Disclaimer:  Everything relating to the kingdom of Valdemar is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey.
Notes:  Seriously, you don’t want to know where my imagination went to write this.  I don’t even know.  All I can think is that this is my subconscious rebelling because I’ve made it do roughly 12,000 words of happy!bouncy!snarky! Teva in the past month.
Feed(back) etcetera-cat.
by etcetera-cat
The sun is just rising, clawing its way up over the horizon by small, stretched out increments.
The front lines are over the far side of the hills, hidden from sight by the low, rolling landscape.  A week ago, the front lines were on this side of the hills, but there was a battle and this time, instead of a retreat, there was a push forwards.  So now the front lines are on the other sides of the hills, and this pock-marked and muddy wasteland is now where the staging camp is.
The sun is just rising, and the sky is red.
Military precision is no longer evident for the pitching of the tents; there are still attempts to stick to the grid-like structuring that tradition, experience and the army demands, but allowances have to be made.  Spaces are left because of pot-holes and trenches.  There are also mounds that are avoided— straight lines taking a wide curving detour around them.
The mounds smell like the privies on the far side of the staging camp and their surfaces are dug over and loose earth.
Some of them have stones on top of them.
The mounds smell like privies, but they’re not.
The sun is just rising and the thin, high scattering of clouds look like scars or wounds or dirty bandages stretched over limbs and bodies and injuries.
Guy ropes and pitch lines tangle the ground and the paths between the tents are no straight lines, they are shambolic, meandering messes that are slick with mud when it rains and rutted with dust and grit when the sun bakes the ground like bread in an oven from the lowest pit of Hell.
The sun is just rising.  The sky is red.
If the high summer clouds are bandages— overstretched to match the Healers stationed on the Border, with their gaunt figures and their ebbing Gifts and the way that the smell of dead things has bound itself irrevocably to their skin and hair— then the smoke curling upwards through the dead still summer air that hugs the ground is like the tracing marks of gangrene.  The light breeze scudding through the air above the dead-still air is not enough to purge the smoke away, it just serves to tatter and spread it; so that a thin patina of dirt coats everything.
The sun is just rising and the smoke is spreading like infection.
He coughs, a harsh, racking sound that dances little pin-prick daggers up and down the inside of his chest, and drags one weary hand across his face.  Maybe what he smears is dirt, maybe it isn’t; he’s given up noticing.
The cough is… not good.  He tries to insist to himself that it’s just the smoke— and the dust— that’s irritating his throat.  Just the smoke, the dust, and his bone-deep tiredness, nothing more.  He can lie to himself almost as well as he can lie to his patients, now.
This won’t hurt— that one comes easiest, perhaps because he, and his patients, have never believed it.  He still says it though; as he probes a wound with scrubbed-raw fingers, as he removes an arrow, as he sets a bone. 
This won’t hurt, I promise.
At the beginning, it wasn’t a lie.  At the beginning they had drugs and medicine and energy to be able to afford painblocks for even the most frivolous things.  Now, there’s no time anymore— no drugs anymore—
—no energy anymore.
It’s a case of cut and run and do what you can (never enough) with what you’ve got (fragments of less than nothing) and pray and pray and try to scrabble back your mind from the brink of a stress induced breakdown at the end of each shift.
The sun is just rising and it filters light across the torn and ravaged land.  The sky is painted a hundred shades of crimson and scarlet, bleeding into the steely dark remnants of the night.
His vision blurs and he is forced to stop walking for a long moment as he blinks and curses until the dancing black spots and the twirling sparkles retreat again and he can continue.  Vaguely, he’s aware that he should probably have some kind of headache, but he’s gotten so good at ignoring his own body’s complaints that he could have a thumping reaction headache and probably not notice.
It’s how he’s coping with the… cough… after all.
It takes longer, each day, to make his rounds.  He insists to himself that it’s because there are more patients to see, and what seems like less time in which to see them.  Most of the visits are brief; time is an expensive commodity, and there isn’t really much he can do.  All they seem to have left is willow bark tea, which everyone drinks, regardless of the suitability of it.
Better that than the alternative, which is nothing.
Doing these rounds seems to him, sometimes, to merely bring home how much of a failure he is.  Hell— he can’t even stop himself catching a… cough… so what hope have soldiers with missing limbs and festering wounds got?
The sun is just rising and the sky is a red wound with ineffective cloud bandages.
At one end of the camp, at the end of the area set aside for the Healers, there are a few larger tents set up.  These tents hold the Heralds.  There’s no point in prefixing an ‘injured’ onto the title, because all of the Whites-clad lunatics are injured in some way, now.
And they keep on going out and getting more injured until they can’t go out any more, and then they lie there and they fret and worry that they’re not being any help.
Sometimes, they go to the far reaches of ‘more injured’, and then, at least, they are good patients.  Unconscious patients.
There are two of them in at the moment.  One belongs to the latter group; head all bandaged up and under constant monitoring from his Companion because the idiot took a club to the head a week ago, and hasn’t woken up yet.
The Companion, a mare, doesn’t look much better; one side of her face is a ruined mess courtesy of a sword slash and she looks gaunt and thin, as if she’s channelling all her pitiful reserves into the silent body laying in the bed which she stands next to, night and day.
He checks her over, as well as the Herald.  She’s being given willow bark tea as well.  She’s not protested yet, but, then again, she’s not removed her one remaining eye from her Herald’s face since they arrived here.
The second Herald is awake and uninjured enough to be vocal in her fretting.  He checks her over perfunctorily and tells her to drink her tea.  She complains at him that she’s good to go back on the lines; that her reaction-shock is almost gone; that she doesn’t feel drained anymore.
She uses the same kind of voice he does when he says that it won’t hurt.
He gives her more tea and moves onwards.
The sun has just risen and the day is new and so far from clean that the air has a solidness about it.
Another coughing fit, this one harsh and racking and he has to cling helpless to an abandoned picket line as he tries to force his rebelling lungs to let him breathe and he feels like he’s inhaling white-hot liquid lead razorblades that stick in the back of his throat and make the coughing worse.  It’s just a cough.  Just a simple cough.
His eyes won’t focus again; black spots flicker and track as he moves his head.  A side-effect of the coughing fit, he tells himself.  Just that, nothing more.
The back of his throat tastes of copper and dead air.
The sun has just risen.  The sky is red.
A new Herald-Mage is coming, so the rumours around the camp say.  Come to replace the five that are now two— and those two are falling down sick with reaction and drainage shock.
The almost legendary Vanyel Shadowstalker, the injured soldiers in the tents have whispered.  He doesn’t believe or disbelieve them.  At least the prospect gives them something to hope about, in this hopeless situation.
It gives them something to do, other than drink weak willow bark tea and die by increments.
The copper taste is always in the back of his throat now, the coughing fits are worse, and it feels like there is always someone pushing on the front of his chest, trying to stop him from breathing.
It’s just a cough.
He doesn’t have time for it to be anything other than a cough; there’s too much to do, to many people to look after and see that they die as painlessly as possible because saving them is not something he has the power to do anymore.
They are adding their own mounds to the area behind the camp.
The Herald and his sword-slashed mare are buried in one of them.
These new mounds don’t smell like the latrines yet.
The sun has just risen.  The sky is red and there is a thick oppressive silence hovering over everything.
He wishes, more than anything else right now, that he wasn’t here.  He’s more than half convinced that the cough has already killed him and that this is the circle of Hell reserved especially for Healers who fail to save people.
The cough makes him spit up blood, now.  More each day. 
It’s still just a cough.
The black spots hover at the edge of his vision all the time, and he lies to himself that they are just due to fatigue and reaction from over-extending his Gift.  The black spots are not hallucinations because he has a chest packed with cotton wool and tailor’s pins.
It’s just a cough.
His robes, his Greens; torn and stained and ruined beyond belief fit him even less well than they did a mere month ago.  At least it means that the holes aren’t over anything important.
He drinks weak brewed willow bark tea instead of water.
He stands on the edge of the camp, cold, cold fingers that smell of death clasped around a hot wooden beaker and he shivers.  Occasionally he sips at the tea.  Frequently he coughs.
Sometimes he has to bend over and heave, then spit.
Then he stands back up and looks up at the sky as the sun rises.  As the light chases away the velvet of the night and begins to paint the sky the colour of organs and blood, he remembers a rhyme from his childhood.
A red sky in the morning, is a storm warning.
Yes, he thinks to himself.
The sun has just risen.
The sky is red.
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