The thunder of dragons’ wings heralded the arrival of more wounded. I glanced at Doran as the young Shaman’s Apprentice sighed. The blonde stubble on his face was streaked with sweat, and his eyes had that exhausted thousand-yard stare. I probably looked worse. The fighting at the front had been fierce. We’d been mending the broken bodies that had been airlifted back to us for hours.
“Healers! Incoming wounded!” shouted a sergeant through the open flap of the hospice tent. I caught a glimpse of the landing field outside, clouds of dust swirling in the hot sunshine as the EVAC dragons came to ground. The huge beasts landed almost daintily with their battered living cargo gurney-strapped to their scaled sides.
Corpsmen dashed to the flying ambulances, quickly offloading the injured soldiers and then hustled towards our tent, bushflies buzzing halos over the wounded. Another load of men for us to fix. Gods, was I tired.
Doran had already cleared a cot, tossing bloodied rags and bandages into an overflowing waste bin. He had his All-Charm out when the corpsmen arrived with the first soldier, and was murmuring the initial Healing Chant by the time I’d fetched my (hopefully) sterilized surgical kit. The soldier groaned when laid on the tainted white sheet.
“This one’s pretty bad, sir,” said one of the corpsmen. “Looks like he took a broad-axe to the ribs, and maybe a lance point in the thigh. Lost some blood, and his aura feels weak.”
“Good diagnosis.” I gauged the soldier’s survival chance at maybe 60/40. “More on the way?” I asked. The damn bushflies had followed the wounded in, and an orderly was shooing them off the battered bodies scattered around the operating area. Other Healer teams set to work on the injured soldiers flowing into the hospice. I knew the place stank, but what “clean” smelled like… I couldn’t remember.
“Yeah.” The corpsman pushed his dirty cap back from his forehead. “The Black Duke’s forces have launched a major offensive. Looks like a full division of Blue Ogres hit our front lines, and skirmisher teams of Raptors have flanked our cavalry.” He glanced around the hospice floor. “It’s bad, sir. I’d be prepared to move out at short notice, if I were you.”
“Great,” said Doran, as he swapped his All-Charm for a Peace Stone, and gently laid the purple gem on the soldier’s forehead. “Capt’n, we have to get on this guy fast.”
“Right,” I said, as the corpsman saluted and rushed out of the tent. Our Mobile Ambulance Sorcery Hospice unit had been ten miles behind the front. “I thought this sector was supposed to be quiet…”
“That’s what you get for listening to officers. Sir.” said Doran, examining the patient. “His aura’s weak, but I think I can stabilize it.” The purple stone resting on the wounded man’s forehead faintly pulsated. “I’m going to try the Oak Psalm,” the young SA said, reaching into his worn charm-sack with grimy fingers.
I nodded, and applied two thick leeches to stanch the flow of blood from the puncture in the man’s leg. Then I cut away the bloodied shards of leather armor from his side with a serrated blade. “By the Mother-Maker,” I muttered. His ribs were a pulverized, heaving mess. The soldier wheezed, Doran’s incantations rising and falling with the man’s labored breathing.
We were professionals, performing meatball healing with science & sorcery. One couldn’t work without the other.
“I’ll have to put him under,” I said.
Doran nodded, focused on willing the Great Tree of Life’s strength into the wounded man. I reached for a HedgeGrog in the stainless bin behind me. The docile animals’ musk produced a narcotic stupor when inhaled. “Gods damn it!” I said, finding only one of the soft, gray fur balls. “Where’s the rest of them?”
“The guards sell them to frontline troops,” said Doran. “They say a quick wiff’ll lighten up the worst day in the trenches. Not that I would know anything about that. Sir.”
“Uh huh.” I gently placed the small, quivering mammal over the soldier’s filth-caked face. “Breath deep, son,” I said.
The wounded soldier bucked, than the animal’s scent filled his lungs. In seconds, the soldier lay still. I lifted the HedgeGrog away, and examined those shattered ribs. I could cut away half the third rib, and shave the splinters off the other two… But why weren’t those leeches working on his leg?
“Capt’n, an enchanted tip caused this puncture wound,” said Doran. “I’d say it’s tainted with Dark Oil… but I can’t be sure.” His brow furrowed above his masked mouth. “We gotta counter the spell, or he’ll either bleed to death or lose his Soul-Force. Foxglove powder with a Purifying Prayer?”
“Yeah,” I said, reaching for the herb vials scattered in my surgical kit’s open tray. Supplies were getting low. “I could use another pair of hands here,” I said, glancing back at the soldier’s cracked ribs. “Nurse!”
“Here, Doctor,” came a voice at my elbow. Good, it was Ruthann, one of the best nurses in the unit.
“Prep that rib area for surgery, I’m going to have to do some sawing in there. Better put a leech on that main artery. Doran’ll work a chant once we’ve dealt with the spear hole in this guy’s leg.”
“Yes sir,” They both replied. I’d seen Doran making time with Ruthann around the camp. She didn’t seem like his type. But then, war made strange bedfellows.
“Those leeches aren’t cutting it, Capt’n,” said Doran.
“I’m on it.” I hustled around the unconscious soldier, half-slipping on the moist tarp floor. As soon as I sprinkled a thin coating of powder from the vial over the soldier’s wound, Doran began a deep, rolling dirge. His spell activated the curing agent in the Foxglove, and almost immediately, the plasma flow from the puncture ebbed.
“That was quick,” I said. “You keep this up; you’ll make Surgical Wizard soon!”
“Promises, promises,” Doran said. “I’d rather be chanting crop growing spells back home on the farm. Sir.”
More bushflies buzzed about our heads. I dimly heard another drumbeat of dragon’s wings outside, over the low din inside the operating tent. How many more wounded would be shoveled onto us today?
“Captain, the patient’s ready, if you two are done discussing career plans?”
We joined Ruthann on the soldier’s right side. “Get another leech on him, and then hand me a bone file,” I said, then looked at Doran. “Horse Chestnut Powder to start, and close with an Aloe/Bladderwort solution?”
“Going old school is fine with me, Capt’n,” the young shaman said. “Whenever you’re ready to start on those ribs.”
We worked fast, magic and medicine tending the soldier’s wounds. I wondered how it was in the days before Dame Florence and Sir Alistair Crowley. When thickheaded bigots would rather men die then combine the forces of science and sorcery to save lives.
Then I thought about the millions who had perished by magic and machinery merged in war. The sword cuts both ways.
The soldier looked like he’d pull through. He might even be walking again, in a month or so. “Mother-Maker,” I muttered The Healer’s Sigh of Thanks. “I’ve kept another of your children alive today.”
There was a flurry of activity at the tent’s main opening, and everyone not tending patients snapped to attention. “AT EASE!” boomed a voice drenched with command. “Who’s Senior Officer of this Hospice?”
I looked around the operating area. Major Killebrew was nowhere to be seen.
“Looks like you’re the officer in charge. Sir,” said Doran.
“I don’t have time…”
“We can finish up here, Captain,” said Ruthann.
“Thanks,” I said, stripping off my surgical mask. I rolled the kinks out of my shoulders as I passed operating tables littered with sick and wounded men. The flies were everywhere.
A short, bald officer with a salt and pepper mustache stood at the entrance, flanked by a pair of sergeants massive enough to be used as bridge abutments. I tossed a weary salute. “Captain Aalbert Blyleven, 134th MASH.”
“Colonel Hrbek Carew, Emperor’s Guard.” My eyes caught the red and white cross of his rank insignia. The Guard was notorious for its fanatical devotion to combat.
“What can we do for you, Colonel?” I asked.
“Where is your commanding officer, Captain?”
“Must be indisposed, sir,” I replied. “We’ve been hit hard with wounded since…” I saw the long shadows cast from the sycamore tree overhanging the worn path from the dragon landing zone to the tent. Gods, it was near evening. My stomach rumbled, and I could taste sawdust in my throat.
“Very well.” The colonel glanced around the murky interior of the tent.
Yeah, this is where guys wind up when you tell the trumpeter to blow ‘Charge’, I thought.
“Walk with me, Captain,” he said, as he spun around on his heels toward the tent’s opening.
I savored the fresh air outside. We’d been warned to be ready to move out fast. But there weren’t enough evac dragons hunched around the field to begin to carry off the wounded, if we had to break camp now…
“Casualties have been heavy?” It was more a statement then a question.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I glanced up, and saw a flight of smaller, swifter dragons circling overhead. Fighters, bred to hurl flame and ravage the enemy’s forces from the air. A troop of war-rhinos stood close by, steel sheathed horns catching the day’s final sun. There must have been a battalion of armed men milling about. It looked like the Guard was using our MASH camp as a staging area. That was against the Queen Juanita Convention.
“They will be heavier,” said the colonel. His twin massive goons followed us. “The enemy has attacked aggressively, and The Emperor’s forces are… re-adjusting to the changing battlefront.” A war-rhino snorted, and its rider loosened the thick straps holding a repeating catapult on its back. The beast went back to nuzzling the dry brush by its feet.
“This Hospice unit is directly in the path of the enemy’s assault. We’ve gathered forces to meet them on that low ridge to the west.” The Colonel shielded his eyes from the setting sun with a black gloved hand. “Your unit will be available for tending casualties, and returning them to action as quickly as possible?”
That wasn’t a question either. Light dust rolled across flattened grass, as a bison team hauled a transport carrier full of sweating, armor-clad men towards a narrow draw in the foothills. The soldiers looked glum. It wasn’t a good idea for them to pass a MASH unit on their way to the front.
“You want us to stay here?” I said. Off to the west, pillars of smoke lazily climbed into the bright sky. Half the fighter dragons circling overhead peeled off and headed in that direction. “Colonel, we’re swamped right now. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to handle another influx of wounded like we’ve had today.” The Hospice tent flap slapped open, and a pair of corpsmen carried out a litter bearing a sheeted body.
“What I want, Captain, is to stem the Black Duke’s assault,” said the colonel, ignoring the corpse. “My orders are to counter the enemy’s forces on the other side of that ridge.”
“We’re too close to the front lines right now!” I said. “We could be taking indirect fire! You can’t ask a Hospice staff to operate under conditions like that!
“Captain. This is not a discussion.” A platoon of crossbowmen hustled by, their brightly feathered arrows splashes of peacock color against their drab uniforms. “We will be assembling ground forces. Here. And using this EVAC field for forward air control. Here. This will draw enemy attention, and there will be casualties. Here.” The colonel gazed at me coldly. “I haven’t the time, or inclination to debate. I have my orders and now you have yours.”
I’d seen his type before. Imperial Youth Group, top of his class at the War Academy, and friendless all the way. Probably married into a minor noble family, and was making up for the homeliness of his betrothed by pushing for general rank before he turned 40. A sheer asshole, with the power to get us all killed.
“What about supplies? Sir?” I asked. “We’re running low on medicine, and our shamans are getting horse. We need to evacuate the worst cases to the rear…” A strangled scream from inside the operating tent spread on the thin wind.
“No one is retreating from this position as long as I am in command,” said the colonel. His attendant tree trunks radiated mute distain. The Emperor’s Guard dominated the rest of the services. If this bald hardass told me that we were staying put…
A guard gyrfalcon screeched an air raid warning as a flight of black and purple dragons swooped in from the west, hugging the treetops. A war-rhino bellowed as an airborne tongue of flame scorched its human rider into charcoal. The remaining EVAC dragons on the ground frantically slipped their tethers, while the enemy fighters scattered cluster bombs over the landing field. The fist-sized globes held a potent mix of pitch and wolfs bane, igniting wherever they struck. Men and beasts screamed, as I dove into the drainage ditch beside the hospice tent. Clasping my hands over my ears, I tried borrowing into the soft earth, as crackling flames mingled with the beating of massive wings, and the taunt twanging of the AA catapults frantically hurling bolts at the sky-born attackers.
In seconds, it was quiet.
I quivered in the ditch, and thought of Miriam and our first date at the Equinox Faire. We’d ridden a toothless transport dragon that was spending its last days hauling civilians up over the treetops for a few minutes of squealing excitement. I remembered the cool air rushing by, the sunlight on the old beast’s blotchy scales and Miriam holding tightly to me.
Miriam. Where are you, right now?
The moans of scorched men and wounded animals broke the unearthly stillness. I raised my head, slowly. A team of firefighting mammoths were being goaded towards the biggest blaze, trunks erect. They hosed down the flight shed that had been torched by the air attack, than hustled away on thick stiff legs, hairy ears flopping.
I remembered to breathe again, and slowly pulled myself out of the drainage trench. My legs ached, and my back was stiff. I was getting too old for this.
The Colonel remained standing nearby, his uniform immaculate save for three dark flecks of soot. “The Black Duke’s aerial forces had the element of surprise, but wasted it on poor targeting,” he said. “We won’t be caught so easily again.” One of his attendants was slowly, almost sheepishly arising from a shallow depression in the ground. What remained of the other was a twisted, firebomb-ravaged lump. The Colonel nodded once to the surviving sergeant. “Mr. Gaetti, see to his remains.” Gaetti eyed what was left of his companion. I thought I saw him shudder.
The MASH staff was already streaming out of the main tent, Doran and Ruthann leading the way.
“Are you alright, Captain?” asked Ruthann.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I’m going to cast an X-am Spell, just to be sure,” said Doran.
“I said I’m fine! There’s wounded to tend to…”
“Regulation E-5, section 2112,” said Doran. “Senior medical staff suspected of injury will be…”
“Shove your damn regulations!”
“Just trying to give you an out for taking the rest of the day off. Sir.”
“Why did HQ give me a comedian for a Shaman’s Apprentice?”
A mammoth hosed down a patch of smoldering brush alongside the MASH tent. Dense white smoke rolled over the faded brown tarp, as the pachyderm plodded away.
“No visible external injuries, Captain,” said Ruthann. “Seriously, are you okay?”
“Nah, I’m fine,” I said. “We need to set up a triage station out here, and start working on these newly wounded. There won’t be room inside the tents to handle them all.” The stench of burning flesh filled the air. It seemed the whole world stank of death.
“A sensible course of action, Captain,” said the Colonel. “I can trust your staff will support our operations?”
“Yes, Colonel!” I snapped. “We’ll ‘support’ your operations! We’ll patch up the wounded, and we’ll patch them up again, after you’ve thrown them back into the meat grinder!”
Ruthann stood by quietly, as Doran examined the ant colony he’d just discovered at his feet.
“Then we’ll do it all over again, to a whole new batch of poor, loyal sots, who have gotten themselves immolated for the Emperor’s sake. Sir!” A little voice in the back of my head was saying “Shut up.” I ignored it.
“Is there a problem, Captain, with you directing your staff to do their duty for the Emperor’s war effort?”
“No problem! Sir!” I replied. “No problem doing our duty! Sir!” I moped the sweat and grim off my forehead. “What problem could we have, with no relief supplies and shamans chanting themselves mute, Sir! What problem could we have working to save soldiers, when we’re about to be on the front lines ourselves?” I knew I was shouting. “What problem could we have with that? Sir!”
“Capt’n, its okay,” said Doran, quietly. “We’ll get back to work.”
He was a good kid. I hoped I could buy him a mug of ale before punching my ticket to the Imperial salt mines.
“Yes,” said the Colonel. “It is… ‘Okay.’”
He gave me a bland, avian stare. “Gods’ know war is hell,” he said. “The Emperor asks much of us, and ours is but to do it and quite often die.” The Colonel’s eyes fell towards the remains of his bodyguard being carted away. “We need courage from you in our MASH units as much as we do from our warfighters on the front lines.”
He looked out at the smoldering landing field. “I didn’t quite catch what you said after confirming your unit will support our operations.”
The Colonel glanced back at me. “The Emperor appreciates the sacrifices you have and will continue to make. Well done, Captain.” And with that he spun away, toward a group of Guard officers who were setting up a command station near a patch of dogwood.
I took a deep breath.
“You just popped off to an Emperor’s Guard Colonel!” said Doran.
“And,” said Ruthann. “It looks like you’ll live to tell about it.”
“Cool!” said Doran.
“Alright,” I said. “Like the man says, we got a job to do. Let’s get that triage station going out here.” The Hospice staff was already setting up cots outside the tent. More kettles were being heated for the honey-soaked tea the shamans needed to lubricate their throats. I heard the ripping of cloth into makeshift bandages, the sterile clang of forceps against steel, and the low rumbling of the Over-Chant the shamans invoked before tackling a fresh batch of wounded. I could taste the smell of mangled men and beasts on my tongue.
And I thought of Miriam’s slim arms around my waist during our first dragon flight, and how long it might be until I saw my fair wife’s smile again.
BIO: Michael A. Clark’s short stories have been published in The Penman Review and AHF Magazine. He lives in Charlotte, NC and works in industrial automation and hazardous chemical management. Born in Los Angeles, Clark grew up in Sharpsville, PA, a small town that’s grown smaller with age. He earned a BS in Geology from Edinboro University (not of Scotland), and has worked as a radio news reporter, a metrology systems sales engineer and a butcher’s assistant. Clark spends as much time as he can outdoors, enjoying biking, hiking and listening to the sounds of the woods and fields. Baseball is his sports addiction.