He had a knife at her throat.
“Not a sound,” he hissed in her ear.
Laura clenched her jaw and nodded, heart hammering. She couldn’t see him. He stood behind her, one arm wrapped around her torso, pinning her arms to her sides, the other pressing the cool, sharp blade to her neck.
Shouting – Schelt shouting – replaced the awful gunfire outside. Moonlight peeked through the cracks in the wooden barn walls, casting eerie shadows on the walls. Voices and heavy footfalls approached. Her captor swore.
It was that profanity that triggered something in her brain. She understood him. He spoke Taneian, her language, not Schelt, the enemy’s tongue. He was a Taneian soldier left behind during the retreat.
He’d be killed if the Schelts found him.
“Trap door,” she rasped.
“I said be quiet!” His grip on her tightened.
“There’s a trap door under Bessie.”
“The cow on the left. There’s a trap door under her stall. Opens to an extra storage room. You can hide.”
The barn doors creaked. A sliver of light spilled in and grew. Laura’s stomach plummeted. She had no desire to meet an armed Schelt soldier face to face.
Neither did her captor. He darted into Bessie’s stall, dragging her with him and groped around on the floor for the door. The prickly animal complied with people for once and shifted over. Before Laura had a chance to clamber down, he tossed her into the pitch darkness, leapt after her and closed them in. Bessie stomped above them. Her clunking almost drowned out the Schelts. Almost.
Barely able to see anything, Laura scooted back into a corner and hugged her knees to her chest. How had she gotten tangled into this mess? She’d been trudging home from the butcher’s when the fighting broke out. The Taneians – people who called the small island nation off the southwest coast of Ireland home – evidently unsuccessfully attempted to chuck the Schelts out of her small town, Titusville. Terrified a stray bullet would make her its target, she sprinted into the barn only to be grabbed from behind and threatened with a knife. Could she not have one moment of peace?
“Oh damn,” the man breathed.
“They saw you come in.”
“So? I’m nothing to them, did they see you?”
“I don’t think so, but they’re looking for …” His sentence hung incomplete, straining the little room with whatever he refrained from saying.
“Looking for what?”
She heard him swallow his discomfort. “Female … companionship.”
He blood iced. She dug her fingernails into her elbows, willing herself to relax. They wouldn’t find her here. They wouldn’t.
“I will not let them touch you.”
The intense sincerity in his voice surprised her. What was she to him? Nothing. They did not know each other. For all she knew, he could be after the same thing the Schelts were. Yet the way he promised to protect her … the fervor in his voice made it sound like he’d known her all his life and would die before he allowed anyone near her.
That one sentence wholly comforted her. She knew she was safe with him. Now that he had dropped the knife of course.
“I think they’re gone,” Thomas told the girl a few minutes later. He could hardly see the slip of a thing, but he heard her breathing in the corner. Even breaths now, not ragged and sporadic ones like before.
“Good,” she replied. “Is it safe to come out, do you think?”
“No. They could be just outside.” He’d be staying in this blessed secret sanctuary for as long as possible to avoid capture. If the Schelts found him, the heir to the Taneian throne, cowering like the cornered rabbit he was they’d have a field day.
Then they’d kill him.
He leaned against the wall, heat from the woman warming his chilled body even though she sat as far away from him as the tiny space allowed. He closed his eyes, despair crashing over him like waves at his favorite ocean-side summer palace. He’d failed. His meticulously planned mission to liberate the occupied southern tip of his nation failed. He’d lost men. Too many good men had died for nothing; and now he, the embodiment of their hope, huddled in a spare storage room, abandoned on his own order to save more lives, only alive himself because of … of … he didn’t know her name.
“Thank you. You didn’t have to risk this for me.”
“I hardly had a choice with a knife pressed to my throat.”
“Touché. I’m Thomas.” Best omit the Crown Prince of Taneia that customarily accompanied his name. The less conspicuous he remained the better.
Besides, people in this town probably wouldn’t recognize him as the prince anyway. They isolated themselves, following many of their own laws, none of which contradicted royal law naturally, under their religious leader, the Shepherd. They paid their taxes and preferred to be left alone. No reports of abuse reached Rhocent, the capital city, save for Thomas’s mother’s accounts. All in all, they caused no trouble, content in their separateness.
But they were still his people. They were just as Taneian as he. That was what spurred his botched mission. He had a duty to protect all his citizens, especially from bloodthirsty Schelts who had thrown in their lot with that psychopath Hitler and his maniacal Germans …
“Thank you, Laura.”
“You’re on our side.”
He chuckled. “Yes, I’m on your side.”
They lapsed into uncomfortable silence. What else could he say? They’d be down here for at least another ten minutes; he refused to lift the trap door before then. He’d never realized how awkward it was to get to know someone in the dark.
As if she’d been thinking the same thing, he heard her shuffling around, hay swishing across the dirt floor and finally a metallic clank.
“Do you have a match? I found the oil lamp the Shepherd keeps down here.”
“I think so.” He fumbled in his pockets. No, the matchbook was in his pack. He shrugged it off and cried out, surprised at the searing pain in his side.
“Are you all right?”
Ears ringing and side burning, he grunted some kind of response. The pain brought back memory of a hand-to-hand combat. He’d won but not before the bastard got a good swipe at him with his bayonet. He grimaced. That’s why he was so cold. It had nothing to do with the chill in the air; he’d probably lost a great deal of blood by now. As if on cue, stars danced before his eyes like the ballerina he’d secretly been seeing after he found out about Maureen and the sailor. He leaned back against the wall, praying he wouldn’t pass out.
Warm hands cupped his face and guided him to the ground. “Relax,” a silky voice soothed. “You’ll be all right. Tell me where the matches are.”
Laura. That’s right, he was with the new woman Laura. And she needed matches for the lamp.
“Front pocket. First aid on … top in … the large one.”
In a few seconds she had the lamp lit. Thomas shut his eyes against the headache it triggered.
“Good Lord!” she exclaimed. “You need a doctor!”
“No doctor. They’ll find me. Stitch me.”
“But I can’t –”
“You have to.”
“I’m not a nurse.”
“You’re all I’ve got.”
“You need stitches.”
“There are … sewing supplies for uniforms. They have to do.”
She hesitated, strangely quiet. Thomas almost thought something had happened to her until he heard her rustling in his pack.
“Don’t thank me yet. It’s going to hurt.”
“I’m a big boy.”
Copyright Rosemary Lauryn. All rights reserved.