Luc swallowed the bile rising in his throat. The sound of men approaching grew louder. Smoke from the burning house, stable and bonfire stung his eyes and filled the yard. This was it. Two months after his fort fell, he would surrender to the Germans and become their prisoner.
Or they would shoot him.
He glanced at the bonfire in the middle of the Thevenet’s yard. Raising his chin, he squared his shoulders. The Boches could do whatever they liked with him so long as Madeline lived. Madeline. Her name whispered across his conscience. At least he wouldn’t have any more blood on his hands.
Mille dropped his makeshift cane. Balancing on his good leg, he too raised his hands. Fear lined his face, aging him a decade. “Do you think the Boches will shoot us or bayonet us?”
Madeline gasped. The broken chair leg thudded to the ground. “Don’t make me do this.”
“You must, Sister. Now pick up the stick and act like we’re your prisoners.” Luc kept his attention on the road. Long silhouettes stretched down the street in the pearly dawn. In the burning house on his right, beams groaned. God help him. He wanted to hide.
Mille hopped a few centimeters before setting his hand on Luc’s shoulder to steady himself. He lowered his voice and spoke in Luc’s ear. “I hope it’s bullets. I’ve seen what a bayonet can do.”
Luc closed his eyes. He’d seen what bullets could do at Liège. He’d cut down wave upon wave of German soldiers then watched as their comrades trampled them in the rush to take the fort. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. No matter how much he’d fired, the Boches just kept coming, and coming, and coming.
Mille removed his hand. He released a slow breath. “Madame, please, I fought for you and Belgium. Don’t turn us in to the Germans.”
Luc opened his eyes.
Glancing over his shoulder, Mille widened his eyes. “This is where you poke us with the stick and say something threatening.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.” She hiccoughed.
“Just raise the stick, Madeline.” Luc’s hands fisted. If he could just take her in his arms, he could reassure her that everything would be well. He’d learned to lie since the Fourth of August.
The day he’d shot his first man, and his second and the good Lord knew how many others.
The day the German Army had crossed the Belgian frontier and violated his country’s neutrality.
The day war had ignited Europe.
Above the crackle of the fire, fabric rustled. Bottles clanked together. Still he couldn’t see the enemy. They must have slowed their approach because of the smoke. Should he and Mille use the cover to leave? No, he couldn’t endanger Madeline any more.
“The Boches will probably shoot me anyway. Then my friends and neighbors will think I died a traitor.”
Dammit. She’d thrown away the chair leg. Luc whirled around. Heat tore up his side and he swayed before the world settled on an even keel. His fingers pressed the sticky fabric at his waist. Bending, he snatched up Mille’s cane. “You will hold this on us and tell the Germans you took us prisoner, Sister.”
She shook her head and stepped back. Her heel scraped Tommy’s body and she froze. A greenish tint washed over her pale cheeks.
Grabbing her hand, he slapped the branch against her palm. “If they believe you weren’t hiding us, then they won’t shoot you.”
He had to keep her alive. He owed her that much. Her family would still be alive if Gaston Cocard hadn’t said they could find shelter at the Thevenet’s farm.
She pushed the cane back at him. “I won’t live with your blood on my hands.”
“Then make the Boches believe we’re helpless.” Releasing his side, he wrapped his hand around hers and folded her fingers around the branch. “The Hague Conventions will protect us. The Germans will be forced to treat our wounds and feed us.”
A stone tumbled across the yard. The Germans were closer.
Mille hopped a little to find his balance. “I’m so hungry, I could eat even their vile cabbage soup. I like the idea of the Boches waiting on me.”
She sucked on her bottom lip. “I don’t know.”
“I do. You’ll save all our lives this way.” Luc released her hand. His blood painted her pale skin in red streaks.
Nodding once, she raised the branch. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you, Sister.” Luc smiled. He heard the expression crackle on his stiff lips and cheeks. How long had it been since he last smiled?
The day before he’d started lying on a regular basis.
At least, Madeline hadn’t asked why the Hague Conventions hadn’t protected the dead men at her feet. Or her parents, for that matter. Technically, it didn’t protect Luc or Mille since neither wore a uniform. It didn’t matter. She had to live.
Leopold whined and thumped his tail.
“Protect her.” Luc pointed behind his back. “Protect Madeline.”
The dog slunk toward her.
A breeze thinned the smoke as a handful of men rounded the corner. Oval heads melted into wide shoulders. All five drew up short. Two on the right hefted their shovels. Ruddy jaws went slack. Mud caked their wooden sabots.
Luc blinked. “You’re not German.”
A barrel-chested man in the center stepped forward. He swung his spade until the flat part rested on his shoulder. Bright blue eyes blazed from a face framed by florid jowls. “Are you the soldiers the Thevenets expected to join the two they’d already hidden?”
The denial hung on Luc’s tongue. If these weren’t Boches then he and Mille still had a chance to rejoin the fighting. Yet traitors skulked everywhere. And Madeline might not be safe in the village. A stick appeared in his peripheral vision.
“Uncle Cyprien?” Madeline rushed forward.
Uncle? Luc’s knees wobbled. He really could leave her behind.
Cyprien squinted, waved at the mist of smoke in his face. “Maddy? I thought you were safe in the convent?”
Tossing the cane aside, she threw herself into her uncle’s beefy arms. Her skirts swung in an arc before settling around her trim ankles. “They’ve killed them. They killed them.”
Luc stared at the ground.
Cyprien patted her back. Wiry eyebrows wiggled over his deep-set blue eyes. “Do you know these men, Maddy? Did they accompany you from the convent?”
She shook her head. “No. I—I—”
The remaining four farmers fanned out behind Cyprien. Two wielded shovels. One a hoe. And the last held a pick.
Sweet Lord, she was going to get them killed. And by the very people he’d defended. Luc raised his hands a little higher. “I needed help to bring Mille to the farm. Since Madeline arrived last night and had a pass to be out after dark, she agreed to take a dog cart and help me bring my man back.”
The farming-implements-turned-weapons lowered a fraction.
Madeline clutched at her uncle. “I—I left Mama and Papa. I—”
Stroking his niece’s hair, Cyprien frowned over her head. “Where’s the cart now?”
“The Germans.” Sniffling, Madeline daubed her damp cheeks with her sleeve. “They took it. They took everything.”
“Not everything.” Her uncle adjusted her scarf over her straight blond hair before shuffling away. “Thevenet liked the shade of that willow. We’ll lay them to rest there.” He pointed to the big tree near the road.
The men moved off to begin digging the mass grave.
Blinking rapidly, Madeline eyed the ground. “Mathieu loved to climb that tree.”
Luc’s insides froze. The father hadn’t been called Mathieu which meant… Which meant another had been killed. A brother, perhaps. A younger brother. Luc wiped his hands on his thighs. His palms deepened to crimson. The blood would never wash off. Never.
“Cyprien Fusil. Which of you is the Lieutenant?”
“Lucien Duplan.” Straightening his jacket, Luc held out his hand. “This is Mille.”
Cyprien’s callused hand wrapped around Luc’s slim fingers. “It is an honor to meet you.” He pumped their joined arms twice before thumping Luc on the back. “Don’t matter what the cabbageheads say in their official Avis. You held that fort for a week when the Boches thought they’d steamroll right over us. You showed them what we Belgians are made of.”
“Yes, we held.” Of the four hundred men at his fort, only he and Mille remained. The price was worth it. King Albert still fought from Antwerp. “Like the national redoubt will hold.”
Antwerp couldn’t fall.
“We’re trying to find a way to slip through the Boches‘ lines to join in the city’s defense.”
Cyprien cleared his throat.
Madeline drew a ragged breath and set her hand on Luc’s sleeve. “Antwerp has surrendered. The King has retreated to Ghent.”
A buzzing filled Luc’s ears. Ghent? But that was practically located beside the English Channel, leaving most of Belgium under German control. Did his country still exist? Had everything been for naught? The world spun, tilted. His legs buckled.
Cyprien caught Luc around the shoulders, kept him on his feet. “Here now. The English are there. The French, too. And word has it that America will soon join the fight on our side. Those Boches will be back in the Fatherland by Christmas.”
Luc locked his knees and stood on his own power. He’d only met the English during their retreat. As for the French… The official Avis said the Germans would be in Paris within two weeks. That had been a month ago. He hadn’t seen the German Army retreating anywhere, just flowing like a gray-green stream South and West.
Cyprien squeezed his shoulder. “You three had best come with me. Can’t have the cabbageheads seeing you. We’d all be shot then.”
For a moment, Madeline swayed on her feet. A tremor traveled up her spine before she straightened. “I’ll get water. To… to prepare Mama and Papa.”
Luc rested his hand on the small of her back. Her woolen coat scratched his fingers. A million lifetimes of apologies would never make up for what he’d done by ordering his men here.
Cyprien placed his spade tip on the ground before stomping on the metal. The blade sunk deep. Releasing it, he caught her hand and rested it on his arm. “My wife will see to your folks. You need to tend Mathieu.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Madeline’s attention shifted to the tangle of corpses. “But I won’t tame his cowlick. He never liked to have it flat. He—”
“He’s safe, Maddy.” Cyprien dragged her away from the death and destruction near the house and around the bonfire. “An old Landstrumman found him and hid Mathieu while the rest of his unit rounded up the others.”
An older German soldier had helped save a Belgian? Handing Mille his makeshift cane, Luc followed Madeline and her uncle. The stables smoldered in front of them. Grit settled in his eyes and he swiped at it.
Mille hobbled behind him. “Why would they spare the brother, Lieutenant?”
“I don’t know.” But Luc didn’t like where his thoughts led. Could this Mathieu have informed the Germans of hidden soldiers in his house?
“Who knows why the Boches do anything?” Cyprien led them toward a heap of smoldering wood. Stray feathers marked it as a former chicken coop.
Madeline drew her shawl close. “Did Mathieu… Did he perhaps say something?”
Such as the Thevenets were hiding soldiers? Luc finished silently. Damn. What had this war done to them? Making them distrust each other so.
Cyprien shook his head, scraped his thick fingers through his thinning hair. “The Germans chalk the doors of those who aid them. Their livestock aren’t stolen. Their houses aren’t burned. Their families aren’t executed. No one goes near the traitors. No one. Those families are protected by the Boches.” He spat. “We’ll have to wait until after to deal with them.”
If there was an after. With so much of Belgium occupied, the army would need months to free the land and people. Luc held his injured side, slowing to assist Mille over the brown grass.
Mille gritted his teeth. “Do we head for Ghent, Lieutenant?”
Luc’s muscles clenched. Make for Ghent and find the Army in retreat again? Or… “No. We head for Holland then sail for England.”
And if the Belgian army no longer existed, he’d join the British and fight. Surely, they had a use for someone who’d seen the German army in action. Sweat beaded his upper lip. And he’d seen the German army in action.
Mille chuffed, “Never thought I’d see the world by joining the Army.”
“Not the world.” As they cleared the outbuildings, Luc adjusted Mille’s weight across his shoulders. Nubs remained of the harvested wheat in the field on his right. Amber grain swayed on his left. The wind carried the scent of fermented apples from the orchard ahead. “Just England and, maybe, France.”
Setting his hand on Madeline’s back, Cyprien pushed his niece toward the trees. “Your brother is in his favorite hiding spot.”
She stumbled a pace then slowed. Her hands slipped between the folds of her skirts. “Is he hurt?”
“Not a scratch on him.” Cyprien shooed her ahead. “He’ll be overjoyed to see you. And I think the reunion will do you good as well.”
Her gaze locked with Luc’s. He forced a smile. “We’ll catch up.”
Cyprien nodded. “Take him to our barn. Your aunt has a basket of food waiting.” He hitched his thumb in Luc’s direction. “I’ll bring the lieutenant and his man there.”
Furrows pleated her brow before she turned toward the orchard. “Then you’ll let me tend both your wounds?”
Luc jerked his head once.
Picking up her skirts, she sprinted forward.
Mille tilted his head to the side. “Very fetching ankles.”
Luc poked his subordinate in the gut. Thankfully, Madeline and her tempting ankles had disappeared into the trees. “Do you wish to walk on your own?”
Cyprien’s blue eyes narrowed. His gaze raked Luc from head to toe, then he turned his attention on Mille. “My niece is promised to the church.”
Mille’s skin turned bright red. “Yes, sir.”
After another quick check, Cyprien unbuttoned his coat, shrugged it off and passed it to Luc. “You serious about heading to Holland?”
“Yes.” Luc smoothed the warm wool before shaking it out for Mille.
“I’ll be well enough to travel tonight.” Balancing on one foot, Mille stuffed one arm inside a sleeve, switched the cane into his coated arm, then finished donning the garment.
Cyprien rubbed his chin. “We can carry you to about five kilometers from Brussels under the wheat. Boches are keen we harvest our wheat and don’t harass us. Yet.”
Luc shook his head and helped Mille walk. “If you can just let us rest today, we’ll make our own way.”
“We’ve done this before, Lieutenant.” When he thrust his jaw forward, Cyprien’s jowls wobbled. “With him walking, you might not make it to the front before the war ends. I need you to arrive in time to avenge my sister’s and brother-in-law’s murders.”
Heat simmered low in Luc’s gut. The distant cannonade surged in his ears, drummed a savage beat on his heart. A soft breeze cooled the tears Madeline had spilled on his jacket. “I will.”
Cyprien stopped, laid a hand on Luc’s arm. “I also need you to take Mathieu and Madeline with you to Holland.”
Flattened blades of grass slipped under Luc’s boot heels. “Why? She’s safe with her family.”
“The Boches will return once they learn the boy escaped. They’ll kill her too, to teach us who our master is.” Cyprien spat then dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. “My wife has kin in Mollenputten. They’ll help you avoid the camps and send you to England.”
Mille’s head snapped up. “Camps? Does Holland fight with Germany then?”
Cyprien crossed his arms over his barrel chest. “No. She is neutral. So she takes soldiers from all sides and locks them up.”
“Ah.” Luc mentally swore. He had not considered that in his plans. Yet to take Madeline with him would risk her life. “Surely, you have other family.”
“Alas, no, or I would send the children to them.” Cyprien rocked back on his heels. “Maddy has skills that should assist your journey. Her father said she was a nurse at the convent. She might be able to prevent blood poisoning.”
Mille traced straight lines in the grass with his cane. “They’ll be safe in Holland. The Boches won’t be able to hurt them anymore.”
Luc sighed. “I’ll take them.”
God help them all.