Back | Next

Chapter 21

After Hans was taken away, Gretchen was torn by indecision. A part of her wanted nothing so much as to accompany her brother, wherever the strangers were taking him. But she still had the rest of her family to look after. They would be relying on her, as always.

The boy made the decision for her. His eyes, rather. She decided she would trust those eyes again.

The boy was not showing any sign that he wanted to leave her. Quite the opposite. Everything in his posture indicated a kind of shy, uncertain, hesitant possessiveness.

Gretchen spent a minute or so thinking about that possessiveness, before she made her decision. The decision came easily enough. She did not really have a choice, anyway, except a choice between different evils. And—

She liked his eyes. That was something. The rest could be endured, easily enough. Anything could be endured, easily enough, after Ludwig.

The boy—

Stop. She forced her mind onto a different path.

"Was ist—" Damned English! "What iss ihre—you name?" She pronounced it in the German way: nam-uh.

He understood the question at once. "Jeff Higgins."

So. He is as intelligent as his eyes.

That, too, was a good sign. With intelligence there might also be humor. Good humor. Ludwig's intelligence had been that of a pig. His humor had reminded her of pig shit.

She pronounced the name a few times, until she was certain she had it right. Jeff Higgins. Jeff Higgins. Men—young men, especially—became sullen if you mispronounced their names. Gretchen could not afford any such obstacles. Not now, not here.

Not ever. For two years, Gretchen's life and that of her family had hung by the slenderest thread. But Gretchen had always been self-confident, even as a little girl. So long as there was a thread, she would hold it in a sure and capable grip.

She tucked her hand under his arm and began leading him back to the camp where her family waited. She tried not to make it too obvious. Men resented being led by women.

But the boy—stop; Jeff—didn't seem to mind at all. Soon, to her surprise, he even became very chatty. Fumbling with words, trying to find some mishmash language they could both speak. She was interested to note than he seemed more concerned with learning some German words than with teaching her English.

By the time they reached the camp, Gretchen was almost at ease.

This will not be so bad, she decided. He will be heavy, of course, as big and plump as he is. So what? Ludwig was like an ox.

Then, shouting and threading their way through the chaos of the camp—the people were no longer shrieking with fear, but they were still very confused—three boys came running up.

Young men. Stupid woman. Not boys.

Gretchen recognized them. They were the three young men who had been with Jeff, and had stood by his side when he confronted the Protestant mercenaries. As soon as they arrived, Jeff and his friends began bantering. Gretchen could not follow the conversation, except for a few words here and there. But she quickly understood the heart of it. They were teasing him about his new woman, and he was responding.

She relaxed still further. The teasing was gay, not coarse. Almost innocent, in a way. And Jeff's response was—

Shy, uncertain. Fumbling and awkward and embarrassed. But most of all, proud. Very, very proud.

Gretchen studied that pride, what she could sense of it under the unknown words. She was accustomed to foreign languages—a mercenary army was a veritable Tower of Babel—and was quite proficient at separating meaning from its verbal sheath.

She relaxed. Ludwig had been proud of her. Like a pig farmer might boast of his sow. There was something else here. Something—fresh. Clean, perhaps.

A sudden image came to her, from a world she had long forgotten. A world she had banished from her mind. She remembered an evening, in her father's house, when he had been standing by the fireplace. Warming his hands, while her mother placed the food on the table. Her father had turned his head, and watched. Gretchen had been sixteen years old. Only four years ago, she realized. A lifetime ago.

Pride, in her father's eyes. Clear, shining, healthy eyes, full of possessiveness. A possessiveness so gentle, and so warm, that it had seemed to light the house more than the flames themselves.

To her shock, Gretchen found herself bursting into tears. Trembling like a leaf. She fought desperately for control.

Stop! He will be annoyed! Men do not like—

Arms came around her, drawing her close. A hand pressed her face into a shoulder. Like a child, unthinking, she wrapped her arms around the body and squeezed it tight. She sobbed and sobbed, feeling, all the while, the muscle under the fat and the bone under the muscle. Feeling—so strange—the sharp edge of the spectacles against her skull. Hearing the whispers and not understanding a word.

There was no need for words. Meaning, from its sheath, was all that mattered.

When she was done, finally, she drew her head away. Her eyes met his. Light brown; light green.

Not so bad at all.



Back | Next