Guns of the Dawn - Adrian Tchaikovsky


I killed my first man today . . .

The air was hot, muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.

Slowly she advanced, foot over foot through ankle-deep water. There was no sky here; the warp-trunked trees that clawed their way out of the muck on their knotted roots were jealous of the air above. Their overreaching branches intertwined like misers’ fingers until the light battered its way down to her through green on green. She was in the belly of the forest and it was eating her piece by piece with the lancets of mosquitoes and the questing suckers of great black lampreys that squirmed about her boots.

It was a wet, unrelieving heat that plastered her with sweat and then left the sweat in place there, un-drying and unable to leach out into air that was already saturated. It plastered her blouse to her skin, griming its crisp regulation white into grey. It pooled in the armpits of her red jacket with the gold stripes around the cuffs. How proud she had been when she was first given the uniform! Now she wanted nothing more than to lose it. It stifled her. It restricted the movement of her arms. The breeches clung to her legs. Water squelched in her boots with an unholy mingling of the swamp and her own perspiration.

Her fringe, cut short by those butchers that posed as military barbers, clung damp across her forehead, and still managed to be long enough to get into her eyes. She stopped and brushed it aside while balancing her gun awkwardly in one hand.

Abruptly she could not hear the others. She looked around, wild-eyed. To be lost out here, in this hell . . . she would never find her way back alone. Where Mallen should have been, there was no one. The dense, cloudy air of the swamp had swallowed him up, thick enough to shroud the trees only a few yards away. Where Mallen had been was now only the low-buzzing blur of a dragonfly with wings three feet across. It sparkled briefly, some fugitive ray of sun fracturing on its jewelled carapace, then went darting off between the trees.

To the other side . . . she saw Elise there, and felt such a rush of relief that she wanted to cry. The younger woman was fiddling with the strap of her helmet, trying to get the thing to stop sliding down over her eyebrows. Her gun was clasped between her knees. Elise looked up with the same panic Emily had just felt, spotted her and relaxed. She grinned, her teeth startlingly white in the green air, and began to make her way over.

Emily watched, knowing that she should disapprove, because this wasn’t the way they were supposed to do things. In truth she couldn’t care; no amount of training and procedure could brief you for these terrible swamps. Especially not Emily Marshwic, gentlewoman, who had never done a day’s work in her life.

Until now. Now she was rather making up for that.

‘Missing your fancy house, Marshwic?’ Elise asked in a husky stage whisper.

‘That’s Ensign Marshwic to you, soldier.’ But she couldn’t stop herself from grinning back. Right now she needed a bit of camaraderie far more than any privilege of rank.

‘Well, aren’t we full of ourselves.’ Elise was most of the way over to her, wading through the oily water, when they heard Mallen’s whistle.

Contact with the enemy.

Emily felt her heart seize up. What now? She could distantly see the line move forward, beyond Elise, who was now desperately fiddling with her helmet strap again, the crested steel wobbling as she tugged at it. Emily gestured for her to Come on, and began wading forward to keep her place in the line. She heard Elise splashing along behind her.

The air was so thick that the very geometry of the swamps, the pools and twisted trees, the ridgeways of roots, the rotten stumps, all loomed at random from the gloom around her. Her footing was uncertain: things squirmed beneath her