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PROLOGUE

David Redwood had never felt so alive.


The dense forest of the Ashworth Estate was cloaked in an
unwavering darkness. Harsh wind whipped at the young
man’s face as the night’s blackness closed in on him.
Invisible eyes seemed to follow his unruly path through the
undergrowth; half-forgotten whispers hanged in the air
around him. And he loved it.
The man came to a sudden halt and crouched down in the
undergrowth, unslinging his old rifle from his back and
looked up at the sky above him. Above the canopy of the
trees, the velvet blanket of the night sky enveloped the
world around him, starless and sombre, yet so beautiful at
the same time. All that betrayed David’s presence was the
dim light of the moon above him and perhaps the excited
fire dancing in his eyes.
Long ago, there had been a time when David had been
afraid of the dark. Afraid of what hid in the shadows.
Afraid of what might happen when the lamps were put out.
But not anymore. Nowadays, the darkness was his best
friend. Without it, he would be unable to complete most of
his many ventures of dubious legality. As he often told
himself during the rare occasions when his conscience
caught up with him, illegal ventures were generally a lot
more fun. Perhaps this philosophy was not quite up to
scratch with those of Plato or Aristotle but he stuck by it.
And tonight was no exception.
A second man stumbled after him clumsily, breathing
heavily and rubbing his head and groaning miserably.
David pulled him down to the floor and cuffed him around
the head with relish.
“Be quiet, would you?” he snapped.
“S’not my fault,” mumbled the newcomer in a whinging
tone that would have better suited a five year old. “My
head hurts,”
“Why?” said David distractedly, running his hand through
his raven-like hair and turning to his friend in
exasperation.
“Walked into a tree,”
David sighed. Stephen Harris had not been his first choice
for a poaching partner. The fact that he had just came out
worse in an unprovoked attack from an oak tree confirming
his suspicions that the man had the stealth and agility of the
average hippopotamus.
“Why have we stopped?” complained Harris.
“See for yourself,” David smiled, his grin broadening as he
pushed away the staunch blades of grass before him to
reveal the night’s plunder.
Pheasants. Fifty of the things, encircling the sky above the
mens’ heads, completely oblivious to the fact that they had
company. And, perhaps more specifically, company with
guns. Arguably the worst kind of company for a pheasant.
David had stolen the rifles from a couple of Brittish
squaddies on leave from the front line but a couple of days
earlier. In David’s opinion, they would be put to much
better use against poultry than the armies of the Third
Reich. Pheasants, after all, didn’t have MP44 Machine
Guns and David was relatively thankful for it.
“Remember,” he whispered to Harris, who was lying
clumsily on his stomach, fussing over positioning his own,
slightly battered rifle. “Every shot counts. We could wake
up the Colonel in a second with these beauties so don’t
waste shots. Understand?”
Harris nodded distractedly. Colonel Nicholas Ashworth was
the proprietor of the Ashworth Estate, a military veteran
who inspired bravery in some and terror in all. He was an
intelligent man and had strong feelings over many a subject
including the exact ownership of pheasants. As a
consequence, neither David nor Harris were particularly
keen on meeting the Colonel that night.
David scanned the surrounding area for his first target as
Harris sent a phemoneally poorly-judged shot through the
air, only to collide with the overhanging branch of a wiry
thin tree. David raised an eyebrow at his companion’s
ineptitude but said nothing. Instead, he reaised his own rifle
and peered through the slightly damaged scope. A second
later, the trigger was pulled. The shot rang true and David
observed with a grin as a particularly plump pheasant
plummeted to the earth with a dull thud.
“How d’you do that?” muttered Harris, sending a second
useless shot flying through the midnight air, trying and
failing to keep the irritance out of his voice
David turned to look at his companion and sighed.
“A little thing called aiming, Stephen,” he said, clapping
him on the back in a mixture of comradeship and the desire
to punch him. “You may have heard of it?”
Harris opened his mouth to retort but the dim sound of
footsteps in the near distance snapped it shut. A dim light
poked out among the darkness and in the newfound glow,
David could see that his friend’s rubbery face had turned an
ashen shade of pale.
“Somebody’s coming,” hissed Harris, stating the painfully
obvious, his voice unnaturally high. David ignored him and
moved to lie flat on his stomach, signalling for Harris to do
the same. His friend reluctantly followed suit, as David
stayed as alert as possible, wishing his breathing could be
more controlled and less horrifically…loud.
“Just stay completely still,” he breathed to the increasingly
panicky Harris as the footsteps grew steadily louder and
even more forboding than they had seconds earlier. “If we
stay quiet, hopefully whoever’s coming will just…pass us
by,”
“Sod that,” said Harris suddenly, rising to his feet and
discarding his weapon violently at David’s side with a thud.
“Harris, you bloody…”
Harris backed away from his companion and charged
blindly into the open, making his way frantically down
the path.
“I know you’re there,” said a voice softly from out of sight,
an arrogant, unpleasant voice that filled David’s heart with
dread. Harris let out a girlish yelp at this and promptly
blundered clumsily through the undergwoth, before
disappearing from sight entirely. The footsteps grw
louder…
“Harris, you bloody idiot, get back here…”
David leaped into the opening after his companion and
instantly wished he hadn’t. Stood in front of him,
brandishing a revolver and a dimly lit torch was Sir Henry
Ashworth, the eldest son of the owner of the track of land
that David had rather unceremoniously entered. Sir Henry
was an established figure across the county, with dark black
hair slicked backwards across his skull, an arrogantly
pointed face and provocative, grey eyes. But David wasn’t
interested in what he looked like. Truth be told, he was a
tad more concerned with the revolver that was currently
pointed straight at his chest.
“Well, well, well,” smiled Sir Henry, showing David every
one of his perfectly white teeth. “What have we here,
then?”

***

Colonel Nicholas Ashworth looked his best on the


battlefield, drenched in the blood of his enemies, his
weapon held high, his eyes burning with victory. He did not
look quite so impressive dressed in striped pyjamas and a
shabby purple dressing gown. Nevertheless, he had an
awful air of unstoppability about him and David did not
much like the option of having him as an enemy. Perhaps
crime doesn’t pay, he thought darkly, as he tried to avoid
eye contact with the great man.
“I found him in the woods, father,” said Sir Henry
imperiously from the doorway. “Little scruffy here thought
he’d try and shoot a few of our prize pheasants. Killed one
of the poor blighters as well. He should be bloody shot
himself, see how he likes it,”
“Yes. thank you, Henry,” said the Colonel calmly, without
looking up from his inspection of David’s rifle. He turned
to the poacher and raised one of his greying eyebrows
slightly. “This gun? Yours?”
“No, sir,”
“A good thing too, lad, it’s crooked,” Ashworth looked up
to glance at his guest. “How the hell did you manage to hit
anything with this blasted thing?”
“I’ve had lots of practise, sir,” mumbled David, staring
firmly at his boots.
“I don’t doubt it,” replied the Colonel, making eye contact
with the young man since he had arrived and raised his
eyebrows once more meaningfully. He sighed and then
without warning threw the heavy firearm into David’s lap.
“You see that oak tree in the garden? Behind the rose bush?
Try and hit it, lad,”
“This is hardly the time for japes, father,” interjected Sir
Henry, seemingly irritated that his father had more interest
in the shabby newcomer than he himself.
The Colonel ignored his son and watched intently as David
took aim cautiously and fired. Even in the darkness, it was
clear that the bullet had hit its mark; the deadly projectile
had embedded itself spectacularly into the tree’s wizened
old trunk.
“I say, bravo,” said the Colonel cheerfully, clapping David
heartily on the back. “You’re a bally good shot, lad, and no
doubt about it,”
“Oh, bravo,” said Sir Henry sullenly. “What this young
fellow needs, father, is a bloody good beating not appraisal.
I’m sure Dick Turpin could hit a target as well as the next
man but he was still a crook and he got what was coming
for him. Rather like this fellow,” he added, glancing at
David unpleasantly.
“What’s your name, lad?” asked the Colonel loudly,
ignoring Sir Henry with relish.
“David Redwood, sir,” answered David shortly, not entirely
sure what was going on.
“Well, Davey, m’boy,” said the Colonel, clapping his
grizzled hands together. “We’re always on the look out for
good men to join the 7th Armoured Division. I lead its Third
Batallion, don’t you know. We could put all this behind us
if you’d be willing to join us chaps up front in Africa,”
“No, thanks…sir,” said David expressionlessly. He had no
intention of being forced to fight in a war he had spent the
past two years trying to get out of because of a foppish
braggart and a couple of pheasants.
“Oh, I’m not asking, lad,” said the Colonel. His voice
remained as cheerful as ever but his eyes suddenly grew
cold. “We lost a lot of men in Tobruk, we’re rather
desperate for some new blood and you…well…you’ve
fallen right into my lap, so to speak,”
“How about this for an offer,” smirked Sir Henry, joining
his father’s side. “You can go to fight under myself and my
father in Africa, or you can spend the rest of your life
rotting in prison. It’s entirely your choice, Mr Redwood,”
David let out a sharp breath and stared up at the Ashworths,
a mixture of confusion, anger and desperation in his eyes.
“I can’t…I…I don’t want to go to war,” protested David,
wishing he could sound just a tad less pathetic. “I’m…I’m
not a soldier,”
“If there’s one thing I hate as much as a crook, Redwood,”
said Sir Henry coldly. “It’s a coward. And if I’m not
mistaken, you fit into both categories very nicely,”
David looked up at the two men and realised that he was
beaten. He wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened, but
whatever it was, he knew it wasn’t good.
.“Do you enjoy sending men to their deaths?” he murmured
expressionlessly, trying to avoid the smirking face of Henry
Ashworth.
“Oh, it makes the long Winter nights just fly by,” smiled
the Colonel. “Now be a good fellow, Private Redwood and
get some sleep. You can sleep here tonight; it won’t do for
my men to sleep in whatever god-forsaken hole you
crawled out of. Tomorrow, Davey, you become a soldier,”

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