“A People that defends its existence cannot die.”
Alfred I, King of the Belgians
3 August, 1914
19 August, 1914
Captain Rune Lambert adjusted his hold around the private’s waist. Dust and heat billowed around him. Thousands of feet and hooves — horses, donkeys, dogs and humans — tromped the stone road. Through the trees lining the road, Rune spied patches of emerald feed corn amongst the amber fields of wheat.
Sprays of red, green, yellow and blue marked the exodus of soldiers. Many wounded. Others, like him, searching for a unit to join. Canines barked. A baby cried. Body odor competed with the stench of fear. All headed in one direction—away from the gray-green tide of the German Army.
The private stumbled.
Rune staggered a few steps before finding his footing and righting them both. Damp fabric squished under his hands. The wound on the private’s side was bleeding again. “Hold on, Alain. I’ll find you a ride.”
“I know it, Captain.” Alain wheezed. Blood marred his high cheekbones and peach fuzz glistened on his cut chin. “You’ve already found Campagne, Evrard, Van der Groot, and Van Allen rides.”
Nodding, Rune eyed a comely lass perched atop a wagon. Licking her pink lips, she patted the empty space on the trunk next to her. He winked.
Blushing, she turned away then glanced back at him under her lashes.
Private Alain sighed. “The ladies sure do love you, Captain.”
And Rune appreciated their company, their softness and their welcoming arms. He just didn’t trust them. He guided their steps behind the wagon.
The woman leaned forward. Her blue and white checkered shawl slipped off her red hair.
“I hope you’re not complaining private. My charm is about to secure you a position on that wagon.” Rune grinned as the traffic slowed.
“A wagon?” Alain stiffened. “You secured motorcars for the others. I’ve never ridden in a motorcar. I’ve heard they can travel nearly twenty kilometers per hour.”
Behind them, cannons boomed and guns spat bullets. With a cry, the crowd surged forward, swallowing the comely lass and her wagon. Rune nearly lifted the private off his feet to avoid being caught in the undertow. Damn the Boches. The fighting was close. Although it wasn’t much of a fight, the Army was falling back to Antwerp.
And Rune had deserted his post at the Garde Civique to join the Army.
He just hoped the series of forts forming the National Redoubt could stand up to the German guns. Liège had fallen to the Boches’ cannons. Namur teetered on collapse. Tens of thousands of men had stood against the gray-green tide.
Yet, he’d seen only hundreds of men, swaddled in blood and charred skin, pass through on the trains.
And Brussels was next. He swallowed the wad in his throat. His beloved adopted city. A shudder flipped grief into rage. He would have fought to defend his hometown, would have died for it too, but Burgomaster Max had chosen to surrender.
People would live, but at what cost?
Rune guided the wounded soldier to the center of the road. Amid the blue, black and gray of the peasants, he detected the scattered remnants of Chasseurs, Grenadiers, Carabiners and Lancers. No one was dressed in a complete uniform.
No one seemed to lead the retreat.
Rune plucked at the buttons on his Garde Civique overcoat before running his fingers through his short hair. Sweat trickled from his temples. Then again, he’d lost his hat. As for his kit… He rolled his shoulders. The nearly empty knapsack swung against his back.
Maybe he shouldn’t have spent so much time warning folks. Maybe he should have seen to his men. But so few wanted to leave their wives and families behind. Not that he blamed them. Their women had stood by them. His insides twinged for a moment, a bare moment. He was happier alone. Much happier.
No one to worry about.
No one to worry about him.
A car horn beeped—an asthmatic sound of elitism.
Glancing over his shoulder, Rune spied the snub-nose of the cherry red Alder touring car. White cloth shrouded the electric head lamps. Gold canework trim guided his eye along the torpedo body to the raven-haired beauty in the passenger seat.
One of Rune’s favorite ladies and ideal for his purposes, provided her eagle-eyed sister wasn’t around. “Guess you’re going to arrive in Antwerp in style after all, Alain.”
The confectionery heiress fiddled with the straw bonnet perched atop her upswept hair. Fur fluttered at her throat and circled her delicate wrists. Large black buttons sealed her top-coat and protected her clothing underneath. Her full bottom lip turned down in a pout.
He groaned inwardly. First, he’d have to charm her out of her snit, then convince her to take Alain. She would. She always gave in eventually. He just hoped her sister wasn’t with her. Laila Vigdis saw too much. He scanned the other occupants, acknowledging the chauffeur with a nod.
In the seat behind Sofia, her mother knotted the strings of her beaded purse.
Her father waved his spectacles. Light winked from the lenses. “Make way. Make way there!”
No sister. His stomach cramped. Where was Laila? The red-haired terror hadn’t been in sight when he’d arrived near dawn to warn them. Of course, only the father had been stirring at that hour.
They wouldn’t have left Brussels without their oldest daughter, would they?
Sofia’s sapphire eyes widened and her lips parted. Setting a kid glove on the open window, she partially rose from her seat. “Captain Rune! Oh Captain!”
Rune slapped on his usual grin. Perhaps, someone had missed him after all. He would take it, especially as he could use it to his and the private’s advantage. Shifting his hold, he dragged Alain to the side of the road.
“Wow, Captain.” Alain’s jaw swung open. “Are all your women beauties?”
“Not all.” Sometimes the plain ones provided the best means to advance his career. He appreciated them for it; and they all glowed under his attention. Only one woman saw through his ruse; only one. “Now, hush, and watch.”
Sofia tugged on the chauffeur’s sleeve and the touring car eased to a stop beside Rune. The engine grumbled loudly under the hood and pistons knocked. She batted sooty black lashes. “Captain, since you were kind enough to warn us of the disaster about to befall Brussels this morning, may we carry you to Antwerp?”
“Since you asked…” Just like putty in his hands. Rune eased Alain forward.
The private tripped over his feet and slapped the side door to steady himself.
Sofia reared back and wrinkled her pert nose.
Rune tamped down his irritation. The man smelled of blood and dirt. He was a soldier, for pity’s sake. “My man here has been wounded in defense of our country. I would very much appreciate you carrying him to the hospital in Antwerp.”
She opened and closed her pink lips.
Shoving away from the car, Alain straightened his jacket and flinched as he disturbed the bandage.
Rune squared his shoulders. She couldn’t possibly think to deny him. They were fighting for her, after all.
Her father cleared his throat. “Stop the Spyker, Captain. We must hurry to the city. Business won’t wait, not even for this debacle. I’m certain my workers are afraid to come to work. They must be reassured.”
Rune blinked. The man was worried about candy? Now? A cannonade punctuated his thoughts.
Monsieur Vigdis smacked his chauffeur’s shoulder. “Drive on.”
The motorcar darted into an opening. Rocks and dirt splattered Rune’s trousers.
“Guess her papa doesn’t like you much, eh, Captain.”
Men admired him and his dedication to duty after Germany began her threats. How else would he have risen in ranks so quickly, especially since his late wife… He shut down the thought.
Alain threw his good arm around Rune’s shoulders. “Well there’s bound to be another along shortly. You always have a dozen or so ladies lined up.”
Rune cleared his mind of all but the present. “Just a dozen? You wound me. With this face and physique, I have two dozen at my beck and call.”
Unfortunately, if one of them didn’t arrive soon, he might be forced to face the red-headed terror. He glanced over his shoulder. Through the pilgrimage of people, he spied folks perched on wagons.
“You bet, Captain.” Alain slowly turned then hobbled forward. “And if there’s no doting Papas nearby, you’d probably have a score more.”
Rune grunted. “Not a score. There wouldn’t be enough women left for the rest of you.”
“I have my Odette, Captain. She’s all I need.” Alain fumbled in his breast pocket and plucked out a sepia-toned photograph. Blood smeared the pudgy, grim-faced girl staring back.
“Very nice.” Rune hoped she didn’t prove as fickle as others of her gender.
“She is. And she’s the best cook.” Alain kissed the picture before tucking it back in his pocket and patting it.
Bitterness flooded Rune’s mouth. His wife had hated to cook. She’d hated many things. Including Rune, at the end.
Another car honked.
Without checking to see who drove, he shifted them to the side while his thoughts mired in the past. He hadn’t much cared for his wife either. Funny how a little knowledge can turn so much passion into hatred.
Alain whistled. “What kind of motorcar is that, Captain?”
Rune glanced back. Brass gleamed on the rounded radiator of the Spyker touring car. In the headlamps attached to the white body, he spied remnants of wax. Through the handful of people and tower of baggage, he identified the cherry red upholstery of the seats.
On the left, the Vigdis’s elderly butler hunched over the wheel. Age spots trailed over his bald head. His mouth slashed his elongated face.
The woman on the passenger seat pointed at Rune. Red hair tumbled in sheets around her shoulders. Freckles danced over her nose and cheeks. Green eyes twinkled.
Laila. Rune swore under his breath. He should have taken another road out of Brussels. He scraped a hand through his short blond hair. Maybe he should have trekked across the harvest.
Alain’s voice jerked Rune’s attention away from Laila. What had the private asked? Oh, yes. “That’s a Spyker.”
“The one the gentleman talked about?”
“The very one.” Rune adjusted his grip on the private. Should they keep walking or halt? Heat burned his cheeks. Halt, of course, Alain was wounded. Thankfully, Laila never seemed inclined to socialize. He should be free of her presence within minutes.
The motorcar pulled alongside him then stopped.
Laila slipped out of the car before the butler set the brake. “Give us a moment, Captain Lambert, and we should have space for you.”
Mud spattered skirts swirled around her trim ankles. Ink stained the bare hands she set on her hips. She pursed her lips for a moment and tilted her head while considering the woman and two men crammed beside the luggage in her back seat.
Rune recognized the uniform of the 5th Lancers. The gaunt men stared into the distance, emptiness filling their eyes. What had they seen at Liège? What had they endured? Rune would find out as soon as he joined the regular army. He lugged Alain toward the car.
The butler shook his head. “I don’t think we have room, Mademoiselle.”
Laila shook her head. A hair pin sprang free and pinged against the vehicle’s side. “We must make room, Remy. These are our brave Jas, fighting off the invader. They deserve our support.”
With a huff, the butler shrunk like a turtle retreating to a very wrinkly shell.
Rune stopped beside Laila. “No need to find room for both of us. Alain is injured and should be taken to the hospital in Antwerp. I will walk.”
“Yes. Yes.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “I would treat him myself, but I have no idea where my supplies are. Or if they were even packed.”
Alain blinked. “Are you a nurse, Mademoiselle?”
Laila frowned at him. Hashmarks floated above her straight nose. “No, why ever would you think that?”
Alain’s mouth opened and closed.
So she isn’t only brusque with me. Rune’s lips twitched. “Leave off, Private. Normal societal laws don’t apply to Laila Vigdis.”
The red head was a force of nature. She saw through his charm and glib words to his selfish interior. He hated it.
She inhaled sharply before releasing the air in her lungs. Hand-pressing her green bodice, she smiled.
He hated that smile as well. The straight, even teeth bared for all the world contradicted the wash of sadness in her emerald eyes.
“Yes, well, I may not have much regard for society’s rules, but I do appreciate nature’s. Only so many of us can fit in the motorcar.”
“You could sit on my lap.” The words slipped past Rune’s lips. Damn. He’d forgotten his rule never to flirt with Laila.
A blush washed over her oval face, submerging her freckles. She cleared her throat. “Madame Tait, please move to the front seat beside your husband.” Turning, Laila avoided his gaze.
Rune sighed. After their first meeting in the park, she’d treated him like wallpaper—present but not worthy of her attention.
“Alain, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mademoiselle?” The private shuffled forward obediently.
Crossing his arms, Rune drummed his fingers on his biceps. Best to wait until Laila gave him his orders. The terror liked to boss him around.
“If you would be so kind as to take her vacated place in the back seat.”
“Yes, Mademoiselle.” The car swayed when Alain stepped onto the running board. Mumbling an apology, he climbed inside, secured the low door, then tumbled into the free space.
The other two soldiers didn’t even blink in acknowledgement.
The hair on Rune’s neck prickled. What was wrong with the soldiers? Normally they welcomed each other like long lost brothers. Awareness hummed through him. Laila. His attention cut back to her.
Her narrow-eyed gaze raked him from head to toe before she strode forward. Bending at the waist, she inspected his side. Her tapered fingers danced over his jacket before slipping underneath.
Rune sucked in his gut. Heat flared from the epicenter of her touch. “What are you doing?”
In one smooth motion, he slapped his coat tight against his shirt and brushed off her touch.
She frowned at her sticky fingers while opening and closing them. “Is your jacket stained with Alain’s blood or are you injured as well?”
Why did she always speak to him as if he were a truant school boy? He resisted the urge to fidget. He was a man, fully grown, dammit.
“Captain Lambert?” She reached a hand toward his forehead. “Are you unwell?”
Ducking, he caught her wrist. He registered the silkiness of her skin under the callus of his trigger finger, the scent of sunshine and the thrum of her heartbeat. It beat a little fast. Did she—
“What is that?” Riding on his father’s shoulders, a little boy pointed up.
Rune followed the vector of the child’s arm. A silver aeroplane glittered like a dragonfly against the blue sky. Black markings gave the gray wings the feathery appearance of a dove. Sweat trickled down his spine. The drone of its engine reached his ears just as a second Taube emerged from behind a wisp of white cloud.
“Oh no.” Fear iced the marrow in his bones, and he tugged on Laila’s arm.
She stumbled into his chest. Her free hand braced against his stomach, her fingers began their exploration again. “You are hurt.” She tugged at his shirt, tucked into his trousers. “I’ll dress it quickly then—”
“No.” He tore his attention away from the German airplanes. Wrapping his arm around her, he drew her close, shielding her with his body. “You don’t understand.”
Her pupils dilated and her lips parted. “W-what don’t I understand?”
Rune had never been this close to her, never noticed the gold flecks in her eyes. Or the way she came just up to his chin. The perfect height, really.
“Taubes, Captain.” Alain cried.
Her hand slid up his chest to hold his shoulder. “What are Taubes?”
Her words snapped the spell she cast. His gut clenched. The Taubes were a threat. To Laila. He set her away, hunched over to look her in the eyes. “Boche’ airplanes. You must leave. Now.”
A woman screamed. A horse whinnied. The crowd scrambled off the road, plunged through the alder hedge and into the wheat and corn fields. A few climbed the towering pines.
She shook her head. “I must see to your injury.”
He spun her around and pushed her toward the motorcar.
She dug in her heels. “What threat can they do so high up?”
“They’re releasing bombs!” Alain shouted.
“Bombs!” She covered her mouth as if that would stop the explosives.
Now she realized the danger! Wrapping his hands around her waist, he lifted her up.
The butler threw the levers and the motorcar lurched forward, leaving dust and rocks in its wake.
“Wait!” Rune stumbled after the vehicle. They couldn’t leave Laila.
The rumble of the engine and the whistle of the bombs drowned out Alain’s shout.
Laila plucked at his fingers. “Oh bother. Perhaps we should take shelter, Captain.”
“Shelter?” Had she gone mad? Had the world? Setting her on her feet, he dug his fingers into her hips. Fields on the left, fields on the right. And the trees obscured his vision. “There is no shelter that can withstand their ordinance.”
The first bomb hit. The ground shook, horses screamed, and wood shattered. Dogs barked. Men and women ran. Children wailed. Horror ripped open the features of every creature.
Head swiveling, she clung to his hand. “What do we do?”
Rune swallowed. Hard. She trusted him. He would make certain it wasn’t misplaced. He would have to track the bomb trajectory and guess its mark. “Get ready to run.”
She gathered her long blue skirts, revealing scuffed boots and slim ankles. “I’m ready.”
Nice ankles, too damn nice to get blown up. He tore his gaze away.
Two hundred meters away, the second bomb hit the street. The Earth coughed up a geyser of black dirt and bits of animals, wagons and possessions.
His free hand fisted. The Boches were targeting the people to kill the retreating soldiers. His blood simmered. His vision dimmed to the black dot falling from the sky. Once he joined the Belgian Army, he’d return the favor.
The third exploded in the field seventy-five meters on the left. The nearby pines split open with a loud crack. Their pale insides and stripped needles created a blizzard of shrapnel. Women and men fell.
Laila shifted closer. Her breast brushed his arm. Her hair tickled his chin. Her trembling vibrated the air around him.
He squeezed her hand. Platitudes stuck in his throat. They would survive this. Then he’d escort her to Antwerp and ring the butler’s turkey neck for leaving her behind. She should never have been in this danger.
The black dot overhead increased in diameter.
He shifted right. The bomb moved left. “This way.”
He plunged through the broken hedge.
She leapt over it behind him but level-pegged him once they cleared the row of pines.
Ahead, a patchwork of green and gold stretched out under the bright sunshine. He plunged between the rows of feed corn. Razor leaves scratched at his face, sleeves and chest.
Laila gasped and shifted behind him.
The whistling ended in a loud boom. The ground bucked under his feet. Heat blasted him. Rune swore. He might have miscalculated.
She slammed against his back just as a black cloud swallowed them.