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Awaiting the Thaw
‘You really do not want to!’ Maidhiel told her, shaking her head to reinforce her point. ‘Believe me – you are not the first – or even the fiftieth or the hundredth – to look that way, and you will only get hurt! They do not care. My cousin tells me that they both used to be dreadful flirts, but they are not even that any more – they do not even notice the looks sent their way.’
Miriwen blushed. ‘I am not looking in that way,’ she objected. ‘I know better than to take that sort of interest in Lord Elrond’s sons. It is just – they are injured, Maidhiel. Just as much as from a sword wound or a poisoned arrow, and it is festering in them.’
Her friend fixed her gaze on the two tall half-elves who stood, shoulder to shoulder across the broad expanse of the green, their dark hair gleaming in the firelight, their faces masked: two who were isolated even in the middle of the crowd of elves enjoying the spring festival.
‘I imagine their adar insisted that they should attend,’ she said critically, ‘and that he is now rather wishing that he had not – and that they are determining that he will not get the opportunity to do so again.’
Miriwen threw her a reproachful glance.
‘We have tried, Miriwen,’ Maidhiel sighed. ‘We have tried for years. Lord Elrond has tried; Lord Glorfindel has tried; Lady Arwen has tried – even Lady Galadriel has tried. And no-one has made any impression on them at all. Lord Elrond is hoping that time will open a chink that he can use to bring them back to us, but as long as they have each other, there is nothing that anyone can do to turn their sight outwards.’ She turned her eyes to her friend. ‘And you would not be the first healer to set her sights on curing what ails them either – and you would get just as badly hurt that way, too.’ She took Miriwen’s arm and pulled her over to the laden tables. ‘Where is that ellon who came with you from Mirkwood? He was making sheep’s eyes at you – are you not interested in him?’
‘He is currently making sheep’s eyes at someone else,’ Miriwen said dryly. ‘And I am not interested in anyone that way – I have come here to learn, not to find a husband.’
‘But if the right one for you just happens to come along, you are not going to send him off with a flea in his ear, are you?’ Maidhiel grinned impishly. ‘That would be wasteful and a good healer is never wasteful.’ She reached over and snagged a couple of pieces of cake thickly studded with dried berries and offered one to the younger elleth. ‘Try that – it is one of my favourites – and then we will seek out our fellow students and dance the night away.’
With a final uncertain glance at the two rigid figures, frozen in the midst of the waves of dancing elves, Miriwen conceded and turned her attention to her friend.
The door into the healer’s corridor crashed open and the usual serenity was shattered.
With the ease of long practice, the experienced healers directed their apprentices and glided to attend to the half-dozen bloodstained arrivals.
Miriwen had gathered salves and bandages and headed with her bowl of warm water to the bedside of one of the injured before she realised that the victim was not an elf. She gaped slightly at the bearded face and rounded ear poking out through the dirty hair.
‘The first requirements are the same,’ Sennuion lectured precisely. ‘Look for foreign bodies in the wound, stop the bleeding and cleanse properly.’
‘A dirty wound is a dangerous wound.’ The man’s gruff voice was clearly attempting to imitate the healer’s.
‘At least you have learned something.’ Sennuion frowned at him. ‘Now, if only you could learn to avoid orcs’ blades, we might be able to move forward. I have seen you here far too frequently, Ranger.’
‘We would not have irritated you by our presence, Healer,’ the man winced as the astringent herb in the cleansing water smarted, ‘had Elladan not required rather more aid than we could offer. We could not let Elrohir ride off with him unguarded with so many orcs on the prowl.’
Sennuion raised his eyebrows, but decided to leave the obvious query. ‘You are not an irritation, Ranger. We have students here who need the practice – and at least you are good for that.’ He finished his inspection of the wound. ‘You need stitching, Brassendol,’ he announced. ‘I will leave you to Miriwen’s tender care. If you are very fortunate, she will manage to repair you without a scar.’
The man eyed her nervously as the healer moved away. ‘You don’t look old enough,’ he said. ‘Although I suppose that’s a foolish thing to say to an elf.’
‘I daresay I have been stitching wounds longer than you have been alive,’ Miriwen agreed. ‘You need not worry. Do you need salve to numb the pain?’
The Ranger, filthy everywhere other than the injured arm, glanced at her, clearly wanting to announce that he needed no such thing, but only too aware of the discomfort he could expect from having the wound stitched.
Miriwen concealed her smile and applied a liberal layer of salve without waiting for an answer. ‘Once your wound is bound,’ she said pleasantly, ‘we will see to stripping you of these clothes and bathing you. You will be much less likely to suffer infection if you are clean.’
‘I am not being bathed by a girl!’ he protested with horror, scarcely noticing the prick of the fine needle as she drew together the sliced flesh. ‘It wouldn’t be right!’
The elleth smiled. ‘You are in a poor position to prevent it, Brassendol,’ she shrugged, ‘but if you behave yourself, I will ask a male healer to help you – simply to spare your blushes, of course.’
He was less tall, she noted, than an elf – and broader. Well-muscled – he was clearly used to wielding weapons – and he looked as if he should be strong. And, she thought as she steadied his arm, he was heavy. The beard clearly identified him as a man, even had she been unable to see his ears, but the most distinctive thing about him was his smell. Beneath the odour of leaf litter and mud, wood smoke and damp clothing, horse and leather, there was a hotter, more animal fragrance to him. It was not unpleasant, but it was different and she found it made her slightly uneasy. She was glad she had enough seniority – just – to pass on the task of washing him to one of the junior trainees. She was, she found, a little wary about coming quite that close to him.
Sennuion collared her again as soon as she had sent Nathron to deal with the man and washed her hands. He looked sober, she thought. Worrying – he had absorbed at Elrond’s shoulder the need to look serenely unconcerned by whatever disaster confronted him and it would take more than she had observed to put that bleak look in his eyes. A flick of his fingers sent her into one of the small private rooms where the more severely injured were treated.
On the high narrow bed, one of Lord Elrond’s sons rested half-naked, his pale flesh darkened with dried blood and his skin bleached of all colour, while his twin slumped against the wall, eyes shut, utter misery in his face.
Elrond glanced up. ‘We need to get some fluid into him,’ he said. ‘Add the salts – and trickle it in as fast as you can without choking him. He has lost a lot of blood.’
‘He is unconscious?’ Miriwen asked.
‘And likely to remain so for a while.’ How Elrond managed to sound so calm and impersonal, Miriwen could not understand. ‘The bleeding has stopped and the wound is beginning to heal – you will find that the men heal much more slowly – but he lost too much blood and needs fluids to begin to repair that. The head injury could be serious, but we will not know until he wakes.’ He gazed at his son with an impassive face that did nothing, Miriwen realised, to conceal the anguish in his eyes. ‘I can do nothing more for him at the moment.’ He flicked his eyes to the elleth. ‘I will leave him in your care, if I may, while I deal with Elrohir.’
‘I need nothing.’ Elrohir’s voice was toneless. ‘Leave me here until my brother wakes.’
‘You need a bath,’ his adar told him flatly. ‘You need food – and then you need to sleep in your own bed. And you are going to have these things before you return to this room. Elladan does not need you at the moment – but he will want you here when he wakes.’
Elrohir’s lips thinned and drew back from his teeth in a look that was almost wolfish, Miriwen thought. ‘I do not need to be cosseted!’ he snapped.
‘You are here for the moment,’ Elrond stood firm, ‘and while you are here you might as well remind yourself that there are other ways to live. You will join me in the dining hall in time for this evening’s meal – then we will return here briefly before you get some sleep.’
Miriwen averted her eyes from the raw anger in Elrohir’s face and concentrated on coaxing a trickle of water down Elladan’s throat. There must, she thought dispassionately, be a better way to do this. It was virtually impossible to keep unconscious patients adequately hydrated and she sometimes felt sure that they lost through lack of fluids some whom time would have restored.
In a single movement that more resembled a wildcat targeting its prey than an elven lord in his brother’s sick room, Elrohir leapt to his feet in a single push, pausing a mere few inches from his adar’s face. Elrond refused to retreat. He stared at his son, his jaw set, and, just for a moment, the potential for violence in the room held Miriwen breathless.
Elrohir broke away from his adar’s eyes and turned briefly to look at his brother before sweeping out, a mere inch or two from the valley’s lord.
A faint breath escaped Elrond as his son’s angry footsteps stamped down the corridor and he bowed his head.
It was not fair, Miriwen decided. The twins had each other and their sister had taken refuge with her grandparents, but who was left to offer support to the Lord of Imladris in his great sorrow? It was surprising that he still endured here in these airy halls – most elves would have sailed long ago and no-one would have blamed them.
‘Send for me if he shows any sign of returning consciousness,’ Elrond commanded, ‘or if there are any indications that worry you.’
‘Yes, my lord,’ she said calmly. She would indeed send for him – straight after she had called in Sennuion and any other skilled healer who happened to be nearer.
Elrond stepped closer to the bed and rested his hand gently on his son’s head, smoothing back the dark hair and brushing his fingers down the cheekbone. Almost without volition he bent and kissed the pale brow gently. ‘I will be back once I have dealt with your brother,’ he said and sighed. ‘I have never been able to decide which is more difficult – coping with the one who is injured or supporting the one who feels it should have been him.’ He gave his son a lingering look, then nodded briefly at Miriwen before making his way from the room.
The young healer concentrated on the still figure on the bed. It looked as if Elladan had been injured by more than one opponent – or perhaps the force of the blow on his left arm had thrust him back to strike his head on some projection. The long shallow slice across his chest and down towards his hip seemed to have been an earlier wound – by at least a few minutes, as the spiked club that had shattered and gouged his arm had also left its mark over the gash. She hovered her hand over the head injury, where the long dark hair had been cut away to reveal a ragged wound. Swollen, but it did not seem to conceal a worrying depression of the skull. She sighed. It was what was going on inside that would be Elrond’s chief concern, though.
Miriwen trickled another teaspoon of water into Elladan’s mouth, watching intently to see him swallow before repeating the action. It would probably be wasted, she thought with resignation, since he would almost undoubtedly vomit as soon as he began to come round.
The frantic activity that had accompanied the arrival of the injured slowed down as the room grew darker in the short winter afternoon. Sennuion slipped in briefly to check on both patient and healer before leaving her to get on with her task. ‘He is less deeply unconscious,’ he considered. ‘I doubt he will awake yet awhile – but they are an obstinate pair. They frequently recover long before anyone would expect it of them.’
Miriwen smiled. ‘Lord Elrond said he would return after dinner and I would think that his timing will be about right.’
Sennuion nodded. ‘Send a message.’ He rested his fingers on Elladan’s wrist. ‘Leave him now to rouse in his own time,’ he recommended. ‘He can drink then. Just watch him.’
Precisely the opposite of Maidhiel’s recommendation, Miriwen thought fleetingly, as Sennuion left, and she was beginning to think that Maidhiel had the right of it. What was it about this one that stirred her interest? Half the elves who met them still could not tell one from the other – and yet she knew without even looking at them which one was Elladan. Whereas he could not see her even if she was standing in front of him. Not that it mattered. Whether he ever saw her or not, she was of the opinion that she was unlikely to find another who could make a similar impression on her.
Her patient stirred and his face contracted with pain. She rose and went to the door to speak to the messenger. It was time to send for his adar and brother.
‘If you want to help me, then give me my clothes,’ Elladan snarled in his most offensive manner.
‘That,’ Miriwen said firmly, ‘would not help you at all.’
A pair of hard grey eyes scorched her. ‘I think I should be the judge of that.’
‘When Lord Elrond says you may, I will be happy to discharge you to your own rooms, my lord,’ the young healer told him. ‘But I do not have the authority to let you leave.’
‘Neither do you have the power to make me stay!’
Elladan used his undamaged arm to elbow himself up from his pillows and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He paused briefly as the room span around him, closing his eyes and swallowing in an attempt to steady his stomach, but as Miriwen hurried over to help him back into bed, he thrust down and forced himself to his feet. He had asked for clothes – and if the chit of an elleth refused to give him any, then it was not his fault.
He gathered himself and took a step towards the door.
‘You cannot seriously mean to walk around Imladris naked!’ Miriwen protested.
‘Give me my clothes then.’ The look he gave her brimmed with a malicious amusement. ‘Or I will.’
Miriwen laughed. ‘It is not I who will spend a century living it down, my lord. If you wish to ignore your adar’s instructions, you can do it without my aid. I am sure that most of those who live in Lord Elrond’s house will find the exhibition most entertaining.’ She folded her arms resolutely, whilst watching him carefully.
Elladan flushed slightly as he swayed. ‘You are not supposed to stare,’ he objected. ‘It is improper behaviour in an elleth.’
‘I am a healer,’ she smiled. ‘I have seen everything there is to see – you are no surprise to me, my lord. I am sure you will prove much more disconcerting to others beyond this wing.’
As Elladan took an unsteady step and his balance wavered, she caught his good arm and supported his collapse as he sat heavily in a chair, holding him to ensure that the cage on his left arm did not jolt the limb.
‘Your hair is in my mouth,’ Elladan complained.
‘Count yourself lucky,’ she retaliated. ‘You came close to having the floor make contact with your nose. I really would recommend that you follow your healers’ advice, Lord Elladan. You are not sufficiently recovered yet to walk out of here.’ She looked at him thoughtfully and grabbed a blanket from the bed to cast over his lap. ‘You may stay there for a while. I will have to get someone to assist me to get you back to bed safely.’
‘Just leave me alone,’ he snapped. ‘I am fine where I am. If I want help, I will ask for it.’
‘As you wish,’ she said neutrally. ‘If only he would,’ she muttered as she left the room, holding the door for Elrohir to enter. She acknowledged his curt nod with an inclination of her head. ‘It only they both would.’
‘You have not changed, lady.’ The grey hair straggled over the pillow, but the grey eyes looked at her with pleased recognition. ‘Unlike me.’
Miriwen’s slender hands opened the inflamed wound and the stinking pus began to flow sluggishly into the basin. ‘We have met before?’ she asked, gazing intently at the lines of red that stretched out from the injury to bury themselves in his flesh.
‘Aye,’ he told her. ‘It seems long ago enough to me, but I can never understand how you elves see time.’
She looked at him and frowned. ‘Brassendol?’ she asked.
‘That’s me,’ he smiled, gasping and pushing his head back against the head of the bed against the pain. ‘I’m glad to be memorable.’
‘You were the first man I ever treated,’ she confided.
‘And you’re likely to be the last elf ever to treat me,’ he responded.
Looking at the extent of the infection, she was inclined to agree that this was a possibility. ‘You have forgotten to pay attention to Sennuion’s words,’ she reproved him.
‘Aye, I know – ‘a dirty wound is a dangerous wound’. But when you have a rabble of orcs on your tail and the only way out is to ride hard, you don’t worry too much about that. Surviving the day seems an important prelude to surviving the week.’ He closed his eyes and concentrated for a few minutes on drawing breath. Still, if I have to die, Imladris isn’t a bad place to go – and I know my grandsons won’t have to number me among the lost. They’ll know where my grave is.’
‘Drink this.’ Miriwen measured out a dose of medicine. ‘It will ease the pain.’
‘We’d never have got clear if it hadn’t been for the Elrondionnath,’ the elderly Ranger murmured as his awareness dimmed. ‘They fought like mad dogs. I’m only surprised they don’t foam at the mouth.’
‘You wish to return to Mirkwood?’ Elrond asked in some surprise.
‘Yes, my lord,’ Miriwen said with determination.
She was looking pale, Elrond thought, and tired, as if she had endured too many sleepless nights.
‘It is not that I have not been happy here,’ she added. ‘I have learned a great deal and I am grateful to you for the opportunity to study here – but I want to return home.’ She paused. ‘There is no rush,’ she said apologetically. ‘I can wait until a courier travels east, or for a party to cross the mountains, if you prefer, but I wanted to let you know that I intend to leave.’
‘I will be sorry to lose you,’ Elrond said slowly, ‘but I can see that your talents are needed in the Woodland Realm.’
‘Thank you, my lord.’ Miriwen hesitated, then turned and left, closing the door gently behind her.
Elrond raised a curious eyebrow at Glorfindel who stood idly at the window admiring the fresh green of the new leaves. ‘Why do you think that is?’ he asked. ‘She is one of the best of the young healers – and I thought she intended to travel next to Lothlórien to learn some of Hathel’s techniques.’
Glorfindel watched twin elves mount their horses and turn out of the gateway to ride towards the ford. ‘I could not tell you,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps she feels that she is needed at home. Orcs are breeding like maggots in summer – and the pressure on Thranduil grows steadily. Healers are undoubtedly needed in the shadows of Mirkwood.’
‘What happened to that elleth?’ Elladan asked as he leant forward, his forearms on his knees as Sennuion cleaned out the wound. ‘The one who used to be here?’
‘She went back to Mirkwood,’ Sennuion told him. ‘I think her family wanted her to return home.’
Unnoticed, Glorfindel lifted an eyebrow.
‘I remember her,’ Elrohir remarked. ‘She had the nerve to laugh at you.’
Elladan lifted his shoulders carefully.
‘Keep still, my lord,’ Sennuion instructed him. ‘You must stop coming home wounded like this,’ he sighed. ‘Elves heal quickly, it is true, but even elven healing cannot work miracles. You take too many risks, my lords.’
‘We cannot rest while orcs infest the land,’ Elladan said tightly. ‘We do not intend to sit here and sing and dance – and pretend nothing is happening.’
Elrohir’s lip curled as he looked out at the fragrant gardens and beyond to the woods and golden fields. ‘Adar may sit here in his little piece of Valinor and ignore the outside world,’ he said scathingly, ‘but we will do what we can to make a difference.’
‘You have no idea what you are saying,’ Glorfindel pronounced. ‘If you were not speaking out of youthful arrogance and ignorance, I would be forced to take those words out of your hides.’
‘No?’ Elrohir asked. ‘When did he last leave these borders? When did he last do anything to clean up the mess that exists in the outside world?’
With a strange noise like a warg’s growl, Glorfindel swung him round and slammed the younger elf against the wall, holding him with his forearm against his throat. ‘He has made more difference than you ever will,’ he said through clenched teeth. ‘One orc less or one hundred – what does that do in the scheme of things? If you or your brother were prepared to look beyond your own noses, you would see that – and you might start to play a real role in the fate of Middle Earth.’
The stool on which Elladan was sitting clattered to the floor as he surged forward to pull Glorfindel away from his brother.
‘My lord,’ Sennuion cried, ‘you have opened the wound again.’
‘Enough.’ Elrohir’s eyes slid to his brother. ‘Once Elladan is treated, we will be gone again.’
Glorfindel moved back, blinking back the sting of tears. ‘You are destroying yourselves,’ he said, as he recalled the joyful elflings he had loved as a second father and the gallant young elves he had trained.
‘Our choice,’ Elladan said coldly.
‘And I hope one day you choose life,’ Glorfindel said sadly, leaving them to Sennuion’s care.
The healers’ halls were overcrowded, Miriwen thought impatiently, stepping carefully between two of the walking wounded. It seemed it was always feast or famine these days. Only a few hours ago their only patient had been a young elf who had been kicked by a horse – and now they were in the position of having to decide who to treat first.
She settled before a young warrior, whose first skirmish had ended in an arrow wound to his thigh. He was still keyed up, she realised, on an emotional journey that was likely to end with her sitting patiently by his bedside as he came to terms with the deaths he had seen and those he had caused. Some, she sighed, felt that talking to their fellow warriors was a sign of weakness, that they would lose respect if they admitted to the welter of conflicting emotions of the aftermath of battle, little realising that those who had fought the Shadow over centuries still went through much the same process each time. Or, at least, they did if they wanted to heal.
A pain, no less sharp for its brevity, caught her breath. A warrior who wallowed in blood became what he hated. She had spent far too much time thinking about how some survived battle, like Elrond, to become those whose chief aim was to heal – both physically, in his case, and politically, while others descended into the pit of their own despair, as his sons had done, but she had found no great wisdom in her musings.
‘You did well.’ Mirkwood’s prince crouched beside the pallet on which the young warrior rested, patting the youngster approvingly on the shoulder. ‘How is your wound?’ He looked appraisingly at the injury as she cleaned it and applied the salve, before smiling warmly at the lad. ‘None can call you green any more, Habad,’ he said. ‘You have seen battle and stood bravely with your fellows.’ He grasped the ellon’s hand in the familiar gesture of a warrior’s handclasp before leaving.
Miriwen glanced at Legolas as he stopped and spoke to each of the injured. Where was the difference between him and the sons of Elrond? All had been robbed of their beloved naneth. Was it Legolas’s youth that had saved him? Or the fact that he had no brother with whom to isolate himself from the world?
It did no good to think about it, she told herself firmly. Nothing she could do could change the fate they had chosen for themselves. She could hope that, one day, they would wake to see a world to which the colour had returned – but neither she nor anyone else could make that happen.
Maidhiel had been right. The only thing she had achieved by her concern for Elrond’s sons was to hurt herself – but there was nothing she could do about that, either, except continue to follow the path that was right for her and hope that healing would come to them.
She might never see them again, but she wished them well.
The silence in the aftermath of battle was deafening.
The sudden warning song of a bird made Elladan spin, sword raised defensively, but nothing larger than the thrush survived to threaten them.
Elrohir looked at the dismembered bodies of their frenzied attackers and the stink of the black blood caught in the back of his throat. It should not be like this, he thought. This was no way to live. A wave of longing swept over him, strong enough to make him shake.
‘I want to go home, my brother,’ he said helplessly.
‘You, too?’ Elladan swallowed.
‘I have had enough of this.’
A hint of a smile touched Elladan’s face. ‘Then let us go and make our peace with Adar,’ he suggested.
As they lowered their weapons to meet each other’s uncertain gaze, a shaft of sunlight broke through the oppressive cloud to reveal the fresh green haze of new leaf on the trees and a fitful breeze blew away the stench of death, offering instead a tantalising hint of the fragrance of spring blossom.
Elladan drew a deep shuddering breath. ‘It is like finding a chink of light that offers escape from a dark cave.’
‘It will be a long climb,’ Elrohir said thoughtfully, ‘we are not there yet. But we will make it. And together we can seek a different path.’
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