Intent: cold and raw. A precise mix sufficient to clear your senses. Visceral, held in check by the focus which in turn fed back on that which it supressed. All was balanced for the work ahead.
The figure finally moved out of its cover, slow, patient progress to the campsite, watching the two slouching, complacent guards. The figure did not take anything for granted though, only moving when the guards shuffled off away from the interloper’s planned route.
The plan was clear enough, its execution requiring enduring caution, stealth and concentration. Acceptance of a long night essential.
Eight years’ service, Principal Lieutenant Vragen by custom accepted an audible oath as the first sound to leave the lips of a soldier dragged out of sleep. Even dodging the small pillow, sent with some accuracy, considering the dispatcher’s eye were still closed. Eyes widened on seeing the target’s rank.
‘My apologies, Principal Lieutenant. Albeit deep in the first sleep after two days and nights of toil. That was indefensible. What are your orders sir?’
By the time the disciplined apology seasoned with an excuse had reached his ears the soldier was out of bed at an attention which despite the baggy nightgown would do credit to a parade ground. Remarkable recovery, but not swift enough to tame the twinkle in the eyes and the faint twist to the right corner of the mouth. Working the arts of interrogation and investigation gave you an edge in observation.
‘Place yourself at ease Medician. I shall overlook the pillow. Reflexes in the best traditions of the LifeGuard.’ there was a brief exchange of restrained grins ‘I am here to call upon your skills. We are required to supply a miracle. In this case the saving, not taking of a life,’
He was but half way through the opening of the explanation when she uncaring of his presence, pulled off her nightgown, and began to dress into uniform clothing. Her body marked with scars of service and personal shaves with death.
‘Somebody of note Principal Lieutenant?’ she asked.
‘Lord Lemp’s son Idjel,’
‘I thought,’ she said combing fair hair into order ‘he was out somewhere learning,’ -a sarcastic tone entered her voice- ‘a soldier’s trade?’
‘His father purchased a commission, in The Hounds Vigilant,’ their sarcastic exchanged continued, her next contribution a harsh bark of a laugh.
Dressed and gathering up her medical supplies, she continued.
‘Learning how to avoid proper combat and which are the best villages to terrorise and sack, all in the name of the Emperor,’
‘Still not deemed of official concern to the LifeGuard I fear,’ he said in finality.
Their arrival was greeted by a flustered Lord Lemp, the close presence of a LifeGuard outpost being a very mixed blessing to lesser nobles. To his due, Lemp currently embraced the blessing aspect with effusive thanks for their swiftness. Vragen was all diplomacy, any opportunity for investigation was to be grasped. His medician however was for grim efficiency. With a brief, civil request to ‘see the patient’ she set the lord and his senior officials scuttling off, she at their heels like a shepherding dog, her officer in their wake.
At the door of the bedroom, coat and hat removed, hair secured under a tight cap, while hands washed in an astringent of her own, and ignoring the initial goggling that there was a woman here, her emotionless interrogation of the circumstances began. Where had he been? When did this come to the attention of his father? Had they given him any treatments yet?
‘Hmm. Down in Hegohel. Yes. There are three strains of plague there. A day out from coming home with escort? Really? Staggered in by himself? Principal Lieutenant sir. The previous camp needs to be traced and eradicated sir. Expeditiously, sir,’
And having given that command to her commander, she entered the room. Alone.
Yes, a befouled mess, already. Facial skin reddened in patches. Lost in a delirium. Sweating. Threshing too. Not even the lowest of servants attending. The word Plague was enough to let The Fear out. Even mild ones which left the suffered scarred and thus marked. She hitched on her face mask and eased on her slender leather gloves. To work then.
Since there was no one around she dealt with the threshing by kneeling her full weight on his chest, in other situations a man would pay good money for such treatment. In a perfunctory manner she clutched his face, twisting it to right and left, leaned in, he inadvertently helped by screaming in pain, allowing her a good view of mouth and upper throat. In equally unsympathetic manner she examined other parts, his weakness stifling true resistance. Yes, definitely
Outside she deftly removed cap and gloves, dropped them into a nearby ornamental urn and having washed her hands in astringent emptied some into the said receptacle. She regarded the assembled quartet.
‘Carmine Furusio,’ she announced and raised one hand to still panic ‘It does not travel by air, not even casual touch. Uncleanliness is the cause. It’s curable. The problem is with cadavers, other illnesses can fester. The camp and burn everything, Principal Lieutenant, especially bodies, no survivors. The Good Lord God knows what else mercenaries carry under their skin. Now please, Principal Lieutenant, sir,
Witnessing the prompt exit Lord Lemp, was taken a’ back at the authority these Medicians carried. He did not even question her peremptory tone when she addressed everyone as to what she would require for assist, nor confirmation she would attend to this alone. There was relief on that score.
First, the sight of the carrion birds, then the audible sound of flies, of course the stench and finally the stillness of the camp. Vragen did not have to command the party to halt. Taking a page from the Medician’s book, on dismounting he covered his face and hands, approached slowly, studied the first body. By the distance from the perimeter he guessed the fellow had tried to flee. Some of the horses had broken from tethering, others had survived by reducing the grass around them. No sign of plague. He let them loose, they made for a stream. He returned to the first body avoiding the others. All very sudden, this attack of plague.
He gave the order to collect the first kindling, to start an initial fire allowing safe ground to build a bigger base for another ring of fire, moving over more scorched land, poking roasted bodies closer in, until the dead were piled into one place and the last great fire started. The Medician had trusted him with the overseeing. The men did too.
Upon returning he found Lord Lemp in a mixed state, agitated, relieved and concerned all at once. If there was not such an air of death about the sight might have seemed comic. Without waiting for the dismount he addressed Vragen.
‘My son lives,’ he said, although the joy was tempered with distraction ‘The Medician remained with him all the past day, night and this day too,’
A loud keening came from the room one flight above them, Lemp glanced upwards, his mouth working while his brain sought words.
‘It seems he must lose one leg. A pernicious infection, she told me. She is about the business now,’ a hope born of desperation into his voice ‘She assures me he will not feel too much pain, there are potions y’see,’
Smoke drifted across the courtyard.
‘She is most meticulous. Insists everything is burnt; to ashes. Says it will halt any progression. We all have to wash our hands too.’ A nervous laugh followed. She’d unsettled the man, Vragen was certain. A signature trait she forcefully employed when encountering negligible but unpleasant folk. The thin mouth, cold remote tone, and dark eyes, the unrelenting stare could curled you. Even more damned unsettling when you knew how cheerful, chatty and mischievous she could be with most folk.
The sound pitched to a sharp screech and as quickly into a moan, and silence. A small audience look upwards, expectant, waiting for the announcement. No doubt, Vragen reckoned, as ordered.
The window flew open, the face gaunt and severe looked down.
‘The leg has been successfully removed,’ she called out, clear and composed ‘Just above the knee, the area cauterised. Squire Idjel has lapsed into acceptable unconsciousness. I require assistance in cleaning and cleansing. The risk of Plague transference has ceased,’
And the window was closed.
The Medician stood before the Lord Vragen felt the rolls might be reversed. She presented two bottles of dark wine coloured mix.
‘Your son will live. Though, Lord, he will be without the vitality associated with a man of his age. This is Extract of Herstel. Ensure he has one quarter wine cup of this each day until both bottles are finished, this will aid his progress. Some would say you should give him a stronger dose. The LifeGuard does not recommend this.’
The duo rode away, they examined the ground scored by fire. The Medician grunted some acceptance. Vragen asked her if Idjel would truly live.
‘I cannot say for certain, Principal Lieutenant, sir. The fellow was weakened. It depends on the care he now receives. In body, heart and soul.’
Vragen was writing his report, based upon The Medician’s own brief, terse account. He was musing not just on the sparseness but her reply to his question of Idjel’s survival.
Vragen’s experience tapped at him. In this case, by her tone and expression she might as well have said ‘Don’t know. Don’t care,’
Some might have admired her composure and dedication dealing with any plague victim. Yet her actions did fit with her attitude, in particular to someone who had ridden with one of the most undisciplined and battle-shy mercenaries of the empire. Consider The LifeGuard’s institutional acceptance of medicians’ inclinations to be covert executioners of folk they judged unworthy to live. She had had ample expert opportunity to ensure the fellow died. No local would have suspected. Instead, she had left with gratitude about her.
Long enough in one area of expertise could leave you agitated as well as alert. Investigation work enabled you to know which references to go to.
Even an outpost of LifeGuard held a sufficiently basic reference library of works, political, cultural, religious and medical. The latter being of his current interest.
‘Carmine Furusio,’. The ailment was indeed one of the more modest afflictions; practitioners opinions seemed sanguine. The symptoms did remind him of encounters in his career. He moved to chapters on poisons. ‘Cremisi Astuto’. Both tuscatalian phrases alluding to red, the former plague, but the latter, no, translated to ‘astute’. Ideal name. Similar symptoms. Only always deadly. Made more sense. Plague camps had bodies lying in parody of repose; this one, they had been scattered, fallen, giving impressions of prior staggering.
Someone had struck, carefully at night. Cooking pots, wine barrels. Revenge upon one group or just a targeting of mercenaries. How had Idjel survived? Easiest part. His own supplies, the last victim when poison was running out. Fleeing in fear at the sudden deaths. Whoever could answer was long gone. A fair reasoning.
The Medician would have surmised the difference too. She covered for them adding her own nuances on the survivor. Had the amputation been necessary? What weaknesses had been left to pervade? A miserable fate. And her parting words, a LifeGuard caution on medication. Most nobility chaffed at LifeGuard strictures. Her words a positive dare to do so. A carefully planted verbal toxin; belated execution by circuitous default.
And evidence burnt.
Motive? Swift undressing had revealed four close, long, narrow pale scars down her arm. A woman’s nails. Medicians made light of small injuries unconsciously inflicted by patients in torment. Dying of multiple rapes, or sadistic injuries, driven mad at death of children..
One man’s prolonged torment both symbolic justice and a balm for scars to limb and soul? How many other applications? Before and to come?