PSKOV, RUSSIA 1941
In the quietest, most fragile corner of her heart, Marina knew Dmitri would abandon her—just as her parents had.
Marina Antonovna Klassen Vasileva barely restrained herself from crumpling at her husband’s feet as she watched him pack his meager belongings: a comb, his Bible—pieces of his life snatched from hers, leaving gaping, ragged holes in her chest.
It was quite possible she’d never be whole again.
“I can’t believe you volunteered.” Her voice sounded ghostly, to match her dying spirit. Marina sat at the end of the wooden bed, her knees pulled up to her chest so as to hold in her heart lest it shatter. Her gaze fell away from her new husband, from his movements at the mirror as he adjusted his olive green Russian army uniform. She couldn’t bear the expression of anticipation on his face.
“It’s not too soon.” Dmitri turned, and Marina couldn’t ignore the way her pulse notched up a beat when his sweet, honey brown eyes traveled over her. He always had the ability to reduce her to a puddle of kasha with a smile, and now, the sadness on his face stirred away her fury. She bit her trembling lip and blinked back tears, feeling only weak. He took a step toward her and ran his strong hand over her hair. “The Motherland needs me. Hitler can’t be trusted, and our Fearless Leader needs us to guard our new lands.”
Marina knew more than loyalty beat in his wide, muscled chest. Dmitri longed to see the world. Taste adventure. She could hardly blame her peasant husband for his enthusiasm. He’d been offered a chance to explore the new land Stalin had annexed for Russia—Lvov, Ukraine. The world outside of Pskov suddenly called to him in volumes he, at twenty, couldn’t begin to ignore.
Didn’t he hear his bride, their future calling him, as well? Marina pressed her fingertips to her eyelids. “Promise me you’ll come back.”
His shiny new leather boots—the first pair of new shoes he’d ever owned—squeaked as he knelt beside her. “Of course, maya dorogaya. Russia is not fighting a war. We’re simply reminding the fascist Nazis that we’re here, on the other side of the border, and that they need to stay in their yard. I’ll be back before the potato harvest.”
Marina opened her eyes, attempting a smile at his humor. She ran a trembling finger along his square jaw, taking in every last detail—the way his dark hair curled around his ears, the scar on his chin from a childhood brawl, the rapscallion curve of his smile. Her chest constricted, and she fought for breath, nearly drowning beneath a cascading sense of loss.
“Oh, Marina,” Dmitri said, and the texture of his voice caused tears to flow down her cheeks. He pulled her to his chest. Her cheek rubbed against rough wool, and the smell of mothballs obliterated his masculine, earthy, farmer’s scent.
“You’re all I have,” she whispered.
He leaned away and cupped her face between his hands. His eyes darkened. “That’s not true.”
Marina looked at her fingers, knitted together on her lap. “Mother isn’t my real family. She just took me in because I needed a home.” She met his eyes and saw the sadness in them. “But now I belong to you and you to me. I have no one else.”
Dmitri dragged his thumb along her cheek. “Dear Marina. You do have someone else. You have God. He’s been your Father when you had no earthly father. And He will bind our family together. No matter what happens, He will guard over us and protect our family. You must trust Him for that.”
“Will He bring you home?”
Dmitri smiled and kissed her sweetly, gently. “You can count on it.”
Edward Neumann crouched next to a gnarled oak tree, his eyes trained on a small clearing twenty yards in front of him, and wondered how he’d come to despise spring.
When he was a kid in upstate New York, the thaw and the breaking of the Schoharie River brought the promise of lazy days of fishing and cool dips when the temperature soared. He loved the thick smell of overturned earth as his father and brothers plowed the soil in the fields, and at times, he ached for the feel of cold, rich dirt filling the pores of his hands. Somewhere deep in his farmer’s heart, he knew he should love spring.
Unfortunately, spring in this swatch of northern Poland, thirty kilometers from Lodz, meant mud, cold, and a rotting food supply.
A leftover breath of winter wind hissed through the Polish forest and raised the hair on his neck. He shivered despite his leather coat. His fingers felt wooden, and he hoped he still had a grip on the trigger of the US carbine rifle he poised on his shoulder. Mud and grime and cold had long since soaked through his worn wool pants and found the hole in his leather boots.
But the cold that saturated his bones emanated from within. A cold that on inky-dark, frigid nights weakened his tenuous hold on faith and nudged him further into despair.
At the moment, however, he clutched a death grip on the only thing that mattered—hope.
For you, Katrina.
Around him, an eerie quiet pervaded the forest. No birds chirping. No branches cracked. The low sun boiled crimson along the treetops and turned the birch trees blood red. Edward glanced behind him and easily made out Marek, the upper-class Pole who had, some six months prior, escaped the net around Warszawa and joined the Farmer’s National Army. His cool demeanor while he assessed the clearing betrayed a nobleman’s posture, as if he were watching a performance of Swan Lake at Teatr Norodowy.
Edward held up a hand to Marek, then pointed to Raina, who’d taken a position across the forest. He could barely make out the blond’s face, but her quick wave settled relief in his heart. Her team was in place.
The song of a mockingbird brought his gaze left, to Simon, the RAF Hurricane pilot who’d barely escaped a fiery landing on the border of Estonia. Fleeing from Estonians loyal to Germany, Simon joined the Polish resistance. The two-way radio he’d secreted with him sent Edward to his knees in gratitude, and even more so when he discovered the Brit was a fellow believer. Edward had to admit, even after crawling through sodden leaves and cold snow, Simon still looked the Englishman—clean-shaven, tidy. Bringing a touch of class to their ragtag partisan unit.
Marek signaled all clear—his scouts had scoured the south end of the forest and come up clean. Edward nodded. He raised his hand and directed Wladek and Stefan, two teenaged Poles who had the courage of the entire Third Reich, to enter the clearing. In the middle, glinting like precious rubies, lay two metal canisters. Edward prayed they indeed included clothes and food—maybe some canned meat or even sugar—along with weapons and ammo. He’d noticed Anna Lechon’s bony knees protruding from her pants, and too many of his fighters’ sweaters were held together with twine. Most of all, he hated to see the pale moons under young Anna’s wide brown eyes. She reminded him painfully of his little niece back home.
And of the Polish Jews he’d seen beaten and forced into boxcars. So much like his own ancestors—accused, tortured, murdered because of their beliefs.
Anna even reminded him occasionally of Katrina. Brave in her frailty. Brave as the Nazis lined her up against a wall.
Brave unto death.
Edward blinked away the brutal images that never lurked far from the surface of his mind. He positioned the gun into his shoulder and watched with coiled breath while his two faithful partisans dashed out from cover.
The wind froze as time ticked away in their steps. More than once, a well-hidden dispatch of SS men and their dogs had ambushed a Resistance unit.
The boys reached the supply barrels and attacked them with vigor. The muscles in Edward’s neck pulsed, but his breath released slowly as he watched the young men open the first drum and raise the shiny black barrel of a British “Sten.” The Poles would assemble the pieces into submachine guns. Thanks, Colonel Stone. When Stefan opened the second barrel, Edward blessed his director for his golden heart. Stefan held up a can of coffee, and Edward could nearly taste it hit his mouth—bitter, hot, smelling of home. Stefan turned and looked directly at him, a wide grin on his youthful face.
Edward nodded, feeling relief rush through him. Maybe this spring would bring the seeds of hope. Of victory.
The crack of a rifle shattered the crisp air. Edward choked on his relief as Stefan jerked, then crumpled to his knees. Another shot sent Wladek airborne. He landed ten feet from the canister. Reeling, Edward scanned the forest, searching for the black coats of Nazi SS men. Nothing but barren trees and shadow. His partisans, however, dressed in rags of all colors, stood out like stars in the night sky.
Oh, how he hated spring.
“Let’s get out of here!” Simon screamed into his ear. He fisted Edward’s worn coat.
The canister pinged as another shot hit. Edward went weak at the site of Stefan crawling between the containers, his face screwed up in pain. Oh dear Lord, please, no! The boy is still alive!
Simon read his thoughts. “You must leave him! Now!”
Edward turned to him. “Go!” he hissed. He trained his eyes on Stefan, tasting bile at the look of terror on the youth’s face. What had he gotten them into?
The spongy forest floor swallowed Simon’s footsteps. Across the meadow, Edward saw Raina had also abandoned her post, like the good soldier he’d trained her to be. Head home, fast and covertly. At all costs, don’t let the enemy find you. They all knew too much about other partisan units to be taken alive. Run, Raina!
Marek had also fled, taking Anna. Only Edward knew the eighteen-year-old girl had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, a secret he’d take with him to the grave. God of Israel, watch over Your children. He whitened his grip on his rifle and trained his eyes on Stefan. “I won’t leave you, kid.”
Not like he had Katrina. Never again. At all costs.
He crouched in the soggy earth, listening to his partisans flee, hearing gunshots, tasting despair. As the noise of barking dogs ricocheted through the forest and darkness hooded the sky, Edward felt the fingers of failure close in around him.
So much for spring.
Marina dug her fingers into the soft soil, wincing as the fresh dirt wedged under her nails. The scorching early-August sun burned her neck as it slanted through the poplar tree hovering over the grave. She closed her eyes and bit the inside of her lip, but the groan emerged anyway. Her knees ground holes into the soft mound, and the cold earth radiated through her until it found her soul. She raised her gaze to the cloudless blue sky and glared at the One who had so completely abandoned her. Finally. Brutally.
She’d spent her words. Time and disbelief had reduced them to a groan, and over the past two weeks, denial had become her only comforter. God had surely been silent.
They hadn’t recovered enough of him to dispatch remains. Instead, she’d received a sealed box. Initials and a number denoted the life of the boy who had laughter like the breeze off the Velikaya River and eyes that looked past her fears into her soul.
Marina had buried her heart with him under the ash-brown dirt.
She rubbed the wooden marker with her palm. A splinter pierced her finger, and she yanked it back and watched as blood formed around the edges. She pried the sliver out with a dirty fingernail. The blood dripped onto the dirt, and Marina pushed out another drop, feeling a strange satisfaction as the ground absorbed it. She wished she could pour out every last drop, then climb in with Dmitri.
She sunk down onto her side and curled into a ball with her head on her hands. She tried to conjure up his face or the sound of his laughter, but all she could manage was the wail of her mother-in-law as the woman draped herself over the casket. She barely let Marina near it, glaring at her as if his demise at the hands of the German invaders were somehow Marina’s doing.
The sun moved behind a cloud, and Marina shivered when the breeze skimmed over her. It carried the fragrance of a full-blooming August: honeysuckle, gooseberry, and currant bushes and the crisp scent of a nearby river. But the cheerful smells were wasted on her. Despair lodged like a lump in her throat. “Why, Dmitri? Why did you have to chase adventure to the grave?”
A song sparrow chattered at her, signaling twilight. Marina pushed herself from the ground and watched a squirrel stare at her. In a second, it scurried up a tree into a hole. Marina watched it, wishing she had a hole to hide in—somewhere to go, to escape the awful, wretched burning in her chest.
Only one thing kept her alive.
She moved a protective hand over her abdomen. Her chin trembled at the regret that boiled in her chest. Her letter was still folded in her Bible, right next to the wretched telegram. Dmitri would never know she carried his child. Where are Your promises now, God?
She dug into the pocket of her skirt and tugged out a small, yellowed photograph. Her hair fell around her face, its wisps teased by the hot breeze. Marina ground her teeth into her bottom lip as she peered into the two young faces in the photo. Two women, one of them her biological mother, the other the surrogate mother who’d embraced her as her own. She focused on the woman on the left, the one who, she’d been told, bore her own sky blue eyes, although but a dull gray in the colorless photo. Marina felt the life and breath pulse in those eyes as they looked straight on at the photographer. Eyes etched with sorrow and determination. The photo never failed to raise sadness in her throat, and now a crushing feeling of despair curled around her chest.
The other woman she knew beyond the worn photo— the lean cheekbones, the high brow, the pensive gray eyes. Marina knew her by her earthy garden smell and by the touch of her weathered hands. She knew her by the sound of her voice, low and strong, humming songs of faith as she made borscht or knitted stockings. Marina owed her life to Yulia Petrov, and despite her adolescent doubts, she’d not been left lacking under Yulia’s tender care.
Both her mothers leaned together against a gravestone. The gravestone of her father, who had died the same day she’d left her mother’s womb. What had happened to Anton Klassen remained a mystery, and despite her pleadings, Mama Yulia refused to explain beyond a shake of her head and a murmured, “May he rest in peace.” Marina had been content to settle for that. . .until now.
She traced the outline of her biological mother. About Oksana Klassen, she knew more. She knew her mother had been faced with difficult choices. She knew her mother had been beautiful and had loved the baby daughter she left behind. Still, a photograph couldn’t wrap its arms about a toddler and hold it in the wee of night, nor guide a teenager through the trials of budding womanhood.
Nor could it give her strength, offer her answers to a life in tatters, or help her find her way back from the depths of grief. Her chin quivered. Abandoned. Not once, but twice.
She glanced again at the pose of her mother leaning on Anton’s grave. Her mother’s plight suddenly felt too raw, too close. They’d had to bury the men they loved way too early. Marina opened the ground at Dima’s grave and tucked the picture into the earth, not able to face the brutal legacy.
She’d matted the pricks of grass dotting the mound and created craters where her hands and knees had begged for entrance. “I’ll be back tomorrow with seeds and a rake,” she promised the grave that embraced her husband.
She untied her head scarf as she trudged back to town. The wind picked at her hair, playing with the long strands. Behind her, the sparrow called again, sharper. The acrid smell of burning leaves filled the air as she passed first one house, then another. The smell thickened, and Marina watched with a frown as a black trail twisted into the sky from beyond the speckling of farmhouses. The smoke billowed, deepened.
Gunfire peppered the air. A flock of sparrows scattered in a flurry of wings. Marina’s heart hiccupped, and then fear crashed over her like a wave, driving her forward in a jerky run. She sprinted toward Pskov, the scarf falling to the ground, forgotten.
Skirting Lenin Street, she headed toward her mother’s two-room green shack on the south end of the city. Pskov wasn’t so big that it took more than minutes to run the length of the town. Still, time slowed as her heartbeat raced. Black smoke tufted the purple-hued sky, then more gunshots, and a deafening boom shook her to her bones.
She skidded to a halt when she rounded her fenced yard and saw flames engulfing the Petrov home. Her gaze scanned to the dirt road, and she froze at the sight of a green German Panzer, its turret still smoking. Unfamiliar men in gray and green field coats, black metal helmets, and with faces like granite milled about the road, jabbing at trashcans and splicing weeds with oily black rifles. Another group leveled machine guns at a small group of women and children. Marina’s mouth dried when she spied her mother standing among the other neighbors. Chin up, Yulia stared with steely eyes at three ruddy soldiers whose submachine guns fanned the group. Marina sucked her breath in horror as she heard Yulia sass them. Mother, no!
A spray of gunfire mowed the group to the ground.
Marina collapsed into the dirt. She leaned against the rough fence, her hand pressing her chest, hiccuping her breaths. Dmitri, what should I do? She heard the lock and grind of the Panzer’s treads as it churned through potato patches. Wiping her eyes with her grimy fingertips, she made to rise, her eyes on the next street and, beyond, the forest.
Her hand covered her womb, held the life as she contemplated her choices.
Her blood drained from her body when the muzzle of a rifle nudged her thigh. She looked up.
Marina licked her lips and raised her trembling hands in surrender. The soldier, his eyes dark and unyielding, scraped a gaze over her. She bristled, counting the seconds with her heartbeat.
“Please,” she said, not sure what she was asking. The wild impulse to let him shoot, beg him to end her grief, flickered through her mind. But as the Panzer rolled by behind him, crushing potato seedlings, fences, and homes, anger coiled in her stomach. Her jaw tightened. He barked at her in his detestable language, and she frowned back. His eyes narrowed a second before he reached out for her. She stiffened, but he yanked her to her feet. The gun’s aim fell away from her, but when she saw the look in his eyes, his beaklike nose, his lips licking, her knees buckled.
No. For Dmitri’s baby, she’d never let the German defile her.
The Panzer boomed, and a shot exploded another home. The German jerked to look.
Marina slammed her fist into his face, whirled, and ran. Leaping a gully, she heard a shot but kept running. She cut down the alley between fences, then scooted between a crack and through a backyard.
Yeah, she’d stop when she hit Moscow. Adrenaline surged into her limbs, and she balled her fists and pumped. Slamming open the fence door, she soared over the dirt steps and landed in the street.
Her ankle screamed, but she clenched her jaw and ran. An open potato field before her beckoned, but the soft mounds would eat her speed. She headed for the packed dirt road, eyes on the cemetery and the woods beyond.
Another shot whizzed over her head. Her heart leaped out ahead of her. The roar of an engine found her ears.
Her fingernails dug into the palm of her hands. God, please, help me!
She refused to glance back. Her lungs burning, she dashed into the cemetery, dodging headstones, toward Dmitri’s grave, then past it, up a hill, through the scrub brush and into the woods. The motorcycle whined in uneven pitches as it navigated through the burial grounds. Then a rifle cracked, and bark sprayed from the trunk of a spruce. Marina swallowed her scream.
The forest whipped her as she ran possessed, crashing through tangles of vine and sheet-sized spider webs. Branches slapped her face. Her ankle burned as she landed on roots and uneven ground. She tripped over a downed tree, scrambled to her feet, and threw herself into a knot of ash trees.
Her hands on her knees, she dragged in breaths that turned her lungs to fire. Willing her pulse silent, she strained to make out her attackers.
Only the thick, cottony silence of an overgrown forest. Sweat stung her eyes.
Another shot shredded the leaves above her head and sent a flock of birds to the heavens. Marina dove behind a wide oak and clung to it, digging her fingers into the grooves of bark. For Dima’s sake, please, God, help me!
The sound of branches cracking nearby raised the hairs on her neck. Panic choked her in a death grip, but she turned and scanned the forest. Nothing but light, splintered by trees, dappling the foliage and spongy forest floor.
German voices to the south, moving closer. Tears burned her eyes. She clung to the tree and hung her head. She wouldn’t stay here to be murdered. Putting a hand over her womb, she gulped in a deep breath and edged away from the trunk, gathering her legs under her.
A flock of birds betrayed her. Gunfire chipped bark from the trees. Marina clamped down her scream and pumped her legs.
Another shot, then another. Heat seared her, wrapping around her ribs and pitching her to her knees. The ground crumbled beneath her.
She felt free, separated, as if she’d departed from herself. Dmitri.
She hit water with a numbing slap. The last thing she felt was the water’s cool blanket filling her ears, her nose, covering her body as she sank below the envelope of Velikaya River.
“Please don’t ask me to do this.” Edward Neumann stood with his back to Colonel Jeremiah Stone. In his mind he saw the forty-something OSS director steeple his fingers and lean back on the tree stump as if he were in a padded rolling chair.
“You know I have to, Edward. No one speaks Russian like you do. You can get past the border, hustle up your group of fighters. Think of it as the last front.”
Edward closed his eyes, seeing Anna’s haunted eyes, Marek’s limp. “I can’t leave them. Not now.”
He heard a crack and jerked. Stone’s gaze landed on him, and he felt the fool when he saw the broken twig in the man’s grip. After three months of dodging the SS, Edward felt wrung out and raw, on the lee edge of unraveling. Like a bobcat, he paced the niche Stone had reserved for this meeting, pricking his ears for the rumble of low-flying Messerschmitts. Or the crackle of forest floor debris. He harbored no illusions that a loyal Estonian wouldn’t think twice about tracking him down and handing him over to the local Gestapo.
Estonians saw Germany as their liberators from Communist Russia.
Which made unearthing and allying with Russian partisans in Estonia particularly uneasy business.
Then again, trust across any border wasn’t an easily bartered commodity in the wake of Operation Barbarrossa and Germany’s blitzkrieg into Russia. Edward’s ragtag partisan unit had been pushed like cattle, dodging the enemy as the Nazis overran Ukraine, then Byelorussia, Latvia, and finally Estonia as they marched toward Moscow. Thankfully, his partisans had found a niche near Tallinn and were safely tucked into an old farmhouse while he conferred with his OSS director, Colonel Stone.
“What happened, Neumann?” Stone asked quietly.
“I don’t know.” Edward curled a hand around the back of his neck, reliving the fateful day when ninety percent of his freedom fighters had been ambushed. Stefan, Wladek, Simon, all slaughtered. He’d found Raina’s eight-year-old daughter, Irina, mauled by dogs, clinging to life, calling for her mother.
Raina never returned.
One by one, Edward had buried them. And with every shovelful, he saw Katrina’s soft gray eyes, heard her sweet voice—“Don’t leave me, Edick.”
He blinked back the images and fought the grief rising in his chest. “I have no idea who might have betrayed us.”
Colonel Stone nodded, his square face hard, his mouth set in a straight line. “You have to let it go, Neumann. Yours isn’t the only unit betrayed and wiped out by the SS. They’ve been unusually lucky over the past six months.”
Edward crossed his arms over his chest as he stared past the knot of forest and watched the sunset paint the trees shades of orange. The piercing melody of the wood thrush raised the hairs on his neck, and he tensed. Stone caught his movement and frowned. Edward sighed and offered a rueful smile.
Stone pursed his lips and ran a scrutinizing gaze over Edward. “I should have brought you out after Katrina.”
Edward looked down, studying his clenched hands.
“Her death wasn’t your fault.”
Edward’s jaw tightened. “Send someone else.” The wind hissed, and something startled the wood thrush. It scattered in a flurry of wings. “Please.”
“There’s no one else. Not with your contacts. This just might be the reason God sent you here.”
Edward shot him a dark glance. Not fair, using his faith against him. Colonel Stone knew Edward’s Mennonite roots ran deep, knew how he struggled with the traditions of a pacifist upbringing in the face of a world war. “I doubt that.”
“You need to stop dodging the fact that God gave you a heritage and the ability to influence people and embrace your calling.” A calling that got the people he cared about killed on a painfully regular basis.
“Listen. I may be Russian in heritage, but that doesn’t make me Russian. I’m American first. Besides, who knows if this old monk she knows is friendly. . .or even alive? I’m probably walking into a death trap.”
“America isn’t at war with Russia—they’ve no reason to suspect you. Besides, you’ve got the training and the language skills, even if this monk won’t help you to find the local partisans. I have faith in you.”
Yeah. Like Raina and her daughter had. He sighed. “Anna is ill. And Marek is still recovering. I can’t leave them.”
Stone picked up a pebble and rolled it back and forth between his wide palms. “I brought in a new agent. They’ll be fine.”
“I’ll take them with me.”
“No, you won’t.” Stone tossed the rock in his grip. “I can’t risk you taking your Poles with you. I know we’re fighting on the same side, but there’s bad blood between the Poles and the Russkies, and if you’re going to succeed, you can’t alienate anyone on the other side of the border.”
Edward looked away. His chest tightened, and he swallowed the bitter taste of frustration.
“Edward, this war isn’t up to you to win. You just have to obey orders and do your part.” Stone tossed the rock away. “Don’t let your failures be your Goliath.”
Edward flinched. It wasn’t his failures he was afraid of, thank you. It was sacrificing his heart for his successes.
“If I do this, I do it alone.”
Stone gave him a hard look, then tossed the rock away and pulled out a folded map from his pocket. “Bear in mind that if you succeed, it just might cost Hitler the war. There’s only one question here, soldier. What price is that worth?”