The colonel turns left into a straighter, shorter trench and at the end of that, right into another, built in short, zigzag sections like the first.
"Front line," says the sergeant, under his breath.
After a few yards, the colonel's beam picks out a rusted ladder slung against the trench wall. He stops before it, placing his boot on the bottom rung, pressing once, twice, testing its strength.
"Sir?" It is the sergeant speaking.
"What's that?" The colonel turns his head.
The sergeant clears his throat. "Do we need to go up that way, sir?"
The private watches as the colonel swallows, his Adam's apple moving slowly up and down. "Have you got a better idea?"
The sergeant seems to have nothing to say to that.
The colonel turns, scaling the ladder in a few swift jerks.
"Fuck's sake," mutters the sergeant. Still, he doesn't move. Standing behind him, the private is itching to climb. Even though he knows that on the other side there will only be more of the same blasted country, part of him wonders if there may be something else something close to the thing he came out here for: that vague, brave wonderful thing he has not dared to speak of, even to himself. But he cannot move until the sergeant does, and the sergeant is frozen to the spot.
The colonel's boots appear at the height of their heads; light is flung into their faces. "What's the holdup? Get yourselves over here. Now." He speaks like a machine gun, spitting out his words.
"Yes sir." The sergeant closes his eyes, looking almost as though he may be saying a prayer, then turns and climbs the ladder. The private follows him, blood tumbling in his ears. Once over, they stand, gathering their breath, their beams sweeping wide across the scene before them: great rusting coils of wire, twenty, thirty feet wide, like the crazed skeleton of some ancient serpent, stretching away in both directions as far as the eye can see.
"Bloody hell," says the sergeant. Then, a little louder, "How're we going to get through that?"
The colonel produces a pair of wire cutters from his pocket. "Here."
The sergeant takes them, weighing them in his hand. He knows wire, has cut it often. Apron wiring. Laid enough of it, too. They used to leave gaps, when they had time to do it right gaps that wouldn't be seen by the other side. But there are no gaps here. The wire is tangled and crushed and bent in on itself. Ruined. Like every bloody thing else. "Right." He hands his shovel to the private. "Make sure you light me, then." He bends and begins to cut.
The private, trying to keep his beam straight, stares at the wire. There are things caught and held within its coils, things that look to have been there for a long time. There are tattered remnants of cloth, stiff with frost, and the light catches the pale whiteness of bones, though whether human or animal it is impossible to tell. The country smells strange out here more metal than earth; he can taste it in his mouth.
On the other side of the wire, the sergeant straightens and turns, beckoning for the men to follow. He has done a good job, and they are able to pick their way easily through the narrow path he has made.
"This way." The colonel strides out across lumpy ground that is littered with tiny crosses: crosses made from white wood, or makeshift ones made from a couple of shell splinters lashed together. There are bottles, too, turned upside down and pushed into the mud, some of them still with scraps of paper visible inside. The colonel often stops beside one, kneeling and holding his light to read the inscription, but then carries on.
The private searches the man's face as he reads. Who can he be looking for?
Excerpted from Wake by Anna Hope. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Hope. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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