It was hard to tell which was worse: the shrieks of agony from the wounded, piercing the air, or the stink of sweat, piss, and blood. The sudden screams still sent a jolt up Sathra's spine and the tang of infected flesh in the air still made her gag occasionally, despite the incense and candles. She swallowed hard, eyes closed and pinching the bridge of her nose, trying to diffuse her jangling nerves.
Another explosion of rock and stone rumbled in the distance, followed by the yells of soldiers. Another bombardment. Sathra flinched, suppressing a scream of her own. She could have sworn she felt the walls vibrate. Dust motes hovered in the shards of light that angled down through the open windows into the cool interior of the infirmary.
She was not unused to calls of distress, the groans of the feverish, or the cloying stench of broken bodies and all their expulsions, but never so many at a time and never so twisted and ripped. All of them someone's baby once, she thought to herself. Some she had even delivered, and with much steadier hands than she had now, as she tended to them once again on the precipice of life. Her eyes glistened. 'Don't think; don't think,' she muttered to herself, puffing out her cheeks.
'Sathra, I said: clean it.' Lassif, the chief physician. His clipped tone snapped her out of her reverie. 'Our war is fought not against cuts and breaks but against infection.' He looked at her, wide-eyed, intense, expecting a response.
She blinked, bringing herself back into the moment. 'Yes. Yes, I know,' she murmured. She reached for the sponge sitting in a dish of water infused with lemon juice and cleansing herbs. Sathra squeezed it out and it marbled the water with red liquid. She dabbed it around the wound, removing smears of blood. But only temporarily. The patient, a junior guardsman, blanched, his teeth gritted and brow sheened with perspiration. Eighteen summers old, perhaps twenty. His leather surcoat and cotton jerkin were splayed open, both layers cut through by Lassif's shears in order to get to his injury. The physician had removed the arrow and Sathra had cleaned the wound as best she could but it still leaked with every heave of the young man's chest.
'Should be clotting by now,' muttered Lassif. He sounded annoyed, as if he was chiding the soldier for the failure of his body.
'Perhaps some fragment of the arrowhead is — '
'I checked,' said Lassif, interrupting with more even snap than usual.
His assistant bit her lip. Perhaps he was right. Sathra sponged the seepage again and the patient flinched again and the wound bled again. 'Yes, it should be clotting. So the fact that it is not, must mean there is something still aggravating the wound.'
'Just clean it,' said Lassif, turning to attend another patient. 'We need to apply sutures and move on.' He sounded insistent. He often did, assuming that his position meant he should brook no resistance from those under his charge — either helpers or patients. Sathra had learned a lot from Lassif but she could read a patient better than him and instinct told her something was still wrong. The young man was brave but felt a profound, internal pain, she could tell as if his whole body was communicating a deeper complication. Not all knowledge came from academic training. She had been a midwife for over three decades — long past the point where having a child of her own was a possibility. All the scholarship in the world did not usurp her experience.
Sathra soothed his brow with her sponge and leaned close to him. 'Think of a special person,' she whispered. 'Someone you have a liking for…they're going to be so impressed when they hear of your courage.' He managed a weak smile in response before she picked up her tweezers and teased at the ragged skin and flesh around his wound.
With a sharp gasp, the soldier arched his back.
At this, Lassif's head turned sharply, annoyance on his face. 'What are you doing? You're only supposed to. . .' His voice trailed off as Sathra ignored him. His features darkened even more. 'Sathra! I said to just — '
'There!' said Sathra, raising the tweezers. They held a tiny blood-covered sliver of metal. Before she could give Lassif a triumphant smile, the door burst open. Two guards carried in an injured man in uniform between them, his head sagging and his feet dragging on the floor. Blood trickled down his legs, trailing dots and dashes of liquid crimson on the tiles.
'The walls, more damage,' said one of the guards, gasping for breath. 'A new skirmish, on the battlements.'
'Fire too, this time,' the other added. 'Missiles of molten lead.'
Perfect, thought Sathra, blowing hard and trying not to think of the horrors to come. Burns as well as bones crushed by flying rocks. The oasis of Har-Talor was clearly much-prized by their attackers. It was an expanse of fertile plain from which could be harvested enough grain and crops to feed…well, an army. It was defended by the fortress in which they stood. The enemy army of Vhedharian warriors — the 'infidel host' as it was often referred to within the oasis — had begun its siege three days ago, after encircling the fortress with its encampment. They cut off all supplies — not too big a problem so far — but could attack from any direction, or all directions simultaneously, and also prevent any reinforcements from arriving. Not that the latter was likely — Har-Talor was the place you would ask for reinforcements from. No-one was coming to its aid. So far the walls still stood but the bombardment from the enemy's arbalests was taking its toll — more of the upper sections crumbled each day.
'Over there,' said Lassif, pointing to an empty table. The guards laid their wounded comrade down as gently as they could. Sathra and Lassif looked at each other, aghast. It was Eytan, kaptan of the guard at Har-Talor; a veteran — the strong leader who kept his head under pressure and kept his charges fighting with tactical precision.
Behind him, another soldier came into the infirmary. In his arms, he carried a boy. The child was unconscious, bleeding from a head wound. Other parts of him showed purple mottling underneath his light brown skin. Sathra rushed over. She directed the soldier to place him on the last empty cot and began checking his injuries. Patches of skin on his face, chest, and arm were burned away, leaving raw, weeping chaos. His hair was scorched away on one side of his head and little remained of his ear. Bile rose in her gorge as well as a sharp pang of anger. What chance was there for any of them against such unbridled aggression?
'Sathra, help me,' said Lassif. She turned and gave him with an indignant look. The physician nodded down at Eytan, clearly seeing him as the more important patient. Sathra looked back at the boy, her fingernails digging in her palm. She recognised him as one she had birthed — one of so many at the oasis over the years. He had grown to be a handsome lad with dark sombre eyes and long lashes, one she saw playing in the streets from time to time, always laughing with his friends. She recalled his birth was fraught with severe complications, but the baby had fought hard for life and now he deserved another chance to live.
The boy mumbled, fighting again for life. Sathra knew that when he struggled back to consciousness, his body would scream with unimaginable torments. She needed to apply cooling aloe; wrap his burns in gauze dampened with honey; get him some thyme and belladonna for the pain…
'Sathra, here!' Lassif had that insistent nip to his voice she hated. Sathra knew if she ignored it she could risk a tribunal before the council. She turned from the boy with a pained expression and set to work on mending the kaptan.
Together they worked on Eytan's wounds for the best part of an hour, aided by his comrades, who held him down whilst Lassif drew shards of metal from his flesh and Sathra scrubbed the grit from his wounds. Eytan bit down on a stick and thrashed in pain but bore it all — an example always. Just as he settled into a fevered rest induced by her valerian root compound, the boy wailed.
His voice was thick with emotion, not just pain but fear and confusion, unable to comprehend what was happening. Sathra went to him, holding his hand and soothing his brow whilst Lassif checked him over. The boy screamed as the physician's fingertips brushed his ribs. Lassif looked up, concern etched on his face. He shook his head and spoke to Sathra in a low voice, detailing multiple severe internal injuries.
'But there must be a chance that…' Sathra said it more in hope than belief but Lassif's weary and forlorn expression confirmed he was too ruined to save, and in so much agony it was not a kindness to prolong it — he would go into shock before long.
'We cannot save them all,' said Lassif through pursed lips. She knew for all his brusqueness he hated this as much as she did. He went to a bench lined with bottles and various roots and dried herbs.
Sathra spoke to the boy in a soft voice, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. He trembled with pain, sweat sticking his hair to his brow. His eyes glistened and wordless whimpers tumbled from his lips. He could not be more than ten years old. Lassif returned a few moments later with a small bowl of milky liquid.
'I'll do it,' said Sathra, taking it from him. She held it to the boy's mouth, gently tilting his head. The boy sputtered but enough of the liquid went down his throat. Sathra set the bowl aside and mopped his brow with a damp sponge. 'Shush now, brave boy, shhhh.'
As he squeezed her hand, Sathra fought back her own tears as she told him in as light a tone as she could manage that it would be alright and that she was here now and that no more harm could come to him and that he had nothing to worry about and that he would be at rest soon and that she would stay with him and that everything was fine everything was fine everything was fine. . .
She was more used to bringing life into the world, not ushering it out. She was no stranger to death, but only that which was accidental or natural: a child too weak to survive or a mother whose body had given too much in producing life in order to be able to hold on to her own. But never death dealt deliberately.
After a few moments the boy's tremors began to subside; after a few moments more his breathing shallowed and finally his eyes fluttered shut. Sathra rocked him to sleep as she had done, ten years earlier. She felt the moment when he slipped away. Through shining eyes she watched the motes of dust floating up in the shards of light through the window.
As dusk drew in, the infidel army seemed to have ceased its bombardment for the night. All was silent, though an eerie tension was still palpable in the air.
In the infirmary, Lassif oversaw the cleaning of surfaces and surgical tools by servants, ensuring they used certain cleansing fluids (white vinegar, salt, and borax) correctly, and instructing them to scrub used cloths and bandages in his concoction of lemon juice and soda, reminding them repeatedly that 'the real war we fight is against infection and disease.' The servants nodded dutifully, having heard it a thousand times. Sathra covered over the boy's body with a canvas sheet and prayed for his soul. She instructed a servant to sew it closed but could not watch.
As she replenished several bundles of incense sticks and relit the oil burner underneath a bowl of astringent healing vapours, Sathra noticed a small figure standing in the shadows in the corner. A young girl. She stood with her hands by her sides, balled into fists. She wore a turmeric-yellow smock that was in need of a wash and her hair hung in straggly strands. Her face was streaked with tears and she had a bewildered, distant look in her eyes.
'This is no place to play, child,' said Sathra, in as kindly a tone as she could manage. The girl did not move. Sathra went over to her. 'Did you hear?'
The girl blinked, her eyes focusing on Sathra as if she had only just seen her. 'My brother. He came here,' said the girl. Her voice was small, barely audible. Sathra's breath caught in her throat. She saw an instant likeness: the dark sombre eyes and long lashes. Without a word she glanced behind her, checking the canvas sheet remained in place.
'Come,' she said to the girl, offering her hand, 'why don't I walk you back to your mother?' I need to speak with her.
Later, unable to sleep despite her fatigue, Sathra stood on the ramparts under the stars. The image of the little girl's face as Sathra explained the loss of her brother to their mother had nearly broken her. It had taken a large carafe of wine to just calm her nerves afterwards. She still wore his blood on her djellaba and his death on her conscience. For all her efforts patching soldiers back up, did she ever really save a single soul?
She lit her pipe, drawing deeply. She allowed the acrid smoke to sting the inside of her nose and mouth, savouring its bitter tang. She looked out over the environs. The contrast in life on either side of the fortress wall could not have been more marked. Surrounding the fortress, Vhedharian soldiers were in their revelries, campfires burning, just out of range of archers guarding the walls. Their songs drifted up into the night air as they feasted on the bounty provided by the Har-Talor oasis and celebrated another good day. Inside the walls: eerie silence. Other than the scattering of guards patrolling the ramparts, few other inhabitants ventured out — most folks remained under a roof, having seen what horrors could fall from the sky.
Sathra hated it all, regardless of the cause: belief in different gods, different traditions; ownership of land and resources; lines on a map. When you saw the aftermath of fighting and the ruin of innocents caught up in it, did the reasons really matter? No reason excused the cost. Perhaps her people were guilty of some provocation — she was fully aware that they had their own stubborn leaders capable of making bad decisions. They could be antagonistic, bombastic, set in their ways, and unwilling to compromise. Hardly angelic. She also knew that every one of the Vhedharians was someone's son or daughter, brought into the world by someone like her. They could be lovers, poets, teachers, farmers. Hardly demonic. No doubt both sides were capable of beautiful acts and terrible deeds, but Sathra had no desire to understand the infidel — she would never bring herself to forgive a single one of them for their actions. They killed a child. And though the means mattered less, they had done so in that most cowardly way — hurling flaming missiles over the walls.
We are animals to them, thought Sathra as she exhaled wisps of smoke into the cool air. A herd to be culled; dead wood to be cleared; an infestation to be purged. But it is the Vhedharians who are monsters. It is they who are tainted and inhuman. They brought war to our door, Sathra thought. Her people had nothing but these walls. A week at most and they would crumble.
Even if the bombardment ceased, supplies were getting low. The people of Har-Talor had begun the siege confident they had plenty of everything stockpiled — perhaps arrogantly assuming they could outlast anything. After all, the oasis had a supply of freshwater from the spring within the fortress walls. But they could not survive on water alone and the oasis itself was now in the hands of the enemy. Living off the fruits of our labour, thought Sathra, leaving us stranded on the inside with only what has been harvested and stored. Supplies were enough for now but already thinning. The Vhedharians had swept down upon these lands with greater speed and in greater numbers than anyone could have imagined, with a ruthlessness that was astonishing. They came to conquer and Sathra knew in her heart they would succeed. What can one do to defeat such people? And if you cannot beat them. . .
She extinguished her pipe and walked down from the ramparts, wandering lost in her thoughts until she reached an unlit alleyway at the back of the temple. There, deliberately out of sight, was the huge open grave into which had been piled the stitched canvas sheets containing the bodies of those fallen. The præsters insisted that they not burn the bodies yet: they had read the auguries and still believed they would overcome their enemy and be able to perform burial rites for each of their dead, as per the wishes of the gods. The women of Har-Talor had covered the piled grave with quicklime to slow the decay and spread of infection but they had run out of quicklime before they ran out of dead bodies.
A rat scuttled from underneath the corpses. So much for the sanctified fallen, thought Sathra. Then another rat and another. Like the Vhedharian army, scuttling over the corpses of dead villages, feeding, breeding…always more of them, spreading their pestilent faith…
The rats scurried away into a shadowy gap at the base of the wall of the temple.
Sathra worked relentlessly through the next day despite her exhaustion, blocking out the growing sense that it was all a forlorn effort. The day after was more of the same — though thankfully no more children were brought to the infirmary. She mended several soldiers coming back in that she had tended to only days before, now damaged in some other way.
Surely they were just saving people today so that a few days later, maybe a week, they would die from an arrow or a rock flung over their walls, or from horrific burns. And if they survived all that? Weren't they just escaping one form of oblivion to live on in misery and fear for a month at the most, before dying of starvation? Or die on the end of a sword as the infidel scaled the walls, once there was no-one left to defend them? Why cling to life if that was all the future held?
Sathra tried to block out such thoughts as she worked. She continued to adhere to all the proper medical procedures but monitored her patients with a heavy heart. Eytan was recovering well, at least in body. As Sathra felt his pulse and checked his stitches, he gently laid his hand on her forearm. 'The boy, is he…' His voice trailed off, a question in his eyes. A quick shake of the head from Sathra voided his inquiry. Eytan covered his eyes with his hand and rubbed his forehead slowly. Sathra placed her hand on his shoulder and was about to offer some words of comfort but found that she could not find any. What was there to say?
She continued her rounds in silence until after dusk when Lassif dismissed her for the day. They had barely spoken a word to each other beyond curt factual exchanges. As she washed her hands Sathra wondered to herself whether she should have ignored his command and tried to help the boy. Deep down she knew he was beyond saving but was it right to not even try? If only she could have saved him and given him back his life she might have felt all of this was worth it. If she could just save a single soul.
Stars glinted through the black-blue velvet of night as Sathra left the infirmary. Her body was too spent to find relief in a few hours of rest so Sathra decided she would replenish her spirit instead. After a brief detour to her home to collect a few items she went to the temple, though whether this was to seek guidance or just solace, she was not sure. She entered.
Inside the entrance, a few præsters chanted and lit their fragrant citron incense, trying to comfort those that still cleaved to their faith when there were no other straws to grasp for. Sathra ignored them and continued walking through the length of the building, her footsteps a dull echo on the cool flagstones. In the gloom of sparse candlelight, she found a quiet place towards the far end of the temple. Somewhere to meditate, alone.
She breathed in the musty air, set down her embroidered prayer cushion, and knelt. From the pocket of her djellaba she withdrew a small votive candle infused with scent, which she lit, a small clay jar of oil, which she did not. She also removed a waxed parcel of food, which she opened. Sathra placed them on the floor on either side of her and prostrated herself until her forehead almost touched the flagstones. In a quiet susurrus, she invoked her gods by name, imploring them to accept her meagre offering of sustenance. She asked them to watch over those that hovered between life and death overnight in the infirmary and commended to them the souls of those who had not survived their wounds — most especially the young boy. She asked for nothing for herself except the strength to carry out her task.
Once done, Sathra raised herself upright and sat on her cushion, cross-legged. She took the food, a small spiced roti, and pulled it apart, scattering the pieces around her, before resting her hands on her knees and closing her eyes. A part of her didn't entirely believe that the gods were watching, but she pushed such thoughts away and emptied her mind in meditation.
Within minutes she heard tiny rodent-feet pattering near her — many of them, sniffing at the cumin and paprika on her fingertips. She ignored them, focusing inwards instead, away from her physical senses, concentrating on the deeper sense of her inner self.
She remained unspeaking, unmoving, despite multiple indignities visited upon her by the rats of the temple, until the hazy gauze of dawn's first inkling became perceptible. Sathra got to her feet. Her body ached all over, but her heartfelt much lighter. Taking the candle and oil, she walked out and around to the back of the temple.
She stood by the open mass grave and muttered a prayer before emptying the pot of oil and tossing the stub of candle, still smoldering, down upon the pile of corpses in canvas sacks. Within a few moments, it was a crackling bonfire; minutes later, a blazing funeral pyre. Sathra stepped back from the rising heat and slipped into the shadow of the temple wall.
As the sun rose, guards raised the alarm and the people of Har-Talor rushed from their homes to attend the fire. Sathra knew they would assume it was the work of the Vhedharians. She exploited the distraction to slip out of the city, using a secret route through the base of a guard tower that she had known of since childhood but none now ever used.
Although she knew she would eventually be noticed, Sathra did not run. She walked in steady measured strides away from all she had known without a single glance behind her. As she got further away from the fortress the panicked sounds diminished — those trying to douse her fire were by now realised that it was self-contained and did not threaten any nearby buildings, and also that the dead were probably better off cremated, for everyone's sake, whether the præsters liked it or not.
The stillness of the early morning returned, save for the quiet puff of Sathra's sandals on the dusty path. It was punctured by a shout from the ramparts, presumably a guard. 'It's Sathra — look!' he yelled. 'She goes to the infidel.' Sathra kept walking. Another shout: 'Traitor!' Other voices joined in: 'A curse on you, traitor bitch!' Still, she walked on, without turning. Even the sound of a crossbow bolt thudding into the dirt close behind her did not make her flinch. Perhaps some part of Sathra wished it had pierced her heart for what she was doing.
It felt good to be out in the oasis, to be outside the walls and no longer a prisoner to fate. Har-Talor had been stripped of much of its bounty but its land could still sustain the Vhedharian army for a while yet. Sathra saw fields of grain in the distance as she walked past orchards, rows of bushels, and livestock grazing, all the while getting closer to their encampment. She was aware of infidel soldiers watching her and heard them offer a few choice cat-calls but kept her eyes on the track ahead.
A Vhedharian soldier challenged her, spear braced. Sathra gestured to show she was unarmed. 'I wish to see the khagan,' she said. She knew a little aqarish, a language most of the infidel understood, hoping her pronunciation was adequate enough to convey her meaning.
After being roughly patted down, Sathra was led at the point of several spears through the sea of tents towards one larger and more colourful than the rest, a grand yurt that had been clearly visible from the battlements. Several banners bearing heraldic arms hung from poles jutting from its roof. Sathra was shoved through the entrance.
Inside, the kelims covering the floor were frayed and the many large seating cushions were faded in colour. Sathra was frog-marched forward. The air was smoky from a metal brazier over which several skewers of meat and twists of doughy herb-bread were being cooked. Around this several men sat on low stools, sharing a smoke-bowl and glasses of arrack. They wore silk gowns underneath chainmail surcoats and each wore an elegantly curved shashqa in an ornate scabbard.
'Your royal eminence, a thousand apologies,' said one of the soldiers, prodding Sathra. 'We found her walking out of the fortress. She demanded to see you.' He addressed his words to the man sat in the middle, whose rank was denoted by the circlet of gold around his neck and the large, ruby-adorned ring on his right index finger. The khagan — a royal prince sent by his father, the ur-khagan, to capture the oasis of Har-Talor. No doubt to supply the imperial Vhedharian khaganate with provisions for further forays in-land.
The khagan had a long, wispy beard, finely-contoured cheekbones, and a keen intelligence behind his dark eyes. By Sathra's reckoning, he looked to be about three decades in age.
'We suspect she is a spy,' said another soldier. 'But she is unarmed — we have checked and we are certain.'
The khagan listened with a wry expression. He turned to each of the men sat with him, raising an eyebrow slightly. One of the men — presumably his advisors — leaned close and muttered something inaudible.
'I am not a spy.' The assertive tone in Sathra's voice got the attention of the khagan and he surveyed her with a non-committal countenance. 'I am Sathra,' she continued, 'chief physician of Har-Talor.' The lie came more easily than she expected. 'I am a key figure within the fortress — someone without whom my besieged kin will struggle even more.'
'And why are you here?' said one of the royal advisors.
'Resistance is now a forlorn effort. We will lose our fight against you; it is only a matter of time.'
'And you want?'
'To live,' said Sathra. 'To be kept safe.'
'In return for?'
'My skill as a healer.'
'We have healers,' said the advisor. 'And far fewer wounded than your own people.'
'So far, perhaps. But… you intend to move on, I presume?'
Sathra felt the eyes of the khagan pierce into her own but refused to break his stare. It was vital she presented herself with confidence but underneath she was fearful — the khagan could have her scythed down like wheat with just the click of his fingers. He certainly appeared to be considering it.
'Very well,' he said at last. 'Let us not turn down an opportunity to learn something from those whose lands we…travel through.' He spoke in a calm, measured tone, the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. 'Take her to our healers; see what she can do. Report back. If she tries anything…you know what to do.'
As a soldier took Sathra by the arm, she dipped her head. 'My thanks,' she said, adding, 'your royal eminence.' The khagan nodded, giving the merest inclination of his head in response. He inhaled from the smoke-bowl and blew a thick billow of smoke from his nostrils towards the ceiling of his yurt. He wafted his hand backwards in a dismissive gesture, though whether at the smoke or at Sathra, she could not tell.
She was marched through the encampment, passing many rows of tents, with soldiers sitting around campfires over which were cooking pots and spits. They sat sharpening blades, fletching arrows or oiling armour, in preparation for another day of siege. Some looked up, watching her with narrowed eyes. Word would have got around about the woman who walked out of the fortress. One or two jeered, whilst others whispered curses and one particularly battle-worn veteran-looking Vhedharian soldier spat in the dirt as she passed. 'Har-Talor witch,' he muttered. The khagan was not the only person to fear here.
She was led to a tent of grubby undyed canvas towards the rear of the camp and ushered inside. Not shoved, this time, Sathra noted. Even if she had been blind-folded she would have instantly recognized that this was an infirmary just by the familiar, combination of smells — the slightly fetid stink of wounds and the metallic tang of blood, not quite covered by the acrid sharpness of disinfecting vinegar and lemon solution. Also familiar was the sound of restless, feverish groans. A quick survey of the room told her that there were twenty beds, a dozen of which were occupied. So they had taken some casualties, she thought, perhaps picked off by a crossbow from the fortress walls, or doused with burning oil or falling from a siege ladder. Her people had given a decent account of themselves, at least. Her people. Were they 'hers' anymore, now that she was no longer one of them?
The soldier spoke in a language she did not recognize to a man and a woman, both dressed in plain tunics over which were tied aprons stained with dark ochre, which Sathra knew would be dried blood. These were the khagan's healers. She was to be tested.
After their discussion quickly got more heated, the healers ushered Sathra forward, clearly resenting her presence. They pointed her to a table on which lay an injured soldier. They seemed very reluctant to allow her near one of their patients. Sathra couldn't blame them — she certainly wouldn't have welcomed strangers overseeing one of hers, let alone an enemy, one of the very people who had inflicted the wounds.
The patient — a female foot-soldier, still in uniform — was suffering from what looked to be an arrow-wound, a deep lesion into the muscle and veins of her thigh. Sathra understood that she was expected to attend to it. She did so in silence, once she had overcome the slight tremors in her hands and calmed her nerves. She cleaned and stitched the wound — child's play to her after years of mending mothers following child-birth — observing all necessary protocols for hygiene as she worked. All the while she was closely watched by the healers, who muttered amongst themselves in their own language. Sathra could only guess what conclusions they were drawing.
Then she moved about the infirmary, gathering a bowl, clean water, and various herbs she knew would have been harvested from the oasis outside. She showed the healers how to create a healing broth, demonstrating each stage carefully, so that the recipe was clear to follow. They nodded, one scribbling down her instructions on parchment whilst the other asked her further questions about her techniques in broken aqarish dialect.
After this, Sathra spent several hours being led from bed to bed, to treat and monitor the various injuries. All the while Sathra had to block out the sounds of the ongoing bombardment of the fortress walls and suppress any show of emotion when a few more soldiers were brought into the infirmary for treatment. It was her sworn oath as a Har-Talor midwife — even if this was not the holy vow of a fully-fledged physician — to provide the best medical care she could, to all who needed it, regardless of who they were. And after all, which side they fought on no longer mattered to her. She just had to stay alive.
Towards the end of the day, the healers finally nodded to the soldier guarding Sathra. Her breath caught in her throat for a moment as she wondered if this signaled some wrongdoing on her part. The soldier stepped forward and took Sathra by the elbow but did so gently, leading her from the infirmary without raising a weapon to her.
He showed her to a small tent near to the area cordoned off to stable the horses. Despite the musty tang of horse sweat and dung in the air, Sathra did not mind being there. Inside, the tent had been provided with a bowl of clean water, a meagre ration of food, and a thin blanket. Sathra surmised that she must have passed her initial test and perhaps achieved some degree of acceptance, though no doubt with lingering skepticism. The same soldier stood guard outside the tent, though whether this was to keep intruders out or to keep her in, she could not tell.
Sathra ate her meal of stale unleavened bread, a handful of almonds, and two figs, wondering whether the next day might give her further opportunity to prove herself. As she settled down to rest, she thought if she could only stay alive for three more days, things would begin to change…three more days…
On the first day, Sathra awoke with the dawn, stiff and exhausted. Having found no guard at the entrance, she slipped out of her tent and began to wander around the camp. She knew this was a risk — many here would happily gut her — but she had to see it for herself.
She approached a group of soldiers playing dice. They paused but she strode up to them and sat. She overcame their protestations by producing an ornate necklace from beneath her djellaba — enough to buy her into the game. The soldiers saw she was unarmed and seemingly harmless, and seemed tempted by the prospect of winning a worthwhile prize from her so they looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and gestured for her to sit and join the gambling.
After several rounds of dice, Sathra gestured at the pipe one of them was smoking. The soldier offered it to her, eyes raised. He even laughed with his comrades when Sathra choked and coughed right in his face. She lost her necklace on a reckless gamble but did not mind. Perhaps it would buy her some goodwill amongst the Vhedharians.
She moved on, trying to speak with soldiers whenever she could — only some spoke aqarish but it was important she tried to connect with a few if she could. Most groups seemed to baulk at her approach but others were curious and allowed her to linger. She shook hands and told jokes in pidgin tongue and shared a cup of water when offered. Right up until the soldier who had been guarding her stormed up to her, his face like thunder.
'Where in the Hells have you been?' He grabbed her by the arm, not gently at all, and pulled her away. 'Think that's funny? I step away for a piss and you slip away for an hour?' He led her towards the infirmary tent. 'Do that again and I'll put your head on my spear and plant it outside your walls.' Sathra got his meaning even if some of the words were beyond her grasp. She did not doubt that he meant it, but it had been worth it — exactly the start to the day she hoped for.
She worked through the rest of the day, accomplishing much to prove her capabilities as a physician. All the while she battled spells of dizziness and a niggling cough but held herself together. 'Is everything alright?' asked one of the healers. Sathra nodded, leaning on a table. 'Fine. Tried a pipe earlier. Stronger than I am used to.' The healer nodded, smirking, and left her to it.
On the second day, Sathra awoke with the dawn, aching all over. Her sleep had been fitful and she was far from well-rested. She was marched straight from her tent at daybreak to the infirmary. Again, she worked alongside the healers. Her hands still shook as she did so, and she fought the growing nausea in her stomach but struggled on. She felt a moist sheen on her brow and dryness in her throat but tried to focus on the tasks at hand.
Her discomfort was becoming more evident, given the repeated glances of the healers. 'I'm fine, really, she said. 'Just… anxiety. The stress of all this…' She gestured with her hand at the tables of wounded and offered a feeble smile. 'And a little cramping,' she added, gesturing to her midriff and making the sign of the moon with her fingers. The female healer nodded, seeming to understand, and insisted that she rest.
Sathra slumped on a stool, lost in her thoughts as she felt the weight of her situation bear down upon her. Perhaps it was the burden of her guilt at leaving Har-Talor, abandoning her people, leaving Lassif and their patients to attend those of the enemy, but either way, there was no turning back now.
When the healers were distracted with a patient, she slipped out of the infirmary tent and risked a glance up at the battlements of the fortress in the distance. The sounds of fighting were muted in the hot hazy air. From what she could see there seemed few archers on the ramparts, almost no-one holding off the invaders. The people of Har-Talor would soon stop fighting back. Sathra imagined those remaining — young, old, civilian and soldiers alike — all huddled in the temple whilst the præsters led them in a vigil. Families, friends, even visitors, trapped within those walls by the fate of bad timing and worse luck, all now relying solely on the favour of their gods, whilst their remaining supplies whittled down further each day, along with their will to resist…
Sathra felt unsteady on her legs. She staggered, dazed and disorientated. The sun prickled her skin, burning her face. Or was it shame? The heat overwhelmed her, bringing her out in a cold, sickly sweat. Gods, she was thirsty. And nauseous. And tormented by a migraine behind her eyes. Perhaps this was the gods exacting vengeance upon her for her treachery. She felt a woozy lightness in her head at the same time as darkness shrouded her vision…
On the third day, Sathra awoke with the dawn, shivers running through her body. She looked up into the face of one of the healers. 'I found you passed out in the camp,' he said. 'You have taken sick.'
'I am not sick,' said Sathra, her words wheezy and weak. Then, contorted by an uncontrollable convulsion, Sathra twisted onto her side and vomited. Her expulsion spattered the sandals of the healer. He wrinkled his nose in disgust.
Soon, he was vomiting too.
On the fourth day, Sathra stirred, though only just. Burning with fever and afflicted with tremors, she lay in her tent, slipping in and out of delirium. No-one attended her. All was quiet. There was no sound of bombardment, no screams of fighting. Long hours passed in eerie silence save from the occasional weak groan or retching heave. In the evening, there were no campfire revelries, no smells of cooking or smoke-bowls, and no scraping of sharpening blades.
In her few lucid moments, Sathra contemplated her despicable act: breaking her oath as a midwife to bring life in, not take it away; to heal, not harm. Instead, under the pretense of befriending her enemies, she had trailed invisible pestilence in her wake. She had calculated it required a two-to-three day incubation period, and worked hard to ensure she had stayed in favour with the khagan and his healers long enough to spread it around a whole encampment, all the while suppressing her own symptoms with surreptitious doses of medication behind the healer's backs — just enough to prevent herself from fully succumbing before her task was done.
She thought of herself as a rat, like those in the temple scurrying up to her as she prayed for strength during her final night inside the fortress, biting her hand as she offered tidbits. The disease she had brought on herself was a torture unlike anything she could have imagined, but Sathra accepted her suffering as punishment for bringing it upon others.
On the fifth day, Sathra did not fully awaken with the dawn. Nor did the army of the Vhedharian khaganate. Her body hovered on the brink of existence, unmoving; her breath was paper-thin, fragile, and failing, but her mind still clung to awareness, needing to witness…
In the creeping silence of dawn, two dozen of the surviving soldiers of Har-Talor warily ventured out from behind the fortress walls, led by their kaptan, Eytan. Their harsh, tense whispers carried on the breeze and Sathra sensed them moving forward in formation, weapons drawn even before they were in view.
She knew that from a distance they would see the same city of tents as before, with banners wafting in the warm air, only now there were no Vhedharian soldiers — at least none moving around. On getting closer, Eytan and his men would be able to see the bodies littering the oasis. The dead and dying, laying prone in the dust — faces caked with blood and vomit. The pestilence had died with its carriers, it damage done, but Sathra knew the Har-Talor warriors were well trained and would still cover their noses and mouths as they crept through the camp. Lassif would have insisted on it. Eventually, she heard them getting closer, moving tent by tent, applying the coup de grace to any infidel still alive.
Sathra thought of the little boy in the infirmary and took some small comfort in the fact that his very last moments were not spent alone and in agony. She wished she could remember his name — someone should, she thought. But wars seldom remember the names of the children they take.
Too weak to speak she prayed to the gods in her head, seeking forgiveness. Would they smile upon her or turn their backs? Did they accept her tribute — the corpses of her enemies? All it had cost was her soul. Whether the Hells or Paradise awaited her, Sathra knew not. She knew in her heart she had not saved all of her people but hoped she had at least saved one. Perhaps that would redeem her.
A single soul.
As Sathra slipped away from the world, a gentle breeze peeled back the flap of her tent. With her final breath, she glimpsed the fortress battlements in the distance and saw a little girl in a turmeric-yellow smock with dark sombre eyes and long lashes looking out across the oasis of Har-Talor.