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Chapter 17

Gretchen knew the battle was lost as soon as she heard the machine gun start to fire. She had no idea what could be making that bizarre staccato sound, but it was nothing produced by Tilly's thugs. At the age of twenty, Gretchen had already learned life's basic lesson. Expect the worst.


She felt a moment's fear and anguish for her brother. Hans, poor little Hans, was somewhere up there. Near the very front he would be, too, since Ludwig's men were considered part of the "elite," as mercenaries gauged such things.


But Gretchen thrust that concern aside. There was nothing she could do for Hans, and she had other members of her family to protect. Quickly, she scanned the area, looking for a place to hide. The enemy would be here soon, rampaging in their victory.


Her first thought was for the woods, perhaps a mile distant.


Too far. Gretchen herself would be able to make it, before the beasts arrived. Annalise, too, perhaps. But they would have to abandon most of the family. Gramma, the children, the baby, the older girl with her bad leg, the new girl with her vacant mind . . .


No. What else?


They had pitched camp near a half-burned farmhouse. Gretchen had inspected it the evening before, as a possible sleeping quarters. She had chosen the open ground, instead. The farmhouse had been long abandoned, and she did not trust the condition of the half-collapsed ceiling.


No. The monsters will look there first. What else?


Her eyes fell on a small structure, dismissed it without thought, moved on. Stopped. Came back.


Her mind shrank in her skull, like a mouse huddling in a hole. A spike of horror ran down her spine.


Still . . . 


Long abandoned. Maybe . . . 


She strode over to the outhouse. The thin walls were rickety. Several planks had fallen away. The door hung loose on leather hinges. She pried the door aside and peered in.


She checked the smell, first. Not so bad. Not used in some time.


Then, the seat. It was just as described by one of the other girls in the family, the evening before when Gretchen had sent her to investigate. The wood, with the carved hole in the center, was half-rotted away. That was why they had not used the structure. Someone might fall in.


Gretchen almost tittered a laugh. Might fall in!


Horror and nausea steeled her will. She seized the plank and heaved it up. Looked down. Sighed with relief.


Almost empty. Drained away, the most of it. The stench is horrible, but there would be enough air now.


The hole was dark, but not so dark that Gretchen couldn't see the spiders perched here and there on the walls. She recognized one of them as dangerously venomous.


There are worse things than spiders. Much worse.


Her decision made, Gretchen turned away and stuck her head out the door. A moment later she was shouting orders. The family was confused, but they obeyed instantly. Within seconds, they were clustering around the outhouse, hauling the family's possessions.


As they were handed to her, Gretchen shoved the family's tattered bedding into the hole. It would provide some protection for bare feet. For a while, anyway.


That done, she made her triage. She thought there would be room for the girls old enough to be in danger. She started with her sister Annalise, taking Wilhelm from Gramma's arms and thrusting him into her younger sister's arms.


"Take him and hide in the latrine. Now!"


Annalise turned pale. But Gretchen's scowl was not to be argued with, and she obeyed from long habit. In less than ten seconds, she was being lowered into the pit by her strong older sister. Then, reaching up her hands, she took the baby handed down to her.


She flinched from a spider, whimpering.


"Be still!" hissed Gretchen. "They won't bother you if you don't move. And don't breathe deeply."


Annalise was very pale now, obviously fighting to control her stomach. The stench was truly horrendous. But Gretchen did no more than hold her breath. She was too concerned with gauging the size of the pit to worry about anything else.


Big enough for three more, she decided. Turning away, she called out for Elisabet and Mathilde, the two girls in the group of the same age as Annalise. They squealed and shrieked but, again, Gretchen's will was not to be thwarted.


Who else?


Her eyes fell on the young farm girl who had recently been forced into the camp. The girl was not pretty, not in the least. Her face was so plain it was almost ugly, and her figure was like a sack of potatoes. But she was young—not more than sixteen—and that would be enough.


Gretchen gauged the girl, for a moment. The dazed, half-vacant look on her face convinced her. She will not survive another one. Not her mind, at least. Not this soon.


"Get in," she ordered, pointing into the latrine. The girl stared at her, uncomprehending. "Get in," Gretchen repeated. She extended her hand.


The girl finally understood. Her mouth dropped open.


"Get in." Gretchen's voice was iron with command. "It's just filth, woman. Nasty, but it won't kill you."


The girl was still gaping. "Idiot!" hissed Gretchen. "It's the only place they won't look for women."


Comprehension came, and with it terror. Trembling, the girl came into the outhouse. Her legs were barely holding her up. Gretchen was a big woman, and very strong. She took the girl under the armpits, picked her up, and lowered her into the mess. Soon enough, the task was done.


Gretchen nodded with satisfaction. "If anyone starts to raise the lid," she commanded the four girls, "lower your heads and press against the sides, as far out of sight as possible. Never mind the spiders."


To Annalise: "And make sure you cover the baby's mouth if he starts to cry or scream."


Annalise's eyes were wide. "What if . . . ?" She took a little breath through pinched nostrils. "I can't cover his face for very long. He'll suffocate."


Gretchen shook her head. "If they open the lid, it won't be for more than a second or two. Not as stinky as that is. As for the other—"


Gretchen's face was blank. "There will be so much noise up here that no one will hear a baby."


It was time. Only half of Gretchen's mind had been on the sounds of the battle, but that half now surged to the fore. The other side is winning. They will be here soon.


Quickly, almost violently, she seized the lid and wrestled it back over the latrine. The only opening in the wooden cover was a squat-hole, too small to allow any light to enter the cavity below. The four girls and the baby hidden within were quite invisible.


Satisfied that she had done what she could for them, Gretchen left the outhouse and wrestled the door back into place. Then she gave the rest of the area a quick scrutiny. The entire camp, by now, was in an uproar. Hundreds of people were shouting and screaming. Many of them were starting to flee to the north.


For a moment, Gretchen was tempted to follow them. She was young enough and in good enough health that she could reach the cover of the distant woods before the enemy soldiers arrived. But she would have to abandon her grandmother, and the others.


No.


What else?


It didn't take her more than five seconds to come up with the answer. Nothing. Survive, that's all.


The small crowd was still clustered around her. Gretchen walked off a considerable distance from the outhouse. Then she ordered the older women to take the children and gather in a circle away from the camp's tents and possessions. There, they might be relatively safe. They would be of no personal use to the soldiers, and they obviously possessed nothing beyond the rags they were wearing.


For the rest—


One of the three younger women fell to her knees and began praying. Within seconds, the others had all joined her.


Gretchen remained standing. What was the point of prayer? She did not fear for her soul. The abuse of her body would end, eventually. She needed only to shield her mind. Prayer provided no help for that purpose.


Blank, blank. She began emptying herself of all thoughts. Nothing. A last glimpse of Hans, marching fearfully into battle, a last flash of grief. Empty.


All that remained was sensation. Eyes open, staring at the small figures of men charging forward from the distance. Her ears heard their whooping and hollering, but her brain made nothing of the words.


Mostly, she focused on the tactile sense. Feeling with her fingers the small knife which Hans had stolen for her many months ago. The knife was hidden away in her bodice, in a sheath under her armpit which she had sewn herself. The soldiers would not look there. They would not even bother to remove the dress.


The feel of the knife brought final emptiness. As she waited, Gretchen never thought once of suicide. She would survive, if at all possible. But the knife was there, should it be needed. If the soldiers—they were nearer now, much nearer—threatened her very life. Gretchen had long ago decided she would not leave this earth without taking a devil with her into the afterlife.


* * *


It was the comfort of that knife, perhaps, which kept her mind blank for so many seconds after wonder appeared. Or, perhaps, it was simply the peculiarity of the wonder itself.


Gretchen had heard, once, a tale of knights in shining armor. Her grandfather had read her a story from a borrowed book. She had been ten years old. The war had just begun, and was only a rumor out of mad Bohemia. Yet even at that age, Gretchen had thought the tale was ludicrous.


She did not believe in knights. Armed and armored beasts, yes. Knights, no.


So it was hardly surprising that she found nothing strange in the four bizarrely costumed boys who raced toward her on the most bizarre—and noisy—contraptions she had ever seen. Nothing.


Devils, perhaps. She was not afraid of devils.


She fingered the knife.


 


 


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