A extra chill in the air, brought on by the cutting wind driving added discomfort in the form of a heavy drizzle. Of course he had known worse, though in those cases the circumstances had been familiar or at least understandable; there was a foe out there looking to harm you and you were willing to return the compliment. Not a village with an odd vibe, intelligence officers acting like local elders, and Her. He knew she was out there, there were types who got so absorbed in their work, that it became the only thing which made sense, and they became territorial about it, no one else could or should do it, so Command let them have their way until the odds played against them and worn out they made The Error. She wasn’t worn out though.
Despite the weather, or maybe because of her positioning the pungent odour of those smokes made her presence known. As he had expected she was signalling. Caution bred of experience would not allow him to look up, there was always that suspicion she was playing a long complex game to lull him, into one killing shot, the one she’d decided to play, not her commanders. Veterans; you could never tell. He started the long, careful process of moving along his right flank, just like she was hefting her sniper rifle, waiting, patient. Slovosskian women snipers had a deadly patience, lying still for a day or more.
An hour later he came upon her settled in a hollow, one she’d no doubt deepened, and she had a covering of local dirt, chin resting on flattened hands, peering contentedly into the gloom. He could not resist, he picked up a pebble and sent it to land just in front of her face, causing the mound which she was to twitch, quick though to turn in his direction.
‘Sergeant,’ she said softly as if greeting an old friend ‘That was very good. I am so glad it was you. Anyone else would have been mortifying,’ and she rolled out, not, he noticed trusting to stand up. She wasn’t sure either.
‘It’s only me. I swear,’ he said, then with the air of someone addressing a member of their own squad ‘Corporal. What the hell are you doing?’
She eased into a crouch.
‘Waiting for you Sergeant. I had to get you out here, by bothering the other patrols. You would eventually arrive. We should talk,’ This said she sat on her haunches hands gripped about her knees, now there was something of the wide-eyed waif about her. That was disturbing. He closed to distance to rifle length and knelt facing her.
‘Have you?’ the words came slowly, because his thoughts were still forming, ones which had a sort of sense, if you embraced what folk who’d never been in War thought of as weirdness ‘Been protecting that village?’ as he spoke he questioned his own perceptions and judgements. Where had that notion come from? Meanwhile she was nodding vigorously.
‘Yes,’ came the firm reply ‘My commanders think I am only out here patrolling. No one ever comes with me,’ she tapped the side of her helmet, her face growing taut ‘Good. But too dangerous to be with. It is a good guise for a girl in an army of men,’ the expression brightened ‘I have been sneaking out rations, bringing them to the village for Gadeer, so she can get her strength back for the journey. I’ve convinced her she has to leave,’
‘You convinced her corporal?’
‘Very well,’ she replied buckling under his sceptical tone ‘I volunteered to be an escort out of here, aid the new family to travel to a safer place,’ her face tightened ‘Don’t ask. So you won’t have to make any big lies to your commanders. I’m just asking you to delay that’s all,’
‘Now. Corporal, you are asking a great deal of me. Firstly, are you deserting?’
‘Yes,’ came the defiant retort ‘This is one time too many to shrug off. I don’t care about the politics, like all good soldiers I don’t understand them. Thinking too hard interferes with my fighting ability. This time I just want to see one family get a chance. Did you know most of the young folk have left, with their children. The local folk know full well what’s going to happen. The net is tightening though, more of both our sides coming in, and those who want Gadeer and Eyad removed as symbolisms of an Opposition,’
‘That opposition? Do you know where it leads?’
‘Don’t care. I just don’t want to see another baby die. I can do something good for once. You understand, don’t you Sergeant? Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of meeting with me again. We could have caused a lot of trouble that past night, but we didn’t,’
‘I can’t argue with that Corporal,’ he said, in the act of agreement feeling relief of a burden taken from him. When do you leave?’
‘If I do not tell you, you won’t have to keep the information from anyone. That is only fair to you,’
‘Thank you for that Corporal,’ a question came out, naturally after the years in The Wilds ‘Can you trust those Security Officers?’
She stood brushing off some of the less stubborn dirt. One of those expressions you saw too often on those who went out too often, and he assumed others saw on his face.
‘As much as they trust me,’
Faigai heard, saw and tasted the entirety of his service in the span of the few breaths following her her reply. Life had now come sniping him with that ammunition which did not miss…memories. Supressing a crowd of other emotions he fixed her with the exasperated air any sergeant would lay upon a soldier.
‘Corporal. Even in the short time I have known you I have you fixed as a damn nuisance. I don’t know what you have up there in that head of yours, but it is certainly not common sense as to how armies work,’
He did not appreciate the sly grin that comment caused, fired by the minor insubordination he forged on.
‘If you don’t go back, your commanders might be glad to be rid of you, but they will not be content with losing a scout. A patrol will be sent out. If they head in our direction there will be tension, stand off and maybe shots exchanged and generals will not be happy. If they head towards the village with the notion the locals took you there will be unhappy consequences and the politicians and diplomats will not be happy. Worse than that I will be questioned and interrogated by several layers of command and our own intelligences services, the latter I will not like at all, and they will not like my attitude. Since your people will be conducting them, someone who will not have to do it will decide we need to send out aggressive patrols, and we are back to shots being exchanged, with that village in the middle. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes sergeant,’ she said a little meekly because he had been very eloquent and persuasive in her native language. ‘May I ask what you think is the best course of action?’
Faigai had been obliged to carry out many an action most folk would not call ‘normal’. This was because battlefields were not normal. Here however was one which call for action way above and beyond what even was acceptable on a battlefield. But, when you scanned, considered and evaluated in the light of all you had experienced and reckoned could go wrong what other choice was there?
The villagers had been warned and prepared. When the patrols arrived, happily at different times they were greeted respectfully by a man of late years, who although dressed in the villages’ garb bore himself with an air that the two sets of soldiers felt might be more than just a village elder. He handed each group a document, the men recognised the writing on the one in their language. There was a heading with a soldier’s name, rank and number and the statement ‘In conjunction with…’ followed by details which obviously belonged to someone of the opposition.
‘I have, of my own freewill and judgement resigned my position with the armed forces. I can no longer conduct my duties to the required standard and have therefore taken it upon myself along with this comrade in arms to seek out more productive and useful employment of my skills and experience. This will be carried out with the intention of causing no harm to soldiers of either of our armies,’
And was signed.
The documents were puzzled over by each patrol who became a small crowd expressing words of disbelief and astonishment, though not very eloquently. Resigned? Who got to consider they could resign? The conversations continued all the way back to the respective lines where the statements were handed over to officers who once they had recovered from the shock passed this onto other officers and so forth. Under guidance from political staffs of each the relevant hapless liaison officer with a local and unwilling official visited the village. They were advised by the elder, yes, there had been two strangers seen prowling around the village outskirts, but had avoided contact. Yes, their presence had frightened folk particularly when they had finally come in together and thrust the documents to him. Indeed they had bartered for food then, thankfully had left. There was a very delicate conference between officers of both sides, it was decided for the best that it was to be assumed the pair had actually been meeting for a while and since were of opposite genders had formed a relationship and gone rogue, no doubt to try their hands at banditry. It was agreed this sort of thing could happen with those who had been out too long as individuals patrolling. Thus the reports went back that both had deserted (resigned indeed!) and were officially disgraced to be court martialled on being apprehended, which those who knew them thought very unlikely.
It was just as Banner Sergeant Faigai had anticipated. And would have given them and the family a few days start on any attempt to follow. He and Corporal Jagerin shared one question neither could answer.
Who had fired off that star shell, to fall right where they had been?