IN THE COMPANY OF HEROES:

  Chapter 2: PRAGUE, October 1914

     Prague at dawn. Alex Branda entered a park on the West Bank of the Vltava River walking beside his father with their usual energetic stride. He could feel the chill of winter in the air as patches of white mist drifted downstream. Up ahead to his right, where sharply pointed spires of Old Town rose darkly against an orange sky, the mist suddenly burst into a golden haze. It looked to be the start of a perfect day.
     Alex enjoyed these daily treks together: his father on the way to work in the glass shop near Old Town Square, and he to Falcon House Gymnasium before classes at the university. He may have been the only son in the capital city who, despite being twenty-two years old and a little taller, was proud to be seen walking with his own father every morning. And why not? Not everyone was the son of a man the caliber of Anton Branda, President of the Falcon Athletic Association, and a man of ardent political passion who was revered throughout Prague – even throughout Bohemia. Besides, Alex was confident that no one's admiration exceeded his own.
     Alex had always loved the peaceful dignity of the park with its regimented rows of precisely trimmed holly hedges set in patterns designed centuries before, now bristling with frost and giving clear direction to their way. Here there was a sense of permanence that made him feel part of some great plan.
     Are you ready for that clever little center of theirs?" his father asked as pebbles crunched on the pathway curving beneath a long line of poplars. "He'll be dangerous."
     Alex forced himself to breathe normally as he thought about the man he would mark tomorrow for the National Football Cup. He nodded. "I believe I am."
     "Good. Then you can win."
     Alex returned his look with a smile, hoping to reduce the worry he could see pulling at small folds near his father's eyes.
     Their path opened out onto Na Kampe Street one hundred metres or so from the Charles Bridge. From here, Alex could see life-sized statues looming above the river's drifting mist, standing high on pedestals built into the sturdy stone walls and framing each side of the broad walkway. This was the ancient road from Prague Castle on the West Side, winding down the hill and across the river to Old Town Square, its gas lamps still showing the way at dawn with splashes of yellow on the dark cobblestones.
     Thirty Gothic ghosts stood above the walls of this bridge, black against the morning sky in eternal martyrdom against the various tyrannies that had taken their lives; Bohemian saints and Czech heroes, watching the river, watching the years, watching the citizens of Prague trudge by. Alex knew that his father walked beneath their stern gaze every day, alert to the presence of these silent guardians and well aware of the special atmosphere on this bridge where the conscience of the country was preserved as a permanent vigil for the path to freedom. For himself, Alex always felt an overwhelming sense of deference as he passed beneath their frozen stare. Knowing their determination, their strength, and their sacrifice, could anyone feel less?
     He glanced up at the statue of Jan Nepomuk and shuddered. How could a man summon that much courage? Condemned to the stake for his love of freedom . . . burned alive by his enemies, but still shouting defiance even as he choked on the flames. Alex frowned at the thought. As a student, he had not yet earned the right to cross this bridge with pride. Perhaps, though, with the cup . . . .
     To the west lay the graceful park near the university he loved, and to his right the river gliding by the twisted medieval streets of Old Town, but really, he knew it was the bridge that was his preoccupation. It was, somehow, the key to his purpose, and he hoped that one day he might be able to walk across, knowing that he deserved the privilege. But even as he formed this thought, he began to shake his head. To die for one's beliefs . . . I never want to face a test like that.
     Near the high arched gate on the town side, red and white Austrian flags fluttered near the Empire's black eagle as a reminder to all Czechs that freedom was nothing more than a dream. That flag does not belong here, he thought, not near this bridge, but of course, this was part of the usual Hapsburg insensitivity.
     It was here on the bridge, Alex supposed, that his father daily fueled his unshakable determination to excel, and perhaps it was the nearness to these martyrs now that prompted Anton to grip Alex's arm.
     He waited while his father searched for words, raking fingers through a head of wiry gray hair. Staring down the two lines of statues, Anton said in a troubled voice, "Be careful today."

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