And Seven for a Secret
If you are reading this then I am dead, and with my death dies a promise I made a long, long time ago... When Ben Haldane is left a cryptic note in his grandfather's will, it leads him to a story far stranger than he could ever have imagined.
Notes: I've never really tried writing a single very long story before, so I'm quite impressed that I managed to finish this, and (almost) to a deadline at that! Many thanks to Mimarie for betaing right up to the last minute, and to Kylen and Kris for cheerleading and frequent demands to know what happened next!
Three for a girl, Four for a boy,
Five for silver, Six for gold,
And Seven for a secret never to be told.
- traditional British nursery rhyme
It felt strange, after, walking back out into the world once more and knowing that there was nothing more to be done. The past weeks had brought grief and tears and numb acceptance, the mourning and the celebration of a life lived long and well. There had been so much to do, so many people to contact, so many memories to share, so much paperwork to process, and now....
"So that's that, then."
"Guess so." Ben Haldane pushed his hands into his pockets and frowned at the grey bustle of a windswept London afternoon, at the red buses and black cabs and all the oblivious passers-by who had little interest in the pair standing by the nondescript door with its chipped gold lettering and even less awareness of the office above. Two pigeons and a magpie pecked at the scattered remains of a kebab, hopping quickly out of the way of a free paper distributor and his trolley before returning to their kerbside feast. "All divvied up and passed along...."
"Just how he wanted it Grandda' always did know how to look after his family." Rebecca Richards sighed and slipped a comforting arm around her brother's shoulders. "You miss him, don't you?"
"Yeah," Ben admitted with a sad smile, watching an empty crisp packet skip along the pavement, a bright flash of colour against the concrete slabs. "I mean, he was always just "
"Always just there when you needed him. I know." Rebecca gave him a squeeze. "You always were his favourite." She glanced back and stepped aside as the solicitor's door swung open and their elderly aunt pushed past, pausing only to throw them a poisonous glare before clambering into a taxi. "My," Rebecca said dryly, "do you think Auntie Millie is annoyed we got the big house and she didn't?"
"Be fair, Becky." Ben winced as the car door slammed shut and shook his head, wishing that this could have been done without further upset. "She grew up there and she is the eldest."
"Exactly!" Rebecca was unrepentant. "She grew up there time someone else got the chance to do the same! Me and Brian have been looking for a bigger place, what with number four on the way, and all." She patted her seven-month bump fondly and brushed wind-blown hair back from her face. "The girls are going to whine about exams and leaving their friends behind, of course, but the schools out Aylesbury way are meant to be really good and we'd never be able to afford anywhere that big otherwise. It'll be good to get out of town a bit, as well all this pollution and the congestion charge and all, never mind the council tax and the local chavs yelling their heads off at two in the morning. And there's really just too much weird shit happening in London these days, what with all the giant flying rocks and tin ghosts and psychotic pepperpots and god alone knows what else. And yeah," she added, almost as an afterthought, "I mean, I know it's half yours, but you don't have kids and, you know, there are enough bedrooms in there that you could have it as a sort of home from home, maybe put in an office. We'd love to see a bit more of you you've almost been a stranger since, well...."
"I know," Ben said softly, then smiled at his sister's enthusiasm for their inheritance. "You need the house more than I do, Becks."
"Too right I do you've got your fancy flat in Shoreditch, all bought and paid for; we've just got a tiny two-bedroom terrace in the arse end of Streatham and the mortgage from hell." She nodded acknowledgement as more relatives made their way out into the blustery day. "Anyway, you got... oh, come on, Ben, aren't you going to open it?"
"No, not here... no." Ben's hand went to the sealed envelope now tucked safely away in the inside pocket of his jacket. One stiff corner poked at his collarbone through his shirt and he reached into his coat to adjust it, the thick paper smooth against his fingers. "I'm sorry, Becks."
"Where, then?" She nudged him with her shoulder. "C'mon, big brother I'm dying to find out what's in there!"
"I " Ben shook his head, feeling suddenly possessive of this one last fragment of his grandfather's life, left for him and him alone. "No. Sorry. You heard what Mr Cartwright said up there, what was in the will. It's for my eyes only. I can't exactly go against Grandda's last wish, now can I?"
"Ben!" Rebecca pouted like the child she had once been, back when they had spent their long summer holidays out in Buckinghamshire with their grandparents. "What would he say to you that he couldn't to me, anyway?"
"I don't know." He shrugged. "Obviously he thought there was something."
Rebecca didn't look convinced, but then their mother emerged, dabbing at her eyes and clinging to her eldest brother, Frank, and they were swept into the arms of family once more, into another round of tears and reminiscence, a final chance to mourn. And throughout it all, Ben was acutely aware of the envelope and its unknown contents, a missive from the dead left in his keeping for reasons he couldn't even begin to fathom.
Three days later, Ben set his glass of wine on the coffee table and settled onto the couch, folding his bare feet beneath him. The April rains rattled hard against the windows, momentarily drowning out the quiet growl of traffic in the street below, but the double-glazing and the heavy curtains kept the world at bay, an illusion of distance that Ben was, in that moment, infinitely grateful for.
The letter sat on the table, propped against the wine bottle, next to a photograph of a childhood holiday in Jamaica: him and Becky grinning at the camera with their cousins, the pair of them looking as pale amongst their father's family as they did dark amongst their mother's. Beyond that happy scene sat another framed photo, this time of Ben and another man, tall and blonde and handsome, arms about each other's waists as they laughed and raised champagne glasses to the camera....
Ben sighed and ran his hands down over his face, feeling the scratch of stubble against his palms. It had been more than two years now since he had lost Colin to whatever madness had happened in Docklands, his bank's offices over-run by the same metal monstrosities that had devastated the rest of the peninsular. The flat still felt oddly empty without him, even after so long. There had been no last words there, no carefully prepared goodbyes, just the shock of sudden loss and a seemingly endless battle with their insurance company and Colin's grieving parents. It had taken months to get DNA confirmation of his death, and if it hadn't been for his grandfather and the ever-efficient Cartwright and Sons, he could have lost far more than
He shook his head, dismissing the memories as he had so many times before. Life was a fragile thing, too easily gone in a moment, but his grandfather had been old, almost ninety, and there had been little unexpected about his passing. It was different this time, neater, easier to accept, and if there was an odd comfort in the mystery, a sense that the old man was still alive so long as there was this one last thing left to be revealed, the not knowing didn't really change anything.
Losing Colin had been like losing a limb, but this... this he could handle. All he had to do was lift the envelope and open it, discover what secrets might be hidden within its stiff white confines.
He had to open it. He owed his grandfather that much.
Ben reached for the wineglass, drained it in one long swallow, then snatched the envelope up before his nerve gave out. He hadn't been able to find the paperknife, so the open blade of the long kitchen scissors had to suffice, slid under the edge of the envelope and pulled sharply up to reveal the last of his grandfather's secrets. There was a single neatly folded sheet of A4 paper within, one side bearing the words "FOR BEN" in familiar, spidery writing. Setting the scissors aside, Ben took a deep breath, unfolded the letter and began to read.
17th September 2006
My dearest Ben,
It still seems very strange to be writing a letter that will only be read after my death, but I suppose I should make sure I'm getting full value out of my solicitors. As I write, you are still in the throes of bereavement for a much-beloved partner and I feel for you so much I remember losing my Agnes so very keenly and it can only be all the more painful to lose someone so young. With these reminders of mortality comes the realisation that precious few of us will live forever, and that some things must be said before it is too late. I cannot doubt that you know that far better than you might wish to.
I cannot know how much time will pass before you see this but, as you read this note from the past, I hope that you are well and that you have found your way again. And, selfish though it may be, I hope that my passing was peaceful. I had a good life, full of love and laughter, and far longer than I would have thought possible given some of the things that befell me in my younger years don't waste your energy in mourning me when you still have so much more living to do yourself.
If Mr Cartwright has done his job, you now know how I have divided my estate. The old house is for you and your sister to use as you see fit and knowing our dear Becky, she's already planning how best to fit her squabbling brood in. Make sure she remembers that it is still half yours and gives you some rent!
There is one final thing that is for you and you alone. Look in the Dragon's Nest and you will find it.
Ben read through the letter twice more, blinking through his tears. "More later"? And the Dragon's Nest... god, he hadn't thought about the Dragon's Nest in years....
It looked as though his grandfather might still have some secrets to tell, after all.
The farmhouse lay in the Buckinghamshire countryside, at the edge of a small village just outside Aylesbury; close enough for easy access to shops and schools, but isolated enough to give a real sense of privacy. Parking his car in the driveway, Ben gazed up at the old house, momentarily feeling like the small child he had once been. Purchased just after the War, when his grandfather had come into some money, the building had been extensively reworked and refitted and added to over the years Bert Fletcher, for all his age, had never been afraid of the modern world and its comforts and had a large, walled garden that held many fond childhood memories. It was likely worth a small fortune, even in these troubled economic times, yet neither he nor Becky had considered selling it for a moment; it was too much a part of who they were.
There was an emptiness to the place now, however, that was painfully unfamiliar, as if the building itself was mourning its lost owner. Much of the furniture and other antiques were already gone, carried away as various relatives emerged from the woodwork to claim their inheritance, making way for the spoils of the assault that Becky was no doubt already planning on the nearest IKEA. Ben smiled at a little at that thought his sister and her growing family would soon fill the spaces that their grandfather had left, bringing a new generation to the house. There was a future here as well as a past; it was only in this brief span of the present that grief held any power.
And that, of course, was only as it should be.
He left his small suitcase and his bag of groceries in the kitchen and wandered through the rooms, smiling to himself at the memories each contained, of endless summers and the occasional Christmas, of exploring all the various nooks and crannies that were so boringly absent from the housing estate he'd more usually called home. But, for all the joyful reminiscences to be found within the walls of this place, in the end he could put it off no longer. Taking a deep breath, Ben let the final words of his grandfather's letter lead him out into the greenery beyond the back door.
With nobody to tend it, the garden had become more than a little scruffy and unkempt around the edges, but the fresh growth of spring lent it a glorious flush of colour and scent and life that took Ben right back to his youth. Birds sang in the trees, loudly proclaiming their territories, and fat insects buzzed lazily past him, apparently unconcerned by this invader in their domain. Something small and brown skittered away through the ivy stems as he reached the back wall, a vole or fieldmouse diving for cover, vanishing into the shadows as he reached up to brush leaves aside, feeling his way carefully along until he found a notch in the masonry, and just beyond that....
The Dragon's Nest was rather less remarkable than the name coined as it had been by a seven year old boy with a fertile imagination and a sizeable library of brightly illustrated books might suggest. In reality it was just a hole in the stonework of the tall garden wall, well-hidden behind a half-century of ivy, and any nests within belonged to nothing more spectacular or fiery than a rat or a robin. But it was at just the right height for hiding things from his little sister during the long summer holidays and he had delighted in secreting things away in its depths, even if he had had to get his grandfather's help to do so in his younger years. It wouldn't surprise him in the slightest if there was still a stray Weeble or Action Man lodged in there amidst the leaf litter....
The debris that filled the hole was damp to the touch, slick with mould, and Ben jerked his hand back as he felt something crawl, feather-light, across the back of his fingers. Gingerly reaching in again, he groped his way through layers of dead and decaying leaves until he suddenly touched something unmistakably artificial, the crumpled plastic cool against his skin. For a moment he thought that it might be a stray carrier bag, dragged in as nesting material by some enterprising rodent, but then he found the edge of what felt like packing tape, wrapped tight around something larger than he'd expected, something solid.
Something that had been quite thoroughly hidden from anyone who didn't know exactly where to look.
It took Ben several minutes to dislodge his inheritance from the wall, the awkward angles, rough stone and slick, slippery plastic making a fight of it. He finally staggered back from the torn ivy with the heavy package clutched to his chest, trying to ignore his skinned and bleeding knuckles and the half-rotted vegetation now sticking to his battered hands and clothes.
"Whatever you are," he muttered as he carried his prize back to the house, "you'd better be bloody worth it...."
A Stanley knife made short work of the outer coatings three layers of heavy-duty black bin liners wrapped in packing tape, an old towel, two more bin liners and what appeared to be a decorator's plastic dust sheet. Within this hermetically-sealed cocoon lay a large, rectangular metal tin, its lid printed with images of the chocolate-covered biscuits it had once contained, a matched pair of Tupperware sandwich boxes, and another sealed, white envelope addressed simply, "To Ben".
Sitting on the back step, wiping his hands on the shredded towel, Ben looked down at this collection of oddities and decided that what he really needed was a cup of tea. And a shower.
The hall clock had just chimed noon as Ben, freshly-showered and dressed in clean clothes, with half a box of elastoplasts stuck across his abused knuckles, sat down at the kitchen table with a mug of hot tea and a cheese sandwich. The biscuit tin and the Tupperware boxes were set to one side on precautionary sheets of paper towel, and the letter perhaps a fraction fatter than its predecessor and definitely a little more battered and bloodstained from its recovery sat expectantly before him. He stared at it as he ate, caught between curiosity and that uncomfortable sense of finality, the feeling all the more acute here, in the place that held most of his memories of his grandfather. But, as before, the letter was clearly intended to be read and, given the effort that old Bert had put into hiding his secrets away, it was only fair that Ben find out what had driven him to such lengths.
Besides, he had shed blood over this particular mystery now. And if he was to get to the bottom of this before Becky and her brood arrived at the end of the week....
Pushing his plate to one side, Ben picked up the envelope and tore open the flap. There were several handwritten sheets of notepaper within, the familiar scrawl probably cipher enough against any not already familiar with it. Pulling them free, Ben swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat and lifted the first page.
28th August 2006
If you are reading this then I am dead and buried. I hope that I didn't suffer too much. This house is yours and Becky's now, in memory of all those happy summers when you two scamps made an old man feel young again. I hope that Becky's youngsters will be as happy here as you once were.
The house is for the two of you but this, dearest Benjamin, this is for you alone. Your sister is right you always were my favourite. Of all my grandchildren, you were the only one who always listened to my stories, who always wanted to know more, who always seemed interested in hearing what an old man had to say about times that were past long before you were even thought of. I told you things I don't think I ever told to anyone but my dear Agnes, but there was one story that I never told you, that I never told anyone, not even your Nana. I promised, you see promised I'd never breathe a word of it for as long as I lived.
Well, I've lived out my allotted span now and so, as you read this, I figure that I am free of that promise. It's all here, in the tin, and I won't blame you if you don't believe a blessed word of it. I barely believe a word of it myself, and I was there! But it's true, all of it, impossible as it might seem, and I beg your patience because I've always wanted, always needed to tell it to someone. It deserves to be told.
The old man always had been a storyteller. Ben smiled to himself and glanced towards the biscuit tin, wondering just what....
But no the tin and its contents could wait until later. Shaking his head, Ben turned back to the letter.
My life has been all that I could have asked, filled with good friends and a loving family. I have had a good many lucky breaks, and a few where a timely word from an old chum has put me onto the right track. This world has its horrors, but it also has its wonders and you must never, ever lose sight of that, my boy. There is more to this existence than you can even begin to imagine and, although I barely touched its boundaries, I know that there are those who tread paths that lead far beyond the edges of what we poor fools think of as real. They are our defenders, our sword and our shield, and although we may never know who they are, we owe them everything.
All of which is a rather roundabout way of saying that there was a time when I found myself a part of that world outside, albeit briefly. And it was real, so very, very real.
The memory of strange planets in the sky came unbidden to mind, along with that of the metal men who had destroyed so many lives. Yes, Ben thought bitterly to himself, he understood horrors and wonders and the too-jagged edges of reality all too well....
But enough of that. There is a beginning to my tale and that, of course, is where I must begin. You have always known that I was a soldier in my youth, when the war against Hitler and his armies engulfed us all. I never doubted my duty, painful though it was to leave my Agnes and your young aunt Millicent behind. Millie was just a babe in arms when I joined up and I hated the thought that I might never see her again, that she might never know me. But not so much as I hated the thought of her growing to womanhood in a Nazi world, so off I jolly well went to answer my country's call.
You know that I was there at the Normandy beaches with the Middlesex Regiment, caught up in all the blood and chaos of D-Day. You've heard me speak of the hard battle we faced to take Caen, of the fast advance north, of the constant supply problems. You've certainly heard my opinion of the damned bloody fool of an officer whose inability to read a map or take advice led to me and my mates ending up as prisoners of war. You know that I escaped and returned to my regiment and that I returned to my dear Agnes and Millie when at last it was all over.
However, I have never spoken of my brief time in captivity, nor of the details of my escape. Much as you all tried to hide it from me, I know that there has long been an assumption within the family that I suffered horrors at the hands of the Nazis, horrors that I felt no urge to re-live or relate. And in part those assumptions are true I saw things and did things in that time that I dearly wish I could scour from my mind, things that will stay with me until my dying day. But it was not the fear of memory that stayed my tongue after the war, but rather the promise I made to one of the finest men I ever met. He placed his trust in me, just as I did in him, and he has done damned well by me over these many years.
But now my years are done, and you, dear Benjamin, have a life still to live. I give this story to you as one last gift, one final look into my life, and as a reminder that no matter how terrible things may seem, there is always a way through them to a brighter, better place. Perhaps, by the time you read this, you will have already worked that much out for yourself. I hope so.
Ben felt his heart clench in his chest, remembering the mess he'd been in following Colin's loss, the grief and the sheer uncertainty he had suddenly been faced with, the need for answers of any variety. The world had been a dark place for him at the time his grandfather had penned these words and, while he had managed, more or less, to fight his way free, the sentiment still struck a chord. Swallowing hard, he continued reading.
The tin contains my tale, the plastic boxes items that, in one way or another, serve to remind me that it was all too real. What becomes of it all next is up to you forget it or burn it or sell it to the papers; it'll make as much sense as some of the nonsense they print these days. Have a care with it though, for strange though this may sound I suspect that I am not the only one to recall the events outlined within and I will not rest easy in my grave if you somehow put yourself in harm's way because of me.
And now, dearest Benny, the time has come to let my tale speak for itself. I will seal this envelope and hide it away with all of my secrets, and then, perhaps, I will call you to see how you are faring, knowing that one day in the future you will read these words that are now in my past. It feels strange, to have committed it all to paper after so very long, but with the completion of that act there has come a lightness that I had not expected to feel for I never truly felt it to be a burden.
I hope that your life is as long and as touched with love as mine has been. I hope that you find all that you need and love all that you find. And I hope that you will remember me and that my stories will not be forgotten in the way that such things so often are.
I hope that your future is all that you could wish for.
All my love,
Ben took a deep breath and ran his thumb slowly across his grandfather's name, feeling the prickle of fresh tears in his eyes. He tucked the last sheet back behind its fellows, spent a moment carefully aligning them all, then laid the letter to one side. "Okay," he murmured to himself, "let's see what we've got here...."
The first Tupperware box held a collection of Christmas cards of varying quality in both cardstock and artwork that looked to date back decades, some containing just a few words, others lengthy missives, and a few enclosing folded pieces of paper that no doubt outlined the sender's year. Flipping through a few at random, Ben quickly realised that the writing in most of the cards was in the same elegant copperplate, an almost impossibly neat hand that seemed to remain steady over the years whoever "Jack" had been, he must have won prizes for his calligraphy at school. There were a few postcards tucked in amongst the more seasonal greetings, along with a handful of more official looking letters, still in their opened envelopes. A single paper-and-plastic Remembrance Day poppy lay amongst the correspondence, a faded flash of colour that made Ben wonder what had become of the people whose letters had meant so much. It was hard not to imagine that his grandfather had been the last of them....
There were more poppies in the second box, some almost new, others clearly dating from before his birth. Scattered amongst them were parade ribbons, crested uniform buttons, cloth insignia patches of several designs, identity papers, ration books, an envelope filled with faded photographs all the minutiae of a war that had finished a good quarter-century before he had been born. His grandfather's medals, Ben knew, had been left to his eldest son, but everything else seemed to be here in a jumbled mass of history. The significance of some of the items was clear, but others coins, pieces of gravel, a small and somewhat battered plastic octopus were less obvious. Ben spent several minutes poking through the various strange treasures, then set the box aside. The answer to these tiny mysteries no doubt lay in the telling of the greater one.
The biscuit tin was heavy, its contents clearly weightier than the confectionery they had replaced. Beneath the printed metal lid and the inevitable layers of adhesive tape securing it in place Ben found an expanse of crumpled bubblewrap, and beneath that another layer of the protective plastic enclosing something more substantial. Lifting it from its container, Ben laid this block on the table and carefully unwrapped it to reveal what looked to be a near ream of A4 sheets, held in a neat stack by several half-perished rubber bands.
"For the eyes of Mr Benjamin Haldane only" was neatly centred on the top page, in blocky and familiar dot-matrix type that took Ben right back to his university years. He had given the old Amstrad PCW to his grandfather when he had finally upgraded to a proper computer, a gift donated in the hope that some of the stories that had so entertained him as a youngster might be finally committed to paper. He had never seen any evidence that the old man had taken the hint, but apparently he had put the machine to good use after all.
To very good use.
"Wow." Ben took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. So this was it, his grandfather's legacy in all its glory. It looked as though this might take some time, so he made himself a fresh pot of tea, carried the papers and the boxes through to the lounge, settled himself into his grandfather's favourite armchair, and began to read.
So, here we are, then. If you are reading this, Ben, then I am dead, and with my death dies a promise I made a long, long time ago. I would be lying if I said that I did not feel a little guilty as I sit here tapping at these little grey keys, but I want this tale to be told. I do not know, as I write, how long it will be before these words are read, nor if they will even be believed, but it deserves the telling before I am gone.
History is a strange thing they say that it is written by the victors, but even then there are some victories that are never spoken of for any number of reasons. They told us about Bletchley Park in the end, decades after its glories, but there were other clandestine units may well still be other clandestine units for all I know whose tales have never been told. And maybe that is for the best, and maybe it is not, but I am dead and gone and long past worrying. Please humour an old man in his parting wish.
The horrors of war are something that can never be truly understood by one who has not lived through them, who has not seen loved ones and comrades lost to battle or to the simple misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I write, you have just lost the man whom I have always considered your husband and so I know that you are better placed than most to appreciate this sentiment. I lost a sister to the Blitz, a brother to the Atlantic U-boats, and so many, many friends at the hands of the enemy. In recalling the events that I seek to relate to you here, I find myself revisiting those friends and comrades once more, some for the first time in decades. I find I had forgotten quite how much I missed them.
There were seven in our section when we went on patrol that night it all started, looking for suitable positions to set up the guns; eight including our fool of a Platoon Commander who took it into his head to see what was out there for himself rather than awaiting our report. They say that the most dangerous thing in the world is an officer with a map and so it proved. Almost before we knew it, we were being marched into captivity with our empty hands in the air, cursing his entire over-bred family line. Suddenly, our war looked over and all that we had to fall back on was each other.
Tom Kimber was our corporal, the man who was meant to be leading us that night. He was a butcher by training and by temperament too, well-suited to a machine gun unit, but he cared deeply for his men and we would have gladly followed him into hell. His lance-corporal was Gordon Howcroft, a thoughtful, quiet man who balanced Kimber well. Geoff Baverstock was older, pushing forty, taciturn and dependable, while young Bernie Traves was skittish and barely old enough to grow whiskers. Alfie Arnold was a crack shot, even using our beasts, and a smiler, always sunny in adversity. Made us quite want to smack him some days, it did!
And then there was me and Frank. I've told you about Frank Milton before, of course he is who your uncle, my eldest boy, was named for. Frank was my best mate, son of a London docker, as rough a diamond as you could ever meet and one of the best men I ever had the pleasure of knowing. He was the reason I never batted an eyelid when your mother first brought your father home, back in 1966 your grandmother near enough threw a blue fit the first time she met Errol, but he soon charmed her the way he did everyone, god rest his soul. Of course, there weren't that many black chaps about in Britain back in those days, and fewer still when Frank was alive, but he was proud to be British and proud to fight for his country.
And such a fight it was, Ben. I pray that you will never know the like.
In the weeks following the Normandy Invasion, France was a charnel house, with constant fighting changing the landscape and resetting the territorial boundaries by the hour. I could go into detail but you have heard those stories already. This tale is not about the greater battles recounted in textbooks and rewritten in film but rather concerns a smaller, fiercer fight played out on a battleground both small and yet infinitely vast. A smaller, fiercer fight that my mates and I suddenly found ourselves an unwitting and unwilling part of.
And at the forefront of that fight was Jack. If Frank Milton was the reason I never blinked at your mother's choice of man, then Captain Jack Harkness was the reason why I never blinked at yours. Of course, he didn't introduce himself by that name nor by that rank and, looking back on those desperate times through the long lens of years, I sometimes wonder if he wasn't a creature conjured entirely from his own imagination, a complex confection of lies concealing something far too dangerous for truth. But, more than anyone or anything, he is the reason why I am here to write this tale and you are here to read it, and for that I owe him everything.
And so, I suppose, it is with Jack or, rather, with 'Pete Favrell' that I must begin. It had been two days since Lieutenant Morrison-Bell's almighty navigational cock-up had left us with no choice but to surrender, and the reality of our situation was finally starting to hit home....
Private Bert Fletcher jerked out of disturbed and dreamless sleep to the piercing shriek of metal on metal, his heated, hard-edged world shuddering and swaying as the train ground to a halt. Groans and curses sounded around him and he winced as he shifted position, limbs cramped and stiff from the wooden floor protesting at the sudden movement. "Christ," he muttered, leaning back against slatted planks. "We still in here?"
"'Fraid so." Frank Milton said from beside him, his voice rough. "That whole 'wake up to find it was all a bad bloody dream' thing don't seem to be working for any of us."
"Fuck." Bert let his head fall back, feeling the prickle of splinters against his scalp. The cattle car they'd been herded into the previous evening had not been built for human comfort, though he supposed it was better than marching to wherever the hell it was they were headed. The bovine stench of former and apparently very recent occupants clung to every surface, permeating their mud-encrusted clothes and mingling with the more human scents of sweat and stale tobacco, and he had no idea where they were or where they were going, other than that it was in entirely the wrong fucking direction....
Wood creaked and groaned as the train settled into rest; somewhere just outside, boots crunched against gravel and a voice barked orders in guttural German. "Think we're there yet?" Bernie Traves asked quietly, his wide brown eyes and nervous lip-biting making him look younger than his eighteen years. "Do you think "
"Doubt it." Big Geoff Baverstock, old enough to be Bernie's father, snorted and pushed himself to his feet. "If we're lucky, they'll let us out to piss."
"If we're lucky, they'll give us something to fucking eat," Frank grumbled. "Geneva Convention and all that shit I'm starving!"
"They can do what they bloody well like," Tom Kimber said, stretching the kinks out of his spine. "Just be grateful we didn't have the sodding big Vickers gun with us when Lieutenant Cecil MB over there walked us right into the bloody middle of them they'd like as not have shot us on sight if they'd clapped eyes on that beauty."
Bert scowled at the truth of the corporal's words machine gunners were never popular with the enemy and threw a filthy look towards the man huddled miserably in the corner of the sweltering car. "Right. Grateful that we're stuck in some stinking cow wagon on the way to fuck knows where so we can end up in some... some rat-infested shithole of a prison camp processing sugarbeet for bloody Hitler "
"Grateful we're alive, he means." Alfie Arnold stood up on his toes to peer out of the high, slot-like horizontal gap that passed as window and ventilation. "Could be worse."
"And it could be a hell of a lot better!" Frank pointed out. "We're out of it, we're nothing. The war's going on without us. And it's all right for you, Blondie I ain't exactly the picture of Aryan perfection here!"
Bert closed his eyes, feeling the weight of their situation close in on him once more. They were soldiers, he was a soldier, but now... now Frank was right. They were nothing, out of the running, gone from participants in the war to mere passengers, to prisoners. The shock of capture was wearing off now, the numbness receding into anger, frustration, into the realisation that they had absolutely no control left over their own lives. He had a wife and daughter waiting for him back in England and while he had been separated from them before, now they were
"Achtung!" The sound of bolts being thrown back with a clatter brought them all bar the lieutenant to their feet and into the centre of the car, all argument forgotten in the face of the enemy. A small thicket of gun barrels faced them as the door was hauled aside and a tired-looking young German army officer in field uniform stepped forward. "You may come out of the train," he said in slow and heavily-accented English. "There is food, drink for you. But if you attempt escape, then you will be shot. Verstehen Sie? You understand, yes?"
"Yeah, we understand." Kimber sighed and turned to the others. "Okay, boys go do like the nice Kraut says. Too many of them to try anything heroic. Just get out, take a leak, eat what you can, don't make trouble. That goes for you too, Cecil, you sorry sack of useless shit," he called to the man still sitting isolated in the corner. "You're no good to anyone if you don't get some grub down you...."
It felt good to get out of the car and into the daylight, even if the scenery consisted of little more than an anonymous railway embankment, a string of assorted rolling stock and far too many guns, all beneath a clear blue summer sky. Their wagon was at the far end of the train, the last of three given over to prisoner transport and the least crowded, so far as Bert could tell. "Thank heavens for small mercies," he muttered to Frank as they drank weak coffee from battered tin cups, eyeing the crowd Free French from the look of them milling about outside the next carriage. "Wonder where they got picked up."
"Don't know, don't care." Frank snorted softly into his mug. "More worried about where we're going than where we've come from."
"Transit camp, I guess." Bert glanced across at the guards watching them warily. "Then off to the Fatherland."
"Assuming we don't get the shit shot out of us by our own fucking side getting there...."
"Coming to something when you're more scared of your own than the Jerries, isn't it, lads?" Gordon Howcroft, their lance-corporal, came up beside them, his brown eyes scanning the empty skies. "Still, with luck all this won't be for long. The tide's turned this is a retreat. Our boys'll be following them in and getting us out before you know it."
"You been talking to Alfie?" Frank asked dryly. "You start on about it 'all being over by Christmas' and we might just have to smack you one."
"Heh. Not sure that I'd go quite that far." Howcroft sighed and gazed down the length of the train, towards the plume of steam drifting up from the engine. "Alfie would have us thinking that we were on the way to a fancy hotel or some such. Must be good to have such a cheery take on life, don't you think?"
"Cheery? Don't care if he is the best shot we've got, he's touched in the bloody head, is what he is!"
That set them all to laughing Alfie Arnold's perpetually positive outlook had long been a source of bemusement in their platoon drawing stares from the French prisoners and confused looks from their German guards. The moment didn't last long, the reality of their situation swiftly eclipsing their levity with the taste of ersatz coffee, bitter black bread and the strange, fatty sausage they had been given to eat. Even with the warm breeze in their hair and the sound of birdsong in their ears, they were still prisoners, still captive, still at the mercy of the very regime they had been battling against just days earlier.... "Christ," Bert said softly. "We don't even know what bloody country we're in."
"That's easy the wrong damned one," came Howcroft's quiet reply, and then the train whistle blew and the guards closed in, herding them back into their wooden box for the next leg of their journey to god-knows-where.
No sooner had the door been hauled back into place, however, than it was dragged aside once more and a new body pushed into the car, the man falling over his own feet to land in a heap as the door slammed shut and the external bolts were thrown back into place. Pushing himself up to a sitting position, the newcomer made a half-hearted attempt at dusting off his filthy uniform and looked around. "Hey," he said brightly, seeing the others watching him. "Can't say that I think much of the hospitality hereabouts!"
Frank shook his head and moved to peer out of the window slot. "Great," he muttered. "A fucking Yank."
"Come to join the party, mate?" Kimber strode across to help pull the man to his feet. "I'd say it's good to meet you, but given the circumstances...."
"Heh." The newcomer grinned, a sudden broad white flash in his grubby, matinee-idol face, and for a brief, mad moment, Bert wondered if he'd been recruited from Hollywood. "Still, better than some of the alternatives, eh?" He looked around the car, taking in his new surroundings with attentive blue eyes that didn't quite reflect his smile, and firmly shook the hand that had hauled him to his feet. "Pete Favrell," he said to the group at large. "Rifleman with the Royal Winnipegs."
"You're Canadian?" Bernie asked, sounding surprised evidently Bert hadn't been the only one to think of Hollywood.
"Yup. Well, Canada's where Winnipeg was when I left her, anyway!" Favrell's expression was fond. "Heart of Manitoba, out in the grain belt. Big sky country."
The wagon floor suddenly jolted, a vibration growing beneath their feet, and they all scrambled to sit before the train threw them off their feet Baverstock and Alfie had learned that lesson the hard way the night before and had the bruises to prove it. Favrell dropped down beside Bert, nodding a greeting as they lurched into motion. "So, who are you guys then?"
"Private Bert Fletcher of the Middlesex Regiment," Bert said, holding out a hand to the Canadian and receiving a hearty shake and another beaming smile that he couldn't help but return. "This here's Frank Milton," he nodded to the still disgruntled-looking Frank "then we've got young Bernie Traves, Lance-Corporal Gordon Howcroft, Alfie Arnold, Geoff Baverstock, and Tom Kimber there's our Corporal. We got picked up two days ago when Lieutenant Morrison-Bell over there decided that he fancied leading a section patrol." He didn't try to disguise his scorn for the man now back staring at his feet in his solitary corner. "Just got himself promoted out of some cushy desk job back in London and we pulled the short straw when our last Platoon officer and his driver hit a sodding Jerry mine."
"Inexperienced officer out to prove himself to the ranks?" Favrell winced. "Ouch."
"Yeah, and now we're all prisoners of war, against the entire bloody flow of the campaign," Kimber shook his head. "Bastards nicked our watches and anything else they fancied, marched us for a day and a half, then put us in here. God only knows where they're taking us now."
"Durchgangslager." Favrell chuckled as they all stared at him. "A Dulag a transit camp."
"You speak Kraut?" There was a hint of what might be suspicion in Kimber's voice.
"A little, here and there." Favrell shrugged. "I'm good with languages hell, I'm Canadian: we're all bilingual to start with."
"Pervert," said Baverstock with a grin, and the moment of tension broke apart as they all laughed uproariously.
"I know the Royal Winnipegs," Howcroft said as the train settled into its rattling rhythm. "Good men were in the thick of it at Caen. The 'Little Black Devils', yes?"
"What?" Kimber laughed. "Like Milton here?"
"Fuck off, Corporal," Frank said without heat. "There ain't nothing little about me."
"Oh, if I had a shilling for every time I've heard that line..." Favrell muttered.
"The Winnipegs are a reserve regiment, as I recall," Howcroft continued. "Same as us. Right?"
"Right." Favrell nodded, his gaze growing distant. "Used to work the farms back home, fixing up equipment, bringing in the crop... don't know that I could go back to it now, mind, not after all I've seen since we got called up. World's a different place now. Very different place."
They all nodded at the truth of that. "How'd you end up in here anyway?" Bert asked.
"Got separated from my patrol a couple of days back, in the woods near Ιvreux." The Canadian shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. "Next thing I know, I've got a jammed gun and all the wrong kind of company. Not so different to your story, I guess, though I think the rest of my boys got away with it...."
"That's something," Kimber rested his forearms on his knees and closed his eyes, suddenly looking tired to the bone. "Right lads, looks like we're all in this together, wherever we end up. Don't know if they'll give us more passengers or, hell, any more fucking relief stops before we get there, so we might as well rest up best we can, stay sharp for whatever the buggers have got planned. Whatever happens, though, we are going to get through this."
In the event, there was another stop in the early evening, supplies being loaded onto the train further down while the prisoners were fed and watered under the watchful eyes of the guards. At one point an aircraft flew fast and low overhead, roaring past too quickly to identify, its proximity making friends and foe alike look up in nervous anticipation. It made no effort to attack, however, and they clambered back into the car with something almost like relief. Bert felt strangely uncomfortable at that, as if it were some sort of admission of weakness. It wasn't anywhere that they wanted to be deep in enemy territory and stinking of ingrained cowshit but it was the closest thing they had to a home, to that deep and instinctive animal sense of safety.
They didn't speak as the train got underway once more, each of them caught up in darkly defeatist thoughts that they felt no great urge to share. Only Favrell appeared immune to the mood but seemed content to let the rest of them have their solitude, gazing out of the narrow, barred window at the deepening dusk as they were carried ever onwards, ever eastwards, the constant rhythm of the rails coaxing them into uneasy sleep.
Some indeterminate time later, Bert opened his eyes to utter darkness, to the sound of wooden walls creaking, of metal wheels rattling over the tracks in time with the wagon's drunken sway, and to Baverstock's equally rattling snores. Beneath the sounds of their mobile prison's movement he could hear voices, whispered fragments of conversation in the dark. He frowned, straining to hear as he realised that one of the speakers was their new Canadian friend, disjointed snatches reaching him as the train clattered on into the night.
" can't let this " " nobody died " " pull yourself together " " how you act in adversity is what defines "
"But it's my fault!" That, hissed on an edge of soft despair, was the lieutenant, the first time that Bert had heard him speak in two days. "They don't need me; they sure as hell don't want me "
"You're an officer act like one!"
"But it was oh, what would you understand? You're not "
"I understand more than you might think. Even the guilt." A short, huffed laugh. "Especially the guilt."
Whatever might have been said next was lost as Bert found himself suddenly thrown into the still-sleeping form beside him, the train lurching violently as the wheels shrieked protest against the track. "What the fuck ?"
"Get off me!" Frank struggled out from the heap of protesting bodies. "The bastards are getting heavier on those bloody brakes every damn time...."
"We're slowing again?" Bernie sounded nervous. "Do you think we're "
"Perhaps," Howcroft said calmly. "But we could just be stopping for a signal or somesuch."
"Maybe the track's been bombed out?" Alfie suggested. "Or they have more passengers for us? Or "
"Or maybe the war's over and we're turning around and going home." Kimber snorted. "Whatever it is, we'll find out soon enough."
There was a pale shaft of moonlight slanting in through the high window as the train finally ground to a halt some minutes later. They could hear movement outside running footsteps, the stuttering growl of a truck counterpointing the deeper rumble of a steam engine, German voices calling purposefully to one another. Something bumped and scraped along the wooden wall of their car, making Bernie yelp and scuttle back, but the door remained resolutely closed, its locks untouched. "What the hell are they doing out there?" Bert hissed.
"Buggered if I know." Kimber muttered. "Hey, Canuck Favrell you understand a bit of Kraut, right? What are they saying?"
Favrell appeared from out of the shadows, his eyes on the window. "Mostly telling each other to get a move on something about... diverting supplies? Someone's complaining about wanting to get back to his warm bed."
"Bed?" Frank gave a small, bitter laugh. "I remember those."
"Don't we all?" Favrell grinned, then stepped up to the window and grasped the bars, peering out into the night. "Looks like we're in some sort of marshalling yard; nothing huge but a lot of points. Got a dozen or so guys scurrying about down here with "
There was a loud thud from one end of the car, followed by a ratcheting clatter and the loud huffing of a slow-moving train somewhere nearby. "They're uncoupling us," Favrell said, and in the faint moonlight Bert could see an expression almost like satisfaction ghost across his handsome features. "They're bringing in another engine."
"What, for the prison cars?" Alfie asked. "They must be splitting the train so that they don't have to take the rest of it off to the transit camp."
"Nope, just us." Favrell leaned into the bars to peer down the length of the car towards the source of the thumping and clattering, towards their nearest neighbours. Someone shouted something and the entire wagon suddenly jerked and swayed for a few moments, the planks creaking as it settled. They could hear muffled protests in French, their fellow prisoners clearly as concerned by this turn of events as they were, then a steam whistle sounded somewhere off in the darkness, and from the metallic groans and distant pistons it was clear that the train was in motion once more.
Just as clear as the fact that they weren't going anywhere at all.
"Well?" breathed Kimber.
"They've cut us loose." Favrell didn't turn away from the window. "The rest of the train they're leaving us behind."
"What the hell did they do that for?" Bert shook his head and wrapped his arms tightly about himself, fighting down the sudden fear that threatened to swallow him whatever this was, it couldn't be good. "What's so special about us?"
The sound of one engine receded into the distance as the sound of another grew closer, rumbling and hissing like some storybook dragon. "Maybe...." Alfie laughed nervously. "Maybe it's just that we're the last carriage?"
"So we're convenient?" Frank didn't sound reassured. "Great convenient for what?"
"What the fuck's going on out there?" Kimber joined Favrell at the window, though his shorter stature made it hard for him to look out without getting up onto his toes. "What are they talking about?"
"Apparently the weather might be wet tomorrow... someone's complaining about his wife's sister's schnitzel "
Kimber rolled his eyes. "What are they talking about that might be fucking useful!"
"Picky!" Favrell chuckled and flashed that broad, bright grin again. "They're lining things up, getting ready to make the coupling to the new engine."
"And then we should all keep calm, save our strength for whatever awaits us." The voice was wavering but determined, and they all turned in surprise as Morrison-Bell took a step out of his corner and into the shaft of weak moonlight. He looked pale, exhausted, the dark circles around his eyes all the more pronounced in the sharp-edged shadows. "What happens now is out of our hands, but there may be a time when "
"'Out of our hands'?" Kimber dropped down from the window bars, sudden fury written across his face. "And whose flaming fault is that?"
The lieutenant took a step back, but didn't turn away. "I made a mistake, and for that I apologise, but I cannot turn the clock back." He flicked a nervous glance at the men now arraying themselves around him. "If it were in my power, I would, but for now I feel that as your commanding officer, I should make the effort to "
"I think you've done more than enough already," Frank snapped. Alfie and Baverstock murmured agreement, young Bernie hovering behind them nervously.
"Hey!" Favrell moved to position himself between Kimber and Morrison-Bell. "Come on, give the guy a break we all make mistakes."
"Yeah?" The corporal squared up to him. "Easy for you to say you weren't fucking there!"
"No, but I'm here. And I'm here because I messed up!"
"Well, too bad for you, but you," Kimber poked the Canadian hard in the chest, "didn't take any other bugger down with you. This sorry piece of shit took us all out we're bloody lucky he didn't get any of us killed! And there's time for that yet."
Favrell slapped Kimber's hand away, his eyes narrowing, and there was something in the way that he adjusted his stance that had Bert suddenly concerned on the corporal's behalf, something entirely dangerous. "He's still one of you; one of us. We've got bigger things to be "
"You think?" Kimber snarled, stepping closer. "Why don't you just "
"All right that's enough!" Howcroft pushed the pair apart. "We don't know what the hell is going on, everyone's worked up, but we don't need to be fighting amongst ourselves here, especially not with the only translator we've got." He nodded to Favrell, who laughed softly and visibly relaxed, taking a step back. "Lieutenant, your apology is accepted and appreciated, but I'm sure you'll understand when I say that your leadership is no longer entirely trusted."
"I of course." Morrison-Bell shot a look at Favrell, then sighed and retreated back into his shadowed corner. "Sorry to have made a scene. My apologies."
Kimber glowered after the officer and spat on the floor, turning away and then swinging back a moment later to offer a hand to Favrell. "You mean well, Canuck, but that one ain't your fight, understood?"
The Canadian nodded and shook, accepting the peace offering. "He's not the enemy, you know."
"No?" Kimber snorted. "Tell that to my wife and kids."
There was a sudden clanking from outside, accompanied by a fresh chorus of shouts and complaints in German. Favrell moved back to the window, hanging on to the bars as an impact shook the car and the others hastily sat down. Bert could feel the sound of the steam engine as much as hear it, the metallic scrapes and booms of the couplings and chains that bound them to it sending the same dread thrill through him as any mortar attack. This was now and this was real and he was so very, very far from home with no way to fight back or find out just what the hell was happening....
The next hour was spent waiting, staring into the darkness as the train was formed up behind them and sitting in a silence broken only clanks and thumps and by Favrell's occasional updates on the strangely mundane conversations of the men working around their mobile prison. An uncomfortable tension lingered in the aftermath of Morrison-Bell's attempted return to the fold, the cause of their capture once again festering in their minds as they sat helplessly awaiting their fate. Bert was pretty damned certain that the officer wouldn't have stirred from his corner if Favrell hadn't given him that surreptitious talking-to and a part of him hated the Canadian for that... but he held his tongue. Much as he might like to see Kimber teach the man a lesson, Howcroft was right they didn't need to be fighting amongst themselves and he didn't doubt that Favrell had meant well.
And besides, there was something about Favrell that didn't quite sit right with him, something dark and deep that hid behind the Manitoba farmboy tales and the quirky translations. For all that Kimber was built for brawling, Bert wasn't entirely sure who would come off best in that particular scrap.
"Guards are mounting up and the yard crew clearing out," Favrell said suddenly, frowning into the moonlight as the voices receded. "Looks like we're on our way, boys and "
The high scream of the steam whistle was almost deafening at this new proximity. Bert swore and clapped his hands over his ears. "Shit! I think I preferred it at the fucking arse-end!"
"Who wouldn't?" Favrell dropped down beside him and leaned back against the wooden wall of the car. "God, I'm glad this is summer can't imagine this would be a comfortable way to travel come winter."
"You think it's comfortable now?" Frank asked, incredulous, and the tension dissolved as they tried to imagine what might pass for comfort in the wilds of Canada, mostly involving moose and mounties, all earlier arguments forgotten as they laughed at Favrell's protests. By the time the engine finally started to ease forward, Bert almost felt ready for whatever awaited them at the end of their journey.
Dawn brought another heavily-guarded rest stop, this time at a yard where another three cars were added to the far end of the train. It was raining, a fine drizzle that felt unbelievably good against Bert's face after the heated, stinking confines of their cattle car, even if there was little chance of it dislodging even a fraction of the grime. They were all filthy and unkempt, desperately in need of a bloody good wash and with the exception of the curiously smooth-featured Favrell a shave. If this was all that the Germans ever saw of their opponents then it was no bloody wonder that they thoughts themselves the sodding Master Race....
"Fuck it, I want a bath," muttered Frank, coming up beside him. "Don't care if the muck don't show on me as much as it does you pasty buggers, I'm fed up with being bloody grubby all over."
"Bath, and a proper bed," agreed Bert, staring out across the railyard at the sheds lining the side of the tracks. "And food... god, I've started dreaming about my mum's fruit cake. And eggs, real eggs, fresh from the chicken's arse. And humbugs in a jar, and "
A rough, grinding clatter came from somewhere close behind them, the sound ending on a loud and familiar crash of wood on wood. Bert swung around to see the door of their car being hauled shut by a gang of railmen, and for a sudden, frightened instant thought that he and Frank were being left behind. But then they were all being herded together by German soldiers as a heavy, three-axle truck pulled up, the rear gates crashing open as soon as it stopped before them, disgorging half a dozen more heavily-armed men. "Great," Kimber groaned. "Where the fuck are they taking us now?"
"Look on the bright side, Corporal," Alfie said with his ever-hopeful smile. "It might not smell of bullshit...."
Kimber just looked at him. "Arnold, this whole fucking set-up smells of bullshit; truck, train or track. There ain't any bloody 'bright side' to be seen!"
"Don't know about that. Can't say I'm sorry to see the back of that sodding wagon," Bert admitted the cattle car had been familiar but the stinking darkness was not something he was sorry to escape from. "You know what they say about a change being as good as a rest?"
"Where are we going now?" Bernie asked in a small voice.
"We'll find out soon enough." Favrell slung a companionable arm about the young man's shoulders and glanced back to where Morrison-Bell was trying his best to avoid looking at his own men. "Wherever they're taking us, it's not like we have a lot of say in the matter so we might as well just enjoy the ride!"
"Christ, Canuck, you're as bad as bloody Alfie!" Howcroft said with a laugh that earned him a glare and a snapped instruction from one of the guards. He held his hands up in a placating gesture. "Sorry...."
"He says to shut up," Favrell supplied helpfully. "I think they feel that we're not taking them quite seriously enough." That set all of them to sniggering and their captors to scowling as they were herded into the back of the truck and onto hard wooden benches that seemed like a luxury after two nights on a cattle car floor. Four guards took position at the rear of the tarp-covered truck bed, their guns held ready to discourage any sudden heroics... although from the expressions on their faces, Bert suspected that they might well welcome a mass escape if only to remove the ripe scents of sweat and cow that were now permeating the vehicle. He found it rather hard to feel any sympathy for them.
The rain grew heavier as the truck set off, drumming relentlessly against the cloth covering over their heads. Bert found himself drowsing on the smoother sections of road, drifting in and out of disturbed dreams that violently evaporated whenever they hit a pothole. The guards let them out to stretch their legs and relieve themselves and, no doubt, to air their fetid uniforms each time the truck stopped to refuel, but other than those two brief stops they were moving, always moving, the snarl of military convoys often audible beyond the soft roof even if they could not been seen. The presence of the guards and their guns effectively stopped any real conversation and so they sat in silence but for the occasional comment and the occasional loud fart, each of them lost in their own thoughts and concerns.
Bert snapped out of a drifting dream about his Agnes on Brighton beach to the crunch of wheels on gravel and the sensation of the truck shuddering to a halt. His stomach, empty since daybreak, growled and twisted in his gut. "Christ. We topping up on diesel again?" he asked with a yawn.
"Don't think so," Howcroft said, frowning. "Listen."
Blinking his way to full wakefulness, Bert did as he was told. There was a quiet rushing sound outside, low and deep and constant behind the creak and clank of some sort of machinery and the incomprehensible chatter of several German voices. One of those voices must have carried something of import, however, as Favrell suddenly sat up, alert, and the guards threw open the rear gates and jumped out into the fading light of evening.
"Fuck, I think I'd forgotten what fresh air is like," Frank said with a laugh, breathing deep as the breeze cleared the scent of their close confinement. "Huh," he said a moment later. "We're near water. I can smell it. Hear it too."
"Don't suppose we're near any fucking food, are we?" Kimber muttered. "I'm bloody starving."
"We've reached the Rhine," Favrell told him. "They're waiting for the barge to tie up so they can put us on. After that from what they're saying, I think we're in sight of wherever it is we're going."
"The Rhine?" Bernie sounded terrified. "We're actually in Germany now?"
Baverstock patted him on the back. "Have been for a while, son. We'll be all right, don't you worry."
"We're prisoners of war we have rights. Remember that." Kimber slowly levered himself to his feet. "Right, we're stopped for the moment I'm stretching my bloody legs."
There was no obvious protest from the guards as Kimber poked his head out into the mosquito-laden evening air and so Bert followed him off the truck, stumbling a little as cramped legs protested the impact. The light was starting to fail but there was still enough to see that they had stopped on a narrow spit of land that projected out along the river's west bank, enclosing a small dock where a low-slung barge was being made fast by men in German Army uniforms. The broad expanse of the mighty Rhine itself lay to the other side of the spit, overlooked on either side by the steep, thickly-wooded walls of a deep valley. There was a small and picturesque town on the opposite bank, nestling around a dock of its own, and above that....
"What the hell ?" Frank stopped at Bert's side and stared in disbelief at the shape that sat proudly on a hilltop above the town, its blocky form clearly visible against the darkening sky. "I thought we were going to some sort of bloody transit camp, not fucking Colditz!"
"Colditz? We can't be far enough... oh, baby." Favrell's smile was just a little too wide and a little too pleased for Bert's comfort, as if he found this latest turn of events more encouraging than unsettling. "Would you just take a look at that...."
"It's a castle," Kimber said, staring up at the fortified walls. "They can't be taking us to a sodding castle! Can they?"
"I think they can do whatever they bloody well like," Baverstock opined, slapping at something on his neck, and none could argue with that, so they simply waited for the barge to be made ready and for their long and confusing journey to come to an end.
The valley was in shadow by the time they disembarked from the barge, the chill of approaching night lending an edge to the summer air. There was a bus waiting for them at the quayside, its engine running, and they all clambered aboard with little encouragement from the guards, revelling in the luxury of upholstered seats and actual windows. There were armed soldiers, silent and stony-faced, already on board and Bert couldn't help but feel uncomfortable as he took his seat, aware of the unfriendly eyes watching his every move. These were no doubt men stationed at the camp, sent to collect their latest guests, and Bert wondered anew at what was so damned special about them that earned them the barges and bus journeys.
The town was almost painfully decorative, all whitewashed houses and neat gardens filled with vegetables, but there was little chance to admire it as the driver took them up along what seemed to be the High Street and on into a deep, heavily forested ravine that seemed to swallow what little light remained. The men shifted in their seats, trying to see anything other than tree trunks out of the windows.
"Anybody see where the fucking castle went?" Kimber muttered. "I'm sure I saw one around here somewhere...."
"Maybe we're not going there after all?" Alfie suggested. "Maybe the camp's further in?"
"It's the castle," Favrell said with calm certainty, and a moment later the bus slowed and turned onto a side road that seemed to double back in the direction that they had just come from, climbing up the side of the hill in a series of switchback curves, meandering up the hill towards their goal. Bert had just about lost count of how many times they had turned back and around on themselves when the road straightened out and their destination finally came back into view.
"Bugger me." Frank sat up in his seat. "That's a transit camp?"
If it had seemed impressive from the river, the castle was positively imposing from this vantage point. Silhouetted against the last of the sunset, it was a solid edifice of stone walls and crenellated towers, the ancient fortifications topped by gun emplacements. A swastika flag flew proudly from the tallest of the towers, fluttering in the wind, and Bert had the sudden surreal sense of being trapped in some sort of Nazi recruitment wet dream. "What the hell...."
"Looks like we'll be getting better than the tents and huts their guys get back in Blighty." The expression on Favrell's face was calculating. "If we're lucky, we might even get a room with a view."
"Not much point planning to climb out the window, Canuck," Kimber said distractedly, staring out at the thick stone walls of their new home. "Doubt we'll be there long enough to plan an escape."
"I hope we're not," muttered Bernie. "Don't like the look of this."
"Must say that you're taking this pretty calmly, Pete," Howcroft said to Favrell. "Can't imagine there's that many castles out in the middle of Canada. Not that many hills either."
"Hey, I'm flexible!" Favrell grinned. "And I was stationed in England a while, waiting for the off I'm already over the architectural culture shock. This is still pretty damned impressive, though. Could make for an interesting challenge."
"Long as they have clean water, I can't say that I much care what it looks like," Alfie admitted. "Clean water, hot food, a proper roof over our heads, a bed, blankets...."
"Shut up, Alfie much more of that and you'll give me a fucking hard-on," Frank deadpanned, and they all laughed in what Bert suspected was an effort to hide just how true that was the thought of being clean and dry and properly fed was entirely too exciting a prospect after the events of the past few days. "And that'd be a bloody waste as I bet they don't have much by way of girls up here!"
"Hey, some of us here are married men," Kimber said, in the same moment as Favrell chimed in with an amused, "Who needs girls?"
"I bloody do!" Frank shot back with a broad grin. "Getting a bit fed up with making the acquaintance of Lady Palmer and her five lovely daughters!"
There was more laughter at that, though Bert had an odd feeling that that wasn't quite what Favrell had meant. The stony-faced young men sitting in front of them turned to glare at their hilarity and that set them to sniggering further, fighting down the edge of hysteria that seemed to be part and parcel of their lives now. They were prisoners, captives, helpless to control any aspect of their own fate and now they were being taken into the bosom of some sort of Teutonic fucking fairytale....
Still, if he somehow got out of this in one piece, it was going to make for one hell of a story to tell his Millie.
Passing through the outer wall, they all fell silent, the humour dropping away as gates crashed shut behind them, closing out the wider world. The bus crawled forward, flanked by a phalanx of grey-clad soldiers in the deepening twilight, and as they penetrated the great, stony maw of the castle's entrance, the reality of their situation seemed to close in around them with smothering force. This was it, their destination, and for all that Bert knew that it had to be a transit camp, there was something terrifyingly final about the solidity of the place, something that set the hairs on the back of his neck to prickling beneath his filthy collar. They were just simple soldiers, nobody important, so why the fuck were they being brought here, into this?
The heavy wooden inner gates ground slowly closed, shutting out the first stars of night as the bus finally came to a halt. Nobody said a word as their grim-faced guards shepherded them off of the vehicle and out into a courtyard enclosed all around by high stone walls and the dimly-lit suggestion of windows. Bert could hear the indistinct murmur of voices from somewhere nearby and there was the scent of something edible in the chill air, a promise of food that set his stomach to growling. None of them had eaten since that morning and Bert was about ready to start chewing on his own boot leather if they didn't get something soon....
"They're all fucking staring at me," Frank murmured under his breath.
"They can stare all they bloody want," Kimber hissed back. "You're one of us, Milton."
"Schweigen!" snapped one of the guards, a stocky man with insignia that Bert thought made him the equivalent of a sergeant. "You will be silent, Kriegsgefangenen. Your war is over. Folgen Sie mir!"
"We have to follow him," Favrell supplied, although Bert had rather picked that much up from the way the man looked at them expectantly before turning on his heel and marching smartly towards an arched doorway. They trailed after him, still flanked by their armed escort, and found themselves being marched down a narrow, cable-clad corridor lit by bare electric bulbs. From there it was through a door and into a whitewashed room where they found two desks, a dozen chairs and two men, one tall and in German uniform and one short and dapper in civilian dress with a Red Cross armband wrapped around his sleeve.
It was the Red Cross man who stepped forward, armed with a smile that could challenge Favrell in one of his more cheerful moments. Bert found it singularly unsettling given their surroundings.
"Good evening, gentlemen," the man began in an educated English accent. "Welcome to Burg Elsterberg Prisoner of War camp. My commiserations on your current situation but you're in the right place now and... oh, dearie me cattle car, was it?" He waved a hand in front of his nose theatrically. "Smells as though they forgot to take the cattle out first!"
"Ha bloody ha," muttered Frank.
"No matter," the man continued, pushing his round, wire-rimmed spectacles back up his nose. "My name is Frederick Durrant and I'm the representative of Red Cross International here at this Durchgangslager. My role is to ensure that you are registered and processed properly don't want your families worrying unnecessarily, after all!"
Bert shifted uncomfortably, not feeling particularly inclined to trust this too-neat, too-cheerful little man. He was desperate to get word to Agnes, to let her know that he was still alive, but there was something here that just didn't feel
The guard who had led them there stepped smartly to one side. "Officer you come with me."
They all turned to look at Morrison-Bell, who blinked and took a hesitant step forward. "Er...."
"Oh, here we go." Kimber rolled his eyes. "Off to the cushy officer's camp to while away the rest of the war in comfort."
"Be fair," Howcroft said. "He'll probably get a more enthusiastic interrogation that we will."
Baverstock snorted. "Like he bloody knows anything worth the effort...."
"C'mon, guys," Favrell said quietly. "We're all in the same "
"No, no, Rifleman it's quite all right." Morrison-Bell nodded to the uniformed guard waiting for him and turned to face his men. "Look, I'm sorry that things... well." He broke off, staring down at his boots for a few moments before gathering himself and looking up, his expression suddenly determined. "It was an honour to serve with you, gentlemen. While I may not have been the officer that you deserved, you were all that I could have wished for. I hope that I will meet with you again when all of this is over, much as I imagine that you might desire anything but."
Kimber folded his arms across his chest. "Got that right, sir."
"Yes, well." Morrison-Bell took a step back, straightened his spine and snapped off a salute. "Good luck, gentlemen. Let us hope that this bloody war will soon be over and that happier times await us all."
Only Favrell returned the salute, although Bernie got halfway before Kimber's glare made him hastily drop his arm. Bert watched as their lieutenant was led off to whatever awaited those of loftier rank than their own, half-admiring the man's nerve in making that little speech and half-wondering if Favrell had put him up to it. Officers were treated differently to the ranks, he knew, with their own special camps it was in some part of the Geneva Convention that they couldn't be made to work, while the men beneath them could. Whatever situation the lieutenant was going on to next, it would likely be a damned sight better than theirs, even though Bert thought he preferred the thought of working to not. Too much time to sit and think was likely not a luxury in the circumstances....
"Now, I'm afraid that our hosts here are going to want to have a little bit of a chat with you all individually," Durrant began.
"Interrogate us, do you mean?" Howcroft's voice was level, calm considerably calmer than Bert felt. "Might as well call it what it is."
"Don't care what it's called," Kimber said quietly, eyeing the stiff-backed guards as they stepped up alongside them. "You know the drill, lads...."
Whatever Bert had expected from an interrogation, it wasn't being led off to a small room and treated with near-indifference by a man behind a desk. Name, rank and serial number were rattled off with practised precision despite his exhaustion, but when the question, "Is there anything more you wish to tell me?" was answered with a sharp shake of his head, Bert was surprised to see his interrogator slip the lid back onto his fountain pen and nod to the guard. "Then that will be all, Private Fletcher."
Back out in the whitewashed chamber, Bert dropped into a chair beside Alfie. "So do you think that was it?"
"Yours looked bored as well, did he?" Alfie glanced across to where Durrant was talking to the uniformed German who seemed to be in charge of the paperwork, their low tones barely carrying. "Got the feeling mine wanted to be somewhere else."
"Probably don't like the smell of cow," Baverstock said with a grin.
Bert smiled at that and glanced back towards the door just as Howcroft stumbled back through it with a helpful shove from his guard. He frowned. "Frank not out yet?"
"Not yet," Bernie said quietly. "Him, the corporal and Favrell are still in there."
"Shit." Bert's frown deepened. They'd want to grill Kimber just because he was the corporal, and Favrell because he was so clearly not one of them, but Frank was just a private and Bert had heard too many unpleasant tales about how the Nazis treated anyone not as pasty pale and pink as they were. They'd already had an awkward run-in with some drunken Americans back before they'd set off for France and the Yanks were their allies he couldn't imagine that the enemy would be any better behaved. "Do you think "
"Germans signed that Geneva thing, same as us," Alfie murmured. "We're prisoners now they have to treat us right."
"Treat us with kid gloves, if that so-called 'interrogation' was anything to go by." Howcroft eased himself down into a seat, eyeing the armed guards with some trepidation. "He really wasn't joking about them wanting 'a little bit of a chat', was he?"
"Yeah." Bert shifted uncomfortably on his chair and ran his hands back through his short, dark hair. "Maybe Baverstock's right they just don't like the smell of cow!"
The sound of voices echoing in the corridor caught their attention and, moments later, Frank put paid to Bert's concerns by reappearing with a scowl on his face, closely followed by Kimber and Favrell. "So what the fuck was all that about? Think that bugger wanted to be there even less than I did!"
"Guess we ain't important enough to give a proper going over." Kimber sounded vaguely insulted. "Bloody minnows, we are. But they got themselves an officer to play with, didn't they, so why worry about us?"
With what passed for interrogation done, the remainder of their processing was surprisingly swift and painless. Durrant oversaw proceedings, giving each of them a pre-printed postcard I have been taken prisoner of war in Germany. I am in good health/slightly wounded (cancel accordingly). We will be transported from here to another Camp within the next few days. Please don't write until I give a new address. to send back to their families. Bert felt a surge of relief as he wrote in Agnes' name, glad for this chance at contact, however small and impersonal. He didn't know when or even if he would see her again, had no idea if she had yet been informed of his capture, but in his mind's eye he could picture her lifting the card, running slender fingers across his careful lettering and maybe shedding a tear or two of joy at knowing that he was alive and as safe as he could be in enemy hands. He could imagine her showing the card to Millie and
"You bloody daydreaming again, Bert?" Frank nudged him with his elbow. "So what do you think's next? Food, bath or firing squad?"
"Not funny," Bernie muttered, staring down at his own card. He looked pale beneath his layers of grime and stinking clothing, his eyes wide and worried despite his obvious exhaustion. "Just... please. Not funny."
Bert reached across to squeeze the youngster's shoulder. "Don't you worry, Bernie we'll be fine. You'll be back with your mum in no time."
"There's rules about these things, son." Kimber set his pencil aside. "Remember that."
"Now, is everybody done?" Durrant appeared beside the corporal, peering down at his postcard over the top of his spectacles. "If I just take those from you and ask you to follow Oberleutnant Hitzlsperger " he nodded towards the German he'd been speaking to before, " he'll see you to the showers and make sure that you get, er, fresh clothing."
"Any chance of something to eat?" Kimber glanced towards Bernie. "Some of my men are dead on their feet they need a meal in 'em."
"Food will be provided after you have had a chance to freshen up. More hygienic, I'm sure you'll agree." Durrant smiled tightly, his nostrils twitching as if offended by their presence. "As I said, you will all be provided with new clothes and issued with a Red Cross food parcel, which will supplement the rations here."
"Lucky us," Bert murmured softly, smothering a yawn, but the thought of hot food and running water was almost overwhelming. He took a deep breath as he handed his card to Durrant, hoping that it found its way to Agnes soon, then followed the others across to where the unsmiling Oberleutnant waited. Favrell was the last to join them, the Canadian somehow managing to look awake and alert and almost cheerful even now, examining their surroundings with obvious interest. Bert supposed it was good that someone was paying attention, but there was something odd about the man that he found unsettling, even if he couldn't define what it was. Maybe all Canadians were like that....
The showers were large and tiled and damned near to a religious experience, even if the water was cold. They emerged, scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, to find that of the clothing they'd left stacked on the benches outside, only their boots remained. Everything else had been removed no doubt to be washed or, more likely, burned and replaced by Red Cross boxes containing fresh clothing and basic supplies. Bert rummaged through his eagerly, and there followed several minutes of comparing and swapping items in an effort to find a set that fit each of them. By the end of it, they each had a pair of clean trousers, two shirts, two vests, two pairs of underpants, and three pairs of woollen socks, along with a flannel, towel, toothbrush, razor, soap dish, comb and belt. Whatever doubts Bert had harboured regarding Durrant evaporated in the face of these riches, but he didn't have time to do more than get dressed and put the comb through his hair before a bell chimed from somewhere nearby and they were being hurried out once more by Oberleutnant Hitzlsperger and a pair of armed guards.
It was full night as they crossed the courtyard, the sounds of the castle and the surrounding forest somehow sharper in the darkness Bert could hear dogs somewhere in the distance, barking and snarling savagely, while the insistent calls of insects lent an oddly discordant rhythm to everything. The guards took them along another stone-clad corridor and into a side room, where they were given a mug of lukewarm soup of indeterminate pedigree and two slices of the sour black bread apiece. The soup tasted like dishwater and probably had about as much nutritional value, but it was food and it was there and not one of them left so much as a drop.
Bert was finishing the last crumbs of the strange bread when footsteps sounded in the corridor and the guard stepped aside to admit Durrant. The dapper little Red Cross man beamed at them. "Oh yes, that's much more the thing. Sadly, the showers are not for the general use of prisoners, but your bunkmates will no doubt appreciate the effort our hosts have gone to in cleaning you up!"
"You said there'd be food parcels," Kimber said shortly. "Or are we meant to eat the socks?"
"Probably taste better than this bloody stuff," Baverstock intoned softly, making Alfie and Frank snigger until a glare from one of the grim-faced guards silenced them once more. Bert hid his own smile, feeling oddly punch-drunk with exhaustion and confusion. Nothing seemed to be following any sort of routine and every time he thought he knew what was happening, things changed around him to confound his every expectation, be it diverted cattle cars, half-hearted interrogators or bloody great castles....
He was still breathing though, and word was on its way to his Agnes. That was all that really mattered.
That and getting to a bed before he passed out.
Favrell nudged his arm, jolting Bert out of his drifting reverie, and then they were in motion again, down more corridors, stopping by a storeroom to be given another, heavier box each, then back across the courtyard, along another corridor, past a series of solid-looking wooden doors.... More stairs, more passageways, the occasional glimpse of heavy-curtained windows, the sound of voices it was all blurring together in Bert's tired mind, the route forgotten as soon as the next corner was turned. They had lost Durrant somewhere along the way, gaining two more armed escorts, and Bert moved without much thought beyond putting one foot in front of the other. As a result, he almost walked straight into Baverstock's broad back as they came into a sudden halt, mumbling a semi-coherent apology as he juggled his boxes.
"You will be stationed here," the Oberleutnant said in accented English. "You will report for Appell in the morning. There are others in this room they will tell you the Zeitplan, the times that things will be done." He took a bunch of keys from his belt and unlocked the heavy door with quick efficiency, gesturing for them to enter. "You will listen and you will obey," he added as they filed in. "Heil Hitler!"
"You vill do this, you vill do that," Frank parroted as the door crashed shut behind them. "Jerry bastard...."
Bert forced himself to alertness as he looked around his new if hopefully temporary home. The room wasn't large but it had a high ceiling and a single tall, heavily-barred window that overlooked the river it seemed that Favrell had his view. Four sets of triple-stacked bunks lined the whitewashed walls on three sides and there was a cracked washbasin in one corner, its porcelain stained by the steady drip of the ancient tap. There was a battered wooden table against the wall beneath the window, a number of food tins and boxes piled on its surface, and another in the middle of the room, surrounded by six chairs of assorted design; another chair was over by the sink, a dented metal bucket sat beneath it.
There were three men standing by the table, evidently surprised by their sudden arrival. For a moment the two groups simply stood and stared at one another, then the tallest of the strangers smiled and stepped forward, one hand extended. "Welcome to Kriegeland, lads," he said in a broad Scottish accent. "Been wondering when the buggers'd send us fresh blood!"
Kimber blinked at him. "Welcome to what?"
"Kriegsgefangenen," Favrell provided. "Kriegies. Prisoners of war. It's what the Germans call us."
"Canuck here can understand Kraut a bit," Kimber explained as McCormack looked at the Canadian with interest and not a little suspicion. "He's been earwigging all sorts along the way." He shook the man's extended hand. "Corporal Tom Kimber of the Middlesex. I'd say it's good to meet you but given the circumstances...."
Bert sat down on one of the bunks as the introductions were made. The tall, solidly-built Scot was Lance-Corporal Jim McCormack of the Black Watch, a prisoner of war since 1940 and the Dunkirk retreat, who had twice escaped from German camps before being sent to this place after his last recapture. The other two men were Bartek Lissowski and Aleksy Smolarek, both Poles who had been fighting alongside the British. Disturbingly, all three seemed to have been at the castle for some time already.
"Thought this was meant to be a transit camp?" Kimber said as they squared away their meagre boxes of new belongings, adding their contributions to the food pile and claiming bunks for themselves. "Just get registered and reassigned and out the fucking door?"
"Aye, they like to tell us that. They're bloody liars, the lot of 'em." McCormack leaned back in his chair. "You met Freddie?"
"Durrant? The Red Cross guy?"
"Fucking collaborator, he is." McCormack snorted in disgust. "'Independent observer,' my arse. He's been bought off somehow, you mark my words. Be amazed if any of those postcards even made it out of the flaming castle."
Bert felt his heart sink. "Are you sure?"
"Sure as I can be what was it, something about not writing until we can 'give a new address'?" The Scot shook his head. "I've been here over a month now Bartek and Aleksy even longer and they weren't the first men to arrive here. We're not going anywhere, you mark my words."
"So why are we here?" Howcroft asked. "Seems a bit odd to just put us in a castle and leave us here. We're not officers well, Morrison-Bell is, but they've already carted him off. What's the point of hanging on to us?"
"No bloody clue." McCormack shrugged. "But it's a damned strange place in a lot of ways. Look at the guards for a start. Last two camps I was in, they were mostly older chaps, retired from front line duties with the Army. Decent sorts too, for the most part had a sense of honour to them."
"Still bloody Krauts," Kimber muttered.
"That's as maybe, but they did all right by us. Good men. Oh, they weren't on our side, make no mistake about that, but there was still a feeling of solidarity amongst soldiers removed from the war. We understood one another, as men, as fighters. There were rules. Here, though...."
"What about here?" Favrell asked. The Canadian was paying close attention to the discussion, Bert noted, looking curiously alert given that the rest of them were ready to drop Alfie and Baverstock were already crashed out in their bunks, snoring quietly. "Is it really that different?"
"Hadn't you noticed? There're no older guards here not a one." McCormack gestured towards the locked door. "They're all strapping young psychopaths."
"Had kinda noticed that part," Favrell admitted with a grin.
"There is no humour to them," Lissowski said, jumping into the conversation. "You do not do as they say, they shoot you. Any little thing. Hennessey, the other day he complain too loud about food, they shoot him. In head. In dining hall."
"Fuck," breathed Frank. Bernie whimpered.
"We made to finish eating before they take him away," Smolarek added. "Was bad. Was very bad."
McCormack nodded. "They're not Wehrmacht, not regular forces, not here. Their uniforms might be standard, but the whole ruthless bloody lot of them are SS, you mark my words. Freddie's been paid off to make sure he turns a blind eye to what goes on here."
"Which is?" Favrell pressed.
"Buggered if I know." McCormack sighed. "Don't pay to ask too many questions around these parts, not if you want to stay alive. No getting a spell in solitary here if they catch you snooping where you shouldn't, or protesting too loudly about your treatment, they'll shoot you on the spot. And that's if you're lucky."
Bert frowned nervously. "Lucky?"
Smolarek nodded vigorously. "And if you are without luck, you will be taken to see the lady in the tower."
"What, they got fucking Rapunzel up there?" Frank laughed.
"Only if she wears the SS uniform," Lissowski said with a shudder. "Those who are taken to her they do not come back."
"The lads here swear blind that there's some blonde Nazi woman up there in the tallest tower," McCormack told them from his seat, "but I can't say that I've ever seen her for myself. Of course, there's enough stories going around this place that it can be the devil's own job to separate truth from fancy sometimes...."
"She is real," Smolarek said firmly. "I have seen her. Twice!"
"Who is she?" Favrell frowned. "Does she have a name?"
"We do not know. We do not wish to know." Lissowski nodded in emphasis. "She is bad, very bad. It is best you do not see her. Then she may not see you."
"Still," McCormack said, breaking the uncomfortable silence that descended over them, "there are some advantages to this place over my last camps."
"Like what?" Bert asked, incredulous. "Sounds like they'll shoot you for breathing too loud!"
"Indoor plumbing don't knock it." The Scot grinned. "No balancing over the drop in some draughty shed with rats trying to bite your balls, hoping that the honey wagon comes to empty it out before we fill it. Things actually flush around here there's two pans down the hall."
"That's great," Kimber said, easing himself back onto his bunk. "But I couldn't help but notice that we're locked in...."
"They lock one hour before lights go out," Lissowski told him. "They unlock for breakfast."
"And if you need to take a crap in the middle of the bloody night?" asked Frank.
Smolarek laughed and pointed towards the corner of the room. "Is why we have bucket!"
"Good to know." Howcroft hauled his boots off, knotting the laces together and hanging them on the hook at the end of his mid-level bunk. "So, when do they turn off the "
There was the distant sound of a bell chiming the hour, and the bare bulb hanging in the centre of the room blinked out to general laughter and calls of "Nice timing!" Bert just snorted softly into the darkness and tugged his blankets up over himself. He was still hungry and still had no real idea what the hell was going on or if he was going to survive it, but the trials of the next day could wait until morning. For now, he was warm, dry, clean and had a bed to call his own, and that, for the moment, was all that he could reasonably ask for.
Finally surrendering to exhaustion, Bert closed his eyes and was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow.
He woke suddenly, opening his eyes to darkness. The sound of snores and heavy breathing echoed around the room, accompanied by the occasional gurgling rattle from the plumbing and the skittering of what might be some small rodent or large insect. He was warm, comfortable for the first time in far too long, and so he pulled the blankets more tightly around him and let sleep
"Oh, come on...."
Bert opened his eyes again, frowning into the darkness as he tried to work out if what he was hearing was real or the fading edge of a dream. The words had been less than a whisper, breaking on an edge of frustration, and he strained to hear more even as fatigue tried to pull him back down into unconsciousness. It was probably just his mind playing tricks
"Clever bastards, what the hell have they got...?"
Favrell. The Canadian was muttering to himself this time, it seemed and Bert fuzzily wondered if the man was prone to talking in his sleep. He was being bloody quiet about it if he was. Peering into the shadows, Bert thought that he could see movement in the top bunk that Favrell had claimed, just across from his own, but it was hard to tell and harder to care in his somnolent state. He'd never have thought that a badly-stuffed straw mattress and threadbare pillow could be so comfortable....
"Localised passive interference block well, that's something...." The wooden frame of Favrell's bunk creaked loudly, drawing sleepy protest from the bed below, and Bert thought he saw a momentary splinter of brilliant blue light flash against the whitewashed wall. "Guess I'm on my own for this one...."
Don't think any of us are going to be on our own for quite some time yet, mate, Bert thought sleepily, and let exhaustion pull him under once more.
Bert next woke to the sound of thumping on the door and the rattle of a key in the lock. Light was slanting in through the tall window, painting the room with a warm glow, and others were moving around beneath him. "Wakey wakey, lads!" McCormack called cheerily. "Welcome to the morning routine at Hotel Elsterberg!"
"Wha'?" Bert blinked blearily and peered down from his perch. Lissowski was busily splashing his thin face at the washbasin, while McCormack pulled a shirt on; Smolarek was evidently off making use of the reputedly impressive facilities. The rest of them were all stretching and yawning and protesting the disruption of the first good night's sleep they'd had in months... all bar Favrell, who seemed to have followed Smolarek out of the door already. Bert frowned, half-remembering the sense of some odd waking dream involving the Canadian, then shook his head and crawled for the ladder. "So what happens now?" he asked the room at large.
"Now is breakfast, in big hall," Lissowski said, rubbing his face dry with his towel. "There is clock it chime, we go in. Then at next chime, we have roll call."
"Wouldn't get yourselves too excited about breakfast," McCormack advised. "Worst coffee known to man and a whole two slices of the rye bread, with oily marge or maybe jam if we're lucky."
Kimber snorted as he moved to take his place at the sink. "They trying to fucking starve us?"
"Standard rations, I'm afraid. There's the RC packs, of course," McCormack nodded towards the tins and packages piled on the table by the window. "But we have to be careful with those as we only get one every couple of weeks at most. That said, there's a small stove down the corridor for cooking stuff up we should do something later to celebrate your safe arrival."
"Celebrate?" Baverstock didn't sound convinced as he moved towards the door. "Ain't seeing much to bloody celebrate here."
"Still, better than the alternative, right?" Alfie said cheerfully, and got several socks and a boot thrown at him.
Bert could hear unfamiliar voices in the corridor outside, various accents English, American, French, Welsh mingling into general noise, and wondered just how many men those flushing wonders were serving. It might just be quicker and easier to use the bucket.... "Just how many of us are there here?"
"Too damned many, and nowhere near enough," McCormack said with a sigh. "You'll see."
Breakfast was as meagre and as miserable as promised, but gave Bert more of a sense of the scale of the place. The dining hall was huge, two storeys tall with elaborate stained-glass windows on each side and a raised dais at one end from which rations were dispensed. The prisoners sat at long tables, each seating some forty-eight men the barracks rooms were apparently arranged in groups of four, with up to twelve men in each, all sharing the same basic facilities. They were an eclectic mix of nationalities and regiments, some clearly having come in together while others were adopted singletons, and far too many of them seemed to be settled into the routine of the place, if the interest they received as newcomers were anything to go by.
As the prisoners ate, the guards and Bert could see what McCormack had meant about them all being strapping young psychopaths prowled up and down the aisles with their hands on their weapons, ready to stamp out any sign of dissent. Nobody spoke, apparently still cowed by the fate of the unfortunate Hennessey, and Bert had to wonder at the empty spaces at each of the tables and the tales of being shot for the slightest infringement. Evidently he wasn't the only one young Bernie looked set to burst into tears at any moment and even the perpetually sunny Alfie was grim-faced. Only Favrell seemed to be showing an interest in much beyond the contents of his plate, looking around with the same quiet and intense curiosity as he had shown the night before, surreptitiously eyeing the guards every time their backs were turned. Bert rather thought that the Canadian was inviting trouble, but he seemed to have a skill for looking away at just the right moment... rather more skill than Bert himself, it seemed, who suddenly found himself on the receiving end of a grin and a wink as Favrell caught him watching.
After breakfast such as it was came roll call. The entire prisoner population was marched out into the courtyard and lined up in neat rows for a headcount. "As if any bugger is going to be getting out of this place," Kimber muttered as they took their places. "What do they think we're going to do? Fly over the fucking wall? Tunnel through solid rock?"
In the clear light of morning, Bert could finally get an idea of how the castle was put together, the blind sense of endless corridors and unknown stone-clad heights giving way to the solid reality of walls and towers and halls. There were machine gun emplacements on each of the bastion turrets and a heavier anti-aircraft weapon perched atop the high, rounded tower that formed the castle's keep, the tower that their Polish friends were convinced held some sort of mad Nazi princess. The tower was fenced off from the main courtyard and the gates patrolled by more of the stiff-backed, unsmiling young guards, a fortress within a fortress holding a mystery that nobody there seemed to want any part of.
Except, of course, that they were all a part of that mystery, whether they wanted to be or not.
Roll call done, they were free to wander the barracks corridors and the open part of the courtyard. Lissowski and Smolarek went back up to keep an eye on the food parcels raids by other rooms were apparently not unknown while McCormack took it upon himself to give them the tour. The courtyard itself was boxed in on one side by the great hall and by the keep and its heavily-armed guardians on another; the remainder was lined by solid walls whose barred windows told of three storeys of stone-clad chambers. McCormack informed them that the narrower of these blocks was used by the Germans for their administration and accommodation, while the larger was the province of the prisoners. Bert supposed that the showers they'd used had been on the unfriendly side, though he couldn't for the life of him recall how the stairwells and corridors connected within the building.
"So," said McCormack, waving an arm up at the prisoner's block, "six sets of four barracks rooms, giving almost three hundred bunks, of which maybe two-fifty are in use at any given point. If numbers sink too low, they just ship in another batch which would be how you lads came to us."
Howcroft glanced around. "But nobody leaves?"
"Only feet-first, by the sound of it," Frank said with a laugh. Bernie shuffled away from him, looking uncomfortable.
McCormack nodded. "As our dark friend here says. The guards can be a touch trigger-happy at the best of times. Behave and they'll leave you be but draw attention to yourself and it's unlikely to end well." He frowned and turned towards the barracks block again. "Strangest damned Dulag I've ever heard of, this one normal practice, you'd be in and out in a matter of days, off to a real camp. Here... it's like they just want us as pets."
"Or as protection." They turned to look at Favrell, who shrugged. "Allies won't hit a prison camp it'll be on the maps and I'd bet you anything that they have 'POW' painted in giant white letters on the roofs of those blocks, just to make sure. They ship us in, your Freddie passes back word that it's all legit and the bombers just pass on by...."
"So they're hiding something?" Bert darted a glance towards the tall tower and its guards. "You think there's something strange going on in there?"
"There's a lot that's bloody strange going on around here," McCormack said, pitching his voice low. "It's just unwise to pay it any heed. Remember that and you might survive this. Understand?"
They all nodded all bar Favrell, who was looking back at the tower with that calculating expression that was starting to worry Bert. The Canadian was a sharp one, he had to give him that, a damned sight sharper than he'd have expected from some heartland farmboy....
"So what's the routine from here on in?" Kimber had been watching Favrell too, but now turned his attention back to their native guide. "Breakfast at eight, roll call at nine ?"
McCormack nodded. "There's another meal at half past noon a bowl of soup and some potatoes then more bread, with a bit of sausage or cheese at five. Second roll call at seven, lock-down at nine, lights out at ten. Count the bells and you'll be fine."
"Same every day?" Howcroft asked.
"Every day, regular as clockwork," McCormack confirmed. "Big on routine, the Germans. You need to be as well I'm sure I don't need to tell you the penalty for tardiness."
"Think we can guess," Kimber said dryly. "So what are the odds of a decent bloody cup of tea around here?"
McCormack chuckled. "Not so bad as you might think. Come on think it might be time to introduce you to the wonders of the food packages. There might not be enough in 'em, but fuck knows they're better than nothing and a hell of a lot better than what the Jerries serve up...."
Lunch was, as described, a bowl of soup accompanied by four small potatoes that still bore their skins. The soup was lukewarm and watery, containing what appeared to be sauerkraut and small scraps of an unidentifiable meat that Bert didn't want to think about too closely, but the potatoes were welcome bulk, skins and all. The tea and biscuits that they'd broken out after roll call were just a fond memory as he made his way back out into the afternoon air, gazing up at the clear blue of the summer sky. The sun was angling in over the tops of the castle walls to warm the courtyard and the breeze coming in off the river was fresh... although, given that they all now had a bellyful of fermented cabbage soup, Bert wasn't entirely certain how long the air would remain palatable....
"Nice day," noted Frank, coming up alongside him. "Shame we're fucking stuck in here. What the hell are we meant to do with ourselves for the rest of the bloody day?"
Bert shrugged, looking around at those who had been there longer. Small groups stood or sat together in the sunshine, talking and smoking; others played cards; one or two read well-thumbed books. All did their level best to ignore the tall keep and the stern young men who guarded it.
"Do you think..." Bert started, then frowned, remembering the conversation of earlier. "Have you noticed anything weird about Favrell?"
Frank snorted. "What, like the way he was eyeing up Alfie's arse in the showers last night?"
"What?" Bert blinked. "Really?"
"And Kimber's. Probably all of us, but I was a bit distracted by finally getting fucking clean!" Frank shrugged. "Some people are made that way. Long as he keeps his hands to himself, can't say I much care."
"Huh." Bert suddenly recalled the wink at breakfast and Favrell's comment about not needing girls. He shook his head, feeling a little uncomfortable. "No, I mean... does he just seem a bit odd to you? A bit off."
"Apart from the being queer thing?" Frank shrugged. "He's too bloody cheerful half the time, but so's Alfie so we can't say too much about that. And he got way too chummy with the lieutenant, but that bugger's gone now. And he don't ever seem to need to shave. And fuck only knows how he was staying awake last night, looking all chirpy when we were out on our feet.... Huh." He frowned. "You're right he is pretty bloody strange!"
"He's too... he knows stuff. Knows too much, I swear it." Bert lowered his voice. "Think he might be Special Operations? I've heard they take all sorts."
"What? Like a commando or something?" Frank frowned. "Do they even have Canadian commandos?"
"If he was a commando, things would be blowing up already," Bert pointed out, though he kept his voice to an undertone after the business at the Saint-Nazaire docks, commandos had been declared outside of the remit of the Geneva Convention and the Germans were apt to shoot them on sight. "I don't know what he is, commando or SOE or something else, but there's something up with him, I swear, something strange. I'm not sure he's what he says he is."
Frank glanced around. "You think he's a plant? That that's how come he understands Kraut?"
"I think... I don't know." Bert ran his hands down over his face. "But whatever he is, I do think he's one of ours."
"Yeah, too fucking smiley to be one of these miserable gits." Frank snorted and eyed the men walking the battlements high above them. "I know McCormack says the regular army's all right, but with these bastards, I think their ears'd fall off if they cracked a bloody smile."
Bert laughed at that, then stopped as a sudden commotion broke out across the courtyard, a squad of grey-clad soldiers clearing the milling prisoners away from the block that housed the main German part of the castle, their rifles raised threateningly as they pushed them back. "Oh Christ, what's going on now?"
"They rounded up some other poor bastards?" Kimber asked as he came alongside them, Baverstock, Howcroft and Bernie on his heels. "That's where we went through processing last night, ain't it?"
"If they have, they don't want us getting to 'em," Frank noted. The others from their room were gathering around them now, trying to see what was going on. He looked at Lissowski as the wiry Pole stopped next to Howcroft. "This happen a lot?"
"This is bad," Lissowski breathed, frowning deeply. "Very bad."
"How so?" Kimber frowned. "What do they bloody hell, is that a woman?"
A group of guards had emerged from the building's heavy door, surrounding a slighter form unmistakably clad in a neat brown dress. As Bert watched, the woman and her circle of guardians started forward across the courtyard, moving through the space cleared by the other men and unmistakably heading for the keep.
The woman was young, Bert saw as she passed by, little more than a girl with her long dark hair and huge dark eyes and her expression of frightened defiance. She looked more French than German, and as she was shepherded across the flagstones, she suddenly threw up an arm, fist tightly clenched, and shouted, "Libertι!"
Bert winced as one of the guards responded by backhanding her sharply, splitting her lip and knocking her to the ground. Bernie gave a wordless cry and might well have made a dash forward if Baverstock and Favrell hadn't moved quickly to grab him, Baverstock physically restraining the youngster while the Canadian clapped a silencing hand across his mouth. The guards seemed more interested in the woman than in them, however, hauling her upright and dragging her through the outer gates of the keep and then on into the tower itself as the way was barred behind her once more.
"What the fuck was all that about?" Frank asked of nobody in particular as the soldiers left the courtyard to the milling prisoners. "French Resistance, wasn't she?"
"Certainly looked that way to me," Howcroft said, staring at the solid wooden doors of the keep as they swung closed with what seemed to Bert to be a chilling sense of finality. "Which makes bugger-all sense we're deep inside Germany and the Resistance aren't covered by the same conventions as the military. Why bring her here and not deal with her in France?"
"She was lovely," Bernie panted as Favrell and Baverstock finally released him. "She's beautiful and they're going to hurt her!"
"Sorry, lad, but that's just what these bastards do." Kimber reached up to squeeze Bernie's shoulder. "Not much we can do about that right now, much as we might like to."
"She will not return," Smolarek said unhappily, shaking his head. "They have taken her to see lady in tower. She will not come back. I am sorry."
"Is bad business," Lissowski added. He spat on the ground. "Those they take to the tower...."
"What happens to them?" Favrell asked, his voice low and serious. Bert glanced sharply at Frank, who shrugged. "How often do they take them through?"
"Depends," McCormack said heavily. "Sometimes there's a couple a day, other times nothing for a week. And we can't know how many are taken in at night, certainly not from our side of the castle. But once they're in... that's it."
Bernie looked distraught, and Bert suddenly realised that the young gunner and the girl were likely of an age. "You're sure?"
"Sure as I can be. Like I said you don't ask too many questions around these parts." McCormack sighed and turned away from the keep. Around them, others were returning to whatever they had been doing before the interruption, carrying on as if nothing had happened. "Just let it go."
"Let it go? How can we just " Bernie stopped, biting his lip and looking as though he was caught between tears and outright rebellion. "She was a girl, just a girl," he managed at last. "What could she have that they'd want?"
"Besides the usual?" Baverstock muttered darkly.
"C'mon, Bernie." Kimber laid a comforting arm around the younger man's shoulders. "Let's get you back inside. Alfie's keeping an eye on the room, making sure the Yanks next door don't make off with our cocoa and dried eggs I'm sure he'd appreciate a bit of company up there." The corporal threw a meaningful look at the rest of them. "Think we could all do with a bit of a sit down, couldn't we, lads?"
"Sure, sounds good," said Frank with a smile. "Fuck," he added in an undertone that only Bert could hear, "didn't think anyone'd crack this bloody early."
Bert shrugged. "Bernie's always been a bit jumpy. If it was going to be anyone...."
"And better here than under fire, I guess." Frank shook his head. "He'll settle once the shock's worn off bastards have got us all a bit out of sorts. Not sure I want to know what they're up to in there."
"Yeah." Bert tried not to think about what might be happening to the young woman within the confines of the tall tower. One by one, they turned away, following Kimber and Bernie into the barracks and what small comfort they might find there. Glancing back, Bert was unsurprised to see that Favrell was the last of them to leave, the Canadian standing alone and utterly still as he gazed up at the keep in that strange, unnerving way of his. "Yeah," Bert said again, under his breath. "Definitely one of ours, but...."
But beyond that, he still had absolutely no idea as to who or what the man might be.
By their fourth day in the castle, they were settled into the routine of the place. It was a strangely regimented existence, the day divided into periods of excruciatingly precise timekeeping followed by hours of mindless boredom, the tempo of their lives dictated by the chimes of the clock over the great hall and the provision of the too-meagre meals. Each day was the same, utterly dull and utterly predictable, and Bert couldn't say that he was entirely sorry for that after the incident with the French girl. There had been no further unfortunates dragged into the tower, so far as any of them could tell; no random executions and no further prisoners delivered to further fill the barracks. Life at Burg Elsterberg, such as it was, seemed to have settled into an odd and almost comfortable somnolence in the summer heat.
Nobody expected it to last.
Bernie Traves had barely said a word since his brief breakdown in the courtyard and the rest of them had taken it on themselves to make sure that he ate and made it to roll call on time. They were all worried about him, but there was little that they could do other than try to jolly him along and keep him involved. Between Kimber and Favrell who proved to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject they had gone through what seemed to be every filthy song and limerick ever composed in the English language, and if poor Bernie hadn't yet cracked a smile, they had at least ended up remarkably popular with the rest of the barracks block.
In truth, of course, worrying about Bernie's situation was a good way to not think too hard about their own. Bert found his mind wandering in quiet moments back to London, to Millie and Agnes; back to his regiment, still fighting their way through France; back to a time when his world was not confined to a fortress forged of granite and steel. He felt helpless, stymied, useless, wanting to do something, to do anything, but always all too aware of the grim young men that patrolled the edges of his life, waiting to shoot them at the slightest excuse. After a while, Bert found that his gaze slid away from them, as if not looking at them might render him somehow invisible.
He wasn't the only one. Lissowski said that everybody brought into the Dulag was the same after a few days trying to hide in plain sight, trying to avoid attracting attention onto themselves. To look at the guards was to invite notice, to make eye contact unthinkable. There was none of the mutual respect between soldiers taken from the war that McCormack described from camps past here it was strictly captives and captors, the lives of the one entirely dependent on the whims of the other.
For all that Bert would never admit to it, the entire situation terrified him, and not just on Bernie's behalf. Only predictably Favrell seemed determined to observe the guards and their movements, watching the way the castle worked whenever he thought nobody was looking. Bert had woken once, in the middle of the night, to find Favrell standing at the window, gazing out across the river valley, the too-smooth planes of his face silvered by the faint moonlight. There had been something otherworldly, almost ghostly, about him, and Bert had quickly rolled over to face the wall, feigning sleep, suddenly as afraid of being seen by the usually cheery Canadian as he was by the guards.
There were far too many mysteries in this place, some in the form of the enemy and some in the guise of friends. Bert didn't much want a part of any of them.
With all the determination to ignore the more dangerous aspects of their captivity, food was rapidly becoming an obsession what it was, how much they might get, how to make the Red Cross packs last most efficiently. The hunger pangs were almost constant now, made worse by the scents that would occasionally drift out of the German block, the aroma of roast meats and fresh-baked bread maddening. Kimber had suggested storming the kitchens at one point; Bert wasn't entirely certain that he had been joking.
"I'm telling you that last fucking spud had some sort of worm in it," Frank grumbled as they made their way out into the courtyard after lunch. "Big fat thing, it was tasted bloody disgusting...."
"Mmm, extra protein." Howcroft looked almost jealous, though there was a twinkle in his eye. "I think we should all demand them."
"Should have saved it," said Favrell with a grin. "Could have used it as bait to lure in a pigeon or something all the protein you could want on some of the fat, feathery beggars out in that forest."
Kimber snorted. "Like we get anything bigger than sparrows coming in here. Barely a fucking mouthful on one of those."
"I saw a rat yesterday," Alfie said helpfully. "Which might explain those meaty bits in the soup today...."
Bert laughed as Frank rolled his eyes and smacked Alfie around the back of the head, making him yelp and duck away. "Ah, the food might be shit, but the entertainment's still worth turning up for right, Bernie?"
"Yeah." Bernie didn't sound particularly interested, his brown eyes dark with exhaustion. Bert frowned and glanced towards Kimber, who just shrugged there really wasn't much more that they could think of to do for the lad.
They'd be damned if they just let him give up, though. "Bernie," Bert started, "how about if we "
He broke off as a sudden hush fell across the courtyard, the chatter of the men dying to nothing as the iron-clad wooden doors of the keep swung slowly open and guards hurried to unlock the outer gates. The prisoners closest to the keep began to back away, clearly not wanting to be involved in whatever was about to happen, but others began to drift closer, as if desperate for some change, any change, to their daily routine.
"What the fuck " Kimber swore, then, "And where the hell are you going?" as Favrell brushed past him, suddenly purposeful. Bert hesitated, not really wanting to get any nearer, but then followed as the others trailed after the Canadian. Perhaps they were about to get a look at the tower's infamous lady....
Booted steps rang across stone and a squad of German soldiers stepped sharply out of the keep, carrying what appeared to be a tattered bundle of brown cloth between them. They strode through the wire outer gates, into the space vacated by the wary prisoners, halting at a barked command. As one, they dropped their awkward burden and turned back, marching back through gates that were swiftly locked behind them.
The tableau in the courtyard held for a moment... and then Favrell pressed forward, moving quickly to crouch beside what Bert belatedly realised was a body, gathering it into his arms. He took two steps forward
"Oh, Christ," Frank said from just behind him. "It's the French girl."
"Shit." Bert glanced back at Bernie and hurried to push to the front of the gathering crowd.
"Easy, sweetheart, easy let's have a look at you...." Favrell turned the woman in his arms and as he reached the pair, Bert found that he could barely recognise her as the young Resistance fighter they'd seen being taken up to the castle three days before. That woman had been defiant and resolute, her dark eyes determined despite her captivity. In contrast, this woman....
It took everything Bert had not to turn away. This woman's eyes were empty, utterly empty in her slack-featured face, as if her very soul had been erased. There was a thin stream of saliva running down across one bruised cheek as she lolled in Favrell's grasp, and if it wasn't for the steady rise and fall of her chest she could have been mistaken for an oversized rag doll in a torn brown dress. There were a pair of mottled red marks on the sides of her face, starting at the outer corners of her eyes and arching up across her temples to vanish into her hairline, their livid colour startling against her pale, waxen complexion. Blood welled darkly from fine pin-points scattered through the red weals, but if she was in pain, she gave no indication.
Favrell stilled, brushed her dark hair back... and began to swear, softly and with obvious feeling, in English, in French, in German, in languages that Bert couldn't begin to put a name to. He took a cautious step forward. "Is she "
"What in God's name did they do to her?" Suddenly animated for the first time in days, Bernie shoved his way through the crowd to crouch at Favrell's side. He reached out to pat the girl's face, trying to draw a response, then pinched her arm and would have slapped her if Favrell hadn't caught his wrist.
"Don't," the Canadian said quietly, and there was that stillness to him again, that sense of contained violence that Bert found so unnerving. "She's gone."
"She's still breathing!" Bernie snapped, suddenly brave, drawing murmurs of agreement from those closest. "So long as "
"She's gone." Favrell repeated. He looked up, meeting the younger man's eyes, and there was such concentrated frustration and fury in his expression that Bernie scrambled back away from him. "She's beyond our help, beyond anyone's. Trust me on this."
"So what do we do?" Kimber asked, placing a settling hand on Bernie's shoulder. "We can't give her back to those bastards."
"No." Favrell's voice was harsh. "No, we can't." He closed his eyes a moment, then took the woman's face in his hands, leaning in to place a gentle kiss against her slack lips. "Goodnight, Mademoiselle."
"What are you " Bert started, then stopped with a cry as Favrell set his shoulders and snapped the woman's neck with a sharp twist, the wet crunch of bone sickeningly loud. Bernie made a choking sound and fainted on the spot, forcing Kimber who'd looked set to deliver Favrell a beating or worse to catch him. "What the fuck did you do that for?" Bert finally managed over the rising sounds of protest. "Even they didn't kill her!"
"You're wrong." Favrell lowered the body gently to the ground and pushed himself to his feet, fists clenched, his gaze daring his accusers as they shifted angrily around him. "They killed her. Oh, they killed her, all right. They just forgot to tell her corpse."
"So you were just passing the message along?" Howcroft's tone held a cold fury that Bert didn't think he'd ever heard from him before. "Making sure it got through to her?"
"Something like that." Favrell was quite clearly not going to back down and Bert found himself wondering if he was about to witness another death. Others were starting to gather more tightly around them, men from other rooms, other floors, muttering and shifting as they looked down at the girl's body. "There's no mercy in trying to prolong the inevitable. Not for her and not for any of us."
Baverstock shook his head, balling his huge fists as he stepped forward. He'd been a meat porter at Smithfield before the war, Bert knew, used to lugging cow carcasses around, and he didn't doubt that Baverstock could do real damage with a single blow if he put his mind to it. "You can't just decide "
"No, no, stop he is right." They all turned at the sound of Lissowski's voice. "There was nothing to be done but set her free." The Pole pushed his way through to stand at Favrell's side, glancing briefly down at the woman's remains before turning his gaze to the crowd. "She is not the first to be taken; she will not be the last. It is as we told you those who are taken to the tower do not return. Their bodies, perhaps, but they do not. When we arrived myself and Aleksy there was another, we think perhaps from your SOE, your secret service. She was same, same marks." He gestured at the sides of his head. "We tried to keep her alive, to keep her well, but she could not eat, could not drink, could not control her body. Her mind was gone. They took it from her."
"What happened to her?" Kimber asked, lowering the groaning Bernie into a sitting position.
"She died." Lissowski shrugged. "She had no strength, no will. We tried but she... she fade. After three days, she stop breathing. Our Canadian friend showed this one only kindness."
"Christ." Bert turned away, feeling sick. "They do this as a welcome for everyone that gets here?"
"Only if there is woman." Smolarek said, joining his compatriot. "I think this amuses them."
Lissowski shook his head. "I think they test us with them. They see how we react to how they are. Why, I do not know."
"Shit." Favrell's curse was little more than a whisper. "Shit."
"It's a little fucking late for that!" Kimber snapped. "Can't bloody unbreak her now, can you?"
"You have absolutely no idea what's at stake " Favrell broke off, glancing towards the gate guards who stood watching the exchange with keen interest. "No matter," he said a moment later, flashing a pale echo of his usual smile. "It's done now."
"'No matter'? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Don't you fucking walk away from "
Favrell turned to go. Kimber swore and grabbed at his shoulder, roughly pulling the Canadian back to face him... and let him go abruptly, shocked into silence by the look on the other man's face. "I said, it's done," Favrell said quietly. "Unless you want to make something more of it, Corporal?"
"I " Kimber shook his head and Favrell stalked off, pushing his way through the crowd to vanish back into the stone walls of the castle. Bert stared after him, wondering what the hell had just happened. "I'm going to bloody kill him, so help me..." Kimber muttered, then spat onto the flagstones and turned to glare at the men still gathered around. "Okay, boys show's over. Fuck off and find something else to stare at."
"What about... her?" Alfie asked, nodding at the dead girl. "Do we just leave her here?"
"Not much else we can do with "
"No!" Bernie suddenly found his voice again. "We have to have to...."
"There's nothing that we can fucking do, Traves!" Kimber spun on his heel, planting a hand on the youngster's chest and shoving him back, away from the corpse. "What are we supposed to do, bury her? Best we could manage is to chop her to bits and flush her down the sodding loo, hope she don't clog up the plumbing! Leave her to the Krauts to clear up."
"But we can't just "
"Yes, we can, Bernie. Leave it now." Bert took one arm, Frank the other, steering the tearful Bernie away from any further confrontation. "Corporal's right we can't do anything else for her now."
"How did he know?" Howcroft asked, frowning. "Favrell, I mean. Aleksy and Bartek here might have seen this shit before, but Favrell? He came in with us."
Lissowski shrugged. "He has seen somewhere else?"
"Have to wonder, don't you?" Kimber scowled at the guards who were now deep in conversation with one of their officers, occasionally throwing glances their way. "Only one way to find out. Let's go find the fucker and see what he has to say for himself."
There weren't all that many places that Favrell could go and Bert was unsurprised to find him back in their barracks room, pacing back and forth and scowling, ignoring the bemused McCormack as he tried to work out just what the hell was wrong with the man. The Canadian stopped as Kimber stormed into the room, the rest of them following him like ducklings. "What the fuck just went on out there, Canuck?"
Favrell shook his head, his blue eyes narrowed as he regarded them, and Bert had the sudden, irresistible impression of a cornered animal, wounded and dangerous. "Nothing that concerns you. Any of you."
"Don't you bloody give me that!" Kimber stalked forward, squaring up to the taller man. "I've got one of my boys gone halfway round the sodding bend over that French girl, the rest of them out of sorts, half the fucking castle eyeballing us, and not just our half what the hell is going on here?"
A tense silence followed Kimber's outburst, finally broken by McCormack. "Girl?" he asked, confused. "What girl? What happened?" Bert caught the Scot's eye, shaking his head, and McCormack frowned and settled back into his chair, muttering, "Don't we already have enough to worry about with the bloody Jerries?"
Favrell didn't back away from Kimber's angry advance. "All you need to know is that she was "
"And who the fuck are you to decide what we should or shouldn't know, Rifleman?"
"Me?" Favrell snorted and flashed a small, tight smile. "I'm nobody. Nobody at all."
"No?" Kimber shoved him in the chest, forcing him back a step. "Then what was with the sodding judge, jury and executioner act out there?"
"It wasn't an execu"
"You killed her!" Bernie wailed from behind Frank. "What had she ever done to you?"
"What I did " Favrell tipped his head back and laughed softly, humourlessly. He turned away from the furious Kimber, shaking his head. "What I... oh, this is so not going to end well...."
"He's got that right," Bert murmured to Frank. He was half-expecting the scene to attract a curious crowd, men filling the corridor as they came to investigate the source of all the shouting, but it was as if the prison population was closing itself away from them, shutting them out for fear of being associated with troublemakers and punished accordingly. It could only be a matter of time before they attracted the wrong kind of attention entirely and Bert really didn't want to think about what might happen then. "They're going to get us all flaming killed...."
"You know," Lissowski said before Kimber could launch into a fresh attack. "You know what had been done to her, and so you set her free, yes? But how you know? You were not here when the other was."
"Hey, come on," Favrell started, spreading his hands before him in a placating gesture. "You all saw the state of her: I didn't have to know anything, it was obvious that she "
"Don't give me that bollocks!" Kimber snapped, balling his fists. "You fucking knew! The moment you saw those things on her head, the look on your face.... Don't tell me that it was a bloody gut reaction you knew exactly what you had there!"
Favrell looked down a moment, as if considering his answer. "What I know, and what I don't know," he said quietly, "is not anything that you either need or want to concern yourselves with. Trust me on this and just drop it."
"Trust you?" Kimber laughed shortly. "Fat fucking chance of that! What the hell are you hiding from us?"
"Oh, for crying out " Favrell swung away from his accusers, pacing across to the barred window and staring out across the valley. "You have no idea...."
Howcroft stepped forward. "So you do know what's going on here? What's happening in the tower?"
"No." Favrell shook his head. "Thought I might, but now...." He turned back towards them. "Look, this is more involved than I thought it was. A hell of a lot more involved."
"I knew there was something up with him," Bert muttered. "I fucking knew it!"
"So he is special ops?" Frank looked impressed. "That'd explain a lot."
Kimber folded his arms across his chest, glowering at the Canadian. "And when you say 'involved'...?"
"Complicated." Favrell closed his eyes a moment, then turned on his heel and stalked back across the room to glare down at Kimber from just a little bit too close, making the shorter man back up a step. "It's more complicated than you could even begin to imagine, Corporal. And you want to know something? You're right." He looked around, picking out each of them, lingering on Bernie before turning his attention back to Kimber. "I was wrong to kill her, but not for the reasons you think. She was already dead, a ghost, a shell of whoever she was. But, you know what? I should have just let you drag her back here, to try shoving your rations down her throat, to watch her soil herself, dribbling out of both ends until she died of dehydration if she didn't choke first "
"Don't," whimpered Bernie, screwing his eyes shut and turning away. "Please don't...."
"¬ should have kept my head down and my fool mouth shut and just let you get the hell on with it! But no, no, I had to get involved!" Favrell's handsome features were contorted with anger, with frustration... and Bert suddenly realised that that anger was as much aimed at himself as it was at the rest of them. "Because I'd bet anything that Bartek here's right that was a reaction test, and I just...." He shook his head violently. "I should have left you to it. It's not like she would have cared what you did with her, anymore than she "
"That's enough!" Kimber snapped, and Favrell stopped, his jaw set belligerently. "You've made your fucking point!"
"All I've made is...." Favrell trailed off and closed his eyes, looking suddenly tired. "Just get out."
Kimber blinked, caught off guard. "What did you just say?"
"I said, get out all of you. Now. Join the other rooms if they have space for you."
"Fuck off!" Kimber spat as the others shifted behind him. "This is our fucking patch as much as it is yours, you moose-shagging bastard!"
"Oh, for...." Favrell rolled his eyes. "This isn't the time to be getting territorial, Corporal! I'm trying to save your "
He stopped, looking sharply towards the door, and Bert swallowed hard as he heard the heavy tramp of boots from the corridor behind him, the sound of too many men moving at speed in a confined space. Grabbing Bernie's arm, he propelled him into the room, all of them forming an instinctive huddle as they waited for the danger to pass.
Or not, as the case may be.
"I tried," Favrell said softly as the heavy door crashed back on its hinges and the room was suddenly filled with hard-eyed, uniformed men, each brandishing a submachine gun with utter surety. Bert took another step back, pressing himself against Frank and Smolarek as they all tried to make themselves look small, look harmless. He didn't want to die like this....
"Achtung!" A German officer pushed through the forest of weaponry to stand before them, looking them over disdainfully. "You," he said, gesturing with a pistol as his gaze settled on Favrell. "You are the one. You will come with me." Bert felt a sudden surge of guilty relief that evaporated a bare moment later as the officer added, "All of you men will come with me."
There was silence from the neighbouring rooms as they were herded out, their compatriots evidently unwilling to draw the attention of the soldiers now surrounding them like the human equivalent of barbed wire. Bert wondered how long it would take the other prisoners to emerge and help themselves to their rations. Somehow, he didn't think they'd be needing them where they were going.
The courtyard was empty as they were marched out of the barracks building in single file, a guard to either side of each of them, the heat of the early afternoon sun warming the flagstones and bathing them in reflected heat. The body of the girl was gone, leaving no trace of her existence, but Bert had little time to dwell on that as the keep's outer gates were unlocked once more, the massive inner doors opening a moment later. "Oh, fuck," he heard himself whisper. "Fuck, fuck, fuck...."
"Nie!" Smolarek stopped abruptly, shaking his head. One of the soldiers clubbed him with the butt of his gun and the Pole would have gone down if Baverstock, behind him, hadn't grabbed his shoulders and held him upright. "Nie the lady...."
"Schweigen!" the officer snapped as they all came to a confused halt, even as Kimber called, "Hold it together, lads!" Bert swallowed hard, his eyes fixed forward, staring into the shadows that lay beyond those huge doors. Every instinct screamed at him to run... but there was nowhere to run to. Even if there were, he'd be shot before he'd taken three steps. They were trapped, being driven like animals to the slaughter, and all that he could think about was the girl, the fierce-eyed young Frenchwoman reduced to a mindless, drooling heap. Was that the fate that lay in store for them? Or would the bastards just line them up against a wall and have done with it?
He screwed his eyes shut and forced himself to think of Agnes, his Agnes, alive and well and whole and waiting for him back in London. He'd see her again, he promised himself. He had to.
Young Bernie was crying quietly to himself as they started forward once more, the soft snivelling almost lost beneath the harsh tramp of jackboots and their own scuffling steps. Passing through the outer gates felt worse than being herded into the cattle car for the first time, the fear of the unknown twisting and curdling in Bert's stomach and becoming a solid weight as the arched stonework of the keep itself swallowed them whole.
The keep itself was a tall, round tower that did not appear to extend into the walls that flanked it on either side. It was easily twice the height of any other part of the castle, dominating the entire structure with a disturbingly phallic splendour. Passing through the door, Bert found himself in a short corridor, the solid walls claustrophobically close with his friends crowded fore and aft and the guards marching to either side. Beyond that lay an octagonal antechamber, whitewashed and starkly lit by naked bulbs, the Nazi flag that covered one wall from floor to ceiling an unwelcome reminder of their predicament.
The doors groaned shut behind them, the sound of the locks clanking into place echoing against stone. With any potential escape route cut off, the guards spread out, positioning themselves around the walls as the officer vanished through a side door, silently watching their charges as they clustered together once more. Smolarek still looked dazed from the blow he'd taken, and Bernie seemed to be teetering on the edge of hysterics, but otherwise they all seemed to have adopted a wary stoicism, hiding whatever fears they had deep inside.
Bert snorted softly. Even in this, it seemed, the British stiff upper lip won out.
"Now what happens?" Alfie said quietly. "We going to end up like that girl?"
"Fucking hope not," Bert muttered back. The hollow emptiness in her eyes had been bad enough, but he knew that it would be the muffled crunch of her neck breaking that would haunt his dreams for years to come. Not that it seemed likely that any of them had years to come.... "Nobody should go like that."
"This is all your bloody fault, Favrell," Kimber murmured, glaring daggers at the Canadian. "If anything happens to my men, I'm going to fucking kill you, you hear me?"
Favrell didn't seem to hear the threat, apparently too engaged in absorbing the details of his surroundings to pay the rest of them any heed. He stood slightly apart from the group, that cold stillness on him once more, and Bert wondered just what the hell was going through his head and if he could be persuaded to share any of it now that it was far too flaming late to avoid whatever fate the Nazis had planned for
The officer abruptly reappeared, barking rapid-fire instructions to his men, who swiftly closed in on the prisoners. Bert found himself being jostled on all sides as they were forced back into single file, fighting down the urge to lash out and just get it over with. The guards were armed how hard would it be to grab a weapon and go down in a blaze of glory? He was sure he could nail one or two of the bastards in the seconds before they gunned him down....
But it wouldn't be just him that they killed. Seeing the set of Kimber's shoulders just ahead of him, he suspected he wasn't the only one to have reached that conclusion.
The officer strode past them to pull open another wooden door this one with oiled hinges, it seemed, in contrast to every other door in the castle that led onto a tightly spiralled stone staircase. Two of the soldiers immediately raced up the stairs, vanishing swiftly from sight to take whatever post they had been ordered into. "Christ, I hate those windy little stairwells," Bert muttered. "Make me dizzy."
Howcroft snorted softly from just behind him. "Just be glad you didn't get a bang on the head like Aleksy did we might be carrying him yet...."
They took Favrell up first, surrounded by his own little heavily-armed honour guard although he went quietly enough. Then it was their turn to be herded into the stairwell and upwards, always upwards, the steady tramp of feet impossibly loud in the confined space. Bert kept his eyes fixed on Kimber's back, keeping his steps in time with the others and hoping that nobody ahead of him would stumble and send them all backwards like a row of oversized dominoes. There were no windows in the stairwells, just more of the harsh bulbs spaced so that they passed between shadows and sickly light with every tenth step, distance impossible to judge other than in the growing ache in Bert's shins. Every so often they crossed a short landing and passed a door, but whatever lay behind them was clearly no concern of theirs.
And then, suddenly, the sounds ahead of him changed and moments later Bert was following Kimber through one of those doors into a wide octagonal chamber much like the one they had first been marched into. There was no whitewash here, though, just the grey and brown of natural stone and a stark line of thick iron bars that ran from floor to ceiling, almost splitting the room in two. Under the cold gaze of the guards, they were quickly driven into the starker half, joining a grim-faced Favrell in what amounted to a sizeable cell, virtually a zoo cage in that every move was visible to the remainder of the room. It felt good to finally be out of the narrow stairwell, better to put some slight distance between them and the guns, but Bert couldn't allow himself to relax as he staggered into this new prison. Things were moving so fast, too fast.... "What the fuck are they going to do with us now?"
"Buggered if I know." Frank moved across to the back wall and dropped down to sit on the stone floor, glowering at the tall guard who swung shut the iron gate that they had just been herded through, locking it securely with one of the keys from the huge ring he wore on his belt. "Glad not to be going around in fucking circles any more, though."
Kimber snorted, his gaze fixed firmly on Favrell. "I'm thinking we've been led around in fucking circles since before we even flaming got here."
With the prisoners all safely locked away, the room emptied of soldiers, leaving just two to guard the door. They seemed uninterested in taunting or otherwise acknowledging their captives, and so Bert eased himself down beside Frank, feeling the chill of stone seeping through his uniform. There were no windows in the room, no way to tell the weather or the hour, the only light coming from the now-familiar bulbs, though here they were at least covered by glass shades that lent the chamber a more comfortable glow than he'd seen elsewhere in the castle. There was little by way of furniture in the room a tall wooden cupboard pushed against one wall, a heavy table, a washstand with a jug and bowl, and what appeared to be a dentist's chair bolted to the floor, all leather and horsehair and odd angles. Another oversized Nazi flag hung lengthways down one side of the room, as if anybody was likely to forget just who they were working for. The cell itself was bare, although there was a narrow drain at the point where two of the walls met that carried the acrid scent of stale urine, a reminder that they were not the first to be brought to this place. Bert supposed that it was safer for their captors than providing a bucket it was a damned sight harder to chuck the contents of a drain over someone.
One by one they all sat down, leaning back against the wall until only Favrell remained on his feet, slowly pacing back and forth as he took in their new situation. Bert watched him, not certain what else to do. He really had no idea what he should think about the Canadian, whoever and whatever he was, but he wished to hell and back that he had never laid eyes on the man....
"We're going to die," Bernie said quietly, and Bert turned to look him. He was sitting with his arms wrapped around his raised knees, looking all of about twelve. "They're going to do something to us, take our minds away like they did the girl."
"Poor little cow," Baverstock muttered.
"Wonder what her name was?" Alfie frowned. "Seems wrong, not knowing."
"Of all the things that were bloody wrong with what happened to her, not knowing her name is the fucking least of them." Kimber glowered at Favrell. "Getting emptied out and her neck wrung would seem to be a bit higher up the fucking list."
"Jesus," Frank said, looking queasy. "Do you think this is where they do it? In that chair?"
"Dunno." Bert eyed the contraption warily. There didn't seem to be any straps, which had to be a good sign since he couldn't imagine anybody going quietly to that fate. "Maybe they're not going to do... whatever it is?"
"Like hell." Kimber shook his head. "We're up here for a fucking good reason. If they just wanted us dead, they could have shot us out in the sodding courtyard, made an example of us."
Bernie hugged his knees more tightly to his chest. "I don't want to die," he whimpered softly. "Not like this."
McCormack reached out to squeeze the lad's shoulder. "Let's not get ourselves into a panic just yet, son."
"He's right." Favrell stopped pacing and turned to face them. "We can't be certain what's coming next; there's no point in letting our imaginations run away with us."
"'We'?" Kimber laughed. "Me and the boys here might not have a fucking clue, but don't tell me that you don't bloody know what's happening here. We're stuck in a Nazi castle in the middle of sodding Germany and you know, you know what happened to that girl and you know how they fucking did it!"
Favrell sighed and leaned back against the bars. "I can't... Look, I'm sorry you guys got caught up in all of this, and god knows this wasn't how I planned for things to happen, but I have to be certain."
"Certain of what?"
The Canadian glanced towards the guards and shook his head. "Nothing that any of us can change right now. But I'll do my best by you, I swear. If I can get you out "
There was a hollow sound from the door, what might have been a sharp rap muffled by the weight of wood. The guards glanced at one another, then each took a step to the side, flanking the doorway. "You will stand for Hauptsturmfόhrer Gentner," barked the taller of the two.
"Stand for who?" Bert grumbled but pushed himself to his feet along with the rest of them this was neither the time nor place for acts of defiance, however small. Even if they didn't get shot, the thought of being picked out to go first....
"Dunno who the bastard is, but he sounds important." Kimber stepped up to the bars to stand beside Favrell, all arguments momentarily forgotten. "Think he's the one calling the shots here?"
Favrell didn't answer, just watched the door as the others gathered around him, murmuring their own questions. Bert could feel his heart trying to beat out through his ribs, this uncertainty somehow more terrifying than being under fire on the Normandy beaches. One of the guards suddenly reached for the door handle, hauling the door open to reveal
"Bugger me," Frank breathed. "Their Nazi hotshot's a bird?"
Smolarek shivered. "It is the lady," he whispered, clearly terrified. "We will not leave this place."
The woman who entered looked to be in her mid-thirties tall and shapely with a severe, blue-eyed beauty; her white-blonde hair swept back and pinned into a tight bun that sat neatly at her nape. She wore the grey SS uniform cut to her curves, with flared breeches and high black boots and a polished leather gun holster perched over one hip. The silver pips and stripes of her rank adorned one black collar patch, while the other bore a Nazi swastika enclosed within a diamond shape with two small tails, as if a cord had been looped around it; other medals and badges adorned her chest and sleeves in an obvious effort to impress and intimidate. She was the very model of the Aryan ideal... or would be if not for the finely-patterned chevron of dark markings that started at the bridge of her nose and angled sharply upwards until it disappeared into her pale hair.
She was quite possibly the single most frightening person that Bert had ever seen in his life.
The woman stopped in front of their cage, standing at parade rest with her hands behind her back as she examined each of them in silence, a look of utter disdain on her face... until she reached Favrell. Then a gleam of something like triumph lit her eyes and if Bert had thought her frightening before, he found her downright terrifying now. "Who the fuck..." he breathed.
"You will be silent before your betters," the woman said, in clipped and perfect English. "I am Hauptsturmfόhrer Balthilde Gentner of the Institut fuer Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung." She smiled tightly. "Burg Elsterberg is under my personal command."
"She's Ahnenerbe, SS cultural, mystical and scientific wing," Favrell provided, his eyes fixed on the woman as she stalked past the bars. That dangerous undercurrent that Bert had seen glimpses of was fully to the fore now, written through the Canadian's stance, the line of his brow, the set of his jaw. "Institut fuer Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung translates as 'Institute as for Military Scientific Research' or thereabouts. Even by the Ahnenerbe's sick standards, it's something pretty special. And I don't mean that in a good way."
"How the fuck do you know all that, Favrell?" Kimber hissed. "What the hell else have you got?"
"Favrell? Ah, yes they do not know you, do they, Captain?" Gentner's smile spread. "They do not know who you are? What you are?"
"Captain?" gasped Bernie and they all turned to look at the Canadian. "He didn't say he was an officer!"
"Gentlemen, may I introduce to you Captain Jack Harkness of His Majesty's illustrious Torchwood Institute." Gentner inclined her head with a small smile. "Captain, it is a great privilege and honour to make your acquaintance at last. I have looked forward to this meeting for many years."
Favrell stood rigid, silent, his knuckles white where he gripped the metal bars... but then he swore under his breath and shook his head, his expression caught somewhere between amusement and disgust. "Believe me, sweetheart, the pleasure is all yours."
She laughed, the sound echoing sharp and strange from the stone walls of the cell and raising the hairs on the back of Bert's neck. "Oh, come now, Captain. I had expected better from one with your fearsome reputation for charm. I have heard many tales of your exploits."
Favre Harkness raised an eyebrow. "Have you now?"
"Of course." Her smile spread, finally reaching her eyes. "Your name appears many times in our records. Your travels in the Punjab, Tanganyika, Tunguska, Paris, Istanbul; your involvements in this war and the last. Many times. And yet still we know so very little of you." She shook her head. "Do not think that your own precious Institute is the only organisation that seeks to harness the debris of the universe. Others are also eager to discover the secrets of the worlds beyond our own, to turn them to practical purpose in our hour of need. We are not so very different, your people and mine."
"Don't flatter yourself." Harkness pushed away from the bars, stepping back amongst the others, who promptly took a step of their own away from him. "The Torchwood Institute seeks to defend this world, not to dominate it by any means necessary."
"Please." Gentner flicked her fingers dismissively. "You are the tool of a fading empire, soon to be consigned to dust. We of the Ahnenerbe merely seek to regain what is ours by right, to uncover the long and glorious history of our people and restore to them a bright and brilliant future. Your masters are weak in their pandering to the lesser races." She waved a hand at Frank, who bristled angrily. "They are weak and you are wasted in their employment, Captain. You are so much more valuable than the sentimental fools of your Institute might have you believe...."
"If this is meant to be some kind of recruitment spiel, I've heard better."
"You misunderstand me." Gentner pivoted on her heel and paced down the length of the room and back, her boot heels ringing against the flagstones. "Dearly as I might wish to be the one to hold your leash and have you walk at my side, Captain, I am not so foolish as to think you trustworthy. A pity. You would make a most admirable prize indeed." Her smile turned sad, and for a moment Bert thought that she actually meant it. "But no. For all that you are a perverser Mensch, you are a prize for the Ahnenerbe already, in every fashion that is of true import. You may feel flattered to be regarded as such."
Harkness snorted. "Thanks, but I'll pass."
"That is your choice." Gentner stopped before the cell once more, her gaze raking across the men trapped within before returning to Harkness. "I have something to show to you, Captain. I believe that you might find it most interesting." She snapped her fingers at one of the guards, who immediately left the chamber. "Of course, its nature shall be of no surprise to you, for which I am most sorry. Your actions with the remnant proved your knowledge."
"Where'd you find it?"
"Is that important to you?"
He stepped back up to the bars, resting his palms against steel. "Call it professional curiosity."
"Of course. Though it is a shame that you choose to squander your knowledge and your formidable skills on the unworthy." A sensuous smile curled across Gentner's pale lips, transforming her features for a long moment as she gloried in her own imagined superiority. Harkness glanced back at the men behind him, his expression speaking volumes about what he thought of the woman's sanity. "There are places in Romania where the walls of the world are stretched thin, where things might slip through and be lost amidst the folk tales and the fancies of peasants. We watch these places, much as your own Institute does."
"And every so often they give you something you can use, even if you don't understand it."
"All things have their purpose, Captain. That is understanding enough."
Frank edged closer to Bert. "You making sense of any of this?" he murmured.
"Not a fucking word of it," Bert admitted under his breath. "Just that Favrell ain't Favrell and both him and that Nazi cow ain't exactly regular military."
"Great, so where does that leave us poor bastards?"
Bert shrugged, the gesture the barest twitch of his shoulders. "Locked in a bloody cage with "
The chamber door swung open as the guard returned with another, the pair of them carrying a large box, like an ammunition crate made of smoothly oiled and polished wood, between them. Moving carefully, they set it on the table and stepped back with what, to Bert's eyes, looked almost like unseemly haste. Gentner ignored them, reverently running her long fingers along the front edge of the box. "Ah," she said softly, "such things I have to learn from you, Captain...."
Harkness didn't move, didn't say anything as Gentner threw the hinged lid open with a flourish. "I had always hoped to meet you," she continued as she pulled straw aside, the expression on her face almost maternal as she gazed down at whatever it was that she had uncovered. "I had thought perhaps that I might encounter you on an expedition, competing for some ancient or alien prize, and yet here you have come to me. That your Institute might seek to send an operative was not entirely unexpected indeed, we hoped that this would be the case. That is why we sent the remnants amongst the men, to see if any would recognise them for what they were. That that operative would be you ah, that is a gift indeed...."
"So he walked us all straight into the sodding spider's web?" Kimber's voice was thick with disgust. "Fucking fantastic. If it ain't one bloody officer screwing us over, it's another!"
"You will be silent before your betters!" Gentner snapped again, her blue eyes narrowing at the corporal. "Now, you shall observe."
"What the " Bert could only stare in horrified disbelief as something stirred within the box. A moment later, that something reared up, long and sinuous and patterned in hues of green and brown, and for an instant he was convinced he was looking at a snake... but where the head should have been was only a broad, leaf-like structure with three small, gleaming black spots adorning its upper surface near the tip. There were no jaws, no mouth, no skull that he could make out, and as he watched, a second, identical creature reared out of the box, the pair of them swaying back and forth, never stilling, the flattened not-heads flexing and curling and darting.... "What the hell are those?"
"Those Indian things?" ventured McCormack. "Cobras?"
"Poisonous, ain't they?" Alfie sounded decidedly nervous. "I bloody hate snakes."
"They're not cobras," Harkness said flatly. He hadn't moved from his place at the bars, although his fingers had closed around the metal once more. "In fact, they're not even a 'they' there's just one creature in there. And it's a damned sight worse than poisonous."
"Very good, my Captain!" Gentner smiled indulgently as one of the flattened 'leaves' wrapped itself about her wrist. "You are most well-informed. Tell me do you know its name?"
"Urkrenis shet'li," Harkness replied, his eyes never leaving the beast. "It's why I'm here."
"Ah." She smiled. "You have encountered its like before?"
"After a fashion."
"So you wish to capture it? To use it for yourself?"
"No. To kill it."
"Really?" Gentner raised her eyebrows in surprise, her free hand going into the box as if to pet or perhaps reassure the creature within. "And why would you desire that, Captain? It would seem to have more value in life."
"It doesn't belong here it has no place in this world. And it's way too dangerous to leave alive, even in Allied hands."
"Interesting. I had not thought you a coward, to fear what you find."
"And I wouldn't have thought you a fool, to try to harness what you don't understand."
"As I said, I understand it well enough." Gentner's smile returned. She unwound the strange snake-thing from her wrist and reached into the box with both hands. "I understand why you would not wish me to have it. And I understand that you, Captain ah, that you have so very much to teach me."
Bert swore as Gentner lifted something out of the box and into view, hearing echoed curses from the men around him. The thing was... it was alive but it was unlike any beast he had ever seen before or ever wished to see again. Its body, so far as he could make out, was shaped like an upended bowl, a pulsating dome that bore a ring of the same small black spots eyes? as the two snake-tentacles now thrashing unhappily about, as if protesting this handling. Eight short, starfish-like legs protruded from the body, four to each side, twitching and twisting in Gentner's grasp, curling around her fingers. There was something like a diamond-shaped paddle, flattened like a beaver's tail, at one end of the body, rippling with movement and bearing another trio of those black, beady eyes; the two 'snakes' emerged from the other end and were each easily three times the length of everything else put together. The beast was covered in finely scaled hide patterned like that of the constrictor snake Bert had once seen in London Zoo, mottled diamonds of green and grey and brown, and it was just... it wasn't right....
"Jesus Christ," Kimber breathed. "He said it that thing don't fucking belong here."
"I think that your friends do not like my little pet, Captain." Gentner chuckled throatily, gazing down at the creature as it struggled in her hands. "They cannot see its beauty."
"Ain't nothing fucking beautiful about that... thing." Frank shuffled back a little more. "And I don't just mean the little scaly bastard."
Lissowski said something in rapid-fire Polish and retreated to press against the rear wall of the cell. "It is wrong," he said after a moment. "It is wrong."
Harkness remained still, his white-knuckled hands wrapped tight around the bars. Gentner smiled at him, clearly pleased with herself, and lifted the beast up high, over her head....
And then lowered it onto her scalp.
Bert could only stare as the creature's struggles abruptly ceased. Still supported by Gentner's long fingers, it shuffled briefly around, evidently seeking some sort of favoured position. As he watched, it eased itself down and across the back of her scalp until it rested just above the tight bun, the eight short legs slipping beneath her pale hair and clamping down hard while the strange paddle fell forward to lie over the top of Gentner's head and forehead, precisely covering the chevron of dark markings there. The two long tentacles swept up and over her shoulders, waving gently in front of her like macabre pigtails or giant leeches seeking some human prey.
"There," Gentner breathed, lowering her hands. "There, it is ready."
"You have no idea what you're doing." Harkness's voice was utterly devoid of emotion, his stance stiff and threatening despite his captivity. "You can't just "
"Oh, but I can, Captain." Her voice was almost a purr. "You will see. I will show you. Bringen Sie in der Gefangene!"
One of the guards heaved open the heavy door and two more entered, dragging with them a slender, struggling figure. Harkness abruptly released his grip on the bars and stepped back with a curse, almost colliding with Kimber as he surged forward. "Lieutenant? Bloody hell that's Cecil!"
Morrison-Bell raised his head as the guards brought him before the bars. "Corporal Kimber?" he slurred weakly.
Bert moved up to the bars, staring in horror. "So much for the cushy officers' camp...." Their lieutenant had quite clearly had a harder time of captivity than they had, bruised and bloodied with his reddish hair in tousled disarray. His blue eyes were wide and terrified, and he clearly had absolutely no idea what was happening. Bert glanced desperately across at Kimber, then turned his attention back to their officer. "Lieutenant "
"Bringen Sie ihn hier," Gentner snapped, moving to stand beside the chair. The creature on her head seemed to pulse, the long tentacles now moving with short, quick movements as if anticipating what was to come. As the guards turned to obey her order, Morrison-Bell looked up... and saw her for the first time.
"What the ?" His struggles increased, fighting hard against the solid grip the guards had on each arm. One of them released his shoulder to lock strong fingers in his hair, holding his head still and forcing him forwards. "No! No what the hell is that thing? Get it away no, please...."
"I'm sorry you have to see this," Harkness said softly, far too softly for Morrison-Bell to hear. Bert turned to glare at him... and suddenly realised that the man had anticipated being Gentner's first victim himself. "She's showing off," Harkness continued, his gaze fixed on the scene playing out before them. "She's trying to impress me."
"What the fuck are you " Kimber started, then stopped as the guards forced the struggling Morrison-Bell into the padded chair, pinning him down. "Trying to impress you with what?"
Gentner stepped behind the chair, positioning herself carefully. She reached forward to lay her hands on thin shoulders, pale fingers resting lightly on the torn and bloodstained fabric of the lieutenant's shirt, then smiled coldly and looked up to meet Harkness's eyes. "Observe, Captain."
"Oh, god, no, you ca" Morrison-Bell's pleas cut off abruptly as the tentacles snaked forward and clamped down on the sides of his head, the tips resting at the outer corners of his eyes as the flattened "leaves" moulded themselves against his temples. His body stiffened, frozen against the chair's padded frame, and the guards released him and stepped quickly away, as if disturbed by the sight of the beast themselves.
Gentner smiled, the expression inhuman beneath the creature's mottled embrace. "Perfekt," she murmured. "And now, your man shall tell me what knowledge he has."
She closed her eyes, an expression of deep concentration settling across her stern features... and Morrison-Bell screamed. His body was still, caught in the beast's thrall, but his face.... His boyish face was contorted in agony, wide-eyed and weeping as one desperate animal shriek segued into another, the sound echoing from the stone walls until it filled the room, filled the world. Whatever arguments Bert might have had with the man evaporated as Morrison-Bell howled his lungs out and Gentner didn't move, barely seemed to breathe as the pulsating thing atop her head inflicted its damage. Bert could hear someone being sick behind him, the acidic stench of vomit assaulting his nostrils, but he couldn't turn around, couldn't look away from the lieutenant as he screamed his throat raw.
He might have been the one to get them into this sorry mess in the first place, but he didn't deserve this. Fuck it, nobody deserved this.
After long minutes, the screams subsided to hoarse, stuttering cries, and then to whimpers, and then Morrison-Bell gave a shudder and fell silent. As he did so, the tentacles pulled sharply away from his head with a sound like tearing fabric and Gentner staggered back, blinking owlishly as she regained her balance. She was moving as if punch drunk and bleeding from her nose, a thin trickle sliding down from one nostril to tinge her pale lips with crimson, her blue eyes wide and unfocused. Gripping the edge of the table, she spent a few long moments catching her breath, then straightened and reached up to lift the creature from her scalp. It came away easily, apparently sated, and she carefully settled it into its nest of straw once more, ensuring the gently waving tentacles were safely tucked away before closing the lid. "There now," she purred. "It is done."
Bert swallowed hard, feeling his own lunch threatening to make its escape. He could hear Bernie weeping somewhere behind him, sounding like a lost child. Smolarek and Lissowski were whispering frantically to one another in Polish while McCormack was repeating the Lord's Prayer, over and over, under his breath. Steeling himself, Bert turned his gaze back to where Morrison-Bell lay limply in the chair, his eyes open and empty, staring blankly into space. He looked....
He looked like the French girl. Suddenly, Bert understood why Favrell why Harkness had done what he had. After that... god, after that, any release could only be mercy.
"His mind is gone this remnant is a shell, of no further use." Gentner walked across to stand by the chair, delicately dabbing at her bloody nose with a handkerchief. "My small friend he has no taste for the dead."
"She," Harkness said, his voice rough and thick with disgust. "It's female. They all are the species is parthenogenetic."
"Really?" Gentner glanced back towards the box sitting on the heavy table. She smiled, that drunken edge still evident as she reached to toy with the unprotesting lieutenant's hair. "Such knowledge you have, Captain you are wasted on the British and their dying empire...."
"Wasted?" Harkness snorted. "Have you seen the way the war is going? Your precious Reich is in retreat."
"For now, perhaps." Gentner shrugged. "But soon, soon.... You shall provide me with information so much more valuable than that contained in your young officer here."
Kimber shot Harkness a look. "She's going to use that thing on you?"
"Then how come it's not you lying out there right now, instead of Cecil?"
"I told you she's trying to impress me." Harkness smiled humourlessly. "In her own sick way, she's trying to earn my respect, trying to prove herself before she strip-mines me."
Gentner chuckled softly, her eyes still a little too bright as she tucked her handkerchief way. "And have I succeeded, Captain?"
Harkness looked her up and down, then barked a small laugh and turned away. "Going to have to do better than that, sweetheart."
"You will not presume...." Gentner scowled, finally seeming to shake off the creature's spell, although the shadows around her eyes told of a sudden exhaustion. "The officer. Lieutenant Cecil Edward George Morrison-Bell. Born on seventeenth of July, 1916, to privilege, to a country estate. He was the youngest son of five, the one forgotten, the one eclipsed by his elders, by the artist, the colonel, the poet, the priest." She strode up to the bars, standing just beyond reach, glaring at Harkness as she continued. "He joined your Army to escape them, their glories, but he was not suited to battle. He was Schriftfόhrer, a mere clerk, commanding nothing more than papers until our glorious forces killed so many of your officers. Then," she nodded to Kimber. "Then he was sent to you."
Bert threw a quick look at Harkness, who stood with his arms folded across his chest, his features unreadable as he said, "And how do we know you didn't just beat all this out of him before you even got him in here?"
Gentner's scowl shaded into fury. "He had no wife, no way with women they made him nervous, the women of his own kind. He performed...." She hesitated, her lip curling into a sneer. "Performed sexual sevices for three older boys at his school but felt no further urges of that kind once they were gone. He had a dog, a large, too-friendly beast named 'Henry' that is being cared for by a girl, a friend in a village close to his posting in England. She is the daughter of a shopkeeper, from far below his family rank, but she was kind to him and he thought to ask her to be his wife on his return from war."
"Christ," Frank murmured. "Poor bastard...."
"Yeah." For all that Bert knew, the woman was making it up... but it had the ring of truth to it and he found that he couldn't doubt that the beast had somehow winkled it all from Morrison-Bell's mind and fed it into hers. He'd never really thought of their erstwhile officer as anything beyond the silly bugger who had marched them all into enemy hands, but now....
"The night that you all were captured, he wished only to impress you, to win your respect." Gentner threw a withering look at the lieutenant's comatose form. "Instead, he earned your hatred. Instead, he retreated into the corner to be ignored as he once was in childhood, seen and not heard. He saw what you all had, that kameradschaft, your fellowship, and he wished to be a part of it. He failed. He feared you, in the end, feared you all. All but you." She met Harkness's eyes. "You, he respected, although he did not know why you would take his side."
She stopped, took a deep breath. "Is that sufficient, Captain? Or do you wish to know how he saw a friend drown when he was eight years of age, too afraid for his own life to attempt a rescue. How he loved music but could not play a note on any instrument himself? How he lost his virginity to a whore arranged by his eldest "
"All right, you've made your point." Harkness stepped back up to the bars. "I'll believe you you've tamed your pet, learned a few of its tricks. Doesn't make you anybody I want to respect. Now Otto... ah, I was sorry to hear about poor Otto Rahn. There was a man with a mind that would put a dozen of your current Ahnenerbe operatives to shame, but he wasn't willing to tread the party line, now was he? Couldn't face what his country had become."
Gentner's eyes narrowed angrily. "Obersturmfόhrer Rahn was... unsuitable. Unstable. His failings and his suicide "
"Suicide?" Harkness quirked an eyebrow. "Your masters knew he was coming over to Torchwood, that's why they had him done away with. They just got to him a day before we did. A waste, for everyone. I was rather looking forward to... renewing our acquaintance."
She frowned. "You knew him?"
"Oh, yeah." Harkness's smile was all teeth. "Intimately."
"Told you he was queer," muttered Frank. "Sounds like his lot's been tweaking her Ahnen-thingie's tail a while."
Baverstock huffed a small laugh. "Sounds like he was doing a bit more than bloody tweaking it!"
"Enough!" Gentner turned on her heel, clearly disgusted. "Your perversions are not a subject that I have any interest in discussing, Captain. I will learn of them soon enough." She snapped a sharp order to the two guards at the door, and they hurried across to take an arm each and heave Morrison-Bell's limp and drooling form out of the chair. "You will meet with my little pet before the day is done."
"Wait, what are you going to do with him?" Kimber gestured towards Morrison-Bell as the taller guard threw the motionless body over his shoulder. "Chuck him out into the courtyard?"
"No. This remnant has served its purpose," Gentner said as their officer was carried from the room. "It will be given to the dogs they prefer their meat to be fresh."
"You sick bitch," Kimber snapped as the others voiced their protests, outrage lending them courage. Bert tried not to imagine how many others had met with the same fate, torn apart by the big black-and-tan beasts that he had seen accompanying the guards on occasion. He remembered hearing dogs in the distance that first night, barking and snarling somewhere in the darkness he had thought them to be fighting amongst themselves, but maybe they had been given one of Gentner's victims to devour alive....
He wondered if that was the fate that he would be facing. He wondered if he would even know it.
"I'm not letting you get away with this," Harkness said as they quieted all bar Bernie, who was still weeping at the back of the cell, his constant sobs setting Bert's teeth on edge. "I'm going to get out of this cage sooner or later, you know, and when I do "
"And then you will do what?" Gentner laughed. "I think, perhaps, that it may be time for another small demonstration. Do you not agree, Captain?"
"Demonstration of what?" Kimber demanded, then took a hasty step back from the bars as Gentner calmly drew her pistol from its holster. "Shit!"
"Captain Harkness is, I am assured, a man of quite remarkable talents." Her smile didn't touch her eyes. "Quite remarkable talents. And most valuable to whichever power holds his leash."
"You really trust everything your so-called 'intelligence' tells you?" Harkness snapped. "Because if they've got this one wrong, you "
"In this, they have not." Gentner raised the short-muzzled Luger, sighting along her arm and pulling the trigger with quick and brutal efficiency. Harkness's head snapped sharply back, a bloody splash painting the wall behind him as the sound of the shot crashed and echoed around the room, threatening to deafen them all. An instant later, his legs gave way and he collapsed into a limp and twitching heap, his blue eyes wide and vacant, rolled back as if trying to examine the small, neat hole punched through his forehead. Kimber cursed and scrambled to the fallen man's side. "There," Gentner said over the rising sounds of confusion, sounding absurdly pleased with herself. "Now you will wait. You will see."
"You just... you just shot him, you killed him!" Things were moving almost faster than Bert could follow, but death he understood. "If he was so bloody valuable to you, why would you do that?"
The look that Gentner threw him was withering. "You will wait. Your comrade is "
"Jesus!" Kimber jerked back as Harkness gasped convulsively, arching up from the stone floor before crashing down again, blue eyes wide and startled and very much alive. The wounds to his head were healing as if from the inside out, bone audibly snapping into place as blood and tissue drew back into his shattered skull. He made a choking sound, then rolled onto his side, hands coming up to cradle his now unmarked and uninjured head. Kimber stared. "How the fuck did he just...."
Gentner ignored him, gazing at Harkness in open and delighted fascination. "Yes, yes quite remarkable."
"He was dead!"
"Yes. And now he is not." Gentner looked at the gun in her hands with an expression of wonder. "Unglaublich. I shall look forward to examining this further if this gift might be harnessed to the service of the Reich...."
"How the hell did he do that?" Howcroft asked, moving to examine the groaning Harkness. "What she just people don't come back from that."
"Bloody hell," said Frank. "I knew he was Special Ops, but I didn't think he'd turn out to be that fucking special!"
"He's not human," McCormack said, stepping back and almost tripping over Bernie as the lad scrambled forward to see Harkness's apparent resurrection for himself. "He can't be. That wasn't... that isn't natural."
Gentner snorted. "Rest assured that the Ahnenerbe fully expects to discover what your Captain is or is not. He will prove to be most useful to us, I am sure, and his knowledge...." She stopped, her eyes glittering as she stared down at the man now moving onto his hands and knees with Howcroft's aid; to Bert's eye, she looked as though she was about to start dribbling in anticipation. "His knowledge will soon be mine; his and that of his Institute."
"So now you get the thing back out?" Bert heard himself ask. "Do him like you did Morrison-Bell?"
"In time. My little friend, he... she," she corrected with a small, pleased smile, "must rest now. As must I."
"Wait a second." Kimber stepped back up to the bars. "So, now we've all got a pretty fucking good idea of why Harkness here is so bloody valuable to you, but what about us, me and my men? Why are we here? If you didn't know who he was until he snapped the French girl's neck, you couldn't have known to take that particular wagon off the train."
"You were convenient," Gentner said dismissively. "We require prisoners in order to dissuade your bombers from targeting this castle and my work. Your carriage was at the end of the train and so was removed and diverted here."
"Told you so," Alfie said quietly.
"So he just " Kimber waved a hand at Harkness, who was carefully picking himself up off the floor with help from Howcroft and Lissowski, moving like a man with a ten ton hangover. "He knew?"
"That all those in your carriage would be brought here? Of course, that is why he arranged to be there with you." That small, cold smile played across her lips once more. "And do not think that those who aided you in that endeavour will escape unpunished, Captain."
Harkness glared at her and Bert suddenly recalled the tired young German army officer who had overseen their first rest stop, the one where 'Pete Favrell' had joined them. Allies, it seemed, could be found in the most unlikely of guises.
Even in a man apparently immune to death.
"So what about now?" Kimber pressed. "Why the fuck are we here, in this flaming cage? We don't have anything that you'd find useful even if you did go poking about in our blasted brains! Why drag us up here with him?"
Gentner laughed shortly. "Oh, you are of value, even in your ignorance." She turned her gaze on the rest of them and Bert found himself taking a step back, not wanting to attract her eye even without the thing on her head, the woman was bloody terrifying. "Your noble Captain cannot die, but you? Oh, you most assuredly can. And that small detail may make him more willing to be... cooperative. Observe."
The report of the pistol shot was just as loud as before, but this time it was young Bernie Traves who jerked and fell, collapsing back against Baverstock and McCormack with a wheezing gasp, the front of his tunic suddenly blossoming dark and wet. Bert almost fell over his own feet in his hurry to get to the lad as he was lowered to the floor, everybody talking at once curses, pleas, promises as they closed in around him, trying to help, to assess the injury, to see what they could do for him....
It was hopeless, of course. Bert knew that from the moment he got a good look at Bernie. The boy's face was pale, too pale, his brown eyes wide and desperate and confused. There was blood in his mouth, coating his teeth, bubbling free and coursing down over his chin as he tried to say something... and then his eyes glazed over and rolled back in his head as he went limp in Baverstock's arms, his last breath leaving him with a wet, rattling groan.
"Is he... is he gone?" Alfie asked in a small voice, his usually open and cheerful face now pinched with fear.
"Yeah, he's gone." Kimber reached to close Bernie's blank eyes, leaving bloody streaks across the boy's pale cheeks. "He's gone... Christ!" The corporal clenched his fists and surged to his feet, looking as though he wanted to kick or maybe kill something as he turned to face their tormentor. "What the fuck did he do to deserve ?"
But Gentner was already gone, the box containing her monstrous pet following her out through the doorway in the care of two SS soldiers. The two guards remained behind, moving back into their familiar places as the door swung shut with a hollow boom, shutting them in with the shock and the fear and the dread expectation of what might come next. Deprived of his preferred target, Kimber slammed his palms against the metal bars, then spun around to face Harkness. "You!" he snarled. "This is all your fucking fault!"
Harkness met his gaze, his blue eyes shadowed. "Like I said, I'm sorry that you and your men had to get involved, but right now... believe me, young Bernie there is the least of our problems."
"You think?" Kimber shoved Harkness back against the wall, hard. "Who the fuck are you?" he snarled. "Bad enough that sick bitch is here at all, but dragging my men into her evil little games to make sure you play nice? You don't mean a fucking thing to me and I'm damned sure we mean even less to you."
"Yeah, what the hell is going on?" The usually cheerful Alfie stepped up alongside Kimber, his youthful features painted with grief and fear and streaks of still-wet blood. We're just a bunch of gunners, nobodies, but now Bernie's dead for no good reason and we've got some mad Kraut cow trying to buy your obedience with our lives!"
Frank and Howcroft joined them, closing in on the only target left to them, shouting and shoving as Harkness stood with his back to the wall, seemingly daring them to throw the first punch. Bert held to the edge of the argument, not quite certain if he wanted to be a part of this, if he wanted to make a scapegoat of the only man who might hold the answers they so desperately needed. If things did get violent, he didn't much fancy Harkness's chances... but after seeing the man get up after taking Gentner's bullet, Bert rather doubted that they could keep him down for long.
And when he did recover, he'd likely be as angry at them as he was at Gentner, that dangerous edge finally unsheathed. And, unlike the SS officer, he was on the same side of the bars as they were....
Baverstock stood carefully, Bernie Traves's still body cradled in his arms. Walking the length of the cell, he crouched to gently lay the young gunner at the far end, arranging him as peacefully as he could before turning back to the others. "Leave the bugger be, lads," he said, sounding tired to his bones. "Ain't the time to be fighting 'mongst ourselves."
Kimber looked at him incredulously. "You think he's one of us?"
"More one of us than one of them," Bert volunteered, nodding at the guards, who ignored them utterly. "We want to find out what's going on here, right? Don't think we're going to get anything by smacking him about."
"Bernie's dead!" Alfie protested, anguished. "He "
"Harkness weren't the one put us in the flaming cattle wagon." Baverstock laid one large hand on Alfie's shoulder. "We'd have ended up here with or without him."
"But Bernie "
"Young Traves was half-cracked anyway," McCormack ventured. He'd been hanging back as well, as had Smolarek and Lissowski, the three of them not quite a part of the core group, not quite willing to blindly follow Kimber's lead. "I've seen it before not everybody is made for this life. In another camp he might have managed, or they'd have sent him home on a medical. Here, though... they'd have had him sooner or later, you mark my words."
"What? Whose fucking side are you all on?" Kimber glared as the group around Harkness suddenly broke up in confusion. He gave the target of his ire one last shove before turning away to lean against the bars. "Shit, shit, shit!"
Harkness pushed away from the wall, moving to stand at Kimber's side. "I know it's frustrating and I know that you want to lash out," he said quietly. "God knows, I want to. But we've got to pick our battles right now and we don't need to be fighting each other."
"No? Who the fuck else is there?" Kimber rested his forehead against cool metal. "Christ, Bernie... he was too fucking young to go like that."
"Too fucking young to go at all." Bert glanced across at the youngster's body, remembering the night they'd arrived at the castle. "I promised I'd get him back to his mum...."
"Yeah, well, sometimes promises get broken." Harkness turned to look at them all. "That's just the way the world works. It's not nice and it's not fair and it never plays by the rules. Only trick is to remember that you don't have to either."
Frank laughed bitterly. "All right for you to say, Mister Unkillable."
"Got to admit, though," Bert said, "that's certainly not playing by the rules...."
"Where there's life, there's hope." Harkness shrugged. "And I'm not the only one still breathing in here."
"You're the only one still breathing after taking a bullet through the brainpan," McCormack pointed out. "Doubt any of us would be so quick to get up again. So now what? We just wait for her to come back and pick someone else to use for target practice?"
Alfie slumped back against the wall, sliding down to sit on stone. "Not much else we can do, is there?"
"Course there fucking is." Kimber took a deep breath, composing himself, and turned to face them. "First of all, we can get this bastard to give us some sodding answers. I think we're owed, don't you?"
Bert nodded as the others made sounds of agreement. If they were going to die here, collateral in some secret battle between two organisations he'd never even heard of, then the least Harkness could do was fucking well tell them why. He had more than enough things he wanted to ask the man, never mind the rest of them.
Harkness hesitated, glancing pointedly towards the guards... then shrugged and sighed. "No, you're right you're owed. Go on, then; I'll tell you what I can."
"She called you 'Captain'?" Kimber started. "You're an officer?"
"After a fashion." Harkness said, then shook his head. "Truth is, there isn't really a word for what I am, Corporal."
"So that's how come you got so bloody chummy with the lieutenant, is it?"
"I heard him talking to Morrison-Bell, the day he joined us," Bert blurted out. "That night on the train the rest of you were asleep. He's why the poor sod suddenly grew a backbone."
"For all the good that did him in the end," Frank muttered.
Howcroft frowned. "That night, you said that you were there because you messed up but you didn't, did you?"
"Like the lady said...." Harkness shrugged again. "I had to get in here somehow."
"So, if you're here by design, if you didn't get captured why did you talk to Cecil on the train?"
"Honestly?" Harkness smiled sadly. "I just felt sorry for the poor bastard. People screw up it's just what they do."
Frank snorted. "Including you?"
A soft laugh. "Oh, you have no idea...."
"After watching you flap when you twigged that girl was a fucking test? I think we've got a pretty bloody good one." Kimber ran his hands over his face, then crossed the cell to drop down beside Alfie, extending his legs in front of him. "Might as well take the weight off, lads don't know how long the bitch is going to keep us waiting and I'm buggered if I'm going to stand around for the Nazi cow and her scaly little brainsucker."
One by one, they settled onto the flagstones, all of them shooting surreptitious glances towards Bernie's bloodied form, lying too close and far too still. Bert sat down cross-legged, arranging himself as comfortably as he could on the hard surface, his back to the bars and the chair that lay beyond them. He didn't want to look at the thing, didn't want the reminder of what had befallen Morrison-Bell, what would befall Harkness and who knew how many of the rest of them, if Gentner didn't just shoot them all out of hand.
He almost hoped that she would. After what had happened to the lieutenant, Bernie's death had been positively merciful.
Harkness was the last to sit, watching the rest of them as they settled around him, his expression inscrutable. Bert wasn't sure that he even wanted to know what was going through the man's mind, what he saw when he looked at them, tormentors or allies or dead men walking. They were locked inside a cage in a windowless chamber halfway up a solid stone tower in a heavily-guarded castle deep inside enemy territory there was no chance of escape, no hope of rescue, no way to even tell the passage of time. And god, wasn't that was a terrifying thought that they might never see sunlight again?
"She said that you belonged to a special unit," Kimber said as Harkness finally sat down between Bert and Smolarek, folding his legs beneath him. "An institute like hers."
"No." Harkness shook his head. "Not like hers. I'm a field agent for the Torchwood Institute."
"'Torchwood'?" Frank scowled. "Never bloody heard of it."
Harkness chuckled. "Yeah, well, that's the kind of way we like it...." He sighed and continued. "The Institute was founded by Queen Victoria to defend and protect the British Empire from threats beyond the normal run of despots and dictators."
"It's military?" Baverstock asked.
"Not exactly." Harkness shrugged. "We recruit from the military at times, and we'll make use of its firepower on occasion, but we're not a part of it."
"You hold a military rank," Howcroft pointed out.
"That's...." Harkness laughed. "Oh, I can't even begin to explain how complicated that is! But the point is that we're defenders. We don't have any ulterior motives beyond protecting what's ours. The Ahnenerbe they're a whole different kettle of fish. They're all about proving the supposed superiority of the Aryan race through whatever means comes to hand: historical, mythological, anthropological, scientific even the name translates as 'Ancestral Heritage'."
"All right," Kimber said after a moment. "So you've got your weird fucking Institute and she's got hers. How come you're here? Why the hell were you so keen to break into a sodding prisoner of war camp? Most people," he waved a hand at McCormack, "are desperate to break out of 'em!"
Harkness looked down at his hands for long moments, then seemed to reach a decision. "There have been some security breaches that could only have come from people on the ground," he said quietly, "people the Allies had every reason to trust wouldn't talk under pressure. Word would come back about their capture and then the effects would start being felt. There have been... losses, all small-scale so far, but that small erosion threatens the underpinnings of much larger concerns. You understand?"
"We need the undercover work to pave the way for the armies," Howcroft said, nodding. "One small piece of sabotage or insurrection at the right time and in the right place might save days of fighting."
"Might save hundreds of lives, you mean." Kimber looked ill. "So you your Institute thought the Nazis had some sort of new torture technique?"
"Technique or, more likely, implement." Harkness sighed. "This place had already been identified as the source of whatever information had been extracted before we were asked to intervene. Nobody knew what was happening here but there was a strong feeling that it was far outside of the ordinary. That brought it under Torchwood's jurisdiction. And where an understanding of torture methods is concerned... well, let's just say that I was the obvious person to send." He snorted. "And you have no idea how much I'm regretting that right now...."
"Probably about as much as we are," Bert said quietly.
Harkness quirked a small smile at that. "So I got in, found that I couldn't call out there's some form of passive wide-frequency electronic jamming device around here somewhere and got a good way through the planned recon when they threw out some bait."
"The girl," Baverstock said. "And you took it."
"Oh, yeah. Hook, line and sinker." Harkness tipped his head back, staring up at the rough plasterwork of the ceiling. "I should have known better. I really should. But there's only one thing leaves marks like that and I've seen it before, in a demonstration back when... well, a long time ago. There's nothing left once it's done. Nothing that can be salvaged, anyway."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence that followed that. Finally, Howcroft cleared his throat and asked, "How did they get a hold of the thing? I know she said something about Romania, but it didn't make a lick of sense."
"Her phrasing could have been better." Harkness frowned. "Hauptsturmfόhrer Gentner, insane as she is, was right on one thing: there are places where the fabric of the universe gets worn a little thin, where things people, creatures, machines can cross from one place and time to another, end up where they don't belong. They're the source of half the mythological fauna of the world." Harkness laughed softly, as if at some memory, then sobered again. "Our organisations exist to police such places, to control and contain whatever makes it through, making use of what we can and securing what we can't. Most things are small, harmless, but some... well, you've seen what happens when the wrong thing falls into the wrong hands."
"So it popped out of thin air?" Frank asked, incredulous. "Just landed in their laps?"
"Pretty much." Harkness shrugged. "The beast was likely collected by another branch of the Ahnenerbe and handed over to the Institut fuer Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung for evaluation, which would be how our ice queen got involved."
"But the... how did they work out what it does?" Alfie was frowning. "I mean, if you didn't know, why the hell would you let it anywhere near your head? I bloody wouldn't!"
"Nobody in their right mind would. But the Institut has a reputation for experimenting on those they consider expendable."
"Expendable." Kimber ran his hands back through his short, dark hair. "You mean like us."
Harkness just looked at him, his blue eyes sad and strangely old, and nodded. Bert supposed that they should be grateful for the man's honesty, if nothing else.
The awkward silence descended again, everybody lost in their own dark thoughts of mortality. Bert tried to imagine where Agnes was right now; tried to picture her smile, the sound of her laughter, the scent of her hair. He had reconciled himself to the possibility of dying in combat, but this... this was no kind of fight at all, this sense of being a helpless pawn in someone else's war. The need for action was almost overwhelming, but all that they could do was sit and wait....
"You guys know what 'Elsterberg' translates as?" Harkness said quietly, breaking the moment. "'Magpie Hill' or 'Magpie Mountain'." He snorted softly. "Appropriate, really our two organisations, Torchwood and the Ahnenerbe, are the biggest damned magpies there are. We hunt down the shiny things that come through from elsewhere and elsewhen and then we fly away with them, line our nests with mysteries and lies...."
"Very fucking poetic, Canuck," Kimber muttered, then frowned. "Are you even a bloody Canadian?"
Harkness blinked, then chuckled. "I've been to Canada, if that counts hell, I've even been to Winnipeg! just... not in a while."
"Great," snapped Frank. "He is a bloody Yank!"
"I'm British," Harkness said, rolling his eyes. "By adoption, perhaps, but British in every way that matters here. I live in Wales, for crying out loud!"
"Yeah?" Frank didn't look convinced. "Many otherworldly monsters in Taffyland, are there?"
A small, sad smile. "You'd be surprised."
"So what the fuck is that thing she's got?" Kimber asked after a moment. "The Urkie-whatever. What the hell did she...." He broke off, swallowing hard. "What did she do to the lieutenant? Christ knows I didn't like the bugger but he didn't deserve that...."
Harkness sighed and closed his eyes. "Urkrenis shet'li," he said softly. "Closest translation would be 'mind robber'."
"We saw." Lissowski looked up from where he had been staring at his boots. "It destroyed him, your officer. Same as the woman."
"But what is it?" Bert pressed. "Where's it from? Other than Romania, I mean."
Frank nodded. "And why did she have the thing perched on her head like some sort of fucking Easter bonnet?"
Harkness smiled at that description. "All right," he said, shuffling slightly on the spot as if trying to find a more comfortable way to sit on solid stone. "So, you really want to know what the thing is? It's an alien. It's from another world, another planet."
"What, like from fucking Mars?" Kimber looked askance at him. "That's impossible."
"You saw me take a bullet through the skull how much more impossible do you need?" Harkness shook his head. "It's from... look, the name really doesn't matter. But there's a world out there with forests a lot like ours and creatures that are... a bit like deer competitive males, fickle female harems, that sort of thing."
"Thing didn't look much like a deer to me," Baverstock muttered.
"Not the Okay." Harkness frowned, as if trying to work out where to start. "These deer-things six legs, three eyes and blue-green scales, but bear with me hold territories in their forests. They compete with their neighbours by making this booming noise, the deeper the better, and try to attract the females. But the girls... well, you know how they can be, always wanting to check out the boy-next-door. The girls aren't territorial and they like to wander. So the males have to try to keep 'em close."
"All right, Hugo Fucking Gernsback." Frank folded his arms across his chest. "So there's scaly six-legged deer out there somewhere. What have those got to do with the brain-sucker?"
Harkness raised an eyebrow, apparently impressed by something. "The 'brain-suckers', as you put it, are symbionts of a sort. They don't have any minds of their own to speak of, they just sit up in trees and, as the breeding season approaches, the sort-of-stags arrive to polish their mating spurs on the auxiliary trunks. When they do, our beastie there is ready for them."
"It eats their brains?" Alfie squeaked, then coughed and looked embarrassed.
"Not... exactly. Not at first." Harkness frowned, then raised one hand, fingers clawed, and clapped it down onto the back of Bert's head, gripping tighter as he started and tried to pull away. "Hold still a minute, Fletcher, I need you for demonstration purposes. So, our scary little friend there waits for a male to come along and when one does, it drops down and clamps onto his head."
"Like with the Nazi bitch?" Kimber asked.
"Exactly." Harkness nodded. "It settles itself over the skull with the shorter primary paddle over the front of the head in the deer-thing the tip would be in the open angle between the three eyes but it has to make do with a nose here and holds on tight. There are very fine neural connectors " he looked around at their blank expressions "er, things that dig into the skin and nerves, in the paddle. That's why our Hauptsturmfόhrer Gentner has those marks on her forehead. They're interface scars."
Howcroft looked aghast. "It's plugging itself into her?"
"Straight into the nervous system. So, it sits on the head and the tentacles with the secondary paddles come forward over the stag's shoulders." He released his grip on Bert's head and waved his hands to either side of his face. "When the females the does, if you like come along to examine their potential mate, the tentacles sweep forward and grab onto her head, like so " Large, warm hands latched firmly onto the sides of Bert's face, thumbs massaging gently at the back of his neck and sending a decidedly unwelcome thrill down his spine. "This establishes a form of hard telepathic conduit via the nervous system... a sort of mind-to-mind connection. It strips away the female's desire to seek other males, making her stay close to him until she's ready to mate."
"But it does not kill her?" Lissowski frowned. "The people, they die."
"The people aren't built for it." Harkness sighed and sat back, releasing Bert's head, finally allowing him to scuttle away, just out of reach of those large, warm and far too-familiar hands. "The deer-things are they all evolved together, it's a natural thing for them. The 'doe' stays with the 'stag', they mate, the line continues. At the end of the season, the female snaps out of it and goes off to lay her eggs, and our beastie drops off the male and crawls back up a tree until the next breeding season comes around."
"But what does it get out of it?" Frank was frowning. "The boy gets laid, the girl gets knocked up what does that creepy little fucker get? I'm pretty bloody sure it ain't doing all this out of the kindness of its little heart, if it even bloody has one."
"You're good!" Harkness grinned at him. "And he's right," he said to the others," there's always a trade-off. Always. The urkrenis shet'li feeds off of electrical potentials, but it can get those as easily from the trees as from the deer-things. The males with the symbionts stand a better chance of mating than those without, but the ones that don't pick up a passenger will probably get another crack at breeding the following year. The ones that do... well, they lose condition fast after the breeding season, which isn't all that surprising because they've got that thing's larvae eating them from the inside out. The eggs are inserted via the interface paddle and hatch in the brain, then work their way down to the gut, where they make like tapeworm "
"Ugh, I fucking hate tapeworm," Baverstock said, wrinkling his nose. "Slimy little bastards ruin the meat...."
" feeding in the gut. After a while they move onto the organs themselves and start stripping those out, one at a time. They won't kill the host until they're about ready to emerge. The 'stag' gets a month or so of fantastic sex on demand, but by the time the next breeding season rolls around, he's just so much scattered scale and bone...."
"That's disgusting," McCormack looked utterly repulsed.
Harkness shrugged. "That's nature. It does what it needs to survive, same as anything."
"Hold on." Kimber's brow was creased in concentration. "You think there's more of those fucking things, babies, living in her head?"
"Honestly?" Harkness snorted. "Body chemistry is too different even if something hatched in there, it wouldn't survive to maturity. Might drive her insane in the meantime, but hey how would anyone be able to tell?"
"Got that right," Frank muttered.
"So she's mad and has some supernatural wee beasties munching her brains," sighed McCormack. "Good to know, but doesn't much change that she's out there and we're in here, now does it?"
"No," Harkness admitted. "Not really."
They lapsed into silence once more, digesting what had been said, what it might mean for them. Harkness's explanations made no damned sense at all, with his tales of other worlds and scaly deer, and Bert's instinct was to dismiss them out of hand as the product of a scrambled mind and it bloody well ought to be scrambled, after taking a bullet clean through. But, just as Bert had seen that killing shot, he had also seen Harkness revive and heal within seconds, shaking death aside with little more than a shrug. Between that and the hellish creature that Gentner had draped over her head, never mind what it had done to poor Morrison-Bell....
After all of that, Bert believed every last word that Harkness had spoken. And that scared him even more because he knew damned well that the man was only telling them what he was because he didn't expect any of them to survive. They were mortal, even if he wasn't, and they had been marked as dead men from the moment they entered the tower. Hell, probably from the moment their cattle car had been selected for diversion to this place.
McCormack was right the knowing changed nothing that mattered. It just made it abundantly clear how little any of them really knew of the world.
Bert closed his eyes, thinking of Agnes, of little Millicent who he would never now see growing up. He hoped that she would be strong, be proud of her father's sacrifice, even if she never discovered what had befallen him. He hoped that she would remain free, that the war would end the right way and that she would have children of her own one day.
He hoped that, if one was a boy, she might think to name the lad for him.
At some point, Bert's roaming thoughts drifted into troubled dreams. In his mind's eye he could see Agnes and his parents standing with Patricia, his sister who had died in the Blitz, and Morrison-Bell, the four of them watching as little Millie played with Bernie and a large, oddly-undetailed dog. It was sunny, the heat of the day warm against their skins as they talked and laughed... and then fell silent, turning their faces to the skies as clouds gathered and darkened and squadrons of magpies with swastikas on their wing feathers swept down to attack, releasing many-legged scaly horrors from their claws and
"So you can't die?"
Kimber's quiet question jolted Bert back into wakefulness and he sat blinking as one nightmare faded out and another inexorably faded back in. He had no idea how long he had been dozing for but some of the others had shifted position in the meantime and now sat talking in low voices or staring into space or whispering quiet prayers to a deity that Bert wasn't sure he believed in any more. Shifting awkwardly to relieve the pressure on his aching tailbone, he turned his still-groggy senses to the nearest conversation.
Harkness had settled by the wall at some point, next to Kimber. He sighed, fiddling with his bootlaces. "No, I can't."
"So, how does that work?"
"Absolutely no idea." Harkness shrugged. "I died once, a long time ago... or a long time ahead, depending on how you look at it. It was a good death, too it meant something, sacrifice for the greater good, knowing that my death saved others...."
"And then?" the corporal pressed.
"Then I woke up and things got complicated." Harkness smiled sadly. "One day I'll find out what happened, but until then I've found myself a place and a cause to belong to. Which is all that any of us can ask for in the end, I guess."
"Yeah." Kimber stared down at his feet for long moments. "So... you can't physically die. But what about I mean, what happens if the Nazi bitch uses that thing on you like she wants to? Would it empty you out, same as it did Morrison-Bell? Would you just end up a drooling vegetable for eternity? Something for her sick fucking friends to poke at?"
"I don't know." The words were little more than a whisper and Bert had to strain to hear them. "I don't know and god knows that I'm no great hurry to find out. But I'll tell you this much I'm more worried about her getting hold of what's in my head than I am about ending up an incontinent shell. That's why she thinks I'm a prize she wants what I've got. And what I've got... well, trust me when I say it's not anything that needs to be in Nazi hands."
"It could change the course of the war?"
"A hundred times over, on every front. And Gentner damn well knows it." He raised a hand to tap the side of his head. "She gets at what's in here, she can name her prize from the Fόhrer. Even Torchwood isn't aware of half of what I know."
Kimber shook his head. "Fuck it, Fav Jack," he said heavily. "If it came down to it we could... ah."
"Yeah." Harkness sounded tired. "Noble suicide's not exactly an option here. Not for me. Never for me."
"Is there nothing that we can do?" Howcroft asked, and Bert suddenly realised that he wasn't the only one listening in on the conversation. "Nothing at all?"
"If we're dead anyway," Baverstock said, lifting his chin, "might as well go down fighting."
"If you want the fight, I'm not going to stop you." Harkness looked around at them all as they gathered round, pausing on each as if memorising their faces. "But so far I'm having no luck finding a plan that might make it count. Somehow, I don't think Gentner's going to let me get my hands on either her or her pet before she gets started. Of course, if she does...."
"There's got to be some fucking way to get out of here." Frank pushed himself to his feet, wincing as he walked stiffly to the bars and stared out at the chair. "I don't want that sodding thing near my head or anyone else's. Just fucking wrong, that is."
"You can't fight it off?" Bert asked. "I mean, you've seen it before, right? You probably know more about the scaly little bastard than she does."
"I...." Harkness closed his eyes. "I don't know. I've had training in resisting telepathic attack, yes, almost certainly more than anybody else on this planet has. But telepathy's not generally hands-on, by its nature a hard interface is a lot harder to deal with than a soft one."
They all stared at him. Kimber shook his head. "Would it help if we pretended we had the first fucking idea what you're on about?"
"I'm going down fighting," Harkness translated. "Physically, mentally I'm fighting it. And if I think of a plan, you'll be the first to know. Just... feel free to improvise in the meantime it's not just my neck on the line here."
"No," McCormack said simply. "It's the whole blasted world's."
There wasn't much more that could be said beyond that, so they settled back down to wait, each of them trying to think of some way that they might be able to get themselves or at least Harkness out of this in one piece.
Bert was brought out of another scrambled and troubled dream by a noise from the door, the same hollow thump as had announced Gentner's earlier arrival sounding through the chamber once more. He had no idea how much time had passed since they had first been locked in their cage, no idea if it was still light outside or the middle of the night, although the twisting emptiness in his stomach told him that the dinner hour was long past. Somehow, food seemed like one of their more minor problems.
"You will stand for Hauptsturmfόhrer Gentner!" the taller guard barked once more, drawing a chorus of groans and curses from the men trapped behind their bars. Bert's legs protested the movement as he levered himself to his feet, cramped muscles uncoiling with an effort, but his heart was hammering hard against his ribs as the door was pulled open and the blonde woman strode into the room. She had brought her pet with her this time, its box carried by two of the unsmiling young soldiers, and she turned as it was set down on the table, gazing at her captives with a small, cold smile.
"Good evening, Captain," she said by way of preamble. "I trust that you have made your peace with whichever deity you recognise."
"Haven't you heard?" Harkness stepped up to the bars. "There are no gods, sweetheart only monsters."
Gentner raised a pale eyebrow. "So speaks one of their number?"
"Takes one to know one."
"Perhaps." Gentner looked almost absurdly pleased with herself. "I have been preparing myself, Captain; preparing for what I might take from you. Such a treasure you are I can think of no other that I would rather have before me."
"Believe me when I say that there are plenty of others I'd rather be looking at right now...."
"How unfortunate for you." She smiled. "I shall be most interested to see the effect of my pet's touch on one of your nature. You are not so schwach, so fragile as the others. I might yet know you more than once...."
"In your dreams!" Harkness's grip on the bars tightened. "I'm not that sort of boy."
"Really?" Gentner laughed in sudden delight. "That is not the tale that I have heard."
Harkness was rattled, Bert realised, for all that he tried to cover it with defiance. Gentner held the position of strength here and she knew it, glorying in her victory even before it had been won. Taking a deep breath, Bert glanced at the others, seeing fear and grief and resolute determination written across the faces around him. Catching Frank's eye, he exchanged a small smile with his friend, a moment of silent and mutual understanding that they would do whatever was needed of them in whatever time they had left.
They were dead men anyway they might as well make it count.
Apparently tired of baiting her prize, Gentner turned away from the cage. "I had always hoped that I would meet you one day, Captain," she said, opening the crate that contained her monstrous pet. "But that I might be the one to finally best you, to break you? Ah, that was a dream that I did not dare to entertain."
"You've not won yet," Harkness said, his tone redolent with threat. "If you think I'm just going to roll over and give up, you've got another thing coming."
"I would expect nothing less of you, Captain." Gentner lifted the beast from its straw bed, picking stray pieces of hay from its scaly hide as it struggled and thrashed in her grasp. "The fight may be hopeless but that does not make the battle any less fierce, no?" She lifted the creature over her head and lowered it onto her scalp, closing her eyes as it found its position and made its connections. "The throes of a wounded, desperate animal are always the most dangerous, the most challenging to its hunter. I expect this to be true of your adopted homeland once our forces take it for the glory of the Reich. Fear not, we shall prevail."
"You evil " Bert found himself up against the bars, cold fear and fury coiling in his gut as he reacted to her words, the old nightmare of German tanks on the streets of London suddenly all too real. The others surrounded him, their voices mingling in anger, and Bert knew that they were being played, that this was nothing more than a cat playing with a cornered, crippled mouse. But it was impossible not to react, even when that cold, cruel smile curved across her features once more. "You're not going to get away with this!"
"No? Who is there to stop me?" There was triumphant gleam in her eyes as she opened them again, the alien beast finally settled against her skull. She turned to the guards the two familiar faces at the door and the pair who had brought the box and its otherworldly contents. "Bring him to me. Now."
"Not fucking likely," Kimber snarled. He looked around at the others, then at Harkness. "She wants you, it's over my dead fucking body."
"Be careful what you wish for, Corporal." Harkness watched as Gentner and her men drew their sidearms... but while Gentner kept her Luger in her hand, the men laid first their submachine guns and then their pistols on the tabletop. He swore softly. "There goes Plan A."
"Is there a Plan B?" Alfie asked hopefully.
"Not as such...."
Guns set aside, the guards approached the cage carrying short, solid-looking batons, like policemen's truncheons. Bert looked at the men warily, weighing the odds they had the numbers, certainly, but the Germans were well-fed and strongly-built and, even if they weren't carrying guns themselves, they had Gentner as back-up. "Well, was nice knowing you, lads," he murmured softly as the key scraped in the lock. "Here goes nothing...."
The guards surged into the cell, one holding back to stop any attempts on the door while the other three laid into the men who quickly positioned themselves in front of Harkness. Suddenly reckless, Bert threw himself at one of the Germans with a yell and managed to get a solid boot into the man's shin before the cosh swung down, hard, and he twisted, taking the blow to his shoulder rather than to his head. The force of the impact sent him down to his knees and he rolled aside to avoid being trampled, scrambling up only to hear a gunshot ring out over the shouting. Someone screamed, the sound desperate, and Bert threw himself back into the confused fray, trying to get hold of one of the grey-uniformed men and being thrown off once more. There was a sudden wet snap of bone from somewhere nearby, another explosive shot, and then the frantic scrum seemed to dissolve as the guards dragged a heavy form free of the chaos, a third bullet from Gentner's pistol cracking sharply against stone just over Bert's head, dissuading anybody from attempting to follow the bloody smears now leading to the cage door.
Bert slumped back against the wall, one hand coming up to grip his bruised arm as he tried to make sense of what the hell had just happened. Kimber was suddenly at his side, bloody hands peeling Bert's fingers away from cloth. "Fuck it, Fletcher, did the bitch wing you?"
"What?" Bert blinked, then realised what was being said and pulled his hand away from his shoulder. "No, just took a thump. Who ?"
"Smolarek," Kimber said grimly, "then Harkness. Not before he put paid to one of the bastards, though."
Bert looked around. One of the guards the one whose shin Bert had assaulted lay slumped in the middle of the cell, his grey eyes wide in a head that rested at an utterly unnatural angle. The others, bruised and scraped and bleeding, were gathered around a writhing, gasping form Smolarek, bleeding out from a bubbling chest wound as Lissowski and Alfie tried hopelessly to stem the flow of red. "Fuck."
"Aleksy's had it he ain't going to last five minutes, poor bastard." Kimber shook his head grimly. "We've got bigger fucking things to worry about, though."
The surviving guards had retrieved their weapons and were arranging Harkness's limp form on the chair from the looks of it, Gentner had managed to put a bullet between his ribs. With the body arranged to the woman's apparent satisfaction, one of the men was sent to stand outside the door, while the other two positioned themselves close to the chair and its unmoving burden.
"Now what?" asked Bert, pushing himself to his feet. "What's she waiting for? She's got him where she wants him."
"Thing don't like the taste of the dead, remember?" Kimber walked up to the bars, staring out at the tableau before them: the body slumped in the chair, the guards flanking it warily... and Gentner her expression as excited and eager as any child at Christmas, the tentacles of her freakish pet swaying and weaving over her shoulders standing poised behind Harkness's head like a viper reader to strike. "She's got to wait for him to wake up."
"Taking his time, ain't he?" Baverstock joined him, McCormack and Frank following on the big man's heels. "Was up in fucking seconds when she shot him in the head."
"Maybe it depends on how he dies?" Bert suggested.
Kimber snorted softly. "Maybe she fucked up and he's staying dead this "
What came next was fast, confused. Harkness suddenly convulsed, his eyes snapping open as he gasped back into life, and the two long tentacles of the alien creature reared up and swung forward, clamping themselves against his temples. Harkness shrieked, the sound high and desperate, and the taller of the guards took two quick steps back, as if determined to make sure the beast couldn't reach for him....
Two steps back from the beast. Two inches too close to another danger entirely.
"Plan A," Baverstock said simply, reaching out through the bars with one long, muscular arm to hook his fingers into the back of the guard's collar. The man didn't have time to do more than yelp before he was hauled back, hard, the back of his head meeting Baverstock's huge fist coming in the other direction with lethal force.
The shorter guard spun on his heel as he heard the crack of bone, bringing up his gun to put a bullet between Baverstock's eyes. The big man and the dead guard went down together, one on either side of the bars. Kimber dove down beside the two bodies as the others scattered, using the corpses for shelter as he scrabbled at the guard's holster. More bullets slammed into Baverstock and the guard's slumped forms as Kimber finally managed to get the pistol free, bringing it up one-handed
To put a shot clean through the centre of Harkness's chest.
The tentacles jerked sharply back as Harkness died once more, and Gentner had to duck behind her chair to avoid Kimber's next shot. McCormack charged forward, trying to free the strap of the dead guard's submachine gun, but was almost immediately thrown back as its fellow was brought to bear by the surviving guard, tearing through the Scot's broad body in a spray of blood and lead. Kimber yelped as he was hit, losing his grip on the pistol as the force of the bullet spun him around. The gun skidded across the floor of the cell, skittering across stone to fall to Alfie Arnolds; young, cheery, crack shot Alfie
Who immediately dispatched first the guard in the room and then the one who had been guarding the door as he pushed in to find out what the hell was going on.
"Jesus will someone get that fucking machine gun and the keys!" gasped Kimber, clutching at his wounded shoulder. Bert forced himself into motion from where he'd been trying to shelter at the back of the cell, working with Frank and Howcroft to haul McCormack and Baverstock's corpses aside. Gentner was still crouched behind the chair and Harkness's slumped body, her previously triumphant expression now replaced by one of horror and frustration. The creature on her head was thrashing its long tails back and forth as if in protest at its abrupt disconnection, throwing her off-balance as she pawed at her own gun. Her fingers didn't seem willing to obey her, however, fumbling uselessly as she cowered, desperately trying to stay out of the line of fire.
"Look at her it's like last time," Frank said as he tried to work the huge ring of keys free from the guard's belt. "Fucking thing scrambles her brain."
"Question is did it scramble his?" Bert, struggling with blood-slickened buckles and straps, nodded at Harkness. The man in the chair had stopped bleeding but with his wounds beneath his ruined shirt there was no way to see how fast he was healing. "It was only on him for a matter of seconds, surely he's not lost anything from that?"
"Got it!" Frank held the keys aloft triumphantly and threw them to Howcroft, who set to finding the one that fitted the lock. He crouched to help Bert with the submachine gun. "Now, if we can just get this fucker free, we can nail the Kraut bitch and "
Harkness suddenly jerked back into life with a gasp, sitting bolt upright in the chair and looking around in obvious confusion. Bert stopped his struggles with the gun straps, wondering if the transfer had somehow completed after all... but a moment later Harkness's face cleared and he looked at Bert and the others with clear recognition.
And then he went hunting.
Gentner scrambled back as Harkness rolled out of the chair, still struggling to free her pistol from its holster. He looked oddly wobbly himself as he closed in on her, but his coordination seemed to improve with each prowling step. "Told you I was going to get out of that cage, didn't I?" he said, closing the distance between them. "You wanted to know if I was a monster. Guess you're about to find out...."
"Nein!" Gentner managed to draw the Luger at the last moment, bringing it up... only to have it knocked aside as Harkness caught her wrist in one hand, grabbing for the seeking tentacles with the other. Her eyes went wide as he squeezed one of the long tails hard between his thumb and forefinger, just beneath the leaf-like tip, pressing down until Bert could hear something pop from the other side of the chamber. The tentacle swung away wildly, its last section hanging limp and useless, bleeding green as Gentner shrieked. "Nein! No! You cannot "
"Oh, but I can, sweetheart." Harkness twisted the gun out of her grasp, then caught the second tail and crushed it like he had the first. "There now looks like you're not getting anything out of my head other than what I want you to know. And funnily enough, I don't seem to be in a terribly chatty mood right now."
The cage door swung open with a clank as Howcroft finally located the right key. They almost fell over one another in their haste to get out, those of them that were left Bert, Frank, Howcroft, Alfie, Lissowski and the injured Kimber stumbling into the other half of the room with a sense of desperate relief. Frank and Howcroft moved to drag the door guard fully into the room, closing the chamber firmly behind them as Bert and Lissowski stripped the dead men of their weapons. Alfie looked set to go after Gentner, but Kimber stopped him with a sharp shake of his head. "Not our fight, lad, not this one. Let the Captain do what he needs to."
"You... you would waste all that potential?" Harkness had Gentner backed up against the wall now, the thrashing beast still clinging to her scalp. She raised her chin, her expression hardening. "You would harm "
"I told you I'm here to kill it, not capture it." He cocked an eyebrow, batting at one of the flailing tentacles. "Besides, look at it. It's crippled, useless to you now. And what are you without it? What is this place without it? You didn't just get handed a castle as a perk, did you? The whole camp is just a cover to hide the existence of this room, close enough to the front to keep any information gleaned vaguely current. You're only here so long as you're considered useful. So long as it's considered useful."
"I am more than just this... this thing." Gentner reached up to pull the wounded creature from her head but it clung on for dear life, the short legs visible flexing against her skull. Her face contorting in fury and fear, she dropped her hands and snarled, "I am a Hauptsturmfόhrer of the Ahnenerbe "
"Oh, please. You're a woman in the SS. You were only given the urkrenis shet'li because you were considered expendable." Harkness quirked a smile. "What did it matter if it drove you mad or ate you alive? Your life was of no great value to your masters. Shame you're not a part of Torchwood we know how to treat our ladies right."
"Burg Elsterberg is "
"Under your personal command? Is that why you hardly ever set foot outside of this tower?" He laughed, then smiled savagely, stepping closer. "Face it, Frδulein, your little friend isn't the only convenient pet around here."
"As if you do not wear Britannia's collar," Gentner spat, rallying. "Does it not chafe, Captain?"
"Perhaps it did, once, but now I think it kind of suits me." The smile spread. "And suits a damned sight better than your taste in hats."
"A creature such as yourself could be a king, a god if he so chose!"
"Yeah? Maybe I could. If I so chose." Grabbing her throat, he pressed her back against stone, ignoring the tentacles that batted helplessly at his face. "But guess what? I don't."
"Then you are a fool," she gasped, struggling, clawing at his bloodied shirt. "Ein Dummkopf...."
"A fool whose brain you were ready to strip-mine five minutes ago." Harkness shook his head and brought the pistol up, pressing it into the soft skin beneath her jaw. "Time's up, sweetheart. I've got places to be."
"You cannot escape the castle!" Gentner hissed, squirming desperately against him. "Your men will be slaughtered like dogs and you will be dragged to Berlin in chains and your secrets "
"Think I'll take my chances. Goodnight, Hauptsturmfόhrer."
Bert watched, the door guard's submachine gun a welcome weight in his hands, as Harkness pulled the Luger's trigger and a violent spurt of mingled red and green splashed across stone. Gentner's body dropped as the grip on her throat was released, the creature on her head sliding free to drop limply to the floor. Harkness bent to lift it by one of the broken tentacles, examining the ruined body for a moment before dropping it back to the floor and stamping on it hard with one booted foot. He kicked the thing aside. "It's over."
"It's dead?" Alfie asked, taking a tentative step forward. "You're sure?"
"Fucking well should be after getting a bullet clean through," Frank said, moving to look at Gentner's corpse where it lay slumped against the wall. "That goes for her too not looking quite so bloody cocky now, is she?"
"Neither would you, Milton, with your brains painted halfway up the sodding wall." Kimber winced, clutching at his injured shoulder. "We sure the bitch ain't just going to get up and start over again in a minute?"
"That one's my party trick trust me, she's staying dead." Taking a deep breath, Harkness turned away from the woman's body and raised his head to look around the room, his features unreadable as he took in the blood and bodies. As Bert watched, he shook his head and swallowed hard. "Wow. When I said that you guys should feel free to improvise...."
"Was Baverstock set it in motion," Kimber said gruffly, glancing across to where the big man lay sprawled. "Rest of us we just followed his lead and played it by ear. Amazed as many of us made it as did."
Harkness nodded. "Thank you," he said simply. "All of you."
"Yeah, well they don't call us in the Middlesex Regiment the 'Die-hards' for nothing." Bert clutched his gun against his chest. "Better to go down fighting than wait for those bastards to suck our brains out, right?"
"We got if off you in time?" Howcroft asked. "It was only on you a matter of seconds, but the noises you were making...."
Harkness nodded and tapped the side of his head. "Everything's where it should be, I think." He looked down at his bloodstained shirt, fingering the hole that lay just over his heart. "You shot me first?"
"Priority was to get the freaky little bastard off and it didn't seem to like you dead." Kimber snorted, then winced again. "Besides," he added, with a ghost of a smile. "Told you I'd fucking kill you, didn't I?"
"Yeah, guess you did." Harkness tipped his head back and closed his eyes. "Thank you," he said again. "I know this isn't the war you signed up to fight "
Kimber shook his head. "We signed up to kick the Nazis' arses. All this shit might be bloody weird, but it still counts. Now we just need to get the fuck out of here."
"Yeah." Harkness took a deep breath and when he opened his eyes he was all business again, stepping over Gentner's body as he stalked around the chamber, suddenly every inch an officer. "Right, we need to work out what we have in here that might be useful and create a plan of attack. Gentner's dead, but she'll have notes, papers, perhaps other items that shouldn't be in Ahnenerbe hands. Given that she never seemed to leave this tower, they've got to be in here somewhere."
Frank frowned. "We have to destroy it all?"
"Everything." Harkness stopped and looked across at them. "And by 'everything', I mean the whole damned mediaeval pile."
They all stared at him. "You have got to be fucking kidding me," Kimber said at last. "You want to blow the entire bloody castle?"
"That's... ambitious," Howcroft muttered.
"You fucking said it." Bert looked around, feeling the rush of adrenaline fade. They were out of the cage now... but those who had survived that small escape were still stuck inside a windowless room halfway up a stone tower in an SS-controlled castle on the wrong side of the sodding Rhine. He shifted uncomfortably and glanced towards the door. "Where the hell are they? After the amount of racket we made, shouldn't we be having company by now?"
"Doubt anybody downstairs even realises Hauptsturmfόhrer Gentner has been relieved of her command yet," Harkness said. "This room is effectively soundproofed thick stone walls, flagstone floor, no windows, heavy door, high up... you kind of get the feeling that nobody much wanted to listen to the screams. And I'd be willing to bet that they were told to expect some shooting."
Frank snorted. "They're going to twig sooner or later, though. And when they do, they ain't going to take it well."
"No, they're not, but for now we still have the element of surprise." Harkness looked around. "Okay, I'm counting four submachine guns and five pistols. Three uniforms in reasonably unbloodied condition, enough to pass an initial glance at least. Washstand in the corner, boys get cleaned up as best you can. This isn't going to be pretty."
"Like anything about this whole fucking mess has been so far." Kimber leaned heavily against the table. "Shit...."
"Let me take a look at you." Harkness stepped up beside the corporal and gently prised his hand away from his injured shoulder. He frowned as he carefully pulled blood-soaked fabric away from the wound. "Ouch you're really going to be feeling this later."
"I'm bloody well feeling it now. And you think there's even going to be a later for us?" Kimber muttered in response, not quite softly enough, and Bert frowned as he turned to look at them. Kimber's shirt was a bloody mess down one side but he was still on his feet and talking and that had to count for something, surely.... "You a fucking doctor as well?"
"Me?" Harkness laughed softly as he examined the wound. "No. Not even close. But I've seen, taken or inflicted pretty much every injury known to man in my time I know how the human body is put together and I know how to take it apart." He stood back, wiping his hands on his own bloodied shirt. "You've got a shattered collarbone and the bullet's made a mess of the soft tissue but seems to have missed anything vital it isn't going to kill you directly but the sooner you get some medical attention, the better."
"Tell me something I don't fucking know," Kimber hissed between clenched teeth as he straightened, his good hand going back to the wound. "It'll keep for now. Has to. We've got bigger things to worry about."
Bert couldn't disagree with that. His own bruised shoulder throbbed as he cleaned blood he had long since lost track of whose from his hands, the water in the washbasin already a deep pink before he'd even got to it. Harkness followed him, stripping off his shirt and vest as he washed himself down, the crusted crimson over his heart wiping away to reveal smooth, unblemished skin beneath.
"Good as new, huh?" Harkness grinned at him and Bert blushed and looked away, embarrassed to have been caught watching. "Whatever happens, it all just snaps right on back to the factory settings...."
"Does that mean " Howcroft stopped and looked at Harkness, then frowned. "Gentner said something about you fighting 'in this war and the last'? The last? You fought in the Great War?"
"Fuck." Frank turned and stared. "How bloody old are you?"
Harkness shrugged. "Older than I look."
"We already got that part," Alfie chimed in. "But how old?"
"Let's just say that while it's technically possible that there are older folks alive out there, I can pretty much guarantee that they won't be looking this good on it." Harkness moved across to the body of the headshot door guard, assessing the state of the man's uniform with a swift, raking glance before he started to strip him with quick, methodical movements. "Okay, let's see about getting out of here. I can do any talking that's needed, but we can do more damage if I'm not the only one in costume." Harkness looked up from his task. "Bert, Frank you two look about the right size. Get the uniforms off those "
"Er, this don't fucking wipe off, you know." Frank held up one dark hand. "Don't think any of the buggers are going to mistake me for one of these lads, uniform or no."
Harkness blinked at him. "Ah, good point. All right Alfie, you're up. Ignore the one by the bars he's too shot up to be worth it. Concentrate on the others, quick as you can. I'd say to get Gentner's too, but I don't think any of us quite have the, ah," he sketched out curves with his hands, "landscaping to carry that off...."
They all laughed, if a little nervously, grabbing onto the warped humour to distract them from what they were doing, from stealing the clothes off the backs of dead men. Bert felt oddly disconnected as he worked, Frank and Lissowski helping him to manhandle the guard whose neck Harkness had broken. He had no idea what was coming next or if any of them bar the apparently indestructible Torchwood agent had a hope in hell of surviving it, but doing nothing wasn't an option and he'd rather go down fighting if he had to go at all.
The too-high, too-shiny boots pinched uncomfortably as Bert hauled them on, cramping his toes and all but cutting off the blood to his feet as he tried to tuck the grey trousers beneath black leather. "No fucking wonder they all look like they've been sucking on lemons if they have to march around in these buggers all day," he muttered, batting at Frank as he fiddled with the sidecap. "Call this a bloody uniform?"
"I think we can safely say that the SS is far more concerned with image than practicality." Harkness looked almost scarily convincing in his purloined outfit, tugging at the slightly-too-short sleeves for a few moments before adjusting the position of his holster. Finally satisfied with his disguise, he looked around. "You boys ready?"
"Ready? You must be bloody kidding." Alfie looked scared but utterly determined. "Shit, shit, shit...."
"Okay, here's the plan." Harkness flashed a smile. "We need to locate Gentner's office she has to have quarters here in the tower and they're likely directly above or directly below this chamber. From the distance we climbed to get here, my money's on below."
"What about above?" Howcroft asked.
"Gun emplacement has the high spot and the level below will be ammunition and supplies. We'll need to blow that at some stage, but that office has to be the priority. After we've taken care of that, we work down, take out each level as we go." Harkness looked at each of them in turn. "Just follow my lead, and if anybody gives you grief, shoot them. Any questions?"
"Can we just fucking well get on with it?" Kimber said shortly. He looked pale to Bert's eyes, his injury leaching the strength from him. "They're going to be checking up here sooner or sodding later."
"Just a couple of final details." Harkness lifted one of his discarded boots, turning it over in his hands and twisting the heel to reveal a hidden compartment. He pulled something metallic from it, tucking it carefully into a breast pocket. "Comms, amongst other things," he said by way of explanation, dropping the boot onto the table. "Usually carry it on my wrist but that would have been asking for trouble here, given their fondness for watches."
Howcroft looked fascinated. "It's a radio? So small?"
"Well, can't say that I much fancied lugging a full field unit about." Harkness crouched by Gentner's body, tugging something from her belt, then strode across to the massive Nazi flag that hung across one wall. The item he'd taken turned out to be a small, black-handled dagger that he used to cut away a square of crimson material. "All right, Corporal," he said, returning to the table. "Let's see if we can't make you a little more comfortable."
With Frank and Lissowski helping to get Kimber's arm into its makeshift sling, Harkness stood back, casting an assessing eye over his motley little army. "Okay, lads," he said at last. "What's coming next... well, it isn't going to be pretty. This isn't just about making sure that we get out it's about making sure that a lot of other people don't. I'm sure I don't need to remind you about the reputation of the SS or what you've seen in this place the men shot to make a point, the dogs and their taste for living flesh. But I do need you to remember all that because, from here on out, we're assassins and you can't afford to hesitate in pulling the trigger. Understood?"
Bert nodded numbly, trying not to think about any of it too hard. War was about fighting, and too often about killing, but the thought of fighting in close quarters, face to face with the enemy, being able to see their eyes....
And then he remembered the sound of the dogs snarling and barking on that first night, thought about the damage that Gentner's work might yet do, thought about the world that he wanted his Millie growing up in, and his resolve hardened. He could do this. He had to.
What other choice was there?
"What about the other prisoners?" Alfie asked. "What if they've already been locked in for the night?"
"If we can get them out, we will," Harkness promised. "But just remember that with Gentner and her pet gone, the entire purpose of this place gone, they're expendable as far as the Nazis are concerned. There's nothing we can do that will make their situation worse."
"You hope," Kimber said in the quiet that followed Harkness's words.
"Yeah. I hope." Harkness took a deep breath and tugged at his sleeves again. "Right then, gentlemen. Shall we?"
The stairwell was empty and utterly quiet as Howcroft heaved the heavy door open, the stark lighting throwing hard-edged shadows against stone. Bert cautiously followed Harkness out of the room, clutching his submachine gun close he and Alfie were armed with both the automatic weapons and the Luger pistols; Harkness, taking the lead, carried only the sidearm and the dagger, while the others shared the remainder of the guns out between them. He had no idea how much ammunition they had Gentner's gun, at least, had to be half-empty but if things went as planned, then they'd hopefully pick up some more weaponry along the way.
Bert didn't think too closely on where they might pick it up from. He'd deal with that once they got there.
Harkness led the way down the stairs, moving with considerably more confidence than Bert felt. Down, down, the spiralling stairs threatening to play havoc with Bert's sense of balance, but then they were on a short landing facing another solid wooden door, this one marked with some German word in an ornate script that Bert couldn't even begin to read. Harkness glanced back over his shoulder with a grin this, presumably, was what he had hoped to find and rapped once on the door.
There was a pause, seconds seeming to last for hours, and Bert began to think that the room might be empty... but then the door was pulled open and a thin, balding man with wire-framed spectacles peered out. There was a brief exchange in German, Harkness's accent seemingly perfect, then the balding man shrugged and stepped aside, ushering Harkness into the room with a frown. Bert and Alfie glanced at one another and followed him in, the door swinging closed behind them.
There was a second man, more heavy-set than the first, reading through papers at a large and ornate desk. He looked up, frowning... then collapsed back in his chair with an expression of utter surprise on his face as Harkness's shot caught him square in the temple. Bert gaped at the suddenness of the attack, then spun around as the balding man shrieked, "Verrδter!" and reached for his sidearm
It really was quite amazing just how much damage a lightweight submachine gun could do inside three seconds. Bert stared down at the weapon in his hands, not quite believing what he had just done. "Bloody hell...."
"Good work, Fletcher," Harkness clapped a hand on his shoulder and moved to pull the door open to let in the others, who had been waiting just out of sight on the stairs. "Okay, lads. Let's see what they've been up to, shall we?"
What the Ahnenerbe had been up to seemed to mostly consist of writing vast reams of reports, some handwritten, some typed, some containing photographs and diagrams. Harkness sat on the edge of the desk and immediately set to rifling through the paperwork, frowning and muttering to himself as he went. The rest of them, unable to read a word of German, began to poke around the rest of the chamber, always with one eye on the door. The room was the same size as their previous prison but far better appointed, with plastered and painted walls that held numerous bookcases and cabinets, along with a large and ugly portrait of Hitler that hung behind the desk. There was a wide, leather-topped table in the centre of the room, its surface covered in files and books, and four windows, tall and narrow, beyond which....
"Fuck me what time is it?" Frank asked, staring out at the darkness beyond the glass. "No wonder I'm bloody starving!"
"About a quarter past ten," Howcroft said, pointing to a clock that hung by the door. "Lights'll be out back in the barracks."
"There'll have been a guard change at about the time Gentner came up to us." Harkness didn't look up from his papers. "We're still early in the shift hopefully we won't be bumping into anybody on the stairs. If we do, we just "
"Shoot them. We know." Bert glanced down at the bloody remains of the balding man and swallowed hard. "What do you want us to do now?"
"Now...." Harkness frowned, then pushed the papers aside and stood, pulling the silvery device from his pocket. His fingers danced briefly over the thing's surface, a flash of blue illuminating his face as he slowly turned in place. "Oh, yes.... We've got some prizes in here, all right...."
"We do?" Alfie looked around the room. "Where?"
Harkness laughed, bringing the device back around, retracing its arc. "Their own little chamber of horrors, by the look of it." He tapped something twice, frowned, then slipped the tiny machine back into his pocket. "The cabinet up against the wall there. Would have gone for a dungeon store, myself, but that could just be force of habit...."
The cabinet in question was made of dark polished wood, tall and wide, with fussily carved decoration adorning its edges. It seemed to contain an improbable number of drawers and doors, with three wide shelves in the centre, the upper two of which held a variety of jars and vases and boxes. The lowest and deepest of the shelves was empty, but to Bert's eye, the unused space matched the size of the brainsucker's box. "They kept the scaly bugger here?" he asked.
"Looks that way." Harkness strode across to the cabinet, the rest of them gathering nervously around, and started throwing open doors. Bert could see the padded curves of velvet lining within, the material cradling objects that seemed utterly random to Bert's eye pieces of stone and ceramic, the occasional gleam of metal. Harkness was frowning, occasionally reaching in to examine something before abandoning it and moving on. At one point he drew in a sharp breath as he opened a drawer, a look of utter delight on his face... but then he lifted the item long and thin, with odd-looking bulges at intervals along its length and what looked almost like a stock at one end and his face fell. "Crap."
"What?" said Kimber shortly. The corporal had settled into a chair beside the big table and now sat there listlessly flipping through one of the files. "Not what you wanted?"
"What I wanted? Hell, yes. But it's broken power unit's missing and the core's in pieces." There was an odd, tinkling rattle as Harkness shook the thing. "Shame Tu'oth plasma cannon: we could have set fire to stone with one of these babies, along with anything else that got in our way...."
"But if we could, then so could they, right?" Alfie asked. "So it's probably just as well it doesn't work, or else they'd have already used it."
Frank rolled his eyes. "There goes our Alfie always seeing the bright side of bloody everything."
Harkness smiled as the others laughed, resuming his search for whatever it was that he was looking for. Two more drawers, several of the wooden boxes, and then he tugged open a door and immediately snatched up what lay within. "Wow. Now this...."
Bert leaned in trying to see. "What is it?"
"According to the label here, it's a 'dark metallic sphere with runes and indentations; collected Saaldorf origin unknown; ceremonial?'" Harkness chuckled. "They really do have no idea. Amateurs."
"So what is it?"
Harkness positioned the sphere a matt black object a little smaller than a cricket ball in the fingers of his left hand, balancing it just so as he stroked the etched patterns on its side and then tapped the top sharply. There was a sound like a high-pitched chirp, and a ring of brilliant green lights, as fine as pinpricks, lit up around its middle. "It's primed, is what it is, but you need to know how to handle one of these babies right in order to get it to do anything at all." Another tap, this time to one of the indentations on the side, and the lights went out. "Right, that's one...."
The remainder of the cabinet yielded nothing that Harkness considered useful. Bert watched as he took his mysterious prize back to the big desk, setting it down on top of a mug, then picked up a long roll of paper. "Okay, castle schematics." Harkness carried the roll across to the room to unfurled it over the table, knocking books and papers aside to give himself space and pinning the corners down with four heavy, leather-bound volumes. "Let's see where we are, shall we?"
There were several sheets, one atop the other, with the uppermost quite clearly depicting the keep tower and its levels, even if Bert couldn't make out a word of the handwritten text. With Harkness pointing out what was where, he could see that they were currently about halfway up the tower in the Ahnenerbe's office and library, sandwiched between Gentner's interrogation chamber and her quarters. The top levels were, as predicted, the domain of the gunners, while beneath Gentner's living area lay the castle's communications suite. Below that was the chamber they had first entered, with an administrative office attached. And below that
"Bugger me," Frank said, bemused. "They really do have a dungeon?"
"It's a castle some things are traditional." Harkness ran the tip of his finger along the neatly written labels, then released the top sheet to look the next page down. "Hmm. Seems we have the main armoury beneath the keep, but there are also holding cells which would explain where they hid your Morrison-Bell the last few days pantries, barracks for the guards, general storage, and passageways to the other parts of the castle. It's a positive warren beneath the courtyard." He paused, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Almost reminds me of home."
"That good or bad?" Howcroft asked, frowning as he tried to make sense of what he was looking at.
"Home? We all want to go home reminders don't hurt. The warren part?" Harkness shrugged. "Could make things complicated, but we can't "
"Bloody hell!" Kimber suddenly jerked back from the file he had been flipping through, stumbling as he all but leapt out of his chair. "That's... Jesus Christ." He looked away. "Who the fuck are these bastards?"
Harkness frowned and reached across to pick up the item that had so spooked the corporal. Bert caught a brief glimpse of a black and white photograph, the suggestion of human forms, but couldn't make out any details. After Kimber's reaction, he didn't much want to. "Ugh." Harkness winced. "Well, I did tell you that the Institut fuer Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung had a taste for human experimentation...."
"Yeah, but that's just, just "
"Why we need to close this place down." Harkness held the photograph up, then tossed it down on top of the castle floorplan. "Anybody else want to take a look? See what we're fighting against? There's plenty more where this one came from. These might not have been taken here, but if the Ahnenerbe gets its way, it'll just be a matter of time."
Bert stared for a moment, then looked away, feeling sick to his stomach at the tangle of limbs, the flayed flesh and desperate eyes. He'd thought that Morrison-Bell and the French girl were bad enough, but this....
"We heard stories," Lissowski said, shaking his head and looking ill. "Many stories. Terrible things, but we did not see before."
"Christ." Alfie stepped back, his face pale. "How can they...."
"You'd be amazed at what ideology and the need to believe themselves superior will drive people to do." Harkness shook his head and turned the image over, hiding it from view and pushing it aside as he cast his eyes over the castle's layout once more. "Okay let's finish up here and go take a look downstairs, shall we?"
"What about the gunners up top?" Frank asked.
"For now, we work down," Harkness said, in a tone that didn't invite argument. "At this point I'd rather empty the tower out, take advantage of the natural soundproofing, than invite attention by taking an exterior unit at the start. We can't afford to get caught in the upper levels."
"But we do take them eventually?" Howcroft pressed. "Those buggers can shoot in as well as out, from the looks of them they'd nail any attempt to cross the courtyard before it even started. There could be grenades and other things up there that might "
"Central armoury's downstairs. Main challenge is likely to be comms, but I think I can handle them." Harkness straightened up and looked around. "Under normal circumstances I'd be able to scramble radio transmissions directly but they've already got their own block in place, so they'll be on a hardwired link, probably going down to the town we passed through on the way here."
"Can you scramble that?" Kimber asked. He sounded rough, cradling his wounded arm as he hunched in his chair. "Or do you need to unplug it?"
"Unplug it or short it out. Or both." Harkness walked back across to the desk, taking the gun from the dead man still slumped in his seat. He pulled open a few drawers until he found some spare clips of ammunition, holding them aloft triumphantly, then plucked the odd metallic sphere from its perch on the mug. "This should be... interesting."
"I'll take your word for it," Bert muttered. The cloying scent of blood was beginning to turn his stomach, especially now that he'd seen that photograph. He cleared his throat. "So now what?"
"Now?" Harkness pocketed the ball. "Now we go take a look around the Hauptsturmfόhrer's boudoir. I think we're done here for now."
"We're going to break into her bedroom?" Howcroft looked uncomfortable. "I mean, I know she's not there, but...."
"I think our need is greater than hers." Harkness grinned. "And hey, won't be the first time I've invaded a lady's chamber!"
They all caught the clear innuendo there. Frank frowned. "But I thought you were "
"Queer?" Harkness chuckled. "I prefer 'human'. You guys really need to give up on trying to pigeonhole people. You miss out on so much fun that way." He winked at them. "Come on, let's go."
Bert crouched to pick up the gun that the man he'd shot had dropped, wiping the worst of the blood splashes off onto the ruined rug. Tucking the Luger into the back of his belt, he followed Harkness out into the thankfully silent stairwell once more, trying not to think about the spiral as they went down, down, the next short landing coming not a moment too soon. Again, the door was unguarded, and this time there was no response to Harkness's sharp rap. The handle didn't give way as they tried it, but Howcroft had hung onto the keys from the torture chamber and the lock slid smoothly back on their third attempt.
Bert hadn't been certain what to expect from Gentner's quarters, but what he found was a comfortable chamber, divided into several sections by screens. Harkness used his device to look for oddities again but apparently failed to find anything of any interest, and a more hands-on search revealed nothing but more papers that nobody felt particularly inclined to look through. It felt strange to Bert, seeing the pictures and other personal effects hanging on the walls and arrayed along the shelves, a small glimpse into the life of someone he had no great desire to think of as a human being. Somehow, knowing that Gentner had had a family, a life outside of her work, made her seem all the more monstrous.
"Aha!" Harkness emerged from the bathroom area with a box and a triumphant look on his face. "Here's something useful."
"What's that?" Bert looked up from where he and Frank had been rifling through the contents of a dresser the Hauptsturmfόhrer had had interesting taste in underwear, it seemed. "Another alien gadget?"
"Better than that a medical kit. Guess her pet could take more out of her than she wanted to admit. Hey, Corporal," he called to Kimber. "It's your lucky day!"
"What?" Kimber was lying back on the bed, his eyes closed and his jaw set, quietly bleeding onto the coverlet. "You found a way to fly me back to fucking Blighty inside the next ten minutes?"
"Been a while since that one was an option, I'm afraid." Harkness sat on the foot of the bed, making Kimber hiss in pain as his shoulder was jarred. "Okay, I have bandages, tincture of iodine, aspirin, morphine...."
"Just give me fucking everything!" Kimber ground out. "Morphine first!"
"That's my boy." Harkness looked around. "Anybody here know their way around a med kit?"
Lissowski stepped forward. "I can do," he said quietly. "I was training to be doctor, before."
Harkness nodded, and left Kimber to Lissowski's ministrations. "Right Bert, Alfie, with me. The rest of you stay here until I come back for you, understood? You've got a good, solid stone floor here I need you to stay on this side of it for the next few minutes."
"How come?" Frank wanted to know.
"Things are about to get nasty in the comms suite." Harkness held the dark metal ball up to the light, stroking and tapping and
It chirped, the tiny green points shining brightly around its circumference. Harkness gazed at it for a few long moments, then tossed it lightly into the air, catching it in the palm of his hand. He quirked a small, humourless smile and turned towards the door. "Bert, Alfie, let's go."
"Okay, boys," Harkness said in a low voice as they descended the next winding set of stairs. "What I have here is a toy that is going to completely and permanently disrupt every electrical circuit within a certain range, and that includes the human nervous system. It'll penetrate wood but stone and glass will stop it, so I need you to hang back on the stairs out of line of sight of the door. Keep a layer of stone between you and it and don't even think about peeking."
"So it's like a grenade?" Bert asked. "You chuck it in, dive for cover...?"
"Not exactly." Harkness took a deep breath. "Has to be triggered directly I'm going in with it."
"But won't that... oh, right." Alfie looked uncomfortable. "How long?"
"Give me thirty seconds, then come in and grab what weaponry you can." Harkness looked down at the device in his hand. "It's low-impact so I should be back fairly quickly. Which is more than can be said for anybody else in there having your brain shorted out is generally regarded as being fairly terminal."
Bert swallowed hard. "Will it hurt."
"The dying won't." Harkness sighed. "It's the coming back that's the bitch."
They hid around the curve of the stairwell, listening to the sharp rap on the door; the brief, unintelligible conversation; the sound of heavy wood settling back against its frame. His back pressed hard against cold stone, Bert felt isolated and infinitely vulnerable, even with Alfie counting slowly beside him. It had been maybe fifteen minutes since they had crept out of the interrogation chamber, perhaps that much again since they had escaped their cell. So much had happened so fast, too fast, and he hoped to hell that he was going to wake up in a minute and find that it had all been a
"...Thirty!" Alfie hugged his submachine gun tight against him, looking every bit as scared as Bert felt. "Ready or not, here we come...."
Bert didn't bother with knocking as he cautiously pushed the door open, not quite certain what he'd see as he peered into the chamber. What he found within was a quiet scene of destruction, some half dozen bodies sprawled across desks and telephone exchange boards and something that looked like a bastardised, paperless typewriter. Harkness lay in the middle of the room, collapsed in a heap with the dark sphere just beyond his outstretched hand. Bert looked at Alfie as they leaned over the unmoving body. "Think we should put him into a more comfortable position for when he "
Harkness suddenly gave a loud gasp, drawing his legs up to his chest, and Bert jumped several inches into the air in sheer shock, his dignity saved only by the fact that he, unlike Alfie, hadn't shrieked. "Bloody hell, do you do that every time?!"
"Seem to," Harkness hissed between clenched teeth. He remained curled on the floor for a moment, then carefully unfolded his limbs and sat up, shaking his head. "God, that never gets any better...."
"They're all dead?" Alfie looked around the room as he and Bert hauled Harkness to his feet. "Just like that?"
"Oh yeah people, machines, everything. Even this thing." Harkness picked the ball-like device, rolling it around his palm. "One shot wonders, these babies they fry themselves same as they do anything else in range." As Bert watched, he dropped the thing to the floor and crushed it with the heel of his boot. Which rather brought something else to mind....
"What about your scanning thingie?" Bert said suddenly, pointing to Harkness's breast pocket. "Is that dead in the water as well?"
"Heh." Harkness retrieved the item in question and Bert was surprised to see its bright blue lights blink into life beneath quick fingers. "This was designed to survive far harsher transitions and environments than you can even begin to imagine going to take a bit more than a small-scale pulse disruptor to kill it." He tucked the tiny machine away again and moved across the room, stumbling slightly as he went, to tug wiring out of the back of an exchange board. "Disconnect everything you can it's all dead but I'd rather be certain there's no way for them to piggyback an auxiliary system onto the hardwired connections."
It took them five minutes to trash the various pieces of communications equipment to the point where Harkness was satisfied it couldn't be repurposed, working around the bodies of the dead or heaving them to the floor where necessary. The discovery of a fire axe made the work a little faster, and there was something oddly satisfying about smashing through the equipment and hacking at the huge cable housing that seemed to pass through one of the walls. That was four floors cleared now, most of the tower, and Bert was almost starting to let himself believe that they might just
The door creaked as it was pushed open from outside and they all turned to see a young blond man in uniform step through, a piece of paper clutched in his hand. He blinked once, the familiar stern expression on his face dissolving into almost comical confusion and horror as he took in the scene of destruction, and then he turned and fled, bullets slamming into wood at his back.
"After him!" Harkness snapped, and then all three of them were chasing the sound of clattering footsteps down the stairs, Bert cursing the tight spiral that meant that it was all too easy for their prey to stay out of sight. The ground-level door was still swinging shut as Harkness slammed through it, firing twice and silencing one German voice even as a half-dozen others started shouting all at once. Bringing the submachine gun around on its strap, Bert barrelled through the door in Harkness's wake, Alfie hard on his heels. His finger found the trigger and he started firing as soon as he caught sight of a target, not letting himself think about anything but the need to get the hell out, to get back to Agnes. The gun jerked in his hands, the rhythm of the recoil jarring his bruised shoulder as eight men went down in a matter of seconds. Two more charged in from the short corridor that led towards the outside world but Harkness was ready for them, dropping each of them with a quick headshot before they had a chance to bring their own weapons to bear.
Bert could hear the roar of his own blood as the guns fell silent, could feel his heart hammering against his ribs. Somewhere in the background, he heard the sound of something clicking, a desperate German voice sounding from somewhere past a half-open side door, saying the same thing over and over....
"And that's why we pulled the plug on the telephone boards," Harkness said softly. He crouched to take the submachine gun from one of the dead guards, stepping over corpses to kick the door open and fire a sharp burst into the room beyond. "Okay," he said as silence descended once more. "We're clear."
"They must have heard that," Bert said nervously, glancing towards the door.
Harkness shook his head and looped the gun strap over his shoulder. "You missed the chime? Courtyard bell sounded half ten just as I opened up on Speedy here." He nudged the body of the soldier they'd chased down the stairs with his boot. "Whatever sound might have got through the door should have been covered by that. Our lucky night. Which is more than can be said for these guys...."
"Great, so now what?" Alfie asked in a shaky voice. His blond hair was matted dark with blood, Bert suddenly realised, crimson trails running down his neck and dripping down onto the collar of his borrowed uniform, but he was still standing, his hands white-knuckled where he held his gun. "Can we go get the others now?"
"In a minute. Hold still." Harkness hopped back over the sprawled bodies and took Alfie's head in his hands, his fingers hunting quickly through the sodden curls as Bert tried desperately to not think about the man holding the French girl's face just so.... This time, however, he released Alfie a moment later, his smile relieved. "Like I said lucky night. You just caught a scratch but even the smallest scalp wound tends to bleed like a stuck pig. You'll have the headache to match the mess before long." He patted Alfie's shoulder, leaving bloody fingerprints on his tunic, and glanced across at Bert. "Fletcher? You okay?"
Bert looked down at himself and nodded, feeling almost sick with relief. "Not a mark on me."
"Good lad. Let's go."
The others were looking more than a little twitchy as they got back to Gentner's quarters, although none actually fired on them as they came through the door. Bert was grateful for that after all he'd just done and been through, it would have been the height of irony to get shot by his own mates. Kimber had been patched up, and was obviously in less pain, although he still looked far too pale for Bert's liking; his eyes widened as he saw them enter. "Bloody he what the fuck happened to you, Arnold?"
"Just a scratch," Alfie assured him with a weak grin. "Must have caught a ricochet or something."
"Can someone get a bandage on him?" Harkness pushed Alfie across to Lissowski, who quickly set to dressing his head. "Right," he said, addressing the room at large. "Comms are down and the ground floor is clear; they've got no way to communicate between areas except by sending runners or shouting."
Frank snorted. "They're a bit bloody good at shouting, mind."
"Yeah, well that's the SS for you." Harkness smiled. "At this stage, we're locked in, but the door to the courtyard is locked from the inside, so we have control over that. What we don't yet have covered is the door down to the dungeon armoury and beyond, and the heavy gun emplacement on the roof of the tower."
Howcroft nodded. "So which one do we hit next?"
"Both." The smile turned hard. "Corporal Kimber you're in no fit state to be climbing anywhere. I want you, Howcroft and Milton to secure the ground floor, where they brought us in. Can't miss it two floors down, full of dead bodies and lots of guns. Take whatever you need. Fletcher, Lissowski you're with me. Alfie, you in any fit state to climb?"
"Yes, sir." Alfie nodded, then winced and gingerly laid a hand against his bandaged head. "I'm good. Just a scratch, remember?"
"Good. You're with me as well. Corporal," Harkness nodded to Kimber, "we'll be down as soon as we've disabled the gun emplacement. Good luck."
Kimber looked at him... then carefully levered himself off of the bloodstained bedcovers and snapped off a quick salute. "Right, boys," he snapped, "you fucking heard the man let's go sort these bastards out!"
Bert took the tail end of Harkness's group as they hurried up the winding stairs towards the gunners' nest. There were red stains on the steps and occasionally smeared against the wall, testimony to Kimber's earlier descent, and it just felt wrong to be going back into what was effectively a corner. But the gun was a real threat to any escape attempt and if any of the gunners found out what had gone on beneath them, they could just go outside and shout down to
There was the sound of slow footsteps from somewhere above, a door opening just ahead of them, a moment's pause... and then a loud, startled curse in German and the clatter of bootheels ringing hard against stone. Harkness stopped, one hand raised as he listened to the steps, then gestured for them all to press themselves to the outside curve of the stairwell. A man in the full uniform of an SS soldier appeared above them, moving at speed, and Harkness simply swung his submachine gun forward and fired a short burst up into the man's chest. He jerked as the bullets caught him, his legs collapsing under him, and momentum carried him on down the stairs, his dead weight rolling and bouncing, bones audibly cracking each time he hit stone. Bert stared after him, hoping to hell that Kimber's group had already cleared the stairwell....
"One down," Harkness said cheerily, and carried on up the stairs. Bert, Alfie and Lissowski hurried to follow him.
The stairwell ended with one last door, its heavy wood labelled with another unreadable sign. Harkness seemed satisfied, however, flashing them a smile as he set his back against it, drew his Luger from its holster and gripped the pistol firmly in both hands. He pushed back, opening the door
A bored-sounding voice said something in German probably expecting the return of the man they'd just killed, Bert realised then snapped out a curse as Harkness sidestepped smartly into the room and fired once. There was the sound of a body hitting the floor and then the rest of them swarmed in on Harkness's heels, finding themselves in a storeroom filled with ammunition, grenades, and what looked like they might be flares. There was a thankfully straight staircase off to one side, leading up to a trapdoor. Bert had barely had time to register it before it was pulled open and a blond head poked down. "Hey, Sigmund! Was war da Scheiίe!"
A single shot from Alfie evidently the scalp wound hadn't affected his aim too badly brought the gunner tumbling down the stairs, his empty eyes open and startled. There was a shout from above, a lone voice, and Harkness darted forward, reaching the foot of the stairs and bringing his Luger up halfway before a hail of bullets threw him back and down to sprawl lifelessly across the fallen Sigmund's body. The shooter hurried down through the hatch to check his kill and his friends but barely made it halfway before Bert and Lissowski took their own turns on the trigger.
Alfie scrambled past the bodies and up the steps, cautiously peering through the trapdoor. "We're clear," he called down, then climbed up into the night. Lissowski quickly followed him out, but Bert stopped to haul Harkness out from beneath the last guard's body, arranging him against a pile of ammunition crates as best he could. The front of the grey tunic was a mess of blood and ruined cloth, sticky and dark against Bert's hands, and he wondered just what he'd see if he pulled the material aside....
"Come on, get a move on," he murmured. "Nice work on drawing the bugger down, but we need you back in the land of the bloody living. Now, preferably." He wiped his hands on Harkness's sleeve it wasn't as if the rest of the tunic wasn't covered and turned towards the stairway. "What's going on up there?" he called.
Alfie hopped back through the hatch and down, grabbing the cap from one of the dead gunners before pulling the man's tunic free, stripping the corpse as casually as if he had been doing it for years, rather than half an hour. "Got a real beauty up there better than anything they ever let us get our hands on. You should just see the mounting. Going to have some real fun with this one!"
"What do you mea" Bert's attention was abruptly caught by Harkness jerking back into life, grabbing at his sleeve as he gasped and choked on air. "It's okay," he said quickly, "we're all okay."
"You've taken the emplacement?" Harkness coughed and let go of Bert's arm, then looked down at his ruined uniform. "God, I hate machine guns they make such a bloody mess of things...."
Bert nodded. "Other two are up there now, seeing what they've got. And you can always grab another tunic off one of these buggers, assuming Alfie leaves us any."
Harkness frowned at that and pushed himself to his feet, stumbling as he made his way up to the gunners' nest. Bert followed him out into the warm summer night, almost weeping as he felt the breeze against his face, the living scents of the forest and river washing away the stench of blood and death. The night was clear, the brilliant points of myriad stars studding the blackness above and the bright crescent of the moon casting a soft glow over the valley. For a moment, just a moment, Bert closed his eyes and let himself imagine that he was somewhere, anywhere else....
And then he opened them again to find himself on top of a mediaeval keep with an oversized Nazi flag flapping overhead, a huge and lethal-looking piece of light artillery sitting atop a complex system of cogs, and a bloodstained immortal officer who was looking around at the whole scene with an expression of pure calculation. Bert sighed. "Have none of the other gun towers down there noticed that we're not the right guys?"
"As a rule, people tend not to look up," Harkness said with a shrug. He walked across to peer over the low wall that ringed the topmost level, looking down into the courtyard far below. "And who'd be expecting a nasty surprise on a gorgeous night like this?" He frowned. "All quiet down below I guess Kimber and the boys are still holding the fort. We should "
"I'm staying here."
Bert felt a cold rush of shock course through him as both he and Harkness turned on their heels. "What?" they said in unison.
Alfie took a deep breath. "I'm staying here," he said again. "You buggers need someone to cover your sorry arses when you make a run for it and that ain't going to happen if those batteries open up on you."
"You can't handle that thing on your own!" Bert protested. "Not with your bang on the head!"
"No. I stay with him." Lissowski stepped forward to clap a hand on Alfie's bloodstained shoulder. "Together, we manage."
Harkness looked at the pair of them, his expression unreadable. "It's a suicide post, you know that?"
"We know." Alfie shrugged and managed a ghost of his usual smile. "But someone has to make sure you buggers get out of here, and you won't have a bloody hope of making it if those other guns are waiting to pick you off. We've got the highest vantage point here and this big bastard's fixed to shoot down as well as up it might not be able to get the angle to shoot up the courtyard, but it can sure as hell take out the other emplacements and more besides."
Bert shook his head. "You can't."
"Watch me." Alfie looked from him to Harkness and back. "Look, someone's got to get out, take word of what happened back to London. I've seen enough here, seen more than enough here to know that that's worth a hell of a lot more than one life." He glanced at Lissowski. "Two lives. And I'm the best bloody shot you've got."
"For fuck's sake, Bert you've got a wife, a little girl. I don't. Neither does Bartek. And the Captain here well, he'd survive it, but even without the brainsucker, I can just imagine what they'd do to him if they got him into one of those experiment camps, like in that photo. You've both got more claim on escape than we do. Just fucking well take it before they twig to what's up, all right?"
Harkness simply watched Alfie and Lissowski as they pled their case, then simply nodded. "We'll take the gate guards out as we leave the keep. You hear shooting from the courtyard, let rip."
Bert stared at him. "But you can't just let "
"Yes, sir!" Alfie smile was back to its old brilliance as he saluted smartly. "We'll get you boys out. Just... don't forget us, okay? Let my mum know I went out fighting."
Harkness returned the salute. "Rest assured, Private Arnold she'll know you died a hero. And I'll make damned sure word gets back to your family as well, Bartek."
Lissowski shook his head. "No family left," he said with a small shrug. "Is why I stay."
Harkness nodded slowly... then snapped off another salute. "It has been a pleasure to serve with you, gentlemen."
"You too, Captain." Alfie turned to Bert. "And you as well, Fletcher. Make sure the others know what's going on I want at least some of you buggers drinking to our memories back in Blighty, you hear? Now get! They're going to find the Corporal eventually, you know!"
Bert had never felt more like a coward than he did descending the stairs from the gunner's nest. Harkness snatched up a good dozen or more grenades, stuffing them into a canvas bag, then tossed in a flare gun and some Luger magazine clips for good measure. "All right," he said gruffly, "let's go."
"They're going to die up there, you know," Bert said as they hurried back down the spiral stairs. "Once the bastards realise they're there...."
"It's their choice." Harkness didn't pause in his rapid descent. "And right now they've got the element of surprise on their side. Alfie's right they're probably the only hope we have of getting out of here in one piece."
"Did you...." Bert stopped dead, then hurried to catch up with Harkness again, a sudden surge of fury flashing through him. "Did you know? Did you know that they were going to do that?"
Harkness stopped on the small landing outside the chamber that still held Gentner's body. "Of course I didn't know! But sometimes...." He shook his head. "Sometimes you just know what's necessary."
"That's all right for you to "
"I was normal once!" Harkness snapped, suddenly rounding on him, and Bert found himself shoved hard against the stairwell wall. "Mortal. Or I thought I was, at least. Just the one little life to lose. And you know what? I chose to surrender it for someone else's fight. Alfie and Lissowski's choice is their choice and I'm not going to try to talk them out of it any more than the one whose cause I chose to die for tried to dissuade me. Sometimes things just need doing. I wasn't about to insult Alfie and Bartek by pretending otherwise. Got it?"
"I " Bert snapped his mouth shut, then nodded. "Yes, Captain."
"Good. Right, no windows on this floor." Harkness reached into the bag and pulled out a grenade. "Goodbye, Hauptsturmfόhrer Gentner," he murmured, pushing the door slightly ajar and pulling the grenade pin before tossing the weapon inside. "Right, our cue to start running, I believe...."
The detonation was dull thump from somewhere overhead as they reached the office. "Windows here no grenades?" Bert asked.
"Got it in one. Don't want to attract too much immediate attention by blowing the glass out." Harkness pushed into the room, stepping over the body of the balding officer where it lay near the door. Between the two of them, they gathered up as many papers as they could, dumping them onto the big leather-topped table that stood in the middle of the room and setting fire to them at several points. Harkness put a match to the rug on the way out, just for good measure, and then they were on their way down again matches in the lady's chamber, grenades in the comms suite, and then
"Where the fuck have you been?" Frank snapped, lowering his gun as they finally reached ground level. "And where the hell are Alfie and Lissowski? Don't tell me that they "
"They've got the big gun up top," Bert said roughly. "They're going to cover our retreat, make sure we get out okay."
"Cover our ? Shit." Frank turned away, shaking his head. "And then there were fucking four...."
Bert frowned. "Four? Don't you mean "
"About bloody time!" Kimber and Howcroft appeared at the mouth of the entrance corridor, Kimber looking pale and about dead on his feet despite the painkillers he'd been stuffed with, his bandages stained through with blood. "The boys making a stand for the greater bloody good, are they?"
"Something like that." Bert drew a hand down over his face. "Now what?"
"Armoury." Kimber waved back towards the stairwell with his good arm. "Just down one more flight, right?"
"Right." Harkness nodded, his eyes never leaving Kimber's. "We've got everything we need already, Corporal," he said carefully. "It's pure chance that they've not caught us out yet we should make a break for it now, get out before they realise what's happening. We've set fires in the upper rooms; it's just a matter of minutes now."
"Armoury," Kimber said firmly.
"Yes, I'm fucking sure!" Kimber snapped, then winced. "Just take a bloody look at me, will you? If we had any fucking sort of hospital around, I might make it, but here I'm just going to slow you down and I'm buggered if I'm going to my grave with you fuckers on my conscience."
"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ," Bert cried, "not you as well!"
"Yeah, Fletcher, me as well." Kimber laid his good hand over his injured shoulder. "I'm not going to get very bloody far with this, even if we do get out, and infection's no sodding way to go. Blaze of fucking glory for me, mate."
Bert looked at Frank and Howcroft, who both shrugged silently, Howcroft turning away whatever they might have to say about Kimber's decision had clearly already been said. That was why Frank had said four, not five. God, at this rate there weren't going to be any of them left to escape....
"You have anyone waiting for you back home, Corporal?" Harkness asked as he stripped off his ruined tunic, wiping the bloody remnants of his latest tangle with death from his chest. He crouched to take a replacement from one of the men he'd shot earlier. "A family?"
Kimber looked down at his feet. "Wife," he said gruffly. "Three boys. My lads are in Wales now evacuated a few months back when the Krauts stated lobbing fucking rockets about."
"Yeah? Good place, Wales they'll love it." Harkness smiled sadly. "What are their names?"
"Boys are Harry, James and Leo."
"Good names. And your lady?"
"Yeah, she's a lady, all right, putting up with me...." Kimber snorted softly and winced again. "My wife's Connie. Constance Kimber."
Harkness nodded as he pulled on the fresh uniform, adjusting the various buckles and straps until he was satisfied he looked presentable. "Right, Bert, let's go see what's happening downstairs, shall we?"
Bert blinked. "Me?"
"You're the one already in costume." Harkness quirked a smile. "Doubt there's a guard on this side, but the odds are that there'll be one on the other. We'll need to deal with them before we can get through to the goodies."
"Right, right." Bert swallowed hard and straightened his shoulders. "Let's go, then."
There was a faint scent of smoke in the stairwell as they went down to what proved to be the last door, Bert following on Harkness's heels while Kimber trailed some way behind. The tower was self-contained, Bert knew, but the dungeon, with the great complex of rooms they'd seen on the floorplans, was another matter entirely. The armoury was closest, as he recalled, but the memory of the guards' barracks nearby wasn't encouraging. Just one shout would likely bring half the bloody Nazis along the Rhine down on them inside ten seconds flat....
Reaching their target, Harkness tested the door then lifted the big ring of keys he'd taken from Howcroft. "Keys actually have things stamped on them," he said, quickly flipping through them. "Not that any of it would make much sense if you don't know German, but... aha!"
Beyond the heavy door was a short, barely-lit passageway with another door at the end of it. As they reached it, it was unlocked from the other side, swinging inwards as a quiet voice said something in German. Bert thought the speaker sounded rather irate.
Harkness slowed, glancing back at Bert and raising a finger to his lips. "Verzeihen Sie," he said apologetically. "Ich weis es ist spδt aber "
Bert jumped back as Harkness reached out through the doorway and hauled the guard into the corridor, driving a fist hard into the man's throat before he could make a sound. The guard choked, struggled, tried to fight... then slumped back against the wall with the hilt of Gentner's dagger protruding from his chest. "Bloody hell," Bert muttered, "I really wouldn't want to get on your bad side...."
"Believe it." Harkness peered out through the door. "Okay, Fletcher, you stand here and make like our recently-deceased friend while I take a quick look around."
Harkness rolled his eyes and dragged Bert out to stand in the guard's position. "Stand. Stay. I'll be back before you know it."
Bert swallowed hard and did as he was told, standing stiff and straight and hoping to hell that nobody would see him. He could hear German voices nearby, could smell the scent of coffee real coffee and, god, he wasn't tall enough or broad enough, and his uniform didn't fit properly, and
"Okay, we're on." Harkness suddenly reappeared beside him and Bert nearly jumped out of his skin. "Not only do we have an armoury, but the whole place looks like it's already wired to blow insurance policy in case of capture by the Allies, most likely. Shouldn't be too hard to start a chain reaction."
Bert nodded nervously. "So now what?"
"Now I go get the corporal." Harkness sounded sad. "I'll only be a moment."
He was back after a count of twenty, the pale-looking Kimber at his side. Bert swore and abandoned his post to slip back into the passageway where Harkness was explaining the layout of what Kimber would find. "nobody there and a racking system that should provide you with all the cover you need. A grenade should be enough to set the whole lot off and after that... well, I imagine they'll see it across the French border . Just hold out as long as you can to let us get clear."
"Good, good." Kimber nodded and swallowed hard. "It's been... heh, it's been pretty fucking special, is what it's been."
"Yeah." Harkness laid a hand on Kimber's good shoulder. "Don't worry about Connie and the boys I'll look out for them."
"You'd better or I'll come back and fucking haunt you!" Kimber winced. "Make sure you get the rest of my lads out, Captain. Bert you bloody well watch out for yourself, you hear. You've got your own family to worry about."
"Yes, Corporal," Bert said roughly. "Good luck."
"Good luck yourself." Kimber looked at Harkness and grinned weakly. "And that goes for you too, you indestructible git."
Harkness looked at Kimber for a long moment... then suddenly leaned in to kiss the startled corporal full on the mouth. Bert's eyebrows climbed towards his hairline as he watched, not quite certain what to do even as he thought that he somehow understood the gesture. He guessed this was what Harkness had meant about not pigeonholing people....
"Let go of me, you big queer bastard!" Kimber spluttered, pushing Harkness away, but there was no heat to it, any more than there had been passion in the kiss. "Just remember this, yeah? What happened here?"
"Good. Now bloody well get out there, Captain, and make sure we win this fucking war!"
Bert stepped back out into the guard's post to check that the coast was clear before watching as Kimber stumbled off towards the armoury and his fate. As soon as he was out of sight, Harkness grabbed Bert's arm and dragged him back down the corridor to the tower, locking the door behind him. "Right, let's get this show on the road!"
"Aren't they going to notice that there's no guard on the door?" Bert asked, hurrying after as Harkness raced back up the stairs didn't the man ever get tired? "If they look inside and find the body "
"Hopefully they'll have a damned sight more than one dead guard to worry about once Alfie opens up." Harkness stopped by the door. "This is where we make a break for it, Bert we're not being stealthy from here on out. You think the body count is high now? You've not seen the half of it yet...."
Both Frank and Howcroft had changed into German uniform while waiting for their return, gathering together what guns they could. Harkness nodded his approval as he swept back into the chamber, grabbing a second submachine gun as he passed the others and slinging the strap across his shoulder. "Okay, Alfie and Bartek have got our backs let's get out of here."
"What about the other prisoners?" Howcroft asked. "We can't leave them."
"They might be a good distraction," Bert added quickly. "Confuse the enemy with numbers."
Harkness laughed. "Oh, you know me too well, Fletcher." He tossed him the ring of keys. "If you can do it, make it quick. Look for the one stamped with 'KG'. Should open everything over there."
Bert nodded. "Kriegesgefangenenin?" he tried, knowing that he was mangling the pronunciation.
"Close enough. Nice to see that someone was paying attention." Harkness looked around at them all, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Well, gentlemen, just in case we don't all make it out it's been a pleasure to serve alongside you and you're a credit to your nation. Right now, we're going to walk out of the front door and take down the gate guards. That'll be the signal for the boys up top to start shooting. Keep to shadows where you can and remember that anybody in a uniform who isn't one of us is fair game. We're aiming to get through the main gates and into the forest, together or separately. Just out is good. Got that?"
"Yes, sir!" they all chorused.
"Great." Harkness's smile turned cold. "Let's go do some damage...."
The scent of smoke was growing thick in the air as they threw the heavy locks of the keep doors aside and marched smartly out into the courtyard, Frank hanging back so that his colouring wouldn't give the game away immediately. The two young men standing sentry at the outer gates frowned at Harkness as he stepped forward... and then they were thrown back against the wire fence as he opened up on them with a rattle of automatic fire that rang around the stone walls and echoes off the battlements. The guards went down, and then
And then the big gun on the tower-top spoke and all hell broke loose.
Alfie evidently hadn't been joking when he'd said he was going to have fun with his new toy. Harkness's attack on the gate guards had brought several spotlights swinging towards him, but now those lights exploded in a violent hail of fire, tracer shells streaking brightly overhead as the heavy guns on the lower bastion towers disintegrated under the weight of the assault, their gunners caught completely by surprise. Bert stared for a moment, a feeling of hope suddenly rising in his breast, then forced himself into motion, running after the others as they bolted through the unlatched gate. Screams and shouts sounded from all around, German voices sounding off in pain and confusion, and Bert was very grateful for the uniform that at least meant he could act as confused as anyone. Not that most of it was an act....
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Frank and Howcroft stop by the door of the great hall, throwing in grenades and a flare and then dashing off before the resulting explosions blew out the huge stained-glass windows with a thunderous crack and a shower of razor-sharp rainbow-hued death. Harkness was... somewhere, no doubt inflicting chaos on a personal scale with fists and blades and borrowed guns, although it was hard to hear anything over the cries and the constant, hammering shriek of the big gun high above them all.
Shells streaked overhead as Alfie and Lissowski turned their attentions to the castle's administrative block, the one that they had first been taken to on their arrival, less than a week before. Stonework flared and chipped and shattered, wood and glass flying apart under the pounding impacts, and Bert could feel the heat of the explosions against his skin, shards of stone slicing through the air, biting at his face and his uniform as he ran for the prison block. The world had erupted into violence and death around his ears, and yet he felt oddly free, the ability to run and to move and to act liberating after what felt like a lifetime of creeping through the tower like a ghost. Reaching the door of the prison block, he barged in past two guards intent on getting out, shot two more as they appeared on the stairs, and then he was flattening himself into a doorway and hunting through the keys, desperately trying to find the right one. "KG," he muttered to himself. "KG, KG...."
Shouts echoed down the corridor, men trapped inside the barracks rooms crying out in confusion and panic as the castle came apart. "Hold on!" Bert shouted as he worked his way around the ring. "Just hold on I'm going to get you out!"
Key KG was suddenly in his hand and the lock gave way with a solid click. "Bert Fletcher of the Middlesex! I'm British!" he yelled as the door was pulled out of his hands and a dozen frantic faces stared at him in his grey uniform. "We're taking this place down, brick by bloody brick if we have to! You boys in?"
"You've got to be bloody kidding me?" "Are you mad?" "Out of my way I'm going to kill the murdering bastards myself!" A dozen voices spoke at once, bodies flowing out of the room, and Bert felt a thrill of triumph. "What about the other rooms?" asked a slender man with a broad Liverpudlian accent, stopping beside him. "We the first?"
Bert nodded, then unslung one of his submachine guns and handed it over. "First one I reached. Rest come next."
"Good man." The wiry Scouser took the gun with a fierce smile. "Want me to do the others? Not all of 'em are likely to take too well to you decked out like that!"
"Wouldn't say no." Bert handed the keys over with a sense of relief. "Should all open on this one, KG. Good luck."
"Good fucking luck yourself!" The Scouser was already working on the door across the corridor. "Now get back out there and give the bleeders hell!"
The firing from the tower had stopped as Bert ran back out into the courtyard, prisoners now running past him to scatter in the darkness. The tower was visibly alight now, flames licking out of heat-shattered windows, and the great hall was aflame too, the long tables and huge wooden rafters shimmering with orange light as the fires caught hold. Sporadic bursts of gunfire echoes around the shattered stonework, their origins impossible to pinpoint, and masonry creaked and crashed as the damage done to it proved too much to bear. The castle was coming apart at the seams, dying in flames, and when Kimber set off the armoury there'd be bugger-all left to
"Fucking hell, you're still alive!" Frank appeared at Bert's shoulder, dragging him back into the shadow of a shell-scarred buttress. Howcroft was already there, changing the magazine of his Luger. "Looks like you got the lads out, then?"
Bert looked up to see two prisoners dragging an unwary guard to the ground, one pinning him while the other took his pistol and put a shot through his head. A rattle of automatic fire mowed them both down an instant later, but there were more prisoners flooding into the courtyard by the moment, intent on escape or vengeance, whichever came easiest. Bert shook his head. "Have you seen where the Captain "
Two loud explosions came from the centre of the courtyard, sending bodies flying in all directions. A third followed almost immediately, and then the big gun opened up again, shells screaming across the courtyard to hammer hard against already-ravaged stone. All three of them ducked as heated fragments sliced overhead, and then the bright lines of the tracers slid sideways to blow apart the great wooden gates that separated the courtyard from the castle's outer bailey. Fragments of timber rained in all directions, and then it seemed that everybody was running, desperate to escape as the barrage of shells swung back towards the bastion towers and
Bert stood to run... and stopped dead as something shrieked, a sharp, unearthly sound from somewhere beyond the inner walls following after a bright flash at the edge of his vision. There was a crackling thump, an impact felt through the soles of his feet, and then the keep's upper levels suddenly exploded into heat and light and flying stone. A second, much larger detonation followed seconds after the first as the ammunition store erupted into flame and the violent concussion of the blast threw Bert off his feet, along with everybody else in the courtyard.
A sudden silence fell in the explosion's wake as they all tried to think past the ringing in their ears. Rolling onto his side, Bert looked at Frank and Howcroft, then back up at the jagged remains of the keep. "Bloody hell. There go Alfie and Lissowski...."
"Anti-tank rocket." Harkness appeared out of nowhere, his tunic soot-stained and ragged but remarkably free of bullet holes, and Bert felt a sudden surge of relief flood through him. "Come on, we've just lost our covering fire and we're not out of it yet."
They staggered to their feet, stumbling towards the gates as others stirred around them in the flame-lit darkness. A trio of flares shot out of the broken tower, illuminating the courtyard, and guns began to stutter and sing as the guards found themselves able to pick out and pick off the escaping prisoners, no doubt seeking vengeance of their own as their fortress disintegrated around their ears. Clambering through the ruined gates, a man in SS uniform shouted something to Harkness, beckoning him to follow and leading them out through the sudden blackness of the short, covered passage that lay beyond the great doors. Others followed, staggering in their wake, and it wasn't until they emerged into the moonlight that their guide turned with a relieved laugh that choked off as he suddenly laid eyes on Frank. "Eine schwarze? Was ?"
He didn't get any further, Harkness's first shot catching him in the throat, the second in the chest. And then they were all firing, wiping out anybody ahead of them as a wave of prisoners followed on their heels, suddenly recognising them as particularly savage sheep in wolves' clothing. Some of them were armed with their own purloined weapons and Bert suddenly recognised the wiry Liverpudlian from the first room as he charged past, flashing a gap-toothed grin back at his saviour. "Let's see the Jerry bastards catch us now!" he whooped, ducking behind a truck to avoid incoming fire. "I'll show 'em a bloody war!"
"I think they're perfectly capable of showing us a bloody war themselves," Howcroft muttered as they found themselves pressed against a wall, a hail of bullets whipping past far too close to comfort. "I'm starting to get the feeling they might just be a tad upset with us...."
"You think?" Frank checked his weapons two of the submachine guns and a trio of Lugers that he'd shoved into his belt. "Anybody got any of those fucking grenades left?"
"Okay," Harkness said, his brows pulled tightly together as the chaos flowed around them, gunfire and explosions splitting the night. "Once we get around that corner, we've got a straight run at the outer gate but no real cover to speak of, and if the amount of ordinance coming from that direction is anything to go by, they already know that that's our target."
"Going over at this end not an option?" Bert asked, eyeing the low wall that lay tantalisingly close. It wouldn't take much effort to clamber onto the top and
Harkness snorted. "Remember all those doglegs the bus took to get around the gradient on the way here?"
"Ah." Bert winced. "Straight down to the river?"
There was a metallic clank from just ahead as their Scouse friend unbolted the tailgate of the big three-axle flatbed he'd been hiding behind, clambering within. A few moments later, he poked his head back out. "Here, lads? Fancy a ride?"
Harkness laughed delightedly. "Hell, yes! Reckon she can take out the gates?"
"Only one way to find out. All aboard that's coming aboard!"
"If we have to handcrank the bastard to get her started," Frank said as they edged forward, "I vote for Captain Indestructible to do the honours."
"If we have to handcrank her to get her started, we're going to damned well push her forward as cover," Harkness corrected. "Right now, getting into grenade range would be a good start, however we get there."
A good dozen and more of them ended up making the dash to climb into the back of the truck, Bert feeling no small amount of relief as the engine roared into life with a shuddering vibration that he felt in his bones. "You okay up there?" Harkness called to their driver as bullets spattered against the windscreen, but the only answer came in a spray of gravel from under the wheels as the big vehicle started to roll forward, picking up speed as it moved and
"Down!" Harkness snapped, and they hit the floor as bullets zipped through the canvas sides of the truck, striking several of those escapees who didn't move quite fast enough. Howcroft lobbed a couple of grenades out of the back but the things hadn't even had time to explode before the truck slammed into something solid, Throwing them together as it slewed to the side, rocking dangerously. A second later it was half-lifted by the force of the blast as the grenades went off somewhere behind them, peppering the already-shredded cloth covering with shrapnel.
"We're clear!" yelled their driver from the wrecked cabin, and Bert didn't have time to wonder how the hell the man had survived the impact as the truck shuddered again and then dropped, the tyres shot out from beneath it, skidding wildly across the road and stopping at a crazy angle as it left the paved surface and ended up against a tree, the lower branches poking through the torn canvas roof.
Harkness grabbed for the flare gun, shoving it out through the back flap and firing at their pursuers, throwing another grenade out after his shot for good measure. "Everybody out!" he shouted. "Out into the forest now, every man for himself. Go!"
All of them that still could scrambled out of the side of the truck, dropping down into the trees and fleeing into the darkness. Bert scrambled down beside Frank, hiding behind the trunk of the tree they'd fetched up against as the Germans shouted and milled around in confusion, half-blinded by the flare. Harkness and Howcroft were the last two out of the vehicle, Howcroft stumbling as he landed, rolling sideways, catching himself... and then jerking once and falling as a bullet caught him full in the back.
"No!" Bert would have run forward, but Harkness caught his arm and dragged him back, dragged him away as Gordon Howcroft dropped face-first into the leaf litter. "We can't "
"We don't have a choice!" And then they were running, charging downhill through the trees, stumbling and falling and rolling but always heading down, down towards the river, down and away from the burning castle. Gunshots sounded in the darkness, but the Germans were firing blind and they were too far away to be in any real danger from their bullets. Bert felt sick to his stomach as he thought of Howcroft coming so close, so very close to freedom after surviving so much. They had lost so many people, had seen so many deaths, and there was still one that hadn't yet
The forest lit up in sudden burst of crimson and gold, the sound and the fury of the explosion roaring over them a second after the light, crashing down on them like the end of the world itself. Bert cried out as the blast threw him off his feet, sending him rolling down a bank to land amongst a tangle of roots, bruising his ribs on the submachine gun still slung across his body. Fighting his way free of the foliage, he straightened up, watching the skies as a second explosion shook the night, then a third, the sound of a thousand smaller blasts echoing across the valley like thunder.
Swallowing hard, Bert saluted in the direction of the castle, trying to ignore the tears that trailed down his cheeks. "Yeah, Corporal," he murmured softly, "bet they can see you in bloody France, all right...."
"So, that was the armoury, then?" Frank said, coming up beside him. "Kimber wasn't kidding about going out in a blaze of fucking glory, was he?"
"He certainly wasn't." Harkness appeared from out of the shadows, tucking his small radio-thing back into his breast pocket as he joined them in staring up at the fire-lit sky. After a few moments he said, "Come on we need to keep moving. I want to get the river between us and the castle as soon as we can."
"What do you want us to do?" Frank never took his eyes from the shattered remains of the castle. "Swim across?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of stealing a boat, but hey, if you're in the mood for a dip...."
It took them another hour to make it down to the river, working away from the town at Harkness's insistence. A well-trodden trail along the riverbank led them to a short pier and a small, battered-looking boat whose ancient engine proved to be loud and smoky but, thankfully, more than capable of carrying them to the opposite shore. Scrambling up through the night-dark forest into the hills proved to be more challenging than fleeing down had been, but at least there was nobody shooting at them now.
Emerging into a small clearing, Bert stopped to look back at the castle as it blazed on the opposite bank, the ravaged stonework dark against the flames. "Bloody hell," he panted, winded from the climb, "do you think anybody got out of that after us?"
"God knows." Frank flopped down beside him. "Hope some of others in the truck made it. Hell of a fucking battering ram, that was!"
"Yeah." Bert frowned, thinking of the Liverpudlian whose bright idea it had been. "Wonder if we'll ever...."
He trailed off, looking to the skies as the faint drone of engines became apparent over the whisper of the wind through foliage and the quiet background rush of the river. Harkness looked up as well, but there was no curiosity in his expression, just a strange satisfaction. "About time you guys turned up," he said, apparently to nobody in particular.
"What are you on about?" Frank half-turned towards him, then swung back as something erupted in the river itself, a violent plume of water thrown high... and then flame blossomed across the docks, the buildings of the town, the hillside, all in a neat line of destruction that inexorably led to the castle. As they watched, it blew apart, masonry flying in all directions as the bombs pounded down across the valley, setting the forest ablaze and sending waves of violent percussion crashing against the landscape. "Jesus," Frank breathed. "How did they know...?"
"Comms cleared once we were out of the castle," Harkness told him. "I called in a priority override, diverted an air raid to finish the job."
"You can do that?" Bert asked incredulously.
"You can if you have a high enough security clearance. As you may have guessed, I do." Harkness settled down onto the grass to watch the show. "It'll be rubble inside the hour. Come morning there'll be nothing worth them even trying to recover."
"Wow." Frank was looking at Harkness with new respect. "No wonder you didn't want us anywhere near the fucking town."
"No wonder he didn't want us on that side of the sodding river a minute longer than we had to be." Bert shook his head, amazed. "If anybody was still hiding out in the forest.... Bloody hell, we're it, aren't we?" He turned to look at the other two. "We're the only ones that got out of there alive."
"Looks that way." Harkness watched as the castle died, his expression unreadable as bursts of flame painted his smoothly handsome features with golden light. "So," he said at last. "You looking forward to getting back home to your family, Bert?"
"Home?" The thought was suddenly desperately, dizzingly real, no matter that they were still deep in enemy territory, miles from anything that might reasonably be thought of as safety. Gentner and her sick plans had been foiled, Harkness's knowledge preserved for Britain, and the war was right back on schedule with the Allies in the driving seat.... "God, yes," Bert said softly. "Can't fucking wait until all this is over. Got my Agnes waiting for me, her and our little Millicent." He snorted as a thought occurred to him. "Doubt Millie's so little now. Going to be strange seeing them again. Stranger for Millie, I guess doubt she even remembers what I look like."
"You'd be surprised how much they remember at that age," Harkness said with a small smile.
"Well, I can hope." Bert lay back on the grass, staring up into the night sky. "Not sure what else I'm going to do when I get back, seeing as the docks are all but flat, but I want my family back, want to be a part of them, like a proper dad. Who knows? Maybe there'll be another baby or two before long. Would be nice to have a son to play footie with...."
"Yeah." Something almost like disappointment flickered across Harkness's face, then was gone as quickly as it had appeared. "How about you, Frank? I've not heard you mention a wife or family before now."
Frank shrugged. "Had a girl back home. Last I heard, she'd gone off with some bloody Polish Spitfire pilot."
Harkness chuckled. "Ah, got to watch out for those flyboys.... No children?"
"We weren't married!" Frank sounded faintly scandalised. "We were just courting."
"What about you?" Bert asked. "You got anybody waiting?"
"Me?" Harkness snorted softly. "Oh, I'm what you'd call... complicated."
"You bloody said it!" Frank laughed, and Bert had to join in, clinging to that humour as an anchor against all that had happened, all the fury and death and destruction of the past twelve hours. He had seen so much, done so much and lost things friends, comrades, any sense of innocence that he would never be able to regain, and yet....
And yet, he was still alive, his family still waiting for him, and that, he decided, was all that mattered. With the bombers still demolishing all trace of Burg Elsterberg's existence, Bert pushed himself up and followed the others off into the forest and whatever trials lay beyond.
...and to this day I don't know how he did it, but as we emerged from the hills, hobbling on the blisters from those blasted jackboots, there was a truck waiting right there for us and we were back amongst our own within the week. Or back amongst Harkness's own, at the very least, for the good people of the Torchwood Institute spent several days debriefing us on everything that had happened during our captivity. If the interrogators at the castle had seemed a little slapdash in their approach, let me assure that our own people more than made up for it! They heard all we had to say and then Jack took us to one side and swore us both to secrecy. He made no threats, but then he hardly needed to we had seen what was at stake and we had fought at his side.
And it wasn't as if anybody would have believed a blessed word of it even if we had told.
As for what happened after that; well, you have already heard those stories, more or less Frank and I rejoining our regiment, the end of the War, the joyful and tearful reunions. The docks where Frank and I had worked as mechanics before we joined up were gone, reduced to a bombed-out wasteland, and we wondered what we might do with ourselves in our shattered city. But then Jack Harkness appeared once more and offered Frank employment within his organisation, whisking him off to Cardiff, of all places, saying that their docks were far more interesting than London's! I asked why Frank and not me, but in truth I already knew his answer for Agnes was pregnant with your eldest uncle by then and I had seen enough to know that the life he could offer was not one that would suit a family man.
And yet, for all that I never joined his Institute, Jack Harkness did all right by me, just as he did all right by the families of Tom Kimber and Geoff Baverstock and all of the others who were lost on that one mad and desperate night. Not long after Frank's departure, I found myself the recipient of a not inconsiderable sum of money; the legacy, I was told, of some distant and previously unknown relative. I knew better. It was enough to purchase the very house in which you are no doubt now sitting and to set myself up in business. I have never been a rich man in the vast financial sense that the papers of today would have you believe is important, but I have always been comfortable and happy with my lot, with my business, with my family, with the knowledge that I could provide for all those that I held dear.
No life is ever without its ups and downs, of course, and mine has been no different. And yet, on those occasions when times were hard, it has always seemed as though there was a guardian angel watching over me. I have never once asked for help, yet somehow, if I have ever needed aid for any reason, circumstances invariably conspire to help nudge things back onto the right track. It was through Jack Harkness that I made the acquaintance of the first Mr Cartwright and his solicitor's practice, and over the years it has been surprising just how many wealthy yet unrecognised relatives have chosen to name me in their wills!
My life has been long and full, but sadly, others were not. Frank Milton died in 1951, aged just 29 years, while on Torchwood business. He has no grave. I never found out the details of how he passed, never really wanted to know, and I doubt that Jack would have told me had I ever asked, although he did have the good grace to inform me of Frank's death. I was outside of that world, you see, outside with my family safe around me and if I had known, it would have dragged me back inside it all again and them along with me. And that I could not bear, even though there have been many times when, alone with my thoughts, I have found myself wondering just what wonders I might have seen had I taken Torchwood's coin those very many years ago.
If you have read this far, dearest Benjamin, then I am truly impressed at your stamina! But now you know my tale and the people who shared that strange adventure with me. I am the last of them was the last of them, by the time you read this but I take comfort in the knowledge that Jack Harkness is somewhere out there still, fighting the good fight in his own strange way. Do not try to seek him out, for his world is not one that I would wish on the unwary, but know that this world has its defenders.
Know that it always will.
And now, I fear, I must take my leave of you and end this strange story once and for all. Live well and live long, my boy, and believe me when I say that a life remembered is a life not entirely lost to the world. And always remember that no man has to be alone. Take care of Becky and your mother for me, and, most of all, take care of yourself.
All my love,
Ben set the last page carefully aside and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to fall. He could hear the ticking of the old carriage clock on the mantle, the wind-blown creak of the old cherry tree just beyond the leaded windows, could almost feel his grandfather's presence in the room with him, even though he knew that the old man was interred beside his Agnes in the big cemetery on the edge of town. It seemed impossible to believe that Bert Fletcher had kept this story to himself for almost sixty-five years but
"I have got to be insane." Ben shook his head and laughed softly at himself for believing a word of it. His grandfather had always been a teller of tales and now he had to wonder how many of his other war stories had been just that, stories invented for the amusement of an eager child. Mad Nazi women, mind-eating aliens, immortal secret agents and exploding Teutonic castles it couldn't be true, all it lacked was a cameo by Indiana Jones! And yet, and yet....
And yet, he hadn't been that eager child, hanging on his Grandda's every word, in decades. And there was such a subtle ring of truth to it all, despite the strangeness and violence, that it was hard to avoid the small and sneaking suspicion that it was all real, every last word of it.
Ben winced as he looked at the clock 2am had come and gone far faster than it had any right too and reached for the Tupperware boxes. The first one contained the letters and the innumerable elegantly-inscribed Christmas cards from the mysterious 'Jack'....
He paused, his heart suddenly pounding hard against his ribs... and set that one aside again. Somehow, the second box seemed safer.
He understood the significance of the plastic octopus now, with its rounded body and reaching tentacles, and it was hard not to imagine that the pieces of gravel were actually the last remnants of shattered mediaeval stonework. Other things still made no sense half a dozen small, crystalline beads that felt oddly waxy to the touch; a slender strip of vivid blue velvet but some held all too much meaning, the faded paper poppies taking on a sudden and visceral significance that Ben had only understood in theory before. To him, it had always just been stories, a nod to the past, but to his grandfather....
Taking a deep breath, Ben lifted the envelope of photographs, the aged cardstock stiff and heavy beneath his fingers. He had glanced briefly at the first few pictures earlier, but that was before he had had names to put to the long-dead faces, before he knew that the cheery youth with the blond curls was called Alfie Arnold; that the stocky, dark-haired man with the crooked nose and the corporal's stripes was Tom Kimber. Images of lives ended long before Ben had been born... and yet now they were real, were people in their own right, not just images on a piece of paper.
And so he sat, carefully removing the photographs one after another and weeping for the young men who had peopled his grandfather's story, for even if the tale wasn't real, they had been. And if it was real....
The last thing in the envelope wasn't a photograph, but rather a piece of cartridge paper carefully folded and taped around something small and flat and hard. There were words on the paper, his grandfather's spidery writing half-obscured by the perished sellotape: "I could never tell anyone about this. But I knew. And now you do too."
Ben's hands were shaking as he unwrapped the object, unfolding the paper to reveal the bronze cross on a wine-red ribbon, tears blurring his vision anew as he took in the crown and the lion and the two simple words, "FOR VALOUR". He sat and stared at the medal, at the highest of honours that could be awarded to a British soldier, then swallowed hard and let the tears and the acceptance come freely, the corners of his grandfather's Victoria Cross biting painfully into the skin of his palm as he closed his hand tight around it.
Somehow, he didn't think Bert Fletcher had been given it for services to fiction.
A mob of young magpies were pecking around on the grass at the cemetery's entrance, chattering and fluttering along the verge, their glossy tail feathers catching the sunlight as they went. Ben watched them for a moment, leaning on his car door and remembering the old magpie counting rhyme that his grandfather had taught him as a child. "'And seven for a secret never to be told,'" he said softly as the birds took to the air, bold black and white flashing and dipping against green. "All those years and we never knew...."
He collected the flowers he had brought from the back seat and pushed the door shut with his hip, feeling oddly at peace with the world. Becky and her family had moved into the old house and were busily making it their own, filling the empty rooms with life once more. Ben found that he was spending most of his time there now, helping them to settle in and prepare for the imminent arrival of Becky's latest child. It felt good to be a part of the family again he had hidden himself away for too long after Colin's death, solitude becoming too easy a habit and if there were some things that he couldn't tell them... well, he was hardly the first to keep those secrets.
An evening of creative Googling had confirmed the names of old Bert's gunnery section and their unfortunate officer, although official records seemed to indicate that all bar Albert Fletcher and Frank Milton had been killed in action. That had given Ben pause, but further searching had uncovered other stories far less official, far more human, and each of them somehow following a familiar theme.
Connie Kimber had remarried after the war and moved to Australia with her sons and new daughter, an unexpected inheritance ensuring that she was able to settle down comfortably with her family. Her youngest son, Leo, had returned to London in the early Seventies and found fame as the drummer in a glam rock band and later as a successful music producer, now retired.
Geoff Baverstock's widow had likewise benefitted from a not inconsiderable windfall, moving out to Dorset to set up a small seaside hotel with her sons. It was still there, by all accounts, now in the hands of her granddaughter and her family.
Alfie Arnold's family had emigrated to Canada on their sudden inheritance, to set up a successful chain of restaurants. Bernie Traves's father had gone from market stallholder to the owner of a greengrocer's shop. Gordon Howcroft had had no dependents and both parents had died before the war, but his widowed sister had suddenly found herself comfortably provided for. James McCormack's wife had married an American fighter pilot and moved to Texas with her children almost as soon as the war was over, but the ever-efficient Mr Cartwright had tracked her down to pass on the good news of her unexpected inheritance even there. Ben rather suspected that the solicitor had been busy in Poland as well.
As for Berg Elsterberg itself, his research revealed that the castle had been built in 1401 to defend the estates of an archbishop and had been restored at the turn of the twentieth century to serve as a hunting lodge. It had been considered a fine example of the construction of its period before being tragically destroyed during the Second World War when an Allied air raid went off course and scored a direct hit on the castle, reducing it to rubble. There was no mention that Ben could find of it being a prisoner of war camp, nor of it having been an Ahnenerbe stronghold, but then his grandfather had noted that history was written by the victors.
Or rewritten, as the case may be.
Making his way along the path towards his grandparents' graves, Ben realised that this would probably be the last time he got to visit before Becky gave birth. He'd have to make sure that things were tidy, clear away the dead flowers from last time and
There was someone else already there.
Ben stopped, frowning, as he realised that there was an unfamiliar figure crouched by his grandfather's grave, the man half-obscured from sight by the headstones. For a fleeting moment, Ben wondered if he might be a vandal... but it was a weekday afternoon in broad daylight and there was nothing surreptitious about the stranger's presence as he pushed himself up and stepped back from the memorial stone, his head bowed. He was tall and dark-haired, dressed in a long, blue-grey coat that had to be ridiculously hot in this weather, and Ben was certain that he wasn't family, wasn't anyone that he'd seen before, in either flesh or photo.
Because if he had... oh, if he had, he was pretty damned sure that he'd have remembered this one.
The stranger started back down the path towards Ben, striding along with his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, the tails of his long coat flapping at his heels. He looked almost military in his clothing and his bearing, moving with a sense of sharp and elegant purpose, and he was....
It was no good. He was stunning. Tall and movie-star handsome, with blue eyes and broad shoulders and a cleft chin that invited thoughts that were singularly inappropriate given their surroundings. Ben knew that he was staring as the man passed him with a smile and polite nod of acknowledgement... and then turned back to rather blatantly look him up and down. Ben felt himself blush and was rewarded with a broad smile and a wink before the man chuckled and continued on his way, a definite spring in his step.
Ben watched him go, feeling a strange niggling sense that he knew this man, even though he was certain that he had never laid eyes on him before. And then there was the question of what the man was doing at his
He was in motion almost before the realisation crazy, impossible, utterly bloody insane hit, leaving his flowers at the side of the path as he hurried after the stranger. It couldn't be, there was no way, not after sixty-five years....
Ben slowed as he saw the man climb into the driver's seat of a gleaming black SUV of some make he couldn't recognise, smoothing his coat tails beneath him before closing the door. There was a dark-haired woman in the passenger's seat, looking out at their watcher curiously as the engine roared into life and the car started forward... and it all seemed so suddenly ridiculous that Ben laughed to himself and shook his head at his own strange notions. There had to be some other explanation, something more rational
And then, as the car rolled past his vantage point, he saw it.
There was a single word embossed on the big car's glossy wing, black on black, barely visible in the sunlight. A single word that was utterly meaningless to any who didn't already know its significance. A single word that meant absolutely nothing.
And absolutely everything.
Ben swallowed hard, watching as the car drove away, swiftly vanishing from sight past the trees that surrounded the cemetery gates. He stood there for long moments, then turned and ran, ran right past the flowers he had brought, not stopping until he reached Bert Fletcher's grave.
The wreath that lay propped against the headstone was a thing of beauty, all vivid green fern fronds, fine white flowers and a brilliant riot of blood-red poppies. There was a card attached to it, half-hidden behind the blooms, and Ben knelt to pull it free, instantly recognising the impossibly neat copperplate hand from all the long-hoarded Christmas cards.
"Never forgotten J"
Ben swallowed hard and returned the card to the wreath, feeling strangely numb. He had told himself that he believed his grandfather's tale, had done all the research and held the medal in his hand, but now... now he believed, believed to his very bones that the man he had just seen was Jack Harkness, alive and well and ageless and every last bit as real as he was or Becky was or....
He was real. It was all real.
"Wow." Ben pushed himself to his feet, taking a step back from the grave and the delicate memorial propped against the engraved stone. He didn't know what to do, what to think... and then he realised that he wasn't alone in knowing what had happened to Bert Fletcher and his mates, that there was someone else who knew, who could remember it all first-hand. Someone who would remember his grandfather when Ben himself, and Becky, and everybody else who had ever known the old man, had long since gone to dust.
One of the magpies was perched on a nearby railing, a second hopping along the path, both watching with bright, interested eyes as Ben went to fetch his own flowers. He smiled at the birds, thinking of the other magpies that had just left, driving off in their huge and gleaming car to their nest in Wales or wherever. The world, it seemed, was far bigger and stranger and so much more amazing than he had ever imagined....
Ben set the blooms in the vases that sat to either side of the headstone, arranging them to flank Harkness's wreath with a contrasting splash of blues and golds. "Sleep well, Grandda'," he said softly, running his fingers over the name carved into the marble. "We'll remember them for you, me and him, and if I can't tell anybody that story, well, I think I can still remember the others."
He smiled and pushed himself up, starting back towards his car and his family and the rest of his life. Becky and Brian were going to need him to keep the children amused once the new baby arrived. Perhaps it was time to start telling them a few of their great-grandfather's tales....