The Danger of Life: Excerpt One, from the Prologue

They said it always rained in Scotland. Private Hannes Lambrechts had seen pictures that proved that wasn’t true. But in the short time since he’d arrived in this godforsaken corner of the country the heavens had done little to prove the cynics wrong.

If it had been quiet in the big hut you’d have been able to hear the rain now, beating down on its outer skin. But it wasn’t quiet. The largest available space at Achnacarry was crammed with khaki-clad men, talking, cheering and shouting. The building was perhaps three or four times as long as it was wide, and in its centre was a boxing ring. The early arrivals and the officers had been able to take advantage of the folding chairs set in rows up the sides of the ring and at either end of it. But much larger numbers were standing behind the chairs, some trying to see around the heads of the men in front of them, others making surreptitious wagers on the outcomes of the contests taking place in the ring.

Hannes was standing at one end of the hut, where he could only catch glimpses of the action. He knew that he was witnessing ‘milling’. It was the sort of recreational activity that could only have been dreamt up in a place whose whole purpose was to prepare men to kill other men as effectively as possible and avoid being killed themselves in the process.

The contests were a highlight of every course. Each troop picked their best ten men and they were matched weight for weight against representatives from another randomly selected troop. One team of ten wore black shorts and shirts, while the other team wore white. At the blow of a whistle, the first pugilist from each team entered the ring, wearing boxing gloves, and tried to defeat the other team’s first representative. At the end of a minute the whistle was blown again and the first man from each team was immediately replaced by the second, who carried on the contest without a pause. At the end of ten minutes all members of both teams had fought, and points were totted up on the basis of two for an individual win, one for a loss and none for a disqualification. The overall result for each troop versus troop contest was then announced, not always to the approval of the audience. It was boxing stripped back to its barest essentials, and it varied from the comical to the savage. As soon as one ten versus ten contest had finished, another was lined up to begin.

Hannes wondered if the experience he was about to endure at Achnacarry would turn him into the sort of man who could flail away with boxing gloves at another man simply because he represented a different troop. But that wasn’t his primary concern right now. Hannes was looking for someone. He scanned the backs of heads and profiles of the men around him. He’d already tried the other end of the hut without success. Wartime training and diets, military haircuts and khaki uniforms gave a certain sameness to everyone present, but Hannes was sure he hadn’t been mistaken. He had only seen the man for a moment in passing that morning, and it was only the odd look on the other man’s face that allowed Hannes to believe that his first instinct had been right. But he needed to be certain.

Then, to his right, he saw a pair of eyes turn swiftly away from his sweeping gaze. The man was off to one side of the throng. Hannes began to ease his way through the tightly-packed and highly excited crowd. If the man knew Hannes was approaching, he showed no sign of it. Then, when Hannes came within a couple of metres the man turned to look directly at him, and Hannes knew immediately that he had been right. Something was different, but this was the man he had been looking for. He paused, wondering what to do next, then realised that the man’s gaze had shifted, looking over Hannes’ shoulder at someone behind him. The man nodded and looked away. Hannes felt a sudden sharp pressure on his back, like a punch.

The knife was swiftly withdrawn. As the life ebbed out of him, Hannes remained standing, supported by the surrounding crowd for just long enough to allow his assailants to move away unnoticed. Even after he had collapsed onto the floor and the medical officer had been summoned from the ringside, it took a little while for the blood seeping from the small wound in his back to reveal that his collapse was due to anything other than natural causes.