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Back to the Wall

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Biggles stood gazing out of a loophole at the massed Kurds below. Looting the camp was still absorbing much of their energies, but eventually they would turn their attention on the castle with its tiny garrison of intruders. Footsteps approaching brought him onto alert, but the arrival was von Stalhein, who joined him at the loophole. "They will assault soon," he said emotionlessly. "You will permit me then to hold the bridge."

"You don't need to demonstrate your courage," Biggles told him. "I am well aware of it. My goal is not to engage in battle with the Kurds. I want to get my men--you included if you so choose--out of this alive. This isn't my war and if I didn't happen to be inside it, I'd think the Kurds had the right idea attacking this criminals' lair. If it comes to the point, by all means set the price for your life high. But until then, we will wait and hope for rescue."

"Hoping for rescue is not a strategy I employ."

"Have you ever inspired sufficient affection in any of your colleagues to have an expectation of rescue?" Biggles retorted. "I've told you before that if you fly with carrion birds you can't complain about the smell. But Algy and Bertie know that we're here, and they've overflown us and seen the situation. They won't give up on us unless they find our bodies."

"If they find yours," von Stalhein said, "they will certainly also find mine." Some kind of morbid Prussian mood was upon him, Biggles thought, some hunger for battle even if the price was his own life. It was not a good thing to be relying on a man in love with death; Biggles had seen men go like that from the earliest days of 169 Squadron.

"Life and peace," Biggles said, "that's the prize I'm aiming at, Erich. It's a much more satisfying one than battle and death. And if all it costs us is a little patience, it's not very dear."

Von Stalhein looked away from the men below, directly at him. "You always want to put me in the wrong."

"Don't talk like a schoolboy. You came here to join a criminal gang stirring up wars in other people's countries for profit. How much more in the wrong do you suppose you could be? Once you served your country, and though we were at war, I could respect your loyalty to your homeland. Now--now all you serve is death and destruction of other people's lives. It does not serve Germany, it does not even bring you happiness or comfort, it merely creates pain."

Or spreads pain around, he thought, looking at the man beside him. Von Stalhein almost radiated pain, all his furious guilty grief rising off him like steam and propelling him from one cruel enterprise to another. Biggles had seen scores of similarly damaged criminals unmoved: not every man who suffered loss responded by trying to hurt others. But von Stalhein was different. Perhaps it was what Algy said, that he felt guilty, that because he knew how often he'd been the instrument of von Stalhein's downfall, he felt it was his job to try to limit the damage. But there was more than that. He'd known von Stalhein at his best. And he could see that man was still here, still before him. Still reachable. His next words showed it.

"You think I should go back to the Soviets, try Communism again?"

Biggles laughed. "You'll never persuade me you believe in Communism. If you join the Soviets it'll be because you want to find whatever war I'm in and join the other side of it."

"A little egocentric, Bigglesworth?"

"Look me in the eye and tell me I'm wrong."

Von Stalhein did look him in the eye. "You want life and peace," he said bitterly, "and everywhere you go, you fight." He reached out his hand almost unconsciously, then drew back.

There was another way to remind a man in love with death of the joys of life. Biggles caught the hand before von Stalhein could pretend he had meant nothing, caught it and drew him closer. "We haven't only fought," he said quietly. "And it is a genuine pleasure to fight alongside you for a change. I couldn't want for a better man in a tight spot, so refrain from needlessly sacrificing your life."

Von Stalhein gazed at him with unreadable eyes. "Naturally I will obey your orders."

He moved then as quickly as he did in combat, closing the small gap between them, his aim on his target precise and swift. Biggles kissed him back, knowing that it was still a fight, a fight he hadn't won. Von Stalhein held him as if taking a prisoner, held him as if sheltering him with his body, as if they were already fighting shoulder to shoulder against overwhelming odds. Biggles could hear his own heartbeat thudding in his ears. He sensed that von Stalhein would repulse gentleness, and instead he moved so that von Stalhein's back was hard against the wall and Biggles was holding him there. The only soft thing about von Stalhein was his mouth, hungry and desperate on Biggles's, but as Biggles pinned him the long hand at the nape of his neck moved in a kind of caress over Biggles's head and the tension left his shoulders.

A shot nearer the walls of the castle made them turn in unison, both craning to see through the loophole even though they were still pressed together.

"The man's drunk," said Biggles, who had a better angle of view and could see the robed and bearded man firing into the air in celebration of his victory.

"It could be cover for something more." Von Stalhein turned out from the wall, not quite forcing his way past Biggles, and scanned the landscape suspiciously. Biggles tamped down a smile. Von Stalhein's left hand was still resting on Biggles's side. The man fired again, this time at the castle wall. Biggles flinched instinctively, but von Stalhein didn't move.

"There will be a clearer view from the next floor up," von Stalhein said. He seemed to realise he was still holding Biggles, and his hand fell. "I will go."

"Erich," Biggles said as von Stalhein began to turn to the spiral staircase. "When I tell you to be careful, I expect you to obey me."

A thin smile curved von Stalhein's mouth, then his expression assumed a mocking parade-ground stillness and he clicked his heels on the stone floor. "Jawohl, herr Kommandant."