The Damned was released May 2015 everywhere except the States and Canada. It arrives, with the number one bestselling mini prequel The Hunted, over the pond in March 2016 - so in particular this is a sneaky peek for my North American friends!
I hope you enjoy! If you do, you can find how to buy at my site - tarnrichardson.co.uk
23:32. Monday, October 12th, 1914.
The front line. Arras. France.
As the first mortar hit the British trench, Lieutenant Henry Frost drew a line through the unit’s diary entry predicting a quiet night. He’d written the forecast more in hope than expectation, as if writing the words within the journal would somehow sway the actions of the Germans and ensure a quiet night. A private prayer for peace for just one night, for some rest from the infernal shrieks of falling shells, the bursts of distant gunfire, the intolerable cries of the wounded and the dying.
Already it felt as if the war had stalled, trapped under its own ferocity of hate. After the Germans rolled, seemingly unstoppable, through France, they had eventually found themselves snagged by the most fragile of lines east of Arras, checked by the British and French armies and stymied by their own over-stretched supply lines. Now the Germans had taken to unleashing an almost relentless nightly barrage of artillery upon the front and support lines. ‘The Evening Hate’ the Tommies called it. You could almost always set your watch by it. Eleven twenty eight. Every night. On the dot.
In expectation, when the minutes ticked over the half hour mark, Henry had checked his wrist watch and updated the diary entry. So when the first shell burst, he cursed himself for his impetuousness, his reckless optimism forever now recorded in the diary under the firm black line through his naive prediction. Whilst only weeks old, this was a dreadful war. Already there was no time for optimism in this conflict.
Above his corrugated iron bunker, a rancid welt of grey black earth burst amongst his soldiers, spraying metal, mud and blood into the night.
Someone yelled to take cover as a second shell screamed overhead. Moments before it fell, mortars hissed and clunked from emplacements along the German front line two hundred yards away, fierce red tongues licking the night sky.
The thunderous clap snatched the breath from all within its blast, as the second shell exploded in a ball of fire and gristle. Within the officers’ bunker below, lanterns swung and dirt fell from the ceiling onto Henry’s paperwork. He tilted his eyes upwards towards the incessant screams of the injured in the trench above, the hopeless cries for a doctor, the splattering patter of debris blasted high from the last shell.
Seconds later, three more shells fell on the trenches, all in quick succession, blasting bodies from their holes, obliterating corpses away from where they’d laid just moments before. Killing soldiers twice.
A fourth mortar landed, battering the entrance to the dugout and sending a pall of smoke and dust down into the yawning mouth of the front line bunker. Henry crouched over the unit’s diary, as if the hard-backed tome was the most precious thing in the world.
“A doctor!” a voice wept through the barrage above, choking on soot and dust. “A doctor! For God’s sake, get me a doctor!” came the desperate plea, before a fifth mortar landed.
The Germans had found their range.
“Get your bloody heads down!” Henry cried down the front line, appearing from the bunker and leaping through the clods of showering earth to reach his men. He stuck his head between his legs and prayed like the rest of them.
Another shell landed ten feet away, depositing scrambling soldiers into No Man’s Land, leaving behind a sodden bloodied clump of mincemeat, splintered bone and boots where they had once stood.
And then, as quickly as it came, the barrage stopped.
Silence flooded into the trench, like the creeping cordite clouds blown on the midnight breeze. As the roar of the shells fell away, once more the screams of the injured, the moans of the bewildered, the pleading for mother, from those moments from death, renewed their dreadful chorus.
Cautiously, Henry looked up out of the hole he had found to shelter in, and peered both ways down the trench. He suspected a trick. In his memory, no onslaught had ever been so short. Out of the smoke and dust, figures stumbled over bodies and blasted earth. He was aware of weeping, the whinnying of horses, a vague ringing in his ears. Everything sounded very far away. He looked down at his hands. They were shaking, trembling like a newborn infant’s. He drew them into balls and crushed the shuddering out of them. After a month on the front line, nothing made Henry shake like artillery barrages. He’d amputated a man’s leg, half hanging by its sinews of flesh, with his knife, shot a German through the eye and stuck a bayonet into the ribs of a young German soldier no older than the boys who used to play football in the green opposite his house back home, watching him writhe and whimper for twenty minutes before dying, gagging on his tears and blood. He’d even ordered the shooting of a sentry for deserting his post without a second thought for the soldier or his family’s honour. But artillery barrages? They tore through every fibre of his body. It was the uncertainty of where the next shell would land, the indiscriminate roaming of their destruction which so terrified him.
When no further shells fell, he coughed the dust out of his lungs and found his feet uneasily, levering himself up and into the pitch of the trench. Without question the barrage had ended. Strange for it to have stopped quite so suddenly – for it to have been so short. A creeping cold fear drew over him.
“Get to the bloody walls!” he roared, trundling into a run. “Check your sentries!”
The enemy! They would be coming, storming across No Man’s Land, the thump of their boots, the glint of their bayonets in the moonlight.
“Check your posts! Check for approaching enemy!” Henry cried again, charging to an observation point and knocking the quivering sentry aside. He heard someone call, “There’s nothing there, sir!” as he peered wildly across No Man’s Land, wishing for a periscope to aid him. Smoke drifted across his view, smoke and moon-cast shadows. He stared wildly across the scarred ground between them and the German front line.
Nothing was coming.
But there was something. The noise from the German trench, gunfire, savage shrieks of alarm.
Henry strained to look closer at the enemy line. He could see its front parapet in the moonlight, recognise the tangle of barbed wire and the sacking of sandbags in front of it.
He narrowed his eyes and stared.
After the initial barrage the air was thick with smoke and sulphur. Battered and bloodied soldiers sat puffing on cigarettes in silent rows or moaned beneath crimson stained bandages. Dropping from his post, Henry patted shoulders and shook hands with his men as he trudged past, planting his boots into the prints made by the Sergeant he was following.
“Barrage a bit bloody short tonight?” suggested Henry, peering down the length of the trench and regretting his words immediately upon seeing the butchered lying still within it or the injured struggling their way out of it, leaning heavy on the shoulders of mates.
“Yes, sir,” replied Sergeant Holmes, peering into his periscope, “and that’s the very thing, sir.”
“How’d you mean?”
The barrel-chested Sergeant stared down the lens, reacquainting himself with the scene captured within it, before standing to one side and offering the chance for the young Lieutenant to look.
“I mean, sir, have a gander down that.”
“What the devil …?” Henry exclaimed in the instant his eyes fixed to the horizon. “Is that us … attacking?” he asked. If it was, it was no form of trench raid the Lieutenant was familiar with. “Do we have any activity targeting the enemy’s forward trench this evening, Sergeant?” Henry asked intently, his eyes still locked to the periscope’s sights.
“No, not to my knowledge, sir. This whole line is on a defensive footing.”
“Not according to that,” Henry retorted, turning to Holmes and raising an eyebrow. He looked back into the lens and allowed his eyes to focus once again. At the very range of the periscope’s view, frantic figures were leaping and charging along the enemy trench line, fearsome silhouettes against the silvery light, sporadic gunfire lighting the darkness.
“We’ve got units in Fritz’s trench,” Henry mumbled with dumbfounded amazement. “No wonder the barrage came to an abrupt halt!” Henry blinked the dust out of his eyes and peered hard. “What on earth’s going on?” he muttered. “Who the hell is that?”
“Whoever they are, they’re winning!” cheered Holmes, allowing himself the beginning of a fiendish grin. “Shall I … rally the men, sir?” he asked expectantly.
“Over the top, Bill?” Henry stuttered. “But the men … aren’t they … are they up for a fight?”
“Oh yes, Lieutenant!” roared Holmes, his face now beaming. “My boys are always up for a fight, sir! Just need the order and we’ll go over the top in a flash.”
Henry hesitated and cursed himself for his indecision, a trait for which his schoolmasters had long admonished him. Exhaustion, from days without sleep, tugged at every facet of his body, weariness almost overwhelming him. But there was a fire now beginning to catch within him, ignited by the scenes revealed through the periscope and fanned by the enthusiasm of his Sergeant.
“Too good an opportunity to turn down, sir!” Holmes suggested urgently. “And a near full moon to light our way!” he added, indicating the night sky. “Whoever’s doing our job has put Jerry on the ropes. I don’t mean to put words into your mouth, sir, but it would be my view that we get over to their trench and give Fritz the knockout blow!”
“Very good then,” cheered Henry, casting any more doubt aside. He allowed himself a nervous smile. “Well done, Sergeant. Let’s get ourselves organised and head on over!”
Holmes saluted the officer and turned on his heel. Storming back up the trench, he called for the men to fix bayonets. “We’re going over the top, lads!”
Exhausted and bruised groans returned the order.
“Come on! Step to it!” the Sergeant cried, marching past the slowly assembling pockets of soldiers. “Let’s go and teach Jerry a lesson about throwing shells at us, shall we?!” he cried, accompanying the command with repeated peeps on his whistle. “Come on, you bastards! Over the top then! Over the top!”
Discover more at http://www.tarnrichardson.co.uk