“Look, most people just avoid facing the truth about what happens to our soldiers in war. But I don’t have that luxury.
I don’t even want it.”
-Trencher Captain Maxwell Finn
Southern Llaelese countryside, Llael.
11th of Octesh, 611 AR.
“Welcome to firepoint A-Three-C,” Captain Kasey said as their company crossed the wrecked gates of the recently-bombarded Khadoran fort three miles outside the hamlet Malney. “We don’t know what the Khadorans called it.”
“How about Fort Wreckage,” said Kirk, gazing at their surroundings. A brooding sky had recently emptied its contents upon the wounded land, drenching the remains of the fort and them with it. They were soaked and exhausted, a mood perfectly reflected by the weary and broken position they now occupied. It had been a two-story, three-sided fort of fresh stone and mortar with heavy logs reinforcing the structures. It wasn’t more than three acres in size, just enough to hold two platoons if everyone packed in tight. Now it more closely resembled some kind of ancient ruin freshly unearthed. No wall stood more than eight feet high and everything bore scorch-marks that now ran like black tears down the stone in the recent downpour.
“Why the hell would they put a fort here?” Merrimack said as the company spread out, inspecting the site and beginning foxholes around its exterior. “We’re on a hill in a goddamn empty field. This place is an artillery magnet.”
“Why do the Khadorans do anything, Corporal?” Lieutenant Reynolds said wearily as he unhooked his pack and let it fall to the muddy ground in relief. “Why don’t they just go home and let us be?”
“I’m telling you it makes no sense at all,” Merrimack said, his face puzzled. “It was a lot of work to build this thing and there’s no real tactical advantage to it.”
“And yet here we are,” said Kirk, leaning against a wall in exhaustion.
“Don’t do that,” said Peter, pulling him off the wall. “Everything around here is loose as shale. You could drop that wall on somebody’s head, or yours,” he said.
“Good catch, Private Jakes,” Captain Kasey said. He was rapidly walking amongst them, eyeballing his men and making sure they spread out. “Nobody lean on shit!” he shouted into cupped hands at the company. “Also, you guys go dig in with Three and One outside the perimeter, it’s too cramped in here,” he said, pointing at the gaggle of men in Fourth Platoon. Lieutenant Reynolds sighed and picked up his pack once again.
“Fourth Platoon, let’s go,” he yelled, leading the group outside the deflated walls of the fort into the crater-pocked surroundings. “Foxholes, four men each, six feet, drainage sumps. Go,” he ordered. “Everyone needs to be totally dug in before dark. Fifteen feet apart. Come on.”
They dug into the messy ground. Night fell. The clouds gathered once more and began to sprinkle on their helmets. Kirk, Gerard, Alex, and one of the veterans by the name of Ludwig–they didn’t know if that was his first name or last name–sat shivering in their muddy hole, gathering their stiff trench coats around themselves, their knees practically touching in the center. The fact that he had his friends with him was literally the only good thing in his universe, Kirk mused. All else was persistent misery since the moment they crossed the river two nights ago. To top it off, Ludwig gave him the creeps.
“I hate Llael,” Gerard said miserably.
“Don’t let Joffrey hear you say that,” said Alex. He had pulled the collar of his trench coat up over his face and his head was hunched into his shoulders. He looked like a pile of armor and clothing, not a person.
“Right now, I bet even your pal Joffrey hates Llael,” said Ludwig. It was pitch black, but Ludwig’s bright teeth somehow shined in the darkness as he smiled. He had a slow, methodical way of speaking, like his brain was operating at some different time-scale from everyone else’s. If Kirk hadn’t seen how quickly he could move, he might have guessed Ludwig was actually slow in every way. But it was only his speech. It came across as deeply unnatural. “You greenies like the army so far? It living up to your expectations?” he said with a little chuckle.
“Yeah, just peachy,” said Gerard with a shiver. “How long you been in?”
“This is my third year,” Ludwig drawled quietly. He reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a small cylinder and a tin box of matches and a small cigar. He somehow managed to light it under his helmet. The end of the cigar blazed momentarily in the darkness and a little cloud drifted into the foxhole.
“Goddamn that stinks,” Alex complained.
“I like it,” said Gerard. “My dad smoked.”
“I thought you hated your dad?” asked Kirk.
“I do, but my brothers and I made a game of stealing his cigars,” Gerard said. “It’s a good memory, in spite of the beatings.”
“You guys need to shut up,” said Ludwig softly.
“Why’s that?” Kirk asked, annoyed.
“Because I told you to,” Ludwig said, contemplating the end of his cigar. “Because you’re getting on my nerves, and because you’re making it impossible for me to listen,” he said.
“Listen to what?” Alex whispered. Ludwig’s eyes darted to Alex, then back to his cigar.
“The enemy, dumbass,” Ludwig answered patiently. He shook his head. “Don’t you know shit? You know why the Khadorans put this fort here only for us to blow it up?” he asked. The other three looked at him dumbly. “Cause they wanted us to have to take it.”
They sat in confused silence. Ludwig chuckled.
“Looks like I have to explain it, I guess. When they put up a fort, we have to knock it down. That takes shells, and men, and time. The Reds put a warcaster in here. That takes even more time, and more shells, and more men.”
“But didn’t they kill the battlegroup that was in here?” Kirk asked.
“Nah, he pulled out and let his ‘jacks go autonomous, slipped away when the bombardment started.”
“That doesn’t sound very Khadoran of him,” Gerard said suspiciously.
“Yeah, usually Khadorans are more stupid than that,” Ludwig acknowledged quietly. “It was smart. Forced us to knock over his house just so he wouldn’t come back. And now we’ve got three hundred men sitting around it in holes to keep watch while the fire team that took it down moves on somewhere else. We’re in one spot, on a hill, in a hole. Get it?” he finished, looking at their faces for comprehension.
“Now we’re the sitting ducks,” said Alex softly. Ludwig clicked his tongue in acknowledgement.
“Ding ding. The farmboy gets the golden prize,” Ludwig said.
“So why aren’t we more spread out?” Kirk whispered.
“Because of the Kayazy,” Ludwig said, digging his back into the wet mud of the foxhole so he could recline. The end of his cigar blazed again. “Groups of infiltrators. Thugs hired by the Khadoran military. Or pressed into service, or more like. They try sneak into our trenches and night and cut our throats. If we spread out too much, our holes are too easy to jump into, too far away from each other to help. If we clump up too much, they shell us. That’s why we’re not all in the fort. Clear?” he finished.
“I wish we had Daisy guarding our foxhole, she wouldn’t let anything slip through,” Gerard said. Their company warjack had been shipped ahead of them by a team of horses. It was too fuel-inefficient to keep her boiler running multiple days in a row.
“Who?” Ludwig asked.
“Our grenadier,” Alex answered. “She’s called Daisy.”
Ludwig snorted and shoot his head.
“So…. which is it tonight? Infiltrators or mortars?” asked Kirk. Ludwig gave him a pitiable look.
“I don’t know. That’s why I need to listen, dummy,” he answered. “If it’s mortars, we’ll all know soon enough. They’re probably all set up a ways off in the dark. If it’s assassins… You won’t hear them coming if you keep jabbering,” he said. They didn’t respond. He smiled. “Good, you get it,” he whispered.
The silent question in their minds was answered about an hour later, when the darkness blanketed everything in an impenetrable haze and they were just beginning to nod off in spite of the cold. A deep boomf resonated through the ground into their chests, following by a howling scream.
“Incoming!” someone hollered from a nearby foxhole. It fell short, spraying dirt and shrapnel in a flash of light over their heads. Every eye was wide open in the dark, little white lamps whose only illumination was fear.
“Stay in your holes!” they heard Captain Kasey shout distantly from inside the fort.
“Dammnit,” Gerard muttered, voice quivering. “Why does Second Platoon get to hide behind the walls while we get our teeth rattled out?” he complained. Ludwig snorted.
“You really think they’re safe in there?” he asked. “We’re the lucky ones, not them. They’re sitting under a pile of rubble that’s going to turn into a million pieces of shrapnel the moment a shell hits it. Hope they dug deep.” A long silence followed.
Boomf! Went another shell, followed by a banshee scream, followed by an impact directly on one of the broken fortress walls. The top blew apart and the rest tumbled down with a huge crash.
Another pause, this time longer.
Boomf! Shreeeeeeee-BAM! Ludwig sighed.
“I hate mortars,” he said calmly.
“How are we supposed to sleep through this!?” Alex said, voice cracking.
“You don’t, that’s the whole point,” Ludwig said wearily.
Another mortar went off and landed, this time very close to their hole. The impact rattled their ribs and showered them with displaced dirt. Gerard screamed a helpless curse. Ludwig grunted, brushing the dirt off himself. A clod of dirt had knocked his cigar out of his hand, extinguishing it in the mud. He picked it up and gazed at it mournfully.
“I hate mortars,” he repeated.
Another distant thump sounded like a giant beating the earth with his club. Another chilling screech. Another close impact. This one was followed by screams of a different sort.
“Casualties!” someone shouted distantly.
“Stay in your holes! That is an order!” Captain Kasey yelled from inside the fort. Moments later they could hear someone running near their hole. Another mortar discharged. “Shit” someone yelped above them, and suddenly they had a fifth person leaping into their foxhole. Ludwig had a trench knife in his hand before Kirk could even blink. The new occupant landed heavily on Alex.
“Captain!” Gerard yelled, pulling his CO off of his friend. The mortar landed with a bang, but far off.
“Shit!” Captain Kasey said again, scrambling out of their foxhole and running once more, leaving the other four staring at each other in confusion, Ludwig’s knife still in his hand.
Jericho Kasey crested the foxhole he’d jumped into and began sprinting once more to the cries for assistance. About thirty yards away he saw the damage: a shell had landed directly into one of First Platoon’s foxholes. Three men were dead. One had somehow managed to survive and was dragging himself out of the hole with no legs past his knees, a slick of dark blood following him. Kasey ran to him and pulled him up onto his own shoulders, immediately turning to run back into the fort.
“Lietuenant Black!” Captain Kasey shouted as another mortar went off on the horizon. He began sprinting as hard as he could back toward the derelict fort. The man on his shoulders began screaming in pain with each jarring impact of his feet. “Prep an injury kit, wounded incoming!” he bellowed. The howl of the mortar drowned out his words and then burst thirty feet away in a flash of light, momentarily blinding him. He stumbled in the pitch darkness, then continued, trying to find his way back to the fort without falling into a foxhole. He somehow managed.
He leapt back into the hole he had been taking cover in with Lieutenant Black and two other men. He placed his ward against the filthy wall of the foxhole as gently as he could. The man’s eyes stared sightlessly. Kasey felt a cry of rage surge within his chest. He suppressed it.
The bombardment went all night, shells falling in thirty second to ten minute intervals at random. At one point Kirk was so tired that he actually drifted off for a few moments and immediately dreamt that he was back on the farm, except their old broken steamjack had somehow come back to life and was stomping through the house, tearing it apart, his mother was screaming, screaming…
And then a shell forced him awake. Out of one nightmare, into the next.
Captain Kasey figured out where the shots were originating, but it was too far away to safely move against and he feared an ambush in the dark. Hammer Company was very effectively dug in. He knew the odds of being cut down in the darkness were far worse if they left their foxholes. If there was actually more artillery out there, trying to bait them into the open, he could easily lose a third of his men before they silenced the enemy guns. That was not a worthwhile risk, even with the losses they’d already sustained.
The shells stopped at dawn. After an hour of no fire, Captain Kasey gave the ok for them to emerge. They crawled up from the earth like dirty maggots, slowly and fearfully climbing out of their holes to face a world full of predators. No more shots came. They all looked identical now: covered in dirt, exhausted faces, various degrees of facial hair. Three hundred toy soldiers left in the slime and rain.
“Who did we lose?” Alex said, his face pinched. He gave voice to the question that lingered in all of them. They had their answer in a few moments as Kasey came to address the company. His helmet was in his hand, and he had a weariness in his eyes that reflected their own. There was a crusty stain of what could only be blood on his shoulders, but he showed no sign of injury.
“Listen up,” he said. The company stopped to listen. “We lost eight,” he said bluntly. He had a blank look in his eyes. “Private Fagan died in my foxhole after I attempted to move him.” Someone in the company let out a gasping sob. “Privates Jay Wells, Chace Cooper, Alain Cooke, Jarrett Macias, Makai Burch, Ollie Morris, and Rhys Bailey were all killed by direct impacts,” he said. Kirk felt a strange lightness as he heard the list of names. He knew them all, and knew none of them well. Relief washed over him. Nobody he was close to had died. The relief was instantly followed by deep guilt. There were fresh tear tracks on the dirty faces of the men around him.
“I know these men were your friends,” Kasey continued doggedly. “You will grieve for them. This is your first taste of the hell of war. It gets worse, I’m sorry to tell you. We are called the ‘grave diggers’ for a reason.” He sighed and put his hands on his hips, looked at his boots for a moment, then back at the men. “You’ll get a shave and a hot meal when we get to battalion CP tonight,” the Captain said. “We’re headed North-West, getting new orders and then probably joining an assault on a fortified position in front of the town of Albyn. The whole advance is stalled until we can break that position. We’ll be killing Reds soon, boys, be patient.”
“Shouldn’t we try to kill those bastards that did this!?” Joffrey said.
“No,” Captain Kasey said. They all began grumbling. “Hey!” he said, and they stopped. “Listen to me. The Khadorans operating those mortars are gone by now. Us pursuing them is exactly what they want. They’re pulling moves like this all across our advance. They want to break us apart, divide us, and then pick us off unit by unit. Stringing us out, keeping us tired, making us angry. We’re not playing their game, do you trenchers understand me?” he asked firmly.
“Yes sir,” they replied robotically.
“You’ll be killing them soon. You have my word. Get your revenge then,” he said.
He gave them five minutes to crack open some rations and relieve themselves before moving out. A small group were designated to bury the dead, each fallen soldier committed to to the grave of a foxhole.
“I have to piss and shit so bad,” Gerard moaned.
“I pissed last night,” Ludwig said.
“In our hole!?” Alex said in alarm.
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “Be glad it was raining.”
“I’m glad I missed it,” said Kirk wearily. “But I have to empty too.”
Ludwig looked at his three foxhole companions, then at their hole, then back at them meaningfully. He pulled another cigar from his jacket.
“Enjoy,” he said as he walked off to join his unit, adjusting his rifle strap. Gerard did not wait for privacy. He slid back into the hole and dropped his trousers immediately, relief flooding his face.
They left Fort Wreckage with a new feature: eight little mounds of earth with a rifle firmly planted in the center of each, pointing straight up, a cleaned trencher helmet placed gently upon its bayonet. The forlorn sight of their fallen’s last resting place silhouetted on a gloomy horizon was burned forever into Kirk’s memory; his first encounter with death in war. He remembered it not so much for the weight of its emotional content, for he never really knew the men who died there. Rather, it stood as a solemn marker, an ominous signpost for the beginning of what would prove to be the darkest time of his life.