The smell of blood was in Captain Harry Buchanan’s nostrils, and a red haze fringed his vision. Distant gunfire echoed in his ears: it seemed to come from whichever direction he turned, and he was compelled to turn again. An enemy patrol was dogging his footsteps; he could hear them occasionally, guttural German voices calling to one another as they tracked him across the wastes. In the distance, he could just make out the distant trenches, a sharply delineated horizon just a little higher than expected, where the darkness met blackness. Over it hulked the square ruin of the Eglise Saint-Joseph, its steeple long since toppled by the shelling, larger and closer to no man’s land than he remembered. Or was it the Eglise Sainte-Genevieve? These French country churches seemed to run into one another after a while, their parishes all clinging alike to some semblance of civilisation even as the savagery of War collapsed their roofs and shattered their windows into a fine, crystalline dust--threatened to undo centuries of progress and send them wailing back into the dark ages.
Unexpectedly, his bare hand fell on worn stone, a wall of some kind, and Captain Buchanan instinctively ducked down beside it. It was cold against his sweat-soaked back, and he could feel it spreading out to either side. Had he somehow made it back to the parapets? Hauling himself up, he caught a brief glimpse of the maze of waterlogged wood and sandbags, and then he tumbled down onto the other side.
Something near his navel caught on the rough stonework. He heard a snap, and then the clatter of metal somewhere off to his right. That would be the pocket watch he’d received from his men when they were demobbed, and Captain Buchanan stifled a curse. There was a reason they’d begun wearing their watches on their wrists while in the trenches, but when they were demobbed--
Harry Buchanan stopped. He ran his hand over the bare stone at his back again, caught his breath, and forced himself to think. Demobbed? Yes, he’d been demobbed--at the end of the War. The War was over. He wasn’t Captain Buchanan anymore. He hadn’t been in a while.
The red haze began to recede, and the gunfire faded into the rustle of leaves. The trenches he’d imagined were lines of low, broken stone walls. This was the ruin of an English country church, toppled by time rather than by cannon fire. Its steeple, crumbling and ghostly in the moonlight, rose up before him.
He was about to go back for his pocket watch when he heard the snap of twigs, and a whispered voice. Something was moving through the underbrush towards him, and he felt his hackles rise again. His imagination might have dressed them up as a German patrol, but there really was someone there! Abandoning the watch to whatever demons were in pursuit, Harry scurried along the base of the stone wall to the church steeple. He remembered more of what had brought him to this place now, and he knew he was a dead man if he lingered out here in the open.
As Captain Buchanan, Harry had been the British officer of a Gurkha regiment. He reminded himself that the Gurkhas feared nothing, and that he’d be a sorry example to his men if he did not pull himself together right now. If his story were meant to end here, his would not be the only blood spilled--he was damned if he was going to fall without bringing his pursuers with him.
The steeple would be a good defensive position. If he could last until daybreak, he might actually stand a chance of getting out of this god-forsaken valley.
The door at the base was locked, of course. No doubt the key had been lost for decades, if not centuries. The wall on the dark side was slightly inclined, however, and the rough stonework provided ample handholds by which one athletic ex-officer could haul himself up. Harry got to it, and a minute later, he was tumbling into the belfry, rolling to his feet, and flattening himself against the wall.
It was silent. The bells were gone, and the hole through which the bell ropes once hung had been sealed off. There was a trap door down into the base of the steeple, but this was as locked as the exterior door had been. Harry smiled to himself in satisfaction. Anyone coming for him would have to climb the side of the steeple as he had done.
Turning, Harry looked out one of the belfry windows. The village was spread out through the valley around the ruined church, twisted yews shading slate roofs, and here and there the glimmer of light in the window of some night-owl villager. The dark shape breaking the horizon was not another war-battered church but the local lordling’s manor house. A light gleamed in one window, and Harry wondered for a moment if he could be seen from there by its occupant. Surely not.
There was no one on the ground.
The metallic click of a key in a lock made Harry spin around. The trap door flung open, and a dark shape pushed itself through into the belfry. Harry snarled, crouched, and sprang. His opponent must have expected something of the sort, however: Harry collided at an angle, and he found himself spinning towards the wide, open window opposite. For one wild moment, he was poised on the edge of nothingness, his momentum driving him forwards--
And then a strong hand caught hold of him and pulled him back to safety.
Doubt crept up Harry’s spine. “I thought you were going to kill me,” he mumbled.
The voice that answered him was a soothing rumble. “Don’t be silly. You’re no use to me dead.”
Something sharp jabbed into the back of Harry’s neck, and the red haze gave way to a spinning black euphoria.