In the dim, ugly light of morning the fog had settled in, and it muffled the dull thuds of the artillery before them. The barrage was constant; they could use it to measure time. The ersatz coffee Nicholas Raney was brewing, twenty paces down the trench, would be done--which was not to say drinkable--in another five or six explosions. Nicholas had owned a bistro, before the war--Albert remembered this fact distantly.
He remembered that Nicholas had owned a bistro in Porthleigh; he remembered that Aaron Burnside owned a horse, and that Samuel Duffey, their lieutenant who now stared blankly at a tattered map, was fond of rowing. He remembered that John Blakely had been friends with Steven Rickard, before an artillery shell had returned Rickard--and Sean Ansley, and Dennis Meyers, Frank Altman, Steven Maley and Keith Crowe--bodily into the earth from which they came. That was last week. He remembered that, and he remembered that Frank Altman had played draughts with little bits of tin he'd cut from their ration-boxes.
Albert Cockerham was 18, and he no longer remembered the reason for his enlistment.
"Alright, men. The news over the radio suggests that we are to attack soon." Duffey had drawn them together, all eight of them, in the evening--night came on them quickly. "We'll be assisting the push that will take place all over this sector--so that there'll be good news back in Porthleigh, when everyone wakes up. Consider it our special gift."
"Gift?" Burnside, the platoon sergeant, raised an eyebrow curiously. He had been a gorgeous ruddy shade once--on the ship, before they'd docked. Now, life in the trenches had turned their coats all grey and brown and matted--but it seemed to have struck Burnside worse. "What's it--oh, bloody hell."
Edward Alston, who was shorter than the rest of them and kept watch over the trench by standing on his pack, turned from his post. "Bloody hell?"
Burnside shook his head, as though the realisation that seemed to have hit him might've only been a mistake. "It's the 24th, isn't it? It's Christmas tomorrow, aye?"
Lord in heaven. Cockerham's last Christmas had been celebrated in the waning days of his schooling. His father had presented him with a grooming brush, with fine bristles to keep the fur on his face orderly. Albert still had the brush, and the pipe his brother had given him, but they had no tobacco and he didn't want to sully the pretty brush with the muck of his face.
"That's right," Duffey said, crisply. Now you've all got family, if I'm not mistaken. Let's give them a hell of a good message when they wake up, how's that? Our task is to reach the lines along Fisher's Hill, right there." He pointed to an unremarkable swelling of the ground, beyond the trench; if there had been a hill at one point, high explosives had battered it into submission long before. "There will be an artillery barrage, and then we'll assault while the Imperial forces are still stunned."
"Bollocks." John Blakely had not really recovered from the loss of his friends, and he shook his head at the lieutenant's passion.
"Sit down, Blakely." Duffey's voice was stern. "Sit down." After a moment, Blakely did, curling his muddy tail up and into his lap. "Do you want the Empire to win? Is that it? You just want to give up the Rise to them?"
"I don't give a damn about the Rise," Blakely said, bitterly. "I give a damn about dying on Christmas for General Denman's accolades in the bloody papers, that's what I give a damn about."
"I'm not sure I understand what's so wrong with the Empire," Cockerham mused, his young voice thoughtful even in its uncertainty.
His speech bordered on insubordination; Duffey rapped him--hard--on the muzzle. "Do we need to? Queen Margaret has asked us to fight--we fight. But fine, I'll tell you--they're huge, hulking. They have two-inch fangs"--he held his fingers apart to demonstrate--"and they use them to tear the throats out of their captives. They have to--that's all they eat. The meat has to be fresh, in their culture, or they can't consume it. I've seen it--they're only barely describable as men at all, Cockerham."
"I heard," Edward Alston said, still staring down the sights of his rifle, "that when they took Ritter Valley, they cut the tongues out of all of the farmers there, so that they couldn't say a bad word about the Empire."
"That's right!" Duffey seized on this. "It's what they do, Cockerham. And that goes for all of you--you have to know what we're fighting against."
"I don't care."
"Well, you won't have to until tomorrow," Burnside said, not unkindly--trying to calm Blakely down. "None of us will. And hell, maybe there'll be a cease-fire, right? There'd be the real gift."
Cockerham's voice lacked Blakely's weary cynicism--he was quiet, still, even if he felt the frustration no less keenly. "Parliament won't stop it. They don't have to fight--it doesn't cost them anything to keep us out here. You'd think we'd be the ones to stop it... but we don't."
"Because if we don't, they'd be on us in a minute. Now you listen up, the lot of you--we go over the top tomorrow, and that's that. If you don't like it, I'll shoot--"
"What's that? Sir--what's that?" They looked; Alston was pointing out towards the east, at a bright light low in the sky.
"It's a star," Duffey said. "You're supposed to be watching the ground, anyway."
"It wasn't there yesterday, I don't think. And it's too bright to be a star, sir."
Duffey sighed heavily. "Then it's an artillery balloon--actually, I'm sure that's what it is. You see that, Blakely? They're planning their own attack--probably trying to take advantage of a holy day to catch us off guard and drive us to the sea. They..."
In the background, Duffey continued his explanation to Blakely, though the fox seemed to be catching none of it. Cockerham's muzzle smarted, but more than the pain he felt the dull apprehension of the next morning's assault already churning his stomach. It was not just that Cockerham didn't want to die--though he didn't, and every waking moment of his life he thought about returning home, and going back to school, and feeling the warmth of his girlfriend Jessica's paw, caressing his own; hearing her voice, as they talked about plays, about dancing, about art and the compositions of Stravinsky. She had seen "The Rite of Spring" when it opened, her last letter had said--he wished he could imagine the orchestra.
He wanted to see her again, dearly, but in the day to day what gnawed at him more was the fighting itself; the din and the screaming and the smell of terror that lingered on the bodies they crossed over, heading for the enemy trenches that they never seemed to reach. Cockerham eyed the star in the east and remembered an old rhyme, about stars granting wishes. He wished for peace, because it was as meaningless as any other wish he could've made. The radio was crackling.
"You see? That's our artillery, telling us that they're about to begin." Duffey picked up the handset, and then immediately recoiled--even from a several feet away Cockerham could hear the hiss of static.
The lieutenant's glare was sharp. "I don't know. We'll have to send a runner--how about you, Blakely?"
"Sir," Burnside shook his head. "Due respect, sir, but there's only eight of us. As many runners as it'd take to get through, we'd lose the rest of the platoon."
Duffey growled, but the logic was impeccable and he nodded. "You're right, sergeant--good point. Then we sit--and wait. We can't very well start the attack without orders."
"Obviously, we'd want to be on our best military behaviour for more killing," Blakely muttered. "You sure we can't start early, sir?"
Duffey finally lost his patience, taking Blakely by the shoulders and throwing him back against the wall of the trench. "If you don't get back into order, corporal, I'll damn well--"
"Then go ahead and shoot me," Blakely spat, his eyes narrowing to embers. "Because I'm done with this--I'm tired of it. You want eagerness for this damned scheme? You want us to fight for a queen who couldn't even waste a single thought on us? You want morale? We don't even have coffee!" He shouted this last sentence, and it rebounded for a half-second before melting into the low-lying clouds.
Duffey had drawn his sidearm, and levelled it at Blakely's muzzle. Cockerham watched Duffey's finger, the pads cracked and the claw coated with dirt as it rested on the trigger. The world hung. Then there was a quiet noise, from the fog. A voice--"coffee?" it said. Duffey blinked, and they all turned towards the enemy lines. Nobody answered, and after a few seconds of the eerie silence the voice returned. "You want coffee?" It was perfect English.
Blakely straightened up, opening his mouth to speak. Duffey shook his head emphatically. "Nobody say anything."
Blakely gave the lieutenant a contemptuous look, and then lifted his head just out of the trench and shouted. "If you've got real coffee, we'll--" Duffey grabbed his shoulders and pulled him down roughly.
There was a brief laugh. "Hold on."
Something small flew in the darkness, landing with a thud a few yards out of the trenches. "Alston--what is it?"
"I can't tell, sir." They were speaking quietly. "It looks like a box of something, a wooden box."
"It's a bomb," Duffey said.
"Or coffee," Blakely offered. "Why don't we find out."
"Don't be foolish. Don't--stop that. You stay put." Duffey barked, trying to stay quiet. Blakely had put a foot on the steps, and he turned to the lieutenant, shrugging, before stepping up and above the line of the trench.
"It's pretty, up here. You can see the stars better." They waited for the cough of the Imperial guns; for the sniper that would level Blakely. There was nothing; he picked up the box and returned to the trench. It had already opened, slightly; a few small, dark beans were falling from it. "It's coffee," he pronounced.
"It's poisoned," Duffey declared. "It has to be."
"Let's find out. Give me that." It was Nicholas Raney, who had owned the bistro, and he took the box, pouring out a few beans and grinding them up. A few minutes later--the artillery had stopped, Cockerham noticed--he poured some into a cup, taking a drink. "I'm pretty sure it's just coffee, sir." He handed the cup to Blakely.
Duffey ignored Raney. He was working with the radio, trying to get through to headquarters. In the east, the light of the star--or whatever it was--rose steadily as the minutes ticked past. When it was clear that, if the coffee was poisoned, the effects took longer than an hour or two to manifest, Blakely lifted his head from the trench again. "You want some..." Nicholas Raney was leaning towards him, offering a metal box. "Tinned beef? Here!" He lobbed it up, so that it made a ballistic arc against the stars.
Thirty minutes later, the voice finally came back. "We're coming out," it said.
Duffey had been unable to reach headquarters, but he grabbed his rifle. "Take your weapons," he said and--it being only prudent--they did. Then they were against the wall, looking out over the trench as shadowy figures began to emerge--a dozen or so in all. Their paws hung at their sides. Without being ordered, the men of the Crown ignored her defence, setting their rifles back. Duffey was still protesting as they climbed up, into the night air, and Cockerham saw his first soldier of the Empire.
He was, clearly, not a fox like Cockerham. He was taller, by a foot or so; his features broader, bulkier. It was possible that his fur had once between grey, instead of red--but in the moonlight, and the dirt of the war, it looked the same. He had no demonic fangs; his eyes didn't glow. His name, he told Cockerham, was Karl.
"Albert. You speak our language?"
"Hardly," Karl said--"you speak ours."
"Damn it, men, they're the enemy! Get your weapons--where are your weapons?" Duffey's voice sounded different; Cockerham turned to discover an Imperial soldier shouting instead. They had the same tone.
"For god's sake at least somebody's talking sense. Arrest them! Take them prisoner!" This was Duffey--he and the Imperial man were the only ones who still carried arms; Cockerham saw their eyes meet, and after a moment Duffey seemed to realise the absurdity of the situation. "They've never listened," he said, and the Imperial lieutenant shook his head.
Albert heard Duffey sigh, and the lieutenant set his rifle carefully down in the dirt, saying he supposed it didn't matter. Then they were together, and from a distance it was impossible to tell who was a fox and who one of the barbarians of the Empire.
Karl followed Albert down into the royal trench--he nodded appreciatively at Raney's coffee grinder, which Nicholas had bought in Cairo on the way to their deployment. "Thank you," Albert said--doubtless Nicholas himself was saying something similar, up in no man's land. "We've been drinking it to stay alert, for your attack tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Karl looked bemused. "But it's Christmas..."
Albert found it peculiarly unsurprising that Karl would know this. "There's your artillery balloon... watching." He gestured at the light that still hung in the night sky.
Karl blinked, and he shook his broad head; in profile, Albert thought he looked rather like his father. "That's not ours--I thought that was yours? An airship, come to bomb us into oblivion..."
They both looked at it, for a while; the light never seemed to change. "I said a prayer on it, for the fighting to stop. Do you suppose that worked?" Karl glanced at him, and they meditated for a time on this in silence. Presently Karl gestured to a little box, and the ivory pieces that topped it.
"What is that?"
Albert looked at the box. He'd bought it in Cairo, keen to demonstrate his intelligence and his desire to rise through the ranks--the officers all understood. "It's a game called chess," he said. "It's supposed to teach you about war."
Albert Cockerham seemed, along with the reason for his enlistment, to have forgotten why he had ever thought the game could. He nudged it with his boot until the box toppled over and the little pieces fell into the mud.
When the dawn started to show itself in the east, they kept talking. It was not until the sun had actually risen, and the glowing light from the night before had faded completely into the morning, that Cockerham realised they could no longer understand each other. Perhaps, indeed, they had not been able to for some time. Albert pointed towards the opposing trench, and Karl nodded sadly. They shook hands, and he left to trudge back across no man's land with the rest of his unit.
"Damn queer," Duffey said, but there was an odd look on his face. Burnside said nothing at all, and even John Blakely was quiet. "Damn queer," Duffey repeated, and he stretched his neck up; where the uniform had shielded it, a little white was still visible in his fur. He looked eastward. "Lieutenant Lorenz--Victor Lorenz," he clarified, as though the name had meaning. "He said none of this made sense. I guess he's right. I told him... I told him I didn't know how to stop it." The lieutenant went quiet again.
As they reflected quietly, Cockerham noticed the helmet, resting beyond the trench. He picked it up. "It's a friend's," he said. "I have to give it back to him." Duffey, who had protested loudly the recovery of the coffee, nodded dumbly.
In the grey light of Christmas morning Cockerham stepped up, into the light. It wasn't far, to the opposing trench. They watched him jog across it gamely, then bend over in discussion with someone he met there. He held the helmet out; a paw reached up to take it, and Cockerham turned back with a grin on his face. In the pale light, his fur seemed rimmed with halo
Walking back, his features could only be seen dimly. As he approached them, he might almost have seemed a wolf--ready to devour them, to burn their villages and put every man, woman and child in Portsleigh to the sword. This concept seemed absurd, to the men in the trench, but it resonated somewhere, for there was a sudden puff of smoke against the man's chest, and a moment later the crack of a rifle from behind them, to the west. Albert Cockerham, who was four months shy of 19, looked briefly surprised. Then he fell forward, with a soft thud and a stillness that could not be confused for anything else.
There were no last words. They had all seen it, and there were no words in the trench, either. There was a terrifying silence, and the report of the rifle died away. It was not the sniper's fault. He had been doing his job; discharging his sacred duty to the Crown. An honest mistake. Still, they stared at the quiet heap of what had once been a man. The radio buzzed softly, but nobody moved.
Edward Alston spoke first. "The radio, sir," he said--not a whisper, but a quiet voice, as though he suddenly found himself in church. "It's working again."
After a long moment, Duffey turned to the set and switched it on to catch the last notes of the national anthem. "Sector commanders, this is headquarters," a crackly voice pronounced. "There is to be a general assault along all our lines, at precisely 9 o'clock this morning. The signal will be the chime of the bells at the Grassettham chapel." They looked to one another, and as he reached for the radio handset Duffey's paws were shivering as though the fox was cold. "Our artillery is not operational, so you will convey to the enemy a sense of shock yourselves. Good luck, men. Attack with strength and honour."
It was as Lorenz had said. It didn't make sense; none of it made sense, the assaults or the pomp or the coffee. And yet, what could they do? Duffey squeezed the microphone, and his voice was remarkably clear. It carried, across Marconi's sea. "No."
For a moment, nobody answered. Then the voice returned. "Who is this? Identify yourself."
He looked around at the other men, as if searching for support--or absolution. Suddenly the radio sparked to life again. "This is Lieutenant Clarence Whitlock. We're laying down arms."
Duffey blinked, and then pressed the switch in, hard. "No--it's Samuel Duffey. Two platoon, C company of the Dumcarden Regiment." It was only a quarter-second before another voice came through.
"It's Lieutenant Thomas Oden, one platoon, C company, Hartsgill Regiment."
"Major Correa, B company, Dumcarden. Stand down. Stand d--"
A whine, as transmissions collided, and then the more powerful radio of the headquarters broke in. "You pull yourselves together! You have to understand--understand what's at stake. Your country is watching you, men--you will not disappoint."
There were no more voices on the radio. They sat, huddled against the wall, and waited. Duffey gripped one paw against the other, to still the shaking. His eyes closed, muzzle pointing towards the earth, Nicholas Raney--who seemed to apprehend the odds he would ever return to his bistro--was saying a quiet prayer.
At nine o'clock on Christmas morning, the tolling of the bells at Grassetham fell as a burial shroud on the men. They stood, and looked across the soiled ground of the field. Nobody moved. The bells continued, until any semblance of surprise or urgency had been lost. Finally, four hundred yards to the north, two dozen men rushed from the trench, their rifles at the ready.
Watching them, Duffey and what remained of his platoon waited for the chatter of machine guns; the paralysing crush of artillery, the hiss of gas. There was silence. The men continued to race, dodging bullets that had yet to fly. By a quarter of the way across no man's land, their assault had petered out. They stopped, and glanced around sheepishly, as if realising how foolish they looked, with their rifles held smartly and their martial demeanour. For a minute or so, they milled about; then they shuffled back towards their trench, and the grand Christmas offensive was over.
For a time, yet, the men remained silent. In the absence of activity along the front, the bells resumed, and they seemed to be carrying a different message. Blakely was the first to speak, holding out a cup of something to the lieutenant. "Would you like some coffee, Sam?" Duffey nodded, taking the mug even though it quivered in his hand. It was not up to the par of Raney's bistro, a thousand miles away or more, but Duffey drank readily, and with his warm breath puffing each word into the air, he spoke for the first time since the radio.
"Merry Christmas, Jack." Blakely smiled with a hint of sadness--for it was not an unalloyed cheer they felt. But he nodded, pouring a second cup and looking up at the sky, where the sun was finally starting to break through the fog and the barest hint of blue could be seen. He nodded, and as the bells rolled across the battlefield on the Atterdon Rise, he answered in kind.