‘Why are we even here?’ Thomas asked, testily. ‘If we’d stuck to the roads-’
‘We were lost on the roads,’ Lambert said, spitting his cigarette into the snow, where it hissed out. ‘We’d have been wandering for hours before we found anybody, or a town, or anything.’
Thomas sniffed and went back to his boogie Santa, which was static in his hands.
‘What does that thing even play?’ asked Lambert.
‘Dunno. I didn’t check the packaging.’
‘That’s typical. I’m going for food and water, and you’re going for crappy hood ornaments.’
‘It’s not really a hood ornament unless it’s in a car. Which, y’know, we don’t have,’ said Thomas, sharply. ‘Since you insisted we leave it in the middle of nowhere.’
‘You know we didn’t have the gas to make it to town. We’d have run out.’
‘But we’re still lost. Now we’re just colder.’ Thomas fiddled with his red-headed screwdriver. ‘You know, maybe it’s the weed talking, but you really need to look at this in perspective. It’s winter. They’ll freeze. They’ll get buried under the snow. They’ll get frostbite and fall to pieces. We just need a proper cold snap and they won’t make it through to spring. You don’t need to be this cautious all the time.’ He gave the Santa a smack with the heel of his hand. ‘At least not the kind of cautious that has us trekking through the countryside past midnight.’
Lambert grunted, and lit another cigarette.
‘Oh, okay, I’m getting the New Wave treatment, now. Great. Whatever.’ Thomas breathed on his hands. ‘All I’m saying is we’d have been a whole lot safer in the car. We might even have made it to Amiens by now. The fuel could have lasted.’
Lambert didn’t respond. His temper was rising.
‘Lam, it’s Christmas Eve.’ Thomas’ tone had become a whine. ‘I want to be merry, I want to eat turkey, I want to build a snowman. Hell, I’d put up with carollers if they-’
‘Shut up, Thomas!’
Thomas’ rambling died in his throat, and he looked at Lambert like a chastised dog. At once, Lambert regretted his outburst. The kid was just speaking his mind because he found that easier than staying silent. Lambert wondered if he should turn back, apologise or try to reconcile.
Instead, he said, ‘I hate carollers,’ and carried on walking.
It was stingingly cold. Each step filled Lambert’s shoes with snow. It was days old, undefiled by footprints, but the bitter breeze was still strong.
Thomas cleared his throat. ‘Probably grenades and stuff all around here. Buried mines.’
‘What? What are you talking about?’ Lambert was lifted out of his reverie.
‘It’s a poppy field, man. There’re all sorts. I guess most of it’s safe enough though, right, I mean…?’
‘And then you’ve got the ammunition, shells and spent rounds. We’re standing on an archaeologists wet dream right here.’
Lambert spun, grabbed Thomas by the shoulders and shook him fiercely. ‘Why the hell didn’t you think to mention we were walking on a battlefield, you idiot!’
The look of shock on Thomas’ face was almost laughably indignant. ‘Woah, woah, I didn’t realise ‘till I found this piece of old…’ He held up a length of mud-stained metal tubing. ‘…minesweeper? Rifle? Whatever, let go of me, dude!’
Lambert released him roughly. ‘Stupid stoner bastard.’ He paced back and forth. ‘You realise what this means, right?’ he said, his voice an octave too high. ‘Where we are?’
Thomas’ frown slowly became a horrified grimace. ‘Oh, God,’ he mumbled. ‘Oh-’
There was a low groan from off in the dark. Lambert wheeled around, his eyes straining for purchase.
Shapes were appearing in the distance, taking form in the night, pulling themselves up from beneath the snow, stumbling forward. Some were short limbs, dragging themselves along through the dirt or shuffling unbalanced, closer and closer.
Lambert cursed, and ushered Thomas behind him. The shapes were becoming corporeal, and Lambert made out features in the moonlight; pudding-basin helmets, uniforms near-unrecognisable from a century of patient decay. A few were little more than skeletons, scraps of flesh hanging loosely from their corrupted bones. There were dozens, row upon row encircling them, drawing in, reaching out with cold, dead hands.
There was nothing, no way out, nothing to fight with. Then Lambert remembered. Grabbing the boogie Santa from Thomas’ hands, he drew back his arm and desperately hurled it at the closest advancing figure. The toy struck between the eyes and fell to the ground, the dead man barely registering the impact. Weapon-less, hopeless, Lambert shut his eyes, and waited.
Then, a sound. A tinny, lyrical noise. The Santa was playing its song.
Silent night, holy night…
The shuffling seemed to falter, the dead slowing their pace.
All is calm…
‘…all is bright,’ Thomas finished, shakily. Lambert looked around at him and Thomas frantically nodded at him to do the same.
‘Round yon virgin mother and child,’ they chimed in chorus. The soldiers halted proper now, began to twitch their heads about, distracted.
‘Holy infant so tender and mild.’
The dead began to lie down, sitting at first, then collapsing onto their backs, as if the will to fight had left them.
‘Sleep in heavenly peace! Sleep in heavenly peace!’
As the last of the moans faded and the bodies became still on the ground, the Santa scratchily finished its rendition, accompanied by the dry voices of Lambert and Thomas.
Lambert exhaled. He didn’t realise he had been holding his breath. Thomas scrambled forward and scooped up the Santa, wrapping it protectively in the folds of his hoodie.
‘We’re going to go now,’ Lambert muttered, quietly. The corpses were quite still, as if slumbering, dotted all around them, like angels. ‘Watch where you step.’
Silently, Thomas stepped among the bodies, moving away into the darkness. Lambert followed, and the dead watched him go, unsettled, as if a memory had stirred within their old minds, then crumbled into so much dust.
Copyright 2013 Dominic Daley
Dominic Daley writes things from Buckinghamshire in the U.K. He has been writing on-off for a few years and has had work published in his local newspaper, The Buckingham and Winslow Advertiser, and on the Twitter fiction publication, trapeze magazine.