Bain dropped to his knees and twisted sideways, wriggling through a hole half his size, in the wall of brush along the trail. The tangled mat of dry twigs and leaves and grasses snapped and rustled, deafening to his hypersensitive ears. He yanked his feet through and turned around in the confined space to look back the way he had come.
No movement on the narrow trail. No sounds of running footsteps on the dirt path, or gunfire.
The gray sky was barely visible through the canopy of tangled tree limbs and clinging parasite vines. Bain looked up at it, trying to gauge the time of day by the angle of the light -- but there was no angle. The cloud cover rendered all light as softly diffused, every shadow muted, easy on the eyes. Any other time that would be beautiful, but not now. Beauty didn't matter when stealth and keeping two steps ahead of the enemy was the sole focus of his life.
The glance took barely a second. Bain snatched up a branch and brushed it over the mussed spot in the dry dirt and leaves where he had fallen and twisted. The leaves all along the path helped cover his trail. The people hunting him would have to use heat scopes to find him, and they didn't have any. The sides were even in this battle, which was rare.
Both sides were supposed to be even. The initial intelligence said they started out on even footing, in numbers and equipment. What little equipment they had been able to bring down with them. Just because both sides had to live off the land and make their own shelter didn't mean they would be equally handicapped. He sent out spies to learn any advances the enemy made, and knew the opposing commander did the same. Bain knew better than to assume his spies discovered more than a quarter of what his enemy was doing. One thing Bain had learned early was that a good commander took information from the spies, calculated the enemy had fifty percent more than had been discovered, and arranged his troops and lines of communication to compensate.
Never underestimate the enemy. Never overestimate one's own resources. He had learned early to make that his guiding principle. Lives depended on it, either today or tomorrow, or far in the future.
Supposedly in this conflict, both sides had the clothes on their backs, guns and a limited supply of ammunition and medical supplies. Neither side had any food, water or shelter. They had to find or make their own and protect it while struggling for territory. Neither side had been able to bring in new supplies or troops. They had nothing to survive nearly two weeks out in the middle of the wilderness, beyond the training each member brought to the conflict, their intelligence, creativity and imagination.
Bain tugged the stick through the hole and rammed it into the side of the tangled wall of brush. Then, trying to be careful and quiet, he attempted to weave the twigs and grasses around the opening back into a solid-seeming wall.
Footsteps thudded on the packed dirt of the path. Bain froze with the screen only halfway woven into place. Experience had taught him movement was more likely to attract attention than any anomaly of coloring or texture. He hoped that held true here.
There were three, all dressed in muddy gray coveralls and boots, carrying multi-darts with their extra ammunition cartridges hanging from their belts. Bain grinned when he saw that precaution. The enemy had grown wary and protective of their supplies now.
Bain's team had learned a hard lesson their second day out when they left half their reserve ammunition in their camp. They came back from a successful skirmish to find the camp ransacked and all but four cartridges gone. It had taken them two days of painstaking tracking and spying to recoup their losses. His troops hid from the enemy instead of attacking. On the morning of the third day, they found the stash of stolen supplies and took it back, along with nearly a third of the enemy's equipment. Now, Bain's team carried all their equipment with them. The rule was to vanish into the landscape and leave no sign for anyone to find, allies or enemies.
The three enemy soldiers came slowly down the trail, placing their feet carelessly so they snapped twigs and rustled leaves and left boot prints in the soft soil. Bain barely stopped himself from shaking his head at that recklessness. For all he knew, one of his own patrols was on the tail of this small team. If his people knew what was good for them, they were taking every precaution to move silently and leave no trail for the enemy to follow them in turn.
Could be an ambush, he decided after a moment. Bain held still, not even blinking, as the first of the three walked past his hiding hole.
The enemy warrior could have been Bain's age. Under the black-green mud smearing his face and hair and the tan from two weeks of exposure, it was hard to tell either age or original coloring.
The first man walked past and the other two followed. Bain listened for their footsteps to fade as they vanished around a corner of the winding trail. If it had been made by animals on their way to a watering hole or by people, Bain hadn't been able to tell yet. Right now, finding out would take too much time, but it might be necessary to his team's survival to find out soon.
Abruptly, the footsteps stopped. Bain held his breath, straining his ears for the first sound of approach. He strained his senses to feel the slightest vibration in the ground, in the brush surrounding and hiding him.
Bain stretched out his leg behind himself, cautiously feeling his way backwards through the tangle of brush. Centimeter by centimeter, he drew back along the opening he had made, until his head vanished into the shadows of the tangle of twigs and leaves and vines. At the first rustling sound, he paused and listened until he could hear nothing but the thudding of his blood in his veins.
This time he stretched back his other leg and followed the same procedure. Bain kept his hands free and his multi-dart ready.
Footsteps. Bain paused and studied the small opening that remained at the end of his impromptu tunnel. From the faint echoes, he guessed the sound came back down the trail the three had just taken. A flicker of muddy gray legs going past the hole confirmed his guess.
The single walker stopped, then turned and came back. One leg appeared in the rough frame of dried brush.
"Commander?" More footsteps coming back down the trail accompanied the voice.
"Clear?" The enemy commander's voice sounded warm and touched with laughter.
Bain closed his eyes a moment and imagined that voice shouting in shock when he and his soldiers surrounded and captured the enemy, at long last. He grinned and swallowed hard to keep from laughing. It had been two weeks now. The capture had to come soon, or not at all. Both sides were tired, filthy and heartily sick of rations made mainly of raw fish and eggs scavenged from unidentified birds in this forest, early berries so far from ripe they crunched in the mouth like gravel, and roots in all their bitter and bland varieties. If one side didn't win this conflict soon, Bain suspected he and the opposing commander might just lose their followers to a revolt.
He opened his eyes and concentrated on those legs still within his small window of vision.
"All clear," the first voice reported. "Team two says they've found the enemy camp. Another snatch-and-grab?"
"No." The commander took a step away. "This time we wait until nightfall and they're settling down to sleep. Before their night patrols head out. That's when we make the final assault."
"It's about time," a third voice muttered. The fourth member of the group answered with a chuckle.
"By tomorrow morning, we'll be on a transport out of here," the commander said.
"Hot food, showers and a real bed," the third speaker said, daring to speak a little louder.
"Keep it down," the commander barked in a harsh whisper. "Just because it's clear here doesn't mean they can't hear us. For all I know, they've made an audio-trap with leaves and fish bones."
That earned laughter from his team. Bain grinned despite the stupidity of the mental image. At least he had a better idea of his enemy's resources.
So, they had found his team's camp and were preparing an ambush, were they? One camp had been set up as a decoy, but Bain knew the enemy could have as easily found his team's real camp. The carefully contrived ambush he and his tacticians had created could turn around and bite them all before the end of the day. Short of being able to read minds, he had no way of knowing what the enemy really knew, what weapons they had to use against his people, and how close they all stood to disaster or triumph.
That was the problem with command, Bain decided. He was constantly trying to second-guess the enemy and himself. Half the time, if he stuck with his first plan, his first reaction to news from his spies, everything turned out fine. Half the time when he tried to see possible traps, he succeeded. It was the other half of the time in each situation that worried Bain. One false move could mean injury for his team at the best of times. Death at the worst of times.
Bain decided the plans he had overheard were real. The enemy wouldn't risk their commander's safety to set up an ambush. If either side's commander was caught or killed, the battle was over.
The enemy was just as tired and eager to end the conflict as Bain's people. That could make them careless. There could even be a sense of fatalism prodding them to overlook the trap for what it was.
If the enemy planned on surrounding the false camp his team had created, Bain had to prepare. The first step was getting out of his hiding place. He couldn't even take a deep breath until the enemy patrol left. Forget about crawling out through all that softly crackling brush.
As if they had heard him thinking, the four stopped talking about what they would do when they got out of this place, and headed back down the trail. Bain held still, listening, waiting until their footsteps faded out completely. Then he counted to one hundred in the silence before he moved. He reached out his left hand and slowly put it down on a matted clump of leaves. His muscles ached from holding back, but he kept each move slow and cautious, feeling for every little give and crackle and snap of the brush around him as he crawled out of his hiding place.
The gray sky had darkened to a metallic hint of storm by the time Bain got back to his feet. He grimaced and arched his back once to work out the dull, stiff aches through his entire body. Hunching his shoulders to present a smaller target, Bain moved back down the trail he had come up more than an hour ago.
Twenty meters brought him to a fork in the trail. He took the left fork, stepping into the underbrush to skirt around a muddy hole that seemed to make that part of the trail impassible. Bain took a few seconds to check, but couldn't see any signs that anyone had detoured through the underbrush lately. Not even his own passage.
He didn't relax until the trail dipped down again and a massive, tumbled pile of dark rock appeared in a slight valley clearing in the middle of the forest. Bain stepped into the deeper shadows of the trees and glanced back the way he had come. No movement, no signs anyone followed, no spies on his trail.
Winding his way through the trees, Bain skirted the tiny trip-wires fashioned of vines, and the deadfalls of rocks and twigs they led to. They wouldn't hurt anyone, unless an intruder actually tripped over the vines or rocks. They were warning signs. No one in Bain's team approached the impromptu fortress among the rocks directly down the path. They always took the winding way through the shadows and trees. The deadfalls and trip wires were for the clever enemy who realized what a good fortress that pile of rocks could make, who then made the logical assumption that someone had beat them to it, and tried to approach through the cover of the trees.
Bain's team had taken out five enemy scouts that way in the last two days. None of them had managed to return to report to their commander.
A gap of nearly two meters of open space surrounded the natural gap in the stone palisade. Bain sighed and wished yet again that his people could have used that opening for their main entrance. Just inside the shadowed opening sat a booby-trap fashioned of more vines and dead logs, piles of forest rubbish and mud. No one could get through the barrier, and the deadfall would knock the intruder off balance, mentally and physically just long enough for his own team to get their shots in.
Stepping around to the left, Bain navigated the shadows until he reached a tree with four dead limbs stretching across to the top of the rock pile. Only the inner right tree limb would support more than twenty kilos of weight. Bain skimmed across it without looking down. Two seconds later he slid down a slab of rock wide enough to hold five people side by side.
"They're falling for the trap around dinner hour," he announced to the twenty soldiers who waited around the small, smokeless fire. Grins brightened their dirty faces. "In case it's a trap ..." Bain paused and studied their expressions. Not one grin faded. "In case it's a trap on their part, we'll divide into three teams. Lissy." He turned to his second-in-command. "You'll lead team two. I'll take team one with the first wave. Team three will hold back to pull us both out of the fire if something goes wrong."
"But --" she began, then stopped when Bain held up his hand.
"In the dark, no one is going to know it's me," he said, forestalling the protest he knew was waiting on her lips. "I have to make the shot at their commander."
"What makes you think he'll be at the front when they attack?" Lissy asked.
"Because he always argues that the brains of an attack should be the most protected part."
Bain waited, and sure enough, a few whispers of 'huh?' echoed through the group.
"He'll do what I normally wouldn't expect him to do. We both know this whole operation is going down soon. A war of attrition doesn't work if you want a clear victory." He waited, but nobody asked questions or protested. Bain wasn't sure if that meant they understood or if they were just too tired to argue.