9. Chapter Nine
Laeriel raised an eyebrow at Strider, her hand poised just above the deep gashes on his ribs. They were red and swollen, already inflamed with infection. When she touched them with a sure and steady hand, he visibly flinched.
"You were worried about me?"
"I think you should worry about yourself, as well. These lacerations are already showing signs of infection. And you have a fever growing."
"I will live," he said, ignoring her concern over his fever.
Laeriel washed the wound, wringing out the bloody rag, then washed the wound once again, trying to make sure she cleaned it well. Taking a deep breath, she reached around him, making sure the wound didn't reach around to his back.
"Your ribs seem to be the only area affected. I should get that nasty medicine you subjected me with...."
Strider grinned, handing her the poultice. He took a deep breath and remained stoic as she lathered it onto the deep cuts the warg claws had made. He had to admit, the stuff did smell awful and it stung even worse. It was all he could do not to let the tears that threatened spill.
"It will help with the fever as well," he said, knowing her thoughts.
"We should get your ribs wrapped now..."
He looked at her, saw the pain in her features and silently nodded. Laeriel wouldn't admit it, but helping him was taxing what little strength she had left. He reached for the clean dressing and began to wrap it around his torso. When he could no longer keep it tight, she continued, pulling the material around his ribs tightly. Between the two of them, they quickly had his ribs wrapped.
"Lie back and rest. I'll see about something for a small meal," Strider said, helping her to lie back against their combined bedrolls.
Laeriel closed her eyes, the wave of dizziness that had plagued her the last few moments subsiding. She could hear Strider moving slowly about the cave, preparing what he called a small meal. She hoped it was something light, for she doubted if she would be able to keep much else down.
Strider heated some water, throwing in a piece of dried meat to make some broth. It wasn't much, but he knew Laeriel's wounds were grievous. With the fever that threatened to consume her, she would need sustenance, but something light on her stomach. It would do her no good if she couldn't keep it down. Dipping a generous amount into his cup, he carried it to her side of the fire.
"Laeriel?" he whispered, leaning beside her.
When she did not answer, he placed a gentle hand on her forehead. It was warm to the touch, but she did not rage with fever. Yet. It was only a matter of time before the poison from the warg's saliva attacked her frail and weakened body. Rest was what she needed now. The broth would wait.
Sitting beside her, his back to the wall of the cave, Strider sipped on the broth. No need for it to go to waste. He would need all the strength he could summon to see them both to Fornost. He did not know where they were to meet up with Aron and the others. He did, however know where the main stronghold was. He had been there several times with Elladan and Elrohir.
As he sat watching her breathe, Strider looked back on the last few days he had spent with her as Thurin. At last many things he had seen finally made sense. The way Thurin had shied away from the women of the tavern, how he had stayed his distance from the other rangers. The unusual relationship between him and Balharn. It all made sense now. Laeriel was protecting her secret and Balharn had been helping her.
His feelings for Thurin earlier were warranted as well. Somehow, his body had sensed the woman beneath the mask she wore. Sensed it, and responded. Sighing, he looked down at her, seeing her hair glow in the firelight. The light graced the soft curve of her cheek, the slenderness of her throat. Laeriel was a beautiful woman. A woman, if he were free, that he could willingly call his own.
But he was not free. He had given his heart to Arwen. True, that she did not know of his love for her, or that if she did, she would love him in return. Still, he couldn't ask that of Laeriel. To be with him, when he loved another. It would not be fair to her, or to Arwen. Or himself, if he were to be honest.
Strider heard incoherent mumbling and turned to check on Laeriel. He touched a hand to her cheek, frowning. Her fever had returned. He had to break the stranglehold it had on her. The fever would only weaken her further.
Quickly, he threw more wood on the fire, bringing it to a roaring blaze. The broth he had heated a short time ago had cooled, but it would still help Laeriel, if he could but get her to drink it. He poured some into his cup, and then returned to her side. Placing an arm under her shoulders, he raised her slightly.
"Drink, Laeriel..." he urged, positioning the cup to her lips. "You must drink."
Slowly, the contents of the cup disappeared. When the cup had been drained, Strider laid her back against the bedroll. He could see the perspiration beading along her hairline and upper lip. Frowning, he reached for a cloth, dipping it into the spare water he had collected. He had to break the fever. He placed the cloth against her forehead, wiping away the sweat that belied the peacefulness that seemed to have swept over her.
Her eyes fluttered open and she stared at him, the blueness of her eyes darkened with the fever that raged through her. She tried to smile, but it was so weak that at best, it was only a twitch of her lips.
"Laeriel...do not do this," he commanded. He knew the fangs had dug deep into her shoulder; had come close to her heart, knew the poison was coursing through her blood.
He tossed the rag to the basin, then pulled her shirt aside, taking care not to pull on the bandages over her wound. Slowly, he peeled the dressings back to find that the wound was seeping. Muttering in Elvish, he quickly set about changing the compress. First he washed away the old poultice he had applied, and then washed the wounds thoroughly.
Maybe he should have sewn the deep wounds, he thought to himself as the rag caressed the pale skin. He was sure he had a needle and thread in his pack. Strider reached for his pack, digging desperately through the contents. When he produced the needle and thread, he returned to Laeriel. It would need to be done quickly, while she was half unconscious.
Strider held the needle over the flames until it burned with a white heat. The thread he trailed through the poultice. When he was ready, he stitched the flesh together in tight stitches, the blood seeping along the jagged lines. There would be a scar, but not as bad as it would have been if he did nothing.
With a sigh, Strider wiped away the blood, then coated the wound with the poultice. Clean bandages followed. Throughout all of this, Laeriel hardly moved, barely muttered a word. Taking the bloodied water to the falls, he dumped the basin, collecting clean water from the cascading water. He had to bring down the fever. And he knew of only two ways besides the medicine in the poultice he had made. One was to bathe the skin in cool water. The other was to share the all consuming heat.
When he returned to her side, Laeriel was stirring slightly. Strider dipped a clean rag into the water and trailed it along her fevered skin, praying that the coolness would alleviate the heat that burned upon her flesh. Relentlessly, he tackled the exposed skin with his cloth, over and over, dipping the cloth in the water then trailing it over her flesh.
It was obvious that the water was only doing so much to help with the fever and Strider was beginning to tire. He had sustained too great a wound himself to remain awake throughout the night, tending her. With a sigh, he dropped the cloth in the basin, and then removed his shirt, pain reminding him to go slowly.
Wearily, he lay down beside Laeriel, curling his body around hers. His skin tingled where her flesh met his and the heat from her body permeated into his. He pulled her against his bare chest, careful not to pull on the stitches in her shoulder. With his free arm, he pulled his cloak about them.
With a last glance around the cave, Strider closed his eyes, satisfied that they were safe enough to sleep.
Laeriel stirred, gradually coming fully awake. She blinked at the sunlight that streamed through the falling water. Beside her, she heard a soft snoring. Turning her head, she found Strider sleeping restlessly beside her. Cautiously leaning up on her good arm, she reached out to touch his face with her left arm. She cried out in pain as the wound pulled.
"Laeriel?" Strider asked groggily. He came full awake, sitting up. Carefully, he helped her lie back, brushing the tears that sprang to her eyes away with the back of his thumb. "Are you okay?"
"You more than likely pulled the stitches."
"I stitched your wound closed last night."
"Then you held me while I slept?"
"Your fever was unbreakable. I had to do something. There was no other way..."
Laeriel raised her good arm, placing her fingers on his lips. She smiled, the light of it reaching into her eyes. "Thank you....for saving my life."
"If I saved yours, then surely you saved mine. The gashes in my side feel much better today. If it hadn't been for you, I don't think I would have lasted the night," Strider said, reaching out to brush her hair from her face.
"Then we are bound together, Strider."
"Promise me something, Laeriel? When we return to the stronghold in Fornost, promise me you will give Thurin's masquerade up and live the life you were meant to."
"I cannot. I have nowhere else to go. If you tell Aron and the others my secret, I will be banished from the only home I have left. Please, Strider...I have nothing else."
Strider hung his head, his eyes closed in thought. When he looked up, he saw that she was staring at him, her blue eyes clear. Without a second thought, he grabbed his knife and ran it across his palm, slicing through the skin.
"I swear to you, Laeriel Oranor, that I will protect you, with all that I am, whether it be by sword or bow, or my life itself. I will keep your secret for as long as it does not bring harm to you."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.