16. Chapter 16
Very soon a slow trickle of wounded started coming back to the caves. Aethelstan had recruited some of the boys too young to fight to act as stretcher bearers, and I had spotted them earlier on, all excited at being given real helmets and thick leather jerkins to protect them. They had laughed and chatted amongst each other at the prospect of an adventure. Now they came back white-faced and silent from what they had seen, but they gritted their teeth and continued with their duty.
We had no need to ask how the battle fared, the bodies of our patients showed all. At first it was lacerations from horrible barbed black arrows, which proved very difficult to extract. Master Aethelstan had left me a special tool to minimize the damage to the already torn flesh, but it was a delicate procedure. First I had to pull the edges of the wound apart, then insert the long metal instrument shaped like two spoons facing each other, which I slipped around the barbs in order to be able to extract them. A painful operation, best performed on an unconscious man. Even so, many of those we treated insisted on going straight back, once we had dressed their wounds.
"I can still fight with my other arm," said a grizzled old warrior after I had bandaged his shoulder.
Normally I would have told him not to be a fool and to lie back down that instant, but we needed every man tonight. So with a lump in my throat, I nodded and sent him back to face our foes. Soon afterwards the injuries changed to sword cuts and blows from battle-axes: the enemy had gained the wall.
It was like that night in Aldburg, only a hundred times worse. I lost track of time as I went from one man to the next, binding wounds, stitching up cuts and dispensing poppy syrup mixed with wine to those hurt the worst. Yet how little help I could offer! Very often all that remained to do was to hold the injured warrior's hand to ease his passing. The nauseating smell of fresh blood filled my nose, along with urine and voided bowels, although we tried to give the men what dignity we could, changing their soiled linens and washing their faces. My mind went numb after a while - it was that or to break down crying and retching in a corner. I had to cope, so I pushed the horror away and locked it up tight, promising myself to deal with it later. If there was a later.
What made it worse was that many of the men carried in I knew, either from my time in Edoras or because they served Erkenbrand. Odda, one of the king's doorwardens, had always had a cheerful greeting for me. Now he lay unconscious on a straw pallet with his arm maimed to a bloody stump. It would probably need to be amputated, but that was beyond my skill. Groans and cries echoed back from the lofty ceiling, until I wanted to run away screaming and curl into a tight ball somewhere and shut out the world. How much longer could this go on? And always in the back of my mind, there lurked the fear of seeing Éomer carried in, badly hurt or... I pushed that thought away. It must not happen! But the men told me about the course of the battle while I tended to them, and they all said the same thing: the Marshal was wherever the fighting raged fiercest.
Hands trembling, I bent over another man to check his injury and winced. The whole right side of his chest had been crushed by some mighty blow, probably from a mace. If the splintered ribs had punctured his lungs, as seemed likely, there was nothing I could do.
"My lady," he whispered.
I looked up to his face. It was familiar, but it took my tired mind a moment to come up with a name. Wulfstan. I recoiled. The last time I had seen him was when he had escorted me to King Théoden's room, where Gríma had awaited me.
He lifted an arm, then let if fall to the ground in exhaustion. "Hurts so much."
Not wanting anything to do with him, I started to get up. But then I hesitated. He had fought for us, the same as the other warriors, and he deserved my help. Slipping an arm underneath his head, I lifted it up and raised a cup of wine laced with poppy juice to his lips.
He only managed a couple of sips, then I had to lower him to his pallet again. Dull blue eyes met mine and he gripped my arm weakly. "Am I dying?"
It was not really a question. I inclined my head. "I am sorry."
Wulfstan took a rattling breath. "Lady, will you forgive me? Gríma..." He coughed and bloody spittle frothed on his lips. "He betrayed us all. But I shouldn't have done what I did."
How could I deny a dying man? I squeezed his hand. "I forgive you."
"Not honourable," he whispered and I had to bend forward to catch his words. "Wanted my father to be proud of me. Captain of king's guard." Another horrible, rasping breath. "But not honourable."
Something wet ran down my cheeks and it took me a moment to realize I was crying. "You are honourable, Wulfstan," I told him. "You fought for your people. If I ever meet your father I will tell him of his brave son."
And I cradled his hand as his own blood pooling in his lungs slowly drowned him. When he expelled his last breath with a great sigh and his fingers went slack, I just sat there staring down at him. Then Leofe tugged at my sleeve, asking for my help, and I had to get up. The living needed me.
Suddenly a deep rumble echoed up the tunnel from outside. I exchanged an uncertain look with Leofe. What had that been? Thunder from the storm passing overhead?
A man came running into the cavern. "They are in the Deep," he yelled. "The orcs have blown a hole in the Deeping wall! They're coming!"
A woman screamed. Leofe clutched my arm and all around us, those of the wounded men who were able to stand struggled to their feet and grabbed their weapons. My bow! I looked around for it frantically, only to remember that I had left it with my other things in Ceolwen's care. Too late now. I drew the short knife I used for cutting bandages. It was very sharp, but I did not fool myself into thinking that I would be able to inflict much damage. Still, if I was lucky it would goad the orcs into killing me quickly. I had heard enough stories over the last few days to know what they did to the women they captured. Especially the young ones. Much better to be dead, I thought, and clasped the knife more tightly.
Aeffe rushed up to us with a sword in her hands, of all improbable things. "The doors! We have to close them."
Of course! I took off running across the cavern floor, the twins close behind me. At the mouth of the tunnel I saw that others had had the same idea. Two men pulled each of the heavy wings and slowly they swung closed. But when they were no more than a man's width apart, one of the guards looked out.
"Wait!" he cried.
A man squeezed through, his blond hair matted with blood.
"Don't close the doors yet," he shouted. "Our men are still out there. The Marshal has rallied them."
Éomer! He was alive! Shrill howling arose outside, faint at first, but quickly growing louder. The orcs were coming! The clash of metal on metal. Shrieks. I clasped my hands over my ears at the mindless hate I heard in their voices. How the men at the doors stood it, I do not know. All I wanted to do was to run away and hide in a dark corner. With a sob Leofe clung to me. Suddenly men boiled through the gap between the two sides of the door, pushing them apart wider. They filled the tunnel and spilt into the cavern.
"Make room!" one of them yelled as he pushed past us.
Then I got my first sight of the enemy. A heaving mass of hideous forms throwing themselves at the thin line of Rohirrim holding them back. Forming a shield wall, our men retreated step by step, and the only thing that saved them from being overwhelmed on the spot was the narrowness of the passage. The orcs even fought amongst themselves in their eagerness to reach the entrance to the caverns, clawing their way over the bodies of their dead comrades.
"To me, Eorlingas!" Éomer's great voice rose above the clamour.
He stood at the centre of the shield wall, the white horsetail on his helmet flicking around as he cast a quick look behind him. Another step back. And another one. The orcs seemed to comprehend that their prey was about to escape them, and their shrieks rose to a new frenzy.
Suddenly he gave a loud shout and at his signal the men pushed forward, swords hewing at their enemies. Surprised by this unforeseen attack, the orcs hesitated and shrank back in confusion. Another shouted order, and the riders fell back and came running in through the open door. One of them, a lad by the size of him, slipped on the stones made slippery by rain and fell to the ground. Coming last, Éomer bent and hauled him bodily in through the closing gap. Then the door boomed shut on their heels and two guards dropped the heavy bar across it. For a heartbeat silence reigned, before the door shuddered as orcs threw themselves against it, hammering and clawing at the wood.
Éomer had fallen to his knees next to the lad he had dragged in. "Are you all right, friend?"
Nodding slowly, the lad sat up. "I think we are even now, Marshal," he said gruffly.
No lad, I realized as I caught sight of his long beard, but a dwarf! And what did he mean by those words? Éomer heaved himself to his feet as the noise of the orcs attacking the doors intensified. How long would it hold?
"We need to barricade the entrance," he called.
Most of the men had simply collapsed to the floor, but at their Marshal's words they struggled up. Were these all the survivors of our forces? Had the Hornburg fallen? They seemed to be mostly the riders from his command in Aldburg, Éothain and Beorngar amongst them, and the rest Westfold men. Quickly Éomer organized them into small companies and sent them off to fetch stones and whatever else they could find to strengthen the gates. About twenty riders he set to watching the doors and raise the alarm if the orcs broke through. Then he came striding up the tunnel, Gamling at his side.
"What supplies do you have here?" I heard him asking the older man. "Food? Weapons?"
Gamling spotted us standing to the side. "There are Lord Erkenbrand's daughters and Lady Lothíriel," he said. "They would know best."
Éomer's stride faltered, but he caught himself quickly and beckoned us over imperiously. "My lady," he greeted Leofe. "I need to know what weapons you have stored in these caverns."
He looked a fearsome figure with his hauberk covered in gore and blood dripping from his sword. A long cut ran along one leather gauntlet, but he seemed unhurt.
Leofe hesitated under his intense regard. "I'm not sure," she stammered. "We might have some battle axes somewhere I think."
"There are two crates of swords in one of the caves, but not of very good quality," I put in.
For a moment his eyes flitted my way, then he turned back to Leofe, ignoring me studiously. "Have them fetched. Also the axes."
"My lord," Aeffe put in timidly. "What happened? Has the Hornburg fallen?"
With a grimace Éomer wiped his sword on his trousers and sheathed it. "The orcs used some devilry from Orthanc to blow a hole in the wall. We were driven back into the Narrows, but many men also fled to the burg." He took off his helmet. "However, now we have to see to our own safety."
A group of his men hurried by, carrying big rocks and rolling a wooden wheel from a wain before them, which they proceeded to pile against the door under the dwarf's supervision.
Éomer watched them briefly. "My men will need something to eat and drink. How are you supplied?"
"We have plenty of food stores," Aeffe answered. "I will see to it."
A clear dismissal, yet he hesitated. Again his eyes fleeted my way, and I suddenly became aware of the sorry state of my garments. I probably looked like I had been in the battle myself with all the dried blood covering me! As for those riding trousers, they really revealed an awful lot.
Éomer cleared his throat. "Do not fear," he said gruffly. "We won't let those beasts near you."
Then he checked himself, as if he had said too much, and giving a curt nod, he drew Gamling with him to oversee the work going on in the tunnel. A word of encouragement here, lending a hand there, and his men seemed to gain hope wherever he passed. But I watched him go and wanted nothing so much as to run after him and pour out my heart to him. In the middle of a siege! I really did pick my moments.
As the rocks piled up before the doors, the sound of the orcs attacking dimmed to a constant background noise, which I tried my best to ignore. Éomer would keep us safe, I told myself. He had promised. I held onto that thought like a life-rope in a raging torrent, while I showed a group of men where to find the crates of swords. That task done, I hurried back to the main cavern, anxious to get back to my patients. To my relief I found that one of Aethelstan's assistants had been amongst Éomer's men and was already busy treating the most badly wounded.
"Do you know what happened to Master Aethelstan? Did he retreat to the Hornburg?" I asked him.
But the man shook his head. "I'm sorry, my lady. There was a flash of light and a great boom and suddenly orcs were everywhere. I lost sight of him in the fighting. We just have to hope he made it."
Swallowing down my dread, I nodded and picked up my satchel to continue with my work. Just then one of my assistants hailed me.
"My lady, could you help us a moment?"
When I turned round I found the dwarf standing next to her, a trickle of blood running down his face.
"Marshal Éomer asked to have his injury seen to," the woman explained.
Clearly she was reluctant to touch such a strange creature. Did she think he would bite?
I addressed the dwarf in Westron. "May I tend your wound?"
"If you please, my lady." His voice rumbled low in his chest, but was quite pleasant.
The woman fetched me a bowl of fresh water and I began to wash the caked blood away. For some reason I had expected his black hair to be hard and wiry, but it felt no different from a man's.
"You were lucky there," I said, inspecting the gash across his forehead. It would not need stitching, only a bandage to keep it closed.
"I know. An orc got me just in front of the gates to the caves. That's why I stumbled."
Suddenly I remembered what he had said to Éomer and was unable to contain my curiosity. "May I ask what you meant by being even with the Marshal?"
A fierce grin. "I went along on a sortie from the Hornburg earlier on. Some of those huge Uruks jumped him from behind and tripped him. But I made short work of them!"
I gasped. "Sweet Elbereth!" My hands trembled as I wrapped a linen bandage round his head. "What a lucky chance that you were there. Thank you!"
The dwarf shrugged. "Two less of those foul-hearted creatures to trouble the world." He gave me a curious look. "It's nice to find someone who speaks the common tongue. You do not appear to be from these parts."
"No, I hail from Gondor," I answered, tying up the ends of the bandage securely. "There you go, that should hold for a while."
He touched it gingerly. "It feels much better."
Getting up, he gave me a bow. "I am indebted to you, my lady. Gimli, Glóin's son, at your service."
The words had an archaic ring to them. Not sure how to answer them, I dropped into a curtsy. "Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth."
He bowed again before going to rejoin the men barricading the doors. And as I watched him cross the cavern, purpose in every step, my heart lifted a little. What strange help fate had sent us! Our situation might look dire, but perhaps all hope was not lost yet.
But how tired I was. It seemed an eternity ago that I had stood on the battlements, having a breather, and ever since I had worked without a break. However, as long as I was needed, I would carry on. Sighing, I went to fetch more bandages from the corner where our supplies were kept. But I got a surprise. Master Herewald, the healer of the Hornburg, was there inspecting the jars of ointment and bottles of medicine.
"Where is the poppy syrup?" he demanded to know the moment he spotted me. "The women said you've got some."
I extracted the leather flask from my satchel. "Here it is. Master Aethelstan gave it to me."
Herewald snatched it out of my hands. "It's half empty already!" He glared at me accusingly.
I felt my temper rising, but wrestled it down. After all I was glad to have help at last. "We had a lot of seriously wounded."
"Well, I'm taking charge of this to make sure no more gets wasted."
Wasted! When again and again I'd had to give less than I would have liked to. "Master Aethelstan told me to use it sparingly, which is what I have been doing," I said through clenched teeth.
"Master Aethelstan? I really don't know what he was thinking of when he put you in charge here," the healer declared.
"I didn't ask for it!"
"Well, you can leave the work to those better qualified from now on," Herewald answered. "I will take over here. You may retire to one of the other caves."
How dare he! "You can't just send me away!" I fired up.
"Marshal's orders," the healer said with a gleam of triumph in his eyes.
Dumbstruck, I stared at Herewald. Éomer had said that? I turned round and searched for his tall figure, spotting him near the mouth of tunnel, discussing something with Gamling. My first impulse was to seek him out at once and demand an explanation. But then my outrage collapsed beneath a wave of misery. Éomer wanted me gone! Did he hate me so much that he wanted me out of his sight? However, I was the daughter of a long line of warriors, I knew you did not question your commander's orders in the middle of battle.
Gathering my dignity around me like a tattered cloak, I nodded at Herewald. "Very well then. I will be with Lady Ceolwen if you need me."
He shrugged dismissively and turned his back on me. "That's unlikely."
It took a real effort to control the impulse to kick him in the backside. But princesses did not do that kind of thing. So instead I held my head high and crossed the cavern floor to pass into the next cave. I very much wanted to pour my woes into Ceolwen's ears, but when I found her, she was curled up in a corner, fast asleep, her arms wrapped protectively around her stomach. Her maid Burghild sat next to her with a lantern, watching over her.
"Lady Ceolwen was exhausted," she told me. "But I had to promise to wake her if anything happened."
If the orcs broke through? I shuddered. How much worse it had to be for Ceolwen with her husband and unborn child to worry about as well. I brushed back a strand of hair from my face and frowned when I noticed that the sleeve of my tunic was stiff with dried blood. And I reeked! Careful not to wake Ceolwen, I rummaged for the bag of things I had left with her. There was nothing I could do about my trousers, but I seemed to remember that I had packed a spare tunic.
"Is there a place where I could wash?" I asked the maid.
She pointed towards the exit to another cave and gave me the lantern to light my way. Slinging the knapsack over my shoulder and picking up my bow and quiver for good measure, I turned to go when Aeffe and Leofe came rushing up.
"Master Herewald has sent us away!" Aeffe exclaimed. "He said looking after the wounded was no fit task for young ladies."
I hushed her. "I know. But there is nothing I can do about it."
They followed me, venting their indignation at the healer's treatment of them. I got the impression that they expected me to march in there and confront him. But I did not have the heart for it.
It was several hours past midnight by now, the darkest time of the night, and most of the refugees had not slept since leaving their homes and fleeing for Helm's Deep. Many of them had given in to exhaustion, even the threat of enemies just outside the gates not enough to stave off sleep. Only a few feeble lamps burnt in this cave and we were grateful for the light of our lantern as we stepped across slumbering forms.
At the other end a spring issued from the rock, pooling in a small basin before running away in a manmade channel. I gasped at the cold water at first, but then scrubbed away at my hands vigorously.
"What wouldn't I give for a hot bath!" Aeffe said as she splashed water over her face.
We all sighed with longing at the picture thus conjured.
"With oil of lavender in it," Leofe chimed in.
"And an Elf," Aeffe added, grinning.
I spluttered at her words and then dissolved into helpless giggles. It was absurd. We had witnessed scenes likely to give us nightmares for the rest of our lives, our men were hopelessly outnumbered by hordes of orcs and Dunlendings, and we yearned for a hot bath. With an Elf. Once we started laughing, we almost could not stop, hanging onto each other and bending over to stifle the noise. At last I straightened up and wiped tears from my eyes. That had felt good!
Then I took out the fresh tunic from my bag and changed into it hastily, for the air was chilly. Goosebumps rose all along my arms, but at least I was clean again. Leofe offered to re-braid my hair for me and I closed my eyes as her fingers went to work on my long tresses. Once I sat down, exhaustion settled on me like a heavy cloak. A hot bath... Suddenly the memory of Éomer taking off his shirt to have his wound treated floated into my mind. What would it be like to share a bath with him? Delicious warmth flooded me as I remembered touching his bare back. His skin had been so smooth...
I started, my eyes flying open. A boy stood before us.
"My lady, you are the healer from Gondor, aren't you?" he asked. The boy looked to be about ten years old, his blond hair cropped short and a streak of dried blood on his forehead.
"Yes, I am," I answered, sitting up straighter. "Why? Are you hurt?"
"It's Wulf," he blurted out. "He's caught his leg underneath a rock and I can't get him out. He's bleeding and it looks really bad." A single tear ran down his cheek.
I struggled to my feet and picked up my things. "Of course I'll help. Where is this? Can you show me?"
He nodded eagerly and held out a hand. "It's not far."
As we followed single file behind him, I asked him what had happened and he explained further. "We were exploring the caves when a stone rolled down almost on top of him. I tried to shift it, but it was ever so heavy! So in the end I came to get help."
"Have you told your mother?"
"We live with my aunt and uncle now," he mumbled. "Mum and dad have... gone away."
An all too common story. "In that case, have you told your aunt?" I asked gently.
He shook his head. "Auntie Eanswith is busy with the baby. She told me she hasn't got the time just now." An angry sob. "She always disliked Wulf!"
A wave of anger ran through me, and I gripped my bow. It seemed incredibly callous to leave a boy trapped in a dark cave somewhere. But then so many orphans had had to find new homes and not all of them received the care they deserved.
I squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll find your Wulf and help him. I promise. What is your name?"
"It's Bryhtwuffa, but everybody calls me Wuffa." He looked back and suddenly grinned. "Wulf and Wuffa." Then he became serious again. "We have to hurry."
He led us through another cavern and then stopped at the entrance to a crevice. "In here."
I eyed the narrow opening doubtfully. An extinguished torch lay on the ground and when I lifted the lamp and peered in, I saw what appeared to be some kind of faint path through the rubble lying around. But perhaps it would be better to go back and get help from the men? It was very dark in there.
Wuffa seemed to read my thoughts. He took my hand and tugged on it. "Please! I promised Wulf I'd get help."
His blue eyes looked up at me pleadingly. I rubbed my eyes, trying to come to a decision. "I'm not sure..."
"It's not far!"
It would take time to retrace our steps. And what if none of the men could be spared to come with us? If only I weren't so tired! I stared into the crevice. Somewhere in that darkness there was a little boy, afraid and possibly bleeding to death, who needed me. That thought decided me.
"Lead the way," I said, lifting the lantern.
The flame flickered wildly in a draft of air.
A/N: for those of you interested in medical history, the instrument Lothíriel used to extract arrows was invented by the Greeks and is called a 'spoon of Diocles'
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