Max and Meine sat propped on a bridge overlooking the Morge River, their mouths stuffed with a fresh baguette, their eyes upward to the rosy sky. Ambros was beneath their feet, his bushy tail smacking the bridge's wall while he dreamt about the day's adventures and the strangers they encountered. To them, the bread was a feast in comparison to their mess tins; there were days when the rations were a mystery and offered more indigestion than a full belly. Had Martin been lenient, they could have slipped it into their bags and savored the meal for later days. However, they remembered too well of the last person to try and sneak prohibited food into their belongings: Martin stripped him to his underclothes and boots and had him run laps around the entire training base in the middle of winter.
Meine rubbed the back of his neck before speaking, his eyes wandering. "What do you think the east will be like? Fighting-wise?"
Max took a large bite of his bread and shrugged. "Ha'to tell." He swallowed and wiped his mouth. "Smoke said we'd be with the Sixth Army, and Volk said they're pushing their way into bear territory. From what I've been hearing, Soviets aren't putting up much of a fight, sooo
" He drummed his fingers on his knee. "I'm guessing we'll be fine! Give us a few Panzers, air raids and the like, and it'll be smooth sailing. We'll be home before Christmas!"
A faint smile lit up on Meine's face as he nibbled on the crust. "You think so?"
"I know so. I'll make a deal with you," said Max, grinning. "If I'm right, and I usually am, you have to come to my house and spend Christmas with me and my family."
The smile grew. "And
if you're wrong?"
hm." Max tapped his chin. "Then
I'll owe you a big debt, how about that? Whatever you want, I'll do it."
"Great, so we're set!" Max picked out a small chunk of the bread and popped it in his mouth, looking back at the sky. "We should probably be heading back before Kappel hunts us down."
Nodding, Meine hopped from his seat and grabbed Ambros's leash, nearly falling flat to his face as the dog launched himself up and in an aimless direction. It took both men to anchor the pup, catching unwanted attention from the amused citizens.
~ ~ ~
"Est il mort?"
"Non, il est simplement sans connaissance."
Ritter's face twisted, his eyelids wrinkling as a hoarse moan broke past his lips. His fingers shuddered against the cool floor, retreating towards his palm. A quaking pain throbbed in his head, a lukewarm substance trickling down his face. Blearily, his eyes opened, welcoming him to an obscure world filled with fading silhouettes towering over the chaplain. He moved a stiff arm to his eyes, fingertips brushing the bridge of his nose. His glasses! His body turned tense and frantically felt around for his glasses, slapping at the stone floor when his hand grasped the sharp end of a leather boot.
He was suddenly pulled to his feet and shoved into the pew, his back screaming upon impact. Teeth clenched, he held in a yelp and gulped, feeling the lump sink down his throat.
The figure closest to him leaned over, slipping his spectacles over his face. It was the young man, with Ritter's pistol tucked behind his oversized belt. Ritter shut his eyes, the throbbing in his head storming. He moaned again before opening his eyes, his blood chilling at the men surrounding him, a weapon in each hand. The elder priest had disappeared, locked in the sacristy.
Licking his chapped lips, Ritter said, "You... you can't..."
The oldest of the men stepped forward, rolling up a shirt sleeve. "I wouldn't try that holy nonsense on us, Kraut. You lost that right when you entered bearing arms."
"It..." Ritter fell silent, biting his tongue. "It was merely for protection. Release me, and I will never speak of this."
"Like how you never spoke of the atrocities your people caused us?" It was the younger man to talk, placing the barrel of the pistol into Ritter's temple. "I lost my home and brother because of you... abominations! I'll...!" His sentence fell short when the oldest man pulled him away to the corner, hissing a few words before walking back to Ritter.
"You claim to be a man of God, because you wear the cross of the Catholic Church? Insulting." The oldest grabbed Ritter's chin, preventing him from looking away. "If you truly see yourself as God's servant, then you will gladly do anything for him?"
Ritter said nothing.
"We'll just say 'yes' to that, then." He stepped back, jerking Ritter's face away and rubbing his hand on his shirt. "My men are hidden amongst this city and awaiting my instructions. On my order, they'll fire upon your men, slaughtering them like the animals they are... Unless."
"What...?" The lump in his throat was returning.
The man gestured over to the third man wearing a large overcoat, a few lumps appearing in the chest and side area. As if on cue, he removed the coat, revealing a bandolier lined with British grenades, the pins tied with string leading to his left hand. The color seeped from Ritter's face, his stomach winding into an unbreakable knot.
The older man continued to speak calmly, taking a seat beside the chaplain. "It's beginning to seem our attacks on your people aren't as effective as we had thought. You take one soldier out, two more take his place. You take an officer out, he's replaced with another pompous ass. Men of God, however
" He gripped the cross around Ritter's neck and began to play with it. "Men of God are unique, my good man. One dies, and the faith and courage from your men fall. Morale goes down the shitter."
"If you are moving to say something, say it." Ritter's eyes narrowed, his fingers pressing into the oak pew.
"So there is a backbone, good." He chuckled. "Here's the thing: you give us the information we need, and we'll consider granting you to the privilege of not becoming a martyr. You will do exactly what we say. Refuse and your group won't even get a shallow grave."
"If you're looking for secret attacks, I can assure you I know nothing of them."
"No, no, no. Your officers aren't that stupid as to divulge that important of information to a priest!" He slipped a hand around Ritter's shoulders, bringing his face close.
Ritter's face nearly turned pale as the man's smile vanished. "I want your snipers."
~ ~ ~
Meine and Max stopped, turning back at the voice. Emmerich and Armin came running towards them, slowing down to a fast walk. As they got closer, Meine found a map of distress upon their faces mixed with exhaustion.
Max frowned, stepping forward. "What is it? Did Himmelstoss fall on his ass again?"
"We have a problem, Max," said Armin. "Volk and Vogel spotted a crate of weapons hidden behind a building, German weapons."
"What?" Max became alert. "Where?"
"I don't know, but they're telling everyone to head back to the camp. We found just about everyone
" Emmerich took in a deep breath.
Meine gripped the hem of his tunic. "'Just about'?"
"We can't find the chaplain. Armin went back to the camp and he was nowhere to be found earlier. Vogel went to inform Smoke and Kappel."
Meine looked at Max, then to Emmerich. "We saw him head into the church this afternoon, that one
" He pointed to St. Bruno's church across the street, spotting a man leaning against the doors, smoking. He suddenly looked in their direction, dropping his cigarette in the process. The man jerked his hat to shadow his eyes and hurried down the steps, vanishing into a nearby building.
Armin frowned. "If that's not suspicious, I sure as hell don't want to know what is."
"I'll bet anything those frogs are holed up around here
Max, you take Meine and look around the church. Armin and I will check the places down the road. Don't try to be a hero and run headlong into gunfire."
With Ambros already sniffing the new surroundings, Max and Meine moved down the walls of the church, looking behind them every other minute for any unwanted attention. They arrived at the rear of the building, their suspense dashed as they found nothing more than a few weeds and bramble bushes.
"I think we have bad luck
" Max rubbed the back of his head. He scowled. "That ass Vogel probably made the whole thing up!"
"What about Volk?" said Meine.
"Who knows? Ritter is probably already back at camp as we speak." He began to turn. "I'm going to
Meine pushed the bramble branches away, taking notice of the thorns. "Going to what
" His ability to speak diminished as he looked to Max, his eyes instead falling upon the barrel of a weapon pointed at their faces. A young man with sandy hair stood in front of them, pulling the hammer back, his index rubbing the trigger.
"Sur vos genoux," said the boy, gesturing downwards.
Meine glanced at Max, whimpering quietly. Max merely nodded before falling to his knees. Meine followed suit, the barrel casting an iron grip over his heart. Neither moved as the boy frisked them down, pressing the weapon into their jugular when padded down. The boy stood, almost disappointed he emerged empty-handed.
He looked to Meine. "Vers le haut de, Allemand."
The French language was utter nonsense to Meine; he didn't move. Angrily, the boy roughly pulled him up, gripping a handful of the soldier's hair. "Âne stupide!" He screamed into Meine's face, shaking and shoving him aside. Ambros's fur bristled, his jowls trembling as he snarled towards the French man, ears flat against his head. However, one quick kick his way sent the dog running, vanishing. He muttered something before fixating his eyes fixated on Max, as if seeing into his soul and thoughts. Max remained still, staring back at the boy with a stonewall glare. The young man moved as if to step back, then swung the pistol, striking Max in the back of the head with a loud crack. A sharp gasp flew out of Meine as he could only watch in horror as his friend collapsed to the earth, limp.
The boy whipped the pistol over to Meine, digging it under his chin. His German was atrocious. "You... with... me."
~ ~ ~
Fear splashed in Ritter's eyes as he watched his captors shove Meine to the leader and drop Max like a sack of potatoes. The leader paced around Meine as he bit into an apple, smacking his lips with each chew. Meine's eyes locked with Ritter's and he shuddered, as if begging the priest to help him. A pang of guilt stabbed into Ritter's soul as he weakly shook his head.
"Not what we were looking for, but it'll do," said the leader, wiping juices running down his chin and rubbing it in Meine's hair. "Gaspard, does either of these two soldiers look familiar?"
Gaspard, the boy, stepped forward and studied their faces. Ritter could tell he wanted to say yes just so they could be shot, but Gaspard said, "No, Adrien. They're not the snipers."
Adrien sighed. "We almost got lucky, damn." He knelt beside Meine, smirking as he pat his cheek. He switched to German, the fluency catching the soldier by surprise. "Do you understand French?"
Adrien stared at him, then burst into laughter. He put a hand to his stomach. "Sir! That's a new one, boy!" He clapped Meine on the back. "Oooh, I like you, boy. You're funny. You could learn a thing or two from this one, Gaspard!"
Gaspard sneered and turned away, kicking at the pew's feet.
"You'll have to forgive the boy; his brother was shot some time ago by your snipers. If you can be as so kind as to hand them over, we can forget this ever happened!" Adrien chuckled and patted his cheek again.
Had Meine sported thicker arms, he would have punched Adrien in the face. Rather, he averted his gaze over to Max, who laid still, a small gash trickling blood out of his head. He then saw the man wearing the belt of grenades with the bits of string attached and his heart thudded against his ribs.
"Now, how about you be a good little boy and tell us who your snipers are."
Meine shook his head. "M-my loyalty isn't to you."
Adrien's smile dissipated. In a flash he pinned Meine to the ground, unsheathing a knife and pressing the blade under his eye. "That was not the answer I was looking for, little boy. Unless you don't want your precious eyes sent back to your mother, you will give me what I want."
Ritter shot up. "Don't you dare harm him!" The sudden movement caused a small stumble, but he shook it off, glaring at Adrien. "You have done enough damage here."
"Sit down, you fool...!" Gaspard grabbed his arm. "We won't hesitate to kill you, so sit down and keep your mouth shut!"
Ritter opened his mouth to speak when a man emerged from out of the narthex, a MP 40 slung over his shoulder. He ran to Adrien and spoke in hushed whispers, jerking his thumb towards the entrance. Adrien's large brows furrowed and he looked to Ritter, then to Meine. He gestured to the doors and whispered back before dismissing him.
"Gaspard, you stay here. Turns out our little act caught the attention of the whole damn company," scoffed Adrien. He walked over and grabbed a burlap sack behind the pulpit. "Jean and I will be right back. Don't fuck anything up."
Jean slipped the belt off and put it against the wall before following Adrien towards the narthex and disappearing into the shadows. Ritter and Meine looked to one another, then to Gaspard, who paced around the room now, cradling the pistol.
"Gaspard." Ritter pushed himself up, freezing when the boy swung around and just about chucked the weapon at his head. "Gaspard, just... just listen to me for a minute."
"You were told to sit down, fool. Are you deaf?"
"Put the weapon down, please... These two and I are of no threat to you. What you are doing is wrong."
"What I'm doing is getting payback for what I lost!" The pistol shook in his paling grip, hot tears forming in his dark eyes. "He wasn't even part of the resistance, but you still shot him. Your killers shot an innocent person!"
"I am truly sorry for that... but, killing us or our friends will not bring him back. It will not bring justice..." Ritter risked a step forward, keeping his hands out. "You don't belong with these people; go home to your family."
Gaspard's eyes flashed with rage. "I am not a child, and I am not going home until the blood of your snipers has been spilled by my hand!"
Meine kept his eyes on Gaspard, putting a hand over the small cut under his eye. He pitied the boy; what he was before had to have been a complete memory, a spirit in the past. Inside, his mind, a small voice pushed him to speak out and reveal he was one of the shooters, while another yelled to keep his identity a secret.
He has a right to know, you must tell.
You know he'll kill you if he finds out. Let him suffer; it's what he deserves.
"And what will killing them bring, Gaspard? You are risking your life for an attack that could cost your mother two sons instead of one!" Ritter's cry snapped Meine from his thoughts. "You must stop this madness and leave. Your so-called leader is doing nothing more than leading you to a death trap. He is blind."
"My mother would want this!" Gaspard's shouts bounced off the walls, tears streaming from his eyes. "She would want me to find those responsible
Ritter took another step forward. "Then your mother is thinking only of herself."
"Adrien has clouded your vision; he wants to make it so he has you under his strings! Whatever he says, you obey. Do not become a puppet to his will, Gaspard. Put the gun down and go home. I promise you, I will do everything in my power to make it so the unit will not harm you." Ritter was within feet of the boy and held out a hand. "You have my word as a servant to God."
A sudden burst of gunfire echoed into the church. Gaspard's grip faltered on the pistol and it hit the floor with a loud thud. Ritter barely had time to move when a loud pounding came from the door, followed by a mess of voices seeping into the room. Adrien surfaced from the darkness along with Jean and the other man, his outcries directed at the Germans piercing all ears. He pushed past Ritter and Gaspard, grabbing the grenade belt and throwing it upon Jean.
"What's going on, what happened?" Gaspard looked to the door.
"The head of the snake appeared, looking for his missing men. Jean tried to take him out but was spotted by a soldier! They're trying to break in here now." Adrien picked up the pistol, stuffing it into his belt. "We're having a change of plans. If they get in here, we're dead."
"So we leave! We can use the back door and get out before they find us."
"Not a chance, boy. We saw them moving to the back." Adrien flinched as the banging began to vibrate the doors. "Jean, the chaplain!"
A thick arm wrapped around Ritter's neck, the grenades digging into his back. Meine jumped up to try and help his friend, but Adrien smacked him down with a blow to his stomach. He curled up on the stone floor, spittle flying out as he cried for air. The arm tightened around Ritter's neck, lifting his feet off the floor.
"Adrien, what are you doing!" Gaspard clenched his fists.
"I'm doing what is right, boy. Desperate times mean desperate measures." Adrien grabbed the front of his shirt, yanking him close. "If they want their men, they're getting their men, but they're not taking us."
you're going to kill us along with them?" Gaspard turned pale. "W-we can turn ourselves in! We can negotiate
"This is war, you stupid ass! We were not the first to shed blood; they were." Adrien took out an MP 35 from the burlap sack, shoving it into his arms. "You want revenge, and you'll be getting it."
"No! Get behind the pulpit and wait until they come in!" He took the boy by the arm, pushing him forward. He turned to the door and yelled, "We have your men and we will shoot them!"
Smoke's voice boomed through the thick wood. "You have one chance to release them, or you will all be executed! I suggest taking it!"
"Do what he says," gasped Ritter. "I can convince him to pardon you all..."
"Adrien, do it...!" Gaspard cried.
"You want your killers? Come in here and get them yourselves!" A twisted smirk played on Adrien's face. "We will never fall to your hands!"
Max hoarsely groaned, sluggishly rolling to his back. This caused Jean to loosen his grip on Ritter and a swift boot cracked into his knee. Ritter stumbled away from his holder and charged, coiling both hands around Adrien's arm, wrestling to grab the pistol. However, Adrien proved to be more of a challenge than expected, punching Ritter on the bridge of his nose, a sickening crack filling the air. The chaplain fell backwards, stunned, blood pouring from his nostrils.
"S-sir!" Meine scrambled over to Ritter, but was dragged away by Jean, pinning him against the floor with his foot.
The door began to splinter. Adrien swore and brought Ritter to his feet, pressing the barrel into his temple. "Come in if you dare! Jean, maintenant!"
There was a cracking roar as the door was finally felled, multiple silhouettes rushing towards the opening. Adrien screamed, moving the pistol in their direction and firing. Two rounds bore through the dust, one entering his chest, the other in the shoulder. Eyes wide, Adrien plummeted to the floor, staring at Ritter. The chaplain dove between a row of pews, hands over his head, sputtering blood from his mouth. The man with the MP 40 returned fire, but soon slumped over the bench as a precise shot struck his throat. The smell of gunpowder sifted up Ritter's bloodied nose, viciously clinging to the walls. The firing was like a banshee, tearing into his eardrums. He pressed himself into the pew, teeth gritting, body trembling. Never more had he wanted to be back in Germany, back in his bed, waking up to a beautiful morning with no worries. Lord, make this stop! Please, I beg of you, his mind screeched.
His prayers were answered, as all sound fell absent. He craned his head up, his bloody nose forgotten. Inching his way up, he found himself face-to-face with Smoke, who instantly embraced the chaplain with open arms. "Thank God you're safe, Adolph!" he cried, pulling away. "We were afraid they finished you off..."
"I..." Ritter's throat was dry as a desert. His eyes turned to the bullet-ridden battlefield, seeing Jean and Gaspard sprawled on the ground, limp. Meine was beside Max, who had finally come to and shielded his friend from any stray rounds. Neither were harmed. The stone pillars and stained glass remained silent to their wounds. He wobbled over towards Gaspard, seeing two bullets in his shoulder blades, one in his back; he was trying to flee. He put two fingers on Gaspard's neck, praying for any sign of a pulse. What was ten seconds passed by like an eternity until a faint throb hit his fingers, followed by another and another.
"He's alive...!" Ritter croaked, fiercely waving Smoke to his side. "We n-need to radio in an ambulance, now."
"Already got that taken care of... Those frogs got one of the boys in the leg earlier." Smoke looked up. "Steinmann, Hexenkopf, you two okay?"
"I've felt better, sir," said Max, rubbing his head. "How'd you guys find us?"
Martin stepped forward. "Fahn and your cousin saw Ambros bolting from behind this place and saw you were missing. That mutt saved your life, as far as I'm concerned."
"We should probably get someone to check you out, your nose might be broken..." Smoke gently pushed up Ritter's head, pulling out his handkerchief and placing it under his nostrils. "Might have to get your head looked at, too."
"There's a priest locked in... in the sacristy. P-Paul, I'm fine. They're just scratches..."
"Scratches my foot. I'm not taking any chances, Adolph. Martin, make su..."
Everyone froze. The spot where Adrien had fallen was empty, a streak of dark blood leading towards Jean's still body. His mangled body inched towards his comrade, a quivering hand stretching towards the belt. With his last ounce of life, he clasped the strands, deranged agony glinting in his misting eyes. Ritter's blood turned cold at the sight of the twisted smile slithering onto the man's face.
"Ma vie pour la liberté!"