Rowan is dropped over Brittany via parachute. She has come to teach the resistance to build explosives. There, she encounters Corrie, an older, mystical woman, and Sylvie, fair-haired and seductive, who stirs feelings in Rowan that have been repressed.
The Heart of the Storm
The night sky arched away into infinity. The stars in their distant, unfathomable intensity seemed more real to Rowan than the earth three thousand feet below. She swayed in the harness, heart pounding, lungs beginning to pump again now that the parachute had safely deployed. Elation coursed through mind and body like freedom, like power, like—like sex. Not that sex was anything but a faint memory these days.
Time, along with gravity, seemed to loosen its hold, and for a long moment she could imagine that the world she drifted toward was not the war-torn one she’d left.
Concentrate! Look down, check the terrain, anticipate your landing! Rowan wrenched her thoughts back to reality, but it was too dark below to make out many features on the ground. In the east, clouds edged with silver by the hidden moon towered in sublime indifference to the affairs of men.
She twisted slowly toward the southwest. There, along the Breton coast, dull flashes illuminated a smoky mist. Same old world, same war. The Allied bombers were making a run at the battleships and U-boats in St-Nazaire’s harbor, a frequent enough assault that the Germans might not suspect a diversion. Rowan wasn’t the only agent being dropped over Brittany tonight. She breathed an uncharacteristic prayer for safe passage of the plane and soft landings for those who had jumped farther north.
Worry about your own landing! The breeze was freshening into a light wind. The terrain below blinked into visibility as the moon emerged from behind the clouds, illuminating Rowan’s dangling form as well as the mushroom billow of the parachute.
Landmarks began to match the map in her head. Two streams converging at a certain angle; the spire of a distant, isolated church; a deserted road. The wind was taking her to the east, too fast! But better east than west, where the great marsh of Le Briere spread across 99,000 acres between the Vilaine estuary to the north and the mouth of the Loire to the south.
There should be a signal fire somewhere in the angle between the streams. No sign of it yet. She tugged on the lines, warping the shape of the ‘chute, altering direction just slightly. Yes, there, a spark…gone…there again, a steady glow, not bright, but enough. They would have been watching and listening for the drop plane, and feeding the native peat into the fire in anticipation of her landing.
Or anticipation, at least, of someone’s landing. They had not been informed that the explosives expert being sent from London was a woman.
Nature might not have suited Rowan for the roles of wife, mother, nurturer; but fate, she thought, had prepared her for a mission at least as vital. With a university degree in chemistry and post-graduate training as a pharmacist, she was well qualified to teach the resistance fighters of the Maquis how to make explosives with materials available at any apothecary. And, while she had been born in Cornwall, not France, her Breton grandmother had sent her to a convent school in Quimper in the vain hope of teaching her a proper level of feminine docility. Certainly she knew more about Brittany and the Bretons than someone from Paris or Marseilles.
It had not been easy to persuade the British SOE and de Gaulle’s Comitè National Francaise to let her volunteer for the Free French. Obtaining additional training in demolitions had been even harder, but there had been no one better suited. She had worked tirelessly, persistent when necessary, steeling herself to feign docility when there was no other course, avoiding the least hint of scandal. The desires of the flesh had been reined in, painfully, by the fierce grip of her determination. What if she were a woman? All the better to deceive the Germans. If the men of the Maquis didn’t like it—and, from her year at school in Brittany, she was sure they wouldn’t—it was too late now.
Oh hell! Too late? Time and gravity reclaimed her suddenly, brutally. The ground hurtled upward. A gust of wind—the flash of upturned faces, and then pale mounds of haystacks looming beyond the circle of the fire’ s glow—Rowan drew up her legs, curled into a ball, and tried to propel herself toward the nearest stack by force of will.
The world, abruptly, was a maelstrom of choking dust and prickling straw. Her left ankle twisted beneath her. No time for pain! Reflexes from training kicked in. She freed her knife and slashed at the ‘chute’s lines. No point now in hauling at the mass of fabric to conceal it in the hay. If German voices approached, rather than Breton, there was nothing to be done but stand and face them. If I can stand at all!
At first there were no voices, only feet running through the stubble of the field. A flaring torch stopped a few feet away, its circle of light overlapping her. Rowan stood—yes, she could stand, just barely, painfully—and pulled the leather helmet from her head, brushing back a dark forelock as it fell across her brow. She could feel the eyes behind the light surveying her.
"Those London fools have sent us a woman!" The male voice was brusque with annoyance, but the words were unmistakably Breton.
So much for chopping my hair short! I knew I couldn’t deceive them for long, but—not even for a moment? Relief overrode Rowan’s irritation. She took a step away from the hay, staggered, and only just kept from falling.
"Hold up the torch, Joachim." This voice was authoritative, musical, and unmistakable female. Rowan, startled, staggered again, and would have fallen if not for the quick support of a pair of strong, slender arms. The scent of a woman teased her nostrils. Long strands of flame-gold hair—or did they merely reflect the torchlight?—brushed against her face, their silken stroke sending shivers of delight throughout her body. She felt dizzy.
Am I hallucinating? Have I hit my head and don’t remember it? Other arms moved her back to sit on the hay, and she felt a man’s woolen shirt rough against her cheek. A low voice rumbled from his body into hers.
"Your ways won’t work on a woman, Sylvie!"
The Brieron dialect would have been impenetrable to Rowan if Sister Amalie at the convent school had not been a native of the marshland. The language they had spoken together had had far less to do with words, though, than with touch, and Rowan had taught as much as she’d learned, which explained why she’d been made to leave after only one year. She doubted that Sister had ever taken her final vows.
"Oh, yes, my ways will work on this one." Sylvie’s laugh was low and amused. "And if they did not, what of it? You are too suspicious of strangers, Joachim. There is no need to bind by charms those already bound by a common enemy."
Rowan looked up into eyes the deep brown of peat water, flecked with amber in the torchlight. She had understood enough to brace herself to be on guard. Breton folklore had been denounced at the convent school as mere peasant superstition, and Rowan had paid very little attention to such stories; still, hadn’t there had been something about blonde fee women whose unearthly beauty ensnared mortal men? Only fairy tales, of course. But what strange folk had she landed among? If they themselves believed in charms, how was she to teach them the science of explosives?
There was nothing unearthly about the face laughing down at her, framed by bright waves of hair escaping from a loosely tied kerchief. Rowan’s heart, or something not far from it, lurched at the sight of freckles sprinkled across a snub nose and a merry, curving mouth meant for joy. A queenly or angelic sort of beauty Rowan could have easily withstood, but this… A tingle spread across her skin, then worked its way deeper, piercing layers of repression, stirring up barely-banked embers.
"Are you hurt?" Sylvie asked, in perfect cosmopolitan French, and then repeated the question in English. "Your ankle?" She knelt, throwing back the dark cloak covering her white skirt and simple smock, then ran her hands down Rowan’s calf. Even through heavy leather flight trousers her touch burned like brandy.
Sylvie gripped the injured ankle lightly, then released it. "Is this painful?"
"Only when you stop," Rowan thought dazedly, and then realized that she had spoken aloud, and in the Brieron dialect. Hadn’t Sister Amalie used those very words once, when they were… Well. Now, like a randy dolt, she’d revealed what might have been a useful secret, along with something else that she knew already was no secret to this woman.
"Ah," Sylvie said, quirking an eyebrow. "Such pleasant surprises can be found in the oddest circumstances! But perhaps we shall keep some of this to ourselves." She made the merest gesture toward Joachim and a younger man who were busy hauling in the parachute. There would doubtless be some black-market dealer who would pay well for the silk fabric, with no questions asked.
"Of course, as you wish," Rowan answered in formal French, and then spoiled the effect by yelping as Sylvie’s grip on her ankle tightened sharply, then eased. Rowan stepped reflexively backward. The ankle bore her weight now without the least complaint. Ripples of heat ran up her calf and pooled between her thighs, then dissipated as the imprint of Sylvie’s fingers faded. Rowan very nearly whimpered with the sense of loss.
"Well," Joachim said crossly as he returned, "is she our bomb-maker, or is she not? And what are we to call her?"
"Could you speak more slowly? I’m not familiar with your dialect," Rowan lied coolly.
"Can you show us how make bombs?" he repeated impatiently in serviceable French. "And what is your name?"
"Rowan," she said shortly. "And yes, if you can get me the materials I need, and follow my instructions to the letter, we will make explosive devices." She was suddenly very tired. "But not tonight."
"Of course not," Sylvie said firmly. "Jacques," she called to the younger man, who was hanging back, "slide the chaland into the water, please. We will meet you at the landing."
Jacques cast her a look of abject devotion, then hurried off into the darkness. "Come," Sylvie said, putting an arm around Rowan and urging her in the direction Jacques had taken. "We will soon be on the water, and then you may rest for a few hours until we are deeply and safely into the marsh."
The landing was merely a cleared space on the edge of a stream so narrow that the chaland, a flat-bottomed Brieron punt with its stern nearly as tapered as its prow, barely fit between the banks. The torches were extinguished, hissing, in the black water. ‘You will see well enough by moonlight once your eyes adjust," Sylvie assured her, brushing a finger light as a dragonfly’s wing across her eyelids; and it was true, Rowan realized, as her night vision became clearer than she had ever noticed before.
Jacques poled the boat along the winding channel overhung by low trees. The two women sat pressed together toward the stern, sharing Sylvie’s cloak, an arrangement that provided Rowan with more warmth than could be attributed to the woolen cloth alone. She wanted to relax into the moment, savor the feel of Sylvie’s skin separated from her own by only a few layers of cloth, watch the play of moonlight over the ripples on the water and the curves of Sylvie’s face. If this be enchantment, which I do not believe, what of it? We all work for the same cause.
But Joachim, sitting facing them, resumed his testy questioning. "How soon, then, Mlle. Rowan? How long must we wait?"
Rowan was too tired, or too distracted, to think clearly. Sylvie’s feminine perfume seemed to evoke the spirit of some rare, night-blooming flower. "Soon enough," she told him, thinking that he wanted details of the coming Allied invasion. "But they would scarcely tell me the time and place and then drop me so nearly into the lap of the enemy. We will have at least a month, I think, to prepare."
He shook his head vigorously and waved a dismissive hand. "No, no, how soon can you make the explosives?"
"As soon as I have the components. There must be apothecaries in some of the villages, and surely several if you go as far as St.-Nazaire or La Roche-Bernard. I will make a list, and you can gather the materials in amounts small enough to attract no attention."
Sylvie’s hand had been resting lightly on Rowan’s thigh. Now her grip tightened. "You know of the bridge at La Roche-Bernard?"
"I have heard of it," Rowan said, becoming more distracted by the moment. "The longest suspension bridge in the world, spanning the Vilaine Gorge. The town is far beneath, downstream along the river. I studied the maps in detail while I was in London."
"And do they know in London," Joachim said caustically, "that the Germans are stockpiling ammunition at their headquarters near the base of the bridge? And that they plan to begin transporting it in five days to the northern coast to fight off the expected invasion?"
"They know," Rowan said, although, in fact, she had not realized that the danger was quite so imminent. Five days! "So I am here, and we will be ready." That great high bridge? And Maquis operatives to train who still believe in charms!
"Yes, you are here," Sylvie said firmly, "at exactly the right time. And you will find that we have not been idle. There will be little or no chance for rest, though, in the days ahead, so we must take what we may now."
Rowan’s mind was roiling. Rest seemed impossible. The stream merged with another, and then others, swelling into a small river, and the punt moved faster and more smoothly with the flow. Sylvie tucked the cloak closely around them, leaned her red-gold head against Rowan’s dark hair, humming an almost inaudible tune; and suddenly, it seemed, Rowan was waking from a long, deep sleep.
Ripples of coral clouds streaked the brightening sky. Strong arms helped her from the boat. Not Joachim; the wide breast she leaned against was unmistakably that of a woman. Through the mist of waking Rowan looked up into a face faintly lined by time and weather, topped by cropped steel-gray hair.
"Where…" but Rowan’s voice felt rusty. She drew in a deep breath and recognized Sylvie’s scent clinging strongly to the older woman, blending with notes of sun-warmed herbs. Had she been helped, too, from the boat? Or had they shared a deeper embrace? And whatever made her imagine such a thing, or care?
But she knew. Memories teased at her, of a discreet club in London where she had ventured once with a friend from University. Short-haired women in tweeds or loose trousers and waistcoats had come and gone with pretty girls clinging to their arms. In the last two years she had not dared to return, in her struggle to remain above reproach, but only watched once or twice from a distance and then gone home with fuel enough for imagination that by midnight her narrow bed was over-warm and her tangled sheets damp.
"You are on an island of safety," came the response, in a contralto voice edged with humor. Rowan, even through a haze of sleep and something close to jealousy, did not doubt that for an instant.
A girl of about nine or ten took Rowan’s hand shyly and led her to a sprawling cottage with thatched roof and reed-strewn floors. She was shown a room where she could wash and tidy herself, and another where an assortment of shirts and trousers were laid out across a pallet stuffed with goose feathers. Rowan gratefully stripped off her flight suit and harness and found clothing that fit well enough. At least I am tall enough for men’s clothes!
The child poked her head shyly around the edge of the door. "Corrie says to come and eat your breakfast. We are to have crêpes today!"
"Is Sylvie there?"
"No, of course not!" It clearly seemed to her a foolish question. "Sylvie goes about her own business, and one must not ask!"
Oh? Well, I will ask, if the mission requires it!
Rowan followed the child out past a chicken coop into a tiny garden fenced by boards, their gently curving lines attesting to a former existence as the sides of chalands. The gray-haired woman sitting at a wood-plank table must be Corrie. In this brighter light she did not appear so much old as poised comfortably between youth and age, dressed for practicality in the same sort of homespun shirt and trousers worn by Joachim. She looked up at Rowan, surveying her calmly for a moment as though to assess her now that the sunlight had strengthened, and then waved her to a bench.
I’ll wager she knows everything there is to know about Sylvie, or is not afraid to ask!
The coffee was hot and strong, augmented by some herb Rowan did not recognize, but far more palatable than any she had tasted in London since rationing began. "No, thank you," she said when Corrie offered milk and honey. "This is too good to need sweetening."
Corrie nodded approval. "Here comes Claudette with our sweets, in any case, although you must try the honey sometime while you are with us. The wild bees of the Briere guard their gold well, but we still find it." The child set a tray of crêpes on warm plates before them. Blackberry jam oozed from between the lightly browned layers. A dish of some darker strips with a slight resemblance to kippers was included, and when Corrie offered it, Rowan, feeling suddenly starved, decided not to ask, just eat.
"I should warn you that not everyone appreciates the virtues of smoked eel," Corrie said, a smile twitching at the corners of her wide mouth.
Rowan, feeling challenged, took a mouthful and chewed, undeterred by the crunching of small bones. The smoky tang made an odd but satisfying contrast to the sweet crepes. "You can’t imagine what I’ve had to eat in London. This is a different world, in so many ways." She gestured across the table, then on toward the panorama of reeds and meadows and blue channels stretching languidly to the horizon, recalling the sense of being isolated from time, from reality, as she drifted downward under the parachute. The tranquility of the marsh seemed unworldly, the only motion a rippling of water and faint quivering of rushes stirred by an otherwise imperceptible breeze. One could rest here forever… Like the lotus-eaters of Lethe…
The sudden honk of a goose broke the silence. On the far bank of the stream fluffy brown goslings scattered among the thickest reeds as two predatory herons soared overhead.
"Different from London, yes," Corrie said. "But we cannot escape the world even here." Her jaw seemed suddenly squarer and the lines beside her mouth no longer suggested smiles and hearty laughter. "The foot soldiers and tanks of the invaders will not penetrate here, but their planes still fly overhead. And while they could not starve us out, for the marshland supports its own, we are bound by ties of blood and friendship to all of Brittany. And all of France as well," she added as an afterthought.
Rowan’s relief must have shown on her face. Corrie chuckled. "Did you think we had lured you into this watery maze to keep you from your mission?"
Something about the older woman inspired frankness. "I did feel some sense of being…lured. And Sylvie spoke of binding by charms." Rowan spoke lightly, but watched closely for Corrie’s reaction.
"Did she? How careless of her! It’s bad enough that the Germans think her a witch." Corrie seemed to be savoring some private joke. "Well, one who bears the name of the Rowan tree need fear no evil charms. And even if there are such things, they are clearly not sufficient to fight our battles for us. We need your bombs." She pushed back her chair and stood up. "Come along now, if you are quite finished, and I will show you what we have done to prepare. I’m afraid there will be little rest for any of us for many days and nights to come."
Rowan had known that Corrie was tall, but she was just beginning to appreciate her commanding presence. Sylvie was flame and grace and seduction; Corrie, she thought, was a weathered, sheltering rock who could transform into a raging lioness at need. Where on earth is all that coming from? But oh, if I could only be singed by whatever sparks they may strike from each other!
Corrie’s broad form was well along a trail leading through a clump of alders by the time Rowan, ducking her face to hide its warm flush, caught up. The path led to a small cove on the far side of the island, nearly filled by a flat barge supporting a large tin-roofed structure. Several chalands were squeezed in on either side, and men were unloading bundles onto the deck.
"Where better to assemble explosives than afloat in the heart of a marshland?" Corrie said cheerily. "And our factory is movable, as well, although not too quickly or far. We had to haul the barge here in segments." She trotted lightly up the plank. Rowan followed, feeling curious eyes surveying her.
Inside the building four women were opening feed sacks and splitting hay bales to reveal a wide assortment of pharmaceuticals, most containing acids and nitrates and chlorides in one combination or another. They clearly had at least a half-formed notion of what she would need. Shelves bearing more materials were built along two walls, while a large worktable occupied the center, and pots and kettles of various types hung on racks next to a black iron stove. "There is plenty of peat for fuel," Corrie said, "but we have brought in coal, as well, in case hotter fires are needed."
"This will be excellent!" Rowan said, nodding in greeting toward the women. "I had expected to make do with far less. Given time, I could have made explosives with little more than droppings from the henyard. With what you have here, and whatever more you can get me quickly… Well, it will be a long four days, but we can do it, if you will follow my directions in every detail."
"Write me a list of whatever else you require, and we will send for it," Corrie said. "Do it quickly, though; a storm is on its way, but I think it can be held off until nightfall."
Be held off? Rowan knew by Corrie’s sidelong glance that she was watching for a reaction. Let her wait. Rowan would do some watching of her own.
She made a quick survey of what was on hand, and jotted down a list of requirements, emphasizing especially the need for glass or ceramic containers. Then she turned to the instruction of her assistants. Their grasp of procedures was impressive; she had the notion that their experience went well beyond daily cooking chores when it came to measuring, mixing, testing, and isolating incompatible materials. One elderly woman in a starched white cap asked her what words to say over a mixture, then laughed and shook her head after an admonitory look from Corrie.
By late afternoon more punts arrived with materials from Rowan’s list. There were a few roads through the marshes, she was told, but the Germans had commandeered most vehicles, even horses and donkeys, so everything must be transported by bicycle from the more distant towns and villages to the landings where the boats waited.
Dark storm clouds were heaped on the western horizon, looming nearer as the day wore on. Corrie spent more and more time on the deck watching the sky. Finally she disappeared for so long that Rowan would have gone ashore to look for her, except that one of the women blocked her way, asking trivial questions that had been dealt with hours ago. Rowan suspected deliberate obstruction.
One more boat arrived, just past sunset, after most of the other punters had departed. In the distraction of unloading Rowan slipped away, intending to follow the path back to the house to look for Corrie on the pretext of asking whether dinner would be brought to those still working. When the track she took led instead slightly upward, she kept on, hoping for a wider view.
The sky grew suddenly much darker. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Rowan nearly turned back, but not far ahead she could see a gleam of light through willow branches. Hurrying on, almost certain Corrie would be there, she passed into the grove of trees and halted in surprise. A slender figure in white stood gazing into the rippling waters of a spring-fed pool. A small fire in a circle of rocks behind her illuminated the red-gold highlights in her hair.
Without glancing up, Sylvie beckoned her forward. "Look," she said softly. Rowan gazed into the pool and saw, not a reflection of the willow branches arching above them, but a scene of dark towering clouds edged with vermilion, like embers from the fire of the departed sun.
Sylvie took Rowan’s hand, turning toward her. The touch stirred Rowan’s flesh, even as her mind whirled with the impossibility of what she had seen.
"Believe, or do not believe," Sylvie said gently. "It makes no difference. I cannot understand your magic of molecules and atoms, but I must still believe in its power, and make use of it."
"I thought Corrie would be here, holding back the storm," Rowan said, only now admitting this to herself, and refusing to examine the thought. Belief or its lack seemed irrelevant. Sylvie’s closeness, the curve of her lips, the rise and fall of her breasts beneath her white gown, projected a magnetism owing nothing to the physics taught in schools.
"And so she was," Sylvie said, "but that is a wearing task, and she is not as young as she once was. I sent her to rest.”
To rest? But Corrie isn’t that old. And she said there would be little rest for any of us. Clearly Corrie too went about her own business, and one must not ask. Safer, of course, not to trust Rowan with secrets when she might yet be taken by the Germans; but still she felt a pang.
Sylvie’s hand tightened on hers. “Are you disappointed to find me here instead?" The amusement in her smile told Rowan that she had no doubt as to the answer.
"No, of course not!" Rowan’s hand was still in Sylvie’s; she reached out boldly to take the other. Why not show some initiative? Shouldn’t being charmed include some benefits? She gazed into Sylvie’s amber-flecked eyes, aching to lean forward until her mouth was touching those full, tempting lips. Instead, she heard her own voice ask, as though from a great distance, "Are you and Corrie…close?"
Sylvie smiled again. "Oh yes. Very close."
"As close as this?" Now Rowan dared to put her arms around Sylvie, who did not resist but rather pressed her body closer into the embrace. Rowan touched her mouth gently to cheek and lips. Sylvie responded with an urgency that sparked a jolt of desire, and with mounting hunger Rowan kissed her all along the curve from chin to throat, and below, nudging downward toward the gathered neckline of her dress. The very air sparked and tingled, charged with erotic energy. Heat flared in Rowan’s depths, tension swelled, swelled…
A sudden crash of thunder drilled right through to their bones. "Quickly!" Sylvie shouted again, and with scarcely a pause for breath they were racing together down the hill, dodging great raindrops until there were too many to evade. Sylvie’s white dress glowed as though phosphorescent, leading Rowan safely through the growing dark.
They burst into the cottage with water streaming from their hair and clothing plastered to their bodies. Sylvie’s lush curves glowed pink through fabric made translucent by the soaking, a temptation Rowan, still highly aroused, could never have resisted if the house had not been swarming with all those who had remained on the island.
Sylvie greeted everyone cheerfully, playing hostess once she had put on dry clothes. The women produced a meal in easy cooperation. Rowan answered questions about explosives and asked some of her own about the bridge at La Roche-Bernard, finding herself spending the rest of the evening bent over charts with Joachim as he drew diagrams detailing the bridge’s construction and just how and where the Germans stored their munitions.
Corrie didn’t reappear. Everyone went to bed early, wherever they could find a likely corner. The child Claudette and the oldest of the assisting women shared Rowan’s goosefeather pallet, but she tossed and turned so, waking often from interrupted dreams of Sylvie in her arms—or, disturbingly, in Corrie’s arms—that she moved finally to the reed-covered floor for the sake of her bed-mates.
There was little rest for anyone in the next three days. Rowan tried to be everywhere, overseeing the rough refinement of chemicals and the preparation of fuses, charting blast vectors and bridge stress points with Joachim and the other men who would be helping to handle the final detonation, and emphasizing safety precautions over and over again.
Whenever her strength wavered, Corrie seemed to be beside her, smoothing misunderstandings, bringing order out of chaos, building confidence in those who needed it. She had a towering presence, at once commanding and kind, along with some further aura that made Rowan struggle to suppress a thrill of something between awe and longing. Like a roedeer in the presence of a great elk! But I’m no bleating doe! She mustered her own powers of science and of will, and maintained the authority that no one, least of all Corrie, seemed to question. Dare I ask her to go with me to help when, inevitably, I move on to train Maquis groups in other areas? How immovably is Corrie bound to this place, by blood, by nurture, by…magic?
Late every afternoon, just before sunset, Corrie disappeared into some private retreat. Sylvie would arrive in the early evening, often wearied by her own secret pursuits, but still managing to inject some degree of merriment into the brief time between work and what little sleep could be managed.
Rowan lay on her crowded pallet each night imagining Sylvie creeping at last into Corrie’s bed, laying her bright head against the weary gray one and feeling those strong arms wrap around her, giving comfort, giving…but by then she would be asleep.
Corrie, Rowan suspected, was working on plans of her own. There had been mutterings about the certainty of reprisals for the bombing. The Germans were known to punish at random, with no regard to proof of guilt. Corrie had asked whether there would be unmistakable traces of fuses and their rough-made explosives after a successful detonation; Rowan had assured her that if the ammunition dump went up and the bridge came down, there would be no way to prove that God and all his Angels had not ignited the blast with their fiery trumpets, but the Germans would certainly have few doubts as to who was responsible.
"Would it be possible, however unlikely, for a lightning strike to do the job?"
Rowan stared, speechless. "If you can command the lightning," she said at last, "what need do you have of me?"
"What need? Let me think…" The first smile in two days softened Corrie’s stern features. "No, I cannot command the lightning." She put a hand on Rowan’s shoulder and gave it a brief squeeze that left a lingering heat. "That detail I must trust to you." And then she was off across the room to help a short woman lift down a canister from an upper shelf.
The band of saboteurs embarked in two chalands while the sky was still dark, the gently rippling channels lit only by the waning moon. Rowan did not question the feather-touch of Sylvie’s hand across her eyelids, giving her the night-sight of an owl, nor did she hesitate to return the warm pressure of Sylvie’s full lips on her own as they parted.
Corrie did not appear. I can’t believe she wouldn’t come to see me off! Some half-formed notion had begun to stir at the back of Rowan’s mind, though she was not yet prepared to examine it closely.
By mid-morning Rowan rode in a farmer’s cart filled with peat blocks and onions, pulled by a mule so old the Germans could think of no better use for him. Joachim and the others proceeded toward La Roche-Bernard at seemingly random intervals, on bicycles with panniers of garden produce. The concealed components for the explosives were divided into several sections. Only when all had met at a farmhouse, near the town but well off the main road, was Rowan ready to mix the components and bundle them into a long burlap sack well-wrapped with twine. Just past sunset she climbed into the cart again, holding the infernal bundle on her lap as though it were a suckling pig destined for a general’s table.
A line of storm clouds had loomed in the west all day. Now, from the high bridge, they seemed to fill most of the sky. "We can’t wait for full night," Rowan muttered to Joachim, and he nodded. They had planned to reconnoiter on the northern side, and then recross to the southern side after dark, but it could be pouring rain by then. Is Corrie straining to hold back the storm? Or is it Sylvie’s job by now?
There was no other traffic, since most travelers knew enough to find shelter. Lightning flashed in the approaching clouds. Returning to the southern end of the bridge, the cart tipped suddenly, as though an axle had broken. While the farmer was unhitching the mule and leading it away, the twine-tied bundle slid between bridge and railing, to be lowered by rope down, down, far into the gorge, until it dangled just above a cluster of tin-roofed warehouses on the river’s bank.
"Go!" Rowan ordered fiercely. "Get off the bridge, all of you!" No one dared challenge the blaze of command in her eyes. When all were clear, she struck a sulfur match, lit the long wire fuse, and watched to be sure the spark continued downward. Then, as thunder cracked and the first drops of rain began to fall, she leapt onto the waiting bicycle and pedaled for her life.
Ninety seconds and half a kilometer later, she huddled with the others behind a hillock, watching lightning slice across the clouds. Suddenly a flash brighter than any lightning bolt ripped the sky. The earth lurched beneath them, again and again, as pile after pile of munitions ignited, until a mighty creak and crash sounded through the smoke and rain and steam. The southern end of the bridge had split away from the land to crumble into the fiery gorge.
They tried to persuade her to stay through the night in a safe house at the edge of the marsh, but she would not be held.
"No," she told Joachim when he became too overbearing. "I will go back tonight. If no one can take me, I will pole the boat myself. How can I lose my way when such a powerful charm binds and draws me?" She stared him in the face until he had to look away, remembering his own words the night she had landed.
"Then I will take you," he muttered. "But," looking up again with the ghost of a smile, "the Corrigan never had need of any charm to bind you!"
The early sun sparkled on reeds and grasses still wet from the evening rain as they neared the island. Rowan sprang from the chaland when there were still two feet of water between prow and landing.
She barely paused at the cottage, where only a few were stirring. The path to the hilltop showed signs of passage since the rain; she had no doubt that Corrie knew she was coming, and the scent of strong coffee as she entered the willow grove made her even more certain. A glance showed a flask and two mugs and a napkin-covered basket set out on a flat stone beside the fire circle.
"We did it," she said simply, as the cloaked figure sitting against a willow trunk started to rise. "The bridge is down, the munitions are blown sky high, and in years to come there will be legends told of how lightning smote the invaders’ stockpiled weapons."
"How does it feel to be a legend?" Hoarseness marred the attempted humor in Corrie’s tone. Her amber-flecked eyes held a gleam of laughter, but her faced showed strain and her shoulders slumped with weariness as she stood. She had never seemed so…human.
"I’m still puzzling that out." Rowan went forward without hesitation and slipped her hands under the wool cloak, stretching her arms around Corrie’s warm body. "Tell me how it works," she murmured, resting her head against the homespun shirt pulsing with the beat of the heart beneath. "Is it true that if a Corrigan’s lover will still desire her in her daylight form, as well as in the seductive nighttime guise, they may live happily together?"
"So they say." Corrie’s arms were around her now, but lightly, and her lips just brushed Rowan’s dark cropped hair.
"But if I love you now, must I lose you?" Rowan moved her hands along Corrie’s strong back and worked her mouth slowly across her shirtfront, making it clear that carnal love was definitely part of the package. Corrie stood quite still, barely breathing, although her heartbeat quickened. "Don’t the legends say that the younger form becomes the true one, both night and day?" Rowan went on.
"Who would choose otherwise?" Corrie’s tone was light, but Rowan sensed her tension.
"I would," she said firmly. "Sylvie is lovely, enchanting, and I would miss her, but if I had to choose, I would choose you." Her hands lowered to grasp Corrie’s wide hips and pull their bodies even closer together.
Corrie’s arms tightened until Rowan could scarcely breathe. "Who believes the old legends? If there is love enough, I think, we can choose to be either, at will, though I have never seen it tested."
"You had better be right." Rowan felt her own heart pound and her blood race. "Because it’s going to be tested now."
"Wait." But Corrie’s moving hands didn’t seem to be aware of her own instructions. "This is wartime. You know that once you’ve taught us to manage on our own, you must move on to other Maquis cells.”
"Are you bound to this place? Could you come with me, to organize, teach, use your special skills, if they can be invoked elsewhere?”
“There are three more spring-fed pools across Brittany where the power is strong enough. But I could not stay away too long, while you… ”
“There is nowhere I would rather be. Afterward, win or lose, we would come back to the heart of the Briere."
"If there is an afterward." But Corrie’s mouth had moved to Rowan’s cheek and was inching toward her lips.
"We had better not waste what time we have, then," Rowan said; and she didn’t. Questions would come, but for now they faded in the flare of desire. Only hunger needed answering.
The destruction of the bridge paled, for the moment, beside this blaze of magic older and earthier than legend. An achingly short moment; there was still work to be done, and already little Claudette was calling from below; but when night came again, after more hours laboring side by side on the necessary contrivances of war, Rowan’s dark head rested against Corrie’s, still gray, on the goose-feather pillow while they found comfort and joy, if very little sleep, in each other’s arms.
WWII has always held a great fascination for me. I’ve written other stories set in that period, and done far more research than I’ve yet used in fiction. When, in the course of reading for another purpose, I came across the information that a female pharmacist was, in fact, dropped by parachute into Brittany to train the Maquis in making explosives, I knew I had to use such a character sometime. When I later read in a guidebook that the bridge at La Roche-Bernard (and the German munitions stored beneath it) had been destroyed by lightning, I knew that the time had come.
There’s nothing like keeping a soup pot of random facts simmering on the back burner of your creative stove.