“The Price of Wisdom”
The rough and tired looking first chaplain listened to the far off screams and knew that soon he and his men would be surrounded by the terrible agony of wounded and dying soldiers. He looked around at the young acolytes and counted only two battled hardened war healers amongst a dozen other green boys. They were all looking at him and he remembered looking at another rough and tired first chaplain through his own young eyes long ago and did not envy them. Clearing his throat he began the small speech he had given so many times.
“Listen and remember the most important rule. Our purpose is to save as many as we can. We prioritize the wounded so that those who need immediate attention receive it while those who can, wait.” Lars, the first chaplain, paused for a moment so his next words, the dreadful but important words, would have the strongest possible impact.
“And we waste no time on those we cannot help. We are here to save lives, not comfort the dying. They may have your pity, but not your time.”
He dismissed them to attend to their final preparations. Then, sighing, the first chaplain sank into his field chair and looked down at his hands. Turning them over slowly he flexed them, he rubbed them together and he remembered.
Lars had learned the importance of the first chaplain’s traditional words on another battlefield long ago. He had heard his first-chaplain’s speech and thought he understood, but understanding the words was a pale shadow of the experience of triage. Words were sterile, weak things when held up against the wailing, moaning, choking, sobbing pleas of dying men. The young, and too green, acolyte Lars had tried to do his job as he had been trained to. He even managed quite well for a time. Until the burning men arrived. Victims of flaming pitch that had rained down from the sky. The smell choked him and the sight of them nearly brought him to his knees. Even so he carried on until he came to the worst living victim of the pitch.
The man should have been dead, but somehow he had held on longer than he had any right to. He locked eyes with Lars and screamed for help.
“Get it off! Please, gods, it burns!”
Lars knew it was too late for the burning soldier but still he made two quick steps towards the man before a strong hand grabbed his shoulder and the first chaplain’s voice shouted in his ear, “Its too late for him boy. Say a pray for him in your heart and close your ears to his pleas while you move on to the next one.”
The command seemed beyond monstrous to the young Lars; he could not ignore the screams. His mind snapped as any well might have and he broke free of his commander’s grip. Running to the dying soldier he instinctively started trying to scrape the black fire off the poor man with his own hands. He didn’t even feel the pain at first but as the first chaplain and another acolyte pulled him away he became aware of his hands burning under the infernal tar.
Quickly the first chaplain had the acolyte helping him restrain Lars fetch certain solvents and salves. These precious liquids they used to clean Lars’ hands and prepare bandages which would ensure a full recovery. Lars let them work, lost in his pains. When they finished, the first chaplain looked at him sternly and Lars saw no sympathy in his eyes.
“Boy,” he said. “Boy, there will most surely come a time before this battle is over when our supplies will dwindle. There will be men who we can no longer help because those medicines I’ve just used to fix your hands will be entirely gone. Many will die who might not have if we just had more. The first who does will be the man you have killed.” He stopped then to let that horrible truth sink in, but he was not finished. “Our purpose is to save as many as we can. You are a trained acolyte and your life, and your hands, are worth a hundred common soldiers because you can help to save thousands through your work. But,” and here the chaplain paused again and held up one finger,”but no matter how many you save Lars, you will never forget that you killed a man because you lost control.”
Old, rough and tired Lars, first chaplain of the Temple Redeemers, flexed his hands once more and stood up. The sound of screaming soldiers was getting louder and he knew the work was about to begin. As he started toward the triage area he instinctively rubbed his hands together again and reflected, for the thousand thousandth time on the price of wisdom.