The City has been my home for as long as I can remember. Since boyhood, I have spent my days safe within its high, white walls. I never thought I would leave its sun-warmed cobblestone streets or spend my days out of earshot of its ever-flowing fountains. But that all changed the night the survivors came.
Watching them limp in through the city gate, past the library where I was working late, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. This kind of pain, the ugliness of what had been done to these people, it was something I had never seen before. Never before had I been face-to-face with the consequences of Evil. Sure, I had read about it in many of the books in the library—about the First Ghoul Uprising and other, more ancient battles; about the dark places on the edges of the kingdom where strange things were seen and where only the strong of heart dared dwell. But this was the first time I saw such things with my own eyes. And it was the first time I felt fear rise in my heart at the thought of what Evil was capable of.
But it wasn’t just fear that I felt that night; there was also anger. And something else—a need to help, to undo what Evil had done, to right the wrongs that had been perpetrated on these people.
I went out into the streets and began pointing the wounded toward the Healing Homes. Then I saw a man who could barely walk on his own. One of his ankles was bent at an odd angle and he was limping in horrible pain, leaning against walls and a too-short staff as he moved very slowly along the street. I went to him and put my arm around his back.
“Lean on me,” I said. “I’ll get you to the Healing Homes. The nearest one is only a block or two farther.”
He acknowledge my offer with a nod and leaned heavily on me. He was in too much pain to speak, and so we made our way in silence, broken only by an occasional grunt as he tripped over an uneven stone or stepped across the gullies where the water ran through the streets.
But when we reached the first Healing Home, it was full to overflowing. The man’s slow pace meant that many had passed him and reached the Home first. It was the same at the second and third Healing Home. Finally, after climbing more than half-way up toward the center of the City, the man said breathlessly, “I must rest. Please.”
We found a stone step and I lowered him carefully onto it. “I can go get help,” I said. There is a Healing Home near the center of the City, at the top of the hill. I’ll bring someone and we can carry you the rest of the way.”
“No,” he said. “Please—” he ground his teeth in pain. “Please don’t leave. I need someone to keep me awake—I’ve lost too much blood—”
It was then that I noticed that his boot and pant leg were soaked deep red. I looked down the street behind us and saw a thin trail of it where we had walked.
“You need help now,” I said. “I’ve got to get someone. If they don’t stop the bleeding, you’ll die.” I felt myself getting queasy as I looked at the pool slowly forming around his foot.
“There isn’t time,” he grunted out. “We need to make a tourniquet. You’ll need to help me.”
The nausea that I’d been trying to hold back washed over me then, and I felt myself begin to tremor. “I—I don’t know what to do. I can’t—it’s better if I get help. I’ll run. I can be back with help in a matter of minutes.”
“I don’t have minutes,” the man said, and I saw his head begin to droop. Exhaustion and blood-loss was overtaking him.
“Okay! Okay” I said. “Tell me what to do. Just don’t pass out.”
“Tear off my pant leg,” he said.
My hands shaking and my stomach threatening upheaval at any second, I reached down and grabbed the blood-soaked cloth. Then, clenching my teeth, I tore the fabric up to the man’s knee.
His ankle was broken. The bone was protruding from his skin. Blood flowed down his leg and over his foot. I felt myself retch. The wounded man was not the only one in danger of passing out now.
Then I felt his hand on my shoulder. I felt his lack of strength as he tried to squeeze my shoulder in reassurance. “You can do this,” he said. Though his voice was weak, there was confidence in it. I squared my shoulders. He was depending on me. “I can do it,” I said. “Tell me what’s next.”
With a voice barely more than a whisper, the man talked me through tearing a strip of the cloth and then tying it around his leg, above his knee. At first, I was afraid to pull it too tight, but he insisted, and as I pulled it as taught as I possibly could, I saw the blood begin to flow less freely from his wound.
“Thank you,” he said. And then he slumped over.
I felt for a pulse in his neck. It was still there, though weak. Knowing there was nothing else I could do for him there on the step, I took off running as fast as my feet could carry me up to the last Healing Home.
I reached the Home and shoved open the doors. Other wounded were already there, but I was able to find an attendant and quickly explained about the wounded man. Shouting an order at another healer, he quickly followed me from the house and we both sprinted back to the man who I’d left slumped against a doorpost several blocks away.
When we reached him, the healer quickly examined his injury, then said, “We’ll need a litter. We can’t carry him without one or we’ll risk injuring him further.” Immediately, he began knocking on the nearest door.
A moment later a woman appeared, carrying a candle. She gasped when she saw the man passed out nearby and the pool of blood beneath him. “We need a bedsheet and two long poles of some sort,” the healer said to her. “Do you have those things?”
“I have a sheet, but no poles. But the man next door, he’s a carpenter, he might have something.” Without waiting for the healer to instruct me, I immediately ran to the door she had indicated and began pounding on it with my fist.
“What’s the ruckus?” said a man, pulling the door open.
“Please sir, can you give us some poles or something we can use to make a litter?”
Seeing the injured man, he said, “I don’t have any poles, but I have some long branches. I was going to make bedposts out of them. Follow me.”
I followed the man into his workshop. The floor was thick with sawdust and there were several half-complete pieces of furniture leaning against the walls. I could tell at a glance that his workmanship was of the highest quality. But I didn’t stay to admire the chests and chairs. He handed me two long branches, with the white, paper-like bark still on them. Thanking him, I took the branches and made my way quickly back out to the street.
The healer was waiting for me with a sheet and we quickly formed a litter. Then, carefully, we moved the wounded man onto the sheet and hoisted him up, the healer carrying the front of the litter and I the back.
“Will he be alright?” the woman asked, standing in her doorway.
“We can’t know yet,” said the healer, “but we’ll do our best to help him.” And with that we started off, moving as quickly as we could toward the Healing Home.
When we reached the building, I was asked to wait outside. Even this, the last and most remote healing center in the city was already full with patients. I wanted to go in, to see that the wounded man was taken care of. But my nausea began to creep back in as I saw so many injured people waiting for treatment. So, I waited on the front steps, my head in my hands—exhaustion and a sense of soul-weariness weighing me down. So many wounded. And how many more were dead, left on the battlefields to be ravaged by the Ghouls?
The streets were silent. All the wounded had found places to rest and receive care. The other citizens of the City, many of whom had come out into the streets to help, had gone back to their homes. I was about to get up and head back to my rooms near the library, when I heard footsteps in the alley beside the Healing Home. Turning my head toward the sound, I saw a group of six men—generals by their armor and insignia—carrying a litter up a stairway and into an adjacent building. I could not see who was on the litter, but I knew it must have been someone important to be carried by such high-ranking men.
My curiosity got the better of me and, despite the heaviness in my limbs, I decided to climb the steep steps and see if I could get a glimpse of the person on the litter. As I reached the top step, though, one of the generals came out, nearly running into me.
“I—I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I saw you carrying someone inside, and I was curious. I should have minded my own business. Forgive me.”
It was then that I noticed the tears on the man’s cheeks. “You needn’t apologize,” he said, and then sighed heavily. “The news will reach all ears soon enough anyway. The man we carried in was the King. He is dead.”
I staggered backward and nearly fell on the top step behind me. The general caught my arm. “The king?” I whispered, incredulous. “The king is dead?”
“Yes,” he said softly. “As hard as it may be for any of us to believe.” He moved past me then, starting down the stairs. “You should get home,” he said to me, looking over his shoulder. “Rest while you can. Tomorrow will bring more grim news than just the king’s death. We should prepare ourselves. Our City is about to become a battleground.” And with that he hurried off into the dark streets.