Juliette woke to dull pain in every corner of her body. She lay against an improvised mattress, made mostly out of clothes and spare cloth, folded and tied together as tightly as possible. It was lumpy, but it was preferable to the cold, hard ground.
Her dream lingered in her mind. How long has it been since that time…?
She struggled to sit up, a wave of pain throbbing across her back whenever she moved. She no longer wore her body armor, sporting a tunic and a pair of trousers instead. As she scanned the area, she noticed that she was in the ruins of a charred building, still partially intact. Juliette thought that someone must have put her under the shade of the remains of the roof after…
“Charlie!” She tried to stand up, groaning as the pain flared throughout her back. The cold, searing pain made her entire body feel heavy, as if it was protesting being put into action so soon, but still she struggled onto her feet. It felt like a weight on her back that she had to constantly fight, making a scene out of her struggle. People looked on in shock as she seemed determined to rip open her wounds just to stand.
“Hey… Hey!” A voice finally called out to her. “Settle down, settle down. We don’t want you to reopen your wounds.” A man in a cloak ran up to Juliette and gently tried to hold the girl down.
Juliette gave him a sharp look. “I don’t have the time for this!” she shouted. “Where did those akor’mari go?!”
“I don’t know where they went,” the man said. “And I don’t know what your business is with them either, but whatever it is, you won’t be able to go on an empty stomach…” He handed her a bowl. “So, at the very least, eat this first.”
Juliette grit her teeth, tempted to swat the bowl out of his hands. “Didn’t you just hear what I—”
Just as she raised her hand, she heard the sounds of sniffling and coughing. It broke her out of her anger. She looked around the ruined building, and she saw people lying on the ground beside her, all burned, injured, or both. Some had the fortune of having a rugged, improvised mattress like she did. The rest were only given a blanket to stay warm during the night.
“If you’re not going to take this bowl, I’ll give it to someone else,” the doctor said.
Juliette turned back to him. “Right…” Slowly, her hands reached for the bowl. She placed it on her lap and took a taste. She gagged at the flavor, just barely managing to swallow it down.
“Yeah, that figures.” The doctor chuckled. “You’re lucky to have anything though, given the situation. What’s your name?”
“Juliette,” she told him. “I’m a courier for the Tarithian army. I was travelling here with my squad when we saw the smoke at the distance. Say… do you know what happened here?”
The doctor sighed. “All I can tell you for sure is that the Krygons attacked our village, burning most of it to the ground,” he said. “We thought we were still safely behind the front lines, but… that group made it here somehow… and they…” He wordlessly looked towards the several injured in the building, before his eyes dropped onto the ground. “We’ve… been spending the time trying to gather whatever we have left.” He lowered his voice. “…and burying the dead, including two of the people you came here with. I don’t know what their names were, so I couldn’t mark their graves. My condolences.”
“I see…” Juliette looked down on her bowl. She barely knew the two fallen, but… “Did you see where the rest went? What about Charlie?”
“Well, save for you, I don’t know anyone’s names in your squad…”
“Sorry — I meant my gryphon. Do you know where she is? Is she here?”
The doctor shook his head. “I’m sorry, Juliette, but I haven’t seen your gryphon,” he said. “I overheard some talk about how the Krygons captured whatever animals they could get their hands on, then killed the rest. If your gryphon’s alive, chances are, it’s in their captivity.”
Juliette’s grip on her bowl tightened. “Is that so?”
“Don’t look at me…”
“As soon as I can stand, I’m going to go after them,” Juliette said. “Please don’t try to stop me.”
The doctor paused, before breathing out a small sigh. “I don’t think I could, even if I wanted to,” he said. “All I ask is you wait a few days to let your wounds heal.”
Juliette clicked her tongue. “Fine.” If it was up to her, she would leave now, but she knew that she would die before even reaching the Krygons, given her current state. “I’ll wait.”
And so she did: for three days, at least. Juliette kept dreaming of Marla whenever she slept, and she grew increasingly anxious to be on the road again, to chase after the Krygons and reunite with her gryphon.
The only distraction she could find was her conversation with the doctor, who would bring her food every now and then. During their conversations, she learned that he was actually a battlefield surgeon, traveling to his assigned unit on the front lines. He had been resting in the village and had got caught up in the Krygon raid.
“Do you ever feel anxious, being stuck here?” Juliette asked him once. “I mean… what if people on the front need you?”
The doctor’s eyes dropped at the question. “Indeed… It’s a worrying thought,” he said, “but I’ve learned that, wherever I am and wherever I’m not, there will always be people who need me. I can’t save everyone. All I can do is… help who I can and try not to lose myself.”
Juliette felt a twinge of guilt after that. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.
As her wounds finally started to heal, she found herself able to walk around. She got to see what was left of the villagers, now working tirelessly to recover: salvaging materials, foraging for food, and digging graves for those who had succumbed to their wounds each day. While the village soon became a small hub of bustling productivity again, it did little to lift the somber and distraught moods of those who remained. Juliette became used to overhearing conversations between the villagers, of them trying to make sense of what had happened to them and why.
Now, it was noon again. The doctor walked over to her, holding two bowls of food. Whenever they ate their meager meals together, she noticed that his hands always seemed… too clean: always spotless, despite their squalid living conditions. Everyone else’s hands, including hers, always had some spots of dirt or dust on them.
Oh, that’s right, she realized. He must have been treating patients just before coming here. He’s cleaning the blood off of his hands before putting them on any sort of foodstuff.
She thought back to the stream of villagers who had passed away over the past few days, and she wondered if their melancholy conversations were just as much a distraction to him as they were to her… That thought compelled her to say something.
“What will you do after this?” she asked him.
The doctor hummed. “Well, I’ll be here for a while, I’m afraid,” he said. “The villagers want to travel to Haven to start over. None of them have the proper equipment for travel, all of it having been stolen or burned, so I’ll travel with them to help them as much as I can… After that, I’ll be off to the front lines to attend to my assigned post.”
“You aren’t scared of facing punishment for delaying your mission?”
“My mission is to give medical aid to those in need.” The doctor scoffed. ”They can’t punish me for doing just that.”
Juliette smiled. “You are their medic,” she said. “They’d be wise not to get on your bad side.”
The two shared a small chuckle, perhaps the first one they’d had since the raid.
Then they fell silent again. The doctor’s smile started to drop. “I… I don’t think many of us are going to make it to the city.”
Juliette looked at him for a moment. “Hey,” she finally spoke up. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Remember what you said? Try not to lose yourself.”
“Of course…” The doctor smiled. “You, as well.”