It wasn't the buzzing of the blinding fluorescent lights above that awoke him; it wasn't the dead rain splattering onto the window across the room, nor was it the voices at his bedside who clearly knew nothing about whispering. His face stirred, his arm shifted above the white sheet outlining his still frame. Somewhere, the ticking of a clock quivered to his ears and a blanch rank climbed up his nostrils. He wanted to clog up his nose and cough and hack, but his body lay there, unresponsive.
"I just got here; how long has he been like this?"
"Since about a week ago, when they brought him in. These 'doctors' performed another surgery on him last night..."
"That's the third one...!"
"Did they even say what happened? Has anyone been able to contact his family?"
His fingers twitched ever so slightly, the muscles limp. The voices, how familiar they sounded! The three continued their banter and went on to demand a doctor to speak to them. He could barely grasp their names before they slipped through the cracks of his mind. What had happened, what brought him here? Those questions and many more raced around his head. The rain became louder, tapping the glass in a strange, rhythmic manner, drowning out all noise. It poured into his memories, bringing afloat images of his home in Rathenow and a calloused hand reaching towards him. They flashed before his shut eyes, soon dissipating into the darkness as a tattered, ringing picture was brought up. A blurred face hovered over him, screaming his name...
~ ~ ~
By the time the unit had finally freed themselves from the clutches of the forest and its culprits, September was only days from ending. However, it didn't matter what day it was; it could have been the new year and they wouldn't have batted an eyelash. Due to Volk and Meine's diligence, the resistance's attacks were disrupted with concentrated fire from the snipers, who lay unnoticed by the rebels. For the next two days, a fixed smile lay on every man's face as they marched down the road and towards the department of Isère. There they were met with fixed glares and scowls by the farmers and their children, some of whom shook their spades and sickles menacingly before their portly mothers shooed them inside. The fathers merely glared at the savage invaders but made no gesture to harm or curse. Whatever kept the crops from going up in flames was fine by them.
The city of Voiron was no different from the farms. From a distance, the citizens watched in silent desperation as the soldiers stopped just feet from their home and took their precious time setting up camp. Some expected the mayor to come out and force them away from his town, but their hopes slipped through their fingers like sand. Meine struggled to ignore the hundreds of pairs of eyes glued to him and his friends, judging their every move and breath. Max and Emmerich didn't seem to notice and went on as if they were back home, while the others shared mixed feelings.
Meine removed his tornister and placed it amongst his weapon and other belongings. It was mid-morning, and the dew glistening across the grass looked to be a small sea for the Gulliver soldiers to wade in. Amongst the countless tents, the men were prepping themselves for the coming day, slapping military-brand shaving cream on their faces and awaiting orders from Kappel. Across from Meine, Max fumbled around on all-fours out of his tent, feeling around for a stool or crate to help him to his knees. One eye was barely cracked open; waking up never was his strong suit. Meine smiled at his friend's infant-like attempts to reach for air before walking over to get him to his feet. However, in seconds he found himself jerked to the ground as Max grabbed the hem of his tunic and pulled with both hands. A muffled 'oof!' freed itself from Meine as he collapsed over his friend, lying sprawled and out of breath.
Emmerich peered out from a corner, pressing his towel into a cut on his chin. "The sleeping beauty awakes at last! Have another dream about the Luftwaffe rejecting you?"
Max looked to his cousin, smirking. "Actually, I was dreaming about that most extravagant blonde you have back home! What was her name, Alena?"
"Here's an idea. Dream about her tonight and include me punching your head off." Emmerich pulled the towel away and wiped the scarce cream from his face. "Hurry it up and get ready, Kappel wants us before the captain in half an hour."
Groaning, Max rubbed his eyes and turned his head, nearly taken aback at the sight. "Meine! When did you get here?"
"I... ah, never mind..." Meine pushed himself up and on his knees, watching in mild interest at his comrades slicing away the fuzzy whiskers upon their faces. He put a hand to his own cheek, and with a frown caressed the smooth, bare surface. How he envied his allies; why were they blessed to groom and snip those majestic rugs while his face was left defenseless?
Behind them, Chaplain Ritter appeared down the aisle, a slice of bread between his teeth as he fought to place his officer's cap perfectly on his head. The three friends watched, amused at this now daily routine. The poor man could never get the visor to stay in one place; it was as if the blasted thing had a mind of its own, casting down over his eyes or the back of his head.
"Good morning, sir
!" Meine hopped to his feet and waved.
Turning his head, a big smile came upon Ritter's face and he waved back. He removed the bread and dropped it into his breast pocket. "And a wonderful morning to you boys. Still in the thick of waking up, are we?"
"Some more than others, Father," said Emmerich, scratching away dried blood. "Maybe you could give my cousin some advice?"
"If I did, I would. Back home, it was a miracle to get the blanket away from me," Ritter chuckled. "I've actually been awake for about two hours."
Max's head shot up. "It's not even seven in the morning, and reveille wasn't even fifteen minutes ago."
"I like to get a head start on the day, Herr Hexenkopf. While you were all fast asleep, Paul and I were making sure today's events would go smoothly."
"Who the he
heck is Paul?" Max managed to stand and slipped on his tunic.
Ritter's face shaded pink with embarrassment. "Oh, my deepest apologies! Paul is the captain, but he doesn't like it when his men find out his real name; it's really more of a pet peeve, I suspect."
Max's eyes flashed and he grinned. "Aha, so our famed captain does have a first name! Any chance you can accidentally spill his last name?"
!" Ritter waved a finger, frowning. "The good captain disclosed that sort of information to me, and I will do no such betrayal to my friend. Shame on you."
Emmerich laughed slightly. "Forgive us, sir. For as long as we've known him, Smoke has kept his name from everyone, even Kappel."
"And a secret it will stay, my son. Come now, waste no more time when you could be getting ready! Hurry, now."
~ ~ ~
After a few encouraging threats from their feared feldwebel, the entire company stood in four ranks, still and hushed. Smoke stood alongside Barth and Ambros, the german shepherd impatiently sitting in the passenger seat of the jeep while the unlucky adjutant was handed the leash. With stern and piercing eyes, Martin marched up and down the ranks before halting to the left as Smoke approached the men, a small sheet of paper gripped between his fingers.
"At ease, men," said Smoke, clearing his throat, "Last night, Major Lange had informed me that he and his division were stationed just outside of
" He pulled out a sheet of paper and held it away from his face. "Outside of Saint-Étienne, about twelve miles from our position. Orders have come from our superiors that we are to join up with his division and head back east, to the Crimean Peninsula. There, we join the Sixth Army and push into Soviet Russia."
There was a quick exchange of glances among the men.
"However," Smoke continued, "Before we are to rendezvous with the major, we have been granted the chance to catch some well-deserved rest
I talked it over with him, and he has agreed to grant us two days of leave, in a way."
Martin stepped forward. "Listen up, morons. If you have so much as a thought of running willy-nilly up in some woman's skirt, I'll rip you into so many shreds your own mother won't recognize you."
"Too late," Max muttered to Meine.
"You will all follow proper etiquette to the people of Voiron, regardless of their attitude towards us. No soldier will be alone; you will travel in groups of three or more, got it? The enemy could be waiting for an opportunity to take us out if they spot so much as one stray soldier." Martin took a step closer, lowering his voice slightly. "If you feel like you're being watched, even in the slightest, you report to the captain, Barth, or me. If that happens, you all return to camp until further instructions. Curfew is 1900 hours." He stepped back, straightening out his tunic. "If there are no questions, put on some fresh clothes and standby for my inspection; you all reek worse than a pigsty."
With a proud 'Jawohl', the men hurried off to their tasks. Among them was Ritter, who had been listening while standing beside the still-damaged Kübelwagen. He waited for the crowd to thin before he began to make his way back to his tent when Smoke called out, "A moment, Father!"
Ritter turned. "Yes
"If it's not too much, we need to have a word in my tent."
"Of course, Captain. Is something the matter?"
"Not at all," said Smoke as he led Ritter back to the tent, with Ambros dragging Barth along in tow. Once inside, Smoke walked to a small table and grabbed a Walther P38 in its holster, cradling it in his hands as if it were a fragile object. Ritter's mouth twisted in confusion as he stared at the weapon, unsure of what to say.
"For your own protection, Father," said the captain, placing the holstered pistol into the chaplain's hands.
With lightning reflexes, Ritter shoved the weapon back towards Smoke, acting as if the thing was set ablaze. "Forgive me, sir, but I will do no such thing. Carrying
that goes against all I have practiced. You might as well give it to someone who needs it."
"And that someone is you, Father. I don't think the French will care if you're a man of God; they want us dead. Don't make me order you
Ritter folded his arms across his chest. "Then I will take that risk. I refuse to break an oath I made to our lord just to save my own skin."
"You're pushing it, Adolph." Smoke stepped forward. "We've lost more than enough men to these people, and I'm not going to lose another. You wear this, or I'll have armed guards following you. It's your choice."
"I don't see why I'm the only one who is being forced to carry a weapon."
"The men are soldiers, and the citizens won't try to pick a fight with them. They have that essence around them. You, on the other hand
" Smoke cleared his throat.
"I'm what?" Ritter frowned.
"No offense, Father, but you're not intimidating. At all." Clearing his throat once more, he walked to Ritter's side and slapped the holster onto the belt. "This stays on until I say so, no exceptions. Any questions?"
~ ~ ~
Meine stuck close to Max and Ambros as the trio made their way through the streets, averting the stares and gazes from the citizens. This time, they were stares of curiosity, as children and women peered from the corners and windows of houses at the strangers. It somewhat calmed the young soldier and he offered a wave to them. He nearly beamed when they waved back.
"It's neat and all," said Max, pushing back his field cap, "but I wouldn't say it's better than Munich."
"You don't think any place is better than Munich."
"Well, it's true. You said you were there, so you know that nothing can top that city."
Meine smiled. "I don't know
I think that New
New York City is pretty! I saw some pictures of it at night, with the big green lady holding her torch
"She's only there so the place won't look so ugly, and what's with you, talking about those stupid Yankees? Show some German pride, will you?" Max playfully shoved Meine, almost knocking him flat on the ground.
Meine regained his balance and took a moment to brush himself off. "I have a lot of pride, you know that! I
" he fell silent, coughing. "C-come on."
Max turned his head, frowning. "What's got you b
" he looked ahead, seeing Volk walking alongside Armin and a hefty soldier by the name of Himmelstoss. Volk stopped, looking towards the two friends. Max glanced to Meine's side, watching as he slunk backwards, his face paling. He looked back to Volk, their eyes locking. Since training, Volk had that presence about him, the kind that could make anyone to basically bow down and lick his boots. Max, however, wouldn't grace him with a spit to the face.
He watched as the group vanished down the street before turning to Meine. "You okay?"
A few seconds passed before Meine spoke. "Y-yeah
! I'm fine, why wouldn't I?"
"I could list a few reasons here and there." Max shrugged. "I'm no detective, but it sure looks like something's going on."
"Everything's fine, I already told you." He frowned slightly.
Sardonically, Max grinned and said, "Oh, is this your attempt at lying? If it is, then bravo!" He flicked Meine on the forehead. "You hide secrets worse than a poor man hides a new pair of shoes. Every time Volk flaunts close by, you scurry off! What the hell is with you?"
"I s-said it's nothing!" Meine kept himself from shouting, gripping his tunic. "Now drop it
"Not until I get the damn truth. You have been like this ever since he came back, and I want to know right here, right now. You returned looking like you were in a fight, and you didn't say anything about it."
Meine lurched back, scowling. "It's no
none of your business, Max. Volk did nothing to me."
"Good, then you won't mind telling me what the problem is!" He took Meine by the shoulder, guiding him to an arched doorway. "Quit acting like we just met; you know damn well you can tell me anything, remember?"
"I know, I
" Meine's stomach twisted, his knees burning. "M-Max, I
" his voice was barely audible.
Max leaned in. "What happened."
Meine had to grab Max's arms to hold himself up. In a hoarse whisper, he uttered the events of that night, of the British soldiers, and of Volk's brutality. Each word was a punch to his body, and the fear of Volk coming upon them nearly made the soldier collapse. When he finished, Max calmly pushed him away, yet Meine could see the fury swimming in his eyes.
Meine gripped his arms. "Don't do anything, please
Don't s-start anything! You don't know what he's c-capable of. No fights."
To his shock, Max simply smirked. "Hey now, I wouldn't endanger my little buddy like that. Your secret's safe with me, okay?" He patted Meine on the shoulder. "Now, we have some free time, so let's go spend it like we should! I wouldn't mind getting some actual food."
~ ~ ~
If there was ever a place to fill Ritter with awe, it was Voiron. No, it was all of France. The vast buildings were nothing short of fascinating; oh, to be alive during the time of the architects who brought them to life! He painted a mental portrait of all that he saw, preparing the tale he would write to his brothers at the church. There was only so much the soldiers could unveil to their loved ones; it was almost a crime to keep the dangers hidden.
His eyes would fall upon the pistol holstered on his belt, and his broad smile faltered. He had never handled a weapon before up until now, even when he had volunteered for the Great War. The weight of the pistol was a boulder tied around his waist, fire and brimstone flaring against his skin. He shoved his arm in front of the weapon, as if hoping to hide it from the public and himself.
A thundering series of clangs nearly struck him to the ground. Bewildered, he looked up, mouth agape at the majestic cathedral of St. Bruno's church. It took him moments to regain his composure, licking his lips, pushing up his glasses, and adjusting the officer's cap. There it stood, a monolith of unknown beauty, gripping the chaplain by the heart. A fellow priest at the Frauenkirche, Hans Falkenwrath, had done extensive research on the cathedral, enticing his friends with the history of how it was constructed in the later 19th century. Ritter now knew why dear Hans was so admiring of it.
A door was propped open and Ritter entered, a light breeze drifting past his legs. Stone columns and glimmering chandeliers guided down the aisle to the pulpit and the breathtaking stained glass appearing before him, a massive candelabrum hanging in the center of the apse. In the pew closest to him he saw three young men, their heads bowed down, murmuring in their mother tongue. With the exception of them and a single elder sitting at the front, the church was empty. Ritter slipped his cap off and smoothed down his hair before walking down the aisle. His attempt at silence was felled at the booming of his jackboots, the hobnails clacking against the stone flooring. The three men looked up in annoyance, but quickly looked back down at the sight of the Wehrmacht uniform. Ritter winced at the noise, bolstering himself on his tiptoes for the rest of the walk. He stopped at the apse, pushing his spectacles up again.
"Merveilleux, is it not?"
Ritter started at the raspy voice, turning his head. The wrinkled man rose from his seat, his black cassock fluttering with every motion. Had Ritter been in his younger years, he would have mistaken the man for Methuselah.
The chaplain gave a small smile and nodded, slipping to his French. "Indeed, my good man. If I hadn't known better, I would be in envy of the beauty of this church."
The elder's body shook as he chuckled. "In here holds no beauty, only praise to our lord." His light eyes looked Ritter up and down. "Ah, I see you have also sided with His Holiness
Ritter pushed away the uncertainty in the man's tone, nodding once again. "And I will stay by his side until the end of my days. Here, let us sit
" He carefully helped the man back to the pew and set him down.
"Ah, thank you, thank you," said the elder as Ritter eased himself into the bench. His voice turned solemn, sitting upright. "I had prayed day and night to not see the army of Hitler come to my home, and now it seems He has other plans. A dark day has fallen."
Ritter slightly looked behind him, seeing the three men begin to stand. He looked back to the elder. "I assure you, we will cause no harm to your town, my friend. We are only here to rest up before moving out."
The amity in the elder's voice vanished. "We can only hope." He ran a decrepit hand through his thinning hair. "I will not lie, I was surprised to see a man of God within the ranks of the Germans."
Ritter's hand crept towards his cross. "And why is that?"
"It shows that your people aren't complete monsters."
Ritter's teeth bit into his tongue, holding back a mouthful of comebacks. 'Speak for yourself, your people aren't so pure themselves' crashed into the barrier, along with stories of the resistance seeping fear into his comrades' minds. Instead, he focused his sights on the grand chandelier, his shoulders growing tense.
Eyes darkening, the priest continued. "Your arrival into my homeland has brought nothing but trouble for my people."
"Our Führer only wished to undo the travesty that your leader cursed us with at Versailles, my friend." Ritter felt his patience burning away. "I did not come out here to help our leader fight a war, I came here to make sure the men risking their lives are safe and are atoned for their sins."
The doubt in the elder's voice smacked Ritter across the face. "You could have convinced me otherwise."
Ritter shifted in his seat, his stomach knotting. This ancient was baiting him, trying to goad him into showing the now infamous German pride and thrust his hand into the air. He pulled forth a small pocket watch, tapping the glass with a finger. A quarter to five o'clock. He snapped the watch shut and rose to his feet.
"I dearly apologize, but I must be getting on my way... I'm afraid I haven't had anything to eat since this morning." He adjusted his glasses, clearing his throat. "It was a pleasure meeting you, ah... Forgive me, I didn't catch your name."
"No need to remember it, my good man." The elder stood as well before Ritter could speak. "I mustn't keep you any longer. Go, go."
"Yes, thank you..." Bowing his head slightly, the chaplain clicked his way down the aisle, seeing the door still creaked open. He smiled, rehearsing the letter he would write to Hans and the others back in Munich. Hopefully he could find a decent artist within the unit who could sketch out the church's interior.
He looked up, faltering in his footsteps. The door shut itself, the sound bouncing against his body. He narrowed his eyes, looking to the elder. To his surprise, the ancient was just as confused as he was. Ritter quickened his pace and gripped the massive doorknob, grunting as his arms struggled to pull it open.
"What's going on...?" The elder began to make his way over, using the pews as support.
Ritter's face flustered, pushing his glasses up. "I... er, I'm not sure... Is there another way out?"
"In the back, I think, bu..."
Silence. Ritter frowned and swung around. "But wh..."
The elder priest was replaced with a young man, no older than sixteen. It was one of the men praying earlier, sitting closest to Ritter. A sudden blow slammed Ritter against the thick wood, screaming paralysis biting his bones. A bony grip clenched his tunic as another hand jerked the pistol out of the holster. The young man's eyes flashed an ounce of pity before he drove the weapon's grip frame into the chaplain's head, letting go and watching the limp body tumble to the floor.