It would have to be the rainy season, wouldn't it? The air was too heavy, and his fatigues were sticking to his skin. Jack found himself glancing out of the window, looking for lightning - superstitious, maybe, but it still felt like a blessing every time it came. None today. Maybe it was off rounding up cyclones, saving up trouble for later.
He turned his attention back to Arriaga. Soft-faced guy. Portuguese. Spent years in Lisbon sat behind a desk and thinking about war without living it. Jack didn't like him. Jack usually didn't like his paymasters. He was starting to wonder about this trend. But he would listen to his instructions, nonetheless.
"Machel's troops are camped in the mountains. They'd been getting supplies via the harbour at Nacala - from the Soviets and Chinese - but we retook the area a month ago." Jack nodded. Two years leading a mercenary corps, and he'd almost stopped caring who he was championing or who he was fighting against. Almost. "And we've pacified the villages that support them." Lovely euphemism. "Now they're looting from our side to survive. Cutting roads off, raiding bases. We need to drop you and your men into the Nampula area to secure our troops' supply chain."
"How many men do FRELIMO have up there?"
The general frowned. "Near Nampula? Hundreds. But the civilians have largely been persuaded against supporting them." That sounded pretty fatuous, but Jack thought he at least believed it was the truth. "They can't stage the revolution they were hoping for, so they're just trying to annoy us into surrender. Guerilla tactics. Pushing south on the strength of their propaganda war in Europe -" He looked disgusted, and Jack didn't care.
They talked timing, supplies, weather, entry points, everything except why. Jack got it. He and fifty of his troops would lead one of Arriaga's brigades north into the mountains to kill and besiege the Marxists. He had the details down. Needed to go talk to his men, eat, rest, get ready for a pre-dawn flight inland.
"Wait -" the man called, as he was leaving.
"What now?" he asked.
Arriaga pursed his lips, looking...embarrassed. "Something the major in Nampula told me. I think he's been picking up superstitions from these Africans, and..." Jack stared at him blankly. "He told me to tell you about...the hunter. To have no mercy on him."
"Some local ghost story, I gather. About a, a 'white monster', he said. But he insisted I tell you." Jack shrugged, and tucked the detail away in his mind for safe keeping. His understanding of the world would accept ghost stories; in his memories, he often trailed the paths of the dead.
The helicopters took them in just before dawn - the time with the least chance of disruption from cyclones - and set down in four inches of mud. A great start. At least the choppers hadn't come under missile fire; but if this area was safe, it only meant that they needed to get moving to the real battlefield.
The garrison at Nampula was decent, and swelled their ranks to two hundred; they weren't that strong or well-equipped, but they had something to fight for. They also knew where they were going and were accustomed to the terrain. Useful. They piled into the trucks with more enthusiasm than Jack's soldiers; they'd suffered FRELIMO raids long enough, and this was the first chance they'd had to head for the woods to fight back.
Still no lightning. Maybe it wasn't coming. It was too wet to smoke, though half the troops were trying; Jack just breathed the thick air - gasoline and rain and that red-earth scent you only got in East Africa; they were near the battlefield, and that always made his mind feel brighter. Less dead weight; more clarity. The light never reached his heart, but he'd got used to that. Didn't notice it any more. It was just hard and grey and dragging him down, anyway.
They hit their first battlefield in the late afternoon; a valley where the road ran close to the railway, and both had been repeatedly targeted by the guerillas. Arriaga knew there must be a FRELIMO camp nearby, and Jack's job was to find it. He halted the column a mile before the valley's neck; a show of force would be counterproductive. Better to take a platoon ahead on foot, to look for signs, draw them out, and then call in the cavalry once they'd found them.
It had almost stopped raining. Made the march easier, and gave them a slight chance to find some fresh tracks; water had drained away from the road easily, held and swallowed by the forest's strong roots. The woods weren't too thick here, and provided a thousand easy escape routes for the guerillas - Jack would be telling Arriaga to have the whole area mined. Hell, the whole railroad, if he really wanted his lines safe from looters.
Something rustled in the trees by the roadside - he reached for his gun, but it didn't sound like a threat. Herd of something. Reedbucks, maybe -
They came closer to the road, hesitating. Not reedbucks. Children. Whole bunch of 'em, huddling out of the rain by the shrubs and each other. A half-dozen of them. Barefoot, wearing mismatched rags - scraps of old fatigues, ill-fitting shirts. Mud spattered them up to their waists. Most looked entirely local, a few mulatto - one sharp-faced brat even sported a crop of fair hair above a deep olive tan. It was that child who stepped out onto the track. "Essen, wir brauchen was zu essen," he said boldly. "Alimento," he added in Portuguese, with a hand held to his belly in case they hadn't got it.
Huh. Kid spoke German, what the hell? Straightforward little fucker. Jack was calculating in his mind - they might have enough to share with the group of kids, especially if they could find some buck or antelope to shoot, or show the little gang how to lay snares for themselves -
"No." It was one of the Bushmen from the Portuguese unit. He walked up to Jack, rifle shaking in his hands. "Sir, no. Shoot them. Shoot it."
"Stand down," he snapped. "What the hell?" He looked to one of his lieutenants. "Corringway, go give him something to eat." He knew they'd have the kids following them all year after this, but what the hell. Corringway was opening his pack, looking out MREs. Carrying something over to the blond kid. Jack wondered if -
"No," said the Bushman insistently. "The hunter -"
The kid was stood digging toes in the mud, hands pushed inside his trousers, Corringway passed him the ration, saying, "Now scram, the lot of you," even though he knew that wouldn't be -
The soldier stooped, and fell onto his knees in the mud. The kids were running, scattering, and Jack heard them screaming with laughter - "Jaeger! Jaeger!" - The blond child was the last to run, blood streaming down his shirt his face his knife, what the hell, he -
Jack trained his gun to the child's head, but he was gone a second later, lost so deep in the trees that a shot would be worthless. A second would have been more than enough. Far more. He just hadn't pulled the fucking trigger. Jack tossed the gun into the mud.
The Bushman knelt by Corringway, turned him over onto his side - and was frozen with a hand to the lieutenant's neck, shaking his head. "Forty-four," he said.
"The men in Nampula, they've been counting the stories. Forty-three soldiers killed by the hunter. You could have had him," he said, more in regret than reproach. "He's a monster."
Shit. Yes. But god help me, I'm not. "Who is he? He's with FRELIMO? FRELIMO make kids fight for them?"
The man nodded. "Yes, sir. They call him Jaeger." Brash as sunshine, cold like steel between the ribs - "Frank Jaeger."
Wasn't much they could do but keep moving. They wrapped Corringway up and carried him back to a truck; once they'd cleared the valley of guerillas, they could call for a helicopter for his last journey home. Jack could feel his soldiers' whispers, full of choked anger and a wish for revenge; thwarted and silenced by a commander who hadn't pulled the trigger when by all rights he should've done. He could feel his mercy pulling at their steps, sucking them down as much as the red-clay mud.
There was little stealth involved in their task; just positioning and firepower. When they came under fire from the east ridge, it was less a threat than an invitation - he summoned the other platoons to surround the enemy camp, and then advanced, keeping low to the scrub as they took the slope, knees caking with sweat and dirt, the rain keeping visibility low and trigger-fingers clean. It didn't take many kills to force a surrender, and Jack was glad of that. These FRELIMO weren't children but - he was unsettled now, by this entire fucking war he'd signed his corps up to.
The children were nowhere to be seen. If they had a troop-camp supporting their bloody scavenging, it was elsewhere. They bound their prisoners and took over the limited comforts of their camp, soldiers stringing tarps up for shelter while Jack called in his report. He thanked Arriaga for his warning with ashes in his mouth.
When he was done, he could hear the camp talking - in English and in Portuguese, crossing over from one to the other in the mouths of those local troops who knew both. It was grim. Catholic. Haunting. Huge grasshoppers bothered at their lights. A Makonde soldier was relating a FRELIMO claim that the hunter was the ghost of Mozambique's ancestors, angry at the Europeans and the Arabs and their foreign religions, returned as a child's rage at the world of adults - something clawed, divine, bloody.
He let their words sink into his thoughts.
Most likely, they wouldn't see the child again; they'd spread a more thorough warning across the entirety of the Portuguese forces, and eventually the boy would approach someone who was fully forewarned and they'd take the little bastard down. But chance was a strange thing. Jack took his pistol out of its hip holster, and he rummaged in his pack, looking for mercy.
They were getting the job done. Slow going - half the roads were impassable, and Jack relied on the local troopers to find the best way through the mountains. But they found their targets and they defeated them. It wasn't methodical, and he always had an eye on their backs, but it was getting a damn sight easier to bring supplies in and that was what Arriaga had wanted of them.
The locals had been afraid of them, but were grimly glad when the battlefield was driven away from their villages. They weren't Marxists, they weren't Portuguese; they were just trying to survive, same as him. They were starting to offer rumours of FRELIMO troop movements and hideouts, which was a great help to the operation. When they thought he wasn't listening, his soldiers asked the villagers if they'd seen the hunter. They were pretty transparent when it came to gossip. He could tell when the kill-count had ticked higher, forty-five, forty-six, by the way they'd all get quiet at once.
Nightly, the soldiers told each other ghost stories.
Why? Did they think that if they swapped enough of them, the real horror would quit being real? That they'd quit seeing villages reduced to ash? That the child with the bloody knife would disappear? Jack knew about ghosts; knew that if he didn't keep track of how many people he'd killed, and how, and why, something else would. There would be a balance and a reckoning. He didn't listen to ghost stories to forget. Ghosts were to remember. He didn't speak to his troops on it; he figured every soldier worked it out for themselves eventually.
They hadn't seen the hunter again, or his ragtag cohorts. When they saw any children coming near to them, the Portuguese soldiers threw stones.
As they drove north the next day, towards a military outpost in the mountains, his memories took him to a graveyard. He was leaving her behind him; maybe for the last time. He planned no return visits. There were more meaningful ways to honour someone, right? He'd gazed inwards, wondering what the hell to do with the pieces of her left inside him. Didn't realise at first he wasn't walking alone there. Not until he was halfway up the steps on the way out and the tread behind him became unmistakeable.
Their eyes had met with a rare sincerity; blue on blue, three wells of sunken missing pieces. 'Visiting someone?' he'd asked.
'My mother,' Adamska replied.
And one haunted river flows into another -
The sun was setting when their cavalcade reached the base; it was a shoddy construction of concrete and corrugated iron, it was imperfectly defended by a too-small crew, and it was a damn sight better than anything else they'd seen all week. It would keep off the worst of the heat and the rain, and it would refill their stocks of ammunition. It greeted them as heroes, but had news for them too; their lookouts had spotted the hunter and his band, heading uphill through the scrub.
They're scared. Vengeful and up for some slaughter, but the troops had just spent night after night building the child up into something inhuman; they'd let a flesh-eating night-terror loose in their minds, and now it had come back to get them. He barked orders to cool it and settle in for the night, and then gathered some of the sanest minds around himself and the base captain.
"When did you see them? How far?"
Not fifteen minutes ago, and a couple of miles downhill on the opposite side from their approach - the rest had been near-invisible, but there was no hiding the hunter's fair head, or the light on his killing knife. Jack had quit believing in coincidences. The kids were here because Jack's troops were doing a good job, so FRELIMO had sent them here to kill, spook and demoralise them. If the guerillas were losing control of the land, they'd taken control of its story, and sent it out to make Portugal bleed.
"I'm putting an end to this," he said. "You -" he nodded to three of his soldiers, "- are going to fix me a diversion. Don't shoot at them, just ready WP. I want you to fuck their visibility and scare off as many as'll get scared." Because he knew that the hunter wouldn't back down. Not even when alone and lost in smoke. And it was the hunter that mattered. "Just stay back and make me a good screen. I'll go out there and take him by myself."
He started running for the other gate before they could even think of asking questions, bringing his gun and his knife together in that familiar handhold. He hit the dirt right out of the gate. No rain, not much light; enough breeze to catch the smell of someone readying phosphorus behind him, and he waved, gesturing for them to lob it far over his position. It felt like catching snakes again.
The hunt was on.
No laughter, no triumph there; just panic. That had been the plan. Gunfire would've just been noise to them. But smoke? Fire, even fire that couldn't possibly catch in this weather? All people had ghost stories; you just had to guess what they were afraid of.
He ignored the frightened voice. It was splitting. They all would, save for one. It was a rare and wild mind that would see this chaos as an opportunity rather than a deathtrap, and the hunter had it. Jack listened past the sounds of falling night, past the bullfrogs and crickets and the screams of fleeing children, trying to catch the sounds that didn't fit. He stayed flat to the ground as he advanced, below the drifting smoke.
Another fizz of phosphorous, landing on a path behind-and-left of him. "Jaeger, batente!" That's right. Tell the little soldier to give up. Keep him coming -
- he wasn't far. A hundred feet, maybe. Jack moved faster, swarming over the ground on his elbows, trying to feel the vibrations of stem on stem that would tell him where the hunter walked. Closer, heading straight for him. Now silence, stillness. Yes. He raised his head a milimetre at a time, balancing on a fist curled in the mud. Just one clear shot. Come on -
The smoke was thinning, and the hunter was no longer there.
But he was, Jack knew that by blind instinct. It felt like being stared at from behind. Like being prey - He twisted on his knees, rolled, knowing it was too late for stealth, that his enemy had seen through it. And there he was. Perched in a tree with a killing knife held between his teeth.
Jack fired but the kid had dropped before he pulled the trigger, catching the branch one-handed and then diving for the earth below. Jack leapt to his feet but there was no clear shot, just a mass of shaking bushes - and he jumped back as the hunter jumped forward, coming from the undergrowth like an animal.
The child jabbed for him and it was all he could do to block with his own knife in time. Fuck, was he fast. And the stories were under Jack's skull like this wasn't a child with a knife but a horror - a dead thing with soul-cutting teeth - and he'd listened too hard but you had to just to say no, it's just a kid who shouldn't be on the battlefield. But in this light, he almost believed -
I've bet my life on you still being human.
The hunter's lunge came so fast he almost didn't see it coming, almost didn't dodge, and couldn't shift fast enough to make it not happen. Fuck - He felt every notch in that blade tear his skin, ripping deep into the flesh above his hip but fuck, he'd be dead if he hadn't stepped six inches left -
He felt hot blood soaking into his shirt, and shit, that one's gonna leave a reminder. Scars were ghosts - they kept memories. He wouldn't forget that move in a hurry. The damn kid tried it again and Jack dodged back from it, lightheaded with pain. He kicked the hunter in the stomach and sent him sprawling to the dirt. For just a second the kid was winded and five feet clear of him -
A second is enough.
Jack's shot hit him square in the throat.
The kid weighed more than you'd think - he was entirely made of dense sinew, like his whole life was spent running and climbing, and for all his beggarly performances he wasn't that badly fed. FRELIMO had been looking after him. (Either that, or the tales of him feeding on his victims' corpses weren't just fictions). Still wasn't so much of a burden, even given the open cut on Jack's hip; as he walked, with that blond head lolling over his elbow and blood running down the right leg of his pants, he began concocting a lie to tell Adamska, because he was damned if he'd admit he'd got scarred in a fight against the littlest communist in Africa.
Even over the burgeoning nightcall, he heard the whistles long before he got back. Men celebrating as if for a dragon's slaughter, crowing their joy at his revenge. They were gathered at the gate, cheering, and one of his mercs - Lynton, their radio technician - slapped his back as he passed through the crowd. "Get me a medic," he hissed to the man.
"You took him, Boss! You killed the hunter!"
Jack shook his head, and he felt the soldiers around him fall into an uncomfortable quiet. "Kid's just asleep. Tranquilliser gun. Brought it here in case we ran into predators." He walked on towards the barracks, shifting soldiers out of his path with a stony eye. They marked his way with grudging salutes. He'd save the trouble for later - the Portuguese soldiers wouldn't dare bother him, and his own men knew well enough when to stay out of his way.
Jack was just inside the barracks when Lynton returned with the field medic, kneeling on the concrete floor with the kid in a heap beside him. No way of telling when he'd come round - never tranqued a kid before. Jack had lost blood. Need a goddamn cigar. Medic was here. He slumped back, and let the man cut away the bloodstained half of his shirt. Lynton was standing to attention nearby - someone had his back, it was safe.
"You're lucky," the doctor said, swabbing him clean. Jack gritted his teeth as the man wiped mud spatters out of the long knife-gouge. "If he'd stuck you any deeper you'd've had some real muscle damage. That's the hunter?"
He glanced sideways, nodding - the child was lying with his face beside Jack's knee. Not a ghost any more, just a boy with his hair full of mud and a punctured bruise on his neck - "Got any tetanus shots around? I'm guessing he needs one."
Lynton scuffed a foot against the wall, and Jack raised his head gingerly. He didn't like that scowl. Insubordinate, and full of malice where none was called for. He'd deal with it later. For now, he had to deal with the doctor sewing him up - fix his mind on the man's calm voice, and the shallow breaths that tickled his left hand. God, what a life the kid must've had.
It was just after the cut had been stitched and dressed that the boy beside him started stirring. Eyes fluttered, and for a second he stopped breathing, and his hands ran over the floor, as if he were asking the cool ground where he was. Raising his head, he hissed in his first full breath of wakefulness and spat full in Jack's face. "Ich hasse dich!"
He snapped a reply in the same language. "Do that again and I'll shoot you for real."
He didn't quite grasp the boy's response. Something about anally copulating with mountain goats. He stood up gingerly, planting his boots near the hunter's head; the child seemed frozen in anger, or fear, and Jack wiped his face off with the ragged end of his bandanna. Lynton was still beside him, and had the sense not to insult him by offering him an arm. The soldier's hands were twitching, but his expression was impressively blank. "If you have an opinion, Lynton," Jack grated, "I'd simply love to hear it."
"Sir, it's a fucking monster, it should be killed -"
Jack grabbed him by the collar and raised him to the tips of his boots. "You going to kill him, then?" He heard no reply other than the pulse thudding against his hand. "No, I hear you, soldier. You want the kid dead but you don't want to be the one who knifes him. You think that should be Big Boss's job." His hand relaxed, and the man fell in a pile at his feet. "We work for a government that throws its own people into ravines, and you still want it to be someone else's call." He resisted the urge to silence the spluttering with a kick. "Well, I'm making it. He lives."
He sloped off to the command room, not looking back. He heard the man pick himself up with a groan. Mercy enforced with an iron fist? But it worked. He would hear no more talk of killing children, not from any of his soldiers.
It wasn't til he was about to slam the door closed behind him that he realised the boy had followed him - creeping by the side of the corridor, a wary five-paces distant. He shrank against the wall under Jack's gaze, hands coming up as if to guard his face. Still looks like a ghost story, he thought, silent and dead behind the eyes.
Which was worse - the army that made children fight, or the army that fought against children?
"Komm her," he growled. The boy obeyed, leaving muddy footprints behind him as he stepped forwards. Once inside, he sank immediately into one corner, pulling his knees up to his chest. Jack looked out a package of food, and slumped down a few feet away from him. "You hungry, Frank?" he asked, still speaking in German. The boy nodded, and Jack opened the tin cans with his knife, laying them on the concrete between them. Frank didn't ask for a spoon, but just dived in with muddy fingers - seeming not to even notice when they caught on the jagged metal. Maybe he was used to eating food mixed with dirt and blood. That makes two of us...
"How old are you?" he asked. Frank just shrugged. No one's lit candles for you, or kept a count of summertimes? "You have a family? Parents?"
He heard the word before the boy said it. No one with parents would be out here killing people at his age (whatever that was - ten, eleven?) "Mine too," he heard himself say. "My father was a soldier, and he was captured -" By the Japanese, and they set him to forced labour in Burma, on the railway that killed a hundred thousand men - "He died." - at Hellfire Pass, of backbreaking work and not enough food and being kept in squalor. And I don't know if he hated them all by the end, if he hated his half-Jap wife and their son back at home the way America hated her and she hated herself and...
Frank was watching him - not like a predator or a scavenger. Not even, he thought, kicking it far aside, like a wild child who might make a grab for his knife any moment. Maybe there was a grain of trust there. Or even mutual understanding. Or at least the ghost of a memory whispering to him over a transmitter: "There's no such thing as an enemy in absolute terms."
He understood now, and that truth made the world shake a little. He remembered this.
Remembered being young, weak and alone. And always feeling worn-down, getting angry, as if pointing it outwards would help, as if life were a highwire act with no safety net - you swung your hand to catch your balance, and made someone else bleed. Hard to care about anyone or anything. Harder to care about yourself, or the future. Not until the day you find someone with the strength to catch you if you fall - And then she - And then I -
He choked a mouthful of food past the lump in his throat. Two years ago now. Can't take it back, or make it right, and there was no peace from it. Only the future. So he turned to the boy and asked, "If I found somewhere safe for you to go, would you stop fighting and stay there?"
"Safe?" Frank repeated, as if the word made no sense to him. But he nodded in acquiescence, then hid his fair head between his knees. Jack let him be for a few minutes, chowed down ham and lima beans, and tried to keep looking forward.
When the boy's sobs became audible, he stretched out a hand to touch his shoulder. Frank flinched away, but raised his head to meet Jack's eyes...and for all there were tears there, there was life too, life where there had been nothing five minutes before. "It's alright," he said, taking the child's forearm, giving it a gentle squeeze. "I - I know what it feels like." You turn numb pretty fast, and next you forget you ever weren't...and when you finally find the strength to cry again, it's like...like lightning. It's a blessing.
It's rain and light trickling into the hard grey place that I thought I'd sealed up for good.
"I don't fight for anything," he said, in English, and the boy's eyes narrowed, as if trying to fathom the words he did not understand. "There's no devotion in what I do. For two years now, I've been loyal to nothing except a paycheck. I've done what I'm told. Would that be enough for her? I don't know. I've done nothing to put the world back together. I don't fight for anything, but if I did," he looked into Frank's eyes, feeling tired, feeling angry, "I'd fight for people like you.
"I don't know who brought you here, or from where. I don't know who killed your parents, but I'll bet he was someone like me. A man with a gun who doesn't care who he kills, because the chaos is better than - being dead inside. I - can't - do - that any more. She wouldn't have it." He turned away. "Might call me soft-hearted for thinking of it that way, but she wouldn't tolerate it if I betrayed myself. And that's all I've been doing since the day she died."
He felt a cool hand touch his own arm; Frank Jaeger, and he felt too bitter to be sickened by it, was more soldier than most of the Portuguese army. He'd lived on the battlefield, he'd led a small band of small men, and killed dozens. He was worth far fucking more of Jack's respect than fucking Arriaga ever would be. "I'd fight for you," Jack said, "I'd fight for any kid who'd got hurt in a war and just needed a chance to grow up." No mistake, Frank was hurt.
And he didn't understand the words, but he shifted his fingers over Jack's arm. Soldiers knew about strength. How to show it, how to share it.
"You should get some rest," he said, switching back to German, because orders had to be comprehensible even if feelings never were. "There's a sleeping bag with my pack. Go bed down somewhere."
The boy hesitated, still clutching his arm. "Will you watch over me?"
Jack nodded, more than willing to protect his enemy. "Yes. I promise."