by GR "Maya" Cogman
Quiet, so quiet.
The distant guns had hushed, and I could imagine blankets drawn over them for the night, as though they were children. In a way they were: attachments ran between the gunners and the heavy metal weapons, as close as the bloodtie that humans feel. The sky above was heavy with cloud, thick and brooding, the humidity like a hand on the face.
"Nurse?" a voice gasped from inside, rising above the rhythms of human breathing. I turned away from the mud and canvas of the encampment, stepping back into the tent.
"Jackson?" I could make him out easily in the dim light. He was flushed, breath coming hard. "What is it?" I moved across to his bed smoothly, not the fast hard motions of some of the other nurses that panicked the patients on a level that they weren't aware of themselves.
"The guns have stopped." He blinked sleep-crusted eyes, and would have raised a hand to rub at them if they hadn't both been covered with bandages. "Are they..." He couldn't bring himself to say it. I felt his fear like a salt ocean, rising with all the other fears around me, and forced myself to put it aside. Not my fear, not my own emotion, not me: I am empty, I am a vessel, I am a messenger.
"Not the enemy." My voice was gentle. "We still hold this position. Have courage."
The lantern hanging from the ridgepole of the tent threw smoky light and shadow across the two of us, and lit pain in his eyes. "It hurts, nurse. Can I have some more of that stuff?"
It would have been illogical to withhold it from him. The question of addiction could be handled later, if he survived at all. I rose to pour him out a dose of the laudanum.
He sighed as I held it to his lips, supporting him. His hands had been charred when the stick grenade went off near him. "That tastes good."
I made soothing noises, tucking him back into his cot.
His speech became slurred, as the drug took hold of him. "What.. whatcha doing here, anyhow, nurse? Kind girl like you, ought to be home, finding someone..."
I waited for his eyes to close, before I gave him the only reply that I had. "Following orders."
Morning came, pale streaks of light unfolding through the masses of cloud and gilding the barrels of the guns in splashes of clear metal. I nodded to the nurse who had come to relieve me, and we quickly exchanged notes on the patients. Only two deaths during the night: it was an improvement.
I stood for a moment in the dawn light, feeling the fresh Essence in my bones. Soldiers moved among the muddy tents, their gestures slow with sleep or weariness. Again, the guns spoke, a deep thudding that jarred in the bloodstream. A captain's horse kicked up clots of earth as it trotted up to the nurses quarters down the pathway, and I followed in its tracks, scrubbing absently at the stains on one sleeve of my dress.
The captain, ahead of me, swung down from the horse. I recognised him as Asher, a new arrival on the general's staff. From his showing so far, he was competent, and had come back alive from some dangerous sorties. I found myself grateful for the casualties that he had spared me, and examined the emotion before letting it fade.
My purpose here was not to act and spare the men: it was to help them accept their fear and to let them find their own courage to act for themselves. I should not be grateful for Asher: I should merely accept him, and continue with my own task. My lips moved, as I repeated to myself silently, "I am the messenger, and not the message; I am the speaker, and not the word; I am the silence in which is heard the voices of others."
In the tent that I had left, the pain of the soldiers beat like a sick heart.
Asher had ducked into the tent. I followed him, stepping around his horse, who snuffled at my hair hopefully.
Inside Asher was talking to the matron. I caught, "...unfortunate necessity. We'll be needing a few for the forward post, if you can spare them," as I moved past to my own cot.
The matron's reply was hushed, but audible to me. "Captain, we're already being pushed to our limit." She moved one hand slightly, and I felt her intention to push her cap back up her forehead tangled in her weariness and concern. "We simply cannot spare you any nurses for this ... position."
He stood there in the middle of a tent of women, looking far too comfortable, too self-assured. The nurse in the cot next to mine was still awake, combing out her hair, and was listening as keenly as I was: the others were fast asleep, the drugged sleep brought by simple exhaustion. "I'm afraid that it's orders, Matron. We can make do with one, perhaps, but at least one we must have. Look at it this way, if we can take some of the pressure off here, your casualties should be lower."
Her voice was crisp, but edged with hopelessness. "If it is a matter of orders, Captain, then I am required to comply. I should warn you that I will be sending a personal note to the commanding staff on this matter."
"Of course." His posture shifted, suggesting an agreement with her regret, though his emotions were chained tightly back, and only satisfaction showed a fleeting fin past the surface of his mind. Curious. Few mortals were so controlled. "Actually, I may be able to make this easier for you. I have a few nurses in particular listed, because of their service and abilities, so if I could have one of those - well, at least that will avoid people blaming you..."
She said, in a voice of pure ice, "I am not concerned with being blamed. I am concerned with the safety of my nurses."
For a moment, I found myself hoping that it would not be me who was chosen. The structure of the lives of the other nurses around me was a comfort, a support to move within, a frame of emotion that eased the soldiers' pain. I did not want to go out there alone, and I regretted that feeling in myself.
"Of course," he repeated. "I'm just concerned with trying to make things run as easily as possible here." He glanced along the tent. "I have the names of Jane Bowen, Cecilia Andrews, Mary Lockit."
I removed my apron automatically, and my cap, then began to unbraid my hair. I let his list of names fall through me like stones in water, feeling neither fear nor anger.
The matron followed his gaze down the tent, and I felt her eyes on me. She said, quietly, "Cecilia, child?"
I let my hands fall into my lap. "Yes, matron?"
"You've probably heard what we've been saying, child." I had always liked that about her, the way that she didn't assume we were all brainless biddies with no more sense than to sit around and knot bandages.
"Yes, matron," I said calmly. My half-unbraided hair fell over my right shoulder, resting against the side of my neck.
"Child, Captain Asher will be moving out shortly with a detachment to take a new forward position, and has requested a nurse to go with his men. You had better start packing."
"Yes, matron," I repeated, and began to rebraid my hair.
Orders were orders.
Asher smiled at me, hazel eyes apologetic yet friendly. Behind me, the nurse in the cot next to mine took a silent breath, and I felt the relief in her like a blossoming flower. Not me, not me, she thought, not me.
I nodded to Asher and the matron. "How long before we have to move, Captain?"
"Half an hour," he said. He paced down the line of cots towards me. "Will you be needing any particular help, nurse?"
I shook my head. "No thank you, Captain. I will be ready and packed. Where will we be going from?"
"Assemble by the Sappers tents." He nodded to me, gave the matron a salute, and marched out. I could hear his murmurings to his horse, the scuffle of his mounting, the hoofbeats fading into mud.
"I'm sorry, Cecilia," the matron said, more quietly. "It shouldn't be too long before we can get you some support out there."
"It isn't your fault, matron." I pinned my cap back on, and knelt to begin getting my stuff out of the locker beside my cot, and sorting it into my bag. "Someone has to go out there, after all, if Captain Asher says so."
She nodded. "I know, dear."
In that moment, she reminded me of Michael.
I was found a place on one of the baggage wagons. The soldiers were polite enough to me - well, they were polite to all the nurses, and I knew how to hold myself so as not to be overly female. We were a small party, only a hundred, three wagons, a few horses. No guns: that would be later, if we managed to hold the position, and the rest of the army came up behind us to reinforce us.
The wagon-driver clucked at the horses as they tossed their heads, their loose reins slapping against their necks. Mud churned around the wagon wheels: from time to time we jolted against rocks in the path, and the bales of tents and provisions jarred around me.
I was expected to be asleep, so I closed my eyes and pulled the blanket up over me. We would be a day's march from the camp, and Captain Asher had made it clear that I could, "catch up on your sleep, nurse. It's bad enough to be hauling you off at a moment's notice like this. Don't worry, you'll be safe enough with a troop of soldiers round you." It had been a kind thought of his to say it, if totally unnecessary.
Men trudged around the cart, in formation in case of some attack, though that was unlikely so near to our own lines. I extended awareness, and felt weariness, bitterness, the aching of feet and the rubbing of backpacks and rifle straps, fear, courage, a twist of hope, an ounce of lust, a spicing of anticipation. They were afraid, but still they kept on going.
I drew back into myself, and turned further inwards, outwards, past this Vessel and out into the Marches.
The Marches were blessedly quiet, lost in their eternal twilight and spread with a thousand jewels. Blandine's Tower rose in the distance, a spear of ivory against the burning of Gabriel's Volcano that coloured all the sky with flame. Something winged down towards me, a serpent the length of my arm that was scaled in garnets, the feathers of its wings tiny and perfect and nearly the shade of blood.
I raised my wrist like a falconer, and it perched on it, coiling its tail down my arm, a track of gems against the pallor of my flesh. "What do you want of me, little one?"
It tilted its head, nervously, then chirped, "You're one of the Powers? Who do you serve?"
I ran a finger along its spine, soothingly. "I am a Power of War, little one, and I serve my lord Michael. I am only here for a little while."
It preened, turning its head under my stroking and fluffing out its wings. "I serve the Lady of Dreams." In its voice and heart I tasted hope, both for itself and for others: it dreamed of being one of the Seraphim, the mighty and truthful. I spared a thought to wish that might come to pass.
It twisted its head round to look at me again. "What is your name?"
"Caliah," I answered, and I enjoyed the sound of it, the pleasure of speaking my true name after the daily grind of a human alias. The reliever's tail rewound itself around my wrist, and I imagined for a moment that it was enjoying the music also. Celestial speech is music, and in speaking it we celebrate the truth and rejoice in it.
"Do you have urgent business?" it asked, tiny voice fluting. Three visions like hanging windows floated past us, opening on bare skies and grey ridged mountains.
"Nothing urgent, little one," I said, stroking its spine again. "My Vessel is supposed to be asleep, on Earth, and I wished to see the Marches again."
A Wheel turned overhead in a streaking circle of flame, cutting the sky in an arc towards the distant Tower. Both I and the reliever turned to watch it pass.
My perception of time shifted, there in the brief silence. I could have wished for some of my friends to share the silence and the jewels with, but truly I had no excuse of urgency or need to call them, nothing save my own desire. Finally, I said, "I must go."
The reliever bowed its head, then uncurled its tail from my wrist: I tossed it into the air, and watched the light reflect from its wings as it swept upwards into flight, vanishing down the wind.
One wills oneself downwards, and sideways, like so...
I peered out from under the blanket. A drenching rain was seeping through the wool, and prompting the creative invention of curses from the soldiers around my wagon. Eli would have been proud.
The encampment site was only half an hour or so further: I did what any sensible nurse would, and stayed well out of the way of the soldiers as they set up camp. I'd been allotted a small room in a larger tent that would be for the wounded when they started coming in: it was close to Captain Asher's tent, with the mess tent between us. A sensible disposition, on the whole.
I was interrupted in the setting up of my cot by Lieutenant Broush, one of Asher's two subordinates, who scratched on the canvas of the tent and coughed politely.
I checked the set of my uniform to be sure that it was still neat, and opened the flap. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
I could taste the swell of embarassment in him, though, to give him credit, he didn't quite blush. "Captain wonders if you'd care to take meals with him and his fellow officers, ma'am. Doesn't seem right to leave you out there with the regulars."
My opinion of Asher took a step downwards. I'd have expected him to be eating with the rest of his forces. Unfortunately, it left me with the choice of snubbing him and losing any useful information he might have on the conduct of the war, or quite possibly alienating the rest of his forces. An awkward position.
I took refuge in the patterns that the lieutenant would expect from a woman and a nurse, though taking care to keep my voice and manner neutral. "It's most kind of the Captain, sir, and I'm very grateful, but I'm really not sure I'll be able to keep regular hours for meals. You've seen how busy it can get." I paused to allow him to nod an intelligent agreement. "I really wouldn't feel _right_ if I knew I'd be away for that long. Perhaps if I did it when time allowed, but I'm probably going to have to catch most of my meals in the mess tent..."
Some vague waving of the hands persuaded him that I was well-meaning, innocent, and clearly just trying to do the "right thing". I hoped that Asher had not been trying to attract the only woman on location - that would have been a decided complication.
Broush eventually gave me a half-bow, courtesy to a female - though not, I caught the emotion, one that he thought very pretty - and marched off through the mud towards Asher's tent. I went back to stacking bandages.
It is a hard and troublesome thing, having a female Vessel and being the only woman inside an encampment of a hundred men. Unless one is a Servitor of Flowers or Creation, in which case one probably sets up a rota. I spent the next few days looking as drab as I could, and keeping my body language gender-neutral, and sparing the odd thought to wish that I were more inclined towards male Vessels - though, in that case, I suppose that I would have been assigned elsewhere. Sometimes one wonders at the attitudes of humans.
It's only the body, after all. How can it mean so much to them? I know that most of the Superiors, both Archangels and Princes, tend to favour particular types when they take a Vessel, but that's usually in order to harmonise with the perceptions of the Word that they serve. All I could do was permit myself the odd daydream of ancient times, and imagine Michael descending in female form and revolutionising notions of warfare.
Then I would remind myself that I served as I was bidden, and that I had my own duties, and that I would not be sitting here stacking bandages and avoiding leers forever.
Our encampment just sat there in the middle of the mud: odd scouting parties went out, but never many of the men, and never for long. Tension built like the angry note of a swarm of bees, as the men polished their buckles and tidied their gear, ate their rations and cheated at cards, and knew that they were sitting far, far too close to the enemy. Asher apparently didn't want to risk giving away our position, I gathered, which was why we were lying so concealed.
I disliked the taste in the air: it felt far too close to the ozone before a thunderstorm. Brawls were occurring in the dark alleyways behind tents, and I had to patch up several broken limbs and missing teeth. It wasn't even the sort of struggle that might have helped the men achieve something, or prove anything to themselves: it was simply mindless anger, the pounding of a fist or a boot into someone else's face again and again and again till one's own tension was released, the sight of blood like a breath of fresh air, the sound of an enemy's moans a soothing lullaby.
I closed myself off from it more and more: this was something that I would not know, would not expose myself to. The Groves were not like this, and this was not the War which I served. The emotions of the soldiers ran round me like a blood-stained tide, but I would not touch them or feel them. This was their problem, their weakness, and speak as I would, I could not rouse them from it.
My greatest fear was that it might become my own emotion, and I walled myself in quiet, remembering the night wind and the silence of the Marches.
Perhaps I might have refrained from wishing for an attack - no, that was a foolish thought and a waste of time. Far more sensible to occupy myself with the wounded on my hands.
Brash young Lieutenant Broush was dead: they left his body behind, not having time to try and carry the dead with them. I had fifteen men to care for, and another ten who I was checking morning and night to make sure that their injuries were healing. Captain Asher had promised again that I would have help soon, but it showed no sign of appearing.
Asher came by himself, to tell me of Broush's death. "I'm sorry, nurse," he said. "I know you cared about him."
A curious misapprehension. "I am concerned for everyone here, Captain."
He nodded soothingly. A bandage circled his left arm: it must have been applied during the retreat, as it was not my work. "It does you credit, nurse. We all appreciate your work."
I nodded, very conscious of his presence. We were standing apart in the small section that I had curtained off to stack the few supplies I had. He smelt of cordite, blood, and sweat. Rain was rattling on the canvas roof of the tent, and I could hear the muttering of the men in the main section, delirious patterns and cadences. Their impatience and pain wrapped round me like a cord, tight at my heart.
He made a small noise, plucking at the bandage on his arm, and I was recalled to the duties of my role. "Is the wrapping too tight, Captain?"
He chewed on his lip. "A little, nurse. I know that you're busy, but if you could just take a look at it, I'd be very grateful."
I nodded, pulling placidity across my face like a blanket and leading him across to sit down, his arm resting on the table, while I rolled his sleeve back and unwrapped the bandage. The wound beneath was clean enough, but I added some antiseptic and resealed it in a clean bandage.
His words filtered through while I concentrated on the corporeal task. "I could wish that I'd sent him back, you know, nurse. He didn't want to be here."
The folds of white cloth over bruised and torn flesh held my eyes, as I replied, "I'm sure that you did what you had to do, Captain. You needed every man you had."
His arm jiggled a little as he nodded. "I thought you'd understand. It's just..." Something shifted in his emotions, an edge of mockery showing above the restrained surface, and I could not be sure whether it was self-mockery or some amusement at the pain of others. "It is hard to have to order men to stay here, when I know that they'd be back at camp if there was any way they could. I'm putting this badly, nurse, but I feel sometimes as if I'm having to hold a pistol to their heads to make them stay." His voice had dropped, more intimate now, quieter so that the men groaning beyond the canvas would not hear us. "Some of them have courage, but others - ah, they just want a full belly, they can't face the guns. My fault, I suppose. If it was something that I could have said..."
I secured the folds of bandage, feeling failure like lead in my stomach. My task was to help soldiers find that courage and stand in the face of death, and I had barely succeeded with a single man, if that. I felt as though I could have walked outside and cut the fog of fear with a knife. My own fear was a small thing beside it, incomparable. Asher might not be afraid - no, there was nothing of that in the few emotions he let out - but so many of the others were. The only thing in him that troubled me was that vein of mockery, like thin invisible glass which might cut the hand and draw blood.
He patted my hand, taking me by surprise, and I blinked. "Don't worry, nurse. Nobody's blaming you for anything - nobody could possibly ask more of you. You're doing a heroic task, and I'm sure that the men appreciate it as much as I do."
I nodded numbly, and asked, falling back on the sensible habits of training, "Is there to be another attack soon, Captain?"
Hazel eyes regarded me, growing more distant. "Well now, it's entirely possible. I can rely on you to stay calm, can't I, nurse? Whatever happens. It looks as if it'll be a while before we can get you any help."
I wanted somebody to talk to, someone that I could try and explain this congealing mass of _emotion_ to. I wanted another nurse to help ease the strain that I was placing on this Vessel. I wanted to be away from these surges of pain and bitterness and fear, from my own self-doubt. I didn't want to fail.
"I will do my best, Captain." The voice low, as ever, pitched neutrally. Again there was that moment of intimacy of a kind, shared responsibility, and separation from the rest of the world.
I found myself wondering what it would have been like to reach out and hold him in return as some other troubled angel might have held me - to have expressed my pain through biting fingers and angry words, to have spat it out instead of letting it flow round me and walling myself away.
That night, I toyed with that thought, and let it fall apart in my hands. Such things were not what I was, and in that place and time I surely needed to remember what I was.
The trees of the Groves in Heaven are older than I have words for, and at the same time one finds saplings between them, young and fresh. The earth is trodden down by the feet of warriors, soldiers in the great War, and yet each morning the ground is fresh, untouched.
It is where I was born, but I never said that it made sense.
I had been sitting in one of the tents on the campground, a hand on Merab's back. Merab still lay gazing at his Heart, golden eyes lidded in a quiet and unreachable contemplation, his wings folded against the sides of his body in sprays of pale feathers. It had been three months since his Vessel was killed, and every day that I returned here, I hoped that I would find him awake.
Outside I could hear the sound of steel, drifting from the Duelling Grounds. It had amused Merab to pitch his tent closer than the norm, and to watch the reactions of people who visited. A lot of people always had visited him, even with the noise.
We still weren't sure what had killed his Vessel, and he was in no condition to tell us. I stroked the dark fur, and rose.
There was a scratch on the front panel of the tent.
"I'm coming," I said, opening it.
Outside, the dark-winged Virtue attempted to look elsewhere, troubled by the brief flash of Merab's unconscious body as I closed the panel of fabric behind me.
"Thank you for reminding me of the time," I said, unruffled.
"I'm sure that you'd have remembered it anyhow," he returned, folding his wings behind him. "I could set a clock by you." His emotions still broiled with discomfort: he could not understand the Trauma of others, or be comfortable with it. The fear of the same thing happening to him some day clung to him like old dust, however much sense reminded him that his own Choir were free of it.
"And I suppose that you still want some practice." The words were intended to divert him, and they succeeded: his mouth twitched with anticipation. "A little chance," I began to walk towards the Duelling Grounds, "to try and beat me."
He snorted, following me, his longer stride bringing him even with me in a moment. "Try, hell. I'm going to wipe the ground with you this time, Caliah. Just you watch."
I tilted my head. "Oh, I'm going to get to watch? Clearly this is going to be a nice easy win for me."
He grunted deep in his throat. "Just because you've got Earth experience and I haven't yet..."
And that was the problem, really. He was far too good for his age at honourable duelling up here, and had absolutely no experience in genuine down-and-dirty fighting on Earth. The first demon he ran into - if they spotted this - would have him on toast and a nice china plate, with extra butter. I was supposed to be correcting this.
It was not being particularly easy. "Maher-shalal-hash-baz..." I began.
"Maher," he muttered.
"I've won so far."
"So let me get some Earth experience, and I'll come back and win a few times." He flashed a quick, bright smile at me. "I'll pick up a few tricks of my own."
The Duelling Grounds were closer now. "I heard Rigziel offering to work out with you this morning."
Maher shrugged his dark wings, but the touch of emotion suggested embarassment. "He fights dirty. I keep on losing."
"He still fights with honour, though." I turned my head to watch his expression. "And you know that perfectly well."
The Malakite was silent for a few paces, before he blurted out, "I just want to win _properly_! There's no challenge if I "prepare the ground" or "play it safe" or, or, cheat." His feet scuffed at the leaves and moss that we walked through. "We are servants of Michael. Servitors of War." His voice began to take on a more grandiose tone. "How are we supposed to justify ourselves in the eyes of Heaven if we..."
He hit the ground with a thump as I inserted my foot between his ankles, dry leaves spraying into his face. I was glad to see his training held enough for him to roll and come to his feet again.
"You will be killed," I said, voice expressionless, "and I don't want to see that happen."
His jaw was set stubbornly, but I could feel the first few cracks of uncertainty, and guilt for my concern. Good, I could work with that.
I let a shade of annoyance work into my voice. "Rigziel is a Seraph. Are you going to suggest that there's something _wrong_ with military Seraphs?"
His wings unfurled in frustration. "No, of course not. But, look..."
A Wheel descended through the trees down towards us, in a constant whirling circle of incandescence. "Caliah?" it sang. "Caliah, Caliah! News, news, the Archangel requires your presence!"
I blinked, letting my attention fall from Maher. "What is it?" Surely it could not be another assignment to Earth yet; I'd barely had a week since my last one.
"Mission," the Ofanite sang. I knew her vaguely, though not her name, and had seen her around the camp before. "Something Earthside. You should hasten!"
Well, that might be taken with half a pinch of salt, as Ofanim always thought that _everyone_ should hasten. I turned to the dark-winged Malakite. "I'll be assigning you to Rigziel, then, till I can get back. Clear it with your current officer, but I expect that he'll sanction it. Give my regards to Rigziel."
His wings flared, again, and he brought fist to chest in a salute. Then he surprised me entirely by reaching out to embrace me. "Watch it down there, Caliah."
I returned the clasp, feeling his uncertainty more deeply than before. "Trust me. I know how dangerous it is." The Ofanite spun above us, fracturing the shadows that the trees cast into patterns of fire and darkness.
"I'll keep an eye on Merab," he said.
I nodded, giving his words the respect that they deserved. "Honour to you, Virtue."
He nodded in reply, and released me. "Luck in your mission."
The Wheel's flames reflected in the shadows of his wings, as he turned abruptly and continued on towards the Duelling Grounds. I watched him pass between two trees, and laid aside my immediate worries for him. Rigziel would see to him: I had acted as best I could.
"Coming?" The Wheel darted to the right, then back to me again, arcing between the trees.
I nodded, and followed it.
It was the sound of coarse cheering that made me rise from where I was sitting. It had been five hours since the sortie party went out, and I had been on alert for the last four of them, waiting for news or patients or both. Three soldiers were still in their beds from the last little affair, and I talked with them as we waited, words doled out like coins in an attempt to bridge the gaps between us.
The voices outside grew louder. Beneath them I could hear softer noises, what might have been cries for help or simple begging for it to stop. Then they began carrying a couple of dozen wounded into my tent.
That kept me busy for several hours. Time wound down to a single thread of cleaning, sewing, bandaging, cleaning again, rinsing the blood off my hands as I turned to the next man. Beyond the canvas walls, the voices rose and fell in unholy patterns like flames. I could feel the emotions rising and falling with them, thick tainted echoes of the voices. The walls of my tent became the boundaries of my world, closed and sealed.
Outside the walls, I thought as I rinsed my hands again, is a sea of mud and people screaming in pain and other people killing them. Why was I trying to give them the courage to go out there again? What _point_ was there to such idiotic, stupid squabbling over an acre of earth that was purchased with so much blood?
I went outside later, of course, and it would be a lie to say that I had never been in this sort of scene before. These images followed war as flies did a corpse: the sounds from the tents, the cheers and curses, the new fragments of gold and silver from some looting, the alcohol that hung on the air like a malediction.
I was a Servitor of War, but it didn't mean that I had to like this, or that I could understand this. No, say rather that I could have understood it, but that I chose not to.
My Essence did not last very long. After that, I did what I could, but that was not a great deal. A Vessel has limits, and my role limited me further.
Captain Asher's steps were quiet in the mud as he stopped behind me. One hand reached out to touch my shoulder. "Nurse?" His voice was soft, as though not to frighten me.
I partly turned, my body aching with weariness, and straightened. "Yes, Captain?"
"You shouldn't be seeing this," he said, something dark moving behind his words.
"How did it happen?" I asked, my voice soft and toneless.
He shrugged, his hand still on my shoulder. "We were collecting some supplies from an enemy village to the east, and someone sniped at one of the men. We took reprisals."
And the village suffered, yes, I could see that. My back stiffened. He should not have let things get so far.
"You don't understand, nurse." He squeezed my shoulder gently, then let his hand fall. "They're only human, just like you or I. They're fighting, someone shoots at them, they hit back. It's an example to the other villages."
I gestured, indicating the muddy landscape beyond us and the cloudy sky. "And it matters so much." For once, I couldn't help the bitterness showing through. A soul for every foot of land.
"We can't understand." He folded his hands behind him. "I'm an offficer, you're a nurse, and we both go where we're told and fight or heal as we're told and do the best we can because down here, all we can see is..."
"... the mud and the blood," I completed it.
"You have to have faith." His voice was soft and compelling, his emotions locked away as tightly as ever. I considered touching him, touching them, but I did not want to touch any emotions at the moment, not with this roaring wildness of the camp around me.
I was silent a while, and he eventually said, "Let me walk you back to your tent."
I nodded, turning to walk beside him. He made little noise, motions precise and scarcely wearied. I was trying to find words for what I wanted to say, but I could not think of anything to tell him that would have eased me.
He left me at the flap, with a final murmur of, "They were only defending themselves, Nurse. You can't blame them for that."
I could have blamed anyone, really. I was not stable, and some part of myself recognised this. It would have been too easy, in that state of mind, to have believed that the whole of War was just a pointless, bloody waste, fought over a corporeal world who did not care and could not matter.
Dawn the next morning was the scarlet of roses where it showed through the grey clouds, streaked across the sky in long bleeding petals. I saw the horseman coming from the south, as I stood by the entrance to the hospital tent. He rode in haste, but with due care for his steed, letting it slow as he drew up to the edge of the camp and answered the sentry's challenge.
I watched his approach through the camp, as his horse picked its way past garbage and guyropes. There was something familiar about his bearing, and it nagged at me like a splinter: the urgency with which he moved, the way that his path led through the maze of the camp as if he knew it already, and the cant of his head.
He rode up to me, and let the reins go slack in his hands. The horse dropped its head, mane hanging wet and lank. "Caliah," he half spoke, half sang, the sound cutting through the morning air like new-forged silver.
The timbre of the voice identified him for me. "Thahash," I sang in return, knowing that those inside the tents would still be sleeping. "What do you here, Wheel of Michael?"
He reverted to human speech, swinging from his horse and patting its neck soothingly. "Carrying dispatches. I heard at base camp that you'd been sent out this way, so I arranged my route to come past." He looked around, nostrils flaring, and I could feel his disgust at the state of the place. "What's been going on?"
"War." The squalor of the camp felt like some personal shame, etched on my skin. "To be more precise, too much inactivity, then looting a nearby village last night."
"Ah." He paced in a small circle around his horse, glancing at the trappings and saddle. "One of those situations. Can I help?"
Can you tell me what to do to make sense of these petty, furious, hating humans? Can you force back the wind of change that's burning me away? Can you explain why I still care about them, and why I am doling out the laudanum to stop a man screaming his throat raw because of the gashes across his face?
I said, quite calmly, "Do you think that you could arrange a reassignment for my role? This post is unhealthy for me."
He walked around the horse again. The animal flicked its tail, evidently used to his mannerisms. "Sorry. No. I don't have the rank. Can't you get it out of your commanding officer, that captain?"
"I doubt it." My tone remained equable. "I am far too useful to him where I am."
You understand who you are, Wheel, burning bright with speed. You aren't _supposed_ to try to understand all the little emotions and cancerous cares that infect the people around you: all you need care about is the straight line of motion. Can't you, please, explain to me how it is that you still have such perfect burning surety in the middle of this world? I was certain when I was in the Groves, but to have run back there would have been to abandon my post, to retreat. Surely if there was an answer, I would find it here beside the question.
He nodded. "Well, I'll see if I can do anything, but..." he shrugged. "Still, it's just another job, isn't it?"
Surely, just another job. I should remember that, and put myself aside.
"Some jobs are easier than others." Perhaps some thread of emotion showed in my voice, for he gave me a glance for a moment before shrugging.
"Okay. Anything important?"
No, no, nothing important. "No. Just a war."
He nodded. "I'll check with the captain here to justify the visit, then be on my way. Watch yourself, hm?"
I settled my apron, as I watched him lead the horse down to Asher's tent. He was not long in there: when he came out, he waved to me again before he left. Horse and rider were visible on the horizon a while, before they vanished between the fold of two hills.
All the words in the world, and I could not think of anything that I could have said which would have made him understand.
It was evening, and the camp was quiet. The guard had changed on time, with the usual mutters and curses as the new men took up post at the outskirts, and the old ones trooped off to the mess tent. A thread of unease ran in the air, something that had been plucked and was singing gently to itself.
I rubbed my hands together: they were cold. The tent behind me was quiet for once, with all the men sleeping or unconscious. Wind slapped at the canvas of the tent and rattled the guyropes, but that was outside and unimportant. I stood in the centre of the lantern's cone of light, and listened to the silence.
The Symphony rippled as something touched it. My head came up sharply, and I turned, trying to identify the direction. Somebody had Sung, and it was close, very close. I could not be sure what they had invoked, but certainly it had been the act of some angel or demon.
The wind was rushing past me outside, whistling against the tents and whipping my skirt and apron against my legs. I turned, with the calm surety of a warrior who knows their enemy, towards Captain Asher's tent. That was where the Song had come from, and hindsight, so cool and so precise, showed me who it must have been that performed it.
Light glinted at the flap of his tent. As I reached out to touch it, I heard his voice from inside, gentle, composed. "Come in."
So I did.
The wind snatched the flap from my hand, seaming it shut again as I stepped inside. Asher was sitting at his table, hands folded in front of him, the table at right angles to the door: he was turned so that he sat facing me, an elbow propped on the edge of the table. I noticed, with the odd precision of such moments, that ink stained a corner of the table in a curling blot, worn into the wood. The lantern at the apex of the tent glowed gold, unknowing and uncaring light.
"Would you like to sit down, nurse?" he asked, polite as ever.
I let my resonance extend towards him, feeling my own anger in it like streaks of fire. His mind was a slow whorl of satisfaction, unconcealed now, disgust, and sour despite at this place and people. The emotions tasted of salt and rust.
"Who are you?" My words were in the Celestial tongue, sung clearly and coldly: I could see in his eyes at once that he understood them, and I wondered how I could have been so blind for so long.
"Ashekai, of the War," he responded in the same tongue, the notes ringing like rippled glass in the tent. "I see that you have come at my call. I would have your name also, Power."
So he knew what I was: I wondered how long he had known. "I am Caliah, Servitor of War. I bid you leave this place or be destroyed, servant of Baal." My pulse was fast, as I gave a proper challenge. It was a relief at last to know my enemy.
"Servant of Michael," he replied, "we both serve the same master, in the end: War."
"And yet I am opposed to you," I sang in answer.
He rose from his chair, hands parting, and I watched the physical movements of his Vessel, gauging him. The lantern-light made planes and shadows of his face, and dark pools of his eyes, and picked out the braid on his uniform in lines of fire.
He opened his mouth, and Sang, and the air between us was torn with a blast of acid. In the same movement he was diving at me, hand swinging in a strike at my neck at the place where I should have ducked to.
I didn't. I reached out my foot and kicked the chair near me into the blast of acid, seeing it dissolve into fragments as I rolled backwards, and turning to bring my ankle round again in a leg-sweep. Drops of acid sprayed on my uniform, eating tiny holes in my skirts and burning my flesh where they touched, pinprick pains. The Symphony deformed around us at the Song and at the destruction.
He dodged back out of the way, my foot brushing the cloth of his trousers, and his mouth gaped wide as though to Sing again: instead, his tongue came uncoiling out of it like a fleshy length of ribbon, snapping like a whip as he lunged at me. It scored along the side of my cheek as I came to my feet, turning my head to avoid its full strike, and I felt the warmth of blood coating that side of my face.
He grabbed at my wrist, taking advantage of my half-turn. I felt the knife strapped to my other wrist drop into my hand as I flexed my arm, and I moved in to him, allowing him the grip: moving in towards him, I brought the knife up in a straight cut in front of my face, and it sliced directly through the tongue as it came recoiling for another strike, the length of flesh going tumbling. He threw his head back and screamed, blood gathering at the back of his throat, and in that moment I smashed my knee up into his groin, pivoting further, and slammed him back towards the table, the knife moving to the hollow of his throat. Anger was in my heart, and disgust bitter in my mouth as I pressed the blade in for the final stroke.
A trickle of blood ran from the corners of his mouth, and he said, "Do it, then. But tell me first that they're better than I am."
Some emotion paused the knife in my hand, where it pierced the skin at his neck and let a thread of blood run free. "What." It wasn't quite a question, because something in me understood what he was trying to say, and trembled at it.
"Tell me," he said distinctly, "that the humans are any better than I am. That they deserve to live any more than I do."
I am a servant of War, and an angel of God. The blade moved a little further beneath his skin, blood running down to soak the collar of his uniform. Acid stains spotted the backs of my hands where his earlier Song had caught me, but for the moment I felt no pain.
"Tell me the truth, angel," he said. "Then cut my throat if that will make the truth go away. But tell me first that the humans beyond these walls deserve Heaven or salvation or any sort of mercy. Tell me that _you_ deserve mercy."
The knife was steady: my balance was lost. Outside I heard all the night sounds of the camp. A bitter little fist-fight in the muddy alley between two tents -
"It's competition," I told the reliever who perched on the branch above me. "It makes them stronger."
- a man who sat and snivelled over the scars that laced his face -
I stroked Merab's back, and waited for him to wake and then for him to go down and serve again, without peace or respite, as there had been none for me.
- a gloating bully who dreamed of hopeless women and their bodies and the easing of his flesh -
"They're humans," I told Maher. "It's Earth. Don't expect it to be like Heaven, because it can't be."
- the boredom and bitterness of two sentries, who left their duty to throw dice -
"Your task is to help them understand that they can face their death with courage," Michael said. I looked at his face, at the brightness.
- I don't want to die, I don't want to die, a pattern of thoughts repeated themselves in the head of a young man curled up against the cold and the terror -
I tried to see the brightness again, to feel the surety of faith and purpose.
- please don't hurt me, I don't want to be hurt -
... and, oh dear God, I did so despise them ...
- make it go away, let me run away, it's not fair -
I couldn't remember Michael's face.
- please stop -
It stopped, and something in me broke, and the knife fell from my hand.
There aren't words for that moment. I changed, and there was fire in me and fire about me and fire behind my eyes, though nothing physical, nothing to touch Ashekai or the world round me. I saw him standing, but he didn't make any move to touch me, waiting for it to settle and for me to perceive him again.
"I will make supplication for you to my lord Baal," he said, his voice soft.
I tasted the anger and the slow bitterness inside myself. It was enough of balance. It was fitting for a warrior.
"Show me where, then," I said. The lantern glowed warmly above us, but the light was empty of anything like love or mercy. There was only him and me, and all the distance that lies between two living beings. I could feel the slow gloating malice inside him: it didn't matter now, he didn't matter. The important thing was the wind of rage and judgement that would keep me warm and give me definition. I had been still and folded my hands for too long.
So he spread his wings, and I followed him, and the gates of Hell opened for both of us.
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