Beads of perspiration roll down his face, colouring the collar of his grey shirt dark. His hands are clenched in his lap, the knuckles white. He sits on the edge of the chair, his body stiff. His eyes are wide as he stares ahead, but he sees nothing.
Around him, sounds and colours swirl in the air. He hears voices, but cannot focus on what they are saying.
His eyes close and his head drifts to lie on his shoulders. He is so exhausted; he has not slept properly in weeks. If only they would let him sleep, for just a few minutes.
A rude shove to the shoulder and his eyes flutter open again. The face of a soldier, his company sergeant is right in front of his, so close that he can feel the man's hot breath.
"Didn't you?" the man roared, his face red and the veins in his neck throbbing. Edward's tired eyes focus on them, the blue vein beating with the regularity of a metronome, like a heartbeat. He remembers his mother, wearing her special blue dress with the white flowers, sitting at their old piano back home, playing for him and his brothers. He smiles and a feeling of warmth spreads through his cold body.
"Look at me!" the man shrieks again and Edward utters a low groan and tries to concentrate on the man in front of him. His head is throbbing and he wishes that this man would be quiet.
"You were trying to leave France weren't you? You were going home?" another man asks, in a quieter tone. He is older than the first, his face lined with the worries of war. Edward doesn't recognize him. The older man puts a hand on Edward's shoulder. It is warm and feels familiar somehow. His head drifts to his shoulder again, covering the man's hand. Edward closes his eyes and sighs in contentment.
"Coward! Deserter!" screams his company sergeant, and Edward starts and shrinks away from his rage.
"He was always like that! Always trying to avoid action! Coward! Do you know how many of your brothers died at Vimy? While you were hiding in the bloody forest? Do you know? Dirty coward! I'll kill you myself!"
"Enough Ted! Look at him! He's just a child!"
Edward's head lifts up slowly, his attention drawn to the older man who had spoken. Now he sees that he is a chaplain, the collar barely visible under his military uniform. The chaplain was holding the company sergeant around the shoulders, restraining him. There is a third man there, he sees now, a private like him.
"I'm not a child. I'm to be nineteen this year." His voice, unused in many days is cracked and scratchy.
They both look over at him, their eyes registering their surprise. This was the first time he had spoken since he was captured, days ago.
The chaplain comes over to him and sits in the chair opposite.
"Tell me what happened, son. You left two days before the Vimy Ridge attack. Why did you do that?"
Edward's eyes shifts away from the chaplain, coming to rest on his tightly clenched hands in his lap. In the silence he could hear the laboured breathing of the company sergeant.
The chaplain leans forward and lays a hand on Edward's knee. His voice when he speaks is gentle.
"Tell me son. Why did you do it?"
Edward lifts his head up and he looks straight at the chaplain. He opens his mouth to speak and at first, no sounds come forth.
"I just couldn't do it. I couldn't stand it anymore!"
There is an explosive snort from the company sergeant. The chaplain's face is sad as he takes Edward's hands in his own.
"Go on son, you must tell us everything."
Edward looks at the chaplain and at the other two men in the room. Tears gather at the corner of his eyes.
"I couldn't go on the raid and kill them all. I just couldn't! So much blood, everywhere. I couldn't stand it anymore!"
The tears come quickly now and soon his sobs ring through the room. He doesn't hear the rest of the trial, nor the outcome of it. He doesn't have to. They leave him in the chair and set off to prepare for his sentence.
He cries for hours, he has no sense of the time. He knows his fate and his future. Guilty of desertion, there is only one punishment.
He thinks of him now, the reason really that he left. A dead German soldier, probably the same age as he was. He had found him in an abandoned German trench, his body half buried in the mud. He knew he should have left him there, but he just had to see for himself.
When he had seen the soldier's face, he had felt his breath leave his body. Here was not the face of the devil, of evil with pig eyes and snout for a nose. He was just a boy, like him. This boy's hair was blond, now plastered to his head by the mud. His eyes were closed, his face peaceful as if he was just sleeping.
As he gazed at this boy, his breath smoky in the cold air, he saw something sparkling on the grey uniform on the boy's chest. With trembling fingers, he reached inside and pulled it out. It was a cross on a long, thin gold chain.
Now, alone in the dark silent room, his hand reaches up into his own shirt and touches two gold crosses, similar but not identical. One is his, and the other once belonged to that dead German soldier, his enemy.
His mind wanders to the day he left, two days after he found the boy, one week before the start of the Vimy Ridge attack. The generals were all excited about it; they had new plans, new offences never tried before. They were going to take Vimy Ridge!
He heard their plans and tried to catch their excitement, but that dead boy's face haunted his dreams every night. He wondered if that boy's mother played piano for him, if she sat by the window every night and waited for him to come home. Maybe she went to church each Sunday and begged for his life, kneeling in the pews. Perhaps he had brothers and sisters too, perhaps he played hockey and went tobogganing in the winter.
That day he had left, he had simply walked away. He had no plans; he only knew that he couldn't do this anymore.
He hears voices outside now, the chaplain speaking to the guard posted outside. He straightens himself in the chair and wipes the tears with the back of his hand.
The chaplain enters the room, his face grave. He sits near Edward and takes his hand again.
"It will be tomorrow, at dawn. I'm so sorry son."
Edward turns his head despite the pain pounding in his head and looks at him with wide, accusing eyes.
"You're a man of God", he says in a quiet, tired voice. "How could you just sit back and watch them do this? The Germans, the enemy, they are just like us!"
The chaplain looks away and lets go of his hand. He gets up and moves to the centre of the room. When he speaks again, his voice is wracked with sorrow.
"This is war, son. There is no place for God. All I can do is take care of their souls now, while they live. The generals; they cannot let you go, son. Were it another time, perhaps another place, they wouldn't need to do what they will do tomorrow. But this time, right after they've lost so much… They have to think of the others. You understand…don't you? They cannot have soldiers deserting and not being punished. I do all I can, I swear! May God forgive me and all of us!"
The chaplain holds his head in his hands and does not look up for a long time. Edward watches him and doesn't say a word. There is nothing more to say.
The chaplain stays with him all night, alternating between praying and talking. Edward is quiet and still, his eyes staring into the distance. In the middle of the night he falls asleep, his face calm and serene and a smile upon his lips.
In the morning, just before dawn, they come for him, two soldiers with the caps pulled down low over their faces.
Outside he sees that the sun is just rising, barely visible through the thick green mist. He feels the cold bite of the north wind, but he knows it wouldn't be for long. The sun is near the horizon, huge, a perfect orange circle. The mist rises from the trees, almost covering the lines of the trenches and tunnels. It is a strangely surreal scene, beautiful in a dark cruel way.
There is a wooden pole set up in the middle of a clearing of trees. The two soldiers that bring him join eight others, all quiet as if not to disturb the tranquility of the scene.
They walk him to the pole, he goes quietly and does not resist. There is no use, now. They tie his hands behind his back to the pole.
"Blindfold?" the soldier asks, holding up a black scarf. Edwards looks up, to catch a glimpse of this man's eyes, but he looks away quickly. Edward sighs and says quietly "No blindfold."
The man pins a black cap on his chest, right over his heart. His hands are gentle as he tugs on the shirt to make sure that the pin doesn't prick the target. Edward laughs softly at the irony of this, but the man does not raise his head.
They line up then, all in a row facing him. Ten men, ten rifles, one of them with blanks and the rest live rounds. He twists his head around and looks at them all, one by one, but they all avoid his eyes and look down and away.
The chaplain comes forward; his eyes grave and he mumbles the words of the last rites. He puts his hand on Edward's head and mumbles "May God forgive us" and then he leaves. He does not look back. He has done all he can do.
The ten men, the firing squad, looks at the one who gives the order, the commander standing away from the pole and the others. He has a cap in his hand and he raises his arm.
Edwards looks away from them, up into the gently swirling mist. It seems to reach out and touch him with vapourous arms; it feels warm on his face. His eyes flutter close and a smile touches his lips.
Now he feels the soft touch of a hand on his cheek. He opens his eyes and sees the young German soldier, young and healthy again, his blond hair and blue eyes glowing with a soft warm light. The boy smiles and the light from his smile rivals that of the rising sun. The German soldier steps away from him, his hand still outstretched, then stops, waiting. Edward smiles, nods his head and closes his eyes.
Ten guns fire as one, the sound crashing through the silence of the morning.
Yes. Another story about the Great War. What Can I say? I am a pacifist and I am a bit obsessed at the moment.
This is based on actual facts. Three hundred and six British/Commonwealth soldiers were executed/murdered (yes I said murdered!) by their own, for desertion and cowardice. Twenty-three were Canadian.
And again, this was not beta read. I have just finished it and posted it. Any errors are mine.