art by Jeffrey Redmond
A Wizard At War
by A. M. Roelke
You can do a lot of things when you're a wizard.
I reached out to touch the boy who lay dying, writhing in agony in the sodden trenches next to me.
I'd worked the best magic I could to keep us safe, him and all of my fellow soldiers, even my foxhole enemy, the growling Mr. French who hated everything about the war and us for due measure.
I could work a few spells to reduce the damp in our blankets and our boots, help prevent trench foot.
I wasn't strong enough to divert the shelling, even if I'd known how. I wasn't strong enough to kill enemy soldiers at long distance, even supposing I was willing to try using magic for such a thing--as if more bodies would end this, instead of just feeding it fuel, the roaring fire of war.
But when I touched Johnny, I drew some of his pain out of him. That I could do, I was strong enough.
Some of the agony left his face. We were long out of painkillers. This was all that would help him, all I could do, now.
The pain I pulled from him went up my fingers into my hand, lying achingly on the inside of my palm for a moment, and then worked its way up my wrist. Agony overtook me. I bent over my arm, holding it, aching horribly, rocking a little. The pain worked its way up my arm, burning cold fire.
Johnny lay still, an expression of relief passing onto his pasty face.
I hurt too much to talk, but Jim was there with him, and he and Jim always got along best, seeing as they came from the same town. They used to be rivals, maybe even enemies--liked the same girl back home, I think, although neither would ever say--but in the trenches familiar faces meant home, and that enmity hadn't lasted long.
"Hey, hang in there, John," said Jim, his mouth trembling a little with the lies. "You'll make it."
I couldn't speak, couldn't fix this scene for any of us, any who hadn't been caught by the shrapnel.
Like the rest, shouldering the pain, I could only watch, while the light left Johnny's eyes. Relief found him with death. I had helped, taking a little of his last pain away. I saw Jim cross himself, and the quick gleam of tears in his eyes as he bowed his head. He released his friend's hand and turned away.
Someone lowered Johnny's eyelids, pulled a sodden coat over him. It was already bloody. Everything was bloody, everything about this war.
I turned away, feeling sick, and not just from Johnny's pain that I still carried. It was easing through my body now, the way a bad headache makes your whole being ache. I could breathe easier, the pain was lessening, but it wasn't gone, not by a long shot.
You can do a lot of things when you're a wizard, but not everything. I couldn't stop his death. I couldn't prevent the shrapnel, or fix his wounds. I couldn't keep any of us alive, not when it came down to it.
I felt so sick, and not just from the pain. I turned away--but not before I caught a curious, confused look from French. As if he was trying to figure me out. As if he'd suspected something.
I shivered a little in my wet clothes. Even my drying-magic only worked so well on some days.
I raised myself to my feet, ignoring French. He could play patty cake, for all I cared. I had a job left to do. Jim was over in his corner, staring at John's niche, John's gun leaning against the trench support. He just stared, his hands trembling a little. They had blood on them, but he hadn't noticed.
"Hey, Jim," I said, and put a hand on his shoulder, ostensibly to comfort him, to offer some words of warmth, wisdom, or resignation to God or fate--neither would be welcome now, but these are things people do. And they are more socially acceptable than for a wizard to reach out, and tug away some of your anguish.
Once again, it flowed up my fingers, palm, wrist, and arm, like Johnny's pain but so different. I winced at the horrible, familiar feeling of being overwhelmed by grief. I'd felt that way before several times in my own life--and several times when I had helped someone like this.
There are moments in life that you would never want to live through again, and would not wish on anyone else. I tasted just a sip of that, a bitter wine indeed--but I had the satisfaction of knowing I lessened Jim's burden with that sip. I wanted to gag, to go off in a corner and sit down and cry. I wanted to just drop down dead; all of this in an instant, and then assuaging, washing over me like a wave and retreating. Grief does not last so long as pain, although in some ways it's more intense while it does.
Already, Jim's shoulders were straightening.
I wasn't stealing his grief. No, that would be inhuman. People deserve to feel what they feel. Anything else is not treating them right.
But the shock, the first intense, death-wishing stage that can make people do very dangerous things--this I took from him. And now he could breathe.
I gave him a rough slap on the shoulder. "Hang in there," I croaked, in a voice gone funny. Then I moved away. No one else was likely to notice such an exchange, or think it more than an awkward, well-meant comfort among soldiers who were nearly friends.
I moved back to my niche, aching in more ways than one, wishing only to sit and rest and let the reeling pain and fatigue and agony be released, and then to deal with all the purely natural things everyone else was dealing with, as well.
I wanted hot soup. I wanted cocoa. I wanted to lie down and sleep for a week.
What I got was French sitting down beside me; I didn't have to raise my head to recognize his shuffling gait. I glimpsed his boots between my fingers. With his shuffling walk, he shouldn't be in combat. But somehow, he was here. I don't know who he bribed, or why he'd have wanted to. I guess he didn't know what it would be like.
"Go away," I muttered, head in my hands. I felt overcome with fatigue. Magic can really take it out of a fellow.
"You did something to them," said French. "I won't go away until you tell me what it was."
He spoke in a nasal, annoying voice. For a moment, I stared at him, speechless. Someone had found me out? My mother had warned me of thisÖ. I stared at French bleakly. What to do? How much did he know?
So I answered the only way I knew how, in a flat, confused voice. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He snorted and gave me a contemptuous flash of his eyes. "You made them feel better--John before he died, and Jim just now." He extended his bad foot, pointed to it. "I want you to do the same for me."
I relaxed subtly. A bit of help for a fellow soldier--even if he was one I didn't like. I could do that. It would not be too much a strain on me--as long as that's all it was.
His eyes glittered with triumph as I nodded.
I reached out. I could do it, if it would make him go away, even though I was tired. I gripped his arm and squeezed it, then let mine drop. The irritating, nagging sensation of his constant discomfort traveled up my arm. On top of the other things I was carrying, it made me feel queasy. But it would be a small price to pay to be left alone.
He straightened up, and his eyes came wide open--as if he was shaking off some persistent feeling that had been there for so long it was almost forgotten. The irritability left his face.
But replacing it was a cold, hard, naked greed.