So, The Rain Is Falling.
Chapter warning: Extreme violence.
The soldiers would not expect him, and that was his true advantage. It was utter madness. Insanity. Outnumbered, out gunned. But as he traced their tracks through the snow, Emil felt the shift of clarity. A change in the pace of his body that was all gut and instinct. Thought silenced. Sense a knife edge. Breathing the faint reek of explosive on the air, tasting the ice and acidity of pine. Stalking a trail of red holly berries crushed into the earth by careless feet. The trickle of adrenaline like an intravenous high. Anticipating violence with bright and keen alacrity, his fingers twitching sudden need. Cold rifle in his loving grip.
They would not see him coming. They would not know fear until they knew him. Death. He would drag them with him, howling and screaming, to the burning pit of hell.
Each of Emil's steps were meticulous. The pulling pain in his leg sequestered. Boxed to a separate cognition. Silence piercing after the blaze noise gunfire and explosives. He could see where the passing soldiers had knocked snow and frost from the razor tips of the holly. Reading the distinctive trail of their steps. Squeezed and confined by the winding path through the forest.
Sparse hewn stone showed itself beneath the frozen dirt. The evidence of very, very old walls. Aged relics of human occupation. This had once been a cobbled road. Used enough to warrant paving. It had to lead somewhere, or no one would bother to keep it clear.
Listening intently, he passed the spot where their scramble through the undergrowth had almost met the path. Compensating for the ring in his ears with the focused intent of his eyes. Don't miss anything. Don't stop. Don't falter. Ahead, the trees grew faintly shorter. Their trunks a fraction narrower, and the landscape inclined. There would be a clearing, not too far. Or a cross roads.
He slowed, ducked down against the holly on protesting joints. The muscle of his calf pulsed. Throbbed and shivered. Convulsively gripping the shrapnel lodged in his leg. Emil grit his teeth. Focus. He fought against thepitch and reel of his head and the crawling need to vomit rolling through his insides. Focus.
The woods were quiet. Sparse snowflakes drifting through the reaches of a darkened canopy. He could see the thick mist of his own breath before his face and hear the gusts of air from his own nose. Too fast. Forcing the next one slow. Deep and slow.
His head turned, angled to some noise on the other side of the holly.
The woods groaned with the speech of trees. Somewhere, snow thumped from an overburdened branch.
"Something is wrong."
Emil crept forward, breathing deep. As though he could smell them. Pressing his feet so slowly into the earth and snow they made no sound.
"They should have been here by now."
The hissed whisper was far closer than he had anticipated, prickling nerves on his skin. His eyes searched the dense foliage, looking for a gap that would reveal their positions. Nothing.
"Shut up. That's an order."
"That's Werner's uniform, idiot."
Breathing steadied, despite the pulse and throb of his body, Emil eased forward. The earth ice cold where he placed his palm. They knew something was amiss and would not hold this position for long.
"But you saw- "
"We all fucking saw."
A faint break in the holly gave him pause. No more than a squat tunnel at the base of spindly trunks, a single fox print clear in the snow.
"I think we should go back."
Emil deliberated for a bare moment, casting one last glance up and down the path, before dropping to the ground. He belly crawled. An agonising, inch by inch slither, dragged on the tips of his fingers and the balls of his feet. Compact and squeezed, rifle pressed into his stomach. Don't make a sound. It drew him just close enough. Spotting parts of two men in the gaps of foliage and locating the other two by voice.
"This was a mistake."
"Look. At least two of them are wounded. They won't be moving quickly. Jorgen will know if they try to retreat."
The fifth soldier must have circled back. Unwittingly, they had each engaged the same manoeuvre. How long ago had he gone? How close was he to Sam and Christian's tenuously held position? Any gunfire from that direction would give the game away entirely.
He needed to be quick.
It was clear to see why this was the chosen battle ground. Had he, Sam and Christian behaved predictably and followed the path, the German soldiers here would have the distinct advantage. The holly gave way to flattened dirt and intersected with two wider footpaths. A Y shaped fork defendable by a crop of rock and another fallen tree. They would have walked right into crossfire.
Emil needed to flush them out. Like rabbits from a warren. He needed to get behind them. Inching ever so slightly forward, he scanned for a pathway. A clue in the landscape. A break. Anything that would give him the upper hand.
On the far side of the clearing, it looked as though the holly and bramble thinned. The wispy carcasses of winter dead fern like burned and blackened fingers curling from the snow. Ash and elm fighting for space in the acid of pine-tree soil. He'd need to cut through the thick of it, but if he could press through…
There would only be one opportunity. One chance.
He blinked rapidly, as though that would clear the black spots that danced on his vision. His head felt like it was being squeezed. The pressure building behind his nose and eyes. He needed to be quick. Or his body would betray him, and he would wake face down in the dirt, to find it was all over.
Jaw clenched, he eased backwards. Profoundly aware of his own vulnerability as he crawled in the dirt and snow. When he was finally free, relieved, he allowed. himself a stripped second to breathe. Eyes closed, forehead pressed against the cold skin of his gun. Deep, slow gulps of air. Lungs like balloons, stretching enervated muscle. Nothing more than blood and bone. Nothing more than nerve and sense. Animal. The broken shrew in a fox's jaw. The fox with fresh meat between its teeth. Nothing.
Move. He folded his legs beneath him, and pushed up from the ground, continuing his careful skirt along the holly. It was difficult to keep his mind reigned. The forward leap of thought a dangerous game. Plotting the points of possibility was futile. This could happen, that could happen. Useless in the heat of violence. Focus. It would only serve to make him predictable, vulnerable to the unexpected.
No. In this moment, instinct was his best friend. Lover. The natural creature that clung to life at all cost.
The path ahead bent sharply. His cue to leave it behind. The baser notes of a whisper caught his ear, but the words were too indistinct to distinguish.
He chose the sparsest section of twisted greenery and pressed himself between, knowing it would be impossible to disguise his path. Pointed leaves scratching and catching on his clothes. His movement knocking free frost and snow. It forced his progress slow. Trying to move with the bend and warp of soft wood, rather than fight against it. Quiet as he could. Low, steady. Breathe.
He followed what he thought to be the right trajectory, leading towards the crossroads. Only diverting course where the density of woodland forced him to. Overtly aware of the slide of time. Counting silent seconds that rolled into minutes.
Finally, the holly thinned. Younger plants taking the place of the tangled and mature. He followed a smattering of natural stone, until the rocky outcrop made itself known.
Emil swallowed, breathed. Felt the pulse of blood through his veins. The slight sweat that clung to his skin. The burn through his leg. He dropped lower still, a half crawl through the dead fern, until he saw the back of a helmeted head.
Still. He willed the tremor of his muscles to cease and pressed himself belly first into the cold earth. No more than soil and snow and pine himself. His rifle a solitary friend. Each part so familiar he found them with touch alone. Cradling the barrel, finger curled so gently around the trigger. He lowered his eye to the telescopic sight, the world leaping into sharp relief. Crystal. Like he saw through the eye of a god. Brilliant clarity and detail.
His target wore his collar turned up against the cold, a semi-automatic in hand. The remaining three were riflemen. Standard issue Kar98's in gloved grips. Bolt-action, like his own. Slower, in cold and clumsy fingers.
Emil exhaled, long and intent between parted lips. Lungs collapsing, his body swallowed by the earth. Mind withdrawing the permissions from his limbs. Nothing. Legs that were not his. Pain, organs and skin that did not belong to him. Reduced. Until he was no more than eyes and ears and the pressure in the bend of his finger.
The domed helmet bobbed, ever so slightly. Tense shoulders, shrugging deeper into his clothes against the cold. Then he turned his face, lips moving on hushed words to the soldier beside him. Straight cut jaw freshly shaved, a nick against his throat bright red on pale skin. A pinch of stress between his brows. Blue eyes.
White blue. Ice blue eyes. Nothing like Sam's.
Fuck you. Fuck you.
He was not prepared for the ignition of white-hot hatred that rolled like an uncontrolled blaze through his core. Incendiary. An inferno, Saint Vith. Burning. Spewed forth in magma from his lips as he squeezed. "Go to hell." Braced for the powerful kick and crack of the sniper, like some living thing, with his eye avidly fixed. Bullet splitting through helmet like a tin can. Clean on entry, a brilliant spray of blood and brain on exit. Instant. The flick of a switch. Fresh corpse swaying where it sat.
"Sniper!" The instinctive cry went out, blended with the echo of that single deadly round.
Emil was already up. Already moving. Forward. The pump of blood through his veins and the reek of death on his nose. One man still reeled. The brains of his fellow soldier spewed across his uniform. The other two turned their rifles. Shock on white faces.
He ducked and rolled before they even pulled the triggers. Pre-emptive not of the bullets, that whipped through the spot he'd been only moments gone, but of the men that fired them. Prey. Easy prey. He'd kill them even if they shot him. He'd steal their last breaths even as he breathed his own. They would know fear.
His feet found themselves without flinch. The third man levelling his gun with shaken hands. Weak. "God! Witness my desertion!" Emil shouted. The words ripped themselves from some black abscess. "I will not fear death!" Fumes and billowing smoke from his tongue. Dropping to slide the last few feet. Yanking the sub-machine gun from a dead man's hands and jamming down on the trigger.
He filled the soldier with bullets. Point blank. Six rounds in quick succession that spattered his chest and smashed through his face. The gun still attached to the corpse by a heavy strap. Emil turned the nose on the riflemen, his fire biting at their boots as they threw themselves over the cover of the outcrop.
They ran. Ferreted down the rabbit hole. And Emil took off after them, his face split on a grin that tasted of blood. "I am death!"
The tables were turned. They sprinted for their lives. Weapons smacking ribs as they hurtled, an unrestrained barrel, headlong, back through the warren of holly.
Emil did not feel the movement of his legs, nor the heave of breath through his lungs. Though he could hear it. The hard pattern of expansions and contraction. The smack of his own boots against the dirt and ice. Pushing. Faster. Wide, rapid strides that clawed back ground. Gaining on his quarry. Pulse by pulse.
One man outstripped the other. Long legs putting distance between them. The second made a fatal mistake, just as they rounded the final corner. Twisting his head to look back over his shoulder.
Emil hurtled forward. Jammed a boot before his next stride and sent the soldier flying to the dirt. He crashed, twisted in foetal defence. Legs raised. Too late. Coming eye to eye with Emil's sniper.
They both froze. Chests heaving.
The crack of gunfire. Movement at his periphery tempted Emil's gaze. Christian, tearing off down the path after the other man. But he did not blink. Did not flicker. Meeting wide eyes and blown pupils. The wild, vivid clarity of terror. Staring into the face of destruction.
He pulled the trigger, the snapping mechanism making the soldier's entire body cringe.
But no bullet followed.
An empty chamber. Jarring. Momentarily staggering. Flashing a firestorm of relief across the soldier's face.
Momentary. His teeth clenched, Emil flipped the gun. Bunching muscle and strength in his shoulders as he slammed the butt of his weapon and smashed the man's face. Shattered. Screaming, suddenly. An animal howl that was cut short by a second blow.
The shout was cutting. Emil staggered slightly, his leg threatening to fold beneath him before he caught himself. Heart beat so hard, so fast. Pulse thudding through his head.
It took his reeling mind a moment to register what he saw.
Sam was propped against the wood. Face ashen, a puddle of bright blood staining the snow beneath him. He aimed his rifle with shaking hands, his gaze fixed on the black muzzle pointed back at him. On the German, not five foot away, who held it.
"Don't move!" The German shouted, his voice cracked on nerves. Swallowing, shifting. His eyes swinging between Emil, Sam and the brutalised corpse of the man by Emil's boots.
Emil obeyed. Did not twitch a muscle. Held breath. Frozen, a vice grip on his useless gun. It would only take one shot. One bullet to the chest, or the head, or vital bloodlines and Sam would be dead. The teetering rope of life and death no more than silk thread. Spiders web. Broken with the wave of a hand. The twitch of a finger.
Piercing, he stared at the German. Caught his wavering gaze and held it. Silently willing Sam to pull the trigger. Do it fast. Do it first. Now.
The echoing crack of a gunshot seemed to reverb through his bones. Cold fury splitting through his gut. The useless sniper thrown down.
They moved at once, Emil gaining three strides forward before the German yanked Sam from the dirt. Sam. Whose gun slid from his grip. Sam, who blinked rapidly and grasped at his neck. Blood spilling between his fingers.
Emil stopped dead. Icy breath in clouds before his nose and mouth and turned all thought and focus to his mortal enemy. The enemy who pointed his weapon the wrong way. Too Stupid. Who aimed it at Emil in his last, fatal mistake. "Look at you... Jorgen." The words curled with acid, split by his grin. Baring bloody teeth "How many bullets do you have left?" Testing.
"D-Don't move!" Any authority was lost on the stutter. Betraying the truth. The determined tilt of his jaw undermined by the way his hands shook. By the backwards shuffle of his boots, dragging Sam with him.
With each retreated step, Emil advanced in defiance. Ready stance, body coiled low. Empty hands loose, the power in his knees. "Two? Or is it one?"He spat, thick red into the snow. One. Fixed, unflinching. The wavering black muzzle of the gun was nothing, focused only on the German's face. The stamp of fear on his open mouth, the shaking hands. "You better not miss, huh." He saw the man swallow, coiling forward another instinctive step, the man stumbling back, almost tripping on his own boots. A play of predator and prey. "Or you're already dead."
Unless that bullet pierced Emil's heart or split his skull, this man would die beneath his hands. Emil would wring the life from him, spread it through the snow and watch the light leak with terror from his eyes. "You saw what happened to your friend." Fear. The moment that trigger was squeezed, the moment that bullet left the barrel, the solider was his. Do it. "I'll make you wish you could crawl back up your whore mothers cunt!"
Emil did not blink, did not break his gaze from the German's face. He saw the moment the decision was made, saw the clench of muscle through his face, the twitch at the corner of his eye, the flare of nostrils on a drag of air; and threw himself to one side. The gunshot echoed, cracking out over the trees. He heard the bullet slice the air, heard it thunk into a trunk somewhere behind him, accompanied by a spatter of red. More of it to decorate the white landscape. A brilliant spray, spreading a stain from the pit of his uniform.
Emil's exhale hissed between his teeth. Touching at the stinging wound. Shallow, but through and through. His narrowed gaze swivelled to the German, who stood frozen for a heartbeat with the gun in his hand, before he turned to run, leaving Sam to fall.
Emil launched forward. Sole intent on his singular target. Hitting the man in the back and sending them both grinding to the dirt. They grappled, twisting. Emil caught a fist flying towards his face, the impact to his forearm jarring. No strength pulled. He jammed a knee upwards, caught the man's guts before another blow to his cheek sent him spinning.
His head reeled, but his body moved on instinct. Violence. Power. Headbutting the man in the face to the crunch of bone. His nose broken, spilling blood down his face. Every advantage taken, the laxness of shock forced to the earth. Emil straddling his chest and arms, grasping the man's head in clawed hands. Hot flesh beneath his palms. Sinking his thumbs into the soft, warm pit of eye sockets.
The man screamed. Howled. A piercing shriek of agony that bounced between the trees. His body tossing, kicking and bucking in the final, desperate throes of life. Raking nails at Emil's face, downs his arms.
His own scream, primal, bubbled. Churned, hit his throat, and was bitten behind clenched teeth. Silenced. Every muscle tight. Straining, forcing deeper. Hot organ, hot brain/ Blood. Unflinching from the black sockets of eyes, the impossible. Horror. Crushing. Mutilating. Until the soldier's cries fell quiet.
Heaving, shuddering. The sudden silence howling in his head. Whorls of snow falling between darkened trees. The warmth of a fresh corpse beneath him. His body unravelled. Withdrawing his thumbs with a putrid, revolting squelch. He toppled sideways. Barely able to catch himself before his head hit the ground.
He rolled to his back. Staring. Blinking. Every muscle, every nerve, shaken. Raw. Pain hitting like a sucker punch. Legs, arms, head. Blood soaking down his side from his armpit. Spinning.
Blackness clawed at his periphery. Thick, cloying smog that begged to swallow him into oblivion. The muscles of his stomach cramping on involuntary spasms, with no strength left to physically throw up.
Sam. "S-Sam." Hit thoughts manifested in voice. A warped, urgent call to frozen air that was unanswered. Silence. "Sam?"
His head rolled sideways on a neck that was not his own. Useless hand palm up, no more than twitching to the command of his brain. Lost, somewhere, in radio static.
The ground was soaked in blood. Like someone had dragged a pig, squealing, into the clearing and cut its throat. Brilliantly bright and red on churned snow. In some places, so dark it was almost black. And at the centre of a growing pool, lay Sam. Eyes closed, as they had been only that morning. But still. Jarringly still. His face bleached white. His chin, neck and collar. Drenched.
Paralysed, Emil could only breathe. Abandoned by adrenalin and the insane high of violence. The sweat chilled on his skin. Ice. The wriggling fingers of hell digging, worms and rotten corpses, clinging to his flesh. His hand twitched. Lifted from the dirt, reaching. "Sam. Please."
He fisted fingers of soil. Clenching at the very earth and forced his limbs to move. Shaking arms gaining traction. Dragging one knee beneath his body. When he tried to make his other leg follow, it buckled him. Collapsing, forehead to the dirt on searing pain. Choking on it.
The muscles of his back seized. Raw nerves singing agony through his neck. Jaw clamped closed on wracking spasms, before the wash of darkness dragged him into the pit.
It was cold. Terribly cold. The bright, searing stab of pain contrasted only by the bitterness of ice. Numbness. Flurries of snow whipped at his face, into his eyes. His eyelids fluttered. The faintest movement of his head creating a pounding agony through his skull so brilliant it threatened to knock him back into the black.
He gasped air through cracked lips. Unable to focus on the reeling spin of the world around him. Blood. The sense of something terrible, doom, forcing his heart into chaotic overdrive. He jerked. Sudden. Blood. His hand to the wound in his stomach. Dread thrashing through his chest.
But the wound was not there…. Wounded. Definitely wounded, but not that cataclysmic slice through his gut. That had been. And gone.
Nausea pitched and rolled with the simple turn of his head. Forcing his eyes closed. Breathing. Able to do nothing but breathe as he tried to wrest control of his body. Waiting for the tides to recede before he peeled his lids back and looked.
Sam was half buried, fresh white snow whipped sideways in the gale. Driven by wind that bent and withered the branches of the pines.
How long had he been lying here?
Darkness had seeped into the woods. Too dark. Nightfall? Or simply the onset of violent weather, he wasn't sure. But Sam had not moved. Not an inch. Not a muscle. Lain exactly where he fell.
Helplessly, his name rose to Emil's lips, but emerged as no more than guttered air. Choked.
Get up. The command of his head did not reach frozen limbs. Solid. Stiff as the German corpse to his left. Get up! Now!
Jerky, sudden. He floundered. Uncoordinated as he staggered to his knees. Pain rolling in shockwaves. Up through his gut and chest and forced from his lungs. Noise stolen by the whiplash of wind. He clutched at the earth, fixing his eyes on Sam's prone form, and dragged his useless body forward.
Too long. It took too long. Hand shaken by violent tremors as he reached out to touch Sam's face. Cold. Blue lipped and so still. A little longer and he'd be buried by the snow, and it would be like he'd never laid here at all.
Emil's head reeled, snatching at reason and action that were elusive. Frozen on the gaping, yawning pit of dread that opened beneath him. Each exhale shuddering, numb fingers pressing into Sam's cheek. Just beneath his eye. Dark lashes. The dark curl of hair from beneath his helmet. An impossible conclusion refusing to surface. Impossible.
But there was so much blood. Emil stared at Sam's face, blinked, and forced reluctant eyes to his neck, his throat. To the raw, messy wound. Trying to focus with swimming vision. The bullet had struck just above Sam's collar, and exited just behind. Shallow, but enough to soak Sam's uniform. Frozen onto his skin. Pulsing, bleeding slowly to ensure the fresh snow was newly stained in red.
The dead didn't bleed… Did they?
Emil's chest constricted. His breath caught. "Shit. Shit!"
Grabbing hold of Sam's arm, he braced to roll him. The strain popping pain through his neck and shoulders. Dead-weight. Starbursts across his vision, grunting, forcing fatigued, stiff, screaming muscles to obey. His head spun, threatening to sink him back into the grasp of unconsciousness. Emil bowed forward to Sam's chest. Ice cold buttons stung his skin. Fighting to calm the frantic pace of his own heart, the uncontrolled shudders of his breathing and listen.
The wind howled, his ears rang, and he could not hear a heartbeat. His fingers twisted in Sam's coat. Shaking, helpless to still the way his body shook.
But he felt it… The very slightest rise and fall of breath. So small, too small. But enough. Fucking everything.
A fresh kick of adrenalin rocked Emil back on his heels. Desperately searching. Where could it be? Scrambling with blind hands through the heaped mounds of snow, in the dark. Numb fingers careless, grasping, reaching. "Where is it. Where the fuck is it?!"
He touched canvas, or thought he did. Latching hold and pulling. The red cross on olive drab emerged. Fighting with buckles on numbed fingers. He almost spilled the contents of the med kit. Eyes flying between Sam, the wound at his neck, and the equipment he laid across his knees. Morphine? No. With so much blood loss… could it kill him? Would it help? Sutures?
A thin noise of desperation worked free from his chest. Everything was in English. Written in too fine print, blurring as he searched for what he recognised. Sulfanilamide, white wadding and gauze. Shaking so badly he dropped them. Unable to feel, his hands so cold. So fucking cold.
He struggled to lift Sam's head onto his thigh, the med kit falling into the snow. Blinking rapidly against the tilt of the earth. Clumsy, as he sprinkled the white powder. Packed the wadding against the wound, instantly soaking blood. Winding the bandage around Sam's neck. Messy. Too loose. Undoing it to start again. What if he did it too tight? Would it cut off that frail breathing? Fuck. "Sam. Sam! Open your eyes."
The cold was wicked, biting, and the tremor of his hands and arms began to spread. A violent shake, chattering teeth. A wave of dizziness causing him to sway where he knelt. He couldn't see straight, fumbling to fasten the bandage in place. And when that was done, stuck. Floundering on action. On what to do next.
There was blood everywhere. Not just Sam's. A stabbing, stinging pain pulsing brightly every time he lifted his arm. The bullet wound through the flesh of his armpit. Focus. On anything. On anything but his own body.
Swallowing convulsively, he crawled. Dragged the med kit with him, to Sam's leg. Lifting Sam's heavy boot out of the snow. Too late remembering the way Sam had limped… Broken bones? The trouser from knee down was wet. Soaked with blood, stiff khaki freezing solid in places, ripped open over a wound. Slick, then sticky and coagulated. Covering Emil's hands.
His fingers slipped on scissors, and they vanished into the snow. He stared for too long at the spot they had disappeared, before grasping at the hole in Sam's uniform and ripping it open.
The gash was long as his fingers, deep and black. Far worse, he realised, than the wound at Sam's throat, pulsing fresh blood even as he watched. Stomach clenching. Involuntary, his hand flew to his face. Covered his eyes, smearing blood across his own cheeks. Breathing it in. Sam's blood. "Fuck!"
Sam was going to bleed to death. The dread certainty sunk home. His own inability too profound. Glaring and obvious.
He forced himself to look, swallowing hard on the sickness that crawled up the back of his throat. Clumsy as he packed wadding over the gaping gash. Split flesh and the white flash of bone beneath. Wrapping bandages as tightly as he could. His grip slipped on the tourniquet just beneath Sam's knee, unable to pull it hard enough. Cursing, unable to still the tremors of his hands.
The wind howled, and he sat with bloody fingers resting on Sam's boot. A ringing emptiness in his head. Darkness gathering its shroud. It would only get colder, and Sam was already at risk of hypothermia. Frostbite. He was at risk of dying in this cold.
What was it all for? What the fuck was it all for if they froze to death?!
He needed to find shelter. Now. They could not go back to the barn. Too far. Likely crawling with soldiers. But they could not stay.
There was no option. If he did not move, they would die. This shadowed clearing of holly, hemmed by the obscured fingers of evergreen, would be their grave. A terrible certainty that passed and seemed to leave a shadow on his soul... Or he could press forward, pick one of the forks in the path and hope that it lead somewhere. Anywhere. If it did not, if he discovered only more snow and blood, they would die there instead.
"Okay." He found himself parroting the word that Sam so often used, when his thoughts were stressed and the decision a hard one. Pressing English onto the frozen night. Words that were stolen by the bitter wind. "Okay. We go, Sam. I will get us out. Okay."
He barely glanced at the discarded guns. Unaffected metal, cold and gleaming. They would need the supplies, if they were to have a chance in hell. The guns? Too much. His knife would have to suffice.
Steeling himself, he dragged Sam's heavy pack from against the tree, stuffing the med kit inside and pulling on the straps. He fumbled to lock the buckle about his middle, groaning with the unbearable pressure it put on his shoulders. Aching, pinched nerves. Fuck.
It was another thing entirely to move Sam. On his knees, calf screaming. Counting back from three before hauling with all his strength to pull Sam over his shoulders. Failing. Dropping him back to the snow with haggard breath. Head spinning. Fuck! Again. Looping Sam's arm across his back first. Too weak. Pausing to gasp on cold air, eyes squeezed closed. Jaw clenched.
Emil heaved. The effort breaking free in a groan between his teeth.
He locked one arm behind Sam's knees, the other holding his wrist. Hung over Emil's shoulders. Awkward. Heavy. But there was no other way to move him. Emil was already short of breath, shaking, and he had not even stood. Adjusting Sam's weight across his back, he forced his wounded leg out from beneath him. Shuffling, shifting to brace his weight against his other foot. Just move.
Emil lingered that way for too long, his body threatening to collapse beneath Sam's weight. Counting backwards, steeling himself. Counting again when he failed to start. Everything screamed. Everything cried out for surrender. To give in, fold. Double over and simply lay still. Let the snow bury them both.
He dragged deep, steadying breaths. Snow whipping at every inch of exposed skin. And tried again.
His knees protested violently. Every muscle quaking. Threatening to send them crashing back to the earth. But he pushed forward and stood. White flashing across his vision, frozen on the spot for fear of falling back down.
Sam. Sam's wrist beneath his grip was solid. His fingers loosely curled in unconsciousness. Real. And still alive.
Emil forced the first step, and another. Head bowed down against the wind.
It seemed to take an age to escape the small, shelled clearing. Turning along the path, his eyes on no more than his feet. One boot before the next. Metal, a buckle or button on Sam's uniform, digging into the back of his neck.
It was a battle to focus. Tying to plot their course. Trying to think more than just the next three steps ahead, but coming up short. Unable to escape the prison of his own failing body. He could manage no more than forcing each limb to move. Clinging desperately to consciousness. Clinging violently to the thought that this path would lead them somewhere. Anywhere.
Blood was soaking through the bandage on Sam's leg. Bright, red blooms. Like poppies.
Their route followed half buried traces of red through the snow. Probably his own blood, he realised. Dripping from his leg. Left behind as he stalked the soldiers. Boot-prints that were filling, fading under an onslaught of wind-driven flakes. It was all he could do to breathe, slowing further. Slowing with every step. Fighting not to allow his knees to give out. To control the tremor of his thighs. The cramps down his back and neck and shoulders. The crushing weight that drove him always earthwards.
That was all it would take… Sink into the snow. Relieve the pressure from his bones.
Lie down. Close his eyes. All he had to do was let go.
Each time he lifted his foot was harder than the last. One, then the other. Ragged gasps between each step.
If he stopped, the cold would numb the pain.
He could even take those last few syrettes. Then… it might not even hurt.
He stumbled. Caught on some obstacle hidden by the snow. One knee hitting the ground, too hard. Groaning. Forcing himself back up. Another step. Another five. Another ten.
If he stopped… It would all be over.
Slowly, the points of his periphery were receding. Thought snatched like smoke in the wind. Gone before they fully formed. The long shadows of the trees, bent and warped, blending with the black spots that bled across his vision. Pain in brilliant contrast. Unabated. Consuming. Eating at his body. A piece of paper, a leaf, curling in the flames.
One boot before the next. One ragged, heaved breath. Shaking. Breaking from the very bottom. The very last unturned stone, coming loose with earthquake tremors. He could not fight the encroaching dark. Could not even raise his hands against it. Could not even conceal its magnitude, crying out in agony as he collapsed to one knee. The dark woods spinning, filling up his nose and mouth and eyes. Sinking. Sunk.
A warm touch curled around the back of his neck.
His head cushioned on solid warmth. He did not wish to lift his eyelids. Embraced, cradled. Feeling the rise and fall of a chest beneath his hand. The steady thump of a heart. Hearing the thud of it through the acoustic vault of ribs. The slow and even rush of air. With breath. A deep, slow sigh.
That touch played across his nerves. Trickled down his spine. Like paper-thin, dust-coated moth's wings. Fragile, yet at once, so sound. So profound.
"Hey." The lightly spoken word prompted him to look. Lazy and slow but finding those blue eyes like a needle to the pole. So bright. "Are you okay?"
It was Sam's eyes that smiled. Untethered. So open and honest. Built upon sincerity and kindness. Catching Emil's heart in his throat. He had to touch his face. Mould his fingers around the sculpt of Sam's cheekbone, brush the slight crease that smile folded. His chest so full it hurt.
Magnetised, he pressed his lips softly to Sam's. A flutter kiss so easily echoed. Impressed with the deep flood of all he felt. Too much for him to hold alone. Broken only on a shared breath, his hand shaken. "Sam…"
Sam only drew him closer. Tucked and folded in the blanket of his warmth, pressing Emil's head beneath his chin, into the crook of his neck and huffing a breath into his hair.
Sam's skin was warm against his, but wet. Emil could feel it. Wet. And shut his eyes. To block it out, searching for Sam's hand. Their fingers curled together. Squeezing. Wet. Slowly soaking. Spreading. Sticky. "Don't. I need you to stay…"
"Emil…" Sam spoke against his scalp. Quiet and calm. "It's alright."
"I forgive you."
"No." Harder, his hand clenching over Sam's. Tightening. "You swore to me."
"I swore to you." Wet. Red. Blood. Soaking them both. His whole body coiling in violent protest of it. "No!"
He needed air. Eyes flying wide, clawing at the earth. Wheezing, gasping. The deadweight of Sam crushing his lungs. With a heave of straining muscle, he managed to roll Sam to one side and lay, coughing.
He had to find them shelter. Bleary eyes trying to peel through the snow thick air, cheeks stung by cold. Wet with the snow that melted on his skin. Violently shivering. The fork in the path stretched before him. It had to lead somewhere, his hand closing about a stone. Smooth, but for the jagged edge where it had broken. Hewn and shaped by man some hundreds of years ago.
Even if it led to German or American troops, he'd take that chance. The alternative, certain death. But how far? Which way? Left, or right?
Staggering to his feet, he swayed to the junction of each fork. Peering down its length in the darkness. Focus. Searching for a clue. Anything.
The left path was wider by almost half a meter, suggesting a larger thoroughfare. But did that also mean it would be longer? An autobahn, for covering long distance quickly, as opposed to the road home?
He did not allow himself time to pause. Knew that every second lost their chances lessened. Straining once more to haul Sam off the ground.
Emil picked the right hand. Just move. The shake of his body insignificant. It meant nothing. Pain was nothing, even as it burned. Even as it screamed and clawed and fought to claim him. Repeating. A mantra. Just fucking move.
By the time he began to question his decision, minutes, or hours? It was too late to go back. Holly and bramble pressed in, the path beneath his boots treacherously uneven. Threatening to knock him down on a single, misplaced step.
Weak. If he fell a third time, there would be no getting up. Move!
The thin lights of hope seemed to dim with every passing moment, and they stumbled in the dark. Bleak dread puddling like meltwater in his gut. He could feel his body shutting down. Weak. Quaking, agonisingly slow. Rubber boned and numb, high static ringing in the empty space between his ears. No.
This then, was his penance. The punishment for all the evil he had done. For the evil he had allowed himself to become. He should have died months ago, it would have been better. He should have bled out on the carpet. Perhaps he should have pulled the trigger on Sam… Spared them both this agony, this misery. This awful way to die.
At first, he did not register what he was seeing. Squeezing a bend in the path, between the clinging claws of holly. It was half eaten by the woods. Hidden in the shadows of evergreen and the crouched guards of undergrowth. Old stone and mortar. Hardly more than a ruin. A door of old wood, that did not quite fit its frame.
Emil's breath stuttered, and he stopped. Swayed. Untrusting of his own vision, unable to believe his eyes. Reluctant, burning legs dragged them both those last few aching steps, and he grated numb fingers against the rough stone. Stone and wood, pressing on a door that offered no resistance. Inviting into the darkness.
It was pitch black. Quiet, and rank with the smell of damp. Emil dragged his feet in blind steps, hesitant. Disoriented by the thoroughness of such dark. His boots encountered no obstacle, and in the weak tremble of light through the door, he sank to his knees.
It took all his discipline to lower Sam to the floor, fumbling for too long to unclip the pack from his middle. The relief of its freedom incredible.
By touch alone he navigated, staring blindly in the dark. Sam's pack, Sam's things. Searching, until his fingers touched a cold square of metal.
The lighter hissed, a meagre flame dancing before it guttered with the wind. Half conscious, Emil pushed the door closed behind him, and tried again. A bubble, a ring of light in the clinging black. Leaning close to Sam's face. Pale. Deathly pale, the bandages soaked red. Emil's breath hitched on anxiety, searching again for the weak flutter of Sam's pulse. Weak plea hung dead on the air. "Hold on. I'll fix this. I'll fix it."
Raising the lighter high, Emil searched the darkness. No more than a single room of gutted shadows, the wind clawing from gaps and holes. Old floorboard broken, rotting in places. In one corner, he saw the gleam of blackened iron, embraced on both sides by the stone of a fireplace. He had to drag himself, the wound in his leg would not allow him to stand. "We need a fire."
There were coals in the old stove and kindling in a crate. American issue, standard military. Someone had been here, how recently it was impossible to say. But the thought hardly filtered beneath layers of silent gratitude, holding his shaking hand to a thin piece of straw and watching it catch.
His teeth chattered, breath unsteady as he blew. Coaxing the flames from embers and wishing they would consume faster. Aware, constantly, irreverently, of Sam, prone and unconscious, bleeding, in his periphery. Aware of the thinnest thread, the thinnest shred of will, that tethered him to consciousness and sanity. Sparsely avoiding the sump at the back of all reason.
That it was already too late. That this was all for nothing. That Sam was going to die.
The lighter in his hand was red hot, but he hardly registered when it burned his finger. Dropping it on simple muscle reflex. He left it where it lay, a low amber glow from the fire fighting to penetrate the shadows. Barely enough to see by.
His heart in his throat, he checked once more for Sam's thin breathing, and dug Morgan's kit from the bag. More bandages. Didn't know if he was supposed to remove the old ones first, but didn't. Wadding more on top of the sopping, blood-soaked mess already there. First Sam's leg, then his neck. His body heavy and non-responsive, even as Emil called his name.
And pale. So goddamn pale.
Blood loss was a slow way to die.
Emil scrambled to recall the basics of first aid he'd been taught, that every soldier was taught, spreading Morgan's entire kit across the floor. Too slow.
Half he did not recognise. Bottles and pill-boxes with labels in English. Letters that blurred and melted before his eyes, whose edges he could not distinguish in the dim. "I can't fucking read this shit." Desperation bubbled over his tongue, every pulse of his heart thudding through his skull. Ragged breathing loud, even against the shrill whistle of the wind. Too stupid.
Palm pressed to his forehead he scanned again and again over the useless contents. There had to be something he could do. Anything more. More than just sitting and waiting. The poisons of fear and helpless anger stirring, acidic, through his gut. "Fuck. Fuck!"
Scissors and forceps and scalpels were no use to him. Nor were antibiotics and antiseptics. Iodine amongst the few words he could recognise. He ran his fingers over foil packages, feeling for familiar contents. Then the dull, gleaming syrettes of morphine. Fairly certain that the drug would tip Sam over the edge. Kill him, rather than save him.
But would that be the right thing to do? Was he clinging to a dead man? Were all his efforts simply prolonging Sam's suffering, for his own selfish need?
His entire being recoiled from the idea. Utterly hypocritical. To fight so desperately for one life, and give the other so easily away… but the idea of playing a part in Sam's death? No. He quickly averted his eyes from the syrettes, as though it would extinguish the thought, and ran his fingers over a large, flat tin.
Plasma Dispensing Set
The same word in both English and German. But it did not look like the plasma sets he had seen. Fumbling, he snapped the seal on the tin and tipped it open. Coiled tubing, fixed with one-way valves and needles, that spilled like intestines across the floor.
He paused, feeling the convulsive expansion and contraction of his ribs. Unable to control his frantic breathing.
It was possible… Why the fuck not? He couldn't make it worse. Could he?
"Okay. Okay." Trying to still his shaking nerves, he touched Sam's chest. Hand over blood stained uniform. Brilliantly aware that he had no clue what the fuck he was doing.
Sam's dog-tags were cold. Two oblong plates. Dented. Imprinted in letters he struggled to read in the dark. Samuel A. Hayes. Followed by a long string of service numbers. Last of all, the letters AB.
AB. What did that mean? His own blood type was A. Emery had been the same. Letters clearly stamped on his tags in the same place.
What would happen if he got it wrong? It would not be good, he knew that. But he could see it. Death. The hovering shadow over Sam's head. Black wings, the darkness pooling in the sockets of his eyes, the space between his lax lips.
Do it. There were no other options. Sam was dead if he didn't. There were no other options. Fucking do it!
Emil crumpled an empty drip-bag in his fist. The kit clearly missing some vital components. He took the end of rubber tubing intended for the bag and cut it, fitting a needle in its place. Hardly able to see. Peering at his shaking arm in the dark and holding the needle in a shaking hand. Pain was nothing, indistinguishable from the background noise of agony. Watching his flesh depress beneath the needle point, finding that blood did not flow as he expected. Was he even doing it correctly?
Something sinister flooded his insides. Something like hysteria, the terrible need to laugh.
Focus. He counted. Backward from ten. And tried again.
It seemed he hit vein. Must have. Blood that looked black in the darkness filling the tube. He watched it run. Past the valve junction, to the second sharp point, where it began to drip. Then flow.
In afterthought, he struggled for tape to hold the needle to his arm. The sticky strip barely clinging to the filth of his flesh. Not hygienic. Not at all. They would probably die of an infection anyway.
Fighting to control the convulsions of his breath, Emil leaned over Sam in the dark. He struggled to roll his sleeve. Fresh blood, his own blood, pooling on the rotten wood.
This, he needed to do right. The first time. Needed to hit a vein. Properly. If he fucked this up….
His swallow was dry. Tasted like sickness. Leaning so close to Sam's skin. Dark. Too dark, his head spinning. He touched the point of the needle, gently, and traced it.
The quiet cried. Wind. His own breath. The pulse of his heart through his skull. There was nothing more he could do, nothing but wait. The aftermath of so much action, the distraction of it, abandoning his last tether to leave him utterly bereft. It took the final, tenuous fetters of strength to move just a little, propping himself against the wall. Unable to support the weight of his head, it lolled downward. Sore, stinging eyes settling on Sam's still face. Shrouded in shadow and night.
None of it had been enough. He knew. None of it, enough.
What purpose did it all serve?
Where was the reason in it? Why had he fought so hard to wind up here?
Not hard enough.
Why was a good man, a truly good man like Sam, punished so severely? He did not deserve this living nightmare. It all seemed so utterly senseless. No God in it. No reason. Just man and the insufferable insanity of human nature.
Emil's eyes drifted closed, sealing the faint ember glow behind his eyelids. Replaced by lurching images of violence. His own violence. His own incredible, heinous actions. Blood and nightmares. Thumbs sunk into the sockets of human eyes. Like something from the blackest scripture. Hell. Cruelty. The vast pit of darkness no longer a thing of his imagining. He had fallen, swallowed its seeping mass, allowed it to fill his lungs and spill from his tongue.
In all his life, he had never been so utterly alone. Bereft for once of even empty prayer. Those hollow peals through his memory. Mercy. The one and only reason he could find was lain, dying, on the floor by his feet.
It was only on will that he forced his eyes open. Knew he could not go to sleep. Could not leave Sam like this… Knew from the pulsing through his head that he might not wake from it himself.
Would that be a bad thing?
Just to drift, let oblivion take him...
Only for Sam to wake, and find his cold corpse propped beside him… Only for Sam to take his final breath, unwitnessed, and Emil to rouse beside a corpse instead.
A shudder shook him. Reaching pale, unsteady hands to touch Sam's face. To trace the line of his soft lips and feel the faint tremor of breath against them. So thin. Like Morgan's had been, in those entombed moments before his last. Shadows. Feather light. The drawing of night.
He needed to see the last one. When it came… and when it did not. He needed to stay awake. Just for that… The simple thought of it so desperately cold, coiling inside his skin like liquid mercury.
Sam. Es tut mir leid. "I'm Sorry…" Mumbled. Nothing to offer but apologies. "The next place is better than this." If it was real. If heaven, and God were even such a thing.
Fumbling, useless, he undid Sam's helmet. Cast it aside to roll across the floor.
Sam looked better without it. He wasn't designed to be a soldier. Wasn't meant for this hell. His heart too big. Too kind. Full of compassion. Hair stiff beneath Emil's fingers. Softly pushing it back from Sam's face. Lungs full of water, breath choked on rain. Sheets of it, that washed through him.
Emil was soaked once more. Bleeding. His head rested on the shoulder of an American soldier. Death. Knocking at the door. This was the man that had saved him. More than once. These were the lips he had kissed… the ones that called him beautiful and meant it. And those blue eyes that tried so hard to save his soul…
His hands shook. He had no strength to stop them. Trembling against Sam's cheek.
"Sam." When it was over… When that last fragile gasp was done, and his heart did not echo another drum… He would go too.
If he was lucky, he'd close his eyes and never open them again.
If he was not… Morgan's morphine could work…
If it did not.
Emil's body tipped. Jerking muscles only just catching his fall. Fumbling. Touching Sam's face again. Please. Those fragile breaths like nothing he'd ever known. Earthquake. Shaking. Dislodging something from his chest that threatened to become a sob. Rolling neck, his head hitting the wall. "Sam."
Now that you are here, have no fear. This is not the end! Massive thanks to my dear friends for reading this over. You have them to thank for the significant decrease in dum-dum typos.
I really enjoyed writing this chapter. Perhaps because these are scenes that have been on my mind since the very beginning. Feels so good to finally vomit them into existence.
As always, I love to know your thoughts. I imagine some of you might hate me right about now. But I'll make it worth your while. Promise! They're over the worst of it. I hope I haven't traumatised you too much! Just enough. Heh.