Bones of Spring” (WIP) Chapter 18 – The Secret Passage

“Wake up, Katerina. Up, up, let’s go.”

Roused by a light slap, Kat blinked and pushed Sister Veronica’s hand away from her face. “What’s going on?”

“Germans,” she said grimly. 

Kat sat up at once, then felt a wave of dizziness roll over her. Her stomach twisted in cramp, and she growled. Three days of this and it hadn’t let up. 

“If they know I’m here — “

“Not those Germans. The German Army. They’re only a few miles away.

“How?”

“No time. Here, take these. This will help with the bleeding, and — up, there we go.”

Kat took the pills with a quick drink of water, hoping it would be enough to offset the dizziness. It was the first time she’d stood up in two days. She tested her foot to see if it could hold her weight. Not very well, she noted. It throbbed.

“You might be better off just leaving me, Sister.”

“I’m going to hide you. You’ll stay hidden until we can evacuate you, after the men.” 

 “You’re evacuating the men? Why?”

“The Germans are rounding up all men of fighting age. It’s against the Geneva Convention, but they’re claiming they’re a threat to the German border.”

“While invading,” Kat remarked dryly as she looped her arm around the woman’s shoulders. “That’s gorgeous.”

“They’re not entirely wrong,” she said with a grim smile as together they made their way down the winding tower stairs. “All along the borders Jews have been fleeing west, with our help. Those that helped them must flee themselves if they want to stay free to fight.”

“My French is good,” Kat protested. “Dress me up like a nun, surely that’s safer for everyone.”

“Unfortunately you are the only blonde beauty in the area with a bullet in her foot.  From everything you’ve told me of these men, they may be looking for you.”

The unspoken detail suddenly struck Kat. It wasn’t just a matter of a door to door investigation — if there was any word of her survival, Lange, or Nyssen or any of the others could come through here with a complement of soldiers, and arrest or even kill everyone here. They wouldn’t hesitate. 

Sister Veronica helped her through the old wood-panelled library. Looking quickly around her, she told Kat to lean against the while, and then bent down to one of the panels. The sound of gunfire raised their heads, but it was still some distance away. The monastery was on a hill, and there were more easy pickings down below. 

The nun used her fingernails to prise the old panel up, then hooked her fingers under it and pulled, revealing a dark hole that was just large enough for a man to fit through.

“In here. Stay, do not make a sound. Someone will come for you when things have quieted down.”

“What about the rest of you?” Kat demanded, though she allowed herself to be helped into the stone recess. “You’re still in danger.”

“That was true before,” Sister Veronica said as she shoved a large wicker basket into Kat’s hands. “You’ll bleed heavily for another day or so. There’s laudanum there for your foot, pads, and fresh bandages, and also — .”

Just then, a siren sounded outside, followed by a loudspeaker message in French demanding surrender. It was growing closer, but Sister Veronica remained focused. She reached into the hiding place to palm Kat’s cheek, her first sign of real affection.

“You are blessed with the spirit of Saint Michael. God need give you no more strength. Now don’t make a noise and don’t come out, no matter what. If any of those SS beasts comes for you and there’s no escape, you have the laudanum. Drink it fast.”

Confused by this, Kat could only obey, watching the nun’s face disappear as she shoved the panel back into place. Now she was in the musty, cob-web covered darkness, crouched down in an uncomfortable position. Trying not to make a sound, she shifted on to her side so that she could extend her wounded foot at least partway. It was still swathed in bandages, and she could feel it sticking to the burns. Pain shot up through her leg, and she whimpered, biting down on her knuckle to keep from bursting into sobs.

There wasn’t much to hear outside. She thought that there would be more gunfire, more rockets, but it seemed as though the town must have surrendered. Would they begin looting? This old library would be rife with ancient texts and relics. The pseudo-Lutheran sensibilities of the Reich might incline them to treat such things as idolatrous, but they were also conveniently valuable.

She ruminated on this to keep her mind off the more disturbing possibilities, and felt herself drifting into a waking dream. She thought of Frédéric, her body’s memory of him briefly overcoming the cramp in her belly, and the searing pain in her foot, but then resolving into thoughts of him, his family. Perhaps she did love him a little, because she was afraid for him now. The men of Frühlingsmorgen knew about him, and that put him in danger. She hoped the warning had reached them, though he might actually now have been safer in Germany than here, at the spearpoint of the invasion.

She hadn’t realized she was asleep until a hand came around her mouth, and another across her chest. “Quiet,” a low female voice hissed in her ear, speaking French. “Don’t scream. We’re taking you away from here.”

Kat turned her head, trying to look behind her, but she was already being dragged down the narrow passage, the hand still clamped to her mouth. She couldn’t stop from crying out, not only from fright, but the pain in her leg as it was dragged along with the rest of her. It felt like her foot was being torn off. It was too much pain. She was going to die. She was going to pass out. 

Another set of hands took the basket out of her clenched fingers. She hadn’t even realized she was still holding it.

“How are we going to get her down the ladder?”

“I’m going to let you go,” said the rough voice. “But if you scream, I’ll cut your throat.” 

The hand came away from her mouth. She couldn’t see in the dark, but she could hear the breath of at least two people, and she could sense them near her.

“My leg,” she whispered. “My right foot, the nuns burned it with irons. I can’t—“

“This way. Stay on your left foot,” said another whisper. “I’m going first. I’ll support you.”

“How far is it?”

“Never mind that. Just keep your hands on the rungs.”

Kat, now sure they were both women, allowed herself to be maneuvered and prodded until she had one foot on the rung, holding the other awkwardly to the side.

“We should have brought a rope,” the woman who had grabbed her face complained. “Damnit.”

It was a harrowing descent that would have been comical if she was not so utterly disoriented. With two legs it wouldn’t have presented such a challenge, but having to hop down each rung, gripping the ones before her made it twice as time consuming. Thankfully, the ladder bolted into the rocky wall was steel, or her hands would’ve been full of splinters in no time.

When they reached the bottom some twenty minutes later, she was sweating through her nightshirt. She was sure she was also bleeding through the bandages between her legs. She wanted to apologize, to invite them to kill her and leave her because it just seemed like the polite thing to do, but she was panting too heavily to speak.

“Come on. You’re almost there,” one of the women said brusquely. “Now, get under here.”

Before Kat could look around, they’d bundled her into the back of a large cart, laying a heavy tarp over it. She had a glimpse of the place where they’d emerged at the base of the hill that supported the monastery, but it was too dark to make out more.

They must have removed the shoes from the horse, because its hooves did not clop so loudly along the path, but instead made a muffled thump with each step. She put her face against the sacking, and for the second time, fell asleep shrouded in darkness, lulled by the rhythm. 

“What the hell am I suppose to do with this?” 

Kat blinked awake, not certain where she was, or what the time was. It was still dark, but a different kind of dark from the passage. She could hear trees rustling, and the sound of crickets. She pushed back the tarp and blinked as the light of a small fire met her eyes. They were in some kind of ravine, surrounded by high banks on either side. 

“Veronica said she’d be useful to us,” said that familiar female voice. It belonged to a shorter woman of early middle age with close cut dark hair, dressed in a man’s hunting gear. She was holding the wicker basket.

“That’s mine,” Kat growled, trying to right herself. She could already see blood leaking from the bandage on her foot, and the uncaring wrath of the blood in her belly had completely stolen all of her common sense. “Give it back.”

The woman turned to her. “This is ours. Sister Veronica—“

“Well some of it’s mine,” Kat snapped, shoving herself up right and extending her foot, showing her the blood leaking from it. “The pads and the bandages, and the laudanum are all definitely mine.”

“This is my point,” the man, difficult to see in front of the firelight, said as he gestured to her foot. “She’s useless to us. We might as well just—“ 

“Don’t be an idiot, Jerome,” the woman said, shoving the man aside as though he was nothing more than an insolent puppy. “The abbess said she was resourceful and brave, and unless we have anyone else who put five rounds into an SS commander—.”

“Look at her. She’s going to bleed out before we get a doctor anywhere near her.”

“She’s not bleeding out, you foolish man.” The woman approached her, setting down the basket in the cart next to her. “My name is Jeanette,” she said to Kat. “You met my sister Lorelei earlier. We’re twins so we look somewhat alike.”

“Katerina Bergmann,” she said, watching as the man leaning against the tree eyed her, his arms crossed over her chest. 

“German,” he snapped. “A bleeding, crippled German wolf-bitch. What are we supposed to—“

“Don’t mind Jerome, he only sees pussy on holy days,” Jeanette said as she helped Kat rifle the basket, coming up with the pads and the little bottle of laudanum. “Let me help. You, clown,” she directed this remark to Jerome. “Go get Lorelei. Tell her to bring some clothes.”

Jerome, his handsome dark face more visible now that Kat’s eyes had adjusted to the light, straightened with indignation. “Get her yourself.”

“And take this.” Jeanette fished a box of pistol ammunition from the basket and whistled at him to make him look. She tossed it to him, and in spite of his bad humour he at least had sense enough to catch it. 

She worked quickly, helping Kat first replace the pad. She was still too scared and frustrated to care about modesty, but when Lorelei brought her a worn shirt and old trousers, she could have wept with relief. Once out of the nightshirt and into the warm clothes, she felt a little stronger. 

“Come on, we’ll have to do this by the fire.”

The sisters helped her over to a stump near the cheerful little blaze. There were others, she realized, sitting further back in the dark, their faces barely illuminated, but their eyes glittering. At least four other people, and then another visible above them at the mouth of the ravine, a long gun slung over his shoulder. 

“Do you usually bleed that heavy?” Jeanette asked with total frankness as she unwound the sticky bandage from her burned foot. 

“Sister Veronica gave me…” Kat stumbled on the name of the herbs. “She gave me some kind of tea to start my — ”

“Ah,” the older woman said, needing no more clarification. 

“The man I shot,” Kat muttered. 

“I follow,” Jeanette pulled the last of the bandage away. 

Kat made herself look, biting down hard on the inside of her lip as she observed the burned peeling where the iron had gone into the bullet wound, the way her foot was already pulling inwards from the twisting of the burned tissue. The cracked edges of the wound bled freely, but not as badly as when they’d first brought her to the nuns. She could feel the slug moving against her sliding bones.

They soaked a fresh bandage in disinfectant, then wrapped it tightly around her foot, adding layers around her ankle, and under the sole of her foot to create stability. Kat tried to get to her feet, but it was a struggle. Jerome made his way back to the lighted circle, his dark eyes still suspicious, but his shoulders were no longer squared back. She could see him more clearly now. He had a neatly trimmed moustache and dark brows under his flat cap, and was dressed in labourer’s clothes. He wasn’t a bad looking man, when he wasn’t sneering.

He sat down close by, and pulled out a tobacco pouch and some rolling papers, keeping his eyes on Kat as she in turn kept her eyes on him. Deftly, he rolled a cigarette, and then offered it to her. She looked disdainfully at him for a moment, silently wanting him to understand that she’d brain him with a rock before he’d ever get a chance to betray her. He withdrew the offered cigarette, but she reached out and snatched it. Jeanette took a twig out of the fire and helped her light it.

“You killed an SS?” Jerome said, looking hard at her. 

She took a drag on the cigarette, letting the smoke circle through her lungs as she told herself to be calm. To be sane. 

“He was upset, and wanted me to comfort him,” she said, picking her words carefully. “I didn’t want to.”

She could see Jeanette meet her sister’s eyes, but they didn’t offer Jerome any further information, which made Kat grateful. If he didn’t understand the finer points, that was well and good as far as she was concerned.

“You defended yourself.” 

She wasn’t sure shooting a man in his bed was the kind of self defence this Frenchman had in mind, so she simply nodded. 

“You’re just a kid. You didn’t feel bad about it?”

“For fuck sakes,” Lorelei snapped. “Does she seem like a little sissy girl to you?”

Jerome looked hard at her. “You speak any other languages besides French and German?”

“English. I don’t speak it as well, but I understand it fine.”

“Fucked if there are even any English left here in a week,” Jeanette scoffed. 

“And you know the Monteuxs, do you?” a hint of the smile there. “Frédéric, right? You know he’s engaged.”

That slowed Kat, but she only showed it for an instant. She shrugged, took another drag. “Good for him.”

“You’re not jealous?”

“We’re friends,” she said, tapping the ash off the cigarette. “So we played around a little. It was a flirtation. What the hell is it to you, anyway?”

“Family friend. I carried the message from the convent. He said there was a girl over the river, some gorgeous young piece of ass, but he’d decided to stop seeing her. Too risky.”

“But he’s safe,” Kat affirmed, ignoring the vulgar assessment of her qualities. “They didn’t catch him.”

Jerome nodded. She felt something untwist inside her, something that had been hurting her without her conscious knowledge of it. Her hand shook as she took a last drag on the cigarette. 

Seemingly having made up his mind about something, he rose, and went over to her, crouching down before her. “We’ll get you papers, and you can lay up at a Swiss hospital we know about until you’re healed. But after that, you owe us, you understand? You owe us the lives more German soldiers. As many as it takes.”

Kat looked him over, this man who wanted charge of her, who wanted her to accept his authority. But when she looked over at Jeanette crouched nearby and recalled the way she had spoken to this one, had compelled him to follow her orders, she had a distinct sense that this chain of command was not as straight forward as this Jerome would like her to think. Still, she didn’t have much choice. 

“Does that sound fair?” said Lorelei from her other side. This sister was a little stouter, a little rounder in the face than the other, but her hazel eyes were just the same. “Because we can’t do much else with you, little Kat.”

“I’ve only fired a gun that once,” Kat said, directing her comment to Jerome. “You’ll have to teach me.”

“We’ll teach you.” He extended his hand, and she took it. “Welcome to the Resistance, chaton.”