It was Jory I came here for. The dog had lain back down by the hearth, and Jory was curled up beside him, scratching him behind the ears. Lady Isolde nodded. The bruises must not have faded yet. And she could still feel the cut on her upper lip. Dera would wager the Lady Isolde did know what men were, all too well.
And Dera had watched her, while she and Jory had waited for her to get done with her rounds among the wounded men. But when one of the sickest of them clutched at her, grabbed her arm or her hand in some fever-dream, Dera had seen her go very still, like she was holding her breath and forcing herself not to flinch or pull away. Then Lord Marche had turned traitor, had gone against Britain and joined his armies to the Saxon devils. Not Dera. Which she should have known; you got to recognize the mean ones by the look in their eyes.
And besides, all the men were in vile tempers these days, with the fighting going so badly, and battle after battle lost to Lord Marche and his dirty Saxon allies. Half the soldiers who asked for it used her like they were punishing her for the loss of their brothers and friends. As if the bloody war had been all her idea, or it was her fault Lord Marche had to be not just a traitor but a master warrior, as well. At least this last man had paid her; sometimes his kind just laughed and told her she should be thanking them for a good time.
But this one had paid with a battered bronze finger ring taken off a dead Saxon. A place as safe from Saxon attacks as anywhere was, these days.
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You and Jory, both. But you were gone. I should have looked harder, though. Lady Isolde stopped at a commotion at the infirmary door: two men carrying in a third, who was screaming and bellowing like an angry bull. Not that Dera blamed him; the front of his tunic was all cut open and stained with blood, and she could see the sword cut in his belly and part of his guts poking out through the wound.
But please stay—as long as you like. The rest of what she said was lost; she was already gesturing for the screaming man to be put down on one of the empty pallets of straw, kilting up her skirts and kneeling down next to him, taking out a little bone-handled knife and using it to cut the bloodied fragments of his shirt away. Dera looked over at Jory. Like it was so awful you had to keep looking and looking, trying to decide whether it could be true.
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The next she knew she was standing right next to where Lady Isolde was kneeling—and Lady Isolde was looking up at her, with the same look in her eyes as a man might have when he inspected a weapon to be sure it was sharp. Lady Isolde shook her head and seemed to come back to herself a bit. She spoke quickly.
But this man is going to need stitching up. And this is going to take another pair of hands. Can you do it? He was older than the usual run of fighting men.
Maybe forty or forty-five. Heavy-muscled and tall, with a long, black mustache and curly hair threaded through with gray. Not that she made it a habit to study their faces, most times. Reckon I can. Just tell me what to do. Once you got over wanting to heave your breakfast up onto your boots.
Which seemed lackwitted to Dera, until she realized it was so the coil of his guts that was hanging out could be fit back in. Lady Isolde asked for water and oil, and smeared them over the pallid tubes of innards before she did that. And she had Dera hold the edges of the wound open so that she could get them slid back into place.
Then she had the two fighting men shake the wounded man just gently, side to side. And then she started to stitch up the wound. Watching, Dera could almost believe there was some magic about her, just as the stories said.
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At first Dera was too much taken up with watching—and trying too hard not to be sick—to pay mind to anything else. But then, after a bit, she realized Lady Isolde was speaking to herself under her breath, quick and low, all the time she worked. The wounded man had fainted halfway through; he was lying now with his eyes shut and his mouth slack. Because if it was stupid to cry at a bit of kindness from a fine lady like Lady Isolde, it was stupider yet to cry over the dead baby girl Lady Isolde had delivered.
Dera opened her eyes and realized that Lady Isolde had put a hand over hers. Both their hands were smeared, sticky with blood. Nothing you could have done. He woke about halfway through, and Lady Isolde had Dera prop his head while she got him to swallow some poppy syrup that had him unconscious again before the final bandage was tied. Lady Isolde sat back on her heels.
Lady Isolde pushed a stray curl of black hair off her forehead with the back of her hand.
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Maybe one in twenty. If that many.
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A spare set of breeches, shirt, traveling cloak. He must not have a wife back home. The wedded men usually had a bundle of rowan twigs or a love knot sewn into their clothes somewhere. Dera had gotten good at noticing things like that, because she always tried—unless she and Jory were too hungry to help it—not to say yes to the men with wives waiting back home.
Dera folded the cloak, then shrugged. So this was at least one up on that. Space is tight, these days, with so many fighting men quartered here at Dinas Emrys for the winter. But we could set up a space for the two of you to sleep in my workroom. And—if you were willing—you could help me for part of the day. Help grind herbs and prepare ointments. Sometimes lend aid as you did today, when I need an extra set of hands.
Dera felt her jaw drop open. Treating wounds all day. Dera took a breath and got her voice back. Lady Isolde stopped her before she could finish.