18. 18. Life or Death
Lady Ethelfled screamed from the top of the stairs and rushed forward only to be held back her nephew. Gamling and the King rushed past her. A guard lowered the bloodied body of the Marshal of the East-Mark into the waiting arms of the King’s Captain. Carefully laying the stricken man on a litter, Gamling ordered he be taken to the healing halls. Ethelfled followed, still crying out in despair; if Elfhelm passed, all her plans, desires, standing would be lost!
Thea watched in horror from the window of the library. Unable to support her, her legs gave way and she slid down the wall, silent tears flowing. She remembered her last words to him and her heart burst; they had argued. She had called him Orc fodder. Now—now…oh Béma! He looked dead! Her body shook with fear as she stared into nothingness, unable to think, to function, to respond.
That is how Master Aldhere found her. He helped the nonresponsive woman to a chair; he did not need to ask what left her in such a state. He had lived many years and seen both his daughters fall in love. The unfortunate thing for Thea was that another, pushier woman held the same desire; although, the old archivist gleaned, for different reasons. He pressed a warm cup of tea into her hands. She sipped mechanically.
“Come child, all will be well; the healers are doing their best as we speak. Why do you not retire for the night and in the morning we will go see him together.” He coaxed her up. She complied, looking at him with vacant glassy eyes. Taking her arm, he led her to her rooms, stoked the fire and sat her in a comfortable chair. There was little else the old man could do so he kissed her brow and closed the door behind him.
‘The healers are doing their best’ he had said. What if that is not good enough? ‘We will see him in the morning’ Aldhere had said. What if he passed during the night? Thea bolted up. She had to see him now. It could not wait till morning. She needed to know if he would live or die!
Stealing from her room, she silently made for the healing hall. It was late enough that she passed no one. When she entered the hall, a healer on duty looked up from his desk. He gave her an encouraging smile; he knew why she came.
“He rests now, but you may see him.”
“How bad?” she choked, steeling her voice and willing the tears gone.
“I will not lie. He lost much blood. He took a bite that nearly took his shoulder off, and came dangerously close to his heart, that we are treating against infection. We will not know the extent of damage cause by the gash on his head till he wakes.”
Thea stepped into the Marshal’s room. “He has not woken?”
“He was muttering incoherently when they brought him here.” Thea eyed the healer and he sighed, “But no, he has not been truly awake.”
Arathea stood transfixed. The robust body lay pale and broken on the bed. His head was bandaged, and she could see fresh blood seeping through. The blanket was pulled to his waist and a massive bandage was wound about his torso and shoulder. She imagined she could see faint traces of gore on him and she picked up a cloth from the nearby basin. Sitting on a stool at his side, she took his good arm and began to clean it. He felt so cold. Tears stung her eyes.
“Díheno anim,” she said as the tears fell, “I am so sorry. Please do not die! I cannot bear another loss in my life. I know we have no future, but please I value your friendship. I did not mean those harsh words…”
“What did you say to him!” a woman hissed from behind. Thea startled, dropping the cloth as she stood to face the red faced Lady Ethelfled. “You were the cause of his distraction! Get out!” she spat.
Thea began to stutter, “I…I just, we argued about his decision to follow the wargs.”
“Let me guess," the larger woman advanced, “you turned on your charm and when he refused you, you got angry and said spiteful words, making him feel bad--sending him into danger with ill feelings! This is your fault! Get out and stay out,” Ethelfled all but screamed. Thea backed away, looking at the man in the bed, his face deathly pale. The Lady’s voice alerted the healer and a guard. Both came rushing in.
“Keep her away from here. She is not welcome!” Ethelfled snapped. The healer tried to calm the woman, asking her to keep her voice down. “Leave us!” Elfhelm’s moan caught her attention and she quickly moved to his side, caressing his face and holding his hand. She made soothing noises and spoke softly. She looked over her shoulder at Arathea and glared. The guard pulled at Thea’s elbow gently and she looked up at him with sad eyes.
“Come,” he said softly. She had no choice but to follow, her heart broken, her joy in Rohan gone.
In the weeks that followed, Elfhelm made remarkable strides, Ethelfled a constant at his side. Thea found it almost impossible to see him as either Eadwald or his aunt was always there and if, by some chance they were not, men from the East-Mark--whom she did not know and were under strict orders not to let Thea pass-- guarded the Marshal’s door. She could have gone to Éomer, but for what? The Marshal was recovering with the help of his lady. Yet while Elfhelm’s strength grew, Arathea’s waned.
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