All Quiet On The Eastern Front
Written by: Thunder Bolt
The mud and blood soaked his fetlocks, as he galloped through the trench.
Briar Patch rushed past miserable looking soldiers, trying to get to his friend. He moved past unicorns manning their watches, and earth ponies repairing destroyed parapets. Briar paid them no mind, he had only one thing on his mind. Untouched bodies from midnight shellings invaded his nose with their rotten stench.
When he arrived at the field hospital, he was met with a terrible sight. Inside, nurses and doctors shuffled around the makeshift room, maneuvering through the mass of coughing, shivering, and dying stallions. Before Briar could move further inside, a masked nurse stopped him in his tracks.
“You can’t go in there. We’ve got enough ponies in here as is.” She scolded, attempting to push Briar back out.
“I’m looking for my friend…” Briar said, holding against her push.
“Out, you’re friend will be fine.” She lied.
“Please! He’s dying, I need to see him,” He pleaded.
“Out,” The nurse repeated apathetically. A passing doctor took notice of the scuffle.
“What’s going on here?” The nurse glanced at him with a frustrated look.
“This guy wants to see his friend but I keep telling him that we’re full-”
“Who’s your friend?” The doctor asked.
“Cloud Runner,” Briar answered.
The doctor looked down at his clipboard, looking through the list of names. He settled on the ponies name, as a grim expression spread across his face. “Oh Celestia…”
“What, what is it?”
The doctor looked up at Briar stoically. “He doesn’t have long. If you want to say your goodbyes, do it now. He’s in the back of the room, over there.” He pointed with his hoof toward a full cot in the back, full with a pony that didn’t seem to be moving. “And you’ll need this.” He pulled out a surgical mask, and gave it to Briar. Before he could say thank you, the doctor moved on. The nurse had long since gone.
Briar made his way through the makeshift hospital. Celestia, he felt sick already. The air felt thick with disease and whatever the hell else. He had to step over ill stallions lying on canvas sheets; all of the beds were full. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a unicorn levitate the body of a deceased soldier off a bed. As the unicorn moved past him, two nurses lifted another stallion next to the bed off the ground and onto it. They didn’t clean it, sterilize it, nothing. There wasn’t enough time to, Briar realized, looking back only to see two more sick soldiers lying near the front of the entrance.
He suddenly felt light headed as the weight of the situation in the hospital fell on him. He couldn’t imagine what these medical workers had to deal with, day in and day out.
All of a sudden, he found himself at the foot of Cloud Runners cot.
He lay under a blanket, and didn’t move. For a moment, Briar wondered if he was still alive. But after observing for a few more seconds, he saw that Cloud was just barely breathing. Briar walked to his side, sitting down next to his dying comrade. He waited quietly.
And waited some more, before he couldn’t take it, and touched a hoof to his friends shoulder. “Cloud?”
Briar pulled his hoof back, not getting a response. Just as his heart began to sink, Clouds right eye, the one Briar could see, opened slowly. Cloud seemed to be processing the scene in front of him, before his focus settled on Briar. His eye lit up. Something of a smile crept onto dry mouth. For some reason, seeing the joy on his friends sickly face made Briars heart sink further.
“Hey man…” Briar almost didn’t hear him.
“Hey,” He replied, settling down on his haunches. “How are you?”
Cloud coughed, making Briar turn away slightly. “Oh man, I’m just dandy.” He grinned up at his friend. “Feeling a little washed up though, how ‘bout you?”
“Alright, under the circumstances,” Briar said.
“Ah, don’t worry about it, I’ll be out of this bed soon enough,” Cloud said with optimism lining his voice. Briar tilted his head.
“What do you mean?”
Cloud smirked. “What, you think I’m just gonna lie here for the rest of the war?” He attempted a laugh, which turned into a weak cough. “Nothin’s gonna hold me down.”
Briar blinked. Had… the staff not told Cloud he was dying? He felt his heart sink lower as he put it together. His friend was dying… and he didn’t even know it.
“Hey soldier, you in there?” Cloud teased. Briar shook his head.
“Uh, I… yeah, I’m fine,”
He wasn’t a good liar.
Cloud looked at him sideways. “Aw c’mon, aren’t we friends for reason? What’s the matter?”
Briar could feel it, the tears were coming. They weren’t there yet, but he could feel the familiar, soft burn beneath his eyelids. His mind searched for an answer.
Should he tell him?
Briar went over the possible outcomes in his head. But only one filled his mental image. Cloud would be in disbelief, trying his hardest to get out bed, to prove everyone wrong. But to no avail, inevitably leading to more pain and sorrow than anyone would want.
That wasn’t something Cloud deserved on his deathbed.
Tilting his head downward, Briar answered. “It’s just this damn war. I can’t take it.”
It wasn’t a lie, Briar certainly hated the war, just like any other soldier unfortunate enough to be put in the trenches.
“Hey man, don’t worry, we’ll be out of this rut soon enough,” Cloud smiled. “Can’t wait for you to meet my family. You and Pop would get along pretty well.”
From behind the mask, Briar almost chuckled at that. That was something Cloud said a lot about him and his dad. Cloud’s earth pony father was a carpenter by trade. Briar had always had an affinity for working with wood. Introducing the two to each other was something Cloud thought about doing for as long as the two had been friends.
“I know, it’s not like you haven’t said that for the hundredth time.” Briar replied.
“Well it’s true.”
“If you say so.”
Cloud sighed through his nostrils. “Man, I’m tired,” He closed his eyes slowly. “I think I’m gonna take a nap.”
Briar’s heart skipped a beat.
Was this it?
Was Cloud about to die?
Oblivious to his friends thoughts, Cloud smiled weakly as he settled down into sleep.
“Night…” He said.
Briar thought he said good night back to Cloud, but he wasn’t sure. All he could concentrate on was the still form of his friend, lying in his bed.
Seconds ticked by. Then… all of a sudden…
Cloud stopped moving. He drew one last, defiant breath, before settling into the waiting arms of death. Time seemed to freeze and speed up at the same time. One moment, Briar was sitting next to his comrade, as the nurse checked his pulse. She frowned, pulling up the sheet over the head, and wrapping Cloud Runner in it. Then Briar was following the nurse as she levitated his sheet wrapped friend out the hospital entrance. She went a short distance down the trench, until it came to a dug-out ramp that lead up to the torn, muddy ground. There were several bodies wrapped in sheets waiting to be carted away. The nurse set Cloud down next to the others, and walked back into the trench.
Briar found himself next to his sleeping friend. He waited.
He heard the soft squeaks of wheels growing louder. He glanced to his left to see weary looking stallion, a bandana wrapped around his muzzle. He pulled an empty cart, spattered in blood and fecal matter. It smelled too. The stallions eyes were dark and dreary. Something about him told Briar that he was old.
The stallion didn’t notice the soldier when he stopped alongside the bodies. He simply untied himself from his cart and went to the nearest one he saw.
It was Cloud.
Briar immediately got up when the stallion knelt down, picking Cloud up along with him. The old horse looked up, surprised to see someone helping him with this job. That had never happened before. Briar matched his gaze, and nodded to him. A pause, and the stallion nodded back. Together, they lifted Cloud and carried him to the cart.
“Careful,” Briar said. The two lowered Cloud gently. They repeated the process several times, before the cart was full. The stallion nodded to Briar as he tied himself to his cart to set out again. But as he was tying the second rope to his barrel, Briar took it from his hoof.
“I got it,” Briar tied the rope off to his waist. Again, the stallion was surprised.
“...Thank you,” He replied, revealing that he really was old. Probably in his forties, by Briar’s estimate.
With a heave, the pair set out. Briar didn’t know where they were going, so he followed the old stallions lead.
They traveled across wrecked countryside, old trenches, massive craters, and long dead trees. Far behind the front lines, they had no need to fear for snipers.
Nothing moved. Not a bird sung. Not a creature scittered. The world was still.
Briar became lost in his thoughts. Thinking about the sights, horrors, and camaraderie he had experienced in this war. In his youth, he always thought he would be the one to kick down the door, lead his loyal men into a raging battle, and save the day for Equestria. Oh how reality was a cruel mistress.
There was no glory here. There was no victory here. No honor. No mercy. Nothing.
All he ever had were his friends from boot camp. They were all in the dirt now. Cloud had been the last to go. Briar had practically nothing to live for out here. The only thing that had been his source of energy since he got here, other than his friends, was the thought of his parents. He had written to them separately, but when there was a parchment shortage he wrote to them on one sheet. The letters he got back were one of the only moments of joy he had here. He was grateful he had such wonderful parents that supported him and wrote him as much as they did. Briars mind had a bit of weight lifted off of it as he thought about them.
After what felt like hours of walking, grunting, and pulling, Briar smelt something peculiar. As the pair continued, it grew stronger and stronger until it was clearly rotting flesh. Briar flared his nostrils in disgust. The smell just kept getting worse and worse.
They went up a grey, muddy rise that just blocked his view of the horizon. They reached the top, and looked down.
The smell was downright hellish.
The sight was even worse.
Briars eyes widened at the mass grave. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of dead. Lined up on the ground next to narrow, shallow trenches, meant to store the dead in the ground. He could see that some were already starting to be refilled. He saw more carts, and collectors of the dead. Ponies with shovels, digging and burying in an organised manner.
He was glad he still had the surgical mask on.
The old stallion pressed onward, Briar following suite. They pulled the cart to the nearest grave. It already had bodies inside, and was partially buried, waiting for the last few ponies to fill it. The old stallion and Briar did so, lifting the bodies and taking care as they lowered them into the grave with the others.
They came to Cloud, and Briar noticed the stallion take extra care with his sleeping friend.
They lowered him inside, and stepped back.
Briar watched the grave diggers bury his friend…
No, no, he’s dead. Briar thought to himself.
He’s still alive.
Briar grimaced as he attempted to get a grip on himself.
He’s being buried alive.
“STOP!” Briar yelled at himself. He ripped off the mask, throwing it to the ground.
The diggers stopped. The old stallion blinked at him.
Briar stepped forward, kneeling on the ground, right up to his friends sheet covered face. Briar stared at the white shape of Clouds head.
He felt it again. The soft burning.
He felt them well up.
He felt them streak down his cheeks.
He felt himself breaking down.
The dam broke and all of the emotion he felt spilled out. Anger, grief, denial. Everything rushed out in a flurry of mucus and tears. He sniffled and buried his face his hooves.
He didn’t know how long this lasted.
But at the end, he looked up, and saw the diggers solemnly standing, waiting for him to finish. Briar looked back down at his comrade. His friend.
Putting his forehead to that of the Clouds, still wrapped in cloth, he sighed.
“I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could’ve done.” He whispered.
Briar pulled away.
The diggers buried Cloud. Briar watched. They finished and moved on.
Briar felt the touch of a hoof. He looked back and saw the old stallion standing there with a hoof on his shoulder. They looked each other in the eye. Understanding, Briar turned, and walked back to the cart. Tying themselves, they began their trek back to the trench.
As the went up the rise, Briar stole a look back to where they buried his friend. He would come back, he promised himself. He would come back, and give Cloud the burial he deserved.
The pair continued on.
As the walked, again, nothing moved. There was no wind. No rats, squirrels, or birds of any sort.
It was an eerie, impenetrable quiet.