Notes: This (short) story is respectfully dedicated to all those who have dutifully and heroically given their lives for the insane necessity of war. It was inspired by a recent viewing of Oh, What a Lovely War
, a poignant and extremely affecting portrayal of the madness that was World War One.
Disclaimers: The Slayer and her Watcher are Joss Whedon’s creation, not mine. Richard Attenborough directed Oh, What a Lovely War
. This story is non-profit and is intended solely as entertainment. No copyright infringement is intended.
From the diaries of Captain Edward Giles: The Western Front - January, 1915.
The trenches are quiet tonight. Once again there is frost in the air and a light dusting of snow lies on the ground. The men huddle silently under their capes and within their greatcoats; their heads are down and their thoughts are a long way away from this ugly, filthy conflict. What few sounds there are barely break the weight of silence; the soft murmur of acknowledgement as a new man takes over on watch, the quiet shuffle of mud-caked boots as men move to generate a little circulation, a little warmth – and the distant whisper of disturbed air, the shivering whomp of a shell falling further down the lines. The German guns are hunting the 15th Battalion, but their aim is fitful and it is clear their hearts are not in the attack. Who can blame them? It is a bitter night, and the cold creeps into men’s bones – into their very souls – freezing the will and robbing warmth from both memories and dreams.
Annetta is asleep, curled into the security of my side like a kitten, sharing what little heat I can give her, her body engulfed by the coat that cradles us both. She is such a little thing, no more than a gamin - plucked from the backstreets of a ruined town, her parents killed in the shelling and her life thereafter a desperate tale of scavenged food and hand to mouth living. She was so grateful for my discovery of her, and continues to be so; smiling with disingenuous gratitude for those few scraps of comfort I can offer.
There were ribald words among the company when I first brought her into the trenches. The men joked at my choice of companion, even as their hearts were cheered by her innocence and smiles. I knew what they whispered behind my back, knew what they thought, what they envied - but I ignored them, knowing the truth and knowing what little time I had to prepare her.
They do not laugh at us any longer.
Death stalks these trenches every day – a cold, hard death, dealt out in ripped flesh, marked by the scream of shot and hung out on barbed wire like meat on a butcher’s hook. Soldiers know and understand that kind of death. They hate it and they live with it; their words for it are angry and defiant. Last night another kind of death came to stalk among us. A cold death, old and evil and hungry, spawned in the blood of the battlefield and feasting on the dying out there in no-man’s land. Fear followed it, a shivering, paralysing fear. Soldiers that had laughed at battle cowered in terror as the shadows of ancient predators walked among them.
They had hunted these trenches before, feasting on the largess of war, the spill of man’s hate against man. They thought they had nothing to fear,
But last night Annetta and I were waiting for them.
She was magnificent. A dancer among the shadows, filled with fire and fury. She fell among them the way a cat might fall among pigeons, striking here and there, wounding and disabling so they could not flee, could not escape – and I followed with the kiss of their release, the final touch of dissolution. The battle did not last long. When it was done, she gave herself a little shake and ran back to me, a warm smile on her face. She is so beautiful when she fights. Primeval. Powerful. Glowing with the light of her gifts, empowered by the strength and freedom they give her.
Today, the men have treated her differently. They have gifted her with scarves and gloves and cups of scalding hot tea. They have spoken her name with reverence. They tip their helmets as they pass, offering respect; they consider her – and myself – with awe and wonder.They know now that theirs is not the only war which needs to be fought.
She has brought them, not light, but hope – and I see it in their silences, in the distance of their eyes and the prayers that tumble, softly, from their lips.
I know her time – our time – is short. Tomorrow we may all die, taken by the offensive, sacrificed to the insanity of human folly. But tonight – tonight in the silence - I understand the true gift that the Slayer brings to the world. It is not life, although her presence somehow makes that more bearable. Nor is it protection, for what protection can there be against the madness that has infected the world?
Death is her gift.
The death of fear. The death of doubt. The death of despair.
The day I found Annetta, I found true purpose, and I will serve it, and her, for what little time may remain. The men that go over the top tomorrow, the day after - the next day and the next – will go with hope in their hearts and light in their eyes. They have seen the darkness that lurks in the shadows. They have seen the Angel of Mons – not in heavenly vision over the trenches, but here, in the dark and the dirt, dancing among them, defying the foulness that has swallowed us all, bringing meaning to a meaningless world.
On a soulless battlefield, in a heartless war, she is the truth we fight for now.
God keep us all. They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) For the Fallen