Chapter One

Horst von Dückler listened to the hollow clop of mule-hooves coming closer up the rocky slope where he lay, and the clatter of stones knocked free and bouncing downward. He picked up the ugly slab-sided Yankee CBSLR-13—Colt-Browning self-loading rifle, model of 1913, R-13 for short—with a slow minimal motion, winding a loop of the sling around his left bicep as he did.

He’d fitted a scavenged x3 telescopic sight to the helpfully provided standard mounts machined into the left side of the receiver, and wrapped a length of rough burlap around the barrel and stuck small bits of vegetation into it to break up the eye-catching outline. He brought it to his shoulder now and began carefully scanning, squinting against the bright sun. Nothing would show from below but another bit of mountainside. The Americans patrolled these mountains… and sometimes their Rangers, or even worse, their Filipino Ranger mercenaries, would infiltrate in small parties and lie up for weeks to catch… or just shoot… or otherwise kill… anyone unauthorized.

It was officially a national park around here now, Roosevelt’s regime loved those, but he thought they also used it as a training ground with a chance of live targets that could shoot back to keep their troops on their toes. He had a good position, with a view through a narrow crack in the rock, several alternative firing points if there was a fight and a covered path of retreat up a steep ravine that cut the bare pillars of the cliffs behind him.

And none of those verdammten cactus spines digging into me, for once, he thought.

It was a little hot in this afternoon of a summer’s day, but the dryness of the high thin air made it easy to bear now that he’d adjusted to the altitude and learned how important it was to keep drinking water even when not thirsty; the heavy scent of baking pine-sap and sweet yellow-flowered huizache trees and nameless spicy herbs hid his own sweat. Insects clicked and buzzed, much louder than in a European forest.

This was much easier to bear than August of 1914 had been, in the endless thick brazen heat of the forced marches west and south that ended at the Marne.

Horst had been an Oberleutnant of twenty-six and in superb hard condition in that year, and sometimes his legs and feet still ached at the memory when he awoke from dreams of it. Dreams where he once more saw and smelled blood leaking from boots that marched and marched and marched, men staggering and falling in their tracks or moving with unnoticed tears cutting muddy tracks down their faces, tens of thousands of foundered horses stinking in clouds of flies by the roadsides, their blind eyes still seeming to beg. That even before they met the deadly stutter of the French Hotchkiss machine-guns. And the still worse fauchage the 75 mm guns spat out, sweeping acres of ground at a time with shrapnel that cast up dust in a boiling cloud.

Racing towards you as if it were sudden hammering raindrops in a thunderstorm, sweeping across the stubble of the harvested wheat-fields while the shells cracked like black flowers in the air above…

This was pleasant by comparison. And his recent and not-so-recent wounds had finally stopped hurting much, after a spell in which he’d kept going on drink and determination and awed the locals by the amount of mezcal he could consume with no visible effects. Hiding in these Mexican mountains like a field-mouse dodging owls and ferrets helped, climbing and running and carrying everything he needed on his back, because it sweated the poisons out and left him tired enough to sleep even through discomfort. And the process he’d noted since he’d lost his left eye to a Black Chamber agent’s bullet in Boston last year had about finished, so that he could estimate distances fairly well again. Not as well yet, the world still looked flatter and he had to be more conscious and deliberate about it, but well enough.

The mules came into view around a switchback far below; beyond them through a gap in the twisted thorny trees he could see the plowed fields and pastures of the plain around Jerez in the distance, and the whitewash and colored-stucco of buildings in the town, tiny around the dollhouse towers of the church. Cuitlacoches flew up out of the bush as the mules disturbed it, little red long-tailed birds he’d come to like for their sweet song.

There were a dozen of the pack-animals, plodding along with careful steps and big canvas-covered bundles in pairs wobbling on either side of their backs. Six men accompanied them, all in campesino garb of loose dirty-white cotton pants and blouse-like shirts and straw sombreros and striped, fringed serapes flung back to lie down from their shoulders, different from ordinary peasants mostly in the way they also bristled with knives and machetes and bandoliers of cartridges and assorted weaponry. Three also wore boots instead of the ubiquitous huaraches… sandals. One of those halted and raised the brim of his hat, looking upward with narrow-eyed suspicion…

Ernst Röhm! Horst thought as the face leaped clear in the reticle of the sight.

He smothered a gasp and a galvanic start by an effort of will and felt his mind gibber and slip; he’d have been more surprised to see General Ludendorff here in Mexico, but not much more.

The Stoßtruppen have come to Mexico, by Almighty Lord God!

The square brutal Bavarian-peasant face with the distinctive scars on the cheeks and nose was unmistakable, despite the way he’d taken the sun and was as dark as a local. The stocky muscular body wasn’t too out of place here either; much less so than Horst, whose six feet of narrow-waisted, long-limbed, broad-shouldered white-blond Nordic good looks and pale grey single eye were about as untypical as possible.

Neither man’s scars were in the least unusual, in a country just coming off a vicious civil war and a massive foreign invasion.

Not far away one of the guerillas he was working with came to a knee and waved to the newcomers, calling:

¡Hola, compadres! ¿Cómo estás?” Then he turned to the German.

“It is those we awaited, with our supplies,” he said to Horst; his name was Miguel, and he was as much of a leader as this group of quasi-bandits had. “And… ah… Señor Horst… Pablo is with them.”

These revolucionarios were careful about never using surnames, and often substituted nicknames or fakes instead of their real Christian ones too. Long before this the careless among them had ended up dead in battle, or in Black Chamber interrogation rooms squealing and babbling out everything they knew, or in the chain-gangs of FBS labor camps building motor-roads to remote villages for the next twenty-five years to expiate their membership in a terrorist organization.

Unfortunately, that means most of them are dead or breaking rocks by now.

“I must warn you, Pablo does not like gringos,” Miguel said.

“But I am not a gringo,” Horst pointed out in his excellent but occasionally slightly staccato Spanish.

Technically gringo could mean any foreigner; it had probably referred to Greeks, originally, back in Spain. In Mexico’s variety of the Spanish language in the twentieth century’s second decade it almost always referred to Americans, and it was not meant as a compliment.

“Yes, yes, of course… and you brave alemanes are our allies, allies of Mexico’s sacred cause of freedom… but pardon me, Señor, you do look a little like a gringo and Pablo is… ¡Ay! ¡Sacate, que! Pablo is a hasty man. And the gringos burned his village, everyone died… He is a busca sangre; un despiadado.”

Which meant a seeker of blood; a man without pity.

“That is Pablo’s problem,” Horst said, and forced down the flush of eagerness, a feeling at once hot and cold in gut and groin. “Not mine.”

It was unwise and he knew it; he wasn’t in a position to go looking for quarrels with his local helpers. And while he’d long been a fighting-man, and a ruthless one at that who could kill with his own hands without hesitation or remorse when it was necessary, unlike the description of Pablo he’d never been the sort who went looking for blood…

Not before… her.

Not until the Black Chamber spy who was posing as Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez deceived him last year, the one actually called Luz. Even through the pain of his wounds and the blurring of a brain rattled by a steel-toed kick to the head he’d heard that and confirmed it later: Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, which meant she was Irish-Spanish by blood in truth.

Oh, that was a clever touch.

That smooth deception had led to one disaster after another. She was the one who’d shot him in the face and cost him the eye back last October in Boston when she ruined the American part of the Breath of Loki. And later she’d been crucial to wrecking Projekt Heimdall.

Not to mention Horst being led by the nose through northwestern Berlin, nearly blown up by a bomb she’d left behind for her pursuers—a man had gotten his head chopped off by flying debris six feet away, within blood-spatter range—barely escaping exposure to V-gas, actually being shot in the shoulder, pounded on with a large rock by a fourteen-year-old girl, and that kick in the head by Luz had been hard enough that he still had headaches sometimes… though it must have been very cleverly gauged despite stress and haste.

And ending up in the dusty, oven-hot US Army POW camp in El Paso, a name which in his opinion translated into plain German as The Godforsaken Arschloch of Texas, from which he’d escaped seven months ago after killing two guards.

I am free of the camp but I have become too much a prisoner of my anger, he thought forcing his teeth to stop grinding; Miguel was looking at him oddly. Drinking doesn’t seem to help enough; maybe I need a woman. Though mezcal is much easier to get here.

There were some soldaderas with the little band of guerillas, but all of them had commitments of their own.

And it was still all going to be Pablo’s problem, if he chose to make it one. Horst had looked like a handsome, dashing, athletic young German nobleman before he met Luz, with no distinguishing marks except a dueling scar on one cheek. Now he looked like a man much battered by life and very, very dangerous, which was as the Yankee saying went truth in advertising.

“One of the men with him is a German too, a German I know,” he said to change the subject from hasty Pablo’s possibly hasty prejudices.

“Ah!” Miguel said eagerly; Germany was the guerillas’ last hope. “An intelligence agent?”

“Perhaps now,” Horst said.

Colonel Nicolai getting my message… messages… and sending him is the only explanation I can think of for him being here now. Assuming Nicolai is still head of Abteilung IIIb. How I hate this isolation! The world is being broken and remade, and I know nothing of it except rumors and Yankee propaganda!

“He was a soldier, when I knew him—a leader of Stoßtruppen, of special assault troops. A very dangerous man, fierce and cunning and fearless.”

Miguel nodded respectfully. The war in Europe was legendary here… and even the American newspapers admitted that the German military had forced the US Army out of France, which gave them major credit with the revolucionario remnants hiding in the wilderness. It was proof the gringos were not invincible, which was something these people very much wanted to believe.

Having been with these last sad holdouts for months, it was now Horst’s considered opinion that Mexicans had joined Poles and Serbs among the irredeemably defunct ghost-nations of the world and that the remaining revolucionarios had about as much chance of driving the Yankees north across the border as Horst did of bedding the Kaiser’s daughter Princess Viktoria Luise.

And doing it in the middle of the Unter den Linden at high noon on Sedan Day, he qualified. Mind you, it’s always easier to think objectively about someone else’s problem.

German help would get more of them killed and make things worse for their country as a whole… but he was here, instead of sitting out the war in a dusty camp, to do what he could for Germany, not for Mexico. The guerillas didn’t need that depressing conclusion spelled out for them, since their wishful thinking would make them useful tools for the Fatherland. Whereas realism—despair—would just send them home… or somewhere they could assume a new identity… to make the best of things.

A man at the head of the mule-train waved, and a dozen guerillas rose from hiding and began sliding down the slope towards them. Horst came along a little behind, leaping from rock to rock with casual grace and landing with the battered and much-repaired pair of German Army Marschstiefel on his feet raising a puff of dust. He gave Röhm a nod and got an equally cool and expressionless one in reply. They respected each other’s abilities and had fought together and each knew the other was a good patriot, but there was no warmth to it for reasons ranging from the regional to the personal.

Horst didn’t share the common Prussian prejudice against Bavarians in general, partly because he was Catholic himself; oddly, like something seen in a mirror, Röhm was a member of heavily Catholic Bavaria’s Lutheran minority. And a little because while Silesia had been part of the Kingdom of Prussia long enough to be reconciled to and even proud of the fact, Silesians were Musspreußen—Prussians-by-conscription, as the joke went—due to Frederick the Great’s conquests, not Brandenburgers proper.

But he thought this Bavarian in particular was a vicious sadistic thug with the personality of a cannibal troll from the old legends…

…not to mention the fact that he’s a buggering arse-bandit. Not the poofy type of Schwul, granted—he’s the mean, tough variety of warm boy.

And as far as he could tell Röhm hated him; but then again, Röhm hated nearly everyone, possibly… probably… including himself. He loathed Prussians, in which category he put Silesians like the von Dückler family, about half as much as he hated Jews… and he really hated Jews. He didn’t like the edelgeborene aristocracy either, and Horst’s father was a baron with an estate near Breslau which the von Dücklers had held since the Drang nach Osten in Henry the Lion’s time, eight hundred years ago. Röhm’s father was a minor railway official, a petite-bourgeois background that was a severe disadvantage even in the slightly less socially snobbish Bavarian part of the German army. It was to the man’s credit that he’d risen to Captain’s rank despite his lowly birth, but he had, as the Americans said—

A big chip on his shoulder about it.

The guerillas and the Mexican newcomers were exchanging the odd-looking Latin hugs they called un abrazo. Then the one named Pablo turned towards Horst, who’d let his sombrero fall down his back on the neck-string. Pablo had a long black mustache drooping down on either side of a snaggle-toothed mouth, a nose that ended in a little blob of scar tissue where the tip had been once, and hot black hatred in his eyes. Those eyes scanned up and down Horst’s body, and his full lips curled as he hitched his thumbs into his pistol-belt.

“Hey, Miguel, who’s the Güerito?” he said loudly.

Horst carefully set the rifle down, leaning it against a boulder, and walked over to Pablo, who at close range smelled strongly of tobacco and marijuana and mule-sweat. Güero’s literal meaning in Spanish was yolkless egg; it was a mildly unflattering term for the pale-skinned, especially blonds. Tacking on the diminutive turned it into little blondie, with an overtone of pretty boy.

It was a bit absurd for a Silesian soldier a hundred and eighty-three centimeters tall in his bare feet, with shoulders like a light-heavyweight boxer, fists like oak mauls, an eyepatch and a fine collection of scars here and there, but he couldn’t ignore it if he wanted to be effective here.

Not that he would have anyway.

“I bet he thinks he’s a real man because his country’s big enough to fight the gringos,” Pablo went on. “What do we need with a rich sissy from the city out here in the Sierra?”

Silence fell as Horst moved, and eyes followed him; these were mostly experienced fighting-men, and they knew what the way he walked meant.

He halted close to the other man; the distance Mexicans preferred to speak at was closer than Yankees liked and much closer than German custom, but he went well inside that, forcing Pablo to look up at him and emphasize the six-inch difference in their heights, not to mention Horst’s extra forty or so pounds of solid muscle and bone. He stared down at him for about the count of ten, his face coldly unmoved, waiting for an apology he didn’t expect to get.

Pablo was obviously regretting what he’d said, and equally obviously unwilling to be seen to back down. Horst had learned that Mexicans didn’t intimidate easily, and that the ones he was with now attached enormous importance to a public show of toughness. They called it machismo, and it meant an overwhelming pride in manliness. If an Italian had acted the way they did he’d have assumed it was a bluff hiding under a shell of blowhard bravado, but despite the theatrical gestures these people really meant it and would back it up with their very lives.

When Horst spoke his tone was casual and conversational: “This Güerito is certainly not one of the two dozen who used your mother in the Zocalo, Morenito. You are too dark for that. And as I recall, she liked dark meat, not light.”

Pablo had been expecting a snarled curse or a blow. The flat tone disguised the content of the words from him for a moment, and then his eyes went wide as it sank in. His right hand flashed to the machete hanging at his hip and he started to step backward to get room for a swing as he drew. Horst let him, and waited until the heavy length of honed steel rose glittering in the sun and came down in a straight hack at his shoulder.

Then his left hand snapped forward.

There was no subtlety to it, just raw speed… and after the smack of wrist meeting palm, raw strength. Horst’s hands were big even for a man his size. The Mexican had a working peasant’s wiry build and strength, but the German noble had trained to the saber since he was six, among other things, and he hadn’t been raised on a diet of corn and beans and not enough of those combined with illness and overwork from childhood.

Horst’s long fingers closed almost all the way around the other’s wrist in an iron bracelet, and muscle stood out like moving steel cables under the bronzed skin of his forearm as the loose sleeve fell back past his elbow, making the sun-bleached hairs bristle. The nearly-healed wound in his left shoulder twinged, but he could feel the small bones of the other man’s wrist begin to creak and bend under that grip, and the machete fell clattering and sparking to the rocky ground.

Pablo’s left hand went for a knife, scrabbling blindly as he came up on his toes under the relentless twisting pressure. Horst had expected that. His right hand clamped the same merciless grip on the Mexican’s left wrist, and began the same grim struggle. Pablo rose higher and higher as his elbows locked, his mouth opening in a sudden gust of bad breath as he wheezed in agony. Then Horst whipped his head forward, smashing the top of his forehead into Pablo’s nose with vicious force.

It hurt, but he was prepared for it… and his forehead was much stronger than the smaller man’s nose. That organ cracked as it flattened, and Horst struck again a split second later.

He dropped the now-limp body, extending one booted foot so the Mexican’s head bounced off it and didn’t fall full-force on the rock beneath, which might well have killed him. Pablo lay moaning and stirring feebly with bubbles of blood swelling and bursting on his mouth and nostrils. Horst carefully, neatly blotted his own forehead with the loose cotton sleeve of his long tunic-like shirt; most of the blood there was Pablo’s, though a little had leaked out through a pressure-cut in his own skin. He opened his canteen, drank a little of the mezcal-cut water, and poured some into a palm that he rubbed across the minor wound as a stinging antiseptic.

“Well?” he said after he’d taken another swig and capped the canteen, with the same flat lack of affect, his pale eye meeting each man’s in turn. “Does anyone else have anything to say about my looks?”

Suddenly he grinned. “And I’m a country boy, not from a city.”

Someone murmured: “¡Qué chingón!”

Which meant what a fucker literally, and very manly in effect, and was about the impression he’d wanted. As much as he’d wanted anything but the pleasure of beating someone bloody and letting free some of the rage that roiled in his mind like acid in a sour stomach.

Ernst Röhm chuckled from where he leaned against a near-vertical face of rock with a stubby, ugly-looking automatic rifle cradled in his arms, one with a curved detachable magazine and a wooden handgrip on the forestock. Now that the diamond-point concentration of the brief fight was fading Horst more-or-less recalled hearing the click-clack of the weapon being cocked. Which might have been just a precaution, or might have turned Pablo’s hypothetical friends into pure spectators.

“I am belief we should all making these mules under cover to be, so we can the Yankees be fighting, not with each other the dance doing,” Röhm said, in barbarously bad but comprehensible… mostly comprehensible… Spanish. “And the first of the presents you can see Germany has for your good fighting-ness to you sent.”

I am back in the game, Horst thought, and smiled. And who will the opposition be, this time?


Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling