The sun began setting behind a drift of rain, the walls of Parledach took on the now familiar image of a beast hunched, deadly being cornered in the hunt. The light from the constant flames of damage within and without adding to the ominous threats both hunters and hunted presented. Hunkered in the trenches the hounds of that hunt waited for the next order; soldiers of disparate regions and abilities all at the Imperial behest to bring down this creature of rebellion. Another assault under the cloak of night, accepting the stumbling over ravaged ground, with the hidden traps, for the gift of darkness’ cover, and no problem with direction, you could hardly miss looming town walls.
One section of trench was comparatively tidy as the troopers of LifeGuard engineers industriously checked equipment, in particular the powerful petards to be set against the iron and wood gate, a location they had been patiently digging to, thus lessening the distance.
The smaller figure sat upon a pile of wood methodically storing and securing equipment designed to repair the tools of injury and demolition. Twenty two days she had been here. Part of another of the elite LifeGuard’s contributions, a medical half company. Mostly obliged to care for the injured or sickening lords and senior officers. Ten days ago, she and another medician had been sent to supply emergency aid to the engineers who needed and deserved it. Yesterday Medician Quedir had slipped and died on a discarded blade at an odd angle. It surprised unbloodied folk how many died of accidents on battlefields. Medician Beritt hoped the quota of ill-luck was used up. It had been a bad five days; six dead and three incapacitated was a heavy price on a company starting at fifty and already depleted by an earlier eleven. That’s why she and Quedir had been sent, try and repair minor injuries and turn them back into the fight, show that The Command cared. Quedir’s death had hit hard, it smelt of ill-luck, like smoke and fumes it drained and choked even engineers who lived in the jagged and sudden places.
The captain whose features spoke to her of badly maintained road shambled over to her. He tried a grateful smile, instead the actioned reminded her of the rictus of dying. Being a medician gave you perception.
‘As always, your presence in the attack will be appreciated medician,’ she reckoned he was going to say more but the words appeared stuck, she tried to help them on.
‘Jus’ doin’ mah required duties Cap’n,’ she laid on her sudd-hengestatian accent thick, the general opinion was her folk were nascent roguish clowns, but leather tough and unflappable. She played to the crowd keeping her own feeling tight within. Good for morale? Had the rictus smoothed out?
‘Well you try and be careful medician,’ Scraith but this siege was a bad one ‘We need you,’ And frib’ ,Was he pleading now?
Quick glances up and down the line. She could see pity, concern and some disgust; soldiers knowing their captain was losing whatever captains were supposed to have.
The rain picked up, pushed on by the sudden arrival of a chill wind. Never trust Spring, her farming pa used to say.
‘Breakfast in a sewer,’ groaned a trooper engineer ‘This weather is gonna turn five hundred yards into three miles. Hold my hand Stitches,’ he said to Beritt dredging up some humour. ‘I’m nervous,’
‘Trex,’ she growled ‘Ah’m not touching anything of yours without gauntlets on,’
Laughter skittered about. Thus, pair bantered back and forth, sharing a sudden burden to keep morale steady.
These heroic efforts were to fade as the night settled in and the support ordinance began to call out its arrival, pounding walls and beyond.
‘They’re on target tonight,’ someone said in grim relief, promptly followed by the roar of an explosion further up the right, and a trembling along the trench; screams and curses followed. Then the fearful judgement they all hated ‘Shortfall’
‘That bitty scratching won’t help Stitches,’ Trex said with true sympathy, and Beritt realised she had been clawing at the trench wall. ‘We all do it,’ he added.
‘Prepare’ the captain called out, his voice, quite steady but a sudden illumination displayed the creeping fear.
‘Scraith. They’ve got a whych up there,’
Beritt in a detached way fear brought put the commentator from the south and east of the empire where such terms were used for those who dabbled in the Ethereal. This one was for lighting up places making stark the ground before them bright with a metallic sharpness. A heavy hand fell upon her shoulder, she turned to the stone faced sergeant, the last one of his rank.
‘Don’t forget Medician. Stay back in the rush. That’s where your work will be,’
‘I know sarge’, ‘she said, wondering why he’d felt the need to say that, she’d scrambled out of the trench three times since her arrival attending to and dragging back the injured who had a chance.
‘Ready engineers,’ called out the captain, the word ‘forward’ trembling on his lips.
The sergeant stood up, looked to the ground ahead and said above all the roar, and with all due respect.
‘Captain. You can go and scraith yourself,’ and with that drove his combat knife efficiently into his own neck, as he fell, the blood showering over Beritt’s boots.
The company survivors looked down at the body, Beritt in the grip of her training checking he was indeed dead.
‘Damn,’ said Trex ‘That’s a shame. Poor ol’ Sarge Ferred,’
‘Just lost his step on the road. That’s all,’ one Beritt knew just as ‘Cheerful Chye’ spoke in his usual fatalistic way. ‘One charge too many,’
The Captain, tears beginning to trickle, nonetheless scrambled out of the trench.
‘C’mon,’ he cried hoarsely ‘I’m not letting Ferred be remembered just for this. He was there for us every other time. C’mon,’ this time the command came as a visceral roar, and not looking back he was off.
Trex huffed, Chye wiped his nose on his sleeve and they were off, the rest following. Beritt closed Ferred’s eyes and placed his cap over his face and obeyed his last order.
To either side of her, there were lines, columns and clumps of men hurling themselves to the walls; distractions she reckoned, for that fellow with the lights was swinging his attention in all directions, panicked, she felt. Two engineers were down, wounds sufficient for her know that was it. Another clutched his leg, bone protruding. She slipped alongside, the swearing fellow, pushed a bottle of her own mix into his mouth and while he drunk she set a crude splint on his leg.
‘What the scraith was that Stitches,’ he gasped at the liquid burnt down his throat.
‘Make you forget the pain. Y’all crawl back now,’ she said and was in pursuit of the rest. Another was seated on a mound, holding his left arm by a thread and saying ‘Oh dear. Oh dear,’ over and over in a slightly distressed way. Beritt unhunched up to him, consoled him, into having another of her mixes to drink, snipped through last threads of flesh, gave him the arm to hold, while she slapped some ‘goop’ on the wound to staunch the blood.
‘Now trooper y’all get your backside back to LifeGuard Command. Hear?’
‘Will do Stitches. Oh dear. Oh dear,’
Beritt sloshed and slipped on, the force of a nearby detonation hurling her into the cover of an upturned cart. Troopers were catching breath and whatever sanctuary they could. Trex was snarling, lifting up the heavy barreled falconade, an Ethereally powered device, aiming at the fellow on the walls. A dulled red bolt of energy hissed forth, catching the target, pitching him back, screaming and burning. Trex howled in high-pitched unhinged glee, jumping up and down, heedless of the danger.
‘Yeah! Gotcha you braxer! Weren’t ready for that uh?’
Beritt tugged at his belt to get him into cover, he lashed at her, told her she was a bitty girl and stick to stitching folks up. In response she kneed him in the groin, as he bent double her fist struck him in the jaw, sending him into the wagon. Whereupon she jumped on his chest and shaking him.
‘Y’all keep tha’ damn stupid head down, knuckle brain. T’otherwise Ah’ll kick yore delicates over tha’ wall!’
And was gone towards the next injury.
Trex blinked, puzzled.
‘Was that Stitches who pounded me?’
‘You did have it coming,’ Chye observed.
Beritt was curtailing a bleeding arm when a group reached the gate. Five of them two hold up wooden cover while the Captain supervised the fixing of the explosives, missiles and rubble either deliberate or by detention falling about the party. The remainder of the company unleashed aimed missile contributions. A battle against circumstance and chance taking place. You could not expect luck to hold in that storm of Humanity’s cursed doing.
One of the shield bearers was caught in the wash of some incendiary, thus turning to a threshing thing.
A chorus of oaths and two troopers were out dashing to assist; Beritt in their wake, eyes fixed on the victim, who in his pain had knocked into the another working at the charge. Beritt lighter and used to sprinting to suffering, gauntleted reached the growing crisis first, snatched the burning man, with heels dug in pulled him away, throwing him to the ground, leaving everyone else to whatever was necessary, burning fleshing assailing her nose, screams into her ears. Knife drawn she plunged it into the man’s throat, the screams turning to a gurgle, and finally a sigh. She looked up, no one questioned her releasing the fellow and stemming his panic. Anyway, they were busy.
‘Charges set ready,’ came the practiced call.
‘Charges ignited,’ the second.
‘Retire,’ the captain commanded.
At this the cover was dropped and the men turned to run.
Beritt did not know the whys and hows, but the charges seemed to explode too early, throwing everyone to their faces into the filth. Although winded she managed to get to her feet, squinting into the smoke and flame she looked for injuries.
‘Scraith. We done it,’ that was Trex, then hoarse and scared ‘Where The Cap’n?’
Beritt was already crawling to the latest body.
‘He’s down,’ she yelled, swearing on reaching him, some piece of debris flung by the explosion had sliced open his midriff, she supposed he had been looking back to check the effects. Not a place to conduct anything medical she began to haul him back, fortunate he was unconscious, others reached her and between them they got him into the trench, where she worked to cover the injury, keep the filth out and innards in. There was a lot of talk and shouting going on, nothing to do with her. His eyes flickered open, and she forced open his mouth to administer the last of her mixes, he proffered thanks, as she continued.
‘Keep me alive until we are relieved,’ he hissed ‘Someone has to give orders,’
In their trench, now forgotten as soldiers tore at the gap and fought into the town, the engineers waited, as ordered by their dying captain, the medician keeping his pain bearable and innards secured.
An officer arrived, gaunt and as bloodied as they were.
‘Engineers. Your task his done retire to LifeGuard Command,’
The man knelt by his fellow officer, words were exchanged, the captain died.
The medician punched the side of the trench.
‘Lieutenant sir?’ she asked, ‘Did you see two troopers making their ways back,’
‘One crawling and one who had lost his arm?’
‘I am afraid I saw their bodies,’
‘Scraith! Damn to fifth hell!’
‘You did your best medician. You couldn’t be expected to save folk with such wounds. Not here,’
Lined and dirty face, her lips twisted into what expression the officer could not make out.
‘A girl can dream sir,’
And a girl would dream.
The wrong sorts.