It had all happened so fast.
It was late at night – well past midnight – and so she had been on duty with Jera, Giselle, and Aro. The official night shift team now. They worked well together, and in time had bonded like a family – though she’d always felt that about Giselle and Jera, now Aro was added to the mix, and it made her happy that he fit in so well. She’d been looking at her staff: Aro making the security rounds with a smile to all the patients; irascible Jera with a stubborn teenager more concerned about missing her friends than her broken arm; sweet Giselle using her good bedside manner with a dying woman whom they could only make comfortable. She reflected how, despite it all, she was very happy with the group. She truly loved them.
Aro was like the brother she’d never had. Jera was the older relative who’d watched out for her when her mother had been preoccupied with patients. Giselle was a younger sister to Ghia, for all there were only a few months between them. She was sure that her friend would make Lares very happy someday, and for that she was grateful. Lares needed someone like Giselle.
She’d stood at the back, watching them with a kind and stern eye as she did what herbcraft she could do with her claw-like hand and atrophied muscles. She was getting used to her disability. Could almost live with it.
Before she could blink there was a flash of steel at the entrance to the hospitalis. Soldiers clad in grey and brown rushed in and dispatched Giselle before the girl could cry out or move. They moved through, killing patients with swift jabs, and reached Jera, who stood with her arms stretched out, trying to protect her patient. Their blades cut her down and she fell to the ground, her blood seeping onto the clean floor.
Ghia dropped the pestle in her hand and it fell to the ground and shattered. Aro, his sword already out, ran to meet the invaders and before the head healer’s stunned eyes he fought them back, keeping them from reaching further into the hospitalis.
Ghia woke up then and started to move forward, running towards Aro. She left her cane behind and hobbled as best she could with her bad leg, trying to get to him so she could shield him – her telepathy gone, she could only do it by touch now. She ran as fast she could, but he stayed far away. Come on, body, move! I need only reach him and then we’re saved. Oh, Goddess, give me speed! She broke into as much of a sprint as she could. Pain lanced through her leg and then she tripped and landed hard on the floor.
She could no longer see Aro but knew he’d dispatched several invaders already, knew he must be tired. She crawled slowly over Jera’s dead-eyed body and stretched her arm out, stretched, trying to reach Aro’s ankle. Finally her hand clasped around his heel and she snapped a shield around both of them.
A drop of blood landed on her hand. Her eyes moved up, and she saw the end of a curved blade protruding from his back.
“No.” Her mouth formed the word but no sound came out. She struggled to her knees, hand still on Aro’s leg, and the motion made him fall backwards. He landed hard on her outstretched arm but she ignored the pain in her claw-hand as she tried to support his head. The blade made a ting sound as it hit the stone floor underneath; in his chest it was buried to the hilt. Her hand fluttered, unsure of whether to pull it out and try to heal him or if she should leave it.
Around her there was a commotion as soldiers tried to cut her still-shielded body and found they couldn’t, but the cries of “Witch!” didn’t even reach her ears. She grabbed Aro’s hand and squeezed, wanting for all the world to tell him it would all be alright, that things would be okay. His eyes moved to her face, but his hand didn’t return her embrace, and she realised the sword had severed his spine.
His lips twitched slightly with last words unsaid, and then in Ghia’s arms, Major Aro deSarah, nee Duke Jared deNia Ylfen, died.
Tears spilled out of her eyes then and she caressed his face, shaking her head in denial.
No. No no no no.
“No,” she made the movement with her mouth again and this time an agonised scream answered her ears – but it was not her voice.
Ghia looked up and saw Admiral Anala cutting her way through the invaders with deadly grace. Her black hair was unbound and spilled down over shoulders like night over the land; her eyes were bright gold and wet with tears. Blood spattered her face and clothing but she didn’t notice as she killed soldier after soldier, relentlessly.
Outside the hospitalis, Ghia saw, more of the invaders clashed with Anala’s women; locked in fierce battle. None was able to come in and help the Admiral, who fought alone in the hospitalis, engaging the invaders so they didn’t reach the door to the healers’ dormitories.
Ghia watched in teary-eyed wonder as Anala, her face contorted with rage, cut down every remaining attacker with an ease that had to be Goddess-inspired. The healer had heard how Anala sometimes seemed possessed by Bellona on the battlefield.
Tonight she believed it.
When the last invader fell to his knees as blood spurted from his jugular, Anala stood motionless, her eyes unseeing. Ghia would have risen, gone to her, but Aro’s body trapped her legs against the ground.
It seemed, in this moment, that her every sense was heightened; that she could see and hear and feel everything.
The sounds of fighting receded as Anala’s troops beat back the attackers. With a shudder of her body Anala seemed to wake, then, and look around her, at the once-white room now painted a grisly red. She said nothing as she took in the carnage – patients dead in their beds, soldiers dead in a circle of bodies around the admiral’s feet, healers lifeless on the floor, and – finally her eyes rested on Aro, his eyes still staring at the ceiling.
Her sword fell from her fingers and bounced on the stone floor, flying up to rest on a still-warm corpse. She took a few steps forward, her boots digging into the bodies of those she’d sent to Tyvian with squishes and squelches. At Aro’s side she fell to her knees and took his hand in hers, her eyes never leaving his face. Her body gave a shudder then, and then another, and soon she was bent over him, face pressed against his chest that rose and fell no more, her shoulders shaking as she cried more silently than Ghia had ever heard someone cry.
Ghia’s eyes had never stopped pushing tears out to roll down her face; now she cried silently with Anala, her good hand stroking the admiral’s loose hair in a gesture of comfort, though Ghia felt she could never offer that again.
As if suddenly aware of Ghia’s hand on her head, Anala rose up, then, and the two women made eye contact for the first time in over a month. All the things that needed to be said were, in that shared moment, and then Anala – crying even harder, as Ghia was sure she was too – pulled her cousin close and they embraced, everything forgiven as they mourned the man they both loved, a hero to the last.
When they broke apart Anala looked down at her once-lover’s, once-major’s face, and reached out and closed his eyes. Then she leaned forward and kissed each eye and then his mouth, whispering words in farewell. She pulled the blade from his chest and threw it to the side before arranging his hands, neatly folded over the wound.
Ghia extricated her arm from underneath his head and Anala helped the healer up. She stood unsteadily; the admiral asked where her cane was and Ghia pointed in the general direction of where she’d left it.
Her hospitalis was profaned. Once a sacred place of healing – once a temple to Althea! – now it stood a beacon of destruction and death and pain, and blood and rage.
Rage. That was what she felt. Her tears were spent now, and all she could feel was anger. She stood, shaking in the force of her emotion, staring with hate and bloodlust at the already dead profaners of her sacred temple – her domain. Her domain!
The torches flared to life and the shelves in the back shook. Jars of dried herbs and tinctures and salves fell off the shelves and smashed on the floor with a great noise. The beds inched across the floor and the door opened and closed, flapping as if in a mighty gale.
Then hands had her shoulders and she was being shaken, someone calling her name.
She came out of the red haze and the torches calmed and the shaking stopped. The door stayed open.
“I know yer anger,” Anala was whispering, “but ye cannae show yer powers so. Calm yerself.” Smooth wood was pressed into her hand and she caressed the head of her cane, where her fingers fit perfectly. She nodded in apology and thanks to Anala.
She looked to the dormitories then, and saw the thick, almost sound-proof door had opened. An arm clad in a white night gown was holding it open, and then the body the arm was attached to followed it into the room, and Ghia watched helplessly as an acolyte healer – a girl only fourteen – stepped into the room and saw what had become of the hospitalis.
The long, piercing noise penetrated throughout the hospitalis and soon there were footsteps running towards the noise, coming to see what the matter was – and then healers spilled into the room and saw the carnage, saw Admiral Anala gathering up her sword and cleaning it, saw the dead soldiers and patients and Aro and Jera and Giselle, and Tyvian broke loose.
What had happened? they demanded to know. What was going on? Who killed these people? Admiral, where are your women why are you alone? Suspicions ran high, and Ghia watched in helplessness as chaos swallowed her staff as the ocean did the sun each night.
Then Helene was there, walking with a cane as her daughter did, awake but still ill. She coughed and then shouted for them all to shut up, saying it was obvious they’d all be dead by now were not for Admiral Anala. The admiral’s women returned then, and their reports and Anala’s own words confirmed it – then the regiment was put to work cleaning up the hospitalis and arranging the bodies for burial, while her medicorps dealt with the traumatised healers.
Ghia watched it all with a deadness inside. Her body seemed filled with cotton swabbing and she could not feel anything. There was a buzzing in her ears and it took a while before it translated into words. The admiral was speaking to her.
“…be given a warrior’s burial, I’d ken,” she said. Ghia looked at her in confusion. “Jera and Giselle. They’d deserve ta be laid in tha ground wit’ Aro,” and she looked away again, unable to continue.
Ghia nodded and placed her hand on Anala’s shoulder, though she could not squeeze as she’d intended.
The regiment was working steadily, and Ghia surveyed the hospitalis, still unable to believe it. There was a movement at the door, then, and her eyes went to it.
Hasn’t there been enough heartache tonight? She thought angrily up at Whoever might listen, and walked unsteadily towards the Vocan man who looked green as he took in the sight of his dead lover, his dead friend.
Lares’ hand was pressed to his mouth tightly, and he was shaking his head from side to side, a small movement of denial. Ghia touched his arm with her claw to make him look at her, trying to break through the shock. Oh, she wished she could speak!
His eyes focused on her face, and his voice was raw when he spoke.
She gestured with her cane to the dead men that littered the hospitalis, slowly being piled up against the wall. His eyes took in the sight and she could see them widen in recognition.
“Maurice,” he whispered and, her hand still on him, she swore she could hear him, if only for a second. You’ve taken everything from me.
Then the blankness she got when she touched people was back again, and she shuddered in frustration.
Grimly, she set her face determinedly and began to put her hospitalis to rights. By the end of the day she would go to see Rosa. They needed the Magea now more than ever. Her recent trips to the Tower had yielded nothing but bruises on her hands from trying to open the locked door. This time, however, she would take along Anala.
Before that, she had to do her job. The hospitalis was a sacred temple to Althea – but always, inevitably, inexorably, healers were priestesses of Muerta.