Authors: Beth Cato
To my Grandma, with lots of zorbs.
rom my vantage point on the low crest, I knew Cantonment Five's situation had grown ominous since Miss Leander's missive had arrived in my hand some hours before.
The rising sun painted a sliver of horizon in the deep pink of a healing scar and illuminated the sprawl of the camp below. The whinnies of hungry horses carried at this distance even as the usual booms of shelling continued on the far side. Airships hovered above, like dark, ovoid clouds, though fewer were aloft than usual. No Caskentian army encampment should be so still.
Mercy upon us all if the front line fell. Wasters would be on us like ants on a crumb.
Captain Yancy, the commander of my escort party, conferred with the pickets on duty, their voices rushed. I caught the word “contagious” and immediately brought my horse around.
“It's not believed to be contagious,” I said.
The guard held a fist to his chest in salute. Only his eyes were visible between the thick wrap of scarf and hat. “Miss Percival, m'lady, last I heard, a quarter of the men gone illâÂ”
A quarter of the men. That meant over two thousand. I schooled myself to remain stoic. “Miss Leander said this bore the marks of enteric illness. A matter of the bowels, food poisoning.”
“I've been told not to eat or drink,” he said.
“Good. Captain Yancy?”
We rode down the gradual slope to the cantonment with a heightened sense of urgency. I trusted Miss Leander's judgment else I would not have left her as matron at this vital base. I was still technically headmistress over her and about a dozen other medician women in training, all of us contracted by the Caskentian government to manage medical wards throughout the northern pass. With me were two of my trained medician girls, ten nurses of my hire, and a squadron of two hundred soldiers. The men were a concession of the Colonel at base camp; my midnight plea had only succeeded because the lout was fully drunk. A happy drunk, one easily coaxed by feminine smiles.
Captain Yancy rode alongside me. “M'lady, what should my men do?”
“Keep most of your men with me. We will require assistance in the wards.”
“Whatever you need, Miss Percival.”
I nodded. This old, prickled captain had not been so respectful toward me until recent monthsâÂnot until, through the Lady's grace, I had spared him from multiple amputations. Worshipful officers were useful.
Army encampments always stank of dust and unwashed male bodies and manure, but this one now carried a strong acidic taint. Green-Âclad soldiers stood in the cold morning to watch as we rode past. Others staggered toward the wards, soaked in their own feculence. The quiet, the vulnerability of the place, unnerved me. I'd never seen the like in all my decades of intermittent serÂvice for the Caskentian army.
To the east of the Fair Valley of Caskentia, across the high peaks of the Pinnacles, sprawled desolate plains known as the Waste. During my childhood, the hardscrabble settlers of the Waste rebelled and kidnapped Caskentia's young princess. Her loss began a cycle of war that had continued, on and off, for some fifty years.
I dismounted and bit back a grunt as my stiff old legs met the hard ground. I unstrapped my satchel and draped it across my chest. The dull echoes of bomb blasts carried from nearby trench lines. With a motion to my medicians and nurses, I entered the reception tent.
My nostrils were bludgeoned by a foulness that cannot be described in proper company. The canvas tent was intended to house thirty swaddies, briefly, during triage. Now it was carpeted in a hundred bodies. Some moaned. Others were eerily still. An orderly waved a medician wand over a soldier. The crusted grime on him was immediately rendered to dust by the wand's enchantment, only for the patient to immediately soil himself again. Even so, efforts to sanitize were ongoing throughout the ward.
Despite the sheer numbers of ill men, all of them wore proper triage tags on their boots. I couldn't help a surge in pride. While undeniably a crisis, the matter was being handled with proper compassion and decorum. This was precisely what I trained my girls for, why my academy existed.
A figure in a white dress and laden apron approached through the narrow path between patients, a satchel against her hip. The enchanted shimmer of Miss Leander's robes attracted the attention of most every conscious man in the room. All of my medicians were attired to be unblemished beacons of hope against the most dread of circumstances.
“Miss Percival!” Miss Leander's weary voice creaked, making her sound far older than her twenty-Âtwo years. Her head twitched, her attention jerked from side to side. Others might surmise she was overworked, which was true, but I'd known her for nearly ten years and knew she was acutely hearing the dismayed body songs of each dying soldier as she passed by.
Healing magi like us were a rarity. The Lady's Tree, a hidden wonder whose roots moored the world, had graced Miss Leander with healing skills far superior to my own. Even I required a sanctified circle to listen to a body's song and utilize special herbs to heal.
“Tell me the latest,” I said.
“We've reserved bellywood bark treatment for moribund cases in operations, but as the sun's come up, many more men have been found ill,” she said. Bellywood bark was blessed by the Lady to cure stomach and intestinal grief. Relying on the herb would have quickly saved more men, but our supplies were finite.
“You've relied on standard doctoring as long as possible. Good.” I knew my praise pleased her. Though she was now a woman grown, she was still like a puppy around me, always in want of a scratch behind the ears.
“This new influx has shown us a pattern,” she murmured. “The majority are from the northern side, so I believe the contamination's in water rather than food from the central tent.”
“You haven't stated which enteric illness you believe this to be, Miss Leander.”
She looked away, suddenly the shy pupil. Her brown hair, frazzled from the braids atop her head, lashed at her cheeks. “No. It doesn't .Â .Â . act or
like typhoid, dysentery, or cholera. The music is distinct. Like no zyme I've heard before.”
“How many men have died so far?”
“Thirty. No. Wait.” She stopped and stooped over a soldier, then the one beside him. A wave of grief passed over her face. “Their songs are gone. Two more dead.” As gifted and efficient as she was, she nursed guilt like a blotto with a bottle.
“Water contamination. Hmm. They draw from different water casks for the north and south sides here at Five, correct?”
“Yes. The tanks are full and functioning. I called for Sanitation Officer Wagner .Â .Â .” Her face went momentarily blank. “I'm not sure how long it's been now, IâÂ”
I stopped her with an upraised hand. “Have the casks been inspected today?”
“IâÂno, not that I've been toldâÂbut I know there are medician rods installed to purify the river waterâÂ”
“Never assume,” I said, sharper than intended. “Hundreds of men are ill. That implies taint at a larger source. We can't wait for this Officer Wagner. What of the base command?” I motioned her to follow me outside.
“I sent the Colonel to the operations theatre just before you arrived.” She kept her voice low. “The Lieutenant Commander is now in charge, and in sound health last I heard.”
“The Colonel was given priority in the medicians' queue, yes?”
“Yes.” The tone was grudging. I granted her a nod of approval. In the past, she had tried to prioritize patients without mind to military rank. Caskentian soldiers were a barbarous, illiterate lot. Without proper chain of command to govern them, they were bumbling bumpkins.
“I'll quickly check on the Colonel myself.” I turned toward the door. An orderly, walking backward, almost bowled me over as he hauled in a man.
“Outta the way! Miss Leander! We need you!” he cried.
My annoyance must have been obvious. Miss Leander shot me an apologetic look as she dashed over.
This was no time for me to call out the orderly on a breach of protocol, for ignoring me as the superior matron in the ward. I walked on, frowning. I always hated it when men in horrendous agony were forced to stand and salute for officersâÂthis one little lapse shouldn't irritate me so.
The conditions within the operations ward were not as crowded though still quite wretched. I walked past the mundane surgeons' rooms to the medicians' segment of the chamber. It contained three large circlesâÂovals, reallyâÂmade of one-Âinch copper bands embedded in the portable tile floor. Within each was an operating platform at waist level. The two girls I had brought along were busy at work. All three circles were activated, with healings in progress. The heat of the Lady's magic wafted over me. I breathed it in and, for an instant, knew peace, only for the stench of reality to return seconds later.
The Colonel's healing was at completion. The conducting medician was one I had hired to assist us at Cantonment Five. He nodded a greeting to me, and I stepped across the boundary of the circle. Magic draped over me as if I walked through a warm waterfall.
I could not walk through Miss Leander's circle boundaries. They were as solid as brick walls.
The Lady tended to all life, but magicked circles attracted her intense scrutiny and aid. Her power prickled at my arm hairs beneath my sleeves. The base commander's song flared in my ears. His heart was strong in drumbeats, but strain still showed through the trumpets, tubas, and flutes. The bellywood bark had saved him from death, yet he was still sorely dehydrated and enervated, as expected. He'd sleep a few hours yet as he recovered.
I offered a nod of approval to the medician.
He knelt to touch the edge of the copper circle around us. “Thank you, Lady, for extending your branches,” he murmured. The heat withdrew as if inhaled. I turned to leave.
“Miss Percival? Pardon? I fear I'm almost out of bellywood bark.”
I turned, frowning. “You're lead medician in the operations tent, aren't you? Go pull more out of the safe.”
“There isn't any there. I already went. I thought Miss Leander might have taken it.” His voice turned colder, more snide. “We thought she might have begun conducting healings in the reception tent.”
Which would be a violation of our procedures, and a major snub to the medicians in operations. Miss Leander's age and experience made her the most qualified as matron, but her acute power and recklessness had also alienated her from her peers.
“She's done no healings there, nor has she pulled out the stores of bellywood. You two are the only ones with the key?”
The deep tan of his skin blanched. “Yes. If she doesn't have it, then whoâÂ”
“All the other herbs were there?”
Our safe of excess herbs was kept in our personal barracks. All medicians and nurses were on duty during the crisis. Had the barracks guards been struck down as well?
Outside, I found sick men spaced out as if in cemetery rows. All the scene required was extra dirt to pile atop them.
Captain Yancy, my escort through the night's journey, was there in the thick of things, assisting with triage. I pulled him aside and whispered my concern for the bellywood bark, and of the absence of the Sanitation Officer.
“I'll send men to your barracks, m'lady,” he murmured, understanding well the need for secrecy. We could not afford a panic. “I know Officer Wagner. Played against him at Warriors. My men'll look.”
It didn't surprise me that the men were acquainted through the tavern tabletop game of battling mechanical beasts. “Thank you. I also require an escort of soldiers in a few minutes, sir.” He saluted acknowledgment. In the background, heavy thuds of shelling continued from the battlefield just beyond the low ridge.
I returned to the reception tent, only to find Miss Leander in an even-Âmore-Âflustered state.
Instead of sorting soldiers for triage, she now sorted the living from the dead. At a glance, I knew the toll this took on her. The cacophony of illness was torture for her, but these sudden silencesÂ .Â .Â .
“With me, Miss Leander.” I beckoned her outside. At this juncture, she could not break down in front of the men.
“Miss Percival, I think it's best if I stay. I could use my medician blanket here and start to healâÂ”
“Now, Miss Leander.” I gave her a look.
She followed, her jaw in a tight line as if a bit yanked at her mouth. “All their conditions are turning to moribund at once. Please, let me call on the LadyâÂ”
“How much bellywood do you have?”
“A half jar.” With her knack for healing, that was enough for a dozen men, perhaps.
I let my eyes close for an instant. In my mind's eye, I pictured the Lady's Tree, its branches scraping the heavens. It was an image of spring verdancy and peace, even as winter still mired us in this mountain pass on the eastern side of the Pinnacles. I breathed in, wishing for a moment I could actually smell and taste the Lady's greenery on the wind, as Miss Leander professed to do.
I opened my eyes, instead knowing the squalor of bodies in rapid, foul deterioration. “You will walk with me to inspect the water tanks.”
Normally, stepping away from ill men enabled Miss Leander to relax. Now there was no escape from the distorted music that tortured her ears. In the milky light of an overcast dawn, soldiers dragged themselves from their tents. Compatriots staggered together as if they'd spent the night in their cups. We walked on, surrounded by our escort of hale soldiers.
Then, as if we crossed a border, the presence of illness dissipated. Around us were healthy men, dressed for war in their green greatcoats and jodhpurs and high boots, their expressions grim. They looked as if they were girded to battle against the microscopic zymes that were laying waste to their comrades.
I realized we had indeed crossed a borderâÂthis was the other side of the camp. These men drew from a different set of water tanks.