It was a fine, bright morning when the German soldiers came to the school.
Everyone was there that day - everyone that was left was there, that is. In February, the hated Quisling Regime had approved the Lov om nasjonal arbeidsinnsats, or the Law of national work effort, which had required all men between the ages of 18 and 55, and all women between the ages of 21 and 40, to enlist in the work program for the benefit of the Nazi occupiers. That act had removed Anders Bolstad and Geir Eiken, both just 18, from class mere months before they were to finish their studies, and left but a dozen younger students between the ages of 13 and 17 to finish out the year of secondary education in Olstgard School.
For Nils Haalaand, it had been further proof that things were not going well for the Nazis. That they needed bolstering in a land they had supposedly mastered seemed to suggest a manpower shortage, with units of the Wehrmacht being sent elsewhere where things were more critical, leaving the towns and cities of Norge understaffed, and even the small town of Olstgard no exception.
Nils had heard the neighbors - friends of his father - that sometimes came by the house in the late afternoon hours before the evening curfew locked the town down, whisper of such things as they talked about what the English and the Americans were doing now. The war seemed to be turning against the Germans,with the unsurpassed dynamo that was the American manufacturing sector supplying ten new planes and tanks to every one that was lost in the field. Such numbers could not be matched by the factories of the Ruhr Valley, and Gunnar Haansen, the boatman from Bergen, had gone as far as to whisper that the war could be over within two year's time. It was not just superior numbers of men that the Allies boasted, but superior numbers of machines, and it had already become apparent that this was a war that would be won by machines.
Nils was seated in the first row, next to his best friend, Rune Halldorson, and they had been regaling each other with jokes they had heard about the 'conquerors', waiting for the class to begin. The Christmas just past, locals had again taken to wearing red clothing - scarves and shirts and coats and stocking caps - and had greeted each other in the streets with 'Merry Norsk Christmas' instead of the 'Merry Christmas' of years past, in a growing movement to express their Norwegian identity. Nils and Rune had each broken out red scarves hidden away after the previous Christmas, and worn them themselves, even knowing that the Germans would confiscate them if they saw them. The boys had managed to outrun several outraged soldiers, who proved themselves to have less than adequate observational skills when they could not identify either boy among the market crowds once the scarves had again been hidden away.
The Germans made it their habit to confiscate anything in the way of red clothing, feeling somehow that it was being worn in support of the Russian Red Army - just one more example of their stupid, obtuse military thinking. The last liberators anyone in Norway wanted to see were the Russians! That would simply be trading one occupying power for another, and Norway had had enough of unwanted guests, and more than enough of war.
Yet the local police quarters had become full of red clothing confiscated by the Germans, rooms and rooms full of the stuff, leading locals to joke that women would now go to see the police to ask directions to the best dress shops.
And on the trikk - the trolleys that provided transport in the larger cities, the Germans were being subjected to the isfronten - the ice front - where no Norwegian would take a seat near a German soldat, even if it meant standing. The Germans were so affronted by the feeling of being rejected and ignored that they had hung notices all about the cities and on the trolleys themselves, stating that it was illegal to stand when empty seats were available. Illegal to stand, now!
"They are made to feel like barely tolerated boarders, instead of conquerors," Nils's father had once laughed, showing the sort of spirit that Nils had come to admire.
And why not? The attitude of the German soldiers seemed to be that they had won and Norway had lost, and that everyone should just accept that and get along now. The very idea of such thinking was appalling and disturbing to Nils, who even at just fourteen already understood the concepts of national home and hearth, and the freedom to enjoy both. Nationality, for the Germans, seemed to be a commodity they thought they could simply export to the nations whose borders they had violated, and place in the public square, there to be eagerly accepted by those whose homes they had defiled and stolen.
"You are a part of the thousand-year Reich now," they had been told. "You should be proud to be a part of such a noble endeavor!"
No one had the right to simply walk in and take over the land and the homes and the lives of others, not for any reason. It went against all the freedoms that Nils had been born with, and had come to accept as normal and right. That the Tyskerne felt they had some right to do so outraged his senses even more, and Nils had silently fumed as he walked by the old inn in town each day on his way to and from school, and seen the sign posted out front that said, in fierce black lettering, Nur für Deutsche! -Only for Germans!As if anything inNorgecould be only for them.
And so the jokes, now a part of Nils's morning routine with Rune. That his best friend felt as he did made them even closer - compatriots in a silent revolution of the heart and the mind, and they had grown so very close now that Nils could scarcely imagine a single day without Rune as his constant companion.
That morning was no exception. Rune grinned at him, his blue eyes twinkling and his smile impossible to resist, and asked: "What did the German officer say to the street boy in Bergen?"
Nils had also grinned, having heard the joke a dozen times before, but wishing to hear it again. "What?"
Rune had put on a serious face, scrunching up his features and giving a surly turn to his lips. "You there! Young urchin! Have you seen a car full of monkeys drive past?"
The question was supposed to be in reference to the carloads of Norwegian workers heading off to their work program jobs. An insult.
Nils laughed in delight. "And what did the street boy return?"
Rune leaned closer, now wearing the face of one perhaps a little too smart for his own good. "He said, 'Why? Did you fall off?'"
They both roared with laughter, garnering grins from the other boys and girls around them, and a soft drumming of fingers upon his desktop by Mr. Bergland, who had entered the classroom unnoticed.
"Now, boys, that's enough of that." But the instructor was smiling, having heard the tail end of the joke, and appreciating it just as much as most of the citizenry. Norge could no longer fight with guns and tanks, but did so now with words every bit as defiant as a rifle pointed at a German neck.
"This morning we will start with reading." Mr. Bergland had smiled at Nils then, and pointed at him as he seated himself upon the corner of his desk. "And I believe Nils Haalaand, who seems very wide awake this morning, will be the first to show that he has completed his overnight assignments."
Rune snickered, and Nils sighed. But he got to his feet, and withdrew his paper from inside the front cover of one of his schoolbooks.
"Whom did you select to write about?" Mr. Bergland asked, still smiling. Nils could not help smiling in return.
Mr. Bergland was probably about the same age as Nils's father, who was forty-one. Still a young man, although the instructor's dark hair showed the first signs of graying at the temples. Mr. Bergland was tall and square of jaw, with wide shoulders, and had a thick mustache the same color as his hair, which would have served to make him fierce of countenance had not his eyes always been filled with the same good humor that his smile regularly displayed
Nils had come to like the man quite a lot in the two years he had been at the secondary level; far more than he had liked old Mrs.Hegdahl, who had had all the warmth of a mountain goat lost in the dark. His years in primary level with her had indeed been educational, for she was a fine and knowledgeable instructor - just one as humorless as the cement slab outside the rear door to the recreation grounds.
Learning with Mr. Bergland was fun, a new order of education that had changed the way that Nils - and many others - thought of school. Nils had come to like and respect the man very much, and to love his idea of education as a sharing and discussion of knowledge.
"I selected Fridtjof Wedel-Jarisberg Nansen," Nils said proudly, causing a slight undercurrent of laughter to course among the rest of the class.
Mr. Bergland laughed, too. "I suspect that reaction means that several others chose this man as well?"
Three hands rose, and the instructor nodded. "That's fine. So great a hero should be recognized by more than just one."
Nils blinked at that. "You think he was a hero?"
"Yes, I do. He did many fine things in his life, and always first in his mind was that he did these things for Norway."
"He crossed Greenland on skis in 1888," Nils said then, shaking his head. "So long ago, it must have been a difficult task, indeed."
"It would be a challenge even now," Mr. Bergland agreed. He smiled. "I know...all of you that wrote of Nansen, please stand. We will discuss the man together, and that way be spared each of you reading the same paper over again."
More laughter erupted as the three others got to their feet.
The instructor turned back to Nils. "You have the floor at the moment, Nils. What was Mr. Nansen's most famous arctic accomplishment?"
"He and Hjalmar Johansen traveled to within three degrees of the north pole in 1895, the farthest north men had yet traveled at that time."
"He was a zoologist," added Astrid Furness, "and he was interested in what life could be found in such extremes of cold and ice."
"He was a champion ice skater, too," Kristine Lunden said, no small amount of admiration apparent in her voice, "and he created all kinds of new equipment for his expedition that became the standard for exploration for many years after."
"His polar expedition was exciting, "Rolf Kittleson put in, his face looking quite animated. "I read the whole chapter in my book. His ship was built to withstand the crushing ice floes, and when it became apparent that they could not get near enough to the pole aboard ship, he and Johansen set out with dog sleds to finish the journey. They could not quite reach the pole because the ice was shattered, but they came closer than anyone had before."
Mr. Bergland seemed to be enjoying the excitement among those standing, and the rapt attention on the faces of those seated. "Nansen was a man of many talents, though. What else did he do besides polar exploration?"
"He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922," Nils said. "He fought for the rights of refugees from The Great War, and for displaced persons everywhere. He was a separatist, and fought for our release from Sweden. That was accomplished, and Nansen was among those that persuaded Prins Carl of Denmark to become our new king."
"He believed in freedom," Rolf added. "He always thought that Norway should be free."
"Norway always should be free," Mr. Bergland said, his smile turning onto something less amiable. "But freedom is not a gift, it must be fought for. And, once won, it must be defended, forever."
The room was quiet for a moment, until the instructor smiled again. "And so it shall be." His eyes founds Nils's once again. "More?"
They discussed Nansen's later years, and in summation Nils could see that the man had indeed lived a life of heroic proportions. It made him proud, in some way he could not quite name, to be a citizen of a country that had produced such a man.
They moved on to the papers written by others, who had also selected great names from the nation's past. It made them think, and Nils could see the lights of pride in the eyes of the other students as they talked about what their people had done. In every nation, there are those that stand out, who by their deeds become a part of the national spirit, and whose lives are a wonderful reflection of them all.
You see," Mr. Bergland said, smiling at their expressions. "We learn our best lessons, when we learn them by example."
They completed the writing assignment, and were ready to move on to mathematics. Mr. Bergland, still seated upon the corner of his desk, nodded.
"Nils, as you are closest, would you be so kind as to wipe down the chalkboard?"
Rune looked over at him and grinned, his eyes displaying teacher's pet! Nils stuck out the tip of his tongue and wagged it at his friend as he rose, and went to the blackboard and picked up the eraser. He began wiping the board down, as Mr. Bergland leaned over his desktop and retrieved a book.
"We are back to geometry today, which I know will delight you all. You were supposed to read the section on parallelograms --"
He broke off as a sound came to them, a faint crash, as though the front doors of the building had been roughly pushed open. It was followed by another sound, one that everyone had come to know in the three years that Norway had been occupied.
The purposeful drum of many booted feet on the floorboards.
For a second, no one moved.
Then Nils turned to look at Mr. Bergland, whose eyes were now narrowed over a frown.
And then the man was moving. He reached over his desk, grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen, and rapidly wrote something down.
In the front hallway, the sounds of many feet moved about, and Nils could visualize them at the office of the headmaster. Mr. Bergland finished writing and put the pen down on the desktop, and quickly folded the paper twice.
The sounds in the hallway moved again, coming nearer. Coming here, Nils realized.
Mr. Bergland smiled at Nils, and extended the paper towards him. "Quickly, Nils. Place this in your pocket. When you get home, give it to your father. Let no one see it."
Nils froze for a second, looking into Mr. Bergland's eyes. He saw fright there - something he had never seen the instructor display before, ever. But he also saw resolve, and...what?
"Quickly," the man breathed again.
Nils took the paper and pushed it down into his pocket.
"Now, back to your seat, Nils. Quickly."
Nils nodded, replaced the eraser on the sill of the blackboard, and returned to his seat.
Just in time. The door to the classroom was pushed open, and Headmaster Lauresen came in, followed by a man in a dark suit and hat. And behind him, an officer, Oberleutnant Gunther, in charge of the town's public buildings.
And behind him, a half dozen German soldiers, rifles held at the ready.
Lauresen looked flustered, and scared. He came forward, followed by the man in the dark suit, and the Oberleutnant, who also looked less than pleased. The soldats arrayed themselves behind the seated students, and stood at the ready.
The Headmaster arrived beside Mr. Bergland, who remained seated on the corner of his desk, watching, and stopped. "Good morning, Christian. I...we have guests, as you can see."
"Yes." The instructor's eyes went to look over the man in the dark suit and hat, and Nils was certain that he saw the briefest glimpse of distaste there, before Mr. Bergland gave a quick, acknowledging rise of his chin. "This is the first time I have had the Gestapo in my classroom."
That one looked faintly amused. "You are guessing, Herr Bergland."
The instructor actually smiled then. "It is the Berlin cut of your suits that gives you away. So sharp and formal." He nodded. "So uncompromising."
All humor vanished from the newcomer's eyes. "That is also the word I would use, Herr Bergland." He nodded. "I am Heinrich Prien, and I have come to speak with you of matters of great importance."
"Matters of great importance?" Mr. Bergland shook his head, almost sadly. "I cannot begin to imagine what a school teacher could know that would be of interest to the Gestapo."
"Fortunately, I am more imaginative than you," Prien said, again allowing a small smile. "Your name has come up in relation to a small project I have been working on, and I believe you can assist me with the matter. So I would like us to have a little talk, if you do not mind."
Mr. Bergland nodded, and settled himself comfortably again on the corner of his desk. "Very well."
The Gestapo agent's eyes widened slightly, and he cast a quick look at the seated students before returning his gaze to the instructor. "Not now, of course. Not here. I would like for you to come to my office for this discussion." He smiled now, but his eyes were in no way friendly. "If you will be so kind."
For just a second, Mr. Bergland shared a glance with the Headmaster; and then he nodded. "Very well."
Nils just stared in silence, unable to believe what was happening. No one went off with the Gestapo idly. And many that did go off with them never returned. He was stunned to understand that Mr. Bergland was being arrested right before his eyes.
"But...but we are not done with class," he heard someone stammer...and then realized that that someone was himself.
The three men turned to look at him, but Nils felt the cool, appraising eyes of the German most upon him.
"It will be fine," Mr. Bergland said smoothly, coming to his feet. "The Headmaster will fill in until I return."
At that, the German agent's eyes swung back to the instructor, once again looking amused, as if at the very idea that Mr. Bergland might return to class at all. "Shall we go, Herr Bergland?"
Nils leaned forward in his seat, wanting to get up, wanting to say more - wanting to stop this thing from happening. But Mr. Bergland's eyes touched upon his, just briefly, and the message they conveyed to Nils was so powerful that he could not ignore it, not at all.
So Nils sat quietly, in the shared shock of all of those within the classroom, and watched as Mr. Bergland shook hands with the Headmaster and said he would return, and Mr. Laureson nodded as though he believed him; and then the two Germans fell in on either side of the instructor and walked him from the room. The German soldiers looked about a final time, lifted the muzzles of their rifles, and followed the others.
For a long moment, no one said a word. Headmaster Laureson held up his hands, indicating that they should remain quiet, until they heard the sounds of booted feet on floorboards leave the building, and the front doors close roughly behind them.
Mr. Laureson looked at Rolf Kittelson. "Would you see that they are gone?" he asked softly.
Rolf nodded, got quietly to his feet, and left the room. He was back only moments later. "They are crossing the square, on their way to the inn."
Nils's heart quailed at that. The inn, where the sign hung outside that said, Nur für Deutsche! Only for Germans.For one of the Norsk to be taken there was not good. The odds of emerging again as a living human being were low.
Nils got to his feet. "We must do something, Headmaster!"
The look of sorrow in Mr. Laureson's eyes was clear. "There is nothing to be done, Nils. Except to wait."
Nils looked about the classroom, saw the same looks of fear and horror in his classmate's eyes, and knew then that nothing could be done. He sat down again and put his head on the desk, burrowing his face into his arms. I am too old to cry, he told himself.
He heard the sharp sound of a chair scooting across the floor, and then a slight bump beside him, and someone put an arm over his shoulders and squeezed him reassuringly. He knew then that it was Rune, come to share his grief. Nils felt the warmth of the other boy's head as it lay close to his, felt the gentle pressure of Rune's fingers upon his upper arm, as they offered what comfort there was to offer.
Nils turned his head and opened his eyes, and there were Rune's eyes, just inches away, watching him. For a second the two boys just looked at each other; and then Rune closed his eyes, and briefly pushed his forehead against Nils's in a show of support and affection that Nils would never forget.
"What do we do now?" Kristine Lunden asked, her voice sounding small and scared.
Nils and Rune both raised their heads and looked at Headmaster Laureson, who now seemed to look very old, and very tired. The man raised a hand and briefly swiped it across his jaw, and then nodded. "I think it best to dismiss class for the day."
"Do we come back tomorrow?" Rolf asked. "We have no instructor now."
Nils felt the look of pain that crossed the Headmaster's face. "Yes. Come back tomorrow." The man nodded at them. "Dismissed." And then he left the room.
No one was jubilant at being allowed to leave early. They got to their feet and collected their things, and quietly left the classroom.
As they passed the primary classroom, the door opened, and little Arne Haugan looked out. Behind him, in the classroom, Nils could see the Headmaster in whispered conversation with the instructor, Mrs. Hegdahl.
Arne's eyes were wide. "What happened?"
"The Germans came and took Mr. Bergland," Nils said, bitterly. "Go back inside."
Arne looked shocked, but nodded and receded, closing the classroom door.
"Mr. Bergland might come back," Rune said softly.
Nils looked over at his friend, wanting to yell and hit something, but not either of those things for Rune. "He might. But probably not."
Rune winced, but nodded. He sighed. "You must see your father, Nils."
And then Nils remembered the note, and felt the pocket of his pants, just to make sure it was still there.
Mr. Bergland wanted that note to be delivered to Nils's father, and it would be done. Nils nodded. "Are you coming?"
Rune bumped his shoulder against Nils's. "Try to stop me."
Nils almost smiled. Almost.
Mr. Bergland might be gone, but at least Nils still had Rune. And the note, and what was perhaps the final assignment the teacher would ever hand him.
"Come on, then."
* * * * * * *
Nils's father was not home. Nils had not expected him to be, but had simply hoped - maybe even wished - that he would be.
They told Nils's mother what had happened at school, and were not surprised to learn that she already knew. One thing Nils had learned in life was that news traveled fast, and bad news traveled the fastest.
"I'm so sorry, Nils." His mother placed an arm around each boy's shoulders and gave them a hug. She looked truly upset."I know that Mr. Bergland was...is...special to both of you."
Nils looked up at her and nodded. "He may still come back."
His mother did not look like she thought so, but nodded anyway." Let us hope for that."
They did not tell her about the note. Nils could not forget the instructor's warning to tell no one. Not that Nils's mother could not be trusted, but why add to her anguish? She could do nothing to help, and the more people that knew about what he carried, the more that could be made to pay for it if he were caught with it.
She fixed them an early lunch, and after eating it the boys retired to Nils's little loft room above the kitchen, while his mother went back to her sewing in the front room. She augmented by doing sewing the pay that Mr. Haalaand brought home each week from his job at the docks repairing machinery, and took whatever work she could get. With so many woman only a year younger then she spending their days in the work program, there was more than a little sewing that needed to be done in the town, and the older women were kept busy doing all the daily chores that other, younger women could no longer keep up with.
Nils's father was an exception to the work program law, because he had specialized knowledge of the dock equipment and was needed there to keep it all in repair. The Germans kept the docks busy, having much reduced the former fishing fleets to make room for their own shipping, which seemed mostly concerned with supplies for the occupying troops and armaments for the war craft that patrolled the fjords and coastlines.
Rumor had it that the Germans had hidden some powerful naval units in the area, including a battleship of the same class as the mighty Bismarck, sunk by the English in the North Atlantic nearly two years before. Indeed, the skies above Olstgard had thundered more than once with clashes between Allied and German aircraft, as the Allies searched for the vessel's hiding place. Nils had come to the conclusion that the war would eventually be won by the Allies, whose presence - at least in the skies above - was growing visibly.
They sat on the edge of Nils's bed, and Nils retrieved the square of folded paper from his pocket and held it up to look at it. What could have been so important that Mr. Bergland sat and wrote while the Germans approached?
"Are you going to look?" Rune asked then, pushing his shoulder against Nils's. "He did not say not to."
That was true. While Mr. Bergland had warned Nils not to show the note to anyone but his father, the man did not say that Nils could not look himself. Nils felt it implicit that the contents of the note only be revealed to Nils's father...yet...it was true, nothing had actually been said. And Nils had been entrusted with the note. Surely that would include knowing its contents.
He looked at Rune, could see the curiosity in the other boy's eyes. Rune smiled, and leaned forward and pushed his forehead against Nils's and rubbed against him playfully. There had been a lot of such things going on between them of late, and Nils was not sure how he felt about it all. He knew that Rune was fond of him, and he knew that he was fond of Rune. That touching each other, and being close, now gave him an added level of pleasure was something that Nils did not quite know what to do with.
But it was incredibly hard to resist Rune when he was like this, and Nils could only sigh. "I guess it cannot hurt just to have a quick look."
He unfolded the paper, and they both peered at what was written there:
Vannkanten Road, at the base of kilometer marker seven. Quickly, before I talk.
Nils frowned, slowly understanding the meaning of what was there.
Before I talk.
He could not help cringing slightly at that, his imagination fully capable of supplying pictures to go along with what he had heard of German interrogation procedures. He closed his eyes and quickly shooed the pictures from his mind, and again felt Rune place an arm around his shoulders in support.
"They will pay," the other boy said softly. "They will pay, Nils. Someday."
Nils nodded, still trying to think of any other thing than what Mr. Bergland might be facing even now.
"Speed is important," he decided then. He got up and went to the edge of the loft and checked the old clock on the wall in the kitchen, the loud, steady tick, tick it offered so a part of his days and nights that he seldom noticed it anymore.
It was still early in the afternoon, and his father would not be home until five-thirty. That would only give the man an hour and half to do anything before the curfew fell at seven. Nils frowned at that, knowing how far it was to the Vannkanten Road, and figuring the time in his head. Even on skis, the cross-country trip would take an hour or more each way.
There would not be time to go before the curfew, not if they waited until Nils's father got home. Even Mr. Haalaand's special work status did not extend to him being out after curfew, not unless he was needed, and in the company of a German soldier. To be caught out after curfew meant arrest and imprisonment. Perhaps, even death.
And they could not wait until tomorrow. Each and every hour that passed was an hour against Mr. Bergland, and whatever secret lay hidden at the base of kilometer marker seven on the Vannkanten Road.
Nils looked up at Rune, whose eyes watched him now, as if he was trying to see what Nils was thinking.
"There will not be time, if we wait for my father."
Rune frowned, and then nodded slowly. "I know. What shall we do?"
No one else could be entrusted with the message. There was only one thing that could be done.
They could not wait on others to carry out this mission for Mr. Bergland. Nils would have to go himself.
Rune saw it there, in Nils's eyes, and sighed. "I will go with you, of course."
They got up and went to the cabinet where Nils kept his clothing, and dressed warmly. Journeying on foot to school by the town road was one thing, and journeying cross-country on the snow entirely another. Nils smiled, seeing his friend wearing his own things. Somehow, the idea of sharing his clothing with Rune was special, a treat that would remind him of Rune every time he wore those things himself in the future.
"What?" his friend asked, smiling.
"You are the same size as me," Nils said, giving the other boy a fond poke.
Rune simply smiled back, saying nothing. It seemed he did not need to, for there was more than enough in his friend's eyes to give Nils a feeling of satisfaction. They were doing this thing together because neither of them could do it alone. Neither of them wanted to do it alone.
"You can use my new skis, and I will use the old ones," Nils said. "I know the tricks of the bindings, and we do not want any mishaps to slow us down."
Rune laughed at that. "I seem to recall several times when you fell, and blamed it on those old bindings."
"They're tricky," Nils said, trying not to smile. "Now come."
Nils's mother was in the front of the house. She looked up from her work and smiled at them as they came into the room. "I see you're going out, Nils. Skiiing?"
"Yes, mother. Rune and I are going to try the hill at Nordfelt beite." There was truth to that, as they would have to cross the pasture at North Field on their way to Vannkanten Road.
His mother's eyebrows went up at that. "You boys be careful. That's some steep country there."
Nils had a bad moment, where he wanted to tell his mother everything, and throw his arms around her to be held. But instead he just nodded. "We will. We've been there with father, and seen how it's done."
"I know. Still. Don't go all the way to the top, do you hear me?"
Rune laughed then, and gave Nils a small push. "Tell your mother we will be safe, and start midway."
"We will go no higher than midway," Nils promised - more truth. They would not need to top the mountain just to cross the face.
Nils knew that juggling the truth with his mother was a dangerous thing. She had a way of divining when he was up to something, and he had learned not to chance his luck with her. She stared at him a moment now, her senses seeming to probe at his defenses. But Nils knew now that this was something he must do for Mr. Bergland - something important. He could not let his mother stop him before he had even taken the first step.
"You'll be back by dark?" she asked, and Nils knew then that they would allowed to go.
"Yes, mother. We will be back well before curfew."
She smiled, her eyes dropping back to her sewing. "Have fun. And take care."
The boys smiled, and headed out to the small barn behind the house. Nils sighed, feeling a mixture of pride and shame at having gotten around his mother. But it had to be done.
They found the skis in the rack and drew them down, and quickly applied klister to the wooden surfaces. The snow was dry now, and they would need good traction.
Donning the skis and taking poles off the rack, they left the barn and circled behind it, and started off across the field towards the nearby mountains. This part of the coast was a study in contrasting altitudes, with the low countries and the highlands shoulder to shoulder, with some rather severely tilted landscape between. The boys had spent their lives here, and for them there was nothing unusual about the trek they were now to undertake.
Except for their reason for going, and, perhaps, the mystery of the journey's conclusion.
* * * * * * *
They made good time crossing the fields, and entered the woods that marched across the flanks of the mountains. This end of the town was on high ground, and to cross the belly of the mountain and then ski down its other side to the lowlands of the fjord was the quickest way to the Vannkanten Road. They would return by another route, one that would take the rise back to the level of Nils's home with less abruptness.
The going became harder, and Nils could feel the sweat beginning beneath his clothing, despite the mists his breath made in the cold afternoon air. The sun was already lowering in the western sky, and would soon be eclipsed by the backward arch of the Hordaland peaks, which curved to the other side of the fjord and shielded the lowlands around Olstgard from the occasionally fierce winds off the Norwegian Sea. The light would persist for some time after the sun itself was lost from view, but that their time was limited was readily apparent.
Again, Nils felt uncomfortable about what he had told his mother. She had asked if they would be back by dark, and he had answered that they would be back before curfew. She had not noticed the difference, and he had not pointed it out. The fact was, darkness arrived a good two hours before the seven o'clock curfew, and the boys would be hard-pressed to make the journey and return by the time the sun vanished for the day. Nils could only put the thought of his mother away from him, concentrating instead on the snow passing beneath his feet. To be distracted now was to invite a fall.
The forests here were mixed, thick with coastal pine, yew, linden, and aspen. Holly and hazel trees filled in the gaps, yet with little in the way of ground cover, the pristine snows were easily crossed. Nils had skied in the some of the wild inland areas, and some were so thick with ground cover that one risked a snare and a fall when traveling at speed. Here, though, the snow was unbroken, and the route clear enough.
Both boys had been this way countless times before, and they took turns leading as they crossed the lower slopes of the mountain and started into the valley beyond that contained Vannkanten Road. Three times they stopped beneath the thick overhang of some tree as an airplane flew over, not daring to stick their heads out to even identify the markings. The Germans flew everywhere, watching the lands below; and while it was not a crime for two boys to be out skiing, to be seen traveling the back country by a passing plane was to invite a squad of soldiers to be sent to investigate. To be intercepted now might steal away the time they needed to complete their mission.
"A break, just for a moment," Rune said, drawing to a halt in the shadows beneath a stand of tall pines."We should have brought a canteen. I am thirsty."
Nils nodded, irritated with himself for forgetting so basic a travel necessity. Even in the cold of winter, exertions required the replacement of fluids. He bent, searched out an area of clean snow, and dug out a small handful in his glove and raised it to his mouth. He let it melt, and warm some, before swallowing.
"This is fine," he told Rune, after the first handful, and the other boy nodded and joined him. They looked about, estimating their progress, and discussing how much light they might have left.
"It will be close," Rune decided. "In another kilometer we will be out of the woods and will make good time going downhill into the valley. But we will also need to be more cautious because we will be out in the open. Coming back along the side route, we will be even more exposed."
"I'm not certain which marker we will come out near on the Vannkanten Road," Nils said. "I have never looked at them going this way before."
Rune's face compressed into a frown. "I didn't think of that." He turned, and looked absently in the direction of the valley ahead. "Certainly that point must be six or seven kilometers from town by road. We took a shortcut, coming this way."
Nils nodded. "We don't know for sure, though. We may have to travel the road a bit to get to the right marker. That will further cut down our time."
Rune sighed. "Then we had better be off." He grinned then, gave Nils a little push, and then started off across the snow again. Nils forgot his worries, and smiled, and followed.
Skiing among trees was always risky, and Nils had struck roots beneath the snow in the past and taken a tumble. And trees were subject to the cold and the winds, dropping branches seemingly at random, and even toppling over completely; and the snows buried all of it without the slightest of cares as to travelers coming along later. Nils and Rune were alert to the pitfalls, and the route they followed now may as well have been a path for all the familiarity it held. They encountered no obstacles to slow them.
It was just over an hour since they had left home, by Nils's wristwatch, when they emerged from the forest. They crossed a wide area sparsely covered by small evergreen trees, and slid down the last embankment to the shoulder by the pitted blacktop that was the Vannkanten Road. The road's surface had been cleared by traffic, all German, and as there had been no new snow in several days, it had stayed that way. They stepped out of their skis and walked out onto the pavement and looked in both directions. The road was clear as far as they could see.
"I don't see a marker either way," Nils said, squinting. He was pleased to see that a nearly full moon was rising, as it would give them extra light if their journey back home ran longer than the fading sunlight persisted. "I guess we will have to pick a direction and walk."
They hid their skis and poles behind some small trees near the road, and made note of the surroundings. It would not do to lose them in the coming dusk.
"That big dead tree there," Nils said, pointing uphill. "We cannot miss that coming back."
They started up the road on foot. Nils was not worried that they would be surprised by motor traffic, as the snow-covered valley was singularly quiet, and any vehicle approaching from either direction would be heard long before it was seen. They did need to be on the lookout for foot patrols, as the Germans had a notable habit of walking about the properties they had stolen just to place at rest their continuing fears that someone might be stealing them back.
"I was wondering --" Nils began, as they walked along. The roadside was marked every twenty meters by small poles with painted tops, that stuck up a meter or so from the ground on either side of the blacktop, and which served as guides for vehicles navigating the way when the road was covered by snow.
Rune waited for him to continue, and looked over at him when he did not. "Wondering what?"
Nils squeezed his eyes shut a moment, before reopening them and shaking his head. "Nothing."
His friend continued to look at him a moment before nodding. "I have been thinking about him, too. Even as much as I have been trying not to." Rune's eyes went back to the road. "It will do neither of us good to keep on with these thoughts. Try not to, Nils."
"I know." Nils sighed. "I know."
Ahead he saw a sign by the side of the road, but it was a newer, metal one, and only warned of a curve ahead. Kilometer markers were stone, with a base of cemented rocks from which jutted a four-sided stone obelisk, two faces of which were incised with the kilometer number. The marker was about a meter tall, and gray, with the incised number filled with faded white paint. These were carryovers from the days of wagons, and Nils had seen them replaced in many areas by newer signs. But here, so far from the big cities, the old ways persisted.
"There," Rune said, pointing ahead. Nils squinted that way, and nodded. The unmistakable outline of one of the markers was there by the side of the road. He broke into a light jog, and Rune was right there beside him.
They had not quite reached the marker when the number engraved in the obelisk became visible: 8 km.
"We went the wrong way," Nils said, annoyed. Now they would not only have to retrace their steps to where they had hidden the skis, but probably go as far beyond them.
"Let us not waste time, then," Rune said, turning about. He pulled up his scarf and wrapped it around the lower half of his face. "A light run will not harm us. Come."
They reversed course and jogged back the way they had come, and in five minutes had arrived back at the dead tree near where they had stashed their equipment. They continued on, breathing easily through the warmth of their scarves, their boots making light scuffing sounds against the pavement as they moved. They continued on for another five minutes. The road curved around a stand of large firs, and then there was another marker, by the side of the road.
Both boys slowed automatically, and were walking again as they approached the stone marker in the waning light. Nils stared at the thing, able now to see the number cut into the reverse side of the stone: 7 km.
This was it. This was the one. This was where the secret lay.
They stopped a moment to catch their breaths, and then walked slowly around the little obelisk. It poked up from among chunks of snow pushed to the side of the road by German trucks, and they simply could not tell if the snow had been otherwise disturbed. The stone faces of the obelisk were covered by a thin layer of frost; hard, wind-drifted snow off the nearby hillside. It resembled a lonely gravestone, and Nils bit at his lip, not wishing to think about it any further.
Instead, he frowned up at the darkening sky. "We will have to dig through the snow and check all the way around the base. I did not think we would need to spend so long looking."
Rune immediately squatted and started pulling snow away from the base of the marker. "Then we had better hurry."
Nils nodded, and went to the other side of the marker and mimicked his friend's actions. The chunks of snow were hard and loose, and easy enough to pull away. Underneath lay 20 centimeters of snow, its surface turned over, as though it had been disturbed since it had originally fallen.
"The snow here looks like someone shoveled it away and then returned it later," Nils said, a small excitement creeping into his voice.
Rune stood and came around the obelisk, and squatted next to him. "The other side looks like the snow fell from the sky and was never touched. This must be where the treasure is buried."
Nils took a moment to look away from where he was digging to grin at his friend. "This is not a treasure hunt."
Rune nodded. "Oh, I think it is. Whatever is here was valuable enough that Mr. Bergland feared for its safety."
The brief feeling of excitement Nils had been feeling faded again as he realized the truth of that statement. Here was hidden something important enough that it was worth a man's life to protect.
Rune joined him in digging, and soon they had reached the frozen ground.
It was as hard as a rock, and quite undisturbed.
"I don't understand," Nils said, disappointment mixed with fear rising inside him. "It has to be here."
Rune put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed him. "Maybe someone beat us to it."
Nils stared at the ground, and shook his head. "I cannot see anyone digging up this spot, taking what was hidden here, and then covering it all back up again."
He pulled more snow away from the base of the obelisk, and ran his fingers along the stones. An uneven groove in the mortar presented itself, and slowly grew larger as he dug at it with his fingertips.
"Wait...there is something here." Nils used his fingertips to scrape more snow away, and suddenly felt something soft, something that gave. He slid his fingers down to the end of the slot, got one inside, and pulled at what he felt there. For a moment the thing resisted...and then it popped free, and fell on the ground. He picked it up and stared at it.
It was not thick, perhaps as much as a finger. And about the size of his hand, to continue with the comparison. Whatever it was was wrapped tightly in oilskin, and tied securely with thin leather strings. He squeezed it, and it flexed unmistakably like a small bundle of papers.
"This must be it," he said, standing. The small excitement was back now, and Nils turned the packet over in his hands, examining it.
"Good," Rune said, squeezing his shoulder again. "Put it in your inside coat pocket, and secure the flap. Then let us get ourselves away from here."
There was no mistaking the urgency in his friend's voice, and again the excitement faded away as Nils realized the new position they were in. To be caught by the Germans now, in possession of this secret thing, would mean imprisonment or death, and the failure of whatever task it was that Mr. Bergland had been involved in. Nils nodded, and pushed the packet inside his coat, found the internal pocket, and poked it down inside and drew the flap down over it. Then he closed his eyes, and laid his hand over the packet hidden inside his coat.
"I have it, Mr. Bergland," he said, silently inside his head. "It is safe now."
"Wait," Rune said, as Nils turned to go. The other boy squatted again and pulled a few of the big chunks of snow over to cover where they had been digging. Then he nodded, and stood. "Let's go."
They jogged back the way they had come, and it was one of the longest trips that Nils had ever made. He kept expecting to hear the sound of a German truck or car coming along the road, which could be on them before they reached their skis. Or to spy a German patrol, coming towards them. They would have to run, and abandon the skis. And without their skis, they had no hope of making it back home before curfew.
But the sound of engines did not come, and no patrol presented itself. They reached the dead tree, and hunted along the side of the road until they found their own footprints. Rune broke a branch off the backside of a tree, and used it to wipe away their prints as they retreated from the road to the trees where they had hidden their gear. They retrieved the skis and poles, and carried them as they scrambled up the slick embankment away from the road.
And then, they did hear the sound of an engine.
Nils and Rune both froze in their tracks, staring in disbelief at each other. Not now! Not when they were so close to getting away!
The sound echoed faintly down the valley; but there was no mistaking the distinctive growl of one of the petrol engines that powered the big German trucks.
Nils felt like a mountain snow hare caught in a huntsmen's sights. The trees were sparse here, thickening again well away from where they stood. If a truck rounded the bend now, the driver could not help but to see them upon the high ground above the embankment.
"We must get away from the road!" Nils yelled, surging toward the thicker growth of trees. Rune was right with him, and the boys ran until the sound of the truck was almost upon them. At the last moment, they turned back towards the road and fell to the ground, and scrambled beneath the low branches of a spruce tree. They froze then, shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the road below.
The truck was visible, one of the covered flatbed Opels the Germans used to move cargo and troops. It came along the road from the northeast and stopped below them. Two men were visible behind the windscreen glass.
The driver opened his door and stepped out onto the running board, his eyes gazing up to follow the run of the higher land by the side of the road. Nils wanted to close his eyes and become invisible, but all he could do was peer through the branches at what was happening below.
The passenger's voice drifted up to them then: "Was machen Sie?Lass uns gehen!"
Nils had picked up enough German to understand that the passenger was asking why they had stopped.
"Ich habe etwas oben gesehen, ich sage es dir," the driver replied, his eyes traveling back and forth among the trees. I saw something above.
But his gaze slid over the boy's hiding place on each pass, and Nils realized that the man could not see them beneath the branches of the spruce.
"Ein Wolf oder ein Fuchs vielleicht," the passenger returned, blaming the sighting on a wolf or fox.
The driver was not having that. "Nein. Es war größer und ich denke, zwei von ihnen." He said that what he had seen was larger, and that there was more than one.
The passenger was evidently getting impatient, if the tone of his voice was any indicator. He demanded that the driver get back into the truck and resume their travel, saying that the driver had spied several deer, then. The fellow's tone was slightly imperious, carrying the tone of a command.
"Korporal, zurück in den LKW.Du hast dann ein Rehpaar gesehen. Lass uns weitergehen! "
The driver frowned, gave a last scan of the hilltop, and nodded his head. "Ja, ja, Leutnant. Ich komme." The man turned and spared the roof of the cab of the truck with a curl of his lip, before fixing his expression into something more neutral and climbing back inside and closing the door.
The truck gave a roar and started off, the driver going rapidly through the gears now as if now happy to be away from this place.
Slowly, Nils turned his head and looked into Rune's eyes. They were wide and full of unease - Nils would have called it fright had he not known the other boy so well.
Rune looked back quietly, and then finally sighed. "You will be the death of me, Nils."
But he softened the apparent rebuke by closing his eyes and leaning his face gently against Nils's. Nils closed his own eyes, his thoughts going away as he absorbed warmth and strength from his friend. They stayed this way for a full minute, before Rune pulled his face away and grunted. "We need to get going."
Nils took a deep breath, and nodded. That there was something special growing between himself and his best friend he knew now, something that cherished the soft touch of skin against skin. Had they been any other place than where they were, at any other time, Nils felt that both of them would have been eager to further explore these new feelings.
The sound of the truck had faded now. They crawled from beneath the branches of the spruce, and looked around carefully. There was no one in sight.
It was plainly getting into evening, and the sun would be gone entirely in less than an hour. That they would now arrive home after dark was a given. Well, they would deal with that when the time came.
Rune got to his feet, and grasped Nils by the arm and helped him up. They retrieved their equipment, stepped into their skis, and quickly fastened the bindings. And then they started off, heading for the forest, and home.
* * * * * * *
Retracing their own path exactly was out of the question. It would mean climbing steep hills they had flown down with ease, and take more time than circling around the lower flank of the mountain at a much less precipitous rise. By circling the base instead of going over the 'hump', they would be able to climb much more slowly back to the level of the highlands that surrounded Nils's house. Also, by traveling this route they would be able to take advantage of the lighter forest along the way, which would allow most of the moonlight to reach the snow-covered ground, and thus help to light their path. And, they could travel faster, with less fear of buried traps to ensnare them.
It was dusk now, the moon offering more light than the gone away sun. Nils squinted at his watch, calculating their travel time, and was relieved that they would still arrive home more than an hour before curfew. But his father would be home by then, and his mother worried, and Nils hoped that they would all stay put until he arrived to receive his whipping.
But...maybe that would not be the result. It would depend on how fearful his father had become for his safety, how much his mother's worry had transmitted itself to the man. Nils's father had more than enough to worry about without his son traipsing about the mountain after dark to add to his woes.
There was the packet of papers, too. Nils was aware that his father knew more of resistance activities than he ever let on about around his wife or son, and the importance of the papers might in some way lessen his father's anger over what he had done. Or...yes, it was possible it might increase it, too; but Nils was willing to accept whatever judgment his father handed out. He and Rune had done what they had done for Mr. Bergland, because it had been important to the man, and could not wait. His father would have to understand that, even if he did not like it.
Nils smiled to himself. If all he received for this journey was a whipping, he would count himself lucky. He said as much to Rune, who laughed over his shoulder at him, yet did not slow up. That his friend felt much the same seemed obvious.
They moved swiftly, even though the land was slowly rising. Both boys were strong skiers, having grown up with a mountain beneath them and snow to cover it, and a determination to show both who was in charge. The land they traveled rose in stages, with each gentle uphill effort followed by a level course that allowed their arms and legs a rest. Even so, by the time they reached the high trees and could begin the gentle downward course that would lead to home, both boys were feeling the effort, and glad to let gravity take over their motion.
They were passing through some denser trees now, and when Rune suddenly twisted and pulled up, Nils had to act fast to keep from running into him. The other boy went to his knees, throwing up a warning hand, and the moment he ground to a halt, Nils also hunkered down.
Ahead and below, the beam of a torch played among the trees, and in its light they could see several German soldiers standing about in a small clearing. It looked as though they were taking a momentary break, for the men had their packs off and were digging inside them. The soldiers were all on skis, and dressed in white 'snowblind' uniforms, and had they not stopped and turned on a light, Nils knew that he and Rune would have run right into them without seeing them.
Each man carried a rifle slung over his shoulder, and Nils knew that even a man on skis could not outrun a bullet.
The moon was bright now, and Rune sat sideways and edged himself into the shadow of a small spruce, dragging the skis still bound to his boots as quietly as he could behind him. Nils followed suit, flinching at the scrabbling noise the edges of his skis made against the hard, powdery snow. But soon they were both out of the line of sight of those below, and Nils finally allowed his breath to ease out.
He leaned against Rune, feeling the tenseness in his friend's body, but also the comfort that still seeped over despite the thickness of their clothing.
Nils turned his head and put his lips right to Rune's ear. "What do you think?" he whispered.
He turned his head and allowed Rune to whisper his reply. "We wait."
They remained, unmoving, behind the tree, for ten more minutes, while the Germans below ate their rations and drank cold water from their canteens. Nils could hear their voices, even though the men did not speak loudly. The wind carried sound in odd ways among the slopes, and the packed snow often acted as a reflector of sound even as a wet snow absorbed it.
Finally, the men stood, and donned their packs, and set out. They were crossing the side of the mountain, not heading towards the town as Nils and Rune were. They waited until the men were out of sight, and then a bit longer, to be sure.
"Let's go now," Nils finally said, rising. "It's getting late. If we are not back before curfew, there will be even more patrols to face."
"I was thinking," Rune said then, "that we dare not go straight back to your house, lest we leave a path right to it that the Germans can follow."
Nils nodded. "I thought of that. When we get to Svingete Creek, we will follow it downward. The ice will be hard now, and we will leave no tracks. The sun tomorrow will obscure any marks we leave behind."
Rune gave an amused laugh. "You don't hope to ski down the creek? On the ice, I mean?"
Nils smiled in the moonlight. "We've both skied on icy slopes before...but, no. If you will recall, the low side of the creek is filled with scree washed down the mountain with the summer rains. The stones penetrate the ice, they are sharp, and walking on them will just take some care. But we should be able to do it, and leave no footprints behind. We'll carry the skis and poles." He nodded. "We can get down to the pasture below my house that way, and then climb the rocks to the livestock well-shack and then walk to my house. Footprints from the well to the house are common, and no one will question them."
Rune stared at him, his eyes shining faintly in the diffuse light. "I have a genius for a friend."
Nils smiled, feeling good at the praise, but unwilling to dote on it. "It will take a little longer, but will be safer. We need to go now, though, to get home before curfew."
They started down the hill, Nils out front this time. The moonlight was sharp, and gave the landscape an almost dreamlike quality. Nils was glad now that he had sharpened both sets of skis just the other day, for they were serving the boys well on the slippery slopes.
They were just entering the clearing the Germans had occupied when a torchlight came on and swept the ground, lighting on a pack sitting against the base of a tree.
"Ich wusste, dass ich es dort gelassen habe..." a voice spoke up, and a man in a white snowblind uniform appeared out of nowhere.
Nils swept past the man just meters away, and Rune right behind him. The man was on skis, and tried to jump back in reaction, and sat down hard on his skis as a result.
He yelled something Nils could not understand, and then something that he could: "Was zum Teufel! Halt!"
Nils stroked the ground with his poles, and then fell into a forward crouch, bringing his arms in, and went for speed. He spared the briefest of looks over one shoulder, and saw that Rune was right on his tail.
A shot rang out, and then another, and then Nils powered into a turn between two larger trees and knew he was no longer in sight of the man.
But then there was an incredible noise, and the earth bounced against Nils's feet, and the ground came up and pulled him down to the snow. Rune hit him from behind, and the boys rolled and tumbled down a side embankment, and stopped beneath the bole of a fallen tree arched across a small depression in the ground. A rain of snow and dirt pelted the ground around them, and then a large overhang of snow somewhere uphill released and flowed down over them, stopped from burying them only by the thick trunk of the tree above. Nils could see out the other side from beneath the tree, but his head seemed empty, and his body in shock. What had happened?
His ears hummed, but even so he heard other sounds, as other masses of snow released and slid down the slope. It was far from an avalanche, just localized dams of snow and ice sliding downward and piling into new dams further downhill. No more came their way, and Nils was suddenly aware that he was still breathing - still alive.
A frantic thought hit him then: Rune!
Nils could feel a mass against his side, and it was too warm to be snow and ice. He turned his head, and there was his friend, his eyes open, looking just as stunned as Nils himself felt.
They looked at each other, and an incredible thought came to Nils then: I might have just died, and I have not yet kissed Rune.
He wanted to remedy that, to know what that was like. Nils pushed his face forward, and closed his eyes, and pressed his lips against Rune's. He could feel the warmth of his friend's breath against his face, and then a sudden, surprised intake of that breath; and then, just as suddenly, an equal pressure from the other boy's lips, as Rune kissed him back. Nils let the kiss go on and on, pushing his face against Rune's, offering all that he could in the way of warmth and affection. And Rune returned that, freeing an arm, sliding a hand behind Nils's head and pressing their faces together.
Time passed, but Nils had no idea how much. All that mattered was the touch, and the warmth, of Rune's face against his own.
And then they heard voices, coming nearer. Nils stayed still, left his eyes closed, and just listened.
"Sie könnten nicht sehen, wer sie waren?" You did not see who it was?
"Nein, Feldwebel. Sie erreichten mich und gingen vorbei, bevor ich reagieren konnte." No, Field Sergeant. They were upon me and past before I could react.
"Warum hast du die granate geworfen?" Why did you throw the grenade?
"Ich feuerte mein Gewehr auf sie, aber sie flohen." I fired at them, but they fled.
"Idiot! Du hast die spuren bedeckt und die Leichen vergraben. Wir werden niemals die männer in der dunkelheit finden, in diesem durcheinander." Idiot! You have covered their tracks and their bodies. We will never find the men in the dark, in this mess.
The men talked on, but never came near the spot where Nils and Rune were concealed. The rest of the German patrol party showed up, and all of them continued downhill, and were soon lost in the night.
Nils did move then, and found that, while the snow was packed in behind them, the way ahead beneath the tree trunk was free. They squirmed out into the moonlight. Miraculously, all of their equipment had found the same hollow, and they dug it out carefully, staying beneath the fallen tree so as not to leave any evidence of their presence. A careful searcher would find the hollow where they had lain, but would need to crawl beneath the tree to see it.
The first thing Nils did was pat his clothing, to make sure that the packet of papers was still safe in his inner pocket. He breathed a sigh of relief to feel it there, and when Rune looked at him, he nodded.
The kiss was not mentioned. But Nils was aware of the way that Rune stayed near him now, and of the smiles the other boy offered each time their eyes met. Even in the moonlight, it was plain that Rune shared the same feelings that Nils had. But that was for later - if there was to be a later.
The gulley they found themselves in went in the same direction they had been going. It was obviously a funnel for the wind, too, as it was swept clean of loose snow, offering a virgin surface into which the edges of their skies bit eagerly. They proceeded downward, alert to the presence of the German patrol, but never once seeing or hearing a sign of them.
The gulley angled away from the path they would have taken to reach the creek, but they were afraid to emerge from it lest it place them in view of the patrol again. Not knowing exactly which way the Germans had gone left the boy's nerves on end, and several times one of them nearly stumbled and took a fall.
Nils was just despairing of reaching home before curfew when the gulley suddenly curved the other way, and deposited them at the edge of Svingete Creek. They were higher up in its course than they would have been had they stuck to their original path, but the result was the same. They would have to be careful going down so as not to meet the Germans, but otherwise, the way home was clear.
They removed their skis and carried them and their poles, stepping as rapidly as they could along the stone-studded lower bank of the creek as it twisted and turned its way downward. The footing was better than Nils had supposed it might be, and they made good time. It occurred to Nils then that the German patrol, having dropped below where Nils and Rune were hidden, and having found no evidence of tracks to indicate that the two mystery skiers had made it that far, would probably double back and continue the search closer to where the encounter with the soldier had taken place.
He considered that amazing event, too, realizing from his brief glimpse of the pack against the tree, spotlighted in the beam from the soldier's torch, that that soldier had gone off without it and come back for it, and stumbled over Nils and Rune in the process. Just a few second one way or the other could have meant their deaths!
At long last, they reached the base of the steep, rocky hill - almost a cliff - just below the pasture. Nils peered closely at his watch: it was 6:25, only slightly more than a half hour before curfew. He was amazed at that, because it felt like they had been out all night, not just for the afternoon and early evening. He knew his parents would be worried, and angry. He tried not to think of that just yet, as he and Rune climbed.
The hill was too steep to ascend easily. Rune would climb ahead, and then Nils would hand up their equipment to him, and then follow. It was slow going, but they finally made it to the pasture without dropping anything.
They paused at the well for a drink, and then headed up the path to the barn. Nils kept his eyes moving, watching for the soldiers he halfway expected to be waiting for them.
But no one was there. No trucks or cars by the house, no soldiers milling about. No sounds of a search within, of raised or angry voices; no sounds to indicate that the end was near.
Nothing. Nothing at all, but silence.
They returned the skis and poles to the rack in the barn, and Nils smiled at them, amazed that simple pieces of wood could have meant so much to the success of their mission. And that they had succeeded now seemed apparent.
"Are you ready to face the music?" Rune asked, coming to stand beside him just inside the barn doorway. They both looked up to the house, dark behind its blackout curtains, knowing that they were awaited, and knowing that there would be an accounting.
Nils nodded. "Yes. I...Rune?"
The other boy watched him a moment before replying. "Yes?"
Nils stepped closer, reached out and grasped the other boy's hand. Rune came to him immediately, pressing against Nils, and then putting an arm around him. "Later," Rune said softly. "There will be time, later."
For a moment they stood together, and Nils knew now that, whatever happened next, Rune would still be there with him. "Let's go."
* * * * * * *
The war ended, as all wars end, eventually.
The night of the adventure with Rune had become a fond memory for Nils, the frightening parts softened by time, and the special ones amplified by what had come after.
They had entered the house to find not only Nils's parents waiting, but Rune's, as well. The four adults had immediately descended upon them, first fearfully, and then angrily, as they found that the boys were not harmed. There was some yelling, and it took several minutes for the boys to calm them down.
Nils and Rune convinced the parents to find seats, and immediately launched into the tale of their evening's experiences. At some point their parent's anger vanished, to be replaced by fear again, and thendisbelief, and then - finally - wonder.
As the boys finished up with their arrival home, Mr. Haalaand rose from his seat and went out to the front entry and closed the inner door. He was gone several minutes, and returned looking relieved. "All quiet outside," he said, shaking his head. "I can scarcely believe it."
The boys again recounted the last part of their route home, saying that there was no way that anyone could have followed them.
Mr. Haalaand shook his head. "They will be back on the mountain at first light with the dogs, and we will be lucky if they do not trace your path. And once they find no bodies buried in the snow, they will definitely look for the way you got away."
Nils and Rune had looked at each other, neither of them thinking about the possibility of dogs.
But it didn't matter - nothing ever came of it. They were not traced, and they never heard a word about the encounter through the rumor mill, either. Secrets were not easily kept, even in times of peace, and most things that went on around the town eventually made their way to the tongue-waggers. But not this event, for which all concerned were grateful.
The mysterious packet of papers went into Nils's father's hands, and then beyond, and were not spoken of again until the end of the war. Only then did Nils and Rune learn what they had been about: the hiding places of, and plans for smuggling out of Norway, eight Allied fliers. The plans had come to pass, and those eight men had returned to England. And all because of one stubborn school teacher, and two of his favorite students.
One life, in exchange for eight.
Mr. Bergland always had been very good at mathematics.
Of that man there was no word, for the longest of times. That he lived no more was certain, for Nils was sure that he would have come back to Olstgard after the war was over, or at least sent some kind of word that he was well. Headmaster Lauresen never spoke of him, and the new teacher, Mr. Knutsen, seemed to understand that he would not readily take the place of his predecessor. The class liked the new man well enough, but for Nils and Rune, it was never the same.
They were eighteen and graduated when word finally came, and the war itself just a grim memory fast being pushed to the rear by a changing world. Mr. Bergland's family was from Oslo, and it was from there that a letter arrived for Mr. Lauresen. He made haste to share it with the town, the mystery finally solved; and so the day had come when Nils and Rune had made the journey to Oslo. Nils's father drove them to Bergen, and from there they proceeded on their own by train to Oslo.
It was a bright winter day much like another bright winter day when, at long last, they arrived at the cemetery. There was a light, cold breeze, but the sun was high and the sky blue with welcome. The keeper was happy to show them the way, and as they walked among the gravestones, Nils felt the first moistening of his eyes. There were so many markers, stretching as far as the eye could see. So many had been lost, in five short years. But this was a place of honor, and one did not cry before honor, lest it be tarnished; and so Nils took a breath and fortified himself.
The keeper finally stopped, and pointed, and then went away, to leave them to their visit.
Nils stared down at the grave marker, coated in its rime of frost, and read the words engraved there. And then he read them again, and then reached out a hand and grasped Rune's hand, and squeezed it affectionately, and comfortingly, while reading the marker one more time.
The words were somehow fitting, and full of all the things that Nils had come to associate with home...and, yes, with honor, and freedom, too. All things that had been taught to him, and taught well, by a master.
We learn our best lessons, when we learn them by example.
This story is fiction, but the people who formed the resistance movements in countries throughout the world during WWII were very real. Wars are won by armies, but they are fought by individuals, and uniforms are not a requirement in order to serve one's nation. It is to those people everywhere, whose lands may have been occupied, but whose spirits refused to be conquered, that this story is dedicated.