A War Transformed, our folk-horror Weird War One wargame, is out in the UK in two days and will be out in the US at the end of October. Want more content or looking for inspiration? We have one last short story written by author Frederick Silburn-Slater...
The Thing in the Wire
“It was the thing in the wire what done it, I reckon.”
No one spoke. They just looked down into the hollow.
Six men stood at the end of the old sap. Before them was a shallow, circular depression made some months before by an exploding shell. Its edges were curiously neat, as if inscribed with the point of a compass, a stark contrast to the livid wounds torn from the mud all around them.
“I said, was that thing in the wire done it, I reckon.”
A few feet shifted. A throat cleared. Aitkens blundered on, his face a mask of indignant naivety, oblivious to the mood all around. He had a knack for this kind of insistent harrying of a subject most would steer well clear of, demonstrating all the tact of a bombardment.
Despite Aitkens’ question, no one in the sap held any doubts. Every man felt the same – it must have been, what else?
“What we gonna do about it then? That… thing…”
The word hung in the air like a flare, its pale light burning into the silence. A shiver passed through the huddled group and the men shrugged deeper into their threadbare coats and tattered jerkins, searching vainly for some warmth. They all felt the same, unbidden chills at the thought of that tangled mass – blackened shreds of cloth and splintered wood – hanging there, in the wire, some 25 or 30 yards away.
None had the stomach to turn and face it, but instead looked resolutely ahead at the ravaged form in the centre of the foxhole.
“Only, if it done this, what’s ne…”
“Quiet now Aitkens, for God’s sake,” the lieutenant hissed. Clipped vowels, their edges ground to points by years at that middling sort of school much frequented by petty officers, neatly punctured Aitkens’ expansive, swaggering drawl.
But his muttered response betrayed relief. He had no real desire to finish the thought he had begun.
Ahead of them, in the hollow, were the remains of a man.
He was naked, his body bisected up to the naval where the cut split primly in two, each following its own path – acquaintances who had walked together too long and sensed their chance to diverge with some hurried excuse. The cut continued up, just below the young man’s armpits on either side, his upstretched arms neatly following its sweep. His tousled blond head, serene and expressionless amidst the visceral geometry, sat squarely between his feet as though sprouting from the ground to survey the ruin of his flesh with studied indifference. Though no uniform told of his allegiance, the ghost of a sabre cut on his cheek betrayed him as a German, a young scholar and member of some fashionable duelling society.
“Now see here.” The lieutenant straightened his back as though on the parade ground. “We simply do not know the circumstances… there are… a number of other explanations, and…”
An eerie, hollow sound.
Too loud for the settling of a beam or prop. Too decisive and singular for the noises occasionally caused by the scavengers and vermin of the trenches, careening off wildly to some secret spot with a stolen scrap clamped victoriously in their jaw.
An unnatural sound – laden with intention, full of menace.
For a moment the sap was silent. Hands instinctively felt for bludgeons and bayonets. The lieutenant groped for the revolver at his waist, knuckles draining corpse-white as he found the grip and eased the weapon a quarter of an inch from the confines of its holster.
Some time passed in silence.
A jarring sound. Short, resolute, but suggestive of more – as though it were snuffed out after just half a beat.
It was a sound each of the men in the sap had heard before, coming from out there, beyond the sand bags and duck boards. Coming from the wire.
In the distance, the hubbub of the trench could still be made out, just. As men washed, worked and darned, their garbled chatter swam in the air, muffled by the mud and wreckage of the old breastworks that marked where the trench-proper ended and the old sap began.
Aitkens felt a tightening in his gut…
“Knockers? Hobs? This old stretch is full of mines and tunnels – the place must be alive with ‘em?”
“You’ve gone soft mate, ain’t no knockers ‘ere. They’re up to the north where the fighting is. Where there’s meat to be had.”
“Oughten we bury ‘im sir? If it’s hobs done it, we don’t want ‘em coming back…”
The men busied their minds with chatter, hoping to drown out the terrible anticipation of the sound with wishful thinking.
They had been hearing it for months now, always the same. As the thing in the wire had grown, the noise had become louder, more insistent - more frequent.
When silence fell again it was deeper, as though a deafening shroud were pulled over the sap.
At last the lieutenant cleared his throat and spoke, haltingly, as though mastering himself.
“We should send back a report”
As he spoke his grip on the revolver loosened and his back straightened once more.
“I think…” he paused for a moment, “it is high time that we remove that ghastly thing as well.” He gestured expansively towards the great heap of barbed steel beyond the parapet of the trench and narrowed his eyes in its direction.
No one moved.
“Aitkens, Wadsworth, Bulger – with me. We’ll have it down in a jiffy. You two, speak to Lieutenant Bryce and have him see to it that a burying party is sent out.”
The three men chosen eyed one another, each hoping that another would have the courage to show their fear. His own disquiet forgotten, the lieutenant adopted what he felt to be an imperious, martial bearing and slipped into the high-handed manner taught to men of his class for addressing their inferiors.
“See here,” he barked peremptorily “I’ll not have the men under my command so unmanned by…”
This time fear was subsumed by rage – the lieutenant hated to be interrupted. This rudeness, following so many months of broken nights and sleepless, maddening dawns would not go by unpunished.
He turned brusquely on his heels and snapped forward at a half run: adopting only after a step or two, an exaggerated, jolting march. Behind him Aitkens, Wadsworth, Bulger followed on, their own pace rather less hurried.
In a few, short moments there were upon it.
The thing in the wire had begun as a clump of grasping vines, reaching up onto the mass of tangled steel. Here, where the fighting was less fierce, the growth was more measured. The wild, unrestricted explosions of vegetation – huge thickets of brambles, creeping undergrowth bursting with wildflowers, even forests springing up overnight – these things were only seen where the combat was at its most vicious. Though the innumerable lank stalks and damp moss threatened to eventually engulf everything in this section of the trench line, the churned, gulping mud was still the most prominent feature of the battlefield.
Here though, at the wire, the vines grew alarmingly fast. Tendrils of dank, sickly green groped outwards in search of the detritus of war. Scraps of uniform and shards of equipment were snatched and pulled into the wire, carelessly braided through with the spikes.
As it had grown, it had taken on form. Crude, lumpen: a rough, artless imitation of a man, suspended upside down – caught in the barbs.
This damp, sagging lump was almost comical. The resemblance to a man was passing, but unremarkable, some strange trick of the mind, finding a reflection of itself in an amorphous twist of steel and vine. Like some parlour jape or schoolboy game, the men had pointed to it – imagined scenes of farce and misfortune, acted them out with exaggerated staggers and gurning faces.
Then the noise had started.
Seldom at first, easily written off. Some shell-blown shard, caught in the breeze and marking the eddies of the wind.
But it came again and again: constant, its pitch unwavering, its timbre unchanged from hour to unbearable hour. Like a needle on a record, caught in a groove.
The same noise – over and over and over and over. From just over there. From the wire.
Soon there were new terrors. The flayed bodies of rats, not strewn about as though savaged by some animal but laid, artfully – displayed with a lacemaker’s care: entrails plucked out and displayed with a delicate flourish.
More and more each night, accompanied always by that sound.
CLACK CLACK CLACK
But the boy in the hollow was something new: an escalation. It could not go unanswered.
Here, so close to it, the burning heat of the lieutenant’s anger turned to a cold churn, grasping at his insides.
What had seemed to have vaguely human shape from 30 yards away now felt consummate – a mockery made with stunning artifice. There before them was the clear form of a man, limbs and muscles formed from taut bundles of barbed wire, as though squeezed into form by some impervious hand. The green threads of the vines had gone to rot, and a reeking sludge of black corruption coated the prickles and filled the cavities. It oozed between the joints and contours of the man-shape in thick, stinking rivulets; like arteries laid bare by a flensing knife.
About the shoulders was a foetid mantle, strips of decaying cloth that fell in cascades over a head that flopped, listless and hideously elongated, from the bottom thread of the wire. It hung densely, swaying almost imperceptibly in the breeze, revealing a glimpse of ivory – a bleached horse’s skull, picked clean, polished to lurid brilliance by vermin and the merciless sun.
The lieutenant rubbed his chin and edged nervously towards it, his pace stick brandished in front of him. The silvered pommel pushed aside the ribbon-curtain of putrid cloth, revealing a huge and empty dish – the eye socket gazed unflinching at the lieutenant, who shrank back and began to compose himself.
“The poor beast must have become tangled up in here – it’s crushed all the wire up where it’s thrashed about.”
He felt more composed as he spoke. His theory of the unfortunate horse, improbable though it was, was a comfort to the lieutenant. The men too seemed greatly heartened by the fiction. In a moment, the atmosphere was almost relaxed. Each man had seized upon the theory and now believed it truly, with the mad faith of the desperate. The ghastly scenes of the night, revealed each morning by the pale light of dawn, were put aside – written off. It must have been hobs after all, the thing in the wire was just the remains of some poor horse. How foolish they had all been.
Wadsworth, a carter once, was even moved to pity.
They turned inwards, their backs to the dark form, to formulate a plan to free the remains of the poor brute.
Each man froze. Four faces contorted in an instant to masks of pure terror.
The lieutenant turned, his heart drumming – deafening, it pulsed in his ears like the staccato ring of a machine gun.
The great head was raising. The wire muscles creaked rustily as they strained against the huge bulk of that hideous skull. The great teeth clashed together, a dense sound – prim and sharp. It hung in the air, resonant and hideous, as the thing in the wire raised its head once more.
A War Transformed is out in the UK in two days and is out 31st October in the US!
Buy yours and forge your own stories on the Doggerland front today...