to be a place to hide.”
“Do it Madeline.” Luc raised his hands. “Maybe then I can save your life.”