“You want to know what scares me?” said Private Burns of Company G in a tentative murmur. “You want to know what keeps me up at night in this godforsaken place? It ain’t death and dying. I just don’t want to die all alone.”
On the other side of the upturned wooden crate sat Sgt. John Wilkens, cradling five faded playing cards in his hand. As Burns spoke, a wide smile tore across Sgt. Wilkens’ face. His yellow teeth held back a mouthful of smoke before parting to release a thin white plume.
“Hell, boy, there are a thousand blokes beside you every day, afraid of the same thing. In this war, you ain’t ever gonna die alone. There will always be another poor soul beside you giving up his ghost. The only thing that matters is taking one from the enemy before you go.”
Pvt. Victor Taylor was sitting to Wilkens’ right. He tried to fill the void that followed Wilkens’ comments with his own fears. He calmed himself with a long draw on his cigarette. “I’m afraid I won’t see the one that gets me, that I won’t see it coming. I wanna meet my maker face on, eye to eye, and show him I’m not afraid before he takes me.”
Wilkens let out a loud sigh, blowing smoke from his nose in a long exhale. “This is war, not a game. You never see it coming, that’s why we’re here while the rich boys stay home. Ain’t that right, Price?”
Sgt. Price was the fourth man at the table and usually kept silent while the others swiftly drained their wallets during the poker games. He was the newest member of the group and came from a wealthy family in London. Despite the group’s low expectations, he had distinguished himself with almost reckless courage under fire.
“You guys want to know what scares me? I know it’s silly, but I’d afraid of letting down my sweet Meg.” Price reached into his left breast pocket with practiced ease and pulled out a browned photograph of a stunning brunette dressed in a frilly school dress. The photo made a quick trip through the hands of the other soldiers.
“If I had a gal like her back home, I’d do everything I could to keep myself outta harm’s way. A guy with a gal like that’s got no business on the front. And less business playing out those foolish stunts of yours. A girl like that’ll get lonely if you get yourself killed. Make a fine wife for another bloke.”
“Not my Meg. I promised Meg I’d make her proud and that’s what I intend to do. She’d never forgive me if I cowered from my duty.”
“Alright, Sarge.” interrupted Burns, the orange glow from his cigarette glowing as he inhaled before turning toward Sgt. Wilkens. “We’ve told you our fears, what’s yours?”
“Listen up, boys. You want to know what scares me?” Wilkens said as he tossed the smouldering butt of his cigarette into the dirt at his feet. “It’s not something easy to explain.” His eyes drew narrow, tightly focused on the small opening that led from the dugout into the trenches that cut through the French countryside around them.
“It’s out there, hunting. For us, every night, it hungers. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes. But I’ve seen what it does. You boys fear death because it takes you away from life. But death means an end to the suffering. What I fear binds you to this place, stripping away flesh and blood until it uses you up. It walks among the corpses on the battlefield suckling from torn and tattered flesh and sucking the marrow from cracked bones.”
“Sounds like the bogeyman to me,” laughed Pvt. Taylor. “Seems the Sarge’s afraid of a fairy tale.”
“Is it the Reaper?” asked Burns.
“No. The Reaper sends you to Hell. This demon keeps you here. Bent and broken, you’ll walk the land of corpses looking for a life you no longer own. They saw him walking the hot sands of the Crusades and the frozen fields of Waterloo. You’ve seen the same bodies I have, paper thin and hollow, where hours before a man stood strong and stout beside you. This ain’t no fairy tale, Burns. Ain’t no bullet from the Germs that’ll do that to you.”
The conversation, like so many others, was cut short by the shriek of an incoming mortar shell. Wilkens and Taylor, the veterans, simply ducked their heads, using their hands to cover the playing cards on the table between them while the others took the more traditional approach and dove to the floor. The shell exploded above their earthen shelter, dropped dust from the makeshift ceiling and causing a neighbouring dugout to cave in completely. The roof of their dugout was supported by wooden beams, but was regularly rocked by the shelling from German artillery a few miles away.
As the dust settled, the two Privates crawled back up from their hiding places along the dirt floor. Wilkens and Taylor, still seated at the card table, were still looking over their cards as the dust settled.
Burns leaned back onto the table, hanging on Wilkens’ every word.
“What kinda demon is it then?”
“I don’t quite know. He crawls among the corpses, slithering through the trenches and over the barbed wire, feasting on fallen soldiers on either side of the lines. He finds the ones that aren’t quite finished and takes them, draining them slowly, using his own magic to keep them alive while he takes all of their blood and life for himself. Some of them are lucky and get killed at the end, released to meet God. Others he keeps around, as hunters for his hunger, to find more meals among the battlefields. You can hear them slinking by at night sometimes. You know that dull murmur that comes out at night? That’s the last moan of his victims as he peels their souls from their bodies. I’m not the most religious man, but I hope to see St. Peter waiting for me at the pearly gates, not some vermin. That’s what I fear. I’ll take two more cards.”
A tiny rap came at the entryway to their dugout.
“Allo, sirs. My name is Francois. I am a poor boy from the village. I mean no disrespect, but I have some items here that might be of interest to you.”
Price turned toward the doorway to see a tiny French boy, his body blackened by soot and dirt, with his arms full of diaries, jewellery and personal belongings. His tattered clothing hung from his thin body and his bare feet were swollen and covered in sores.
Sgt. Wilkens was on the boy in an instant.
“Goddamn urchin, what are you doing? Trying to make money from the dead?” Wilkens drew his bayonet and held it to the throat of the boy.
Price raced to the boy’s aid. “Sarge, he’s a boy. He’s just a boy.”
The boy tilted his bright chestnut eyes up at the raging Sgt. Wilkens. “I mean you no harm, Sergeant. The men from Company B said some of these things belonged to men from your group. I thought you’d like to care for them yourself.”
The boy held out his tiny hand. He unfolded it to reveal a tiny locket containing a photo of Private O’Grady and his mother. O’Grady had been killed three days ago when a mortar round landed in the trench next to him.
Sgt. Wilkens snatched the locket from the boy’s hand.
“You’re just a little thieving vulture, stealing from the dead. How many of these things have you kept?”
“None, sir. I am…my family was… a victim of this terrible war. In ancient times, women would strip the dead and return their fallen soldiers’ possessions to their families. I am too frail to fight, but I can do this small thing for those who defend my land. I bring honour to those who fall, so that their sacrifice can be known and they can be properly mourned. I mean no offence.”
Sgt. Wilkens’ snatched the other things from the boy’s arms. He pulled out handfuls of items that had belonged to soldiers he once knew. Sgt. Halloway’s diary, Cpl. Saunders’ wedding ring, even the bible that belonged to Lieutenant Wolf, an ordained priest who had found himself the only voice of God in this Hell. Wilkens slumped to the ground, his legs weakening beneath him as he held the items in his arms.
Price stepped forward to the boy and handed him his tin mug.
“Here, take a drink, son. We are…appreciative of what you are doing. But a boy your age should not risk himself on the battlefield.”
The boy took a small sip from the mug and wiped his mouth with his hand, leaving a clean streak across a face. “It’s O.K, Sir. I am small and weak, but I do my work late at night when the soldiers are busy recovering from the duck raids or preparing for the dawn attacks.”
“What’s your name, son?”
“I am Francois, Francois Dumond.”
“Welcome, Francois. Consider Company G your home. My name is Price, but you can call me Edward.”
The next day began like the others before it. A barrage rattled dawn and shook the wooden supports of the dugout. A cry came out from beyond the entryway. It was an attack. The Germans were on the offensive.
The men gathered their helmets and rifles and raced through the wooden archway into the foggy, smouldering trench that they had taken, lost and recaptured twice in the past week. Bullets began to whiz by. A wooden post only a foot from Price’s head splintered as a bullet smashed into it. He stared down the sights of his rifle and heard the bellowing voice of Sergeant Wilkens,
“Wait until they hit the wire. That’ll slow ’em down and you can pick ’em off while they’re climbing over. Don’t waste your ammo on them while they are still running.”
The battle raged for hours. Price and the others repelled two more German assaults before launching their own, which was turned back by the Germans. In total, eighteen hours were spent under constant fire, with intermittent hand-to-hand combat. In the end, Price and the rest of Sgt. Wilkens’ squad would eat and sleep in the same dugout they had started in, while defending the same series of trenches they had defended for the past week.
That night, the men were called to repair duty and slipped into the moonlight to repair the broken barbed wire barriers surrounding the trenches. Francois was there too, darting into the darkness only to return with an armful of trinkets hastily recovered from the poor souls left on the battlefield.
Price found Francois sorting through some items at the bottom of a crater near the front.
“Francois, hello. Would you fancy a bit of bread? I’ve got a little extra if you’d like an early snack.”
Francois hastily wiped his hand across his face before turning toward his friend with a bright smile and gleaming chestnut eyes.
“Yes, my friend. Give me a minute to gather my things.”
Price sat on the ground at the top of the crater and watched as the dim shadow of Francois scurried among several piles of items littering the muddy bottom of the crater. He had grown fond of this small boy with a brave heart, sacrificing so much in exchange for the proper memory and burial of soldiers he had never known. Price felt that only Francois understood him. Many of the soldiers scoffed at Price’s choice to enlist despite his wealthy upbringing. The veterans hated his seemingly limitless courage on the battlefield, thinking he had a death wish. Even worse, many younger soldiers had died trying to emulate their ‘hero’. Only Francois seemed to share Price’s deep convictions about the lives of others and the need to take risks to protect them.
Francois loved to hear the stories of the men’s exploits, listening to them over a bowl of stew or a slab of stale bread taken from Price’s rations. After a few free meals, Francois began bringing small flasks of wine, although he never explained where he found them. The wine was often warm and a bit dry, but Price welcomed it at his table like the finest champagne.
One night Francois came across Price while he was writing another letter to his dear Meg.
“She must really mean something to you.”
“She means everything to me.”
“I see you writing to her every night, pouring out your heart in a way that seems odd for the selflessness you show in battle.”
“She is what drives me. When we are together again, I want her to be proud of me. I could never face her if I was a coward or turned away from a fight.”
“I know I am only a child, but I see a lot on the battlefields. I see men crying for their mothers and other men betraying their closest friends for another breath. It isn’t right to be here, I think she’d understand if you turned away. There are many rough days ahead. Cowardly men can become brave another day.”
“You have seen too much. Boys should never see such things. And I wouldn’t want my Meg to ever know those things.”
The battle for Serre was a fierce one. The German position was high upon a hill, but was crucial to controlling the area. The charge began like clockwork. A flood of men scurried over the edges of the trenches and began the sprint across muddy fields and barbed wire into the German trenches.
Price began his sprint amid a dozen others, yet he was alone when he dove headlong into the enemy trench. His bayonet flashed around him, leaving a trio of German soldiers dead at his feet. He turned to his left just as a grenade fell beside him. The explosion sent twenty, red-hot, razors screaming through his body. He fell as the metal tore at his flesh and embedded deep within him. He was vaguely aware that he was screaming as his world went black.
He was floating for a moment, freely moving in the black vastness. Then he grew heavy, his limbs drawn down below him. Suddenly, he slammed hard into something. The dampness on his back told him it was cold, wet ground.
He looked up to see German soldiers racing past him, their boots splashing in the mud as they ran by. His rifle lay at his feet and he stretched his bloodied, ragged hand toward it. He scooped it up and began firing, letting a volley of bullets fly toward the advancing Germans. He climbed up from the trench and pursued them on his wobbling legs. A few turned toward him, only to find their curiosity rewarded with his lethal attention. He began to close with the attacking Germans, just as his mates regrouped and turned the attack back upon itself. The enemy soldiers retreated back toward Price and he met several of them in the middle of their path, bringing ten more down as he made his way back to his own troops.
He staggered into the dugout that had been home for the past ten days. Sgt. Wilkens was the only one there. Price asked about the others and Wilkens answered with silence.
Price stumbled to the table, only to have Wilkens recoil in horror. Wilkens pointed at Price but could not speak. Price looked down to find that his uniform had been turned to tatters by the attack. His shirt was scorched below his chest and his sleeves had been torn completely off. Metal shards gleamed from their resting places within his skin and his skin had grown pale.
Wilkens drew his rifle between them, the bayonet tip resting inches from Price’s throat.
A soft voice interrupted from the doorway.
“Sgt. Wilkens, I doubt that would work. You can see he’s already survived quite a lot.”
Wilkens turned to see Francois standing in the doorway, his mouth framed with wet crimson and his hands dripping in blood.
Wilkens whirled and lashed out at Francois. The boy dodged the move quite easily and drove his hands sharply against Wilkens body, launching him into a wooden support. Wilkens slid meekly to the ground, unconscious.
“Francois, what have you done?”
“To Wilkens? I merely gave him an easier way to deal with the current situation.”
“No what have you done to me.”
“I’ve unlocked you. You see, I collect special things from the battlefield and nothing is more special than a man who sacrifices so much for so many. In fact, your ultimate sacrifice was quite memorable.”
“Ultimate sacrifice? You mean I died.”
“You would have, except for me. I’ve been…helping you…for a while. A little fortified wine here and there and your body was ready for the final transformation.”
“To be like me. I could never let