"The mission is simple. Get the folder then leave. Keep it secret amongst yourselves. If the Jerries find out we're headed to steal their treasure, they'll send the army at us. The contents in this folder are of the utmost importance, important enough for our country to send all of you along in this hunt." With these words, a British commander in black dress looked at me from across a table. The light bulb above our crowding numbers swung at each roll from the boat and as it threw a cast in its passage about the cabin, a bead of sweat formed upon the speaker's forehead, as if he feared the bent of his words.
A line of commandos in black sweaters stood at my right, and my eyes, drawn by motions from the light, went to items on the table with its array of machine pistols, side arms, a Thompson with a drum magazine, last month's date etched upon its barrel as some odd memento, 12-1942.
"Sir, I have a question." I said, scratching stubble. "You talk all about this mission," I said, slamming a hand against the table, "Will there be something in it for me?"
"Edwards," the commander said, "Don't you see the importance of this gathering? We are here to discuss an event of dire implications."
Curse them, I knew the real purpose to their mission, but would they listen? No, the officer stood in charge, not I, Samuel Edwards, the best shrimp boat hand of the North Atlantic. Why would they listen to a mere fisherman? What they said did not factor into my own livelihood, shattered by the roar of Hitler's cannons right outside my homeport of Narvik, now under the control of Nazis who would give anything to throw an expatriate American into the depths with a millstone strung around his neck. They deserved saboteurs and a load of bombs thrown into their lair as an excuse to move back to Germany. They had stolen my job and left me to assist in ferrying commandos to and from Norway. There was no money in such a venture, only a promise of my job being there after they had cleaned the mess from a champagne bottle shaken to explosion.
"I just want to know, sir. When this is all done. Where will I stand?"
"Stand, Edwards? What do you mean?" the officer said in his high voice. How I hated its sway over the men who laughed at my drunkenness.
"Yes," I slurred, almost ready to fall. "What money will I get out of this? Will you leave me to the sharks, like you did to the rest of your filth? I'm not to be tramped about."
The officer hesitated and a light passed by his countenance, furrows breaking out upon his brow. I knew from this reaction that what he would say next could not be taken as truth.
"Sure, there will be big rewards for you and your helpers if your skipper gets our men ashore safely. Does four hundred thousand of your American dollars ring as a good price for you? And that is only if the mission is successful."
I just about fell back. I could not believe a man could offer so much, for if he spoke the truth, the officer, and even the top brass, must have lost their sanity to give away a treasury for a mission far from the heart of Germany. "You're mad!""No, I'm serious. You, my friend, will never have to work a day in your life if you help us succeed in this mission.""You liar. I hate lies." Arms locked around me preventing my fall to the floor. "He can't even keep to his legs," laughed the man who held me. "I hate lying cheats," I stammered. "Keep to your tea time, and I'll keep to the liquor!""Please leave us, Edwards. I understand you are under the bottle, as we say, but this is a very serious matter." "Liars!" I shouted back, breaking away from the hold on me and staggered to a corner of the cabin. I stumbled up a ladder and, in a rush of energy, punched open a hatch and pulled myself up onto the deck.
Under moonlight, fierce waves struck the deck with spray. I hung onto the bulwarks, hoping to brave the seas and, as the bow dug into a swell and came up with breakwater, vomit rose in my mouth, but only a dribble came out.
A wave formed into a colossus, rolling very near the boat, almost toppling it, but the vessel rose upon its mass and came out safe. My mind surfaced from an alcoholic haze and the crashing surf became a reality rather than a delusion arisen from a drunken state. In this relief, I thought back to Colorado and all the times I had left a pub without a nickel in my pockets. The bartender, rather than the watery abyss, called against me and my drunkenness. Our verbal exchanges ended with a boot at me out the door and a threat of his brother at his altar to chastise me for sinning against his holy reign over a flock of apostles. He had his tally of slaves bound by invisible rope to pews of worship, until made drunk enough to spill out their earnings.
The money I earned from the bartender in those days, if any, so pitiful the return seemed even while staring out to sea penniless, came from ski trips in the Rockies, weaving past the Feds, pulling sleighs laden with White Lightning, homemade whiskey. The slim pay offs made my stomach roar with hunger, but I still managed to strap on skis and race back into the woods to collect a staple from an old man who sucked lightning out of steel tits, opening his palm to me with crumbs of topsoil coating a hoard he stashed in his cabin shop. I left him knowing the next day, all the work exerted falling down cliffs, or evading police, only supported his game. After too much foul play, I went overseas in search if not my riches, a place of belonging amongst a crew on a trawler flung out into the North Atlantic.
A smack against my back broke through my ruminations and made me leap and turn about to find its cause. A shadow met my eyes, tall and muscular, but not threatening, and as they widened to perceive it, they recognized its wheat-tinted beard and weather-beaten complexion.
"Erik!" I shouted in a drunken slur.
"Bajas!" he snapped back, a Norwegian colloquial for clown.
"Whatcha doing out here?" I asked.
He held a red toy spaniel under his armpit."I hear mission is big," he said.
"Yeah, it seems it will be. But there's good money." I said.
"How much?""You won't believe it if I told you."
Pondering on our pay made me uneasy. Four hundred thousand for a mission was a crazy reward and I knew Erik would be as dumbfounded to hear its sum. He came back with a retort.
"British are cheap," he said. "It will be a slap in back like last time. You serve Great Britain well and they leave us dogs. You know what I think, bajas. If they pay like last job, we leave the skipper and herd goats. What you say, eh?"
"You stink of whiskey, my friend." I squeezed my nose in response to the stench arising from his white coat, but what did Erik care? He was a sea bum and our skipper, Henri Standferd, an old seafarer, content with his rituals, kept him onboard as a friend and drink mate. "Well, there's big money, they said four hundred thousand." I felt better on deck and the diminishing effects from the whiskey allowed more control of my speech.
"Four hundred thousand! You drunk, bajas," he let out a burp. I stared out to sea. The skipper's trawler with its antique decks and diesels resembled a tugboat ready to be sunk. I only hoped it could navigate the beachhead without being lit up by patrolling German E-boats. Those racing devils seemed to always be at wait behind shoals, then bam, a searchlight shot down upon a vessel followed by horrendous machine gun fire. It had happened to many of my friends' boats, good fellows too, and they all went a horrible way.
The dog sniffed at my sleeve.
"Whatever ya do don't let it lick me," I said.
Erik touched Muffy's nose, tempting it to snap. I stepped back, hoping to avoid her aggressions. She let out a yelp but did not bite. "Let the poor thing down," I said. "You scare it. Don't you know how to carry a dog?"
The trawler lurched to port, caught on a wave, and I grasped the bulwark railing to catch my fall. Muffy wriggled about in Erik's hands, and he bent over, but instead of letting go, he fitted her head with a bonnet. The dog looked silly, her ears hidden behind straps. He let her down and she ran about the deck.
"Look a beauty, she does looks. She a queen, she is. Made it from me own linen, the white bonnet."
I gave her a passing glance.
"You know what Erik? I have a funny feeling about this one," I said, nodding to the chaos at brew around our boat. "Just look at the sea. When we're this far out and near the fjords, it's not good to be in a mess. The sun could peep out and we got Krauts popping at us in their planes. The Sea Horse can't take it."
The words evoked a fear hidden within my recesses, kept silent by the booze, but in such a situation, it felt a need to break out.
"Well, you know what I say bajas?" Erik said, in a soft-spoken voice.
"What's that?" He gave a mischievous grin, as if to mock me.
"There is always rum."
"Yes, and what does that do?"
"It is a happy drink," Erik laughed under his breath and he danced around deck. "It makes the sun shine and the moon bright and up next morning you feel a fright."
"You know what Erik? Let's have another drink."
"But I threw away last liquor in whole boat," Erik said.
"You didn't touch the moonshine," I answered, remembering the stash in my cabin, a drink kept as a surprise for occasions like the presence of ladies onboard or a handsome catch, but tonight only the war hung around us in the form of a noose, and it was hard to celebrate such a tragedy, but with aid of drink, could all the easier be forgotten. I took my hands off the railing and flashed him a grin. "Erik! Let's go have a look at it down in my cabin."
Erik ran for the prow and threw away a floor hatch. I nodded for him to go down before me, but he stood in a drunken stance, his arm hanging in front and leg out to steady his weight upon deck.
"Go down, you fool!" I ordered.
"Get down." He fell backward into the hole.
A clatter rang from each hit rung.
"Oh no!" I ran to the hatchway and looked down to find Erik stumbling up from his fall.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"Bah, it is nothing."
"Nothing? You just about hit every rung in the ladder with that fall."
"I hit lucky steps."
"Yeah," I said, descending into the cabin and under light from a bulb strung between its walls, stroked my hair, feeling content we would make it to Norway. The sheets and pillow on my mattress were sweat-stained and odorous and in hopes of blotting out the smell, I threw away the pillow, but it still stunk.
"Shh," Erik, said, pressing a finger to his lips. "Do not be loud, so skipper Henri not hear."
We had hidden recesses all about the boat, rusted out cabinets with padlocks to ward off outsiders from stealing our liquor.
"I'll try to keep it down," I whispered, remembering the secret, which if given too much acclaim might draw commandos down from watch. "But the skipper's at the wheel."
"So, this brew you make?" Erik pressed as he stood next to me.
"It's over in the sea chest. I'll be gettin it. Jus' hold your horses."
A desk for charts took most of the space, so Erik and I stood against each other, realizing we had got into a squeeze. Erik broke away by jumping onto the mattress and I knelt next to it, felt a handle hit against my fingers, and in elation, pulled the chest out. I flipped open latches, threw open the lid, then with a sift inside, brought out a bottle. Erik snatched it from me and spat out the cork.
"Don't trick me," he warned. "This no grease for engine?"
"Now, why would I do such things as that?"
He sipped the bottle, coughing after a swallow.
"Ack!" Erik cried, his face twisting into a grimace. "Bajas! You make good liquor. Strong drink."
I sat next to him on the bunk, pawing at dew upon my hair, which felt miserable in these quarters, where the warmth pinpointed every damp place to produce small little pains. It took more than a brush to make it dry.
I remembered a box of dominoes underneath my bunk, went to my knees next to the mattress and dug them out.
"Want a game?" I asked.
Erik laughed. "But you always win, bajas!"
"You're a poor sport, come on I'll give you a chance!" I threw open the box, dominoes exploding upon the mattress in their shiny lengths. "I'll go first." I said, got my stack, and put down the first piece.
"You cheat!" Erik said, his mouth stale with liquor. "I do not trust you."
"Trust? Don't you remember who got you out of Bergen, huh? Remember the guards?" The memory arose amongst the mess of white dots on dominoes, screaming for me never to forget.
"You, bajas," Erik said, connecting his piece to my domino, and then grinned at me. "Yet Clara, eh. She was not so lucky."
"Don't you talk about her, you know we were helpless," but knew I could have done more to save her. It was midday, the worst time to make an escape from an espionage mission. Dogs sniffed us out of a sailboat in dry dock. The first bark sent me in a sprint out of a pilothouse and into the water. Erik followed and we swam to an oar boat, making a quick getaway, but without Clara.
She ran down the pier as we swam away, her brown hair crashing into ballpoint shoulders and police dogs halted her attempt to reach us.
"She was a good girl, though," I said. "She had experience."
"I know," Erik giggled. "A shrimp would grow into giant squid with your loving betimes with her. What did you do in cabin, bajas? Did you kiss her, sleep with her?"
"You spy!" I shouted. "You've had your share of fun too, but Clara wasn't a cheap whore. She was a romantic dame." My mind flashed to the memory of dogs attacking her. "I'll never forgive the Krauts. That was jus' wrong what they did! They'll get what's comin' to them, jus' you see."
"Do you hear it?" Erik said, breaking my contemplation.
"What?" I said, believing he had heard nothing but the buzz from our diesels.
"The sound? Listen?"
I thought Erik had gone drunk, but the sound arose, first a plop, then a stomp. Feet shuffled on the roof above us.
"It's jus' our trusty commandos up there on watch," I said to Erik, trying to reassure him. "Let's hope they haven't been drinkin' much as we have."
A shout broke from aloft, followed by a holler and then a louder one. I could not make out the words at first, but when I went under the ladder well, it rang clear.
"E-boat! German E-boat off starboard bow!"
The exclamation hit me with dread. I turned to my friend. "Come on, Erik! We've got company!"
I went up the ladder, did not look my way to the top, and hit my head against a hatch.
"Ow! Damn roof. This ladder's terrible luck."
Those lucky steps, Bajas," Erik said below me. "Lucky steps."
"Don't say it," I growled. "You'll send me down off my grip and on top of you."
"I be smooshed."
The hatch did not budge.
"We are stuck?"
"The board's welded shut."
I hit the hatch with my fists, but it did not give, shuddering with a weight on top of it.
"Why wonder. Someone's standing on it," I muttered.
"Heh, heh," Erik smirked. "We have fools onboard…fools who stand in wrong place."
"Yeah. I just made em' fall. But he's on the wood." I knocked at the hatch. "Ahoy up there! Get off, you hooligan, whoever you are! We need to get out!"
The hatch swung away, thrown to the side by a commando who grabbed my arm to hoist me topside.
"Edwards," he said. "I'm sorry for standing there. I took a dreadful fall right here on deck. I feel it was my foul footing, but I'm so glad you're here. I've just sighted a German E-boat out in the waves. Just look for yourself there."
"Where is it?"
The officer gave me binoculars and I looked through them. Dank clouds came up close in the lenses, a swell curled over, and it felt like being in the water.
"Show me. I don't see anything but a soup."
"Over there at the starboard side." He pointed to our bow rising with breakwater.
"I see it!" Erik shouted.
I jerked the binoculars and about a hundreds yards out spotted a sleek hull slicing through a swell, crewmembers scurrying about its deck for a mounted machine gun and as the boat sped for us, there shown in the lenses its superstructure, a sloped tombstone of steel with lines as dark and sinister as those of a knight's helmet.
"Christ! We got a E-boat coming right at us."
"Here have a look." I gave Erik the binoculars.
"So we have trouble on the brew?" asked the commando. His face shone pale from seasickness.
"Yeah, get down below. I'll have to tell the skipper and hope we can lose the Krauts in the squalls," I said and spat on deck.
Are you sure?''
Yeah, the skip' will handle this, but we need you down below. The decks are going to get a little heavy with the sea, you know...and I mean heavy, if we give her all she's got.''
I wish your skipper luck, I'll be in my berth.'' His boot slipped on a rung in the gangway and with a scream, he fell headfirst into the well.
"That boat from Duetschland!" Erik cried, throwing me the binoculars. "It is a Schnellboot."
"She's readying her guns, isn't she?"
"Yes, it look it."
"Christ she's probably been chasing us."
"What we do?"
I neared the pilothouse, a white block of steel, and sent a hesitant look at the face of our skipper standing behind windows and at the pilot wheel. A sense of fear and wonderment radiated from his figure as he held firm the steerage and with side-glances looked over his left at the E-boat. He then stared at me and showed through shakings of his thin shoulders, a confusion upon our dilemma.
"Skipper!" I yelled at him.
"What's your bearings on the situation, Edwards!" he hollered back.
A flash sprang from the side of our boat. The vessel shook in a explosion. I fell on deck. Boards shot out of their ruts and smoke surrounded us, its darkness blinding me, and I coughed out its bitterness in my mouth.
"My God!" I shouted.
Erik fell beside me, his eyes shut, and coat sprinkled with woodchips.
"We've been hit," yet the machine gun from the E-boat never fired a shot. I jolted for the bulwarks and leaned over to examine the hull. No holes had been blasted into the waterline. I glanced back at the E-boat. The chances of having fallen prey to an underwater mine seemed scanty.
Our dangers struck with urgency. Smoke arose from below clouding the decks and as it lingered in front of me, obscuring the pilothouse, and even the crouched figure of Erik, I wondered if the E-boat had shot a torpedo at our trawler. Maybe it was a hunter, sent to end our voyage. Their code breakers probably intercepted messages sent to us and then relayed our coordinates to patrols.
Our boat listed to port. The engine sputtered to a halt and pools of salt-water arose from below, splashing against my feet.
A glance back at the pilothouse came with findings of a splattered red mess at the pilot wheel.
"Get the lifeboat cut off the lines!" I shouted. "We gotta get out."
"We will drown in such a storm," Erik protested, as a wash snaked by my heels, splashing against the bulwarks.
"Looks as if we don't have a choice, we're drowned if we stay."
"I will go," Erik said, sprinting behind the pilothouse to our ship's lifeboat.
"The E-boat's gonna fire," I shouted, seeing crewmembers readying its forward antiaircraft gun.
I ran to a box jutting from the pilothouse and smashed it with my fist. The corner broke in splinters and a door swung open. A long machete fell and I caught hold of its handle.
"Reel it down! The boat!" I yelled, putting down the machete.
"Yes, Bajas. But we'll drown, I know we will."
Erik threw off the lifeboat's canvas, then reeled out rope from its overhead appendage, the mechanism creaking as the dinghy dropped into the sea. He leaped down into it.
"Poor skipper," I said, gesturing to the pilothouse. "He was a good captain."
"He and the crew went down with the ship," Erik replied. "A good captain dies with his boat."
"I'm coming aboard."
The skipper's toy spaniel brushed against my leg, wagging its tail as it sniffed my ankles.
"Muffy!" Erik cried. "Bring the little Miss down! She comes with us."
I picked the dog up and dropped her over the side. Muffy shot out of Erik's grasp and hid under a seat. I tucked the machete in my belt, holding onto the rope, and braced myself against fierce winds.
I leaped into our lifeboat, putting a foot onto a seat, and as the stern rose on a swell to fall away, I dropped into Erik's lap, the Norwegian with laughing eyes staring at my head pillowed in his crotch.
"Look," he said. "I gave birth to ugliest smelliest man ever."
"I am not!"
"You smell of everything you drink." I got to my feet and sat on the center seat. On the side, a whitecap rolled by and brought out a loud groaning from the keel. A shot of seawater spat at Erik, drenching his clothes.
"Fordømme!" he shouted in ferocity, his teeth chattering as he stood up.
"Let's get away from here," I said and caught hold of the rope mooring us to the Sea Horse and gave a whack at it with my machete. The line snapped and we broke away.
The head of our lifeboat shot over a wave and we slid down a wall of water to land on but another hill of abysmal blackness.
"We must row away," Erik said. "Get your oar."
After another climb over a swell, we dug our oars in. The Sea Horse came near, a shadow in the night, the edge of a wave raising it high above the trough where our lifeboat lay. The trawler made a sickening roll to port, the glass panes of its pilot house vibrating against a shower of spray thrown by its swing into breakwater.
"Hurry, we must get away!" Erik shouted.
"I'm trying," I said, rowing from our ship. A wave spilled over the stern and broke against my back, striking so cold it felt like someone had thrown open a bag of broken glass and it soaked through two sweaters to wet my skin.
Waves rose to colossal heights threatening to spill over us and I doubted survival.
"Look!" Erik shouted. I gazed at the trawler at drift about a hundred yards out and noticed the figure of a man on deck, discerning his shadowy form as a German boarder from the E-boat. He waved at us.
"Damn!" I shouted. "Damn! Damn!"
"It will be bad if current sucks us near them. We could crash into boat and Germans will shoot."
"Row, that's all we can do," I said, shivering against the cold. "We can't get close or we're done for."
I felt weighty. Our boat began an ascent on another breaker, the prow shot vertical, pushing Erik against me, and he wrapped his arms around my waist, his body quivering against mine. The surging climb threatened to swamp us.
The moon came out of the clouds and shone the monstrous hill of water rise ahead, taking our boat on its incline. A lion-like roar sang out of this mountain and we rode the tail of it, feeling the sea push behind us for its foaming tops.
We slid down its spine, the wave moving ahead, a foaming giant intent on swallowing other outreaches, and behind us, another hill of seawater rose and hissed at its tops, our boat rising onto its crest. To my left I found the current had brought us near the Sea Horse. Motley crews of screaming Germans leaned over its side. A glint of steel shined from an object held by a newcomer to the crowd and he pointed it at us.
Erik flung himself into blankets wedged into the prow. I pressed flat against the bottom, the wood striking cold against my belly. A pout next to my ear made me glance to see where it had arisen. Two flickering dots stared out from a recess below the seat. Muffy had curled herself into a ball, a glazed shine in her eyes. I felt sorry for the rascal, but with not too much sorrow to attempt a thrust of my hand at her with intentions to pet. In such a condition she would lash back and bite through my fingers.
A roar of lead erupted and a bullet thumped against the side. Another round split the water and splashed droplets on us. We lay in a frightful position.
The floorboards nudged against my chest. The sea below shoved our boat skyward and I felt it being dragged by a current, whisking us away from the ship. Water spilled over the side and ran along the baseboards toward the stern, collecting itself into a pool behind me. My boots sank into this brew and it soaked through the leather to sting in my socks. The air struck frigid enough to blacken toes. I wondered if my feet would ever be the same.
"Bajas," Erik said, fear in his voice. In the moonlight, I could see his face through a cranny as he laid flat on the floor. "This good plan you make. Plan you make so good I want to hug you so hard I break your bones. We beat Krauts, but we never win to sea. You owe me barrel of øl if we live."
"What a bargain."
"And buy other boat so I have job."
"I hope you drown and turn into seaweed."
"And I hope to see your head at the end of a fishing hook."
The gunwale went vertical and shaken by the jolt, I flipped onto my back and fell to a stand on the rear rudder box. Muffy slid too, her paws grasping onto wooden grooves and I caught her by the neck. God, I thought, we are done for, we will sink to the depths.
Muffy moaned in my grasp. Gravity, rather than her weight, gave me most of the troubles, enticing me to let go and throw myself into the abyss. I fought hard against it, struggling to maintain a firm back pressed against a floorboard changed now into a wall by our tilt. When looking below, the sea upright, a sickness came over me, and I thought how awful to die of drowning after a fall into its iciness. Only a brief moment the sea required to choke one's breath with painful shivers.
Death churned below me, but hope strengthened my will to survive. A wooden rib protruded out of the side under the oar holds and my left hand went for it, the other clasping Muffy, the fingers wrapping around the inlet, hoping they would not slip out.
"You won't get me this time!" I shouted out in anger at the storm. The lifeboat shot over a crest and with a squeal slapped level on the sea and I crashed to the floor, my head hitting an oar.
I folded into a fetal position, stricken with pain and of the hurt from my feet, this new injury held an unrivaled fire.
"Bajas get up," I heard Erik shout. "Get water out of boat. I have pail now get up."
Dizziness came over me and everything spun in front of my eyes.
"Get up, or we drowned."
I wanted to escape the blackness, to return to my senses and help Erik, but unconsciousness came quick. Bands of red and blue shades fluttered across the darkness, turning into small balls, imprints of trapped light burning in the void of my stupor.
"Erik," I uttered. "You bastard, is this what you want? For me to die?"
I gave a breath then was lost to unconsciousness.
I awoke to confusion. The sky, once a raging storm, now shown with a pinkish candescence. The bow of our boat rose on a swell, disclosing upon the gunwale as it fell, a slump figure wrapped in blankets. Had Erik pulled us out of the mess? He would have been awake if he sat in the posture maintained by this clothed form.
"Erik," I whispered to it.
No answer. The crashing sea cut to a hush with the call of his name.
"Erik!" I shouted.
A rustle from the blanket confirmed a presence underneath the wrappings. I assumed Erik sat near his own demise, ears deafened by sickness, the last of his strength exerted now to push himself off into the glassy tumult.
"Don't do it Erik," I said. "It's a terrible way to die."
The top layer of cloth shifted and the head underneath turned to look over its shoulder. Instead of Erik's face, a bluish hue radiated from below a cover. It turned to glance at me, with eyes below dark brows, darting out like white islands in an indigo abyss.
"Who are you?" I asked.
Silence came as a response.
A flash blinded me and I awoke again, not to find a blue fellow at stare from the prow, but Erik, his face a ruin of exhaustion, tottering between snores on a bench.
"Erik," I shouted to it.
The boat dunked into a swell.
"Erik," I shouted at this bearded man again and his eyes flitted open to shut at the absence of any preceding sound.
I went to him and shoved his arm. He leaped up, throwing his blanket to the side.
"So you awake my sleepy giant," he said. "If it were not only sooner. Bajas, we about lost boat to storm. Look, it is calm, but last night, it was screaming banshee, up to the death in waters around me ankles!" He threw down his hands to empathize his anger. "And you, you were asleep all time. I gave you a blanket you see." He pointed to the sheet I had discarded in my sleep. "As death had arms about me, I gave you blanket for you to sleep and watch as I saved you from drowning." Erik pointed at the horizon, where the morning sun shined in radiance. "Ah, how better it look than in night. But look you see."
A seagull flew by, made a crooked turn with its wings, and caught in a gust hovered over us.
"We have gulls! We are near land, not hundred miles now, and we will see them."
I felt disoriented, my mind throwing up a jumble of reflections which did not make any sense, like the recollection of the nightmare and tried to come to some understanding. Why was the man blue? Why had he haunted the prow instead of Erik? It all seemed odd, but my nightmares tended to be mysterious and senseless.
"God I had a terrible nightmare, how long was I out?" I asked Erik.
"All night, Bajas. Bad dreams, heh, I had bad dreams, but I had both eyes open." Erik stood upon a seat, sprang open his arms, made flapping movements with them as if to mimic waves, and uttered splashing noises. With one hand curled and the other flat, he swallowed it with the other, smacking his hands together to end the catastrophic show. "Gone! But lucky you, I mighty seaman."
"Well, if one of your oars had not knocked me out," I said, angered at Erik's apparent blame for my dip into unconsciousness. "I could have been glad to give a lending hand in this mess." I stared past him spotting cliffs almost indistinct amongst purplish clouds. They spread too dark for confusion with morning haze. "I think we won't have to stay out here too long. Those gulls have lead us to the right place, I see land."
"Bah, if it land," Erik said not surprised. "You do the oaring."
I thought it in good favor to concede to this request and took up an oar.
We bypassed a rock island, nearing the fjords, a mountainous barrier shooting steep into chalky tops, their sides insurmountable against the sea, but as wayfarers, Erik and I had found trails scaling their heights.
"What you make of it?" I asked, shoving my oar into the water. "You think we'll make it before the Krauts shoot?"
Erik gazed at the ridgeline.
"I think we good. No patrol as I can see. We good."
The boat rocked with the current. Erik and I rowed with vigilance for land. The tide flowed in our favor. Massive waves rushed ahead to swallow the shore and ones behind us took our boat over dangerous shoals.
"Watch out below!" I cried.
Deadly rock heads floated by on jetties.
"The other side, look!" I cried.
At our right, where Erik paddled, a rock jutted out from the sea, its tops sharp. A wave fell over it, the watery back ribbed with foam. Our boat rose high in the water and I took up the oar until the sea fell flat. When a wave split on the rocks, the boulder came up again, wash dripping down its tops.
Erik brushed by to turn our rudder. Our bow swung to port and a swell rushed in from behind, climbing as it came nearer.
"Row!" Erik cried.
The wave shot to considerable heights, its white crest foaming, and a roar rang out from its depths.
"Yeah!" I shouted, worried the wave would spill over and swamp our boat, and I dug my oar quick into the sea.
The current sucked our boat into the swell and with strong strokes with an oar, we beat its crest, tottered atop it and when the wave broke, rode the surf to shore. White water shoved our boat into a canal between boulders and I lifted my oar as we flew into it, thankful we had not run afoul.
When the wave spit us out of a canyon, our boat shot into shallower depths, making landfall on a pebbly shore.
Erik grabbed my arm.
"We here, bajas. We have won over sea." His words rang with candor yet I thought of the Germans who could have picked us off from the fjords. A shiver ran through my body.
Erik leaped into the water and waded for land.
I stood in the boat, trying to recollect my senses, and pondered upon the difficulties we would face in our climb up the fjords. We had no rope for scaling and their shearing walls, gray and formidable, showed no hint of passage without necessary tools. I only hoped Erik would find a trail, a nice foot path for us to follow up, where our worries would only get worse, with chance run-ins with Germans.
Muffy let out a bark and I stopped it with a hand over her snout.
"Here let me take her," Erik said.
I gave Muffy to him and he lifted her over the side, dropping her on shore. Her fuzzy flanks ran on the rock until they came to where Erik stood in contemplation. I dug about the boat, found two pairs of skis, and threw them over.
"Found skis!" I shouted in elation and knew Erik would be joyous. "Where you going?" I asked, watching him prowl about the rocks. His ramblings brought him behind boulders, then with a leap upon them, as if to show off his skills in mountaineering, he jumped off one and vanished behind it, to appear again further down, where a smile broke from his countenance. I wondered what gave him elation.
"Found it! Knew it would be here. We have way up," he slapped his hands against his trousers and rushed back to the boat, Muffy trailing his feet.
In my passage, the sea lapped against my boots. I got to a boulder, patted down my leggings, and after vain swipes to vanquish the wetness, gave it up to pursue other duties, like handing my friend his skis, while tucking my pair underneath an armpit. I dashed for the start of the trail.
I made headway on a path zigzagging up the fjord, its sudden turn offs causing me to fear Muffy would leap the cliff, but she maintained course.
When we got nearer the top, both of us panting, I bit at the top buttonhole on my jacket while staring below at the tide as it burst into the fjords in systematic waves of rising and falling water.
"You think we'll get up there before the Krauts see us?" I asked Erik, although it was a dumb question, for he had the same visual advantage as myself, but I always relied on his second sense to detect danger. He looked at me with his weather-beaten face.
"It is too early for the likes of them, Bajas," he said. "But if we find a soldier, they wear gray coats you know. So you get your hand, you see." He shut his hand into a fist. "Then hit him between the eyes."
The wind chilled my breath and my words came out in smoky clouds. "That's if they don't have guns."
My legs ached as we made the summit. The snow lay deep at the top. I took out my skis, put them on, and after Erik repeated my actions, we traveled on through the wintry landscape, slowing at times to keep pace with Muffy, but her paws faltered in the powder, so I put her into my jacket and went onward into the unknown.
From the heights of the fjord we skied into a town, the high-gabled fronts of its houses hinting of a backcountry mysticism with their fantastic colors, offset further down by a dull-looking brick barracks with its Nazi flag flying outside a staircase, rippling in a plea for freedom from an anchor held in tow.
Erik cut to a stop, turned to me, and with a finger to his lips, made known the necessity for silence. In answer to his warning I did not cut into the snow, but let my skis carry me.
We went by the first danger, the barracks, then glided by following houses. Fearful of Nazi traps, I put more speed in my advance past fronts of red, green, and other flamboyant hues. From each window, black and dead, it seemed thousands of eyes spied on me. I tried to ignore possible dangers, bending down at times, as if such movements would break my nervousness, but it only made it worse.
As we cut by another structure, its porch stairs biting into snow ahead, I feared a soldier would march down to murder us. Erik seemed to notice this uncertainty and passed by, his poles throwing loose powder, as if to assure me of imaginary dangers.
Noises erupted ahead. We skied for these sounds, passing a boulder, and came into another section of colorful abodes, peopled by residents hidden in coats.
"Halloa there!" A passerby hollered from a demeanor ridden with stubble. I welcomed this new encounter over confrontations with a deadly and clean cut German soldier.
"Where is this abouts?" I asked in Norwegian.
"This hole," the man said. "This hole very near to Trondheim, I call it little Trondheim." He spoke in his native tongue and pointed into the lit pub. "Are you here for a morning soak? It starts early now."
"Morning soak? You drink this early?" I asked, noticing his drunken slur. "What's to celebrate?" I took off skis, tucked them with poles into my armpit, and strode up to the pubs threshold, with its resounding clamor of clashes against glasses, hollers, and laughter breaking through gusty howls around us.
"To celebrate?" He caught me before I could enter. "Do you not know what holiday this is?"
"Sorry I can't say I do," I said.
"It is the birthday of our aviation hero. Our jolly pig. Hermann Goering. His greatest victory, a squeal and snort, a victorious climb into the heavens in a Fokker biplane. It took them four tries to get him up. An amazing feat! When his plane did rise, they named it a holiday. Tidings to the plumpest man in the sky, the first mound of jolliness to touch the clouds." He caressed my jacket with his fingers in flowery emotion. "A strong man like yourself, deserves a sturdy tumbler to celebrate our victorious aviator, Hermann Goering. If not him why not this good snow pack, or the nice winter breeze, I could swear it has never been this warm in ages, or our good German neighbors, they give us much to celebrate, with their sauerkraut and rule books." He ended his speech with a cackle and prompt stomping away from us.
"What you need, sir," Erik said to our greeter. "Is another soak, come join the two lonely fishermen."
"And drink for that jolly man, it's late, and I'm a needing to wash out the blubbery after taste of his celebration with my wife's goats milk. Besides, the Germans are in town. They're all up in joy over that jolly aviator and his triumphant take off into the clouds. Don't like to mix with them. They always put me to work. Besides my bloods fiery today, and I would rather waste it on pleasuring the wife than their labors."
Erik butted into me to whisper, "Let's just hope he makes it across the street."
I laughed at this remark, turning around to find our greeter rolling in the snow.
"Goering, the jolly man!" he screamed at each roll. "I drink for Goering."
"Maybe he will roll back home," I laughed and went into the pub, stepping inside with anxiety, for at a distant corner, underneath lamps, sat Germans in white uniforms. Many of them, caught in the doldrums of boredom, hunched over beer glasses, while others slouched back in chairs with cigarettes alit. Even amongst their casualness dread arose over the possibility an officer readied to ask us for identification papers. I left my skis and poles at the door and went to the bar, a scent of wet oak and coal arising from its fire place not consoling enough to vanquish doubts, nor did the homeliness of the pub, with its soft cabin like environment cluttered with card tables, benches, and at guard over the bar, standing next to the tender like some merry companion, a wooden troll, with a smile, offer any assurance I would leave this pub alive.
"So stranger, are you journeymen? You appear to have come from a long trek. Why don't you take a seat here at Steiner's bar," said the bartender in Norwegian. His face, broken by wrinkles and blond brows so bushy they seemed shorn from a horse's tail and pasted above his eyes, made me edgier than the Germans.
"No, but I just might take you up on that offer. My friend here, Erik, would like a drink also." My finger, guiding Erik like a staff, pointed him to a stool right beside mine.
"No dogs allowed in here," Steiner said. "You send him out with Lars, he is bringing back mail from the garrison, but I think he won't mind a little company."
Again, I did not trust this bartender. He portrayed himself as too friendly, as if he were a Nazi conspirator readying to coax us into our doom, but I took Muffy out from her perch inside my coat, and with blind faith, gave it to the lackey who rushed by with her.
"Do not worry, I have money," Erik giggled as he sat next to me and with slaps against the bar, shot looks at both me and the soldiers at table behind us. "Heh, a fine celebration we are having today. I do hear, it is our jolly Hermann Goering's birthday! As token to this great, aviator." He gave me a faint sneer. "We should celebrate with a shot of jäger! Jäger for me and the crazy bajas here!"
"A shot of jäger it is," Steiner returned, and with a slap of Erik's coins upon the bar, he took them, then put in their place, two shots of liquor straight from Germany. With a smirk seeming to besmirch the honor of the toast, Erik put one glass in my hand, then stood and leaned against the bar, his glass high in the air. "For Hermann Goering, our glorious aviator!" Erik shouted and with a clash of his jäger against mine, we downed a shot.
The liquor sank warm down my throat and with a rub at my lips, hoping to dispel its hard effects, I coughed in reprisal to its potency.
"One more?" Erik suggested, but as I stared into his gleaming eyes, my expression distorted by the last drink, he recognized a rejection, and went on to the bartender. "What news for us to hear in town? We are traveling fishermen and have stumbled here tired and in need of some respite and gossip. Is there activities to take the anchor off our minds, to soften it from our labors?"
"There has only been trouble these recent days," the bartender said in a cold voice. "You see the show of police? They are all rallying to catch some strange saboteur hanging out in the woods! A firebrand. He has only caused trouble since our German neighbors showed their presence."
"Oh and how do we recognize this criminal, this enemy of the peoples?" Erik asked, shoving his hands into coat pockets, as if to retrieve something, but they came out empty.
"Well, he is a crafty one. Poses himself as a soldier, wears skijeger uniforms, our police men can't even guess to his whereabouts when all of a sudden, slam," and at this last word, he hit the bar with a fist, "He lets out a hell and ruckus. He's infamous amongst our police, they've even branded him with the call name of blue devil, for there's a story going about that the Lapps, out of some crazy whim, tattooed most of his body in blue paint, made him a child of the forest. I tell you he and his tribe of Lapps are all crazy. Our locals, traitors most of them, many are sulking in our jails for their behavior, a good punishment for that lot, worship him as some noble savage, a savior of the townsfolk."
"So we should watch our backs in the street," Erik returned, but with a visible nonchalance in regards to the noble savage, for we both knew the enemy sat behind us.
"Watch your backs," Steiner laughed. "Those who have come into contact with the firebrand have never had time to watch their backs or even bat a lash. They are snatched or killed quickly by the monster, gobbled up like an evening meal. If you ask me, I think the man's a feral child, a wild man, who turned crazy after being out in those woods for so long, now he has a vendetta against our town's populace. He's the devil and I hope our police get rid of him."
"Well, thanks for the warning," Erik snickered, but underneath his sympathy for the bartender, his upturned brows shone a desire to meet this renegade wrecking havoc with Nazi occupiers. "We will, as you warn, just runaway from this town after this drink and hope this blue devil has no heart in his skis to chase us for dinner."
"You better hope the heart you have in your skis is stronger than that of the greatest of skiers, for this blue devil, he is the best in the country. No one can outrun the monster. I have heard of experienced skijeger, those who have fought bravely in winter warfare during the northern campaigns, fall victim to his strategies. No one is safe. He's a monster."
"Then," Erik said. "I believe we are prisoners of your pub. I am deeply sorry and if the blue devil does, as you say, surprise us with his presence, we shall douse his anger with a shot of jäger, strike him into a drunken stupor, then bind his hands. A job made easy for you and our policemen!"
A soldier approached us, his presence making me feel weightless, where in my predicament, the liquor had not dampened my fear, so I fidgeted in my stool, while in answer to my uneasiness, he butted closer into me and the bar. Did he try to block my exit? I felt a weightlessness transform into revulsion. His clean cut complexion with its weather-beaten features but all so alive eyes, blue and penetrating, looked into my countenance as if probing to find hidden truths about my identity. I hoped they did not find from my perturbed state, the answer to our dilemma. He swiped at his blond scalp and broke his meditative stare with a grin, all the more frightening than the gaze, for it hid his intentions.
"So, I hear you are fishermen," he said in Norwegian, leaning on the bar, toying with Erik's empty glass.
"Yes," I uttered in the native tongue.
"Well, the name's Schroeder. I was overhearing your conversation. Our bar maid is a wise man in warning you upon the dangers invading our security. I hope you take his advice and remain with us while you are here. This bandit has made it dangerous for all to converse or do business out of doors. Amongst us, your protection will be ensured. I am in need of workers at our chalet only a skis stretch from this locale. I desire the services of two well-bodied individuals to ensure this work is done to our specifications. Can you cut wood?"
"Cut wood," Erik broke in. "We have offered our kind services to many of soldiers in such a duty."
"Good. Are you quick about the skis? Can you race down a piste without trouble, I should say, even with the threats hanging about us with this dreadful blue devil, but who can stop fate, eh?"
When he said the name, blue devil, it brought me back to the nightmare. Did this blue devil have any relation to the horrific monster who turned from his lean over the prow of our lifeboat to stare into me with his blue mask of mystery? I almost wanted to ask the bartender to further elaborate upon this blue devil, but Schroeder's questionable air broke my desires and I remained silent, yet still eager to dispel a troublesome need to find a resolution.
"We are expert skiers," Erik clarified.
"Good, then we should have no troubles,' Schroeder answered. "Are you up for a game of camaraderie? First skier to reach the bottom slope and our chalet will be awarded a grand prize. I promise those who reach it first receive a free meal and a bottle of our chalet's finest champagne!"
The thought of champagne did sound pleasing and I felt energy seep back into my legs at the exclamation for this gift. Ready to be first to win the prize, I jolted for my skis. "Sir, I'm prepared as I'll ever be. For champagne I'll race down the steepest of your cliffs."
"Ah," Schroeder returned, following me out. "Yet there is still work to be done before you savor in the rewards, yet again, if you are experts as your friend states, there is still the challenge at beating an equal competitor to the quick."
"Worse yet," the bartender broke in. "Is to be snatched by that blue savage, before they even get past the first piste!"
Caught in a fervor, I ran outside, strapped on skis, secured bindings, then with poles ready, centered myself on the road. The air felt warm, unusual for winter, although it hit cold enough to show smoke from each exhaled breath. I shifted each runner against the powder to test their stability and content over their condition, leaned on my poles, ready for a start. Ahead, the sparkling passage offered a superb snow pack, spreading into the furthest escapes of the town, where a procession of colorful houses ended and broke into a fall line.
Our Nazi competitors left the pub, Erik trailing them. There were four, all skijeger, two in gray caps, and the others, heads pressed under steel helmets, sported goggles. The two soldiers who wore caps tucked their loose headwear into tunic pockets, a visible precautionary to their certain loss if worn in the chase.
Schroeder approached with goggles at wear and gave me a pair. "You will need these." A gleam from the snow beat into my eyes, bright enough to find solace behind shade of his goggles. I felt the need to push ahead without admittance, but stood my ground, and watched my breath, blued by lenses at wear over my eyes, rise in smoke.
"So men, you know where to go, and for our workers," Schroeder proclaimed, now speaking under cover of steel helmet. "We must give them the directions to our winter retreat. What is your name worker?"
"Me," I stated. His request required an answer, but I did not want to disclose my identity. To reveal my name would be a death sentence, for its similarity with American or English titles, so in a few seconds, I went subconsciously through lists of Norwegian names, until one struck me as comfortable enough to disclose. "Ivar." It sounded odd, but I had remembered a friend up north, one of the fishing hands aboard a trawler in the Lofotens, hailed by the same name, and it rang with Scandinavian roots.
"Well, Ivar," our soldier continued, with a shift of his weight upon skis, and in these motions, it seemed he carried a fretful regard of me, as if he knew his greatest competition would not be from his comrades. "You see the fall line?"
"Yes," I answered, jumpy to start our trek. "But where do we travel from there?"
"There is a piste," he said with visible confidence. "But this smooth run breaks into wooded areas, heavily pined sections, where skiing is difficult. This morning I found the snow to be quite good in these places although there may be a few mysterious patches, but as long as you are true upon your skis, these hindrances will only be a minor problem compared to the last slope marking the final approaches. Fortunately this difficult run is but a straight shot from this start off point," he pronounced, out sounding both the breeze and murmured voices from nearby soldiers, an intonation to make hearable his speech to Erik, who stood ready on his skis at the furthest corner amongst the gathered pack. "So be cautious of trees," the soldier continued. "As an expert skier, I believe you are watchful of hidden dangers in the terrain before they hit you blind faced!" He giggled at this remark.
"Yeah, I have skied through hell before."
"Splendid. Steiner!" He hollered to the bartender who stood at entrance into the pub. "Give us the countdown!"
"Yes," Steiner muttered. "I only wait for your command."
"Ready?" Schroeder hollered to his comrades.
"Yes!" they all chanted in unison, standing ready upon their skis.
"Well, comrades, I wish you best of luck in the race! Steiner, sound off !"
As the bar tender sounded the count from five in Norwegian, I got ready, with a tense stance upon my skis, hoping to break into a charge.
Steiner shouted the climatic number and I struck poles against snow, launching myself into a glide. I kept lead, confronting various drops and rises with a bend in the knees, and blasted through the fall line in confidence.
I shot down the piste, broke my speed with arcs, the friction of each turn stopping an uncontrollable descent, but sapping out energy. Nearer the bottom, as promised by Schroeder, sprang pines, black teeth in a wintry landscape. I readied to avoid them.
I cut by a pine, the skis slicing a swathe through sinkholes of powder. Luck and skill kept my runners from going afoul. I sensed an upcoming pine, cut a turn, and burst out of powdery explosions to confront more trees, faint fingers in a mist. In exhaustion, I plowed through crusts, sensing a break up of the landscape into bumps. These obstacles, not given warning by Schroeder before start in the race, were avoided with skillful jump turns, my runners weaving in and out of each risen disturbance, hoping not to touch them with skis for danger of rocks.
After these problems, marveled I still held control and balance, my energy, although sapped by previous hardships maintained vigor. The slope leveling out after the trees promised only a brief respite, enough time for me to shoot glances behind me between turns to monitor progress of my challengers, who, fortunate for myself, were nowhere in sight, probably left far behind, or, from periods of blindness punching through snow, managed to slip by without detection.
I confronted the next obstacle, a steep gully, lowering my hips over the runners with planted poles and launched from its edge in a split jump, breaking into turns to halt each burst in speed.
Nearer the bottom, a sudden break in snow threatened an avalanche so I hastened my descent. A shadow darted by, beating a retreat for fields below, and a swift look at this apparition, although speed initially disguised its form, revealed a reindeer at charge in front of me, its hooves smashing through powder, as if behind raced a hunter out to kill it. It kept lead in the descent, nervous and shaky in its plows, hoping if not to get away from me, maybe its invisible harasser.
The chalet, visible between trees at the furthest limit of our escapes, a wooden abode with icicled eaves, seemed a great place for the reindeer to make a forest getaway. I concentrated on my speed, hearing subsequent sounds foreign to my pounding runners, and glanced behind me after a turn. A skijeger came in a sudden explosion, emerging from powdery clouds, his presence frightful.
I concentrated more on my turns, using poles to get me an edge over my new challenger, who, rapid in their efforts, got beside me, spraying shots of powder, and as I tried to keep balance, he matched each of my movements with skill. .
Adrenaline kicked me down steeper grades, skis steady, but my senses alert to a change in my competitors motions. He kept behind, not attempting to assault and push me off, but his chase, all too expert and coordinated, matching each of my turns in the powder, made me expectant of a cutting to my advance further below.
He brushed by, his countenance a livid tattoo, and gained a lead, but in my predicament, I felt hesitant in regaining it.
We reached flats, a speedy fall causing my runners to glide over snow in haste. As I kept course, leery upon my adversary, the reindeer, far ahead, as if by call, halted next to the chalet.
A terrible thing is exhaustion when it afflicts the limbs to such an extent that as one looks about them, their surroundings, although plagued with dangers, become insignificant under its control. The blue devil awaited my arrival at the finish, who in a skijeger uniform, a blue visage tucked under a steel helmet and between folds of a headscarf, maintained a horrific appearance amongst a contrasting landscape. Too tired to fear him, I pushed up my goggles to get a better view. As I came near, the muscles in my legs threatened to give way.
"It seems you have gotten the lead over me!" I hollered, trying to calm my uneasiness.
A sly grin broke from the blue devil's face, terrifying me, for the look from his eyes, fiery and ambiguous, cut through my soul with a mysterious sensation. Was it excitement or fear? It rang through my body, a shot of electricity, but as it tingled in the soul, I found it reassuring, for its passage came with a replenishment in strength.
A scream broke the silence, shaking me with its utterance. It came from the reindeer. As the first scream abated, the four legged creature swung its antlers up again, to let out another yelp. The savage broke his stare, sending furtive glances at both the reindeer and behind me, and in swift answer to a third yelp, he beat a retreat, skiing for the forest edges, the deer already skirting its tree line, but as it vanished behind cover of forest, the savage lingered to stare at me again, with the same smirk accompanied by its telepathic communication. I wanted to speak to him before he ran away, to stop his escape in hopes of understanding his unspoken dialogue, but he darted into the forest, vanishing behind its foliage.
At their disappearance came the return of challengers in our race. Schroeder, bent over his runners, glided past. He came to a halt outside the chalet, threw off skis, ran up stairs, and made a quick turn of the door knob.
"What a fine race," he spat in-between gasps of exhaustion and bent down over his knees, pressing them to ease their soreness. "But it appears I have won this mighty game. I fear our worker, Ivar," he spoke the name with a shamming tone, loud enough to be heard by gathered skijeger, who in their white uniforms sprinkled with snow appeared to be in the throes of dejection for failure in the race. They showed their rage in a rapid discard of equipment and a launch of poles at the chalet.
"Sorry to say," he continued. "Ivar, did not touch the door into our wintry retreat, so it appears I have come out the victor. Those who need proof to such a deserving title need only to look at our worker, who, look at him there, still in possession of his skis and poles." He pointed at me. "You see, if this were not grounds for failure in the race, I should be branded with less brains than a Bolshevik. He still has much of his gear in hand, meaning, but again, the champagne will be left to quench my thirst, for you know after a difficult ski, there is nothing better than the satisfying of ones deep thirst with the grand taste of champagne. It's far better than the gritty aftertaste from these balls of ice our skis always kick up."
Fellow skijeger answered with laughter, yet still overcoming shock spawned by my encounter with the blue devil, I carried no regrets to Schroeder's display of unearned victory and kept quiet while leaning upon my poles.
"Well, anyway, champagne and dinner for our workers appears to be thrown out from the menu, but to return to more pressing issues. Ivar, since you are a worker, and not a soldier of our ranks, one of my men, Heinz, will keep watch over you and your friend while you cut wood. You have the keys to the shed, Heinz?"
A soldier near Erik shifted through his pockets until they came out with a ring of brass openers. "Yes, sir," he answered in curt obedience.
"Instruct and guard our workers in their duties," he said, and with promptitude, Heinz, Erik in tow, ran by me. I figured this confirmation to follow, so I took off skis and dug poles in the snow, leaving them to take up tasks given by an authority, who, with a haughty gaze, left an unsettling impression reminiscent to fears arisen out of our first encounter in the pub. I felt content in my dismissal from one domineering controller to follow rules and dictates given by a lesser evil.
Labor and toils haunted our work under Heinz. I centered a log on a stump, struck it with an axe, splintered it into halves, then brought another to position and fell.
At times our guard aided my efforts, digging the barrel of his machine pistol into my chest while with the other lifted and placed a log onto a stump.
As daylight waned, our struggles continued without relent. Hesitant about entreating Heinz for a break, fearing he would strike me with the butt of his gun, I revealed in less conspicuous modes, through fatigued body gestures, leaning over the stump with hand upon my back, and strained facial quirks with head at a cant in stare at the sky, wiping sweat from my brow, and after a turn at the cutters block, stumbling for the side to catch breath, my need for rest.
Relief came with the dipping of the sun behind pine tops. Heinz stepped by the executioners stump, sub-machine gun at ready, took my axe and pushed me toward the forest. I thought he would shoot for it came at an abrupt moment. He continued to barge me with his weapon until pointing at the trees, he made known an order for retreat.
Erik took my hand and led me in a sprint for the forest, where under cover of pine, the snowy ground splintered into bands of light and shadow. In our run, Erik looked behind me to check on our guard.
"It was kind of our Heinz to let us go, heh," Erik whispered. "But then again we are far from a finish in this job. What bothers me is the work still to do. You should have seen it, logs upon logs at tower behind the chalet, spilling over like a fountain. These new logs, still naked to the steel from our gracious axe will give us much troubles. Very unfortunate for us, bajas. Did you see them? The logs behind the chalet?"
"No," I answered, curious to how he returned such an observation under surveillance.
"I tell you, they will work us to our deaths. They brought us here to work us into a tomb, and when they are done, we will be buried here. I swear." He made furtive self-signs of the cross to clarify our dangers. "Give them until morn, and we be sleeping under sweet angels, but who will be drinking the champagne? Not I bajas, not I, nor you," and after this bit of commentary he lowered his voice to a faint whisper, "but the lazy bastard who dragged us out here, he will be laughing and drinking away to our deaths. Ha, ha. I know it, bajas. Call it me second sense. Krauts, Jerries, Nazis, what name you hat them, it is all the same about them, nothing but lazy princes with a polished boots and a whip to beat down us low and humble men. Eh, you know it's truth without a reminding you."
"But what are we to do?" I whispered. "We're at their mercy unless we make a break for it now."
"No, not now," Erik cut in. He went behind a pine and sat against it, uttering a gasp, before continuing, "We, bajas, will not be here tomorrow. I have a plan. Does our guard have an eye on us?"
I looked beyond a clusters of trees at our guard sitting on the cutters stump, gray clouds arising from his person. "No, he's at smoke," I said.
"Right." Erik shoved a hand into his trousers, pulling out from them a folded sheet of paper. With a jaunty hum, he opened the bent sheets until a colorful map exploded upon his lap, complete with red arrows, terrain relief sketches, brilliant circles, and a compressed key, the text too small for me to read at my lean, but I guessed it came from a military boardroom. "I took the plans," Erik giggled. With a press of his finger upon the map he followed a winding arrow through various swirls and discolored marks, until he ended the show with a tap at the glorious yellow signature emblazoned in the center. "Here, bajas, here is where we will be tomorrow morn'."
I did not like the idea. To absent a danger for a greater one seemed a crazy alternative, made even more dangerous by our fatigue. The rewards were bountiful. Our deceased commander had promised four hundred thousand for success in the mission. Still, I had no desire to participate for without weapons or experienced personnel to accommodate our movements, the plan would only lead us into a death trap. "Are you serious, Erik?" I said voicing my doubts. "We have nothing to fend ourselves, it would be to our worst advantage to take up such a maddening scheme."
"But you said four hundred thousand, bajas. Four hundred thousand between the two of us." He slapped the paper in emotional display over this spoken sum. "Such a reward would save our sweaty backs from this hell, the hell of a wayfarer prison. Do you not want a name, bajas? Do you want me to call you, bajas for all life, or would you not like a name? We would be rich men if we got through it with success. I say this with truth. I do not want to be the dirt filed under the bloody fingers of our slave drivers. Do you want to work for them the rest of your days?"
"No of course not. I would like to live a long life. To see more days than the pass of your one morning. Your plan, I don't care how easy you're going to tell me it's gonna be." Our guard stood from our cutters block, glanced at us, and I kept silent until after stretching himself he walked for the chalet.
"Is he gone?" Erik muttered..
"Yeah," I said. "But make it quick. He probably won't be for long."
"The mission, not easy, bajas," he continued. "But I think we as mountain men can get through. I read the map while you were asleep on boat. There is a little science behind it, but we are good outdoorsmen. I think, it only needs a good brain like yours and my knack as a guide to put it into success," then he pointed at a location on the map. "First we must get through a maze of forest, easy for us, heh, with our strong legs and outdoors sense."
"Yeah, but I told you I didn't want in on your plan," I said, clarifying my attentions in not risking myself for his scheme.
"Well I say it anyway. You see, the target very near to here, only a few hour ski, but it sit on a mountain top with very high bluff. This is my plan," then he folded his map and shoved it into his trousers. "We ski fast and hard for it at break of morn' tomorrow. Our guards will be at sleep in their cots when we awake, then we boom, shoot out of here, and get to the mountain, take off our skis, climb up its cliffs, and sneak under fence around their mighty base. It will be easy to get through the fence if we find rock breaks. There are many loose rocks in those mountains. I know the place from walks there back in the days."
"So we get inside, then what?"
"There are three guarded houses inside. If we time our runs, we can get through the likes of them, but we must get into the office at the left of the guarded houses. In the left one is the folder."
"And what's in the folder," I asked, curious to why our dead commandos spent so much money in our venture.
"I do not know, bajas. British pounds?" and he giggled at this last remark. "No, I do not know what is in the folder. But it must be important. The map does say it easy to find, almost like the spot marked by a band of pirates. The plans mark its place and say it is the only folder in the office. It should not be very difficult to find and steal. After folder is stolen we must bring it back to the Brits. The map gives a few cities and villages that have a radio to use in radioing back success in our little mission. After they get the signal, our British friends will send a boat for us, take us back to the Shetlands."
"That simple, huh. Just radio to Britain that, hey, we got the folder and it's sweet and done?"
"Yes," Erik said. "So are you still up for it?"
"I saw the blue devil today," I said, my memory flashing back to this episode, hoping to qualm uncertainties.
"You did, eh," Erik replied. "Did it have large fangs and blood thirsty eyes? Was it a monster on two legs, growling at you as you tried to run from its teeth. How did you get away, bajas?"
"No it was quite friendly," I answered. 'But silent. A very odd fellow, almost like a freak of nature."
"A freak of nature," Erik retorted. "I see and talk to a freak of nature right now you crazy bajas. You could be brothers in the circus." He tucked the map into his boot, arose from a sit, swiped needles off his trousers, then walked with me back to the work site. "Let us hope he do not chain us back to our cutters block, it would be the death of me, bajas. My death kneel," but as we returned to retake our duties the guard did not give us an axe, but showed us into the chalet.
A cozy living quarters greeted us, too luxurious under wartime conditions, with its plush couches at position center of the room and scary elks heads staring down from walls to spy our approaches. The flames at flicker from a fire place, a straight walk from our entrance, threw radiant casts up to the rafters, where each ray of light in its attempts to escape into the heavens were thwarted by decorated beams. I stared at the ceiling, marveled at the master craftsmanship of each beam with its many etched devils and dragons warring against no other than the probable termites at fester inside and like David against Goliath, I knew the termites would win over the monsters and bite their way to victory.
The detested winner in our ski race launched himself from a couch and came to greet us.
"I see our workers have made their showing. They have done well for a days toil," he marched up to me, tempting us with his glass of champagne, held at such a position, center to his chest but at hold away, made the light from the fireplace dance in it. "Comrades lay out a table for these men here," and with a swish from his glass, he directed skijeger behind him, who bore the weight of a modest sized dinner table, slapped it down near us, and shoved two chairs at their opposite ends. "Are you hungry?"
"Sir, we are very hungry," Erik said, plopping himself down in a seat at the table, hands outstretched and visibly ready for any dish offered by our captors.
"We have finished our meal, but there is fresh reindeer meat for you, ready to be eaten. It is a choice meal. One that will regain your vigor and strength, much needed for the difficult work ahead." I glanced around and saw a table of cutlery butting against his couch with various delicacies only half eaten: a honey backed ham, salads, and behind a plate, bread loaves. Our meal seemed an unfair trade for labors spent under his service. I readied to complain, but my desires were pinched in recognition to his authority. In rebuttal, I went to the seat accorded to me on the other side of Erik, sat in it in visible disgruntlement, with a plopping into the chair, and slapped my hands against the table, hoping to attract notice upon my bad airs, but it went unrecognized, and in between my palms, callused by blisters, a tray of meats was put down.
I had to admit the smell from this fleshy supper enticed me enough to tuck away my anger and appease it with chomps out of the meal. With rudimentary utensils at position next to a tray, the forks and spoons rusted out by disuse, I prodded a slice with my fork and gulped down mounds of meat. It did not take long for Erik and I to shovel our first serving down our throats. We never spoke during dinner, rather fought as competitors of but another race to appease a hunger from a days starvation. With grabs at the tray in the center, we tore at juicy lengths, shoved them down our mouths, and watching each others facial expressions, raced to chew each piece down, so as to be the first to dive into the plate for another. Erik had so far won the battle with his swift swallows and takings of reindeer meat before I had a chance to grab.
My belly tightened and I felt nauseous, stopping the ravenous game with a gulping down of the shared water jug near our tray, and then fell back into my chair, exhausted, again beat by the likes of a more worthy but fair competitor. Erik proved to be the hungriest, still at grab for more servings as I, looking about the room in absent-minded distraction, tried to focus on various points about the chalet. They came to a stop on our domineering host, Schroeder, who at stretch on a couch, his mountain boots propped over an armrest, read a propaganda book, "Signal." His head stuck in the book, a voice erupting from the glamorous color print of a German soldier on its cover, as if this artwork had breached the laws of science and spoke to me in Norwegian.
"My men have prepared quarters for you to sleep during your stay," it said. "It is a comfortable loft, set up by my comrades while you were working outside. I hope it will aid in your recuperation from today's labors."
I almost wanted to question him, but thought against it, distracted now by lights casting off shadows on the oak boards above the fireplace.
"Be mindful," Schroeder continued. "I will be asking for your identity papers at morning roll call. Have them prepared before awaking for your early duties. I will allow another hour for rest for a full recuperation from the days labors so they can be put to further use in tomorrow's work."
"Yes, sir," I answered, but a knot stuck in my throat in contemplation over our fate, but as Erik had said in the forest, we would not be here to complete their "special" duties. I only hoped he would not put guards over us during the night and as I thought upon this frightful possibility, he broke through it with a confirmation.
"One of my men at two hour intervals will watch you during your sleep, so do not threaten escape. It will be a deadly mistake."
"Yes, sir," Erik and I answered, but knew if we were smart about it, their one guard could be easy to trick. Three guards equaled an impossible endeavor, two guards, a possibility, one, a challenge worth playing. I got up from my seat after one of the skijeger had approached to steal our plates and tray. I thought it amazing for us to have swallowed down such a hearty dinner in brief time.
"Follow me," a soldier requested, with a ring of keys in hand. I accompanied a line of white uniforms as they charged down a dark hallway and into a barn adjoining the chalet, illuminated by a dangling lamp. I spotted various blankets spread upon the dirt floor and hay, sprinkled about with such a thick dressing, it made me not second guess its purpose as a mattress for our slumbers. The dismal showing of room accommodations, added by a wheat barley smell attacking my nostrils, caused me to frown over our predicament.
"Well," a soldier continued, taking up blankets. "These will be your sheets and this your bed. If you require anything more do not hesitate to ask your guard on watch."
I despised this soldier now, for his offer of degrading conditions seemed a shameful reward for the labors spent under their control, but it would be foolish to complain, and to our best advantage to receive them.
So Erik and I, warm now in our winter jackets, fell onto hay spread like a carpet on soiled ground, tossed our bodies to make ourselves comfortable, and when I found a spot, our overlooking guard, threw down a blanket, covered myself with it, and despite the hardness of our hay mattress against my back, I fell quick into a slumber only to be shot out by a shove.
Where had the hit come? I shifted around the hay to look and saw our sleeping guard in a chair, his head slouched over. I felt another shove thrown against my back, accompanied by a shooing, as if someone behind tried to silence me, and as I turned to look for the spoken source, my gaze fell upon Erik, his body at crouch on the mattress.
"Our guard," he whispered. "Is asleep. It is now or never, bajas. I will jump for his gun, you go for his legs. It will be quick." he said, ready to leap upon our foe.
I nodded to Erik, showing both my readiness and relief for his overnight watch on our guard.
"Now," he said. He sprang upon our guard, slammed his body against the machine pistol, and threw a punch at his face. I ran for the unconscious guard, snatched his weapon and with Erik beside me, left the barn for the chalet.
"Give me the weapon, bajas, and go outside, get the skis ready. I will stay to find another rifle for you. We will need one. Go now."
I sprinted down the hallway, went for the main doors, and nervous upon capture, bolted out into the cold. Dawn crept about me, a purplish reminder to an awakening sun, but still trapped in the night stung a chill, and I shivered against each bite.
With quick glances over my shoulder, fearful our Nazi captors would spring out to capture me, I dislodged two pairs of skis from their stand in the snow, put one to the side, while with the other binded my boots to runners and kicked them in the snow to test their agility. I then got up and skied circles about the perimeter in search of items to carry, but only ran across jutting poles. A few turns about the front of our chalet ended with the sudden reappearance of Erik, another machine pistol in hand, added to the one stolen from our guard, and in visible glee, he ran for me, relinquishing the other weapon and a pair of goggles, then strapped on skis.
"Let us be quick about it. They will be up and looking for us soon, bajas. Give it a hour." With this warning, Erik, his face a flaming cauldron of exasperation, put on goggles and skied for me. We made headway down the flats, speeding by its stretch in an approach for the forest.
We skied into the forest, gliding through rises and downgrades, weaving in and out of pines, then fell into valleys where snow broke in splashes under our runners. My exertions coupled with the chill, worsened by blasts at each passage out of a creek bed or forest hedge, made for a miserable trek.
I turned through clusters of trees, led by Erik, who halted by a pine, took out his map, pointed at it, and squinting at times, brought it closer, ending his reads with a scratch at his beard.
"Close we are, bajas," he said, tucking his map back into a coat pocket and adjusting goggles back over his eyes. I lifted my pair to get a better look at him. "I really hope we do make it, even with Germans behind us. Do you think they have awakened?"
"By now." I puffed in exhaustion, glad we had stopped in our trek not only to ascertain our position but to regain strength. My clothes were wet with thrown snow. "Their men are wide awake and out and about searching around the chalet for our fleeing hides. Then again, they might have put the whole village on alert. Within hours there'll be search parties combing these woods. If we keep going, never stop, I think we'll make it."
"Yes we will get there, but then there are the worries of new enemies."
"Hey." I wanted to release pent up anxieties over the plan. "You were the one who wanted to come out here in the first place. To ski out here and snatch this folder to get your money from the Brits."
"Heh." Erik's face beamed a heartier red, as if flushed by his own uncertainties. He scratched his chin. "We will get through. Do not worry so much. I say we will come out in one piece. You the happier with your side of money, and I the happiest, for saving you from any troubles thrown at us by these Germans!" He charged forth upon his skis, continuing a run for the target.
We sped through congested forests. The air numbed my nerves, each blast hitting me as we came out from under cover of pine, skating across flats.
The terrain ahead broke into rises and we attacked them with a herringbone climb. As we surmounted these inclines, we glided down drop offs into lowlands. I broke into turns upon each change in descent, minding disturbances below my skis as they dove for the bottom.
Further down we met more treacherous terrain. Our runners zigzagged between boulders dressed with brilliant powder crusts then slid into a realm, where, all about us, mountains reigned in majesty. The sun reflected off peaks of dark volcanic rock and snow, the sight making for a showy view behind goggle lenses.
"Bajas, looks to me we are very near," Erik said, pointing ahead, where mountains, towering over our snowy squeeze through heights, broke into pine choked slopes. An occasional snap rang in my ears, loud enough for me to point my machine pistol up at an abiding file of trees, hopeful to find a patrol in my crosshairs before they let off a shot. At these stops, Erik turned around, pointed his pole in front of him to beckon me onward into our mysterious passage. "I don't think we will run into them. Not yet, but it is good to keep watch," he yelled back. "For you never know when a German sniper may be at wait in the needles." He ended his remark with a point of his pole at a pine, a dangerous potential for a snipers nest.
Further ahead, Erik stopped underneath a tree, took out his map, looked about him, his cherry red complexion painful to gaze upon for its weather-beaten features, but I guessed, he, like myself had seen enough exposure under the breeze and temperatures to have adapted nicely under its harassment.
"Here," Erik said. "You see up there?" He pointed at a ridgeline above us, a climb up vertical ascents to a perch between peaks. "There is the base. I can see its fence, bajas. Look there." A flash reflected off posts, connectors to a fence straddling the outer realms of the mountain top. The chain-length fence cut into pine outcroppings, fell and then scaled its uneven ledges, vanishing from sight behind a cliff face. "Let us hope they do not see us climb for their mighty base, or it will be the end for us." He took off his skis, left them in the snow, and answering these movements with my own relinquishment of gear, I followed his run up the slope.
The snow worked to our advantage, with its temporary foot holds, but as we climbed, Erik again keeping a fiery lead, I threw my leg out for a leap onto a rock, landed on it, but slid on its icy film. My boots lost grip and fell. I tumbled in an uncontrollable roll, my vision clouded by spiraling sprays of powder in flips for the bottom. I stopped it with a kick, reclaimed my balance, then shaken but still conscious, stood in the kicked recess made from my rapid stop, and caught up with him.
"You all right, bajas?" Erik asked.
"Yeah," I said. "It could have been worse. Those trees behind me are menacing! I could have bit into one and you would've had a cripple on your hands."
"Do not scare me, bajas," Erik answered, continuing his swift ascent. We crept to the fence. I knelt next to a lichen rock at butt against its length, threw a look at our target through the chain-link, and spotted soldiers in gray uniforms armed and edgy at the other side. There were two guards clad in gray watch coats and as they approached me from no other than the house our attentions were bent on entering, their eyes underneath steel helmets kept a directionless gaze.
Erik, bent over with his machine pistol, rushed along the fence, then halted some yards away. I feared he had been seen and knelt next to my boulder, but he soothed these worries with a shoveling at a rock crevice underneath a stretch of fence, pushing out pebbles, but doing it all in a silent manner, falling to the snow whenever a guard went by. He dug a crevice large enough to fit through for quick entrance into the compound, and with a quick peek over his crevice, he then waved to me. I crawled and slid to a prone position next to his low-lying body, both nervous and jumpy upon our push into enemy territory.
"You go first, bajas," Erik whispered, nudging my side. "I follow."
A penetration into the base would leave us with no cover, security depending on the expert use of our machine pistols in bad situations or hope fired upon soldiers did not attract others. This chance already proved a death wish as I gazed through Erik's dug hole and spotted countless ranks of guards at patrol beyond the three houses, some of their numbers marching out from breaks between wooden tiered structures, sporting weapons similar to our own. We were outnumbered and outgunned.
"Dangerous," I whispered under my breath. Too dangerous, I thought, it seemed a sprint into death, but caught in a burst of intrigue to discover the contents of the folder, worth so much to our deceased British commandos, I felt prepared for it. "Are you ready to follow me," I said under my breath to Erik. "The guard is at the other side of the house. You keep behind me. Quick."
He nodded in confirmation. I sprang into the hole, snuck into the base with the retreating backs of German soldiers forward to my approaches. They continued in a march for the distant reaches of the compound, my weapon trained on them. I ran for the house, made it, and fell to a kneel against its outside wall. Erik slid next to me. The entryway into the structure lay only a hands reach away. I caressed the machine pistol at butt against my chest, hoping it would save me in an upcoming sprint.
I ran for the doorway, rolled inside, and got up, swiping my weapon about its quarters. The cross hairs of my machine pistol passed only a vacant office, crowded with necessities for carrying out deskwork: a sole chair tucked into a steel table at center of the room with a portrait of Adolf Hitler above it, and about the walls, file cabinets. It reeked of Nazi bureaucracy.
I ran by Erik and looked through a window center of the room, verifying no guards stood outside, then began pulling out drawers. The steel hinges creaked at each pull, sounding a loud signature upon our efforts, and I searched inside each container, finding only an empty slot. After the fifth empty drawer, I came away fraught with doubts. Had we entered the wrong building? Erik had said the office furthest to the left. My friend also ran into his share of troubles, hands slipping out from each yanked out mystery, empty.
A shuffle arose outside. I shoot a look over my shoulder. A shadow struck across the cement flooring behind me. This dark imprint, followed by a trod of feet, made me shiver in fear. I kicked Erik to get his attention. He looked at me with his concentrated airs, his weather-beaten face afire like a torch, but as his squinting eyes centered upon my leg, they strayed to the window, bulging from their sockets. He fell to his knees. It was too late.
Guards ran into our office, kicked Erik in the head, knocking him against the open drawers, and as their shiny boots came to meet me, I threw my hands up in surrender. They hesitated as they came closer. For what purpose I did not know. There were three soldiers, all in heavy overcoats and armed with machine pistols. The one in the middle, guarded by his two comrades, went to me, grabbed the seams of my jacket, gave a yank, and threw me up to meet his angry gaze underneath steel helmet.
"You," he screamed in Norwegian, the saliva spat from this outcry dripped down my chin. He shook me in his grasp, as if trying to squeeze out my life. "What are you doing in here, spy? I will have it out from you!" With a firm press of his hand around my collar, chocking me, and threw my body out the door. I fell against the gravel headfirst, hitting it with such force, I bit my tongue.
Oh, how painful it felt! The blood gushing from my tongue flooded my mouth. I swallowed most of it down, but the outflow proved to be too quick to catch, so a wash spilt from my lips, causing a red pool to form around me. The guard met my crippled form outside, threw a kick into my chest. I shouted in pain. "I will send you down to the Hauptsturmführer, is what I'll do! Firebrands are dealt a heavy hand there." He brought me up from my fetal curl, dug the barrel of his machine pistol into my spine. "Quick march!" he commanded and I ran ahead of his weapon, at forced march, for the other side of the military complex.
Erik sprang beside me, dazed, but running at my pace, trying to keep lead of the screaming soldiers, who, with guns at taunt like batons in a requiem, directed our movements past the three houses. As I ran behind the last structure, a supply truck appeared in a menacing gray color scheme. The paint did not scare me as much as the surprises probably at wait for us inside. It might have been a gas truck, where a prisoner is thrown in and suffocated by carbon-monoxide poisoning, then dumped out for burial.
I halted, hesitant in an approach, but then remembered the guard speak upon the administering of our fate outside the base, and in trusting this information, went to the tailgate assured we would live at least a few more hours.
Our captors pushed us into the truck. Erik smacked himself against the frame and fell unconscious to the floor. I came to him, propped his body, and felt a warm gush of blood flow from his hands. I tore off a scarf from my coat, applied it to the stickiness on his palms, but as I tried to find the wound, darkness fell over my surroundings. A crash prompted me to look over my shoulder. Soldiers battened down hatches, sealing us into a sepulcher. The truck started off and my senses were shut into a void of deprivation.
The truck's engine cut off, doors flung open, and a light pierced in as if heaven had flown in to deliver me, but it beckoned only a false salvation, for at its origin, stood our German executor.
"Get down from there, spies!" he commanded in Norwegian.
I nudged Erik, hoping he would spring from his coma, but he did not awake. "I have an injured fellow who needs help," I pleaded to the officer.
"Ah, an injured? He will be dead when I'm through with the brigand!" The officer then waved his hand, prompting two soldiers to leap into the bed. They pushed me out, but remained to attend my companion.
I stumbled for the SS officer and stood before him. I recognized the Schutzstaffel uniform right away, with its gray tunic, cap, and deaths head insignia. He sized me up from head to toe, then unnoticed by me, a stranger crept up from behind. I felt a pressure on my wrists and a clap of steel from handcuffs. Above, the sky darkened, showing the first signs of evening. Daylight in winter had always been a short-lived occurrence, but right now the change weighed upon my mind, for I doubted seeing another sunrise.
The SS officer strode ahead, directing the police man who held me prisoner into an office similar to the one I had left with its shared uniformity: a desk at head of the room, an Adolf Hitler portrait at glare upon me from above, but about the SS officer, there were no filing cabinets, only tables, various tools of dangerous make cluttering their tops.
"Before my desk there!" His voice shattered the conformity of his surroundings.
"Yes, sir," I uttered, my legs shaking at their stance on the cement floor.
"You penetrated my base, saboteur," the officer said, his gray back to me. "Who are you working for?"
"What did you say, sir? Work for whom?" I breathed out.
The SS officer snatched a tool from a table, a steel rod embedded with nails. He came over to me and brandished it. Nervous, I took a few steps back, halting at the break of his voice. "Stand at attention or I will kill you right where you stand, I swear it!" This harsh order, the words all too blatant to doubt a carrying out of his threat, held sway over my movements.
I snapped to attention, locking my knees in place, helpless under his control, an implement a hairsbreadth from my eyes, as if its passage was intended for a poke at my sockets. I cringed over my impending doom.
"Who are you working for?" he insisted.
"The Special Operations Executive, sir," I answered in curt obedience, the top nail from his tool at an all too close poke upon my nose. He tapped it harder, until the sensitive skin broke, and blood spilled from its tip.
"The SOE, eh. Did you realize saboteurs, spies, and resistance fighters are hung for treason?" He flung his instrument back onto the table, staring at me with hunter-like eyes and steely complexion. " I will be lenient. You possess information that could be of use to us. Do you desire an honorable death by firing squad, or death worthy of a swine, hang you from that pole right outside my office? I assure you, death from hanging is not quick. A man with your broad neck! It would be a very painful and slow death." He sealed the honesty of this threat with a smirk.
The thought of an impending doom shook me with worry. Caught in a nervous state, I did not reply. He seemed to sense my uneasiness and broke into an amble between both sides of the office, his arms folded behind him, head down but concentrated on the floor, as if he tried to collect from each pass enough conclusions to formulate a rejoinder in answer to my confusion.
"You were in our scientists personal quarters," he said at last, stopping in front of me, the face underneath his cap, breaking into a serious expression, lifeless and taut. "For what reasons did your comrades send you there? Answer in truth. If you lie. A lie to me, spy, is very obvious. Lies in the presence of my authority, will be replied with the moral remedy. Do you wish to see my moral remedies for punishing breeches in conduct?" He caught my distracted gaze at his table of horrors while I tried to maintain a perfect stand to honor his presence. "You do look at them now. See how they flash under the lamp? I have killed a many of spies with these tools. They are good necessities for driving out the truth from brigands. So..." He stomped in front of me, his cold demeanor imprinted with a leer. "Where is the folder?"
Caught unawares, I did not answer, but stood in silence, deaf to his question.
"Where is the folder!" He slapped me. I winced from pain left upon my cheek from its impact. "Where is the folder?" He slapped my face again.
I let out a cry, a plea to end his abuse.
"Where is it?" he commanded.
"I don't know," I cried, in truth. "We went into your scientists office. We made a fine search of the place-cabinets, tables, anything that could hide your folder, but found nothing. I tell you this in all honesty, we found nothing but empty drawers."
"You do tell the truth. I can tell in the candor of your words, but who is in possession of it? Were you sent as a decoy? Tell me? Were you meant for capture?"
"Honestly, sir, I don't know what you're saying. I was sent on a mission to take your cherished folder, then escape with it back to the British. That is all. I was no decoy."
"You realize the folder has not been in our possession for over a month?" The officer continued now leaning upon his desk. This revelation surprised me. Had the British sent in a team before us to retrieve it? I grew curious. " We have scoured the countryside in search for it, raided villages, destroyed resistance camps, all in hopes to retrieve it, but have returned with nothing."
"I'm sorry, sir, I did not know. I was given a mission to steal your folder and that is all. I had no idea someone had beaten us to it."
"I do believe you," he said with a machine-like rapt, as if he had interrogated many a spy before, knowing just from a change in gesture or intonation, the utterance of nonfactual testimony. I felt assured that my fate by firing squad would become a reality, a far better execution than falling victim to his torture implements or through strangulation in a noose. "Have you heard any hearsay amongst your SOE comrades to its whereabouts?"
"No, sir," I stammered, bending my knees now, to allow blood to flow back into my feet. "I was only given routine instructions, sneak into your base, take the folder, then find means to return it with me to Great Britain."
"So you were a pawn? I originally suspected you as a lowly soldier, sent out to complete tasks handed down by a higher authority, but still needed confirmation. Well, I am through, spy. This ends my interrogation. I will prepare a speedy death for you tomorrow. You have lucked out agent. Out of honor and respect for your truthful testimony, I will pass an order amongst my ranks to prepare a quick and painless execution for you. Death by firing squad for you and your comrade. Schutze, take him away."
The soldier keeping guard over the entrance, grabbed my handcuffed hands, and drove me into a side door.
I trudged outside through snow. The tranquility of my surroundings with its whiteness draped above by pink skies, came as a relief from moments in presence of the SS officer. I spotted a cabin in the distance. My guard, probably leery upon surprises, for to him I was an SOE agent, a skilled commando who could down an enemy at close quarters, took off my handcuffs, stepped away, then directed me onward at gunpoint.
I staggered into the cabin, and went to its sole mattress, sat on it, and as I tried to adjust my weight, the materials broke underneath, causing me to fall through to the bottom. Around me, impenetrable logs threw up a leaden stench combating even a grosser smell from the corner. The guard shut the door quick and locked me in.
Between the room, two barred windows, incasing rays from a dying day, lit the cell to ease adaptation of my vision and I noticed with a glance at the wall, cement paste between logs and further down, nearer the door, a bent figure, the origin of an overbearing stench. Very curious, I got up, went across the stretch of floor, and overestimating my approach, almost tripped over a bundle of clothes, which at stroke from my boot let out a gasp.
I backed away, startled by the sound, then dug my foot underneath it, lifted my toe and as the cloth rose, a bloody face flashed up. I leaped back, fearful of another outburst, but then knew this face, underneath a mess of red clots, belonged to Erik.
I returned to him in exasperation, propping his body against the wall, and caressed his head. He had been beaten, signatures to abuse confirmed by touching scars on his cheeks. This realization filled me with revengeful anger and I swore through my teeth, my muttered threats cut short by a whisper. Erik tried to speak, but his first attempt to be understood met with failure. He tried again.
"Where am I?" His arms swam about the darkness, until they met my kneeling form and in an embrace, he attempted, with assistance from both the wall and me, to get onto his feet. I aided his efforts by pushing him up.
"You're in prison. They've got us locked up for execution tomorrow. What did they do to you?"
"I was beaten," he gasped, struggling to keep balance. With me as support, he broke through these challenges in success.
"Those filthy Krauts," I cursed. "If I had my gun , I'd blow them but there seems to be no escape from this place, but if we do try, I think we can dig ourselves out tonight."
"Heh, good luck, bajas," Erik muttered. "I do think we will meet the maker. We have been given too many chances and now they have won over us."
"Won, but no," I insisted. I steadied Erik against the wall, and went for the window. Outside, guards in gray coats patrolled milky expanses, rifles at ready and further out, a line of skijeger skied across the forest hedge, their camouflaged bodies visible in their movements upon the snow. "They do have our cell heavily guarded, but in the dark, I think we'll have a chance."
"Just give up, bajas," Erik whispered. "We are dead men."
"No, I won't give up, we will make an escape at nightfall." I uttered this assurance before glancing below me at our hard packed floor, a vein of cement streaking across the wall base hinting of secret contrivances dug below preventing escape. This realization caused me to sigh in surrender over our fate. "Maybe you're right."
"Right? Heh, as I said before, we are at the mercy of these thugs."
To while away our time in imprisonment, I stared out the window, cherishing a glimpse of sunlight before the arrival of night. Would this period of darkness ease a dread over our certain execution next morning? I hoped contemplation over the span of an evening would dispel any fears regarding our doom.
I gazed at the field outside, a bluish sea of crystals and spotted two guards crossing its expanse, their heads bent and blowing out smoke.
A skijeger raced by our cell, sped on his runners for the middle of the field and as he neared it, a sudden projectile spiraled above him. My gaze rose to follow it. A spear shot out from the forest, flying by the skijeger, who evaded it with a skate, and landed very near in the snow, revealing its identity as a ski pole.
Astonished by its presence, I looked back at Erik, his head hanging down in gloom.
"Hey," I hollered at him. He strained to keep stand, agony written on his face in tense wrinkles. "Come, take a look over here. Someone threw a skipole at us. I think someone out there knows we're here. We might be saved after all."
"Dreams, crazy bajas," he snapped back, looking at me now from a bloodied countenance. "Dreams. But it good you have hope.'
"No, it's the truth. Come take a look." I shot another look at the ski pole, a landed sword thrown by a distant aggressor. Its tip caught fire and a dazzling lightshow sparkled atop it. Explosive pops crackled from its head, attracting soldiers from the field to investigate.
A few minutes later, even the SS officer made his appearance, his arms akimbo as he looked at the pole, walked about it, then turned to his accompanying troops. "Dispatch a patrol into the woods," he ordered with cool equanimity. " Make good search of the outer rings and return at nightfall with your findings. If it's the resistance we'll have more prisoners to execute tomorrow."
At sound of this order, skijeger skated for the woods, leaving behind scanty defenses to patrol the perimeter. Erik, visibly curious now after the loud command spoken by the SS officer, butted up next to me.
Only a few troops went about the expanses, watchdogs to another disturbance, and as they past by our cell, Erik grinned at me, trying to maintain his stand, yet visibly content now to a verification of my claims. "So he sent men out, did he?" he whispered. "This interesting and the flaming pole. What is it?"
I wanted to answer but his confusion merged with my own bewilderment. "Honestly, I think it's a ruse. The Norwegian resistance are readying to push in and take us from our prison. They know we're here. They even threw a ski pole to remind us."
Hours later, darkness fell over the landscape, and my gaze fell upon the mysterious pole stained by moonlight. I waited for an appearance of resistance fighters, but they never came. I doubted escape.
"Schutze," a voice broke outside. The SS officer marched in front of my window and I fell below its sill. "It is well after nightfall and our patrol has not returned from their search?"
"No, sir, they are still out on the hunt for resistance fighters," spoke the other. I feared their entrance into the cell to check on our status. I shut my eyes, feigned a sleeping spell, but still kept ears trained in overhearing their dialogue. "We made a search about the premises, sir. Found nothing but ski tracks that got lost in the snow. Would you request a sending out of a skijäger, see if he comes back with any findings?"
"No, we have sent too many men out," said the SS officer. "Their delay is very troubling! It seems our security has been jeopardized. Put the base on high alert. Keep a full nights guard over the perimeter, and by full guard, I mean all soldiers in our Kompanie, roust them from their bunks."
"But the men are very tired from morning exercises..." the other insisted.
"Confound their condition," the SS officer spat. "They will keep a nights watch or risk annihilation! A loss in morale is a greater alternative than a knife in the back."
"It appears we have new visitors." The SS officer's voice rang in alarm. "Look, a herd of reindeer, and I thought they would send an army. Have you seen such a herd? This is very strange. I thought the disappearance of our comrades would strike me into profundity, but this herd, it belongs in Lapp country, not here."
I shot up to take a look and found in my amazement proof of the officers observation. At an odd moment synchronized with the SS officer's arrival, packs of reindeer crowded the snowy expanses, their coats a flashy blue. Curious, I counted flanks, but their countless numbers spilling into a moon colored landscape, blocked attempts in arriving at an accurate sum.
A masse of reindeer choked the snowy expanses, some brave enough to skirt by our cell, trotting further away to rejoin the herd. Caught between passing flanks, guards looked about them awestruck.
"Reindeer, I see," Erik's voice startled me. "The Lapps have let go of their sheep. They like us feel the bite of the whip under this occupation."
A flaming pillar shot up behind the herd, exploding into a fireball, and consumed the field in a massive, bellowing, fiery barrier, a horrific new addition to our tally of grievances. Its sides crackled and flashed with ferocious intensity, stirring panic amongst the herd.
At mercy to this flaming monstrosity, reindeer turned about to runaway. Flames blocked escape into the forest, so they dashed into the base. Their forward ranks, pushed by frantic followers. Thunder roared underneath their charging hooves and an earthquake tremble shook our floor. I watched in wonder as this unbroken line of gray overwhelmed our guards, trampled their bodies, then went for us.
A stray deer darted off. It shot over a bank and smacked into our cell, chunks of severed antler laying in a mess about its snowy grave. My glance, still on the dead beast, went blind by a sudden flash that struck me to the floor. I got up and saw a monstrous head of antlers stuck between bars clattering against their entrapment and with another shake, the reindeer freed itself and ran off.
Our prison, once a guarantee of death, now became a safe haven from a deadly onslaught. Maybe this charge assured a way out! Our guards gone, no one would deter an escape attempt. By daybreak, we could pierce through their defenses and make a quick getaway.
I huddled next to Erik in a corner of the cell, hoping to wait out the stampede, and in his facial expression, once written with despondency, there flashed a glimmer of joy.
Minutes sped by. Reindeer still thundered outside. A clatter arose from our door and I feared it to be the SS officer so ran for the mattress to use it as protection from bullets. I fell into it, clung to the frame, and as I turned around, a skijeger burst into the room. The soldier, although in white uniform, did not sport the same facial color as his comrades under steel helmet.
"blue devil," I muttered. It had been him all along! He devised this fantastic escape but his intentions struck with frightful doubt. I held to the bed frame, hoping it would save me from a yank away into his clutches. He came over to Erik, took him into his arms, and vanished from the cell, leaving me alone, and I thought in this action, his efforts were directed toward capture of my friend. He soon returned and went for my mattress. His blue face, hallmarking his approaches with a fearful mask, made me shirk into the corner. A glimmer sparkled in his eyes mirroring flames at flicker outside and he stopped in reaching distance of me. I wanted to jolt from my position and escape past him for the door, but he maintained an arresting stare. His eyes, bright and penetrating, held meditative sway over my actions.
"Do you care to live?" He spoke in crisp English.
"Eh, what?" I said, caught in indecision on how to evade his attempts to take me with him.
"Do you care to live or die here?" he repeated. His words, precise and clean spoken, rang with trust.
My mind returned to memories of warnings upon this tattooed devil spoken by our bartender Steiner. I did not want to be eaten alive, so voiced a protest. "To live another day, yes, but I've had my doubts on you. But I'll go."
"Then come, I have brought means to take you away."
This last assurance, although blunt, gave me enough courage to put confidence in him. I got up from my mattress and followed him out, where six reindeer with hairy antlers, waited to pull the weight of a sleigh. This discovery, including confirmation of Erik's safety, his body at squirm beneath a felt blanket pressed between massive runners, prompted me to jump in to share his warmth. Although I met a tight squeeze, the felt covers allowed for a comfortable fit.
The blue devil stood behind us on runners, held onto reigns, jerking them with a yell. The reindeer broke into a trot. I positioned a pillow, a quilted cushion, its make showing signs of Lapp craftsmanship, low enough to allow observation of my surroundings. In our passage, I caught sight of remaining deer, stragglers from the herd, meandering about the snow. The terrain, lit up bright by flames, made it easy to spot them and also corpses, but my attempts to find the SS officer amongst the dead met with failure.
Ahead, vibrant walls towered to the sky. The shot embers, dancing fireflies, flew in flagrant flocks of color that died out against cooler expanses of air. Our sleigh jolted for this fiery barrier and doubting our directors intentions, for his team ran not for safety of wood behind us, but certain death into fire, I readied myself to leap away. We sped closer to suicide. I hit Erik to express my concerns, but he didn't nudge from under his blanket. Now I would have to make the fateful choice, push him off, or make my own retreat, leaving them to watch as they became human torches.
The reindeer kept on toward fate. We neared the deadly cauldron, but the team veered left, ran the flames length, until they plunged us into a valley, bypassing flames. Reindeer pulled our sleigh in haste into a squeeze between slopes. At mercy of the blue devil, I hoped, wherever he took us, we would not end as dinner on his plate, but such a gruesome ill seemed better than a guaranteed death given by our SS officer. I tucked myself underneath a blanket, assured my destiny lay in safe hands.
I awoke not in the sleigh but under a blue sun surrounded by darkness. I stared up at it in wonder. A blue sun? My glance fell and I noticed flames. My mind flashed back to our sleighs charge into a fiery demise. Maybe we had not escaped after all! At this moment, tricked by the blue devil, our sleigh had charged into the fire, our escape through the valley only an illusion thrown at me in a state of bewilderment. I wanted to scream, yet skin did not fall from my bones in charred lumps and in my furtive glances about, hoping to cherish seconds of fading life, a painful heat did not attack my body.
As I lay at mercy to this dreadful end, other persons accompanied me to my death. They sat around in colorful costumes and sun burnt faces tucked into elfish hats, yet they were not on fire! In their wear of abiding rainbow, they bent over me, expressions tense, eyes shut, as if in meditation. Maybe they were spirits from the other side? They whispered prayers, yet still caught in the horrors of finding myself on fire, I answered them with screams. As my yells broke over their voices, a sudden stranger appeared amongst them. He looked down from a countenance of tattooed blue pinched between folds of a headscarf.
"Awake, my friend. That is good!" A mitten clad hand sprang out to me and grasping onto it, I stood up. I looked about my surroundings and found fate had brought me into a tent rather than hellish cauldrons. A fire burned at center, Lapps sitting around it in contemplation and above their colorful hats, smoke arose from the pit and escaped through a hole in the overhead canvas. I wondered if the Lapps prayed for my recovery and wanted to voice my appreciation, but the blue devil led me out into the cold.
"This will be your home," he said. "Anything you desire. Food, drink, or rest, I give to you, but you must be respectful around my people." We went around the walks of the Lapp settlement, passing by tents, and behind us grazed countless rank of reindeer on a bluff, a packed constituent to the landscape, for the camp lay on a mountainside, on the left a cliff with a fantastic view over snowy ranges, and to my right, a steep slope choked with pines. "The Sami have been through many hardships under German occupation," the blue savage continued. "I do feel for them with all my heart. They are a part of me, a breathing force, or a spiritual need as you might say, so their respect has been earned through conflict and understanding. I am here to protect them. I am their angel, as they call me. I know people have said to you, locals in the villages, that I am a menace, a blue devil. They fear me."
"Yes, they fear you much." We passed more tents.
"They are only lies. I do have good intentions, but our German neighbors, they hold only malice for the Samit and the Norwegian peoples. They are a thorn in this country. I consider myself a liberator of this evil."
"Well, it is good we have come to an understanding. How did you know I spoke English?"
"You question my mentality, American? My ability to see what others do not? In knowing your English, I will answer plainly. I think and see differently than others. I was born with spiritual gifts. I am a mind reader as you say, in a spiritual sense."
Lapps, suited in colorful costumes, their feet springing from snow in curled shoes, ran for a stave church further ahead.
"Why are these Lapps running for the church?" I asked.
"The church?" The blue fellow laughed. "It is morning Mass. Missionaries converted most of the Sami to Christianity hundreds of years ago, but we have developed our own brand of Christianity mixed with shamanistic beliefs."
"Christian?" I whispered in protest, for his tattooed face gave a contrary identity.
"Yes, I do know you look at me and from the blue tattoo regard me as a savage, a devil, but these blemishes, they are sorrows. They have been branded upon me by humanity and our occupiers. I struggle underneath the weight of these sorrows and show them to the world. As Christ died for our sins, he tried to vanquish these burdens upon the human race, but I have been sent for other reasons. A task that will later reveal itself, but let us go to service. Our previous priest, a shaman, was captured by a German patrol a month ago, now I am spiritual mediator over the community. They have appointed me to take his place, but I have given the responsibility of serving Mass to another, but I do assist this patron with other religious duties."
We went for a turreted stave church, its architecture reminiscent of a wooden dragon with its three tiers of scaly shingles, pagan etchings, and at tip of each gable, a carved beast. A crowd of Lapps, dressed in smocks of a brilliant blue and red, blocked entrance into it. Children clung to their mothers, hiding their white capped heads in dresses, visibly frightened of not my savage leader, but me. The blue fellow patted a boy, dug into his pockets, took out a braided patch of cloth with ornamental beads at its ends and tucked it into his tiny palm. The boy's eyes lit up when taking this gift, smiled at the noble savage, and after looking at me, retreated into the folds of his mothers skirt.
"Well, let us make way for the Lord's mass," said the blue savage. He parted the crowd with gentle shoves. We bolted into the dragons belly and within its lair a congregation area with high ceilings, rows of pews, and dark wooden walls, greeted us. While walking down the center aisle, I looked above me, spotted beams reminiscent to those found in the chalet, with their pagan art, and as my eyes fell forward of my approaches, I spotted above an altar, as if shamming the pagan woodwork, a crucifix.
Early arrivals had taken front seats so I went for a pew section at the furthest right, sat down, and while adjusting my weight, looked in amazement at monstrous swirls swimming across a nearby wall.
The blue savage ran down the main aisle, bowed before the altar, then, as a priest walked in from a door behind, wearing white vestments over a colorful costume, stood as he made the sign of the cross over him. After this blessing the savage sat in a chair nearest the priest and stared up in distraction. Church services began.
The Mass, spoken in Norwegian, sped through custom ceremonies. I faltered to understand much of the practices being a non-believer. A nagging fatigue attacked me. It tore through my concentration, made the voices at preach near the altar fade into mutterings. Stuck in a daze, I heard nothing but my heavy breathing, creaks in a wooden pew or a rise in the priests voice sometimes jolted me from this trance state. The priest in a loud proclamation announced the start of a homily, shooting me out of another stupor.
"Brothers and sisters," he said. "You have come here today as sheep seeking protection from ravenous wolves. Our angel, a noble who has protected us in these troubling times has given us a new hope in our fight for survival." The priest patted the shoulder of the blue savage. "Yes a foreign enemy has taken control over our native lands, but our angel, this saving light, has guided us through our struggles. He has beaten back the enemy from our camps, sent our oppressors in retreat for their towns and local regiments. In these heroic actions he has saved us from enslavement. We too must not fear the beast. We too must shun this master morality that tries to fetter us in shackles! They mark us for extermination and deem us undesirable. Our fellow guardian knows this and risks his life to save us from these murderers. You think with his blue face that such a man, although he do wear our enemies garb, would call him a comrade? No my fellow Sami, if captured, they would brand him for execution. He does not hide his angst or rebuttal to their racist culture with his blue tattoo. We too must help our kind benefactor. We too must not look the other way when he points for assistance. In your willingness to assist he will not only save your family and friends, but your own life. The masters have enslaved many of our local people, but we shall never give into their threats!"
The priest walked down the main aisle and pointed at me. "Here we have a guest saved by our oppressors and also another." He brought the audiences attention upon Erik, who sat on the other side, looking not at these Sami, but at me. "They too are brave fighters against the menace. They were captured in a prison camp just yesterday, awaiting I presume a sentence or execution?"
"Execution," nodded Erik.
"Yes, the dreadful word, a sealed death. Yet you, as others amongst us, fought a valiant battle against our occupiers. You fought and lost. Yet out of this doom, salvation sprang with faith, and as these two fighters awaited their deaths, their faith in salvation was answered by the graciousness of our angel's heroic actions!"
Loud thumps arose outside against our sanctuary. At first I thought it settling from the foundation. Ancient and heavy in construction, the stave church sported a centuries old frame, and the wood probably groaned in protest under such a burdensome weight. The priest stopped to listen. The sound erupted again. Many more thumps hit. I even heard one bumping near me behind the sinister swirls. The blue savage, visibly alarmed by this interruption, gave a sudden turn of his head to look about the room, then he sent a powerful gaze over the attending Sami, and launched himself down the main aisle and out the church. I stood from my pew seat in confusion, wishing to leave and accompany him, but sat back down, hoping for his return. It did not take long for him to barge in to announce his findings.
"Fellow Sami," he shouted. "Mass has ended, we must hide now. A patrol is approaching! There is a slope neighboring the camp, file out, and meet with me there."
His warning shook me with worry. I shot back to my feet, went to the blue savage in a flurry of excitement and followed him outside. While standing on the church lawn, I searched the horizon for the German patrol. Packs of reindeer, a few shaking their antlers, crowded the camp. The blue savage turned to each of them with a look of concentration, his eyes flashing as they trained on their swings. Maybe these reindeer signaled messages to him. Earlier he had told of his spiritual powers and ability to enter other peoples minds, so he probably read their thoughts and found answers to our problem.
"Follow me," he commanded. I went with him into the encampment, piercing through coats of gray clogging our advance. The noble savage came to a halt and glanced side to side. In his abstraction he seemed to let the environment take control over his senses and with each smoky breath and cant of his head into the air, it did appear he sensed disturbances in the atmosphere and from these changes, learned clues about our enemy. "They brought tanks!" he shouted, "follow me over here, we will have to improvise."
He pointed at a tent. We stomped in the powder toward it. The noble savage swung open its slit door and bolted inside. I went further into the tent, blinded by its darkness and waited for him to find the sought after items. Around me hung various rifles and submachine guns on their individual hooks. The noble savage took a rifle and gave it to me. After sifting through more weapons, he came out and shook two massive plates, metal pans with a green paint scheme.
"You see, take this for the tanks. They're teller mines." I took the offered weapon and tucked it into my armpit. I leaned over him to examine other surprises stashed for battle with the enemy. My lean must have been too close, for he grunted, yet instead of pushing me away, he shoved a pair of skis into my chest, as if hoping it would deter me. He left the tent, shut the flap, and carried out his pair of runners. The cold cut into me and I shivered against it, holding my teller mine fearful it might explode.
The blue savage ran into camp, rose a hand and let out a terrific shrill. At its call, reindeer flashed by, running up the slope to disappear amongst pines. As they retreated, their shepherd accompanied them. I stopped near a tent, heard growling engines, and as these sounds rang louder, many voices arose amongst them.
I hiked the slope, leaping between reindeer, and ran into a crowd of church attendants in their tribal costumes and elfish hats. They hid under cover of pine, far enough above the camp, but at such a low sit upon the rise, they had view of activity in the settlement below.
I sat amongst them, put on skis, although the angle of the rise made it difficult, and while leaning against a tree, a fellow Sami adjusted my rifle so it sat better on my back. I nodded in kind regard to his assistance, a gesture he did not return, for a stranger from behind, surprising me with his presence, leaped in front, and handed me a pole.
"You forgot this in your run," said the noble savage. He offered a pole brought from the shed. "I think we are safe here. Looking down, I think they won't see us at our watch."
"Let us hope so." I still fretted over a patrol marching up in search for us. I slid my skis against the snow and heard frightful noises below. Two white tanks like dislodged rocks floating through an avalanche plunged into the camp, skijeger skiing out from behind them to vanish into tents.
The noble savage went to a reindeer, whispered into its ear, and in answer to this spoken interchange, the creature broke into a climb for the herd behind us. I locked a gaze on its retreat, hoping it would not be shot down by an enemy arrival at reaching of the summit. The lead tank drove further into the encampment.
"Are they coming for us?" I asked.
"Be quiet." The noble savage hooked his teller mine to a belt and took hold of his poles, readying for a launch. I answered this action with my own attachment of the weapon. "Here they come, get ready with your poles." He darted looks behind and in front of him.
I grabbed my poles. A mist blew in from behind and swarms of reindeer, their gray coats glistening in the sunlight, followed its retreat. They charged into the camp, flooding its expanse with their hides. A few burst into tents killing soldiers. After success in this death work, the beasts backed out, with blood dripping down their antlers. The remaining skijeger who found themselves stuck between flanks of gray fired their weapons. Splashes of blood shot from hides. Deer, caught in the deadly spray, fought against their attackers. Skijeger skied away, retreating for cover behind tanks, and as they ran, reindeer chased and killed them.
"Okay," the blue savage barked, touching his teller mine. "You see this?"
"Yes." I stared at his weapon, curious to what he had planned for our enemy.
"You see the mushroom pressure plate in the middle of your mine?" He pointed at a circular disk encasing the larger pan. "It's dynamite. We will run down, pull the igniter cord, then smack it against the back of a tank. You must be quick. Lodge your mine against the engine and ski down the cliff. You understand me? I know you're a good skier, so the ski down the fall line will not be the worst of our problems, but you must be quick, or you will be shot or caught in the explosion. So are you ready?"
"Yes, I am." I bent over my poles.
"I will sound the call." The blue savage readied himself for a launch. "I will race for the forward tank, you go for the rear. You hear me? Go for the one behind it. Watch out for reindeer. They will be our greatest threat. Now!" He burst down the hill and I returned it with my own fall. I followed his descent, bent low over my skis, poles tucked, gaining speed for a push across the expanses. We flew by pines, touched the bottom, and shot into flats, reindeer evading our approaches.
The blue savage cut to a stop behind a tank resembling a steel gator, with its sloped armor, scaly hatches, and above its length, a gun turret. I skied by it, headlong into sprays of machine gun fire from a trailing tank, where the driver atop its turret, headphones at wear, added to the chaos by firing shots from his pistol. Under this harassment, I sped forth, using poles to get leverage over difficult terrain, slid out of gun range, got behind the tank, tucking myself underneath its rear storage compartment to evade bullets from the driver, and with a swift grab at my belt, hot exhaust blowing down on me, I withdrew my teller mine. A sudden burst from an engine made me fear the tank had shifted into reverse. No time to hesitate, I yanked the pull igniter and threw the set mine over my head. It clattered to rest above the engine. Explosions shot out of the forward tank and shook the ground where I lay, confirming a kill for the noble savage.
Now I skied for the cliff. The fall was very steep! I assaulted it under showers of sparks thrown by explosions ravaging the two tanks. Below, the slope sank far into a valley, where its surroundings, a panorama of mountains, made for a frightful view. I broke into turns to control my descent. The noble savage raced ahead and threw clouds of powder in his wake, but with each of my cuts, I felt pressure against my skis, the extreme drop vying to kick me off balance, but my expert use of poles prevented such a fate.
It was a long fall to the bottom. My guide, in his practiced turns, aided my courage. I charged through powder crusts and with each cut, noticed the noble savage had almost found safety in the valley. In his near obtainment of this goal, I mentally blocked off possible dangers, concentrating on an expectant rendezvous with him. The blue savage waited for me below and when reaching him, I reconciled his stop with a smile and touch upon his shoulder. He grinned back.
"Drop to the ground!" he screamed and I fell to the snow, spotting a skijeger in the distance, readying to fire a rifle at prop between crossed poles. As I waited to hear a report, a bark erupted further away and a spout of blood shot from his helmet. The skijeger fell dead over his poles. I searched about me for the firer and saw a Lapp waving at us on the ridgeline.
"That was close!" I exclaimed and got back onto my skis. "Let's hope they don't send any more men down, but it looks to me he was a sole hunter. So I guess we've beat them?"
"I think so. The reindeer and Sami finished off the skijeger and we destroyed the tanks," the noble savage said in triumph, pointing at flaming wrecks beyond the cliff. "We fought a good fight against them, but their deaths will only bring others. It's always a loss in the end against the Germans. Their kommandant will get word of his patrols disappearance and he'll send not a few men and tanks, but a full panzer regiment, and it won't be an easy fight. These constant raids into our migration grounds are very troubling. We are always forced to pack up and leave for safer grounds. Their patrols just grow larger. It is because of me. They want what I possess and will do anything to capture me, but they will fail. So now, we must move again, but with my fellow Sami we will journey to the northern settlements. In this trek we will try for our shaman. One of my journeymen has found his whereabouts. In times of evil, darkness does have a purpose. Our purpose now is to recapture our shaman."
We made headway through the valley, found a trail that took us up to the stave church. Here we met crowds of Sami in their flamboyant costumes and reindeer. Erik trudged out from behind this gathering, his facial expression strained with bewilderment. He pointed his rifle at a dead soldier below his feet.
"Well I killed one of them," he spoke in Norwegian. "It seems our reindeer, stronger warriors in the fight did not need much of my help, but I did get this one." He kicked the carcass.
"How'd he get away from the rest?" I asked. "Was he lucky?"
"Heh, no bajas, not lucky just smart," Erik pointed his rifle at an enclave in the stone wall surrounding our church grounds. "It fits a person you see. The reindeer could not get him, but when they left, he got out, saw us at run from the woods, and tried to shoot. He almost got one of them. The bullet just missed the Lapp and when I heard it, I fell into the snow, returned it with my own shot and got our feisty skijeger in the chest."
The burning tanks and dead scattered upon their wintry grave filled me with elation. Even though more challenges awaited us, I believed the noble savage, with his outdoor mastery, would be our safeguard. Content over this assurance I went about the camp preparing for a trek into the wilderness. I dismantled tents, took out sleighs, put deer into their traces, then tied clothing, food stuffs, and other essential supplies in between runners. Sami, aiding in this work, stole rifles and coats from dead soldiers, and in this process, taking only an hour, we had cleared evidence of Sami habitation.
"So you ready for the march?" Erik asked in a show of camaraderie, his body at lean upon poles, and on his back hung a canvas bag, rolls of felt bulging out from their untied seams. His confidence for our trek made me race for a neighboring sleigh to find something to carry. I felt guilty not having items to bear in our journey and found only cumbersome loads, tied and ready to be pushed into the unknown.
"Yes, I'm ready, but there's nothing for me to carry alongside of you." I noted the sun bleeding its last light on the horizon, and the sky, once a darkish blue, beamed with a pinkish radiance hinting the arrival of night.
"Eh, don't worry about it, bajas. Soon as we reach this prison camp to free our shaman, this heavy weight, it will all be for nothing! It will be dropped to the winds in our fight."
"Yeah, but look at the Lapps." I pointed at Lapps under weight of heavy packs. They did not show any signs of rebuttal, but rather skied about in glee. "I wish I could at least help a few of them. Won't they falter in the snow under such strain?"
"Don't worry about them, bajas. Look, you see as much as I, they are very strong, it will not hurt them. Come, we are leaving, just keep to your skis, and we will make it to this prison base. You the strongest of all of us!"
The noble savage led the column, beginning our trek with a smack against the forward reindeer. I skied center, distracted by a reindeer's swish of its antlers, for in this motion it showed a visible angst for the burden pulled across snow. We got down mountainous trails and fell into flats, our only companion outside multitudes of costumed Sami and deer, a limitless expanse of unpacked snow. Clouds of powder blew into us and temperatures fell to frigid lows. I could feel the chill bite underneath three layers of clothing. As we marched on, instead of frowning over our predicament, I laughed at the cold, and thought my red nose and cheeks, unprotected and numb under the elements, had a joking quality to their weakness, so I giggled like a madman, continuing on for the horizon, a destination that promised nothing but misery. A Sami clad in a brilliant red costume, the tassels of his showy hat at droop forward to his approaches, made me laugh again, and with every joyous utterance, this indigenous follower returned his own nervous giggle. He too probably doubted my sanity.
We trudged on, the darkness blanketing us like a icy nightmare. I staggered forth, poles at strike, but with a nagging want to fall asleep. This desire tempted me throughout our journey, a lullaby amongst icy breezes at howl in my ears, and I knew succumbing to its tempo would result in death. Fishermen from the northern frontiers had told me death from freezing was the most peaceful of fates, just substitute snow as a pillow and its eternal dreams, but in my circumstance, trekking through wintry expanses not as a prisoner but amongst friends, I thought it cowardly to succumb to such an end. So when Lapps came near, I would at times butt into them, embrace their heavy coated bodies, while watching passage of reindeer, then stay in this spot, smile at the Lapp's returned grins toward my person, and shake off an irresistible need to give into my deadly desires. I repeated these actions during our wanderings, until the last reindeer went by, and I broke my rest to reclaim a spot near the middle of the column.
The skiing only got difficult as the night wore on. The first ache arose from my limbs, this soreness transforming into a numbness, so I could feel neither my legs or gripped poles. I tried yelling out my frustration to fellow Sami, but my voice could not break through chapped lips. Our reindeer even struggled to get through the cold and a few in front, visibly spent, stopped in their traces. They did not halt for long under harassment of whip attacks from Sami.
Desperate, doubting our arrival at this prison base under our wintry predicament, I wanted to turn and escape, but the noble savage put an end to my frustration with a halt to our advance. The lead reindeer turned right under the savage's guidance, deer following its lead, and went about in a circle on the snow, corralling Sami in the center. I thought this halt much delayed, but in light of my condition, nearing the brink of physical collapse, I thought it better now than too late.
Sami fell upon sleighs, untied their loads, and dragged them into the middle of the circle. I thought the canvas parcels would be used in propping tents, but as they threw off covers, wood fell out and were prepared for the kindling of a fire. It took a minute for flames to gain strength, but as a fire crawled along bark in orange waves and caught more logs, its intensity grew.
I skied closer in hopes of sharing warmth from it, as the noble hurried about me tossing more logs into the fire. I fell into the snow letting it collapse over my body and readied to fall asleep, even though a pulsating pain, increased by the warmth from our fire, erupted out of my nose and ears.
A fiery gleam sparkled in the eyes of our noble savage as the cool wind blew above us, slanting tongues of flame so they lashed out at reindeer. I felt both comfortable and warm in my corner near the pit, sitting on the snow with Erik, drafts of hot air from flames buffeting the wind's attempt to creep in and chill my skin.
"Eh, so our noble savage finally brought us to a stop," Erik said. "I do think we will be safe here for the night, but with this wind, do you feel it bajas?"
"Feel it," I shifted my body in the snow and let its icy patches explode onto my legs. "This entire journey was madness. Didn't you see me behind you, laughing out against this godawful cold? It drove me nuts, but it's either marching out here in the madness or get caught in a battle against those Germans back there. It hurts my fingers you see." I showed him my blistered fingers. "I forgot to bring gloves."
Erik laughed and dug his hand into a coat pocket. He took out mittens. "Eh, but if I give these to you, it will be too late. Your hands are bright as beets. They are near frost bitten!"
I sank my numb hands into his offered mittens. "I can't believe it. I can't feel them. It's like you gave me nothin' for my fingers, they've been blasted by those winds. I hope we stay here the whole night, for if we continue on, especially under this cold, we're done for."
"It is up to our noble savage if or when we leave this fireplace, but I do believe we will stay the night. Look at the reindeer, they are coming near, you see." The reindeer pressed closer to the flames. "But it is not the warmth of the fire they seek, it is the wolves they fear!"
The noble savage sat next to me. "You like the fire?" he asked.
"Sure." I said, quite perturbed by the question, for it seemed odd as an initial greeting.
"Good, for when morning breaks we will have to put it out and continue on. We are nearing the prison base already and within a few hours, we'll be there, but we must be cautious of Germans. They have patrols marching all through these stretches. To them we are considered bandits and without papers my friend, an encounter will result only in a fight or capture. How's America? Does it get as cold as these northern reaches?"
"No, hardly," his inquiry seemed odd, but I decided to talk about experiences in my homeland. "Where I lived in Colorado, we would get some pretty icy days, especially in the higher elevations. Nothing as bad as this and let me ask you something," I maintained interest in finding out my friends personal history, for his mysteries as presented to me not only in encounters but in the dream, burned my curiosity. "You came out here to live with the Lapps, only cause you felt called by Christ to serve and protect them?"
"Yes, from the evils of our occupiers. Yet other reasons did compel my separation, mainly selfish aspects of society, aspects I did not share. Also my kinship with nature, the inner self, and most importantly love for the universal essence of man, his shared oneness with nature, which bonds all of us together as sharers of this beautiful world, compelled me to leave society. I do not agree to the selfish aims preached by men of our day, materialist precepts that say humanity should steal and pillage this world of its objective rather than subjective spiritual gifts. Out of this repugnance, I wished to break away and the only way to concede to such a wish was to live out here in the wilderness, live with a people who respect their surroundings and who are one with God."
"So you just left, because you thought you were different?" His story troubled me, not only for its selfishness, but showing of his lack of caring for humanity. "You could have stayed just to help those people you thought were not on the spiritual path, but you leave and live out here in the woods. It troubles me to think such a kind man as yourself would not stay to help those misguided by the worlds material passions."
"Friend, I do understand," the noble savage said with a kind tone, but underneath the words it seemed he hid an inability to devise a rejoinder. " I did try to aid those in my community, but they did not want my help. They wasted mornings and nights at the pubs, drinking life into oblivion, and at the end of a days work, they did not help others, but gave all their money to satisfy a bartender's bill, and repeated the task the next day. I grew tired of it. They never thought of nature, my friend. They never sought a forest clearing to smell blossoming flowers. They never sat underneath the trees to listen to the wind pass through bark, no, rather than savor these beauties of life, they wasted it on trivial pastimes eroding their cares for humanity. They did not care. I did try to help them, but they never took my offered generosity, but rather went back to their debauched life. I did try."
Now I felt assured of his goodwill, for I too could be named amongst the guilty debauched ones. "So when did you come to this realization that you were different?" I asked. "That you were a stranger amongst other people?"
"It was an early calling. I broke away as a teenager, leaving the town of Trondheim to live with Sami. I stumbled upon one of their settlements and traveled with them to various reindeer herding grounds. Those were sad times. Times where I wandered about the countryside caught in the blackness of melancholy. I expressed my sorrows to a shaman, he held no remedies, so I requested tribesmen to stamp my skin with my unremitting sorrows, so I could show my suffering to others in the physical realm. A talented Sami painted my entire body with needle and ink to show my sadness. It took him ten years, but now, as a grown man, I have never regretted wearing this melancholic expression."
I thought him crazy for going through such a physical and irreversible ordeal.
A wolf howl broke through our conversation. I sprang to my feet and saw reindeer pressing close to the flames, their flashing coats and beady eyes causing me to dread an expectant danger. Did a wolf pack approach us from the darkness? I took out my rifle hanging from a back strap, slammed a bullet into the chamber, and lifted its barrel upon a crowd of reindeer. Sami got up and huddled themselves closer together. A nervous reindeer shook its antlers and a shadow darted above it, landing near the fire. A flicker of light from the flames flashed over its bristling coat, revealing a wolf. The hunter had penetrated our inner circle, fangs at bear, ready to pounce on a fellow tribesman.
A pang of fear rushed down my body and caught me in a paralyzed stance.
"Stay back!" shouted the noble savage, tackling the wolf to the snow. A brutal struggle commenced between both attackers: the wolf snipping for the jugular of its aggressor, while our defender, his arms embracing its squirmy coat, kept the deadly jaws at bay. They wrestled about the snow and almost rolled into the flames.
I pointed my rifle, but my attempts to train it on the wolf failed for the bodies kept shifting in front of me. At times the noble savage shown at barrels end, then the snarling fangs of the wolf, and I gave up, but still readied to fire at a sign of weakness from our protector. The fight went on, the noble savage got the better of his opponent, but as he took out his knife and neared delivery of a deadly cut, the wolf slipped out of reach, and went again for his jugular. I almost wanted to end the whole masquerade by walking in to kick the four-legged creature, but as it got the advantage, the savage flipped away from death, and sent a knife blow. A yelp followed passage of steel through the wolf's neck cavity and our hero, his steel helmet flecked with blood, rose up in victory.
"Well that was tough," he laughed, yet I knew more wolves prowled outside our circle. Would they leap in for the attack? The noble savage seemed to sense this possibility and made way for a cluster of deer, knife ready, waiting for further attempts from the pack.
"Eh, like I told you, bajas," Erik said, patting my shoulder, his jolly countenance radiating in contrary bliss to our dire situation. His expression only made me nervous. "The wolves are fearsome out here. For them, cover of darkness is good. It gives them the blanket they need for sneaking. This one did not go for bigger game, it came straight for us. He went for small pickings. I have never seen such a method. This wolf very smart, bajas, slipping in to kill us so we could not defend the reindeer. Too smart, bajas, it makes chills run down me, to think it smart enough to come after us first."
Desirous to escape our predicament, chills shook my frame. I wanted to stretch an imaginary arm across the horizon to give a tug at the sky and let the sun in, but such an action required a godly power.
"Get my Runebom!" the noble savage shouted as he ran circles around the fire. "There are too many."
A Sami scrambled to a sleigh, took out a drum, and gave it to our rushing guardian. The noble savage sat with it cross-legged and beat a tattoo. His drumsticks struck swift against the skin and he tottered in and out of consciousness, his bulging eyes staring upon me, although they looked in distraction. His ritual kept me in awe and when the drum roll, starting with a few beats, broke into an attack against the skin as if it meant death to relent, eerie colors flew by him. At first a purple ray shot over the drum, looped around his steel helmet, and shot into the darkness, followed by orange streaks. His sticks kept pounding, even under harassment by these comets, and his body faded from sight. First his lower torso vanished, revealing only a darkness and a floating drum below a concentrated visage and then his entire body disappeared to reappear after a sequence of hits. At first I thought these hallucinations, but after shaking my head, hoping to shatter any mental confusion, the drummer again faded from sight, but did not reappear. His instrument floated in the air conducted by an invisible drummer.