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Chapter 17 – Life from Death
Hamm peered out from the shelter of the dense thicket of trees. Behind him, his horse and wagon remained concealed, the tiny clearing surrounded by heavy growth barely large enough to hold them. He shifted his axe nervously in his grip. He had little hope of defending himself with it; he was skilled enough in its use to harvest trunks and branches, but had never learned the art of combat. But perhaps there would be no need. It had been some time now since the last of the orcs had passed, and the sounds of fighting from the south had died down. Would it be safe yet, he wondered, to venture out of his hiding place, and try to make his way home?
He had left the little cottage in the tiny village, no more than a huddle of a few buildings, early that morning. This would be his last woodcutting venture of the winter. Soon the weather would warm and the new sap would rise in the trees, and the season for harvesting the dormant wood would be over. He had set out west and north, meeting the Isen some miles north of the village, and worked his way south along the shore of the river all during the day. Here, on the east bank of the Isen, were the finest stands of horse-apple trees in all Rohan. They thrived where the river brought water enough to nourish them, and grew in such tightly packed abundance that their trunks rose straight and branchless for many feet. Hamm was selective, choosing only the soundest, straightest trunks to cut, loading his wagon with long logs of the precious yellow wood. Once home, Hamm would split each log into wedge-shaped staves, then carefully store them away to dry and season for two years or more. Then they would be ready to be crafted, by Hamm’s painstaking skill, into fine and powerful bows.
Hamm’s bows were in great demand in Edoras and all Rohan, especially now as war threatened. He had sent his entire inventory to the capital weeks ago, and reaped a fine profit. For a soldier about to ride to war, a sound and accurate bow seemed suddenly a highly valuable commodity, and Hamm’s enjoyed an excellent reputation. He had lived in Edoras for a time, and plied his trade there, but years ago he had chosen to return to his home village, here close to the lush stands of horse-apple, whose tough, springy wood made such excellent bows. Far to the south yew trees grew, and the bowyers of Gondor crafted famous bows from their wood, but Hamm would wager on a bow of the horse-apple of Rohan in any contest between them.
The day had been growing late, and his wagon was piled high with the fruits of his day’s labors, when Hamm had first heard the orcs approaching. He had worked his way far south along the river, almost to where the trees ended north of the Fords. For all that the orcs tried to move quietly, seeking concealment among the trees, they still made a racket that shattered the peace of the quiet woods. Hamm had fled before them, somehow managing to avoid detection, seeking the shelter of the deepest thickets, urging his horse to force the wagon through the brush closer to the river, until he had found this tiny clearing behind a dense screen of trees. They had huddled here, Hamm soothing the skittish draft horse to keep him quiet, while the orc army passed by. Between the branches Hamm had caught glimpses of wild horsemen, wolf-monsters, and other horrors. Before they had all passed, screams and clashing metal rang out, telling of battle joined. They must be fighting for possession of the Fords. Before today Hamm had felt secure, safe on the east side of the river, protected from the ravages that the traitor Saruman had inflicted on the villages to the northwest. Now he wondered if before nightfall enemy forces might be marching to Edoras itself, wiping away the illusion of security from all of Rohan.
Twilight was deepening, and the sounds of battle had faded into the distance. Hamm knew that now was his chance to escape. He struggled with the wagon, working with his horse to get it turned around and freed from the close confines and uneven ground of the thicket. Before he had managed it however, the fighting sounds came close again, and he froze, afraid. Then, near at hand, he heard voices.
“I thought you said your men held the east bank.” The voice was strained with weariness and anxiety.
“We did. I’m sure this is no more than a skirmish, mopping up the last of their forces.”
“Well, in any case, we can’t get through it carrying him. We’d all three be cut to pieces.”
“Maybe we should wait here until it clears.”
The first voice was ragged, close to breaking. “We’ve got to get him to the healers. I don’t know how much longer he can hang on.” There was a grunt, and the sound of a burden being lowered to the ground. “Look, he’s cold, but he’s sweating. His breathing is too fast. We should have made for the west bank. The battle surgeon in my eored is skilled; I’ve seen him pull men through wounds this bad before.”
“The fighting was even worse that way. Maybe we should try to circle around, and approach the camp from the east. The healers’ tent was on that side of the camp anyway. Here, let me carry him for a bit.”
Hamm could remain silent no longer. He stepped out from behind the thicket of trees. In the dim light he could see the two men swing around, startled, raising their weapons in defense of the still form lying at their feet. They wore the armor and insignia of Riders of Rohan, stained and ragged with the ravages of battle.
Hamm spread his hands open before him. “Excuse me, my lords, I couldn’t help but hear.” Seeing his unthreatening demeanor and workman’s garb, the two Riders lowered their swords, but still eyed him warily. “My home’s not far, and my wife’s a skilled healer. Seems your friend there is in need of tending, and she’d never let me hear the end of it if I let a man go without when she might have fixed him up. I’ve been stuck here a while, trapped by those orcs, but they’re gone now, and it’s not more than a mile to my house, that way, away from the fighting.” He gestured northeast.
The Riders exchanged glances, and both looked down at the wounded man. The younger stepped forward. “I’m afraid he’s beyond the skill of a village herb-woman. He’s taken an axe to the leg, and like as not he’ll lose it. Though we thank you for your offer. Perhaps you could take us in your wagon around the fighting, to the healers at our camp.” Even as he spoke, the noise grew louder, drawing inexorably closer.
Hamm moved to clear a spot in the back of the wagon among the logs. “Oh, my Haelan’s dealt with amputations before. Traveled, she did, in her younger days, before she met me. You should hear her tales. Lived with the Elves a while, and learned from them, and south in Gondor, and all over. You talk to her. She’ll be able to do for your friend, if anyone can.” He turned to help the older Rider lift the wounded man into the wagon. He was wrapped in his cloak, and another cloak, heavily stained with blood, swathed his lower body and legs tightly. His face was pale and clammy, but his breath still came, in shallow, rapid gasps.
Now the clamor of battle was louder still, all to the south and east. The younger Rider gazed searchingly in the direction of the conflict he could not see for the trees and the darkness. Then he jumped up in the back of the wagon, to crouch, along with his companion, beside the injured man. “Very well then, take us to your home. I hope she is as skilled as you say. Though we have little choice, it seems, but to trust you.”
With a lurch, the wagon started on its way, as Hamm led the horse forward. The ride was bone-jarringly bumpy for while, then the way smoothed as Hamm found one of the narrow paths that wound through the woods. They made their way through the wide band of trees that bordered the river, then through the lower brush and scrub. At the edge of the floodplain, they lurched up a steep track that slanted up the side of the bluff, and emerged at last onto the grassy level plain. It was full night now, moon and stars concealed above a thick layer of clouds. But Hamm knew this road, and could follow it safely home, even dark as it was.
Suddenly, a single horn rang out through the night. The note was harsh and dissonant, grating on the ear and chilling the heart. For a moment after it had died away all was still, then below them in the river valley they could hear the sounds of orcs passing northward, first only a few, then many. Saruman’s forces were retreating back to Isengard.
The men in the wagon tensed, for only darkness and distance concealed them. But those must have been cloaks enough, for none of the enemy turned their way. Now the way back to the Rohirrim camp was even more surely blocked. Hamm climbed up in the driver’s seat and urged the horse homeward. Behind them, the orcs continued to stream north.
The way was smooth and straight, and only half an hour had passed when ahead Hamm glimpsed the few warm, flickering lights that marked his home village. Most of the villagers had turned in with the sunset, day’s work done, either abed already or lingering in quiet company around their hearths, so none observed Hamm pull his wagon up alongside his cottage. He was helping the Riders lift the injured man, as gently as they could, when the door was flung open, spilling golden firelight out into the night.
A woman stepped out, holding a lantern high to cast its light on the men. Her hair, bundled in a thick knot at the nape of her neck, was steely grey, though still shot through here and there with its former rich gold. Her face was lined with the experience of many years, but her eyes were bright and sharp. “Where have you been all this time? I’ve been worried sick. Supper’s long since grown cold, and I finally ate mine; I wasn’t going to wait hungry all night…. Who’s this you’ve brought with you?”
Hamm grinned at the Riders as the woman’s harangue shifted to curious concern. His guests might have heard only anger, but his practiced ear could detect the real fear and relief concealed in her half-mocking scolding. “I’ve brought you another wounded foundling to tend. Though I expect this one will test your skill a bit more than the bird with the broken wing last week.”
At this news, the woman was suddenly all business. A glance at the man in the wagon told her of the seriousness of his condition, and she directed the men to bring him in and lay him by the hearth, where she quickly spread a pallet of blankets swept up from the cottage’s one bed. She set the lantern on the mantle and opened it wide to clearly illuminate the space where she would work. Even warmed by the rosy light of the fire, the man’s pallor was alarming. She felt his forehead. Cold, and damp - he was sinking into shock. She called for Hamm to bring her more blankets from the storage chest, and turned to his companions, who had drawn close and knelt at his side, eyeing her suspiciously.
“My name is Haelan. I need to know everything that happened to your friend. What is he called?”
The older looked questioningly at the younger, who shrugged. The older man spoke. “This is Theoden King’s son, Theodred. An axe struck his left leg. I am Grimbold, and this is Elfhelm.” He seemed about to say more, but bit his words back and only watched her guardedly.
Haelan heard Hamm gasp to hear the identity of their guests. Her own hands paused only momentarily, then resumed their work calmly. Lord or beggar, the man before her was gravely wounded, and only her skill stood between him and death.
She turned back his cloak from around his body, then drew her knife from her belt and cut away the folds of the cloak that swathed his legs. Someone had thought to bind a leather belt as a tourniquet around the thigh, she noted approvingly. It had stopped the bleeding, or else he would have died long since. It might have doomed the rest of the leg by cutting off its blood supply, but she saw at a glance, as she cut away his leather breeches, that that was not a concern. The leg was lost in any case. The orc axe had sliced cleanly though the leather, below the chain mail that protected his torso, and into the flesh of his leg. The bone was cut through completely, along with all but a narrow strip of flesh on the inner thigh.
“Hamm, my instruments…” she began, and turned to see him already setting the case down beside her, along with a lit candle. He murmured a request to Elfhelm, who rose to assist him. Good, he was sending Elfhelm to tend the horse. Wagon and logs might wait until tomorrow, but the horse must be fed and watered tonight. She was glad Hamm could stay to fetch and carry for her.
Now Hamm brought her a bowl of warm water and a pile of clean rags. She opened the leather case and checked over the instruments within. The bone saw would not be needed this time, but the scalpel and the file were ready, along with fine needles and plenty of silk thread. She remembered with fond gratefulness the surgeon in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, who had berated her so often and harshly during her apprenticeship, then had gifted her with his own precious set of instruments when she left. She washed her hands thoroughly in the water that Hamm brought, the lye soap stinging, then sent him for fresh water. She picked up a needle and held it in the candle flame, closing her eyes and murmuring the melodic Elvish words of the prayer she had been taught.
“Why are you doing that?” Grimbold asked her when she had finished, watching in nervous fascination.
“I lived with the Elves of Rivendell for a time, long ago in my youth. I wished to learn everything known in Middle Earth of the arts of healing. The Elves laughed at my presumption – I was barely more than a child by their reckoning, and looking back I find that I agree with them. But they humored me, and Elrond himself showed me a little of his art, though the higher mysteries remained beyond me. The fire is for purification, to burn away the corruption that causes wounds to fester. The words are a prayer for grace and mercy, that my hands may be steady and sure, and that his body and spirit may be strengthened.” She slid a length of silk thread through the needle’s eye, and set it aside. Dipping a rag in the fresh water, she set to work washing away the blood that crusted the wound.
Grimbold looked a bit greenish as the jagged white end of the bone became more clearly visible. Well, it took one sort of courage to deal out such damage (and accept the risk of receiving it, her thoughts added with more charity), and another sort to face it laid out in plain sight before you. He swallowed hard, and asked, his voice almost completely steady, “You will have to take the leg, then?”
“Oh, aye, no healer in Middle Earth could save it now.” She set down the bloodied rag and picked up the threaded needle. “The axe did most of the work; I’m just finishing the job. It has to be done quickly, while he’s still unconscious.” Even as she spoke, her fingers were locating the severed ends of the large blood vessels, closing each with a few neatly placed stitches. When she was sure she had them all, she unfastened the tourniquet. Blood oozed out through the mangled tissues, but her sewing held and no life-threatening gush occurred. She sloshed water across the wound, clearing her field of vision, and examined the remaining unsevered flesh. Good, enough remained to work with, not too badly damaged.
She repeated the ritual purification with her scalpel, and then with firm certainty made her first cut. Ruthlessly, she completed what the orc had begun, freeing the man from the limb that now must die, so that he might live. She left only a flap of skin and muscle sufficient to cover the base of the stump that remained.
Pushing aside the dead flesh, she looked up and met Grimbold’s eyes. His face was even paler now, but his mouth was set in a grimly determined line. He tenderly wrapped the leg in the tattered remains of the blood-soaked cloak. His own cloak, she realized, for he wore none. He looked around, then bore the bundle to the furthest corner of the cottage, where he laid it gently down. Returning to her side, he looked at her defensively. “It should be buried, with all honor. Not simply cast aside.”
She nodded in understanding, and went back to her work. Her file was purified, then she set about smoothing and rounding the jagged end of the bone, lest any sharp edges remain to cut through the healing skin. That finished, she lifted the stump and set a bowl underneath, then flushed the area over and over again with water, cleansing it as thoroughly as she could. Then folding the flap over to close the wound, she sewed the skin together with small neat stitches all around.
She sat back on her heels, stiff from kneeling so long over him, and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her wrist. She surveyed her work. It was well and skillfully done; her old tutors would have been pleased. Now, if he was spared the festering and fever that sometimes took even the most carefully tended wounds, he was like enough to live.
She set the soiled instruments aside for careful cleaning later, and closed the case carefully around the rest. She stacked her bowls and rags and carried them off to the corner that served as her kitchen. Mortar and pestle she lifted down from their shelf, and selected from her cupboard various healing herbs. Garlic, comfrey, calendula, plantain… she swiftly reduced them to a smooth paste. Returning to her patient with the poultice and strips of clean linen she kept for bandages, she slathered the stump with the mixture and wrapped it in many layers of cloth.
Weary, she gestured for Hamm, Grimbold and Elfhelm, who had returned, to carry the wounded man to her own bed, and to tidy the remaining mess. “And get him out of that mail and those filthy clothes. Hamm, get one of your clean shirts to put on him.” While she was working, it had seemed her youth had returned to her, but now her true age was making itself fully felt again. She fought to maintain control for just a few minutes more. One task yet remained to be done.
Beckoning the man’s friends to come with her and gather by the bedside, she sat on the edge of the bed and gazed for the first time full into the man’s face. She had put aside his name, and all thought of him as a fellow human being, while she worked, needing to be able to see him as simple physical flesh to be manipulated. Now she must open herself to accept again the living man, and call his wandering spirit back into his body.
“Theodred.” She stroked his hair gently, as a mother would stroke a child. “Theodred. Come back. It is not yet time for you to leave. Return to us.”
For a long moment there was no response. Then his breathing deepened, and his eyelashes fluttered. Haelan nodded, giving him a final pat on the cheek. Then she withdrew, leaving him to his friends. She sank down into her chair, trembling, exhausted but satisfied. It had been long since her skills had received such a test, and she was pleased to see that her gift had not deserted her. She whispered the Elvish words of thanksgiving as was proper, heart full of gratitude that fate had placed her here, where she might once again serve in the manner she loved best. Might once again salvage life from death.
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