Warmth in the Trenches
A short story by Kichigai Kitsune.
The ground shook furiously beneath him, trembling as though beset by a wrathful earthquake. Jaeger's wiry legs buckled and the leopard boy staggered into the trench wall, fighting for his footing. Hoarse shouting and thunderous, ear-paining detonations filled the air, and he struggled to hearken to the one strident voice that moments before had been calling him by name.
"...the sixth battalion!" the voice cried at him. The boy struggled to make sense of what he had been told, the disorienting explosions having scattered his thoughts and filled his head with a shrill ringing - it felt as though his head had been replaced by an empty, tinny bell. He could see almost nothing in the choking dust and smoke made heavy by the cold rain. Out of habit, he nodded at the murky shape he knew was an officer, though whose name he could not recall.
"Yes, sir!" he shouted back, barely able to hear himself over the relentless sound of cannon fire.
"Go, go!" the officer told him, shoving the slender preteen in what seemed to be a random direction.
Jaeger fought to stay upright as countless other shells and mortars blasted chunks out of the ground scarcely ten feet from the top of their hastily constructed fieldworks. His boots, designed for traction and stability, nearly slipped out from under him several times as he tried to wade through the six inches of mud that the narrow trenches had become.
It wasn't the first miserable day he had experienced such heavy rain in the trenches. It hopefully wouldn't be the last. Ever since he had arrived on the front, a distant eight months ago, with his father, Jaeger had been one of the fourth battalion's prized trench-runners: slight, agile youths, able to dart quickly through the tunnels and shallow ditches especially designed with their size in mind, connecting the various trenches where the adult soldiers fought, slept and died.
It was highly dangerous. Ten years of age and no idiot, Jaeger knew that streaking so boldly across the corpse-littered No Man's Land, or crawling desperately between one trench and the next... each time, his life depended on the attentiveness or mercy of an enemy machine-gunner. Though, this time, they seemed to have no mercy, and no lack of murderous determination.
Shells crashed down on all sides while the sharp staccato of enemy guns droned on. The last time this happened, Jaeger had lost his father.
He wasn't even able to cry for him.
With a youthful grunt, Jaeger hauled himself onto the trench-ladder, readying himself for what would hopefully be just another of many mad dashes from one network of foul dugouts to another. He prayed that the artillery had not eroded the cover of the meagre breastworks along the shallow ditch that he now had to traverse.
At least, if this was to be his time, it would be an artillery shell or thick machine-gun bullet blasting him to heaven. Not like his friend Stephan. Jaeger couldn't handle being buried in the tunnels. No thanks to a slow death, said he! If it was his time, he'd rather it not be drawn out.
Dulling the anxiety in his heart, ignoring the storm of explosions that assailed his ears, the leopard boy gripped the ladder tighter, and then hauled himself over the parapet of wet dirt with shaking arms and a kick of his strong, young legs.
Determinedly, he crouched as low as he could and dashed through the silty mud, following the path he had taken before, though never before under such fire.
A gigantic blast took his paws from under him, and the boy fell elbows first into the mud. Ears ringing painfully and disoriented, his sight returned and he realized his face had ploughed straight into the soaking ground. Spluttering, he forced himself to a crouch again.
Scarcely several meters of ungainly staggering later, he heard it. A sharp whistling that could only mean one thing.
The massive artillery shell landed not far from him. How far, he would never be sure. The blast hurled him sideways with unfathomable, irresistible force. A panicked voice inside him proclaimed that he was now dead - the shell must have landed right beside him. He was flying now, through the air, nothing but disembodied head and bloody giblets.
Everything went black... for what seemed to be a single moment.
Coughing and gagging, Jaeger rolled onto his back and looked desperately down at his body. It seemed to be all in one piece, though the uniform he proudly wore was stained with black mud, and his ears stung painfully. Everything seemed muffled, and even the greatest explosions sounded like quiet thumps on a comfortable mattress...
Shaking his head, Jaeger managed to get back onto his stomach. He had to complete the task given to him. It wasn't merely a matter of duty or honour: the sixth battalion had several medics. There was no denying that, while still in one piece, that blast had hurt him. Tears pooled in his eyes as he prayed the marginally trained field medics could keep him from dying to a horrific infection or some sickening equivalent.
Struggling to focus through the chalky smoke and heavy rain, Jaeger forced himself onwards. It was scarcely twenty seconds before he found himself at the edge of the Sixth's trench - though it seemed much longer. With a pained gasp, his balance at last deserted him and he fell down to the muddy hole with a sickening splat... and found himself unable to move for some reason.
Thankfully, it wasn't long before someone came to his aid. He smiled gratefully up at the faces he could barely see before once more everything drowned in a thick, tarry blackness...
When he awoke, Jaeger didn't recognize where he was. He was in a hammock, or gurney, something like that - he knew instinctively somehow. Everything was just a blurry mess as he looked around, trying to understand where he was.
It was all familiar. All too familiar by now. A trench, of course. Most of the waking moments he could remember now were all in a trench. But just as he tried to find the strength to sit up, a fur dashed past him in a strange uniform.
It wasn't like his uniform. It was an enemy. His heart fought to beat faster, though little energy flooded the kit's heavy body.
What was wrong?! Was he hurt?! Why couldn't he fight? Couldn't even move! This couldn't be!
Another uniformed fur dashed past, and Jaeger moaned, forcing himself to roll over. Being in a hammock however, he simply flopped onto his back again.
"No!" he whispered as the world spun into a dizzying blur.
He wouldn't let his country down! He was young, and, yes, perhaps he was injured, but he was a soldier! He wouldn't fail by his own weakness!
With all his strength, Jaeger pitched to one side, falling from the hammock to the mud once again. Quickly taking in his surroundings, he spied a dead officer sprawled on the ground not ten feet from him. Summoning all he had left, the boy crawled towards the lifeless body, his small paw seeking and taking up the pistol that had been left in its cold fingers. With a hollow cry, he rolled onto his back, brandishing the weapon and looking wildly around for a target.
One presented itself. A young male fox, clad in the garbs of the enemy, froze and stared in abject shock at the wounded child, scarcely managing a gasp before Jaeger squeezed the trigger. Detachedly, Jaeger watched the fox, likely only a few years older than he, collapse to the ground clutching his stomach.
But the pistol flew from his grip, a searing pain engulfing his wrist like fire. Jaeger looked to his side as a boot connected with his muzzle and left him seeing nothing but a dark red for a few moments.
When his vision returned, he saw another uniformed enemy. A Karvannian, a wolf, armed with a rifle -needle-sharp bayonet now aimed at Jaeger's very eyes. For a brief moment, the fierce set of the enemy lupine's features spoke to Jaeger of his imminent death.
He would never know what happened to soften those features... and stay the soldier's fatal thrust. Instead, that boot once again connected with his face, and this time...
This time, the darkness lasted much, much longer...