EXODUS FROM INSELGRAU
A rumble of thunder woke me. I shifted under my quilts, turned towards my window, and searched the sky for clouds. Storms always made me smile; made me feel a little less lonely. Black clouds, lightning, and rain reminded me of better times, when thunder was a regular event in our household. My father used to make the loveliest thunder—more like percussion in a heavenly orchestra than cannonade and ordnance. I had never mustered the necessary energy to expulse that kind of force. My attempts always sounded more like the blast of a large pop gun.
Another report rippled through the air, but it sounded wrong this time—a little too sharp and cold for something as organic as thunder. A third, angry blast proved the source was nothing harmonious with nature. The clamor had a cadence, a rhythm, and when I slid out of bed, the vibrations from it quaked through the stones under my feet.
“1… 2… 3… 4….” I counted off a half-minute and—Boom!—another explosion. I counted a half minute again, which concluded with another detonation.
My bedroom door flew open, and Gerda rushed in still wearing her rumpled nightgown. The braid she wore for sleeping had slackened during the night, and stiff rust-colored curls sprang around her face. Fear and worry crackled from her like static from a wool blanket. “Evie, my dear, you’ve got to get dressed.” She pulled me to my feet and yanked my sleeping gown over my head.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Gideon was just at my door. He told me have you out to the stables as quickly as possible.”
“Did he say why?”
“He did not, but I won’t be the one to contradict him. The look on his face was murderous.”
“How is that different from any other day?”
Gerda didn’t laugh, and that worried me more than the persistent racket. “What in the world is making all that noise?” I asked.
“I haven’t had the time to look, but whatever it is, it can’t be good.”
“I figured out that much for myself,” I said under my breath.
If she heard me, she chose to ignore it and tossed me a pair of wide-legged trousers disguised as a skirt.
I slipped them on while she scurried to unearth my boots. “I take it we’re not using the carriage?”
“Gideon said you would be riding.”
“What about you?”
Gerda backed out of my wardrobe, wide rump first, and turned to face me. A stern expression hardened her face as she clamped her hands to her hips, and in a sharp tone said, “You are our main concern, Evie. Let’s get you safely away, and then I’ll worry about myself.”
“Safely away from what?”
Glass shattered in a room somewhere below us and the whole house shuddered.
“From whatever is making that horrible clatter. Quit asking questions and get dressed!” Gerda rarely lost her temper, especially not with me.
Her abnormal temperament stirred me into action. I wrestled a high-collared blouse over my head, buckled on a wide belt, buttoned up a short suede waistcoat, and laced up my favorite riding boots.
She shoved me onto a stool beside my vanity and yanked my hair, forcing it into a tight braid. “Your hair’s straight as a stick and slick as a snake. I can never seem to weave it into a proper plait, even when I have plenty of time and my hands aren’t shaking.”
“Forget it. I’ll twist it up like usual.” I reached back to take over the familiar routine, but Gerda smacked my hands away.
“No, I’ve almost got it.” She grunted once and yanked again.
I winced but had the sense to keep my protests to myself.
“There.” She retrieved a ribbon from one of her ubiquitous pockets, wrapped it around the end of the braid, and double-tied the knot for reinforcement. “I don’t want any of it coming loose while you ride.”
I reached back and patted the careful arrangement. “Thank you, Gerda. Now, you get dressed and we’ll go.”
“No!” She stomped a stubby foot. “Gideon was clear. He only wants you. You must go. Now.”
Another explosion rocked the floor, and Gerda stumbled against the wardrobe. She leaned on the heavy piece of furniture until she regained her footing. The house shook and groaned as something structural gave way. Yells and shouts carried up from the lower floors.
“Are you going to meet us?” I asked. My heart raced, dancing a flittering beat. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“I don’t, but Gideon will take good care of you.”
Tears welled in my eyes, but the steely look on her face kept them from falling. “What will you do?”
“I’m going to get dressed and gather up Stephen and our boys. We’ll be out the door a short bit after you.”
“Then why can’t you go with me?”
“Now’s not the time for whining, Evelyn. Be a good girl. Do as I say.” She used the same mother-hen tactics she had employed when I’d proved to be a tempestuous child. It set the proper tone to rouse me from my panic.
“Hug me,” I said. “I’ll miss you.”
She threw her thick arms round me and pressed me into her abundant bosom. “I’ll miss you too, my girl.”
I inhaled her scent—a mixture of all the herbs in her garden, and especially comfrey, her favorite cure-all.
She squeezed me again and broke away. “Gideon will keep you safe, if you’ll listen to him and not let your impetuousness get in his way.”
She gathered my raw silk cloak from its hook by the door and tossed it at me.
I snapped it from the air and swirled it over my shoulders. When the cloak caught a beam of sunlight streaming from the window, the fabric shimmered with rainbow swirls like a soap bubble.
“Go now. Hurry.” Gerda yelled her final command over the screaming of tortured metal, as if a giant-toothed creature had bitten into the soul of the house.
I hugged her again and dashed out the door.
In the hallway, several of the house’s other occupants hurried past me in various states of dress. Tolick, the all-purpose houseboy, ran toward the stairwell. He had managed to button on his trousers but had neglected to remove his nightcap.
On the bottom floor, I turned for the kitchen.
The cooks had abandoned their breakfast preparations. A large porridge pot bubbled over on the stove, and thick strips of bacon burned on a griddle. A babble of excited voices drifted in from distant corridors, but no one came my way as I scurried toward the rear door of the kitchen. Beyond the exit, my route led me through Gerda’s garden, a sanctuary of herbs and vegetables protected by a stone wall enclosure rising high overhead. Thick vines of ivy and budding wisteria climbed the tops of those barriers. She would need to prune them soon, but we were all running, fleeing these familiar walls.
Would we return before the ivy took over? Would the house survive long enough for it to matter?
I ran past the garden’s iron gates and my breath puffed in thin, vaporous spurts. Spring had arrived less than two weeks ago, and the mornings still lingered in the recent days of winter. I pulled up my hood and wrapped my cloak tighter around me as a shield against the cold.
At that moment, I could have turned around for an unobstructed view of my house, but that would have meant witnessing its destruction. The house cried to me, but what relief could I offer? A feeling of helplessness settled in my gut like curdled milk. Father would have known what to do, but I was merely his daughter, his masterwork left incomplete by an untimely death.
I hacked a derisive cough at that thought. As if death ever comes at an appropriate time.
Curiosity overrode my fear. I slowed, stopped, and turned on my heel. As I wheeled around and looked up, my heart plummeted to my feet.
The house stood ablaze, smoke billowing from several of the first floor windows. Its wooden floors and beamed ceilings would surely feed the flames and turn the billows into a monstrosity of acrid, black plumes. The exterior might survive the fire—an ancestor had constructed Fallstaff from large granite blocks that had withstood tide and time for hundreds of years—but it wouldn’t survive the volley of explosive fodder from the trebuchet now installed on the front lawn.
One of my father’s war manuals showed illustrations of that vicious machine, but I had never seen one in reality. Someone with a brain for engineering had rigged this one with a system of levers, pulleys, and gears. A steam engine automated its processes, and every few seconds a conveyer belt fed another iron missile into a waiting bucket attached to a long wooden arm. From this distance, the trebuchet looked like an assemblage of toothpicks and hungry metal teeth, yet its ammunition tore holes through Fallstaff’s stone and mortar like a moth devours a wool sweater.
A group of men stood around its base, guarding the machine with rifles and crossbows. No one tried to engage them or fight back, as all were too concerned with escape. From that distance, they appeared as little more than stick figures.
I stepped closer in hopes of recognizing their uniforms or gear.
“Evie, what are you doing?” Gideon’s unmistakable bellow interrupted my thoughts. My father’s young horse master waited at the gate of the small paddock beside the stables, clutching two reins in his fist. One leather line led to his giant black stallion, Gespenst—a Dreutchish name meaning specter, or ghost. The other tether led to my horse, Nonnie, a gray-coated mare with a dappled rump.
“Gideon, what’s happening?” I jogged toward him. Something exploded behind me, and the aftershock sent me stumbling, but Gideon’s free hand shot out and latched around my elbow. I locked eyes on his stoic face and refused to look back.
“This is no time for an explanation,” he said. “Mount up, we’re riding south.” He tossed my horse’s reins in my direction and slid onto Gespenst’s back with an ease that demonstrated his familiarity with the saddle.
Nonnie snorted and rolled her eyes, announcing her displeasure over the noise and brusque treatment she had inevitably received from Gideon as he’d arranged her tack.
Nonnie and I managed most of our adventures on nothing more than wild oats and a few apples lifted from the larder. This journey would undoubtedly last longer than any we had taken in all our years together, and she must have felt some of the same trepidation as I. She stomped an eager hoof as I mounted, and when I nudged her forward, she fell into a canter behind Gideon and his horse.
Gespenst bore saddlebags stuffed to the brim. The tip of Gideon’s compact repeating crossbow, Sephonie, poked from the edge of the flap.
I thought of my own crossbow, which I’d never felt a need to name, and wondered if it had made its way into Nonnie’s packs. Gideon could take a stag from horseback with one shot; I could shoot a slow moving rabbit… if I had time to focus and plenty of solid footing.
I had no idea where we’d go, but at least we wouldn’t starve on our way there.