"'An in-and-out operation, no diversions, minimal risks'," quoted Sophie as they crouched together in a tussock of grass, surveying the Holmlanders' camp. "Why does that sound familiar?" She paused rhetorically, then struck herself across the forehead with a degree of sarcasm that was, to Caroline's mind, entirely unwarranted. "Oh, of course. Because that was what you said before we broke into the Stalsfrieden base, were nearly killed, and had to be rescued by a magical stone elephant."
Caroline glared. She took grave exception to the term rescued. "That was completely different."
"All right, it was similar."
"Remarkably so, in fact. Quite surprising, how these in-and-out operations keep presenting themselves."
She cleared her throat. "Well, that means we've already had a dry run of this. Which gives us another advantage."
Sophie's eyebrow sprung up. "You mean to say that we have multiple advantages?"
Chewing absent-mindedly on a string of grass hanging foolhardily in her face, Caroline narrowed her eyes. "They have three main sentry posts on this side."
"How is that an advantage?"
Caroline, remembering herself, applied the brakes. "Three sentries, not one. That means that each sentry holds himself only partially responsible for the camp's safety. Since the Holmlanders aren't likely to be anticipating an attack from this side in any case, I'd say that means the sentries will be none too conscientious, wouldn't you?"
"Granted." Sophie seemed impressed, a fact which made Caroline inordinately happy, and only slightly guilty. "And, of course, nobody knows we are here, so we have the advantage of surprise," continued Sophie.
"Not to mention the fact that, these days, nobody is going to look askance at the sudden requisitioning of an ornithopter. If we can con our way in convincingly enough, we'll be over the Channel before they even realise something has gone awry."
"If the weather holds," Sophie put in. "Taking an ornithopter out in a storm might be a little indiscreet, no?"
Caroline glanced up at the beclouded sky, and muttered a generalised prayer to anybody who might be listening. "It's a chance we have to take. Since we shall only have twenty minutes or so within the base at any rate, things should have worked out one way or another by the time those stormclouds hit." She pulled back the blue sleeve of her Holmlandish uniform to examine her wristwatch.
Sophie craned over in interest. "What are you doing?"
"It's a diver's watch," Caroline muttered. "By turning the outside ring, one can see how many minutes remain until one's oxygen runs out. Or one's luck," she finished quietly. "There. Fifteen minutes."
Shaking her head, Caroline rearranged her sleeve and took a calming breath. "No, fifteen. That way, when our time runs out, we'll have five more minutes' grace. You can't wait for miracles, Sophie, you have to make your own."
Sophie nodded jerkily. Poor thing. Caroline put a tentative arm around her shoulders. "It's going to be easy," she reassured her. She was lying through her teeth, but then, she'd always had a talent for deception. "I have already lost one person on this mission. I don't plan on losing any more. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," quipped Sophie, with which Caroline let her get away. "Hadn't we better move in then?"
Caroline swallowed, agreed, and hoped to high Heaven that she was doing the right thing.
Barbed wire, massive rolls of it, curling up towards the sky like spiny grey totem poles. That was all Caroline, head raised stiffly, could see as she marched through the camp. The rest of her vision was obscured by the back of Sophie's head, which was now thatched in eye-popping ginger bristles. Commendably, neither of them had experienced the slightest hitch in their plan to enter the camp, unless one counted the odd sensation of growing a moustache in four seconds flat, and it had been child's play to join a crocodile march of genuine soldiers passing the gate. As far as Caroline could tell, the only problem now was that they had no plan whatever for how to proceed. Were they less pressed for time, she would have recommended they lie low, assume entirely the roles of Holmlandish soldiers, and gather intelligence. Under the circumstances, however, corners would have to be cut.
A row of what could only be barracks unfolded ahead of them, and with them a potential plan of attack. Surreptitiously, she checked her wristwatch. Twelve minutes. Plenty of time.
Caroline was unused to placing trust in anybody or anything unless it was strictly unavoidable, as it seemed to be in this case. With a glance at the sergeant at the front of the line, she turned and marched straight for the door of the barracks, head still stretched upright to breaking point, back ramrod-straight. The principle of hiding in plain sight was old hat, so presumeaby it should be some cop in practice. Another set of crunching footsteps joined hers, and in the corner of her eye, Caroline saw the tall redhead following her. Resisting the urge to breathe an actual sigh of relief, she unlatched the door and they stepped inside without missing a beat.
Inside it was dark, with blueish-green drapes covering all the windows. Caroline turned to speak to Sophie, remembered their updated height difference, and adjusted for it. "Well done. That was excellent subterfuge. First class."
"Thank you," grinned Sophie. She had taken on a rather frighteningly long set of pearly teeth, which glowed in the dim light. "But why are we here? They must keep vehicles well away from the dormitory huts."
"Yes, I realised that. But this is the place where we are least likely to be disturbed."
"What do you imagine to do that an intruder would be disturbing?"
There was a groan, and a hollow call of "Who's there?" in Holmlandish from the far side of the bed-lined room.
Caroline pointed. "Interrogating him," she whispered.
Sophie's caterpillar eyebrows furrowed in alarm as Caroline nipped toward the man's bedside, flicking her eyes right and left, expecting trouble. She strained her ears, but as there seemed not to be any troops passing at present, the go-ahead was given. A human shadow half-raised itself from the gloom, hesitant, as though unable to summon the wherewithal either to fall back and lurk or to come forward. Keeping to the shadows, she was able to approach within a few feet of it. "Ahem."
The man turned, his face a swift picture of alarm, and managed to take quite a respectable stance of resistance before she was on him. Foot to shin, elbow to jaw. Knee in back as he topples. Catch collar. He grabbed for a water jug, but Sophie caught it up and hurled its contents at his face. Twisting the soldier into a headlock, Caroline was unable to avoid catching some of the water, nor wipe it from her eyes. Half-blind and blundering, she hung on as the man thrashed, yelling out. Stay calm. Use your resources. "Bedsheets. Quickly, please." Seconds later, Sophie had a length of white linen around the man's bare ankles, and, after some skin-of-teeth manoevring, he was roped tightly, propped against his nightstand. "Who are you?" he croaked. His accent might have been from Northern Fisherberg.
Caroline cast around and found a cloth, which she used to wipe the soldier's bedraggled face and hair dry. "Never mind about us," she snapped in what she hoped would pass for male timbre. "We need to ask you some questions."
Hiding from his duties, trussed in manchester and damp around the edges, this specimen of militaristic bravado and pomp puffed out his chest. "How dare you insult me so! I would rather die than give intelligence to spies!"
He'd handed her all the aces, but she tried to keep her moustache from twitching exuberantly. "Look at us, stupid little fellow. We are not spies. We are sent from headquarters to investigate shirkers and seek enemy agents. You are cowering in barracks while your comrades help our noble cause." Not too far, she told herself, but she hurried on nonetheless, "So you will forgive us if we verify that you are truly one of our own."
"And once I demonstrate that I am?"
"Then we can forget all about this. If you do."
Sophie, watching this exchange, cleared her throat meaningfully. "We have not got all day."
"Of course, my friend." Caroline nodded at her, hoping that her expression was convincingly assured. A glance at her watch showed that eight of their fifteen minutes had passed. "Now, Corporal -"
"My rank is Lieutenant! Surely you can see that?"
Caroline screeched to a standstill and backpedalled with speed. "Correct. I see we are not dealing with a fool, even if you may be a turncoat. Now, Lieutenant, where should you be working at this time?"
The man's bound wrists shifted defensively. "My superiors ordered me to work on munitions preparation."
"Yet you are here!" Sophie barked. She did a good job of capturing the stiff tones of a man used to seeing things get done with a minimum of drama. "Why are you not glad to perform your duties?"
Head bowed, he gave an all but inaudible answer. "Speak up," growled Caroline. Some of the growl was staged, some of it genuine. They only had six minutes left.
"I said I do not wish to risk my life arming bombs when I could be using them on the Albionite swine!"
It took all of Caroline's self-control, and some that she summoned from elsewhere, to smile and say, "You have the fighting spirit, my man. Well, we shall see what we can do to get such a keen worker to his proper place of action. In the meantime -"
"You want me to return to the arsenal?" he grumbled.
"No -" said Caroline, a little too quickly. If he returned there now, and mentioned their presence - "No, your shift must be nearly over as it is. It would do no good for you to bring shame on yourself by admitting that you've been hiding here. You will be expected to return in time for your next shift, however." Now, where was I? "In the meantime, we need to audit some of your vehicles. Where are we to find your ornithopter airfield?"
In moments like these, critical moments, it was impossible not to imagine the worst - that her excitement had shown in her voice, that colour had shown in her cheeks. The soldier's second of comprehension and consideration seemed to stretch into an agonizing hour. To her right, Caroline could have sworn she heard Sophie hold her breath.
Then the man shrugged in a completely offhand manner. "On the west side of the camp. Can I help you in any other way, sirs?"
Caroline was on the point of declining and turning to leave as quickly as she was physically able, but Sophie had a brainwave. "Yes, Lieutenant. You could begin by saluting your superiors, which you have notably neglected throughout our little interview."
Astonishment flashed across his face. "Yessir."
"And as for your boots," she continued hard-headedly, "They are filthy! Clearly they have not seen polish for far too long."
"Yes sir. I polished them the day before yesterday, sir. I will make it my business to polish them every day henceforth, sir. I wonder if you could please untie me, sir? If you wish, sir?"
Sophie clicked her fingers at Caroline, who, after a moment of absolute disbelief, obliged. By the time she was finished, Sophie was striding towards the exit, calling back, "As for the state of your uniform, Lietenant, even an Albionite could do better."
Caroline strutted hurriedly after her, unable to choose between surprise, amusement and trepidation. Waiting for her at the door, Sophie was pale but smiling. "What now?"
"Now we go to the airfield."
She glanced up at her friend's anxious face. "Through the camp, of course. If we look like we know where we're going, nobody can question us." Clearly unconvinced, Sophie started unhappily for the door but Caroline caught her shoulder. "You made a good job of that lieutenant, Sophie. Thank you."
Sophie pinkened, went to speak, faltered, then pulled a one-armed shrug. "I took my cues from you." She giggled, a strange juxtaposition with her burly appearance. "Had we not best be moving, my man?"
Caroline elbowed her, chuckling. "Military types really do use that expression, you know."
"Even Holmlander ones?"
"Even and especially Holmlander ones. Come on."
A raindrop landed on her face. She dashed it away. Four minutes. "The west side of the camp. That seems straightforward."
"Which direction is westward?" whispered Sophie in her ear.
Caroline pivoted on her heels, narrowing her eyes and groaning inwardly. "A good question. We should have brought a compass."
A blast from the battlefront echoed over them. In synchrony with the rest of the surrounding troops, she ducked, putting her arms over her head to protect her from the hail of dust and shrapnel that fell seconds later. In the following confusion, Caroline scrutinised the surrounding crouched figures for a compass. Surely somebody must be carrying one. When nobody was, she experienced a queer moment of irritation at such a breakdown in typical Holmlandish efficiency. Then Sophie nudged her, holding something up. On the point of examining it, Caroline realised that they were the only ones not to have resumed their activities. Taking Sophie's elbow discreetly, she turned on her heels and set off in a random direction. "What is that?"
"A nail!" Sophie whispered in return. "An iron nail, I hope."
"Sophie, I appreciate the whole 'want of a nail' saga, but I really fail to see how that can help us -"
"Iron, Caroline. A magnetic metal! If I can enhance the iron's magnetic properties, and the nail's pointy nature, it will become like a compass!"
Caroline eyed her uncertainly. "Can you do that? In...under three minutes?"
Sophie nodded, though her eyes were far from calm. "We need somewhere out of the way."
"In here!" A shady gap between two long bunkers. They crouched in it, Caroline drawing her pistol and keeping guard while Sophie, holding the nail aloft, whispered to it.
It was never pleasant for Caroline to rely on something she did not understand. Now, in the thick of enemy territory, with a magical operator whose skills were mostly unexplored, Caroline felt even less comfortable than she usually did when somebody worked magic. When Aubrey worked magic, she corrected herself. There was no point denying that part of it. She wondered, not for the first time, if he was all right. She wondered if she'd been as wise as she'd believed, in that moment of uncompromising cool-headedness, to let him and von Stralick go alone. After all, what did they really know about von Stralick? As the golem-Aubrey had demonstrated, their trust of him was entirely baseless. It was a chilling prospect, but a prospect that must nonetheless be entertained, she told herself. On the brink of trying to catalogue every piece of information von Stralick had ever given them, Caroline realised that Sophie was tugging at her sleeve.
"What is it?"
Sophie pointed to the gravel between them, and the nail lying on it. "It's working!"
"Are you sure?"
Nodding, Sophie twirled the nail, then let it fall. It landed pointing in precisely the same direction as it had previously. "That way is North. So -" she pointed to their right - "that was is westward."
Caroline breathed a sigh of relief. "That's wonderful, Sophie. Well done. Will the spell last?"
Sophie bit her lip. "It was quite a small spell, really. It should hold. But I think..." She trailed off alarmingly, and it took some coaxing to make her say, "I think my other spell may have been weakened."
This sank in slowly. "D'you mean the camouflage spell?"
Sophie didn't need to answer. There was a feeling, a sensory equivalent of the tiniest bubble's 'pop', followed by a sensation of relief at no longer having a moustache, and a consciousness of her stomach's sinking into her boots. Stymied. Heart pounding, she caught Sophie's eyes - her real eyes, blue and alarmed. She hoped her own expression was more reassuring, despite the microscopic likelihood of that being the case. A look at her watch showed that their protective colouration had lasted sixteen and a half minutes. If only they'd brought a compass. If only they had prepared an alternative plan.
If only you'll stop whimpering, she told herself sternly. They were inside the camp. Surely that must make it easier for them to get to the ornithopters. She took a deep breath. "We'll wait until nightfall. In your dark uniform and my black suit, we ought to be able to get close under cover of darkness. Then if I can disarm the guards, we could get away."
"And Thèo and George?" Sophie asked. Her voice was noticeably higher, tauter somehow, than usual. "They will expect us back long before then. What will they do?"
Caroline could imagine only too well the kind of actions that their non-reappearance might inspire. "I fail to see what else we can do."
"I do," said Sophie unexpectedly. And before Caroline could stop her, she had emerged from the shadows and begun to walk through the camp, head raised jauntily. Resisting the temptation to stare, bug-eyed, Caroline followed. "What are you doing?"
"Walk like you know where you're going," growled Sophie under her breath.
"But I -"
"You are not a journalist, Caroline," Sophie sighed. "I am. Trust me." So for the second time in one day, Caroline bit her tongue and placed all her trust in Sophie Delroy.
Sophie led them to the west at a cracking pace. They attracted several curious looks, but the Gallian's stony face and Holmlander uniform worked wonders. Before long, a barbed-wire fence came into view, and beyond it, a row of five Hawk 62 ornithopters, the second-most advanced models to date. Eyeing the guards, Caroline clenched her fists surreptitiously, but Sophie stepped up to the round-faced private manning the gateway itself. "I am Nina von Rolff, Fisherberg Express," she said in clear Holmlandish. "I presume you have been informed of my visit to report upon the brave work of our nation's army?"
He stared at her. "No. I have not."
Sophie tutted. "Of course. Your commanders said they would not tell the troops. That you might become self-conscious." Astonishingly, Sophie directed a blinding smile at the private, who reddened.
He still seemed reluctant to trust them entirely, though. "Who is this?" he asked, gesturing at Caroline.
"My..." Sophie faltered for a horrible split-second, but recovered splendidly: "My illustrator. She is here to capture the essence of the camp so that she can reproduce it for the newspaper. No photographs, of course," she went on, giving him a confidential smile.
Caroline almost felt sorry for the young man as he went so red he was white. "Naturally, Miss von Rolff."
"Call me Nina, please. Everybody does."
From white to yellowish. "Nina. I am Ivan. Would you like me to show you the ornithopter facilities?"
Sophie's smile glowed brighter than ever. "Would you mind? That would be marvellous!"
Caroline could only goggle as Private Ivan unlocked the gate and bowed them through. That Sophie would bear careful watching. A couple of raindrops hit her skin, but she did her best to ignore them and the ominous faint rumblings that she was sure came from overhead, not from the battle artillery. She tried to stick as close to Sophie as possible as the private led them over to one of the Hawks, cudgelling her brains for the faintest idea of how to get rid of their overzealous escort without creating instant havoc and suspicion. Once again, however, Sophie was a step ahead: eyes glistening with well-feigned interest, she looked up at the beak of the closest ornithopter. "May I look inside?" she pleaded.
The man not only agreed readily, but offered her a hand in which, after Caroline treated him to a slow scalding glare, he proffered to her as well. As she climbed into the cockpit, hands itching for the controls, there was a lightning crack not far away and rain began to pelt in earnest. Private Ivan wrinked his nose, turning out his collar, and Caroline decided that this was the best chance they would get. She lunged for the ignition, commenced takeoff abruptly, and, without grace but with a maximum of speed, propelled the craft into the air. Sophie shrieked, clawing at a seatbelt, as they were propelled into the skies. "A warning would have been most welcome!" she called over the winds sweeping them, but a glance showed that she was smiling.
The shadows of the forest rose before them, and Caroline cut the engines to thud to a halt on the very edge of the trees. "George! Thèo!"
Their figures appeared, a quarter of a mile or so away, partially obscured by low-hanging branches and the water falling from the sky as though the weather gods had become really enthusiastic about the concept of a deluge. One of the two - George, she thought - waved as the pair pelted towards them, Sophie waving back.
Caroline was scanning the sky, a difficult task with water flying in her eyes and cloud swirling feverishly. Several times she saw the corner of a distinctly ornithopterish shadow appear, but its pilots seemed to have missed the descent of their stolen vehicle, searching the skies rather than the ground below.
Panting, George was the first to reach the ornithopter's door and throw himself in, closely followed by Thèo. George gave a great shuddering sneeze, spraying rainwater and pine needle fragments all over the leathery interior of the craft. "You did it."
"Of course we did!" giggled Sophie, patting his elbow. "You were not worried, were you?"
"'Course not," George coughed, so unconvincingly that all of them laughed.
Caroline turned back to the stolen ornithopter's controls. "We have to go. There'll be a proper search afoot soon." Rather too brusquely, she initiated takeoff - drawing cries from her passengers as they scrambled for seats - and overjudged the space surrounding the craft as she engaged the engine. With a shudder, the entire roof section of the ornithopter was dragged backward while the rest shot upward into the air. The rain, which had almost contrived to slip her mind in the heat of the moment, splashed in with a vengeance - no longer content with mere gale-force strength, it was now a persecution. It invaded their jacket collars, their woolen trousers, their boots. It trickled down their noses and pasted their hair into their eyes. In defiance of gravity, it splashed into their downturned faces and soaked up their legs. Caroline's goggles were spattered, then fogged up, then formed a skim of ice crystals as she piloted the ornithopter through the cloud layer, focussing past the water-streamed windscreen at the grey beyond, then down at the compass card before her, doing her best to ignore the mortification at her ineptitude. One flash of lightning rattled horribly close to them, and only by chance did she escape clamping her teeth straight through her tongue in shock. A juddering thunder swept around the toneless mass surrounding the ornithopter; seconds later, they were through and drying out in the afternoon sun, the clouds stretching below them like a tumult of bath-bubbles.
Her sigh of relief turned to a shriek in the ornithopter's slipstream. Sophie, pallid but managing a smile, caught her eye from the co-pilot's seat - into the edges of which, Caroline noticed with a smattering of guilt and a good helping of exhilaration, she was digging her fingers, and seemed loath to let go.
Speeding over the battle, they swept toward the south, and Albion.