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Chapter 22

The first thing Gretchen's grandmother said, upon being informed that they were standing before a school, was:


The stooped old woman peered up suspiciously at the young man standing next to Gretchen. He was holding a sheet of paper in his hands. "He's lying to you," Gramma pronounced. She spoke with the utter certainty of her age and wisdom.

Gramma twisted her head, studying what she could see of the huge structure. "There are not enough noble children in all of Germany for a school this big. He is lying to you."

Gretchen was uncertain herself. She didn't think Jeff was lying to her. She barely knew the man, true, but a glance at his open face reassured her. Whatever vices and wickedness that face shielded, Gretchen did not believe for a moment that a capacity for cold-blooded dissemblance was among them.


There wasn't any logical reason for a school this big. At least, she hoped not. A thousand noble children at a time? That was the number Jeff had stated, proudly, in his stumbling German/English pidgin. Could there be that many, even in the entire Holy Roman Empire?

Gretchen almost shuddered. Her one faint hope, over the past years, had been that if enough noblemen killed themselves off the war might someday end. But if there were a thousand more ready to take their fathers' places—

She took a closer look at the sheet of paper in Jeff's hand. All of his friends held one just like it. So did the old woman who had emerged to greet them when they neared the school and handed the papers to the young men.

Gretchen studied the old woman. A baroness, at the very least. Possibly even a duchess.

To some degree, Gretchen's assessment was based on the woman's clothing. The apparel was simple in its odd and almost scandalous design, but it was very well made and of some unfamiliar fabric that practically shrieked: king's ransom. Mostly, however, Gretchen's conclusion was dictated by the woman herself.

No other women she knew could reach that advanced age without having long since been turned into crones by endless labor, deprivation and abuse. When she first saw the woman, Gretchen had thought her to be not much older than thirty, despite the gray hair. But the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth were those of a much older woman. Forty-five years old, perhaps even fifty. Almost the age of stooped and withered Gramma.

A duchess. The woman was as tall as Gretchen herself. She stood straight, without a trace of stooping. Everything about her blazed health and vigor. Behind her spectacles, the duchess' hazel eyes were as clear and bright as a young woman's.

Then—there was the self-confidence in her stance. Her posture, her bearing, even the way she held her head—all of them announced to the world in no uncertain terms: I am somebody important. Valuable. Precious. Good blood.

Gretchen looked away. Again, her eyes fell on the sheet of paper. It was covered with printed words.

She extended her hand hesitantly. "Pleez? Can I?"

Jeff was startled. But he made no protest when Gretchen took the paper out of his hand.

It took her no more than ten seconds to understand what she was looking at. Almost all of that lost time was simply due to the unfamiliar style of print.

How clever!

It was a miniature dictionary. Gretchen's father had published dictionaries, now and again. Great huge monstrous things. But this was simply one sheet, containing simple phrases in English and their German equivalent. The spelling of the words, of course, was not always what Gretchen was accustomed to, but that meant nothing. In her day, no languages had standardized spelling. Her father had often complained about the problem.

She spotted the one phrase immediately. Oh yes!

So there would be no misunderstanding, Gretchen moved next to Jeff and pointed to the phrase with her finger while she spoke the words.

"Would . . . you . . . like . . . some . . . food?" Her head began nodding up and down. "Ja! Ja!"

Immediately, Jeff's face was distressed. She saw him glance at the enormous stretch of windows covering the near wall of the building. Gretchen followed his gaze. She was impressed, again, by the sheer size of those windows. Inside the room beyond, she suddenly noticed that a few people were carrying trays to a table. Food!

She had not eaten in two days. And then, only some bread which Ludwig had plundered from a farmhouse. He had not left much, to be divided among the women and children. Hans had offered to share his small portion of food, but Gretchen had refused. Her brother needed to be strong enough to survive battles.

Jeff was looking very distressed. When he saw that the old duchess was marching toward them, his face sagged a little from relief.

There was a quick exchange of words between Jeff and the duchess. Gretchen's English was improving rapidly—she had picked up much more than she realized from some of the English-speaking mercenaries in Tilly's army—but she was still not able to follow an entire conversation. Only bits and pieces:

Jeff: "—starving, Miz Mailey." Odd name for a duchess.

The duchess: "Oh God," how easily they blasphemed! "—of me—didn't think." The duchess slapped her head with a hand, the way a person admits a stupid deed. Gretchen was astonished by the gesture. A duchess? In public? Before commoners? "I'm an idiot!" Gretchen's jaw sagged.

Jeff: "—we do?"

The duchess sighed, shook her head. Her own face was looking very distressed. "—have no—" Gretchen didn't quite catch the last word. Choice?

Again, the duchess shook her head. The distress was still evident, but it was overlain by determination. The royal assurance in her face was unshakable. Absolute. Despite her hatred for nobility, Gretchen was impressed. This was a woman for whom decisions—authority—came as naturally as breathing.

The duchess stared at Gretchen for a few seconds. There was no haughtiness in that expression, simply—


When Gretchen finally realized, she was as stunned as she had ever been in her life. Not even the friendly (no—comradely) way in which the duchess took her arm and began leading her toward another building was as overpowering as that first moment of shock.

To her grave, Gretchen would carry the memory. Those royal—imperial—hazel eyes. The eyes of an elderly and powerful woman, shining bright with health and self-confidence—and, now, full of recognition. Friendliness also, yes; that, and kindness. But Gretchen had occasionally—not often—encountered a certain Christian charity, even among the powerful. And so? Peasants, too, could be kindly toward their livestock.

Never recognition. Never once. For the first time in her life, one of the world's mighty had gazed upon Gretchen Richter, and seen nothing but another human being.


Gretchen did not understand clearly any of the phrases which the duchess spoke as she led her toward the other building. She was only able to grasp the essence of the matter. The duchess seemed much concerned with disease.

Gretchen's entire extended family followed them, as did Jeff and his three friends. They were walking on a peculiar black substance which seemed to cover most of the area outside the buildings themselves. The substance served the same purpose as cobblestones, but it was wondrously flat. Gretchen thought the warm and gritty feel of it under her bare feet was marvelous.

She was puzzled, at first, by the big yellow lines which were painted all over the main expanse of the black stuff. What could be the purpose of that checkerboard pattern? Then, seeing the position of the few vehicles in the area, she realized that the yellow lines were to guide them to rest. Most of the yellow-outlined rectangles were empty. They stretched and stretched for yards and yards.

They own so many vehicles? To need that much space? These people are so rich!

She turned her head and glanced back at Jeff. He had been watching her, she realized. He met her eyes for an instant only, before looking away. Awkwardly, he hitched the sling holding his arquebus a little higher on his shoulder.

So shy. He's nothing but a young soldier, I'm sure of it. But he seems to take all this for granted. So he must be rich, too.

She turned her head back, facing front. Squared her shoulders and marched forward alongside the strange duchess. Heading toward a mysterious future she could not see, but with a fierce determination to bring her family through that storm intact. As intact as possible, at least. Whatever was necessary.

The duchess led them around the building. There, appended to the back, was a long edifice whose roof and walls were made of some unknown substance. Very shiny, almost like metal. But there was something soft-looking about the stuff. It was colored a light green, and Gretchen thought it was almost translucent. She was reminded, a bit, of the tinted glass in cathedrals.

For all the peculiarity of the design and the material, Gretchen knew at once that the edifice had been very recently constructed. The flimsy-looking metal pipes which protruded out of the building and ran off into the distance were still shiny, untarnished by time and weather.

The duchess led them to a small door in the side of the edifice. She opened the door and waved Gretchen forward into the room beyond. The duchess herself remained standing by the door. She seemed to be examining the other members of Gretchen's family as they obediently trooped through the entrance. Three of them she stopped with a gesture of her hand and motioned aside. Uncertainly, but obeying, the three boys stepped back. They were the three oldest boys in the group. All of them were past puberty—not by much—and all were laden with bundles carrying what little the family possessed beyond clothing.

When the rest of the family had entered, the duchess gestured toward the three boys and said something to Jeff and his friends. They, too, had remained outside. Jeff nodded and beckoned the three boys to follow him. He pointed somewhere down the edifice. Toward the other side, possibly.

Immediately, realizing what was happening, the women in the room began shrieking. All except Gretchen. Their words were not a protest—women of their station did not protest anything—so much as a simple wail of anguish.

Gretchen almost joined that squawling bedlam. Almost. But something in the duchess' expression closed her throat. The duchess' mouth was wide open. Her face registered nothing beyond incomprehension and shock.

In an instant, Gretchen realized the truth.

She has no idea what we are afraid of. None! She simply . . . doesn't understand. How can anyone in this world be so innocent?

But it was true. She had no doubt of it. The image came to her mind, of a young man's green eyes, magnified by spectacles. She remembered those eyes. She had seen fury flaming in them, once, before he stepped forward to face a pack of beasts. Alone. With a strange and powerful weapon, yes, but still alone. Until his friends joined him, not hesitating for longer than a moment.

Gretchen stared through the open door. That same young man was still there. Staring back at her. His mouth, like that of the duchess, was gaping wide listening to the howls of women and children. Gretchen studied his lips. A boy's lips still, plump and soft.

Gretchen knew, then. Knew! Held-in breath erupted.

She had left behind the world of murder, and entered a new land. There were killers in this land, yes, fierce and terrible ones—Oh yes! God still sits in Heaven!—but no murderers.

Before she turned away, to take charge of her family, Gretchen's own light brown eyes shone a message at green ones. He would not understand, of course. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. But she wanted to make that promise anyway.

Gretchen had already decided to become his concubine. Now, she would be his woman also. A man barely past boyhood would get something no man ever had. Certainly not Ludwig.

She turned away and took command.


Gretchen's bellow almost shook the walls. Instantly, all the children in the room closed their mouths. Snapped them shut. The women also, except the new farm girl. Gretchen sent her sprawling with a buffet. "Silence!" The new girl, landing on her rump, gaped up at her. The mark of Gretchen's hand flamed large and red across her cheek. But she was silent.

Gretchen turned back to the duchess. The woman's mouth was still wide. But the shock, Gretchen realized, had now been caused by her own action.

What? Has she never disciplined a child?

The duchess closed her mouth. Shook her head. The motion was quick, abrupt—a gesture, not of someone denouncing an action but simply trying to clear her mind of confusion.

Understanding that confusion, now, Gretchen haltingly tried to explain. The duchess was very intelligent. It did not take her more than a minute, even with the difficulty of the language barrier, to finally comprehend.

The duchess' eyes widened. Her pale face grew paler still. But she nodded, and turned her head. A few feet away, Jeff and his friends stood waiting. Huddled next to the door, almost at the duchess' feet, the three oldest boys of Gretchen's family were squatting down, staring up at her. Their faces were blank with terror. Numb, knowing death had finally come.

The duchess rattled off a string of sentences in English. She spoke too fast for Gretchen to follow. By the time the duchess finished speaking, the faces of Jeff and his friends were as pale as her own. They stared down at the three huddled boys. One of Jeff's friends touched the weapon slung over his shoulder, like a man might reassure himself that a house pet had not been transformed into a serpent.

The duchess barked another phrase, ringing with authority. Gretchen caught only the last two words.

"—do it!"

Gretchen found it hard not to grin, seeing the haste with which Jeff and his friends obeyed the duchess. Well, no wonder. I bet she never has to slap a child. Not her!

Almost frantically, Jeff and his friends unslung the weapons on their shoulders and leaned them against the wall of the nearby building. A moment later, they had unbuckled the pistols and laid them down on the ground.

Gretchen stepped up to the door and addressed the three boys. "Follow them," she commanded, pointing to Jeff and his friends. "Do whatever they say. Understand?"

The boys stared up at her. Gretchen scowled and raised her hand. "Now!"

The boys scrambled to their feet. As confused and terrified as they were, that familiar voice cut through everything like a knife. They were not afraid of Gretchen, exactly. But nobody—no child or woman in the family, at least—would ever dream of disobeying her. They knew that large hand well, and everything behind it. The hand was hard. The muscles which wielded it were not much softer. But, most of all, the will which commanded the muscles was like iron itself. A steel angel, forged in the Devil's inferno.

Satisfied, Gretchen turned away. "It will be done," she told the duchess. "Lead us where you will."


There were still problems, of course, in the time which followed. The women squawled again, when the duchess ordered them to remove their clothing.

It's all we have! We own nothing else!

Gretchen silenced them with a bellow.

The duchess ordered them to place the clothing into large, metal baskets. Then, to push the baskets through a low door. Beyond, as best as Gretchen could understand, the clothes would be boiled and cleaned before they were returned.

The women squawled again.

They will be stolen!

Gretchen bellowed again. It was not enough. She raised her hand. But the duchess stopped her with her own, shaking her head. A moment later, the duchess began to remove her own clothing.

That wondrous act brought silence. The family stared, as nobility disrobed. The duchess did not linger over the task. Gretchen was surprised to see how quickly and easily the garments were removed. She would have thought a duchess needed maidservants.

She was even more surprised by the body which was revealed, once the duchess was naked. An old woman, yes. But if the breasts sagged, they were not withered dugs. If the buttocks were no longer firm and plump, they were still buttocks. And everywhere—arms and shoulders and legs and midsection and hips—the muscles were lean, almost taut. The duchess' body, for all its signs of age, seemed to vibrate with health. If she were a man, Gretchen knew, she would find that body desirable still.

The duchess carried her clothing to one of the baskets. For a moment, she seemed to hesitate. Then, with a wry little smile and a shrug of the shoulders, she pitched the royal garments onto the rags of destitution. She turned away and marched toward a further door, waving her hand in a gesture of command. Pushing the door open, she entered a room whose floor was tiled.


Thereafter, there was no further squawling.

Squeals, yes, when the duchess turned a knob and hot water began showering down upon the family.

Moans of fear, yes. When the duchess passed out bars of—soap?—and began demonstrating their use. The Inquisition will think we are Jews! We will be burned!

Blubbers of confusion, yes. When the duchess insisted that they scrub their hair with some harsh and caustic substance. It would kill fleas, apparently. Such, at least, was how Gretchen interpreted her words.

But no squawls. Gretchen was forced to bellow only once. That was to stop three of the children from their gleeful play, squeezing bars of soap at each other like missiles.


When the strange ritual was over, and they were all drying themselves with marvelous soft fabrics ("towels," they were called), the duchess came up to Gretchen. She studied her for a moment, her hazel eyes ranging up and down Gretchen's body. Gretchen wondered why. She wondered even more when the duchess started shaking her head. It seemed a wry gesture, almost rueful.

The duchess spoke softly. She seemed to be talking to herself rather than Gretchen. The tone of her voice held an unusual mixture of humor and worry.

Gretchen understood some of it.

"—this problem—what to do—dirt gone, she's a damned—" Here the headshake grew very rueful. "—built like a brick—" The duchess tilted back her head and laughed. It was a gay sound. "Jeff"—something—"drop dead"—something—"sees her!"

The humor faded. Worry remained. The duchess' eyes seemed to bore into Gretchen's, as if trying to probe her soul. Or, perhaps, simply to find it.

Gretchen straightened. The existence of her soul she did not doubt. And damn this duchess if she thought it was not there!

Apparently, the duchess was satisfied. The frown of worry remained, but the rueful twist of the lips returned. Gretchen understood, without quite knowing why. The duchess' concern, whatever it was, did not involve a condemnation of Gretchen. Simply a condemnation of the world which had brought her forth.

The duchess shook her head again. Not ruefully, but almost angrily. Quick, fierce phrases were muttered. "—that young man! —him straight! —be no taking"—something; advance? adage?—"of this poor girl!"

She turned and started to stalk away. Then, catching sight of Annalise, she stopped. Gretchen's sister, coming under that royal scrutiny, shied away a step or two. Hesitantly, she lowered the towel. Her body was fully exposed. Naked, the strips of cloth gone with which Gretchen had bound her chest and hips for the past year, the truth was obvious.

But there was no Diego the Spaniard any longer, from whom that truth had to be hidden. Gretchen had sent the Spaniard back to his homeland. His true homeland, a much hotter place than Spain. Diego was squatting at Satan's feet, now, leaking blood and brains over his master's iron flagstones. Gretchen took that moment to wish eternal agony upon his shade.

There was only a duchess to see, now. Whence that duchess had come, from what homeland, Gretchen had no idea at all. But not Diego's, of that she was utterly certain.

The duchess stared at Annalise. Turned her head. Stared at Gretchen. Ranged her eyes up and down. More muttering. "—her sister soon. Already!" She stared around the room, subjecting all the younger women to a quick scrutiny. "—half of them—that matter."

Her eyes fell on the new farm girl. Now that the dirt and dried blood were gone, and the bruises were fading, the girl's body did not seem quite so shapeless. But Gretchen, unlike the duchess, did not spend any time examining the body. She was much more interested in the farm girl's face. Yes. There was light coming back into those eyes. Not much, but some. For the first time since Gretchen met her, the girl even managed a shy little smile. Yes!

If anything, however, the smile seemed to increase the duchess' obvious agitation. She threw up her hands. The gesture combined despair, exasperation, fretfulness, and—yes, still, some humor.

The duchess marched over to a metal cabinet against a far wall and opened it. Within, hanging tightly side by side, were a row of garments. Very soft-looking and luxurious. She began pulling them forth. Robes.

To the amazement of the women and children, the duchess began handing them out. Hesitantly, at first, then with cries of sheer pleasure as they felt the fabric—so soft! so soft!—they donned their new finery. They stood quietly as the duchess stumbled through an explanation. Gretchen interpreted as best she could. The new clothing would be theirs only for a time. Until their old clothing was returned, and perhaps—Gretchen was not certain, here—new clothing might be forthcoming. But they would wear the wonderful robes for a while. Until others came, others like them, who needed that same comfort.

For all the acquisitiveness of desperately poor people, Gretchen and her family accepted the news willingly enough. They were not Diego the Spaniard, after all, to take pleasure in the pain of others. Certainly not such others as those, who were not other at all.

When they emerged from the building, Jeff and his friends and the three older boys were already standing outside, waiting. The three boys were attired in nearly identical robes. And, like the women and children, their hair was damp with moisture.

Jeff's friends were still dressed as they had been. But Jeff was not. He, too, stood there in a robe, his hair wet. He seemed awkward and ill at ease, especially when he saw Gretchen emerging. His eyes looked away instantly, as soon as he got his first glimpse of her.

Gretchen studied him, at first. But, soon, the study began to transform itself into something quite different. Something much softer and less calculating. Jeff, she realized, had done the same as the duchess. Quelled the fears of others by leading himself.

Something flared, for a moment, inside Gretchen. She was so pleased that it had been him, not one of the others.

She fought down a smile. He would have been awkward, she knew. Shy, fumbling, uncertain. Boylike. Embarrassed by his nakedness, of course. But much more embarrassed by his presumption of leadership.

She could see more of his body now. The robe covered much less than the mottled battlefield gear. A boy's body. A large boy, true, with more muscle than she had realized, lurking under the plumpness. But everything about it was still soft, rounded, childish.

She cared not at all. Quite the opposite. There had been nothing childlike about Ludwig's body. The rock-hard body of an ogre. An ogre, boasting of his manly form, and proving it by the bruises he left on his woman's body.

The flare returned. A little brighter, lasting a little longer. She was puzzled by the sensation.

Finally, Jeff brought his eyes back and looked at her. Then, stared. He was seeing Gretchen for the first time, in a way. Clean of filth, clear of ruin; a woman in a robe, not a murderess on a battlefield. His eyes widened and widened.

Gretchen glanced at the duchess. She was not looking. She glanced at Jeff's three companions. Neither were they.

Quickly, surely, she began to undo the sash and allow the robe to open. The center of her body would be exposed to Jeff's gaze, from her throat down to her ankles. Everything. Breasts, belly, abdomen, pubis, thighs. Everything. Those things meant nothing to her, beyond their health and vigor. But she had seen—more often than she wanted to remember—how instantly Ludwig could be aroused by the mere sight of her flesh. Instantly and ferociously.

Midway through, something stopped her. She tried to force her fingers to complete the task. They refused. It was as if her soul was bypassing her brain, commanding her body against her will.

Why? she demanded. The family must be protected!

No answer came, because no answer was needed.

After a moment, she let her fingers fall away. Gretchen had made a promise. A silent one, true, but a promise nonetheless. She had promised to be his woman, not simply his concubine. The boy—the man—was not Ludwig. She would snare him if she could, but she would not trick him with mere flesh.

The duchess was leading them all away, now, back toward the school building. There would be food, food! For all the hunger gnawing in her stomach, Gretchen did not follow immediately. She lowered her head, closed her eyes, took a deep breath. Luxuriated, for a moment, in cleanliness and softness. Softness of the robe, softness of the body, cleanliness of the heart. Even the black substance beneath her bare feet felt clean and soft.

She raised her head and opened her eyes. She would give Jeff a smile before she went. That much her promise permitted. A simple sweet smile, with just a hint of promise.

But when she saw him, she almost grinned. No pawing bull, here, snorting with lust. Just a young man, standing like a stunned ox.

Gretchen had triumphed, she knew. She had him now, she was certain of it. Snared beyond escape. No trick had been needed after all.

The knowledge brought satisfaction. Some part of it was warm, some cold. Warm, because she had not violated her promise. Cold, because the promise itself was calculation.

Such was life in a maelstrom. Once again, Gretchen had done what was necessary to shelter her family. Shelter it well, she thought. Very well. She hardly knew Jeff at all, yet. But one thing she knew already. The childlike half-boy would provide far more shelter than anything provided by Ludwig the troll. Far, far more.

But—there was something else. The flare came back, again. That sensation was strange. But the sensation which came to take its place was not. Gretchen recognized it at once, of course, and drove it down.

Mercilessly. She had lived with sorrow for years. Why should today be any different?



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