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Biggles Stranded

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It was on Ginger and Bertie's trip in the dinghy that all went wrong. There was a shout from somewhere out on the estuary, and movement in the swirling snow.

Beside him, Biggles was aware of von Stalhein going abruptly tense, and Miskoff, who had been watching their backtrail, turned around with his rifle in his hands.

Biggles cursed. "There's another boat out there."

From here, in the swirling murk, he could make out little except movement and a general sense of shape. It was not a large boat, some kind of small skiff. It had either come down the river or around the headland into the estuary. No chance they would be lucky enough that it was some hapless fisherman and not guards from the prison, he thought with tense foreboding.

He couldn't tell what was happening out on the water, although he could hear the slap of oars, the indistinct mutter of an engine, and occasional shouts, all of it muffled by the snow. He drew his pistol, for all the good it would do from here. Even Miskoff's rifle could likely not have made that shot.

The sharp crack of a gunshot made him jerk all over. Despite himself, he took a few steps forward until his boots began to sink into the half-frozen mud of the shore. His heart leaped into his throat and stayed there.

"Can we help them?" von Stalhein asked gruffly, his voice hoarse and quiet.

Biggles didn't pause to wonder over their old enemy's concern. Since they had freed him, it had been clear that the entire lot of them were in the soup together. And anyway, one thing that had always been true of von Stalhein was his loyalty. It was one of the things he'd held onto after the war, however misplaced; it was, in fact, what had landed him on Sakhalin. And Biggles felt no cause for surprise that this loyalty was now equally applied to those who had rescued him; it was only what he would have expected.

But there was no chance, nothing they could do from the shore. Desperately Biggles looked back at Miskoff, who stood unmoving as a statue, with snow collecting on the ruff and shoulders of his ratty coat.

Abruptly Miskoff said something in Russian that Biggles understood to be, "I'll go look," or words in that general line. With no more warning than that, he was gone into the swirling snow, leaving the two of them on the shore.

They looked at each other, and Biggles saw his own tension written across von Stalhein's thin, sallow features.

Then they both heard another sound: the low cough and rumble of the Otter's engines starting up.

"They can't be taking off," von Stalhein said tightly. "Not in this."

"They must have been spotted. They're having to move it. If it's that or be boarded ..."

The Otter would have Algy at the controls, and Algy was no fool. Biggles knew that, given the choice, Algy would rather be toasted from the toes up than leave Biggles in this sort of stew. But Algy took his responsibilities seriously, and he had the entire lot of men, less Biggles and von Stalhein, whose lives were in his hands. (Including Ginger and Bertie: Biggles refused to believe they hadn't made it back to the Otter.)

The low sputter of the Otter's engines, the lazy chop of her props, came to them across the water. Biggles strained his ears against the moaning wind and the slap of the waves. It was difficult to tell with the snow's muffling effect, making distance and direction hard to gauge, but he didn't think Algy was preparing for takeoff. He could picture the Otter, from the low pitch of the engine, motoring slowly through the reeds.

"What is it doing?" von Stalhein asked, his voice pitched low, and Biggles was reminded that for all of his old adversary's formidable intelligence, he was unable to read the subtle changes in an engine's pitch the way Biggles could.

"They're not taking off," Biggles said. He tilted his head to the side, building an image in his mind. "They're moving the machine, I think. Out of the estuary, round the point." That would bring the Otter into the full force of the wind coming in off the ocean. But Algy was an old hand at navigating seaplanes in rough seas. If he felt he had to do it, there was no choice. And the Otter rode sturdily in rough waters. The small skiff Biggles had glimpsed would be unable to follow.

Von Stalhein took a breath and rested a hand on the snow-covered trunk of the tree beside him. He coughed, a muffled, painful sound.

"Are you all right?" Biggles asked. It had been a rough trek for a man in the condition von Stalhein had to be in; Biggles could only imagine that lesser men would have collapsed already. And the way the situation was shaping up, it was far from over.

Von Stalhein shook his head. "Don't worry about me."

There was an abrupt movement out of the snow, something shaggy and dark lurching up in front of them. Biggles turned his pistol on it, was aware of von Stalhein doing the same, but it was only Miskoff coming back.

The Russian said something too fast and rough for Biggles to catch.

"He says your friends made it to the airplane, but the boat capsized," von Stalhein translated. There was a trace of relief in his roughened voice that Biggles filed away quietly in the mental file of his mind. "They shot the men on the patrol boat, but it was left drifting on the estuary; there is no way to sink or retrieve it. And the airplane began to move. Hazarding my own guess," he added, "I would say your friend Lacey decided it was too risky to remain where they were. They could reasonably assume the boat had reported their location and more will be coming."

"At least they're well,," Biggles said in a rush of relief. "Good man, Algy; I knew he'd be too sensible to risk capture of the whole lot whilst waiting for us. He'll be back when the coast clears, and we had better be waiting when he gets here. Wish there was some way of getting our hands on that skiff."

"Not unless you care for a swim," von Stalhein said shortly. "Which I don't. And in case you haven't noticed, our train left the station without us, and the two of us are hardly dressed for standing about in this weather."

He was regrettably correct. Now that he had brought it up, Biggles became aware how much he had been pushing through the cold, relying on sheer bloody-mindedness to keep himself going until he could warm up and change out of the awful, scratchy material of Pat's prison uniform.

But his ears and fingers were going numb, his hair full of snow. He had to fight off surges of shivering. And von Stalhein would be worse off, with months of mistreatment and underfeeding leaving him no reserves to draw upon. Biggles could hear the strain in his voice every time he spoke.

"We can't simply stand here," Biggles decided. "They may know more of us are on the shore. And of course it's the two of us in these ruddy uniforms, marking us as if we'd been dipped in paint."

Miskoff said something abruptly and turned away from them.

"He says to follow," von Stalhein said. He hesitated. "It could be a trap."

"No, I don't think so. He hates the prison guards more than any possible reason he could have to betray us."

Miskoff set off into the woods at a steady, ground-eating stride. It was clear within just a few steps that he was not waiting for them, and he seemed on the verge of disappearing into the swirling snow and the gloom under the trees. Von Stalhein gave Biggles a look that clearly said On your head be it if you're wrong, before taking a limping step into the woods after Miskoff. Biggles brought up the rear.

The snow was less deep under the trees, but it was still slow and miserable going, all the more so because they had no promise of companionship, warmth, and food at the end of it. Though von Stalhein had never had that, Biggles thought, looking at the grimly straight back of the man in front of him, the strangely long, graying hair straggling over the collar of his prison garb. For all he knew, they were lying to him, taking him back to England to be clapped in prison.

But he had come with them. Trusting, when nothing in his life had given him reason to trust.

The land rose, becoming steeper and rougher. If they were following a trail, Biggles could hardly tell; they had to clamber over rocks, fight their way through dense copses and the ubiquitous heather-like undergrowth that gave off a fragrant smell.

And it became clear that von Stalhein was in trouble.

If Biggles had been pushing himself through their forced march on sheer bloody-mindedness and grit, the amount of both that von Stalhein must have been using to keep himself upright bordered on the superhuman. But even the strongest of men can run to the end of their strength, and sometimes, when the collapse comes, it comes faster for those men who can push themselves beyond all reasonable endurance.

He began to stumble, going down to one knee with a soft hiss as his bad leg buckled. When Biggles reached to help, von Stalhein impatiently waved him away, only to fall again two steps later.

Miskoff, who had been nothing but an impassive back moving with a mechanical motion in front of them, went on a few steps, then—half-hidden in the snow and the gathering dusk—he paused and looked back. His face gave away nothing, neither concern nor question; he might have been interrogating a problem in the operation of his boat or gun.

"We cannot be left behind, Erich," Biggles said, low. "If he leaves us on this hillside we will die."

"Then go on," von Stalhein snapped, his voice a hoarse croak, as he labored to get his legs under him.

There was no question of leaving him there. Biggles put an arm around his body, feeling a brief shock at the prominence of his ribs, and heaved him up.

"You are a nuisance," von Stalhein cursed him as they struggled up the mountainside after Miskoff, trying awkwardly to pace their strides together. His weight draped on Biggles' shoulder with a shocking lack of strength.

"Yes, I look forward to you telling me at length when we are warm and dry."

If they ever were—if they even could be. For those last awful part of that climb, as one step blurred into another in an unending haze, it was only the faint warmth of von Stalhein's body that kept him from succumbing to the cold himself, only the need to keep them both going that kept him moving. When they finally came to a patch of flat land, he stumbled abruptly in the realization that his foot had landed on level ground and not another step upward.

Biggles looked around. The forest had become sparser as they climbed, but on this flatter patch of mountainside it once more closed claustrophobically about them, shutting out what little light there was, though it also tempered the force of the wind and the snow. The twilight of the storm was rapidly darkening into true night, but there was a faint luminous quality to the snow, and with his eyes fully dark-adapted he could make out a rough shack built against the craggy hillside. Smoke issued forth from its cracks, as from a fire without a hearth.

At this point, Biggles hardly cared if it was the gate to Hell itself. At least he would be warm. Half-carrying and half-dragging von Stalhein, whose feeble attempts to help move himself were the only sign he still lived, Biggles stumbled toward the promise of whatever rude warmth the shack could offer.

Miskoff pulled out a leather latch-string and opened the door. Biggles staggered inside. The last steps seemed to exhaust von Stalhein beyond endurance, and his feet dragged as Biggles hauled him over the doorstep.

After the utter cold outside, it was shockingly, almost chokingly warm and humid. It seemed to Biggles that sweat instantly poured off him. He stopped, astounded. It was entirely black within. The damp warmth made him think of a greenhouse. There was a sound of dripping water, as if from a small waterfall. There was, furthermore, a strange smell, foul and yet heady, a little like gunpowder or spoiled eggs.

What was this place?

"Sauna," Miskoff said behind him. This, Biggles recognized easily; it was not dissimilar from the word he had heard in his travels in northern Europe.

But from what he understood of those Scandinavian operations, this could not be the same. There was no banked fire-glow, no smell of smoke or any indication of what was making it so warm—and so wet.

There came a sharp crack that startled him, until he saw that Miskoff had struck a light with an old-fashioned flint. The Russian lit a crude candle of lard, slumping in a stone dish. He set it in a recess in the wall. By its flickering, uncertain light, Biggles saw the interior of the place.

The hut was only part of the structure. Most of it was a cave. It was all very crude; the only furniture, if it could be called that, was a shelf made of dirt and rock with furs heaped on it for a sleeping place. In front of him, the cave sloped gently downward. The candle's light glimmered on some dark, liquid surface, and sparkled on beads of water raining gently down from above it.

And finally he understood.

"It's a natural hot spring," Biggles said under his breath.

He turned to speak to Miskoff, but the door had already thudded shut behind the Russian ex-prisoner. Leaving on some errand of his own? Going to alert the authorities to their presence? He had reassured von Stalhein, and in truth he did not think they were to be betrayed, but with their lives in Miskoff's hands, it was difficult not to have a few doubts.

Oh well. Nothing to be done for it now. There were other things to attend to.

He eased von Stalhein down onto the fur-covered platform. In the damp heat, his stiff and filthy prison rags were already feeling too close. He shed first the shirt, then Pat's trousers, and kicked off his boots and socks as well.

Well! So this was Miskoff's cave in the mountains. Biggles could only laugh to himself. Rude though it was, he had imagined something far less agreeable.

He walked carefully forward until his toes encountered hot water. Step by step, he waded in, having to feel his way along with his feet. The rocks beneath his soles were slimy, but did not drop off abruptly, as he had feared. The heat grew with each step. The water was cooler near the entrance, but when he had waded in so far that it rose to the middle of his chest, it was so hot that it hurt, especially stinging his cold-nipped fingers and toes.

After their miserable, icy climb, it felt like luxury itself.

Biggles tilted his head back and let his hair swish in the hot water, washing away the cold and strain and, most likely, the vermin that he knew must have nested in Pat's old prison outfit. He dipped until his face went under. When he came up, a sharp splatter of cold water on his closed eyes and forehead, like icy needles, startled him. He groped his way in the flickering near-dark to touch the slick, wet surface of the wall, where the too-hot water became once again more clement, and he felt an icy flow of cold water rushing down the cave wall and dispersing in the fiercely hot depths of the spring.

"I see," Biggles said to himself. "The cold water runs in from a natural spring and meets the hot water welling up in the cave. Where they mingle, it is clement enough for man's comfort. I wonder if this is natural or if someone carved a channel long ago?"

Whether the waterfall was natural or man-made, some modifications had certainly been added. Biggles' groping fingers touched a chipped-out recess with a handful of objects within it. One of them was a tin cup. Biggles held the cup under the flowing cold spring and drank from it. The water had a slight aftertaste, the same eggy, metallic taint as the air, but he supposed it was not likely harmful or the cup wouldn't be there. Other than that, the spring water was cool and refreshing.

After drinking his fill, he groped again within the recess, where he had felt some other things. There was a hard sliver of some slippery substance which he identified by smell to be some sort of harsh soap. There were also some more stubs of candle.

Leaving the other items where they were for now, he refilled the cup to its brim and waded back ashore. The air in the hut felt cool after the heat of the spring, and gooseflesh prickled up his bare, wet skin.

"Erich?" he said quietly.

There was no answer. After the near-dark at the back of the cave, the low, flickering candle shed enough light that he could clearly see von Stalhein lying on the furs where Biggles had left him, immobile as a dead man, his face turned toward the wall. Biggles set the tin cup of water carefully in one of the small niches in the wall that seemed to be provided for such purposes, and touched von Stalhein's face, saying his name quietly. His skin felt terribly cold, but a feeble pulse jumped in his throat, and an occasional shiver wracked him.

I must get him warm again, Biggles thought. In von Stalhein's weakened state, the cold alone could kill him.

Von Stalhein made a murmur of protest when Biggles tugged at his shirt. "Let me," Biggles said gently, and to his surprise, von Stalhein relaxed and allowed him to tug off the filthy vermin-ridden mess of it. The fabric was so rotted that it all but separated at his touch.

Beneath, the cruel reality of von Stalhein's physical state was exposed. His ribs stood out painfully, and old bruises were layered darker and lighter across his pale skin. Biggles had seen enough of men inflicting violence on each other to expect them, but it was one thing to suspect it, and something else entirely—a feeling like being kicked in the chest—to recognize the rounder marks of fists and feet, the thin lines of lashings with a whip or a chain.

"Come," Biggles murmured. "Let's get you cleaned up."

He got an arm around von Stalhein's waist, always narrow, now even more so, and got him up off the bearskin. With von Stalhein sitting woozily on the edge of the platform bed, Biggles knelt to pull off his cracked and ill-fitting prison shoes.

"You're here," von Stalhein said. His voice was dazed, his accent stronger than normal; it was only a surprise that he didn't lapse into German. "You really came."

"Oh, you know me, always up for a change of scenery." Biggles reached for the tin cup. "I expect you could use a drink?"

Von Stalhein sipped carefully, his teeth rattling against the edge of the cup as he shivered. "What is that smell?"

"I'm surprised you can smell anything over yourself. Come, have a look. There's a hot spring here; have you ever been in one?" Biggles hauled him up. It was awkward with the height difference, but less so than it would normally have been, because von Stalhein was so shockingly light.

The trousers, Biggles decided, could stay on. They could use a wash in the spring as much as von Stalhein himself.

"Come on, Erich, let's get warm."

"First name basis now, is it," von Stalhein said. He sucked in a breath when his bare, bruised feet touched water.

"We've only known each other for decades. A little informality is earned, I'd say."

Von Stalhein was taking some of his own weight now. He guided himself with a hand trailing along the wet rock of the wall. It was still difficult to tell how much he was taking in, and how much slid off him like water on oilcloth. In the near-dark, there was a feverish glint in his eyes. He had pushed himself too hard for too long, and now Biggles could all but see him folding, his formidable strength giving out.

And then it did give out. His feet came up off the bottom; he went over backward in the hot water. He let out a sharp sound and struggled weakly.

"It's all right," Biggles said, catching him by the shoulders. "I've got you."

It seemed an impossible circumstance that von Stalhein would have, could have relaxed under those conditions. But incredibly, he did. The tension eased out of him, and he floated easily in Biggles' grasp, with his oddly long hair waving like water-weeds under the surface.

With their bodies in this close proximity, Biggles could feel the convulsive shudders of von Stalhein's near-hypothermic state dying away to faint tremors.

"May I help you with your hair?" he asked quietly, and von Stalhein made a soft grunt that seemed to be acceptance, if not full assent.

From the feel of it, his knotted hair had hardly seen brush, comb, or soap in his time at the prison. The lack of grooming must have galled him nearly as much as the lack of food, and Biggles dug in his fingers, working them through the tangled strands to rub against von Stalhein's scalp.

He was unprepared for the way that his former enemy, his nemesis, the man who had more than once tried to kill him leaned into the touch, relaxing still further until it seemed that Biggles' connection with him was all that kept him from sinking below the surface of the water.

Had it truly been so long since anyone had touched him gently?

Biggles moved back toward the wall, towing von Stalhein with him, until the rock bumped his back, and he felt along its surface to retrieve the sliver of soap. He proceeded to wash von Stalhein's hair thoroughly, scrubbing out the filth, running his hands as well along the man's neck and shoulders. There was no resistance in von Stalhein anymore; he might even have fainted or fallen asleep in the water, but Biggles was aware of the soft hitches in his breathing whenever Biggles' fingers contacted a bruise or a sore place.

There was an abrupt waft of cold air across the surface of the water. The door had opened. Biggles felt von Stalhein's relaxed demeanor instantly go tense, and the former spy kicked out in the water and pushed himself upright with the swift, liquid grace of a surfacing otter. Their guns, Biggles thought, were back on the shore with most of their clothes.

A shape hulked in the doorway, framed softly in flickering firelight. It grunted out some words in Russian, dropped something by the door, and retreated. The door closed.

"Comrade Miskoff says that he has brought dinner." Von Stalhein's voice was thick, but some of the earlier hoarseness had eased. "Shall we go see what he has brought us?"

Biggles replaced the now somewhat diminished soap back in its cubby. He waded ashore with von Stalhein, keeping a hand available for correcting the other if von Stalhein collapsed or otherwise showed signs of weakness as they got out. But he was moving with more deftness—slow and weak, to be sure, but that was only to be expected.

What Miskoff had left for them was a charred carcass on a crude slab of wood serving as a plate. Biggles sniffed at it. "I believe this may be a rabbit?" He observed the poor specimen. "Or a squirrel."

"Something of a pleasant change not to have it raw," was von Stalhein's only comment. Looking around, Biggles saw that he'd shed his wet trousers and wrapped himself in a bearskin.

Biggles gave him the larger portion.

When they had finished eating and washed their hands in the spring, Biggles went to the door and took a peep outside. The air that came in was bitterly cold and tinged with the nose-tingling sharpness of fresh snow.

In the clearing just in front of the door, he saw a small fire, nearly smokeless in the way of a camp made in enemy territory, with Miskoff bending over it to poke at the flames. Some other small creature, difficult to identify, rotated on a crude spit over the low flame.

"Do you want to come in?" Biggles asked. "We don't mean to keep you from your bed."

Miskoff said something harsh and made a sharp movement of his hand.

From the steamy warmth at Biggles' back, von Stalhein translated, "He says he prefers it out there."

Miskoff added something else.

Biggles could hear a wry smile in von Stalhein's voice as he went on, "He says that he only sleeps indoors when it's cold."

"Ah. Well, our gain, I suppose," Biggles said philosophically.

Biggles closed the door and shut them once more into the warm, sulfur-smelling interior of the springhouse. The rabbit bones he left fastidiously on the crude plate, and he waded back to the cold-water cascade down the wall to refill the cup so they both could drink.

"Bigglesworth ..." von Stalhein said. He was sitting on the platform bed, bundled in bearskins. His face was a pale blur in the faint, smoky light of the candle. "It's hard to imagine calling you James."

"I don't suppose I should appreciate it." Biggles returned the cup to its niche in the wall and waded ashore. "My friends call me Biggles."

"Am I ... that?" von Stalhein asked quietly in the near-dark.

"Well, I flew all the way to Sakhalin to free you from prison. I suppose a few liberties are not unreasonable."

Von Stalhein snorted, sounding more like himself than at any point since their desperate climb up the mountainside had begun. "We should catch some sleep before morning. I'm sure it will be a complicated operation to find your aircraft again."

"I hope not, if Algy knows what he's about. And Algy knows his onions. I shouldn't worry."

"Then let's rest. I think this bench is wide enough for two, don't you—? ... and we'll be warmer together."

Biggles blew out the candle and found his way by feel to the bearskin-covered platform. Von Stalhein was already against the wall, and Biggles climbed in next to him. The lean, bony warmth of von Stalhein's prison-deprived body lined up against his, jostling around until they found a way of resting together. It was more comfortable than Biggles had expected, the furs piled deep and soft beneath them.

"Biggles ..." von Stalhein began, and then, to Biggles' exceeding shock, he let out something like a laugh. It made Biggles realize that he had never really heard him laugh before, not properly. "No, it's useless, I can't get used to that."

Biggles rolled over to rest on his arm, facing von Stalhein in the dark. "It's my name."

"Yes, well, I suppose Bigglesworth was more ... agreeable."

More distant, he meant. They were very near to each other in the dark. Biggles said quietly, "You can call me whatever you like, Erich. You're a free man now. Where you go, what you do, is up to you."

There was a movement that, by all rights, should have made him pull away, given that the man under the bearskins with him had been an enemy for the entire time they had known each other. But what happened instead was that Erich leaned into his space, and Biggles opened his mouth a little—he didn't dodge, didn't turn, and met von Stalhein head-on.

Their lips brushed in the dark. It was something that could hardly even be called a kiss, a light drift of Erich's dry, chapped lips against his. But then Erich turned his head, and the side of his face rested briefly against Biggles', and something warm and gentle came to take up residence in Biggles' chest.

Then von Stalhein said, "I suppose I can adapt to calling you Biggles, if you like it."

He turned, facing toward the wall again. Biggles moved carefully against his back, resting a hand along Erich's long side and his bony hip, fingers spread out against his thigh.

There was no word spoken of anything other than that; they were both exhausted, and Biggles was aware that it would take a lot more than a cup of spring water and a half-cooked squirrel to restore the energy and vitality Erich had lost in prison. He was aware, too, that in the morning they faced a difficult crossland journey to try to rendezvous with the Otter on the shoreline.

But Algy would pull the rendezvous off. Biggles was confident of that.

And for the man nestled under the bearskins with him, spooning carefully in the dark ... and how he would explain this to the men on the Otter—he didn't know.

He knew only that he still intended to give Erich the choice he had inwardly promised to give. There were no strings attached to this rescue mission. Erich von Stalhein would have the freedom to return to England with them, or to go his own way, with no conditions on it.

Biggles lightly ran his hand down the sloping dip of Erich's hip and felt a slight quiver under his hand. There was a movement in Erich, half-unconscious, pressing back against Biggles until they touched up and down their entire length, under the warm, musky weight of the bearskin.

It occurred to him how much it meant, though he wondered if Erich himself realized it, that Erich had given him the outside position and chosen to lie against the wall. Erich coming with them from the prison camp was a necessary kind of trust. This was something else, the quiet, half-unconscious acknowledgement that he felt safe with Biggles between him and the outside.

Biggles laid his palm flat against Erich's thigh, and turned his face into the back of Erich's neck. Erich's softly damp hair was curling a little. A fierce mix of emotions rolled through Biggles, tenderness and protectiveness blurred together into something he didn't even know the name for.

Erich relaxed against him, falling asleep with a trust that spoke more than words ever could.

Biggles rested his cheek against the back of Erich's neck. Tomorrow, he thought, they would be on the Otter, flying out of here. And then ... the future would have to sort itself out. Somehow, for them, it always did.