Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
Anton Von Sturm waited behind a desk in the headquarters tent, horrified.
He tapped his fingers on the hard wood, staring blankly at the walls.
Across the room, a sleeping Fruehauf snored gently under Von Drachen’s coat.
He wished he was as drunk as she was.
It had been a rough day for him, and it was only about to get worse.
Reinforced by hundreds of Cisseans urged to fight by Von Drachen’s madness, Haus and the 13th Panzer Division crossed the Ghede and poured through the center of the Ayvartan line. Slicing apart the defenses across the river, the 13th soon put Von Drachen’s bridge out of commission as it became safe for Alpha unit and Delta unit to bring their engineers and build much safer pontoon bridges across the Ghede. Tanks and artillery began to cross, and by nightfall, much of the enemy resistance had faltered.
Mass surrenders ensued, and Nocht had its foothold in Tambwe.
Word spread immediately back to the 13th’s HQ.
Haus had won and he had not been there.
Von Sturm raised his head to the tent door, waiting for retribution to come.
Haus would probably crush him in his palm.
To think of all people, Von Drachen had gone to fight, and he hadn’t?
He told himself that it was not his fault.
Fruehauf had gone stupidly missing and needed to be accounted for and made safe; some nun went on a rampage and nearly killed an idiot private who had let his guard down, smitten with her. Where had she even come from? He had to take time to investigate that. And there were administrative matters too! There were supplies coming in from the south, that had to be vetted and coordinated and signed off on. Haus’ Panzer Army was coming north, and Engineering had to make sure there was space for them.
It was hard, being a General! He was not just sitting around!
But the optics were harrowing. Von Sturm’s subordinates had fought where he had failed to. The Field Marshal had led the fight to victory from the front lines while the Brigadier responsible for every unit along that river sat behind a desk and trudged through the forest and peeked into the backs of trucks and argued with laborers about sandbags.
He should’ve been at least a dozen kilometers behind the fighting in a radio tank.
Instead he was many several dozen away, and it was all out of his sight and mind.
He heard the tent door being tampered with, and snapped his head up.
Retribution had come. Von Sturm stood from his desk, and readied to grovel.
Ambling past the tent flaps was a well-bandaged Von Drachen, walking on a cane.
“Anton, I have returned from the river, where I could have died, but did not.”
Von Sturm promptly turned his back on him and returned to his desk, burying his head against it. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with today. He had no idea what to do about Von Drachen. He was useful; much more reliable than Meist or the Colonels. But he was so bizarre that Von Sturm could not even muster the wit to become properly mad at him. It was as if a piece was glaringly missing from their every interaction.
For his part, Drachen either never understood Von Sturm’s reactions or ignored them.
“I see you have all had a busy day.” Von Drachen said.
Von Sturm raised his head in time to see Von Drachen staring quizzically at Fruehauf.
“Is that my coat?” He asked.
“Yes. She’s had a rough day. I wanted to give her my coat, like a gentleman, but I must’ve lost it in Bada Aso.” Von Sturm replied. He sighed audibly. “You left yours so I put it over her instead. I think she’s sleeping off all that she’s drank the past few days.”
“Ah, I see. Very gentlemanly, indeed! How did she respond to your kindness?”
“She cried. Copiously.” Von Sturm said.
Von Drachen nodded sagely. “Moved to tears by your chivalry.”
His self-serious expression frustrated Von Sturm.
“I highly doubt it. What do you want, Von Drachen?”
“Oh, sorry. I wanted to warn you that Haus is outside.”
Much to Von Sturm’s dismay, behind Von Drachen the tent flap waved again.
“Haus is inside now, actually.”
The Field Marshal nonchalantly arrived, his blond radio girl at his side.
Both of them had the same deadly serious facet. Only Haus spoke.
“Has news of our victory reached your ears yet? Or were you too far afield?”
Before Von Sturm could reply, Haus immediately interrupted him.
“Curious that all of the artillery did not wake you from your little nap. Perhaps, Anton, you thought the thundering of the heavens, as we clashed viciously with the enemy and snatched glory from the hands of defeat, was but mere quaking, an inconvenience?”
Again Haus spoke again too fast for Von Sturm to get a word in.
“Anton, I cannot express my disappointment in words. So I will use actions.”
Haus marched up to Von Sturm’s desk and lashed out with his hand.
He ripped Von Sturm’s pins from his lapel, and peeled off his shoulder insignia.
Both these things he threw on the floor, and stepped on with his boot.
Behind him, Cathrin adjusted her glasses, and approached the desk.
She handed Von Sturm a file folder. Reassignment papers.
“You are unfit to lead a strategic unit. Effective immediately, you are demoted to Colonel, in command of the 13th Panzer Battalion. We shall call it S-Battalion, for now. You will serve under the 13th Panzer Brigade, led by Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus declared.
Von Sturm was so taken aback that his one reaction was to snap his head toward Von Drachen, who seemed to have no reaction of his own to offer for his sudden promotion.
“Ah,” was all Von Drachen said about this matter. A small smile played across his lips.
Haus did not even address him. He continued to speak brusquely in Von Sturm’s direction, poking him roughly with the tip of his gloved index finger. “You will take part in tactical operations with your unit. I want you at the front, under my auspice. As part of the elite 1st Panzer Army, you will learn our operational art in the fire, like every other unit commander, or die trying. I will forge you into the genius you were supposed to be.”
Each jab of that finger felt like a gunshot right into Von Sturm’s heart.
He could say nothing in his defense, nor reply. He did nothing but stand, taking each strike from that gloved finger, staring at the floor. Forces far greater than him were swinging him wherever they wanted him to go, and he could do nothing to hang on.
In his mind, there was only Bada Aso, burning and burning.
It was where everything of his had gone to burn.
Colonel Anton Von Sturm, dark circles around his eyes, a blank expression on his too-pallid face, and no more will to fight the inevitable, silently saluted the Field Marshal.
After the successes along the river, an area for prisoners was established in the 13th Panzer Division’s temporary rear area in the Kalu woodlands. One area had tents where officers and specialists could be kept and interrogated. A second area was established that had larger and simpler accommodations — open-air pens under the woodland canopy, fenced off, guarded by military police with submachine guns and bayonet-armed rifles. By the dozens, Ayvartan troops were led to their pens and closed off behind gates.
In one particular pen, the Ayvartans seemed surprised to find someone already there.
Hog-tied, gagged, shackled, and restrained in every possible way, then encased in a metal cage fit more for a big dog than a human, Selene Lucci laid on her side, moaning.
Though she preferred it to agonizing, lonely starvation, this was still quite a curious path that God had sent her on, and she did not feel quite so elated to be alive at the moment.
At the very least her new confinement was in the open air and shade, rather than stuffed in a tent. That would have been a much crueler touch to an already stressful captivity.
She could see the day waning outside, and feel the cool, fresh evening breeze.
It would have been great, had it not been for her arms and legs, tied behind her back with rough ropes, and her whole body criss-crossed by chains and belts to bind her in every possible way, emphasizing the murderous threat she posed to Nocht’s soldiery.
Though she had not even managed to kill the guard she had stricken in her attempted escape, the narrative had become that she was quite deadly, a complete monster. It was for her that a manhunt was established mid-afternoon, distracting the entire command cadre and military police detachment from the Ghede battle. Not at all to find a drunken, lost radio girl; no, it was all meant for the Devil’s Own Nun, communist spy Selene Lucci.
“You’re lucky you’re a messianic nun. They wanted to shoot you for all this.”
Kern Beckert lay pensively on the other side of fence surrounding the pen. Her cage had been laid in a corner, so he was as close at her side as he could be in these conditions, ostensibly guarding her. He had his back to the chain-links of the fence, resting against the metal poles keeping Selene locked in. He sighed, groaned, and quietly suffered.
Through the belt gag stuffing her mouth, Selene made a sarcastic-sounding noise.
Ever since he had gotten back from the river on a truck full of wounded, he had left his unit behind and planted himself beside her cage and stared at his shoes. His brutish commander seemed to allow him this, despite his choice of company. Kern looked much worse for wear. His eyes looked distant and hollow. His uniform was filthy, and he smelled of all kinds of substances. He spoke in a beaten-down, hollow tone of voice.
“I think I’m going to volunteer to be a medic, or military police, or something. I know if I stay at the front, I will keep fighting. As long as I’m there I won’t stop.” Kern said.
Selene made a sarcastic noise and wondered if they were registering to him as such.
Kern reached into the cage and pulled out the rubber bit stuck into her mouth.
She coughed, and spat.
“I can undo some of the belts and ropes, but not the chains.” He said.
“Is that an offer or statement of fact?” Selene croaked, her voice warped by a dry throat.
Kern withdrew a knife from his leg, and started to wear away at the knots on her arms.
“Stop.” Selene said. “You’ll be caught. Look.”
Immediately Kern hid his knife and stood up, pretending to guard the cage.
Across the camp, an officer of some description arrived. Perhaps a Captain or Major, someone from Battalion, come to inspect the prisoners. He walked past the tents of the imprisoned Ayvartan officers, and stood at the gate to the infantry pen with a conceited smile on his face. Hands behind his back, he scanned around the faces in the pen.
“Is there any one of you who has something useful to say?”
There were a few responses, all in Ayvartan. Curses, brief expressions of woe, a few threats. Most of the captive Ayvartans turned their backs on the walls of the pen, defiant. However, there was a small group that huddled, as if plotting something, and then sent a representative to the pen gate. He started to speak to the officer, but there was an immediate problem — he was speaking Ayvartan, and the officer did not understand.
The Officer raised his eyebrow skeptically. “What do you want? Speak words!”
Again the Ayvartan entreated in his own language.
Whatever he was saying was riling up other prisoners, but none of the Nochtish men could understand. They only saw a ruckus starting, and they pressed their guns into the pen threateningly and made the situation tense. The Officer was becoming exhausted. Perhaps he thought it was his own presence offending the enemy. Selene could not hear what was being said exactly, but she knew it was splinter group of cooperative prisoners that was angering the rest. She wondered what they could be offering.
“Ugh. Does anyone here know Ayvartan?” the Officer called out.
Nobody responded at first.
Then Kern’s eyes drew wide with dawning realization.
Selene shook her head rapidly at him, but he was up before she could stop him.
“Sir! This woman in the cage knows Ayvartan and Nochtish!” He shouted.
Selene grit her teeth.
Intrigued, the Officer walked around the pen to Kern’s side, and the cooperative Ayvartans followed, perhaps understanding the situation by body language.
Everyone huddled around Selene’s cage.
The Officer looked perturbed by her, and kept some distance from the cage.
“Are you sure, Private? I’m told this nun is quite rabid.” He said.
“I’m positive, sir.” Kern said.
Selene sighed. She gave him a dirty look, but he was not paying her attention.
So quick to try to help, and so unable to actually do so.
The Officer appeared reasonably pleased.
“Very well then. Nun, please translate what this man and his colleagues are trying to tell me, and you may then take your meals without ropes and chains.” He said.
Though she thought of resisting, the proposition was too good.
The Officer pointed at the Ayvartans and then at the nun.
“He wants me to translate for you.” Selene said to the group.
She was immediately understood. Her Ayvartan was very well practiced.
Several prisoners crouched beside her cage, and gave her the details.
Her heart skipped several beats as they told her their story.
Selene regretted having agreed to this, but she had no better choices now.
Turning her head to the Officer and to Kern, she passed on the crux of the message.
“They say they are part of the 8th Rifle Division,” she said, “and that they have contacts and intelligence in Tambwe and desire to propose an operation to your leaders.”