"The price of leadership is responsibility."
"Damn it, Andrea! Let me go!"
"The price of leadership is responsibility."Sir Winston Churchill
Andrea Stavros ignored the harsh, outraged whisper and pressed closer to the man he held trapped against the ancient stone of St. Rokkos church. He had known this was a bad idea -- to leave the safety and anonymity of the White Mountains and take more direct action against the Germans in their Chania stronghold -- but if they had succeeded, it would have been a massive blow against the occupation forces.
But they would not succeed. Not this night.
Andrea had become complacent, expecting an endless stream of miracles from this man who had so rapidly become the de facto leader of the Crete resistance, and now they would all pay the price.
But none more so than the furiously struggling man he currently held captive.
Captain Keith Mallory. A New Zealander and SOE operative who spoke both fluent Greek and German. A born leader, but a man who had -- until now -- been clever enough, and lucky enough, to have avoided the harshest price of leadership.
Namely, to accomplish the ultimate mission at any cost. To accomplish that mission even if it meant that some -- or all -- of his men must die in the process. And more importantly, to be responsible for all those deaths, yet continue with the mission regardless.
Mallory was learning that lesson now, and Andrea had fought alongside this man long enough to know just how he would react.
"God damn you, Andrea! We've got to abort the mission. They're walking into a trap!"
Andrea merely nodded. Whatever sixth sense had kept Andrea alive for so long had resulted in he and Mallory being just outside the impassable German cordon closing in on the Old Town of Chania . . . and the 30+ members of the resistance force attempting to destroy the German munitions supply ship anchored in its harbour.
"Didn't you hear me, man?" Mallory struggled again, evidently desperate enough that Andrea felt him reaching for his belt knife with his right hand, his left hand still firmly trapped against the rough-hewn wall of the church that Andrea had shoved him against mere minutes before.
Andrea calmly immobilized him with one huge hand around Mallory's wrist. He didn't have to strain to maintain that grip, and he knew Mallory was quite aware of that fact. "Yes, my Captain, I heard you," he replied. They both froze as the sound of jackboots against cobblestone came perilously close to their hiding place in the shadowed alcove. "But there is nothing we can do now," Andrea whispered after they had passed. "They are experienced resistance fighters, and they know this town well. Some of them may escape."
Mallory looked up at him, his face indistinct in the light of the quarter moon, but Andrea could clearly see the whites of his widened eyes.
"Some of them!" Mallory hissed. "I can do something -- I must do something. I planned this mission, and it's my responsibility to get them back alive!" Such was Mallory's distress that he spoke in his native English, something he had studiously avoided these past two months since their arrival on Crete.
Andrea nodded again. "Yes, but in this place, at this time, they will likely die." Andrea felt Mallory draw an outraged breath, and he bent his head closer to Mallory's to silence him. "It will be so, my Captain, because you must survive."
The staccato firing of machine guns and alarmed shouts suddenly echoed through the Old Town -- the sound eerily distinct through the cold, damp mist creeping in from the harbour.
"Those are my men dying out there! You think my own life means a bloody damn to me now?"
"It must, my Captain. You were sent to Crete to accomplish a mission, and you cannot accomplish that mission if you are dead."
"I'm not a coward," spat Mallory furiously.
"Of course not. But sometimes it takes more courage to survive than to die."
Mallory swore, and he somehow managed to free his left arm to take a swing at Andrea. With no leverage and no momentum, the blow lacked any real force, and Andrea merely let it roll off the side of his head. He captured the errant hand with his free arm and now held both Mallory's hands against the wall. Andrea absently noted the wet stickiness of blood and realized the captain must have lost a good bit of skin against the rough stone in the attempt.
Mallory impressed Andrea like few others. He was indeed courageous, as would be expected from a man famous for his impossible mountain climbing exploits before the war. He was also methodical and tenacious when it came to accomplishing his goals. Mallory bore the mantle of command with a fierceness that defied adversity, but his years of solo battles against mountain peaks had not prepared him for all aspects of leading men. There had never been a mountain Keith Mallory hadn't managed to conquer, so he'd never acquired the ability to experience abject failure and continue on as if nothing had happened.
Andrea had dreaded this day, for this would be the first time his captain would lose a significant number of men due to orders he himself had given, and Andrea suspected those same qualities that made Mallory such an outstanding leader would also cause him to punish himself for his perceived failure.
It was Andrea's job to see that the "punishment" did not end with the captain's death. Andrea was not fond of war, nor of killing, and he suspected that a war without Keith Mallory would drag on much longer than necessary. Besides, Andrea had become unaccountably protective of this proud, solitary man who had so quickly become a thorn in the Germans' side that they had already planted a traitor in their midst.
The sounds of gunfire were becoming more sporadic now, and Mallory's efforts at freeing himself became even more desperate. Andrea feared that the noise would be heard by the perimeter patrols. The German Wehrmacht was notoriously methodical, the resident Fortress Brigade Kreta even more so, thanks to their own bitter experience with the fanatical Cretan partisans.
Andrea could not allow Mallory to get himself killed in a futile gesture. He anticipated great things from this man -- great things indeed. Andrea had learned over these long, deadly years how to live with failure, and he knew many ways to channel that need for self-immolation into other, less destructive avenues.
It would not be pleasant for his captain, but then, neither was the reality of war.
With that thought, he freed one hand long enough to strike an unsuspecting Mallory solidly on the chin. The captain's head thudded backward against the ancient stone, and when Mallory started to slump to the ground, Andrea picked him up easily in his arms.
First, he had to escape into the mountains past a full division of methodically searching German troops, alone, with no transportation, and while carrying an unconscious man.
Then the hard part would begin.
Andrea banked the fire in the small brazier by the far wall and sat back into the single rickety chair to smoke a cigar. It was a risk to build a fire, but spring had yet to grace the upper slopes of the mountains, and this small goat herder's hut was quite some distance from their last known camp. They would be safe enough for now.
Long enough to accomplish what he must this night.
Andrea studied the unconscious man lying on the narrow cot through a haze of cigar smoke. He had evidently hit the captain a little too hard, but the New Zealander was tough, and Andrea knew he had not caused him any permanent harm. He shook his head sadly. At least not yet.
He was an enigma, this one. Mallory had not yet learned to mask his public face, but Andrea guessed that his private face was something not even Andrea had seen. Yes, the captain had hidden depths, and it was one of the qualities that made him such a ferocious opponent to the Germans, but it also made him oddly vulnerable. Andrea feared this man would break before he allowed himself to bend. Mallory evidently feared nothing, not even his own death, and his sense of duty and responsibility for tonight's debacle would no doubt prompt him to do something eminently . . . unwise.
Very well. If Mallory felt he must punish himself for his 'failure,' then Andrea would be the one to do the punishing for him. At least Andrea's methods wouldn't prove fatal.
Potentially very damaging, he admitted to himself, but not fatal. In any case, Andrea would not lose this one to a senseless death as he had lost so many others.
Mallory stirred slightly, and Andrea hastily put out the cigar. Even when injured, Mallory habitually woke instantly and in full possession of his faculties. A useful trait for a saboteur operating in occupied territory, but inconvenient for Andrea at this juncture. Andrea dared not allow Mallory to leave the hut, because he had seen how he could move among the rocks. He guessed not even a full complement of crack Alpenkorps would be able to catch the man the locals called o phantasma -- the Ghost.
The brown eyes snapped open, and even so forewarned, Andrea barely caught Mallory before he reached the door.
Andrea grabbed him by his upper arms and shoved him face-first into the wall of the hut. Like many Cretan buildings, it was made of local stone that had been used and reused over the centuries. These particular stones had been placed without the benefit of mortar, but Andrea figured they were solid enough for his purposes.
"Planning on manhandling me again, Colonel?" The tone was flat, mechanical, and the term of address one that Mallory never used.
"If necessary," Andrea replied calmly. "I know it is hard, my Captain, but you would accomplish nothing but your own death."
"At least I'd be accomplishing something then."
Andrea spun him around and slammed him back against the wall. Leaning down, he grabbed two handfuls of Mallory's tunic, lifted him effortlessly into the air and snarled menacingly into his face, "You do not have that right, Captain!"
Mallory didn't flinch, didn't waver, his sharp, brown eyes merely narrowing slightly.
So. Mallory knew of Andrea's immense strength -- and just what damage he was capable of inflicting -- but pain was not something Mallory feared. Andrea had heard the story of how this man had broken an arm upon nearing a summit in the Pyrenees, how he had splinted the arm with a stay from his backpack and strips from his parka, then calmly returned down the mountain -- after proceeding the last 100 feet up the summit, one-handed. Cool, this one was, when the only thing he risked was his own life.
Mallory was an extremely intelligent man, and Andrea knew he would eventually see the folly of his intentions . . . that he would eventually come to accept this burden command had placed upon him. But they simply did not have the time for that realization to materialize. Not with the entire German 164th Infantry Division searching so diligently for them.
No, Andrea would have to take another approach to break through Mallory's stubbornness, but it was not an approach he was eager to use. Inflicting it on this man, whom he both respected and admired, would be a most difficult task indeed.
But Andrea had done many unpleasant things since the war began, and at least this was for the best of causes.
Slowly, carefully, he placed Mallory back onto his feet. Pressing the captain firmly against the wall with his body, he took both Mallory's hands in one massive fist and pressed them securely against the stone above his head. With his other hand, Andrea gripped Mallory's chin and tilted his face upward.
He saw Mallory's puzzled expression, but Andrea did not deign to explain. The captain would understand soon enough. Since they had only known each other a relatively short time, Andrea was amazed that, even now, Mallory seemed to trust him unquestioningly.
Andrea only hoped he would come to trust him again . . . someday.
With the same slow, deliberate motion, Andrea circled his thumb gently on Mallory's cheek and leaned in closer to his face.
Mallory's eyes widened then, his pupils dilating. There was a brief, stunned silence before Mallory's breath caught in a gasp and he abruptly heaved himself against Andrea's bulk.
Andrea countered the move with barely any effort and smiled down into Mallory's face. "So, my Captain." Andrea leaned in closer, gripping Mallory's chin harder when he attempted to jerk it away. "Would this be punishment enough for your 'failure,' do you think? Would this be sufficient to eradicate your sins?"
Mallory was breathing heavily, but his voice was surprisingly steady. "Andrea, stop this. You don't know what you're doing."
He felt Mallory shift slightly, attempting to twist his body beneath him. "On the contrary," Andrea said. "I know exactly what I'm doing." Andrea allowed his voice to harden, while inwardly despising himself for what he was about to do. Andrea wouldn't even consider doing this to an enemy, yet here he was assaulting one of the few men whom he dared to call 'friend.'
Andrea slowly unbuckled the belt around the waist of the stolen Wehrmacht uniform Mallory was wearing. Letting it drop to the earthen floor, Andrea began to unbutton the front of the tunic, equally slowly, keeping Mallory in place with one leg pressed firmly against his thighs.
When he had finished, Andrea spun the captain around again, bringing his arms down and stripping the tunic roughly from his arms. The uniform blouse he removed through the simple expediency of tearing the fabric from his torso. He held his captain steady with both arms behind his back, naked to the waist, and was vaguely surprised that Mallory had offered so little resistance. This was not the Mallory he had come to know -- a man who would willingly fight to the death against overwhelming odds.
But when Andrea's hand moved upward to rub broad circles on his chest, Mallory drew in a shuddering breath. "Dear God, Andrea," he whispered shakily. "You can't do this. You can't."
Andrea almost broke off the charade then. On that last word, Mallory's voice had broken with a despair he had never imagined hearing from this competent, confident officer. Would Andrea succeed in saving his life only to break his spirit? But then, with so much at stake, could he afford not to continue?
Irresolute, Andrea hesitated, but when Mallory said nothing further, he continued his progress downward, his hand still moving in slow, deliberate circles.
Mallory was breathing harder now, and as Andrea chanced to look at the captain's face, he found his eyes wide open and staring.
When Andrea's hand finally strayed to the front of Mallory's uniform trousers, Mallory made a strangled noise and once again attempted to break free. However, he did not try to lurch forward to escape as Andrea had anticipated. Instead, Mallory pushed backward with all his strength, intensifying his momentum with a strong kick against the wall of the hut with one leg. They both toppled over backwards, Andrea landing squarely on the wooden chair and breaking it into kindling under their combined weight.
Andrea's hands instinctively reached back to break his fall, and Mallory was able to roll free. He crouched there, breathing raggedly, not attempting to stand as Andrea rose easily to his feet.
As Andrea approached, Mallory looked up warily, his eyes still wide, nostrils flaring. "Andrea. You must stop this now. Before it's too late." He paused. "Please." When Andrea didn't reply, Mallory bowed his head, his posture uncharacteristically submissive.
Andrea betrayed nothing on his face, but inwardly he slumped with relief. This had likely gone far enough, yet still he must be sure. Hauling Mallory roughly to his feet, Andrea spun him around, again trapping him within the steel circle of his arms. He felt the well-developed muscles of Mallory's arms quivering, but he made no further attempt to struggle.
"You will cease this foolish campaign to bring about your own death?" Andrea whispered into one ear.
Mallory shuddered, long and hard, but he finally uttered a simple, "Yes," into the ensuing silence. Mallory looked up, locking eyes with him, and Andrea found he could suddenly glean more information from those eyes than he could ever hope to discern from mere words. Mallory's eyes spoke of chagrin, shame, relief, the painful knowledge of a lesson hard-learned, but they also spoke most pointedly of . . . gratitude.
Andrea smiled down benignly into those eyes, almost lightheaded with a sense of reprieve. Feeling an unaccountable wave of possessiveness overcome him, Andrea did something he would have never even contemplated before this night. Tilting Mallory's head to one side, Andrea bent down and marked him with his mouth, slowly and thoroughly, on the side of his neck.
Now he could be sure. Releasing him at long last, Andrea said, "You are most welcome, my Keith."
After Andrea had left to insure no one had followed them, Mallory lay on top of the small cot, still shaking, and unconsciously rubbed the reddened spot on his neck. It had been a night of revelations for Mallory, and this last had been the most disquieting of all.
But Andrea must not know the truth. Andrea was a man who still mourned his dead wife and children, a man who revered and protected all women. Andrea must never know.
From this moment on, Mallory would indeed learn to hide his emotions behind an impassive mask, but he sincerely regretted only one thing -- that it was his true feelings for Andrea he must bury the deepest.
If he succeeded, it would be the hardest task Keith Mallory had ever managed to accomplish, because Andrea had misread him only one time since the day they had met -- tonight, when he had mistaken the desire in Mallory's eyes for fear.
Mallory shook his head and smiled sadly. As it turned out, the big Greek had still managed to accomplish his original goal, for Mallory would most assuredly remain among the living.
Because Andrea had just made Mallory realize it was impossible to leave him. Not now.
Nor likely ever.