There Ought To Be Some Magic

“More wounded from the south wall — burns and punctures.”

It seemed like he’d just gotten comfortable against the cool stone pillar. He sighed heavily, and levered himself up from the floor. “Orderly: Cold water and hot, tallow, soap, clean bandages.”

It had been a long night, and today didn’t look like it was going to get much better. The proper place to be in a siege is on the outside, he’d always thought — or better still, long miles away — but he kept getting caught inside. Ah well; it could be worse; I could be on the walls. He grimaced at the thought, stretched, and glanced through the door into the courtyard.

The flames flickering from the battlements scarcely lit the piled dead. They were stacked like cordwood against the far wall, the ones on bottom already beginning to bloat. We’ll have to do something about that before long or there’ll be plague — if fire and arrows fail, the dead will be the death of us. He chuckled grimly to himself, then straightened. The wounded were coming across.

The first in was his patient; young, he’d be noble, and that trumped triage every time. His orderly sponged the shallow cut on the temple as the chiurgeon stitched — it bled spectacularly, but wasn’t much danger. Still, he worked his art on it; nobles were nobles and rated the best. It took but moments, and the young man stood to go back to his duty. “Take a drink and a short rest first, Milord,” he advised. “You’ll need your strength.” For a wonder, the boy listened; they so rarely did.

The next patient was worse, far worse. Burning pitch had covered his left side from face to shin, and the leather coat had helped little. They undressed him as carefully as they could, but the whole point of armor is to resist being cut and the man screamed and screamed. The orderly applied the tallow salve as the burns became visible, then the chiurgeon snipped away at the dead skin as best he could, pulling away threads from the scorched gambeson that had gotten embedded. Then it was time for his art, and he was ready.

Working swiftly, he made a cast of the man’s damaged face and shoulder; the wet sand held the impression well. He poured melted tallow in the mold, sifting in the flakes of skin and bits of fluid from the chiurgery, then dashed cool water on it to harden it. At the same moment, his orderly dashed cold water on the burned face, and with an effort of will a connection was formed. “Aloe,” he called, as he began slowly kneading the rough surface of his wax model, and his orderly tenderly rubbed the sap from that plant onto the burn itself.

Thaumaturgy works by making like to like, and he wanted the wax smooth to make the face smooth again. You couldn’t trim it off with a knife, or the burned skin would come away as well; likewise, melting it would only worsen the burn. Instead, you worked it to make it whole again, with the warmth of the hand serving to blend in the unevenness of the still-soft wax. It had to be done quickly, while the orderly applied the aloe, but he was skilled with long experience and the surface smoothed quickly. It would never be perfect; some scarring was unavoidable, but at least the man would live, and perhaps the eye would heal given time.

From the face they moved to the hand, which was the worst damaged. But they worked together, and swiftly they repaired what they could — he might lose a finger, but perhaps not, if he was lucky. Finally, they shifted to the leg, which looked bad but should heal cleanly. “Wrap and salve it,” he said, and took his wax and sand away for purification.

The sand he rinsed clean in the courtyard, gathering it back fresh from the basin, but the wax took more trouble. It was still bound to the patient, and if he melted it the man’s flesh would soften and fall off likewise. To break the binding, he piled the pieces on the table, then poured naptha in the circular channel around the edge, lighting it with another effort of will. The circle cut off the wax, which could now be melted, rendered, and used again with no harm to anyone. He piled it in the corner where the cook’s helpers would tend to it and went back inside.

This next patient would be his last, and it was particularly unpleasant — an arrow through the eye. The shaft had struck at an angle and the point passed out through the man’s temple, leaving flakes of bone and other, stranger stuff spilled out on his wounded face. It was enough to make even the chiurgeon vomit, but he soon mastered himself and set to work.

There would be no saving this eye, perhaps no saving the man, but it had to be tried. Again the area was cleansed; again the cast was made — this time around the arrow. With an effort of will, the connection was formed — this time with some difficulty, as the substance of the arrow fought the binding. The thaumaturge rested as the others cut the shaft of the arrow and heated the irons.

It was unfortunate the patient was still conscious, but he was, and there was nothing to be done about it but be quick. To move slowly was to risk that the shock would kill the man, but to leave even a splinter inside would be fatal as well. The orderly smoothed the cut end of the shaft and bound it together, and the thaumaturge set his will on it that it might hold. Then, they grasped it by the head and pulled it through. A gout of fluid came with it — clear, and tinged with blood.

Then followed the cautery, performed by identical hot irons on the wound and the model, burning away the demons of infection and the form of the arrow at the same moment. A rare potion made (so they said) with bottled lighting was poured in; it seethed and bubbled, bringing forth splinters and other debris. This was precious and running low, but it would not keep, so best to use it while it lasted. The remains of the eye were extracted, and finally the wound to the temple was carefully closed, both on the model and the patient. The man was pale, grinding his teeth against the pain, but his remaining eye was alert and aware as they stitched the skin closed. He may yet live, thought the thaumaturge, and was surprised by it.

The sun was rising as he rinsed his sand and cleansed the wax. From the sound of things, they were making another attempt at the south wall, but halfhearted this time. He straightened, stretching, and started back inside. Perhaps there would be time for some real sleep before he was needed again. There ought to be some magic to stop men from fighting, he thought, then scoffed at his own folly. That would take a miracle indeed.

Besides, there was no such thing as magic — only science which hadn’t yet been understood.

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