Chapter 1 – A Singular Honour
Somewhere in the woods deep in the Mendips, England, 2007
A forest is seldom silent. It may appear to uneducated ears that there is no noise, but if one were to sit or stand quietly in the midst of the trees, one would hear all sorts of activity. Not least from the trees themselves. Not that there are ears to hear or understand their speech in this modern age.
A rustle in the undergrowth could mean some small animal like a squirrel or mouse was foraging for food, or perhaps running from some predator. Or it could just be a rotting branch finally falling from one of the trees after a heavy storm or the rustling of the leaves in the wind.
Then again it could also be the sounds of clumsy human movement through the vegetation.
She cocked an ear towards a loud rustling noise somewhere off to her left and sighed. One of the lads playing some joke or something no doubt. Well she wasn't going to play their pathetic little hide and go seek games; she was going to sort her feet out if it killed her. With that in mind she took her Kevlar helmet off, laid it down on the ground and unslung the SA80, carefully propping it up against one of the trees.
A random thought popped into her head from somewhere to the effect that if it was a real war, she'd have to keep going, blisters notwithstanding, but she squashed it ruthlessly. This wasn't a real war; this was a training exercise on a Fieldcraft course. Somewhere not so far away behind these trees there was a pub and a warm bed with blankets. Tears of longing sprang into her eyes. There would be pub grub, a brandy and coke and a warm bed, so near and yet so far away.
Doing this course had not been the best idea her unit Training Officer, Major Bradley, had ever had in his life. Of course at the time he had been frustrated by the ambiguous nature of the orders that had come down from Divisional HQ with regard to Field Training of female Senior NCOs.
A week earlier in Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Company HQ office, England 2007
"I can't believe they're suggesting this." Bradley dragged an irritated hand through his already very short hair. "They absolutely know that we are stretched to our limit what with half of the unit gone to serve in Iraq, and now they want to deplete us of the rest? What the devil do they think that training the women in Fieldcraft is going to do? The next thing we know they'll be sending them over as battle casualty replacements."
Warrant Officer 2nd Class Knowles, the unit's Chief Clerk glanced up from the mound of Part Two Orders on his desk. "There are a fair few women over there now anyway." He said evenly. "I don't suppose it'll hurt to get our lot trained."
Bradley swung around abruptly and stared at him. A slow smile spread across his face. "Really Chief? Well in that case perhaps you would care to nominate one of your own orderly room staff for this singular training honour. Whoever it is will get a promotion out of it. That's if they're up to snuff." His tone suggested that he rather doubted the ability of any of the deskbound military clerks to cut it when it came to real soldierly activities.
Knowles returned the smile with a bland one of his own. "As it happens Sir, I have just the person. Sergeant Freeman?" He got up from the desk and stuck his head around the door into the back office where his clerks worked.
A fair-haired woman in her thirties glanced up from where she had been frowning horrifically at the computer screen. "Yes Chief?"
He beckoned. "I have a task for you Sergeant. The honour of the unit Orderly Room is at stake here. Not to mention mine."
Kim Freeman gave something between a groan and a sigh. Whatever this was, it did not sound like a good thing. However one simply didn't just turn around to one's boss and say that one didn't want to do something.
At least one didn't if one was a professional soldier in the modern British Army.
And now here she was. Stranded in some dark forest with a personal ration pack Menu C, her personal weapon and a pair of feet that felt as though they had turned entirely into two giant blisters.
"Thank you very much Chief." She snarled as she slid down into a sitting position on the damp forest floor and unlaced one of her combat boots. Somewhere, way off in another part of the forest, she could hear sounds of frantic activity. That would be her training group busily preparing to make camp before the night exercise started. Once she'd sorted her feet out she would join them in digging the six-foot slit trenches demanded by the obviously insane and irrational Staff Instructors on the Fieldcraft course. Oh the joys of being a modern soldier.
"Why the fuck they have to be six feet deep when I'm only five foot four is anyone's guess." She grumbled and then winced. In the act of peeling her sock away from the blister, she had also peeled away what felt like the top four layers of skin as well. "Damn, that fucking stings like hell."
It wasn't a pretty sight. Eight miles of double marching up and down the Mendip hills in full kit with her weapon and a full backpack had taken its toll on her feet. In fact it had taken its toll on just about every other part of her as well. She had bruises on her bruises and aches in places she didn't even know she had.
To add insult to injury they had been made to do their annual personal weapons test straight after the forced march, in her case with a weapon that was not her own and then they had done four miles of section attacks through the rough moor land. It wasn't until the Instructors had screamed at them to "Get down, get down, get down!" because the trainees were supposedly under attack from enemy forces, that they very magnanimously warned the troops that there were potentially poisonous adders in the grass. This information was accompanied by snickers ill hidden behind hands.
Was getting up to Staff Sergeant worth all of this torture? Well the answer had to be yes, because Staff Sergeants didn't usually get lemoned with horrible courses like this. As a Staff Sergeant she would be posted out of her current unit and hopefully somewhere where she could have a cushy life. Ministry of Defence Main Building in Whitehall sounded like a bloody wonderful option. There were bars and restaurants, theatres and cinemas, food, wonderful food.
Her stomach rumbled painfully and her heel stung like the blazes as she carefully cleaned it as best she could with an antiseptic wipe from the small First Aid kit in her webbing. Why on earth did she have to think about food when she was stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the promise of a half heated up chicken curry and the delights of digging trenches facing her?
Peering through the tendrils of hair that had fallen out of her bun, Kim carefully applied one of the thick large plasters over a wad of lint and hoped that this would provide some barrier between the raw, bleeding flesh and the heel of her boot, then she methodically started on the other one.
Once she had sorted them out and put her boots back on she stood up very carefully and took an experimental step. Yep, that felt okay, at least it would hold out until the end of the night exercise anyway. She undid the wayward bun and put the hairgrips into her webbing. It was time to get business-like. There was no place for neat and tidy barrack dress hairstyles in this dank earthy forest of rustles and whispers; this was a no-nonsense hair situation. She scooped up her now lank, sweaty hair and twisted it through the elastic into a rough ponytail, jammed the helmet back on her head and picked up her weapon.
It was time to get back to the war.
She had only been walking a short distance along the rapidly narrowing pine needle strewn path when it suddenly opened out to a small clearing, in the middle of which was the blackened remains of a small fire. Hikers. She thought. Probably stopped for a quick barbecue. Her stomach instantly reacted to the word barbecue with a groaning rumble, however growing, gnawing hunger was not the only dilemma she was faced with in the clearing.
The path certainly continued on from there, but to her dismay, she now had to make a choice. Not one, but two paths led from the opposite side of the clearing. They both seemed to go the same way at first but because the bracken had partially grown over them, it was impossible to see whether either diverted in a different direction without actually walking down them first.
"Bollocks." Kim stopped and wiped her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a trail of dirt down one cheek.
She put her head on one side and tried to ascertain which direction the earlier noises had come from, but all was now very quiet. A little too quiet. She frowned. The sudden silence didn't make sense, unless of course the group had been called to stand to in the middle of making camp. She strained to listen for something – anything - and was rewarded by the distant sound of water chuckling merrily away to itself as it splashed over stones somewhere off to her right.
It obviously wasn't that direction then, the group were hardly going to make camp in the middle of a stream. It stood to reason then that if she took the left-hand path she was bound to hit the camp at some stage.
Of course the sound of running water had now awoken yet another bodily urge in her, just as urgent as hunger but one she couldn't ignore. She needed to pee. Badly.
Seeing to the call of nature when dressed in full combat clothing was fraught with difficulties. Once she had found a convenient bush behind which to do the deed, she then discovered that pulling down trousers that were firmly tucked into high laced up boots and squatting to pee meant a balancing act worthy of Cirque de Soleil. She finally solved the problem by grabbing hold of a solid looking branch and holding on for grim death while the contents of her bladder splattered out over the soil, her boots and part of her trousers.
Once she had finished, she stood up and rummaged for a tissue in her pockets and hoped to god that the combat jacket covered her bare arse. "Oh for fuck's sake Kim don't be an idiot. Who in hell's name would be out here in the middle of a forest peeping at you peeing, you silly bint?"
Of course there was no coherent answer and all she could do was hope against hope that her erstwhile training companions weren't hiding behind nearby bushes sniggering at her situation. She dried herself as best she could and pulled up the trousers, but as she did so, she spotted the gleam of something metallic half hidden in the thick cushion of pine needles beside the bush she had used as the toilet.
"It's nothing. Probably a coke can or something." She said to herself.
But somehow it looked different from a discarded soft drink can. She reached out and tentatively poked through the tangled lower branches of the bush until her hand touched the half concealed object. As she had thought, it wasn't a coke can. The metal felt slightly warm for some reason and although it had sunk somewhat into the soft earth beneath the needles, she managed to feel around it and discovered that it was spherical, solid and a few inches long at least. Her quest to rejoin the other trainees momentarily overtaken by sheer curiosity, she hunkered down and started to loosen the object from the earth.
She had only been digging a few seconds when a burst of raucous laughter and some shouting suddenly split the moody silence that had spread around the forest and her head reared up at the sound. There was a discordant note in the laughter that she didn't recognise as coming from any of her companions and the shouting sounded more than a little panicked. The snapping noises of breaking branches and carelessly trampled bracken heralded someone hurtling through the bushes and it made her pick up her weapon and stand up abruptly.
The figure covered in blood scrambling through the thick bracken towards her was barely recognisable as one of her instructors and as he hurtled closer, she became aware that he wasn't alone. Someone was following him, or more accurately chasing him, although they hadn't yet come into sight. The instructor's gaze was wild and filled with terror, but he was focussed enough to recognise Kim's frozen figure directly in front of him.
She reached a hand out to help him as he got to her, but to her astonishment and bewilderment, instead of grasping onto it, he grabbed her by her shoulder and virtually threw her away to one side with all the strength he possessed. The gun was literally snapped out of her hands by grasping branches and flung a few feet away into the thick vegetation as she thudded onto the ground and into a thicket of bushes not far away from her toilet bush.
The instructor carried on running, but he managed to gasp out what was to be his last instruction in this life. "Stay down. Stay down Sergeant and don't bloody move whatever you do, not a sound. That's a fucking order." He rasped.
She looked up from her prone position and opened her mouth to ask the most obvious question, but before she could speak, a strange whistling sound accompanied by at least three dull, thick thuds stopped her.
For a moment the instructor's eyes opened wide and she stared back at him with her mouth open, then he slowly dropped to his knees in front of her on the soft needles. His face grew slack and the final expression in his eyes before they emptied of life was vaguely surprised, as though those last moments were the most unexpected he had ever experienced. Kim started back in utter horror as he fell face down, not more than five feet away from her with three thick ebony fletched black arrows protruding from his back.
A brief silence once again enveloped the forest for a few seconds, then heavy footfalls interrupted it again as they approached hers and the instructor's position.
Mindful of the instructor's last order and his rather horrific death, she tried to stay as still and as silent as she could, but her ragged breathing sounded loud even to her. Her heart was thundering in her chest and she could hear the rushing of blood in her ears. There was an odd metallic taste in the back of her throat and she felt an overwhelming urge to vomit. Somehow she just couldn't get her mind past the fact that someone had literally died in front of her.
As she pressed her face down into the ground and hoped to hell that her clothing and the vegetation would conceal her from whatever had killed the instructor, she could hear the noise of heavy, nasal breathing not far away. She also heard a guttural grunt and what sounded like metal and leather rubbing together so she gathered up her courage and ventured a quick look.
The strangest, most horrific looking creature was standing only feet away from her. He wasn't that tall, but he was broadly built and dressed in a weird assortment of what appeared to be some kind of armour made of rough leather and dull grey metal. The powerful, muscular legs were bare but he wore heavy iron shoes on his broad feet.
What hair he possessed was long, coarse and stringy. It may have been black in colour but it was difficult to tell since it was caked with what looked like dried red mud. Kim couldn't see his face because he was bending over the instructor's lifeless form, but she could see the huge quiver strapped on his back. It was filled with the fellows of the black arrows that were sticking out of the dead instructor's back. She could also see that he held a huge sword in his hand.
Armour? Swords? Bows and arrows? If she had wandered into some re-enactment then they were taking it far too far, but it couldn't be that. This creature didn't even look human.
Even as the frantic thoughts crowded her stressed brain, the horror wasn't over. The creature lifted up the instructor's head by its short hair and with one deft swipe, severed it from the torso, then he picked up the headless body and effortlessly slung it over his shoulder, almost like a hunter would carry a deer he had culled for food.
He bent down, picked up the head with one large hand and threw it almost casually into the thicket where Kim lay in breathless, terrified silence. It rolled towards her and the instructor's dead eyes stared accusingly into hers, but she didn't dare move; she couldn't move in fact. However she did involuntarily take in a sharp, shocked breath.
For the longest moment in Kim's life the creature – she couldn't think of him as a man - stood where he was, his sharp gaze sweeping the area as if checking for further prey. He had turned slightly to face her position so she finally got her first look at his face and her heart nearly stopped dead.
His features were broad and brutal. She could now see that his ears came to a graceful point, which was in direct contrast to the coarse features and narrowed glittering black slits of his eyes. His nose was broad and spread over his face as if it had been broken many times and his thin-lipped, half open mouth was filled with sharp blackened teeth. A smear of something dark and shiny clung to the side of his mouth and Kim got the sickening impression that it might have been fresh blood. She didn't want to wonder about where that had come from.
She stared at him in horrified fascination, unable to tear her gaze away and as she did so, he literally sniffed the air and made a guttural grunting noise deep in his throat. His black fathomless gaze finally alighted on the very thicket where she was lying and she held her breath.
He can smell me. She thought in panic and fear. I think he can smell that I'm here.
For a moment it seemed as though she had been discovered. He took a step towards her and got as far as the toilet bush where she had been digging only minutes earlier. The creature looked down and apparently saw the partially uncovered metal, but instead of bending down to examine it more closely, he stepped back with a look akin to fear and disgust in his eyes and came no further in her direction. Whatever he had seen buried there in the earth had made him afraid for some reason.
After sweeping the area again with one look, he stalked off with his prey and disappeared in the same direction both he and the instructor had previously come from.
Kim made herself wait for a long time, until she was sure that he was well out of sight and then she raised herself painfully to her knees.
The bile she vomited up spattered on the vegetation and the tears that had been forming a reservoir behind her eyes spilled over and down her cheeks like hot rain.