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Twilight of the Gods: 47. A Healer's Wisdom
Chapter 47 A Healer's Wisdom
Though there was no light unless the stars shone through dark clouds, Asfaloth surefootedly found his way northeast, and with speed and stamina he brought the Queen of Gondor to her husband's side during the long hours of the night. When she dismounted, the soldiers bowed to her and led her to the tent, where the king was lying on a makeshift bed.
"Can you help him?" she uttered with urgency, and Lomac rose from his contemplation. "Has he yet awoken?"
"Nay, my lady, he has not," he stated, and exhaled. The queen's face blanched and he regretted his answer. "But now that you have come, we shall try to bring him back." He turned to where the boy was anxiously waiting after he had set down the pot full of steaming water. "Get a strong twig over here, and make haste!"
"How can I help?" the queen asked and took off her riding gloves.
"It was you, who knew what had happened to him, was it not?"
Arwen looked down on the motionless body of her husband and nodded curtly.
"It was I. I felt… a dark presence in him. I knew that something had happened to him. I am glad you are here."
Lomac nodded to himself, mumbling something in a tongue Arwen did not understand. When she looked at him inquiringly, he but raised his brows and murmured: "He feared that much." Still she demanded an answer, and Lomac unwillingly waved his bony hand. "Tinungelen, a very experienced friend of mine. He told me about a very potent poison some people in the east use to get a hold of their captives, make them follow their bidding." He sighed deeply at the dismayed face of the queen. He would not have wanted her to hear this evil news, but as it seemed her presence at her husband's side might be the chance to change the king's fate. Slowly Lomac raised his eyes to meet the true blue of Arwen's. "Whoever used it this way, wanted not only for the king to follow his command, but for him to slowly die."
"How could you know?" Arwen asked, and fear made her voice tremble.
Lomac forced a smile onto his wrinkled and bearded face when Vlohiri entered again, holding a suitable twig in his hand.
"Sometimes it proves useful to wear one's heart on one's tongue. For this boy here…" His smile deepened, seeing the concentration of the lad as he settled down behind the queen, his eyes resting on the face of the king. "… told me exactly what I needed to know."
"I did?" he asked, puzzled, and wiped the twig clean with the hem of his shirt.
"You did," Lomac nodded solemnly and drenched a piece of cloth in the water, then added some ground herbs of different colours to it. Earnestly he turned to the Elf. "Queen Arwen, would you please take his hand? And you, Vlohiri, put that twig between his teeth." He heard Arwen beside him inhale sharply. "I hope to bring him back with this, but it won't be pleasant." And only for himself he added, "Not pleasant at all." He briefly looked at the hands of king and queen. How small her hand appeared compared to his, and yet she had the gift of strength he lacked. With a subdued sigh he then lifted his gaze to Vlohiri. "My lad, you must hold him down. Even if you think it is wrong, you must hold him. Do you understand me?"
Wide-eyed the boy got closer to Aragorn's head.
"He won't die, or?" he uttered, and Lomac shot him an impatient glance.
"I'm trying to hinder the poison so that he will not." He turned to Arwen. "Don't let go. He needs you."
Lomac had dreaded the moment. As soon as Tinungelen had told him about the potency of poisons used by the inhabitants beyond the Sea of Rhûn he had hoped to avoid this, but the gods did not show mercy – neither on him nor on the king. With a last inhale of breath he applied the cloth with the herbs on the wound and held it in place. Vlohiri looked at him worriedly, then into the king's face. For a moment that stretched far too long to be endurable, there was silence. Then Aragorn started panting, tried to jerk up his head, and bit down on the wood. His face was contorted with pain, but he did not open his eyes. Suddenly he cried out, startling Vlohiri.
"Hold him!" Lomac commanded, and the boy renewed his grip. His face went white with terror, but he did not let go a second time while the king fought against him.
Arwen pressed her lips tight against the pain her husband's hard grip caused her. She could feel him fight against the entity that tried to hideously kill him. He already became weaker, and while he still breathed rapidly, his movements slowed down and he no longer resisted Vlohiri's hands holding him. A single tear rolled down her cheek. She shut her eyes, and forced herself to believe in her own strength and that of the healer.
Outside the tent, Tarés clenched his fists. The cry of pure agony had made him turn, but Halamin's hand on his shoulder had kept him from entering the tent.
"He is in good hands," the younger soldier said quietly. "Don't worry anymore."
Tarés almost growled.
"I would have loved to kill that evil woman myself."
"He did this for all of us."
Lomac used the second cloth he had prepared to cover the wound, and fixed it there. The king still panted, and when the healer put a hand on his ribcage he felt Aragorn's heart race, but at least – and this was a comforting thought – the ruler of Gondor was still alive, and Tinungelen's worry had not proved true: that a countering of a poison as old as the one described might lead to the patient's death. If it would stay like that, Lomac could not tell. He watched the queen and the boy without drawing their notice. Queen Arwen still held her husband's hand, calm and resolved. She had guided him and given him strength, and though she was exhausted she remained upright, ready – if need occurred – to repeat the procedure. Vlohiri looked the same way Lomac remembered him, when he had taken him into his service to save him from Medros' cruel hands. He was crying silently. He had taken the twig out of the man's mouth and unbeknown to him touched the king's forehead with the other hand, a tender gesture that made Lomac flinch with anxiety. The king would go through a long inner fight against the poison that had for weeks crept into his blood.
Lomac sighed deeply. He felt worn out and thirsty, and all muscles ached from the long and unpleasant ride on a beast that seemed almost as tall and hard as a Mûmak, and which was just as strange to him. He already grimaced at the thought that he would have to ride all the way back to the city on that tall steed. Still there was no rest for him to be expected. There were many more soldiers whose wounds he would have to tend to. Slowly and with his knees creaking, he rose.
"He will rest now. And that is what you should do too." Arwen only looked at him, and he understood. "I am a healer, my queen, and no wizardry accompanies my doings. The king's own healing power must work now for him. I only gave them a chance." Then he left the tent, and the two soldiers outside stared at him. He gave them a small smile and rubbed his palms. "I would prefer a cup of water or tea and something to eat before I continue." Tarés gaped at him while Halamin laughed heartily. He slapped the old man's shoulder, saying:
"Aye, my good man, you shall get what you desire."
"You can rest, Queen Arwen… if you want to." Vlohiri's voice was hardly audible, and all the lessons he had learned failed in a moment like this. He feared he would be sent out, and when the queen remained silent, he feared to have offended her and added even more quietly, "Do you want me to leave?"
She lifted her gaze from Aragorn's face to Vlohiri's and granted him a small yet truly benign smile.
"He spoke of your courage as if you were already a grown-up man." Vlohiri swallowed and hastily wiped away the tears from his now flushing red cheeks. He did not know what to say, and since he had gotten no answer to his question, he stayed at the bedside, playing restlessly with the twig in his hands. "You did what many had never dared. The lore of Gondor in the Fourth Age has grown richer by your deeds." Now Vlohiri wanted to leave. The queen had spoken to him before, but the circumstances had been completely different. He felt his heart in his throat and did not know where to look. He remembered his fear on the day he had been left to walk alone with little food and even less hope to accomplish his journey. He had not known back then how far he would have to walk to find the queen. Only during the long ride had he – with growing uneasiness – realised that it would have taken him weeks to reach Minas Tirith on foot.
"There was no one else," he finally mumbled, but cast his eyes down.
"That does not lessen the greatness of your deed, Vlohiri. You were more determined than men, who call themselves courageous."
Aragorn stirred, and the boy gladly accepted the interruption. He moved aside when Arwen sat closer to her husband and spoke to him in her tongue. Vlohiri retreated into the shadows, pondering over the praise he had been granted by the noblest being he knew, and at the next moment he snapped to attention when she asked him to run for cold water and cloth. Only when he left the tent did he realise that she had spoken Sindarin the whole time.
Ridasha was at Hilberon's side with a few hastened steps, but he just raised his hand to stop her.
"You've been hit!" she exclaimed and got closer, wringing her hands. He led the horse through the rows of tents, not even rewarding her with an answer. "Let me see, Hilberon, please!"
"No need to," he pressed and led Harolyan to his resting place. Ridasha followed him, and only then she realised how much hurt she must have caused him. Hilberon hobbled his steed, took off saddle and bridle and gave him water.
"Don't send me away," the young woman pleaded. "Just let me help you as best as I can."
Hilberon turned, and Ridasha was as surprised as afraid to see his expression. No longer did the young, insecure, and inexperienced soldier stand in front of her. He had grown into a man of fierce qualities, and his stance told her that he still behaved as he had during the battle.
"Your kinsmen tried to kill me just minutes ago. Do you really believe I consider you an ally?"
She was taken aback and needed a moment to answer:
"You saw that one of them wanted to kill me too. You even saved me! Do you still believe that I am one of your enemies? That I act the same way they did? That I would murder you given the chance?"
"I saved you because the king would have wanted me to do this."
"Yes, because he no longer thinks me to be his enemy. Please, Hilberon, I will not harm you, but help you."
Hilberon did not reply, but turned away from her, suddenly unable to decide what was wrong or right. His heart raced, and before his inner eye he still saw the partly covered faces of foes, nameless and uncounted, he had killed within the hours of the battle. He felt an inner turmoil he had not experienced before, and at the same time he was exhausted beyond measure.
"If you…" He just lifted his hand as a signal for her to follow him. "Just come then… if you still want to."
Faramir sat down in his tent and drank water, enjoying the brief moment of peace. It had been a hard and long fight, and he was glad to retreat and see after his own wounds. Though he had not suffered any severe sword hits, one beast had attacked him from the front, and its fangs had penetrated vambrace and cloth when Faramir had defended himself with his upraised arm after losing the shield. Yet he felt almost too tired to do more than clean the wound. Before he had left the battlefield, he had ordered the night guards to be extremely cautious. Judging from the way the Easterlings had looked after their disarming, he expected an escape attempt in the late hours of the night. Still the prince feared those enemies most, who had fled north. Some of them – he agreed with Ridasha - could be shape-shifters, who would return to free their kin. Therefore horses were among the guards, and Faramir had briefly instructed his men that any of the fell beasts were to be killed immediately.
He remembered the hatred which had been directed against Ridasha when they had ridden along the ranks. Still he believed her to be a worthy negotiator once the need for one would arise. But with King Elessar wounded and unable to speak the final verdict, it was on him to handle the situation.
Hilberon did not speak, and Ridasha did not dare to. So many thoughts occupied her mind. She would never forget the moment her own kinsman had attacked her with so much hatred in his features that she had feared to die. How could this have happened? What had Harishdane told her people to turn the soldiers of her own kin into enemies? And how could Harishdane have dared to kill Gishvané? So much hate could not be overcome by lenience. Ridasha had heard the vicious curses about the deaths of Lomarin and Harishdane and how the Easterlings would avenge them, and she had heard them say that the Gondorians would murder all of their enemies. The young woman was painfully aware that without King Elessar's mercy, this fate of her people was inevitable. Prince Faramir had made that very clear.
Ridasha pressed back the tears and concentrated on the young soldier. He had shed his armour so she could clean the wounds. The one on his right arm consisted of only bruises, which would turn purple within hours, but the one at his waist looked awful. Hilberon was in pain, but did not make a sound. His lips were a thin line as he clenched his teeth and watched her wipe away the dried blood and cover the wound with cloth afterward. He mumbled something she did not understand. When she looked up into his face, his eyes were closed and he collapsed into her arms, unconscious.
On the morning after the battle, the captain of the Gondorian soldiers brought Ridasha to the prince. The sky was overcast, and a slight drizzle cooled the air. Though the temperature had dropped, humidity made it hard to breathe, and Ridasha, who was used to the dryness of her homeland, felt it like a weight on her chest, adding to her anxiety. The guard held open the flap, and Ridasha entered the tent. Prince Faramir stood, and pressed a piece of cloth on his left forearm.
"Prince Faramir…" The woman sank to her knees.
"Rise," he ordered her and tried to wind a bandage around his arm. She got to her feet and hesitated, but her glance caused him to say, "I would appreciate your help." With a feeble smile she bridged the distance and wound the cloth adroitly around his arm. He flexed his fist and nodded. "Thank you."
Quickly Ridasha retreated and stared at the ground.
"It was caused by one of the beasts?"
"It was." He rolled down the sleeve of his tunic. "You knew you had those beasts among your kin, did you not?"
"No! Only when Asentis turned into one during the scásh. They had never done that before!"
"Now they roam our northern lands." He exhaled, disgusted by the thought of more murder until those creatures were either killed or captured. The captain entered and whispered into the prince's ear. Ridasha waited anxiously. The soldier stepped aside, and Faramir faced the woman again. "Some of the beasts were slain during the night. They had attempted to free the captives." He held her in his stare. "You will tell your people that there is only one way to save their lives: They have to remain peaceful, or I see no way to spare them."
"I will tell them," she answered obediently, "but I… I might not be considered a member of my tribe anymore."
"They will listen to you." He curtly nodded to the captain. "Ranor, you will accompany us."
"Aye, my lord." The tall, red-bearded soldier glanced at Ridasha as if to let her know that any false move would condemn her to be less than a negotiator.
They left the tent and rode up to the host of Easterlings who had been taken into custody. They had been given food and water, but still their bearing was filled with hatred as they greeted the approaching Gondorians with slander. Faramir's lips twitched when he saw Ridasha's face pale with fear.
They dismounted, and upon his call Ridasha stepped at Faramir's side.
"Now, tell them to choose a leader who shall speak for them. Is there anyone you know?"
The woman swallowed, but then saw Enorishdon among the many women. He pierced her with his black eyes, but unwavering she stared back and called to him in shék. The tall man rose slowly. His shoulders were broad and could be seen through the partly ripped tunic. Like the others his forehead was decorated with the dark red symbol of his tribe. Ridasha had respected him since her childhood and hoped him to be reasonable enough to choose wisely for his own sake. Murmurs and curses accompanied him as he made his way through the tight ranks. He had taken off his cuirass and helmet, and though he had been disarmed, he walked upright and proud as if he expected to be considered an equal partner in the parley. With a curt bow he greeted Ridasha in his tongue, before he turned to Faramir with hardly concealed anger.
"You killed our captain," he stated. "If the chance occurs I will challenge you in the scásh and take your dead body home."
Faramir looked at Ridasha for a translation, but her eyes rested on the defeated, yet unbroken man.
"You will show him respect, Enorishdon," she said quietly, "since he is the one to grant us mercy or order our death."
He stared at her, his look both challenge and inquiry.
"Harishdane told us how you betrayed us all. Now, that I see you stand here – free and unspoiled - I do believe it, though I could not before. You are worth less than our barren soil."
"Harishdane lied to you!" Ridasha shouted. "Asentis turned into a beast during the scásh against the King of Rohan! He lost that fight and still Harishdane refused to surrender! She abandoned her own people and left us to the mercy of the Rohirrim!"
Enorishdon's eyes became small slits in his tanned face, but Ridasha could see the doubt in his features.
"Who tells me it is not you who is lying?"
The young woman sensed there was a possibility to convince Enorishdon and quickly went on:
"Harishdane killed Gishvané because our high priestess knew about her betrayal! Harishdane could have restored peace without bloodshed! The King of Gondor promised to help us find new land, and she threw that chance away. She preferred killing to giving in!"
"Then, Rilon Avas, where is this king? It is not the man at your side. I can see that much. Has he retreated because he wants not to bear witness to the destruction of his enemies?"
"He will come," she stated, as convincingly as she could under the circumstances given. "And until then you will deal with Prince Faramir." She eyed him sternly. "Is this understood?"
Enorishdon smirked at her tone, and the woman turned to Faramir, who had impatiently listened to the conversation, and translated the words without the threat the Easterling warrior had uttered.
"Tell him they have to retreat to the uttermost north of Ithilien until King Elessar will speak the final verdict," Faramir decided, facing Enorishdon forcefully. "All of them. Whoever resists or attacks our soldiers will be killed."
Ridasha opened her mouth for a reply, but the prince's hard gaze made her nod and speak to Enorishdon in shék.
"Be grateful he does not throw you all back to Rhûn," she added urgently. "A man with less love for life would have done so. You should be going immediately."
Enorishdon eyed both the prince and the woman of his own tribe.
"Will he keep his word?" he finally asked. "Or is this just a fitful lie to make us docile?"
"It is no lie, Enorishdon. He is far more believable than our leader had been."
"There are men from both Rohan and Gondor held captive in Rhûn," Faramir cut in. "Tell them they have to be delivered to the soldiers, who will accompany them."
Ridasha translated, and Enorishdon gave him a curt nod, but turned to Ridasha again.
"Do not speak against Harishdane!" he hissed before he turned. "You have no right to do so." He glanced back over his shoulder. "We will leave. Tell that princeling his men will return in two weeks."
"Would you have wanted to leave with them?" Faramir asked when they had both watched the departure of the Easterlings, heavily guarded by mounted soldiers.
Ridasha shook her head without looking up.
"I am an outcast now. They will no longer consider me a member of my tribe."
The prince cocked his head.
"The way I understood it, your decision to lay down your weapons after the scásh was the right one demanded by your god."
"Harishdane violated many of our rules. I hope that her death assuages Úshemor and makes her look with kindness again on my people."
"And I hope that your leader's cruelty does not kill the King of Gondor in the end."
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