2. The First Battle of the Fords of Isen
Ilrhenir Son of Aragorn
Ilrhenir woke shivering with cold and pain; a strange rhythm pounding underneath him that inspired his stomach to heave, despite very its empty state. A heavily accented, loud oath uttered from behind as Ilrhenir leaned over groaning and gagging. “Eorl’s bones, boy! You sully my mount and I’ll set you back upon the ground!”
Ilrhenir squeezed his eyes shut the instant he dared pry them open, the flood of nausea renewed in him by the swiftly passing scenery below. Along with the dizzying, pounding motion, Ilrhenir could smell a strong dusky scent and finally knew it to be the sweating beast under him, working to carry them away.
Away? Immediately his head snapped up and he swept his gaze about them frantically, despite the protests of his body. “Easy there lad. You’re free of those foul beasts.” came a deep voice from behind him again, and for the first time, Ilrhenir noticed the hard heat of the man‘s body at his back and the thick arm cinched firmly round his waist keeping him from falling off the horse.
A moment of panic ricocheted through Ilrhenir as he realized that the man’s other hand held a long blade and not the reins to guide the grey beast, which were secured on a silver saddle ring.
His voice cracked forth in a wild tone. “It’s fine enough not to be driven by those monsters anymore sir, but who is it that drives us now? You, or your horse?” He sat up straight on the saddle and tensed, making his every injury scream.
The Rohannian carrying Ilrhenir on his lap ahead of him, laughed. “Have no worry for our course youngling, we retreat to the Isen atop Naisi, and he is clever and brave and swift. And it is by my legs that I rein him, so refrain from squeezing him so with yours, lest you confuse him.” The Rohannian warrior knew otherwise, but at least the boy made an attempt to relax, he had been easier to bear when unconscious. They were close hounded by the forces of Saruman and in greater number than the Eorlings had anticipated and it did not serve to be struggling with the boy while the possibility of trading blows with the enemy was so near.
Ilrhenir tried to ignore the protests of his injuries at the jarring rhythm of the horse beneath him by focusing on the scene about. The wind blew chill and the sky was a moody slate blue that seemed heavy about him, as though the heavens themselves took bruising exception to the presence of Saruman’s abominations. The rolling turf passing under Naisi’s hooves was still hard with cold, but all the same, it yielded tall greenish grasses that whipped Ilrhenir’s torn, naked feet like countless slender flails. For as far as he could see, the immense grassy ocean continued on east, far past the river that sliced a silvery path through it, south and west.
At a distance behind him, Ilrhenir still heard the faint but harsh exclamations of orcs and men and horses and wolves, mixed with the clash of steel. He craned around to look behind, only to see a great blond head with green eyes flashing sternly, a short-trimmed, yellow beard upon the well turned face. “Mark not their closeness boy, but rest yourself and be ready to dismount when Theodred calls for it.” The man called loudly above the din of wind and hoof beat.
“Theodred?” Ilrhenir inquired through clenched teeth as their mount leapt a small chasm and landed with a jolt that immediately stole his breath, lancing pain throughout him.
“Theodred, Theoden son.” The man mounted behind him intoned as though that clarified all, as though all should know the name.
Speaking was hard and uncomfortable, for Ilrhenir had to nearly shout to be heard, so he did not bother to ask who Theodred, or his father Theoden were, he only asked one thing more. “What is your name?”
“Baelorn of the Riddermark, son of Baeorl. And yours? I mark from your speech and your sable tresses that no Rohirric blood flows in your veins, but you are also no Dunland dog either, or else I would have let you perish upon the field.”
Cold was stealing over Ilrhenir again and he shivered slightly, chafing his arms with discolored hands that were only now beginning to sharply tingle with renewed sensation, a thing he was beginning to regret. Ilrhenir wondered if conversation was worth the effort, but that it might serve as a welcome distraction from his discomforts. “I…uhmm…. My name is Ilrhenir. I was captured trying to make the Gap of Rohan.”
“Ilrhenir.” Baelorn seemed to roll the word around briefly, giving it new color with the accent of his native tongue. “Tis, a Gondorian name to be sure. What man of Gondor doesn’t know the Gap to be held by Saruman? Or are the men there so few now that they send beardless youths, lone to scout reconnaissance and be captured and tortured so?” Though Ilrhenir did not look back, he could feel Baelorn’s disapproving frown, all the same.
“My lord mistakes my worth.”, Ilrhenir finally called back. “I am but a poor freeman from the north; from Breeland, not from Gondor. I was traveling south to reach Minas Tirith, where I was told that my father helps to hold the white city against the press of Mordor. And I had no knowledge of this Saruman or his black purposes, so I knew not that camping at the pass would find me in the company of those fell creatures.” Suddenly, images of his imprisonment flashed briefly through Ilrhenir’s thoughts stifling his newfound desire for conversation. He seemed to suddenly realize his nakedness and so Ilrhenir wrapped his arms about himself and dropped his chin to his breast, closing his eyes against the memories of his journey.
Baelorn, sensing the youth’s sudden reluctance, took what he had of Ilrhenir’s story and let it lie. Later, there would be questions and the boy would most likely be carted off to Edoras for the King and Grima to interrogate. So best to let him rest of his ordeal now, as best he could on horseback.
After a while, their pace slowed some. Haste was still needed but greater was the need to turn and answer those of the pursuing enemy that followed too closely. And for a while, this kept them from making good time to the Fords. Ilrhenir found out, while riding that afternoon, that Baelorn was a member of one of eight cavalry companies that had originally ridden out that day with Theodred, from the Fords of Isen, to meet Saruman’s army. Their aim was to take the fight to Isenguard before the orcish army mustered fully and reached the Fords, but the enemy was further advanced than they had known. Baelorn explained that the Eorlingas had seen Ilrhenir fall on their approach of the trenches and Baelorn had leaned low from his saddle and swept the boy up as he fainted, planning on discarding him if he were already slain. But Ilrhenir had been alive, so Baelorn had fought the orcs with Ilrhenir astride ahead of him. Shortly after that, the Rohirrim had nearly been outflanked as they fought the entrenched orcs. Fresh troops from Isengard had come in from the west and were about to cut off the Rohirrim's only path of retreat to the Fords. But Theodred’s rear cavalry guard had arrived just in time to excavate them, and here they were, retreating to the Fords to make a stand until more forces from Edoras could come to fortify them.
The day was long and harsh but Ilrhenir saw none of the battle up close. Theodred pushed, to the front wall of their retreat, Baelorn and many of the other Rohirrim bearing wounded or drawing rider-less mounts. And eventually the sounds of battle seemed to fade from Ilrhenir somewhat, as Baelorn and others moved on as fast as their mounts would carry them and his fatigue wore away his senses.
To Ilrhenir, Baelorn seemed vaguely dissatisfied with being ordered ahead of the battle but he complied without hesitation and so as twilight approached, they finally made the River Isen, much ahead of the rear guard that engaged the enemy in the distance.
They forded the Isen along an expanse where it widened and shallowed so considerably that a low stone shelf had been built to cross either arm of the great river right where it was split in twain by a large islet. The Fords of Isen were actually possessed of bridgeheads to mark the stoney causeway on both the east and west banks. And as they passed the western bridgehead, through to the large eyot in the center of the Ford, Ilrhenir watched Theodred call orders while dismounting his great grey stallion. Ilrhenir didn’t understand all of the thick sounding language of the Rohirrim, but he caught the odd word and watched with excited interest as all riders but those carrying injured comrades climbed off their steeds and sent their horses with the wounded across the eastern bank.
After crossing, Baelorn climbed off Naisi and helped Ilrhenir to dismount. It was then that Ilrhenir realized his legs were like unto water, and if not for the Rohirric cavalryman scooping an iron arm under him in support, The youth would have fallen to the ground. With an arm still under Ilrhenir's shoulders, Baelorn took Naisi's reins and started to walk away from the eastern shore, but Ilrhenir was reluctant to be led away.
“By the look of you boy, you have seen much evil recently. You are taken with fever and the cold and should come away to the healer’s tents to be tended.”
Ilrhenir looked up at Baelorn, realizing for the first time how the man towered above him, but he lifted his chin and gave him a look of stern resolution. “No Sir, Baelorn. I…I thank you, but if they breech the Ford….. then I would rather know it and fall here fighting than be with the wounded, either recaptured or slain in my sleep.”
Baelorn snorted indignantly, but with a newfound respect for the boy’s courage, though he also wondered if the boy weren't simply reluctant to have the healer's intimate ministrations after his captivity at the hands of Saruman's abominations. Though he did not suggest this. “You are possessed of a boldness befitting our own lads, boy. But fear not, the forces of Saruman will not take the Ford this day, though the cost be mighty. Theodred is too great for the likes of those scum. Come away and you may be tended and fed.” But when Baelorn looked into the youths haunted, bruised features he sensed that Ilrhenir would not be budged without a fight, for whatever reason. So, knowing that his charge would not and could not escape, Baelorn eased Ilrhenir to the ground and removed his cloak. He then gently clasped it about the boy’s battered, naked shoulders and handed him a long, beautifully crafted knife from his belt. “Keep the blade for a while and rest here a moment. I will muster some clothing and food and return shortly. Though I doubt that we have cloths to match your…uhm… conservative stature.” He smiled reassuringly and turned to Naisi. Baelorn reached for his waterskin off his saddle, and then remembered suddenly that in all the long ride that must have covered at least seven leagues back from the orc trenches, Ilrhenir had never once complained of thirst. For that matter, beyond groaning occasionally, Ilrhenir had not once complained of his hurts, of which Baelorn had seen were many. Baelorn untied his waterskin, took a long draught himself and then handed the remainder to Ilrhenir, leading Naisi to be tended and tethered. He would return soon with supper for them both and a healer to escort the boy regardless.
Ilrhenir sat upon the cold ground, with Baelorn’s cloak drawn tight about him, sipping gratefully from the waterskin held tenuously in one swollen hand, with the blade grasped in the other. He sat there ruminating darkly, his mind flitting from one terrible memory to the next, oblivious to the stares he was getting from passing men.
From the raised east bank, he could just make out the man Baelorn had that afternoon named Grimbold, leading the rearmost force to surrender their mounts over the Ford in order to fortify the infantry holding the west bank. Ilrhenir watched Theodred, standing with his many men further back on the shores of the islet, intending to keep the ford there should the fortification of the west bank not hold. Already, on Ilrhenir’s side, the east bank infantry were standing ready to repel any that made it past the first two fortifications.
As cavalrymen carrying wounded or leading extra mounts shed their burdens, they were either sent to eat and rest, or join on foot the stand of men holding the eastern bridgehead of the Ford.
Ilrhenir watched the west bank a while longer before his eyes began to flutter under the weight of exhaustion. And just as his aching, cold limbs seemed to surrender, he was jarred suddenly by the screams of horses and the chilling howl of wolves nearby. Ilrhenir looked immediately north knowing that no horses remained on the west bank, and to his horror he saw the pickets of Rohannian horses ravaged by Dunlanders and orcs riding massive, yellow eyed wolves. They had come down from Isengard along the east bank of the Isen and so had taken the encampment unawares.
Behind the murderous wave of wolf riders and Dunlanders came two battalions of the giant orcs wearing the livery of Saruman, wading into the fray . Except for those few still mounted, sent across from the western battlefield with horses and wounded, there was little or no mounted attack to be made by the Rohirrim who’s steeds were now mostly slain or scattered, and those few mounted riders defending the garrison were soon scattered, much as their horses. Those riders who remained alive and unscattered were relentlessly pursued southwest, along the course of the Isen by the Uruks. So the main resistance to the easterly force of Saruman’s army was the Eastern infantry.
Ilrhenir scrambled to his cold-numbed feet as best he could and pressed himself to the lea side of the bridgehead and watched. And it was at that moment that he realized all was lost for these men, whoever they were, and lost for himself as well. So Ilrehnir, tightly gripping the long knife, tried to decide where best to wait for his end. He looked on the islet to Theodred and his company, who where waiting to face any orcs that broke
through the west bank fortification, and then he looked across the east bank, where the unprepared garrison was striving to overcome the Uruks, mounted Dunlanders, and Wolfriders.
“Well!" He suddenly had a mind to shout, his fear and anger giving him a voice. "No need to meet death on the Ford below when it’s been good enough to come seeking me here.” And with his mother’s name on his lips, Ilrhenir ran to join the waves of men and orcs and wolves all hacking and rending and bleeding in a maddening swirl of violence that immediately stripped away his senses.
The battle would have been horrid by light of day, but by twilight it was far worse. Ilrhenir found himself at times hesitating, unsure that who he was facing was not Rohirric, and more than once, they had been. Amid the screams of the triumphant and the dying came another kind of sound, the mad wail of someone who had never before experienced such violence wrought, and who was being lost in it now. Ilrhenir had shifted into a wild ferocity where bloodshed was at once the source of his grief and its outlet.
He counted no blows delivered and felt none taken, though in fact Ilrhenir had received several. None of them were mortal of themselves, but coupled together and in combination with his last few day’s trials, he was sorely spent, though his body knew not what his mind would not let it. So Ilrhenir fought on, even as he was driven back, stumbling with exhaustion, weeping with battle madness, and hewing as though demon possessed.
And all along Ilrhenir was pressed, with the Rohirrim, back towards the east bank of the Fords, pinned against the river. Those on foot who remained alive were then driven across the eastern bank, onto the Fords themselves, crushed in between the forces of Saruman on either side of the Isen. As Ilrhenir, along with the flood of retreating Rohirrim reached the eyot, they all heard the triumphant yells of the orcs and Dunlanders crying out their dark joy at having taken the east bank.
Upon reaching the broad eyot, and butting up against Theodred and his company Ilrhenir turned to face the pursuing enemy, having run out of room to retreat. And it was fortunate that he did, for just then emerged onto the Fords the most fell enemy yet. A company of men who seemed half-orc, all garbed in heavy, black chain, armed with massive, black battleaxes flooded down over the east bank through a parting in the waves of wolf riders, Dunlanders and Uruks. If not for Ilrhenir’s agility, he would have surely fallen right then. Without armor and indeed unclothed but for Baelorn‘s cloak, to have taken a single blow from one of the enormous orc-men would have proved instantly fatal, but though strong beyond measure, they were not nearly so light of foot as he. And Ilrhenir dodged the creatures like his feet were graced by the First Born themselves.
Unfortunately, Ilrhenir’s knife was of no avail against the heavy chain they wore and his battle-born strength was quickly ebbing as blood fled his body and his fever threatened to replace the fire of battle lust in his veins with one of its own.
And just when Ilrhenir dodged the onslaught of an orc-man‘s axe blade and tripped, falling to the blood-muddied ground, he felt the hard length of the flat of a sword blade underneath his palm. Ilrhenir swiftly put aside the assurance that his end had come at last, and pulled his gaze away from the creature swinging the giant gore-bathed axe above its head for one last death blow. and he looked upon what he had tripped over. Ilrhenir had fallen over the body of a slain Rohirrim and it was the dead man’s sword that he now felt beneath his hand. Instinctively, Ilrhenir rolled out of the downward path of the next axe swing, with the crimson soaked blade of the dead warrior in hand, and he discarded Baelorn’s beautiful knife. The orc-man did not immediately recover for a third swing for his axe blade was now hung up in the sundered carcass of the fallen Rohirrim. That was all the delay that Ilrhenir needed. Still lying on his back, he swung upwards in an arc with all the hate and anger within him, and watched in detached satisfaction as the orc-man’s head parted company with his body issuing forth a fountainous spray of black blood before the mail clad form collapsed.
And so it went on for some minutes, Ilrhenir slashing blindly, madly at the enemy until, through his weary recklessness came a voice to his ears, as clear and inspiring as the battle horn he had heard ring out earlier that morning. “To me, Eorlingas!”, cried Theodred. The command was in Rohannian and therefore unknown to him, but Ilrhenir caught the word Eorlingas, which he knew, from Baelorn, was what the Rohirrim called themselves. Ilrhenir prayed it was a cry to muster at Theodred’s side and not some other command for he lacked the strength to do aught but heed a the call to wind his way wearily toward the center of the islet.
Ilrhenir tried to advance quickly toward the intrepid voice, franticly weaving and dodging between assailants only to be nigh when Theodred disappeared, hopelessly surrounded by axe wielding orc-men smiting ruthlessly at the Rohirric leader. Suddenly, through the orcish melee burst Grimbold with two other Rohirrim in tow, answering his lord‘s summons all the way from the west bank, and they fell upon the enemy with the fury of ten men each. Ilrhenir watched as the orc-men surrounding the Theodred were swiftly slain, but it was too late, for there lifeless, lay Theodred, Theoden son, with a foul and mortal wound upon him.
None took time to grieve, for the battle was still on. The Isengarders did not relent for having killed their enemy's leader, there were more to replace the orc-men slain by Grimbold.
And just as Ilrhenir’s knees buckled and the world swam, overwhelmed by pain and his last ounce of strength long ago spent, the onslaught suddenly stopped. The orc who stood over him ready to strike turned in half swing to the sound of its fell brethren issuing the call to retreat. It was then that Ilrhenir looked upon the east bank and saw a great white standard flowing like a beacon from the fresh host of Rohirrim smiting and scattering Saruman’s forces from on high.
And as the forces of Isengard along the east bank retreated from the Fords, hounded by two of the fresh companies from Edoras, Ilrhenir began crawling painfully to his feet to make his way across the blood soaked, body littered ground of the islet. He aimed himself at the center of the eyot where the Grimbold and the other survivors were gathered about their fallen Prince, still fighting to keep possession of his body from the last body of orcish soldiers that had not retreated.
Suddenly a rain of dismounted Riddermark from the new host pelted across the east bridgehead of the Ford and as they reached the islet, a strong arm hoisted Ilrhenir up and he looked into the concerned visage of the very last person he expected to see.
“Baelorn….” Ilrhenir gasped weakly, his entire form afire.
“So, you are much harder slain than it might seem, Ilrhenir. This makes me glad.” And with that, Baelorn hefted the light form of Ilrhenir up over his shoulder.
The rest of the battle was short and when they reached the center depression on the eyot where Theodred lay, Ilrhenir was lowered onto the ground amid many who had silently bowed their heads to their dead prince.
Ilrhenir was vaguely aware that Baelorn was being given cloaks from some of the surviving men, which he tightly wrapped round the bleeding youth. Ilrhenir would have attempted to protest but he was drowned out by the surprised gasps of many men as Theodred stirred when they lifted his supposedly dead form up off the ground. They instantly laid him gently down again and Grimbold knelt at his side, taking care, but searching his wound to see if it had been less severe than it had at first looked. As he spied the axe wound, Grimbold’s expression of hope turned bleak. And as his lord prince opened his eyes, Grimbold took Theodred’s pale hand between his own two and brought it to his brow. Theodred looked upon Grimbold with a distant gaze and spoke. “Let me lie here…to keep the Fords till Eomer comes!” Theodred gasped one more shuddering breath and as night came fully upon them all, Theodred, Theoden son closed his eyes and died.
At that moment, a harsh, chilling horn was barely noticed in the distance, heralding the retreat of the forces of Saruman along the west bank as they withdrew into the night.
The Rhohirrim still held the Fords of Isen, but at a great cost. Many of their men were dead or scattered, most of their horses were also perished, and their King’s son slain.
Very quietly, Ilrhenir wept as he lay there, and he was not alone in this. He wept for the casualties of the day, the warriors who had lost their beloved leader and for the slain Rohirric horses who had been at least as valiant as their masters. He also wept for himself, and all that he had been forced to see over the last four days.
Eventually, as Ilrhenir lay there on the ground beside Baelorn, he felt the pain recede from his weary limbs, and much like the day before, a calming warmth stole over him replacing the bone-deep chill. And even as in the day before, someone was there to interrupt the sudden sense of contentment, though this time it was Baelorn speaking to him and gently cuffing his cheek, rather than some orc slapping him roughly and forcing a vile liquor down him. “Stay awake lad.” Ilrhenir heard the distress in Baelorn’s voice as if from a great distance. “I know that you are weary Ilrhenir, and I would let you rest but that I mislike this sleep that comes over you. It speaks to me too much of our fallen lord’s slumber.”
But Ilrhenir did not rouse himself. He had neither the desire nor the strength.
“Lord Grimbold! Lord Elfhelm! I have one here who needs our aid!” In the midst of attending Theodred’s body, they looked up at Baelorn's call.
“Is that the boy you rescued at the trenches this morn?!”, asked Grimbold, a look of utter astonishment taking his features as he noticed the lad for the first time. He couldn’t imagine how the boy had survived the evening’s battle.
Baelorn slid an arm underneath the cocoon of cloaks that surrounded Ilrhenir and drew him up, giving him a sharp shake. “Indeed Grimbold, but he leaves us this night if we do not aid him now!” Elfhelm nodded that he would tend their prince’s body, and so Grimbold rose and came to kneel next to Ilrhenir and Baelorn. Grimbold knew that there would be many to tend this night as well as a second attack to watch for, and if the youth was too far gone, Grimbold would not wish to waste time lingering doing aught more for the youth than easing his pain ere he died. He indicated impatiently that Baelorn should lie the youth flat upon the ground, and he opened the many cloaks to inspect whether Ilrhenir was too gravely wounded to be saved. A sudden string of quiet expletives escaped Grimbold upon laying eyes on the naked, gore smeared youth, who was nearly consumed in filth off the battlefield.
Ilrhenir was aware of voices over him and oddly gentle hands probing his angry flesh. But he neither understood nor cared what they said, only that they left off aggravating his wounds. To this end, he attempted to push away the intrusive hands.
“Lie still boy.” came a heavily accented voice Ilrhenir did not recognize. Ilrhenir groaned loudly, continuing to feebly squirm against the searching hands.
Grimbold looked at the boy‘s gaunt body, battered and lacerated and he had to wonder why, had to wonder how, the lad was even still alive. Amazement warred with pity in Grimbold, but the truth of the boy’s condition was not to be denied “He still fights, Baelorn. But it seems too long ere he had proper drink, or food from the look of it. And he is taken with a nighty fever from these fouled wounds. As for the wounds themselves, though each one is not great, together they have drained him of much.” Grimbold finished his inspection as gently as he was able and solemnly wrapped the soiled cloaks back around the youth, meeting Baelorn‘s hopeful visage. He sighed, the weight of the entire day seeming to descend upon him with this one final proclamation. “Sadly Baelorn, I suspect that he will be claimed ere dawn.”
“Is there naught that can be done? He fought like the spirit of Eorl himself possessed him this night, and he had no cause. Easily could he have taken a stray mount and fled in the confusion, but he battled all the way to Theodred, and as bravely as any Rohirrim.” Baelorn had seen the spark of the man the boy would soon become and he was shamed to think they might not tend him as he deserved because the Rohirrim had become so distrustful of strangers that they failed to recognize a comrade when one appeared.
Grimbold sighed again, a sad look upon his face and his great shoulders seemed to drag with the weight of the days losses. “Our Prince was felled with one single, sound blow, this lad with many that were lesser, but the effect is the same, Baelorn. However, I will not gainsay you seeking the healer’s help for him, if any healers have survived. But there is naught I can do for him but clean and stitch his wounds, perhaps help ease the fever a little. And you yourself are skilled enough to do that much with supplies at hand and more free than I in your duties. Take him quickly back to camp and see what remains there of the healer’s tent. Tend him there with what supplies you can find.” And with that Grimbold rose and returned to Theodred, passing hasty words with Elfhelm, who started men gathering loose stones from the periphery of the Ford’s causeway to stack upon Theodred in cairn. Grimbold called out to the surrounding men that were still sound of limb that it was time the dead and wounded Rohirrim were gathered, the wounded enemy were dispatched and the camp on the eastern bank salvaged.
Dazed beyond all of the goings on about him, Ilrhenir was annoyed that every time sleep seemed imminent Baelorn interrupted it. And soon he was uttering low curses as Baelorn hefted him up off the bloody eyot and carried him as swiftly as was possible across the eastern Ford and into what remained of their mobile garrison. Ilrhenir just wanted to be left alone to sleep. And despite Grimbold’s declaration, Baelorn chuckled hopefully at Ilrhenir‘s mumbled profanities. “That’s the way of it Ilrhenir. Curse my bones as you like, for it takes a well drawn breath to utter such vindictives.”
Baelorn was relieved to find that the large, sage colored infirmary tents were still intact. Though much of the encampment had been trampled, nothing had actually been burned or even destroyed, no doubt the result of the timely arrival of Elfhelm with his additional companies of Riders.
But, Baelorn argued with himself as he bore Ilrhenir toward one of the healer's tents. The forces of Saruman had numbers to withstand against even Elfhelm’s companies, yet they withdrew very suddenly. Therefore, the main intention of the attack, by Baelorn’s estimation, had been to slay Theodred. The sudden ache in his breast reminded Baelorn that Saruman’s forces had very much succeeded.
As he approached and entered the one large infirmary tent, it occurred to Baelorn how swiftly the camp had been set upon. Most of the healers had remained within the tent throughout the day, preparing to receive wounded from the beyond the west bank, and had only just been brought a few dozen or so when the eastern force had attacked. So it was that there were many available cots on which to lay his burden and several healers available to tend Ilrhenir. Though upon unwrapping Ilrhenir of the now blood soaked cloaks to tend his wounds, they were no less dark in their prognosis than Grimbold had been.
Baelorn sat by anxiously, answering what few questions they had about his nakedness and those injuries that seemed less the result of battle. When they had the story from him, such as he knew it; he left to tend to Naisi, grateful to the horse Gods that he had not yet tethered the mount when the attack began.
Baelorn kept his own council, but he knew it was probably the only reason the any of them still lived, for when the attack had scattered what was left of the exhausted cavalry, he had headed to the main road with the intension of riding hard to Helm’s Deep for what aid they could muster. Instead, upon the road he met Elfhelm and his companies who were weary from swift travel and about to turn off south to sup and rest at Hornburg, but who gladly rode instead to the salvation of the failing Eord. Alas that Elfhelm came too late to help save Theodred. But had he not come when he did, all might have been slain to the last man.
After assuring himself that Naisi was happy in the hands of Elfhelm's hostlers that had replaced the ones of Theodred's company that were slain, Baelorn met up with those of his fellows who had survived and were settled, mourning in the intense and brief way that warriors in great peril do, with no time for drawn-out lamentations. Around what few fires that were lit in vigilance against the cold night and the return of the enemy were groups of men who sought the voiceless solace of their living Eorling brothers before seeking their own tents and pallets.
Others still spent a sleepless night waiting for the armies of Saruman to surge over them, attempting to take the Ford again, but when at dawn none had come, Grimbold went about staging rest for each company in turn, and a messenger was sent to Erkenbrand at Helm’s Deep of the high cost paid for the previous day's victory.
It was at dawn when Baelorn was finally ordered to seek his bedroll and he did so greatfully, but not before stopping by the healer’s tent to pay visit to many of his wounded comrades and Ilrhenir as well, if the boy still lived. This time the scene was different. The tent was now full, most cots bearing men who had suffered injuries too great to see them back on duty this day. Some even lay near death, and these men were quartered off towards the rear of the tent where it was quieter and less cramped, separated from the rest of the tent by a great pale screen.
It was there that Baelorn eventually found Ilrhenir. The healers had naught to say save that during the night he had slipped down into a deep sleep, induced by his ordeal and the fever. The later of which, the healers believed would soon rob Ilrhenir of his life. Indeed the healers had thought to see the youth fail with the dawn, but he yet clung to some tenuous thread of life.
Baelorn looked upon the tranquil boy, seeing him clean for the first time, laying as if merely asleep. He wished now that he had kept hold of the lad upon crossing the Fords, but Baelorn was not to know that they would be attacked so quickly. He pushed his guilt aside and sat there for a while talking softly to Ilrhenir until his weariness caused the healers to send him away.
Baelorn slept long and then ate ravenously that day. There was still no sign of Saruman’s armies and so he went to the healer’s tents to visit again before taking up a nighttime guard rotation. There, the sweet tang of sickness and blood mixed with the clarifying, bitter scent of many herbs. The healers were having difficulty with the many poisons used on orcish blades and arrows, and when the orcs had no poison for their blades they often coated them in their own filth, so even Eorlingas barely wounded were now returning with their injuries angry and fouled.
Baelorn wound his way to the back of the tent and traded words with a man in sage and gray robes, one of the healers. He was directed to the corner where they had moved Ilrhenir that day to keep him further away from men bearing a contractible illness that was also spreading through some of the wounded. Baelorn was told that naught had changed about Ilrhenir’s state, he was alive, but nearly gone. And as Baelorn reached the corner, there was an exceptionally broad shouldered youth with the hint of his first beard, in the ash colored robes of an acolyte tending to Ilrhenir. Baelorn went to withdraw, giving them privacy but the young healer waved him over. “Come. Sit. You visited him before, did you not?”
“Aye, and I have come again, only to find him the same.” Baelorn glumly accepted a stool and sat down; looking into Ilrhenir’s mightily bruised but pallid face, framed wildly by damp, inky locks.
“Is that not preferable to finding him passed away?” The broad youth smiled as he tended Ilrhenir, his huge hands promised that he wasn’t done growing by half. But they were gentle hands, languorous in their movements as he traced the wounds, cleansing them, some of which were stitched with black silk thread, some of which were merely bound closed.
More disturbing to Baelorn than the sight of the tended sword wounds, were the myriad black bruises and claw scratches and teeth marks blanketing the sallow, dehydrated flesh. All signs of his captivity at the hands of the orcs.
“I know not how long those foul abominations had hold of him ere he escaped.” Baelorn sighed quietly.
“No matter now." The young healer said. "For even if he perishes, he will do so a freeman.” The acolyte set aside his cloths to prepare a strong smelling herbal in a ceramic cup.
“If?…" echoed Baelorn. "I am told by your superiors that it is more a matter of when.” He looked on with a seed of hope as the healer carefully propped up Ilrhenir’s shoulder’s and turned back his limp head, spooning a bit of the thin, blackish liquid into his mouth. Large hands stroked firmly at Ilrhenir’s throat until they inspired a swallowing reflex.
“Do you agree with my mentors? When you look upon him, do you see that it is time for him to die?” The healer asked smoothly as he continued to slowly work the contents of the cup past the pale, cracked lips.
“I see a boy that might have died a hundred times yester eve, but against all odds did not.” Baelorn smiled proudly, despite himself.
“Indeed. That would seem to be the case, since he lives still, despite the dire circumstances. And even if he does perish, I think that he will no go easily, or willingly.”
After a while, he was finished and he laid Ilrhenir back and tucked fresh blankets about him. “Remain a while longer if you wish. I will tell the other healers on the evening watch with me that you are here. And perhaps you might speak with him a little. We believe that even one near death still hears all that goes on about him. He knows that you are here.”
Baelorn nodded. “I can stay but a while before I must take a shift of my own. What is your name?”
“Haimen, Hallen son." He inclined his head and offered the standard greeting between two of their station. "In service.”
“Well met, in service, Haimen, son of Hallen. I am Baelorn, Baeorl son. We are fortunate to have such healers as you to mend our warring.”
Haimen bowed and smiled again carried away the soiled linens and bandages, taking up a long rod of yew. And it was only then that Baelorn had his answer for the question that had been nagging at the back of his mind since first seeing Haimen. Baelorn had paused to wonder why such an extraordinarily stout and hale lad had become an acolyte to the healers, and not learned to fight upon the field of battle instead. But as Baelorn watched the ample youth use the pale staff to guide himself deftly between the beds he realized with no small amount of surprise that Haimen was blind.
Recovering himself, he also realized that Haimen had tended Ilrhenir with an intuitive completeness and compassion that humbled. So it was that he was grateful for the young man’s presence right where he was.
Baelorn sat there with Ilrhenir for another hour, speaking of this or that until he knew that it was drawing upon time for him to take his post. And he left, bidding the withered youth a good rest, free from the darkness of his travels.
Two days more came and went in that fashion. Each morning coming off watch and each evening going back on it, Baelorn would stop by the tent and the healers would proclaim that Ilrhenir would not see another five hours pass. And Baelorn never ceased to be surprised when he returned later to find the Ilrhenir still lying there, clinging ever stubbornly to life, looking very much a fevered corpse, but still drawing one raged breath after another.
Now it was the evening of the third day since the fall of Theodred. Baelorn had a post to hold in two hours time and as he entered the tent and went straight to where he knew the lad to be, Baelorn stopped and a cold weight settled in his chest. Ilrhenir was gone from the corner where they had moved him to days ago, and in fact, he could not spy the dark headed youth amongst any of the occupied cots behind the curtain that separated the gravely ill from those that merely needed rest and care to recover.
Baelorn sadly lowered his head for a moment and gave a silent prayer that Ilrhenir’s spirit had found a worthy rest and eventually he heard the gentle clacking of Haimen’s yew staff upon the surroundings. He opened his green eyes and lifted his head, watching as the young healer made his way over.
“Well met, Baelorn.” The young man seemed genuinely glad to meet him there, clasping a solid hand on his shoulder.
“Not so well met, now that I find your mentor’s mournful proclamations to be finally true.” Baelorn sighed.
Haimen cocked his fair brows, obviously confused. “My Lord?”
“Where have they taken his body, Haimen? I would have him dealt the same honors as any man to fall holding the Fords.”
“Of whom do you speak Baelorn, for we have had a few die this day.” Haimen asked compassionately, a trace of sadness in his unfocused blue eyes.
“Why, I speak of Ilrhenir, the northern lad, of course. I…I hope he passed in his sleep, peaceful and untroubled by his injuries.”
Haimen smiled widely just then. “Come with me Baelorn, and I will take you to him.”
Baelorn wondered at the smile but followed the acolyte past the partition and out into the main body of the tent. He thought that Haimen would lead him outside to the bier that was parked off to one side. But instead he led him through to yet another row of cots occupied by sleeping men in various states of mend. And to Baelorn’s great surprise and joy, Ilrhenir was amongst them, laying in the natural quiescence of one who is resting deeply after a long toil.
“His fever broke this afternoon and it is believed that given time, his life‘s breath will grow strong again in his breast, Baelorn. He will mend, though the fullness of it will take some time.” Haimen felt for a stool and offered it to Baelorn, a wry grin dimpling his face. “If you will but wait here, I will go for his supper and you may aid him in that, since I have many charges in more dire need of my attention than he.”
“Indeed, good Haimen.” Baelorn smiled widely and chuckled, taking the offered stool.
“Twoud be a crime to waste your talented ministrations on the merely idle.”
Baelorn sat and waited, and just as he said he would, Haimen eventually meandered over with a tray, atop which was a bowl of dark broth, a mug of some golden tea and a small wad of fair bread made from finely ground wheat. “He may take it all, in fact it is my hope that he does, but it must be slowly at first.” Baelorn nodded and then just as Haimen was retreating a query invaded his thoughts.
“Yes Baelorn, what is it?” Haimen turned to face the seated Rohirrim.
“Do I await his wakening to feed him this, or do I rouse him from his much needed rest?”
A deep, warm ripple of laughter emanated from Haimen before he answered with a question of his own. “Baelorn, do you prefer cold soup or hot soup?”
“Why, hot soup, of course.”
“There you have it then. Would you not think that Ilrhenir does as well?” Haimen could not keep the extreme mirth from his voice.
“Indeed.” grumbled Baelorn, an embarrassed flush warming his weathered cheeks. At that moment he was grateful that Haimen couldn’t witness his chagrin.
“Good even, Baelorn.” Haimen walked off whistling a merry tune, trying not to laugh.
“Good even, Haimen” And Baelorn set about rousing Ilrhenir before his dinner chilled.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.