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No Man's Land

Chapter Text

From the trench, No Man's Land loomed as blank, and, in the grey gloaming, as colourless as the maps portrayed it. Twenty paces out from the last, dubious shelter of a collapsed gun-emplacement, wisps of ground-fog had leached the colour even from the air; but where they parted, they revealed in the shape of the land, not that blankness so vexing to the cartographer and so enticing to the general, but the traces of a scriptio inferior: overlapping lines of advance and retreat, punctuated now by a dented Brodie helmet, now by a puttee fainting in coils, a boot lost to the sucking mud, a bayonet, a button, bibles, flasks, bandages, gloves, and all the layered detritus of the long habitation which had elevated this salient to singular status.

Over this scoured terrain, a pale young man traced a line of drunken S-curves through the mist, picking his way from one shell-hole's rim to the next, finding a path above the stagnant water that filled every depression.

Or nearly—the ray of debris beneath his feet ended in deep mud. He faltered, peering off into the fog. It roiled, white masses of cloud clotting out of the air and dissipating again. The silence was profound; and, when he at last charged ahead toward what he fancied to be solid ground, the squelching of the soft earth around his boots clamoured in his ears. He went at a near run, straining to listen over the the distant guns, and the more immediate noise of his own footfalls and heart-beat, for outcry behind him—or, more plausible and horrible, for the single rifle crack, and the rest silence.

He had meant to wait for full dark, perhaps even for the next night when the moon would be all but gone, but the chance to run had come, and he had taken it, without hesitation. By such intuition he had survived, longer than he or his superiors had ever expected; he knew the fatal danger of equivocation. And yet his mind teemed with second guesses, the charade becoming less sustainable with every step toward its end.

Somewhere behind the mist, the sun was taking a damnable time setting. In the watery twilight, he was exposed, but unrecognizable—entre chien et loup, "and," he babbled, "as well shot for the one as for the other." The fog had looked so promising from the shelter of the trench. In no other circumstances would it be called such; it drew in on itself, a wall of white against the charcoal sky. This was a killing fog; he had sent men to their deaths in in mists such as this. A man might wander in circles forever, or drown unmarked in the brackish mud.

Or, with luck, a single man in dusty Feldgrau might pass between the lines unnoticed—could even, with a compass and matches to see it by, hope to steer close enough to an English sentry-post to whisper the password before being shot.

The fog lay thickly over his path. The young man drew a compass from his pocket, and held it almost under his long and rather pointed nose for a good half minute before admitting defeat and risking a light. The brief flare showed the instrument's face, and nothing else; the mist was almost a solid wall now, veiling his own feet and hands from his sight.

But he had his bearing now, and needed nothing else; his head was full of maps, precious maps, and he knew to the step the extent of the sodden lacuna at the centre of this one. He plunged ahead into the cold mist.