Another day had started for the regiment.
The town square was crowded, stifling, everybody shuffling crates and equipment between buildings, to and from tents, hovels, and improvised shacks. They were all paying close attention to their tasks, making sure that everything was ready should High Command require anything at a moment’s notice.
A general murmur filled the area as orders were being barked, passed on, or received, weapons were being carted around, bullets were dropped from the myriad crates ready to be loaded up and taken to the frontline, and hundreds of bodies swarmed around one another with seemingly no particular goal other than to get to the other side of it all.
Henri wiped the sweat beads off his wrinkled brow, pushed his kepi towards the nape of his neck and carried on polishing the shell of the snail he’d just been assigned.
“You’re looking lively today, mon ami!” he said, lightly patting the shell as he was trying to remove some outstanding dirt flecks from a crevice.
“I would too, in your stead. Plenty to eat, gentle folk taking care of you...” he put in with a wink “worst that could happen now is you being carted off in the next reinforcement wave.
“But no matter” he buffed the shell more vigorously as a particular stain was giving him a hard time “myself and my boys will be there with you, right by your side! By all your sides!” he raised his voice across the row of shells lined up in a neat row, each one being worked on by others like him. He was spared a couple lazy, disgruntled looks but not much else.
“Yes, me and my boys will be there” Henri picked up where he left off “Luc and Arthur will be watching our backs as we creep up towards the beardies’ positions. It’ll be night, you know?” He threw the wiping cloth into the pail, rinsed it, then let the excess water drip off it.
“Night time has always been kind to us, even when the going got tough. I met Margaux one night during our first advance” a wry smile passed over the gnome’s aged features “Well... After it, to be precise.”
He got up from his stool, stretched, sighed, winced at the dull pain in his right arm, and admired his handy work. It was quite the shiny sight to behold, the early morning sun glinting off of it gave it an almost otherworldly look.
“They got me right here with the first shot” he said, feeling at the front of his shoulder “Almost nine hundred paces, they told me. We didn’t realise their sharpshooters had made it out there yet...” leaning back against the shell, Henri looked up and drank in the warm light.
His head was heavy and his eyes were hazy so he closed them, frowned, and tried to will the increasingly annoying scratches in his eardrums away, to no avail. Soon enough he realized that this was more than just another headache... The scratches grew in fervor as the ground around him began to shake so hard, he toppled over to the floor and struggled to get back up.
He saw falling rubble and as he looked across to the South of the square. Half a dozen Panzerbears had busted through the outer wall and were smashing through ammo crates, tearing into any and all who stood in their way. Their guns were in full blaze, roaring bullets ripping through brick, flesh, and shell alike.
“No! No, no, no... Not here... not again!” Henri shrieked as he lunged forward, knocking over a crate of grenades and himself, again.
He tried to pick himself up and run, but an idea stopped him, instead: teeth gritting, his left hand clasped firmly on a grenade, he pulled the pin out with his teeth and leaned slightly back, picking his target. The enemy infantry had just spewed forward into the square so he judged the distance and pulled his arm up, then tensed up, unable to move.
“Dun-Nomin, please, give me strength!” he whispered, his breath short, his heart pounding out of his chest.
He could clearly see the bullets leaving the beardies’ gun muzzles, cutting through his comrades. He saw the buildings being battered and beaten with burst upon burst of machine gun fire, all the mayhem whizzing just past him. He could almost feel the warmth of the projectiles in their wake, and saw his uniform getting covered in debris and shrapnel. He glanced over to his right and-
“No!! Luc! Arthur!” Henri shouted and teared up, gnashing his teeth at the sight of his two friends falling not far from where he stood frozen.
“I’ve waited too long...” he thought “I’m sorry... I’m so sorry” he took a couple steps forward, shrieking terribly at the oncoming assault. Just as he was about to loose, he saw his CO running towards him, straight from the spot he was aiming at.
”Henri!” he could hear him shout “Henri, STOP!” his voice echoed, as if it was coming from a greater distance.
“What... What’s going...” sounds and colour quickly shifted around Henri, unclear, distorted.
His knees gave out and he dropped to the ground. Someone clasped a hand over his, holding the grenade fast. He shook his head, and everything came back into focus.
The square, the shells, the crates, but no movement. No dwarves. No Panzerbears. Everyone had cleared and he could see a handful of soldiers behind somewhat covered positions, feebly peeking at him.
His Commandant grabbed a handful of water from a nearby pail and splashed it on Henri’s face, finally snapping him entirely out of his altered state.
“Take that thing away from here!” he barked, and a couple Voltigeurs ran out of sight after having peeled the grenade out of Henri’s hand.
“You gave us quite the scare, old man... Reliving the past again, are you? It’s ok, it’s alright...” “Leonard...” Henri reached at the man who had picked him up and who was now rearranging his uniform, checking him for injuries. As he was sitting Henri back down on a stool, something caught the Commandant’s eye.
“Give me that” he gestured to one of the recruits who then held out the prosthetic “Now go on about your business, crisis averted, carry on!” he barked as the soldiers were beginning to slowly emerge from the cover spots they’d jumped into during the brief panic.
He smiled bitterly as he attached the straps to Henri’s epaulet and kept probing with curt questions regarding the old man’s state. He then helped him back up, held him around the shoulders, and gently guided him over to the medical tent where Henri was quickly ushered in by a couple of nurses with the demeanour of someone had just died and come back to life over the past few minutes.
“We were supposed to see less danger this far behind the front!” one of them hissed at the other under her voice, as they took Henri inside “We’ve survived their mad ones out there only to have to face our own back here… It’s the second time this month, the old cook’s had an episode, and this time he could have really hurt somebody!”
“Don’t speak that way, Amelie!” her friend retorted with a frown “Henri and those like him are one of the few reasons there’s still a back here left!” she nodded at the Commandant, then pulled down the tent flap after them.
“What is it, Captain?” the commanding officer performed a military turn to face his subordinate. “The shells, Commandant, they’re asking for more... Counter intelligence says they’ve taken the bait!”
Leonard Barise turned his weary eyes towards the row of empty snail shells that his veterans and wounded were working on, transforming them into veritable works of art as far as ruses were concerned.
Thin, wooden horns, a steel cage that mimicked the snails’ body, metal bins fangled into the guise of a turret, along with the tarp they were using to cover it up... All of these worked wonders towards duping any intrepid scout into overestimating the forces they had at their disposal. Double that when mixed in with a few of their living, breathing counterparts and some empty shells of fallen escargot.
“Best idea the old coot ever had...” Barise smirked, looking back towards the medical tent, seemingly lost in thought.
“Commandant?” the Captain inquired.
“Tell them” Barise regained his composure “that we have 300 units waiting to be sent out, and that they’ll have them by tomorrow morning. We’re also looking at 250 more to follow over the next four days from our atelier to the South. Dismissed!”
“Understood, Commandant!” the Captain clicked his heels, gave a salute, and walked away, while Barise spared a few more seconds making sure that things got back to normal, then headed towards the medical tent himself.
Another day had started for the regiment.
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