The company of Sobelsburg Jager swam across the Eisenwasser in the dead of night. Two miles upstream stood the small town of Wentwitz. Almost of one mind the company decided to avoid going anywhere near the scene of their rough handling by the Hetzenberg army and riverine flotilla. Enemy troops still patrolled the area, but the agent had said the riverbank here seemed unwatched.
Lieutenant Weismuller led the way across with a powerful over arm crawl, towing a sealed keg behind him by means of a length of yarn. It contained a dark lantern and a tinderbox, along with a dry white kerchief and spare cartridges for his firelock Experience had taught him long ago to be prepared for every eventuality.
Not far behind Private Träger swam like a trout. Kleiner’s massive frame bulled through the water in the manner of a ship of the line, raising a white wake and earning a hissed rebuke from the Old Man. “Yes sergeant, sorry sergeant,” Kleiner burbled, water slapping in his face. The Old Man raised his eyes to heaven and wondered quite what he’d done to deserve to be stuck with such a lumbering brute.
Before long the first swimmers entered the reed beds and set their feet down on the muddy bank. Drawing bayonets blackened with soot and lamp-black, they crept forward, eyes searching the darkness intently for signs of the enemy. The small sounds of night creatures filled the air. An owl hooted somewhere in a copse of trees close to the bank. Waving their fellows on the lead jagers climbed the low rise into the water meadow.
Lieutenant Weismuller shook water out of his ears and gestured to the senior NCOs to gather around. He pitched his voice low. “Our contact should be here. Ensure the men have unloaded firelocks; I don’t want anything giving the alarm, do you understand?” A chorus of assent showed they did. “Good, return to your men.”
“Sir!” a jager cried softly, and pointed toward the copse. A light flickered there, once, twice, once, twice more. The owl had fallen silent.
“That’s the signal. Stand easy, men.” Weismuller unsealed the keg and took out the kerchief. He waved it in the direction of the light, knowing the white cloth would be easily visible in the starlight. The light flickered once then twice in response and went out. Moments later a man could be seen emerging from the darkness under the trees. Stuffing the kerchief into a pocket Weismuller went forward to greet him.
“You’re late,” the man said gruffly.
“And you’re impatient, but this is getting us nowhere.” Weismuller couldn’t make out the man’s features then realized the lower half of his face was swathed in a black scarf. “Is the way clear?”
“Yes. There’s a farm track leading out of this meadow fifty paces in that direction.” The man gestured. “The high road’s half a mile further along. Cross that and head roughly northwest, you’ll come to the wooded hills on the other side of the valley. Skirt around those, keeping northwest for ten miles. You’ll come to a burnt-out windmill. When you reach that, head north. Your target lies nine miles further on.” He drew a folded sheet of paper out of his cloak and passed it to Weismuller. “Here’s the best plan I could obtain of your objective. It’s not well guarded. Good luck.”
Without another word the man walked away, swinging his lantern, heading north along the edge of the meadow. Weismuller watched him go and sighed inwardly. I hate skulking around like this. Give me an honest ambush any day of the week.
He clapped his hands softly. “All right, let’s get going. First platoon, out front, form skirmish order. You others, form on me. Keep your eyes peeled! Move out.”
“What’re we doin’ here anyway?” Kleiner rumbled.
“We’re on a secret mission, is what,” Träger whispered with a sniff. "Or 'ave you forgotten?"
“And you two will find my not-so-secret boot up your butts if you don’t shut it!” the Old Man snarled right behind them. “Now face front and march!”
Both men stiffened and did as they were told.
The owl watched the line of humans until they passed out of sight. If it could sigh, it would have done so. Gradually the noise of human movement faded, and the small scurrying creatures began to emerge from hiding. The owl forgot the intruders and turned its mind back to the matter of hunting.