Dead leaves crunched under
's feet as he trudged carefully along the trail behind Mpande, following his silent, khaki-clad figure as he had done for the last three days. They were still making good time, pushing deeper into Duncan 's forests, moving slowly into the foothills. There had been no further sign of either side in the conflict in all that time, much to his relief. They had enough to battle as it was, just making their way through this terrain. The hills were growing steadily steeper, and the tracks, slippery with dead leaves and more often than not crowded with monkey-vine and thorn-bush, seemed to disappear without warning more often than not. Angola
But at least they were still moving forward. There had been a moment, after his close encounter with the forest cobra, where he had thought Mpande might just cut and run -- unable, unwilling or just plain afraid to accept the fact of Duncan's Immortality. But the tracker had taken it reasonably well, all things considered, and if occasionally
found the other man looking at him with an odd, almost speculative look in his eyes, well it was better than it could have been. Duncan
It hadn't been an easy thing to do -- to reveal his Immortality. Not that it ever had been, but this time was different somehow. This time he'd done it to keep going -- to find Methos. And if that seemed a little more mercenary to him than he was really comfortable with, then he was just going to have to deal with it. He needed Mpande with him to find Methos, and Mpande needed an explanation -- that was all there was to it. He could rationalize it simply enough in his mind, but somewhere in the region of his gut, there still lurked a vague uneasiness.
A massive deadfall across the track pulled
's attention into focus. Pushing his questions to the back of his mind where they belonged, he climbed up, swinging his legs over the dry, splintery wood -- and was tugged to an abrupt halt as he went to walk on. Damn. One strap of his pack was snagged on the stump of a branch and he had to slip the pack off his shoulders to free it. He was shrugging the pack back into position when he glanced up and saw that the tracker was stopped -- frozen in place in the middle of the trail. He had a split-second to wonder what was wrong, then the gunfire came out of the forest. Duncan
Instincts snapped into place like the click of a gun bolt.
His rifle was off his shoulder and in his hand before he could even think about it and he was running, diving, dragging Mpande into the cover of the trees, over the lip of a shallow slope. He crashed bone-jarringly hard to the ground and rolled into position; just managing to duck the other man's elbow flying past his face as Mpande tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs and gear.
Automatic rifle fire coughed out of the bushes about a hundred yards away.
squinted through his sight and returned it, unable to see where his shots were landing through the heavy cover. Shit! Beside Duncan , the tracker was kicking himself free of his equipment, swearing under his breath in a heated combination of Afrikaans and Zulu. He sensed rather than saw Mpande ready his weapon and roll to lie alongside him, squeezing off a volley of shots. Duncan
"Any idea who the hell these guys are?"
hissed, spotting a small movement in the bushes and firing into it. There was a high, short cry, almost inaudible above the noise -- a stab of bleak satisfaction -- then he was firing again. Duncan
"Not a fuckin' clue," Mpande grunted, lowering his rifle a fraction and firing into the same area. The bushes shook and
caught a glimpse of a flailing arm. Another one down. Duncan
But rounds were still smacking into the nearby tree trunks -- just above the level of their heads -- marking their location far too accurately and
wriggled backwards on his elbows, nudging Mpande back with him. When they had moved back so that they could just see over the edge of the slope, Duncan began to return fire once more, trying to pick out the individual figures where they were camouflaged in the forest. Duncan
"How many do you make it?"
asked as he concentrated on the view through the rifle sight and took aim once more. Duncan
"Hard to tell -- small party, I think maybe five -- six more. I got one for sure, you too. We can take them," Mpande replied as he fired into the bush.
grunted his agreement and squeezed off several more shots. They still had a chance, a good chance to make it out of this. They just needed to stay calm and think clearly. Which was more than a little difficult at that moment, Duncan conceded, with gunfire flying low over their heads, roaring and stinking and touching off reflexes, long-unused but not forgotten. Duncan
He kept firing into the bush, still unsure of his aim in the shadowed light and heavy cover. The opposition was well-hidden, barely more than vague shapes occasionally visible among the trees. He was beginning to think that staying there, pinned under their very-insufficient cover, was futile and becoming more so by the minute. They needed to make a move -- their cover could too easily become a trap. And they didn't have the weapons or ammunition to hold these bastards off for much longer. They had to get out of there; it was their only chance.
paused his rapid firing and turned to look at the tracker. "We can't stay here." Duncan
Mpande glanced back at him, irritation barely concealed on his face. "Where the hell we gonna go? We don't have a hell of a lot of choices here, you know, man. Not unless you're gonna tell me you can fly too."
Managing a tight smile,
shook his head. "Nope. Sorry." He had to think quickly, make a choice. Now. He squeezed off another couple of shots -- watched as they smacked uselessly into the trees. This was getting them nowhere; the cover was too heavy for a clear shot and too thin for a clean getaway. "You're going to have to make a break for it, down that way," he turned his head and glanced down the hill behind them for a second, "I'll cover you." He felt the tracker's hesitation in the silence beside him and added, "It's our only chance -- we can't stay here. Sooner or later they're going to work their way around us and close in. It has to be now." Narrowed dark eyes came up to meet his at last and Duncan saw the acquiescence there. And about time too. Duncan
Mpande began to scramble backwards, still low on the ground. "What 'bout you?"
"When you get to those bushes down there,"
pointed the rifle muzzle towards a thick stand of bushes amidst the towering trees, "you can cover me and I'll follow you." Duncan
Mpande gave a quick, sharp nod and pushed up from the ground, turning and running for cover.
could hear shouts coming from their attackers; they had to have spotted Mpande's dash. Then three figures in khaki burst from the trees and ran towards him, firing as they advanced. Duncan fired back, adrenaline pumping his heart into a single blurred vibration and tightening his focus to surviving each moment and nothing more. His shots found one target -- the man cried out sharply and fell, tumbling untidily into a bloodied heap. Duncan
He fired again and again, but the soldiers darted and swerved through the trees as they closed the distance between them, rifles held low and firing as they came. He almost missed Mpande's shout from behind him, so complete was his concentration, but his mind registered it a moment later and he turned to see the tracker skid and slide under cover of the bushes. Time to move.
Pushing up from the ground like a sprinter,
whirled and began to pound down the slope. Voices, gunshots came from behind him and he saw Mpande raise his rifle and return the fire, covering his escape. But something was wrong; there was movement -- a flash of gunfire -- on his left in front where there should have been nothing but trees. Duncan kept his head down and his feet moving, pounding over the rough ground, but a hurried glance to the right told him the same thing. Fuck. They were coming around from both sides as well as from behind. And there were more of them than he had thought too. Duncan
Pain burned through his leg as a low shot from the left clipped his calf, making him stumble for a second before he righted himself and kept going. The agony flared briefly and faded just as fast;
couldn't let it slow him down. He saw Mpande stand and slip out from behind the bushes and keep the covering fire coming. But he was leaving himself too open -- vulnerable -- in the battle-lust clear on his face. Duncan looked up to the left again and saw one soldier fix his fire on Mpande. Fuck. Duncan
Almost there and then the soldier was firing and
was diving at Mpande, throwing him down and landing half on top of him -- pain flaring again through his torso as a bullet ripped into through the center of his shoulder blade. Shit. Duncan
There was a sound like a protest from the man beneath him as Mpande pushed him off and sprang to his feet. The tracker seemed unhurt and relief washed through
in a warm flood. He hadn't been too late this time. Duncan tried to follow the tracker, tried to struggle to his feet, but his wound made him awkward, his right arm dangling uselessly by his side, and he fell to his knees with a grunt. Duncan
Then he realized that the gunfire had stopped sometime while he was down and the silence was hollow and strange in its absence.
tried to rise to his feet again but a gun muzzle was nudging him in the center of his spine, burning him through his clothes and competing with the pain in his shoulder and the new twist of fear in his gut for his attention. He looked up and saw Mpande drop his weapon and raise his hands in surrender. Footsteps thundered to a halt behind him and Duncan heard breathless voices speaking in Portuguese. Duncan
"Hey, man, how much they paying for bringing in mercenaries these days?" a young voice said behind him as the gun muzzle dug further into
's back. He held his breath, pain like knives still slicing through his shoulder. Duncan
started to protest, "We aren't--" but the soldier cut him off with another poke of the gun barrel. Duncan
"On your feet!" Another voice ordered, older, harsher this time.
inhaled slowly against the pain in his healing shoulder and rose carefully to his feet, turning at last to face their captors. As ragged and khaki-clad as the last soldiers they had seen, the Russian make of their weapons marking them as probably FAA -- government soldiers. The realization did not make him feel any happier. A small solidly-built man held a battered automatic pressed close to Duncan 's gut, his expression hard and unwavering. Behind him, eight other soldiers stood in a loose semi-circle, their weapons trained on Duncan and Mpande. Duncan
One of the other soldiers spoke up, the same voice as before, young and eager: "We shoot them now, yeah?"
The small man whipped around and smacked an open hand across the young soldier's head. "How many times you need telling, viado? You shoot the prisoners -- we don't get no cash for them, then catching them is a bloody waste of time. Use you fucking head for something 'sides you hat." He punctuated the insult with another smack to the boy's head and then turned back to Duncan and Mpande. He looked them over for a long, tense moment and then, without taking his eyes from them, said, "Enough fucking 'round. Tie them up -- we got to get movin'."
The truck bumped along the dirt road and
shifted uncomfortably where he sat on the gouged wooden floor. Mpande sat beside him, doing remarkably well, Duncan thought. He was quiet, but he seemed to be holding it together. About all they could hope for at this point. The walk through the bush from where they had been captured had been long and tense, their arms tied roughly behind their backs as they walked at gunpoint, stumbling up the steep and rocky paths for what had to have been two hours. Duncan 's shoulder had been slow to heal, the wound tearing open with every stumble and leaking blood down his back. Duncan
Which was useful for maintaining the realism of his injury, but a damned nuisance in every other way. Still, it had healed at last, in the rocking darkness of the truck, and finally it felt strong enough for him to test the ropes that bound him. They were tight and rough, but if he pulled hard enough,
could find a little leeway in them. He kept a close eye on their guards, sitting on the benches lining the back of the truck, while he worked at the ropes behind his back. Duncan
Mpande, sitting close beside him on the truck's floor, caught
's eye with an inquiring look. Duncan dared a quick glance down at where the tracker's hands were bound and lifted his own a fraction. An infinitesimal nod met his gesture and Duncan saw Mpande begin to pull and twist at the ropes that imprisoned him. Duncan
had no idea where they were heading, and the soldiers had been less than informative. But he could feel the truck heading mostly downhill -- in the opposite direction from where he and Mpande needed to go -- and the road was rough beneath its wheels. So they were still in the bush, but heading away from the mountains, probably north-east towards one of the nearest government held towns. Duncan
He was shocked out of his thoughts by the truck lurching to halt -- unexpectedly, judging by the reaction of the soldiers. The sharp braking hurled them all forwards --
's head connecting hard with the hard surface behind him. His vision swam for a second as the soldiers grabbed their weapons and leapt to their feet, thundering out of the truck almost as one. Duncan shook his head to clear his vision. The sound of a scuffle and a few sharp words were audible from outside before two of the soldiers re-appeared at the tail-gate. Duncan
The soldiers glared at them almost resentfully as they lounged against the back of the truck.
glared back. Perhaps it wasn't the smartest thing he could have done at that point but he just couldn't bring himself to bend his neck. In the background Duncan could hear the sounds of a confrontation -- harsh words shouted in Portuguese. The look stretched out, lengthening well past being mistaken for anything but open defiance. Stubbornly, he refused to drop his eyes. At last, a louder shout from outside tore the guards' attention away. Duncan
He breathed deeply with the easing of the tension as the guards moved to the side of the truck, still in view, but no longer looking at their prisoners. He was watching them closely when Mpande whispered, "You're a fucking fool, you know that, MacLeod? Maybe they got orders not to shoot us, but that won't stop them kicking the kak out of us."
had his mouth open to answer when the commotion outside grew even louder and, their guards, clearly unable to resist a minute longer, abandoned their post and ran towards the front of the truck. Suddenly, he found that he and Mpande were completely unguarded. They looked at each other for a startled moment and then went to work on their bonds. Duncan
found that he had loosened his ropes enough so that he was able to work his hands under his legs and bring his hands around to his front, where he used his teeth to help break the knots. The rough rope scraped the skin from his wrists and blood ran down over his fingers, but Duncan ignored it. A quick look at Mpande told him the tracker was trying the same thing, but he didn't quite have Duncan 's flexibility -- or pain tolerance. Duncan
"Give me a moment to get these off and I'll help you,"
told him quietly, still working at the ropes. Duncan
"Not as easy as it looks," Mpande whispered tightly as he struggled to mimic
's movements. Duncan
quietly agreed with him and went on trying to free himself. He could hear some sort of argument going on outside, raised voices rang out, but he could only catch snatches of shouted Portuguese. Something was definitely wrong out there, but if it gave them the time they needed to make a break for it, he wasn't going to concern himself about the details. There. The last strand of the rope broke at last and Duncan untangled it from his wrists and dropped it to the floor. Duncan
Urgency thrummed in his veins as he turned to Mpande and made short work of the tracker's bonds. The confrontation -- whatever it was -- was still going on outside, the voices rising higher and louder now. He heard a shouted word that sounded like imbecil! Well that was clear enough, he thought. An idiot by any other name.... Someone had screwed up royally, no doubt. A vague thought about clouds and silver linings crossed
's mind as the ropes fell away from Mpande's hands. The tracker rubbed his wounded wrists as Duncan beckoned him to the back of the truck. Now if they could just get out of here. Duncan
dared a furtive look out the back of the truck and found that none of the soldiers were in view. The empty road stretched out in front of them, leading back the way they had come. They could get away on foot, but how far could they reasonably expect to go before the army caught up with them again? Beside him, Mpande slipped quietly to the ground and Duncan followed, still wondering if they had another option. Duncan
Mpande made as if to take off down the road, but
stopped him with a hand grasped firmly around the tracker's upper arm. Mpande looked at him sharply, the questions clear in his eyes, but he said nothing as Duncan let him go, stepped to the side of the truck and, his heart hammering in his chest, peered around the side. Duncan
Oh shit. His stomach somewhere in the region of his boots, Duncan backed up, raising his hands again as the soldier pointed the gun into his face. A fresh river of sweat ran down his spine. The two guards hadn't gone far after all, just around the corner of the truck, far enough to be out of view, but close enough to hear them the second they had jumped from the tailgate. He heard Mpande's hissed 'oh fok' as the press of the gun muzzles forced them backwards.
had a sinking sense of having just made everything very much worse. Duncan
The two guards were close now, the rank, sour sweat of them heavy on the air as they held the weapons steady against Duncan and Mpande's chests. He didn't have to look hard to see the anger in their faces. The whole situation was looking worse by the second; definitely time for more decisive action. He just hoped he could trust the tracker to catch on quick enough.
"So, what's going on back there?"
asked as conversationally as he could manage, lifting his right elbow in the direction of the argument that was still going on near the front of the truck. Duncan
"Nothing for you to worry 'bout," the first guard tossed back with a snort.
"If you say so...."
left a long silence, staring the man down again. Waiting. And then waiting a little longer. At last the soldier blinked and shifted from foot to foot. Duncan suppressed a feral grin and waited a bit longer before he asked casually, "Been in the army long?" Duncan
The soldier frowned, confusion creasing his face. "Long enough -- what's it to you?"
looked pointedly at the gun in the soldier's hands. At the edges of his vision he could see that the other soldier had taken his eyes off Mpande and was watching the exchange instead. "Well," Duncan drawled, "if I was going to shoot someone with an AK, I might change the selector from 'safe' to 'fire' first." Duncan
Too predictably, the soldier looked down at his weapon.
It only took a heartbeat.
grabbed the rifle and yanked it forward, ripping it from the soldier's hands, then just as quickly, shoved it back into his chest. It connected with a crunch and the man crumpled forward. Duncan rammed the gun butt up as the man fell down, driving it into his face, blood spattering in a wide arc as the blow drove the soldier backwards to crash to the ground. He made a small sound, then was still. Duncan
Beside them, Mpande had grasped the other soldier's gun, struggling with him as the man fought to point it at
. Duncan lashed out with a high kick, snapping the remaining soldier's arm above the elbow. The soldier swore and dropped the gun, aiming a futile punch at him. Duncan ducked the blow, motion flowing as easily as a kata, as he whirled around behind the soldier, grasping him tight around chest and head. A sudden flex -- a quick, sharp pull to the right -- and the soldier's neck was broken. Duncan
The snap as the soldier died echoed for a second as he sank to the ground.
stood, gasping for breath over the bodies, forcing the bloodlust still burning inside him to dissipate. Mpande's tentative touch on his shoulder was a shock; he'd barely been aware of the other man in the heat of the fight. Duncan
Duncan breathed out slowly, letting it go; then looked across and saw the silent question in the other man's expression. "I'm okay. You?"
Mpande turned his head and fingered a long cut down one side of his face, grimacing as he wiped the blood away. "Yeah, man. Let's get out of here."
"Wait a minute,"
said. There might still be something... He stepped to the side of the truck again and cautiously peered around. Duncan
The government soldiers were standing in a tight group around their captain, who looked to be engaged in a heated argument with another man, also in fatigues, though
could see no badges of rank on his uniform. All their attention seemed to be focused on the confrontation, which was escalating to pushing and shoving even as Duncan watched. Several more soldiers moved into view and insults began to fly between the two groups. Duncan
"Coma a merda e morra!" Eat shit and die!
"Vai levar no cu!" Go get fucked in the ass.
And so on. Nothing overly creative, or even informative -- just regulation chest-thumping and saber-rattling. None of them were paying even the slightest attention to their captives...or the truck.
The figurative light bulb went on in
's head and he turned to Mpande, who was standing close behind him. Duncan raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in the direction of the truck's cabin. Mpande's eyes grew wide and he shook his head. Duncan
"You fucking insane, MacLeod? No way," he hissed, as he darted a look at the soldiers and ducked back just as fast. "They will see us and they will shoot us," he added, as if speaking to a five-year-old.
"They aren't paying any attention to us. If we can get the truck we can make up all the time we've lost today and then some. It's worth a try."
risked one more look around the corner at the soldiers and almost laughed. Mpande hadn't been wrong about the troops being untrained and undisciplined; a fistfight had broken out between the two groups of soldiers and several small knots of men were brawling all over the roadside. "Look!" he said, tugging Mpande so that he could see the commotion. "We're never going to have a better chance. Let's go!" Duncan
Mpande nodded, although he still looked dubious; he was muttering something in Zulu under his breath as
passed him and slipped around to the other side of the truck. The olive-drab canvas that covered the back of the truck billowed in the strong breeze and Duncan edged alongside it, making his way to the truck cabin. He looked back; Mpande was close behind, moving quickly and quietly. Another step forward and Duncan was beside the driver's side door, closing his hand over the handle, seconds stretching into minutes in the tension of the moment. Duncan
Then he was opening the door with a screech of metal that made him clench his teeth tight, sure that the noise must have been heard. He waited for a few heart-thumping seconds, squinting up over the truck's hood towards the brawling soldiers, but none even turned a head in their direction. Holding the door open, and keeping an anxious eye on the soldiers, he motioned Mpande inside.
Mpande climbed up into the cabin and slid across the seat, crouching down beneath the level of the dash.
followed and pulled the door almost all the way closed behind him, deciding not to risk another noise just yet. And thank god the key was in the ignition; it was past time they caught a break. Duncan
Crouched as low as he could manage in the driver's seat,
put his hand on the key. His blood was pumping so hard now he was sure that if he looked down he would see it pulsing under his skin. Now or never.... Duncan
Watching the soldiers over the edge of the dashboard, he took a deep breath and turned the key at last. The still-warm engine turned over straight away and he stepped in the gas and threw the gears into reverse. The truck shot backwards and he caught a glimpse of the soldiers' startled faces as they finally became aware of the escape. As he swung the heavy vehicle around, he saw discarded weapons being shouldered and knew the shots wouldn't be far behind.
"Stay down!" he shouted to Mpande as the truck almost took out a tree in the wide circle of their turn. The driver's door swung open, but
needed both hands on the wheel to force the heavy truck to complete the turn, so he had to leave it. A volley of gunfire began to pepper the vehicle and the side window shattered. Duncan
"Christ!" Mpande yelled as more gunfire pinged into the truck. "You hit?"
lifted a hand from the wheel and felt the blood dripping down his face. "I'm okay, it's just the glass. It's nothing." Duncan
"Not nothing if you can't fucking see. Shove over and let me drive."
said urgently. There wasn't either, a glance in the rear view mirror told him they weren't nearly out of rifle range and -- oh shit -- one of the soldiers was shouldering a rocket launcher. "Hang on." He floored the gas and the unwieldy vehicle lurched forward a little faster. There was a turn just ahead, a bend in the road that if they could just make it that far, could put them out of range. Then the turn was upon them and Duncan threw the truck into it, gritting his teeth with the effort of controlling it as he guided the truck through the bend in the road. Duncan
They passed through the bend just as a massive bang sounded close by. The truck rocked a little with the force of the impact.
glanced up quickly into the mirror as the view behind them dissolved into a fog of gray road dust and white smoke that rose like a wall. It was as good a cover as any and Duncan took advantage of it to turn the truck down a small side-road that ran off to the left. Duncan
"Where you going now, MacLeod?" Mpande asked, more calmly.
"No idea. 'Away' sounds good."
shot the other man a quick smile, and wiped more of the blood away from his eyes with his sleeve, wincing as some glass dug deeper into his skin. "Why don't you have a look in the glove box and see if there's some maps or something to give us a clue where we are?" Duncan
Mpande nodded and
heard him begin to rifle through the mess of papers spilling out of the glove box. Meanwhile, he was looking for somewhere safe to pull over. The forest grew right up to the road here and it was like driving through a tunnel -- nowhere at all to hide. He relaxed a fraction a few miles later as a truck-sized gap appeared around another bend in the bumpy track -- to call it a road was seriously overstating its worth. Duncan
He swung the truck as wide as possible and turned it into the space between the trees. Branches cracked and fell either side, showering leaves all around them. Okay, so it was a tighter fit than he'd figured, but at least they were well hidden. The camouflage colors of the truck wouldn't hurt either. He turned off the engine and sank back against the seat at last and began to pick the glass out of his skin.
"How're you going with that map?" he asked. Mpande still had his head down, sorting through the papers, now mostly on the floor.
The tracker lifted his head and frowned. "It's a fucking pig sty. My old commander would've had my nuts in a vice...." He looked more pointedly at what
was doing. "Shit, man, that hurt?" Duncan
plucked another piece of glass out of his cheek and hissed very quietly at the pain. "It's not too bad." The whole of Mpande's statement registered somewhat belatedly. "So you were in the army, then?" Duncan
"Yebo. Six years. You done some service too...." Mpande trailed off, but it wasn't really a question.
"Here and there,"
agreed. "Not for a long time." Finally, the glass was all out, the last spiky shard tossed out the broken window. Duncan picked up a canteen that was rolling around on the dashboard, spilling out some water into his hands to wash away the remaining blood before he became a smorgasbord for the local fly population. Duncan
Mpande sat up, but said nothing, looking out through the windscreen.
watched him tiredly. Hell of a day and it was far from over yet. Several more moments passed before the tracker spoke again, his voice quiet and steady. "Ngiyabonga, for before...you know, takin' that bullet for me. I'd be... Thanks, ou maat." This time the appellation held no sarcasm. Duncan
said simply. He could see how much it had cost the man to say even as little as that. And he appreciated that Mpande had come out and say it. But it was time to get on with things. "Why don't we have a look around the truck and see what else we got away with. Did they bring our packs?" Duncan swiveled in his seat to look behind it. There they were, stowed carelessly beside bottles of water, some ration packs with Russian labels that translated as...liver...and -- as a kind of cosmic apology for that -- a couple of bottles of South African beer. "Yeah, they're here," he leaned over and grabbed the two bottles and turned back to face Mpande, "and look what else they left us." Duncan
Mpande grinned widely, the awkward moment evaporating into the air.
set the beer aside. "Later." Duncan
"You the baas," Mpande shot back, his tone entirely too ironic for sincerity as he bent once more to the pile of papers on the truck floor.
A minute later, Mpande sat up, clutching a much-rolled sheet of paper. "Haya, haya, haya...check this out." He spread out his own find on the seat between them. "Look at this..."
skimmed over the paper and almost laughed out loud. It was a map, annotated all over with small tracks, roads and villages marked in blue ink. But there were some other markings he didn't recognize, red crosses over several of the roads and tracks and, inexplicably, over some open areas that didn't seem to be anything at all. "This is great, Mpande -- but what do these marks mean, do you think? Guard posts? Arms storage?" Duncan
"Guess we find out when we get there."
They could have been anyone of those things, but whatever they were, several of them lay between where they were and where they needed to be. "Let's go."