Ashes, Ashes

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear." - Ambrose Redmoon

He has that feeling in the pit of his stomach again.

Sometimes it's only a jitter, a flutter against his bones that tells him that this is bad, that this may be it. Today it's a hammer, pounding against him, shattering the marrow, leaving him with a painful shiver of fear clawing it's way down his backbone. He chokes it back into submission.

The air reeks of smoke and gunpowder and the metallic scent of blood. It smells of death.

Kirby is frightened, sick to his core, but he'll never admit it.

They're alone here, lying on an empty patch of grass mere feet from the wreckage of the last battle and the beginning of this one. They're all that's left of King Company, the others wounded and carried back, dead or dying. The crimson element of life still stains the ground around them like a magic circle, a gory halo outlining what might prove to be their last stand.

Beside him he can hear Caje, his voice barely above a whisper, French words flowing together in a jumble of sounds and syllables. Kirby doesn't know if it's a prayer for the dead, for the dying, or simply a meaningless string of words. He doesn't care.

There might as well be only he and Caje and the Germans left in the world for as far as he can see there's not another sign of life - no soldiers, no civilians, no animals or birds. Not even the grass, charred and withered from repeated barrage, moves.

There's a slight drizzle of rain starting, chasing away some of the smoke, giving him a faint and fuzzy view of the pillbox in front of them, beyond the tiny hill and in the center of an open field. Another hail of bullets erupt and they throw themselves as deep into the ground as they can without burying themselves alive.

His breath catches in his throat, raw and raspy. He can hear Caje breathing short pants for air beside him, the quiet struggle the only evidence of the other man's shared fear.

The machine gun pauses, as if waiting, searching for a movement of life.

He looks back at the Cajun only once, meeting hazel eyes through the smoke. There's a flicker within those eyes, a moment of doubt, of fear never expressed, a dirge for all that may be lost, that has already been lost. Kirby steadies his voice.

"On the count o' three."

It isn't a question but Caje nods, curt, as sharp an acknowledgement as always. Kirby has no right to give him orders, but there's no one here to order them, and somehow inponderably, he has become the leader.

"One."

His fingers dig into the metal of the BAR as Caje grips his gun, other hand clenching their last grenade.

"Two."

He thinks there's only a handful of Germans up there. There might be a chance, a slim hope. He squares his jaw, puts his shoulders back and prepares himself for whatever will happen next. Caje crouches like a tiger poised to spring, lean body hugging the damp hillside and he gets halfway up, ready.

"Three."

They run.