Some time after midnight, August 23rd, 1873
Near Malmö, Sweden
The killer crouched among the bodies in the shell hole, waiting for the hour before dawn. That was his time, when the life-rhythm of his prey reached its lowest ebb, when even the most disciplined sentry felt his eyelids droop. A jump, a swift slash with a knife, and at dawn there would be one less watchman to sound the alarm when the Yngling infiltrators rose like ghosts from their hiding places just outside the quick-scratched trenches. At noon they would be a kilometer closer to Malmö, but the killer was not thinking of that. This was his best time, when he could let all thought go and merely drift, one with the night. Even the familiar distant crackle of a machine gun – some sentry shooting up shadows, no doubt – did not disturb the flow of his no-thought.
He had drifted thus for perhaps two hours, dreamily watching the half-moon slide across the sky behind ragged clouds, when a low moaning broke him out of his reverie. Annoyed, he looked around; what the devil could be making that noise out here in no-man’s land, in the middle of the night? He should have been able to sit in peace for another two hours, at least.
His search was not long; one of the bodies in his shell-hole was moving, awakened perhaps from a fever dream of wounding. He had seen the hole made, earlier in the day, he remembered now; the Burgundians had chosen this spot to make a stand, where the little hillock overlooked the meadow, and some master gunner on their side had fired with malignant accuracy just as several of the Valkyries, following the lay of the land, had formed a clump. Another man might have been amazed that anyone should have survived, but the killer had seen too many of the accidents that ballistics and bodies could combine to make.
Having found the source of the noise, he was able to ignore it, and for another long while he drifted in his no-thought, soothed by the wind and the myriad little sounds of a forest. In the night there was no need to feel the fear or frustration or anger that made up most of his life now, and he rejoiced in the lack of emotion. Only slowly did he become aware that the moaning had formed into words, heavy with pain : “Eirik? Is that you? Help me, please…” He snarled with the jangling annoyance of being spoken to and yanked back into the world, but nonetheless focused his attention on the speaker. The moon gave just enough light for his night-adjusted eyes to make out facial features; it was Synje, one of the Valkyries who had joined his unit after the attack on Göteborg. From the way she was sitting, hunched over in misery, a shell fragment had struck her somewhere in the abdomen.
She is dying. He knew, abstractly, that there had been a time when he would have cared deeply about that; but the boy named Eirik who would have shed tears over the death of a pretty girl, was long dead, killed in the second winter on the Washington front. Now there was only the killer, for whom the thought was a mere statement of fact : The moon is out. Synje is dying.
Still, the ghost of the boy sometimes danced in the head of the killer; and he treasured those moments, even more than his nightly hours of no-thought, for these were the only times when he felt something other than irritation or fear. Now a vague sympathy squelched the killer’s momentary impulse to rape – why not, after all? She would be dead in a matter of hours, days at most – and he cast about for some help he could give. He did not think long. A stomach wound was deadly in the best of circumstances; this rapid, pell-mell advance had left the army doctors behind, and anyway she had been out in the cold and the dirt for hours – if the wound was not infected already, it was a miracle. The solution was in any case never far from the killer’s mind. He pulled out his big Finn-knife, the Hird’s tool of choice for silent killing, and showed it to the girl. A remnant of the boy Eirik made him reach out to touch her grubby cheek; the killer felt nothing, but knew abstractly that the comfort of a human touch was a final favour to grant.
Synje’s eyes widened in despair and fear, but at nineteen she too was a veteran, and knew what could and could not be done. She nodded, once, whispering “Make it” – but before she could utter ‘quick’, the killer had struck, with speed that any cobra might envy. An observer would have seen the knife flicker; one moment it was in his hand, the next through her eye and into the brain with a soft slup sound. The body did not even spasm, but simply relaxed with a sigh of air out of still-warm lungs.
The killer sat back among the bodies, seeking his flow of no-thought again; the cooling meat across the shell hole was no longer a distraction, and – since she was also not a threat, or a terrain feature – therefore did not exist in the killer’s mind. It was of no more or less consequence than the trees or the grass. In a few hours dawn would come. It would be a good day to kill.