She shaded her face against the late afternoon sun. There – up on the far hill.
“Marthur… Marthur –” she called lowly. “Marthur!”
Her Marthur had just come up from the fields. Brushing the ground from his arms, he gave her an expectant stare.
“Lookit. Up there.”
Marthur glanced just long enough, and then pushed her around the corner. “Git the kids inta the cella. Now. Hurry up.” His low tone brooked no disagreement.
“Rindy, Tarry, into the cella.” She forced the cella door open and strained to pull it up.
“Mum, let me.” Her oldest son, Mickel, fifteen now, he towered above her, amazin’ how he’d sprouted. Just a few weeks ago, seemed like he was ten and yankin’ on her apron.
“Mickel, get them down there quick and keep them quiet,” Hettie whispered.
“I will, Mum, I remember how,” he whispered as he urged Rindy and Tarry down the ladder.
Hettie let out a breath. She hated this, oh how she hated this. She spread the rushes over the cella door and then rearranged the ancient, threadbare rug so it would cover the rug.
The first time them soldiers came, they ate up half of what Hettie and Marthur had. Of course, there were six of them, plus her and Marthur and the three kids.
Hettie had started to get a bit mouthy when she asked what country they worked for. They all at once told her, “None of your business!”
Well, maybe so and maybe not. What if she was harborin’ criminals? Her face must have shown her suspicions, for whoever their leader was got up and grabbed her. Marthur immediately stood up but the other soldiers pushed him back into his chair.
“Let’s just say you make sure no one knows we’ve been here, or your children won’t be able to say anything at all,” said the leader, and he grabbed Hettie’s youngest, Rindy, by the arm.
They’d insisted on staying the night, and Hettie and the fam had had to sleep in the barn. She and Marthur huddle together in the hay for warmth, while Mickel had wrapped Rindy and Tarry together in a horse blanket and covered them with his own body.
Those bloody bastards. Claimin’ to be they was soldiers. Well, so they was, Marthur said, ‘cause lookit their hair, all chopped, and actin’ like they owned the joint. But Hettie was friggin’ hacked off, ‘cause they wasn’t wearin’ uniforms. Soldiers wore uniforms ‘til they got to their own homes. And they didn’t travel around in common clothes, askin’ people to step aside, like they was friggin’ Royals or somethin’.
The second time they came through, they stayed at the top of the first hill, with the elder couple, and then was gone in the mornin’. Hettie didn’t find out about that ’til the next day, when her neighbor run over and told her about it.
“They said it were the weirdest thing,” said Chyda, “said their comrades had stayed there before, a house wit’ kids. You know the Mister and the Missus over there – they ain’t had their kids there for fifteen years some now, all moved on, kids of their own.”
“Aye,” agreed Hettie thoughtfully.
So the next few plainclothsed soldiers as came through, Hettie and Marthur had a plan. Right off, they threw the kids down in the cella and told them not to make the first peep, not one, and if they had to squat, do it in the corner. Mickel kept them quiet, and they had a skin of water down there for just such an occasion.
That group of plainclothsed soldiers came in, tracking mud everywhere. Their leader asked if they had children.
Marthur stood atop the cella door and lied. “Aye, we have. We got the fever here, so we sent ‘em off to my sista’, over in Roos to stay. Don’t want ‘em gettin’ sick, you know.” And he’d coughed a bit, as if still a bit sick.
The men looked nervously at each other. “Fever, Sir?” whispered one to the leader.
Hettie curled her arm about Marthur’s, and said, “We got a son in the Navy, though. Just joined up. Down at Arzua.” Hettie had acted like a proud mother, parroting any other of proud mothers she’d heard with sons who had joined the Navy. Odd thing, when she said that, though. They looked at each other and laughed. “Busy boy, he is.”
Hettie had asked, “Why is that?”
They just glanced at each other knowingly and smirked.
Mickel truly did want to join the Navy, but was a year shy of sixteen, so now he counted every day ‘til sixteen, for most of his friends were gone now. He was such a good lad, still helpin’ his pop in the fields like he ought, and trainin’ Tarry how to take his place one he was gone.
That group of soldiers took some vegetables just pulled out in the garden and a few eggs from the hens, and was gone, for fear of fever. Hettie expected they stayed with some other unlucky couple, but she didn’t let her children up outta the cella ‘til the next day, just to be safe. They stayed down there with their blankets and extra lanterns and Hettie stewed them some apples she’d been hoping on makin’ a tart with, just to ease the night with.
Another group of soldiers came through caught them almost unawares. Good fortune had put together planning for another night such as the last two nights, and so Hettie and Marthur had dried some dried meat and packed vegetables, and even a bit of cheese, all just in case they came back.
And that sneaky group – Hettie and Marthur had barely enough time to grab the kids and shuffle them downstairs. Why, it was Mickel who pushed her to the window and put a finger over his lips, his eyes wide. He’d heaved the cella door up and she had ushered her younger two children down into the dark. Hettie had had barely enough time to edge the rushes back over the cella, but she hadn’t had enough time to pull the rug over top o’ them.
She had heard Marthur talkin’ to ‘em outdoors on the porch, shiftin’ his weight purposely side to side so’s the squeak o’ the wood might warn them inside in case they didn’t already know. Hettie smiled faintly. How she did love that man – he would do anything for his fam.
That group o’ shits, they stayed for a meal and said they had t’ be on their way. But while Hettie had been spoonin’ out stew, their leader said, “I heard this house, you two had children.”
His soldiers had stopped, spoons in the air, and had glanced from him to Hettie.
“We do, we do,” she smiled proudly.
“We do.” Marthur’s voice was quiet.
“I heard from our last unit that you was the ones had the fever, so you sent ’em away to some sister in Melm.” The commanding officer eyed Marthur with an evaluative gaze.
Marthur snorted. “Melm. Melm? Don’t got no kin in Melm. No. Hettie, you ain’t, either. Roos, yes. Got a sister in Roos, sent my kids to stay with her while she was sick and her place needed a bit of a repair, so they stayed on to help her a bit ’til they come home. Fam does that, you know.”
The commanding soldier nodded slowly, though his eyes narrowed. “So it does.”
Hettie had attempted to lighten the intensity of the mood. “We do got a boy who joined the Navy not too long ago. You boys hear anything about the Navy?”
All of the soldiers scoffed into their stew, smirking.
The commanding soldier arched an eyebrow. “What, he don’t send a bird home now and again? Bein’ your ‘fam’ and all?”
“Just two – that they kept him constantly busy. Building on ships, I think. Don’t remember, the message was read to me,” she had lied.
All four of them smirked.
“Soon enough, he’ll be floatin’ on one,” scoffed one, and they all chortled.
Marthur caught Hettie’s eyes in such a way as to tell her to keep her mouth shut. He himself had said nothing.
Hettie had cleared their stew bowls and dumped them in the water barrel. As she did that, the four soldiers stood up behind her.
“Well – you got a fine barn out there. A fine one.”
Melm and Hettie had found this a curious statement, for it was only mid-afternoon. Hettie suddenly worried. Maybe they thought to search the barn for the children. Or did they plan to put the torch to the barn? Worse, the house?
The commander then started unlacing his tunic. “Boys – take her to the barn.”
Marthur stood up and stepped in front of the commander. “Over my dead body!”
“That, peasant, can be arranged. Stay in here, and you’ll keep your life. And your wife, once we’re done with her. Fight us, and you’ll both be dead.” The commander pulled his tunic out of his breeches.
Marthur had stared wordlessly as two walked out, one by one, of the house, in the direction of the barn. Two had stayed behind, to guard Marthur.
What had happened next was a blur, for the commanding soldier had forced her arms behind her, and Hettie had started screaming. The second soldier clubbed her, and the last thing she saw was the dirt on the wooden porch beneath her dress as she was carried toward the barn.
When had Hettie awoken from her hazy black spell, what she had seen first was Marthur and Mickel staring down at the hay of the barn. Hettie herself was lying over two bales of hay.
She had sat up slowly, woozy, wondering why her son was out in the barn….
And then she had seen the bodies, and Marthur leaning on the pitchfork… and the tines of the pitchforks had been dripping with blood.
Hettie’s movement caused them both to turn around.
“Hettie, my love!”
And they had both run to hug her and support as she sat down on the stack of hay beneath her.
Then Hettie had seen the stack of bodies.
She’d screamed wordlessly, clutching at Marthur.
“Shh, shh, shh, Hettie, shh, you’re all right, everything is fine.” And he’d held Hettie’s shocked head against his chest and rocked her, just as he might a child.
Later, Hettie had learned that Mickel had pushed the cella door up and between him and Marthur, had overcome the two soldiers – though she had a good bit of rushes that needed to be switched out due to blood covered on them. A good thing the rug hadn’t been over the cella door after all, for Mickel wouldn’t have been able to get out so fast.
But then Mickel and Marthur had snuck into the barn before anything had happened to her, and killed the other two soldiers, Marthur with a pitchfork, and Mickel with a scythe. And oh, but they had been bloody!
“You hearin’ what they said?” Marthur said. “That sounded like war to me. War.”
Hettie had nodded mutely.
“You know what happens to people like us, out here on the borderlands, when soldiers like them march through. Like they already been doin’. Like they tried today. This ain’t good. War ain’t good.” Marthur looked far away just then, out the barn door. “We might have to leave here, if it comes to that. An’ it just might.” His eyes focused suddenly. “Next time any o’ bastards come through, I want you goin’ down wit’ the kids. Hear me, Hettie?”
Hettie had nodded.
“You send birds, send birds to all your kin, over in, where’s that, Corstarorden, your cousin and your auntie, and I’ll send word to my sister. Tell them to watch out and listen, and tell them to spread the same word, to all their kin, just as we are. It’s the innocent people get hurt in war.” And so Hettie had.
Today, Hettie stood, looking over their new planted radishes thoughtfully. Not a one o’ this fam would be eatin’ ‘em, that was sure, though they’d had some specially good fertilizin’.