VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 15, 1942: 0230 HOURS
“Sir.” A hand on his shoulder. “Sir.”
“Mmmph.” Eric blinked awake from a dream where cherry blossoms fell into dark-red hair and sat up, probing for grains of sleep-sand until the warning twinge of his palms forbade; grimacing at the taste in his mouth. He glanced at his watch: 0230, five hours’ sleep and better than he could expect. The command section was sleeping in the cellar-cum-bunker he had selected as the HQ: a cube four meters on a side, damp and chilly, but marginally less likely to be overburdened with insect life.
The floor was rock because the earth did not reach this deep, five meters beneath the sloping surface. The walls and arched ceiling were cut-stone blocks, larger and older and better-laid than the stones of the houses above, even though the upper rows were visibly different from the lower. This village was old, the upper sections had probably been replaced scores of times, after fire or sack or the sheer wasting of the centuries. The cold air smelled of rock, earth, the root vegetables that had been stored here over the years, and already of unwashed soldier. One wall had a rough doorway knocked through it, with a blanket slung across; a dim blue light spread from the battery lamp someone had spiked to one wall.
Shadows and blue light . . . equipment covered much of the floor: radios, a field telephone with twisted bundles of color-coded wires snaking along the floor and looping from nail to nail along lines driven between the stone blocks. The rest was carpeted in groundsheets and sleeping rolls, now that they had had time to recover their marching packs and bring the last of the supplies down from the gliders, with scavenged Fritz blankets for extra padding. Someone had improvised a rack along one wall to hang rifles and personal gear, strings of grenades, spare ammunition, a folding map table. Somebody else had one of the solid-fuel field stoves going in a corner, adding its chemical and hot-metal odor to the bunker, along with a smell of brewing coffee.
“Thanks,” Eric muttered as hands pushed a mug into his hands: Neal, the command-section rocket gunner, a dark-haired, round-faced woman from . . . where was it? Taledar Hill, one of those little cow-and-cotton towns up in the Northmark.
“Patrol’s in,” she said. He remembered she had a habit of brevity, for which Eric was thankful; waking quickly was an acquired and detested skill for him. He sipped; it was hot, at least. Actually not bad, as coffee; a lot closer to the real thing than ration-issue wine.
McWhirter was awake, over in his corner, back to the wall, head bent in concentration over tiny slivers of paper that his fingers creased and folded into the shapes of birds and animals and men . . . not the hobby Eric would have predicted. A muttering at his feet. Sofie lay curled beneath the planks that supported the static set, headphones clenched in one sleeping hand and head cradled on her backpack, machine pistol hanging by its strap from one corner of the table. A foot protruded, its nails painted shocking pink; he grinned, remembering the disreputable and battered stuffed rabbit he had glimpsed at the bottom of her rucksack. She slept restlessly, with small squirming motions; for a moment her nose twitched and she rubbed her cheek into the fabric.
Now, I wonder . . . he thought. Have I been avoiding Citizen women because I don’t think I’m going to live or is that an excuse not to give any more hostages to fortune?
He shook his head and turned back to Neal. “So what’s it like out there—”
A gloved hand swept the blanket-door aside, letting in a draft of colder air from cellars not warmed by body heat as the command bunker had been. The figure behind was stocky, made more so by the dripping rain poncho and hood; her Holbars was slung muzzle-down, and it clicked against the stone as she leaned her weight on one hand and threw back the hood. She had a square face, tanned and short-nosed, pale blue eyes and irregular teeth in a full smiling mouth, sandy-blond hair plastered wetly to her forehead.
“Sir, it’s just such a fuckin’ joy out there, what with bein’ dark laak a coal mine, about six degrees C, an’ the gods pissin’ down our necks an’ branches a’slappin’ us in the face, we just naturally cannot contain our urge to roll nekkid in th’ flowers, laak-so it was Saturday night at the Xanadu in Shahnapur. Sir.”
She reached behind her and pulled a native forward by his elbow; the Circassian was young, and unlike most of the villagers his sopping rags were what remained of native garb rather than a European-style outfit. One of the hunters they had been promised . . . painfully thin, huge dark eyes hollowed in a face that quivered and chattered its teeth with the cold. Then the eyes bulged at the sight of Sofie Nixon sitting up naked to the waist and lighting a cigarette.
“An’ this-here’s one of you tame ragheads. Says laak he’s heard somethin’.”
Eric yawned, stretched, snapped his fingers to attract the man’s attention. “You saw the graycoats?” To Neal, in English “I think Monitor Huff could use a cup, too, trooper.”
The Circassian swallowed and bowed awkwardly. “Not saw, lord, but heard. Down below, where the trail crosses the third hill, before the hollow: many of the—” a Slavic-sounding word Eric did not recognize. Tyansha had been the child of Circassians settled in Turkey, descendants of refugees from Russian conquest, chieftains and their followers. The tongue she had taught him was more formal and archaic than the Russian-influenced peasant dialect spoken here.
Eric made a guess. “Steam wagons—carts that go of themselves?”
The Circassian nodded eagerly.
“Yes, lord. Many, many, but not of the ones with the belts of metal that go around and around.”
Treads, Eric’s mind prompted. “They stopped?”
A quick nod. “Yes, and then the engines became quiet, but there was much talking in the tongue of the Germanski. Perhaps three hundreds, perhaps more.” A sniff. “Germanski are always talking, very loud; also they make much noise moving in the woods.”
“Do they, now,” Eric mused. Then: “McWhirter.” The NCO looked up, his hand slowly closing to crush the delicate figure of a flying crane. “My compliments to Einar, and 2nd Tetrarchy ready on the double. Le jeu commence.”
Sofie had risen, yawning, and was stamping her feet into her boots to the muttered complaints of nearby sleepers.
“No need to go out in the wet,” Eric said. “I’m just taking the 2nd. Einar’s sparks can handle it.”
“Nah, no problem,” she replied, with a shrug and a slight sideways jerk of the head. “Wallis c’n handle this end, we’ll need somebody listenin’ . . . ” She prodded a recumbent figure with a toe. “Hey, skinny, arse to the saddle, ready to paddle.”
There was a slight, rueful smile on her face as she turned away to check her weapons and strap an extra waterproof cover on the portable set. And someone has to look after you, hey?
Einar Labushange’s tetrarchy had drawn the ready-reaction straw that night; most of them had been sleeping with their boots on, in a cellar with a ladder to the surface. Several rolled out of their blankets as he ducked into the cellar, assault rifles ready even before full consciousness. The tetrarchy commander smiled without humor; there were merits to sleeping with your rifle, but he hoped nobody was doing it with the safety off and the selector on full-auto.
“On your feet, gun-bunnies!” The rest woke with a minimum of grumbling, shrugging into their equipment, handing around cups from the coffee urn one of them had prepared and using it to wash down caffeine pills and the inevitable ration bars and choko, sweet chocolate with nuts for quick high energy. Being a paratrooper was less comfortable than being in a line unit. Most Citizen Force units had attached serf auxiliaries who handled maintenance and support tasks; the air-assault troops had to do for themselves in the field, but nobody grudged taking their turn. A half-second slowness from lowered blood sugar could kill, and a body needed care to perform at full stretch.
“Right, shitcan the 15,” Einar said, and the team with the heavy machine gun gratefully let it drop back onto the tripod they had been preparing to disassemble. The soldiers were shadows in the dim gleam of a looted kerosene lamp; the light of the flame was soft, blurring through dusty air full of the muffled metallic clicks and snaps of gear being readied. “Just one of the rocket guns; other team, hump in the mortar. Oh, and this-here is goin’ to be close-in work, just us and some satchelmen from Marie’s bunch; black up.” The soldiers broke out their sticks of greasepaint.
He turned as Eric ducked through the hole in the wall. With him were five of the combat engineers, the Circassian, his signaler and the two sticks of rifle infantry from the HQ tetrarchy. The dripping form of Monitor Huff followed, moving over to rejoin her lochos.
“Also, it rainin’,” he added, breaking out his slicker and turning it out to the dark-mottled interior: better camouflage at night than the dirt-and-vegetation side. There was a chorus of groans.
Eric threw up a hand and grinned. “Nice to know y’all happy to see me,” he said dryly. “Gather round.” McWhirter stepped through the ragged “door” and spoke.
“Go with Cohort. Got a good map ref—good enough for a blind shoot.”
The Centurion nodded without turning, crouching and spreading a map on the floor. The helmeted heads leaned around, some sitting or kneeling so that the others could see; there were thirty-three troopers in a Draka tetrarchy at full strength, and 2nd tetrarchy had only had three dead and five too hurt to fight. Eric pulled the L-shaped flashlight from his webbing belt, and the fighting knife from his boot to use as a pointer. “Right. Our trusty native guide—” He pointed back over his shoulder with the knife, glanced back and saw the man shivering, then switched briefly to Circassian: “There is coffee and food in the corner; take it, I need you walking.”
“Our trusty native guide informs me that he heard vehicles. And Fritz voices.” The knife moved. “Here. See, this valley we’re in is shaped like a V down to here. Then it turns right, to the east, and opens out into rolling hill country. Foothills.” The point stabbed down. “Right here, right where the valley and road turn east, is a big hill, more like a small mountain, with low saddles on either side. The road goes east, then loops back west through this valley—and it passes only two klicks north of the big hill, the loop’s like a U on its side with the open end pointing west, so. And that”—his knife pointed at the large hill—“is where Ali Baba here heard the Fritz trucks.”
“Another attack up the valley?”
Eric shook his head. “On a narrow road, over uncleared minefields, in the dark? Besides, they were transport, not fighting vehicles, stopping and disembarking troops.” The blade moved again, tracing a path around the shoulder of the hill, then south up the west side of the valley to the mountainside where the paratroops had landed. “That’s the way they’re going to come, and on foot. The natives say this side of the valley is easier: lower slope, more trails, some of which the Fritz will know since they’ve been here six months. Then they’ll either try to take us from the rear, or wait until their armor arrives tomorrow morning.”
“How many, sir?”
Eric shrugged. “No telling; all they can scrape up, if their commander is as smart as I think. There was a regimental kampgruppe, about four cohorts’ equivalent, down in Pyatigorsk. The Air Corps reported hitting ’em hard—”
“Probably meanin’ they pissed on ’em from a great height,” someone muttered. Eric frowned at the interruption.
“—and they’ve been hit since, besides which we’ve been dropping butterfly mines. Probably lost more vehicles than men.” He shrugged. “Anything up to a cohort of infantry, call it four hundred rifles and supporting weapons. It’s”—he looked at his watch—“0245, they jumped off at about 0200, they’re ‘turtles’ so, moving on unfamiliar trails in the dark, they’re less than a klick into the forest by now. Woods and scrub all the way . . . ”
He looked up, face grim. “They’re counting on us not knowing the lie of the land. We have guides who do, better than the Fritz. That’s worse than Congo jungle out there; so we go straight down the road, then deke left into the woods and onto the trails. We’ll split up into sections and sticks, lie up, hit, run, hit them again, then it’s ‘mind in gear, arse to rear.’ ”
“Sir?” That was one of the troopers at the back, a gangling, freckled young man with his hands looped up to dangle casually over the light machine gun lying across his neck and shoulders. “Ah . . . this means, you saying, that we’re goin’ out on account of these Fritz?” Eric nodded, and the soldier grinned beatifically.
“Brothers an’ Sisters of the Race!” he cried in mock ecstasy. “These are great times. Do you realize what this means?” He paused for effect. “For once—just like we always dreamed in Basic—just this one time in our young nearly-maggot-recruit lives, bros, we gets a chance to kill the sumbitch donkeyfuckahs that’re roustin’ us out of bed in the middle of the fuckin’ night!”
The voices of the tetrarchy lifted, something halfway between laughter and a baying cheer. Eric waved his followers to silence, fighting to keep down his own smile; fighting a sudden unexpected prickling in the eyes as well. These were no unblooded amateurs; they knew the sort of blindfolded butchery he was leading them into, and trusted that it was necessary, trusted him to get as many out as could be . . . and god damn but nobody could say the Draka were cowards, whatever their other vices!
Behind him, Senior Decurion McWhirter stroked the ceramic honing stick one last time down the edge of his Jamieson semibowie and then slid it back into the hilt-down quick-draw sheath on his left shoulder. He remembered cheers like that . . . long ago. So long ago, with his friends. Where were his friends? Where . . . He jerked his mind from the train of thought; he was good at turning his mind away from things. Sometimes it squirmed in his grasp, like a throat or a woman, and he had to squeeze tighter. Someday he would squeeze too tight and kill it, and then . . . think about something else. The Centurion was talking.
Eric jerked his thumb southwards. “Look, no speeches, I’m not going to quote that woo-woo Naldorssen at you. The rest of the Legion and our Eagle are up there across the pass, holding off ten times their number; there is a world of hurt coming down there, people. We’ve gotten off lucky because most of the Liebstandarte are south of the mountains, and Century A’s given them a bloody nose cheap twice, because we caught them on the hop—well, what’re the Airborne for? Tomorrow they’ll hit us with everything and keep coming; think how we’d do it if it was our friends trapped behind this pass, eh? These aren’t Draka, but they aren’t gutless woppos or brainless Abduls, either. They’re trying to flank us tonight; if it works we’re sausage meat and the rest of our Legion gets it from behind. Hurt them, people; hurt them bad, it’s our last chance before the crunch. Then come back walking. Bare is back without brother to guard it.”
He nodded to Einar. “Now let’s do it, let’s go.”
The tetrarchy commander hesitated a moment on the pole ladder. “Yo realize, sir, it’s not really needful to have the Century commander along. Or, ah, maybe we could make it a two-tetrarchy operation?”
Eric smiled and signed him onward. “You’re from Windhaven, eh, Einar?” The other man nodded, seized by a sudden fierce nostalgia for the bleak desert country south of Angola: silver-colored grass, hot wind off sandstone pinnacles, dawn turned rose-red . . .
The Centurion continued: “You’ve trained in forest; I grew up in wet mountains covered with trees. Never sacrifice an edge . . . we’re taking one tetrarchy because if we lose it, the village can still hold out long enough to make a difference. Two, and there wouldn’t be enough of us here left to slow them even an hour come dawn, and it’s hours that’ll count. This is a delaying operation, after all. Now, let’s go.”
Unnoticed in his corner, the Circassian had started and paused for a second in the process of stuffing the undreamed-of luxury of chocolate into his mouth. Stopped and shivered at the sound of the cheer, swallowing dryly. That reminded him, and he swigged down half a mugful of scalding-hot coffee before taking another bite of the bar. These Drakanski were fierce ones, that was certain. Good; then they could protect what they had taken. He expected masters to be fierce, to take the land and the girls and swing the knout on any who opposed them, but it was not often that a hokotl, a peasant, had the opportunity to eat like a Party man.
Urra Drakanski, he thought, stuffing bars of chocolate into the pockets of the fine rainproof cape he had been given, and hefting the almost-new Germanski rifle. Powerful masters for all that their women were shameless, masters who would feed a useful servant well: better than the Russki, who had been bad in the White Tzar’s time and worse under the Bolsheviki, who beat and starved you and made you listen to their godless and senseless speeches as well. The Germanski . . . He grinned as he followed the new lords of Circassia up the rough ladder, conscious of the rifle and the sharp two-edged kindjal strapped to his thigh. It would be a pleasure to meet the Germanski again.
The cold rain beat steadily on the windscreen of the Opel three-ton truck, drumming on the roof and the canvas cover of the troop compartment behind. Standartenführer Felix Hoth braced himself in the swaying cab and folded the map; the shielded light was too dim for good vision anyway. For a moment he could imagine himself back in the kitchen of his father’s farm in Silesia: on leave last month, with his younger sister sitting in his lap and the neighbors gathered around, eating Mutti’s strudel at the table by the fire while sleet hissed against the windows. His bride-to-be playing with one of her blonde braids as he described the rich estates in the Kuban Valley that would be granted after the war. Vati had leaned back in the big chair with his pipe, beaming with pride at his officer son, he who had been a lowly feldwebel through the Great War . . .
I could never tell them anything, he thought. How could he talk to civilians about Russia? Reichsführer Himmler was right: those who bore the burden of cleansing the Aryan race’s futurelebensraum bore a heavy burden, one that their families at home could not hope to understand.
Enough. I defend them now. If Germany was defeated, his family would be serf plantation hands. Or—he had been in Paris in 1940, doing some of the roistering expected of a soldier on leave. One of the Maisons Tolerees had had a collection of Draka pornography; it was a minor export of the Domination, which had no morals censorship to speak of. He felt his mind forming images, placing his fiancée Ingeborg’s face on the bodies of the serf girls in the glossy pictures; of his sister Rosa naked on an auction block in Rhakotis or Shahnapur, weeping and trying to cover herself with her hands. Or splayed open under a huge Negro Janissary, black buttocks pumping in rhythm to her screams . . .
He opened the window and the lever broke under his hand; cold wet wind slapped his face with an icewater hand that lashed his mind back to alertness. The convoy was travelling barely faster than a man could run, with the vehicles’ headlights blacked out except for a narrow strip along the bottom. Thirty trucks, four hundred panzergrenadiers, half his infantry, but he had left the tracked carriers behind. Too noisy for this work, and besides that they ate petrol. The supply situation was serious and getting worse: Draka aircraft were ranging as far north as the Kuban, meeting weakening resistance from a Luftwaffe whose fighters had to work from bases outside their enemy’s operational range. The oil fields at Maikop were still burning, and the Domination’s armor had taken Baku in the first rush . . .
It can still come right. Despite his losses so far, shocking as they were; if he could get this force up on the flank, they could carry the village in one rush at first light. It would be a difficult march in the dark, but his men were fresh, and as for the Draka . . . they had no mechanical transport, no way to get down from the village in time even if they knew of the attack, which was unlikely in this night of black rain. He turned his head to look behind. There was little noise: the low whirring of fans ramming air into the steam engines’ flash-tube boilers, the slow shuusss of hard-tired wheels through the muddy surface of the road; all were drowned in the drumming of rain on the trees and wet fields. Not very much to see, either, no moon and dense overcast.
I can’t even see the ground, he thought. Good. Not that it was at all likely the Draka would have any sentries here; it was ten kilometers to Village One, in a straight line. It was tangled ground, mostly heavily wooded, and the invaders were strangers here, while the Liebstandarte had been stationed in the area since the collapse of Soviet resistance in Caucasia back in November of ’41.
The armor and self-propelled artillery would be moving up later, now that they had paths cleared through those damnable air-sown plastic mines. Everybody would be with them, down to the clerks and bottle washers, everybody who could carry a rifle, with only the communications personnel and walking wounded left in Pyatigorsk. Everything would be in place by dawn.
“It should be…” he muttered, risking a quick flick of his light. “Yes, that’s it.” A ruined building—the Ivans had put up a stand there last year. Nothing much, no heavy weapons; they had simply driven a tank through the thin walls. A suitable clearing; and the trail over the mountain’s shoulder started here. He twisted to thrust his arm past the tilt-covered cab of the truck and blinked the light three times.
The paratroop boots hit the pavement with a steady ruck-ruck-ruck as 2nd Tetrarchy ran through the steady downpour of rain. It was flat black, clouds and falling water cutting off any ambient light—dark enough that a hand was barely a whitish blur held before the eyes, invisible at arm’s length. Equipment rustled and clinked as the Draka moved in their steady tireless lope, rain capes flapping; Eric heard someone stumble, then recover with a curse: “Shitfire, it dark as Loki’s asshole!”
“Shut the fuck up,” an NCO hissed.
The tetrarchy was running down the road in a column four abreast, spaced so that each trooper could guide himself by the comrades on either side, with the outside rank holding to the verge of the crushed-rock surface. There was a knockdown handcart at the rear, with extra ammunition and their two native guides, who had collapsed after the first three kilometers; they were hunters who had lived hard, but their bodies were weakened by bad food and they had never had the careful training in breathing discipline and economical movement that the Citizen class of the Domination received. It was hard work running in the dark; moving blind made the muscles tense in subconscious anticipation, waiting to run into something. The ponchos kept out the worst of the rain, but their legs were slick with thin mud cast up from the rutted surface of the road, and bodies sweated under the waterproof fabric until webbing and uniforms clung and chafed; they were carrying twenty kilos of equipment each, as well. Nothing unbearable, since cross-country running in packs had been a daily routine from childhood and the paratroops were picked troops unusually fit even for Draka.
“Lord . . . lord . . . ” one of the Circassians wheezed. Eric whistled softly and the tetrarchy halted with only one or two thumps and muffled oofs proclaiming collision. The native rolled off the cart, coughed, retched, then wormed through to the Draka commander.
The Centurion crouched and a circle of troopers gathered, their cloaked forms making a downward-pointing light invisible. The sound of his soldiers’ breathing was all around him, and the honest smell of their sweat; they had covered the ten klicks of road faster than horse cavalry could have, in a cold and damp that drained strength and heart—after a day with a paradrop, street combat, hours of the hardest sort of labor digging in, then another battle and barely four hours’ sleep. Now there would be more ground to travel, narrow trails through unfamiliar bush, with close-quarter fighting at the end of it . . . only Draka could have done it at all, and even they would be at less than their best. Well, this was war, not a field problem in training. The enemy had been rousted out of bed, too, but they had spent the trip from their base in dry comfort in their trucks; not fair, but that was war, too.
He rested on one knee, breath deep but slow, half regretful that the run was over. You could switch off your mind, running; do nothing but concentrate on muscle and lung and the next step . . .
“Here,” the panting local said. “Trail—” he coughed rackingly. “Trail here.”
White Christ and Heimdal alone knows how he can tell, Eric thought. Years of poaching and smuggling, no doubt. He shone the light on his watch, estimated speed and distance, and fitted them over a map in his mind. Yes, this would be where the road turned east.
“Einar. Straight west, split up and cover the trails. If they’re moving troops in any number, they’ll probably use all three. Everybody: do not get lost in the dark, but if you do, head upslopeand wait for light if the Fritz are between you and the road. Otherwise back to the road and burn boot up to the village.”
The lanky tetrarch shrugged, a troll shape in the darkness. “No wrinkles, we’ll kill ’em by the shitload and send ’em back screamin’ fo’ their mommas.” To his troops: “Lochoi A an’ B with me, and the mortar. Huff, you take C an’ the rocket gun. Hughes, run D up to that little trail on th’ ridge. Go.”
The troopers sorted themselves into sections and moved off the road, the Circassians in the lead, an occasional watery gleam of light from a flashlight: nobody could be expected to walk over scrub and rock-strewn fields in this. Rain hid them quickly, and the woods would begin soon after that. Dense woods, with thick undergrowth.
Eric waited by the side of the road as the columns filed past, not speaking, simply standing present while they passed, dim bulks in the chill darkness; a few raised a hand to slap palms as they went by, or touched his shoulder. He replied in kind, with the odd word of the sort they would understand and appreciate, the terse cool slang of their trade and generation: “Stay loose, snake.” “Stay healthy for the next war.”
The gods would weep, he thought. If they didn’t laugh. The only time they could be themselves among themselves, show their human faces to each other, was when they were engaged in slaughter. The Army, especially a combat unit up at the sharp end, was the only place a Draka could experience a society without serf or master; where rank was a functional thing devoted to a common purpose; where cooperation based on trust replaced coercion and fear. And how we shine, then, he thought. Why couldn’t that courage and unselfish devotion be put to some use,instead of being set to digging them deeper into the trap history and their ancestors had landed them in?
At the last, he turned to the command tetrarchy and the satchelmen from the combat engineers.
“Follow me,” he said.
Felix Hoth watched the last of his grenadiers vanish into the blackness. This close to the trees the rain was louder, a hissing surf-roar of white noise on a million million leaves, static that covered every sound. The trails would be tunnels through the living mass of vegetation, cramped and awkward—like the tunnels under Moscow. Blackness like cloth on his eyeballs, crawling on knees and elbows through the filthy water, a rope trailing from his waist and a pistol on a lanyard around his neck . . . He jerked his mind back from the image, consciously forcing his breath to slow from its panting, forcing down the overwhelming longing for a drink that accompanied the dreams. Daydreams, sometimes, the mind returning to them as the tongue would obsessively probe a ragged tooth, until it was swollen and sore. But Moscow, that was more than six months gone, and the men who had fought him were dead. He would kill the dreams, as he had killed them—shot, suffocated, gassed, or burned in the sewers and subways of the Russian capital. This battle would be fought in the open, as God had meant men to fight.
And this time he would win. The troops he had sent into the woods were heavily burdened, but they were young and fit; they would be in place on the slopes overlooking Village One by dawn, plentifully equipped with mortars and automatic weapons, and the best of his snipers with scope-sighted rifles. The Draka in the village would be pinned down, there were simply notenough of them to hold a longer perimeter. The other pass, the Georgian Military Highway, was nearly clear. He had had radio contact with the units over the mountains. They were pressing the Draka paratroops back through the burning ruins of Kutasi; they were taking monstrous casualties, but inflicting hurts, too, on an enemy cut off from reinforcement. The Janissaries were at their rear, but once in the narrow approaches over the mountains, they could hold the Draka forever. Perhaps negotiate a peace; the Domination was known to be cold-bloodedly realistic about cutting its losses.
The trucks had laagered in the clearing, engines silent. The air smelled overwhelmingly of wet earth, a yeasty odor that overrode burnt fuel and metal. Only the drivers remained, mostly huddled in their cabs, a platoon of infantry beneath the vehicles for guards, and the radio operator. The bulk of the regiment would be here in a few hours; pause here to regroup and refuel, then deploy for action. Wehrmacht units were following, hampered by the hammering the road and rail nets were taking, but force-marching nonetheless. He would roll over Village One, and they would stop the Draka serpent.
“We must,” he muttered.
“Sir?” That was his regimental chief of staff, Schmidt.
“We must win,” Hoth replied. “If we don’t, our cities will burn, and our books. A hundred years from now, German will be a tongue for slaves; only scholars will read it—Draka scholars.”
“I wonder . . . ”
“What?” The SS commander turned his light so that the other’s face was visible; the wavering gray light through the wet glass of the torch made it ghastly, but the black circles under the eyes were genuine. There had been little sleep for Schmidt these past twenty hours: too much work, and far too much thought.
“Wonder about Poles having this conversation in 1939, or Russians last year,” Schmidt said, exhaustion bringing out the slurred Alsatian vowels. “They had to hold, everything depended on it. But they didn’t hold.”
“They were our racial inferiors! The Draka are Aryans like us; that is why they are a threat! The Leader himself has said so.”
Schmidt looked at him with an odd smile. “The Draka aristocrats are Nordic, yes, Herr Standartenführer. But they are a thin layer; most of the Domination’s people are Africans or Asians. Most even of their soldiers and bureaucrats, at the everyday level: blacks, mulattoes, Eastern Jews, Arab Semites, Turks, Chinese. A real schwarm. Would that not be an irony? We National Socialists set out to cleanse Europe of juden and slavs and gypsies, and it ends with the home of the white race being ruled and mongrelized by chinks and kikes and Congo savages—” He laughed, an unpleasant, reedy sound.
“Silence!” Hoth snapped. The other man drew himself up, his eyes losing their glaze. “Schmidt, you have been a comrade in arms, and are under great stress; I will therefore forget this . . . defeatist obscenity. Once! Once more, and I will myself report you to the Security Service!”
Schmidt swallowed and rubbed his hands across his face, turning away. Hoth forced himself back to calm; he would need a clear head.
And after all the man’s from Alsace—he’s an intellectual, and a Catholic, he thought excusingly. A good fighting soldier, but the long spell of antipartisan work had shaken him, the unpleasant demands of translating Party theory into practice. Combat would bring him back to himself.
He swung back into the radio truck and laced the panel to the outside, clicking on the light. This was going to be tricky; it was all a matter of time.
This is going to be tricky timing, Eric thought as they reached the edge of the clearing. Even trickier than threading their way through the nighted bush; they had followed the Circassian blindly, had dodged aside barely in time and lain motionless in a thicket of witch hazel as a long file of Germans went past. One of them had slipped and staggered; Eric had felt more than seen the boot come down within centimeters of his outstretched hand. He heard a muttered “Scheisse” as the SS man paused to resettle his clanking load of mortar-tripod, then nothing but the rain and fading boots sucking free of wet leaf mold. He felt his face throb at the memory of it, like a warm wind; the rich sweet smell of the crushed brush was still with him. Extreme fear was like pain: it fixed memory forever, made the moment instantly accessible to total recall . . .
The native hunter crept up beside him and put his mouth to the Draka’s ear; even then Eric wrinkled his nose slightly at the stink of rotten teeth and bad digestion.
“Here, lord.” His pointing arm brushed the side of Eric’s helmet, and he spoke in a breathy whisper. Probably not needful, the rain covered and muffled sound, but no sense in taking chances. “The road is no more than five hundred meters that way. Shall I go first?”
“No,” Eric said, unfastening the clasp of his rain cloak and sliding it to the ground. “You stay here, we’ll need you to guide us back. In a hurry! Be ready.”
And besides, it isn’t your fight. Except that the Draka would let his people live and eat, if they obeyed. He brought the Holbars forward and jacked the slide, easing it through the forward-and-back motion that chambered the first round rather than letting the spring drive it home with the usual loud chunk. Safety or no safety, he was not going to walk through unfamiliar woods in the dark with one up the spout . . . Soft clack-clicks told of others doing likewise.
Eric’s mouth was dry. How absurd, he thought. His uniform was heavy with water, mud and leaves plastered on his chest and belly, and his mouth was dry.
A brief glimpse of yellow light from downslope to the north. Sofie slapped his ankle; he reached back to touch acknowledgment, and their hands met, touched and clasped. Her hand was small but firm. She gave his hand a brief squeeze that he found himself returning, smiling in the dark.
“Stay tight, Sofie,” he whispered.
“You too, Eri—sir,” she answered.
“Eric’s fine, Sofie,” he answered. “This isn’t the British army.” Slightly louder, coming to his feet: “Ready.”
He crouched, eyes probing blindly at the darkness. Still too dark to see, but he could sense the absence of the forest canopy above; it was like walking out of a room. And the rain was individual drops, not the dense spattering that came through the leaf cover. Ripping and fumbling sounds, the satchelmen getting out their charges. Why am I here? he thought. I’m a commander, doing goddamn pointman’s work. I could be back in the bunker, having a coffee and watching Sofie paint her toenails. His lips shaped a whistle, and the Draka started forward at a crouching walk. Their feet skimmed the earth, knees bent, ankles loose, using the soles of their feet to detect terrain irregularities.
Nobody’s indispensable, another part of his mind answered. His belly tightened, and his testicles tried to draw themselves up in a futile gesture of protection against the hammering fire some layer of his mind expected. Marie can handle a fixed-front action as well as you can. And you’ve been expecting to die in battle for a long time now.
But he didn’t want to, the White Christ be his witness.
Eric’s step faltered; he recovered, with an expression of stunned amazement that the darkness thankfully covered. He grunted, as if a fist had driven into his belly.
I don’t, I truly don’t, he thought with wonder. Then, with savage intensity: There are hundreds within a kilometer who don’t want to either. He was acutely conscious of Sofie following to his right. You still can, and everyone with you. Careful!