Sergeant Mills was walking behind the line, bellowing instructions. It was just like the drills, and of course it was meant to be just like the drills; the whole point of the drills was to take the edge from the terror of standing in the line while the enemy column ground relentlessly towards it. Benedict still felt sweat prickling all over his body despite the coolness of the day, still felt his heart not as a crashing hammer but as a hum, the end of one beat blending into the start of the next.
“Ready the cock!”
The sound of the cocking lever slotting home in Benedict’s weapon was echoed up and down the line, almost drowned out by the guttural chanting of the approaching enemy. They were still so far away; how could they be so loud? He wanted to turn, to look at the man in the rank behind him, to see someone looking calmer than he felt and be reassured. But the sergeant was right there, and the sergeant would not be calm; he would be a fury, so much closer than the enemy. So Benedict remained still, left foot pointing forward, right foot back and angled to support the butt of his weapon.
“Prime your weapon!”
Five hundred men grunted, their breath puffing in little clouds in the cold November air, weeks of training not enough to make light work of compressing the thick springs. Benedict’s arms trembled with the effort, and his sweat-slicked hands nearly slipped before the mechanism caught, the clunk of the sear locking into place less a sound than vibration in the metal.
The howls of the approaching force utterly drowned the clatter of the cocking levers parting from the weapons. Benedict snatched a glance at Joseph, the next in line, as he looked to see the lever into its scabbard. Joseph was also looking down, his back to Benedict, and there was nothing to see but the little patch of brown skin that showed between collar and helmet. On that skin, though, there was a sheen of oily sweat. Benedict had a half-formed thought about the heat of battle being the same for a South African as a Yorkshireman before the next order came.
“Insert your shot!”
The projectiles were point up in the belt-pouches, and no amount of training allowed a man to pick one out without pricking himself. Benedict dropped his down the gullet of his weapon, the jingle of it high enough to hear over the onrushing enemy, and for some reason that little musical moment, repeated all around him, cheered his heart. He felt foolish. It was better than feeling afraid and made him grin.
“Front rank, kneel! Back rank, level arms!”
Benedict dropped onto his knee. The grin slipped as his perspective changed, the monstrous shapes across the field seeming to grow taller. He looked down into the frost-rimed grass.
“Back rank discharge!”
Thuds and a high whizzing as the two hundred fifty darts sped on their way. Not the crackle his grandfather had described, but then the fight against Napoleon had been different. This enemy could not be given the gift of fire mere inches from the faces of those who fought them.
“Front rank, rise and discharge! Rear rank, fix bayonets!”
Benedict was up, leveling his weapon, the grin back in place as the iron-clad butt gritted against the mail on his shoulder. No powder for this army, but there was smoke aplenty. The howls of the enemy now included shrieks, as those touched by the iron darts burned and writhed. He sent his own projectile into the growing fog, imagining rather than seeing a target there in front of his weapon.
“Front rank, bayonets!”
Benedict attached the iron spike to the iron barrel of his weapon. He had let his hand touch the cocking lever as he drew out the bayonet, another length of iron he could lay about with if the spring-gun were lost in the melee.
“Forward, regular time! Let’s get ‘em, lads!”
There was a spontaneous cheer as they began the advance into the sulfurous reek of the wounded enemy. Benedict’s grandfather had called the French ‘devils’ when he spoke of his war, but he had also spoken fondly of the cuirassier he had pulled from under a dead horse at the end of the battle and who had shared a flask of brandy with him. These devils were the real thing, an army of horrors which had crept out of the world’s dark places to visit death and suffering upon the innocent.
But their weakness had been found in time, or perhaps remembered. Iron was still an imperfect defence, as proved by a rock thrown with inhuman force smashing the helmet of the American lad three over from Benedict and his skull with it, and yet it had allowed the army of humanity to stand in the field at last. Iron helmets, iron shirts, iron weapons, their very touch was poison to the fiends they went to meet.
His fear had flown, and even though he had his comrade’s blood on his face he felt nothing but jubilation as he kept marching forward. When a barbed tail stabbed out of the reeking mist, he laughed as it sizzled on the links of his shirt, and laughing he strode on. That was a story he would tell his grandchildren, and he would tell it with pride. This struggle between light and darkness may have produced an army clad in greys, but there was only one good side and he was on it.
“Between Good and Evil, Some Grey” ©2017 Dirck de Lint.