Liegt in dem Märchen meiner Kinderjahre
Als in der Wahrheit, die das Leben lehrt.
Lies in the fairy tale of my childhood
Than in the truth that is taught by life.
The House of Fear
I ran. Trees hurtled past me and branches lashed at my face. I shoved them away and kept running. The air was scorching in my lungs, but I couldn't stop. If I stopped I'd never get there in time to save them. I had to keep going. I had to run!
I tripped on a root and fell, ripping my stockings and my skin, but I clawed my way to my feet and tore on. The ground rippled before my eyes like billowing waves. Eyes gleamed in the undergrowth as I raced past. The moonlight tinted the forest red.
I stumbled to a halt and spun around. Dark trees whirled around me. This wasn't right. I didn't know this place. This wasn't right!
Terror forked through my veins like lightning. I was lost, I knew it. I was lost and I was too late.
Fallen leaves crackled behind me. I whirled. They were coming. I could see them all around me, shadows with glittering eyes, slinking from between the trees and dripping down from the branches.
My joints locked. My throat constricted. I couldn't make a sound. The shadows were gliding closer, and closer, and—
I jerked upright. My voice was almost a yelp. "What?"
"We're just passing Bonaparte's barracks, sir," I heard the coachman say from above me. "Steinau's just ahead."
I sat back against the seat, my nerves vibrating like plucked strings. The inside of the carriage jolted around me as the wheels rolled over a rut in the road, and the smells of horse sweat and old leather were enough to yank me fully out of that nightmare forest. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath. It had only been a dream. That same stupid dream.
The carriage bounced again and the book on the seat beside me slid to the floor. I reached down and picked it up. It was Thibaut's Theory of the Logical Interpretation of Roman Law. I'd bought in Marburg and had meant to read it during the journey, as it would probably give me a head start in the next semester, but all I'd actually done was open it and write the date on the inside cover. 13 Dezember 1803.
The carriage rolled over the narrow bridge and clattered onto cobblestones. I pushed the book off my lap and opened the window flap. A blast of frigid air rushed into the carriage and seared my eyes, but I forced myself to squint against it and made out my home at the edge of the meadow, the first glimpse of it I had had in months. It still looked more like a warehouse than a home; nothing could change that. Long tendrils of frost crept down the rough walls and no one had bothered to clear the snow from the front path.
The Advent wreath wasn't there. I should have been able to see it by now, glimmering against the wood of the door, but the entire house was still and dark. All of the curtains were drawn.
Then the carriage drew closer and my breath lodged in my lungs.
Two elongated shadows had detached themselves from our twin fir trees and were approaching the slowing carriage. A lantern sizzled to life. Its light glinted on saber hilts and bayonets.
The shout transformed my horror to something as frigid as the evening gloom. Every noise around me muted, as if a curtain had crashed down around me. I felt the carriage jerk to a halt and the hoofbeats of the shying horse vibrating up through the floor, I saw the shadows drawing closer, but I felt no fear. All I felt was cold.
The carriage door swung open. A lantern loomed in my face. "Bien, Monsieur Grimm, vous venez enfin!"
I looked back at the soldier. The lantern light shone on his buttons and in his eyes, two flat chips of slate impressed on a pocked, flabby face as pale and porous as bread dough. His mouth curled up in a triumphant sneer. "As if we'd never find you."
The soldier grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the carriage. "Driver!" he barked. "What are you looking at? Get out of here, idiot!"
A whip cracked behind me and the carriage tore away down the road in a clatter of wheels. The Frenchman leveled his bayonet at my chest. "So," he said, "thought you could run off like a squirrel, eh? Thought you'd make a fool out of me and—"
"Dampère." The second soldier, a scarecrow of a man in a tall black bicorne, came to stand beside the first. "Dampère, look."
Dampère's face snagged in an expression that was almost comical. He lowered his musket, hefted the lantern and shoved it into my face. "C'est pas vrai…"
He turned to his companion. "It's not him," he said, in French. "Looks like him, but it's not."
The spectacled soldier turned back to me. "Sie," he said. "Wie heissen Sie?"
"Ich…" For an instant I thought that I should answer in French, but my brain couldn't form the words. "Ich heisse Grimm" I said. My voice didn't sound like my own. "My name is Grimm. Jacob Ludwig."
"Jacob Ludwig?" he repeated, knitting his brows. "And you…live here?"
It was easier to speak now, though I didn't know why. "I do," I said. "Will you gentlemen now allow me inside, or have I already been condemned to die of cold?"
The butt of the musket caught me full in the stomach. I reeled back and fell, my insides heaving. The colors of trees and snow spun around me as two hands seized my collar and hauled me up again. Dampère's cratered face snarled into mine, "I'll teach you to talk back to Bonaparte's men, you Hessian dog."
Dampère let go of my collar and I fell back onto the ground. My head crashed against the path so hard that white flashes exploded in front of my eyes. My stomach lurched.
Running footsteps pattered over the walk and then another pair of hands lifted my head, brushing my hair out of my eyes. My mother knelt over me, cradling my head. I tried to speak, but before I could gather my breath a shadow fell across Mutti's face. "You know him?" came Dampère's voice from above me.
Mutti's fingers dug into my shoulder as her head snapped up. "He is my son!" she cried. "What do you mean by treating him this way?"
"Wir…wir…uh…" Dampère stuttered. "We thought…bien…" He glanced at the scarecrow, who stood a little ways to the left. Finding no help from that quarter, Dampère dropped his gaze and muttered, "Sorry, Madame Grimm."
I climbed to my feet. Mutti rose with me, her face stiffening further. "I shall be speaking to your captain about this outrage, make no mistake," she said, each word carrying enough acid to turn snow into steam. Without taking her eyes from the soldiers, who seemed to shrink beneath the weight of her stare, she took my arm and whispered, "Come inside, quickly. We must call for the doctor."
"No, I'm all right," I mumbled. "I'm…" The house swam nauseatingly before my eyes. "I'm fine."
Mutti took my arm and steered me inside. The warmth of the house wrapped around me like a woolen blanket. It was just as I remembered, worn balustrades, fading wallpaper, stern oaken furniture softened by the candles perched on their surfaces. From the sitting room came the popping of a burning log and the faint scent of wood-smoke.
Mutti closed the door and bolted it with an air of satisfied finality, as though banishing all miscreants from her sight. "I am so glad to see you," she said in a rush, but her face changed in an instant. "No. No! Did not you read my letter?"
"Letter?" I asked, bewildered. Mutti hurried forward and began helping me out of my greatcoat. "I wrote to you," she insisted. "To warn you. It must have missed you. Oh, Jacob," she murmured hopelessly. "Why must you return now?"
I stood frozen, horrified at the sob shivering beneath her words. "The…the soldiers?" I asked, forcing my voice to remain steady. "Mutti, why are they here?"
A pinafore and ruffles melted into a blur as my little sister Lotte barreled down the stairs. "Hello, Lot—"
I stifled a yelp of pain as she threw her arms around my ribs. "You won't believe what's happened," she gasped. "The soldiers came just when Wilhelm—"
A man's voice sounded across the room, permeated with a familiar nasal drawl that made my throat clench. "Well, who's this, then?"
Lotte pulled away and Mutti stiffened. A corpulent figure was silhouetted in the doorway leading to the sitting room, balancing an enameled snuff-box on his palm. A wig that seemed to be woven out of gray wire was set over a red, pouchy face, whose multiple chins hung over his neckcloth like wattles.
His golden epaulettes gleamed. A French officer.
He stared imperiously around the room, obviously awaiting an explanation. Mutti's lips tightened. Her voice was frigid as she laid a hand on my shoulder and announced, "Captain St. Croix, allow me to introduce to you my eldest son, Jacob."
"So, the man of the house returns at last!" The French captain strode into the room and stood before us. I bowed silently. He hooked his thumbs in his lapels, unaware of the powdery stream of snuff that spilled down his coat. "And all this time I believed young Wilhelm to hold that honored position. Imagine him having an elder brother! Why ever didn't you mention him, Madame Grimm?"
He looked me up and down without waiting for a reply. "No wonder my men thought you were he, you're as alike as two peas. You can't be much older."
"A year, sir. I am eighteen years old."
"I see," he said. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Perhaps then you could tell me something about the whereabouts of young Monsieur Wilhelm, eh?"
My thoughts whirled. "I assume that as he is not here, he is still in Kassel," I said icily. "He has only recently graduated from the Lyzeum Fridericianum there."
St. Croix narrowed his eyes. "Well!" he said suddenly, his face reverting in an instant to his jovial expression, "now that this mysterious young Grimm has arrived, perhaps it is an omen that mealtime is at hand. I won't hesitate to profess a great liking for this Hessian fare."
"Within the hour, Captain," said Mutti.
"Bien, bien," he said heartily. "If you'll then excuse me…"
He retreated to the sitting room. Mutti waited until his shadow had passed out of sight before drawing me away. "In the kitchen. Quickly!"
The kitchen was unchanged. The bunches of dried potherbs hung in their usual place on the wall and Sophie, our housemaid, was slicing onions by the stove. Mutti went to the table. A plucked chicken already lay on the cutting board.
"Their captain," she whispered. "We're forced to quarter him here. They've been here for nearly three days." She gripped the edges of the board. "They meant to press Wilhelm into the army!"
I stared at her. "But…but how can they? We aren't French citizens! They have no right to—"
"The treaty has been broken, you know that," Mutti murmured, taking a carving knife from the rack. "Bonaparte is gathering troops in preparation to invade Britain. The Elector has permitted him to take soldiers from Hessen-Kassel, the…" Mutti breathed deeply and placed the knife against the base of the chicken's foot. "I mustn't speak ill of him, with all that Princess Wilhemine has done for us." Snick, went the knife.
Mutti set the knife down and began wringing a dishcloth as though it were Bonaparte's neck. Sophie understandingly took the bird and cutting board and retreated to the other end of the kitchen. Her eyes on the table, Mutti whispered, "Wilhelm hadn't returned from Kassel yet when he told me, some nonsense about giving him a warrant officer's rank." Her fingers sank into the cloth. "As if that were meant to comfort me for allowing him to make a traitor out of my own son!"
"It's madness," I gasped. "They can't take Wilhelm. He's an asthmatic, Mutti! Can you imagine him on the front? A shock could kill him!"
The expression of pain that darted across Mutti's face told me that she knew all too well. My thoughts flew to my younger brothers. Karl was nearing seventeen, and Ferdinand was already sixteen. Ludwig, or Louis, as we called him, only two years behind Ferdinand, was in danger as well. Who knew when the French would stoop to forcing children to fight their wars? "What about Ferdinand and Karl? Louis?"
"I wrote to your Tante Henriette," Mutti said, with a nervous glance towards the hall and the sitting room. "She came last week and took your brothers to Kassel. There are no soldiers in the Electress's household."
A wave of relief swept over me and then trickled away just as quickly. "Mutti," I said, "where is Wilhelm?"
Fear flickered in her eyes and vanished. "You must be exhausted, Jacob," she said loudly. I knew that her words were not meant for my ears alone. "Go upstairs and rest. Supper will be ready shortly." Steering me gently into the hall, she muttered, "Say nothing of Wilhelm in front of St. Croix."
She disappeared into the kitchen. I started up the carpeted stairs, gripping the balustrade like a lifeline, and stopped at the landing. On the wall hung a portrait of Vater.
A lump rising in my throat, I walked on to the room I had shared with my brothers. The clock chimed ten as I shut the door.
Moonlight shone through the window, casting ghostly shadows over the row of beds and nightstands. Louis's easel and old sketchbooks were in their usual place beside the window, and Ferdinand's flute and models of ships and bridges perched haughtily on their shelf. On the wall above the window ran a short bookshelf, where lack of space had forced Wilhelm and me to jam all of our old books between two brass bookends. All of Wilhelm's books came first: Stories or Tales from Olden Times by Charles Perrault, The Thousand and One Nights, Gods and Heroes of Greece and Rome, Tales of the Northmen, Tales of the Russians, and the legends of Siegfried and Dietrich followed. Then came the treatises, Bauer and Weiss on medieval law, and Von Humbolt's The Eighteenth Century. Those were mine. I'd gotten rid of my storybooks years ago.
After my books came another of Wilhelm's, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he claimed had made him morbid for a week after reading it. But where the last book should have been, Wilhelm's copy of the Prose Edda, there was only an empty space.
He must have taken it to school with him, I thought. Grandfather Zimmer had given it to him years ago, and it had been his favorite book for as long as I could remember.
I looked away, caught sight of the old wardrobe in the corner, and almost smiled. When we had first come to live in this house the wardrobe had perplexed us all. It had been the only piece of furniture remaining, and even more strangely, was firmly attached to the wall behind it. Wilhelm had been the first to discover its purpose—the back of the wardrobe slid open to reveal a wooden-walled passage that led all the way to the downstairs parlor, where a section of wood swung forward into the room and disappeared seamlessly into the wall when closed. My brothers and sister couldn't have been more overjoyed. The house that had seemed so dreary to them transformed overnight into a magnificent castle that could become anything from Robinson Crusoe's island fortress to the passageways of a kingdom entombed by howling desert sands.
Tugging at my neckcloth, I went to the washstand to be met in the mirror by a gangly figure in a threadbare tailcoat and homespun stockings more gray than white. It was a plain enough reflection, a pale face with a dusting of freckles that I had always thought made me look poxed. I sighed wearily and splashed water over my face. I did look very much like Wilhelm. His hair was a shade darker and much curlier than mine, but we were the same height and he was scarcely a year younger than I was. It wouldn't have been hard for an impatient soldier to mistake us for one another.
It was as I straightened that a jab of pain in my side reminded me: Vater's watch. It was in my waistcoat pocket. But when Dampère had struck me…
I fumbled for the chain and pulled the watch from my pocket. It was a heavy thing, gold and engraved with patterns of leafy vines. I tried to flip it open as I always did, but the lid refused to move. The clasp was bent. I gripped the watch, jammed my fingernails into the seam and pried it open.
The hands were still and a long, jagged crack split the glass. A mess of scratches scarred the words inscribed on the inside of the cover.
Für meinen lieben Philipp, von Dorothea
I held the watch to my ear. It was silent.
A ball of white-hot anger flared up inside my chest, threatening to engulf me. My fingers trembling, I grasped the watch and forced it closed.
I returned downstairs to find the table was already set for four. Mutti and Lotte were already there, leaving me the chair opposite the officer, who was busily tucking a napkin into his collar. No words could describe how I seethed at the sight of Captain St. Croix seated at the head of the table.
Mutti and Sophie set a meal of stew, boiled potatoes, blutwurst, sauerkraut, and rye bread atop the tablecloth. Mutti's eyes were tired as she sat. Even though Tante Henriette, Mutti's sister, had become a lady-in-waiting to the Electress of Hessen-Kassel, the years of worry since Vater's death had already taken their toll.
"Of course," said Captain St. Croix presently. "We mustn't neglect." He stood, raising his glass of Riesling wine, and I could have sworn there was a glint in his eye as he proclaimed, "To the health of the Consul. Long live Bonaparte!"
St. Croix seemed not to notice the silence that answered him. He sat down and applied himself enthusiastically to his meal. Swallowing the smothering mesh of anger that had lodged in my throat, I forced myself to do the same. For some time there was no sound but the deafening clink of silverware and the grinding of jaws.
St. Croix abruptly swallowing a soup-drenched chunk of bread. "So," he said. "Just where have you been hiding this long autumn, Monsieur Grimm?"
The idea of actually conversing with this man turned my stomach, but for Mutti and Lotte's sake I knew I would have to. "At the Philipps-Universität in Marburg," I said. "Sir."
"Oh?" he said, sawing furiously at his blutwurst. "And what do you do there?"
"Law, sir," I said.
"Ah, law," he said, nodding sagely. "With all of those books and such. My brother was like that, always up to his eyes in books. Never looked at 'em much myself; whatever would I think to see?"
I couldn't bring myself to reply. It mattered little, for St. Croix needed only himself to have a varied conversation. "Well, Monsieur Grimm," he said, stuffing another piece of blutwurst between his teeth, "you seem a fine lad, and far too useful to waste buried amidst stacks of dusty old laws." He anchored his elbows on either side of his plate and leaned over the table. "Tell me," he continued, "Haven't you ever wanted to travel? See the world?" He watched me intently. A bead of black blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.
"Not…not terribly, sir." I felt a tightening in my throat. "I…I very much enjoy reading. I—"
"Nonsense, nonsense!" he said, waving his fork. "I remember how I was at your age, always raring to race off. I'll do you a favor, my lad. The position I reserved for your brother…" He drew the back of his hand over his mouth. The line of blood smeared into an ugly weal. "I will bestow upon you."
My heart froze into a lump of ice. I sat motionless, gripping my fork so hard that it rattled against my plate. "Now," said the captain, with the broad grin of a wildcat with a mouse beneath its claws. "If you'll permit me…" He raised his glass again. "To the future Sergeant Grimm."
Mutti's face had gone white as salt. Lotte stared at me, her mouth open in horror. Captain St. Croix stood. "A fine meal, Madame Grimm; my compliments to you and your charming housekeeper. And as for you, Monsieur Grimm, we'll expect you by noon tomorrow. No need to worry about getting lost along the way; I'll escort you to the garrison myself." He clapped me on the shoulder in what he apparently meant to be a paternal gesture. "We'll give those damned English what for, eh?" He bowed to my mother and sister with a "Bonsoir, mesdames," and strode out, whistling a French marching air.
"Jacob…" Mutti whispered.
I lay my napkin on the table. "Excuse me."
I left the dining room and went up the stairs, down the hallway, and back into my own room. I sat down on my old bed, unwound my neckcloth and pulled it off, then hurled it across the room. The wad of cloth struck the wall and drifted to the floor.
I leaned forward and rested my head in my hands. It was done, well and truly done. It had been done from the moment Dampére had dragged me out of the carriage. I wasn't afraid. All I could feel was that everything that had happened until now, everything I had worked for and hoped for had been leading up to this moment, when all of it came crashing down around me. My years of study were worthless. Tomorrow I would be Sergeant Grimm, and then I would go with a regiment to the Alps or the shores of Britain or wherever Bonaparte sent his men to die. For a cause that wasn't mine.
There was a soft knock on the door. I raised my head and saw Lotte peeping in. She entered, bearing a steaming cup and saucer on a small tray. "Mutti sent this," she said quietly, setting it on the bedside table. I forced a shaky nod of thanks. Lotte went quietly to the door, then turned. "Don't go, Jacob."
She closed the door with a soft click.
Her words fell on me like leaden bricks. I looked at the cup. It was filled with coffee. I never drank coffee; Lotte must have taken Mutti's drink to me by mistake. I stood and opened the door. "Lotte—"
The sight of two disgustingly familiar faces met me with a jolt. Dampère and the scarecrow were at the top of the stairs, sprawling into two chairs at the end of the hall. "What…what are you doing here?" I stammered.
"What, aren't we allowed to come out of the cold?" Dampère drawled.
"Y-yes," I said.
I shut the door and leaned against it. St. Croix was taking no chances with me. These soldiers were my jailers.
I ran my fingers through my hair and began to pace. Where was Wilhelm? How could he desert Mutti and Lotte at a time like this?
I stopped and began to pace in the other direction. But how could I blame him for wanting to escape the French wars? He hated Bonaparte as much as any Hessian.
A slow creak from behind me made me pause, but I had already dismissed it as a noise of the house when a freezing hand clamped over my mouth.
I yelped and grabbed at his wrist, but then another hand gripped my shoulder and spun me around. I froze.
"Shhh!" He jerked his head towards the door. "How many?"
"Two," I whispered. "But—"
Wilhelm tugged me towards the far end of the room, nearly twelve paces from the door. Over my shoulder I saw the doors of the wardrobe gaping open. "It's about time you got back," he said, tossing himself onto Karl's bed. "I've been moldering in there for days."
I gaped at him. "You've been in the passage all this time?"
"All this time is right. I've been bored out of my skull." He flipped his tattered copy of the Prose Edda onto the desk and folded his hands behind his head. He was still in his shirtsleeves. "I've read that so many times I think I can recite it by heart. You don't happen to have a newspaper on you, do you?"
"Hessen-Kassel is the puppet of France," I said. "A French solider is living in our house, you are wanted in Bonaparte's army, and all you can think of is asking for a newspaper?"
Wilhelm rolled his eyes. "Do you have to put such a serious face on everything?"
"If there ever was a time for seriousness I think this would be it!" I nearly shouted.
"I'm very glad to see you too, Jacob." Wilhelm stretched and yawned, "Do you want that coffee?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Just how long were you planning to hide?" I demanded. "We don't know how long that captain's going to be quartered here! What are you going to do when the holidays are over? How are you going to get to Marburg?"
"Well, if you're not going to drink it, I will," said Wilhelm, taking the coffee. "Look, why are you so bothered? They'll have given up on me before much longer, and they'll be gone soon enough." He grinned. "Believe me, they're not taking me."
"No," I murmured. "No, they're not taking you."
Another noise from behind made me start. I turned and saw the doors of the wardrobe opening again. Wilhelm sat up. "Lotte?"
Lotte beckoned rapidly. "Follow me. Hurry." She vanished.
The urgency in her voice hushed both of us. Casting a wide-eyed look at me, Wilhelm stood, grabbed the Prose Edda from the desk, and followed Lotte into the darkness behind the half-open back of the wardrobe. After a moment's hesitation I followed, only just remembering to close the wardrobe behind us.
The corridor sloped downwards, winding past one room after another until Lotte unlatched the panel that opened into the small parlor. The light from a single candle greeted us. Mutti was sitting at the tiny desk. "I…I've already brought out the mares," she said.
Wilhelm frowned. "Mares? What for?"
Mutti rose to her feet, every crease in her face deepened by despair. "You must leave," she said. "Both of you. We must get you away from here."
Behind us, Lotte began to weep.
Wilhelm stared at her, stunned. "But what…what's happened?"
"St. Croix has conscripted Jacob." Mutti motioned anxiously to Sophie, who bustled towards us with a pair of heavy greatcoats. Wilhelm turned to me, his mouth open. "I…I'm sorry," he stammered. "I didn't know…"
"Where…where should we go?" I asked fearfully. "Back to Kassel? Or Marburg?"
"No," Mutti said, taking the coats from Sophie. She laid one across the back of the chair and began buttoning Wilhelm into the other as though he were a doll. "You must get out of Hessen-Kassel."
For the first time I realized the enormity of what was happening. "Leave…leave Hessen-Kassel?"
"You must get to Austria." She wrapped a woolen scarf around Wilhelm's neck. "They resist Bonaparte still." She took a pair of riding boots from the floor and pressed them into my hands. "Put these on. Quickly!"
My hands trembled as I took off my shoes and pulled the boots on over my stockings. Mutti's words echoed in my head. Austria? How could we possibly go to Austria? It was so far away, almost two weeks' journey by carriage. Any road to Austria would have to cross the Rhön mountains and a mosaic of tiny margravates and bishoprics, then continue through the Bavarian forests until it reached the border. A journey of nearly three hundred miles through a wild land of forested mountains.
Mutti began wrapping me into a coat as she had done Wilhelm. "Should anyone ask your business, you are going to visit family in Nürnberg," she whispered. "Lotte, for heaven's sake, be quiet!" she snapped as Lotte let out a loud sob. Sophie hurried over to hush her.
Mutti held out our hats. The despair in her face had vanished, replaced by a steely look that I had only seen her wear once before.
"I will bury no more of my sons," she said.
I took my hat tentatively and set it on my head. By the entrance of the passage Lotte continued to cry. "It's going to be horrible," she wept. "All alone in Austria…with the soldiers and…"
"Please don't cry, Lotte. It'll be all right. Truly," I said weakly. How could I ever comfort her?
Wilhelm appeared beside me. "It's only for a little while," he said, smiling. "We'll be back before you know it. It just like a story, isn't it? We're setting off on an adventure."
I nudged him. "Wilhelm, I don't think you ought to—"
He ignored me. "Who knows if we'll stop in Austria? We'll travel the world and send you and Mutti gifts from Egypt and China. Do you remember The Thousand and One Nights?"
"Ye-…ye-…yes," Lotte hiccupped.
"We'll have so many adventures that each one'll be its own story, just like the tales from Arabia. We'll write to you from every place we visit and tell you where we've been and what we've seen. It'll be just like—"
"Wilhelm, stop it!" I snapped.
Lotte and Wilhelm both turned and stared at me. Lotte's eyes began to well again.
"Wilhelm, Jacob," Mutti's whispered from the doorway. She peered out into the hall, then beckoned us to follow.
The sky had cleared and a half moon sailed regally through ragged shoals of cloud. No light shone from the windows of our house as we followed Mutti, who had her crocheted shawl for warmth. Our two mares stood tied and saddled at the gate, black Heike and gray Mische.
"I've packed three days of food," Sophie said, pointing at the saddlebags. "And some barley for the horses. There'll be little grazing this time of year." She bowed her head. "Auf Wiedersehen, young masters."
I swung numbly into Heike's saddle. Wilhelm steered Mische to a stop beside me as Mutti came to stand between us. "Gallop until you reach the Kinzig River," she said. "Don't stop, and don't ever look back."
Wilhelm lifted his head and fastened his eyes on the darkened house for a long moment, as though etching that sight into his mind forever. "We'll come back," he said. "I swear we'll come back."
He clicked his tongue and dug his heels into Mische's sides. The mare snorted and began to trot towards the fence. Mutti opened the gate as Wilhelm guided Mische out onto the road.
Heike tugged at the reins, eager to follow her companion, but I held her back. My eyes found my mother's face. "Mutti…"
"Take care of Wilhelm, Jacob," she whispered. "Godspeed."
Something indefinable swelled in my chest. Nodding slowly, I nudged Heike onto the road after Wilhelm, and looked back.
Mutti stood at the gate, her face in shadow. At the threshold Sophie knelt, her arms around Lotte.
A thousand fears jabbed at me like arrows. What would St. Croix and his soldiers do when he discovered I was gone? What if he punished them somehow? How could I leave them this way?
It seemed an eternity that I remained, searching for some sign, some miracle that would make all the way it was, all the way it should have been. At the threshold, Lotte lifted her hand in a tiny farewell.
I turned. Ahead of me Wilhelm urged Mische into a trot, then a canter, then a gallop. I followed, spurring my own mare onward until we were racing down the moonlit road that twisted into the dark mist of the forest.