Red flares arched into the air and drifted down against the dark sky. Shadows jumped from mound to body and gave life to the latter’s tortured and hollow expressions. The air was heavy with the stench of gunsmoke, death, and rot. The deadly melody of gunfire, grenades and shelling made it hard to hear one’s thoughts during its crescendo.
“Pip! Get the perisher over the ridge,” Sergeant Theirs shouted.
“Y-yes sir,” I replied looking around, shoving half-empty canteens, ammo boxes, blankets, papers, and other things off the tables, searching under benches. I tried to remember where I saw them. My heart pounded in my ears as gunfire echoed all around. The crate!
I scrambled to the wooden crate, slipping on the mud slick board, and grabbing the lock. My hands trembled as I pulled the keys from my pocket and dropped them into the mud.
“Fucking hell.” I dove my hand into the icy mud to fish them out and ignored the pissy smell as I banged the keys against a nearby crate, I could tell the keys apart again. I dropped the lock and tossed the lid open. It almost hit Private Stevenson when it slammed against the back wall of the trench.
“Careful, Pip. I got enough to worry about from that side of the trench I don’t nee – ” his head jerked to the side and his blood splattered across the crate contents. His body fell into the mud, his hollow eyes stared into mine as if asking, Why me?
I froze. Stevenson was the one who had taught me how to pass for smoking without actually smoking. Now he was…
My heartbeat in my throat, I struggled for air. A shell exploded and sent a wave of mud and clay over the sandbag wall. My ears rang, I huddled to the floor trembling with a scream caught in my throat.
“Pip! For god’s sake, you fucking Yankee. Get up or I’ll shoot you myself!” Sergeant Theirs shouted. After the incident with David’s leg, I knew he wasn’t one for idle threats.
“S-sorry, sir.” I forced myself to my feet and looked into the crate. Blood and bits of brains splattered a pair of trench binoculars. I grabbed them and cleaned them off as best I could before propping them up against the sandbags. I peeked over the ridge, over enemy territory. The regiment had captured the hill three days ago with heavy losses, more piled up each day since.
Shadows dipped and moved amongst the trees. Or did they? Was it branches moving?
“L-Left side. I see a bunch of shadows moving to the left near the broken wagon,” I shouted, my ears still squealing.
“Shadows? Or the enemy?” Private Nora shouted back with her mouth full.
“Might be a diversion to give our position away,” Richard added as he chewed on the last piece of his bread and jam. A few more shells landed in front of the trench and exploded with enough force to rattle the corrugated steel walls. The flash stung my eyes as dirt sprayed over the parapet filling the muddy trenches up more.
“I think they have a good idea of our fucking position,” Theirs growled. “If you are done, care to get on the gun?” He pointed to a stationary gun they’d moved during the day.
“Fine,” Richard grumbled and popped the last of his supper in his mouth. “Get some ammo, Nora. Charlie, help me with this.” He waved over the tall husky African to help get the gun into position.
“There,” I said as Nora returned with boxes of ammo. “By the fallen down tree. To the left, there’s a pile of rocks. I saw six, no eight people hopping between cover.”
“Welcome our guests,” Theirs ordered as Richard finished loading the gun.
“Aye, sir,” Richard replied and opened fire with a steady stream of lead. More shells fell around them and filled the trenches with muck. Something cold slapped my face. It landed on my shoulder and left a sting on my cheek.
I looked away from the binoculars and screamed at the arm laying limp over my shoulder, a few maggots nestled in the wound where the rest of the soldier should have been. A finger hooked the pocket of my jacket and hung on despite my attempt to swat it off. The binoculars fell as I stumbled back. Stepping on Stevenson’s hand, I lost my footing and ended up ass first in the mud.
“Damn it, Pip. You best not have broken the binoculars. They are worth more than you,” Theirs pointed sharply as he barked. “Go see what is taking Leon so long on the artillery. Andrews! What’s Command said about our back up?”
“Fuck all sir, I haven’t been able to get through with this hunk of mystical junk,” Andrews said and kicked the metal case holding our radio. “I told you we should have run a hard line.”
I scurried off as the two argued over what command said and what was a better idea. I tried to ignore the stench of piss, shit, and death, being careful not to step on anyone else.
I shouldn’t be here. I am not prepared for this. A week at basic is not enough. Am I going to die here? My mind raced while I ran, past others who dared a peek over the edge themselves. Why would you do that? I wondered and shook my head.
I passed an unattended can stove that was boiled over, the smell of burnt barley stew gave me a short reprieve from the horrid stench, that was until I climbed over a crate of shells into the gun pit. Leon kicked at the large cannon as he swore in Gaelic but switched to English when he saw me.
“Stupid. Fucking. Piece of. Godforsaken. German. Junk, ‘' he shouted.
I spoke up after he stopped kicking. “Theirs is asking what’s taking so long.”
“You tell him to bring his ass over here and translate for me, or piss off!” Leon yelled back. “I can’t figure out how to get a piece of shit to fire.”
Some engineer, I thought and glanced back at the shell crate. “Who helped you load it?”
“No one,” Leon growled and went back to pulling levers and flicking switches.
I knew Leon was a beacon of strength but didn’t expect him to load shells alone, that wasn’t an option for anyone else I’d seen.
The gun went off, and I almost shit my pants. My ears, which had finally stopped ringing, began anew.
“Haha! It was a magical trigger. Had to hold it long enough.” He opened the hatch and the spent shell popped out. “Come on, let’s stack these close by so we can really give em he – ”
A shell landed on a nearby crate that exploded with enough force to topple the artillery gun and fling me back over another yard. Leon screamed as the gun fell on him.
Lying on my back, by the pit wall where I landed, my body was numb yet ached all over. The smoke from the explosion glowed red for a second before the flares finally died out and it set back to white. It stung in my throat and I coughed as my hands rubbed over my body to make sure there were no injuries. I winced a few times, mostly bruises, maybe a broken rib. It took me a moment to get back to my feet once I had a lungful of air. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard the shelling had slowed. I looked around, to get my barrings, and noticed a figure hop into the trench further down the line. They’d broken through and had compromised our defences.
Flashes filled the trenches and gunfire grew louder as the fighting got closer, like a worm of chaos and death. The screams of the dying overpowered my dulled senses. I had only been with the regiment for a couple of months, but this company had welcomed me. My comrades were dying, was there nothing I could do?
“Pip,” Leon’s voice croaked out. “Pip are you okay?”
His voice brought me back and I released the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I scrambled over the crates to find him pinned under the fallen gun. “Jesus, Leon. Worry about yourself.” I ran over and tried to lift the solid steel cannon off him. I searched for a shovel or something I could use to dig him out.
“You aren’t gonna move it Pip. Go get some help,” Leon winced.
“I can’t. Germans have broken the line. If I leave – ”
Leon hooked my feet out from under me as a bullet zipped by my head. I hit the ground hard as a German charged, bayonet ready. My hand groped in the mud, gripping a shard of a crate. I brought it up, using it to block the blade, but it still pierced into my forearm.
I cried out as my assaulter leaned into his rifle, sinking it deeper into my arm. I fought to keep the blade away from my chest as it sank through my flesh. “Please, no,” I grunted out in German, and my arms trembled. He either didn’t hear me or was Russian and didn’t understand.
“Fight, Pip,” Leon said while he struggled to get his sidearm free. I looked up at the man trying to kill me and saw the hate in his eyes. It was as if I’d personally wronged him, and he was getting revenge. It’s not fair. I’ve done nothing to you. Tears welled in my eyes. I don’t even want to be here.
The German had me pinned. He stepped on my arm and I grabbed the barrel of his rifle, as the blade inched closer to my chest. My arm seared in pain but my mud-coated fingers couldn’t get solid purchase. Not like this. Not here, please God. I begged and closed my eyes and screamed out as the blade punctured through my arm and came through the other side.
A shot rang out. Blood splattered my chest. The German coughed out blood and reached for the gushing wound on his neck. Another hit and he fell back to the ground, his blood and brain matter splattered out the back of his helmet. Another shot hit its mark. This time the soldier had enough time to scream in pain before being silenced with another round.
I pulled the bayonet out with a grunt and cradled my arm. I looked to Leon, as more shots rang out. His gun was still in its holster, he stared over his shoulder, behind him toward the shots. I followed his gaze to see someone running up the trenches. Rifle raised over a shield, he fired off the rest of his clip. He wasn’t in German colours or any Allied colours I recognized, but he wore a helmet that covered part of his face with black and white feathers on either side.
Backup has arrived, I thought with a relieved smile, wiping the tears from my face while I got to my feet.
The soldier swung their rifle back, opening a pouch by their hip. Bullets bounced off the shield. The rifle swung forward, catching a clip from the pouch, then eased into the soldier’s shoulder before resting on the dip of the shield again.
A series of shots rang out, indiscernible from each other. More cries in German and Russian followed the thud of bullets. The soldier leapt into the gun pit and popped off a few more shots before swinging the rifle over their shoulder. An unfamiliar black and white crest was stitched to his chest.
“Why are you still here? A full retreat has been ordered.” A woman’s voice came from behind the metal visor of the helmet with a golden ring around it. Just as she finished, a series of blue flares shot into the sky.
“Because we just got the fucking order,” Leon growled, glaring at the blue flares, and then was back to struggling to free his gun. “And I thought I’d get tucked in with the cannon to take a nap first.”
The woman sighed and put her shield down on a crate. “Stop struggling, you’ll only make your injuries worse.” She walked over and grabbed the cannon with both hands.
“You aren’t lifting this thing,” Leon said. “It took three horses and a dozen men to get it here…” He fell silent as the metal groaned under her effort to lift the cannon off his body. I stared in almost as much awe as Leon.
Movement caught my eye. An injured German, lying half-conscious a few yards down the trench, had levelled his gun at the woman. She didn’t notice, too occupied with the several tonne gun. Time seemed to slow as I forced myself to move.
Dive in the way, shove her free, get a gun and shoot. Fuck, just say something! I leapt into action and grabbed her shield.
“Look out!” I yelled and jumped in front of her. The shot rang against the shield with next to no impact. Several other shots rang out when Leon got his gun free and returned fire. The German soldier winced with each shot, then slumped into the blood-soaked trench.
I leaned against the gun, stunned for a moment. How had I managed to do that? The shield, still in my hands, felt much lighter than it should have. It was comfortable to hold like something I’d used all my life. The front of it had a freshly polished shine and no scratches, the intricate bronze cross embossed on the front kept all of its detail too. I didn’t think it was thick enough to stop an arrow let alone a bullet.
I turned to the woman. She stared at me through her visor with wide, blue eyes. I froze as her stare bore into me. Please don’t stare at me. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything as heat rushed to my cheeks. Her eyes were fierce and tore at the edges of my soul demanding answers to questions she hadn’t asked yet.
“A little help here, Pip? The lady’s doing all the heavy lifting,” Leon said as he struggled under the artillery gun.
“R-right.” I swallowed and happily pulled my gaze from hers. I put the shield down before helping Leon get free of the cannon.
The woman set it back down, but I saw her continue to stare at me from the corner of my eye while I helped Leon to his good leg. His other foot was bent at a grotesque angle.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked me as she picked the shield up.
“Pepper, ma’am – I mean sir. Pepper Gregor,” I replied.
She tilted her head and looked me over as if studying everything about me. I felt like an open book to her, and it wasn’t something that I liked. If you have something to say just say it, I thought, and my arms trembled. I wasn’t sure if it was her stare that was causing the trembling, or my wounded, dripping arm.
“We call him Pip, cause he’s a pipsqueak.” Leon managed a chuckle. I struggled to support his bulky form when he leaned against me. Smoke began to pool in the bottom of the trenches and I heard the whistles calling for a retreat.
A shot ran against the cannon, it brought everyone’s attention back to the moment.
“You have your orders. Retreat. I will cover you,” she ordered and unslung her rifle, she turned to the sandbags to return fire. Bullets ricocheted off her shield, some found targets while others spun off into the night sky.
I took a step and looked to Leon. “Should we really retreat? Shouldn’t we help her?” I asked despite knowing the right answer.
He shook his head. “Lady Unbroken is enough to hold them off. Knights are seriously scary,” he motioned down the trench, where she’d come from. “Let’s retreat.” We limped our way until we reached the former German front line. The bodies from our advance hadn’t been cleared yet and maneuvering around their corpses made the retreat more difficult.
I stared out over No-Mans Land, Leon breathing heavily beside me, and felt my stomach tighten.
Please let this time be easier, I thought and we made our way over the trench embankment, and across the field of death, guided by the streams of blue light that drifted down against the dark sky.