Actions

Work Header

the walls of where

Work Text:

Who dragged whom, how many times, at the wheels of what, round the walls of where?

Nightingale had no idea why that kept running through his head. It was a schoolboy jingle, puerile in every sense, but it kept going like a tune you can't stop humming, over and over. But it served its purpose, working like a forma to control his own mind, blotting out everything else. No reactions, no feelings, no thoughts, nothing but the job at hand.

Anticipate,

Who dragged whom

formulate,

how many times

release. Scan the camp. Another pair of werewolves emerging from around the side of the nearest hut, trying to pick off the guard.

at the wheels of what

Anticipate,

round the walls of where?

formulate,

Who dragged whom

release.

Snipers. Freddy down, extend the shield to cover his place. Skirmishers. Anticipate, formulate, release. Who dragged whom, how many times, at the wheels of what, round the walls of where?

He could do this all day. He could. He could.

Was Troy like this, had doomed Achilles felt the utter futility of his cause as he drove around and around the walls of Troy, had there been this much blood and smoke and screaming?

Anticipate, formulate, release.

Brown's head blown clean off his shoulders. Some of the blood splashed his side. Iron stink in his nostrils.

Who dragged whom, how many times, at the wheels of what, round the walls of where?

"They're coming out!"

The yell carried across the field. Nightingale didn't glance across to check the path was clear. He knew it was clear.

"Holy Mary Mother of God," someone said nearby, a hard whisper that carried, and Nightingale did look then.

Eight hundred soldier-practitioners had gone into the bunker to retrieve the data, a full battalion. Nightingale counted a score emerging, all blooded, dragging pallets loaded with filing cabinets between them. And behind them--

"Take my place," he snapped to the two men on either side of him in the defensive wall.

The dead were following them out. The rearguard, such as it was--three men Nightingale didn't recognise, reeling with horror but shooting and firing spells at the pursuing dead--were holding them back, but Nightingale could see the numbers behind, the tortured and rotting faces. For a second his gaze was drawn to the cabinets, the records of what had been done to the guarding dead.

Then he linked up with the first of the men emerging and up close he recognised Colonel Mellenby, blank-faced with more horror than a man can endure. Nightingale grabbed him by one shoulder; he didn't flinch or even seem to notice the touch.

"Is there anyone left alive in there?" he demanded.

Mellenby stared at him and Nightingale repeated the question, shouting it like a drill sergeant, like their Latin master on a cold winter's morning, in some other life.

"No. Nobody alive," Mellenby said at last.

The dead were starting to escape, the frantic, exhausted rearguard unable to keep them back. Nightingale jogged over to them.

"Bring the roof down," he said. "Bring the whole building down on them." A part of his mind wished the cabinets were still inside too.

But there was no time, no space for those thoughts, those feelings. Who dragged whom, how many times, at the wheels of what, round the walls of where?

He'd been all around this building, guarding. He knew where to start. It had a simple curved metal roof like a Nissen hut. Nightingale found its centre, gripped his staff, settled his mind, and lifted. The noise of vibrating metal roared across the field, louder than a freight train passing, louder than mortar fire. He twisted it until the metal began to crack. At the same time, he ripped through the stonework of the central wall, and snapped the girders above the deep basements below. The men nearby were joining in now, working spells to demolish walls and split open floors, and the Paras who were supporting them on this operation were throwing in white phosphorus grenades over where the roof had once been.

Then Nightingale dropped the roof. Several tonnes of metal crashed down on top of the splintering building, and the walls caved. He watched the doors, but no more of the hungry dead emerged, and the remaining guard had tackled the ones who had followed them out.

They had achieved their objective. It was time to pull out, he thought, and even as he thought it he saw Mellenby send up the flares, green then red, the signal for retreat.

It was half a kilometre from the edge of the camp to the landing site. The surrounding forest hadn't given them many options when planning this operation, and this had been the best place to set down the gliders. Not that Nightingale had landed in the gliders; he'd dropped with the Paras in advance. A few of the younger practitioners had thought this was evidence of his courage, but Nightingale knew it was cowardice. The gliders were wooden, unarmed, and made excellent targets as they manoeuvred in their slow descent to the landing site. Six had been blown out of the air by the ack-ack fire from the camp, before the Paras had managed to put a stop to it, and then the German soldier-practitioners had set another five ablaze with fireballs. But despite all that, it had been an orderly landing, it had all looked promising as they'd secured the landing site and headed for the camp.

Now, it was a rout. The camp sprawled out over a good acre, rows of long single-story buildings of cheap brick and metal inside the wire fences, and then the central bunker where the research was stored. Over three thousand men had landed, Paras and soldier-practitioners together, and Nightingale had doubted it would be enough. He'd wished desperately to be proved wrong, but the camp had been heavily guarded and it had been far worse than even he'd expected.

But the operation hadn't failed: they had the cabinets full of data. And he had only one task now, and that was to get these cabinets and as many men as possible back to the gliders. A couple of the Paras had stuck tight to him the whole way through the operation, Sergeant Paul Caffrey and his men, and they were still with him now. And as they worked their way towards the gate, more men joined the straggling convoy, until there were some hundred by the time they reached the gate, including wounded. Nightingale scanned the camp, and saw that most of the men were still tied down in the thick of the fighting around the barracks on the far side of the bunker, unable to retreat.

The first trolleys full of cabinets were through the gate when the rumbling from inside the bunker began. All the hair on the back of his neck stood up.

"Go, go, move!" he shouted, staring back at the bunker. The roof he'd brought down was starting to lift off again, slowly, rattling and roaring like some giant metallic monster. Nightingale pushed Caffrey and the other Para flanking him forward, gripped his staff, and cast a half-sphere shield between his retreating party and the camp, for what good that might do. He kept it moving behind them, some small blockage against whatever was going to come out of that bunker.

A handful of their men came struggling around the corner of the gatehouse, pursued by a pair of werewolves. Nightingale kept his shield in place but stepped out around it.

Anticipate. Formulate. Release. The werewolves were good--as all their kind were--but they were predictable. He took one, but the other got a clean shot at one of the retreating band, and a man fell. Injured, not dead. Nightingale recognised him, one of the newly-fledged practitioners, Oswald. He grimaced and sent a barrage of fireballs between the werewolf and the retreating men, and under that cover he grabbed Oswald and hauled him up. Behind him he knew Caffrey was there, and while the werewolf was distracted with blocking the fireballs, Caffrey made his shot count.

Nightingale cast a quick spell to stop the bleeding from Oswald's leg, then passed him into the centre of the retreating group with the other injured. The rumbling was getting louder.

All ten of the trolleys were through the gates when the bunker exploded. Nightingale felt his shield twist and warp away from him, then pop like a soap bubble. There was a blast of magic, wild and agonised and red with blood, sweeping over him, over all of them. The next thing he knew, he was lying in the dirt with ringing ears and no memory of what had happened. He felt no pain, none of the tell-tale warmth of blood. Cautiously he raised his head.

Everyone had been knocked flat by the explosion, British and Germans alike. And the dead were boiling out of the bunker, apparently untouched by the explosion. Nightingale scrambled to his feet and picked up his staff. It was drained and empty. He discarded it and reached for the bag slung across his shoulder, and took out the next one. That at least was undamaged. He gripped it in his left hand, pistol in his right, and turned to rouse the other men, who were also starting to get up and stare around.

"What in God's name was that?" Caffrey muttered, moving to get his own men up.

"Keep moving, keep on to the gliders!" Nightingale called in answer. He saw Mellenby on his knees and went to him. "Come on, up, get up, are you hurt?"

Mellenby shook his head and let Nightingale haul him upright. "That was only the first," he said. "There's more to come. Worse. I saw--inside the bunker--" He too looked back over the camp. "Poor devils."

The sound of screaming was starting to carry.

Who dragged whom, how many times

"Poor Hector," he muttered under his breath, and gripped Mellenby's shoulders, turning him away from the camp. "Keep moving. Keep those trolleys moving. Don't look back. Don't look. Go!" He punctuated his words with another shove between Mellenby's shoulderblades.

But their men were being cut to pieces down there, and despite his words he stared back, down into the melee. The hungry dead were between most of the men and the gate. More individual stragglers had come out to join them, but far too few. The rest--

"They're cut off," he muttered. "Cut off."

Caffrey, still behind him, caught his arm as he began to move. "You can't get through that, Captain. You can't."

"That's most of the force!" he heard himself say. There was something wet on his face, dripping onto the corners of his lips, too salty to be blood. "They're trapped in there."

"You can't help them. You've done miracles already, sir. You can't help them." Caffrey moved to face him, dogged and grim, his face streaked with dirt and sweat, eyes intent. "You can't go back."

"I know," he whispered, and allowed Caffrey to turn him away, back to the retreat. Who dragged whom, how many times, at the wheels of what, round the walls of where?

They were halfway up the hill to the clearing where they'd left the gliders when the second blast came, even more powerful than the first, but further away from it, Nightingale was able to stay on his feet. Then there was the third blast a minute later. First a flash of light that blinded him for a minute, then a wave of magic that folded over them all like a tsunami, roaring endlessly over their heads. Nightingale could do nothing but shelter desperately behind a tree, unable to see or hear, concentrating on the rough bark against his skin.

There would be no survivors in the camp now, he thought when the blast had passed over them and they started to struggle on again. No chance. Even at this distance the blast had killed four of their injured. They left the bodies. They'd left all the bodies.

Who dragged whom

At last they reached the clearing where the gliders waited, a mostly-level strip of open ground large enough to land a glider. Or lift one off again, at least if you had magic at your disposal.

The first thing Nightingale saw was that far too many of the gliders had been destroyed while they'd been in the camp. It was evident that the men guarding them had been under heavy attack the whole time, and the wooden gliders were burning all around the clearing. He spotted an intact cluster still well-guarded on the far side, and steered his men over to them. It was a bitter mercy that they wouldn't need many, not now.

"Get loading," Nightingale told Mellenby. "Spread those cabinets over all the gliders." He didn't have to explain why. Barring a miracle, not all the gliders that took off would make it back to England. "Get the wounded on first. I'll hold the field."

Mellenby nodded mutely but set to work, mechanically. Mechanically was fine, Nightingale thought. Mechanically was good, mechanically could keep going all day, mechanically wasn't feeling anything.

The werewolves attacking the gliders had backed off with the arrival of the retreating party, and the first glider made it into the air within five minutes. Each had a practitioner for a pilot, who could use modified versions of lux and aer to create thermals to keep the glider airborne and heading in the correct direction for much longer than a usual glider. They'd pick up an RAF escort on the front lines, and be back at Biggin Hill by midnight tonight.

Five gliders were away when Nightingale heard the rumbling in the woods and saw the tanks coming.

Caffrey was still nearby. "They're not supposed to be here," he said hoarsely. "Sir--"

"I see them."

They were firing on the gliders now, and even as Nightingale headed forwards to intercept, one glider burst into splinters and smoke, then another.

"Cover me," Nightingale said to Caffrey, and gripped his staff and emptied his mind.

at the wheels of what

He could hear nothing but his own pulse beating in his ears now, slow and measured, could see nothing but his target, feel nothing but the thrum of his staff in his left hand.

Anticipate.

Wait for the line, wait for the range.

Formulate.

The spell, perfect and ready in his mind, three fireballs in rapid succession, to the three weakest points he'd identified.

Release.

And he let them go.

The thud inside the tank was surprisingly muffled.

The explosion when the fuel lines went was not.

Something stung his side, breaking his concentration for a moment. He forced it away from his mind, turning all his attention onto the second tank. It was starting to take evasive action after the shocking destruction of its partner, recognising the danger if not the source.

A trio of werewolves did recognise the source. Nightingale saw them out of the corner of his eye. Caffrey had seen them too, was moving, but he'd need help. Nightingale's next fireballs were smaller, but enough to do the job and take out the werewolves. But the distraction cost time: another glider was set alight before Nightingale could concentrate properly on the tank again.

the walls of where

It was oddly harder to focus on this one, and the tank was approaching fast. He drew all his powers through the staff, and sent a fireball straight at the spot where the turret was attached to the main hull, fiercer and hotter than any fireball he'd cast before. Release.

The turret of the tank blew clean off.

"That's better," he said, and turned a circle, scanning for further threats. The movement made him giddy, and a moment later Caffrey's arm was around him.

"You're shot, sir, let me look."

"I'm fine," he protested, but with little effect. Now he did feel the warmth of blood on his side, and he didn't argue when Caffrey made him sit on the ground.

"It's not that bad," Caffrey said a minute later. "Grazed you, that's all. Here, let me--" He began to fix a bandage to it, and gradually Nightingale felt the light-headedness fading. He got back to his feet and looked around. A dozen more gliders had taken off while he'd been out of commission, and even as he watched another began its lift-off. There was only one left intact on the ground. Nightingale went over to it.

"We've got all the cabinets loaded and away now," Mellenby told him. "Just getting as many of the wounded as we can into the last one now."

"Take him, sir, he was hit," Caffrey said to Mellenby.

Nightingale shook his head even as Mellenby leaned over to look at him more closely. "Thomas? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." He stepped back, focusing on Mellenby. "You have to go with it."

"What? Here, let me take a look at that--"

"You have to go with it. There needs to be someone who knows what to do with it." Someone I trust, he didn't say. "It's four hundred miles to the Rhine, David, cross-country in the snow. I've done it before, I'll be fine, and you know you wouldn't make it. So get in and look after those." He grabbed Mellenby by the arm. "After all this, it needs to be worth it, and for that we all need you. Now get in."

Mellenby blinked smoke-reddened eyes. "Thomas--"

"Get in. It's time to go." From the corner of his eye he could see the werewolves regrouping. "Get in, damn you!" He seized Mellenby bodily and boosted him into the hatch, ignoring the pain in his side. Mellenby sat on the edge of the hatch a moment, reached down and put a hand alongside his cheek.

"Thomas--take care."

Nightingale looked him in the eye. "I'll be fine." For a moment he covered Mellenby's hand with his own, then broke away and began to close the hatch. The pilot leaned out and he waved to him, then gripped his staff firmly.

With impello and heating the air in the right place for thermals, the glider lifted off easily and the practitioner in the cockpit took over. Nightingale allowed himself a single moment to stare after it as it vanished into the low cloud. Then he adjusted his grip on his staff, and turned back to the field and the scattering men. It was going to be a long way home.