One step, then another. He'd started out with his eyes forward, chin up, but all he could see now were the tips of his boots.
Christophe Brecht was inside German territory, the train having taken them back over the border, away from the trenches that had marred France for the past four years. The ground his boots pounded now belonged to the fatherland.
The only sound was that of his men marching beside him --- not that their tread could be called marching. Most looked as tired and worn as he, barely able to take the next step. They were still covered in the mud of no-man's-land, thick from boots to knee and in varying layers up to the helmet.
Did any of them remember how it had been when they marched --- yes, really marched --- in the other direction? Songs and praise echoed from every avenue, and flowers showered them from smiling women, with proud pats on the back from fathers and old men.
The city that had sent them so gloriously off to battle was still beyond sight. Those not wishing to go all the way to Munich had been made to get off the train already, close to but not at their requested destinations. The train lines were in disarray after handing over half of Germany's locomotives to the Allies --- too much disarray to answer individual needs.
But Christophe wasn't far from Braedon, his small hometown some distance west of Munich. He shoved away old thoughts of how this day was supposed to be. No victory parades to greet them, no flowers. No woman to kiss him now that he was home. Just silence.
He stared ahead under the autumn sunlight. His vision was clear, something the army had taken advantage of when they'd trained him to be a sniper in the last chaotic weeks of the war. Despite his earlier promotion from Hauptmann to Major, they'd stuck him where he was needed most, no consideration of his rank. Not that he hadn't been a successful sniper, but what he'd counted success only days ago now seemed something else altogether.
Very likely many of the men beside him couldn't see the details he could --- signs on the series of poles before them: splashes of red, in flags, in backdrop. Signs he hadn't seen the likes of since before the war. Back when people still talked about politics, when the German voice wasn't the single one it had turned into during the war.
Then he saw it. An older poster, a bit tattered by the wind. The Kaiser's face, easily recognizable with his mustache and uniform. A call to arms.
Christophe tore his gaze away, to the sky, back to his boots. He'd answered that call; so had each of those who trod at his side. A call that had ended this way.
Rumor had it the Kaiser had fled Germany in disgrace. Good riddance. If what they said about the armistice was true --- that Germany was to be given sole blame for the war --- then the world hated them. Hated all of them for how the Kaiser and his cronies, both aristocratic and military, had pushed them into this war.
Hated them almost as much as Christophe hated himself for all he'd done while in it.
His pace picked up before he knew it; blood pumped as wildly as it had during any fight with the British or French, in offense or defense. He reached for a rock and hurled it at the Kaiser's image. It landed with a thud directly between the eyes.
Another rock, then suddenly more than just his own, along with a grunt here and there, a muffled cry. Were they his? No. A few men broke ranks and hurled themselves at what was left of the poster.
All his life Christophe had needed something to cling to. His parents, a schoolmaster, the church, his commanding officer. In the trenches, other soldiers. And Christ.
Hate filled him now --- something he didn't want but couldn't rid himself of. He clung to that.
Christophe kept hold of the rock in his hand. No need to throw it --- the poster had disappeared.
"And so, fellow Germans! The calendar may say autumn, but in fact we are in the springtime of Germany. The winter of an unjust war is behind us. New life buds for all of us. Are there storms in spring? Yes, but the squalls bring us the energy we need for change. We can build our country anew and model for all --- for ourselves and for our neighbors, with the world's eye on us --- that we speak as one voice, a voice of men, of women, all of us together as one people without differences."
Annaliese barely paused, although the crowd was already beginning to cheer. She read the same fervor on every face; it was like a wave passing over those gathered, binding them together, uniting them.
"They'll hear us speak of protecting and not exploiting our fellow citizens. They'll hear of our compassion for those in need, feel it in the plans to protect even the least in Germany. They'll hear our demands for the equal distribution of food!"
Cries of affirmation forced a pause.
"We'll no longer be burdened by the yoke of a monarchy or kept under the thumb of warmongers, but we will be free --- yes, really free --- to live in the peace for which our men fought. Peace! Freedom! Fairness! And bread!"
Annaliese Düray reveled in the jubilation, in the immediate approval of her call. They outmatched her voice, which was a considerable thing because her voice --- especially on this platform --- was bigger than she was. Hands raised, she lifted her cry even louder, proud of the timbre she'd inherited from her one-time schoolmarm mother. Not the strident screech of some women but midtoned, boisterous, easy on the ear even at this volume. "Peace is ours! And so is the future! If we rally behind the party!"
"Anya . . . Anya, come along now."
Leo Beckenbauer's arm went around her waist and he ushered her from the crowd. Two others carved a path between the brick wall of the Apotheke behind them and the crowd before them, and off they went, the exuberance still echoing in her ears.
"Did you see them, Leo?" she called, breathless. "And more were coming! We should stay --- "
But he pressed forward, and there was little she could do except follow, with Leo next to her, bodyguards in front and behind them. Each one was a brother to her, united not by blood but by something deeper, a passion ardent enough to stir all Germany to embrace a better future. One that would bond them with others throughout the world.
They evaded the few people who followed by turning into a narrow gangway between the back of the Apotheke and the shop next door. Only four blocks to the back of the butcher shop Leo's father once ran, the temporary headquarters for those whose ideals about the future matched their own.
Not a block away, Annaliese heard the echoes and cries of another rally, led by a voice she recognized as belonging to another party. The Communists --- a party not likely to support the recently appointed Bavarian Prime Minister Eisner the way she did. Eisner had been appointed by revolution, with a quick and systematic takeover --- and not a single shot fired. Such a takeover would have been far different had the Red Communists been in charge, even if they did want some of the same things Annaliese's own party wanted. Eisner had agreed to a quick election just weeks from now, proving his confidence that he had the will of the people behind him, even though a half-dozen other parties demanded their voices be heard, too.
But in this neighborhood, one voice rang loudest, and that was Jurgen's. A Socialist one.
She saw the exchange of glances between the men around her, starting with Leo, who looked at Ivo, who looked at Huey. Huey was an ironworker and Ivo a woodworker --- or Ivo had been, until the war had claimed most of his fingers. Despite any hint of a disability, he was as tall as he was stalwart, just like Huey. It would take little more than a word from either one of them to disperse a competing crowd in their territory.
"I could have stayed this time, Leo," Annaliese said once they entered the back of the darkened shop. Though the kitchen hadn't boasted a single slab of meat or even the stingiest of sausages in well over a year, the slight residue of blood and spices still tickled her nose when Leo closed the door behind them.
Leo went to the table, where a stack of papers awaited him. "You know how Eisner likes it; you and Jurgen are to keep their thoughts on Eisner's council so the vote will be won. You'll spend time more freely with the people once Jurgen is back beside you. He is Eisner's council around here --- or at least the best known of the council members."
Of all the voices struggling to be heard these days, other than Eisner himself, it was Jurgen who attracted the biggest response from nearly all corners of their broken society. His promises to meet everyday needs did not fall on deaf ears, because his was the voice of the workers and the peasants themselves --- of all those who'd never had a voice before.
Jurgen liked to tell Annaliese she brought the women's voice to him, but Annaliese knew better. People came because they wanted to see Jurgen, to hear him, to witness the spark in his eye as he promised them what they wanted most of all. Each came with one need or another, but Jurgen promised that the council had the answer, no matter the question.
And Leo had access to bread. Bread few could afford in the quantities their office provided through donations and collections at street rallies. They could afford collectively what individually they must do without. Starve alone or unite and eat. Practical evidence of the effectiveness of the council's goals.
"Oh! This must have been delivered while we were gone." Annaliese scooped up the package left on the wide butcher's table beside the stack of notes Leo tended. "And just in time for tomorrow's council meeting."
Ripping away the string and paper, she held up the jacket for Leo to see. It was exactly as she'd told the tailor to make it: broad across the shoulders, with a touch of padding to make those shoulders appear fully capable of holding the world's woes, just as he needed them to. And not black, but blue --- dark, though, because anything too bright would be out of place in their tattered world. Yet blue would cast his elegant eyes in the best light.
But Leo was shaking his head. "He'll look like a capitalist."
"No jacket will hide Jurgen's working-class background. It's in the width of his shoulders, the strength and size of his hands. In this, he'll look the way every man wants to look. Strong. Fatherly yet handsome; a leader. And the color will reveal the poet in him."
Leo aimed a skeptical brow her way. "Fatherly? I wasn't aware that's how you viewed him."
She ignored the comment; it wasn't the first time Leo had tried coaxing free her infatuation with Jurgen. "It's important that he not look like a military man, even if we do want the military behind us. We've seen enough leaders in uniform. And he won't wear the top hat of a capitalist, either, or the shoes of a monarch. He'll wear trousers like anyone else, only this jacket will show he can take on another's burden without the excesses of an exploiter."
"Yes, well, he's doing that, isn't he?" Leo fingered the sleeve --- durable fabric, plain but for the dark blue color. "Well chosen, Anya. You're young but smart; I've said so right along."
Annaliese smiled at the praise, especially coming from Leo. Jurgen might be the one to receive public praise in the name of Eisner's council --- or the blame from those who disagreed --- but anyone who worked beside them knew whatever Jurgen believed, Leo had believed first.
Excerpted from SPRINGTIME OF THE SPRIT: The Great War Series, Book 3 © Copyright 2011 by Maureen Lang. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.