“ . . . saw little of my father. Home was the servants’ quarters of Oakenwald, where I was happy, much of the time. Tantie Sannie fed me and loved me, there were the other children of the House and Quarters to play with, the gardens and the mountainside to explore. Memory is fragmentary before six: it slips away, the consciousness which bore it too alien for the adult mind to re-experience. Images remain only—the great kitchens and Tantie baking biscuits, watching from behind a rosebush as guests arrived for a dance, fascinating and beautiful and mysterious, with their jewels and gowns and uniforms.
“A chid can know, without the knowledge having meaning. We had numbers on our necks; that was natural. The Masters did not. There were things said among ourselves, never to the Masters. I remember watching Tantie Sannie talk to one of the overseers, and suddenly realizing she’s afraid . . . The Young Master was my father, and came to give me presents once a year. I thought that he must dislike me, because his face went hard and fixed when he looked at me, and I wondered what I had done to anger him. A terrible thought—my Mother had died bearing me. Had I killed her? Now I know it was just her looks showing in me, but the memory of that grief is with me always. And then he came one night to take me away from all I had known and loved, telling me that it was for the best. Movement, cars and boats, strangers; America, voices I could hardly understand . . . ”
Daughter to Darkness: A Life, by Anna von Shrakenberg
Houghton & Stewart, New York, 1964
VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 14, 1942: 0530 HOURS
Eric cleared the low stone fence with a raking stride. Noise was all around them as they ran: stutter of weapons, explosion blast, screams; the harsh stink of cordite filled his nose, and he felt his mouth open and join in the shout. The rifle stuttered in his hands, three-round bursts from the hip. Behind him he heard Sofie shrieking, a high exultant sound; even the stolid McWhirter was yelling. They plunged among the apple trees, gnarled little things barely twice man height, some shattered to stumps; the Fritz wire was ahead, laneways blasted through it with snake charges. Fire stabbed at them; he flicked a stick grenade out of his belt, yanked the pin, tossed it.
Automatically, they dove for the dirt. Sofie ooffed as the weight of the radio drove her ribs into the ground, then opened up with her light machine pistol. A round went crack-whhhit off a stone in front of his face, knocking splinters into his cheek. Eric swore, then called over his shoulder.
“Neal! Rocket gun!”
The trooper grunted and crawled to one side. The tube of the weapon cradled against her cheek, the rear venturi carefully pointed away from her comrades; her hands tightened on the twin pistol grips, a finger stroked the trigger. Thump and the light recoilless charge kicked the round out of the short smooth-bore barrel. It blurred forward as the fins unfolded, there was a bright streak as the sustainer rocket motor boosted the round up to terminal velocity: crash as it struck and exploded. Her partner reached to work the bolt and open the breech, slid in a fresh shell and slapped her on the helmet.
“Fire in the hole!” he called.
Forward again, through the thinning white mist of the smoke barrage, over the rubble of the blasted house. That put them on a level with the housetops, where the village sloped down to the road. He reached for the handset.
“Acknowledged. Activity in the mosque, runners going out. Want me to knock it down?”
“Nothing on the direction finder since I hit the room with the antennae.”
“Hold on the mosque, they’d just put their HQ somewhere else, and we’re going to need the 120 ammo later. Bring two of the heavies forward, I’ll take them over; keep the road north under observation. And send in the Ronsons and satchelmen—we’re going to have to burn and blast some of them out.” A different series of clicks. “Tom, close in. Tetrarchy commanders, report.”
“Einar here. Lisa’s hit, 3rd Tetrarchy’s senior decurion’s taken over. Working our way in southwest to southeast, then behind the mosque.”
Damn! He hoped she wasn’t dead; she’d been first in line if he “inherited the plantation.”
“John here. Same, northwest and hook.”
“John, pull in a little and go straight—Tom’s going to hit the northeast anyway. We’ll split them. I’ll be on your left flank. Everybody remember, this is three dimensional. Work your way down from the roofs as well as up; I’ll establish fire positions on commanding locations, move ’em forward as needed. Over.”
Eric raised his head over the crest of the rubble. The peculiar smell of fresh destruction was in the air, old dust and dirt and soiled laundry. Ruins needed time to achieve majesty, or even pathos; right after they had been fought over there was nothing but . . . seediness, and mess. Ahead was a narrow alleyway: nothing moved in it but a starved-looking mongrel, and an overturned basket of clothes that had barely stopped rocking. The locals were going to earth, the crust of posts in the orchard had been overrun, and the bulk of the Fritz were probably bivouacked around the town square: it was the only place in town with anything approaching a European standard of building. Therefore, they would be fanning out toward the noise of combat. Therefore . . .
“Follow me,” he said. McWhirter flicked out the bipod of his Holbars, settled it on the ridge and prepared for covering fire. Eric rose and leaped down the shifting slope, loose stone crunching and moving beneath his boots. They went forward, alleys and doors, every window a hole with the fear of death behind it, leapfrogging into support positions. Two waves of potential violence, expanding toward their meeting place like quantum electron shells, waiting for an observer to make them real.
They panted forward, bellies tightening for the expected hammer of a Fritz machine pistol that did not come. Then they were across the lane, slamming themselves into the rough wall, plastered flat. That put them out of the line of fire from the windows, but not from something explosive, tossed out. One of the troopers whirled out, slammed his boot into the door, passed on; another tossed a short-fuse grenade through as the rough planks jarred inward.
Blast and fragments vomited out; Eric and Sofie plunged through, fingers ready on the trigger, but not firing: nobody courted a ricochet without need. But the room beyond was bare, except for a few sticks of shattered furniture, a rough pole-ladder to the upper story . . . and a wooden trapdoor in the floor.
That raised a fraction of an inch; out poked a wooden stick with a rag that might once have been white. A face followed it, wrinkled, gray bearded, emaciated and looking as old as time. Somewhere below, a child whimpered and a woman’s voice hushed it, in a language he recognized.
“Nix Schiessen!” the ancient quavered in pidgin-German. “Stalino kaputt—Hitler kaputt una Drakanski!”
Despite himself, Eric almost grinned; he could hear a snuffle of laughter from Sofie. The locals seemed to have learned something about street fighting; also, their place in the scheme of things. The smile faded quickly. There was a bleak squalor to the room; it smelled sourly of privation, ancient poverty, fear. For a moment, his mind was daunted by the thought of a life lived in a place such as this—at best, endless struggle with a grudging earth wearing you down into an ox, with the fruits kept for others. Scuttling aside from the iron hooves of the armies as they went trampling and smashing through the shattered garden of their lives, incomprehensible giants, warriors from nowhere. The lesson being, he thought grimly, that this is defeat, so avoid it.
“Lochos upstairs,” he snapped. “Roof, then wait for me.” He motioned the graybeard up with the muzzle of his assault rifle, switching to fluent Circassian.
“You, old man, come here. The rest get down and stay down.”
The man came forward, shuffling and wavering, in fear and hunger both, to judge from the look of the hands and neck and the way his ragged kaftan hung on his bones. But he had been a tall man once and the sound of his own tongue straightened his back a little.
“Spare our children, honored sir,” he began. The honorific he used meant “Lord,” and could be used as an endearment in other circumstances. “In the name of Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate—”
The Draka cut him off with a chopping hand, ignoring memories that twisted under his lungs. “If you want mercy, old one, you must earn it. This is the Dar al Harb, the House of War.Where are the Germanski?”
The instructions were valuable—clear, concise, flawed only by a peasant’s assumption that every stone in his village was known from birth. Dismissed, he climbed back to his family, into the cellar of their hopes. McWhirter paused above the trapdoor, hefted a grenade and glanced a question. At the Centurion’s headshake, he turned to the ladder, disappointment obvious in the set of his shoulders.
“McWhirter doesn’t like ragheads much, does he, Centurion?” Sofie said as she ran antenna line out the window; the intelligence would have to be spread while it was fresh. Not that she was going to say much—the old bastard was always going on about how women were too soft for front-line formations.
With a grunt of relief, she turned and rested the weight of the radio on a lip of rock. The Centurion was facing her; that way they could cover each other’s backs. She looked at his face, thoughtful and relaxed now, and remembered the hot metal flying past them with a curious warm feeling low in her stomach. It would be . . . unbearable if that taut perfection were ruined into ugliness, and she had seen that happen to human bodies too often. And . . .
What if he was wounded? Not serious, just a leg wound, and I was the one to carry him out. Images flashed though her mind—gratitude in the cool gray eyes as she lifted his head to her canteen, and—
Oh, shut the fuck up, she told her mind, then started slightly; had she spoken aloud? Good, no. Almighty Thor, woman, are you still sixteen or what? The last time you had daydreams like that it was about pulling the captain of the field-hockey team out of a burning building. What you really wanted was bed. That was cheering, since she had gotten to bed with her.
Eric stood, lost in thought. His mind was translating raw information into tactics and possibilities, while another layer answered the comtech’s question about McWhirter: “Well, he wasin Afghanistan,” he said. “Bad fighting. We had to hill three-quarters to get the rest to give up. McWhirter was there eight years, lost a lot of friends.”
Sofie shrugged. She was six months past her nineteenth birthday and that war had been over before her tenth. “How come you understand the local jabber, then?” And to the radio: “Testing, acknowledge.”
“Oh, my first concubine was a Circassian; Father gave her to me as a fourteenth birthday present. I was the envy of the county—she cost three hundred aurics.” He thrust the memory from him. There was the work of the day to attend to. “Next . . . ”
Standartenführer Felix Hoth awoke, mumbling, fighting a strangling enemy that he only gradually realized was a mass of sweat-soaked bedclothes. Panting, he swung his feet to the floor and hung his head in his hands, the palm heels pressed against his eyes. Lieber Herr Gott, but he’d thought the dreams had stopped. Perhaps it was the vodka last night; he hadn’t done that in a while, not since the first month after Moscow. He was back in the tunnels, in the dark, but alone; he could hear their breathing as they closed in on him and he could not even scream . . .
“Herr Standartenführer?” The question was repeated twice before it penetrated. It was one of his Slav girls—Valentina, or Tina, whatever; holding out a bottle of Stolichnaya and a glass. The smell of the liquor seized him with a sudden fierce longing, then combined with the odors of sweat and stale semen to make his stomach twist.
“No!” he shouted. His hand sent it crashing to the floor. She stood, cringing, to receive the backhanded slap. “You stupid Russki bitch, how many times do I have to tell you not in the morning! Fetch coffee and food. Schnell!”
The effort of rage exhausted him; he fought the temptation of a collapse back onto the four-poster bed. Instead, he forced his muscles into movement walking to the dresser and splashing himself with water from the jug, pouring more from the spirit-heater and beginning to shave. Sometimes he thought she was more trouble than she was worth, that he should find a good orderly and only send for her when he needed a woman. You expected an untermensch to be stupid, but it was what, five months now since he had grabbed her out of that burning schoolhouse in Tula and she still couldn’t speak more than a few words of German. His Russian was better. And she was supposed to have been a teacher!
It showed that Reichsfuhrer Himmler was right: intellectual training had nothing to do with real intelligence—that was in the blood. Or . . . sometimes he wondered if she was as dull as she seemed. Perhaps it would be better just to liquidate her. Two were enough, surely, or there were thousands more . . .
No. That was how Kube had gotten it, up around Minsk: one of them had smuggled an antipersonnel mine under the bed and blown them both to bits. Frightened, but not completely desperate, that was the ticket.
Breakfast repaired his spirits; the ration situation was definitely picking up, not like last winter when they’d all been gnawing black bread in the freezing dark. Real coffee, now that the U-boats were keeping the English too busy for blockades; good bacon and eggs and butter and cream. He glanced around the room with satisfaction as he ate; it was furnished with baroque elegance. Pyatigorsk had been a health resort for Tzarist nobles with a taste for medicinal springs at the foot of the Caucasus, and the Commissars had not let it run down. Not bad for a Silesian peasant’s son, brought up to touch the cap to the Herr Rittermeister; the Waffen-SS offered a career open to the talents, all right. No social distinctions at the Bad Tolz Junkerschul, the officer’s training academy. No limits to how high a sound Aryan could rise; in the Wehrmacht, he’d have been lucky to make Unteroffizier, with some traitorous monocled “gentleman” telling him what to do.
Well, piss on the regular Army and their opinion of Felix Hoth. Felix Hoth now commanded a regiment of SS-Division “Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler.” The Leader’s own Guards, the victors of Minsk, Smolensk, Moscow, Kharkov, Astrakhan. The elite of the New Order . . . and just finishing its conversion from a motorized infantry brigade to a Panzer division. He glanced at the mantel clock with its plump cupids—0530. Good, another half-hour and he’d roust the second Panzergrenadier battalion out—surprise inspection and a four-kilometer run. Good lads, but the new recruits needed stiffening. Not many left of the men who had jumped off from Poland a year ago. And as soon as they finished refitting they’d be back in the line—real fighting out on the Sverdlosk front instead of this chickenshit antipartisan work.
The situation reports had come up with breakfast; they were a real pleasure. The trickle of equipment from the captured Russian factories was turning into a steady flow, not like the old days when the Wehrmacht had grudged the SS every bayonet, and they’d had to make do with Czech and French booty. The SS could improvise; if the supply lines to the Fatherland were long, seize local potential! Ivan equipment: their armor and artillery were first-rate. He winced at the memory of trying to stop that first Russian T-34 with a 37mm antitank gun.
Burning pine forest, the smell like a mockery of Christmas fires. Burning trucks and human flesh, the human wave of Russian troops in their mustard-yellow uniforms, arms linked. Urra! Urra! The machine guns scythed them down, artillery firing point-blank, blasting huge gaps in their line, bits and pieces of human flung through the forest and hanging from the trees . . . and the tank, low, massive, unstoppable; its broad tracks grinding through the swamp.
Aim, range 800, pull the lanyard . . . crack-whang! He’d frozen for a moment in sheer disbelief, the reload in his hand. A clean hit and the thick-sloped plate had shed it into the trees like . . . like a tennis ball. Left only a shallow gouge, crackling and red as it cooled. Coming on, shot after shot rebounding, grinding over the gun, cutting Friedrich in half. He’d lain there looking up and not even bleeding for a second, then it had all come out . . .
Hoth looked down at his right hand; half the little finger was missing. He had been very lucky; jumping on the deck of a tank and ramming a grenade down the muzzle of its cannon was not something you did with any great hope of survival. Automatic, really; not thinking of living, or of the Knight’s Cross and the promotion . . .
With a smile on his thick-boned, stolid face, he strode to the window and pulled open the drapes. There they were, spread out in leagues three stories below, across the tread-chewed lawns of what had once been a nobleman’s park. Dawn was just breaking, reaching beams to gild the squat, gray-steel shapes, throw shadows from the hulls and long cannon. Tanks in the outer ring, then the assault guns, infantry carriers (praise Providence, all the motorized infantry on tracks at last!), soft transport. Russian designs, much of it. Improved, brought into line with German practice, pouring out of Kharkov and Stalingrad and Kirovy Rog, with technicians from Krupp and Daimler-Benz to organize, and overseers from the SS Totenkopf squads with stock whips to see that the Russian workers did not flag at their eighteen-hour days.
Not really necessary to pull into a hedgehog like this, but it was good practice and the partisans seemed damnably well informed. Suicide parties with explosive charges had infiltrated more than once. Perhaps more hostages, he thought, turning to the east and taking a deep breath of fresh, crisp spring air with a pleasant undertang of diesel oil.
The aircraft were difficult to spot, coming in low out of the dawning sun. He squinted, his first thought that it was a training flight . . .
The smile slid slowly off his face. Too many, too fast, too low; at least 450 km/h, hedgehopping over poplars and orchards. Two engines, huge radials; low-wing monoplanes, their noses bristling with muzzles, long teardrop canopies . . . One 40mm autocannon, six 25mm, the Luftwaffe intelligence report ran through his head. Five tonnes of bombs, rockets, jellied petrol . . .Draka ground-attack aircraft, P-12 Rhino class. The nominal belligerence of the Domination had suddenly become very real.
There was no time to react; the first flight came in for its strafing run even as the alarm klaxon began to warble. He could hear the heavy dumpa-dumpa-dumpa of the 50mms, see the massive frames of the Rhinos shudder in the air with recoil. Crater lines stitched through the mud, meaty smacks as the tungsten-cored solid shot rammed into wet earth, then the heavy chunkas they struck his tanks, into the thinner side and deck armor. The lighter autocannon were a continuous orange flicker, stabbing into the soft-skinned transport. Something blew up with a muffled thump, a soft soughing noise and flash; petrol tanker, spraying burning liquid for meters in every direction. Vehicles were flaming all over the fields about the house, fuel and ammunition exploding, early-morning fireworks as tracer and incendiary rounds shot through the sky trailing smoke. The crews were pouring out of hutments, racing through the rain of metal to their tanks and carriers, and falling, their bodies jerking in the grotesque dance of human flesh caught in automatic-weapons fire. The attackers were past; then another wave, and the first returning, looping for a second pass.
“Totentanz,” he murmured. Dance of death. The telephone rang: he picked it up and began the ritual of questions and orders, because there was nothing else to do. And nothing of use todo; this was a quiet sector, and he had been stripped of most of his antiaircraft for the east, where the enemy still had some planes. The rest were flackpanzers, out there with the rest . . .
Engine rumble added to the din of blast and shouts; some of the Liebstandarte troopers were reaching their machines, and a percentage of crews were always on duty. A four-barreled 20mm opened up, one of the new self-propelled models. The ball turret traversed, hosing shells into the air, a Draka airplane took that across a belly whose skin was machined from armorplate, shrugged it off in a shower of sparks. Another was not so lucky, the canopy shattering as the gun caught it banking into a turn. Unguided, it cartwheeled into a barracks, building and wreck vanished in a huge, orange-black ball of flame as its load of destruction detonated. The blast blew the diamond-pane windows back on either side of him, shattering against the stone walls. He could feel the heat of it on his face, like a summer sun after too long at the swimming baths, when the skin has begun to burn, taut and prickling. Another Rhino wheeled and fired a salvo of rockets from its underwing racks into the flackpanzer that had killed its wingmate. Twisted metal burned when the cloud of powdered soil cleared, and now the others were dropping napalm, cannisters tumbling to leave trails of inextinguishable flame in their wake, yellow surf-walls that buried everything in their path . . .
Standartenführer Hoth had been a young fanatic a year ago. Only a year ago, but no man could be young again who had walked those long miles from Germany to the Kremlin; who had stood to break the death ride of the Siberian armor as it drove for encircled Moscow; who had survived the final nightmare battles through the burning streets, flushing NKVD holdout battalions from the prison-cellars of the Lubyanka . . . That year had taken his youth; his fanaticism it had honed, tempered with caution, sharpened with realism. His face was sweat-sheened, but it might have been carved from ivory as he held the field telephone in a white-fingered grip.
“Shut up. They are not attacking the barracks because they are at the limit of operational range and must concentrate on priority targets,” he said tonelessly. “Get me Schmidt.”
The line buzzed and clicked for a moment, but the switchboard in the basement was secure. Probably overloaded, to be sure, came a mordant thought. One part of his mind was raging, longing to run screaming into the open, firing his pistol at the black-gray vulture shapes. He could see the squadron markings as some of them flew by the manor at scarcely more than rooftop height; see the winged flame-lizard that was the enemy’s national emblem, with the symbolic sword of death and the slave-chain of mastery in its claws.
Fafnir, he thought. The reptile cunning, patience to wait until all the enemies are weakened . . .
And another part wished simply to weep, for grief of loss at the destruction of his work, his love, the beautiful and deadly instrument he had helped to forge . . .
“Sch-Schmidt here,” a voice at the other end of the line gasped. “Standartenführer, air raid—”
“And Stalin is dead, is this news?” he used the sarcasm deliberately, as a whip of ice.
“No—sir, Divisional HQ in Krasnodar, too, and, and—reports from the Gross Deutschland in Grozny, the Luftwaffe . . . ”
“Silence.” His voice was flat, but it produced a quiet that echoed. The sound of aircraft engines was fading; the raid was already history. One did not fight history, one used it. He looked south, to the pass.
“You will attempt to contact Hauptsturmfuhrer Keilig in the village. There will be no reply, but keep trying.”
“Ja wohl, Herr Standartenführer.”
“Call Division. Inform them that the Ossetian Military Highway is under attack by air-assault troops.”
“But, Standartenfürer, how—”
“Silence.” An instant. “You will find Hauptman Schtackel, or his immediate subordinate if he is dead or incapacitated. Tell him to prepare a reconnaissance squadron of Puma armored cars; also my command car, or a vehicle with equivalent communications equipment. By exactly—” he looked at the clock, still ticking serenely between its pink-cheeked plaster godlets “—0600 hours, I wish to be under way. He is also to begin formation of a Kampfgruppe of at least battalion size from intact formations, jump-off time to be no later than 1440 today. I will have returned and will be in command of the kampfgruppe. Should I fail to return, Obersturmbannfuhrer Keistmann is to exercise his discretion until orders arrive from HQ.” His voice lost its metronomic quality. “Is that clear?”
“Zum Befehl, Herr Standartenführer!”
He replaced the receiver with a soft click and turned from the scene of devastation his eyes had never left for an instant during the conversation. He saw that the girl, Tina. had returned. “Leave the tray, I will be finishing it,” he said. A soldier ate when he could, in the field. “Fetch my camouflage fatigues and kit. Have them ready here within ten minutes.”
He paused in the doorway, to give the fires smoking beyond one last glance. “My loyalty is my honor,” he quoted to himself the SS oath. “If nothing else, there is always that.”
Valentina Fedorova made very sure that the footsteps were not returning before she crossed to the folder and began to leaf through it with steady, systematic speed. Her fluent German she had learned in the Institute, almost as a hobby; she had a gift for languages. The memory that made a quick scan almost as effective as the impossible camera was a gift as well, one that had been very useful these past few months. Not that she had expected much besides a little, little revenge before she was inevitably found out, before the drum was beaten in the town square for another flogging to the death. She raised the lid of the coffeepot, worked her mouth, spat copiously. Then she crossed to the window, allowing herself the luxury of one long, joyous look before laying out the uniform. She smiled.
It was the first genuine smile in a long time.
“Burn,” she whispered. “Burn.”
Sofie’s eyes had widened. The muzzle of her machine pistol had come up, straight at him; time froze, the burst cracked past his ears, powder grains burnt his cheek. He wheeled to watch the Fritz tumble down the steps dropping his carbine, clutching at a belly ripped open by the soft-nosed 10mm slugs.
The wounded man’s mouth worked. “Mutti,” he whispered, eyes staring disbelief at the life leaking out between his fingers. “Mutti, hilfe, mutti—”
A three-round burst from Eric’s rifle hammered him back into silence.
Eric looked up, met Sophie’s gaze. She was smiling, but not the usual cocksure urchin grin; a softer expression, almost tremulous. Quickly, she glanced aside.
Well, well, he thought. Then: Oh, not now. Aloud, he murmured, “Thanks; good thing you’ve got steady hands.”
“Ya, ah, c’mon, let’s get up those stairs, hey?” she muttered, leading the way with a smooth steady stride that took her up the board steps noiselessly, even under the heavy load of the backpack radio.
The 15mm had hammered beside his ear; for a moment part of him wondered how much combat it would take to damage his hearing. This was worse than working in a drop-forging plant. His mouth was dry, filled with a thick saliva no swallowing could clear; there was water in his canteen, but no time for it. The rifles of his lochos took up the firing, hammering at the narrow slit window twenty meters away, keeping the Fritz machine gunner from manning his post. The light high-velocity 5mm rounds skittered off in spark trails; heavy 15mm bullets chewed at the stone, tattering it with craters.
“Damn hovels are built like forts!” one of the troopers snarled, as the ammunition drum of his Holbars emptied and automatically ejected. He scrabbled at his belt for the last replacement, slapped the guide lips into the magazine well, and jacked the cocking lever.
“They are forts,” McWhirter grunted. “Sand coons are treacherous. Don’t sleep easy without bunkers and firing slits ’tween them and the neighbors.”
Serfdom was too easy on them, he thought viciously. It was the smells that brought it back—rancid mutton fat and spices, sweaty wool and kohl. You could never trust ragheads—Afghans or Circassians or Turks or whatever; they kept coming back at you. Better to herd them all into their mosque and turn the Ronsons on them. He remembered that, from the Panjir Valley in Afghanistan; reprisals for an ambush by the badmash, the guerillas.
The Draka had found the drivers of the burnt-out trucks with their testicles stuffed into their mouths . . . Ten villages for that; he’d pulled the plunger on the flamer himself. The women had tried to push their children out the slit windows when the roof caught, flaming bundles on hands dissolving into flame as he washed the jet of napalm across them, limestone subliming and burning in the heat. He saw that often, waking and asleep.
One hand snuggled the butt of his Holbars into his shoulder while the other held the pistol grip; he was trying for deflection shots, aiming at the windowframe to bounce rounds inside. Tracer flicked out; he clenched his teeth and tasted sweat running down the taut-trembling muscles of his face. “Kill them all,” he muttered, not conscious of the whisper. Figures writhed in his mind, Germans melting into burning villagers into shadowed figures in robes and turbans with long knives into prisoners sewn into raw pigskins and left in the desert sun. “Kill them all.”
“Sven, short bursts, unless you’ve got a personal ammo store about you,” he added with flat normality. The trooper beside him nodded, turned to look at the noncom, turned back sweating to the sight-picture through the x4 of his assault rifle. It was considerably more reassuring than a human voice coming out of the thing McWhirter’s face had momentarily become. Below them, two paratroopers crawled down in the mud and sheep dung of the alley. One had a smooth oblong box strapped to her back; a hose was connected to the thing she pushed ahead—an object like a thick-barreled weapon with twin grips. Four meters from the window and she was in the dead ground below it, below the angle the gunner could reach without leaning out . . . and in more danger from the supporting fire than the enemy.
“Cease fire!” McWhirter and Eric called, in perfect unison; gave each other gaunt smiles as silence fell for an instant. Then the flamethrower spoke, a silibant roar in the narrow street. Hot orange at the core, flame yellow, bordered by smoke that curled black and filthy, the tongue of burning napalm stretched for the blackened hole. Dropped through it, spattering: most of a flamer’s load was still liquid when it hit the target. And it would burn on contact with air and cling, impossible to quench.
Flame belched back out of the window. A pause, then screams—screams that went on and on. Wreathed in fire, a human figure fell out over the sill to writhe and crackle for an instant, then slump still. A door burst open and two more men ran shrieking into the street, their uniforms and hair burning, the gunner at the 15mm cut them down with a single merciful burst.
Senior Decurion McWhirter turned to curse the waste of ammunition, closed his mouth at her silent glare, shrugged, and followed the rest as they jogged down the lane and waited while the pointman dropped to the ground and peered around the corner.
“Love those Ronsons,” he said using the affectionate cigarette-lighter nickname. “Damn having women in a combat zone anyway,” he grumbled more quietly. “Too fucking sentimental if you ask me.” He grunted again. “Meier, Huff, follow me.”
Sofie stuck out her tongue at his departing back. “Old fart,” she muttered.
The last pocket had fallen around 0600. The water in Eric’s canteen was incredibly sweet; he swilled the first mouthful about, spat it out, drank. His body seemed less to drink than to absorb, leaving him conscious of every vein, down to his toes. He was abruptly aware of his own sweat, itching and stinking; of the black smudges of soot on hands and face, the irritating sting of a minor splinter-wound on his leg. The helmet was a monstrous burden. He shed it, and the clean mountain wind made a benediction through the dense tawny cap of his cropped hair. Suddenly, he felt light, happy, tension fading out of the muscles of neck and shoulders.
“Report to Cohort,” he said. “Phase A complete. Then get me the tetrarchy commanders.” They reported in, routine until the Sapper tetrarch’s.
“Seems the Fritz were using the place as some sort of supply dump,” Marie Kaine said.
“What did we get?”
“Well, about three thousand board-feet of lumber, for a start. Had a truck rigged to an improvised circular saw—nice piece of work. Then there’s a couple of hundred two-meter lengths of angle-iron, a shitload of barbed wire . . . and some prisoners in a wire pen, most of them in sad shape.” A pause. “Also about a tonne of explosives.”
“Loki on a jumping jack, I’m glad they didn’t remember to blow that bundle of Father Christmas’ store.”
“Exactly: it’s about half loose stuff and the rest is ammunition—105mm howitzer shells, propellant and bursting charges both. Lots of wire and detonators, too. Must have been planning some construction through here. And blankets, about a week’s worth of rations for a Cohort, medical supplies . . . ”
Eric turned to the south, studying the valley as it narrowed toward the village in which he stood. It was a great, steep-sided funnel, whose densely wooded slopes crowded closer and closer to the single road. His mind was turning over smoothly, almost with delight. His hand bore down on the send button.
“Is McWhirter with you? Look, Marie, see you in front of the mosque in ten. Tell McWhirter to meet us there, with the old raghead; he’ll know who I mean. Tell him absolutely no damage. Tetrarchy commanders’ conference, main square, ten minutes. Oh, and throw some supplies into that holding cage.” He looked up to see Sofie regarding him quizzically.
“Another brilliant flash, Centurion?” she said. He was looking very, well, alive now. Some men’s faces got that way in combat, but the Centurion’s just went more ice-mask when they were fighting. It was when he came up with something tricky that it lighted up, a half-smile and lights dancing behind the gray eyes. Damn, but you’re pretty when you think, she reflected wryly. Not something you could say out loud.
“Maybe. See if you can get me through to Logistics at division.” He waited for a moment for the patch relay; the first sound through the receiver was a blast of gunfire. Whoever held the speaker was firing one-handed as he acknowledged the call.
“Centurion von Shrakenberg here. Problems?”
“No,” the voice came back. “Not unless you count a goddamned Fritz counterattack and a third of my people shot up before they hit the fuckin’ ground—” The voice broke off: more faintly Eric could hear screams, a rocket-gun shell exploding, a shouted instruction, “They’re behind that bloody tank hulk—”
The quartermaster’s voice returned, slightly breathless: “But apart from that, all fine. What do you need, besides the assigned load?”
“Engineering supplies, if you have any—wire, explosives, hand tools, sandbags. More Broadsword directional mines if you can spare them, and any Fritz material available.” He paused. “Petrol—again, if there is any. We’re the farthest element south; unless we stop them, you’re going to be getting it right up the ass. Can do?”
“What are you going to do with all . . . never mind.” The Draka had a tradition of decentralized command, which meant trusting an officer to accomplish the assigned tasks in his own fashion. “Will if we can—as soon as the tactical situation here is under control. It depends on how much Fritz stuff gets captured intact . . . ”