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No Man's Land - Part One
Chapter One - Trench Raid

The artillery barrage was so distant it sounded like nothing more than a rumble of thunder a few miles further along the frontline. It clearly wouldn’t be loud enough to cover our approach if we made any unnecessary noise during our incursion. Sappers had earlier crept across this section of No Man’s Land and cut the barbed wire to prepare our way, but in my forward crawl through the mud I discovered some uncut strands blocking our path. I glanced back at the shadowed face of Private Jones and signaled for him to keep an eye on the steady glow of a cigarette I’d spotted in the trench ahead of us. He simply nodded and flashed me a quick affirmative grin.

I reached forward with the wire cutters and slowly cut the two strands of wire and pushed them to each side. The sound seemed incredibly loud to my ears, but Jonesy gave a thumbs up to tell me the German smoker hadn’t moved position. The smoking sentry was in the German forward trench and this section of the frontline thankfully didn’t have any sap trenches cut into No Man’s Land with listening posts to catch raiders like ourselves. I parted the barbed wire and edged forward on my belly. Jones followed close behind and, although I couldn’t see them in the pre-dawn darkness, I knew that Rogers, Hicks and Shaw would be bringing up the rear.

The rain of the previous week had made the mud thick and cloying and it slowed my progress as I angled the team thirty feet to the right of the smoking sentry. At the edge of the German trench I quickly ducked my head over the lip to take a look, then pulled it back. As expected, there was limited sentry cover - most of the German troops would be sleeping to prepare for the following days fighting. There were at least two guards huddled together in the bottom of the trench thirty feet to my left and nobody in sight to my right. Because they were seated side-by-side talking quietly to each other there was only one of them who might glance our way and notice us.

I slowly unsheathed a dirk with a knuckle-duster handle and reached down to scrape the mud from the soles of my boots. After wiping the blackened blade on my trousers I stabbed it towards Jones and then tilted the edge towards my chest, then pointed towards the back of the trench - message: “you’re with me” - he nodded and grinned again. I swept the blade in a short arc to take in the blackened faces of Rogers, Hicks and Shaw and pointed along the leading edge of the trench towards the sentries. I tapped my wrist even though I wasn’t wearing a watch and held up two fingers. All three nodded at me and began to crawl away, slowly and silently, with Rogers leading.

Jones and I dropped silently into the trench and climbed over the other side, then crawled quickly along the back edge of the trench towards the sentries. Once in position Jones took a firm grip on his mace, a wicked-looking weapon made of a sturdy oak stick with a metal spiked collar, and we both angled our legs so we could spring to our feet quickly. Jones was counting silently in his head and when he reached two minutes he tapped me on the foot. We both leapt up simultaneously and jumped into the trench.

There were only the two sentries I’d spotted and they only had time to register shock on their faces before we were on them. I stabbed my guard in the throat with an upwards thrust of the dirk and, as he fell forwards, I pulled the blade out and stabbed him again in the chest. He grunted, made a gurgling noise, and died. Jones hit his sentry once across the temple with his mace and he crumpled to the ground. He didn’t need to hit the man again.

Rogers, Hicks and Shaw suddenly appeared and dropped into the trench. Hicks landed poorly and clattered against the wooden duckboards shoring up the earthen sides of the trench, and I glared at him. “Quiet,” I hissed. He smiled and nodded apologetically. “Check the nearest dug out,” I said, gesturing with my bloodied knife. The three of them headed towards the communications trench.

The German fortifications all followed a similar pattern and we used the knowledge of their design during our raids. The frontline trench had another parallel trench a couple of hundred feet back, where the dug outs for sleeping and command rooms were located, and periodically a communications trench was cut to join the two. Rogers, Hicks and Shaw headed towards the nearest dug out while Jones and I checked the pockets of the men we had killed. It was purely an intelligence-gathering raid and we needed to grab any maps or documents we could find and then get away as quickly as possible. Neither sentry had any military intelligence on them, which was as expected, but Jones found a watch on his man and shoved it into his pocket. I didn’t really approve of pilfering from dead soldiers, but I let it pass. I nodded towards the communication trench and we went to catch up with the others.

Hicks was keeping watch outside the wooden door of a dug out, crouching down with a pump-action shotgun in his hands and scanning in both directions along the trench. Shaw came out the door suddenly and waved a leather satchel at us. “Got maps,” he whispered. Rogers stepped out behind him, a bloodied mace in one hand and a Webley revolver in the other, a big grin on his face.

“Time to go,” I said.

“What about the other dug out?” asked Rogers, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at another wooden door about twenty feet further down the trench.

“Lob in a Mills. And make it snappy.”

Rogers tiptoed to the door and pulled the pin on a Mills No.5 fragmentation grenade. He eased open the door and rolled it inside, then turned and ran back towards us. We all set off running back into the communications trench. In the four seconds it took until detonation we had already made it back to the main trench and were clambering over the bulwark when the sound of a muffled explosion reached us. The noise of our pounding feet along the duckboards had probably been heard anyway so we weren’t too concerned about the noise from the grenade. We just kept running. It was only two hundred yards to our lines and we pounded back across the thick mud with a desperation worthy of athletes at the Olympiad. Behind us the shouting started. “Alarm, alarm!”

I hoped the cry was too late. Jones was in the lead and running at an angle towards the gap in the barbed wire, and we all followed, with me in the rear of the group.

“Schnell,” shouted another guard behind us. “Sie sind immer weg.”

I bloody-well hoped he was right and we were getting away. A shot sang out: loud and piercing in the pre-dawn silence, but missed us all. Thankfully it was still too dark and the distance was too great to get a clear shot and a few more hurried shots all went wide. As long as they don’t have time to pull up a machine gun we should be alright, I thought. Ahead of me I saw Hicks vault over the barbed wire at the lip of the British trench line and vanish from sight. A few heart-pounding steps later and I reached it too and jumped into the dark pit to safety.

The village was in a poor state. Artillery barrages had pounded most of the buildings into piles of rubble when the village had been closer to the shifting frontline. The few remaining buildings which were still standing were missing walls or roofs. The consolation for my men was that the village was, at least, away from the front line. Our team had been given a rest day and we were using the time to wash socks and underwear, a mundane but worthwhile pursuit given the damp, muddy conditions at the front. I wanted some time alone so left the men to their chores and found a house with a section of garden fence still standing where I could relax and think. I hung my socks over the fence to dry in the sun and went to sit in the shade of a tree to smoke.

The rough tobacco burned my throat but I blew a stream of smoke through my lips with a satisfied sigh. It was pleasant simply to not need to hold a cupped hand over the tip to hide the glow of the cigarette.

Jones wandered up the lane towards me, carrying a tin mug. “Gunfire?” he asked, passing me the mug. Strong tea laced with rum.

“Perfect.”

“The lads have found an apple tree with some fruit left. Want some?”

I nodded. “Keep a couple for me. I’ll be along in a bit.”

“Ok, boss.” He wandered away.

“And tell them to keep out of the houses,” I called after him. I knew there would be nothing worth looting in the village, but better not give the lads any temptation, especially Jonesy. I couldn’t imagine a better man to have my back, but I didn’t like his pilfering. The whole place had probably been picked clean anyway before being abandoned by the villagers, but anyone caught looting would still be summarily executed.

Jones waved nonchalantly over his shoulder. “Will do.”

The tea with rum went down well and warmed me. I finished my cigarette and leaned back contentedly against the tree. I closed my eyes and tried to keep images of mud and blood out of my mind as I forced myself to relax. The gentle breeze moved the branches above me and the rustling of leaves made me think of happier times in the summers of my childhood. I dozed and daydreamed of English meadows.

Someone coughed nearby and I jerked awake. A man was standing beside the broken fence smiling down at me. He looked to be mid-fifties and was wearing black pants with boots, an open-necked white shirt and a wide-brimmed hat which shaded his face. A typical French peasant, I thought, probably an itinerant worker looking for an opportunity to earn a meal. “Bonjour, Monsieur,” I said.

“Hello. Enjoying the sun.”

“You aren’t French,” I said, but couldn’t place his accent. “English?”

“My mother was English, but I was born in America.”

“You don’t sound very American, if you’ll forgive my saying so, and you don’t look much like a soldier.”

The man smiled. “I’m just passing through. I’m a traveller.”

I frowned. “Where are you travelling to? This isn’t exactly Ramsgate or Brighton.” I had never had a holiday myself, but I knew they were the popular places to go back in the world of normal people. My holidays as a child had involved going to the local pond with friends, carrying jam sandwiches to eat after a swim, or having adventures in the farmland and woods around my home.

The stranger came and sat cross-legged in front of me. “Can you spare a cigarette?”

I pulled two cigarettes from my dwindling ration, lit them up and passed one over. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had one of these,” he said, blowing a long stream of smoke between his teeth. He waved his hand around to take in the village. “This isn’t Brighton, to be sure, but then I’m not really on holiday and I’m not here for your war. I just travel from place to place to meet interesting people. And you seemed to me to be very interesting.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m really quite ordinary.” I held out a hand. “Samuel Garrick, at your service.”

“Very nice to meet you, Samuel,” he replied, grasping my hand firmly. “And please don’t think me rude for not sharing my name with you because it really is of no consequence. To be fair, I have been known by a number of names over the years and I don’t really answer to any of them anymore. I am simply known to my acquaintances as the Traveller.”

“You are a very strange man.”

“Yes, probably the strangest you will ever meet.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled loudly to send a stream of smoke past my ear. “Don’t worry, Sergeant, I don’t mean to take much of your time but I do need to ask you something.”

I frowned. “Sergeant?” I said. My trench raider’s jacket carried no insignia. “How do you know my rank?” I tried to pierce the shadows under his wide hat, but couldn’t clearly see his eyes.

He waved his hand dismissively. “Sam, have you ever wondered if you were born in the wrong time or the wrong place?”

“This is my time and place,” I said. “People don’t get a choice.” The stranger looked and me and said nothing. “Yes, I do sometimes wish I’d been born in a more peaceful time, but I seem to have a knack - an aptitude - for fighting. I’m here and so I do my part: I fight. If I’m lucky I might even survive until the end of this great war.”

“Yes, this war to end all wars,” said the traveller, and laughed. “As if war will ever end. And do you believe in the entente’s motives?”

I must have looked startled by that question. I presumed he only meant Britain’s motives and not those of France and Russia. Maybe he is an undercover officer, I thought, who needs to assess if I care about the reasons behind this daily carnage. “Are you a secret red tab sent here to check my loyalty to King George?”

“No, I’m not an agent of the British, or of any other nation. I’m just curious to know if you agree with the reasons for this war.”

I thought for a moment. “The reasons are none of my business,” I said. “If King George wants me to kill his Boche cousins then so be it … but no, I don’t know what the war is about, and I’m only fighting to try and stay alive. And to keep my men safe.”

The stranger stubbed out his cigarette and slowly rose to his feet. “It has been a real pleasure talking to you, Sam Garrick.”

I could think of a few other words to describe our meeting and pleasure wasn’t on the list. “Likewise,” I said. No reason for me to be rude, I thought. “Enjoy your travels.”

“You too,” he replied enigmatically. He started to turn away, but paused for a moment and then turned back suddenly. He reached down and pulled a book from his trouser pocket and prodded it with his forefinger. “Can I ask if you’ve heard of this book: Alice in Wonderland? Do you know about the rabbit hole which leads Alice into another world?”

I nodded. “I’ve read Carroll’s book. Didn’t think much of it to be honest. I thought it was a bit contrived.”

“An interesting literary review,” laughed the traveller. He opened his palm and pressed it flat against the book’s cover, much as a Vicar might do with a Bible. “You did understand the concept of an alternate world sitting alongside our own, didn’t you?”

“It’s an appealing idea,” I said, “but I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

“I’m not offering a fairy tale,” said the stranger, “although Carroll was right to believe there is far more to this world than your muddy existence of blood and death. Other worlds really do exist under, above and beside our own.”

I tried to smile, but was starting to conclude that the man was crazy. I slowly inched my right hand towards the handle of my dirk, just in case it was needed.

“Sam, it is your destiny to find a doorway to another land and you need to seize the opportunity when it is presented to you.”

“What on Earth are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about a spiral staircase which leads to somewhere wondrous.”

I frowned in consternation. The man really is crazy, I thought. “You aren’t making any sense.”

The stranger smiled. “Perhaps not today, but it will make sense soon enough, believe me.” He squatted onto his haunches and fixed me with a stern look. “This is important,” he said, “even though you don’t yet realise it. All I’m asking is that if you come across a spiral staircase in a place where it has no business being: walk down. This is your rabbit-hole, Sam, and your destiny lies at the bottom of those stairs.”

This is a very strange man, I thought. My hand slipped across my thigh onto the knife’s sheath. “Alright,” I said, “I’ll do that.” It seemed easier to play along with his fantasy rather than challenge the absurdity of it.

“Don’t you want to know what lies below the bottom step?” he said, and pushed himself upright.

“A bottle of liquid to shrink me so I can fit through the door?”

He laughed and rocked back on his heels. “Excellent answer. Humour is good for the soul.” He shoved the book back into his pocket and turned on his heels. “Au revoir, Sam.”

“Wait,” I said, sitting upright. “Humour me. What is at the bottom?”

“Nothing, except a green light.”

“Nothing.”

The stranger turned and stepped out of the garden. He paused at the side of the broken fence and looked back over his shoulder towards me. “Take a leap of faith, Sam,” he said. “Jump off the bottom step into the green light.” Then he walked away through the ruined village and I watched until he was out of sight.

I reached for my tobacco pouch and quickly made myself a new cigarette. As I took a long draw and exhaled a cloud of smoke, I realised that the stranger’s visit had unsettled me, primarily because he had conveyed such conviction about an absurdity. The madness of the war was nothing compared to his deluded fantasy, I thought.

Eventually, Jones came back to find me and his arrival shook me from my reverie. I got up and went to see the men before we had to head back to the front.

“Sam, wake up. It’s time to go.”

I opened my eyes slowly. My back ached from the awkward sitting position I had fallen asleep in. Jones was shaking my shoulder and I tilted my gaze up to his smiling face. “Cup of tea, Sarge? Help shake out the cobwebs?”

I nodded. “Thanks.” I wrapped my hands around the steel mug and blew the steam from the tea.

Destiny, I thought.

I’d been dreaming, but the memory was foggy and fading. I remembered the perfumed smell of pipe tobacco being smoked by my grandad and his harsh bristles as I leaned in for a greeting hug. I was a child again in my dream. My grandmother appeared from the kitchen carrying a plate of freshly-baked cakes followed by the domino box which she plucked from thin air and set on the table before me. Dad and grandad stood up and left to go to the pub for a couple of lunchtime pints and my mother smiled serenely at me from the armchair beside the fire as my grandmother shared out the dominos between us.

But my mother had died in childbirth and I had never known anything about her, except through occasional grief-laden mutterings overheard when my father was drunk. But I knew it was her even though we had never met. In my dream she nodded in the direction of the kitchen and I turned to look. The kitchen wall was gone and a green mist swirled around a staircase spiraling into a bottomless pit. I spun back to my mother and she simply nodded back towards the staircase. My grandmother touched a hand to my shoulder. “Go on,” she said.

Then Jonesy woke me up.

Destiny, I thought. Maybe the stranger from the village - the Traveller - had been right all along. Perhaps there was an unfulfilled destiny waiting for me. Or perhaps, I chided myself, it was just a dream brought on by a lot of rambling nonsense.

I took another sip of tea and looked around the dug out. Hicks was working on a chunk of bully beef sandwiched between two cement-hard biscuits while Rogers lectured him about ‘Home Rule’. The return of powers to the people of Ireland was his favourite subject although he was entirely against letting them slip from the British Empire. “Ireland is part of us,” he was saying. “We need to stand united against threats from Europe, and even the United States, not just the Germans. This idea that Ireland should be separate from England will be the start of a slippery slope. Who will be next? Scotland? Wales? The Irish don’t know what they’re asking for: independence? An overrated ideal. We need to stand united.” Hicks nodded agreement while fighting to crack his hard biscuits with teeth inadequate for the job. He seemed to me to be simply placating Rogers so he could concentrate on his food.

Shaw sat apart with his arms resting on his knees, staring into space. He knew what was coming, as we all did. Shaw always used a time of silence and reflection as his preparation for dealing with the fearful anticipation before a raid.

Jones fussed around the brazier heating water for more tea. Jonesy is my rock, I thought. Jonesy genuinely thinks of others before himself. He is, and always has been, the glue that holds the squad together and yet he follows my lead like a well-trained golden retriever. I couldn’t imagine surviving this conflict without him by my side, but I had never understood his loyalty to me. I had asked him once why he showed me such respect and unswerving obedience in front of the men and his reply had been simple and direct: “You’re the boss.”

I finished my tea and set the mug down. “Jonesy,” I said, “douse the candles.”

Jones blew the candles out and pushed open the dug-out door. The sky was only partially clouded and there seemed to be a lot of light seeping into the dug-out from the starry night outside. Not good conditions for trench raiding, I knew, but at least there was only a crescent moon and we hoped the cloud cover would increase as the night wore on. We all sat quietly for a few minutes to accustom our eyes to the darkness before venturing outside.

“Let’s go,” I said finally, getting to my feet. The squad quickly blackened their faces with boot polish, and checked each other’s kit, before heading silently out the door.

The sentries on duty in our forward trench were using a periscope to keep a view across No Man’s Land. One of them turned to me as we crept to their position. “Seems quiet, Sergeant,” he said. “Perhaps a little too quiet. We haven’t heard a peep from the Boche since before sunset.”

I nodded. “I wish we had a choice, Private, but we don’t,” I replied. “Command expect us to at least make an effort.”

He grinned. “Pity one of them buggers isn’t going too. Might make them think twice about sending you.”

I simply nodded agreement. That was just the way with Command decisions: they were made miles from the frontline and didn’t broker any objections, regardless of the actual conditions on the battlefield. “I’d be grateful if you could standby with smoke grenades until we get back. This could turn sour fairly quickly with this light.”

“No problem, Sergeant.” he held out his hand. “Good luck to you.”

We shook hands quickly and I motioned to my squad to line up behind me. With a brief sigh of resignation, I hoisted myself onto the bulwark of the trench, eased onto my belly and edged forward into No Man’s Land. One by one, my men followed behind, and we formed a crawling line which moved at a snail’s pace through the mud.

Sappers hadn’t prepared the ground for this raid and we had to ease underneath the rolls of barbed wire we encountered. My slowly weaving route eventually took the squad over the lip of a shallow foxhole created by an artillery shell and we paused briefly in the cover it provided. The squad followed as I crawled out of the hole to the base of a mangled tree. Only the roots and five feet of the trunk miraculously remained intact - the branches had long since been blasted into oblivion - but it still provided some scant cover.

Jones crawled up beside me and I pointed forked fingers at my own eyes and then twisted them round to gesture towards the German lines. Jonesy has much better night vision than I do and I rely on him to fill in the gaps in my view of things during a raid. He scanned ahead and stabbed with his hand to the right and held up two fingers. So, only two sentries in sight. I lay back on my belly and began to edge forward again when suddenly a whoosh of air broke the silence of the night. A muffled bang followed and the sky exploded with red light.

“Flare,” snarled Jones.

“Back,” I hissed, “into the foxhole.” The squad crawled backwards quickly and fell into the bottom of the hole just as a machine gun opened up. Seventy feet back, at our own lines, the waiting sentries responded to the German attack with their own rifle fire. Seconds later, half a dozen smoke grenades came sailing over from our trenches and landed in No Man’s Land all around us. At the sight of the fizzing canisters, I promised myself I’d hug each and every one of the sentries if we made it back to our own lines.

“Hicks, Rogers,” I said. “More smoke.” They each had a couple of smoke grenades which they threw forward and to either side of us. The machine gun kept raking the ground in our general area, but the Germans were obviously unsure of our exact location and for that I was very thankful. Above us, the flare fell earthwards with it’s light gradually fading as it descended. As the smoke from the grenades started to thicken and with no breeze to disperse it, the Germans must have realised the futility of sending up another flare. I silently thanked God for small mercies. I’m not really religious, but I’d found that remaining an atheist is difficult in those moments when somebody is trying to kill you.

I edged closer to Hicks, Rogers and Shaw. “Head back now,” I said. “Go in different directions and stay low. No panicking, no running. Crawl.” Three nods answered me and I motioned them to move. “Go.”

The three men crawled out of the foxhole on three separate courses towards our lines. The smoke had completely obscured our section of the battlefield but the Boche continued to fire blindly towards us and I knew they might get lucky so kept my head down.

I gave the three men a one minute head start, then patted Jones on the leg to follow me. I knew he would wait for me even if I had ordered him to leave with the others and this wasn’t the time for a debate about following a superior’s commands. He silently fell in behind me and we began the long crawl back to our lines. We paused at each piece of scant cover to catch our breath, because it was such hard work to crawl facedown through the cloying mud. At one point I felt a tug against the fabric of my trouser leg but there was no pain; I suspected it was just a snag against some old barbed wire and I kept moving.

The gunfire from the German trenches slowed but continued sporadically for the long minutes it took to reach our lines. After what seemed like an eternity, I fell gratefully into our trench and Jonesy landed beside me. He grinned at me. “Fuck, Sarge,” he said. “That was too close.”

I felt the edge of my pants where I had snagged it and found a hole in the fabric which my finger easily slotted through. I reached into the pocket and pulled out my Bible and discovered a bullet was lodged just through the cover. I held it up to Jonesy. “Lucky for me I let you make the cigarettes from your bible.”

He frowned at the Bible in the dim light and realised what he was seeing. “You are truly blessed, Sarge. No doubt about it.”

I simply nodded. I felt sick to my stomach from the fear churning up my insides. I looked around for the others and was relieved to find them crouched together further down the trench. Jones was right, I thought, we were all blessed. Or else bloody lucky.

Chapter Two - Pool of Green Light

The mist hung over the muddy wasteland like smoke and the damp it carried penetrated deep into my bones. At least there were no planes flying because of the mist, but the constant artillery barrage carried on regardless of the weather, and the noise was deafening. The pounding guns were our way of softening up the enemy in advance of an attack. It also served to forewarn the Germans that we were, in fact, just about to attack, but this logic never seemed to enter the heads of the top brass. I hated being on the front line during the day, but I had no choice in the matter and nor did my squad. There had never seemed to be any sense in making daytime attacks given the destructive killing power of the German machine guns, and I much preferred nighttime fighting as a trench raider.

Command had decided, however, that they wanted to push the Boche back and gain some ground, so my squad had been ordered to the front despite our usual role. My men thankfully wouldn’t be in the first wave, but that didn’t mean we would be safe. The German batteries would open up as soon as ours stopped and they would continue to pound No Man’s Land throughout the attack. I already knew how this offensive would end: we would push them and then they would push back.

We might win some ground today, and then tomorrow, or the day after, or next week, they would retaliate and win the ground back from us. The front line hadn’t really moved in the previous eighteen months and I had no doubt that this offensive would end the same as the last.

Still, I waited patiently and tried to keep a neutral expression on my face. It wouldn’t do to show any apprehension to the men. Jones tore a page from his pocket bible and lined it with tobacco from his pouch to make a thick cigarette; he sealed the edge with saliva and twisted each end to hold in the tobacco, then passed it to me. “With God’s blessings,” he said. I smiled and lit the crude cigarette while Jones worked on another for himself.

I looked to my men lined up beside me and thought them superior to the cannon-fodder in front of us, though I felt profoundly sad that many of these nameless men would be dead before the day had ended. “Listen closely,” I said to my squad. I spoke in a terse whisper between artillery blasts. “When we go we move as a group in single file. We stick together. No stragglers and no heroics. We all get to their trenches and we all kill Germans. If things turn sour we all come back together. Got it?”

All of them nodded in unison with wry smiles on their faces. They knew there would be no retreat today. We were as likely to be shot by our own side if we did try to return to our own trench line, even if the attack was completely repelled and we had no choice. Command has always thought like that about retreat. It’s easy for them to judge us as cowards when they have never seen the true horrors of this conflict from their safe position far behind the lines.

We had to make it to the German trenches and then hold them; there were no other options open to us today.

Suddenly, the guns stopped. There followed a few seconds of silence and everybody knew that the moment had arrived. The Sergeant-at-Arms standing at the foot of the nearest ladders lifted a whistle to his lips and blew a long note and a wave of men surged forward over the lip of the forward trench and pounded across No Man’s Land. Our mortar men started lobbing short-range explosives towards the enemy trenches as a final attempt to disrupt their defence, but to little effect.

The German guns opened up almost immediately with a pounding artillery barrage interspersed with machine gun and small arms fire. Each explosion ripped the otherwise impenetrable fog apart; every impact provided a brief moment of clarity as the mist parted to reveal a plume of earth and fire lifting men into the air and casting them aside like rag-dolls. Then the mist would pour back in to fill the void and everything would be obscured again. It was eerie to watch the battle unfold in these brief tears in the fog while waiting for our turn to join in. In the silence between artillery shell impacts I could hear the sounds of screaming men on the battlefield above and knew that for each wounded man there would be half a dozen dead.

Suddenly, a rumble of muffled explosions sounded from forward of our position and the German trench line exploded upwards in showers of soil. British sappers had been digging tunnels under No Man’s Land for weeks and had filled them with high explosives, and they now detonated them to devastating effect. The underground barrage lifted waves of undulating earth, which collapsed back with a crash into the mined tunnels, and wreaked havoc in the German defences. There was an immediate lull in their machine gun and small arms fire. I hoped that the explosions had also taken out some of the concrete pill boxes which we found so difficult to attack.

The Sergeant-at-Arms blew his whistle again and the second wave of men, including my squad, went over the top.

I pounded through the thick, cloying mud with my men spread behind me. We were all yelling loudly but, unlike the regular soldiers, we weren’t firing blindly into the mist. It was pointless and was more likely to hit one of our own men than a German cowering in a trench. Jones ran alongside me and I felt warmed by his presence. “Sam,” he yelled suddenly, pointing to my left through the dissipating mist. The defending trench line had broken and our troops were pouring into the breach twenty yards to my left. I angled towards the gap and my squad followed.

Dozens of men were moving forward into the breach and we jumped into the relative safety of the trenches behind them. The Germans in this section were retreating rapidly and I could hear a receding wave of gunfire and grenade explosions as our troops pursued them. The speed of the attack had left some dug outs unchecked and I motioned my team to each door as we reached them. Our approach to the dug-outs was precise and well-practised: Shaw rapidly cracked open the door, Hicks lobbed in a Mills grenade, we crouched away from the door until after the muffled explosion, then finally Rogers and Jones moved inside to mop up any survivors. It was rare for them to have to mop up anything.

“We seem to be winning,” said Jones, after we cleared out the last dug-out.

“That’s what worries me,” I said.

Rogers laughed. “You’re always worried, Sarge.”

Jones glared at him. “That’s why you’re still alive, pal.”

“Calm down, all of you,” I said. “Let’s dig in here. Jonesy, you and Rogers find a German machine gun and set up in the rear trench. You two,” pointing at Hicks and Shaw, “go separate ways along the rear trench line and see how much control we have.”

“Righto, Sarge,” they echoed and set off through the clot of British troops.

The fog was still thick and impenetrable and I had no idea where the nearest radio team might be; probably still trying to bring the cumbersome equipment across No Man’s Land on mules. Without a means to contact Command we had no option but to try and hold this section of trench.

Hicks and Shaw returned and explained that British troops controlled a three-mile section of German defences. There was heavy fighting at each end of the salient and everyone they’d met seemed concerned about a counterattack from the rear which could split our forces. My first instinct to dig-in seemed to have been the right one. All of the troops within our sight were doing the same thing and setting up defences to the rear.

“Get some food going,” I said to Jones, “we’ll need a full stomach for later.”

“What’s keeping the Boche?” asked Rogers the next morning.

Shaw paused from dunking a hard biscuit into his tea in a vain attempt to soften it for eating. “Sharpening their bayonets, no doubt.”

“Good,” he said. “I’d rather fight hand-to-hand than sit here waiting for a bomb to drop.”

The fog had burned off late into the afternoon of the day before and we had been expecting a counterattack ever since, but the Germans seemed content to sit tight for now. It was a good tactic: the uncertainty had led to a restless night for the British forces and with sleep deprivation we were in poor shape to repel an attack.

The platoon commander in our section crept along the trench and squatted next to me. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered me one before taking one himself. I struck a match and lit us both.

“I’m Luke Henderson,” he said, “NCO for the 10th Royal Rifles.”

“Sam Garrick. We’re irregulars, but you probably guessed that from our kit.”

He nodded and held out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Sam.”

“Heard anything?” I asked.

“Not much. Command have requested a French battalion move up and support us, but they won’t get here until tomorrow,” he replied. “We both know the Boche will counterattack before they get here.”

I blew out a stream of smoke. “We might hold them.”

He grinned. “I pray that is so.” He flicked ash from his cigarette. “I don’t need to tell you that any attack will be sudden. They’ll hit us with everything they have and from every direction. We’re roughly in the middle of the salient so I expect we’ll be hit hardest.”

“Yes, I was thinking the same.”

“I expect they will use gas as well, so have your masks ready.”

“Will do.” My squad didn’t usually carry gas masks on trench raids, but they were essential kit in the daytime.

“Sam,” he said, “my men will do what needs to be done, but if something happens to me they will need direction. I want you to step in if anything happens to me. If it means retreating to our own lines, then get them moving. Can you do that?”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I answered, “but, yes, I’ll do my part.”

“Good man.” He patted me on the shoulder as he stood. “Good luck. God bless.”

“Good luck to you.”

Henderson headed back towards his own men and Jonesy, sitting across from me, slurped the last of his cold tea. “He’s seen his own death.”

I nodded. “It might just be the jitters.”

“Maybe, but he made a special trip just to ask for your help if he dies. I think he’s seen his cold meat ticket heading home.” A cold meat ticket was a man’s second ID disc which was sent back to family when a soldier was killed.

“He’s right about the counterattack though; it will start before long.”

“I don’t think anyone is in for a good day today,” said Jones, nodding sagely.

Ten minutes later, from further down the trench, a spotter with binoculars called out, “Observation balloon. Two miles out.”

We all knew a balloon meant an impending artillery barrage. “Into the nearest dug out,” I said. Men crammed into the available shelters like sardines just before the German guns opened up. The first explosions fell short of the trench line but, guided by the spotter in the observation balloon, each successive bombardment edged closer and closer. Soon the shells were landing almost on top of us and the ground shook with each impact. Somewhere in the dark of our shelter a man whimpered, while another asked, “where are our flyboys?”

Good question, I thought, because the Boche will pound us all day with a balloon directing them. A plane would make short work of its flammable hydrogen-bag.

It was almost an hour later before we heard the sound of aircraft high above us, but we couldn’t tell if they were ours or not, although it sounded like they were heading for the German lines. The British gun batteries behind the lines also began firing and the continual banging from both sides reverberated in my head. If this keeps up I’ll end up shell-shocked, I thought, as will most of the men. The stench in the dug-out of sweat mixed with fear wasn’t helping my mood much.

It was another twenty minutes before the bombardment suddenly stopped. There was an immediate surge towards the door. “Stand fast,” I shouted. “It could be a bluff.” I pushed through to the front and stepped outside. “Keep everybody inside, Jonesy.”

“Right, Sarge.”

The earthworks along the trench had suffered a number of direct hits and the once clean lines of its upper edges were broken with pits of ejected mud. I stood up onto the fire-step and chanced a quick look into the new No Man’s Land behind yesterday’s German rear line. I spotted some Boche crawling between fox holes but they were still a few hundred yards back.

“To arms,” I shouted and the men spilled out of the dug-out. I glanced back towards the approaching soldiers trying to conceal themselves in the available cover as they advanced, and the few I saw were wearing gas masks.

“Masks on,” I shouted and all men within hearing started pulling on their PH helmets. The cumbersome masks made breathing difficult and I knew the goggles would quickly fog over as the wearer’s head heated up under the heavy material, but anything was preferable to the effects of a gas attack. I saw Henderson further down the trench directing his men to start launching mortars while others manned a machine gun. The barrage suddenly began again and the shells were aimed deliberately short of our trenches. The Germans weren’t stupid; they knew which way the wind was blowing. Huge plumes of poison gas erupted before us and a strong breeze started to carry the clouds towards us.

“Present arms,” I shouted. All of the men within my view mounted the fire-step and laid their guns on the earthworks pointing towards the approaching enemy. The thick smoky-gas billowed across the trench line while I silently counted. Some of the men without masks tried to run away but were rapidly overcome by the fumes and fell screaming into the mud. Still others wearing masks began to splutter and cough; I knew the masks weren’t perfect, and I hoped not to have to witness their agonies when the full effect of the gas hit them and burned their eyes and throats and lungs. I reached sixty seconds in my silent count and judged the approaching forces to likely be in range. “Commence firing.”

Bullets flew into the rolling cloud of gas and the cacophony was only overshadowed by the sound of my own heavy breathing inside the helmet. Somewhere further back at our own lines the artillery batteries began firing again and were quickly answered by the German guns. Overhead, planes buzzed around the battlefield, adding to the noise. I was grateful, though, that our own aircraft were keeping the German planes too busy to make strafing runs across the trenches.

“Keep firing,” I shouted above the din. I walked backwards and forwards along the firing line to shout encouragement to the men. Across the battlefield the clouds of gas were rapidly dissipating and the explosions of mud and rocks from the artillery detonations, along with the mortar, machine gun and rifle fire were keeping the German troops pinned down. Thankfully, only a few of the men in my section were hit by the sporadic return fire from No Man’s Land and none from my small squad. Those men who were hit simply lay where they fell, dead or dying, because there were no spare men to help them.

I glanced back down the trench to where Henderson was shouting encouragement to his men. He must have felt my eyes on him because he turned suddenly to glance in my direction and flash a grin at me. At that moment a shell exploded directly in his section of trench. The blast obscured Henderson and his men and I knew they had all been killed instantly. The shockwave, and secondary explosions from mortar shells, rolled along the trench in a tidal wave of smoke, earth and dust. It knocked down all the men in its path like dominoes.

The force of the cloud lifted me off my feet and I landed so awkwardly that I was winded. More shells landed around us and the concussions staggered me as I tried to get back to my feet. Jonesy grabbed my wrist and pulled me up and I slapped him on the shoulder in thanks. As I gasped for breath I considered our position … and decided it was only a matter of time before we were overrun.

“Jonesy,” I called, “start a retreat back to our lines.”

“Sir,” he said, nodding. He quickly began rallying the men in our section and got them moving towards the communications trench. The machine gun crew kept firing into No Man’s Land to give some cover until I judged the men had enough of a head start.

“Fall back,” I shouted at the machine gunners. Without a word they stopped firing and turned to run after the rest of the men and I followed along behind them. Shells continued to impact all around us and the advancing Germans wouldn’t be far behind; they would move more quickly once they realised our machine gun had ceased firing. Ahead I could see the rest of the men already well across No Man’s Land while the three of us approached the forward trench. Correction, the rear trench, I reminded myself, and soon to be the German forward trench again.

One of the machine gunners stumbled over the body of a fallen man and hit the ground hard. I bent to help him back to his feet. “Come on,” I said, “not much farther.”

He staggered to his feet and started forward again. “Thanks, Sarge.”

“Not much farther,” I repeated silently to myself as I stumbled along behind him through the muddy water. “Not much farther.”

At that moment, only steps away from the relative safety of our No Man’s Land a shell exploded in the trench somewhere behind us. The blast lifted me from my feet and I only had time for the fleeting thought that my luck had finally run out before my world turned dark.

I awoke with my face in the mud and a sharp pain in my right leg. I groaned as I started to push myself slowly off the floor, then remembered where I was, and tried to move more quickly. I managed to turn myself over into a sitting position and looked around. Thankfully, there were no Germans in sight; I must have only been unconscious for a few seconds. My trouser leg was sodden with blood and I could feel the sticky mess of it through the coarse fabric and the pain in my calf was excruciating. The explosion which had moments earlier thrown me into the air had sent a piece of shrapnel into the muscle and I didn’t dare look at the damage. If I made it back to my own lines I knew an infection in the wound might lead to an amputation. I had seen it too many times before and I didn’t want to think about the possibility of losing a leg.

I pushed myself to my feet using the edge of the trench for support. Hopping and hobbling as fast as possible I headed towards No Man’s Land. Tears sprang into my eyes from the pain, but I gritted my teeth and kept moving.

The machine gunner I had helped earlier was slumped face-down in the sludgy water of the trench and I knew from the bloody condition of his body he had taken the full force of the artillery strike. “Poor sod,” I muttered. “I might be joining you soon, mate, so I pray you’re in a better place.”

The artillery barrage from the German guns suddenly ceased and I knew the advancing troops would soon be back in their own trenches, so I tried to pick up my hobbling pace. I reached the edge of the forward trench and pulled myself, gasping and sobbing, onto the surface. It was easier to stay on my belly than to try and stand again so I dug my elbows into the mud and paddled myself forward.

Before I had covered twenty yards through the blasted landscape I could hear shouted German voices from the trenches behind me. The barbed wire and uneven surface made it difficult to make progress, and my right leg dragged behind me like a useless deadweight. It might take the Boche a little while to get organised, but I didn’t want to hang around for when they pointed their guns back into No Man’s Land. I dragged myself over the lip of a foxhole, and stopped suddenly in shock.

The bottom of the foxhole wasn’t the expected mud and water, but a yawning pit. The pit was about five feet across with smooth edges skirted by steps leading down into the darkness. A faint green glow from within provided some scant illumination but I still couldn’t make out the bottom of the staircase far below. It was a staircase which should not exist in this place, yet it reminded me instantly of my conversation a few weeks earlier with the strange traveller in the ruined village.

“If you come to a staircase which should not exist,” he had said, “just walk down it.”

I eased myself to the lip of the staircase and tried to peer through the gloom below. The green light pervaded everything, but was so dim I couldn’t see further than six stairs down. “Just walk down,” I said aloud. “Does he think I’m crazy? It could lead to hell for all I know.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my tobacco tin. I still had a few readymade cigarettes and I lit one up. I leaned over the lip of the staircase to hide the glow from the Boche troops and slowly exhaled a long stream of smoke. The wound in my calf was seizing up and I could feel the cold of the earth seeping into my bones and worried that I might die of pneumonia long before I would have to worry about losing my leg.

“Just walk down,” I whispered aloud. I finished my cigarette and dropped the butt into the chasm. The glowing tip arched down and quickly vanished from sight.

“Just walk down,” I repeated again. “Fine.” I dropped my legs onto the top step and eased forward on my backside. After shuffling down a few steps I used my hand against the wall to steady myself as I stood up on my good leg and began hopping slowly down the staircase. After twenty minutes of painful descent I was close to the bottom, or at least the green glow was becoming stronger. Looking upwards I could barely make out a small pinprick of grey against the darkness which I supposed was the entrance I had entered. I felt surprisingly calm despite the strangeness of my surroundings. Destiny, I thought, might have a violent death planned for me, but this staircase seemed an odd way to prepare me for it, so I decided instead that being scared of this place would serve no purpose. I hopped down the last few steps.

The bottom step ended but I couldn’t see what lay below it. The green glow was brightest here; too strong to pierce its veil. The traveller had been explicit in his instructions: “Take a leap of faith.”

“Here goes nothing,” I said aloud. I hopped as far out from the last step as I could, and fell through the misty green light.

My feet hit liquid below the mist and I plunged into a pool of warm water. I held my breath as I sank deeper into the cloying pool. Perhaps it is my day to die after all, I thought. Above me I could see the glowing green light at the surface and I dug my hands into the water to drive myself back upwards. The surface seemed distant and beyond reach, and my lungs burned with the lack of air as I clawed desperately towards the light.

Finally, with sparks bursting behind my eyes from lack of oxygen, I burst out of the clinging pool and gratefully gasped a lungful of air. The darkness of the pit had given way to the light of a setting red sun. The staircase and cavern walls had vanished and the pool of green light had a jagged rock edge rather than smoky mist. I reeled at the realisation that the stairs were nowhere to be seen and an alien sky looked down upon me when moments before a pit and staircase below the battlefield surrounded me. I swam sideways to the water’s edge and pulled myself awkwardly onto a grassy bank, my leg throbbing from the shrapnel wound. I gasped for air with the exertion needed to haul myself over the lip of the pool after the stress of the last few hours. I clawed my way forward until my feet were clear of the water and rolled gratefully onto my back. Above me, two moons reflected the light of the setting sun and confirmed that I was no longer on Earth. I closed my eyes and sighed. Perhaps dying on the battlefields of France was not the worst option open to me, I thought. Damn that strange traveller to hell.

Chapter Three - In the Land of Giants

The sun was rising when I awoke and, after a moment for my brain to register the events which had led me here, I jerked upright in fear to scan my surroundings. I had slept through the night exposed in the open air beside the green pool, with no thought for my own safety or of the potential risks posed in this unknown land. I cursed myself silently; it was only luck that left me unhurt and alive.

Thankfully, there was nobody in sight. The green pool glittered in the dawn light and reflected the clouds drifting lazily above me in the greenish-blue sky. The colour of the sky wasn’t the only alien aspect of this land, although it looked almost-right, as if this world’s creator had merely been a little colour-blind. The pool itself sat in a glade surrounded by trees shaped like English oaks, but with a yellowish bark and purple-veined leaves. The spreading branches of the trees made it hard to see into the distance, but I could discern a rocky mountain rising above them and decided that I needed to reach the summit to survey this strange land, get my bearings, and make plans.

I knew it would be a long hard slog into the hills with my injured leg though surprisingly it wasn’t causing me any pain. I knew it could be a bad sign that my leg didn’t hurt; a solid piece of shrapnel had ripped into my calf muscle during my mad dash from the trenches and if my brain was now blocking the pain it could only mean severe trauma. I reached down to the torn fabric of my trousers and gently eased the leg up to assess the damage. There were dried blood stains around the tear on my trousers, but the injury to my leg was completely gone. I gingerly felt around my calf muscle but could find no sign of a wound and there was no tenderness. “A miracle,” I whispered aloud.

This place itself is a miracle, I reminded myself. I silently wished that Jonesy was beside me so I could share my thoughts: I’m in another world. Nothing makes sense anymore. A few days earlier I had wondered at the senselessness of the war in Europe, but now I longed for the normality and the consistency it had brought to my life.

A day earlier I had sustained a serious wound to my leg and now it was gone. I shook my head at the thought. Nothing makes sense anymore. A memory flashed into my mind of the strange man in a wide-brimmed hat met in a bombed-out French village. “Where are you, Mr. Traveller?” I asked aloud. “Last night I cursed you, but today I would welcome your company. Hellooo.”

No answer was forthcoming from the silent trees so I pushed myself to my feet. The holster at my side still held my Webley revolver and I patted it gratefully, then reached to the back of my belt to check that the knuckleduster dirk was safe in its holster. I felt much better knowing I was still armed. With a last glance over my shoulder at the glowing green pool, I turned and set off through the woods towards the distant peak.

I walked slowly through the grassy undergrowth, alert for any signs of animals or people. The forest was alive with birdsong, but there were no other signs of life. I pulled a hard cracker from my pocket and chewed it as I walked. My stomach was groaning with a need for food and I knew the few crackers in my pockets wouldn’t hold back the hunger for long. After I had checked the surroundings from the mountain summit, I decided that foraging would be by next task for the day. Perhaps I could even set some snares if I could find any trace of rabbits or other small animals. As a last resort I could shoot a bird, but I wanted to preserve my meagre supply of bullets if at all possible.

Thoughts of food, and means to acquire it, occupied my mind as I wandered progressively uphill. The forest eventually gave way to rolling meadows of grass and, higher up, to rock and coarse shrubs. The day wore on. From the mountain side I looked behind me and over the trees of the forest below. Beyond the purple-leafed canopy I could see the ocean and occasional glimpses of sandy coastline. Could this be an island? I wondered.

The vegetation eventually thinned to almost nothing as I gained height and I worried at my exposure. If I encountered any animals or hostile people here I would have nowhere to hide. Should I head back to the relative safety of the forest? I asked myself.

I paused at a mountain brook and lifted a refreshing drink of cool water to my lips in cupped hands. Squatting at the water’s edge, I took stock. The summit still seemed some way off, perhaps a couple of hours, which could mean a descent in the dark. From my current vantage point it seemed clear that I was on either an island or a promontory and, so far, I hadn’t seen any signs of humanity anywhere. I had spied some animals, probably deer, in the distance during my climb and I had to surmise there might also be predators around. I didn’t want to be caught on open ground in the dark by a wolf or lion, or by anything else which might eat me. I decided the best solution was to head back to the forest, find a high tree to perch in overnight, and leave further exploration until morning.

As I straightened up I glanced back upwards at the mountaintop. I frowned. A cliff of granite loomed over the next rise and from my vantage point by the river’s edge I could make out straight edges of stone protruding from its far side. Carved blocks of stone could only mean one thing: people. I still had some concern that any inhabitants of this land might be hostile, but I knew I had to check it out. I had to believe that the Traveller somehow engineered my being in this place and I was confident that he hadn’t intended for me to be killed. I took another drink and set off up the steep slope.

Another hour of panting and slogging uphill got me to the base of the cliff. The solid stone surface was black and slick, like granite, and towered sheer above me. Looking up I could see downward-facing spikes had been built into the cliff near its top. I was confused. The maze of spikes seemed to serve no purpose. They would stop a climber from reaching the summit, but I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to scale that featureless rock face to even reach them.

I continued my walk along the base of the cliff.

The cliff curved ahead of me but the ground at its base began to level off and I made better time. The spikes at the top of the cliff continued along its entire length and where the cliff dipped to a slightly lower elevation the number of metal spikes increased. The inhabitants clearly didn’t want anybody to scale their cliff.

Rounding a bend I finally saw the structure with the carved blocks I had noticed from lower down the mountain. It was a castle, but unlike any I had ever seen or heard of. A solid wall of smooth blocks had been built across a two hundred foot gap between cliff faces. The wall towered above the cliff and its entire surface, starting about twenty feet from the ground, was littered with a sea of downward-facing metal spikes. There didn’t appear to be any windows in the wall for archers and there were no separate towers. Just a wall with spikes.

There was still no sign of any inhabitants so I approached the castle warily. I unclipped the holster at my side so I could quickly lift out the Webley if needed.

There were three concentric ditches protecting the castle. Each was over fifty feet wide and at least that deep, with sheer vertical sides. It must have been a significant engineering challenge to dig them in the hard earth. I remembered the effort needed to dig even a small part of the trenches in France and wondered how many men had laboured to create just one of these ditches, especially the outer one which must be at least five hundred yards long. The interior of each ditch was lined with more of the metal spikes. It was a threefold trap: if the fall didn’t kill you, the spikes would, and if you miraculously survived both then the sheer walls of the ditches would stop you reaching the surface again. Especially as most of your bones would be shattered by the fifty-foot drop.

I noticed some scattered bones at the bottom of the larger trench. Probably some hapless deer or sheep who had fallen over the edge in darkness. At least the bones didn’t look human. I continued on my way.

Wooden bridges crossed each ditch and led me towards the giant wall. The bridges were made from shaped boards of wood and seemed to be suspended with a complex network of ropes. I surmised that they could be retracted, or collapsed, in times of trouble to make it impossible for an attacking force to reach the giant wall of the castle. This place would be impenetrable to an aggressor, I decided.

The wall itself was built of closely-knit blocks. The lower sections, up to about twenty feet, were scarred with downward-facing grooves. Why they had been carved into the surface of the blocks I couldn’t say, but none reached beyond the first line of metal spikes embedded into the wall.

The arched gateway cut into the stone wall was about twelve feet high and half a dozen wide, barely enough to fit two men in armour side-by-side. I was assuming that this land was occupied by knights in shining armour only because I didn’t know anybody else who would occupy a castle. I approached the arch cautiously and snuck a glance into the interior. Still no sign of life. As much as I was fearful about finally meeting the inhabitants it was disconcerting to face the eerie emptiness of this structure.

I stepped through the arch into a wide pavilion. The interior of the castle was just an enormous expanse of space hemmed in by the two converging walls of the mountain. There were fenced paddocks across much of the interior with grain silos against the rear walls. The whole castle seemed to be designed to contain, feed and protect livestock. There didn’t appear to be any sleeping or even eating areas; no buildings at all. I did find an area with fire pits, complete with neat stacks of wood for fuel, and a deep pool filled with crystal clear rain water. I paused for a cool drink and considered my surroundings. The entire structure just didn’t make any sense to me. It had clearly required a significant building effort, but it appeared to only have supplies for a short occupation and with space inside for large numbers of livestock, but nowhere for occupants to live. I couldn’t conceive of a purpose for building the castle.

Beside the arched entrance stood a large block of stone with ropes attached to metal hoops embedded into the top. The intention was clear: pull the huge block across the entrance and no attacker could get inside. But the downside would clearly be that the defenders would be trapped inside.

Along the interior of the wall were a number of metal rungs embedded into the rock as ladders which reached all the way to the top of the giant wall.

It was late in the day and hunger gnawed at my stomach, but I decided to climb up for a better view of my surroundings before the sun went down. The climb was tiring because I held onto the rungs too tightly through a fear of falling. I made the mistake of looking down after the first fifty feet and the sheer drop that faced me if I fell was nerve wracking. It was with some relief that I finally made the top and pulled myself up onto the flat summit of the wall.

The sun was setting over the distant hills as I stood up. The hills I had climbed to reach the castle rolled down forested slopes to the distant coast. It seemed likely that this was an island from the general shape of the land which I could see fell away in every direction. Beyond the setting sun I could make out another mountain miles across the sea; another island perhaps, or a promontory for a continent. I could see some smoke rising above the forest canopy to the south, way past the green pool where I had entered this land, and near the coast. That at least confirmed there were some occupants on this island.

I sat down on the smooth parapet of the wall and pulled out my tobacco pouch. It was surprisingly soothing to sit and smoke a cigarette while watching the sun dip below the horizon. It was still warm without the sun, but not humid, and I lay back on the cool stone to watch the stars come out. I didn’t recognise any constellations in the night sky and when the two small moons came up it simply confirmed for me that this place was not anywhere on Earth.

I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Tomorrow, I decided that the first thing I needed to do was find food, and then I would walk down to the coast and meet the inhabitants of the island. With a clear plan resolved in my mind I fell into a dreamless sleep.

I awoke at first light to the sound of raised voices. I rolled onto my stomach and crawled to the edge of the giant wall to look down at the protective ditches. Beside the middle ditch stood two gigantic men. Even from this distance it was clear they were giants and they had a fearsome appearance. They weren’t just large men because their proportions seemed all wrong from my vantage point, but it was difficult to judge their exact height; I guessed they must be around the ten-foot mark. Each was incredibly broad chested which made them appear fairly squat so they might actually be taller than I estimated. Both had a tusk in the centre of their foreheads and leathery skin. The giants appeared to be in the middle of an argument. One was wearing only a breechcloth and carried a stick with a string of animals hanging from it while the other wore a leather chestplate, leg armour and helmet, and held a wicked-looking mace in his hand. He waved the weapon menacingly while shouting in an alien tongue.

The one I presumed to be a hunter kept waving his stick of animals towards the castle while answering. I couldn’t understand the language, but it seemed as if the ‘soldier‘ giant was objecting to something. He slapped the end of the hunter’s stick with his mace, knocking one of the hanging animals loose, and pointed back towards the forest. The hunter snarled something and then turned around and started back across the bridge. The soldier watched him for a few minutes and then started to follow. At the far side of the outer ditch both giants headed in different directions.

If these were the inhabitants of this island then it would be better if we didn’t meet, I decided; they didn’t seem friendly to each other, so I could only imagine what they might do to a stranger, and a human one to boot.

I watched until the giants were out of sight. Neither looked back towards each other or the castle, for which I was very grateful. If I had been discovered atop the wall I would have had nowhere to go and would probably have faced the fight of my life. It was time, I decided, to treat this land as hostile and to find a place of refuge. I had assumed that the Traveller had a clear reason for me coming to this place and didn’t want me hurt, but I did remember he had also mentioned fighting for something worthwhile. I certainly didn’t think it worthwhile to fight giants. That is a fight I would likely lose, I thought.

I waited half an hour after the giants had left before climbing back down the ladder to the inner courtyard. I didn’t linger and I didn’t try to be stealthy. If the giants returned I would have nowhere to hide in any case so I felt being bold seemed more appropriate. I quickly crossed the first bridge and headed for the second ditch where I had seen the giants arguing. The animal I had seen knocked from the hunter’s stick turned out to be a freshly killed rabbit. I picked it up and kept walking. My mouth filled with saliva at the thought of a roasted rabbit for lunch after the meagre ration of hard biscuits I had eaten for the past twenty four hours, but I intended to be far from the castle before I ate it.

At the outer ditch I turned back along the cliff to retrace my route of the day before. I resolved to find my way back to the green pool in the heart of the forest and to find a suitable place nearby to make shelter. The hunter giant had followed the same route, but I saw no sign of him. As the mountain began to fall away towards the forest below I came across a giant footprint in the mud which luckily seemed to be leading southwest while the route to the green pool was directly south.

The journey back to the green pool was uneventful. I stopped at the river to refill my water bottle and then headed back into the forest. I had taken a generally straight route through the forest so backtracking to the green pool was straightforward. From my observations at the castle I guessed the pool was still only halfway through the forest to the coastline, which I hoped was far enough from any giant settlements to be easily noticed.

As I walked back into the glade with the pool in the late morning, it felt a little like a homecoming. The place gave me a feeling of peace and I sank gratefully into the grass to relax for a few minutes. I tore a random page from my bible and sprinkled some tobacco to make a cigarette. My supply of matches was running low and while I smoked I took stock of my other possessions.

I emptied my haversack and pockets and made a small pile of my belongings. I had a bible - almost complete - a water bottle, gas mask, identity papers, woolly cap, spare socks, bootlaces, toothbrush, fork & spoon, mess tin, bayonet, dirk, revolver with fifty rounds of ammunition, tobacco pouch, matches, half a dozen biscuits, and a bar of soap. Plus the clothes I was wearing. Not the best selection of survival equipment, but enough.

On the way back to the pool I had spied an outcropping of rock a thousand yards away through the trees and decided to explore it further as a possible shelter. I repacked my gear, slung the haversack over my shoulder, and headed back into the woods.

The jumble of moss-covered rocks I had spotted was ideal for my purposes. A gap beneath one boulder opened into a small hollow, large enough for sleeping and storing my belongings. The ragged entrance was enough for me to squeeze inside, but a giant’s broad chest and shoulders would get stuck without some significant digging through rock. If it came to a confrontation I could retreat inside and take pot shots with the Webley or harry him with the dirk. The little cave would make an ideal home for now, I decided.

Higher up the mountain the pseudo-oaks of the forest had given way to pseudo-firs, and I climbed back up the hill and used my bayonet and some brute force to cut some purple-needled branches to make a soft mattress. The cave felt more homely with a makeshift bed and reminded me of the dug outs back in the trenches. I just hoped nobody would lob a grenade in while I slept.

I scraped a fire pit outside the entrance and lined it with rocks, then collected a large pile of firewood to burn through the night. At last, in the late afternoon, I skinned the rabbit dropped by the giant and cooked it on a spit over the fire. It was with some contentment that I dined on fresh meat, followed by a real cigarette. I would have liked a cup of tea to wash down the food, but had to settle for water. Tomorrow, perhaps I would find some nettles to make a brew.

As the sun fell I leaned back against the rocky entrance of my home and watched the stars come out. I scanned the sky for an hour or more hoping to find a recognisable constellation, but with no luck. I had reasoned that this land was on another world near to Earth, perhaps Mars which I knew to have twin moons. Sadly, I was disappointed with my observations of the night sky as there was nothing familiar. And there were no canals on this island which I had read were a common sight on Mars. I really didn’t know enough astronomy to speculate further so settled for another cigarette before bed.

There were some sounds of movement in the woods around me, but I hadn’t seen any evidence of predators, except the giants, so I didn’t feel too concerned. In my wanderings I had seen the spoor of rabbits and wild pigs, and even glimpsed a deer from a distance in the woods, but I’d seen no tracks of anything larger. I hoped the fire would deter most animals from venturing too closely to my camp and I should be too far from the coast for the smoke to be seen from a giant’s settlement.

Only my second day in this new world and I had a full belly and shelter. I hadn’t felt this relaxed during the entire previous year of battling in France. Even the giants didn’t particularly concern me. They didn’t know of my existence and I had no plans to introduce myself to them; I intended to keep well out of their way. The only thing missing in my mind was an understanding of my purpose in being here. The traveller meant for me to find the staircase which led me here, but I still had no inkling about his motives. I could only assume that an answer would be forthcoming in time.

I finished my cigarette and crawled into my shelter. Sleep came quickly and was again dreamless.

Chapter Four - A friend flies in

For the next two weeks I settled into a comfortable routine and began to enjoy life on the island. I still harboured a slight fear that I would be caught off guard by a giant, but I discovered early on that they made a lot of noise when moving through the forest. Stealth was certainly not their strong point so I managed to evade them quite easily. The hunter I had seen at the castle was using snares to catch rabbits because even the most dim-witted animal would have no trouble avoiding him.

I followed a few rabbit runs during my first few explorations of the forest and came across a number of traps. On one occasion I even went so far as to kill and steal a rabbit I found caught in a snare. I carefully reset the trap and retreated to my shelter to enjoy my spoils. Afterwards I regretted the risk I had taken and vowed to lay my own traps nearer to home in the future.

The forest was crisscrossed with marked trails which I believed delineated each giant’s territory. In the first week I crossed over the territory of three giants and managed to observe all of them at various times. They were all male and I surmised that the females lived nearer the coast and weren’t involved in hunting. I could be completely wrong about that conclusion though, because I hadn’t really observed them for long enough. All three giants did keep to their own territory and never ventured close to the marked boundaries of their neighbours. I guessed from the apparent size of the island and the size of each giant’s territory that there could be as many as three hundred males, maybe more. It was lucky for me that there were no trails around the green pool or the surrounding area. I presumed that the pool’s existence was known to the giants and might even have some spiritual significance to them. In any case, they seemed to avoid the area and that suited me fine. My observations led me to believe that what they lacked in stealth they made up for in strength. I saw one of them sideswipe a tree in anger and his blow cracked the bark and part of the trunk. I didn’t want to have a stand up fight with one of them as I had doubts that even the Webley would be sufficient to put one of them down.

One night though I was feeling particularly brave and, after a supper of hardboiled eggs and the carrot-like roots of Queen Anne’s Lace, I walked down towards the coast. I only intended it as a scouting mission, like a trench raid - a quick look to gather intelligence and then retreat.

Where the forest ended near the coast I found much of the lowlands given over to agriculture. I hadn’t expected the giants to be farmers, but they were clearly experts at it. I found fields with a variety of crops, from cabbages to tobacco, laid out in perfectly square fields like smallholdings or allotments back in Blighty. I helped myself to a few samples of different vegetables to allow for some variety in my diet, but I was careful not to take too much. I also refilled my tobacco tin with a few choice leaves.

Beyond the final field I crawled to the edge of a clearing. In the centre of the clearing stood a roundhouse with a conical roof of thatch. The walls were wattle and daub, that mix of flexible wood lattice reinforced with clay and aggregate, common in ancient England and modern Africa. I knew about the building method from a county fair I had visited before the war - it was quick to build but also provided good protection from the elements. Luckily, the occupants of the hut seemed to have turned in for the night; smoke rose lazily from the centre of the roof. My mission complete, I headed back to my own shelter in the forest.

And so the days wore on. I gained in confidence during those first two weeks exploring the forest and lowlands. While the giants appeared to be formidable enemies I felt able to evade them when necessary. I had a home, a reasonably varied diet, and my health. I felt at peace for the first time I could remember. I still didn’t understand the Traveller’s purpose in leading me here, but I soon stopped worrying about it. The only thing missing from my new life was companionship.

On my nineteenth day since emerging from the green pool I saw a man flying towards the island and had my first opportunity to make a friend in this new land, though I didn’t realise it immediately. I was on the way back from filling my water bottle at the river when he came into sight. From a distance he was man-shaped, but with the addition of leathery wings and a purple skin colour. The flying man was clearly in trouble. He seemed to be favouring his right wing and kept trying to gain altitude but then dropped lower every few strokes. It appeared from my vantage point as if he might clear the forest but would need to land somewhere on the mountainside. He didn’t make it that far.

As I watched from the hillside a rock come shooting straight up from the forest below and hit the man in his side, just beneath his injured wing. He reeled from the blow and his wings crumpled. In a few seconds he had plummeted in a spiral down to the waiting trees below.

Without thinking, I dropped the water pouch and set off at a sprint down the hill. Here was a man - sort of - who might be a possible ally on this island and on this world. I knew that the stone had been thrown by a giant - nothing else could heft a rock that size above the trees - and that this might be my moment to finally face one of them hand-to-hand. I tried not to think about that as I plunged into the trees.

There was a sound of conflict about two hundred feet to the left and I steered in that direction. The guttural grunts and shouts of the giant were broken by screams and yells from the flying man. I was sure I heard some English swear words amongst his cries, but that could just be a trick of my mind.

I burst into a clearing and skidded to a stop. The giant had his back to me and had a hand around the flying man’s left ankle. The man was flapping his right wing furiously to stay off the ground and was beating a fist against the giant’s head to try to break away from him. The giant held firmly to the man’s ankle and pulled with his other arm against his left wing despite the blows raining down on his head. He was straining as he tried to tear the wing from its socket. I could see the wing’s membrane was already split and the cartilage support grasped in the giant’s hand hung at an odd angle as if shattered. At the combatants feet lay a huge club and a sword - both bloodied - obviously discarded or knocked aside during their struggle.

It was immediately clear that the giant was winning and in moments the flying man would be immobilised and probably dead. I dashed forward and lifted the giant’s club from the ground at his feet. It was heavy, but manageable with two hands, and I swung it with all my might at the back of his head. The giant grunted, a slight exhalation really, then fell to one knee. He was only dazed so I swung the club back around and brought it full force against his skull for the second time. He crumpled.

The giant fell forward and released his grip on the flying man, but his chest still managed to pin the man’s leg to the ground. I dropped the club and stepped forward to help him. He seemed on the verge of unconsciousness himself and his unfocused eyes blinked in my direction, but he showed no signs of understanding that he had been saved from a certain death. His body was lathered in sweat and blood and he grimaced with pain as I pulled his leg clear.

His eyes screwed shut as he gasped for air. After a few deep breaths he glanced over at me and acknowledged me for the first time. “Thank you, stranger,” he said.

I was flabbergasted. He spoke English. I had a million questions to ask, but didn’t know which to ask first. I just stared at him openmouthed.

The man reached out a hand and held my wrist. “I need a green pool,” he whispered, “before it’s too late.” He let go of my wrist and let his head fall back.

“The green pool?” I asked. There was no response, but I suddenly remembered my own leg wound which had miraculously healed overnight when I first arrived in this place. I had imagined it was something about this world which had fixed it, but it made perfect sense for it to be the pool itself. No giant claimed the pool or its surroundings as his territory because it must be communal property. “The green pool it is.”

I pulled the man to his feet by one arm and lay him across my shoulders. He was no heavier than a normal man; his wings added weight but his body was exceptionally thin. Even so, I was soon sweating from the exertion of carrying him across the uneven ground of the forest. It was almost a mile to the pool and I was grateful to finally reach the glade to drop my burden to the loamy earth on its edge.

The flying man was breathing but unconscious. I pushed his legs over the edge and tried to ease him into the water, but his wings unbalanced me and he slipped from my grasp. He fell backwards into the centre of the pool and quickly sank below the surface. “Bloody hell,” I said, and jumped in feet first. I swan dived deep into the pool but failed to find him despite the clarity of the water. There was no bottom in sight and I couldn’t even make out the sides of the pool when submerged. Lungs bursting I clawed towards the sunlight above. Back on the surface I gasped a lungful of air and slapped the water in frustration. I had finally met somebody who could explain things to me and had lost him again almost immediately.

I dragged myself onto the bank and rolled into a sitting position. The water from the pool slid off me like greasy oil and the residue evaporated into vapour. In moments my clothes and skin were dry. The wonder of it all made no impact on me as I lamented the loss of the flying man. I reached into my pocket for my tobacco pouch, which was also dry, and pulled out one of my remaining ready-made cigarettes. “What a day!” I exclaimed, striking a match and taking a draw of burning smoke. I exhaled with a mixture of pleasure and regret. “Can this place get any worse?”

Suddenly the surface of the pool burst upwards in a spray of droplets and the flying man’s head broke into view. He gasped for air and fell back into a floating position, only his chest and head above the surface.

He had been under water for at least five minutes, I realised. He should be dead. He should have drowned. The wonders in this land never seem to end, I thought.

He swam to the edge and reached feebly over the lip of the pool. I reached down and grabbed his wrists and pulled him onto the grassy bank beside me. He gasped. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Who are you?”

“Later,” he muttered, continuing to gasp for air. “I need rest. I’ll be alright now, but I need to rest.”

“Fine,” I said, “but not here.” I wanted to have a conversation with him to ask my myriad questions, but if it had to wait I felt it would be safer at my shelter. I manhandled him onto my shoulders again and set off through the woods. At my rock-cave I maneuvered him into the gap and tried to ease him forward. “In here,” I said. “You can sleep”. He responded halfheartedly to my urging and crawled under the entrance into my sleeping area. With a final heave he dragged himself onto the fir tree branches I used for a bed and fell straight asleep.

I leaned against the rock entrance and rolled another cigarette. While I smoked it, looking up at the stars emerging in the early twilight, I thought about the giant I had felled with the club. Is he the enemy? I asked myself. Is this flying man my friend?

No answer was forthcoming. I knew that both might be enemies; both could be friends. I really didn’t know anything, I decided. “Damn,” I said, standing up and throwing the cigarette butt away. A decision made, I set off through the woods to the place the two had been fighting.

I slowed to a stealthy creep as I neared the clearing. There were no sounds coming from the general area, except the usual nighttime bird calls and wind whispering through the trees, but it wouldn’t be a good place to get caught by an angry giant. I could barely make out anything in the dark shadows beneath the trees.

There was a shadowy form lying in the middle of the clearing which I assumed was the giant. I edged forward at a snail’s pace. In the moonlight coming through the gaps in the forest canopy I could see that the giant was still and lifeless. He hadn’t moved since I hit him with the club hours earlier, so I felt it likely he was dead. I leaned in and pressed two fingers to the side of his neck; before I could find a pulse he gave a shuddering sigh and then fell silent again. He was breathing, though it was shallow and slow.

This was the tricky bit - having decided to help the giant I needed a way to move him the mile or so to the pool. He was probably twice my weight so lifting him was out of the question. I scoured the clearing and found a tree with split bark. Using the dirk I dug around the edges and managed to break off a four foot section of inch-thick curved bark; if it held together I hoped it would act like a sledge. I just needed something to pull it.

The giant was wearing a breechcloth and jerkin of a strong textile, almost as strong as canvas, and a plain leather belt. Using the dirk I cut the clothes from him and split the material into strips to make a rope. I looped it through some holes bored through the bark sled and tied them to his leather belt. My plan was to use the belt like a horse collar to fit around my shoulders so I could drag the sled.

With the sled beside him I heaved and rolled the giant’s body into position. I ducked into the loop of leather, took the strain, and stepped forward; my burden moved but the effort was enormous. I took another step. A deep breath. Another step. The giant inched forward and the bark sled held together.

It took a minute or two to reach the edge of the clearing by which time I was breathing hard and sweating profusely. It’s going to be a long night, I thought. I made no attempt at stealth as I dragged the giant; he was out cold and I knew no other giants claimed this territory. Every twenty feet or so I took a short break to catch my breath and I had two longer cigarette and water stops during the night. Hours passed in a monotonous rhythm of exertion. “Just a little further,” I muttered to myself as I forced myself forward. “A little further.”

The early light of dawn had begun to filter through the trees when I finally arrived at the green pool. I dragged the giant as close to the edge as possible and gratefully slipped out of the leather loop. A red welt ran across my chest and my muscles ached. I sat on the edge of the pool to catch my breath and consider my next steps. I had no intention of being in the vicinity when the healing effects of the pool revived the giant so needed to be ready to run as soon as I put him in. I considered taking a dip myself on the off chance the pool could reinvigorate me, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk that the giant might be awake before I emerged.

Using the sled I rocked the giant back and forth a couple of times and then heaved. He rolled over the edge and fell with a splash into the pool. His body quickly sank from sight in the clear waters. “You’re welcome,” I said aloud, and walked briskly from the glade.

Back at the shelter I found my guest still fast asleep. I curled up on the grass outside and quickly joined him.

Chapter Five - The wave is coming!

“Sam, you know he’ll still kill you given the chance.”

I nodded and tore another slice of rabbit from the spit to pop into my mouth. “You’re probably correct,” I said, “but it seemed the right thing to do.”

Ybarra smiled and helped himself to a piece of meat. “A warrior and a man of peace both,” he said. “You’re a rare creature, Sam.”

I simply nodded again.

Since waking earlier that day, almost thirty hours since emerging from the pool, Ybarra had told me at least five times that it may have been a mistake to save the giant. I was unrepentant, because it still felt in my mind like the right thing to do.

Ybarra had also told me a little about himself - including his name - and of his people. The flying men called themselves Asuryans, after their homeland, which he told me lay far to the east, at least two days of continuous flying away, in a mountainous region of Aaru. I presumed from his description that the land of Aaru was a continent; one which appeared to be divided into a number of nation states, much like Europe, although Ybarra advised me that the entire land was sparsely populated. He called the world I found myself upon, Neberu. He had never heard of Earth, although he remembered from childhood stories that visitors from other worlds had emerged occasionally from the green pools which littered the planet.

As for the Traveller who had led me to this place, Ybarra believed him to be one of the Gods of Neberu.

“He may have been Nwar, or possibly Baga, because both are known to travel around Neberu disguised as normal men,” he told me, then spat onto the ground. “At least they did in the days before the Wave. May both be cursed to damnation.”

“I don’t understand.”

Ybarra locked eyes with mine. “This Traveller of yours is no friend,” he said. “The Gods brought the Wave upon us.”

“What is that?”

He looked up at the green-tinged sky, spotted with wispy clouds, and pointed with a wagging finger. “The sky was once all green, from one horizon to the other, but no longer. See there, the wisps of blue amongst the jade and lime. Even in my childhood it was rare to see so much of it.”

I frowned. There didn’t seem to be much blue sky to my eyes. He wasn’t making any sense to me at all.

Ybarra suddenly laughed. “I am sorry, my friend. It is too easy to fall into a despair of reverie,” he said, turning his face back towards mine. “The Wave first came to this world forty years ago, long before my birth. It is a wall of blue sky, one hundred feet high, which appears periodically and circles the globe before disappearing again. At first, it came back every three years, and then every two years.” He shook his head. “It is speeding up, Sam. That is the reason for my journey. I am flying to the Kingdom of Reynes to tell them that the Wave is coming early this year. A scout spotted it approaching across the sea to the east of Aaru six months before it was due.”

“And what does this Wave do?”

“It turns living creatures into monsters.”

I resisted the urge to laugh, because Ybarra’s expression was stony as he said it, but the notion seemed ridiculous to me. It was one thing for a world of giants and flying men to exist; another thing entirely to believe that the sky could change a man’s nature from good to evil. That smacked of magic.

“Monsters?”

“You will see for yourself soon enough, friend Sam, and will wish you had not,” he said. “The first year was the worst, because nobody was prepared for it. Most of the land-dwellers were caught by that Wave, and many of my own people flew into it without knowing it’s effects.” He reached for a slice of rabbit from the spit. “Many men and animals were unaffected by the Wave - it passed over them like mist - but some became instantly mad, and some became monsters. That first year those unfortunate enough to lose their minds wandered aimlessly and were easy prey for the monsters. It was worse for those who remained sane, for they had to fight the demons to stay alive.”

“Is it a gas then?” I recalled the horrors of the mustard clouds in No Man’s Land which turned men into screaming contorted creatures as it killed them.

Ybarra shook his head. “I don’t know this term: gas.” He’d explained to me that he spoke another language in his homeland, but that he understood English - which he called the common tongue - though there were a number of words which we both used which the other could not comprehend. “Nobody knows how the Wave works, or where it came from - we only know the devastation it brings.”

I reached for my tobacco pouch and motioned for him to continue.

“That first Wave turned some men and animals insane and some it left untouched. And the rest it turned into monsters.” He looked over his shoulder as if expecting one of the creatures to lunge at him from the forest. “They are things from your worst nightmares - their bodies twisted and transformed with horns and scales and venomous barbs. They live until the Wave has passed by, usually ten days and nights, and then they die. During that time, they exist solely to kill every unchanged creature. They are demons.”

I lit my cigarette and blew out a long stream of smoke. “Can they be killed?”

Ybarra nodded. “With difficulty.” He prodded his finger into the dirt at his feet. “Only one man in every fifty survived that first wave, Sam. It changed Neberu forever.”

“One in fifty?” I whistled. “That would change things. Not even the Great War has killed so many in such a short time. So, what happens now?”

“The kingdoms try to survive,” he said. “After the first Wave, people built fortresses on high ground as a defence against the demons, because they all instinctively knew that the Wave would return someday. Bad things always seem to come back to haunt us on Neberu.” He laughed sharply. “Even the giants will have a mountain fortress somewhere on this island.”

“Yes,” I said. “I have seen it.” I thought again about the puzzling moats and downward facing spikes protecting the giants’ castle; they made sense now that Ybarra had explained the effects of the Wave. It was worrying to think that even the formidable giants were fearful of these Wave demons.

“In the months before a new Wave, each kingdom sweeps through their own territory and rounds up all the creatures of the forest they can find. Every animal which they can herd into a high fortress, above the hundred foot Wave, will be spared the risk of turning into a demon and will be one less creature to fight.” He pointed in the direction of the coast and his wings twitched slightly. “That is why I must leave soon, Sam. I have to tell the Kingdom of Reynes that the Wave is coming early this year. They have to begin their preparations.”

The tree fell with a loud cracking and popping noise as its branches snapped off against adjacent trees and I looked around anxiously in case a giant had heard it fall. The forest remained silent, except for the constant background chirping of birds and insects, so I set to work stripping the slender trunk of branches.

Ybarra and I had chosen a place to work well away from the nearest giant’s range. We’d found a pebbled cove at the edge of the forest on the north side of the island and had chosen it as a suitable launching point for a raft. Ybarra had remained for two more days to help me with the construction before he had reluctantly left to fly towards the Kingdom of Reynes.

I missed him immediately upon his departure. I have been a solitary man for a long time - I’ve never been one to open my heart to others - but there has always been a need inside me for some human contact. In the trenches Jonesy had been my rock; here, on Neberu, Ybarra had briefly filled that role. He hadn’t been a great help in constructing the raft - his slender frame was made for flight, not hard manual labour - but he was the only companion I had found in this hostile land. He promised we would meet again after the Wave had passed by for another year, but only if I could outrun it and sail across the narrow sea to Reynes. Ybarra also made a promise to prepare the people of that kingdom for my arrival and gave me directions to reach the high castle of the king once I reached the island.

Finally, there was nothing more to say and we had walked together from our small campsite to the beach in silence so he could set off. He grabbed me in a firm embrace and there were tears in his eyes as he’d turned away from me. I watched from the edge of the trees as he ran across the pebbles and flung himself into the air, thrusting powerfully toward the distant island. I kept watching until he dwindled into the hazy sunset, then smoked a cigarette while continuing to stare into the empty sky where he had disappeared. I hoped it would not be long until we met again.

Three days later I was almost ready to leave. I had worked continuously to get the raft finished, working until late each night, and it was gratifying to cut down the last tree I needed to finish it. I dragged the final tree down to the beach and lashed it to the raft with palm fronds and the sinewy rope I’d made from rabbit guts. I clapped my hands together as I stepped back to look at the result of my hard labour.

The raft was finally built and I was very happy with the finished article. It was basic, to be sure, though it included a makeshift sail which I’d managed to weave from the fronds of palm trees. The boat itself was solidly built with two large branches as outriggers for stability and a firm rudder, but I had no experience as a sailor and the prospect of pushing out into the unknown was worrying me. I had limited possessions on the island, but I knew a freak wave could easily steal them from me. Or I could be capsized and drown, or perhaps be eaten by whatever creatures lived in these dark, forbidding waters. My main fear was that I would be unable to steer the raft effectively and would find myself far out to sea when the Wave struck. But still I knew I had to try. I had to get off the giants island. Allowing fear to stop me from launching wasn’t going to help me survive the coming storm of chaos.

I lit a cigarette and blew out a long stream of smoke in a sigh. “Get ahold of yourself,” I said aloud. I knew there were no other options open to me; I had to sail to Reynes or perish on the island of the giants. Ybarra had estimated that the Wave would arrive in two more weeks, although he admitted to being unsure about the exact time because of recent events - the injury he had sustained in a storm and the fight with the giant, followed by his subsequent recovery in the green pool. He had been certain about one thing: there wasn’t much time left until the Wave arrived.

The sun was setting when I finally made a decision. I would depart at dawn and take my chances at sea. I headed back to my camp for an early supper and to pack my meagre belongings for the trip.

The darkness beyond the campfire seemed more encroaching than usual and I imagined flitting shades of blue dancing beneath the trees just beyond my vision and felt a brief fear that a snarling, deformed beast would lunge into my camp to dismember me.

I ate a filling supper of root vegetables along with my staple fare of rabbit, all cooked in the embers of my fire. I peeled back the crusted black surface of my food to get at the moist tenderness underneath, and ate it all with a watchful eye upon the forest. Thankfully, no monsters leapt forward to interrupt my repast and I ate to beyond fullness; I wanted a full stomach to set sail on because it could take a few days to make the crossing and I would have to survive on cold food the entire way.

After supper I made a nettle tea to aid my digestion, followed by a fat cigar rolled from tobacco I’d stolen from a giant’s farmstead. It had a harsh taste, but was still satisfying, and now that my Earthly supplies of tobacco were all gone I had nothing else to smoke. I could only hope the people of Reynes also cultivated tobacco or I would soon be forced to stop smoking and I found it to be one of my few pleasures on this world. To be fair, I also hoped they brewed beer because I sincerely felt the need to get drunk, although I had rarely allowed myself to drink to intoxication in the past. I simply felt the need to let go for once in my life and to forget the strange land I had found myself in. It was odd, I realised, to be in a place which had so far offered less horrors than I had experienced in my daily life on Earth, but which threatened to soon present far more than I wanted to handle.

I finished my handmade cigar and bitter tea and crawled into my bed of fir trees. Sleep was elusive because of the thoughts swirling around my mind, but I eventually dropped off and had a troubled sleep. My dreams that night were of muddy battlefields peopled by deformed soldiers with extended arm-claws and bony protuberances which they used to pierce the flesh of their enemies. Above the battlefield floated huge balloons, but unlike any I had seen in French skies. These were multi-coloured gasbags slung together under giant nets to form bulbous airships propelled by slowly-flapping wings. I stood among the carnage on a pile of fallen soldiers, unnoticed by the silent combatants surrounding me. When I awoke in the chill pre-dawn I had a sore head and a heavy heart. I knew what the day ahead held for me and I had no real enthusiasm for the task. But it I knew it had to be done so I forced myself to crawl out of my shelter, slung my haversack over my shoulder, and headed towards the beach.

There was a brisk breeze gusting seaward as I emerged from the trees into my little cove and it was frothing the sea into a spraying chop. The waves weren’t too high, and at least the wind was blowing in my desired direction, but still it made me feel a little apprehensive about setting off. I was committed though, so I shrugged the bag off my shoulders and lashed it securely to the deck. I took off the Webley in its holster and lashed it alongside my bag because I would need as much free movement as possible to pilot the raft through the choppy sea.

I stepped back and looked across to my destination while munching on a carrot for my breakfast. The island of Reynes seemed a goodly distance, but I felt if I could safely get through the breakers to open sea I would have a fighting chance at crossing the gap within a day, especially if the wind direction remained in my favour.

I decided to wait until I was out to sea before having a morning smoke, so I instead leaned down to the edge of the raft and tried to move it forcibly forward across the sand and into the water. My feet sank into the soft sand of the beach but I heaved with all my might and the craft shunted a foot forward. I reset my feet and moved it another foot.

The hairs on the back of my neck suddenly rose with a realisation that something was standing behind me. It may have been a sixth sense, or perhaps a subliminal detection of the sound of breathing above the breeze, but it was enough to set me spinning to face a potential enemy whilst simultaneously pulling my dirk from its sheath at my waist. I felt a momentary regret that my Webley was securely attached to the raft out of easy reach, but knew I could still give a good account of myself with my razor-sharp blade.

It was no surprise to find myself facing a giant, although I would rather have faced a division of Germans than one of those hard-muscled killing machines. He towered over me, just a few feet away, with a raised club in his right hand and an evil scowl on his rugged face. I tightened the grip on my dirk as I crouched before him, and prepared to leap upon his breast with as much ferocity as I could muster. I vowed to not give up my life easily.

“No,” he grunted, shaking his head and motioning behind me with his club.

My first instinct was that his gesture was a trap - a ruse designed to distract me long enough to give him a free swing at my head. But I already knew from experience the speed with which the giants could move. He didn’t need a distraction, I realised, because his speed of attack would be hard to thwart even if I saw it coming. He seemed rather to be genuinely gesturing to something behind me.

I turned slowly and looked over my shoulder. All I could see was the endless sea stretching into the distance - just a vast expanse of choppy water - not even broken in the direction pointed by his club by the island of Reynes. I turned back to face the giant with a puzzled frown on my face. He gestured again and grunted, so I looked back at the ocean and let the image resolve. My eyes opened wide as I realised what I was seeing - on the far horizon a thin line of deepest blue broke across the green tinge where sky and sea met.

“Wave comes,” grunted the giant and I simply nodded in resigned agreement. I couldn’t possibly make it off the island in time. The Wave would arrive in a matter of hours and I was stuck here with the giants. Fine by me, I thought, as I turned back to face him, my dirk held low to my body in a relaxed attacking stance.

The giant grinned, a lopsided smile with crooked teeth in a mouth big enough to bite through my thigh. He lifted his club and tapped it against the side of his head. “You hit good, little man,” he grunted. “You saved me. Put me in green pool.”

So this was the giant I had dragged all night through the forest. The one I had saved after nearly braining him during his fight with Ybarra. I nodded again and tightened my grip on the knife’s handle.

“No fight today,” he said, tapping his chest. “You save me, I save you. Come.” And with that he turned on his heel and headed into the forest. “Come, little man,” he called back at me.

I had no other options open to me so I quickly cut the fronds holding my haversack and Webley to the raft and, slinging them over my shoulder, rushed to follow him.

Chapter Six - Friends in High Places

The giant strode ahead through the forest and I rushed to catch up to him, slowing to a walk a few paces behind because I still didn't feel comfortable about being within easy reach of his powerful arms. He seemed to sense my reluctance as he glanced once in my direction to confirm I was following and grunted something unintelligible before continuing on. I could hear some animal noises, like a cross between a bleat and a cough, coming from somewhere up ahead and I casually rested my hand onto the hilt of my scabbarded dirk.

“My name is Grauxmoh,” said the giant, stopping suddenly and turning to face me.

“Grr-ow-ki-moo,” I repeated.

“Grau - a growl noise - ex- moh.”

I tried again and made a better approximation of the sound, although the growling sound in the middle of his name didn’t fit easily in my throat. He grunted, which I took to mean he was satisfied with my pronunciation and pointed at my chest.

“Samuel,” I said.

“Sam - a growl - eel.”

“Or just Sam.”

“Sam. Good.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Come, we must move quickly.” He led me through a patch of thicker undergrowth into a small clearing. The bleating became louder as a small herd of deer noticed our appearance. They were tied together in a line and they shied away from our appearance against the slack of their bonds.

“Middle,” said Grauxmoh, pointing about four deer along the line. He stepped to the front animal, a huge buck, and patted his shoulder almost tenderly before reaching forward to untie him from a tree. He pulled the rope forward and tried to lead the string of deer from the clearing.

I took up my place in the middle of the line and pulled the rope towards me to try to control the animals, but they were naturally not domesticated and they tried continuously to pull away from both me and Grauxmoh.

It was a difficult task to keep them moving in a controllable line and we made slow progress through the forest. Once we made it to the open grassland of the foothills it became less of a chore as the deer moved freely to each side without fear of becoming tangled in the undergrowth.

I knew the general direction was towards the fortress at the top of the mountain, but Grauxmoh initially led us at a slight tangent rather than straight up the mountain. I thought his intention was to make it easier to ascend, but it soon became clear that he wanted to stop at the river to water the animals.

“Hold on tight,” he called to me as we reached the bank of the river. As the deer stepped into the cold water they all made a simultaneous final bid for freedom and jumped forward, jerking on the rope. They clearly hoped to escape across the river before making a dash back towards the distant woodland. Grauxmoh’s warning had been timely because I would have been pulled off my feet without it; as it was, I was yanked forward by the two nearest deer and had to dig my feet into the soft sand of the riverbank to heave them back. They had made their bid for freedom, and failed, and seemed to simply accept their fate after that. A few seconds later the whole line of deer had their heads bowed to drink their fill, almost as if there was nothing unusual about their predicament.

Grauxmoh laughed. “Always they try to get away at the river.”

I nodded and smiled back. He seemed very jovial for a ferocious giant and I wondered briefly if I had completely mistaken their nature.

As we got the deer underway again I saw behind us, lower down the hillside, two giants dragging a grizzly bear on a wooden sled. The bear was unconscious or dead, I couldn’t tell which, and even the combined effort of the two giants seemed to be moving his huge body very slowly. One of the them glanced in our direction and stopped suddenly when he saw me. He dropped the rope in his hand and took a step towards us.

He shouted, growled, something at Grauxmoh. It wasn’t English and I didn’t have the faintest idea what he said, but his tone didn’t sound happy.

Grauxmoh growled back, in what I presumed was the giants own language rather than the common tongue, and yanked on the rope holding the buck to get the troop moving again. “Come, Sam.”

I glanced back at the giant who still stood with an angry expression on his face as he glared in my direction. His companion said something to him and he turned back suddenly towards his own burden.

“What’s going on?” I shouted forward.

“Daxbrun not happy,” said Grauxmoh. “Thinks I should not make meat do work.”

I frowned briefly, not understanding, and then his meaning dawned on me. “You think of me as food.”

“No,” he said, “meat.” He stopped and looked sadly at me. “Little people are beneath us, we are told this when we are children. You humans are like deer to us. You are all meat.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “It means you are not equal; it means you are an animal.”

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. Back home in Blighty I wasn’t the tallest man around, but nor was I the shortest, and to be referred to as little people seemed quaint and amusing to my ears. I also considered myself at least marginally smarter than a deer.

Grauxmoh’s face darkened with anger. “Sam, this is not amusing. I am taking a big risk bringing you.”

“Apologies, Grauxmoh. I meant no disrespect.”

“Daxbrun will not be the last giant to object to your presence, Sam.” He growled then, which I took to be the same as a pause in spoken English, or a speech filler like ‘huh’, or perhaps was merely a frustrated sigh. “We may both live to regret my decision to befriend you.”

“Let us hope not,” I said. “I will not let you down, my newfound friend.”

He smiled again. “Come, we must hurry.” He glanced up at the sun arching overhead. “The Wave will soon be here and we must be inside the citadel when it arrives.”

I nodded forward. “Let’s go.”

He turned away and pulled on the buck’s rope and headed purposefully up the hill.

The fortress was exactly as I remembered it from my previous visit, except it was now teeming with giants heading into the structure with their animal charges. There were far more than I had imagined from the small settlements I’d seen near the coast, but I had never explored beyond the central hills of the island so could only presume there were larger colonies in that direction. We had to stop our string of deer as we approached the first of the three moats because there was a bottleneck of giants waiting to cross the narrow bridge with their own animal captives.

Some of the younger giants looked me up and down as they passed and pulled a variety of bemused and angry expressions at sight of me. I tried my best to appear indifferent to their stares. I’d decided on the walk up the hillside that my only defence amongst these creatures lay in the appearance of confident strength. I didn’t particularly relish the idea of a stand-up fight with one of the giants, but I wasn't about to let them mistreat me. As I stood waiting patiently for our turn on the bridge an elderly female stepped passed me carrying a tall wicker cage teeming with squirrels. She turned towards me and flashed a toothless grin and then patted my head as if I were a dog. That gesture summed up the situation perfectly; I was going to be viewed as a dumb animal - as meat - until I could prove myself worthy of respect as an equal.

I shrugged and smiled back at the kindly old crone. I would bide my time until the Wave arrived and I’d finally get a chance to show them my mettle.

Eventually, the string of giants crossing the bridge thinned and we moved our charges forward. The deer remained meek, probably cowed by the presence of so many docile animals amid fierce giants, and seemed content to move forward at our urging. We crossed the first moat and headed for the second bridge. The speed of the animal caravan seemed to have increased, at least in part due to the wider bridges on the second and final moat and we quickly passed over them and through the opening of the fortress into the inner courtyard.

Grauxmoh led the deer to a high-fenced corral and opened the gate a fraction to lead them inside. He motioned for me to close the gate behind us. The entire corral was filled with deer - perhaps a hundred or more in total - with very little room for movement. I could only surmise that the cramped quarters would be manageable for the brief time until the Wave passed us by. I knew the giants had lived through dozens of previous Waves so I had to believe they knew what they were doing. Grauxmoh untied our string of deer and we both squeezed outside, pulling the gate tight behind us.

“Come, Sam,” he said, leading me towards the far corner of the courtyard where a number of campfires had been started despite the warmth of the early afternoon sun. Around each fire sat giants in mixed groups, presumably of families because they were of mixed ages and sexes, who were either talking, eating or smoking. Or in some cases, doing all three.

Grauxmoh led me on a zigzagging route through the maze of bodies to a small fire with half a dozen giants squatting around it. He pushed gently on my shoulder to make me sit down and then squatted next to me. The group around the fire - two younger-looking males, three females, and four children - stopped their chatter and stared right at me. Grauxmoh growled at them for a few moments and they responded with what I took to be affirmative grunts. “My family,” he said to me in English, “welcomes you.”

“Thank you,” I said, looking in turn at the harsh faces surrounding me. “I’m very happy to be here.” I didn’t really feel happy, but at least I assumed I was safer amongst these creatures than out on the open sea with the Wave approaching.

One of the females leaned forward suddenly and barked a grunt and growl at me. Grauxmoh laughed. “My wife, Vixmar, says you are not to hit me on the head again or she will squeeze the juice from your bones.” He chuckled then and slapped me on the shoulder. “I think she likes you, little man.”

I forced a rueful smile and nodded towards his wife. She certainly looked physically capable of carrying out her threat; her muscled arms were as thick as my thighs. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“Eat,” he said as he stood up. “Smoke. Talk. I will return soon.” With that he wandered away though the crowds of waiting giants back towards the entrance of the fortress.

I sighed and shrugged the backpack from my shoulders. His family simply sat and stared at me. I pulled out my tobacco pouch and rolled a thick cigar, lighting it with an ember from the fire. One of the children of the group, who I guessed to be early teens from his facial features but could have been much older, grunted at me and pointed at the tobacco pouch. I smiled and passed it over and he quickly made himself a cigar. Even squatting on his haunches I guessed he must be a foot taller than me; no wonder they thought of me as a little creature if a child towered above me. He lit his cigar and blew out a stream of smoke with a contented growl.

“Grauxixbo,” he said, tapping his chest.

“Sam,” I replied.

“Sam,” he repeated and blew another stream of smoke, then growled a phrase in the giants tongue.

Grauxmoh’s wife, Vixmar, repeated the growl and said in English, “it means warrior.”

“Ah,” I said. I copied the growled phrase as well as my human throat would allow.

Grauxixbo grunted and repeated the growl. I copied him again and he nodded reassuringly at my efforts and grinned hideously at me.

Vixmar spat into the fire. “Grauxmoh has told family you are a warrior.”

“I am.” It was the only thing I was sure of with absolute certainty on this world or back on Earth: I knew how to fight and how to kill.

“Good,” she said, “because war is coming.”

It was almost nightfall before Grauxmoh returned.

I had spent a productive afternoon grunting and growling at the children around our campfire. They seemed to have decided I should learn the giants language, possibly because they had limited skills in the common tongue unlike their parents, so they pointed at objects and made me repeat the noises they made to describe them. I found in many cases that the sounds, at least to my ears, were almost identical for different words and I realised it would take a long time for a human to master the language. At least the children seemed to find my efforts amusing. The adults around the fire ignored me for the most part, but that didn’t concern me. There would be time enough later to win their respect.

After a few hours of grunting and growling I had a fair grasp of a dozen or so words of the giants tongue - such as hello, goodbye, fire, knife, tobacco - and I believed I’d made valuable allies with the children. Grauxixbo was the oldest and was undisputed leader of the children. He was the son of Grauxmoh and Vixmar, and he also had a younger sister named Vamxis who didn’t take much part in our conversation. I presumed at that point that females held a more subservient position in the giants society than did males, but I later learned this wasn’t correct. The other two boys, both younger than Grauxixbo, were called Daxmor and Raxlahn and were the children of Grauxmoh’s brother, Brixtor, and his wife, Noxbrin. The remaining couple, Srouxil and Broxntulh, were childless, but they appeared to be still quite young themselves. They also seemed to be related to Vixmar in some way, but I couldn’t quite work out the connection.

The names of the giants all seemed to feature an X somewhere in the pronunciation, though it sounded to my ears like a soft letter S mixed with a throaty growl - an X seemed to be the only way to represent the names in English, though I’m sure they would look different in the giants own language. Having said that I never saw an example of giants writing while I remained among them and it may be that they don’t have an alphabet of their own.

Grauxmoh came back to the group carrying a cloth bag and sat down next to me. He opened the bag to reveal two skinned squirrels which he tossed next to the fire. “Supper.” He growled rapidly in the giants language as the group listened intently. When he’d finished they all grunted back in affirmation. Vixmar then leaned forward to pick up the bloody squirrels and began preparing them for spit roasting.

Grauxmoh turned to me finally. “The outer bridge is collapsed. The Wave will arrive at dawn.”

I nodded and patted the sheathed dirk at my side. “I’m ready.”

“Good. Eat, then sleep. Tomorrow will be a very blue day, Sam.”


Short Stories


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