Duty Before Dawn

She rose in the chill hour before dawn. Over the western horizon the moon, now almost full, cast long shadows in the grasses, limning the early morning in silver. Behind the camp, the green glow of the approaching sun capped the cold mountains. Looming malevolently in the moonlight, the snowy heights seemed to taunt and jeer as if knowing that her desire lay far beyond their arduous passes. A journey seeming now so vast and so insurmountable that she would as likely climb to the sinking moon as retrace her steps home.

Home. She supposed she ought forget. Home was wherever her feet carried her. This shifting, lumbering hydra that she followed and tended, this was her home. Her family. Her duty. There was no sense in remembering any other sort of life since no other sort of life was attainable now. Remembrance was only pain, and pain she did not need.

She sighed and stretched and pulled her hide shawl around her thin shoulders. At sundown orders had come through the camp stating that they would be moving on this morning. Best to get busy. Nearly three hundred soldiers would need to be fed and watered for a day’s march. Would need their belongings packed and the plunder of battle stowed or buried. Would need bandages adjusted and wounds cleaned. Would have hours of need to be attended to before the sun’s first light. There were scarcely two dozen women to accomplish this heroic, yet unsung, feat. Among those few she was the only healer.

She woke her comrades with gentle words and nudgings. Most of them immediately rose and set to work without so much as a word of greeting. Words were wasted in the cold dark. Besides, many of the women, being from different homelands, did not well understand each other’s speech. They communicated with soft hands and laden glances and united hearts.

At the woman’s touch the girl from the mountain village started violently from some terror of the dreamland. She cried out in her incomprehensible language and raised her arms as though warding off a blow. Then, seeing where she was, she abruptly fell silent. But her dark eyes grew even wider with fright.

The woman pitied the girl. If they shared words they could tell each other the same story for comfort, for camaraderie. Perhaps. Or perhaps it was better to leave those stories unspoken. Even after the passing of many years those tales had the power to wound anew. The poor mountain girl had been with them scarcely one moon. No, she did not need to probe such fresh pain. Better were busy hands and tired limbs to bring dreamless sleep each night to wash away the day in sweet oblivion.

The woman strode off, leaving the others to stoke the cooking fires and prepare the meal. Her duty this morning was to dole out remedies, such as she had in this wasteland, and tend the many injuries of war. Not that these men and boys called it war. To them this whole marauding cavalcade was a merry questing party. True, at the journey’s heart lay a search for fertile soil and flowing rivers. For lands that might feed them again as their homelands did not. This journey could be called an epic quest for home. But she knew war when she saw it. She wondered how many of the men did not truly leave behind famine and rather joined for the mere novelty of the journey, the excitement of battle. It sickened her.

She entered the pavilion where the sick and injured lay. She understood immediately from the assailing stench that at least one wound had turned bad in the night. That boded no good on this campaign. Back at home, she might have saved the body by severing the limb. Because it was nearly always the limbs that turned septic. Wounds to the head and torso killed too quickly. However here in this wilderness, lacking even a proper saw though surrounded by metalwork? Especially this hurried morning? No. They might delay for a captain’s wound but not a common soldier. That smell, today, meant death.

Probably preferable, she thought grimly. Then she quickly chastised herself. A healer could never afford to turn cynic and give up hope. Hope was her best — at times her only — weapon.

She set about her business quickly but without clumsy haste. She unwrapped the dirty rags that bandaged wounds, silently cursing the lack of clean cloths with which to rebind them. Gently she probed and cleansed, using soapwort and willow bark for open gashes, boneset for dark bruises, witch hazel for swelling. She soaked all injuries and dabbed sweating brows with strong poultices of thyme, sage and chamomile to keep infection at bay. But only just, as the stench made only too apparent.

Fortunately, there were not many in the pavilion this morning. The last raid had mercifully produced little severe injury among the men. A nasty rumor went about that the tiny walled hamlet had but that one means of defense. Once breached, the women and children within fought little and with far inferior weaponry, having but cooking utensils and garden trowels to combat bronze blades. She did not doubt that none survived. But she was not allowed to tend the defenders unless they were of the nobility, rare in this western wilderness. In fact, she usually avoided the fighting front because the cries stirred memories best left buried. She had, however, seen the smoke. And later, as the band passed, she would see the blackened homes. That sight, she knew, was reserved especially for the many like her, women and warrior alike, who had not joined the quest willingly. To better remember what was left behind.

She came upon the infected wound at the end of her rounds. His tent mates had moved as far from him as they could, abandoning him and his stink to the far corner. He was no more than a boy. Her own son, had he lived, would have been older. She wondered when his mother had last laid eyes on him, last fed him, last held him trembling from some overwrought terror of childhood. Probably not long enough, and yet far too long now. She wondered whether this child had left behind a slain mother when forced to join the march.

She did not know the boy’s name, nor how long he had been with the men. Yet he was beyond questioning, groaning wordlessly in fevered dreams from which there was no waking. His skin glistened with beaded sweat and felt hot under her hands as she removed the clumsy dressing on his leg. Surely this was no work of her hands. But she had no time for puzzles. Hardened to such things as she was, the smell made her retch so that she covered her face with her shawl. She knew that there was no hope for this wound. The mound of flesh surrounding it was black and taut. The gash oozed a green pus. There was very little blood.

In the torchlight the swollen wound almost appeared to be smoking like the black fire mountains of the legendary south lands. It was said the firebird lived amid those smoking crags, regenerating itself in the reek. She supposed such fanciful tales were told to bring comfort where reason spoke against all hope. If a mere bird could live forever in spite of fire and mortal injury, why not a man? But she was a healer. She knew that there were hurts that not even the firebird could conquer.

She gently covered the wound to mitigate the stench somewhat and went to find the guard. Someone, perhaps the boy’s commander, needed to be told of what she was now preparing to do. But a few whispered words revealed neither the boy’s name nor his connections. Nobody recalled him in the fight. Nobody remembered him from the journey. He had staggered into the pavilion the previous evening already delirious with fever and lain down with a word to anyone. The guard shrugged, supposing the boy could have come from the defeated village though that battle was now four days over.

The woman railed inwardly at the injustice. These strangers came down out of the hills with their bright swords and their foreign battle cries rending the unheeding peace. Brazenly demanding the very little that this boy could ever call home. A few fields of ripening grain. A few huts thatched with meadow grasses. A mother. And life, such as it was. Was that so much? Could they not have left him a little, but they had to take his body as their due? She knew the boy was near death and would assuredly die from this wound. But as much in rebellion against what he’d had forcibly taken as due to a desire to save him, she quickly changed her mind. She would be no agent of this ghastly work.

So she lied to the guard, saying that she did not have the herbs that would shorten and ease his path to death. She knew that this little mattered. They would merely leave him writhing in the dust to die without aid. Invoking all the authority and mystery of her position as healer, she boldly demanded a strong, sharp blade and a heavy mallet before the guard could present argument to saving the boy. She also requested a stout assistant and smiled when the guard blanched. It never failed but the hardiest warrior in battle would shrink at the least of a healer’s tasks.

The guard grumbled about wasted time but went to fill her order before the light quickened any further. He returned with the mallet and a sword and was followed by the mountain girl. The woman hid her surprise. She had so little time. The sun would crest the mountains soon. Already the jangle of harness and the creaking of cart wheels could be heard outside the pavilion. Why one so young?

She and the mountain girl knelt on either side of the boy. Without time or words they communicated what was necessary. The woman uncovered the wound and guided the girl to lay the blade a hand’s breadth above the blackened skin where she hoped the infection had not yet gained a permanent grip. The woman looked into the girl’s eyes, willing her to understand that she must hold the blade steady no matter what happened. Then she raised the heavy mallet and struck the sword with the full weight of her strength and her anger and her desperation.

It took two more blows to sever the limb, denting the blade and notching the mallet. These weapons had now fought the real battle and, hopefully, would always carry the marks. The woman hurriedly took a torch and burned the gaping flesh while the girl stared from the blade in her hand to the boy’s fevered face as though disbelieving that she could do such a thing. The boy had cried out and flailed at the first two blows, and she had held steady. Then he went deathly still, and she almost quailed. The girl now thought to check for his heart beat as the woman cauterized the wound.

He lived still.

Raised voices came from the tent’s entrance. The woman knew the guard would be berated for acquiescing to her demands. Her small rebellion. She did not know what else might happen. She could very well have saved this boy from infection only to die with him at the hands of some outraged captain.

She had not the time to clean the wound properly. To soak it with poultices that would staunch the flow of blood. To dress it in clean rags. But, at the least, she knew that his former bandages must burn as probable agents of infection. So she quickly ripped a strip from her shawl, her only possession left from that other life when she had rooted feet, and tied off the wound as a tourniquet. The girl, too, cut the sleeves from her tunic and covered the burned flesh. The woman wondered why. Surely they both would rue the cold soon. But she gave the girl a nod and a thin smile of encouragement. Maybe here was the apprentice she’d long needed?

And then suddenly they were surrounded with activity as the tent was emptied for the day’s march. Those too badly injured to walk were roughly loaded into carts. The majority were given stout sticks and herded to the rear of the assembling party. At least, they did not have to carry gear, thought the woman.

Perhaps in the rush, the fact that she had healed this foreigner needlessly was overlooked. At any rate, nothing happened to her for the time present. She and the mountain girl were pushed into the morning light as two men began to take down the tent. The boy was still inside. The woman did not see the guard anywhere, so she hoped the boy would be mistaken for a comrade and loaded onto a cart. But she could not further risk her own welfare for his. If for no other reason than because no one else could tend these men and boys who went questing with bright swords. 

At any rate, she knew the boy would all too likely die whatever she might do. So she went to wash the blood and gore from her hands, the mountain girl mutely following. The woman noted with some satisfaction that, just as she now wore a cloven mallet in her girdle, the girl now carried a dented sword.

The woman hoped that some day the girl would learn to wield it.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021