The Battle, Or: These Farewells
She had not yet seen Hathlafel and, positioned as she was at the second gate she intended to get a look at every wounded man who came through. In his bright armor he would be easy enough to spot and every little flash of white or silver that crossed the gate made her heart stutter. A few more hours yet, it couldn’t be much more. The King had come, they said.
How could there be a King in the darkness? The skies had parted and the sunlight streamed down now. How could there be a King when the armies were to the very walls of the city? The enemy had turned, the missiles had stopped, the lines had blurred away again. How could there be a king when this boy was dying?
She focused down on his face, pale, blue lipped, his eyes seemed to look past her. Gods but how could such a small thing bleed so much? The stones could not soak up any more, it ran in rivulets and absorbed into her sopping apron through her knees. She could not find it, she could not find where it came from. As soon as she found one injury another appeared.
“Surrounded,” the man who had carried him up had said. “Separated, we couldn’t get to him. They just kept up at him…” She looked up at the man now, he hadn’t departed back to the field. Perhaps he was happy for the rest… But no, his features were hazy when she looked up (Gods but it is so much blood) but they were similar to the dying boy. A cousin maybe or a brother or… or a father. The sunlight might strengthen men’s hearts but it played upon the dead men stacked like cord-wood and the smell would only get worse.
Another wound, this one on the leg. She found it. Perhaps this was the last one perhaps- She looked up at the boy’s face again and her hand stilled. Please do not cry, please do not cry, I cannot bear to hear another man cry, she thought and looked up from the dead boy’s face to the man and just gently shook her head. What was she supposed to say? Was she supposed to comfort him? How could anyone comfort these left-behind dregs. The man nodded mutely and set his round helm on his head again. He was gone, returned to the front, to the battle. To the king.
“Healer Alduial! Is Healer Alduial present?” The voice sounded over the din of the Soldier’s Neath where she hovered over a man writhing on a mat, trying to cut away tattered, bits of leather armor. The only indication that her apron was ever white were a few spots of it near the top, otherwise it was the same deep red as her skirts. They hung heavy and wet.
“Yes. Yes I am… I am terribly sorry who are you?” She asked as she rose, looking at him with weary, sunken eyes, wiping her hands with a towel.
“Gaerdir, ma’am.” She tensed slightly and almost as the page spoke again she might have told him the words he was about to say. “There’s a badly wounded Swan-knight calling for you by name.”
The pang of fear, of grief, was duller than expected. Perhaps it was exhaustion, or expectation. She turned to an apprentice and gave her a few instructions, handed off the scissors and the towel and bade him on with forced words and a forced smile. They passed through the Neath and to the cots arrayed about the gate, through the tangle. She felt all of her parts coming undone, all of the little threads that held together limb and bone had come loose. For a moment she imagined she must look like a doll ripped apart by some furious child, blood pooling out beneath her from ruined stitching.
Gods but it is so much blood.
She cast one look to the page, one final look, and his eyes were already forward at the heap of a man in fine, crumpled armor marred by vile burns barely visible. His helmet was still on. She dropped to her knees on the stone and reached for it with a trembling hand, reached out to where ragged breaths escaped the closed metal.
Her hands had barely brushed the thing when he screamed. Reflexively she flinched back, swinging her hand away. Like a child she wanted to cover her ears from it, draw into a ball where she might be hidden away. Better to die a hero in misery than a coward in comfort, he had said but he should have stayed nearer the sea.
“Oh gods,” was all she could manage, like a prayer it carried on her breath and to the firmament. In a stronger voice she said, “Just… just lay still. Just lay still. I am here.”
From beneath his helmet his voice came in a rasp. Damaged by the fire, the foul fire that had come along with the invaders. “Alduial…?”
“Yes,” she whispered and hovered her hand over his, afraid to touch him as though he might shatter at her touch. Even in the armor he seemed as fragile as spun sugar, as glass, if she touched him it would break the spell that kept him whole. “Yes of course. I am just here, just… right here.”
With a great effort she forced a smile, encouraging and indulgent, as though she might be able to tell him it would all be well. What she could see of the man’s expression mellowed into deep relief. He reached his one good arm shakily toward his chest, where a bright red kerchief still clung. For a wild moment she imagined it was a dream, a terrible dream. Nothing could stand out so red against the white armor. Gods but it is too much blood.
She shook her head slightly. “Keep it. Keep it, it is all going to be alright. Do not move so much,” she murmured and folded her hand over his. The spell was broken, he would die, why did he insist on giving up her token? “There, just hold onto it… Oh Hathlafel.”
He tried to shake his head but the effort was worthless on this little cot with his wretched armor clung to him so. I have grown to despise all of this tat, she had said in jest in that little room. What was the point of it all if it did nothing? It only served now to keep her from his hand, to keep her small hand entwined not with skin but a gauntlet.
“I do want you to keep it,” she whispered but let it lay in her lap. Red over the blood-soaked apron. Red on her red dress. On the cot he seemed to relax, a rattling breath sounded behind the helm. She clutched at his hand as though it would keep him. As though he would remain here beside her if she could just hold on. If she could only just hold him a moment longer it would pass and perhaps she would awake days earlier before it had all gone wrong. Before there were battering rams and the fires and the great spread of armies. Before there was a king.
And why should there be a king now when Hathlafel was dying?
“There… oh gods but I did love you,” she whispered. There were so many things she should say. So many things she wanted to say that would not come out and soon he would be deaf and why could she not say them now?
He didn’t speak again, just expelled a little whimper of pain and clutched down on her hand before his grip fell away. And that was it. She sat clutching the limp hand for a moment before crumpling down to clutch her legs and try to breathe.
The king had come, on the corsair’s ships the king had come and she had sent Sellion back to the wall and had heard nothing since. There were healers lost down there as well. She made her way back to the Neath and through it, toward the training hall where the cots were pressed in in packs. Halethon was alive. Halethon was her miracle. The soldiers said that when a man’s luck ran out he would break his hand scratching his ass. They said it did not matter what happened when a man ceased being lucky, death would find its way in.
Perhaps her luck was run out too. Perhaps all of the things she touched were going to die now? But not Halethon. He would live, he was her last bit of luck. She hesitated at the doorway and veered off to a little alleyway. Nowhere in the circle was quiet but here was at least out of sight and she reached hurriedly into the little bag around her neck below her dress. From it she withdrew in a handful a little lock of dark hair and a vial of white salts.
Alduial sank to the ground again, holding them in her open, trembling palm. What are you going to do with it? He had asked as she had tucked the little lock of hair away. Make a very tiny broom? But this was all, now there was nothing of him to hold onto except this little piece and she set it to rest on her knee and carefully opened the vial. She stared at it for a long moment and then upturned it onto the stone, watching the salt pour away.
She left the vial to clatter to the stone and tucked away that little lock of hair again. There was nothing else to do but carry on again.
(Thanks to Oen for the dialogue, that has all remained unchanged)