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Historical Fiction Fantasy Romance

“You’ll never know unless you try.”


Sergeant Plundell’s words echoed in Private Liebermann’s head as he looked across the sparsely populated tavern at a young woman gazing down at a book and absentmindedly stirring a cup of tea. She had been coming into the tavern for the last week or so, sitting at the same exact spot and ordering the same exact tea, reading the same book. The only difference was where her bookmark ended up. Her hair was short and the color of coffee. One could say she was rather plain-looking, but Liebermann disagreed.


“She’s quite pretty, actually,” he had said to Plundell in the Stalag’s mess hall. “At least, I think so.”


“Sounds like you’ve got a bit of a crush going on,” Plundell replied, putting a spoonful of stew in his mouth. “Have you said anything to her?”


“No. I’ve just . . . noticed that she comes into the tavern to read, which is odd. A tavern is too loud.”


“That could be just how she likes it. Is that the only thing that caught your attention?”


“Yes. That, and . . . I’m curious about her. I’ve never dated before. I’m a bit too shy.”


“There’s nothing wrong with that.”


“That won’t help me say ‘hello.’”


“That’s all you have to say, and then the conversation will continue from there.”


“Is that how you met your girlfriend?”


Plundell nodded. “I started with ‘hello.’”


“Then what?”


“See where the conversation goes. See what you have in common.”


“What about—” Liebermann pulled his wand from his belt, “I know not everyone is comfortable with magic, and I won’t just tell her in a crowded tavern of all places, but . . . is that something I should discuss at all?”


“I would tell her when you’re comfortable. If she truly cares for you, it won’t be something you have to worry about. Who knows? Maybe she’s a witch, too.”


“Honestly, I’m terrified about doing this in general. I’ll probably mess it up.”


“Don’t worry about it, mate. You’ve got a lot to offer for anyone who entrusts you with their heart. Besides—” Plundell gently squeezed Liebermann’s arm, “you’ll never know unless you try.”


Heart thumping rapidly in his chest, Liebermann left the rest of the guards at the counter and made his way across the tavern to the solitary woman. He took off his helmet, toying with it as he came up alongside her. Both hands were shaking and sweating heavily in his gloves. “Um . . . hello.”


The woman had been deeply engrossed in her book. She jumped when Liebermann spoke, and turned to see him standing next to her. “I didn’t see you there. I’m so sorry.”


“I didn’t mean to scare you, miss. I just wanted to say ‘hello.’” Liebermann felt bad for scaring her.


“Right.” The woman smiled at him. “Hello.”


“I, um . . . I’m Fritz. Fritz Liebermann.”


“Verena Ehrenfest.”


“Ehrenfest . . . are you related to Major Franz Ehrenfest?”


“He’s my father.”


“I see. My commanding officer is Captain Ludger Westheimer. He was saying something about Ehrenfest being put in command of a prisoner-of-war camp for American soldiers in this area a few weeks back.”


Verena nodded. “I moved to Augsburg to be closer to him. It’s a very pretty town. What camp are you stationed with?”


“Stalag Five C, down the road. British soldiers. It’s certainly not exciting, but . . . there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.” Liebermann glanced at one of the chairs. “May I sit with you?”


“Of course. Why do you like it there? I would think you would be yearning for battle.”


Liebermann shook his head. “I was infantry during the Battle of France four years ago, but I was taken off active duty because of combat fatigue. I’ve made some close friends at the camp.”


The conversation seemed to die there. Liebermann rested his arms and head on his helmet, struggling to think of what to say next. He glanced over at Verena’s book. “Might I ask what you’re reading?”


A Comprehensive List and History of Teas and Their Uses.”


“Sounds interesting. I do have a funny story about tea that happened at camp.” Liebermann stopped, biting his lip. “Only if you want to hear it.”


“I would love to hear it.”


“Alright. Major Kersting—Westheimer’s superior officer—came one evening with a couple of extra boxes of tea for us and the prisoners. I didn’t hear every word of the altercation, but apparently one of the guards and one of the prisoners got into an argument about what the right way to make tea was. It escalated into a fistfight. I tried to break it up, and was promptly punched in the face by an angry Englishman.”


“That certainly sounds exciting. Were you hurt?”


“Bit of a bruise, but other than that, I was alright.”


The conversation went no further again. Liebermann looked down at the table as he struggled to think of something else. He knew speech wasn’t his strong suit, and he knew not everyone was as emotionally sensitive. He became conscious of the feeling of his wand inside his jacket sleeve, and he wished he could show Verena his talent with magic. I can show people how much I care. I just can’t say it, either because I don’t know how, or it doesn’t feel like enough.


“Was there something else you needed, Fritz?”


“Not really. Am I disturbing you?”


“No. I’ve actually never had company while I was here.”


“I must ask, why would you be reading here? It’s a bit noisy, isn’t it?”


“I like some background noise. It’s calming and helps me feel less alone.”


“Do you feel alone a lot?”


“Not always. Sometimes. Coming here helps. I left most of my friends behind when I moved here.”


“Hopefully, this is an opportunity to make new friends. Augsburg is a lovely place. I wouldn’t mind moving here myself when the war is over. I’d like to stay close to the friends I’ve made.”


“It is lovely.”


Liebermann looked down at the table again. “Perhaps I could show you around someday. I mean, I’m not a native myself, but I’ve been around the last four years.”


“That would be nice.”


Liebermann’s face reddened as he smiled. “Alright. Um . . . let’s meet—actually, where would you like to meet?”


“There’s a coffee shop near the north edge of the city that I’ve visited a couple of times. It’s across from a tailor and shoe store.”


“I know the place you’re talking about. When would you like to meet there?”


“Two days, if that’s alright.”


“That’ll work as long as Westheimer agrees.”


Verena smiled. “I guess I’ll see you then.”

------------

When he returned from the tavern, Liebermann jogged up the steps to Westheimer’s quarters, and waited on the porch, bouncing up and down excitedly after knocking on the door. A few minutes later, the older warlock answered, and let Liebermann inside.


“Sir, could I request leave for Sunday?” Liebermann asked. “I . . . have a date.”


Westheimer was silent as he poured hot water over a bag of Earl Grey. Liebermann swallowed anxiously as the silence went on. “Have I done something wrong, sir?”


“Oh, no, you have done nothing wrong, son. I am . . . surprised.”


“Honestly, I’m surprised, too. Plundell encouraged me to talk to a lady at a tavern. She’s new around here, and I offered to show her around Augsburg. That’s why I’m asking for leave on Sunday.” Liebermann rocked on his heels. “Her name is Verena Ehrenfest, the daughter of the major who runs the new POW camp a few kilometers east of here.”


“Franz did mention his daughter moved here to be closer to him. They have had some rough patches in the past, but made up after his wife passed away a little over a year ago.”


“That sounds awful.”


“I would suggest you not to bring it up. Knowing you, I expect you will be on your best behavior.”


Liebermann grinned. “Are you saying I can go?”


“I am. I assume you know how to be a gentleman?”


“Do you mean being fancy? I don’t know how to be fancy, sir.”


“I mean being respectful and kind. I know you can do that. And—” Westheimer looked Liebermann in the eye, “no magic. Not until you know you can trust her.”


“How can I show her how much I care? Magic . . . Magic seems to be the only way I can really express myself.”


“Your actions. Your ability to feel what others are feeling and adapt accordingly.”


Liebermann nodded again. “I’ll try, sir. Should I bring anything?”


“Only if you want to. Try not to go overboard, though.”


“Yes, sir.”

------------

Rain from the previous night had made the streets of Augsburg slick. Under the gray skies, Liebermann carried a single red rose to the coffee shop he was going to meet Verena at. His heart was pounding and his stomach was in a hundred knots as he entered the shop. Glancing around, he spotted Verena sitting next to a window, and put the rose behind his back as he walked over, biting his lip. “Good morning.”


“Good morning, Fritz,” Verena said, looking up at him. “Glad to see you made it alright.”


“Thank you. Um—” Liebermann pulled out the rose. “I . . . I got this.”


Grinning slightly, Verena took the rose. “You didn’t have to bring anything. Have a seat. You look nervous.”


“I do?”


“Yes. There’s nothing to be nervous about.”


“Right.” Liebermann sat down. “I want to make a good impression, that’s all.”


“I think you already have.” Verena set the rose aside. “So, tell me a little about yourself.”


“Like what?”


“Well, where are you from?”


“A little village just outside of Nuremberg. I don’t have any siblings, and I was apprenticing with a glassblower when I was conscripted. I already mentioned that I was in the Battle of France to you a couple days ago.”


“Yes. You were pulled for combat fatigue, right?”


Liebermann nodded.


“What else? What do you do in your spare time?”


“I’m not sure where to start on that. Mostly, I enjoy helping the POWs with their recreation. I persuaded Westheimer to let us build a greenhouse so we have our own flowers and food. I’m certainly hoping we get some sizable pumpkins this coming fall.”


“You really care for your prisoners, don’t you?”


“Very much. One of them actually convinced me to talk to you. I . . . I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for him.” Liebermann wasn’t sure how much more he could discuss. “How about you? Where are you from?”


“My family was originally from Munich. I have one sister, and I used to be a secretary for my father’s commanding general.”


“What do you do now?”


“I’m still looking around for something.”


“Perhaps you could work at Stalag Five C as a secretary. Westheimer typically has a different person doing paperwork each week. It would be nice to have a bit more consistency.”


“I’ll think about it.”


After they both had a cup of coffee, Liebermann showed Verena around the city. The sun was slowly starting to break through the thick mantle of clouds, and the roads and sidewalks were finally beginning to dry. Around noon, Liebermann and Verena were seated on a bench overlooking the Lech River, swollen from the melting snow and overnight rain.


Liebermann glanced around, hoping they were alone. He looked to his left, noticing Verena gazing across the river at the rest of Augsburg. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked.


“Yes, very much so,” Verena replied. “I haven’t had time out with another person in some time—well, I used to go out with some of the other ladies who worked in the military offices, but it was never like this. It was usually only for an hour or two. We always went to a specific place at a specific time. Most of that time was spent complaining about one thing or another. We never took the time to just stop and relax and take in the beauty of the little things around us. It can be difficult with the war going on. Some of the women I worked with have lost their sons, husbands, fathers, cousins, uncles. I feel fortunate to have not lost anyone to the fighting. My mother . . . she was sick, and being the stubborn old soul she was, fought to the bitter end. That was when I decided I needed something else in life, something to help me appreciate every little moment we have in this world. I moved here to be more appreciative of what I was given.”


“That’s kind of funny because that’s what I try to do at camp. I try to help the other guards and the prisoners appreciate the little things and find things to keep us all sane while we’re stuck at camp.”


“I imagine that’s not easy.”


“There are definitely days where it’s not. Having hope is probably the most important thing for us.”


Verena nodded. “Yes. Yes, it is.” She went back to gazing at the river.


Liebermann looked down at his lap, squeezing his hands together and biting his lip. “This is going to kill me if I can’t tell you,” he muttered.


“What?”


Liebermann gently tugged his wand from the loops in his sleeve, letting it fall into his palm, showing just enough so only Verena could see it. His throat was closing and his heart was pounding faster and harder. “Please don’t be scared,” he whispered.


Verena had moved away from him in revulsion. “What are you?”


“I’m a warlock. I’m not the kind you’re probably used to hearing about. My parents had to run away from those kinds of witches and warlocks. I promise, I won’t hurt you, or anyone else.”


Verena didn’t react at first, then she nodded and shifted back a little bit toward Liebermann. “Why are you telling me?”


“I would have waited until I was more certain you wouldn’t run away. I could be taken away from the Stalag if someone outside found out. I told you because . . . I have a difficult time telling people what I really mean with just words. I can’t always tell someone what I’m thinking or how I’m feeling. Magic has helped with that.”


“So, you don’t kill people to make potions or for rituals?”


“No. I never have, and I never will. My specialty is with casting protection spells for amulets.” Liebermann reached into one of his pockets, pulling out a silver necklace with a turquoise stone, similar to the one he had gifted Plundell shortly before Christmas.


Verena reached over to touch the necklace, but pulled her hand back at the last second. “It’s safe?”


Liebermann nodded. “I understand if you don’t trust me, though.”


After thinking for another minute, Verena took the necklace. “What does it do?”


“It will protect you from all magical harm. No one can cast curses against you as long as you are wearing that. That’s what actually happened in France. A witch living in the forest near our base sent a poltergeist after me. I defeated it, but I had to make something up to explain why I hadn’t been sleeping well and acting so jumpy.” Liebermann blinked away tears. “I’m so sorry for scaring you.”


Verena didn’t respond. She turned the necklace over in her hands, then handed it back. “I . . . I guess I just need some time to think. All my life, I was told witches and warlocks can’t be trusted.”


“There are many who cannot be trusted,” Liebermann said. “Aren’t there also people without magic who can’t be trusted?”


“You make a valid point.” Verena glanced at Liebermann, then back across the river. “I’ve had a wonderful time with you. It would be a bit silly to get up and leave just because you’re a warlock. I don’t want to throw away an opportunity to have a good friend.”


“I would understand why you don’t want to stay, though. I could be setting you up for all you know.”


Verena gave him a small smirk. “I won’t know unless I try.”

March 09, 2022 20:12

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