(This story appeared in the anthology THE BATTLE OF EBULON, where a character from each author’s fantasy novel came to the aid of the orc-besieged city of Ebulon.)
The portal of woven kir let me pass, tearing like cobwebs across my arm held before my face. Fresh snow on paving stones crunched under my boot. And the moment my ears reached this new world, this place that had begged for help, the crashing and shouting of battle filled them.
I stood in a small square, at the foot of a snow-covered statue of a knight on a rearing horse, within sight of city walls and a barred gate. The battlements stood above the timber-and-shingle houses, full of men fighting and surging back and forth.
A shadow fell across me; I turned and saw a riveted brigantine over a mail shirt. Shoulders wrapped in bear fur. Above that, a scowling, scarred man in a battered helmet.
“Who else comes?” he demanded, glaring at the green cloud of kir I’d stepped through. It faded now, shedding tiny stars. “Who else! King Yadi begged for aid and you —” The knight gestured at me, half shrugging. “Who are you?”
I gripped the strap of my medicine bag, across my chest, in both hands. That steadied me. “I’m Kate Bockmann.” I straightened as much as I could, but I still didn’t reach his shoulder; he was a huge man. “Saint Qadeem heard your call for help and sent me.”
A second knight, striding across the square from a formation of some hundred, looked puzzled by me, but not so angry. “Vess, what do we have?”
“We have a girl,” Vess answered, stepping aside and presenting me with a sweep of his arm. “Fifty thousand orcs at the gate and they send us a fucking handmaid. One with — what the hell are those?” He pointed at my Blessing ridges, which parted my blonde hair in two lines across the top of my head.
My resolve quavered as the shouting on the walls above drowned in a rising, inhuman howl. No; Qadeem and my teacher had seen fit to trust me with this, as they had the secret mission.
“I’m a Blessed of Saint Qadeem and the student of the Elect, sir, and I’ll aid you however I can. These are my Blessing.” I ran my fingers over the ridges where they pushed up through my scalp. Being so tall, Vess must have a good view of them. “I remember every moment of every day since I received them. All my skill, all my kir, are at your service. We face invasion, as well, and Wodenberg could hardly spare me, let alone — Prince Kiefan, or…”
The howling on the wall broke and men’s voices surged. I glanced up and saw a red banner with gold crowns advancing across the battlements. Who were they fighting, up there? Orcs — what manner of men were those?
“And what do you do, miss?” Vess asked.
“I’m a Physician.”
His brow furrowed in a frown, then he threw up his hands and turned away.
“We begged for aid,” the second knight told him. “King Yadi begged, and you know what that cost him. If her people face war as well, that they sent anyone at all — oh, have a little faith, will you?” His reasoning tone slid toward anger. “We’re all to die under the sword, if we fail, and your hangman’s humor only feeds the men’s fears.”
“Watch your tongue, lieutenant.” The bigger man took a sharp step toward him, pointing.
“Sirs!” My standing there was poor use of my healing skills. They both looked to me, the scarred officer scowling, the lieutenant — well, he looked doubtful, but far kinder. “You must have an infirmary?”
Across the square, metal clashed, rattled. We all startled; I whirled around. A grate bounced, among the paving stones, and then flipped open. A drain, it was a grate covering a drain. Up leaped a stocky, mail-shirted man with a heavy spear in both fists. With a roar, he charged as his brothers followed him.
Straight at me. The man, the… orc had tusks. Piggish ears sticking from his helmet. Dusky grey skin. I froze for a heartbeat. They’d brought me to the Winter Wood itself, to face kobolds?
The spear plunged at me and I threw up my arm, kir spinning out. The stubby green shield I knit stopped the iron blade. The blow threw me to the ground with a numbed arm. The orc raised the spear again and a sword took him through the ribs. Blood spurted when the lieutenant kicked him off the blade, and the dying monster fell. He met the second orc head-on — and I was scrambling away, out from underfoot.
The knights rushed across the square before the stream of orcs could organize. I pressed against the statue’s pillar, watching them cut the monsters down. True enough, I was no knight. Surely Kiefan or Anders would’ve been better suited to this.
But surely I could help, too.
Vess carved through the enemy, sword slinging off blood with each stroke. Soon enough, they’d fought their way to the open drain, and the big captain threw a dying orc down the hole. Two men flipped the grate back into place, and a third jammed a spear in to wedge it shut. A cheer went up.
I was already slipping from my safety, running to the first fallen knight. Touching his bare cheek, I called his kir-pattern but it didn’t answer. He was dead, bled out on the trampled snow. The second was weak and wilting, the whorls of kir in his flesh stumbling and fading as I watched. Among the whorls, the bright lines of his meridians pulsed, fighting death and losing.
Kir powered all charms, and all flesh was kir bent into shape and set to dancing — life was its own charm, my teacher had said. Wounds and sickness broke the flesh’s patterns, sending the whorls and threads into tangles and jumbles. Too much confusion, and the patterns lost their dance. Died.
The third was the lieutenant. The spear jammed through his gut wobbled in his hands as he gasped for air. Knuckles white, he tugged at it, and the pain curled him on the paving stones.
“Don’t touch it!” I pulled his hands away. His pattern, whirling up in all its dance, frothed around the blank space of the spear shaft. It had missed his prime meridian, along his spine, thank Mother Love. And the cruel thing held in his blood, for now. “The infirmary! Where’s your infirmary!”
“Del! Fucking whoreson —” Vess dropped to one knee beside the lieutenant, catching his hand and gripping it. “I shouldn’t have let you stay, little cousin — you had to sign up!”
“Who else is wounded?” I glanced around the other knights, seeing some blood. None too serious; they were still on their feet. “Come with us. Where’s your infirmary?” I dared shove big Vess, to get his attention. “Let him lie here, and he’ll die.”
Vess blinked at me, as if I’d told him Del would sprout wings and fly. Then he scrambled up and hoisted his cousin by the shoulders. A second knight took his ankles and they carried him between them. I had to run to keep up.
# # #
The tavern was just a block up from the square.
Its main doors stood open, as did full-length shuttered windows, to let in the clear, winter sunlight. The bustle of wounded soldiers and goodfolk pressed into service for them was dense, but my Blessed memory recognized it. I’d seen as much while assisting my teacher in the surgery during the battle at Ansehen.
When the knights slowed, uncertain what to do, I strode ahead of them toward the man by the door. By how the traffic swirled around him, he had triage duty.
He saw me coming, and the spear through Lieutenant Del, and put up one hand. “Light bless you, child, but he’ll not last the watch. Pray with him till he passes.” He pointed toward the open doors of a chapel across the street.
“I can mend him. Lend me a table and a pair of hands, no more,” I said, stopping before the man. Past his shoulder, I saw the large common room arrayed in a fair infirmary, if over-stocked with patients and thin on physicians. The goodfolk served as orderlies and nurses.
“Miss, you can’t know what to —”
Enough of this. I put some kir in my voice, to strengthen it. “Your King Yadi begged my saint for aid, and I came. Now let me save what lives I can. Who has charge, here?”
That cut through the noise. All froze and stared at me. Vess stared, too. I folded my arms; yes, I was only a slip of a girl, sixteen, with a long braid wrapped around my head. I’d watched my teacher cheat death and saved my share of lives. I meant to do more.
One of the surgeons, who hadn’t so much as looked up from his work, pulled an arrow free of a soldier’s thigh — the man screamed, writhing on the table, and a spurt of blood flew over the surgeon’s head. In the quiet, all heard him curse as he reached into the wound. He looked up at last.
Across the room, he answered me with a bitter twist in his voice. “Doctor Ceros at your service, miss. If you’re such a wondrous life-saver, come see to this.”
I could guess what it was as I trotted across the common room, weaving through patient-laden tables and more laid on the floor. When I reached Ceros’ side, he started to speak but I held up one hand. The patient’s kir patterns told me all.
The arrow had nicked his artery, in the thigh, and his meridian wavered. The wound was full of blood; Ceros’ fingers, pinching the nick shut, were buried in it.
“Think you can stitch through the spray?” he asked, snide.
I’d had a belly-full of such attitude, at home. On the tip of my finger, I wove a little patch charm. “Don’t move,” I told Ceros, and slipped my finger in next to his. The patient’s patterns glowed under my call, showing me just where to place the patch. “Done.”
Ceros snorted. I shrugged one shoulder and turned away. “The bar.” I told Vess, pointing. It was the only surface left to claim.
“I’ll be damned,” Ceros said, behind me. He’d let go of the artery, no doubt. “Luzan, assist our little miracle-worker. Who are you?”
“I am your surgeon. Kate.”
“Clear that table!” Ceros snapped his fingers, pointing at one in front of the open, full-length windows. The soldier on it lay too still, and looked too pale, to be alive.
“Bring Del,” I said.
Luzon, my new assistant, looked to be a scrawny boy with a shock of black hair, but he dragged the dead soldier off the table on his own. The infirmary’s bustle whirled back to life. Vess bulled his way through it, carrying Del by the shoulders. He and the second knight laid Del on the table, spear jutting up. Del still clutched it in both hands, chest heaving.
“Get his brigantine loose,” I said, putting my medicine bag on a stool and opening it. “And the mail. Luzon? I’ll need a —”
When I looked, the boy was sliding a piece of belt-leather into Del’s mouth, to bite. Luzon knew his business, then. I reached into my bag, looking for the wallet with my scalpel and curved needles. I had some catgut, and a spool of wool thread. Iron shears. A few cleansing charms, bound to little bone figures of Mother Love. Some boiled bandages.
“Tell Peren he has command,” Vess told the second knight, as I turned. “Watch those fucking drains.” The man saluted and went; the company of knights moved off, first checking the drain in the middle of the street before the tavern.
Vess eyed me up and down, taking in the bright little blades in my open wallet. “You won’t just magick his wound shut?”
I laid my wallet and a cleansing charm beside Del’s head. His brown eyes flicked to it, showing panicky whites. “I have only what kir my saint gave me, before I came here,” I said, taking my larger scalpel. “With it, I must save as many as I can, before the kir runs out and my mind tires such that I lose focus. Should I lose that, I’ll only cause more harm.”
My friend Ilya, lying pale and dead, flicked through my perfect memory. I nodded to the spear shaft. “You must let go, Del.”
Vess took it in both his hands. Del’s hands twitched, unwilling to obey. I put mine on his, worked my fingers between the wood and his skin. Called his pattern as I did it; he’d bled, but his dancing kir-whorls and pulsing meridians were still strong. The cruel, barbed spear-head was blackness invading his pattern. As Del’s hands loosened at last, I flipped aside his loosened brigantine and the mail underneath. Slicing through his thin gambeson, I found skin at last.
A cut, and Del’s hands slammed onto the edges of the table. I went deeper, widening the gash where the barbs would catch and rip. He bit into the belt leather, screaming through it. The spear had jammed through three coils of gut, stopping just shy of his back.
Vess, despite being such a bear of a man, had a fine touch. He and I eased the spear out, the barb catching only on Del’s mail along the way. Blood gushed, stinking and tainted by the contents of his gut. Vess swore as he threw the spear aside. I shoved Del’s layers up higher and reached into the wound — he screamed around the leather clenched in his teeth and convulsed — to stop the bleeding.
My memory brought me all the small vessels of the gut, from when I’d seen them on other patients. A little blood-stop charm was enough for such. Vess held his cousin down with both hands, talking to him in a tense mutter. I kept my focus on the wound.
The gash in Del’s belly was wide enough to clamp open. I gently shifted wounded coils of gut aside, seeing the flesh’s patterns rather than the blood and greenish slops. It overflowed, ran onto the table and floor. The smell would need hard scrubbing to get out, I knew.
Luzon had threaded the correct needle with catgut; I spared him a smile as I took it. “Bring water,” I told him.
One slice, deepest in, I could simply stitch. The second coil was worse off, having been nearly cut in half. Del sobbed, clutching the table, honestly trying not to thrash. Not entirely succeeding. Luzon poured water, when I asked him to, and much of the gore rinsed away. What I could see, at least; I knew that it was loose among his guts, now, and would kill him with fever. The cleansing charm would mend that, though.
For the topmost coil, the first to take the spear, I had to reach for my scalpel and cut away the shredded hand’s-width of tube. Stitched one trimmed end to the other carefully, as if it were a sleeve. My mother’s lessons, before I’d been apprenticed to the Elect, had proven their worth often enough.
“Must he suffer?” Vess asked, his voice strained. “If he’s to die…”
I looked up at the big man, then glanced to Del’s slack face. He skimmed the edge of consciousness, lost in the haze of pain. Luzon turned his head, to be sure he didn’t choke on his tongue. “He’s not dying,” I said, taking the last few stitches and knotting my catgut off. “I’m nearly finished.”
“You are?” Vess frowned at my work.
“Do you still think me just a fucking handmaid?”
His mouth opened, then shut again. I cut my thread free.
Metal rattled. Vess and I looked for it, in unison, but there was nothing that would rattle so. The tables were all wood, and — my memory flicked to it.
“The street drain.”
A second rattle, a bang, and the grate fell to one side. It was a small one, barely wide enough for the pig-headed orc who sprang up. Those lightly wounded sitting just outside the full-length windows, and the orderlies bandaging them, tried to scramble to their feet. Shouts and screams drowned out the infirmary bustle. Orcs popped up from the drain.
The lead monster snarled, whirling his spear as a staff. Its shaft cracked off two orderlies, knocking them down. One soldier drew his sword in time to take the spearhead through his chest.
Vess roared in fury, yanking his sword from its sheath, and hurdled the window’s low sill. He sliced the first orc’s head clean off and met the second with a crash. The monsters charged the wounded soldiers who dared try to face them while the orderlies and nurses fled deeper into the tavern. Spears cut the weak men down. Vess caught one by its haft in his free hand, cut the guilty arm clean off with one sweep of his sword. The rest turned on him, rather than chase the helpless goodfolk.
“Vess!” Del, snapped to clarity by the screaming, fumbled for his own sword.
“No!” I touched his head, snapping a little charm into his mind. Del slumped, unconscious. I caught him by the hair, lowered his head gently. Only one man, only one bit of faith offered when I stepped into this dark place. I’d not let him die.
Further up the road, a squad of Vess’ knights rounded the corner at a run. No time; half a dozen orcs were already in the street. More coming. Vess held three at bay. Another charged past him, slapped Luzon down with his spear butt and then there was only me between him and Del. The orc grabbed my shoulder to throw me aside, spear swinging toward Del.
I shot my kir up the orc’s arm and stabbed his prime meridian, at the neck. He dropped like a sack of flour, bouncing off Del’s sturdy table. His spear skittered away, doing no harm. My kir snapped back to me, through his flesh.
With a yell, Vess’ knights met the orcs and slashed into them, spears clanging on shields, swords biting through iron mail. Blood splashed across the paving stones, followed by falling bodies. A knight went down, spitted. I saw one more orc pulling himself through the drain. The monster was too big, too much a hog to simply leap through.
A chance to stop them. I ran, bent low, dodging behind orcs; they fought for their lives, and hardly noticed me. The orc in the drain spotted me, snarled, and hauled himself up to the waist. Caught there. I lunged to grab his ear, and he jabbed his spear one-handed. I fell on my knees, in trying to dodge it. His filthy hand clapped down on my wrist, pulling his spear back to stab me.
Foolish. I cut his meridian at the neck. His spear clattered to the paving stones. He slumped, stuck in the drain.
Grabbing my shoulders, Vess jerked me back. Then he saw the monster was dead, and frowned down at me. “Did you —?”
“Oil!” one of the knights shouted. A short man in filthy, plainspun clothes unstoppered a skin and poured oil on the corpse. Two knights grabbed spears and rammed the corpse back through the drain. From below came grunts, guttural shouting — and a whiff of stink. The filthy man kept pouring, emptying the oilskin.
“Candle!” Vess yelled. “A flame! Someone!”
My memory flickered to what my father had told me of that smell, long ago. Swamp gas. Careful, the stuff burns. “I have it!” I shouted, over Vess. I held my hand over the drain, gathering kir in my fingertips. Knotted down, squeezed, the kir ignited into a candle-sized spark. Below, I saw bodies moving, heard more piggish snarling. A grey-skinned hand grabbed the rim of the drain.
“Get back!” I shouted, and with a snap released the spark. The filthy man yelled it with me, already running. “Get back!” Ran, myself, toward the tavern windows. The knights scrambled to fall back, too, as flame roared up in the drain for a moment —
— and the earth shook, rumbling. The explosion burst through the hole. Earth flew up from the paving stones. The drain widened. Crumbled. Cracks ran between the stones and the road sank along its center line. A dying orc, trying to crawl, was dragged down. Vess snatched me up by the waist and carried me into the tavern itself, with the huddled, shouting infirmary. Down into the square, the gash ran. The statue of the knight shifted, tipped as its ground collapsed. It settled at a wild angle in the rubble.
The wound cut the street in half. A tangle of stone and corpses half filled it, leaving a sheer drop of perhaps a yard. A ragged cheer went up, and I had to smile. “Light bless you!” Doctor Ceros patted my shoulder, with a laugh. “You’re more than you seem, aren’t you.”
“Peren!” Vess shouted, beside me, and he strode out onto the street. His officer, across the split, saluted him. “What the fuck happened?”
“We cut them off at Binder’s Street, sir, and some of them doubled back. The sewers, well —” Peren gestured to the filthy man beside him.
“That’s the main cesspit,” the man shouted, pointing at the fallen statue. “Them all must’ve come in by there. Had to! Won’t be coming up here no more, sir!”
“How many doubled back?” Vess asked. Peren gestured openly, trying not to shrug. Vess swept one arm up to summon his men together up the street. “Back to Binder’s Street, then, to hunt the bastards down — and Kate! You keep Del safe!” He swung around, pointing at me.
I saluted in return. There was work to do, still. Del’s wound still needed stitching. I found my needle and catgut I’d dropped, and called his pattern again. The muscle healed best if matched grain to grain. Luzon righted the fallen stool and collected what had fallen from my medicine bag in the confusion. He considered one of the figures of Mother Love a moment, and tossed it in.
Del breathed easy, peacefully sleeping through the rest of the stitches. I’d only knocked him lightly, as I couldn’t spare much kir, and it wouldn’t last much longer. When I knotted off the thread at last, I took my cleansing charm and held it over the wound. A squeeze with my mind, and the kir bound to the bone figurine unwound. The charm fell onto Del in a green mist, destroying any patterns that would fester into abscesses or gangrene.
That made him twitch. He groaned. His hand moved toward the wound.
“Don’t.” I nudged him away and laid a bandage on it.
His head lifted from the table, but the pain made him hiss. “Fuck, it wasn’t a dream.”
“No. But you had a little faith and you’re going to live.”
Luzon brought a pair of orderlies to help Del off the table. They’d see that he was properly bandaged. A third man stood waiting with the arm of a soldier across his shoulders, his own arm holding the man up by the waist. The soldier was wilting fast; an arrow jutted from his ribs, the blood frothing as his punctured lung leaked through it.
“Next.” I patted the table.