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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 5. Coming to Rest
Blood welled and stained the cloth between Leofwyn's fingers. She pressed down hard to stanch the flow, and one of the maidens at her side took hold of her hands and pulled them away. "Let the wound bleed a little, that it may be cleansed from orc filth."
They had removed Cyn to a white pavilion a short distance from the spring. He had been given a draught of skullcap and vervain, and slept - a limp weight beneath the healer's hands. Leofwyn removed the arrow under the watchful gaze of a slender lady named Aelinoth. It was one of the hardest things she had ever done. The arrowhead had lodged in Cyn's spine, and her hands had tried to tremble as she dug out the point, not knowing what worse damage she was inflicting on him.
Even now they shook, and she was ashamed of her weakness, but she needed to tend the wounded man - to take the next necessary action, to keep thought away for yet another moment, so that she need not remember that she had not had time even to say farewell to her husband. "It will weaken him too greatly," she said, proud of her steady voice.
Aelinoth returned, bearing a basin of steaming water in which many herbs floated. She bathed the wound with a healer's dispassionate tenderness and smiled. Her eyes were dark as dawn, and as full of mysteries. "Less so than the fever which will come if the foulness is not washed out," she said, "Have you not dealt with orc-arrows before?"
"I have not," Leofwyn admitted. Feeling alone and rather insignificant amongst these fair, capable people, she stared at the fresh green grass that carpeted the healer's tent.
"Nor have I dealt with Men before," Aelinoth offered gently. Reaching out, the elf-lady touched Leofwyn's sleeve in a brief gesture of comfort. Leofwyn saw that the hands of woman and elf were alike stained with the badge of a shared craft; the blood of the man they worked to heal. "So I will heed your wisdom," Aelinoth said, "And bind the wound sooner than I would with our own folk."
"That is well," looking up, Leofwyn found herself almost undone by the look of kindness on the elf-woman's face. I am among friends she thought briefly, and at the illusion of safety, a great cry of grief threatened to break free from her. But she would not let it. Despite her reassurances to Oswy, she was not yet sure if she could afford to be weak in front of these people. "I would have him clean and bound before his daughter returns. Let the child see him resting well and she will sleep the better herself."
She took a clean cloth and pressed it once more to Cyn's back as the maiden lifted Cyn's shoulders with astonishing strength for one so lithe, and Aelinoth swiftly and deftly bandaged the wound. Then between them they laid the unconscious man down on a mattress stuffed with yarrow and green plants, where his every movement would crush the herbs against him, and brighten the air with their scent.
There was no more to do. Whether he lived or died was no longer in her hands. Standing up, a great emptiness of purpose came over her, and she knew not whether she wanted to weep, or to sleep like Cyn and not to wake until the world was made new. But such luxuries were not permitted to mothers like herself. She still had the babe to clean and feed. Looking about her for the baby's basket, she shook her hands, and the red blood dripped onto the green grass, the colours glowing together, like embers in the growing dark.
Baby Scild had not cried this long time. Leofwyn turned from one worry to the next - surely he should be bawling by now? And where was the basket? Fear pierced her like an arrow, ebbed when she saw it, and rose to panic when she looked inside and found it empty. All the tales about the Golden Wood swarmed about her head - was it not well known that the elves stole human babes for some vile purpose of their own? Now the looks of enchantment she had seen on their faces as they gazed on Gytha took on a more sinister cast. "Aelinoth," she demanded, voice tight in her throat, "Where is my child?"
"Rian took him," Aelinoth said, her brow creased, "To play in the fountain. You were busy. He needed distraction. Was this not right?"
"You took a ten month old to play in a fountain?!"
"Rian is with him," Aelinoth repeated, softly, and her eyes held no understanding of why Leofwyn was suddenly so furious. It was as well the border guard had taken their weapons, Leofwyn thought, her hands clenching, or more blood than Cyn's would be shed here tonight. But then the elf-woman's face eased, and she smiled over Leofwyn's shoulder. "See, they return."
It was a beautiful picture. Rian was one of the few fair-haired elves, and her loose locks were the same pale wheat as Scild's baby curls. He lay smiling in her arms, playing with the trailing silver-embroidered cuff which wrapped around him. She smiled too, a look of such tenderness it made Leofwyn's blood boil. Sprinting the short distance between them, Leofwyn reached out for her child, and Rian recoiled, clear eyes narrowing. "You are all blood."
"Give me my baby."
"Should you not wash first?" Leofwyn was beyond reckoning what anxiety passed over the elf's face, beyond weighing up whether she was trapped in some tragic tale, or just confronted with an over helpful maid who knew nothing of humans. She might have come to blows, but that a voice, deep and musical spoke behind her:
"Rian, would you play with a bear cub in front of its den? Give the child back to his mother."
"Lady Galadriel!" Rian's eyes widened, and gently, but promptly, she handed Scild back to Leofwyn, who held him close, her racing heart slowing as she felt the warm curve of his cheek against hers.
One moment, she gave herself to recover, and then she turned to face her rescuer; Galadriel, the Sorceress of the Wood.
Tales had not exaggerated the beauty of the Lady Galadriel. But it seemed to Leofwyn that it was a beauty like that of the mountains or the sky. An innocent beauty. If it smote the hearts of men it would do so as dawn over the trees, as a fair sunrise over a free land. Unattainable, unless a man might possess the light itself. Her golden hair, shining as it was, was simply braided, and her white dress was modest, without ornament but for a girdle wrought of silver leaves. Her gaze was heavy on Leofwyn's face, the gaze not of a witch, but of a Queen, patient and kind.
"Welcome, Leofwyn daughter of Leofgar," she said, and smiled gently. "And forgive Rian her concern for your son. The love of children is strong with us, yet year by year we have fewer to care for. If we are over eager to tend yours it is because we remember our own, grown and gone these several thousand years. It will not happen again, unless by your word."
"I thank you," Leofwyn said, relief and too much loss stopping her mouth. She did not want to feel sympathy, or to see before her the darkness of an unending life barren as the rocks. She had problems enough of her own. Feeling rustic and inadequate would not do. She also was a Lady, and a leader of men. "Our debt to you cannot be counted or repaid," she said formally. "Where we looked to find peril we have found friendship beyond expectation."
Then she frowned, because, softly treading out of the gathering gloom came an elf-woman with Gytha in her arms. The child's small hands were locked around the maid's white neck and the grubby blonde head lay on a smooth shoulder, fast asleep.
"Oft it is so," said Galadriel, and Leofwyn wondered if she struggled not to look at the little girl, "For many and strange are the chances of the world, and not all appearances disclose the truth, as we have learned to our cost." Then, stepping forward, she caught Leofwyn's eyes and held them. Fear settled on Leofwyn like snow. Was some spell, after all, being laid upon her? Was this the point where she would forget who she was, only to wake on the edge of the wood, childless? Exposed before the elf-Lady's penetrating gaze, she fought the influence breathlessly, wrenched her face aside.
The Lady smiled at her once more. "Be at peace, Leofwyn," she said, sympathetically, "And do not speak of debt. The chance guest can be the most welcome. No harm will come to you or yours here. I swear it."
Placed beside her father, Gytha woke only long enough to snuggle into his side. Cyn's drugged sleep must have been lightening. Unconsciously he brought his arm around his daughter and laid his hand on her head. A small triumph at the end of a day of disaster. Forcing the tears away, Leofwyn spread the cover over them both.
Evening painted all things with blue shadow. Lights were kindled in the trees, and some of the lady's maidens had brought lamps to set on stands throughout the large healer's pavilion. Looking at it now, Leofwyn saw it could not have been set up entirely for Cyn's benefit - there was space for a hundred wounded men. Others of the handmaids had brought linen and herbs. They moved purposefully, stacking their burdens, lighting small braziers of charcoal to prepare remedies, singing softly over the medicines. This was a war hospital, being assembled with quiet efficiency around her.
At that moment Oswy returned, clutching a green-wrapped bundle from which the hilts of their two swords protruded. "Mother!" he cried, his face lightening at the sight of her, "I...oh!" Like a shying horse he stopped and gaped at the Lady of the Wood. Leofwyn wondered if she would have to strike or rebuke him, but after a second he closed his mouth and essayed a small bow, and a painfully correct "My Lady."
The sadness left the Lady Galadriel's eyes, and though she returned the bow with grave courtesy, Leofwyn could see, woman to woman, that she was both charmed and amused. "Greetings Oswy Oshelming," she said, her voice warm, "In this place you may lay down for a while the burden for which you were not prepared. Perhaps we will speak again another day, but for now, go. Find rest."
Oswy blushed furiously red up to the roots of his oak-brown hair, and Leofwyn felt another pang. Even if the Lady and her land were as wholly innocent as they seemed, might he not still lose his heart to her and be hurt, even in the midst of all his grief.
Stepping out of the faint moonlight of the glade beneath the great mallorn, came a tall elf, grey and silver as the dusk. He drew the Lady aside, and they spoke together in low voices, the beauty of the elvish language full of tension and warning. Then, in an ageworn gesture of tenderness, the Lady laid her hand in the hand of this twilight Lord. They turned away together.
Servants came and lead Oswy and Leofwyn to a small tent further under the cover of the wood, where they found hot water waiting for them, a change of clothes, and food on wooden dishes; roughly served but finer than anything they had eaten even in Meduseld. They ate and washed in relay, one of them with Cyn at all times. Then Leofwyn moved their bedding into the Healer's pavilion, on either side of the mattress where the injured man and his daughter lay. She said nothing of her thoughts to Oswy, but took one of the swords from the bundle, just in case. If elf or elf-maiden came to take the children while she slept, they would feel her steel.
Stars shone among the branches, and the thin wind hissed in the litter of golden leaves outside, scattering them into the pavilion, over the sleepers and the sweet grass and clover on which Leofwyn lay, but the elves had provided them with many warm furs and blankets, and she curled up thankfully, trying not to think of Oshelm.
"So that is the Sorceress of the Golden Wood," said Oswy thoughtfully beside her, "She is not what I expected."
It did not, Leofwyn thought, sound like the excited praise of lovestruck youth. Somewhat relieved, she said "Oh?"
"I didn't think the Sorceress would be a wife."
Leofwyn turned over, leaves rustling and crackling beneath her. She thought of the two stately figures walking away hand in hand; the Lady saying she had grown up children. A wife and mother she thought, a little amazed herself, It's true the tales never mention that. But then bards rarely did think of such things as important.
The ground smelled of rain and growth, and the movement of the small wind was soothing in her hair. Scild was all knees and elbows at her side, his baby-snore a comfortable sound. "I think your virtue is safe enough," she said wryly, "Indeed I think little of this land is what we expected. Have you seen that they are preparing for war?"
"The orcs who overran us are coming against them," Oswy said drowsily, "We cannot leave until they are defeated."
She wondered how he could be so close to sleep, after the nightmare of this morning, but was glad of it. "We must see what we can do to help," she said, "I like not being in their debt."
"Hm..." said Oswy, and dozed off. She marvelled at him for a moment, listening to his quiet breathing. Then the sigh of the trees, the voice of the distant stream and the gentle songs of the Healers, at work into the night, lulled her. Her grief was set aside and her suspicions stilled. She slept.
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