He kissed the back of her hand, feeling the fragile bones through the flesh.
“I will return, Carita.”
The hand in his quivered, but it was not from any recognition of his words. Henrik’s fiance’s entire body shook with the fever that raged within. Dr. Alban had been sent to the border by the German soldiers pouring into their country not a week since, and there was no one else in their village with the skill to heal Carita.
“Edelweiss.” The whisper escaped her bloodless lips on a ragged breath.
“Yes, dear one,” Henrik said soothingly, extracting his hand carefully.
Ever since the fever struck, the only intelligible word she had uttered had been edelweiss. The symbol of Austria, the flower of lovers and purity, the only link Henrik had to her once the fever laid claim. She had often teased that she would send Henrik after a wedding bouquet and let him stand the ancient test of the mountains. It was said that if a man could not climb to the high meadows were the flower bloomed and return with a blossom unscathed for his true love, he had not the fortitude to be a good husband.
He brushed a few damp blonde hairs back from her flushed forehead, kissed her gently, and left.
“State your business.” The guard at the gate of the village was holding a gun that looked like it could mow down the entire population in one burst of fire.
“I am off for a day’s hike,” Henrik said, gesturing vaguely toward the mountains towering to the east. He hated the thick accent of the Wehrmacht and the smug way they overran everything in the name of unifying Austria and Germany.
The guard eyed him speculatively. “You’d do well on the front lines, I think. Germany is in need of young men such as you to protect their mother country.”
“I am Austrian, not German.”
“It is all the same now.” The guard’s grip on the gun tightened. “Go, enjoy your hike, but pass by this gate when you return. I would have you speak to my colonel.”
Henrik mumbled what he hoped sounded like agreement and set off, covering the steep, boulder-strewn terrain as fast as he dared. Soon the foothills turned into stone slopes and the slopes turned into the sheer faces of the side of the mountain. He had climbed these rocks since boyhood, and his feet had not forgotten the crevices and outjuttings that paved the way up. It took more effort to make the journey than it had when he was but a stripling of 12 years. That was the last time he had gone in search of the edelweiss – the day he sought it to impress the golden-haired Carita, the prettiest girl in the village school. He had turned back that day. He could not afford to do so today.
The meadow was a strange break from the prism-like clarity of the snow above and around it on the mountain, the bright green grass nearly painful to the eye after the slate and white of the side of the mountain. Henrik looked around expectantly, brows knitting in confusion. This was the meadow, but something wasn’t right. He dashed to the edges of the grassy area, gulping at the thinner air. No clumps of edelweiss, no banks of flowers that looked like snow themselves. His heart plummeted painfully.
“Carita, I tried,” he whispered in a torturous tone. His limbs ached from the climb, and the prospect of returning to the village to face the Werhmacht was more than he could bear immediately.
He sat down heavily on a boulder, staring across the mountain range at the soaring peaks. “And so this is how Austria meets her end. Docile, no rebellion, no spirit.” He sighed, giving a humorless chuckle. “Even the plants know she is no more.”
Carita’s porcelain-tinted face swam before his vision, leaving his own pale in remembrance. To return without the flower would be cruel, but he could no more manufacture the flower than he could reverse Germany’s takeover.
He stood, leaning against the boulder for support. In the shadow of the stone, a tiny flower bloomed.
Henrik bent to examine it, hardly daring to breathe in case he was wrong. There, nestled in the soft ground next to the boulder, was a small, hardy-looking blossom with snowy petals and a yellow center. It was not the healthiest edelweiss he had seen from this mountain, but it was alive.
“Carita, I’m coming.”
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