The world was ending. Or at least that was what it felt like. If screams could shatter the air and blood could turn the earth to dust it would be. The sky was a mess of tangled grey clouds, roiling and rumbling and flashing as though they too felt the end was nigh. Barely a moment of quiet provided a reprieve before the next series of lightning strikes split the sky in two and the thunder threatened to do the same to their ears.
It was the stuff of legends- or it would be, if any of them lived to tell the tale. Rain beat down a thunderous rhythm onto the sprawling fields below and it was all Kassa could do to place one aching foot in front of the other back towards where she hoped, where she prayed, the barracks were.
The stretcher was heavy in her hands, the wood biting into palms already red and raw, she tightened her grip. Not today. She would not lose another comrade today.
Once, in her earlier days on the field she might have turned to reassure herself her companion was still gripping the other side of the stretcher but now she knew better. That would be a waste of time, time they didn’t have. And she knew, had seen and felt it enough times before to know, that if something happened to the other medic, she would feel the body between them fall straight away.
So, she trod on, counting each step in turn. One, two, three- Until her mind was nothing but the numbers and the numbers were all that there were. They kept her tethered and moving and the routine let some part of her retreat into herself to a place where it was quieter.
Four, five, six-
The mud grew yet more slippery beneath them. Another approaching winter meant more endless months of rain. Rain which had not abated, even briefly for the summer months, as it may have once done.
Unnatural. The soldiers called it. Unnatural for such a downpour to never cease. Indeed, the summer just passed had been a bitter one, plagued by a constant downpour and cold. A cold that seeped under their skin and clung to their bones, sharp and painful. A cold that never seemed to leave them not matter how many fires they lit and huddled, shoulder to shoulder, by.
Seven, eight, nine-
They had breached the first line now, soldiers running past them in the direction they had come rather than with them in a retreat. Kassa sought familiar faces in every one that passed. Looking for faces ahead was the only thing stopping her looking for them on the ground. And that, she knew, might break her.
Ten, eleven, twelve-
With the next step the stretcher jerked to the side. She doubled her grip as it twisted and threatened to fall. Her wrist popped. She risked a glance, against her better judgement. She cursed herself. Stupid. But sometimes even the most well learned lessons could be undone by human nature. Anika, her fellow medic, had lost her footing and, by the looks of it, nearly fallen. The side of her breeches were caked in dark mud and she had sunken right up to her knee in the muck. She struggled to pull her boot from the ground to no avail, hands white with the effort of retaining a grip on the stretcher.
Kassa’s mind raced through the possibilities, calculating. Should Anika put down her end of the stretcher there was no guarantee they’d be able to pick it back up again, the ease with which Anika had sunk into the mud proved that. Even as they stood still Kassa’s own boots sunk a few inches. And now they were stationary...the threat of being hit by a stray blade became all the more real. The battle was too loud, too fast for someone to notice they needed help. With all the bodies racing past them, with all the those crumpled around them on the ground, what were three more? Without the steady counting to urge her onwards Kassa’s mind threatened to fold in on itself. The sounds, the smells, the sights were too much. Scents of smoke and gunpowder made her head spin. Screams made it ache and the constant rush of bodies by them buffeted her this way and that. It was all she could do to stay upright- let alone think their way out of this that would save them both. She knew what her mentor, Laini, would have told her to do. Leave him.
The solider between them, she spared him a glance too, had now faded into unconsciousness. She might have thought his state had worsened past the point of no return in the heartbeat she looked at him had she not seen a tell-tale twitch of his hand. He wouldn’t last much longer. His pale face was so white it was little more than translucent paper covering an intricate network of veins and organs which slowed by the minute. He had lost blood, too much blood.
Kassa had seen it before. The leg blasted to pieces, stray flesh and sinew grasping helplessly for a knee no longer there. And she had seen men and women survive it. In this place of death and destruction there were still miracles. Even ones so small and seemingly insignificant as a single soldier living to see the next sunrise. If this young man survived it would be a blessing in disguise. Live and he would receive an honourable discharge. He would leave, with one less limb but still...his life. And it could be a miracle. No. I will not leave him. We will survive.
And then, as though her wish had been whispered to the stars and the stars had answered, someone was there. Someone in a bloodstained uniform gripping her shoulders and speaking fast. The words drifted in and out of focus for a moment before the ringing in her ears quietened enough she could hear them clearly, “Stand still I’ll help Anika.” Kassa nodded once.
The hands, one gloved, one bare, left her. Fynn moved behind her to Anika, hooked one burly arm around her waist and pulled her out of the mud in one smooth motion as though she were little more than a sack of potatoes. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say ′easy′ then jerked his head in the direction they had initially been going. Go. And then he disappeared, into the mist of bodies and voices.
They ploughed onwards, Kassa regaining her count, this time stronger than before.
One, two, three, four, five-
On and on. Until finally, finally, they were back. The two medics passed another two soldiers stationed at the entrance to the barracks, flashing the emblems stitched onto the front of their jackets that proved their identities and then ducked into the medical tent. There was a brief moment of quiet in the relative peace of the darkened tent. Kassa took a few breaths and let the scent of sandalwood wash over her- safe for a moment enclosed in canvas walls. Then, spotting an empty space on the floor, she and Anika placed the soldier down, shifted him carefully onto a thin blanket and shouted for another medic to come and see to him.
And then, folding the stretcher under one arm, re-entered to fray to find the next victim of the morning’s charge.