'Don’t forget your blade, boy.'
N'buli reached for his coupe-coupe, but already knew he had left it in his hole. He also knew the sergeant would punish him for his stupidity and he readied himself for the inevitable slap.
When it didn’t come, N'buli saw the sergeant was holding out his own coupe-coupe. 'Here. You’ll need it more than me. I can always get one from the field as we cross it.'
N'buli took the blade, slung it across his back and wondered what the hell was going on. He had enlisted in the Senegalese army soon after he turned 17 – or thereabouts - and every single day since then, the sergeant had told him to hold on to his blade. No matter where he was, even when he went to relieve himself, the sergeant made sure every man under his command has his blade.
The rifle could break or jam, and then battles were decided with hand-to-hand combat, and the man with the longest blade had the best chance. N'buli was a boy soldier, but even he knew you could do a lot better with that if you had a coupe-coupe in your hand.
N'buli knew the value of that well enough, but he didn't understand what the sergeant was doing. The man had yelled at N'buli every time he had done something remotely wrong, and it did not take N'buli long to work out the rules. Do whatever the sergeant told him to do and everything would be all right. He would still yell at you every single second of every single day, but he was actually easy enough to please.
There was something different about the sergeant today. Something about the way he walked among the men. He was talking quietly, rather than yelling loudly. He was offering his first words of real support to the men he had spent the last six months with in training.
And he had made them into men. Not one of the soldiers in N'buli’s platoon had seen his 21st birthday and a few had probably come in underage, but the sergeant had beat them down and built them back up again and they were ready. Ready to take the fight to the enemy. Ready to kill.
It was June 1915 and N'buli was somewhere in France, ready to go over the top and face the German guns.
N'buli had no quarrel with the Germans and wasn’t even sure he was actually Senegalese. His family had roamed around the land a lot and he had never even been aware of the concept of a country or patriotism.
But when the army recruitment bandwagon came along, N'buli was smitten with visions of travel and adventure and more endless horizons, and he ran away from home to sign up.
His life since then had been a succession of grey training camps and cold barracks, but N'buli held on to that dream of green fields, far from home. Even if all the fields he had seen had been brown and dark and covered with death, he held hope for a better day.
'Stand fast, boys!' yelled the sergeant, who was now standing on N'buli’s right. He slapped his hand down on N'buli's shoulder.
Oh no, thought N'buli. He thought he would have more time, but he had run out.
'Keep low, keep moving forward and don’t stop for anything,' said the sergeant in a low growl. 'No matter what, don’t stop, keep going.'
He looked further down the line as a shrill whistle sounded somewhere. 'Right! Here we go!'
He yelled incoherently, pushed himself forward off Nbuli's shoulder and leapt up the ladder leading out of the trench to no man's land. N'buli was right behind him, but had to stop when the sergeant suddenly slumped back on top of him. N'buli was dimly aware of a wet, cracking noise, but didn’t realise the sergeant didn’t have a face any more until he had fallen back into the trench.
N'buli didn’t understand.
He saw others fall backwards into the trench beside him, with similar holes torn into their body. N'buli realised that he was one of the last to make it out of the trench and jumped forward, desperate not to be left behind.
It wasn’t until he got over the edge of the trench that the noise hit him. The high, shrill whine of bullets flying through the air, the harsh chatter of rifle fire and the dull thump of explosions. There were a pile of dead bodies already fallen, friends that N'buli had lived and laughed with for months, dead two steps into no man’s land.
'Keep moving, don’t stop,' said N'buli, stumbling to his feet and following the others across the wasteland.
There were still dozens of his own soldiers on every side of him, but they were rapidly falling. Those who stopped to help their wounded comrades took their own hits and fell.
'Keep moving,' screamed N'buli as a bullet tore at his sleeve, leaving him unharmed. There were only a few still moving forward. They screamed and cursed as they stumbled across the wasteland.
And then they fell and N'buli was running alone. He tried to fire his rifle but the gun jammed and he tossed it aside as he raced forward around a shell-hole. He almost made it to the opposite wire and was reaching for his coupe-coupe when the first bullet hit him, taking him low on the right hip and spinning him around.
N'buli felt sick and had to stop. He was looking down at the hole in his side when three more bullets crashed into his back and he fell forward into the mud.
It was rat for breakfast again, but Valentina didn’t mind rat. It was meat, after all, and better than nothing. Certainly better than the insects that her group had been reduced to eating last month.
She covered her mouth and tried to stop her warm breath from escaping. It wasn’t just the visibly vanishing body heat in the sub-zero conditions that bothered her, it was the concern that some enemy shooter would pin point her position.
She risked a glance outside into the dull Leningrad morning. The sun was about to fall, or may already have gone behind the grey clouds, but there was still some light and the Nazi filth were sending out the rats.
She saw the first of them climb fearfully over a pile of rubble. He couldn’t have been older than 12, buried beneath a thin coat. He slid along the side of a ruined wall, eyes fixed on a prize out in the middle of the ruined street. Even from her perch, she could see what he was after - an undamaged rifle, left behind by some other soldier who had fallen or fled.
Valentina knew the boy was just another Russian orphan, forced into service by the Germans. She had seen plenty of others on the other side and had long ago suppressed the urge to go and get them. There was barely enough food for the mouths they already had, at least the kids who had been taken under German control were alive.
But there was still danger for the young ones. They were often sent out to scrounge for supplies, in a world where supplies were all everybody was after. Food was the top priority, but weapons were also prized.
There were weapons left lying all over the city, but with no supplies getting through to either side, any rifle or pistol was prized, especially if it had a few rounds left within. The boy in Val's sights didn't care about the rifle, but she knew there were German soldiers who wanted it badly and were willing to risk the boy to get it.
If the boy refused, he would be beaten by the soldiers, if he was very, very lucky. Sending him out into the open street meant the boy was vulnerable to fire from any number of positions, but he had to go.
Val knew she couldn't let him get the rifle. It was only one weapon, but if the boy got it back to the Germans, it was another one that would be used against the city's defenders. If she let him get it, she could end up looking down its barrel.
She took a deep breath and let it out just as the boy darted forward for the rifle, and fired.
The rifle shattered into a dozen pieces as her shot hit home. The boy was close and instantly scrambled back into cover, without his prize, cradling a hand that must have caught a shard of the shattered rifle. The Germans would have seen his failure, but would also have seen it wasn't his fault. He should be safe.
Valentina moved. It was a stupid decision, giving away her position like that, but it rekindled that small, dull spark of humanity that she held on to, deep inside. She refused to be an animal and any act of compassion in a hell like this reminded her of the ideals she was fighting for.
She picked up her gear and headed for the shattered chimney in the corner of the room. She knew every inch of this ruin and knew of another position on the top floor that would serve as a back-up. She could settle back down and wait for any other sign of life at the end of this long day.
Valentina pushed her way up through the chimney and was almost up to the next floor when a piece of chimney gave away under her feet. Gripping her sniper rifle closely to her chest, she scrambled with her free hand for a decent grip.
She failed to find one and began to slip slowly back down the chimney when a hand appeared above her and took a tight grip on his wrist. With apparently effortless ease, and before she could react, she was hauled upwards into the top room.
The instant she had her feet again, Valentina slapped away the helping hand and backed into the nearest corner. She was about to bring her rifle when she realised it wasn't in her hands anymore. The man on the other side of the room had somehow taken it from her.
Valentina saw the man properly for the first time and couldn't tell if she was more surprised by the darkness of his skin, or the immaculate - if slightly old fashioned - suit he was wearing.
Valentina had never seen a man with skin as dark as this, and didn't know if all black men had such warm smiles. He tossed the rifle back to her and she caught it easily, training it on the man and wondering if she should just fire.
'All is well', he said, in perfect Russian. He held his hands out, palms up. 'I’m going to reach into the pocket of my jacket and take out a small object.'
Valentina finally managed to swallow her incredulity and found her voice. 'Who are you? What are you doing here?'
The black man smiled again, in a way Valentina had not seen in months, before producing a wrapped piece of paper out of his pocket. 'Same as you, saving a life. Here and there. My name is N'buli. I'm a friend.'
Val circled around until she was in the darkest corner. The smoke was thick today and night was moments away 'You just stay over there.'
'Keep the rifle on me if you have to. But I have got something to eat, if you would like to share it with me?'
'Stay away from me.'
'Fair enough,' said N'buli in English, knowing Val would not understand. 'I’ll have it myself.'
He unwrapped the grease-proof paper and produced the biggest sausage Val had ever seen in her entire life - long, thick and succulent. N'buli took a bite and relished the taste before wrapping it back up and tossing the rest of the sausage over to Val. She dropped her gun and grabbed the meat before it hit the ground. Opening it, she stared at the meat, but then secured the sausage in her own coat pocket and returned to her corner.
N'buli cocked a single eyebrow. 'You’re not going to eat some now?'
'Don’t be ridiculous,' said Valentina. She lit up a cigarette – a rare luxury, and dangerous, but it was that kind of day. 'There are six others living in my cellar. We share everything.'
'Saving a life, here and there. Even after all they’ve done to you. You take them away.'
The dim glow of Valentina’s cigarette was the only light in the room. 'You don’t know me.'
“Saving a life is all good, but wouldn’t you rather save the world?”