BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND A GOOD MAN
'How it must feel to be a bird
Roam lonely over sea air
How it must feel to be a bird
London, Paris under me
I'll wait on my own here'
For Island Fires and Family by Dermot Kennedy
1st September 1916, France - 02:12am
It had been a warm evening, surprisingly.
Tommy Shelby stared up at the dark sky as night had descended upon them a few hours before. He laid on the dry ground in the trenches, his body supported by his backpack that was lumpy and hard in places. He had repositioned himself a few times to get truly comfy, but the lumpy hard parts always seemed to find him.
But it didn't matter to him. As long as he was able to watch the stars twinkling above him with the cool breeze upon his face, he was fine. His stomach rumbled slightly but he ignored it, aware of the stir of soldiers around him as they tried to find some comfort. Sleep seemed to evade them all as they sought the comfort of their loved ones to keep the warm and safe for the few hours of nightfall. But they made do with what they had and that was their own arms wrapped around the abdomen.
The day had been spent digging the trenches they now lay in, and his muscles and head ached with tiredness. He heard movement a stone's throw away from him, and Arthur approached him then slowly and cautiously, head bowed to protect his height from a possible sighting from the enemy.
"Quiet night, brother," Arthur whispered, his voice deep, tired.
"Aye," was all Tommy muttered, his voice low in respect to those trying to sleep.
As Arthur settled down close to his brother, he stared up at the night sky also. As the darkness played tricks on their vision, creating shapes and images of whatever their tiredness could envision, Tommy found himself drifting off with the comfort of knowing his brother was close to him.
However, when the shattering crash of the explosions suddenly chased them in the night, they found that they had been too trusting with the stillness of the evening. The explosion roared unequivocally, smoke filling the air and the lungs of those around them, it caused shrapnel to embed itself into the skin, faces and eyes of the soldiers under his command, it also caused the ones closest to the explosion be torn apart and their body parts to rain down around them.
As Tommy was woken suddenly and stared around at the tormented scenes of his friends screaming in pain, he was numb. And just when he thought the enemy had given up, another explosion burst next to him.
"In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan…"
"… earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…" he continued, his voice pained and slow.
"You're awake," a voice said from afar, though he wasn't sure if it was due to the dullness of his hearing.
"Am I… dead?" he whispered, his voice hoarse and gravelly. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times, his vision blurry. His head pounded as he attempted to move, and when a hand placed itself upon his shoulder gently, he fell back onto the bed.
"You're not dead," the voice replied. Soft, well spoken, unknown to him. "Though, I bet you feel like you are."
"Aye," he muttered. "What… what happened?"
"They say a bomb," she replied. "We heard it from our station…"
Tommy opened his eyes then after squeezing them shut. The pounding in his head only intensified and he groaned in pain as it overwhelmed him. He allowed her to help him up, and he held onto her arm for a moment to steady himself. Dizziness hit him like a freight train. Once it cleared albeit slowly, he turned to the woman. A nurse, short, dark hair, with watchful and empathetic eyes.
And it was like he knew just by looking at her just what damage had been done.
"A few…" she began but was cut off by him.
"How many?" His stare only intensified on her, and when his voice filled the air around them next and she understood just how much he needed to know. "Please…"
"Over one hundred were killed, and two hundred were injured," she answered honestly. He released her arm then and attempted to stand from his bed, but she was quick to stop him. "Sir, you cannot," she pleaded with him.
"They're my men," he said curtly. "I have a brother… is he… is he one of them?"
"I can find out for you, but I'm afraid I can't let you roam around with your injuries," she pleaded, her voice firm but shaken.
And it was at that moment that he looked down and saw the true extent of his injuries. Multiple open wounds to his body from shrapnel that scattered across his body and face; his shoulder had been dislocated from the force of the explosion that had wiped him off his feet but had been realigned and bandaged; an injured eye from a piece of shrapnel flying into it.
He faltered then, and he allowed her to move him back to the bed. She knelt in front of him and offered him a small reassuring smile.
"The injuries I've seen today have been the worst I've seen in a long time…" she whispered honestly, and he could tell by her contorted and pained face that she wasn't sure why she was opening up to a stranger in such a way. He could tell that part of her was terrified. "Men that I spoke to just a few days ago were brought in dead, and I'm scared because this… this is everything I'm trained for, but I'm absolutely petrified…"
She wiped her tears before they had a chance to roll down her cheeks and she stood up after a deep breath. She spoke again after a small moment to compose herself. "I can try and find your brother for you, but I must prepare you for the worst…"
Tommy nodded after a moment, his expression pained. "His name is Shelby. Arthur Shelby," he said carefully. She nodded and moved away but he caught her arm carefully. Once she turned to him again. "What's your name?"
"Rose…" she whispered.
"Thank you, Rose," he ushered before she nodded tearfully and moved away to the records of the men that had come through. He looked around at the men in the beds with injuries that varied much like his own, and he saw that some had been left with devastating injuries unlike his own. And he thought in that moment whether he was lucky or unlucky. Good men who fought alongside him were facing the rest of their lives with the loss of their limbs, with blindness and deafness, and some were never returning to their loved ones.
It was a while before Rose returned with a document in her hand. She moved towards him instantly and spoke quietly.
"We've only had one Arthur in this tent and it's not your brother," she explained then showed him the document. He blinked a few times before his vision could truly comprehend the words scrawled upon the paper. "Which means that he's most likely in the minor injuries tent or he was unscathed."
It took Tommy a moment to digest the information she had given to him, but it was clear that Arthur was most likely alive, and that for him was enough.
Arthur found him later that day.
His brother bounded in like a puppy reuniting with its owner after months of separation, and Tommy had to keep in a groan of pain from erupting from him as his brother wrapped his arms tightly around him. Arthur held Tommy's face in his hands for a moment as he stared at the cosmetic injuries upon his brother's face and shook his head slowly as he, himself, remembered the course of events.
"I thought ya were dead, Tommy," Arthur muttered.
"Charmin'," Tommy retorted with a smirk, his breathing staggered from the tight hold from his older brother.
"Ya jumped in front of me and I thought, 'this is it, this is the end'," Arthur explained. "And then ya wouldn't move when I tried to wake ya. And I carried ya all the way here for help…"
"Thanks, brother…" Tommy whispered, his gaze intense upon his brother. "We lost a lot of our men."
Tommy's voice faltered then and Arthur bowed his head in respect. He had seen the injuries to those of his friends and he had worried about the injuries his brother had.
"We're Shelby's," Arthur began, his voice strong but quiet. "We don't die easily…"
The nightmares began soon after, and Tommy found himself jolting awake just as the memory of the explosion would clang into his dreams. He would hear the cries of dying men all around him, and he would find that he, too, would be lying there covered in blood holding his guts close to his body like he was holding a newborn baby.
He would see the fear in his own eyes and then he would hear himself scream in agony as he looked around at the field of his dead family, and then he would feel the comforting hand he had felt before upon his shoulder. Rose would be there in an instant to reassure him, though it felt much longer for him.
He would sit in the candlelight and wait for his heart to stop pounding against his chest violently. Rose would be attending to the other injured soldiers, but would keep a watchful gaze upon Tommy as he battled with the thin veil of reality and dreams.
She would return to his side then and hand him a cup of water which he would gulp down quickly. And she would remain close to him as he fought with the overwhelming panic that clawed at him.
"I feel different," Tommy said one night.
Rose had been attending to the soldier beside him when his voice had filled the quiet tent around them. She turned to him and waited for him to continue. "How so?"
"I feel numb," Tommy said quietly. "I don't feel anything anymore."
Rose was quiet for a moment before she nodded. "I feel the same. Probably not to the same extent, of course… but it has changed how I am as a person…"
"Everything just seems bleak," Tommy said confiding in her. "As though I've died already."
Rose sat on the edge of Tommy's bed and played with the ring upon her finger. "The war… it will change everyone like that," Rose whispered, the flicker of the candlelight dancing across her face. "May we all be lucky and die twice."
And Tommy couldn't help but falter at that for it was true.
Author's Note: Just a quick little prologue to truly start the story. I'm so excited for this. Let me know what you think!