VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 14, 1942: 0615 HOURS
The impromptu war council met by an undamaged section of the town hall’s outer wall; the cobbles there were a welcome contrast to the mud, dung, and scattered rocks of the main square. It was a mild spring day, sunny, the sky clear save for a scattering of high, wispy cloud; the air was a silky benediction on the skin. Clear weather was doubly welcome: it promised to dry the soil which heavy movement was churning into a glutinous mass the color and consistency of porridge, and it gave the troopers a ringside view of the events above, now that there was a moment to spare. Contrails covered the sky in a huge arc from east to west, stark against the pale blue all along the northern front of the Caucasus; it was only when you counted the tiny moving dots that the numbers struck home.
“Christ,” the field-promoted senior decurion of the late Lisa Telford’s tetrarchy said, swiveling his binoculars along the front. “There must be hundreds of them. Thousands . . . That’s the biggest air battle in history, right over our heads.” He recognized the shapes from familiarization lectures: Draka Falcons and twin-engine Eagles, Fritz ’schmidts and Wulfes, wheeling and diving and firing. As they watched, one dot shed a long trail of black that ended in an orange globe; they heard the boom, saw a parachute blossom.
“So much for ‘uncontested air superiority,’ ” said Marie Kaine dryly as she shaded her eyes with a palm. A Wulfe dove, rolled, and drove down the valley overhead with two Draka Eagles on its tail, jinking and weaving, trying to use its superior agility to shake the heavier, faster interceptors. The Eagles were staying well-spaced, and the inevitable happened—the German fighter strayed into the fire cone of one while avoiding the other. A brief hammering of the Eagle’s nose battery of 25mm cannon sent it in burning tatters to explode on the mountainside; the Eagle victory-rolled, and both turned to climb back to the melee above. The air was full of the whining snarl of turbocharged engines, and spent brass from the guns glittered and tinkled as it fell to the rocky slopes.
The officers of Century A were considerably less spruce than they had been that morning: the black streak-paint had run with sweat; their mottled uniforms were smeared with the liquid gray clay of the village streets, most had superficial wounds at least.
So much for the glory of war, Eric thought wryly. Once the nations had sent out their champions dressed in finery of scarlet and feathers and polished brass. Now slaughter had been industrialized, and all the uniforms were the color of mud.
A stretcher party was bearing the last of the Draka hurt into the building. Eric had made the rounds inside—a commander’s obligation, and one he did not relish. In action, you could ignore the wounded, the pain and sudden ugly wrecking of bodies, but not in an aid station. There was a medical section, with all the latest field gear—plasma and antibiotics and morphine; most of the wounded still conscious were making pathetic attempts at cheerfulness. One trooper who had lost an eye told him she was applying for a job with the Navy as soon as a patch was fitted, “to fit in with the decor, and they’ll assign me a parrot.” And they all wanted to hear the words, that they had done well, that their parents and lovers could know their honor was safe.
Children, Eric thought, shaking his head slightly as he finished his charcoal sketch map of the village on a section of plastered stone. I’m surrounded by homicidal children who believe in fairy stories, even with their legs ripped off and their faces ground to sausage meat.
The commanders lounged, resting, smoking, gnawing on soya-meal crackers or raisins from their iron rations, swigging down tepid water from their canteens. There was little sound—an occasional grunt of pain from the aid station within, shouts and boot-tramp from the victors, the eternal background of the mountain winds. The town’s civilians had gone to ground.
The Circassian patriarch stood to one side, McWhirter near him, leaning back with his shoulders and one foot against the building, casually stropping his bush knife on a pocket hone. The native glanced about at pale-eyed deadliness and seemed to shrink a little into himself; they were predator and prey.
“Nice of the Air Corps to provide the show,” Eric began. “But business calls. As I see it—”
Sofie tapped his shoulder.
“Report, Centurion; vehicles coming down the road from the pass. Ours . . . sort of.”
The convoy hove into sight on the switchback above the town, the diesel growl of its engines loud in the hush after battle, a pair of light armored cars first, their turrets traversing to keep the roadside verges covered with their twin machine guns, pennants snapping from their aerials. Behind them came a dozen steam trucks in Wehrmacht colors. The machines themselves were a fantastic motley—German, Soviet, French, even a lone Bedford that must have been captured from the English at Dunkirk or slipped in through Murmansk before the Russian collapse; two were pulling field guns of unfamiliar make. Bringing up the rear were a trio of cross-country bakkies, light six-wheeled vehicles mounting a bristle of machine guns. All were travelling at danger speed, slewing around the steep curves in spatters of mud and dust.
“Quick work,” Eric commented, as the vehicles roared down the final slope, where the military road cut through the huddle of stone buildings. “I wonder who—”
The daunting hoot of a fox hunter’s horn echoed from the lead warcar, and an ironic cheer went up from the paratroopers.
“Need I have asked,” the Centurion sighed. “Cohortarch Dale Jackson Smythe Thompson III.”
The lead warcar skidded to a halt and a jaunty figure in pressed fatigues rose from the hatch, a swagger stick in one gloved hand. He nodded to the assembled commanders. “Now, I suppose you’d like to know how the war’s going . . . ”He assumed a grave expression. “Well, according to the radio, the Americans claim that resistance is still going on in the hills of Hawaii three months after the Japanese landings, and promise that McArthur’s troops in Panama will throw the invader back into the Pacific—”
“Dale, you’re impossible!” Marie burst out, with a rare chuckle.
“No, just a Thompson . . . Actually, we had a bit of a surprise.”
“We heard about the tanks,” Eric said.
“That was the least of it. Have you ever heard of a Waffen-SS unit, Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler? Perhaps met a few of them?” He smiled beatifically at their nods. “Well, it seems that the good old Fritz were so anxious to get those field fortifications at the southern end of the pass finished that they moved our friends of the lightning bolts up to help the engineers and forced-labor brigades we were expecting. Still stringing wire and laying mines when we dropped in right on their heads. Not on their infantry—praise god—on their HQ, signals, combat engineers, vehicle park, artillery . . .
“Luckily, not all of them were there; still a fair number down in Pyatigorsk, from what the prisoners say. And we had complete surprise, which was just as well, seeing as we lost about a fifth of our strength to their flak before we hit the ground.”
There was a general wince; that was twice the total casualties of a month’s fighting in Sicily.
“The rest of us are in hedgehogs down the length of the pass; the Fritz within our lines don’t have heavy weapons, but they are making life difficult for our communications, and a secure perimeter is out of the question. So, I’m afraid, are those two Centuries you were supposed to get.”
There was a stony silence, as the leaders of Century A realized that they had just been condemned to death, then a sigh of acceptance. The warcar commander looked slightly abashed.
“ ‘The first casualty of war is always the battle plan,’ ” Eric quoted.
“Well!” the cohortarch concluded cheerfully. “Now to the good news. That air strike on your friends down the road in Pyatigorsk came off splendidly, according to the reports; also, they seeded a good few butterfly mines between thence and this, to muddy the waters, as it were. What’s more, we captured just about everything in the Liebstandarte divisional stores intact, apart from their armor—hence the two antitank pieces. Russian originally, but quite good. And all the other stuff you requested, blessed if I know what that food and so forth is for, but . . .
“Also, they’re putting in a battery of our 107 howitzers just up the way a piece, so you should have artillery support soon, and some Fritz stuff—150s. I brought along the observer. As to ammunition, there’s plenty of 5mm and 15mm, but I’m afraid we’re running a bit short of 85 and 120; we’ve already had an attack in brigade strength with armored support. They’re desperate, you know.”
Aren’t we all, Eric thought and turned to the trucks, absently slapping one fist into his palm as he watched the unloading. It went quickly, aided by the two laborers in the rear of each vehicle; they were of the same breed as the drivers handcuffed to the steering wheels—sullen, flat-faced men in the rags of yellow-brown uniforms.
“Ivans?” he asked.
“Oh, yes; we, hmmm, inherited them from the Fritz.” A snort of laughter. “Perhaps, if we’re to do this often, they and we could set up a common pool?”
Even then, there was a chuckle at the witticism. Eric’s eyes were narrowed in thought. “Surprised you got them to drive that fast,” he said.
“Oh, I made sure that they saw explosives being loaded,” Dale said. He grinned wolfishly: his family might be from the Egyptian provinces, where a veneer of Anglicism was fashionable, but he was Draka to the core. “It probably occurred to them what could happen if we stayed under fire long. ‘Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.’ ”
“And there’s more ways of killing a cat than choking it to death with cream,” Eric replied and turned, pointing to the combat engineer. “Marie, what do you think of this place as a defensive position?”
“With only Century A?” She paused “Bad. These houses, they’re fine against small arms, but not worth jack shit against blast—no structural strength.” Another pause. “Against anybody with artillery, it’s a deathtrap.”
“My sentiments exactly. What about field fortifications?”
“Well, that’s the answer, of course. But we just don’t have the people to do much,,,”
He chopped a hand through the air, his voice growing staccato with excitement. “What if you had a thousand or so laborers?”
“Oh, completely different, then we could . . . you mean the natives? Doubt we could get much out of them in time to be worthwhile.”
“Wait a second. And stick around, Dale. I need that devious brain of yours. All right.” Eric turned from his officers. His finger stabbed at the Circassian. “Old one, how many are your people? Are they hungry?”
The native straightened, met gray eyes colder than the snows of Elbruz, and did not flinch. “We are two thousand, where once there were many. Lord, kill us if you must, but do not mock us! Hungry? We have been hungry since the infidel Georgian pig Stalin—” he spat “—took our land, our sheep, our cattle, for the Kholkohz, the collective; sent our bread and meat and fruit to feed cities we never saw.” The dead voice of exhaustion swelled, took on passion. “Then the Germanski war began. He took our seed corn and our young men—those that did not flee to the mountain. This they called desertion, the NKVD, the Chekists, they killed many, many. What is it to us if the infidels slay one another? Should we love the Russki, that in the days of the White Tzar they did to us what the Germanski would do to them? Should we love the godless dog Stalin, who took from us even what the Tzars left us—freedom to worship Allah?”
He shook a fist. “When the Germanski came, many thought we would be free at last; the soldiers of the gray coats gave us back our mosque that the Chekists had made a place of abomination. I hoped that God had sent us better masters, at least. Then the Germanski of the lightning came and took power over us—” he drew the runic symbol of the SS, and spat again “—and where the Russki had beaten us with whips, they were a knout of steel. They are mad! They would kill and kill until they dwell alone in the earth!”
He crossed his arms. “We are not hungry, lord. We are starving; our children die. And now we have not enough to live until the harvest, even if we make soup of bark—not unless we eat each other. What is my life to me, if I will not live to see my grandson become a man? Kill us if you will; thus we may gain Paradise. We have already seen hell—it is home to us.”
Eric smiled like a wolf, but when he spoke his voice was almost gentle. “Old man, I will not slay your people; I will feed them. Not from any love, but from my own need. Listen well. We and the Germanski will do battle here; we and they are the mill, and your people will be as the grain between us. Of this village, not one stone will stand upon another. Hear me. If all those of your people who can dig and lift will work for one day, the others and the children may leave, with as much food as they can carry.
“If they labor well, and if twenty young men who are hunters and know the paths and secret places of the wood stay to guide my soldiers, then by my father’s name and my God, if I have the victory, I will leave enough food for all your people until the winter—also cloth and tools.”
Much good may they do you once the Security Directorate arrives, his mind added silently. Still, the offer was honest as far as it went. The Domination of the Draka demanded obedience; its serfs’ religion was a matter of total indifference, and a dead body was useful only for fertilizer, for which guano was much cheaper.
The Circassian patriarch had not wept under threat of death; now he nodded and hid his face in a fold of the ragged kaftan.
“Plan,” Eric snapped. The tetrarchy commanders and the visiting cohortarch had their notebooks ready. There was silence, except for the scrunch of the commander’s soft-treaded boots on the gritty stone of the square. “We have to hold this town to hold the road, but it’s a deathtrap.
Look at how we took it. Marie, I just secured you about 1,500 willing laborers; also some guides who know the way through that temperate-zone jungle out on the slopes. Over to you.”
She stood, thoughtful, then looked at the crude map of the village, around at the houses. She picked up a piece of charcoal, walked to the wall and began to sketch.
“The houses’re fine protection from small arms, as I said, but too vulnerable to blast. So. We use that.”
She began drawing on a stucco wall. “Look, here at the north end, where the highway enters the town. A lane at right angles to it on both sides, then a row of houses butting wall to wall. We’ll take the timber from the Fritz stores, some of it, whatever else we can find—corrugated iron would be perfect—and build a shelter right through on both sides, and knock out the connecting walls. Then we blow the houses down on both; knock firing ports out to command the highway. Those Fritz-Ivan 76.2mm antitank, they can be manhandled—you can switch firing positions under cover, with four feet of rock for protection. Couple of the 15mms in there, too.”
The charcoal revealed, in diagrams, a schematic of the village. Her voice raced, jumping, ideas coalescing into reality.
“Time, that’s the factor. So, that antitank stuff first. With three thousand very willing pairs of hands though . . . Listen. This whole village, it’s underlain by arched-roof cellars. They don’t connect, but there’s damn-all between them but curtain walls. Break through, here, here, here put up timber pillars”—her hands drew a vertical shaft through the air—“pop-up positions; we blow the houses around them, perfect camouflage, let the Fritz get past you and hit them from behind.
“Then, we can’t let them flank us. Get that angle iron, and the wire; wire in like this”—she sketched a blunt V from the woods to the edge of town—“downslope of these two stone terraces and trenches just above them. Only two hundred meters to the woods on the east, three hundred to the west. Mine the ground in front, random pattern. State those fields are in, a thousand badgers could dig for a week and you couldn’t tell.
“If the Patriarch Abraham here is going to have hunters show us the forest tracks, we’ll mine the forest edge, then the paths—put a few machine gun nests in there, channel things into killing fields—cohortarch, I’m going to need more of the Broadsword directional mines, can you get them? Good. Also more radio detonators, and any Fritz mines you can scavenge.
“And I can rig impromptu from that Fritz ammunition,” she murmured, almost an aside to herself. That would be tricky; she’d better handle it herself.
“We’ll need a surprise for their armor. We’ve got that clutch of plastic antitank mines, lovely stuff. Very good, they can’t be swept. Those for the road. That blasting explosive, with the radio detonators, by the verge . . . and there, there, where the turnoff points are. And we—”
“All right,” Eric broke in with a grim smile. Marie was brilliant in anything to do with construction. He could see a glow of pure happiness spreading over her face—the joy of an artist allowed to practice her craft. The problem would be keeping her from trying to put up the Great Wall of China.
“We need immediate antitank while this is going up,” he continued briskly. “Tom, you take two of the 120s.” His hand indicated where the tips of the V met the woods. “Emplace ’em there. Spider pits for the crews, with overhead protection, close enough to jump to. Marie, push the third down the road, down past the bend—somewhere where it can get one flank shot off where it’ll do the most good, and the crew can run like hell. We don’t have enough 120 ammunition to use three barrels. Booby traps along the trail, if you’ve got time. Better ask for volunteers. Take half the rocket-gun teams, start familiarizing them with the woods up both sides of the valley, for if—when—the Fritz break through. And I want minefields behind us as well. Don’t get trapped thinking linearly.” He paused. “Booby traps, there, as well. Everywhere.”
He turned to the comtech. “Sofie, we’re going to need secure communications. If we ran the Fritz field telephone wire all over the place, underground too, stripped, would it carry radio?”
She frowned. “Ought . . . Ya, Centurion.”
“Coordinate with Sparks in Marie’s tetrarchy. And set up the stationary radio; I’m going to need a steady link to cohort and up. Run more lines out to the woods, tack it up. A cellar, somewhere as far from the square as possible. Those buildings are going to draw a lot of fire.” He paused. “Anything impossible?”
“All that demolition,” the sapper Legate said. “Chancy. Very. Especially if we use nonstandard explosives. I can estimate, some of my NCOs . . . ”
“ ‘It has to be done, it can be,’ ” Eric quoted with a shrug. “If we’re going to be sacrificial lambs, at least we can break a few teeth. There’ll be a lot of details; solve ’em if you can, ask me or Marie if you can’t.
“Now,” he said, turning to the cohortarch. “Dale?”
“It’s all a little, well, static, isn’t it?” The ex-cavalryman paused. “Besides your skulkers in the woods, I’d say you need a mobile reaction force to maneuver in the rear, once they’re fixed against your fieldworks.”
Eric nodded. “Good, but we don’t have any reserve left for that . . . ”
Dale examined his fingertips. “Well, old man, I could run a spot down the road, conceal my vehicles, then—”
Eric shook his head. “Nice of you to offer, Dale, but you’re needed back above. That’s going to be a deathride, and . . . I’ve got an idea.” He looked around the circle of faces. “Tell you later if it works out. No—let’s do it, people; let’s move.”
There was a moment of silence, of solemnity almost. Then the scene dissolved in action.
Eric turned to the old man. “Hadj, those prisoners the Germanski were holding behind the hall—they are not of your people?”
The Circassian came to himself, blew his nose in the sleeve of his kaftan and shook his head.
“They are Russki—partisans, godless youths of the komsomol from the great city of Pyatigorsk that the Tzars built, when they took the hot springs of the Seven Hills from my people. Even so, we would not have betrayed them to the Germanski with the lightning, if they had not demanded food of us that we did not have. There are more of them westward in the hills; many more. The garrison came here to hunt them.” He bowed. “Lord, may I go to tell my people what you require of them?”
Eric nodded absently, tugging at his lower lip, then smiled and turned for the alley leading past the town hall.
Sofie trotted at his side, a quizzical interest in her eyes; her tasks would not be needed immediately and a matter puzzled her. Eric was moving with a bounce in his stride; his eyes seemed to glow, his skin to crackle with renewed vitality. She remembered him at the loading zone, quiet, reserved; in the fighting that morning, moving with the bleakly impersonal efficiency of a well-designed machine. Now . . . he looked like a man in love. Not with her, her head told her. But it was interesting to see how that affected him; definitely interesting.
“Centurion,” she said. “Remember Palermo?”
“Afterward, when we stood down. That terrace? We were talking, and you told me you didn’t like soldiering. Seems to me you like it well enough now, or I’ve never seen a man happy.”
He rubbed the side of his nose. “I like . . . solving problems. Important ones, real ones; doing it quickly, getting people to do their best. And understanding what makes them tick, getting inside their heads. Knowing what they’ll do if I do this or that . . . I’ve even thought of writing novels, because of that. After the war, of course.” He stopped, with an uncharacteristic flush. Sofie was easy to talk to, but that was not an ambition he had told many. Hurriedly, he continued: “Marie’s a crackerjack sapper. I had some of the same ideas, but not in nearly so much detail. And I couldn’t organize so well to get them done.”
“But you could organize her, and the ragheads, and whatever these ‘Russki partisans’ are good for.” She smiled at his raised brow. “Hell, Centurion, I may not talk their jabber, but I know the word when I hear it. I can see all that’s part of war.” She frowned. “And the fighting?” Draka were supposed to like to fight; more theory than fact. She didn’t, much; if she wanted to have a fun risk, she’d surf. Yet there was a certain addiction to it. She could see how the combat junkies felt, and certainly the Draka produced more of them than most people, but on the whole, no thanks. This had been hairier than anything before, and she had an uneasy feeling it was going to get worse.
“We’re of the Race: we have our obligations.”
There was no answer to that, not unless she wished to give offense. For that matter, there were many who would have stood on rank already.
“Think we’ll have time to get all this stuff ready?”
“I don’t know, Sofie,” he said simply. “I hope so. Before the real attack, anyway. We’ll probably get a probe quite soon. With luck . . . ”
Senior Decurion McWhirter cleared his throat. “Say, sir, what was it you used on the old raghead? Thought he was a tough old bastard but he caved in real easy.”
“I used the lowest, vilest means I could,” Eric said softly. The NCO’s eyes widened in surprise. “I gave him hope.”