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6
Steeped to the lips in misery

These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.

With thanks to Raksha and Virtuella

Warning This chapter might distress anyone of a squeamish disposition.

O suffering, sad humanity!
O ye afflicted ones, who lie
Steeped to the lips in misery,
Longing, yet afraid to die,
Patient, though sorely tried! Longfellow.


~~~

Aragorn reached the houses of Healing before the stretcher-bearers and was met by the very agitated Chief Warden, Tarostar.

"Praise the Valar you are alive, sire!" he exclaimed. "Are there many more casualties from that foul creature rampaging around?"

"I was not aware we had any," said Aragorn.

"I have so far bound up ten sprained ankles, three sets of cracked ribs and a broken arm," Tarostar said grimly.

"Surely those hurts were sustained by people fleeing from the dragon in panic rather than him harming anyone?" said Aragorn.

"Better a sprained ankle than to be eaten alive!" Tarostar said grimly.

"And how did your patients come to have cracked ribs or a broken arm?" asked Aragorn.

"They were trampled fleeing the monster," said Tarostar.

"And their hurts could have been avoided if they had but perceived that the dragon was not harming any of them," said Aragorn.

"That might be, my lord," said Tarostar. "A wise man would flee the dragon first and ask questions once he had reached safety."

"A seriously injured man is being brought here; the dragon's rider," said Aragorn, determined to end this fruitless debate. "I wish the honoured guest's chamber to be prepared for him and swiftly!"

"Would not a prisoner's room be more appropriate?" Tarostar suggested. "The man was riding a dragon!"

Aragorn finally lost his temper. "If I say he is to be treated as an honoured guest, I expect to be obeyed!" he snapped. "What harm has the man or his dragon done to you? They came here in friendship and now the Rider lies close to death for approaching us!"

"Very well, sire." Tarostar sounded far from convinced.

"And if Aedred can be spared, I should welcome his assistance," Aragorn added.

"Have you any idea what the man's injuries are?" Tarostar enquired.

"He has been shot and two arrows require extraction, and is suffering from shock, fever, and most likely other injuries I have yet to uncover," Aragorn said grimly. "It will take three of us at least to tend him properly."

Tarostar issued a few curt orders and immediately servants hurried towards the chamber kept for honoured guests. They carried bandages, towels, herbal potions, salves and bowls of steaming water. A moment later, Aedred appeared, a stocky man of middle years with the fair colouring of his native Rohan. He was Aragorn's personal healer when the King had need of one, not the most enviable task, but the two men enjoyed an easy rapport when they worked together and respected each other's skills. Aragorn found him easier to work with than the Chief Warden. Tarostar was an excellent healer, but somewhat set in his ways.

Aedred brought a tray of surgical instruments including various knives and a special instrument used to extract arrows without causing additional injuries to the patient.

They entered a fair sized chamber furnished with a bed, a table and two chairs. A fire burned brightly in the grate, while a servant was preparing a small brazier. This room was always kept ready, lest any person of high rank be taken ill. It had been used less often of late as Aragorn usually cared for his family and close friends in his own chambers.

Aragorn rolled up his sleeves and started to lave his hands in one of the bowls of hot water. "Prepare a draught of poppy juice," he instructed. "The patient was conscious and will need pain relief. I do not believe he understands any tongue we can speak so that will make matters more complicated."

"I speak a few words of the language of Harad," said Tarostar. He poured some poppy syrup into a cup.

"Our patient is not from Harad, but from a distant realm in the Far East," said Aragorn. "It seems there are lands of which we know far too little."

"And I would have been happy to have remained in ignorance, if such lands are the dwelling places of foul beasts like dragons!" Tarostar said acidly, stirring the contents of the cup.

Just then the stretcher-bearers arrived. Aragorn and Aedred together lifted the wounded man onto the bed and dismissed the soldiers.

"Do you know our patient's name?" enquired Aedred.

"The dragon told me it was something that sounded like Few Nun," said Aragorn. "The name was hard for my tongue to pronounce."

Fu Nung groaned as Aedred slipped a pillow under his head. He stared at the occupants of the room and then caught sight of the surgical instruments and his eyes widened in terror.

"Drink this to help ease your pain!" Tarostar commanded, lifting the cup of poppy juice to his lips. Fu Nung shook his head. When the healer tried to begin undressing him, he struggled like a trapped animal. "Be still, man, we seek only to help you!" he cried.

Aragorn moved forward and took the man's pulse, which was even more rapid than before. "He understands nothing we are saying. We need to try to calm him first."

"He has two arrows sticking in him," Tarostar protested. "We cannot delay. Many wounded are afraid when we tend them, but it must be done unless they prefer to succumb to their hurts!"

"He has a better chance of living if we settle him," said Aragorn. "Master Elrond taught me thus." He began to softly sing an ancient Elven healing chant, while gently massaging the back of the injured man's neck. Much to Aragorn's relief, his patient quickly quietened, leaving Aragorn to surmise that maybe the healing arts of his own land contained something not unlike. The King held the draught of poppy to his own lips and took a sip, gesturing that Fu Nung did likewise. This time he understood and took the pain killing draught.

Now the Rider was calmer they were able to remove his torn and stained garments. They were simple garments designed for travelling, but seemed to be of a fine cloth and cut. Beneath his tunic, the man wore a padded jacket of a kind Aragorn and the healers had not seen before. Unfortunately, it seemed to have offered the poor fellow little protection: when the clothing was finally removed, many bruises were revealed. The bruises were recent. Had the man been beaten within the bounds of Gondor?

Aragorn's dismay deepened at the cruel reception this visitor to his realm had received. Aragorn surmised the man probably had lived a life of ease, as he was somewhat plump and his nails longer than those of a warrior. He covered his patient with a blanket, and then dipping a cloth in warm water, washed the wounded man's face while he waited for the poppy juice to dull his senses. Aragorn studied the stranger's face as he worked. He saw a young man with pleasant features and slant eyes, which reminded him of the dragon's, though they were brown rather than brilliant blue. His long jet-black hair was tied in a pigtail of a sort usually only seen on small girls.

Replacing the cloth in the bowl, Aragorn felt his patient's forehead. The fever was rising. "We must remove the arrows now," he said. "He is growing worse." He began to clean the skin surrounding the arrows preparatory to removing them. "Tarostar, could you cleanse the instruments, please?"

The Chief Warden did as he was bidden, plunging the knives and other implements into the brazier until they glowed red-hot.

To Aragorn's dismay Fu Nung was still conscious. Of all the tasks he had to perform as a healer, removing arrows was one of his least favourite. All too often the pain the procedure caused was in vain as the patient still died. To do nothing, though, meant certain death from infection. He was determined to do all he could to right the wrong he had inadvertently done to both the dragon and his rider. He patted Fu Nung's hand, trying to reassure him. The man bore no scars of earlier battles. Even battle scarred veterans paled at the thought of having an arrow removed and this young man did not even appear to be a warrior!

"Hold him steady."

At Aragorn's signal, Aedred came forward and held Fu Nung firmly down on the bed. Tarostar handed him the now cooled instrument he required, and Aragorn began.

Fu Nung was hardier than Aragorn had expected, as he did not cry out until he made a second incision. The arrow was embedded deeply and had broken the man's collarbone. The flesh was showing signs of infection, suggesting the arrow had been in him for many hours. Soon the patient's screams were hideous to the ear. Aragorn tried to use his healing powers to ease the man's agony, but they seemed to have little or no effect on the Easterling. As Aragorn found the arrow's tip, Fung Nu gave an especially loud cry and then fell into a merciful oblivion.

"One of you begin tending to his leg while he is unconscious," Aragorn ordered. When he had finally freed the arrow from his patient's flesh, he cast it into a dish on the side table with a grimace. That it was an arrow decorated with Gondorian fletching made matters all the worse.

Tarostar began to extract the second arrow, while Aedred took over the supervision of the instruments. Aragorn concentrated on thoroughly cleansing the shoulder wound. Fortunately the bone was not badly splintered. He has just begun to stitch the wound closed when Tarostar extracted the second arrow.

"It was not in as deeply as we feared," said the Gondorian healer. "The bone was chipped, but the major blood vessels are untouched. He could still lose his leg, though, if the nerve damage is too severe."

"May Est grant him healing!" Aragorn said fervently as he finished stitching. He very much doubted that a one legged man could ride a dragon. He washed his bloodied hands and picked up the jar of honey that was used to prevent infection. Fung Nu stirred and moaned softly.

"Easy now, easy, the worst is over," Aragorn soothed, hoping that though the man may not understand his words, he might sense their meaning. Fung Nu opened his eyes for a moment, and then closed them again.

The healers worked swiftly and skilfully and soon the Rider's wounds were salved and bandaged and his bruises anointed with comfrey balm. They were just about to clothe him in a nightshirt when a knock sounded at the door. Aedred went to see who was there.

"What is it?" asked Aragorn without looking away from his patient.

"It was one of the assistant healers," said Aedred. "Lord Faramir has sent a message to tell you that the horse healers refuse to tend the dragon. He asks assistance from the Houses, but no one has volunteered."

"I had better tend the dragon myself," said Aragorn. "I will return here later. This man must have the very best of care and someone to be with him at all times. I will have a guard put on the door in case any object to his presence here with more than words."

"But, sire, you cannot treat a dragon!" Tarostar protested.

"I have removed arrows from horses in my time," Aragorn said dryly. "Will one of you come and assist me?"

"I need to stay with my patient," Tarostar said swiftly, starting to change the bloodied linens on the bed. "You, my lord, had better borrow a healer's robe if you do not wish to further alarm the populace."

Aragorn glanced down at his bloodied shirt and breeches and conceded to the loan of a suitable garment. "I must go and seek an assistant to tend the dragon."

Aedred hesitated for a long moment before saying. "I will come."

"Thank you, friend." Aragorn smiled at Aedred gratefully.

What supplies do we need, my lord?"

"Our needles will be too fine," Aragorn mused. "Maybe we could find something suitable at the tentmaker's? We have to pass his dwelling on the way. We need salves, honey and thread. Our bandages would be useless for a creature of that size, but we could maybe tear up a sheet or two."

"What about poppy juice?" enquired Aedred.

"If we used the Houses' entire supply, I doubt it would have much effect," Aragorn said grimly. "We will just have to hope that he is a hardy creature."

"I will put this away then." Aedred picked up the bottle of poppy syrup from the table and took a surreptitious sip.

Aragorn pretended not to notice that the man needed to steel his nerves. The two set off together. The King told the Rohirric healer of his earlier encounter with the dragon in an attempt to reassure him as they walked. They went first to the tentmaker's and found the shop deserted. The door was open, though, so Aragorn helped himself to several needles, leaving a few coins in payment.

The usually bustling market place was empty of customers and no children played in the streets. Grim faced folk carrying bundles scurried towards the City gates. "Where are you going?" Aragorn enquired of a young woman who clasped a baby in one arm and held a little girl's hand with the other.

"As far away as possible before that foul beast devours my babes!" said the woman.

"He will not hurt you or your children," Aragorn told her. "He only likes to eat cows and deer."

"And how should you know?" she retorted, obviously not recognising the King. Before he could further attempt to detain her, she was gone, dragging the protesting little girl down the street. Aragorn knew he must do something to calm his people's fears, but had no idea what might help.

Aragorn found the dragon sprawled on the grass by the side of the city surrounded by a ring of guards. Aragorn bade one of them kindle a fire. Faramir stood at the creature's head, speaking to it softly. The great beast looked thoroughly dejected. "How is Fu Nung?" he demanded.

"We are doing everything we can, "Aragorn replied. "His wounds have been tended and he is resting now."

"Is he going to die?" The dragon's bleak tone tore at Aragorn's heart.

"I hope not. No effort will be spared to heal him," said the King.

"If he dies" The dragon's voice now rumbled with anger.

Aragorn felt a surge of fear. The beast was essentially good natured he believed, but what if it tried to lay waste his kingdom to avenge his rider?

TBC

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