The Sons of Raghnall: Hunting von Hentzau, part I

August 30th, 1941
Occupied Bavaria, southeast of the Neckar
Evening

“The deserter is here, as you ordered, sir.”

“Good; send him – no; bring him in.” Ragnvald set aside the ammunition report; extending the German railroad net to the point where they could subdue Stuttgart by hitting each square inch within it with a separate high-explosive shell would take two years, and in that time the defenders would no doubt have dug tunnels through the bedrock that would enable them to survive the bombardment and fight on. No, wait, he was underestimating Hentzau again. He felt again the sense of helpless rage, of being a mere mortal faced with superhuman genius and trying to subdue it by mere weight of numbers. How could you fight a man who had foreseen the course of the war in such detail that he had ordered the Neckar diverted to where it would cause his enemies the maximum amount of trouble? Of course the tunnels were there already, dug in the twenties, just waiting for the Norwegian army to try burying the last redoubt in metal instead of bodies.

That didn’t mean the artillery tactic wasn’t worth trying; but it did mean he need not make a decision tonight, since it would in any case take two years to come to fruition. A deserter was something else again. There had been prisoners, true enough, in the six months of bloody attritional struggle across the North German plain – a trickle of men knocked out by shells, or with important body parts missing, or out of ammunition and obeying the standing order to burden the Norwegian commissariat with their bellies rather than die uselessly taking one down with a bayonet. Without exception – creepily and impossibly, without exception – they had kept their mouths shut, except to demand more food. Even (so Ragnvald was unofficially given to understand) under the over-zealous and unapproved persuasion of certain underofficers recruited from the lower classes, for which (he would officially maintain in the face of all inquiries) those underofficers had been promptly and lawfully disciplined. That was more than the work of mere genius, however towering. Humans, no matter how inspired, did not behave that way – not uniformly, across ten thousand reluctant prisoners. And armies of a million men, defeated and falling back through the length of their homeland, did not give up a mere ten thousand prisoners either; they collapsed, spewing men who did not want to be the last to die for a lost cause. Yet, until now, there had not been a single deserter, not one man who would rather be a live coward than a dead lion; and that was impossible. An evil genius, with a fanatically dedicated inner circle to coerce the obedience of a professional officer corps who in turn would enforce discipline on a mass of deluded teenagers – such a man might be able to make his people fight as formed units to the very end, to make a last stand in the rubble of a final city and force his enemies to dig him out of a charred and blasted bunker. But that was the limit of human genius, and evil. To make such an army fight in lockstep across five hundred miles, losing only the dead and those too badly wounded to march as prisoners – to enforce a no-surrender order even on men cut off from their units, away from the watchful gaze of their officers, out alone in the night – that was something else again; something inhuman. Something… Hentzau. Ragnvald’s skin crept with gooseflesh, contemplating it. But it had to be faced; whatever was going on over there on the still-German side of the Nacker, ignoring it as too weird to think about was no longer an option. Not when men were daily dying by the hundreds. If he could understand it, perhaps he could end it. Ragnvald was very interested in meeting the only man to desert from Hentzau’s army.

He wasn’t so interested, however, as to take no precautions; Strasbourg had twelve-year old boys – girls too, for that matter – manning sniper rifles as long as they were tall. Assassination was hardly beyond them. The loss of a high-ranking general would hardly matter at this stage – Ragnvald knew himself skilled, but also knew that he owed his command to being MacRaghnall; there were a dozen others just as skilled itching to take over. But Hentzau, if he believed his own ridiculous story, might not think like that; he might try to kill his enemy’s firstborn son and heir as a victory in itself, like the medieval magnate he claimed to be. So the deserter was brought in between two burly soldiers, and Ragnvald was wearing his officer’s sidearm; he stood – not sat; a man could be killed in the seconds it took to rise from a chair – with his right hand hovering near the unbuttoned holster.

Thin, was his first impression; a pinched face, a starved body that nearly vanished between the six-foot guards. Blonde hair falling in ringlets to narrow shoulders – and hoy, wait, ringlets? And then his eyes got the message through his expectations and he saw: Of course, a woman. The unflattering prisoner’s uniform wasn’t baggy because she was thin, but because it was two sizes too large for her willowy slimness; the face wasn’t thin from starvation, but delicately feminine.

“Name?” he asked, falling back on his script to cover his momentary confusion. Like most Norwegian officers, he spoke German; Norwegian armies had been fighting in these lands since before there was a North Sea Empire.

“Grete,” she said, keeping her eyes modestly downcast. They went through the usual question-and-response of starting an interrogation with a willing subject; age, place of birth, occupation – and her mouth twisted:

“I was Hentzau’s bedwarmer,” she said.

Ragnvald blinked in surprise and apprehension; not just the first deserter, but a member of the inner circle? He mentally adjusted upwards the probability that she was an assassin. Surreptitiously, he grasped his pistol’s hilt, then went for the main question.

“Why did you cross the lines?”

“He left me behind when he went to Stuttgart.” She shrugged, not seeming too bothered by the admission. “Where else could I go? The army would use me up; and there’s nothing else on the German side now – only the army, and Hentzau’s household.”

That was reasonable, and Ragnvald’s suspicion deepened further. Why, of all the men and women wearing German field-grey, should exactly this one behave in a reasonable way?

“Indeed. And why do not the ones who are in the army follow the same reasoning?”

For the first time, she looked up to meet his gaze. Her eyes were very blue, and huge in her delicate face – well, no doubt Hentzau could command the best; as could MacRaghnall, come to that. He shook the thought aside as irrelevant.

“Magic,” she said softly.

Ragnvald rolled his eyes in irritation. “Yes, yes, obviously magic! That goes without saying, because it is useless! I don’t need a name for what he does, I had that already; I need details, woman! Does he sacrifice virgins at midnight? Drink the blood of unicorns captured in the Alps? Dance with a drum of human skin and thump out dread rhythms with thighbones carved with secret runes? How can I stop his magic, that’s what I need to know!”

Now it was Grete’s turn to blink. “I thought you wouldn’t believe me,” she said.

“Quite so. I am a rational man, with a modern education; so I should ignore the evidence of my eyes? I have heard of companies fighting to the last man; it is just barely possible for a battalion – the stuff of legends and myth-making. Regiments, never; and as for a nation? No. Not without something I don’t understand; and for that which I don’t understand, why, ‘magic’ is a splendid label. It reminds me that I don’t yet have a grasp on my enemy’s weapon. When I do, I will label it something else. So tell me; how does his magic work? What does he do to make men – and boys and women! – fight to the last bullet?”

“I – I don’t know.” Now Grete seemed nervous, agitated. “It’s – I’ve seen him speak, and say the most outrageous things, and his officers nodded and went to carry out his orders. And” – her face flushed slightly – “it was the same with me. He just – he didn’t so much as smile at me; he just nodded, and said, she’ll do, and ordered me to wait for him in his bed. As though I were some peasant girl, and he a lord with high, low, and middle justice and the droit de seigneur to go with it… I don’t know why I didn’t slap him. But I didn’t, I went, um, where I was told.”

Ragnvald thought about it, frowning; that wasn’t good, if Hentzau’s magic rested in his own voice. It would be hard to interfere with that. If it had been unicorns he could have ordered the farms bombed… but hang on:

“Well, but he can hardly have spoken personally to each of a million men, can he? How does it work on the boys he has never met, who have never seen him or heard him speak?”

“It’s hard to describe.” Grete bit her lip, prettily, trying to find the words. “There’s a, a weight to his words; and when someone else repeats them, the same words he used – it’s always the same words – some of that weight carries over; and men obey.”

“Ahh,” Ragnvald said, nodding in satisfaction. That explained how he had been able to shift the German army at all. It should have been impossible to move an army of men who wouldn’t run no matter what happened; but Hentzau couldn’t very well have ordered them all to stand exactly where they were – they had to be able to maneuver tactically. So they had held to the last man only, and exactly, where Hentzau had been able to order it; elsewhere they retreated when outflanked, as human armies had since time immemorial. And there were only so many hours in the day, for his magic voice to say “hold such-and-such a place at all hazard”. Did he grow hoarse? Did he need to sleep? There were limits to such a magic; already Ragnvald could see how to use what he’d learned. And that, too, was why the resistance had stiffened so terribly as they neared the last redoubt, when hope and ammunition should alike have been growing short on the German side; for as the perimeter crumbled, Hentzau’s magic could cover a larger portion of it, and ensure that every hillock had to be turned into a lake before it was taken.

“His voice…” Ragnvald mused. “Voices can be silenced, or interdicted. If we stop his immediate circle from conveying his orders, then his army will still obey the standing order not to surrender, but they will at least retreat when we blast them sufficiently; and there’s only so much free German land left, now… Yes.” His gaze sharpened in decision. “Where is he now? Where did he go?”

Grete crossed her arms. “Why should I tell you that?”

“Well…” Ragnvald blinked, nonplussed. She’d seemed so cooperative, until now. “Did you love him?”

“No; I hated him. But it wasn’t Hentzau who invaded my country. Why should I help you, any more than him? What’s in it for me?”

“Well; if that’s not a rhetorical question, why, I suppose there could be quite a bit in it for you. A house? Money? A farm, shares in Kongsberg Våpenfabrikk, a Norwegian passport, free passage to England?”

“Ye-es.” Grete considered. “Very well. A farm, thirty acres, somewhere in Germany – near Berlin, for preference; I have family there. And money; ten thousand riksdaler, cash. And shares, by all means. Say, a hundred thousand riksdaler‘s worth – not all in one company, either. You can keep the passport.”

“Agreed,” Ragnvald said instantly. It was a huge sum for an individual, but nothing on the scale of the Norwegian army; a trivial price for the number of lives it might save – Norwegian and German both – if the Stuttgart garrison could be made to surrender, like sensible men.

“He’s going to Böblingen; the airport,” she said. “He’s got long-range aircraft there, hidden underground; and fuel, food, gold. He means to make his escape, to Italy first, then to Africa, to fight on.”

Ragnvald’s blood froze. The German army was one thing; it had always been good, but small. Africa was ablaze with war; what could the Malayan army do, or the Indian – the two Great Powers of Asia – if they had Hentzau’s magic voice?

“Thank you,” he said, managing to keep his voice calm. He still had a chance; Böblingen was not far inside the German lines – Hentzau had left his escape to the last possible moment. “Put her in guest-officer quarters,” he said to the men guarding her; “with freedom of the camp, but not beyond. I’ll arrange the other matters later,” this to Grete herself; she nodded, evidently aware that she had his word and it was either good or not; at any rate she did not demand any further guarantee. “For now, I have a magician to catch.” He gestured, and Grete turned to leave, her escorts following.

“Wait!”

She turned back, raising an inquiring eyebrow.

“Why did he let you go?”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I think – I think maybe he was tired of a woman who obeyed his every word? The last thing he said to me was, go wait for me in the car. An order, yes? But it didn’t have that weight. It was said like, like advice; as any man might speak to any woman. Perhaps he just wanted to see what I would do?”

“And you left.”

“Yes. I left.”

Ragnvald nodded, slowly. It was plausible; after all Hentzau was a man, for all his powers, not some alien godling. Any man, magician or otherwise, going into exile after a losing war might want a woman who would follow him of her free will, not from compulsion. So he would let her go, without orders, and see what she did; and if she didn’t follow – well, no doubt there would be other women, and less weight on the aircraft.

“Very well. We will speak later of your farm and other arrangements.” He turned to his desk again, no longer worried about assassination. He would need a crack team to get through the lines; and he knew who to send, if the man was recovered from his wounds…

Behind him, the door closed softly on Hentzau’s woman, and on the insurance policy she wasn’t yet aware she carried in her belly.

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