CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: LURK (1/4)

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The first half of the train journey north seemed much quicker than its twenty-four hours

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The first half of the train journey north seemed much quicker than its twenty-four hours. Sol and the rest of the band, most of whom were Puerto Rican since the horn section had been placed in its own carriage, were in high spirits. They had only been in Aix for a month, but in that short time they had become celebrities there and they were given a glorious send-off. The streets had been filled with people coming to say goodbye—young wives with their weeping children, but no young fathers, Sol had noticed.

And now they were on their way to rejoin their friends—not in the ditches of labour, but at the front line. They had heard many stories from the soldiers they'd entertained in Aix, stories of courage and adventure, and it had stirred in them the desire to earn stories of their own. A little over halfway through their journey, however, their excitement began to wane.

They started to pass trains filled with soldiers from the front, only these soldiers were not like the men they'd entertained and shared stories with in Aix. These men were disfigured and deformed. While the men in Aix had sung, these groaned, grieving for their missing limbs and absent friends who had not been so fortunate as themselves.

The next sign that they were getting closer to the action came with the changing of the landscape. Gone were the pleasant French towns and the fertile land scattered in between. The fields were suddenly bare, their crops replaced with barbed wire. Trees stood like burnt matches, reduced to blackened stumps, and a little further along, walls leaned like gravestones over the remnants of their former bodies, waiting for one last shell to finish them off.

"Is this front line?" Cef asked Sol, confused.

Sol shook his head. "A few years ago. Not any more. We still got a few miles to go yet."

They did, but not before seeing something which stole what little joy still remained in their hearts. They had come within sight of a meadow, only this one was anything but bare. Tens of thousands of white crosses stood in tidy formation, some carrying the French flag, others marked as German.

Sol's breath caught in his throat. He'd heard about the Battle of the Marne and the enormous numbers of lives that had been lost, but it had been hard to comprehend. Now, seeing the endless rows of crosses stretching beyond the limits of his sight, the cost of war and an understanding of what they would soon be facing quickly began to sink in.

The solemn silence within the train was broken by singing from the top of the carriage. It was Noble Sissle, Sol realised, the band's singer, reciting a song in French.

"Agenouillée de chagrin, je vous vois là-bas,

mères au cœur brisé de France.

Ne croyez pas que votre prière a été vaine,

mères au cœur brisé de France.

Offrant patiemment votre prière,

mères au cœur brisé de France.

Tout ce qui était à vous sera à nouveau à vous,

mères au cœur brisé de France."

Under Sissle's gentle voice, the low rumble of artillery stirred in the distance.

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