Bullets smacked into the wall beside her as Lena jogged rapidly to the entrance of a passage just up ahead.
“Petuth,” she growled breathlessly as she dashed around the corner into the alleyway. Behind her she heard and sensed the rest of her platoon following her lead.
Without looking back to see how her men were coping, Lena continued to make for the other end. She had more pressing business. They needed to find a way of shaking off their pursuers.
As she eyed the junction ahead for possibilities, Lena thought it was very back luck for them to have stumbled upon a company of soldiers this far from the front. Up to that point, their mission had been going well. They had managed to pass through the battle lines unseen and were well on the way to their destination when they had come across the bivouac.
If only that idiot, Smartten, had not immediately opened fire they would have been able to sneak past this latest obstacle.
Curses, she mouthed silently to herself as the firing behind her indicated the imperialists were pressing their attack; they were so, so much in trouble. She briefly wanted to scream in rage but there was no point in signalling to her men her despair. They knew what a hole they had gotten into just as well as she did. But as their leader she felt responsible for them and the present mess they were in. They had accepted her request to go on this dangerous mission deep into Laperian held territory without hesitation. Now she had led them into a trap.
Lena promised herself she would personally dismember Smartten before she was killed or before the others had a chance to.
Lena stopped before she ran out the other end of the alley and peered out.
In response, several bullets whizzed past to lodge themselves in the opposite wall, dislodging pieces of plaster as they did so.
Lena swore again, this time invoking the Ancients’ curse. The Laperian commander was no fool, it seemed. He had sent men to cut them off. She realised they would have to chance it and head left away from the direction they needed to go.
Then several more bullets fired from that side splattered on the wall right beside her, only narrowly missing her.
She hurriedly retreated out of sight, at the same time adding to her profanities.
Then Lena heard footsteps behind her. The owner asked, “Well, what next?”
She gestured at the intersection. “Pith, Karl,” Lena raged, “they’ve got us pinned up here.” She turned and pointed at the way they had come. “And they are hot on our heels.”
Karl, her sergeant, smiled down at her, being nearly a head taller than she was. He was a giant of a man and had been a sharecropper in a village near Pynae before the present troubles.
“We’re still alive, ain’t we?” he remarked, not making a big deal of their predicament.
Hearing this, Lena felt like laughing out loud but did not want to sound cynical. Like all those who fought the elements for a living Karl always saw the bright side of any situation. His attitude had a good effect on the men and it was one reason Lena had promoted him to be her number two. The other was that he was a damned good soldier.
Given they were not going anywhere in a hurry, Lena took the chance to have a good look at their surroundings.
The lane was defined by the buildings on either side. The block she was nearest was a series of what seemed to be small workshops, now all boarded up. Some of them looked to be in some disrepair as evidenced by the paintwork peeling off their shutters. This made her think the better kept ones might be occupied and have some potential.
The other side of the lane was made up of one large building, which she took to be a factory. It had a double door large enough for a cart to enter. Above this, a beam jutted out that provided the support for a hoist. The rope for the pulley had been fed through an upstairs window. Like the workshops on the other side, with its shuttered windows, it looked unused and again somewhat derelict. But Lena realised you could never tell given that some owners were too mean to spend anything on maintenance. She decided it would be worth a look before they turned their attention to the studios.
“We need a lookout this end,” she announced as she headed for the entrance to the factory.
Karl bellowed for Mila and Julia to come and take watch.
Lena frowned inwardly at this. Karl was being protective of the girls taking them away from the point of greatest danger. He clearly thought the major threat was behind them otherwise he would have called a couple of the boys to keep an eye on things. Still, she knew the two girls were competent fighters; they had demonstrated it a number of times. She could have countermanded his order but did not want to overrule his authority. She filed away the thought to have a word with him about it later. If there is a later, she contemplated morosely. But she quickly shook off the notion. She did not want to start thinking she was finished--yet.
Karl had kept pace with her as she made for the main door to the factory. Before she could try it, he had stepped ahead to open it.
After he had put his weight to the handle, he informed her, “Blighter’s locked”. He bellowed loudly towards the men who had settled down near the mouth of the alley, “Jan get yourself over here and pick me this lock.”
One of the men jumped up and trotted towards them. Before the insurrection Jan had been a burglar and had a way with getting into sealed spaces. Now he was the platoon’s all-round handyman. His skills had been put to the test several times already since they had set out into Tamaeris. But he did need time to put his ability to work and that was something Lena felt they did not have.
“Can’t we simply break it down?” Lena challenged.
“Pretty solid,” Karl opined slamming his hand on the wood. A faint echo of his blow could be heard from inside the building.
In the meantime, Jan had joined them.
Lena demanded, “How long do you think it’ll take you to pick the lock?”
Jan quickly inspected the device before replying, “Difficult to tell, Lieutenant. Depends on how complex the mechanism is. If there’re no problems, five, ten minutes max.”
At that point renewed firing and yells from the pursuing imperial soldiers indicated that something was up.
Karl ran towards the sound, shouting at his men. At his command, they bestirred themselves and took up firing positions at the mouth of the alley.
Then a shout from Mila caught Lena’s attention. The girl was gesturing frantically and pointing down the intersection.
Lena now realised they were facing a threat from both ends.
She sprinted to the two girls even as a murderous volley raked the end of the lane. She heard Julia scream as she fell.
Mila threw herself on the ground and returned fire.
Unslinging her rifle, Lena joined her and tried to detect the redcoats but they were well hidden and gun smoke made spotting difficult. Nevertheless, she fired a couple of shots in their general direction.
Then she heard it.
The chug-chug of a steam engine and the clank of machinery in action. She gasped involuntarily as she realised it could only mean one thing: an imperial landship. How and why one of these infernal devices was at hand she had no idea. But it changed everything. When they had been used by the Laperian army, the rebels had had great difficulty in dealing with these war machines. Steel plated and invulnerable to most weapons, they carried a squad who were able to shoot from inside with impunity. To make matters worse, before they set off they had not even contemplated the possibility of encountering one, so Lena had nothing to hand to deal with the threat. She thought they might be able to hold it off briefly but eventually they would be overrun and that would be the end. Through her mind briefly flashed an image of a Laperian torture chamber. Her coming fate, Lena realised. She shivered at the thought.
The fusillade intensified and then she saw it.
At an intersection about two hundred yards down the street, the landship was slowly turning to face towards their position. Lena noted it seemed to have some difficulty in manoeuvring in the narrow spaces, but she guessed it would be onto them within minutes. She had to act now to save her men.
She shouted at Mila, “See to Julia. We have got to get out of here before that thing gets here.”
Then Lena rose to her feet and ran as fast as she could back towards Jan, yelling at him as she did so, “By the power of the Ancients, get that door open now.”
To be continued
Lena – lieutenant in the rebellion militia.
Karl – her platoon sergeant
Mila – Julia two female militia and part of Lena’s platoon
Smartten – new recruit to Lena’s platoon
Jan – ex thief, lock picker and general fiddler; the platoon’s engineer