Firelight danced over the men’s faces, turning them to masks of flame and shadow. It had been a long day, the terrain hard going. Sergeant Digs had considered the wisdom of lighting a fire, but their intel said the forest was circled by friendlies, flushed clean of hostiles and besides, there was nothing like coffee and dry boots to raise morale.
Stone yawned, mouth stretching wide as an alligator smile.
‘Jeez, Stone,’ sighed Connell, ‘Close your damn mouth. You’re gonna suck us all in.’
Banner sniggered, snot flying from his nose. ‘Yeah, Princess Stone – we keeping you up?’ He looked round the circle of men. ‘I said, we keeping you up?’
‘We heard what you said, jackass,’ said Connell, nudging a stick back into the flames with his boot.
‘I ain’t no jackass.’ Banner twitched, hands flexing.
Time break things up before Banner and Connell were at each others throats again. ‘Okay, ladies,’ said Digs, ‘you get some beauty sleep. French and Hurwicz are on watch – Connell and Stone, you relieve them at two. Get some sleep.’
They began to stir, using packs as pillows, weapons close.
‘Jackass,’ muttered Connell, tugging his cap low over his eyes.
‘I ain’t no – ‘
A scream – high, short, human.
Every man scrambled to his feet, weapons raised, backs to the fire.
‘What was that?’ Connell – voice hushed.
Digs raised his hand for silence. Just on the edge of hearing there was a sound – crushed leaves, snapping twigs. The same sound, from the opposite direction – coming faster now, louder. And again, again, from at least four directions, the noise bouncing between the tree trunks, so there could be six – ten – sources. Digs kicked dirt over the fire, though their position must be known – the hostiles were closing in on them fast.
French and Hurwicz were dead or captured. French had newborn twins, Digs remembered the scrappy Poloroid of two bald heads he’d glimpsed tucked in the man’s body armour. He shook the thought away.
Raising his own rifle, Digs whispered, ‘Be ready.’
The noises were closer now, with them a thump-thump sound, a stampede of feet. What the hell? The groan and crash of a tree falling.
And then they appeared.