30th Battalion command post, Llael.
13th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Morning came slow, cold, and cloudy. A faint but persistent drizzle was soaking everyone to the skin. The miserable cold and wet had come too late: the forest near the trench was now totally gone, a long black and smouldering patch of ground where a pleasant copse of trees had stood just a few days ago. Each siege round’s burning payload had baked the mud in no-man’s land into a cracked, dry surface a hundred feet around each crater. The Khadoran-built trench had been totally abandoned for its now-obvious vulnerability; the rear trench was much more defensible with its many corner-breaks and thinner profile, but it was also now more heavily occupied as a result, further increasing casualty risks if the Khadorans scored another direct hit. The battalion tent city at the far rear was utterly vulnerable and the rows of wounded from the first trench battle were still being slowly evacuated by too few supply carts. Impending danger seemed to lurk over their heads in the low clouds, every ear listening for the train-scream of the next bombardment.
After assisting the rest of the battalion with the second round of body recovery in twenty-four hours, Captain Kasey finally gave Hammer Company permission to dig in and rest. A mess of shallow, half-hearted foxholes sprung up as far back as Major Halleck would permit. In spite of the sense of impending danger, most of the company passed out immediately. They were bone-weary.
Captain Kasey was just as tired– maybe more tired– than they were, but he couldn’t permit himself to sleep. Not yet. After retrieving a tin of strong coffee and a meager breakfast of hardtack and jerky from the mess tent, he went looking for Private Joffrey.
The beleaguered Llaelese trencher was sprawled in an ineffectual foxhole with three men from his unit, all of them snoring with gusto. He tapped Joffrey’s helmet with his boot.
“Get up, Private.”
Joffrey jolted awake with a snort and stared up at the Captain in surprise.
“Sir…” He struggled upright.
“Private Léandre, correct?” Kasey asked.
“You’re fluent in Llaelese, I’ve been told,” the Captain said.
“I was born and raised in Elsinberg, sir.”
“Mm.” Kasey nodded approvingly. “I visited there when I was a teenager, once. Long time ago. Really beautiful city.”
“Sir,” Joffrey answered wearily.
“I’m very sorry to wake you, Private, but as I know you’re aware, we’ve helped one of the citizens of Albyn escape. I need you to help me debrief her.”
Joffrey tried to hide his grimace and failed. “Debrief,” he echoed bitterly.
“That’s right,” Kasey continued, ignoring Joffrey’s less-than-enthusiastic response. “She should be able to give us some intel on the layout of the town, the number and condition of the occupying forces, maybe even offer some insight into what sort of defenses they’ve established within. Vital information.”
“Debrief,” Joffrey said again like the word was a nasty taste he couldn’t get rid of. “Interrogate, I think.”
“No,” Kasey insisted, “When I say debrief, I mean debrief. She’s a civilian, not an enemy combatant. We’re trying to help these people, Private.”
“So far all we’ve managed to do is destroy their land and blow up their houses,” Joffrey grumbled.
Kasey raised his eyebrows. He really wasn’t in the mood for this. Not now.
“Want to try that again, Private Léandre?”
Joffrey cleared his throat nervously. “Ah, yes. Yes sir. I will translate.”
Kasey sipped his coffee without breaking eye contact. “Do you have a problem with our mission in this country, Private?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Joffrey answered automatically.
“Don’t lie to me, Private,” Kasey said dangerously.
Joffrey shifted. “Permission to spea–”
“Denied.” Kasey cut him off. “Just answer the question.” He waited.
Joffrey swallowed. “No sir, I don’t have a problem with our mission in my–” he caught himself quickly– “in this country. Sir.”
Captain Kasey’s eyes were flint. “That is the correct answer, and it had better be your truth,” He replied, “because you aren’t fighting for Llael, Private. You are fighting for Cygnar against the Khadorans on Llael’s behalf. We clear on that?”
Joffrey closed his eyes momentarily and exhaled. “Yes. Sir. I am clear.”
“Good. Now follow me.” Kasey started to walk, then turned and handed him the cup of coffee. “Drink that. This could take a little while.” Joffrey reluctantly accepted the beverage.
“Of course, sir.” His voice was the epitome of resignation.
The young woman was nearly catatonic, wrapped in a blanket and seated on a crate inside the main planning tent. A field medic was waving a hand in front of her face when Kasey and Joffrey lifted the flap.
“She’s in rough shape,” the medic said, scratching his head. “Cried for a long time and now she won’t talk.” He shrugged.
“Let me speak to her,” Joffrey said.
The medic shrugged again. “Good luck.”
“We’ve got it from here, corporal. Thank you.” Kasey dismissed the medic and leaned against the planning table. Joffrey sat beside the woman gingerly and set his coffee cup aside.
“Mademoi, le me pouvous votreux nome?” Joffrey asked quietly. She slowly turned to look at him. Hearing her language seemed to unleash her from her frozen state. Kasey waited patiently.
“Lilliana,” she answered. ”Me famil, me famil… ils voun assassiner me famil…” She let out a raspy sob and fresh tears ran down her rosy cheeks. Joffrey looked up at Kasey in obvious discomfort.
“Sir, she’s… She says the Khadorans are going to kill her family,” Joffrey explained.
“Tell her I’m very sorry, we are going to do everything we can to stop them,” Kasey replied. Joffrey hesitated a moment before translating.
“Comme?” She asked, looking now at the Captain. Her grief was palpable. He steeled himself against its prickling glow. He could not feel. He had to stay in his head. “Vas forces sou en ruines! Me famil est probablement morte ence momen… “ she sobbed again.
“She says, erh… our forces are ‘ruined’, how can we help her? She thinks her family might be dead.” Joffrey sounded miserable already. Kasey had to get both of them refocused on what he needed to know before this turned into a sob session.
She wiped her nose. “Baise combat,” she said bitterly.
“War sucks,” Joffrey translated.
Kasey pursed his lips. “Yeah, no shit.” He crossed his arms. “Tell her that it’s very, very important that she help us. We need to know the layout of the town,” Kasey said. “And tell her reinforcements are coming very soon,” he added quickly. Joffrey translated obediently.
“She asks when,” Joffrey said.
“In a day, maybe two,” Kasey answered. Joffrey translated. This only caused her to redouble her crying and release a flood of garbled words Kasey could barely even distinguish. Joffrey looked up at him helplessly.
“She’s sad,” he commented lamely.
“Yes, thank you Private, I couldn’t tell!” Kasey bit his tongue. The fatigue and stress were wearing at him. Making him lash out. He couldn’t allow that. He rubbed his forehead. “Tell her if we can understand the layout of the town, and of the Khadoran forces… we may be able to mount a rescue.” He looked at Joffrey. Joffrey looked back at him. It was a lie and the private knew it.
To Joffrey’s great credit, he turned to the woman and repeated Kasey’s words. She looked at Kasey hopefully.
“Verimant?” She asked.
“She asks if you tell the truth.” Their eyes met again.
Kasey sighed. He looked at Lilliana. “Yes,” he said.
“Murcie… murcie…” she sniffed and a faint grin touched her lips. Kasey looked at his boots to hide his shame. He could feel Joffrey’s eyes boring a hole through his skull.
Upon hearing her family might be rescued, life returned to the poor woman and she began sketching the town in surprising detail on the reverse side of the planning map. Her energy and determination grew with each passing minute, talking so rapidly Joffrey could barely keep up. After thirty minutes of back-and-forth Captain Kasey had the clearest picture of their objective he could have hoped for. Locations of bottlenecks, possible traps, buildings the Khadorans had chosen to occupy, even the location of their armory. She estimated there were only about one hundred and fifty Khadorans left. That was the good news.
The bad news was there were twice that number of civilians still in the town. Kasey’s heart sank. No matter what they did next, collateral damage was going to be catastrophic. He had no doubt the Reds would use the civilians as body shields when their backs were to the wall, and he wasn’t totally confident all his men would be able to pull their triggers when faced with such brutality.
The Khadorans would have no such reserations.
Lilliana asked again when they might be able to rescue her family. Kasey tried to be honest with her without dashing her hopes completely.
“The town is very dangerous,” he said. “Worse than I thought. The Khadorans are very well fortified. I will do my best, but it may take time.”
The young woman’s beautiful face fell in despair as Joffrey repeated in Llaelese. Kasey understood her next question without even needing Joffrey to tell him.
“She wants to know how long,” Joffrey translated.
“A day or more,” Kasey answered evasively. She let out a sharp sigh and stared down at the map. She looked up suddenly.
“Ou sonet lau tres?” she asked.
Joffrey looked at her in confusion. “Qua lau tres?” he asked. She looked from Kasey to Joffrey and back at Kasey.
“What is she saying?” Kasey demanded.
Joffrey’s face furrowed in confusion. “She’s asking where the others are.”
Kasey furrowed his brow. “What others?”
“That’s what I just asked–”
“Lau tres!” She interrupted. “Lau tre civili ma se sount echappera avous sote!”
“She says other civilians who escaped,” Joffrey translated. “I’m not sure what she’s talking about, Captain.”
Kasey looked at her closely and shook his head. “Nobody has escaped your town except you.” Joffrey translated for him. This alarmed her immensely and she released an unending stream of Llaelese that Joffrey was helpless to convey. He kept trying to slow her down but it took a long time. After he got her to calm down and speak slowly he was able to understand, and when he did, Lilliana’s worry was suddenly mirrored in his eyes.
“Sir, she says dozens of townsfolk have gone missing in the last few days. Everyone in the town just assumed they were sneaking away to our lines to be rescued. Early last night several children went missing as well.” Joffrey’s concern was growing with each word. “She said they thought someone had smuggled them out, but… If they aren’t here…” his voice trailed off. “Where are they?”
This news was the most disturbing yet.
“Lau greylord!” Lilliana suddenly shouted.
“She said ‘the greylords’,” Joffrey translated automatically.
Lilliana went on another long rant in Llaelese. The two trenchers waited for her to finish. Joffrey looked at the Captain. His face did not tell a happy story.
“She says the people started disappearing right after the greylords arrived in town. Her friend told her she saw six of them arrive; some of them came down here to fight yesterday morning.”
“We only killed three yesterday,” Kasey muttered.
“They are doing something to those people,” Joffrey said through gritted teeth. “I know it. We have to do something, sir.”
“What we are going to do,” Kasey replied calmly, “is drive them out of that town.” He retrieved his tin of coffee from the crate Joffrey had set it on. “Thank you for your help, Private. Please escort Lilliana to the nearest farm south of us, tell the family living there that she escaped Albyn and needs to stay with them. I’m sure they’ll understand.” He ignored the agonized look on Joffrey’s face. Foisting a refugee on a handful of overwhelmed and terrified farmers wasn’t exactly charitable, but she wouldn’t be safe lingering so close to the battle. “And then go get some rest. I need to talk to the Major.”
The Major was just outside his tent, sitting dumbly on a supply box with his own tin of coffee. Kasey sat down heavily beside him. Halleck did not look at him.
“Captain,” Halleck said rather loudly.
“Major.” They sat in silence for a few moments. Kasey noticed a slight tremor in Halleck’s cup. That wasn’t a good sign. “I’m sorry about Captain Nicola,” Kasey said at last.
“I can barely hear you!” Halleck nearly shouted back at him. He pointed to his left ear where a trickle of blood had dried on his neck. “You’ll have to sit on my other side. This one’s blown.”
Kasey got up and sat on Halleck’s right.
He cleared his throat and spoke slowly and clearly. “Sir, you haven’t asked for my after-action report.”
Major Halleck took another sip. “I think I’ve earned a moment to myself.”
“You should get some sleep,” Kasey offered.
“Already tried that,” Halleck answered. He set his cup on the box and rubbed his bald head wearily. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s hear the AAP.”
Kasey recounted– loudly and slowly– the whole battle from the moment the artillery fired to Swelt returning from the siege cannon and their immediate withdrawal.
After pausing a moment to let this information sink in, Halleck sipped his coffee and smacked his lips. He raised the tin.
“This is some real horse piss, this is,” the Major said.
Kasey looked down at his drink, then tossed it into the grass. “Yeah.”
“I’ve been tasked with walking this whole battalion into a trap that CRS didn’t see,” Halleck started, “that command didn’t see, that I didn’t even see until it was too late and I’ve been given too few resources and too little time and no flexibility!” he was actually yelling now and not because he couldn’t hear. He took a moment to calm himself before continuing.
“This situation is ass-backwards,” he began again. “I’ve done everything to protect these companies, and I’ve asked everything of them, and they’ve given everything. But I have to face facts here, Captain.” He looked at Kasey. “We’ve suffered catastrophic losses in the last twenty-four hours. I lost over a hundred men in ONE explosion last night!” He stood up to face Kasey, accidentally knocking over his coffee tin off the crate. He didn’t seem to notice. “Colonel Swinburn keeps sending me angry requests to explain why Albyn is still in enemy hands and yet replacements are still at least three days away!”
“Confirmed inbound reinforcements is good,” Captain Kasey said cautiously. The Major was in one hell of a mood.
“No, Captain, it’s not good,” Halleck spit. “Those Khadorans have a knife to that town’s throat with one hand and a gun pointed at us with the other. And now you’re telling me that you failed to permanently disabled that weapon?”
Kasey sucked his teeth. He’d gotten Lieutenant Swelt’s report: the gun was out for now, but there was no way of knowing if the damage was sufficient to cripple the artillery. In Swelt’s honest estimation, probably not.
“Ah, yes sir,” Kasey answered.
Halleck grunted. “And to top it all off,” he was starting to scream again, “I have one of my best officers disobeying a DIRECT! ORDER!”
“Sir?” Kasey said in confusion.
“There is no way my runner reached you before you started your attack, Captain!” Halleck screamed. “I told you explicitly to wait in cover until you received word from me!” He was well and truly frothed up. “I am depending on you to set an example, so set a goddamn fucking example!”
Kasey waited for the Major’s breathing to slow again before answering “Yes sir.” The Major was right to be angry. Kasey had chewed out a certain group of commandos for the exact same thing just the day before. Do as I say, not as I do…
“What punishment did you prescribe for Swelt and the Bastards when they disobeyed your orders?” Halleck asked. His voice was less angry but he was still almost shouting every word. Kasey could see what was coming next, but he answered anyway.
“Grave duty until further notice, sir.”
“Yes, that sounds fair.” Halleck waved his index finger at Kasey. “You’re a fair man, Captain. In fact, I’ll allow you to join them. When you decide they’re done digging graves, you’ll be done digging graves. Understood?”
Kasey was now the author of his own punishment. He really couldn’t let up on the Bearded Bastards now or it would make him look weak.
What a waste of time.
“Understood,” Kasey acknowledged without a hint of ire.
Halleck slowly calmed himself, rubbing his forehead. “I’m in a bad place here, Jericho,” he said. “We are simply too depleted to achieve our objective as it stands. If I order a front assault right now we’ll be shredded, but if we hang back then we’re losing valuable time while the Khadorans repair their siege equipment. The regiment finally took Frénosel but now our lines are spread so thin we’re at risk of being flanked. One company is holding the gap between us, Kasey.” He held up his index finger. “One. The 98th. Major Thompson is reporting that Khadoran patrols keep getting confused and accidentally wandering past our fucking lines at night, that’s how thin we are, and that’s how close the enemy is.”
“Can we flank Albyn? Take it from the rear?” Kasey suggested.
“Speak up, damn it,” Halleck growled in annoyance.
Kasey repeated himself more loudly and Halleck’s eyes grew wide with incredulity. “Look at the fucking map, Captain! If we try and move up that north-south road, we’ll be caught out in the open between the enemy kompany at Albyn and whatever warcaster withdrew from Frénosel. They’d be at our backs in a matter of hours.” He rubbed his forehead again. “We no longer have sufficient numerical advantage to overwhelm their defenses before we get outmaneuvered. I have to wait for reinforcements now.”
“If their patrols are getting lost, they’re spread as thin as we are,” Kasey pointed out. “We can’t drive through their weak point without being flanked, but the same thing will happen to them if they try and push south into Thompson’s company.”
“Sure, but we’re still the ones pinned down out here by the fucking cannon of the gods,” Halleck countered.
Kasey’s heart sank. “We have to move closer.”
“Very close,” Halleck agreed. “I can’t take any chances. Their siege cannon has to have a maximum firing angle, but I can only guess what that is.” He snorted in disgust. “We’re going to have to get within spitting range if we don’t want to get blown up again. And I can’t just put everyone back in the forest, or the gap between us and the rest of the regiment will become an actual hole.”
Kasey put his head in his hands. “The whole battalion can’t fit in there anyway,” he said. He looked back up. “But what you’re talking about is digging in under fire out in the open. Fish in a barrel.”
“You weren’t out here last night,” Halleck said. His voice suddenly had a hitch in it. “We’re already fish in a barrel.” He cleared his throat. Pointing north towards the span of verdant grassland and gentle hills up to Albyn he said, “Best we can do now is swim to the bottom.”
Kasey tried to find a rebuttal, but couldn’t. He was too tired to even try.
“Alright,” he said at last. “But we need to rest, Major. All of us.”
Halleck hissed reluctantly. “Two hours,” he agreed. “But that’s it. Every minute we stay here puts us at risk.”
“There’s one more thing, sir,” Kasey added before he was dismissed.
“I better like this,” Halleck growled.
Kasey bit his lip. “I, uh… I promised Lilliana–”
“Who?” Halleck interjected.
“The woman Swelt rescued last night,” Kasey explained. “I promised her we would attempt to rescue the rest of her family.”
“Well that was a stupid thing to do, Captain,” Halleck said, amazed. “What is wrong with you? You just told me what a narrow escape the commandos had getting out of there, and now you want to try again?” He shook his head.
“I had to give her something so she would talk!” Kasey insisted angrily. “Throw me a bone here, Major! I’ll lead the rescue. We have to at least–”
“No.” Halleck’s voice left no room for negotiation. “I’m sorry for that girl too, but no Captain. I have to protect my men, even from themselves. Dismissed.”
Kirk dreamt about Alex again. This time he returned home to the farm to deliver the news to Alex’s parents that he had died. Overwhelmed with grief as he entered his friend’s childhood home, he was stunned to find Alex sitting there at their dinner table as though nothing had happened, laughing and talking with his folks. Alex was thrilled to see Kirk, but Kirk’s grief transformed to hurt and then outrage. He flipped the table screaming “you abandoned me out there! You abandoned me!”
He awoke suddenly to the deeply unpleasant shriek of a whistle. For a second he feared the artillery had begun again and he jumped to his feet, only to realize it was actually Lieutenant Reynolds walking among 4th Platoon’s foxholes. ‘Foxholes’ was generous; they were little divots made by exhausted young men who were more interested in finally getting some sleep than actually being in cover.
“We’re moving up,” Reynolds said before blowing the whistle again. He looked as tired as Kirk felt.
“Moving up where?” Kirk asked as the Lieutenant walked by.
“Up,” was all Reynolds would say. Hammer Company reluctantly awoke and gathered for another advance, many relieving themselves in their foxholes before abandoning them. Kirk’s unit unhappily found themselves marching alongside Ludwig, the unnerving veteran they’d had to shelter with back at Fort Wreckage. He gave them his toothy grin.
“You greenies alright?” he asked with his uncomfortably slow voice.
“Go to hell,” Peter answered bitterly. “We’ve killed people. We’re not green anymore.”
Ludwig chuckled. “Nah, you kids just got into the pit! You survive a few more weeks of this and then you’ll lose your green.”
“Into the what?” Kirk asked, irritated.
“The pit,” Ludwig said again.
“The hell is the pit?” Gerard asked. Ludwig fished around in one of his pouches for a little cigar and stuck it in his mouth.
“Front line. Contact.” he said around the cigar on his teeth. Striking a match against his metal bracer, he lit the cigar and began puffing. “We all get tossed into the pit, then spend the next few weeks or months trying to climb out of the mud and blood before we die. Some get out, some don’t. They give you a rest and then toss you back in. That’s the pit. In, out. In, out. ‘Til you die or retire.”
“That’s really stupid,” Kirk said. “Nobody calls it that.”
“Everybody calls it that, greenie!” Ludwig said through his cheshire grin. He blew another cloud of smoke as they walked.
“Ok, and how many times have you been in ‘the pit’?” Gerard asked. Ludwig went silent for a moment and began counting on his fingers.
“Erh, fifteen times I think,” he said at last.
“Oh come on,” Kirk was incredulous. “What are you, a commando? Fifteen cycles on the front?”
“Nah,” Ludwig shook his head. “those lads are well past thirty or forty rounds. Probably more, if youre one of the Bastards. I’m not that good,” Ludwig chuckled.
“This is such a load of bullshit,” Peter said, shaking his head. “Nobody calls it ‘the pit’.”
“You call it whatever the hell you like, little boy,” Ludwig answered in his characteristically irritating slowness. “Call it the happy pond, call it your momma’s pussy. You’re in it. Don’t drown.”
Kirk shook his head. “Don’t you have your own unit to pester?” he asked.
“All dead,” Ludwig said.
“Morrow…” Peter murmured.
“About half ate bullets charging across no-man’s-land,” Ludwig explained casually, “the other half got busted in the woods last night,” He shrugged. “Ain’t the first time. That’s the pit. Lost a whole unit in the Thornwood, too.”
“Gods, you fought in the Thornwood?” Kirk asked in awe.
Ludwig nodded. “Now that was a bitch, and not the fun kind. Don’t ever need to see that kind of combat again.” He actually shuddered. Something that made Ludwig shudder wasn’t something Kirk wanted to contemplate. “I’ll fight Reds over Cryx any day…”
“And yet here you are,” Gerard observed. “You’re either incredibly lucky or a damn coward.”
“I aint no coward,” he spat back. “While you were all out having a nice time getting to actually shoot the enemy yesterday, I was dragging you bloody greenies back into the trench under mortar shells.”
“And last night?” Gerard said, cheeks going pink with anger. “Did some trees jump in front of the bullets for you?”
Ludwig flicked his cigar at Gerard’s face. Gerard batted it away angrily.
“Cool off, kid,” Ludwig answered calmly. “I was up there cutting wire like a good little soldier.”
“How did you survive?” Kirk asked in amazement. “I watched all the breach crews get gunned down!”
“Not all,” Ludwig said. “A few made it. I saw the gas pop off and I guess a few of us were just faster runners.”
Gerard snorted. “How very lucky of you.”
“Yeah, real lucky.” Ludwig replied, his cocky smile drooping at the edges. “Everybody else keeps dying, and I just keep on living,” His eyes sank into a distant, vacant stare. “Lucky me…”
Kirk and his friends all looked each other. They continued walking quietly, following the lead of the officers. They were headed past no-man’s-land now and out onto the relatively untouched northern fields, soft grass catching their boots and causing them to stumble; one more insult to tired feet. The whole battalion was on the move around them. It looked like one of the other companies was moving back into the woods. Even the artillery emplacements were being packed up.
“Where the hell are we even going?” Gerard asked irately.
“Ain’t it obvious?” Ludwig answered first, to Gerard’s displeasure. “We’re safer up there with the Khadorans than we are back here.”
Gerard rolled his eyes. “Oh, please do explain that logic to me,” he said sarcastically.
“No, he’s right,” Kirk interrupted them before Gerard could start provoking the eerie vet again. “We’re getting inside the minimum range of their heavy artillery. They can’t shell us if we’re standing next to them.”
“Oh, great,” Gerard complained. “So we’re going to get in range of their bullets instead. Very safe.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be shot at with bullets than fireballs,” Kirk pointed out. Gerard shrugged but didn’t disagree.
“There’s a sweet spot between the two,” Ludwig added. “A nice little strip where we’re outside most of their small arms but inside the minimum range of their cannon. Harder to find than a clean whore in a Corvis brothel. If we can dig in right there, though, mm-mm…” he grinned wide. “My favorite place to be.”
Peter raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “You are one weird bastard.”
Ludwig laughed and winked at him. “I like you, kid. You survive out here long enough and you’ll be just as weird as me in no time.” He chuckled softly and reached for another cigar. “Alright, alright. I’ll let you girls alone now.” He broke off.
“He gives me the willies,” Peter said once Ludwig was out of earshot.
“He survived the Thornwood!” Kirk said in amazement. “I can’t blame him.”
“Well the least he could do is leave us alone,” Gerard mumbled.
Peter nudged Gerard’s shoulder. “Don’t let him get to you, he gets a rise out of it.”
Gerard sneered. “Yeah, he’ll get a lot more out of my knuckles if he comes messing with me again.”
“Easy,” Kirk said. “It’s not personal. We’re all tired and cranky. Let it go.”
The heavy clouds and miserable soaking drizzle started to break, eventually leaving enough holes in the wet canopy to see a lovely blue sky up above. The whole company hiked across the thick, wavy grasses and damp weeds up the gentle slope to the edge of a huge plot of farmland straight north. Daisy the grenadier hiked with the company, the comforting weight of her heavy metal feet pounding the rhythm of the march along with the chuff of her boiler.
They drew uncomfortably close to the town before getting the order to halt only about five hundred yards away. Albyn looked absolutely picturesque, perched on a hill in the cloud-dappled sunlight, its cluster of painted rooftops gleaming umber and blue after being washed by gentle rain and partly obscured by intervening oak trees. Only the faint line of barbed wire– now broken in a few places by the previous battle– marred the sight. Kirk wished that he had the skill to paint, only so he could capture and preserve the momentary beauty in the midst of all this suffering. He promised himself then and there that when the war was finally over and Cygnar had liberated Llael, he would come back here one day– maybe with a young family– and show them the place where he had fought. Where his closest friend died. They could stay in one of the cottages on the outskirts and visit a nearby lake and enjoy the glory of this place without fear or pain. A wonderful way to honor Alex’s sacrifice. His throat swelled.
His melancholy peace was rudely interrupted by a destroyer shell hissing through the air.
“INCOMING!” some nameless voice cried. An explosion blossomed in the grass a couple hundred yards away, well short of their company. Everyone breathed a shaky sigh of relief. The lieutenants began shouting orders to their platoons.
Reynolds cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed at them: “Listen up!” Kirk and the rest of 4th Platoon tuned their ears to their officer. “We’re digging two trench lines: one back here on the farm, one up there.” Reynolds pointed to where the destroyer shell had landed. “We’re going narrow this time. Four and a half feet wide at the bottom, standard brake corners, then sapping a line between the forward and rear, angled northwest to southwest, I will mark the layout as we go…” They listened nervously as he described the plans given to him by Captain Kasey, awaiting the dreaded news that they were the platoon tasked with the dangerous forward trench.
“We will be digging the rear line with third platoon,” Reynolds finally announced.
“Oh thank Morrow,” Peter murmured.
“I’ll mark borders,” Reynolds continued, “our grenadier will get the earth loosened up, and the rest of you dig in standard intervals by unit with the rest of 3rd Platoon. Let’s go!”
The rear line turned out to be right on top of the freshly-tilled farmland at their back. Everyone was thrilled to be digging in loose, easy dirt. Nobody seemed to notice the young shoots of corn in careful rows.
Nobody except Kirk.
Kirk was a farmer. He knew the sweat and toil that had gone into this plot of land. He thought about how it would feel to see his own farm wrecked by a bunch of foreign soldiers digging ditches through his livelihood. He would not take kindly to such ‘intervention.’ Fatigue was not the only force that seemed to be restraining his limbs as he worked.
Halfway through the chore he looked up to see a family staring at them from across the field, tall and proud as statues in clean white linen. A man, his wife, and six children of various ages from infant to nearly his own age. His heart ached.
“We’re killing them,” Kirk whispered.
Gerard paused to see where he was looking. “What? Why?” he asked in confusion. “They can just replant when we’re gone.”
“No,” Kirk insisted. “We’re destroying the crop and the field along with it. This is their food, their income. This is their life we’re turning into a trench.”
“Oh come on,” Merrimack said. He’d rejoined them after hiking across the field and was digging alongside. “They have more land.” He returned to his digging.
“You go tell them that,” Kirk said angrily, pointing at the despondent family watching the damage unfold. “You go explain to them where their money is going to come from in harvest season, or food for their table.”
“What else are we supposed to do, Kirk?” Peter asked wearily, wiping sweat from his brow. Another destroyer shell arrived at the forward position, forcing the poor men of 1st and 2nd platoon to dive for cover. “We have to dig somewhere. I don’t fancy taking cover in the grass.”
Kirk gave up the argument. They just didn’t understand, and he couldn’t make them. He said a silent prayer for the family watching them before turning his eyes back to the damp soil.
Alex would have understood.