I've gotten a little behind on the Book Bingo story schedule, as this post was meant to go up over a week ago. I need to work harder at these ficlets being easy off-the-cuff things! The most recent square for Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo was "doctors and veterinarians" so I got a little tangled up in researching the state of woman physicians in western Europe in the 1690s. ("Tangled up" as in, found a new reference book I didn't have time to hunt down for the story, but will now go after and then will need to write something else to use it.) For those who have grown attached to my pair of soldiers, I hope you won't mind that the stories are going to drift away from them for a while. It would be nearly impossible to hit all the themes with only a narrow set of characters! I'll be circling back to Martijn and Lena/Pieter later. For now, they provide the cross-over to some new characters.
The Lesbian Book Bingo challenge is a fun year-long communal reading project to fill bingo cards with various popular themes and tropes from lesbian fiction. There are prizes for completing rows and entire cards, as well as a chance to win books by participating in the blog posts. In addition to filling out my own card (4 squares so far!) and having my books featured as suggested reading, I'm playing along by writing one of these mini-stories for each square, all loosely connected in a historic setting (to prove that pretty much any story can be a historical story). And just to remind folks, although Daughter of Mystery is being featured for the "fantasy" square, my books hit a lot of the themes and you can use them for anything they fit.
I could tell when the gates were opened by the change in the sound of the crowd below in the town square. Early in the morning, the sight of Marshall Luxembourg’s relieving forces in the distance beyond the fortifications of the Grand Alliance had raised a muted cheer from the people of Montigny. The siege had left them too wearied for louder joy.
All through the day the noise of the battle had filtered past the town walls and even deep into this fortified tower from which Baron de Maricourt had led the defense. The sounds of the fighting had faded at last and now the streets were filled with the joyful shouts of our saviors. It was a consequence of my profession that behind the shouts I could only hear the groans of torn and wounded men and see blood and shattered limbs.
Luxembourg could have relieved us at any time he chose, but Montigny was no Mons or Namur, no important bone for the hounds to squabble over in a great show. We’d been left to hold for ourselves. Rather, de Maricourt and his people had. I had been caught up in the siege for a different reason entirely.
“What is it? I heard shouting.”
I turned from the narrow window that looked out on the square and rushed to Isabel’s side where she leaned on the doorway from the inner chamber, clutching the edges of her dressing gown together.
“What are you doing out of bed?” I demanded, softening my tone to tender chiding.
Isabel shook her head but she didn’t refuse my arm as I helped her across the small room to the cushioned seat in the window embrasure.
“I thought I heard the baby,” she said. “But then I realized the noise came from out in the streets.”
“You can trust the maids and the wetnurse to see to the baby.” And then I was sorry I’d said it, for Isabel’s mouth twisted. Not that a woman of her station would have been expected to nurse her own child, but expected and unable were two different matters. “You shouldn’t have been put though this at all,” I said fiercely. “De Maricourt should have sent you to safety in Reims or even Paris before this all began.”
Isabel took my hand and pressed it to her lips. “But I had you, Laura, so I knew all would be well. I had the best woman physician ever trained at Bologna. I had both you and Henri at my side and I knew my duty. I am where I was meant to be.”
There was no point in reminding her that I was one of the only women trained in Bologna in recent times, or that a good midwife could have done as much for her as I had. De Maricourt had decided his wife needed the best of care, and as I could receive no license in France, my skills lay fallow. But I had no complaints that fate had led him to my door, and me to her bedside. No complaints except for the unknown future, now that my skills were no longer needed. So many things were uncertain. How could I have the courage to face the possibility that Isabel and I would be parted forever?
I bent down and cupped her face in my hands and claimed her lips with my own. Isabel responded with an eagerness at odds with her frail form. She reached for me and I settled onto the cushion at her side, my arms finding a place between support and an embrace. There had been so few chances of late simply to enjoy each other’s presence.
We hadn’t expected the siege to last so long or the outcome to be so much in doubt. De Maricourt could see to it that his pregnant wife never went hungry even when the rest of us tightened belts or laced stays more closely, but he couldn’t shield her from the knowledge and guilt that he’d done so, or from the worry of what would happen if we were forced to surrender the town.
“You did more than your duty,” I said as we separated at last and I stood, offering my hands to help Isabel rise. “You gave de Maricourt a son—a healthy son—and now that you’ve done that, your duty is to get well yourself. So back to bed and rest.”
I couldn’t rest, though, not with what I knew lay outside the walls. So I called for one of the maids to help me change into a simple gown of black frieze, covered by an apron borrowed from the kitchen, and to pin my hair up under a linen cap. I still had my instruments and medicines, even if I had no license. And a battlefield forgave many transgressions.
* * *
Casualties within the town had been few today and addressed well before the gates were opened. I made my way against the flow of men and carts bringing supplies in for the townsfolk until I came to the open space before the walls. Tents were being erected on the broken ground that had been no man’s land the day before. The shelters where the wounded had been carried were easy enough to find from the sounds—and from the line of shrouded forms laid out behind them.
A man in the blue of Marshal Luxembourg’s guard stopped me at the entrance, looking suspiciously at my surgeon’s case.
“Who is that to be delivered to? I’ll have it taken in—this is no place for a woman.”
I stiffened my spine at looked him in the eye. “I am Madame Laura Alberti, Baron de Maricourt’s personal physician. I’ve come to help with the wounded.”
He disappeared for a few moments and returned, followed by a balding man wearing a blood-soaked apron.
“Madame, with all respect to de Maricourt, we haven’t time to waste with vapors at the sight of blood. There will be time enough to need help with the nursing when this butchery is done.”
Vapors. Did the man have no idea how much blood women dealt with every day? How closely a childbed could resemble a charnel house if matters went wrong? I kept my voice even. “I have been trained in surgery at the University of Bologna—”
He raised a hand to cut me off. “Madame, I haven’t the time. But perhaps they will be desperate enough for your services.” He gestured off to the other side of the broken ground where the remnants of the Alliance forces were gathering their own wounded, without even the benefit of a shelter against sun and wind. Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared back into the tent and the guard returned to a position that barred my way.
Well, a wounded man was a wounded man. I would help where I was permitted.
No one barred my path when I reached the field where the Alliance wounded were laid out in haphazard groups. There was no path to bar and no one with a moment free to do the barring. The groans of the men were a cacophony of Dutch, German, English, Spanish, and the more familiar French, but bullets and shattered bones needed no translation. I set to work with knife and saw, pressing into service as an assistant whoever stood nearby who seemed less injured than the others. Half of my patients died under my hands.
The other surgeons—or those acting as such—scarcely noted my presence except to point to where a pile of dirty linen was being torn into strips. As twilight turned to darkness, someone brought me a lamp. The ranks of the wounded were thinning as the dead were carried away in one direction and those who might live were taken up by their fellows to the meagre shelter of the prisoners’ camp.
Out at the edge of the thin lamp-light I’d noticed two patient figures, a wounded man half-propped by his companion with a bloody rag tied closely around one outstretched leg. The unhurt man’s air of resigned patience had argued against urgency when the ground had been full of groans and screens, but now I gathered my things and moved in their direction.
One of the other surgeons stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Don’t bother. He’s been refusing treatment ever since his fellow dragged him over here under protest. Save your skills for those that want them.”
I nodded thanks, but continued over to crouch beside the pair and opened my bag before starting to loosen the bandage.
The wounded man’s eyes fluttered open. He muttered something first in Dutch, I think. Seeing me, fear crossed his face and he changed to French. “No! No madame, let it be. Don’t touch me.”
I looked him over with a professional eye and a long day’s practice in the sort of hurts the battle had brought. He hadn’t the grayish cast of deep wounds or broken bones—not a musket ball then, or at least one spent before it hit. Perhaps the work of a blade, perhaps splinters from what a cannonball had struck.
I closed my bag and stood. “If the thought of a woman physician treating your wound is so distasteful you’d rather risk losing the leg when it turns putrid, the choice is yours.”
As I turned, I heard the other man talking rapidly, pleading. But all I could make out was the wounded man’s name: Martin. And then, with a scrambling movement, his companion was at my side, pulling at my sleeve and begging. I didn’t need any Dutch to guess the direction of his pleas.
The man…no, a boy really. The thought struck to my heart. Giovanni had been no older than this when he marched away so many years ago, though he’d seemed a man because I had only been a child. I remembered the feel of father’s hands on my shoulders, keeping me from running after him. But in truth he’d been little more than a child like me. A boy fallen on a battlefield such as this, never to return home. For the first time that day, the soldiers were more than broken flesh. A lump rose in my throat and I ruthlessly dismissed it. Fie on me for being what they’d warned me of: a weeping woman pretending to a man’s occupation!
I knelt down again at the man’s—Martin’s—side. “Be still and let me work.”
The crude bandage was cut off quickly. Martin protested again when I worked at the the fastenings of his breeches to expose the leg more plainly. Such modesty for a battleground! One might think he…ah, no. Not modesty alone!
I sat back on my heels looking him…her…in surprise. I’d heard of such things. Of women passing for a soldier. What could drive someone to such a life? The two watched me closely, frozen like cornered rabbits. Realization dawned. Both of them. Not boys, but not men either. Two comrades watching each other’s backs against the world. And for what? I saw how they looked at each other. Yes, that I could understand.
I looked around to see if anyone else was watching and Martin said in a quiet pained voice, “Please, madame.”
I returned to removing the breeches and gestured to the second soldier to move around to Martin’s far side to block any view from where the other surgeons were working, though I doubted anyone had a thought to spare beyond their own tasks.
With the leg laid bare the problem, too, was exposed. Centered in a smear of gore, a large splinter of wood from a gun carriage was driven deep into the muscle of the thigh. That gave me more hope. Extraction and cautery and a good chance it wouldn’t putrefy. I showed Martin’s companion how to hold her down. No amount of mere courage would carry her through what came next. Then I set to work.
* * *
Dawn was lightening the battlefield when I finally raised my head to see no more wounded to attend. There would still be those lying out in the field with no one to carry them in for treatment. Others might seek them out, but I had other duties to return to. I looked around, at the last, for the two female soldiers but they had been taken away with the other prisoners still capable of walking.
The image of them stayed with me when I returned to the fortress to strip off my bloody gown and scrub away the blood and dirt. It was impossible to keep the war entirely away from Isabel, but there was no need to bring its signs before her so clearly.
Isabel was sitting up in bed, having broken her fast on a far better meal than any of us had enjoyed in a month. She was holding the babe in her arms, but handed him away to the nursemaid when I entered.
“Oh, Laura! The told me you had gone out into the battlefield!”
I settled myself on the edge of the bed and reached for her hand. “Not the battlefield itself, only to help with the wounded outside the walls.” I thought of the worries that had plagued me. The fear that Isabel was convalescing too slowly. The expectation that I would be torn from her side now that my work was done. The hint of jealousy for her newborn son. They seemed such quiet, homely fears now.
“Let me tell you a story of courage,” I said to her. “Of great courage and of love.”