What Truth in Tales
They had been winning the battle. The orcs may have been chancy and unlovely allies, but they were fearsome fighters. They had been on the verge of crushing the demon-lovers forever when the tide of battle turned in an instant. Her own people faltered under the western sorcerers' blow, but the orcs fled--or died. The sorcerers gave their stolen strength to the enemy, who fought with renewed vigor. The straw-haired foeman she had been ready to dispatch rallied and forced her back. Something--she never saw what--struck her head and she knew no more.
When she awoke it was dark and the war was over. No sounds of battle came to her ears, only the cries of the wounded lying still on the field. Flickering torches illuminated a scene from hell: pale shapes passing from body to body, crouching over each for an instant and then moving on. Some they singled out for some foul purpose and took away; most they left lying in the blood-soaked mud. Where they had passed there was only silence.
She scrambled to her knees when she saw one of the torches start towards her, ready to run or to give her life fighting if she could not escape, but the torch stopped a dozen body-lengths away. The man who carried it crouched beside a much larger black shape lying on the ground, what she could only guess to be one of the trolls that fought with them against the demon-lovers. He shouted aloud in the uncouth tongue spoken by the westerners, turning to wave his torch in the air before jamming it into the earth and starting to scrabble at the body of her unlovely ally.
Turning from this sight, she tried to force her rebelling stomach to behave. She had never truly believed those tales, counting them only stories to frighten children, but now she could only hope that the troll was already dead, and praise her ancestors for protecting her from a like fate. This was her opportunity to escape, while the torch-bearer was occupied with his...meal. Her gorge rose and she vomited helplessly into the dirt.
She knelt by the stream and drank, weary beyond all measure. She had escaped the field of carnage in the dark, and was making her way south to the sea. She had coins in her purse, enough to buy passage home if she could find a friendly ship to carry her. Eastwards lay only the ruined ash-fields of Mordor, sucked dry of life and magic by the sorcerers of the west to maintain their own green and fertile lands. She had not strength enough to pass those lands to return to her own. No, the sea was her only hope.
Memory of the battle field and its grisly aftermath shook her and the water she drank spewed back forth. She would have wept if it would not have shamed her ancestors to see their warrior child behave in such a fashion. Little had she found to eat since she escaped the battle-field, and still less good had it done her. Memory would not leave her, nor her stomach obey her will. She stood, dizzy and weak with hunger and dehydration, and feared that even the sea was out of her reach.
There was a clearing across the stream, where one of the great trees had fallen. Rare sunlight penetrated the forest canopy, and the urge to rest there and let it warm her chilled bones was irresistible. She could not go much further without rest--best to do it now, in the day, and travel in the greater concealment of night.
The ground was scattered with berry plants of some variety, covered in bright red fruit a little larger than her thumb. Hunger tempted her, but prudence spoke against it. Too much was likely to be poisonous in this treacherous land. She would rest here, and perhaps try drinking again, but she would not risk the berries.
She crossed the clearing, careful to leave no mark that would betray her presence to searchers, and settled on the ground near the trunk of the fallen tree. To sit, that was the greatest luxury the world could offer her now. To sit and soak up the sun's warmth, that was beyond luxury, that was nirvana. She had not been warm since she left her home, months before.
The sound of hooves shook her out of a dangerous doze. Scrambling away from the sound, she hid in the brush behind the fallen log, peering under the end of it to get a cautious view of the clearing. A horse appeared though the trees, bearing two riders on its back. She shrank back into the cover of the brush, hoping they would pass on, but the sound of hoof beats ceased.
One of them spoke, in a soft, almost musical voice, and was answered by the other's lower and harsher one. It was difficult to judge foreign tones, but it did not sound like they were alarmed or had spotted her. She inched forward again until she could see, and watched as the lead rider helped the other dismount. The lead rider turned his head and she had to stifle a gasp as she saw his unmistakable, inhumanly beautiful profile.
She had never seen one before, but she had heard the tales, even if she only half believed them. All those she had fought in the late battle had been human, for which she owed her life, but if the shehireem were present it was little wonder that they had lost. The speed and strength of the shehireem were legendary in the east, and watching the ease with which he handed the other rider down from the horse she could not doubt it.
They came from another world, claiming to be the first-born children of the gods, gods themselves, some said. They said they came to help men, but their help was a two-edged sword, turning those they helped into little more than slaves. Her people, and the southerners, resisted the seduction of the creatures, and fought against them, along side the unfortunate creatures of Mordor, twisted by the shehireem's vile arts for their defiance.
The second rider was a man, broad and powerful like the men of the west, but not as remarkably tall as some. He had an immense, shaggy beard that reached below his waist, but she had almost grown accustomed to the western facial hair while fighting against them. It no longer struck her as inhuman, merely barbaric. He spoke to the shehireem with an easy familiarity at odds with the reverence the demon-lovers were said to give their masters.
The man spoke again and the shehireem laughed before vaulting off the horse with arrogant grace. They stood close together for a moment, so close that she could not see their faces or hear them speak if they spoke, and then separated. The man spread his cloak on the ground by a tree at the edge of the clearing, while the shehireem gathered some of the berries that had so tempted her. When the shehireem was done he went to join the man, sitting on the cloak, leaning against the tree.
His companion sat cross-legged beside him, close enough that their knees where touching, and took a berry from his outstretched hand. The shehireem spoke and the man laughed before biting into the fruit. The juice was red on his lips and her treacherous stomach growled at the reminder of food.
The horse bore no tether, nor had either rider made any move to hobble the beast. It was tempting to try and steal it, for a mount would speed her journey and spare her strength, but no, the demon-horses of the shehireem had nearly as fell a reputation as their masters. They were loyal to their masters and would fight to defend them, with hooves and fanged teeth, whether their masters were mounted or not. She dared not even try to leave, for the ears of the shehireem were as sharp as their arrows. She would rest until they left, praying that they would not be long, and then continue on foot to the sea.
Motion drew her attention back to the pair, who were still talking softly, laughing frequently. She wished she knew of what they spoke, for news of the war or the surrounding terrain might help her. Knowledge of the enemy's language was not thought fit for a noble warrior, however. Even the generals had to speak to their allies from Mordor through translators. Perhaps it was as well, the pair's conversation was too merry to auger aught but ill for her people.
Both their lips were red with the berries' juices, like blood against their fair, western skin. A dribble of juice escaped the man's lips, heading for the tangle of hair on his chin, but the shehireem caught it with his fingers and wiped it away. He caught the other's eyes and slowly brought his red-stained fingers to his lips, licking the juice off with the delicacy of a cat. She shuddered, looking away--'blood-drinker' was the least of the names her nurse had for the shehireem--and then looked back, drawn despite herself.
The man watched the shehireem in rapt fascination as he cleaned his fingers, and then leaned closer, bracing himself with his hands on the tree trunk to each side of the shehireem. Slowly--nervously?--he brought his face close enough to lick the other's lips. Drawing back for a moment, he studied the shehireem, perhaps awaiting punishment for his impertinence. When none was forthcoming he leaned in again and placed his lips against the other's in a cautious kiss.
The shehireem's arms went around the man, his hands clutching at the back of the man's jerkin, deepening the kiss. The man jerked back, breaking the kiss and staring at the shehireem with something akin to fear in his eyes. It was the first sensible emotion he had shown since appearing in the clearing with the treacherous creature. The shehireem released him immediately, bowing his head in counterfeit of shame. He spoke to the man, his words too soft for her to hear even if she could have understood him.
The man studied the shehireem's bowed head before reaching out a hand to raise his chin. The shehireem's face was a mask of distress. He seemed almost to care for that man, but that was clearly impossible. This--this seduction--was a ploy for the man's undoing. It was working; even as she watched the man's expression softened and he spoke soothing words to the shehireem. The shehireem gave a small smile in carefully hidden triumph, and stayed very still as the man leaned in for another cautious kiss.
The man drew back from the kiss, fear no longer showing in his face. He turned and settled between the shehireem's legs, leaning against the shehireem's chest with every sign of confidence in his companion. The shehireem raised his arms to stroke the man's shaggy pelt of hair, his face showing equal evidence of contentment. He whispered in the man's ear and the man laughed again.
A warm, wet breath blew in her ear. She could not quite stifle her scream, letting out an undignified squeak as she looked up into the demon-horse's calm, brown eyes. She froze as it lipped at her tunic, showing large, grass-stained, but entirely horse-like teeth.
Nudging her shoulder with its nose it seemed to be urging her to move. When she remained frozen it blew out another slobbery gust and stepped delicately over her. She had ample opportunity to see that it was no different from any horse of quality--and to note that it was a stallion intact--but it did not so much as brush her with a wayward hoof. Once past her it started grazing on a small patch of grass between her and the shehireem, paying her no further heed.
This was her chance to escape, while the noise of the horse tearing at the grass covered any sound she made getting to her feet. The horse watched her with one great eye as she slowly stood, but made no move to stop her, and never stopped ripping at the grass.
An hour later there was no sign of pursuit. She was congratulating herself on her escape when a soft thump from behind her made her turn. A gray-clad man stood with arrow loosely held to bow. Two similar thumps to each side suggested she was surrounded.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" the man demanded in her own language, his words lightly accented but clear, his tone suspicious.
"I seek the sea and passage home," she answered with as much pride as she could muster. "Nothing more." She would not grovel, would not beg.
The man laughed without mirth. "Heading straight into the king's camp? I think not. I think perhaps I have another name for what you were doing."
The western king's camp? What were they doing here when they should have returned already to their city across the river? The gods were laughing at her. "What name might that be, my lord? What could one warrior, alone and afoot, accomplish?" She swallowed a sigh, unwilling to show her captors her true weariness. "I want only to go home and forget I ever heard of this accursed place."
The man gave her an amused, skeptical look. "Be that as it may, I must ask you for your weapons."
Resisting would not even earn her a quick death. They had warriors and arrows enough to overpower her without killing her. Besides, for some reason this lord seemed too honorable to abuse a prisoner. Unbuckling her sword-belt, she bent to lay it on the ground. Swaying a bit from sudden dizziness she straightened to meet the man's eyes again. His lips twitched into a sardonic smile. Barking an order in his own language to his as-yet-unseen companions he bent and picked up her weapons without taking his eyes off her. She could take his wariness as a compliment, she supposed.
"My thanks, my lady," he said, buckling her sword-belt beside his own. "I am Halbarad, ranger of the north. May I know your name?"
A captive owed her captors that much. "Rashel."
Halbarad set a fast pace despite the uneven ground, and pride kept her from requesting a slower. They had been traveling for a bare five minutes before she stumbled in her weariness and tripped over a tree root, falling to her hands and knees. Halbarad, who had led the way, stopped and returned at the soft call of one of his companions. She looked up to see him frowning down upon her, then he crouched and offered her a hand.
"My apologies, my lady," he said gently, helping her to a more comfortable seat. "I should have noticed your weakness before. Rest. Drink." He handed her his own water-skin. She raised it to her lips and he suddenly barked, "Hold!"
She stopped, too tired to resist. Did he mean to taunt her with the water?
"Look at me, please," he asked softly. She looked up, dazzled by the sun, and met his clear, gray eyes. He lifted his hand towards her face, but instead of touching her he shadowed first one eye and then the other, watching her with frowning concentration all the while. "You hit your head," he said. "In the battle or since?"
"I did not hit my head," she snapped, tired of trying to decipher his strange behavior. "One of your countrymen may claim that honor."
His lips twitched. "I stand corrected." He nodded to the water-skin. "Drink, a single sip only." When she had obeyed he continued. "Have you eaten since the battle?"
"Some," she said warily.
"Did it stay down?"
"Sometimes." This was not the interrogation she had expected.
He nodded thoughtfully. "Drink again." He held up his finger before her face. "Watch my finger. Follow it with your eyes." He moved it from side to side, up and down, and then around in circles. She followed his instructions, humoring him. When he finished he nodded again in apparent satisfaction. "Drink again."
He spoke to his companions in the western tongue while she drank, and then turned back to her. "When you hit your head--your pardon!--when your head was hit, it bruised your brain. This causes the dizziness and vomiting."
"Ah." His questions and actions began to make sense. "You are a healer?"
He shook his head. "Just a ranger. I can recognize this but not tend it. I think we had best get you to the camp and into Aragorn's hands as soon as we may."
"Aragorn is a healer?" she asked, trying to make sense of it all. He spoke to her as a comrade, even a friend, no longer as a deadly enemy. Why would the demon-lovers heal a prisoner? If her injury inconvenienced them it would be easier, faster, just to kill her.
Halbarad chuckled. "Among other things." He nudged the water-skin in her lap. "Drink again. You must drink frequent small sips to avoid troubling your stomach. Keep the water-skin and drink as we walk. We will go slowly and rest when you tire." He gave her a stern look, more reminiscent of her nurse when she was a small child than any enemy warrior should give. "You will tell me when you tire."
It took over an hour to reach the demon-lovers' camp, though she suspected that Halbarad and his companions could have made it in a quarter of that time without her. They showed no impatience at her pace, often calling halts before she could summon the nerve to ask. When they stopped the other two men usually disappeared into the surrounding forest; keeping watch, she supposed. She never heard them move, their footsteps were silent and their clothing faded into the forest after a dozen steps. Halbarad stayed at her side, watching her silently or asking after her well-being.
Halbarad called another break within sight of the camp's boundaries. She looked at him questioningly after his companions once more disappeared. "Are you not eager to return?"
He smiled, shrugged. "Are you? The healers' tents are on the far side of the camp. I do not believe your strength sufficient to get there without a rest, so here is as good a place to stop as any."
And her pride was saved from displaying her weakness before a jeering crowd in the demon-lovers' camp. But surely that was not his motive. "Why are you here?" she demanded. "You won, why have you not returned to your city across the river?"
"Gondor?" He shrugged. "Most of the army has returned there. We stay for the wounded who are not fit to travel. We carried them this far to escape the stink of battle, but Aragorn says it is not safe to take them further." He shrugged again. "I have little love for the stone city, so I am content to remain here with my chief. For what little time he is left me," he added with a trace of bitterness.
"Is Gondor not your home?" she asked, confused. She had never thought that the demon-lovers might have their own divisions, their own likes and dislikes.
He laughed. "I am a ranger of the north! It is seldom enough that I spend two nights in a house, I could never bear to be shut away in a city, with nary a green tree in sight."
"I did not know that there was aught in the north but snow and grinding ice," she said, surprised by his passion. He was a man of honor and conviction; it was a pity he was ensnared by the shehireem's evil.
She walked through the enemy's camp with Halbarad at her side and his companions following behind. They looked little like a prisoner and escort and she was grateful to be spared that shame. Around them the camp seemed so...normal. Men and boys--and some few women--groomed horses and cooked food, mended armor and sharpened swords, or just sat in the spring sun and talked or played at dice. It was peaceful and quiet, pleasant even. She felt a wave of dizziness that had little to do with her head injury.
Another tall, gray-eyed man, like enough to Halbarad to be his brother, met them at the entrance to a large tent. They clasped arms in greeting and then Halbarad spoke at some length in the western tongue.
"So," the other man said after he finished. "Halbarad would give me another patient." His accent was better even than Halbarad's. Did all these people speak her language? And for what purpose?
"You are Aragorn, the healer of whom he spoke?" she hazarded. He looked more like warrior than healer.
He seemed amused. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and a healer."
"Among other things," Halbarad added with the air of a well-worn joke. Aragorn gave him a reproving look.
"You are injured, Halbarad says, a head injury?"
Aragorn asked her all the questions Halbarad had, and more besides. He looked in her eyes and ears, made her look here and there, and finally felt the lump on her head with careful fingers. Halbarad left shortly after this examination began, leaving her curiously bereft.
"You are lucky," Aragorn said at last. "With food and rest and care you should recover. You should be grateful Halbarad found you, for if you continued as you had you would not have reached the sea or seen your home again."
"Grateful?" she snorted, all the tales banished by Halbarad's courtesy flooding back. "That depends on how your king uses prisoners."
"The king does not ill-use prisoners," he said grimly, yet softly. "Nor does he allow others to do so. Put your mind at rest on that account, my lady."
She awoke some time later to find a stranger standing by her bed, and one stranger than most. She would have thought him a child from his height, but he had the face and build of a man. He was holding out a cup to her, wisps of steam rising above it. She took it and sniffed. Broth.
"What kind is it?" she asked, suddenly suspicious, remembering the aftermath of the battle.
The little man looked puzzled and gabbled something in his own language, then mimed drinking. She pushed the cup back at him and folded her arms across her chest to show her refusal. Hungry she might be, but she would not eat of unclean food! He stared at her, clearly perplexed.
The tent flap behind him opened and she shrank back as the shehireem, the one from the clearing, entered the tent. The little man turned and ran up to the shehireem, leaving the broth on a table by her side. The shehireem gravely put a cloth-wrapped bundle in his hands, no bigger than her doubled fist. The little man unwrapped it to reveal a handful of berries such as the shehireem picked in the clearing, and his face lit with pleasure. He took one berry and ate it with a great show of enjoyment, but put the rest by the bedside of another patient. The shehireem was smiling fondly at the little man, as a man might smile at a beloved dog.
The little man said something and the shehireem turned to look at her. She shrank back and then squared her shoulders, determined not to show fear before the demon. Her resolve was tested immediately when he walked to her bedside.
"Merry asks why you do not drink," he said, his words hesitant, his accent atrocious.
"What meat is this?" she demanded. He blinked and turned to the little man, who had joined him at her bedside, and asked a short question, receiving a one-word answer in return.
"It is--I do not know your word for it. It is..." He shrugged and then flapped his arms and gave a credible imitation of a chicken clucking. The little man nearly fell over laughing, but the shehireem showed no anger, only rolling his eyes in exaggerated patience.
"Chicken?" It smelled like chicken, and a cautious sip tasted like it as well.
"Chicken," he said, mangling the word almost beyond recognition. He frowned and repeated it more clearly. "Chicken. The soup is chicken." He looked to her for approval and she gave a bemused nod.
The little man composed himself and spoke again to the shehireem. "You are to drink slowly and then sleep again," the shehireem said, presumably translating. "Merry will wake you and bring you more soup later." He smiled and she could almost believe him sincere. "I am Legolas. This is Merry. If you need help, call." He bowed and the little man patted her shoulder and then they both turned away.
She watched them as she drank her broth. They worked together as friends, but how could a man--and a deformed one at that--be the equal of one of the demon lords? It did not make sense. Nothing made sense here. She finished the broth and lay down, continuing to watch them through slit eyes. There were only three other patients in the tent, though there were beds for two more, and the little man and the shehireem saw to each with tender care.
The shehireem lifted one the patients from his bed and cradled his limp, unconscious body as the little man changed the linens on the bed. He looked worried even as he sang softly in a language that did not sound quite like the western tongue he spoke before. Only when he stood to replace the man on his now-clean bed did she realize that the man was no taller than the other little man. He looked a bit shorter, in fact!
The second patient was treated like the first, and proved to be no taller. The third was awake when they reached his bed. He was lifted from his bed with the greatest of care. Not a single limb seemed free of bandages and splints. He was propped upright with pillows when he was replaced in bed, and the bundle of berries brought forth. The shehireem sat at his bedside, feeding him the berries one by one, and talking softly, while the first man disappeared out of the tent on some other errand.
The tent flap opened again a few minutes later and she expected to see him return. Instead the man from the clearing stood in the opening, watching the domestic scene inside with a fond, even besotted smile. The other patient saw him first and called out a greeting. The shehireem turned and she saw his face as he looked at the man.
She shut her eyes. So her father had looked at her mother before her death. So she someday wished to be looked at by a lover. This--this look--it could not be faked. But a demon could not love, surely. Could he?
She must have fallen asleep, for it was dark when she opened her eyes again. Dark and still and silent.
Or not silent. The bandage-wrapped patient, the one who had been fed the berries, was whimpering in his sleep, caught, it appeared, in the throes of nightmare. Acting on impulse, she stood up, happy to find the dizziness much reduced, and went to his bedside. Covered as he was by a blanket he looked almost normal, normal at least for a westerner. His hair was brown and curly, his skin under the bruises fair, but his head was as large as a man's, and his shoulders nearly as broad.
He moaned again, shaking his head from side to side and mumbling something over and over again, his dreams, it appeared, as foul as her own had been. "Wake up," she called experimentally, but he did not wake. She dared not shake him for all the bandages. Finally she touched his forehead, nearly the only unbruised flesh she could see. His eyes flew open, his face mirroring horror and confusion. "It is all right," she said softly, knowing he would not understand her.
A shout sounded behind her. She spun to face the other little man, who rushed at her with drawn sword. The man on the shouted and he stopped with the sword blade a bare hand-span from her belly. The man on the bed spoke soothingly, with a touch of exasperation, and the sword point dropped away. The little man sheathed it and gave her an embarrassed, apologetic look. She was too bemused by his speed and obvious proficiency with the weapon to take offense. She bowed as to a fellow warrior and returned to her bed.
The two men talked softly together for several minutes, and then the warrior came to her bedside. He said something in the western gabble and she could only shrug. He mimed drinking and she nodded. He smiled and dashed away, perfectly happy, it seemed, to play servant, and to an enemy at that. He returned a moment later with a steaming mug. "Chicken," he said carefully but clearly.
She laughed and took the cup from him. "Chicken. So it is. Thank you."
He nodded and pointed to his chest. "Merry."
The shehireem had called him that. "Merry." She pointed to her own chest. "Rashel."
He smiled and repeated it. They had traded half a dozen words by the time she finished the soup. He folded his hands together and rested his head on them, eyes closed. "Sleeping?" she guessed.
"Sleeping," he repeated. She nodded to show he had said it correctly. He shook his head and took the now-empty cup from her. "Sleeping. Rashel sleeping."
Obediently she lay back and closed her eyes.
Halbarad was waiting by her bedside when she woke. "Good morning," he said pleasantly. "I hear you scared Merry last night." He sounded amused, not angry.
"I scared him? He was the one with the sword!" She shook her head. "I thought him a servant..."
His lips twitched. "The hobbits will surprise you. Most of my adult life I have guarded the borders of their country for Gandalf, and now I think they might have guarded me!" He shook his head, speaking almost to himself. "I wondered that Gandalf thought them so important."
"Hobbits?" she asked, not knowing what else to make of this speech.
"Merry's people." He held his hand up at waist height. "The--" He frowned. "The--the Half-People?--they are sometimes called."
"I thought them merely stunted!" Some king's cruel jest to include them in the army, she had thought until she saw the ease with which Merry held his sword.
"Merry is uncommonly tall for his people," he said gravely, with only another twitch of his lips.
Perhaps it was a dream. If she was lucky all would be a dream: the battle, her head injury, her long walk from battlefield to enemy camp, and especially these revelations of half-sized warriors and shehireem in love. Morning would come and her commander--cut down by an enemy arrow, treacherous memory insisted--would call them into formation and lead them to the real battle, which they would not lose.
"What will happen now?" she asked, shaking off the fantasy. He only looked confused. "To me," she clarified.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I do not know. You will be returned to your home, of that I have no doubt, but I cannot say when."
Years or never, she suspected despite his attempt to put a good face on it. "I am tired," she lied, closing her eyes. If she looked at him she would weep, shaming them both. "Let me sleep."
"Rashel--" He sighed. "Sleep well." He left, leaving her to stare blindly--but dry-eyed--at the opposite tent wall. The injured little man--the hobbit, she reminded herself, turning the word over in her mind--was asleep. The other two never awoke, though she had seen no injuries or bandages on them to account for their unconsciousness. She seemed unguarded, though trying to step outside would surely break that illusion. The tent was surrounded by the camp of the enemy, who surely must hate her people for the war, for their defiance of the shehireem. Halbarad, for all his courtesy, must share their feelings. She was alone here, never to see her home again, destined to die a slave of the west.
The tent flap opened and the healer, Aragorn, entered in company with an older man, a senior healer by his robe and snow-white hair, though the sword at his hip raised doubts on that score. They placed a brazier between the beds of the two unconscious hobbits and set a bowl of water to heat. The old man drew a bundle of slightly wilted leaves from his belt and passed them to Aragorn. Aragorn sniffed them, rubbing a leaf between his fingers, before nodding and saying something in the western tongue. Taking a few sprigs he passed the rest back to the old man. Stripping the leaves off the stems he cast them into the steaming water.
She watched them with dull eyes, not even bothering to hide her wakefulness. What worse could they do to here than they already planned? She only wanted them to go away and let her brood in peace; instead Aragorn began speaking, low and insistently, though it did not sound like the same tongue as he had been speaking. The sound got into her head and would not let her go. It was her mother, calling her into her arms, her nurse waking her in the morning, her father praising her skill as a warrior. She shook her head, but could not block the sound of his voice, nor the smell of the leaves, which now permeated the tent, like sweet grain cooking for breakfast on a cold morning, like a fresh-mown field in autumn. Something inside her cracked, and she wept, like rain after a long, dry summer.
She remembered her childhood, home, and yet it no longer caused her pain. She would return, she suddenly knew in her bones. She would see her father again and pour out for his ears all her doubts of this war: the slaves of the Haradrim, the whips that drove the Mordor kind to battle, the quarrels between commanders that defeated them as surely as the westerners did.
Aragorn looked weary when at last he stopped talking. The older man laid a hand on his shoulder for an instant before taking up the brazier and bowl of water. As he turned to leave his eyes fell on her, pinning her in place with undeniable strength and yet a curious gentle good humor. She could not even find shame for her tears. He called to Aragorn without taking his eyes off her, asking a short question. Aragorn turned and looked, smiling at her, and answered. She thought she caught her own name and Halbarad's in his speech. The old man smiled at her and continued on his way.
Aragorn stood and moved to her side. "Are you well, my lady?"
"Yes," she said, surprised to find that she meant it. She felt light, like she might float off and fly away home. A great weight seemed lifted from her back, one she never knew she carried.
He studied her, nodded. "I believe you are," he said cryptically. He repeated most of the tests and questions from the first day--Was it only the day before or had she lost track of time?--but seemed more pleased with her answers. "You are better," he said at last. "No healed, but healing. I think we will try you on slightly more solid food, if you feel up to it." Her stomach growled at the suggestion and he chuckled. "I take that as a yes." He stood. "I will ask Merry to bring you something."
He left and a few minutes later Merry appeared with a steaming bowl. It was porridge swirled with honey, like her nurse used to make for her when she was sick. The tears that had dried while Aragorn examined her sprang forth afresh. Merry looked alarmed but she grabbed his wrist before he could flee in search of someone who could speak to her. Smiling through her tears she patted his arm in reassurance. He calmed and looked at her in warm sympathy, stroking her hand before turning it over and firmly placing a spoon in it.
The porridge was little different from that her nurse made, though it lacked the cinnamon and cloves she had used. These people could not be evil, no matter what the tales told. The care they showed her, an enemy and not even of the highest rank, was too great. Her own people would not have been so kind to one of them. Her own people believed that tales the Messenger of Sauron told, believed them in preference to their own eyes. How could she have been so blind?
The porridge filled her up as the broth had not. She yawned as she chased the last grains across the bowl with the spoon, reluctant to give any up. Merry took the bowl when she finished. "Rashel sleeping," he said as her eyes drifted shut.
It was still light when she awoke again, early afternoon from the angle of sun hitting the tent roof. She could only shake her head at the morning's excess of sentiment. A single bowl of porridge did not make the westerners good people, and if they healed her they did so for reasons of their own. Yet they were kinder to her than they needed to be, she could not deny that. Some of them were good people, though some were undoubtedly bad. They were people, like any other. Maybe even the shehireem--she gulped, not quite ready to go that far.
Aragorn entered the tent and went to check on the hobbits before bringing a stool over to her bedside. "Good, you are awake," he said, sitting down. "You are healing well," he said without further preamble. "In three days time, if you continue as you have, I shall release you from the healing tent."
Dread coiled in her stomach. "And what shall become of me then?"
He studied her for a moment. "I have given that much thought. At Merry's request you shall be given escort to Pelargir. There you may find a ship to carry you home."
The words almost did not make sense. "Home? At Merry's request?"
Aragorn looked amused. "Although a doughty fighter, he has a gentle heart."
"No, I mean--" she stammered in confusion. She had thought the little man a servant, and then later knew him for a warrior. Who was he that his requests held such weight?
"Meriadoc Brandybuck is one of the four greatest heroes of this war," Aragorn answered her unspoken question. "Two other of those four lie in this very tent." He waved to the unconscious hobbits. "Do not take it amiss when I say that I would give Merry far greater gifts than your freedom did he ask it."
"Does a healer have authority to release prisoners in the west?" she asked, still not daring to believe her fortune.
Aragorn drew himself up. "A healer does not. The high king of Gondor does!" She could not disbelieve or mistake his meaning. His power shone through him and she wondered that she had ever missed it. Here was a king and war captain worthy to follow into hell itself. "You may tell your people that the rest of the prisoners from the east will be released as soon as arrangements can be made. I will demand from each only an oath never to attack the west again or cross the Anduin in arms. This oath I do not ask of you, as your freedom is a gift to another."
"I will carry your message, my lord king."
He smiled and suddenly he was only the healer and the man again. "I think Halbarad shall escort you to Pelargir. He needs travel to take his mind off...changes."