Gilbert sat leaning against the front wall of a tiny building in the little town square, watching with half-hearted interest as a nearby fight between a sailor and a former SS officer escalated. Gilbert was rooting silently for the sailor. Roderich sat in the doorway beside him, gripping the wooden step tightly, his knuckles white. They had not yet been told their sleeping arrangements, their eating arrangements, any of it. There was nothing to do but sit and wait. No wonder men were starting to fight - nothing like a good brawl to break up the boredom. Any other time and Gilbert would have happily joined in. These two men were hopeless, their swings wild and sloppy and unfocused. Gilbert could smash them easily. He wondered what the prince would say of it, however, and forced himself to stay put.
The heat and smell of the nearby small fire wafted over Gilbert's senses. Oxenstierna had probably started it for the warmth, or perhaps simply because it was something to do. True, it was ridiculously freezing for this alleged summer, but surely the Swede should be used to the cold. He was Swedish, after all. The Swedish 'Lion of the North.' Gilbert wondered what the hell the title was supposed to mean. Why did Oxenstierna have a title? Surely Gilbert deserved a title. The 'Eagle of the East' or something. Gilbert grumbled softly to himself. He wanted a title, damn it. The blasted 'Lion of the North' sat on the ground by the fire, polishing his rifle, ignoring Gilbert's suspicious glances. The Polish soldier, Łukasiewicz, had come closer for the heat, and filed his nails silently as he sat on a small crate close to the fire. In all of three years, he was the first soldier Gilbert had ever seen filing his nails.
Gilbert picked up a twig from the dirty ground and threw it in the fire. Only the slightest spark of flame greeted his efforts. "What's the deal with the captain, do you think?" he asked no one in particular. The silence was starting to annoy him. Gilbert did not particularly like silence. Silence was suspicious. "He's no German career soldier."
"I heard some of the men talking about it." The Pole spoke softly, with a strong accent, and did not look up from his nails as he spoke. He wore the grey uniform of the SS, but he looked like no SS Gilbert had ever seen. He flicked back his shoulder-length blonde hair and shrugged. "Apparently he's, you know, like a Swiss mercenary. Or something."
"Crazy bastard," muttered Gilbert. It made sense, however. Who the hell else would run a unit like this?
"Swiss, did you say?" asked Roderich, his voice pensive. Gilbert almost startled at the words: it was the first Roderich had spoken since the line up. Basically the pretty Austrian had stayed close to Gilbert, darted his big violet eyes around nervously, and glared at everything and everyone like they were something nasty on the bottom of his shoe.
"Yeah," answered Feliks vaguely. He blew on his nails.
"Zwingli…" Roderich furrowed his brow, like he was trying to remember something. Gilbert peered at him curiously. He hoped the guy wasn't going insane already. He hadn't even seen combat yet.
Roderich glanced up at Gilbert quickly, as though he'd forgotten he was there. He pushed his hair behind his ear and adjusted his glasses. "No, it's… it's nothing."
Gilbert shrugged and turned his attention back to the nearby fight. The sailor and the SS officer's shoddy punches were actually starting to connect now. "Money's on the sailor," Gilbert muttered softly. To his surprise, Oxenstierna responded.
"Pack'f cigarettes on th'SS."
Gilbert nodded, somewhat impressed. Maybe this Nordic lion wasn't quite as boring as he seemed. "You are on, my leonine friend."
Oxenstierna did not look up. "Done."
"Done." Gilbert smiled, rather pleased with himself. He needed some cigarettes. Roderich barely seemed to have noticed the exchange, instead eyeing the fighting soldiers warily. Gilbert, however, was becoming a little more worried about why this huge, blank-faced Swedish bastard he'd just placed a bet with kept polishing his rifle right beside them. "Oxenstierna," he barked loudly. "Why the hell do you still have your rifle?"
"No one took't off me."
"Huh." Gilbert wasn't actually surprised no one had taken the rifle off the man. Oxenstierna was one of the biggest men Gilbert had ever seen, next to his freak of a brother. Still, Gilbert didn't have a rifle, this bastard did, and that pissed Gilbert off. "Well, it's not regulation issue. They'll probably take it off you tomorrow."
The Swede looked up slowly, his stern eyes glinting in the firelight. "No one's takin't off me."
Gilbert was willing to bet no one would try, if the Swede looked at them like that. He tried to inspect the gun from the short distance. It looked to Gilbert like a standard sniper rifle, something like the Mosins used by the Russians. Certainly nothing special. Gilbert could just make out the photograph attached to its side, of a young, smiling blond man in a Finnish army jacket. He nodded towards it. "Your wife, huh." Oxenstierna nodded. "Right, right." Gilbert drummed his fingers together and wondered just what it would take to break this Swede's composure. The Swede was bigger than him; the Swede was armed and Gilbert was not. Gilbert carefully evaluated the risk, then shrugged to himself. Screw it, he was bored. "Well done, sir. Was it a big wedding?" Gilbert felt Roderich's warning eyes on him immediately.
Oxenstierna did not react. Roderich spoke softly. "Gilbert, what…"
Gilbert ignored him. This was one way to get a little excitement going. He leant forward, smirked, and lowered his voice. "Did the bride wear white?"
Roderich drew in a sharp breath. "Gilbert, I really don't think…"
"I'm sure the parents were very proud." Roderich started to hiss another warning, so Gilbert turned, grinned, and nodded towards him cheerfully. "This here is my wife, actually, didn't you know?"
Roderich's perfectly shaped face turned white. He looked like he was about to choke. "I beg your pardon?"
Gilbert snickered. Oh, this could be fun. "The honeymoon was lovely, wasn't it darling? Show the nice man your wedding ring." Gilbert was actually pretty damn surprised Roderich had a wedding ring, considering he didn't even have a real marriage.
Roderich breathed out angrily and covered the thin gold band with a delicate hand. "This ring is from my actual wedding. With my wife. My real wife."
That got the Swede to react. His hand froze on the rifle and his shoulders straightened. His voice was no less threatening for its quietness. "Ye sayin' m'wife's not real?"
Gilbert turned an affronted look on Roderich. "Yeah, Roddy, you sayin' his wife's not real?"
"No, I just… what… what did you call me?" Roderich obviously did not know how to talk like this. Gilbert mentally filed the offending name away for future use. Unfortunately, the nail-filing Pole piped up before the situation could get really interesting.
"I'm sort of married too, you know. Except I think I'm the wife."
Gilbert snorted softly. That much was painfully obvious. "Well, well. Where have all the bachelors gone? But hubby's gone home to Lithuania, didn't you say?"
Łukasiewicz looked down, suddenly distraught. He looked like a kicked puppy. "Yes. And he, like, joined the Russian army." He shrugged. "Or something," he finished quietly.
"No shit? You do realise that by now he's probably…" Gilbert broke off as Roderich thumped him heavily on the shoulder. A sharp pain burst down his arm.
"Ow! Now Roddy, darling, that was uncalled for." Gilbert glared and rubbed his shoulder brusquely. Damn, the delicate musician hit harder than expected. The corner of Roderich's lip lifted, disgusted.
"Probably what?" Łukasiewicz bit his lip and drew his eyebrows together. "Liet's probably what?"
Gilbert had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. Łukasiewicz would surely have just as hard a time out here as pretty boy Roderich. Still, strangely, Gilbert couldn't quite bring himself to tell the little Pole that, as a Lithuanian in the Red Army, his beloved 'Liet' was probably long dead. "Probably somewhere nearby," he finished instead. "Hey, you might even run into him! Except then you'd be trying to kill each other, and…"
"Feliks, wasn't it?" Roderich interrupted loudly. "I'm sorry, but I don't believe I can pronounce your surname correctly."
Feliks giggled softly and waved a hand. "Everyone says that, you know. It's really not that hard. Silly Germans."
"Austrian, actually." Roderich smiled, and Gilbert's eyes narrowed as he watched the exchange. Why was the snooty prince being friendly to this silly little Pole of all people? Gilbert felt surprisingly insulted. "My name is Roderich Héderváry, but you can call me Roderich if you like."
"Roderich," muttered Gilbert under his breath. "Never said I could call you Roderich..."
Feliks took one very deep breath, tilted his head to the side, and absently bit a perfectly filed thumbnail. He breathed out slowly as he regarded Roderich closely. A strange silence fell over the small group. Finally, Feliks' eyes widened and brightened. Then he nodded decisively. "I'm going to call you Fred."
Gilbert snickered a little and Roderich took a moment to respond. "Oh. Why?"
"Because you're a musician. Captain Karabin said you were a composer." Gilbert and Roderich glanced at each other briefly. Karabin? Feliks did not explain. "My favourite composer is Frédéric Chopin. Because he's Polish, did you know? Liet told me that." Feliks smiled gently. "Liet knows lots of things like that."
Roderich seemed to melt back into the doorway at the words. He closed his deep violet eyes, then let out a long, heavy breath as he opened them slowly. His saddened expression almost twisted in pain. "Chopin is my favourite, also." Suddenly he did not look proud, or stuck-up, or pompous. Instead he looked beautiful, and sad, and Gilbert felt strangely uncomfortable. Gilbert forced himself to look away and hummed thoughtfully.
"Chopin, Chopin. Is he the one who went deaf?" Gilbert looked back at Roderich's horrified gasp.
The Austrian's nostrils flared and his lip curled. He looked genuinely disgusted. "What sort of education did you have, barbarian?"
And just like that, the prince was pompous once again. Gilbert gave a snort of defiant, contemptuous laughter. "Barbarian?" Exactly something a prissy aristocrat would say. "I was educated in a cave," Gilbert spat sarcastically, "And taught to kill wild animals with a club."
"Gosh," interrupted Feliks, staring wide-eyed and open mouthed. "They teach you really strange things in Germany." Roderich's angry response died on his lips. His amused expression mirrored Gilbert's own. Feliks spoke airily and amiably. "All I learnt at school was times-tables and how to spell and where to hide from the nuns. But Beilschmidt, you said you were Prussian, didn't you?"
"That's exactly right, my Polish friend." Gilbert puffed out his chest. "I come from a long, proud military line that stretches all the way back to the great Knights of the Teutonic Order." Gilbert smiled smugly and ignored Roderich's quiet scoff. Feliks, however, looked intensely impressed.
"Wow! A Teutonic Knight! I'm going to call you Sir Gil."
"Hmm." Gilbert raised his head thoughtfully. He liked the sound of that. As far as a title went, it was pretty damn impressive. "Yeah… fuck yeah! Sir Gil! What do you think, Roddy, suits me, doesn't it?"
Roderich peered at Gilbert dubiously. His violet eyes danced with derision. "Sir? Please. You've no chance of obtaining the title through either knighthood or promotion."
Feliks giggled. Gilbert did not have time to shoot back a scathing response before two men fell abruptly onto the ground before them, grunting and swearing, limbs flying in wild kicks and punches that sent clouds of dust into the air. Gilbert had completely forgotten about the brawling sailor and the officer. He swore loudly as Roderich shrunk back against the wooden door. Feliks shrieked and fell backwards off his crate. The forgotten brawlers rolled dangerously close to the fire, heedless of the flames or the four surprised men watching.
Gilbert shouted to be heard. "Christ, boys, as much as I respect a man's right to fight, there are ladies present! No offence, Feliks."
Roderich's anger seemed to override his alarm over the brawling men. He turned to Gilbert, the derision in his violet eyes turned to fury. "Gilbert, I hope you realise that you are the only one who thinks you are at all amusing!"
"That's not true, the Swede here thinks I'm hilarious, don't you, Oxenstierna?"
"Oh, will you stop saying such ridiculous things!" shouted Roderich, his voice louder than Gilbert had yet heard it. Suddenly one of the men, the sailor, kicked too close to the fire and sent a wave of sparks in Feliks' direction. Feliks screamed again and covered his head. Strangely furious, Gilbert went to grab the man by the wrist, but was stopped in his tracks when the blasting crack of a gunshot echoed through the tiny square. Roderich gasped, Gilbert fell back instinctively against the wall, and the brawling men broke apart immediately.
Oxenstierna held his rifle pointed in the air, staring at the two men with that still, expressionless, terrifying glare. But when he spoke his voice was no more than a quiet mumble. "Y'should apologise fer that."
Feliks let out a relieved breath and looked at the Swede with wide, gleaming eyes. He smiled brightly. "I'm going to stick with you, Kociak."
Gilbert did not stop to ponder Feliks' odd words. He got the feeling he would have to get used to them. As the men scrambled to their feet, their eyes fixed on the Swede's rifle, Gilbert saw an opportunity. "Damn straight you should apologise," he said jovially, stretching out his legs and leaning leisurely back against the wall. Roderich stayed still and quiet beside him. Gilbert breathed evenly to slow his jumpy heart rate. "Interrupting our conversation, almost destroying our fire. Kicking sparks at my friend here." Gilbert nodded at Feliks. "I think you owe us a damn apology."
The SS soldier snorted derisively. His blonde hair was far too long for the military - perhaps he had been AWOL long enough to let it grow. Gilbert squinted to make out the name on his jacket: from the small distance, he could just vaguely read the word Saxon. Saxon glared down at Gilbert in disgust. "I don't owe you shit."
Gilbert smirked faintly. He was hoping for an answer like that. "Is that right? Oxenstierna?" Gilbert did not turn his head as he said it, but he hoped the Swede would understand what he was asking. There was a loud, unmistakable click as Oxenstierna pulled his rifle bolt back. Gilbert almost laughed - the Swede understood. He was liking Oxenstierna more and more. Gilbert grinned at the uncertain soldiers. "I think a pack of cigarettes will suffice."
The sailor looked about to respond, but Saxon drew himself up confrontationally. "Who says I got any cigarettes?"
"Oxenstierna?" asked Gilbert again. This time the Swede fired the rifle. Roderich jumped and put his hand to his chest as the deafening sound tore again through the silent afternoon. Saxon snarled in anger, but the sailor's nerves seemed to get the better of him.
"Okay, okay, here." The sailor spoke placatingly as he reached into his front pocket, pulled out a distinctive red packet of Aviatik cigarettes, and tossed them to Gilbert.
"Wonderful!" said Gilbert, catching the cigarettes delightedly. The packet was almost full. Enough to spilt evenly with the Swede, seeing as neither of them had really won their earlier bet. He waved a hand dismissively. "You two can bugger off now."
The two men dusted themselves off and stalked away, throwing back dark looks as they went. Saxon stopped to glare at Oxenstierna and growl, "That rifle's not standard issue. And don't forget, we'll all be armed tomorrow."
"Yeah, just try and take it from him," laughed Gilbert. Actually, he would like to see that. Gilbert hated the SS. Filthy, mind-broken, morally bankrupt idiots living high on power. And this Saxon looked like the real deal, not just a misguided fool like poor Feliks. Gilbert sneered at him disdainfully. "And don't you forget, despite your officer's stripes, you're just a lowly private now."
"Well done, Gilbert," said Roderich quietly, once the men had crossed the square. He was rather pale, but looked more angry than anything. "So it is your mission in life to make enemies, is it?"
"Nah, but I'm pretty damn good at it." Gilbert pulled half the cigarettes from the packet. Aviatik was a good brand. Not quite as good as the American's Lucky Strikes, but certainly nothing to sneer at. "You right there, Feliks?"
"Yes," said Feliks breathlessly. The Pole sat again on his crate, staring at Gilbert with the same wide-eyed admiration he'd held for Oxenstierna earlier. "I'm gonna stick with you as well, Sir Gil!"
Gilbert placed the cigarettes carefully in an inner pocket of his jacket. "Not a bad idea, my friend. I have a talent for surviving. Do you smoke?"
"No, it makes Liet's eyes water."
"What the hell does that matter n – ow!" Gilbert winced as Roderich once again thumped him in the arm. "Okay, okay. I won't even bother asking if you smoke, Roddy. Oxenstierna." Gilbert nodded towards him. "I can see we'll get along just fine. And here." Gilbert tossed the half-full packet to the Swede, who caught it easily. "Neither of the bastards won."
Oxenstierna nodded, pushed the cigarettes into his front pocket, and turned his attention back to cleaning the end of the rifle over his knees. For the first time, Gilbert noticed that the Swede was wearing a battered iron band on his ring finger. He was surprisingly moved at the sight. It was not an emotion he was used to. Perhaps Oxenstierna's 'marriage' meant more to the Swede than Gilbert had bothered to consider. That cheap, tarnished little ring obviously meant more than the gleaming, undoubtedly expensive gold on Roderich's finger.
"Everyone's, like, looking at us now, you know."
The words broke Gilbert from his reverie. He glanced promptly around the square. Feliks was right. Small pockets of prisoners stared in their direction, speaking amongst themselves. A group of military guards eyed them suspiciously from a nearby doorway. Gilbert could even see his friend Saxon from the fight muttering darkly with old Sergeant Hesse from the transport truck. He laughed softly. It was a good thing to be feared out here. Gilbert's entire motivation, from the moment he and Roderich stepped onto that truck, was to make it abundantly clear he was not to be messed with. It looked like the message was sinking in. "I wouldn't worry about it, Feliks. They're all scared of me, that's all."
Gilbert placed a cigarette between his lips, patted his pockets, then realised he did not have a light. "Shit." Just as he was fumbling around for a twig to place in the fire, a burning light appeared before him. The Swiss captain, Zwingli, stared down with an outstretched match and a blank expression. Gilbert grinned widely. "Thanks, Captain!" He leant forward, lit the cigarette, and sucked the smoke in desperately. It had been far too long since he had last breathed that delicious burn into his lungs.
"For the so-called Lion of the North, I thought you'd have a louder roar." Gilbert glanced up again, confused by the words, but Zwingli's eyes were focused on Oxenstierna. The Swede just gave an offhanded shrug. Zwingli folded his arms and nodded distinctly at Oxenstierna's gun. "Give me one reason I shouldn't take that rifle off you, soldier."
Oxenstierna paused, took a deep breath, then met Zwingli's eyes with a look that sent a shudder down Gilbert's spine. "'t's killed a lot'f Russians. Sir."
Zwingli narrowed his eyes, then gave a brief, upward nod. "Good reason. Mosin-Nagant M28-30, isn't it?" Oxenstierna nodded, and Zwingli's gaze fell on the photograph. "I believe those are quite popular among Finnish snipers. But snipers don't let go of their rifles easily." Oxenstierna nodded again, slower this time. "It's a good gun. You keep killing Russians with it, rather than threatening my men, and I'll have no reason to take it off you. But no more wasting bullets – those things aren't free. Now." Zwingli pointed at Gilbert. "You. Prussian."
"Yeah? Sir?" Gilbert blinked the surprise from his eyes and took a draw on his cigarette. What the hell was with this captain? Any other officer would have taken that rifle in a heartbeat after an incident like that. Zwingli barely seemed to care.
"How long you been out here?"
"Russia, a year sir. Been fighting through Europe since the start."
"Hm. Four years." Zwingli's eyes focused on the medals adorning Gilbert's jacket. "You look like you can handle yourself. I'm promoting you to corporal." He nodded at the other three men. "This here's your team."
Gilbert paused for a moment, his blood turning hot as it rose to his head. A promotion? Sure, this captain was unlike any he had ever known, but he didn't seem like the type to play games. Gilbert laughed shakily. "Are you serious?"
Zwingli's jaw hardened. He looked quite put out at the insinuation. "Do I look like I'm joking, soldier?"
Gilbert couldn't help looking at Roderich for his reaction. The Austrian looked stunned with disbelief. Gilbert smirked, though he couldn't quite believe it himself. "Three years in this army and not a damn word about promotion. One day in a prison unit and I'm a corporal. I should've got myself arrested years ago, I'd be a major by now!"
"Don't get excited, Prussian. Your competition was an Austrian princess, a retarded Pole, and a Swede with gender identification issues. I'm placing you four at the front, because let's face it…" Zwingli glanced around the square and the glaring soldiers pointedly. "You're not gonna last long anyway. I'm calling you Team Fairy. Any objections?"
"Ooh!" said Feliks brightly. "I like fairies!"
Gilbert could almost feel Roderich's silent incensement. Gilbert just laughed. It wasn't like he hadn't heard worse. He stretched his legs before him, exhaling a lungful of smoke while staring Zwingli stubbornly in the eye. "There wouldn't be any, uh, double meaning behind that name, would there, sir?"
Zwingli's eyebrow twitched, but he remained stone faced. "None at all, Corporal. It's just that I've already named Team Leprechaun and Team Gnome across the square. I've got your orders for tomorrow. You ready?"
Gilbert grinned. "Oh, I'm always ready, Captain."
Zwingli smirked. "I'll remember that, Prussian. Now listen carefully, because I've got a feeling you're the only one here who'll understand this. Besides maybe Oxenstierna, but I haven't figured out if he actually understands German yet. Now. There's a German battalion further up near Kalova village. It's a dirty shithole of absolutely no strategic importance whatsoever. But the Russians want this town, and when the Reds want something, the bastards get it – no matter the cost. Casualties have been heavy on both sides. The Germans have been holding on without reinforcements for weeks now, and they're close to their breaking point." Gilbert pondered quietly on that. How interesting that Zwingli seemed to make a distinction between himself and 'the Germans.' "They've even been putting the rear echelon base stallions into the line, and now that they are down to their last few cooks and clerks, this is where we come into it."
Roderich breathed heavily, his eyes wide and his hands gripping the wooden doorstep. Feliks returned to filing his nails. Oxenstierna gripped his rifle, unmoving, his lips set in a hard line as he stared unblinking at the captain. Zwingli, however, spoke only to Gilbert in that steady, commanding tone. "HQ wants to pull the exhausted unit out of the line, stabilise the front, and create a stronger position further back. But while the newspapers like heroic last stands, the German infantry have a rather different view on the matter. And as we all know…" Zwingli smirked sarcastically, "The mighty Wehrmacht never retreats. So, while our erstwhile comrades in arms relocate to their new position of relative safety, we shall be covering their arses by moving into their old lines around Kalova. Basically, we'll be holding off the Russki's to buy the regulars time to create and fortify their new position. There's only one problem."
"Oh, isn't there always," muttered Gilbert. He was already starting to feel both excited and edgy at the captain's words. Excited, because he hadn't been involved in a mission that required actual intelligent thinking for months. Edgy, because this sounded like a suicide mission.
Zwingli spoke with his hands clasped behind his back and his head held high. His blonde hair hung loosely to his chin. Gilbert really had to wonder at the lack of proper haircuts in this new unit. "Intelligence tells us that an attack is brewing. 'Imminent', I believe the actual word was – and we'll be in the thick of it. Some Russian commander has decreed that this town will fall, so fall it shall. The only question is when. But we will hold that town to the last bullet and the last man if necessary. Your lives are meaningless, forfeit. You were dead the moment you stepped off that truck. Now." Zwingli bounced once on his heels, smiling around at the four men. "Is that understood?"
Gilbert took a very deep breath, rubbed a hand over his eyes, and breathed in the last of his cigarette. Roderich and Feliks were blank-faced, but a quick glance showed that Oxenstierna seemed to have understood Zwingli's words as well as Gilbert. The Swede's face was still set in that cold, detached expression, but his eyes were wide with alarm.
"So, uh…" Gilbert broke off and stubbed his cigarette into the ground. The dirt was cold against his fingers. He'd had orders barked at him a thousand times, but always with the carrot of survival dangling at the end. This time, he was actually expected to die. "What you're telling me, Captain, is that this company of fifty men is going to try and hold a village against an entire Russian battalion?"
"You're a sharp one, Prussian."
Gilbert turned to see Roderich staring at him, wide-eyed and confused. Gilbert forced his lips into a grin, then threw back his head and laughed. "I thought this unit was supposed to be a punishment. Hell, this sounds like fun."
Surprisingly, it was Feliks who stated the obvious. "We'll be killed," he said simply.
"Maybe so, soldier." Zwingli bared his teeth in a wide grin and clutched the pistol at his side, his eyes lighting up with something not quite sane. "But we'll take some Russians with us."
"Useless," muttered Gilbert for the fourth time, rifling through the mid-sized ration pack he'd been handed earlier. "Goddamned fucking useless."
Roderich glanced down at his own pack. He was rather afraid of looking through it, if Gilbert's reaction was anything to go by. Oxenstierna's pack sat beside him, ignored. Feliks had tipped his out and was currently inspecting the contents by the illumination of the nearby truck lights and the still flickering fire. "No chocolate," Feliks said finally, disappointment on his face and in his voice. He sat back and threw his hands up, appalled. "How can they give us a ration pack without chocolate?"
"No chocolate, no coffee, no supplemental candy rations." Gilbert sounded disgusted as he continued searching the bag. "But, oh, hey…" Gilbert held up a small green roll and grinned. "Vivil mints."
"Ooh!" Feliks dove back into his small pile of blue tins and brown packages, rummaging in search of the little mint packet.
The moon was high in the sky, the fire still burned, and the four soldiers had not moved in hours. No one came near them, unsurprisingly. Roderich had absolutely no idea how Gilbert had survived for three years with his apparent sheer, bloody-minded determination to infuriate the entire German military. The other soldiers started to filter away to the nominated sleeping quarters in the old town hall, but Gilbert, Feliks and the Swede made no move to follow them. Roderich had no desire to wander off on his own again any time soon, so it looked like he was stuck with the three men for now. In fact, it looked like they would be sticking together from now on, as part of Corporal Beilschmidt's team. Roderich did not know whether to laugh or scream. Being completely honest with himself, however, Roderich had to acknowledge that he felt far safer by Gilbert's side than he had these last few nights alone. He was also quite certain nothing had ever bothered or frightened him quite as much as this realisation.
Roderich looked from the small pile before Feliks to his own ration pack. It was far too small. "This is just for tomorrow though, yes? We'll be given more food after the… the battle, surely?"
Gilbert rolled his eyes. "Don't count on it, Roddy."
Roderich was horrified. "But… but what is this? Tinned meat? Hard bread? How long are we expected to last on this?" Three bemused and faintly derisive stares met his, and Roderich quickly looked away. He tossed the pack disdainfully to the side, embarrassment colouring his cheeks. Just how was he supposed to know how things worked in the army? He was a musician, not a soldier. He was a musician, and this was madness. "Well, it's terribly inefficient, if anything. If the German military wants their soldiers to succeed they should consider providing proper nourishment."
Gilbert let out a snort of laughter, but Oxenstierna spoke up before the German could respond. "Wish they had tea instead'f coffee."
"I just wish they had chocolate," said Feliks, ripping into the green packet of mints he had finally managed to find.
"Good God, I wish they had beer," said Gilbert dreamily. "I'd cut off my right hand for a stein of beer."
Feliks laughed. "I bet you wouldn't."
Gilbert glared at him and straightened up confrontationally. "I bet I would."
Feliks spoke around the mint in his mouth. "Well, that would just be, like, stupid, wouldn't it, because then you'd have to drink with your left hand, and that's totally rude. Don't you Germans know anything?"
Roderich didn't know whether to laugh. A tight bundle of nerves sat uneasily in his stomach, Captain Zwingli's words about the mission tomorrow echoing through his head. The entire time Zwingli had spoken to Gilbert, Roderich could not shake the strange feeling that he had seen the Swiss captain somewhere before. But the ensuing ridiculous conversation of his companions somehow kept his worst fears and anxiety at bay. Roderich was just wondering why that was, when a sudden loud blast echoed through the square, followed by the crackling radio.
…9:55pm and this is Radio Belgrade, signing off, with 'Lili Marlene.' And then the music started.
Underneath the lantern, by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember, the way you used to wait…
The village square fell into a deep silence. The very air seemed to stop moving. In the still, eerie peace, Roderich let the music wash over him immediately. It was the same song he had heard the night before. The same marching beat, the same pretty voice. And yet, Roderich still craved the music; still felt himself fall into it. The knot of fear in his stomach loosened, the uneasy anxiety about the morning lessened, and Roderich breathed in the brass and drums and the silence between the beats. His fingers again itched for the touch of a violin, for the relief of a piano. His familiar ache and agony for this beautiful, comforting music overruled all other petty concerns of food and shelter and safety.
And there 'neath that far off lantern light,
I'd hold you tight, we'd kiss goodnight,
My lily of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene.
"They played this song last night, also," Roderich finally whispered, to no one in particular. "At the last village."
Gilbert laughed shortly. His deep voice sounded so much louder in the deep still night, with only the marching beats of a wartime propaganda song behind him. "Get used to it. You'll hear this song a lot out here. Radio Belgrade plays it every night, and there's always someone at every base who'll turn the vehicle radios on and blast it through."
Roderich wondered at that. Why this song? There was far better music in popular circulation. Far better songs. So why did the radio play this one? Why did the soldiers try so hard to hear it? "Why?" he asked simply.
It was Feliks who answered. "Well, it's about, like, someone left behind, isn't it, Fred? And everyone out here has left someone behind. Everyone has their own Lili Marlene." Silence fell again. It seemed Feliks could be surprisingly astute beneath that dim outward demeanour. Roderich was surprised to find that he liked Feliks. If he had met him at home, in Vienna, Roderich would have hated him. But out here, where life was unsure and people were uncertain, Roderich like the little Pole. How could he not like someone who filed their nails at an army base? "I used to sing this," Feliks continued softly. "At my cabaret, in Berlin. It was really popular." And then Feliks sang along with the sweet voice pouring from the radio, his voice soft and bright and clear.
"Resting in a billet just behind the line,
Even tho' we're parted your lips are close to mine.
You wait where that lantern softly gleams,
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams."
Feliks stared at the fire as he sang, his eyes far away. Oxenstierna's gaze rested on his rifle. Roderich listened, finding Feliks' voice strangely soothing with the music, feeling oddly calm despite this confusing, desperate situation he'd somehow ended up in. It took him a few moments to realise that Gilbert was looking at him. Roderich felt his heart jump to his throat. "What?"
Gilbert's eyes were narrow, his head tilted. "This song. Does it remind you of anything?"
Roderich blinked in confusion. What a strange thing to ask… "I barely know it," he replied. "I'd never really heard it before last night."
Gilbert just nodded, almost reluctantly. "All right. Okay." Roderich wanted to ask why Gilbert would even think to ask that. But he could not help listening to Feliks singing the last of the lyrics, his clear, charming voice slicing through the dark night.
"You wait where that lantern softly gleams,
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams.
My lily of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene."
Almost the second the song finished, the truck lights switched off and Zwingli's booming voice carried through the square. "Bedtime, children!"
Feliks breathed a sharp, hissing gasp. "Oh, damn."
Roderich glanced at Oxenstierna in surprise. The man had barely spoken a word all night unless spoken to. Feliks looked over at the town hall, then down at his hands as he answered.
"There's, like, a lot of men I don't know in there and I get nervous around people I don't know sometimes and they sort of…" Feliks trailed into a mumble. "…scare me," he finished quietly.
"Well, they're scared'f me." Oxenstierna swung his rifle and pack over his shoulder, drew himself to his feet, and stared down at Feliks. "And ye said ye'd stick with me, right?"
Feliks paused, nodded, then broke into a smile. He scrambled quickly to his feet. "Sure did, Kociak!"
Roderich's eyes met Gilbert's. "Kociak?"
Gilbert shrugged. "No idea, Fred." Roderich had to bite back a laugh. He put his pack over his shoulder, preparing to follow Feliks and Oxenstierna into the hall. He was stopped by Gilbert's hand on his. "Wait."
At the unexpected touch, an immediate shock of heat raced across Roderich's skin, through his veins and into his chest, where his heart started pounding. Roderich snatched his hand away as though he'd been burnt.
"I'm sorry, I…" Gilbert blinked away his stunned expression and almost choked on his apology. He brushed his hair back and scowled. "I was just going to say something before you left."
Roderich breathed deeply, commanding his pulse to stop racing. Why on earth had he reacted like that? "Well, what?" he asked shortly. He took another deep breath. He was jumpy out here, that was all – the stupid German had surprised him.
"Tomorrow," said Gilbert, already looking as though nothing had happened. "You will do everything I tell you, understand?"
Roderich raised his chin indignantly. "I beg your pardon?"
A brief flash of anger crossed Gilbert's face as his eyes flashed. "Do NOT even start that. I am not playing games. If you want to survive tomorrow, you will listen to me. You will do what I tell you, and you will not question me. You have no idea what you are doing on a battlefield. You've never even held a gun, for Christ's sake. Now you can obey my orders, and have a chance. Or you can play the snotty little brat you are, ignore me, and you can die."
Roderich's eyes widened at the words. His pulse raced again, for an entirely different reason. He was infuriated by Gilbert's foul-mannered words, but more that that, he was horrified. He was afraid. And he was so angry about it he could not even respond. Gilbert's eyes softened. In the last of the firelight, their colour was warmer than usual; softer.
"Look. This mission tomorrow is gonna be a bastard. But I haven't survived this long out here for nothing. Just do what I say, yeah?" Gilbert paused briefly. When he spoke, his voice was surprisingly kind. "I'll look after you."
Roderich was about to retort that he did not need anyone to look after him, then realised, angrily, that it wasn't quite true. He also realised it was a very strange thing for a man he'd known for little more than a day to say to him. Roderich sighed, dropped his pack, and leant back against the little doorway. There wasn't much point in worrying too much over it, after all. He had tried to ignore it all night, but the truth was still there, painfully lodged in his heart and his head. He would probably die tomorrow. Roderich looked down at his hands, and decided that if ever there was a time to let down his proud guard, this would be it. "So, what do you do?" he asked softly. "You soldiers. The night before... battle, I suppose you'd call it. It feels so strange to just be sitting here, peacefully, when tomorrow we might die."
Gilbert leant back beside him. "But that's everyday, isn't it? And not just in a war zone. You could be sitting safe and sound in your house in Austria and drop dead tomorrow. You could choke on your caviar or something."
Roderich paused. "I never cared for caviar." Gilbert laughed, and Roderich peered at him curiously before continuing. How could Gilbert still seem so untroubled? Roderich had been suppressing an underlying panic all evening. "Well. What you say is true, but... it's more likely I'll die this tomorrow, isn't it?"
Gilbert nodded and hummed agreement. "Oh, it's more likely, absolutely. Apparently, it's almost certain."
"But you don't believe that."
Gilbert winked. "Nothing's certain."
Roderich almost laughed. That was certainly true. It was true, and Gilbert understood it also. What an unexpected realisation. "So... what do you do?"
The wind turned even colder as it blew across the flickering firelight. Gilbert looked at a loss as how to answer the question. He tapped his feet together, tilted his head, breathed out deeply. Then he shrugged. "Some pray."
Roderich raised an eyebrow. "You don't?"
Gilbert looked faintly amused. "No. I don't waste my breath whispering to the empty air."
Roderich had to ask about that. "Empty?"
"Empty." Gilbert repeated the word, soft but firm, drifting on the cold summer wind. "The Germans pray. The Russians pray. The Jews pray. Is it doing any of 'em any good?"
Roderich did not even know. All he knew of belief was long ago memories of rich red cloth and golden candles; of deeply carved brown chairs and late Friday afternoon sunshine through the tall windows of the Stadttempel. But that was when Roderich was a child, back before his parents fled Europe. Back before the Kristallnacht, when prayers to his God were allowed. Roderich did not pray, but he could see why men out here would. Their God was allowed, after all. "Maybe they pray for comfort," he said, grasping for a reason, grasping for meaning. "Maybe it does them good for that reason."
Gilbert scoffed, rolled his eyes up to the dark, endless sky. "You sound like my silly little brother." He shook his head. "Every day I see men die, Roderich. Do you think it makes a difference if the poor bastard prayed the night before? I've survived this war longer than anyone, and I've never asked for a damn bit of help. Not from God, not from anyone. And yet I'm still here, while good God-fearing men fall dead all around me. Praying don't make a bit of difference, little prince."
Roderich peered at Gilbert, intrigued. He still had absolutely no idea what to think of this German. Every single moment with the man gave Roderich something else to consider. "You don't believe in God."
Gilbert shook his head. "I believe in things higher than God."
Roderich let silence fall, and contemplated the words. "Like what?" he asked finally.
"My family. My friends." Gilbert shrugged, and grinned. "Beer. I believe in beer."
Roderich laughed softly. He sighed and stared up into the dark, star-studded sky. "I think all I believe in is music. I wonder if that's enough."
Gilbert leant forward, his warmth spreading to Roderich's shoulder, and spoke surprisingly fervently. "Believe that you'll survive another day, Roderich. And don't just believe in tomorrow. Believe in next week, and next month, and next year. Believe in survival. Believe in joyful survival."
Roderich could not stop his eyes turning again towards the strange, arrogant, confusing man beside him. He still did not know why Gilbert seemed so concerned with him, with his safety. Maybe the man was simply crazy, and did not need a reason. As he gazed intently at the unfathomable German, his white hair and brilliant eyes and intense features, Roderich noticed a faint scar on Gilbert's nose. It must have been broken at some point. "Survival," said Roderich thoughtfully. "Is that what you believe in?"
Gilbert grinned, his bronze eyes glinting, his pale skin turned golden by the dying flames of the flickering fire. "Drink deep. Have fun. Stay alive. It's got me this far." He laughed shortly. "And it's what's gonna get me through."
To be continued…
Lili Marlene lyrics by Tommie Connor