Authors: Stephanie Snow
Loose Id, LLC
First published in 2012
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War Tribe 2: Mercenary's Reward
Copyright (C) July 2012 by Stephanie Snow
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This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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The roll of the earth beneath her feet finally stopped, and Mieli was ready. As soon as the last rumble died, she lanced her needle once more into the chest of the fallen soldier. In a race against time, she struggled to finish closing the wound before another tremor from the raging battle outside could interrupt.
A deafening whine signaled the approach of incoming firepower just as she tied off the final stitch. She stepped away a moment before the ground pitched, and didn't spare so much as a glance for the man she'd left. One of her assistants was already at hand to finish the job, wipe away the blood, and wrap the soldier's upper body in bandages. There was no break. Mieli turned immediately to the next man, and the next, and only moved on when she could see they were broken beyond repair or she had done what she could.
Her motions were automatic; as a combat doctor, she had to think fast, move fast. In her medical apprenticeship, a period of her life that felt like a million years ago, she'd learned to take time to consider, to not rush a diagnosis or a treatment.
Grim humor curved her lips, and she acknowledged that if she had remained a civilian, there would never have been a reason to question her training. The war had changed that. The war had changed everything.
A mere year ago, there had been no greater threat to her happiness than bad weather or political skirmishes between the city-states. There'd been discord in the world, yes, but nothing like this. The alien weapons that even now rolled the ground beneath her feet had easily laid waste to their most stalwart defenses. It was clear their enemies were far more technologically advanced and wielded immeasurable power.
She only had to look around at the growing numbers of wounded men to know how ineffectual resistance was proving to be. In her heart of hearts, she felt it was only a matter of time before the people who came from the sky would conquer her world completely. What terrified her was what kind of treatment they could expect.
It was a long time before Mieli finally stepped out of the hospital tent and into the meager glow of predawn light. On the horizon the emerging shape of Pravis, the second sun, silhouetted the shapes of great flying fortresses. The sight of them had become commonplace, but when they'd first descended from the skies, there had been a wild panic.
Almost on autopilot, her feet followed a familiar path in the direction of the vast Pervaes Sea. Before this terrible war, she had lived her entire life in the great city-state of Owein; the eastern shore of the sea was the farthest she had ever traveled. Now she was on the other side of the sea, in the vast and untamed forests. There were times she wished she could just go back, but Mieli knew most of her city had been leveled. Every major city was thoroughly abandoned by now, nothing but rubble and debris.
Fatigue was an ever-present friend, an acquaintance at first despised, but now so familiar that Mieli had learned to find comfort in it. If she was tired, at least she was alive. If her body ached, at least it was whole. Her walk had ended just at the top of a rise, and she could see blue water just a few miles off. At the sight of the sea, she was able to breathe deeply, and the gruesome horror of the hospital tent almost faded away.
A particularly heavy shudder of the earth caused her to stumble. Mieli braced her palms against the damp earth and tried to rise. A wave of heat and noise hit her back like a giant fist and flattened her to the ground. The explosion felt like it was right behind her, and she longed to get up, to get away. Pinned under the brutal assault of hot air and stinging dirt, Mieli curled her arms protectively around her head. Pain radiated from the small, sharp pricks of debris as it whistled furiously through the air and struck her exposed arms and hands.
Finally she was able to get her legs beneath her. All around her the world was thick with smoke, and a persistent whine buzzed in her ears. She couldn't see much of anything, but the hospital tent was her main concern. Peering hard, she was just able to make out the path she'd taken to the edge of the forest, and beyond that, the clearing where the tent had stood. The bulky shape of the collapsed structure galvanized her into motion, and she hurriedly made her way to it.
"Can you hear me in there? Is anyone there?” Calling frantically for both patients and staff, she managed to find the entry and laboriously lift the heavy canvas. She wasn't strong enough to hold it up, so she dropped to all fours and started to crawl forward.
"What are you doing?” Hard hands closed over her waist and hauled her unceremoniously backward, then onto her feet.
"Trying to get to my patients!” Mieli fixed a hard glare on the young soldier who'd interfered, and started to crouch again, only to have him grab her arm.
"There's no use.” He gestured with his free hand to indicate the dark crater on the other side of the tent. “The explosion was too close. You're lucky you weren't inside."
"There might be someone—” She started to pull away.
"No.” The expression on his face was empty. “There's no one. We have to get moving.” He gave a sharp nod toward the tree line.
Understanding dawned, and Mieli noticed for the first time the unnatural quiet she had attributed to her own hearing was persisting even as the whine faded from her ears. They had lost. It wasn't just a well-placed attack on their hospital tent. It was a massive strike that had wiped out their final reserves. Black spots dotted her vision, and she heard the young soldier curse.
"Dammit, don't fade out on me, doc. We need you.” He shook her gently with the hand on her arm, but she was beyond responding to such light demands. Unerringly, he pinpointed her reserved strength. “There are men wounded; they need your help."
Mieli nodded her understanding and knelt again at the entrance to the tent. He didn't immediately release her arm. “I'll need supplies.” She pointed out calmly, and when he grimaced in acceptance, she tugged back the flap and crawled forward.
Every part of her hurt, but the worst was a nagging headache that wouldn't abate. Propped against the firm support of a towering tree, Mieli surveyed the makeshift campsite. There weren't above twenty men in total, and all of them had needed medical attention. There had been minor injuries, but the major ones had taken the entire day to attend to. She hadn't been able to retrieve enough from the fallen hospital tent to do as much as was needed, but she realistically expected only two men might die from their injuries. A shudder coursed through her at the thought of what she'd encountered in the hospital tent.
A resurgence of the pounding in her head caused her to slide down the tree to rest at its base. There was one small campfire, and food was cooking. The smell both repelled her and made her belly ache with hunger. With a sense of detachment, she realized she hadn't eaten or slept in almost two days. A sort of numbness had settled into her since the attack yesterday. Everything was over. She hadn't spoken to any of the soldiers, except to examine and treat their wounds, but she'd heard the healthiest ones talking, making plans.
The great forests were vast, stretching far across the continent and, in some places, almost circling the planet. It could be possible to remain undetected for a very long time. She could hear the hope in their voices, but beneath it, there was a dark undercurrent of despair. They had no place to go.
Mieli realized she had no choice. These men, boys really, were her best chance of survival if such a thing were even possible. She was just so very tired. There was an ache in her neck and head that wouldn't stop, and right then, the right course seemed to be the one that required the least amount of effort.
She closed her eyes in exhaustion and thought drowsily of the next day. Tomorrow would be soon enough to decide.
Under the canopy created by the dense tree branches, only splashes of sunlight came through. Mieli turned her face to the north, where the twin suns were burning. The shifting pattern of light dappled her skin and blinded her when it caught her eyes. This close to the twisting river, the sounds of the forest were loudest, a mix of bird songs intertwined with the rushing sounds of water and leaves.
Her errand was to fetch water, but once free of camp, she had taken her time to get to the river and was reluctant to return. Mieli paused by a large tree and set down the heavy bucket she carried. There was an even heavier weight on her these days, one she carried inside.
Living was a terrible burden to bear, and Mieli had come to realize she was a coward. How noble and virtuous she had felt when she volunteered to be a doctor on the battlefield. Propped up by a sense of her own importance and the knowledge that she wouldn't have to fight, she'd waded into the blood and mess of war without a qualm. She was there to treat injuries but not to risk injury to herself.
The worst of her guilt was that Mieli knew in her heart it wasn't love for her fellow man that fueled her desire to heal the wounded. Her primary concern had been that they live to fight again, to protect her way of life. Whatever they sacrificed to succeed had been insignificant to what she might lose if they failed.
She pressed her face against the rough bark of the tree and welcomed the pain as a distraction. Not far away there were nineteen young men. All that remained of the thousands of brave souls who had lost their lives to protect their world. Their small group struggled against extinction, moving camp every few days or so, constantly searching for small game to keep them all alive.
How she wanted to scream at them, yell and shout how futile this was, how they were all going to die. No one in camp knew where they were, had no concept of distance or proximity to where they'd started. Every day they saw the outlines of the great sky ships far up in the atmosphere. But lately, there had been new shapes, smaller vessels that rode lower in the sky as though they were looking for survivors. She knew it was only a matter of time until all her people were found.
Mieli pushed away from the tree. The men in camp would start worrying about her if she didn't get back soon. Most of them seemed to regard her as a sort of sister, maybe hoping that somewhere, their sisters were alive and well. Privately she hated them for their optimism, perhaps because she had none. She had no lingering faith that her family and friends were out there doing fine. The dream that so many of the survivors shared made her wish she could prove them wrong once and for all.