She watched from the shadows.
Marcelle had bolted from the cellar when her mother had gone out to gather supplies and Madame Fournier had dozed off with her daughters, and then she had slipped into a crowd of people who were making their way to the cathedral square.
Monsieur Bauer was doing the translating again for the German commander, but Marcelle didn’t need it. She understood perfectly well what “Wir werden deine Stadt niederbrennen” meant without having to be told.
We will burn your city down.
Insubordination would not be tolerated. Monsieur Bauer’s voice struggled to be heard over the roar of the commander’s words that echoed in German through the town square. Everything about the man was severe: the lines and angles of his face; the boom of his voice; the penalties for breaking his rules.
Loitering, missing curfew, and not saluting German officers were not fatal transgressions, but most of his orders ended with the words “wird mit der Todesstrafe bestraft.”
. . . the penalty is death.
“All weapons are to be turned over at once. If you are found with firearms in your possession, the penalty is death.”
“All collaborators will be treated as enemies of the state. If you are found to be a traitor to Germany, the penalty is death.”
“All food stores and farm produce are now the property of the German Empire and will be rationed as seen fit. If you are found stealing from the Reich, the penalty is death.”
When he finished, he had the gall to ask the crowd if there were any questions, but, of course, no one dared raise his hand. There was not so much as a cough or a sniffle from the people of Soissons as they waited to be dismissed.
When they were finally ordered to return to their homes, no one lingered. Not even Rosalie and Monsieur Fournier. Even with this new threat of death, they slipped through one of the side streets north of the cathedral and disappeared into the shadows as they headed toward Pierre’s home.
Marcelle had to quicken her pace to keep sight of them, weaving through the back streets of Soissons past the shuttered butcher’s shop and the bombed-out bakery. The alleys were filled with people racing to get home and off the streets where the German soldiers stood like sentry men. Marcelle was just coming up on the alley behind Pierre’s home when she was stopped in her tracks.
“Halt! Stehen bleiben!” Halt! Stop right there!
The words jumped out at her, their bite like an unsuspected strike from a snake, and the gunshot that went with them echoed through the now empty cobblestone streets of the city.
She heard Monsieur Fournier’s body hit the ground just a moment before she turned the corner and found herself face-to-face with the German soldier who had shot him. The man glanced back and forth from Marcelle to her sister, trying to reconcile the double image, before pointing the gun at Rosalie.
“Du stiehlst.” You are stealing.
Rosalie didn’t respond. She didn’t understand his words, and her eyes darted back and forth from the gun in the German’s hand to the body of Monsieur Fournier at her feet, the blood from his head pooling around her shoes.
“That food no longer belongs to you.” The German soldier pointed with his gun to the sacks of food that had already been loaded onto the cart. “Do you know the penalty for stealing?”
“Bitte.” Please. Marcelle stepped forward with her hands raised to her chest, stopping only when the German took aim at her head. “My sister does not speak German. Please, let me explain.”
“There is no explanation necessary. She was taking what belongs to Germany. The punishment for that is death.”
“There must be another way,” Marcelle pleaded, and when his eyes ran over Rosalie’s body, she wondered if she had just doomed her sister to a fate that was, perhaps, worse than death.
“There might be another way,” he agreed, and while Rosalie could not follow their conversation, when the wolfish grin surfaced on his face, she understood his intentions.
“I will do it,” Marcelle said, stepping forward as if to shield Rosalie from the man’s hunger. “My sister is ill. She has the fever that took our mother, and I fear she will not survive. If we could just take the cart to move our mother’s body to the cemetery, I will come back and pay for the crime. Please.”
The German stepped back as Marcelle moved even closer to her sister. He pointed the pistol toward Monsieur Fournier’s lifeless body.
“Is that your father?”
“He is a neighbor who has been staying with us. He offered us the cart but insisted on retrieving supplies from his home on the way.”
“Did he have the fever too?”
“I do not know,” Marcelle replied. “But it is spreading fast.”
Marcelle’s story was woven from thin and tattered lies, but when the German muttered something about dirty French swine, she was certain his hands would never touch them. He pulled the sacks of food from the cart, each one hitting the ground with the same thud Monsieur Fournier’s body had made, and when the cart was empty, he aimed the gun at Rosalie’s head once more. “I should do this as a favor to you,” he said. “Before you end up like your mother.”
“The earth shifted ever so slightly beneath Marcelle’s feet as she stepped in front of her sister. There was no rational thought involved; it was an instinct as natural as self-preservation. Her sister’s life was worth her own.
“Bitte,” she whispered. “Please do not kill us.”
They watched each other through a thick and heavy silence, the German’s eyes locked on hers, and in that brief moment, Marcelle was suddenly aware of the freckles sprinkled across his nose and the thin scar running down his chin and the crooked tooth jutting from beneath his lips. Things that made him human. Things that made him look like a boy. Like Pierre. Did he have a girl waiting for him at home? Was she excited to be a soldier’s wife, too?
When he lowered the gun and nodded toward Monsieur Fournier’s body, Marcelle was quick to shake the thoughts away. She and Rosalie worked in a rushed silence as they dragged Pierre’s father to the cobbled road, heaved his flaccid body onto the edge of the cart, and then rolled him toward the center to balance his weight. They didn’t dare look back as they lugged the cart toward the cellar and prayed that a bullet would not find them before they made it to the door.
Marcelle descended the stairs first. Her father was almost too angry to spit out his words, but when he found his voice, it thundered through the cellar.
“What have you done, Marcelle?” His rant was short-lived when he noticed the blood smeared across his daughter’s blouse and caked onto her skin. When Rosalie climbed down the stairs, Marcelle got a glimpse of what her own reflection might have revealed if she’d had a mirror.
The red streaks across her sister’s face were a stark contrast to the icy blue of her feral eyes, which danced feverishly across the room. The gold of her hair was matted and clumped with the blackened and dried blood from Monsieur Fournier’s head, and the blouse she had been so careful to button and tuck before heading out that day sat draped open at the neck and askew on her limbs.
“Where is Monsieur Fournier?” her father asked, glancing up the stairway behind Rosalie. “What happened?”
“They shot him.” Marcelle searched the darkened corners of the cellar for Madame Fournier, who sat with her arms wrapped around her daughters as if to shelter them from the news. “I am so sorry. We brought his body back.”
“I told you to stay here, Marcelle! Why did you do this?” Her father gripped her arms so tightly that Marcelle’s feet were almost off the ground. “You got a man killed!”
“She did not get him killed.” Rosalie’s words pierced them like an arrow and commanded an immediate audience. “Monsieur Fournier was shot before Marcelle showed up. I would have been shot too, and worse, if she had not been there to save me.”
When her father loosened his grip around Marcelle’s arms, she stumbled back away from him, searching for the dampness of the cold stone wall.
“They killed him because he was trying to take his food with him,” Marcelle said, as her legs quivered beneath her body. When she slid her back down the rough-hewn stones of the cellar wall and onto the dirt floor, she knew she would lack the strength to pull herself back up. “They will come for ours too,” she continued, unable to ignore the sobs from the far corner of the cellar where the few survivors of the Fournier family were huddled together. “And they will take our mattresses and blankets and whatever else they want. We will not survive long by hiding out down here.”
“What other choice do we have?” Her father sank down onto one of the mattresses, dropping his head into his hands. He had inherited a widow with two young daughters, and, while he had his own broken family to worry about, he was not the kind of man to skirt his responsibilities. “We cannot run. We cannot fight. All we can do is keep our heads down and hide.”
He was right. There were no good options. There was no amount of prayer that could have warded off the evil that had descended upon them, and there was no amount of preparation that could have changed the outcome.
Marcelle refused to pray that night. She refused to ask God for forgiveness or hope or mercy. She had seen death for the first time in the face of Pierre’s father, the man who would have been her father-in-law, and she hadn’t the stomach to call on a God who had acted so unjustly.
If she had known the cruelty to come, if she had been warned that what she had witnessed that day would pale in comparison to what her future held, Marcelle might not have fought so hard to survive that winter. She might have offered herself mercy.
From MIDNIGHT ON THE MARNE by Sarah Adlakha. Used with the permission of the publisher, Forge Books. Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Adlakha.
France, 1918. Nurse Marcelle Marchand has important secrets to keep. Her role as a spy has made her both feared and revered, but it has also put her in extreme danger from the approaching German army.
American soldier George Mountcastle feels an instant connection to the young nurse. But in times of war, love must wait. Soon, George and his best friend Philip are fighting for their lives during the Second Battle of the Marne, where George prevents Philip from a daring act that might have won the battle at the cost of his own life.
On the run from a victorious Germany, George and Marcelle begin a new life with Philip and Marcelle’s twin sister, Rosalie, in a brutally occupied France. Together, this self-made family navigates oppression, near starvation, and unfathomable loss, finding love and joy in unexpected moments.
Years pass, and tragedy strikes, sending George on a course that could change the past and rewrite history. Playing with time is a tricky thing. If he chooses to alter history, he will surely change his own future—and perhaps not for the better.
Historical [Forge Books, On Sale: August 9, 2022, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781250774590 / eISBN: 9781250774606]
Sarah is a native of Chicago who now resides on the gulf coast of Mississippi with her husband and three daughters. Writing is her second career but her first dream job. She retired from her psychiatry practice shortly before relocating with her husband and daughters to Mississippi, where she finally put pen to paper and began telling her stories.
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