In the quietest, most fragile corner of her heart, Marina knew Dmitri would abandon her-just as her parents had.
Marina Antonovna Klassen Vasileva barely restrained herself from crumpling at her husband's feet as she watched him pack his meager belongings: a comb, his Bible-pieces of his life snatched from hers, leaving gaping, ragged holes in her chest.
It was quite possible she'd never be whole again.
"I can't believe you volunteered." Her voice sounded ghostly, to match her dying spirit. Marina sat at the end of the wooden bed, her knees pulled up to her chest so as to hold in her heart lest it shatter. Her gaze fell away from her new husband, from his movements at the mirror as he adjusted his olive green Russian Army uniform. She couldn't bear the expression of anticipation on his face.
"It's not too soon." Dmitri turned, and Marina couldn't ignore the way her pulse notched up a beat when his sweet honey brown eyes traveled over her. He always had the ability to reduce her to a puddle of kasha with a smile, and now, the sadness on his face stirred away her fury. She bit her trembling lip and blinked back tears, feeling only weak. He took a step toward her and ran his strong hand over her hair. "The Motherland needs me. Hitler can't be trusted and our Fearless Leader needs us to guard our new lands."
Marina knew more than loyalty beat in his wide, muscled chest. Dmitri longed to see the world. Taste adventure. She could hardly blame her peasant husband for his enthusiasm. He'd been offered a chance to explore the new land Stalin had annexed for Russia-Lvov, Ukraine. The world outside of Pskov suddenly called to him in volumes he, at twenty, couldn't begin to ignore.
Didn't he hear his bride, their future calling him as well? Marina pressed her fingertips into her eyes. "Promise me you'll come back."
His shiny new leather boots-the first pair of new shoes he'd ever owned-squeaked as he knelt beside her. "Of course, maya dorogaya. Russia is not fighting a war. We're simply reminding the fascist Nazis that we're here, on the other side of the border, and that they need to stay in their yard. I'll be back before the potato harvest."
Marina opened her eyes, attempting a smile at his humor. She ran a trembling finger along his square jaw, taking in every last detail-the way his dark hair curled around his ears, the scar on his chin from a childhood brawl, the rapscallion curve of his smile. Her chest constricted and she fought for breath, nearly drowning beneath a cascading sense of loss.
"Oh, Marina," Dmitri said, and the texture of his voice caused tears to flow down her checks. He pulled her to his chest. Her cheek rubbed against rough wool, and the smell of mothballs obliterated his masculine, earthy farmer's scent.
"You're all I have," she whispered.
He leaned away, and cupped her face between his hands. His eyes darkened. "That's not true."
Marina looked at her fingers knitted together on her lap. "Mother isn't my real family. She just took me in because I needed a home." She met his eyes, and saw the sadness in them. "But now I belong to you and you to me. I have no one else."
Dmitri dragged his thumb along her check. "Dear Marina. You do have someone else. You have God. He's been your Father when you had no earthly father. And He will bind our family together. No matter what happens, He will guard over us and protect our family. You must trust Him for that."
"Will He bring you home?"
Dmitri smiled, and kissed her sweetly, gently. "You can count on it."
[insert line break]
Edward Neumann crouched next to a gnarled oak tree, his eyes trained on a small clearing twenty yards in front of him, and wondered how he'd come to despise spring.
As a kid in Upstate New York, the thaw, and the breaking of the Schoharie River, brought the promise of lazy days of fishing and cool dips when the temperature soared. He loved the thick smell of overturned earth as his father and brothers plowed the soil in the fields, and at times, he ached for the feel of cold, rich dirt filling the pores of his hands. Somewhere deep in his farmer's heart, he knew he should love spring.
Unfortunately, spring in this swatch of northern Poland, thirty kilometers from Lodz, meant mud, cold, and a rotting food supply.
A leftover breath of winter wind hissed through the Polish forest and raised the hair on his neck. He shivered despite his leather coat. His fingers felt wooden, and he hoped he still had a grip on the trigger of the US carbine rifle he poised on his shoulder. Mud and grime and cold had long since soaked through his worn wool pants and found the hole in his leather boots.
But the cold that saturated his bones emanated from within. A cold that on inky-dark, frigid nights weakened his tenuous hold on faith and nudged him further into despair.
At the moment, however, he clutched a death grip on the only thing that mattered-hope.
For you, Katrina.
Around him, an eerie quiet pervaded the forest. No birds chirping. No branches cracked. The low sun boiled crimson along the treetops and turned the birch trees blood red. Edward glanced behind him and easily made out Marek, the upper-class Pole who had, some six months prior, escaped the net around Warszawa and joined the Farmer's National Army. His cool demeanor while he assessed the clearing betrayed a nobleman's posture, as if he were watching a performance of Swan Lake at Teatr Norodowy.
Edward held up a hand to Marek then pointed to Raina, who'd taken a position across the forest. He could barely make out the blonde's face, but her quick wave settled relief in his heart. Her team was in place.
The song of a mockingbird brought his gaze left, to Simon, the R.A.F. Hurricane pilot who'd barely escaped a fiery landing on the border of Estonia. Fleeing from Estonians loyal to Germany, Simon joined the Polish resistance. The two-way radio he'd secreted with him sent Edward to his knees in gratitude, and even more so when he discovered the Brit was a fellow Believer. Edward had to admit, even after crawling through sodden leaves and old snow, Simon still looked the Englishman-clean-shaven, tidy. Bringing a touch of class to their rag-tag partisan unit.
Marek signaled all clear-his scouts had scoured the south end of the forest and come up clean. Edward nodded. He raised his hand and directed Wladek and Stefan, two teenaged Poles who had the courage of the entire Third Reich, to enter the clearing. In the middle, glinting like precious rubies, lay two metal canisters. Edward prayed they indeed included clothes and food-maybe some canned meat, or even sugar-along with weapons and ammo. He'd noticed Anna Lechon's bony knees protruding from her pants, and too many of his fighters' sweaters were held together with twine. Most of all, he hated to see the pale moons under young Anna's wide brown eyes. She reminded him, painfully, of his little niece back home.
And of the Polish Jews he'd seen beaten and forced into boxcars. So much like his own ancestors-accused, tortured, murdered-because of their beliefs.
Anna even reminded him, occasionally, of Katrina. Brave in her frailty. Brave as the Nazis lined her up against a wall.
Brave unto death.
Edward blinked away the brutal images that never lurked far from the surface of his mind. He positioned the gun into his shoulder and watched with coiled breath while his two faithful partisans dashed out from cover.
The wind froze as time ticked away in their steps. More than once, a well hidden dispatch of SS men and their dogs had ambushed a Resistance unit.
The boys reached the supply barrels and attacked them with vigor. The muscles in Edward's neck pulsed, but his breath released slowly as he watched the young men open the first drum and raise the shiny black barrel of a British "Sten." The Poles would assemble the pieces into submachine guns. Thanks, Colonel Stone. When Stefan opened the second barrel, Edward blessed his director for his golden heart. Stefan held up a can of coffee, and Edward could nearly taste it hit his mouth-bitter, hot, smelling of home. Stefan turned and looked directly at him, a wide grin on his youthful face.
Edward nodded, feeling relief rush through him. Maybe this spring would bring the seeds of hope. Of victory.
The crack of a rifle shattered the crisp air. Edward choked on his relief as Stefan jerked, then crumpled to his knees. Another shot sent Wladek airborne. He landed ten feet from the canister. Reeling, Edward scanned the forest searching for the black coats of Nazi SS men. Nothing but barren trees and shadow. His partisans however, dressed in rags of all colors, stood out like stars in the night sky.
Oh, how he hated spring.
"Let's get out of here!" Simon screamed into his ear. He fisted Edward's worn coat.
The canister pinged as another shot hit. Edward went weak at the site of Stefan crawling between the containers, his face screwed up in pain. Oh dear Lord, please, no! The boy was still alive!
Simon read his thoughts. "You must leave him! Now!"
Edward turned to him. "Go!" he hissed. He trained his eyes on Stefan, tasting bile at the look of terror on the youth's face. What had he gotten them into?
The spongy forest floor swallowed Simon's footsteps. Across the meadow, Edward saw Raina had also abandoned her post, like the good solider he'd trained her to be. Head home, fast and covertly. At all costs, don't let the enemy find you. They all knew too much about other partisan units to be taken alive. Run, Raina!
Marek had also fled, taking Anna. Only Edward knew the eighteen-year-old girl had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, a secret he'd take with him to the grave. "God of Israel, watch over your children." He whitened his grip on his rifle and trained his eyes on Stefan. "I won't leave you, kid."
Not like he had Katrina. Never again. At all costs.
He crouched in the soggy earth, listening to his partisans flee, hearing gunshots, tasting despair. As the noise of barking dogs ricocheted through the forest and darkness hooded the sky, Edward felt the fingers of failure close in around him.
So much for spring.