This is a little piece that I wrote for the Sean Dunne Young Writers' Awards and I won the Junior National section, so I was kinda pretty damn proud.
This story is inspired by a yummy cocktail of War Horse, Private Peaceful, Birdsong and my love of Welsh things.
Oh, and I totally plan on expanding on it to make it into a novel. That idea's already stewing up here (taps temple).
Enjoy! (Or don't... see if I care!)
Brown. The trenches were brown. Wales was green. Green with a blue sky, dotted with the fluffiest white clouds. Or at least, that’s the way he liked to remember it. He liked to remember the fields behind his house, where you could see everything for miles around without having to squint through smoke and ash, where you could breathe the fresh air without choking on the stench of death and decay, where he’d run with his brother once upon a time.
Jonah was dead now. Nate could still see his father’s face draining as he’d read the letter, he could still see his mother crumpling into a trembling heap on her knees on the kitchen floor. He remembered his jealousy as he’d watched Jonah walk proudly towards him after signing his name on the ledger, sealing his fate. Jonah was three years older, he’d always gotten to do everything first. Once he’d gone to the trenches, Nate had sat out in the field in the evenings and wondered what sort of adventure his brother was having, what sort of incredible stories he’d bring home.
But he hadn’t brought any stories. He hadn’t brought anything. Jonah never came home. The letter had come instead. And standing in that kitchen, with his grey-faced father and sobbing mother, Nate hadn’t felt jealous anymore.
The deafening roar of an explosion shuddered through the trench, spraying stones and earth and mud over their heads as they ducked and shrank back as one.
Nate was tall. He wasn’t broad — Jonah had been the strong one — but he was tall enough to pass for eighteen any day. They hadn’t batted an eyelid as he’d leaned down, pen in hand. They‘d barely even looked at him. He was halfway through Nathanael when he’d stopped and his hand had started to shake.
He’d thought of Jonah, lying in a shallow grave somewhere with his fallen brothers. Jonah had always been the featherbrained one, always laughing for one reason or another. He’d never taken a thing seriously in his eighteen years. He would always grin and tease Nate for being so sombre — ‘That line’ll stick between your eyebrows unless you lighten up, Nat.’ People said it was because he was fair haired.
‘Come on, lad,’ the soldier behind the table had snapped. ‘There’s a war on, you know. We don’t ‘ave all bleedin’ day.’
Nate had dark hair and a brain in his head. He’d steadied his hand and scrawled his surname — Iorath. He would not end up like Jonah.
The ground shook again, above them. Nate tightened his grip around the rifle in his hands and stared upwards. A sky as white as his knuckles, grey smoke, bits of ash and God knows what else fluttering about.
‘Any minute now.’ The boy beside him was shaking and even though they were soaked through to the skin, ankle deep in filthy rainwater and covered in freezing mud, Nate knew he wasn’t shaking from the cold. ‘Any—any minute now,’ he stammered again, through gritted teeth. His name was Luke — Lucas Blake — and he was fifteen.
Up and over and just out of sight, the air was alive with gunfire, strangled cries of agony and screamed pleas for help. From who, no one knew and no one would ever know.
Another explosion sent a hail of stinging debris into the trench around them. Beside Nate, Luke lost his footing in the mud as the ground shook and shuddered beneath them. Nate caught his elbow and hauled him back to his feet.
With wide, dark eyes, Luke stared from Nate to the men in the trench around him and then up to the rim. His shaking had only worsened. His head was swivelling from side to side, his eyes brimming with tears.
‘No, no, no,’ Luke whispered, through trembling lips. ‘I can’t—I can’t do this. I can’t—’
He turned suddenly and tried to push past the men behind him.
Nate heard, in his head, the lieutenant’s warning as he’d bellowed it through the trench, loud enough for them all to hear: ‘Any man who tries to retreat will be shot dead — d’you hear? Any coward who tries to stay behind will be killed.’
Nate grabbed Luke’s arm and spun him round again. Luke stared at him out of a tear-stained face and shook his head. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I can’t, Nate, I’d rather die here. I’d rather die right here. Let me go… Let me go! I can’t go up there! You can’t—’
‘You have to!’ Nate tried to keep his voice firm, but it was shaking almost as badly as Luke's. ‘You’ve got to.’
Luke glanced up again, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks, making tracks in the grime. ‘I’m going to die,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m going to die out there, I—I—’
Nate, still holding the boy’s arm, gave it a rough shake. ‘No, Luke!’ he snapped. ‘No, you’re not. Not today.’
Luke made a choked sound, as if he were trying to conceal a sob. ‘Not today,’ he whispered.
Nate nodded. ‘That’s right. You keep on saying that. Over and over, Luke, alright?Not today.’
The boy reached up to wipe at his eyes, not that it did him any good. ‘Alright,’ he breathed in a tremulous voice.
Nate tried to smile, but he wasn’t sure if it worked. ‘Good man.’
‘Not today,’ Luke muttered, staring upwards, past the men on the ladders, tensed, ready to run. ‘Not today.’
Behind them, someone had started to pray, a low, shaking whisper. Nate couldn’t see who it was, but the prayer was familiar, as close to comforting as anything could get right now.
Our father, who art in heaven…
‘Not today,’ Luke murmured. ‘Not today. Not to—’
A whistle cut through the trench, tore holes of fear at the bottom of each and every heart within it. All around them, men started yelling, bellowing at each other to climb the ladders, to get up there, out there, to fight, to die honourably, maybe even to survive.
… Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come…
Nate kissed the cross around his neck and mounted the ladder, scrambling upwards, his boots sliding on the wet wood. He heard Luke beneath him, his voice a low whimper, grinding out the words through his tears — ‘Not today. Not today.’
Nate climbed up and up and over.
The din was ear-splitting. Shouts and screams, explosions and a cacophony of gunfire. Before he’d even started running, two men to Nate’s left fell back into the trench, shot, dead or dying. He stared at the place where they’d stood, frozen for a moment in the shock.
A bullet whizzed past his cheek and dragged him back to life. He ducked on instinct, his helmet falling off and rolling away because he hadn’t fastened it properly in his nervous rush. He reached over to pick it up, but a boot stamped down on top of it, driving it into the mud. Nate couldn’t afford to dig it out. He got to his feet and kept low, starting forwards again.
He heard the tiny voice near him, but through the ash and smoke all he could make out were shadows and blurs —
‘Not today. Not today. Not today.’
Nate ducked behind a strut and aimed at a man-shaped shadow that was shooting towards them. He pulled the trigger a couple of times and hoped for the best.
… Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…
An explosion went off so nearby that Nate was blown sideways into the mud, only just remembering to cover his head as best he could with his arms as he fell. Bits of God knows what tore through the sleeves of his uniform, dug into his arms, embedding in his skin. For one terrifying moment, the noise of the battlefield dulled, dimmed, faded away into faint echoes and distant cries. Nate squeezed his eyes shut, willing his worst thoughts not to be true, willing himself not to be deaf. Deaf or blind. He’d rather die than be deaf or blind.
But in a sudden clamorous rush, the noise thundered through his head again, the rattle of gunfire and the dying men.
Nate grabbed his rifle and scrambled to his feet, stumbling forwards into the smoky unknown.
… Give us this day our daily bread…
‘Not today. Not today.’
Nate squatted behind another strut and looked around himself, squinting through the grey smoke. ‘Luke!’ he called. He could still hear him. He was somewhere close, very close. ‘Luke! Luke, where are you?’
‘Not today. Not today…’
Nate spotted him, moving through the barbed wire, practically bent double, his rifle clutched to his chest, eyes like saucers in his small, pale face. They were darting round wildly — maybe from fear or perhaps because he’d heard Nate‘s calls.
Nate, still in half a crouch, started towards his friend. He kept his head low, so he couldn’t see a thing bar the ground beneath his feet, but he followed the voice, the hushed chant.
‘Not today. Not today. Not—’
The words caught sharply, ended in a choked cough. Nate’s head snapped up, his stomach falling past his boots.
… And forgive us our trespasses…
Luke’s rifle fell to the ground. The boy staggered, staring down at his own chest.
‘LUKE!’ Nate roared across the space between them. Abandoning his safe and slow crouch, he sprinted over the mud, almost tripping on something — a corpse, battered and bloodied and blasted half to nothing.
Luke was lying in a puddle by the time Nate dropped to his knees beside him. Blood spread in a dark red stain from the hole in the chest of his uniform.
Nate cursed under his breath, his hands shaking as he pressed them over the wound, trying to stem the bleeding.
A shuddering cough wracked Luke’s slight frame. His face and lips were white as milk, his eyes were wide, shocked.
Nate dropped down on top of Luke as another explosion erupted somewhere behind them. He didn’t have time to protect himself. Shrapnel dug into the back of his neck, making him cry out even through his clenched teeth.
When he felt it safe to straighten up again, Luke’s hand clutched weakly at the front of his uniform. The boy shook his head.
Nate took the hand in one of his own bloodied ones and gripped it hard. ‘Just hang on, Luke, hang on.’
Hang on for what? Nate didn’t know. But Nate did know something. Luke wouldn’t hang on. He couldn’t.
Luke coughed. Blood bubbled from the corner of his mouth. ‘It’s—it’s not that—that bad,’ he whispered, staring upwards at the haze of grey smoke and falling ash. Tears were slipping through the mud at his temples, mixing with the rainwater beneath his head.
‘What?’ Nate asked, his own voice shaking worse than Luke’s.
‘Dying.’ A sob caused Luke’s weakening body to convulse horribly.
Nate hook his head, pressed down harder on the wound that was bleeding through his fingers, running over his hand. ‘Don’t say that,’ he muttered. ‘Luke, don’t—don’t…’
But Luke wasn’t listening. Luke couldn’t listen. His eyes were still staring upwards, the swirling debris reflecting in them, but Luke wasn’t staring upwards. Lucas Blake was gone.
With an angered cry, Nate dropped the boy’s limp hand and gripped his own hair in both his fists, still covered in warm blood. He’d told him he would live. He’d promised Luke that it wouldn’t be today. Not today.
… As we forgive those who trespass against us…
Nate grabbed his rifle and staggered to his feet. They would pay. Those men through the smoke, in the other trench, whoever they were, would pay. They would suffer. They made Nate break his promise and they killed an innocent boy, a boy who’d never taken one of their lives. A boy who hadn’t even gotten a chance to pull the trigger against one of them.
Nate aimed and fired. He didn’t wait to see if his target fell. He dropped behind a strut and aimed again. And again. And again.
… And lead us not into temptation…
He saw one fall — one of his targets. He saw him crumple as the bullet hit him, fall in a heap on the ground, just like Luke. Nate lowered his gun, watching. Unlike Luke, no one called this man’s name. No one fell beside him, tried to help.
Nate watched him twitch, a shadow through the haze, feeling sick, feeling bile rise in his throat. He’d done that. The moment that man stopped twitching, Nate would know for certain he’d taken a life, he’d taken a person, like someone had taken Jonah, like someone had taken Luke. He imagined this man’s parents, this man’s brother, standing in a kitchen, their own lives shattering. And he would’ve caused it.
But Nate never saw the man stop moving.
He heard the low whine, whistling through the air. He heard it and he ducked, throwing away his gun, covering his head.
He felt the impact as the bomb hit the earth. The deafening roar tore at his eardrums, drowned out the noise.
He waited and waited on the ground, but the sound didn’t flood back. Nate pushed himself up onto his knees and looked around, blinking hard. He could see them. He could see shadows darting and bullets flying. Much further away, he saw the billowing cloud of another explosion, but… he couldn’t hear it. Not any of it.
He got to his feet, shaking.
Through the smoke, a shadow came towards him, forming into a person, a man, a man holding a gun. A gun that was aimed at Nate.
Nate’s eyes widened, his heart hammered against his ribs. He thought, I’m going to have to shoot this man. I’m going to have to see his face as I do it. The man was young, probably not much older than himself, probably not old enough to have enrolled either. He stared at Nate from wide and scared blue eyes, his rifle trembling in his hands.
And Nate realised what was going on, why the soldier had dared to stray so close.
Nate’s rifle was on the ground, where he’d thrown it as the bomb had fallen. It was in the mud, several feet away.
Nate’s eyes widened as they flicked from his rifle, to the soldier.
… But deliver us from all evil…
Nate’s hand flew to clutch the crucifix at his throat.
A gunshot tore through the silence that had engulfed him, the final gunshot, the last one Nathanael Iorath would ever hear.