This is an excerpt from The Coronation by Justin Newland.
It’s the closing scene of Chapter 2, The Fear of Famine.
It’s from the point of view of Marion Grafin (or Countess) von Adler and takes place in her home in Schloss (or Castle) Ludwigshain.
She found the officer in charge, a middle-aged, thickset man, with hair sprouting from his eyebrows, and his hands. “What are they doing?” she demanded. “Where are you going with all that food?”
Smart in his uniform, as well as his attitude, the officer replied, “The Russian Army needs transport and supplies. They are mine to requisition.”
“Not again,” she complained. “Two years ago, the Russian Imperial Army barracked an entire regiment on my estate and we’ve barely recovered.”
“I know nothing about that,” the officer said.
“You can tell your men to stop.”
“I will not,” the officer said flatly.
She tried a personal approach and asked, “Who do I have the honour of addressing?”
“Captain Stepan Gurieli of the Guzinskiy Hussars at your service,” he said, clicking the heels of his boots.
As she watched the Georgian soldiers load sacks of potatoes, wheat, corn and carrots onto the carts, Marion had an awful, sinking feeling. This was terrible. Without food, her people, her estate, could all crumble into dust. She tried again.
“This is the last day of the harvest. If you take everything, my people won’t survive the winter.”
“This is for the victorious Russian Army,” Gurieli said with a snarl.
“Famine gnaws at the soul,” she pleaded with him. “At least leave us something!”
“These are my orders,” the captain snapped back. “If you don’t like them, take up the matter with the Governor General of Königsberg, or better still, Elizabeth Petrovna, Empress of all Russia.”
She kept her own counsel on that one.
A younger officer – a lieutenant – joined them. He was the one Konstantin had been berating. He had a slight build and rounded shoulders. Marion particularly noticed his gleaming emerald-green eyes and, protruding from beneath his cap, strands of curly red hair.
“Your report, Lieutenant Fermor,” the captain said.
“The men have gathered everything they can,” the lieutenant replied.
“Good, then prepare the column to leave,” Gurieli said. He bestowed on Marion a smug grin and strode towards his dapple-grey horse.
The monster was going to steal her people’s harvest. There was so little time to save her people. She had to stop him. She darted in front of him, arms outstretched, blocking his way.
Mouth agape, the captain stepped back, evidently as surprised as she was by her impetuous action.
“Get out of my way – or suffer the consequences.”
Breathing hard, her heart pumping, she glared at him. “Please. Don’t steal our harvest!”
The captain leaned forward and barked, “Don’t prevent me from following my orders!”
She chose her next words carefully. “This is cruel, vindictive and contrary to the teachings of Our Lord!”
“Bah!” he scoffed. “I don’t care. The Lutheran Church is full of heretics anyway.”
Silence gripped her round the throat. Fear bared its claws.
“What about the little ones?” she pleaded. “Don’t you have children, Captain Gurieli? Leave something for them, I beg you.”
“Blame it on that odious King Frederick of yours,” the captain replied, tapping his riding whip against his thigh. “Because of his hubris, my countrymen – and yours – die horribly on the battlefield. I’ve seen hundreds lose their limbs. A whole generation is amputated. So many fatherless families. Don’t preach to me about children. Be thankful I’m leaving you your lives!”
“I will not let you leave my people to starve!” Every word was like a peal of thunder.
“Get out of my way, you whore!” the captain hissed.
Hans rushed forward, shouting, “How dare you address my mother like that!”
“Who is this suckling babe?” Gurieli laid on the scorn.
“I’m not a child, I’m a man,” Hans snapped.
What happened next seemed to do so in slow motion.
The glint of a blade in the sunlight. Hans’ overhead thrust parried by Gurieli. The dagger falling from her son’s hand spiralling through the air. Gurieli knocking the boy to the ground and plunging his foot on his chest, then lifting his riding whip above his head.
She flung herself into the trajectory of the whip.
It ripped her cheek and stung her with a shooting pain the like of which she had never experienced. Her knees trembled. With the sheer force of will, she urged herself not to move, nor wipe away the blood trickling down her cheek.
Otto and the young lieutenant rushed towards the captain.
“Stop right there!” One fiery glance endorsed her command.
Defiant like a granite mountain before a storm, she stared into the captain’s eyes.
“Move out of my way, or I’ll have to…” Gurieli said.
The captain raised his whip hand and she winced, expecting another strike. A moment passed. Nothing happened. She opened her eyes. The captain and the young lieutenant were grappling and grunting like a couple of great bears. Hans got up from the ground and she flung a protective arm around him. The lieutenant twisted Gurieli’s hand, forcing him to drop the whip.
Gurieli pulled away, shouting, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
“You struck a lady! Call yourself an Imperial Russian officer? You’ve dishonoured the regiment!” the lieutenant replied.
“This is the foreigner’s true colour!” the captain stoked the flames. “White – like the flag of surrender! You’d have our great mother country bow the knee to Prussians!”
The lieutenant unsheathed his sabre and slashed it against the side of the captain’s head, severing his left ear in one swift, clean blow. The ear landed in the summer dust. Blood oozed down the captain’s neck, turning his crisp white uniform a sanguine shade of scarlet. The captain stroked the wound, examined the blood on his hand and licked it. His face transformed into one of unadulterated fury.
“You’ve done it now, little Lieutenant,” Gurieli snarled. “You are under my command. Your precious uncle isn’t here to cosset you.”
The cut on her cheek seared right through her. Waves of pain beat against her legs. She felt dizzy and leaned against Hans.
The lieutenant took a step back and bowed his head. He seemed to have realised the gravity of his action. In a grovelling tone, he said, “I-I’m sorry, Captain.”
“You will be. Here, bite on this!” The captain pulled out his sabre and drove at the lieutenant, who tried to parry the thrust, but Gurieli ran the lieutenant through the side. She cringed at the squishing sound of the sword piercing his flesh. Gurieli withdrew the sabre and blood spurted in an arc, colouring the sandy ground in a hot crimson stream.
The lieutenant slumped to his knees, clutching his side, blood squelching through his fingers. The captain walked round him, planted a boot on the lieutenant’s back and kicked him to the ground, face first.
No one moved. Everyone was in shock.
The lieutenant lay in a pool of blood oozing into the yellow sand, as flies descended on the banquet. Nearby, the captain’s horse, feeling the ambient tension, deposited a large volume of stinking excrement onto the forecourt.
“There, Gräfin.” The captain’s voice ascended the heights of mockery. “There’s food for your people. From the horse’s arse!”
Marion clung onto Hans’ arm, to prevent him from going back into the fray and stop herself falling over in a heap.
The adjutant stumbled over to where the lieutenant lay stricken on the ground, his life oozing out onto the gravel.
The captain barked at him, “Leave him!”
“He’ll die, Captain Gurieli,” the adjutant replied.
“He struck a superior officer, an offence that bears a grave punishment. Do you want to suffer the same fate?”
The adjutant frowned and shook his head.
“Then pick that up!” Gurieli pointed to his bloody ear.
“Yes, Captain,” the adjutant murmured.
“And that.” Gurieli pointed to his whip. “Now let’s leave this accursed place.”
Gurieli led the column off – taking with them most of their horses, carts and wagons carrying the bulk of the estate’s winter food supplies. They left behind fear of famine, a pile of steaming horse shit and a mortally wounded Russian officer.
Once she made sure Hans was unhurt, Marion acted quickly. “Find the doctor. This wound needs cauterising. Bring the lieutenant inside.”
Otto picked him up by the armpits while Konstantin grabbed the boy’s feet. They hauled him as far as the entrance of the Schloss, where a barrel of a man with a face pitted like the full moon, stood on the steps. Few survived the smallpox, but he had. Arms folded, he blocked their way.
“Alexander,” she said to him, “let them pass.”
The huntsman ignored her and lanced the boil of his opinion. Pointing to the stricken lieutenant, he snarled, “Him, he’s Russian scum. They raped our women and our land. They left him here to die. If it were me, I’d do the same.”
“We’re trying to save his life,” she replied.
“What life? He’s not worth it. His soldiers stole our food and our peace of mind. What we gonna feed him on? Berries? Grass? Nah. I see real life in the woods. The beasts of the forest knows the way of things. They’d leave him to die. Not thee, though, Your Excellency. You wanna feed our enemy with food we ain’t even got!”
She glared at him like a Prussian Medusa, willing him to turn to stone under her gaze. “Listen to me! That man doesn’t even know who I am, yet was prepared to lay down his life for me and my son. What more can you ask of a friend, so how can he be an enemy? Now move!”
While the huntsman beat a calculated retreat, she knew it was a temporary respite. The fear of famine crawled into people’s lives like vermin and was as equally hard to remove.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx