19. Chapter 19
"I'm sorry," I stammered. "I know it wasn't very wise to..."
"Not wise?" Éomer interrupted me. "Plain stupid is what I'd call it! What did you think you were doing? Or did you not think at all!"
His eyes bored into me, flashing fire behind the slits of his helmet. I looked up at him speechlessly, trying to gather my wits, and that infuriated him even more.
"Of all the brainless things to do!" he exclaimed, and his fingers dug into my shoulders. "Wandering off to explore caves by yourself! We are in the middle of a battle, my lady, not on a pleasure outing on your father's lands."
"You seem to know very little!" he broke in, giving me no chance to finish my sentence. "A two-year old child would have more sense than to quite deliberately endanger herself and those in her care."
What could I say? It had been a foolish thing to do, and I had not been thinking straight. Tears threatened to overwhelm me. "I'm sorry," I choked.
He bent over me, his face only inches away from mine. Orc blood covered him, and the foetid smell of it washed over me. "What you did is absolutely inexcusable! You should have told me the moment you discovered the unmapped passage."
"I know, but..."
"No buts," he snapped. "You had patients to look after, but on a whim you went off on a chase through these caves instead."
That wasn't fair! After all he himself had ordered us away. "It was no whim," I protested, "we went looking for Wuffa's brother. I could not leave a child down here hurt and alone."
His face softened very slightly. "Did you find the boy?"
"Well, actually..." Something wet licked my hand and I started. When I looked down I met Wulf's brown eyes. He wagged his tail.
Éomer followed my glance and frowned. "What is a dog doing down here?"
"Well..." I squirmed and looked around for help. There stood Aeffe with an arm wrapped protectively around a white-faced Wuffa. A wave of relief swept through me to see them unhurt.
"Well?" Éomer asked impatiently.
I swallowed. He would think me a fool. "It was all a bit of a misunderstanding," I explained. "I thought Wuffa was talking about his brother when actually he meant his dog..."
Éomer stared at me as the import of my words slowly sank in. "Are you telling me we came down here to rescue a dog?" He glared at Wulf. "A flea-bitten mongrel! Because of your stupidity my men and I had to risk our lives for a dog?"
It was all getting too much for me. The smell, the sight of death, the memory of Gubrak's hands on me. Why did Éomer have to keep shouting at me? When all I wanted to do was to get out of here and curl up somewhere safe to have a good cry.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
"Sorry won't bring my men back! Sorry won't ease their pain!"
I opened my mouth in dismay. I had not thought of that. If any of his men had died because of my actions I would never forgive myself!
"My lord," one of Éomer's riders interrupted, "we did not lose anybody. Several men will need to see a healer, but they should all recover."
I recognized Éothain, Éomer's second-in-command. He looked ill at ease, as did the other men who had gathered around us.
Éomer ignored our growing audience. "Pure luck! Luck that Leofe found me quickly, luck that we managed to take the orcs by surprise!" he exclaimed, looming over me. "What if things had gone wrong? You acted with a complete lack of common sense."
Tears rose in my eyes, but I forced myself to keep my voice steady. "I only did what I thought best."
"Best!" he exploded. "Do you know what these orcs do to the women they capture? Do I have to tell you?"
"Lord Éomer!" Éothain protested and took hold of his arm.
Éomer shrugged him off like an irritating fly and tightened his grip on my shoulders. "Do you have any idea how many times we have come too late?" he asked, shaking me so hard that my hair flew in my face. "They are brutes! Lower than animals, delighting in every type of cruelty! Do you want me to tell you what they would have done to you?"
Something snapped inside me. "I know exactly!" I shouted at him. "Do you think I do not know that this very moment I might be lying underneath one of them, screaming and begging for a quick death?"
He looked as if I had slapped him.
I twisted out of his slackened grip. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I want to be sick!"
It wasn't easy to be dignified while emptying one's stomach, but I did my best over in a corner by the lake. Not that I had much to get rid off anyway, for I had not eaten anything since breakfast. The bitter taste of bile filled my mouth and my hair kept getting in the way. What was wrong with it anyway?
A hand descended lightly on my shoulder. "Lothíriel..."
"Go away!" I snarled in the middle of another bout of retching.
He went, but a little later somebody offered me a flask of water, which I accepted gratefully.
Aeffe slipped an arm around my waist. "Poor you."
Wiping my mouth on my sleeve, I sat back on my heels and took a swig of water. "Thank you."
Then I got my first good look at her. "Your face!" I exclaimed.
Gingerly she touched the slash across her left cheek. The blood had already clotted, forming a thin red line just underneath her eye.
Aeffe shrugged. "I got off lightly from my first encounter with an orc. He underestimated me." Only now did I notice the sword lying on the floor by her side, covered to the hilt in black blood. A true daughter of her father's! Nobody would ever confuse her with her gentler twin again.
She brushed back a curl from my face. "And what have you done to your hair?"
My hair? I reached up to find only short strands, no more than shoulder length. In surprise I felt the back of my neck. My braid was gone! Suddenly I remembered Éomer's sword passing close enough to touch.
"Éomer must have cut it off when he fought that Dunlending," I said, still dazed. It looked like I had not come off unscathed either.
Beorngar stood behind us with half a dozen guards. He held out a hand to me. "We are leaving. The Marshal has detailed us to escort you."
Obediently I struggled to my feet, grateful for his support. He took my arm and lowered his voice for a moment. "My lady, please do not judge the Marshal too harshly." When I looked up at him in surprise, he added. "He's had the temper of a hungry dragon ever since...well... for a while now."
I swallowed and nodded. Something else to lay at my door. Éomer's angry words rang in my mind while we walked past the other riders, many of whom sported fresh cuts and lacerations. All because I had behaved like a fool. A strange numbness filled me, as if I were walking in a dream. At the opening to the stairs leading to the upper caves, Wuffa waited for us, his dog at his heels. Already Éomer's men were filing past him to secure the way back.
The boy took my hand beseechingly. "I can't get Wulf up these stairs. He's hurt!"
The wretched hound! I looked at the cause of all our trouble with very little charity. Putting his head to one side, Wulf wagged his tail at me.
I sighed. "I don't know what to do. Perhaps..."
"I'll carry him," Éomer's deep voice interrupted me.
I jumped and quickly ducked my head, not wanting to see the contempt in his eyes. If he yelled at me again, I would surely break down. But Éomer said nothing more and without further ado, bent over the dog and picked him up. Taken by surprise, Wulf yelped and growled at him.
"Shut up," Éomer told him curtly.
Recognizing the voice of authority, the dog gave a whine and licked his hand submissively.
Éomer ignored him. "Hurry up. We have to get back to the entrance."
I had completely forgotten about the siege! What if the enemy had broken through while Éomer was distracted down here? The thought lent urgency to my steps as we ascended the long stairs. They seemed to stretch on endlessly, with only the back of the guard in front of me visible.
My legs were shaking with effort by the time the passage opened up above us and a rider helped me up the last few steps. I paused for a moment to catch my breath while the men hurried past us, anxious to reclaim their abandoned posts. Éomer came up last and at once set about organizing the closing of the passage. As I watched two of his men push the large stone slab across the opening, the thought suddenly struck me that he could simply have cut off the orcs that way without risking a fight. I had never even considered that possibility, knowing with utter certainty that he would come for me. And I had been right.
But I was too tired to pursue that thought and what it meant to me, as I stumbled along the uneven path back to the main caverns. Our ill-fated adventure had probably taken less than an hour, yet it seemed a lifetime ago that I'd sat with Leofe and Aeffe by the pool and washed my face. I wondered what time it was. Surely dawn could not be much further off - not that we would see any of it from down here.
Finally, we emerged from the narrow passage, and I blinked at the sudden brightness of so many torches. Everybody was awake now, and the women and children watched us curiously as we threaded our way between them. With guards walking either side of me, I could not help feeling like a recaptured prisoner being led to her cell.
At least a messenger from Gamling awaited Éomer, reporting that the orcs had made no further move, relieving me of that worry. Perhaps they still expected their comrades sent by the secret passage to open the doors for them from the inside.
Ceolwen was waiting in the next cavern. When she spotted us, she heaved herself to her feet and came rushing up.
"Aeffe, Lothíriel! You are all right," she exclaimed and peered at me. "Why, you look awful! And what has happened to your hair?"
The concern in her voice undid me. "He cut it off! Oh, Ceolwen, it was so awful." I threw myself into her arms and started sobbing. "There were orcs and Dunlendings down there and they planned to kill everybody! I just wanted to distract them somehow, but it all went wrong. They caught me! And their leader..." At the memory of Gubrak's touch I began to shake all over. "He laughed at me and said he was going to...to..."
I had to stop and gulp for air. Behind me Éomer was spitting curses.
Ceolwen hugged me tightly. "Oh Lothíriel! Poor you! But you're safe now, Éomer has rescued you."
That only made me cry harder. "I know it's all my fault," I wailed, "and I'm sorry!"
Ceolwen slipped an arm around my waist and led me over to her pile of blankets. "You're overwrought. Come and sit down." Then she raised her voice. "Éomer, will you stop swearing! You're not helping at all. And anyway, the orcs are dead, so you can't kill them again."
I buried my head in her shoulder and shut out the world as I released the pent-up terror of the last hour. Safe at last! Dimly I heard her talking to Éomer and giving orders, but paid no attention to them. Ceolwen stroked my back patiently, soothing me, and after a while my sobs slowly quieted and I regained control of myself.
"Here, have some water," she said, lifting a cup to my lips.
I gulped it down thirstily. "I'm sorry." I looked up to find everybody gone, except for Aeffe sitting next to me and Beorngar standing guard a discreet distance away. "Where's Éomer?"
She actually chuckled. "Gone to deal with Master Herewald. I think the healer will get an earful."
I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. "Why?"
"Leofe told him that Herewald sent you away. Apparently Éomer only meant him to take charge of the wounded and he greatly exceeded his orders."
"Oh." I felt too empty to experience any feeling of satisfaction at that news.
Just then Ceolwen's maid arrived with two bowls of soup and a loaf of bread, which she handed to Aeffe and me.
"Eat," Ceolwen told us, "and you'll feel better."
Obediently I spooned down the soup and found she was right: I did feel less shaky after a while. "I'm sorry for breaking down like that and crying all over you," I apologized to Ceolwen with a weak smile.
She squeezed my hand. "That's what friends are for. I'm surprised you bore up as long as you did. You were very brave."
I shook my head. "I was a fool. If only I had realized that Wuffa was talking about his dog, all could have been avoided." I looked around. "Where are they anyway?"
"Éomer has taken them with him to keep an eye on them."
Fresh tears rose to my eyes, but I wiped them away determinedly. "He thinks me foolish..." I sniffed. "...and irresponsible and brainless and..."
"Wuffa said that?" Ceolwen exclaimed in astonishment.
"He shouted at her," Aeffe put in, "and dressed her down in front of all his men."
My misery threatened to swamp me again. "He despises me."
"Oh, Lothíriel," Ceolwen sighed, "sometimes I forget how young you are. Can't you see he was frightened out of his wits?"
I stared at her. "Frightened? Éomer?"
"For you! I've never seen him looking so white as when he raced through this cave. He outpaced all his men."
It took me a moment to digest this. "But why was he so angry with me?"
She shrugged. "Men such as Éomer do not like to be frightened, for it shows them that they cannot control everything. Erkenbrand is just the same."
I wasn't really listening to her. Afraid for me! And he had risked his life just now. Could it be that he still harboured some feelings for me?
"I have to get back to my patients," I decided and jumped up.
"What, now?" Aeffe asked, her mouth dropping open. Then suddenly she grinned and got up, too. "If you say so."
Ceolwen frowned. "Are you sure you're up to it?"
"Yes, yes," I assured her, already picking up my satchel and checking it over. Aeffe, bless her, had remembered to bring it with her. Once I had clean water, I could also patch up the cut on her cheek.
That moment a low calling sound rose all around us. It seemed to emanate from the very rocks, faint at first, but growing louder. Over by his post, Beorngar slewed round.
Aeffe and Ceolwen exchanged a look. "Helm's Horn!"
"What does it mean?" I asked.
Ceolwen extended a hand to me. "Something must be happening. Help me up!"
As quickly as possible we made our way towards the entrance of the cavern, but the passages were crowded with refugees talking excitedly, so our going was slow, even though they made way for us once they recognized Ceolwen. When we finally reached the big cavern we found it empty of all but the healers and their patients. By the tunnel leading down to the gate, rocks and pieces of timber lay strewn haphazardly as if dumped there in haste. They had cleared the entrance!
Cautiously we ventured across the huge expanse of the cavern floor, many of the women and children following behind us. At the mouth of the tunnel Beorngar held up his hand.
"Let me check first." He disappeared amongst the debris.
Exchanging anxious glances, we waited impatiently. Beorngar was gone so long that I almost decided to go and investigate myself. But just when I thought I could stand the suspense no longer, he returned with another rider in tow.
"Victory!" the man shouted.
All around us cheers erupted. Ceolwen grabbed the man's arm. "Eadsig, what has happened?"
"Your husband, my lady, and Gandalf. They arrived leading a thousand men on foot, just when Théoden King and his knights charged from the Hornburg. This very moment he is conferring with Marshal Éomer and that ranger from the north."
Aeffe whooped loudly, but Ceolwen sagged against me. "Erkenbrand," she whispered and started crying.
It was my turn to hold her while sobs of relief shook her. I heard the man say something about a forest of strange trees in the valley outside, but paid little attention to this unlikely tale. The sudden change of fortune seemed to have confused him.
Ceolwen straightened up and wiped her eyes. "I have to see him."
She pushed through the crowd and I started to follow her, but that moment somebody tugged on my arm. I glanced down to find Wuffa holding my sleeve.
"My lady, please wait," he said, "Lady Leofe sends me. They need help with the wounded."
Watching Ceolwen's disappearing back, I hesitated. Éomer! I wanted to see that he was all right, wanted to talk to him. And how I longed to get out of these caves and stand under the open sky again. But how could I abandon those that needed me? Who had fought for us and paid a high price for our safety.
So with a sigh I turned round and followed Wuffa to the other side of the cave. The battle had been won, but at a terrible cost. Too many forms lay still on their pallets, a sheet draped across their face. And of those that lived, many would take weeks to recover from their injuries, if indeed recover they did.
I had not looked forward to meeting Master Herewald again, but the healer greeted me much chastened, obsequiously offering me back my flask of poppy syrup. I declined his offer, yet as I joined the other women caring for the wounded, I could not help wondering what Éomer had said to him to cause such meekness. We were kept busy, for the battle swept in one last wave of injured riders, those hurt in the king's final charge. Although mostly their wounds were surprisingly light, still they needed tending. The world narrowed down to bleeding cuts, broken limbs, splints and bandages once again.
I don't know how much time passed until finally a lull descended. Reaching the end of one row of pallets, I sat down on an old horse blanket. Fatigue dragged at me like a physical weight and I closed my eyes. I would carry on in a moment; all I needed was a brief rest. Just a rest...
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