Many things terrified Oscar. Thunder, mice and the prospect of his brother succumbing to his ever-present sickness were chief among them. But in all honesty he could never remember being so full of fear as he was at this moment. Within the hour he could be dead, his body left rotting on the battlefield like some discarded puppet.
Since the dread had drained his legs of all strength, he had propped himself against some sandbags. Elsewhere in the camp his fellow soldiers stood about, checking their weapons and chatting in low tones. The order to move out was imminent and restlessness hung in the air like a vapour. Soon they would be crawling through the meadows before them, hunting for the enemy. And Oscar would be among them for his first and, most likely, last battle. The thought was enough to render him near senseless with terror.
"You're doing this for him. Fighting for Em."
He traced the outline of the cross-shaped scar on his forehead, bringing the image of his brother to the front of his mind. He thought of him lying sick in bed, where he had left him. Remembered how he'd gripped his hand weakly when he had said goodbye to him.
"Em needs me. I have to fight. Have to protect him."
It was no use. Sure he had a reason to fight, but even that couldn't stop the fear. Couldn't stave off the lightness in his head, the constant fullness of his bladder or the bile rising in the back of his throat.
"I can't fight. I'm no soldier. I'm just a simple country-boy. I'll be killed out there," Sudden tears rose in his eyes. "I'm going to die today."
He thrust his face into his hands, overcome with despair at his seemingly inevitable fate. It was over. There was no way he was capable of fighting in a battle. He was throwing his life away by even trying. The first time he was in an enemy's cross-hairs he would be gunned down like a hunted rabbit. At the day's end he would be nothing more than a chiselled name on a war memorial, all his life's dreams cruelly stolen. And who would look after Emile then?
"Chin up young man!"
The friendly voice startled him. He had been so preoccupied with his own fearful musings that he hadn't noticed the woman approach. She was slender and pale, with short dark hair and a small, but warm, smile. A sniper like him, he noted from the rifle she had slung over her shoulder.
She sat down next to him, resting the butt of her rifle on the ground. "It's not nice is it? The eve of the battle," She nodded at him knowingly. "Especially your first."
"No Ma'am." He didn't have any better words in him right now.
"I wish I could reassure you," she said. "But war is a nasty business, all being told."
"Yes Ma'am," he replied robotically.
"It's a harsh truth to hear," she continued. "But there are no guarantees for anyone on the battlefield. Any one of us could lose our lives out there."
"Uh-huh," Oscar murmured. His stomach suddenly tightened and he wanted to throw up. He had known full well that he could die today. But to have it stated out loud made it seem that much more real.
"But that said, I don't think you should worry unduly."
All he could do was raise his head slightly to her. He was afraid that if he opened his mouth he would be sick all over her.
"You see, you may not have realised it but you've chosen the best squad in Gallia to join."
"The best?" Oscar asked, curious despite himself.
The lady grinned and held up the four fingers of her right hand. "This squad has fought in four skirmishes together. All four were emphatic victories. And all four were won without losing a single soldier."
The fact shocked him. "No-one died?" he asked. "Not even one person?"
"Not even one," the woman confirmed, "You see our front line is very good at their job. They protect us support units well. But more to the point, Mister Gunther is a fine leader."
"That's right. He doesn't have much more battle experience than even yourself but he marries competent strategic thinking with an unrelenting respect for the lives of the men who fight for him. He is a commander worth fighting for."
"I see," Oscar mused. He'd only talked to their commander once, when he'd first signed up with the squad. At the time he had been surprised by his youth, yet somehow comforted by his approachable nature.
"So, yes," the woman was saying, "Our lives are on the line out there. But our commander would never choose a strategy that would leave a sniper at the enemy's mercy. And the team trusts him and will follow his orders to the letter."
"That's good to know," said Oscar. The woman's reassuring words had relaxed him just enough to manage a longer sentence.
"And there's one more thing you should know," she continued. She had placed a hand on his shoulder now, forcing Oscar to stare into those blue eyes of hers, which were now set and determined.
"I will be watching out for you too."
She nodded. "My number one priority is to protect my friends. That is not only my order from Commander Gunther but the code by which I live," Her grip on her shoulder tightened to emphasise her point. "I have been assigned to cover you from any enemy sniper fire in the coming skirmish. You can rest assured that I will perform that duty with every ounce of my being."
"Oh....kay," replied Oscar, daunted by the sheer resolve in the woman's words.
"I ask that you trust me with your life today. I promise you that no Imp will threaten it. So chin up!" she said, her tone now light again. "You'll be well defended so you can concentrate on shooting the helmets off Imperial heads!"
"Right!" said Oscar. He was amazed at how reassured he now felt. This battle would be undeniably dangerous but he would not be fighting it alone. Miss Stark and her troopers would be defending the camp like a solid brick wall, and Mister Potter and his trusty lance would take out any enemy tanks that had the gall to approach them. Mister Gunther would be conducting the battle to achieve quick victory and preserve the lives of his crew. This was the team of which he, Oscar Bielert, was a part. In return for the efforts of his fellows, he would do his own best to shoot the enemy down from afar.
And this woman would be watching out for him too. For some reason it was that which made him feel safest of all.
"Squad 7 work for each other. That's the way we operate. That's why we win." the lady sniper was saying. "We're going to live to see this evening, you'll see." She suddenly smiled again. "And when we do, I'll make us a nice cup of tea to celebrate our victory!"
"Yeah...sure," said Oscar, more confidently now. As the lady patted him on the shoulder and rose to leave he added. "Uh, Ma'am?"
She turned back to him. "Yes?"
He stood and bowed his head respectfully. "My name is Oscar Bielert. Would you mind telling me yours?"
"Oh! How rude of me." she said, chiding herself with a tap on the forehead. "There I was going on and on and I didn't even introduce myself."
She stood up straight, saluted, then offered her palm to him. "I'm Catherine O'Hara," she said as she shook his hand. "I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Yeah, same here," said Oscar, and found that he truly meant it.