There is no hope in this.
I measure out my distillations, record the weights and influences of each, decant them into crystalline phials of the proper hue for each element and write out the prescriptions according to the prevailing humour of each patient. Then I seal them, vessel and parchment, with the white wax and leaf-seal of the Houses of Healing, and place them in the velvet-lined slots of the carrying tray, where they gleam like dark jewels in the black recesses that cradle them. And afterwards, I transcribe all my jottings into the Ward's chronicle, neatly and clearly on the ruled pages, with the year, the day, and the hour set beside, and all the measurements laid out fairly for future Dispensarians to read. And it is all utterly, wholly, completely without purpose.
"Lalaith! Are you done yet?" Ioreth comes in, talking before she enters my chamber -- as she always does, her voice echoing like a noisy bird's down the hallway. "I still have to go up to Healer Marach's chamber and the linen orders for the laundry aren't made up yet so I have to go back downstairs to Housekeeping after and..."
As usual she forgets my honorific, though she remembers it well enough when speaking to, or of, the chief of our House. I distill sound as I distill essences, letting her gratingly-chirping tones float away like impurities from my potions. I can endure this. It is not as though there are enough people left in the city to pick and choose from, and after all, a goodwife like her is hardly likely to drop a tray full of expensive dishes! Which is more than I would dare to say of the page boys remaining to run errands for the Steward and his lords -- hulking lumps pretending to be full-grown, stamping hard with each step and deepening their voices when they speak in futile counterfeit of maturity. And were it not for her, I would have to set aside my own studies and waste precious time in this mindless work myself.
So I suppose I should be grateful -- but I am most grateful when she at last departs, having rechecked every phial to be sure that I have seated them properly, sure that my comparative youth indicates a carelessness commensurate to the difference in our ages. (I still have not fully been able to set aside, with a scholar's detachment, her mirthfully-appalled clucking at discovering that I cannot cook even a simple stew, the chattering glee with which she disclosed this contradiction to her cohorts in the House Auxiliary, nor the regularity with which she has reminded them of this fact over the past five years, with the ritual head-shakings and expressions of humorous worry that I am allowed to concoct such dangerous substances as foxglove and nightshade to inflict on our poor patients. There are times when I swear, as I close my eyes in the refectory, that I'm surrounded by a flock of gabbling geese. (They pinch, too, these old biddies of the Auxiliary.)
"Thank you, Ioreth dear," I say as the door at last closes behind her, leaving me in peace. I have improved my performance to the point that I no longer have to force the 'dear', that it no longer sounds forced -- not that the silly creature ever noticed one way or the other. It is not natural to me, but it serves to make the House run smoother, like oil to the hinges of my door, and like all habits it becomes indeed a second nature, no harder or easier than making sure to use only brown ink for old Ragnor's assignments, so that he could correct over them in black, or setting the page numerals on the left side for Mistress Loriel's examinations when Lord Hathaldir insisted that we place them on the right.
I wondered what my old teachers would say if they were living in these our times, watching us patch up men, in their prime or aged grandfathers, and half-grown boys, and even a few women, used to defending their farms like the forest-tribes of our distant forbears -- only to send them out again to further mutilation and eventual death. I cannot hearten them, either assuring them of a swift return to full health, or an end to pain; I cannot pretend that all will be well for any of us, or that their sacrifice will be of purpose; I will not betray them with bright rallying lies. --Little wonder that they prefer the company of those like Ioreth, who mother them with platitudes that weigh more than any small comforts I can give, a well-adjusted bandage or a catheter whose bronze is warmed first, little wonder that simple folk prefer simple firelit falsehoods to the complicated truths of cold daylight.
Cold ... in a half-heartbeat's panic I set my hand yet again to the seam of my robe, where a tiny phial not of glass but of drilled stone is tacked lightly inside the sleeve, just enough to keep it from jarring loose in the course of my workday, but not so tight that a single swift jerk would not pull it free. The black cylinder is Númenorean, I think: it has that strange sheen of the Ancients' crafting, and it is certainly indestructible. I tried, before entrusting my secret to its care, with a smith's iron-headed sledge on an anvil down at the armories. I would never dare to set its contents in anything that might be broken, as I would never allow it off my person. I wonder, too, what my old masters in the Healing Arts would think to see me carefully preparing and preserving a substance with no beneficial effects whatsoever, with full intent to use it upon a human being, at a time unspecified but very near in the future.
The container is only cold because it is of dense elemental stone, not because of any special power of its contents; its stopper is of the same lightless substance (which may well not be stone, but something more arcane and wonderful still) and in further contravellation of my Healer's training I have sealed it not with the bloody scarlet of a poison, but with still more black. It cannot be seen against my uniform of dark charcoal gray if one is not already looking for it; I can reach it with my teeth, if I must. I savor its name upon my tongue: helcallach, 'swift ice-flame'.
The word is as cold as unsubstantiated tradition holds its taste to be: icy, biting like the clear water of a rushing mountain stream -- and killing as swiftly. I carry it, because I have no hope. I will not die rent in the dismembering of my city, nor live the slave of some pirate chieftain, renegade of our race or foreigner, himself a slave of our Enemy, nor set my skills to the task of preserving and patching my fellow citizens to labor a little while in the gray wastelands of Mordor. --Bad enough that I must send them to die in our own green earth, before our snow-white walls, to beat back the hour that comes on like a dire-wolf, without hope of success...
"Milady? Healer Lalaith?" I turn suddenly from the wide windows that are made to illumine my worktable, which now reveal only the drear Eastern horizon and our lost lands beyond the river. It is Faelivrin, who far more than Ioreth is still in awe of the Healer's holy powers and the sacred heritage of our House. (Ah, if only she knew...) "I'm so sorry to trouble you, milady, but you're supposed to be going to assist in chirurgery now," she bleats apologetically, as she always does whenever she is obliged to disturb someone.
Since that is one of her appointed tasks, to go about and remind absent-minded staff of their duties, it seems that this would have gone by the roadside long ago, but the woman seems to take a positive relish in abasing herself. She apologizes all the while that I am getting my smock down from its hook and onto my body, all the while that I wash and debride my hands and nails, continuing while I check the level of spirits in the alembic and lock the workroom behind me, trotting along at my heels down that length of the hall that we are forced to negotiate together like a plump white duck, if a duck wore pale periwinkle-blue lace.
Everything about Faelivrin is soft, like a duck's plumage; from her round little hands to her downy, faintly-lined face, to her mild, modulated, dulcet voice. I find myself growing inexorably louder and more precise, and more abrupt, the longer I am in her company, which is foolish, because it only makes her grow yet more groveling in her self-deprecations and excusings. Finally I reach the central staircase, where -- thank the Valar for tiny favors -- my escort must continue down the hallway to afflict other colleagues of mine.
I rattle down the staircase as quickly as I can without thundering like one of the young porters, in the swift gait perfected during the ceaseless labours of my Apprenticeship here, not tripping on the steps' worn edges nor catching a shoe in the loosening hem of my robe -- alas, yet another need for venturing into the wilds of feral granny-land. Fortunately I am too tall for most of them to pinch my cheeks, the ones who refuse to accept my Healer status as anything but a youthful prank to be set aside when I grow bored of it and accept my presumed destiny as a future Old Gammer, learning to cook food and sew fabric and to offer sweet words to prosperous men that have nothing to do with the need for more expensive panoplies of custom-blown glass.
The subsequent annoyance fills the small amount of mental ability which is not set in concentration upon navigating the stairs and which would otherwise be filled with terror at the prospect of the coming ordeal. It is not as though I am the only woman Healer, by any means -- simply the youngest, and hence fair game in their minds. After all, they would hardly dare to cluck and cackle at nonegenarian Lady Healer Emeldir, as dauntless and daunting in her own way as her famous namesake. She would set those young sexagenarian impudents in their places fast enough; provided, of course, that their nattering could even penetrate the intensity of her concentration upon the nature and causes of corruption.
As I reach the final turning I slow with the long, floating strides of a champion athlete so that I do not either spin gracelessly to a hairpin halt at the end of the baluster or slide catastrophically across the foyer into anyone else who might be hastening in the opposite direction. As in all things it is a matter of will and concentration as much as it is practice and physical effort. And as usual, it is well that I chose to exercise discretion over haste, for my ultimate superior, the Warden of the Houses of Healing, is approaching. I greet him with all appropriate courtesy given the hour and the occasion, and he returns with equal graciousness.
"Healer Lalaith. Please don't let me interrupt you."
"Not at all, sir." His eyes are wise and compassionate, and I feel a twinge of guilt that I cannot believe as he does any more in the value of what we are doing.
"Alchemical, is that right?" I know that our chief makes every effort to know all of his staff and that I am certainly not least among those, but still the recognition blows a breath of life on a little coal of pride that has, it seems, not been entirely extinguished by the dark.
"I won't delay you further, but I do want to say that I'm exceedingly impressed with the quality of your work, and of your record-keeping skills. The attention to detail is only surpassed by the care you devote to it -- I think we'll have to come up with some sort of special commemorative award to recognize a First Achievement in Ward history, possibly in the Houses of Healing -- the advent of readable records!"
I confess that I blush, that I say something deprecating and silly, and that even though I know that there is no hope, I imagine myself at a recognition ceremony being hailed by my peers. I am human, after all. Excusing myself with all due propriety, I make the last few paces to my destination, where I compose myself to assist in the most grueling, miserable task to ever confront a Healer: not the inflicting of temporary pain to preserve life, not the thankless duty of informing family members of professional failure; not the healing of small children. It is not the fact that my expertise is not in cutting but blending, nor that I had, before the war came to our doors, only the dimmest memories of my Apprentice days assisting the Head Chirurgeon, that terrifies me.
Before the doors I smooth down my white smock over my dark robes, like
the ramparts of dressed stone before the great stone wedge behind us, and
steel myself to enter upon my own field of battle -- to give hope to
men dying and still more gravely hurt, when all hope is a lie, and I have
none to give. And then I open the doors, and go in.