Dragons and Coal Cinders
Copyright© 2016 by Myrtle Lane
Dressed in my gray, pin-striped pajamas, I left my room and entered a narrow hallway. Alfred was waiting for me against the opposite wall, under a bright gas light.
"We match," I joked, shuffling over to him.
Alfred just smiled, but he was bent over a bit holding his side with a hand. His eyes were fixated on the empty space ahead of him.
"My ribs hurt a little," Alfred confessed, straightening up to his full height. He looked a little defeated. "Sometimes when I move wrong, there is a sharp pain. This is the first discomfort I've had this morning."
Alfred took a few shallow breaths, and then led me down the empty hallway like nothing had happened. The oak floors were well polished and the bare, white walls were clean.
"Alfred is putting up a brave front," I thought, walking slowly beside him. Neither one of us could walk at full speed. His ribs hurt and my muscles felt stiff along with my back. We passed a few closed doors before I noticed a set of glass, double-doors to the outside were ahead of us. We stopped in the hall's intersection. If we went left it took us down a short hallway with a wooden door at the end; and, if we went right, we would enter a large room full of beds and people. Nurses and patients filled the medical ward.
"Let me show you my residence," Alfred teased, leading me into the hospital ward to our right.
As I suspected nothing looked remotely contemporary. My first impression of the medical ward's primitive care for the injured was striking. The medical equipment looked a hundred years old. Although, I'd never needed to use a hospital in Iowa, I'd visited friends in Mercy Hospital before. The harsh contrasts between the hospital in my time and here ranged from the lack of computer stations and monitors to the lack of art work on the walls. Everything was different. The ward was the size of a high school gymnasium; it had an oak floor, white walls and load-bearing columns that ran down the center of the room. The ward was bright with lots of windows, high up on the wall, allowing natural lighting to cheer the room up. On each support column was a set of gas lamps could be turned on at night. Seeing rows of beds with wounded soldiers wearing pajamas hit me hard.
I'd read all about trench warfare because of my interest in World War I. It was during the end of elementary school that I really started going to the public library and checking out military history books. Nonetheless, seeing real people in the ward, missing body parts was a lot to take in. The events of 1916, with bloody charges against machine gun positions and the use of poison gas, contrary to official propaganda would see no end until the conclusion of the war in 1918. The resources of England would stretch to the breaking point; manpower, food and materials would became a critical problem. Only the entry of the United States into the war turned the tide against the Central Powers, finally overwhelming the German's and ruining their economy.
"Nothing but the best for our men in uniform," Alfred said, full of pride and sincerity. "That's my bed over there." He pointed at an empty bed nearest to us.
In the bed next to Alfred's, a husky nurse held down a thin man on the mattress while another nurse peeled off the patient's bandages around a stump of a leg. The man seemed delirious, if not feverish. Having seen enough, I turned around and marched out of the ward. I needed fresh air, fast, and, before I knew it, we were on a patio overlooking a manicured lawn. The cool morning air felt refreshing on my face.
Alfred moved in front of me and put his hand on my shoulder. "It is a shock isn't it? All those brave men missing parts, shot or now living with damaged lungs from mustard gas. I've had a few days to get accustomed to it." His tone turned serious as he lifted his chin and looked me in the eye.
"After mixing it up with those beasts, I'd say we came out pretty well, Alfred," I commented, looking at a half-dozen men in high-back wheelchairs, all lined up in a row facing the lawn. A blonde nurse was smoking with the men on the white-granite patio. The other nurses didn't seem pleased with the smoking woman.
Alfred followed my gaze and smiled. "That's Penelope, she is a suffragist, and wants to vote like a man. Can you imagine? She isn't very popular with many nurses, but I think it's the smoking in public, not her politics."
"Ah, the Women's Movement," I answered. "I forgot about that, woman can't vote yet. They won't get it until the end of the war."
"You think it'll happen?" Alfred asked, surprised at my comment.
"Could you hold your wife back from getting what she wants?"
Alfred almost said something and then stopped himself. Changing the subject he said, "I was at the Derby you know. I saw Emily Davison run out in front of the King's horse on the race track, three years ago in 1913. She got herself trampled. A suffragist who killed herself to make a point."
"A little extreme," I said with a sigh, hearing my stomach rumble. "Can we get something to eat?"
"I know just who to ask," my friend answered, taking me by the arm and moving us inside.
After taking us through the other hallway into another wing of the building, Alfred barged right into the kitchen, pulling me with him. The ladies there were quite accommodating; he had already promised to introduce me, so they weren't surprised to see us. With the promise of a short recap of our flight, we got our bites of food in while explaining our brave defense of Scottish skies. They clapped or covered their mouths, depending where we were in the story. Alfred had them locked up in horror one moment, and then laughing in another at one of my insane maneuvers that saved us from certain death. By the time we finished eating, Alfred had them hovering around both of us. The eight women personally kissed each one of us on the cheek before we left.
We almost made it back to our wing of the building when Mrs. Crannach found us in the short hallway.
"Lt. Radford, we need to look at your ribs," she declared. "You were the last patient on my clipboard to check. Let's get back to your bed."
"Of course," Alfred responded. "I won't be long, why don't you go back to your room and rest, Jack. You look a little pale."
"You've just woken up from four days of healing; listen to your friend," she agreed.
Holding up my hands in surrender, I returned to my room, not realizing until now how weak I felt. The orderly that had cleaned up the mess in my room stopped me outside my door.
"Ah, Laddie," he said. "Are ye all right?"
"A little rest and I'll be fine."
He opened the door for me and made sure I got into bed.
"Thank you," I said, as he exited my bedroom.
"Twas nothing," he answered. "Dinna fret."
He closed the door and I slept.
It felt only a short time later, when a warm hand cupped my face to awaken me. A light perfume filled the air. I felt like a buzzing spark of electricity had cleared the fog behind my eyes.
"The doctor sent me to check on you and take your pulse. An orderly mentioned you are looking pale," Ivy announced.
She sat beside me on the bed, giving a delightful laugh. When I just stared at her, she smirked playfully.
"You're a handsome man." Her eyes were laced with warmth and fire.
The irony was I thought she was cute, but we were in a hospital, not a college dorm or either of our homes. Ivy stared off for a minute with a touch of disappointment that I hadn't responded right away, and then she moved on to checking my pulse. The truth was she took me by surprise, and I didn't know if engaging in an effort to get to know a woman was a good idea. Given the strange tingle where she held me, I felt pleased for the bed sheet's cover and my pajamas. Yet, I felt a spark between us and didn't want to act ungrateful to her kindness.
"You're a pretty woman, Ivy. However, I am not at my best, and sort of feel like I'm another person in strange surroundings."
She cheered up at my statement. "That is understandable, given what you went through this week."
There was a lot going on behind her intense, brown eyes, it just wasn't clear to me what that was. I asked Ivy about her past and listened attentively as she talked about her farm upbringing. I was genuinely interested as we swapped tales, and she seemed surprised to discover we both liked to tinker with machinery and study how things work. It saddened me. I couldn't tell her I'd attended engineering school. It would have been nice to impress her. She didn't seem in a hurry to leave, always keeping a hand on me somewhere to comfort me, which surprisingly, it did. An awkward silence filled the room for some time, but neither of us broke the tenderness that enveloped us. Her attentiveness was more than a nurse comforting a wounded veteran. Ivy's manner was undeniably suggestive considering, this culture. Yet, for me, our holding hands was like being in high school again, innocent fun.
My mind played tricks on me again. I heard a woman's voice whisper, "Dragon magic lowers her inhibitions with you because of the charismatic glimmer from your new blood. Your change is nearly complete."
The inner voice didn't continue and that was frustrating. Hearing voices wasn't normally a good sign. I was holding onto my sanity, but understanding what was going on was at the top of my to-do list. Yet, the question for me was whether my subconscious imagination was running rampant or was this was an outside force. "It was more convenient to believe I didn't have a loose nut," I thought.
I heard a noise at the door, and I'd expected to see Alfred, so it surprised me to see Doctor Rootstein enter with a determined looked on his face. We both knew what he wanted, an interview about my life history. He would need to know what I could not tell.
Somewhat hesitantly, Ivy said, "His pulse is normal."
"Very well, you can return to your duties," he said, taking only a cursory look at the young nurse.
The doctor grabbed a chair and moved it over to the side of my bed. Ivy disappeared without a look backward. Rootstein grumbled and complained good-naturedly, muttering about his old bones as he rested his walking stick on my bed. His spectacles were perched high up his nose, the thick lenses proof of poor eyesight.
"Let's get down to it," he said, with a grin. "Start with what happened the day you encountered the wyvern clutch, spare no detail."
The way he nodded and smiled during the telling of our fight, he had heard the story from Alfred already. He stopped me when the recounting touched upon the wyvern hovering and spitting at us. The doctor asked about how the venom tasted, what I felt at that moment and after, was there pain or headaches? I could answer honestly, so I did. He wasn't particularly interested in our crash landing, rather he shifted his line of questions to my family history. Not getting anywhere since I didn't know Green's family, in his frustration Rootstein talked about the war and my duty to cooperate with him. His yammering on about the good of the Empire and the evils of the German invaders was disappointing. War time propaganda covered up the truth about war; the good guys weren't always righteous and the bad guys were not always barbarians wanting to eat your babies.
Having looked around the hospital it wasn't very reassuring to see their level of medical knowledge, so I felt some respect for Rootstein trying to improve their scientific understanding of nature. Yet, the doctor's abrupt personality and condescending attitude stretched my willingness to deal with him. His questions continued about my diet and alcohol intake. I just made up the first answers that came to me.
The more I thought about things the more I believed that some special intervention had occurred. Something or someone took me from my world and was doing what it took to protect me with a suggestion here, a warning there and the inner voice telling me things. For all the doctor's comments and lengthy rambles, he had set my mind to questioning things, and caused me to string them together. I'd never been the focus of women before because of my quiet nature, but here the nurses seemed overly friendly, beyond compassionate professionalism. Even the kitchen women were a bit flirty with me, but not Alfred. Deep down, I knew my blood had been changed. "How else did I survive the ingested poison? They have monsters that come from legend, do they really have magic too?" I thought.
"I wish you'd pay attention and take this more seriously," Doctor Rootstein interjected into my daydreaming, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice.
Feeling his scorn reminded me I was a long way from Iowa. "Sorry, I was thinking about seeing my mates ripped from the sky," I lied.
A clamor of footsteps drew closer from the hallway, which save me from Rootstein's retort. An unsuspecting teenage orderly with a clipboard entered the room. Before he finished swiping a mop of dark hair from his eye, while he was opening his mouth to speak, the doctor cut him off.
"This isn't the time to barge in on us!"
The dark-haired orderly stiffened, spun around, and walked back out. His face showed horror. Gritting my teeth, I held in my outrage at the blatant bullying. The doctor didn't seem to conform to the polite rituals of civilization, ones I had believed were important to society in this time.
Alfred poked his head into the room, but didn't enter. He must have heard the doctor's outburst.
Waving a piece of paper, he announced, "A messenger from the War Office just arrived."
"I am sure that is interesting, but we are busy," Rootstein barked.
Not surprised at his tone Alfred added, "He is waiting for you in your office with a dispatch for you. I have mine." Alfred waved the paper for emphasis. "I believe the young man was here to tell you. I do hope he doesn't go tell the man you are too busy. Dispatch riders aren't known to hang around."
"Very well," Rootstein responded, taking his cane, and as fast as I've ever seen him, moving out of the room.
After the doctor was out-of-the-way, Alfred entered with a Cheshire cat grin. "You aren't going to believe this. There is a general inspection going on at our aerodrome. The messenger was here to make sure you and I are well enough to take visitors. I assured the man we were in a presentable condition, having both recently walked the halls and visited the garden."
"What kind of visit?"
"A general from the War Office, thus a general inspection," Alfred quipped.
"No idea," Alfred said. "Photo shoot? Giving medals? To visit the wounded? Invite us to tea?"
I punched his shoulder. Alfred snorted and shrugged his shoulders.
"Surely, you give me too much credit," Alfred added. "How would I know what a general wants?"