I stood in front of the tent and watched the men file by. They were grim, holding their long spears and shields, wearing bronze helmets with white plumes. They had sandals and shin-guards made of stiff leather. Otherwise they were nude. This was the phalanx, their thirty-foot spears forming a nightmare porcupine. Following them were the infantry, armed with short swords and wearing skirts of leather to protect their thighs. Their arms were wrapped with leather thongs. After them trotted the cavalry. Their horses rolled wild eyes and snorted, anxious to gallop. I saw my gray mare and hoped she would be all right. The cavalrymen had long, bronze-tipped spears and short swords. Their legs were sheathed in leather, and they carried small, round shields. Their horses had wide leather bands across their chests and under their stomachs for protection. The Hipparchie, mounted archers with bows slung over their shoulders and clusters of sharp arrows in their quivers, came last.
Alexander paused in front of me. For a moment he didn’t speak, and then he said in a low voice, “Fear not for the child. I will get him back.”
I smiled then and didn’t try to stop my tears. “I know you will. Take care of yourself,” I told him, my voice shaking.
The men left the camp and rode toward the city. I stayed behind with the slaves and offered to help the doctors prepare for the wounded. I wanted to make myself useful, so I’d proposed my services to Usse, Alexander’s physician. He’d accepted readily. In ancient Greece women were received into the medical corps without any problem.
Afterwards everyone settled down to wait. I hated waiting. The army was out of sight but I thought that if I climbed the hill I could see what was happening. I started up the rocky slope, slipping on the frosty grass and wishing that I had something sturdier than sandals. Blades of grass stuck between my toes. A vulture wheeled overhead in the cloudless sky. I shaded my eyes to peer over the plain.
Persepolis was visible in the distance. An empty city built by Darius the Great for the master races, the Persians and the Medes. They used it for their spring rites and ceremonies. It was immense, with several palaces and temples set out in perfect harmony around a huge central square. From where I was, I could only see the stairs that led to the city’s front gate. They were made of slabs of white marble, seven meters long and shallow enough to ride horses up, and flanked with walls carved with sacred beasts. I couldn’t see the carvings from so far away, but I’d seen them before, in pictures. They had been ruins when I’d first seen them. I’d seen them as crumbling relics, and now they were shining before me in the bright sun. The temples, their roofs covered in gold-colored tiles, were intact, not yet reduced to broken columns. I put my hands over my eyes and sat down, shaking. Living history backwards was a terrifying experience.
A cloud of dust billowed on the far side of the city. Darius had tried to defend the great eastern gate, but I knew that soon the city would fall to Alexander. Already I could see the first of the wounded limping toward the camp. Slaves ran out with stretchers, and I slipped and slithered down the hill. I would try to be useful. I only hoped I could do some good.
Later, I wiped sweat off my face and wished I had paid more attention during first aid class. I had no idea if what I was doing was helping. Usse set broken bones as fast as he could. He also received the wounded, putting them in one of three tents. One tent for those needing urgent help, one tent for those who could wait, and one for those who were dying. In the tent for the dying a brazier had been set up, and Usse put herbs upon the hot coals, making a thick, fragrant smoke. The smoke, Usse told me, helped the men’s souls find the gods. I think it was mostly opium.
I was put to work cleaning and binding the wounds. As a woman, I was supposed to know how to do this. There were no sutures. Wounds were cauterized without anesthesia using white-hot irons. Searing heat killed germs, so although the scars were horrendous, wounds usually healed cleanly.
Slaves held the men down. The screams of the wounded and the smell of scorching flesh permeated the camp.
Usse concocted a drink that he gave to the wounded. They calmed down and went into a trance. Their eyes glazed and they breathed through their mouths, making the ones with broken noses easier to treat. Broken noses were fairly common.
I finished binding up a slashed arm and concentrated on my next victim, a young man with an arrow in his chest. He looked at me hopefully, and I smiled and cursed under my breath in English.
“Are you saying magic words?” he gasped.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I am.”
His face relaxed and he gave a huge sigh. “You’re a goddess, so I know that I will live,” he said confidently.
I studied the arrow and wished I felt as confident. Its feathered end was sticking out at an angle and the arrowhead was hidden by his armor, but judging from the amount of blood pooled his lap it must have struck something major. I undid his shoulder straps and carefully peeled his armor away. The arrow fell to the ground; it had simply been stuck between the leather and the brass plates. The blood was from someone else. There was no wound at all. I closed my eyes and clung to the edge of the table.
The man ran his hands up and down his chest, feeling frantically for the wound. “It’s a miracle,” he cried, “a miracle!”
“No it’s not,” I insisted. “You weren’t even hit, it was deflected by your armor.” However, he didn’t believe me, and neither did anyone else. As a result, all the arrow wounds got sent to me.
I hate arrows. They usually kill outright, cutting arteries, severing veins, and the victim bleeds to death very quickly. But when nothing vital is hit, the arrow is stuck because of its shape and impossible to pull out. Then one has to either push it through, or cut it out using special clamps and spreaders invented for such occasions. Pushing it through is excruciating. The patient screams and tries to get away. Large slaves sit on them, and Usse gives a double dose of his potion.
I did my best. I had a working knowledge of anatomy and that helped. More importantly, I was reputed to be a goddess and that helped most of all.
That day I discovered that men are both a lot tougher, and at the same time, more fragile than I thought. Wounds that I was sure were fatal were somehow healed because the man had decided he would live. And if a man thought he would die, he usually did, and there was nothing we could do to save him.