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34

As he ran the cries came louder, but fainter now and desperately the horn was blowing. Fierce and shrill rose the yells of the Orcs, and suddenly the horn-calls ceased. Aragorn raced down the last slope, but before he could reach the hill's foot, the sounds died away; and as he turned to the left and ran towards them they retreated, until at last he could hear them no more. Drawing his bright sword and crying Elendil! Elendil! he crashed through the trees.

TTT: The Departure of Boromir


~~~

Footsteps and voices drift from the hall below me. I sigh and bury my face in the pillow, pulling it closer.

“My lady!” a voice calls, but still I am adrift in sleep, sunk beneath its warm blanket. Beyond the windows, rain falls in a steady patter and the cold night air seeks to slip through the shutters and winter rugs. My son stirs in his sleep upon his small mattress and then falls still.

“My lady!” comes the voice again. This time I hear it for what it is.

I thrust aside the covers. Suddenly, I am sitting upon the edge of the mattress, with my feet planted in the trundle bed, my heart pounding as I blink myself awake. No moon for the clouds that cover its face and I can see as much with eyes closed as open.

“My lady!” the voice calls and I recognize it as Halbarad’s.

In my mind, I can see the Ranger lingering on the steps, unwilling to enter the solar where his lord’s wife sleeps, but in great need to wake her.

"Mamil?" comes a querulous cry from the bed.

"Hush, my child, 'tis naught," I whisper but Halbarad still calls and my son whimpers.

“I come!” I call and the Ranger's voice stills.

"Mamil!" Edainion calls, his voice rising. Small hands brush my legs, and he grabs at my shift and pulls himself to me and into my lap.

"Hist, onya," I say and scoop him up. I hold him close for but a moment and then lay him back abed. "You must sleep," I say firmly when he clings to me and protests. "I will be gone but a little while, but you must sleep."

"Lady Nienelen! Make haste!" Halbarad calls urgently, his voice a carrying whisper now that my son's voice has been heard.

At the rustling of the linens I know my son has lain down, but sure it is he will watch at the dark with wide eyes before sleep claims him and it grieves me to leave him so. But I am on my feet, my mouth dry as I pat at the chest in the dark. I send a quick prayer into the night as I throw aside all but what I need.

May the Valar watch over my lord with the same care he does his people.

"Ai!" I exclaim as cloth slips onto the floor. It seems my hands can do naught that I wish. I shake my head to clear it of sleep. What does it matter? If my lord has need of me, what matter what I wear?

May he be sustained even as he has kept us.

“Is it my lord?” I call, keeping my voice low, and grab at a gown. My fingers fumble to find the hem.

“He requires your aid, my lady. Hurry!”

“Go to him! I come.” I throw the gown over my head.

May the Darkness not fall upon him even as he has been our light.

I race down the stairs in my bare feet, pulling at laces as I go. When I enter the hall, men in the rusty greens and browns of the Rangers mill about the room with a silent purpose. They build up the fire and draw water to heat over the hearth. They are sodden with rain, yet even it does not wash away all signs of blood and battle. I search among them for one dark head among many, one grey cloak among a forest. When I find him, my heart gives a thump as if it had just learned anew how to beat.

The injured have been seated closest to the fire, where their comrades tend to them. One most gravely wounded has been stretched upon the bench. My lord bends over him. He peels back clothing and rags with which they have staunched the bleeding and I see the arrow protruding from his man's shoulder, an obscene thing of black and broken edges against his skin.

"My lord," I say, my voice barely stronger than a whisper for the twin shock of both relief and fear. My feet stand in a puddle of water and are cold, but it is a distant thing. "You called and I am come."

His face hovers anxiously over the man, but he spares me a brief glance.

“We have need of clean sheets or rags, whatever comes to hand,” he says.

I nod, though he has returned to his charge and pays me no more heed. Into the parlor I hurry, the men parting about me. There, I find what he seeks. When I return, the room is still. Left behind are those who tend and those who are tended. They spread their cloaks to dry before the building flames and rest, seated in groups and speaking a little among themselves.

A knife lies in the coals and my lord speaks to his charge in a low voice and, coming upon them, I see his face. My heart sinks. It is Gelir, his round, merry face marred by battle and pain. He, it is, the youngest son of Mistress Pelara, he who bears my father's sword. I could not bear his mother's eyes upon me should he fail. These few years have made him a man full grown, but still he is her son and she waits upon him with her mother's heart.

I have ripped sheets apart and give them to hands that reach for them. The last I save for my lord, who takes them from me with a distant nod of thanks; for they have a hold of his man's arms and Halbarad prepares to lie across his legs. I can think only of the birthing of my son and the pain it had taken to bring him into this world. This pain may not be so kind in what it brings.

Running across the room, I grab up a shuttle from its basket beside the loom, a bit of yarn still wound about it and rush back to the bench. When I kneel at Gelir's head, I see he is quiet, but his eyes find me and the fear in them pours through me like a shock of cold water.

“'Tis but a short while you will feel pain," say I in his ear, "but then you will mend. I will be here. Can you bear it?”

“Aye, my lady,” he says. When he sees what I hold, he nods his head, clamping down on the wood when I offer it.

They hold him fast when the arrow is withdrawn, though he arches against them, coughing and clenching his jaw against the shuttle. It will bear the marks of his teeth even through the wool. I hold his face between my hands and whisper what few words of encouragement I can find. But, soon, he falls still and his eyes close, his body more merciful than those who care for him can be. And then it is done.

With one hand, my lord presses the cloth onto the wound and, with the other, turns the arrow in the light. I do not know what he looks for, but soon his brow softens and he tosses it into the fire.

"It was not barbed, and I think it not poisoned." My lord draws in a long breath, the set of his shoulders softening.

"Hold this." He nods at the bundle of cloth beneath his hand. Halbarad is quick to comply, kneeling beside the bench.

I have stood, the shuttle dangling from my fingers. My lord's charge lies still beneath Halbarad's hand. His skin is pale and reflects a thin sheen of light from the fire, but he lives and draws shallow breath.

"Lady," my lord says and I come to myself. "Would you prepare the parlor? He should have quiet and a soft place to rest."

"Aye, my lord," I say, and leave him to their care, dropping the shuttle among its mates as I go.

~oOo~

A narrow pallet upon the floor is all I can offer, but it will do. I open baskets and from their depths pull sheets and blankets to cover it. Here I have been saving them for those who flee to the Angle, to warm them in their first nights among us, but now the need of the injured is the more urgent.

After the hall, the parlor with its low ceiling, closed shutters and ranks of baskets and chests feels an almost lonely and dim place. I had thought the worst over, until my hands shake as I toss the blanket onto the pallet. The stink of seared flesh burns vividly in my mind, for they had brought the knife to his wound while I prepared Gelir's bed. My legs seem to be made of water and I think, soon, they will not hold me upright.

A stool sits only a couple strides away against the wall, but even so may be too far. A mist floats upon all I see. I cling to the wall and attempt to bring my unwilling legs under my control. But before I either fall or achieve a more stable seat on my own, an arm clutches me about my middle and pulls my back into a damp breast. It is my lord who guides me to the seat I had intended and lowers me gently upon it.

There he leaves me to hold my face in my hands, my elbows propped upon my knees, but he does not go far. My skin, once cold, is now flushed and warm.

“Halbarad!” he calls. When the heavy tread of his kin approaches, he commands softly, “Water for my lady.”

He pulls another stool close to where I sit and settles there. Though he sits so near his arm brushes mine, he says naught. I know he watches me. He smells faintly of the herb garden behind my father’s house, as if plants of thyme, hoarwell, and lavender turn their nodding heads to the hot sun and the bees work busily among their flowers. It clears my head and calms my mind, and by this I know he has laved the injured man’s wounds in a tea of athelas and carries the scent about him.

“Forgive me, my lord,” I say and wipe at my eyes. The tears had come unbidden but he does not shame me for them. "I have been a silly woman, you must forgive my weakness."

"You are not silly, nor weak." He brushes my hair aside from my face, the better to see it.

When I am silent he speaks, his voice low. "What has made you unhappy, lady?"

Slowly, I collect my scattered thoughts, from small clutching hands to terror in a man's eyes.

"Each of your men is a mother's son, my lord," I say when my thoughts become clear, "I cannot help but see our own in them."

He has drawn a quick breath as if he has a ready reassurance to give, but then he grows silent and I know he now sees the same as I.

"What would you have me say, lady? So it is with us all," he says at length, his face gentle and sad.

I shake my head. There is naught to say. He has no answer to give me. Neither have I one for him. One day our son, the small child who sleeps upstairs, will be one of his men of the Dúnedain, and will take the same chances as they.

When Halbarad enters, he finds us sitting next to one another, silent. The Ranger's face is anxious, searching mine for signs of ill-health and then his lord's for what has passed. My lord gives his kin a brief reassuring smile and takes the cup from him, saying naught. It seems a needless thing, but the water is cool and sweet. I drink it in one swallow and feel better. When my lord takes the cup from me and sets it upon the floor, we are alone. Though in no hurry to return to his men, his thoughts seem to have turned inward, and his look is troubled.

"What happened, my lord?"

His look comes upon me sharply. I seldom ask, but leave his doings to his own thoughts. He stretches his legs out before him and leans back against the wall. He appears to be considering what to say.

"Orcs out of the Troll Shaws," he says. "We think them scouts."

"So close!" I am now sitting straight and staring at him, alarmed. This has not happened even in my father's lifetime. I marvel at the change.

“I have sent those who are willing to discover their movements. Halbarad has left to muster more men," he says. "Then, in the morning, we ride north to meet them.”

"Will you have a great enough force at so short a notice?" In my mind, I am already calculating the bandages needed, the poultices to be prepared, and the graves to dig.

"I believe so. It will need to suffice," he says. “I leave you here, lady, with the charge to order the people."

His words jar me from my planning. He is looking at me intently, as if he had another test in mind.

Solemnly, he says, "They must be made ready, should we fail."

I nod. May the Valar forbid! But it will be done, though the elders may fuss at the doing. I seem to have passed the test, for my lord's face softens and he reaches a thumb to smooth away the frown that knots my brow.

“Worry not overmuch, lady. I leave Halbarad with you.”

It is meant to reassure, and I do fret for the people of the Angle, but his words do little to allay my fears for those who defend us.

“I would rather he go with you, my lord,” I say and he frowns.

“Why?" he asks. "Are not you and he of the same mind?”

”Aye, my lord, your thoughts ever drive us to the same end."

At the wry sound of my voice he lets out a softly amused sound, but a twist of his mouth speaks of his satisfaction. His eyes twinkle with mischief.

“Then you think little of my skills in battle and wish to send your Great Hound to guard me?”

“Skill is little defense against the arrows of the orc, my lord,” I say testily, slipping into the Elvish tongue.

He answers me in kind, though his lips quirk at my pique. “Little could my kinsman do to stay its flight that I cannot."

I shake my head at him and grant him a sour look, which only serves to make him smile. I sigh and turn away. Why waste my breath? It is little wonder it took the elders fifty years and a mortal wound to convince this man to marry. He is impossible once his mind is set. Now I only marvel he had submitted to their will at all.

"Am I to suppose you had a reason for finding me, my lord, or did you seek me out only so as to vex me?"

He laughs and crosses his legs at his boots, looking for all as if he were sitting under the sun during the summer beneath some great tree and had not a care. "Solely to vex you, it seems, though I had intended to ask you for blankets for the men who will rest here tonight."

I nod, smoothing my hair from my face, my plait a wild rope from sleep. With my palms, I wipe at my eyes to banish all signs of my tears. I will bring none of my own travails to those who sleep about my hearth.

"Will there be enough?" he asks as he watches my preparations. "They have their own, if needful."

I frown and shake my head in mild disbelief as I rise. My lord lives in a house with a worker of wool and yet asks if there be blankets. "Never fear, my lord," I say, "I will find dry blankets enough for your men."

I look about the room, satisfied with what I see. "And if they will bring Gelir in here, I will watch him tonight."

"Are you quite recovered, lady?" He has lifted his back from the wall and grasped my fingers to prevent me from stepping away from him, and now peers at me.

"Aye, my lord." I squeeze his finger in return, grateful for his concern. "It was a passing weakness. I am well.”

I pull my fingers from his to touch his arm below the slash of some sharp edge where it has torn both leather and skin. “Do you wish my aid in attending to this?”

“Nay, lady, it is easy enough to tend and you have done enough. Worry not.”

“Leave your coat and shirt before you go up stairs, then, and I will mend them for you and then hang them to dry,” I say, trailing a finger along the jagged edge.

“It matters little."

There was a time, when I might have thought I could gentled away the weariness that settles now upon his features. But though my heart aches for the grim shadow that falls upon my lord's gaze, I must suffer it. There is another whose soft touch and the warm of kisses he may have welcomed at such a time, but 'tis not I, this I have learned. And so I withdraw my hand, for I would not prod at the beast that lies slumbering within my breast.

“If I must be wakeful, my lord, it would do to have occupation,” I say and move away to collect the bedding his men require..

He nods and then speaks. “Gelir should not be moved, until it cannot be helped.”

"Aye." I open a lid of a long chest to stare into its depths. Small sacks of pine shavings lie among the carefully folded lengths of woolen cloth. Setting them aside, I select blankets for their thickest nap and softest hand.

When I turn to lay them upon the pallet, I am surprised to see my lord still seated upon his stool. His look is withdrawn and apprehensive.

“My lord," I say and he surfaces from his thoughts. "I have slept some this night where you have not. I will see to what needs to be done until the morning. To bed!”

He lifts himself from the stool with a long indrawn breath. Yet, he bows and in his eyes I catch the briefest twinkle of light.

“As it please you, lady," he says with downcast gaze and I hear my own voice mocked in his.

Impertinent man! An amused smile is all I am to receive to my peeved look.

“Wake me if he worsens,” my lord says before he closes the door behind him.

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