Faramirâ€™s words echoed in Ã‰owynâ€™s mind as they rode down to the valley. This is serious, and I do not want you to endanger yourself out of stubbornness and a desire to avoid me. Well, those certainly would not be reasons why she would find herself in danger, if she ever did. She may not have always had the best reasons for what she did, but right now she did not feel like risking her life just to prove a point or to avoid him, as he put it. The nerve! She was not avoiding him; she was just waiting for him to apologize and refusing his company until he did so.
It was not long before she noticed that Iorlas had fallen back from his position near the front of the company to ride a little way behind her. She recalled seeing Faramir talking to him before they had set out again, and it did not take her long to suspect his move. So I need a nursemaid now to watch over me, do I? she thought. Apparently her husband did not trust her to keep her word to stay out of trouble. He just wants you to be safe, and you know this, another part of her scolded. Stop trying to convince yourself that he is horrible. You know how he could not live with himself if something happened to you. She shook her head and pushed forward. The little voice was right; even her stubbornness could not make her deny that. Still, she knew very well what they may be getting themselves into once they reached the village, and she was not going to risk more than necessary. There would be injured to tend to and survivors to comfort, and these she knew how to do well. She cast a glance over her shoulder to where Iorlas was patiently following in line. Letâ€™s hope he has some skill with a bandage.
When the first ash from the still-burning fires reached the company, Ã‰owyn pulled the veil back over her nose and mouth. Even at this distance, it was plain to see that the village was in distress, and once they were inside, things only grew worse. The stench of blood and smoke and death hung in the air, and the wails of bereaved family members lingered among the houses. It would be a long time before the village recovered from this disaster.
Ã‰owyn dismounted at the inn and accompanied Dorgil and Brandil as they followed the wise woman into the inn, which had been the gathering point for many of the more seriously wounded villagers. Iorlas trailed behind them. The inn remained marvelously intact, though it had not entirely escaped damage. Part of the roof had burned and several windows had been broken, but it was still usable as a refuge. The innkeeper came over to the Gondorians as they entered, bowing and wringing his hands. His beard was singed at the tips.
â€œI am sorry, lady, that you have to see us like this,â€ he spoke quickly and nervously, glancing around the common room. Many of the injured were wrapped in blankets on the floor or raised up on the tables. Those who could, sat up in chairs. Among the moans and weeping, Ã‰owyn realized with a stab, she could hear the higher cries of the children who had not been left out of this butchery. The innkeeper continued, â€œI will myself go to prepare rooms for youâ€”â€
Ã‰owyn shook her head fiercely. â€œNo. There are others here who need those beds more than we do,â€ she said. â€œLet the wounded have some comfort.â€ The innkeeper hesitated, then nodded. â€œAs you wish, lady,â€ he said, bowing again and moving off to see to other needs.
With a sign to the rangers, Ã‰owyn found the wise woman tending the injured and asked her how she and the rangers could help. The woman looked each of them up and down seriously, as though questioning whether they were capable of handling her charges. She especially studied Ã‰owyn and her rich clothing. â€œWhat do you have for medicines?â€ she asked finally, her voice clipping each word. Dorgil explained what he had in stock in his satchels, and after a brief quiz on the uses of various herbs, the woman nodded slightly, acknowledging that these foreigners could indeed be of use. â€œSee to the burns and the lesser injuries,â€ she said, motioning toward a corner of the room where probably twenty people of all ages waited for care. Some wept openly, others bore their pain in silence. Children clung to mothers or older siblings wearing burned or blood-stained clothes, their dark eyes peering out of dusty, terrified faces.
They found one of the apprentices, looking quite overwhelmed, cleansing a stab wound on a young manâ€™s arm. She brushed the sweaty hair from her eyes and looked relieved that she would now have help with her charges. She showed them where there was water and fresh bandages, and which ointments to use on the burns, then left them to work. Ã‰owyn looked around, surveying the scene, then pushed back her sleeves and set to the task at hand.
Many of the injured should have been treated the day before, but either out of stubbornness or impossibility, had not been seen to. Burns could wait, smaller wounds could wait, when there were nearly fatally wounded folk to care for first. Some of the people had been dug out of the rubble only today, or had been found wandering in a dazed stupor, not believing what had happened nor that they were even hurt.
Ã‰owyn saw to one girl, hardly more than thirteen, who had patchy burns on her arms and face. Her familyâ€™s home was one that had burned, and she had rushed back into the flaming building to try to get others from her family out. She managed to rescue her little brother, but her younger sister could not get out in time. That was the story Ã‰owyn put together from her sobs and broken sentences. Her father and mother had been away from Kadall for three days before the attack, and she was not sure if they would return, or how they would react if they did. â€œI tried, I tried,â€ she sobbed.
â€œYou did everything you could,â€ Ã‰owyn told her soothingly, her own voice quivering, as she gently put ointment on the raw, red burns. The girl did not even flinch at her touch, but only shook her head and continued her sobbing.
The injuries blurred together until they became one long line of burns and wounds and bruises. Young children became old women who turned into boys trying desperately to keep straight faces despite their pain. These boys tugged at Ã‰owynâ€™s heart more than others. Most likely they were now the men of the household, their fathers slain in the attack. They had to grow up fast, within the course of days, and the sudden, brutal transition was almost too much to bear. Ã‰owyn recalled one lad, maybe sixteen years of age, bravely attempting to his face impassive while she dabbed at his burns with ointment and bandaged a cut on his leg, but his red-rimmed eyes and trembling lips betrayed his stoicism.
At one point in the late afternoon, Ã‰owyn went outside for fresher air and a drink of water. So many people milling about the inn made the building so hot that the out-of-doors felt remarkably cool. She brushed the hair that had plastered itself to her face back behind her ears. She ignored the blood stains on her clothes and sat off to one side on a bench that had survived the destruction.
The town square bustled with activity. Men were leading horse-carts filled with rubble to a heap on the other side of town, and others rushed those who had been found in collapsed buildings to the healers at the inn. Family members huddled in groups and moved en masse around the village, looking for friends and neighbors, shouting for joy when the unaccounted-for were found and weeping when worst fears were confirmed. She noticed a very small boy, hardly more than five or six, running across the square, clutching a stone pitcher to his chest, pursued by a much older boy. In a few strides the older boy caught up to him and grabbed at the pitcher. He caught it on his second attempt, knocking the smaller boy to the ground. â€œFor my mami,â€ the little one yelled, beginning to cry. He desperately tried to snatch the pitcher back, but the older boy was gone before he could lift himself from the dust. He sat up, still rubbing his eyes and crying. Small stones clung to his curly black hair.
Ã‰owyn was by his side in a moment. â€œWhat happened, mÃ®k?â€ she asked tenderly, smoothing back some of his hair. He looked up at her, frightened, and shook his head. He tried to get away, but she held him still. â€œWhat did the bad boy steal from you?â€
The small boy looked at her for a moment, uncertainty clear in his eyes, then he answered softly, â€œWater, for my mami. She got hurt.â€
Ã‰owyn felt her heart ache for him, as it had done many times already that afternoon. â€œWhat is your name?â€
â€œSarleem,â€ he answered cautiously.
â€œI have water for your mami,â€ she said, helping him to his feet and leading him to the bench where she had left her water bottle. â€œTake me to her.â€
The boy stared at the bottle for a moment, then grabbed her hand and started hurrying toward a side street. â€œThis way,â€ he told her. â€œThis way.â€ They had just turned on to the street when a figure dashed from the inn, following them.
Ã‰owyn looked over her shoulder when she heard running feet slow behind her. â€œWho will make more bandages now?â€ she asked.
â€œTheyâ€™ll find someone,â€ the ranger answered. Iorlas had done excellent work tearing spare cloaks and robes into bandage lengths.
The boy led them along the twisting street and on to other paths until Ã‰owyn believed they were near the southern edge of the village. The boy paused for a moment and looked around, and in that time she wondered if he had managed to get himself lost. Then, apparently spying something satisfactory, he once again led them on confidently. This part of the village was not as damaged at the area around the north entrance and the square, but it had not escaped injury. Men and boys were on top of houses, repairing roofs that had burned and checking for other structural damage. The streets were mostly empty here, with the occasional person hurrying along with their own worries. Though the sight of a boy leading a foreign lady and ranger must have surely been strange, nobody paid them heed.
Finally, the boy led them toward a small house nestled among the other small houses. As they went in, Ã‰owyn did not miss seeing the stained dirt in front of the doorstep and up along the frame. She suddenly did not want to know what she would find inside.
â€œLeem!â€ a high, small voice squealed.
As Ã‰owynâ€™s eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside the house, she saw a very little girl scamper from a corner of the room. The same age as my Elboron, Ã‰owyn realized, suddenly yearning to see her son again. The girl abruptly halted in the middle of the room, staring at the newcomers fearfully. Her red and yellow dress was dirty, as was her tear-stained face. The dark hair that hung to her shoulders looked like it hadnâ€™t been washed in days. She clutched an equally dirty rag doll under one arm.
This room appeared to make up the entire house. Beneath the window stood a low table with large and tattered cushions on the floor where the family sat to eat. Shelves with various pitchers, bowls, and cups rested against one wall, near the fireplace. The fire itself had burned down to little more than coals. A curtain partitioned off the back corner of the room.
â€œNasilla,â€ a weak voice called from behind the curtain. The girl trotted over to it and peeked around the corner.
Ã‰owyn did not need Sarleem to tell her who was back there. In fact, he did not seem too eager to follow his sister, instead looking down and twisting one heel into the floor. â€œMami hurt,â€ he said timidly, his voice barely above a whisper. Ã‰owyn let go of his hand and walked to the back of the room. She knelt, pulled back the curtain, and immediately looked away. She saw Iorlas crouch beside her and knew his grim expression must match hers.
This woman would not live through the night. Her body was clearly wracked by fever, her face gray and sunken. Sweat glistened on her forehead and checks, and her breath rattled in her chest. A large gash in her sweat- and blood-soaked dress showed blackened, infected flesh. Though she was fairly sure what she would find, Ã‰owyn carefully pulled back part of the cloth to check the wound, but quickly replaced it. That the woman had lived this long was astounding. But why had she not gone to the inn? Or, rather, why had nobody taken her there?
A sniffle beside her made Ã‰owyn turn to see Sarleem staring at his mother, fear and dismay covering his features. â€œHelp her,â€ he whispered, his lower lip trembling. Nasilla sat by her motherâ€™s knee, still clutching her rag doll.
â€œI will try,â€ Ã‰owyn said, desperately trying to keep her own emotions under control. This woman was no older than she, with children hardly older than her own. Her hands shaking slightly, Ã‰owyn opened the water bottle and poured some of the liquid onto the dying womanâ€™s lips. It would do no good, she knew, but at least the boy could see that she had tried. The woman murmured something unintelligible and shuddered. Ã‰owyn tried to say something, but found she had no voice. Trying again, she managed, â€œWe should let her rest for awhile.â€ Sarleem partly nodded, but followed her when she stood and went to sit on one of the cushions by the table. She brushed a hand across her eyes, trying to regain her composure.
When she could speak again, she asked, â€œWhere is your dadi?â€
Sarleem shrugged. â€œWith the sheep. He takes the dogs.â€ Ã‰owyn shivered, recalling the gruesome sight outside the village as they entered. Maybe that had been a different shepherd. Maybe this boyâ€™s father had taken his sheep farther into the mountains and had been gone when the attack started. Maybeâ€¦
Her thoughts were interrupted as Nasilla ran out from behind the curtain and stood in the center of the room, watching her and Iorlas, who stood looking out the window, warily. â€œCome here, mÃ®ka, she called, holding out a hand. The girl watched her a few more seconds, then ran over and climbed into her lap. Ã‰owyn wrapped her arms around the little one and rested her check on her hair. She heard the girl sigh and felt her shift slightly to get more comfortable. It was not right that this little one would be orphaned in a matter of hours. When Nasilla whimpered slightly, she felt anger, hate, flare in her. Whoever did this, whether it was a plot of Al-JahmÃ®r or someone else, whoever it was, they would pay dearly for the pain and despair they had caused.
â€œWhen was the last time you ate?â€ Ã‰owyn asked Sarleem suddenly. The boy did not know. â€œIorlas, find something for them to eat.â€ The ranger raised one eyebrow, but did not question her glare.
He began investigating the shelves and the containers there, then moved over to the stew-pot resting on the coals. What must have been yesterdayâ€™s meal had not kept through the night, as evidenced by the twisted look on the manâ€™s face when he tentatively tasted the broth. He returned to the shelves and brought back a partial loaf of stale bread, some dried meat, and some ripe figs. Sarleem sat up and watched curiously as the ranger took his knife from his belt and started cutting the bread. He handed the first slice to Nasilla, who ate it greedily. Sarleem did the same with his.
The children seemed to be in better moods after the meager meal. Nasilla fell asleep in Ã‰owynâ€™s arms, and Sarleem taught Iorlas how to play a game with various-sized hoops and a stick. When this grew boring, Iorlas showed him how to get the fire started again from the coals. The boy seemed quite taken with the ranger, asking him what was in his various pockets and what the objects did. When Nasilla woke, she began playing with her rag doll, babbling merrily, using words Ã‰owyn could not decipher. From time to time Ã‰owyn looked over to the curtained area, wondering whether the mother still lived, and how she would tell the children if she was not. From their exchanged glances, she knew Iorlas was thinking similarly, but neither wanted to end the blissful distraction they had given the children. Unfortunately, the distraction ended by someone elseâ€™s doing.
Dusk had settled in over the village, and Iorlas had suggested several times that they start back for the inn, but Ã‰owyn found she could not bear to leave the children alone in the house. She had asked them if they had any friends or relatives in the village, but their answers had not been helpful. Nobody had stopped by the house while they had been there to check on them, either. Ã‰owyn wondered how they could be so isolated in a village this close-knit.
The first hint of danger came by way of a pair of women running down the street, wailing, â€œThey are coming! The raiders are coming back to kill us all!â€
Iorlas leaped to his feet and ran to the doorway, peering up and down the street. In the distance, other shouts, indistinguishable for now, could be heard echoing among the houses. Ã‰owyn felt Nasilla clutch her robes and saw fear jump back into Sarleemâ€™s face. â€œWe have to leave,â€ Iorlas said, turning back from the door. The urgency in his voice was undeniable.
Ã‰owyn rose slowly, careful to keep Nasilla in her arms. â€œWe cannot leave them here,â€ she said.
Iorlas clearly indicated he did not like this dilemma. â€œBut,â€ he started slowly, â€œthey are too much a risk to take with us.â€ He ignored the warning flash in Ã‰owynâ€™s eyes and pressed on. â€œThey may be safer here, anyway, if they stay hidden. The raiders may pass this house by if the believe nobody is here.â€ Ã‰owyn stared at him, defiance written on her features. Outside, the shouts grew louder, nearer, and more desperate.
â€œWe must leave, now,â€ Iorlas said sharply, reaching for Nasilla. Ã‰owyn stepped back, but he was too quick for her. With one easy motion he caught the girl, pulled her from her cocoon, and gently set her on a cushion. Nasilla looked at him for a moment, wide-eyed, then began wailing. Iorlas ignored Ã‰owynâ€™s enraged expression, putting himself between her and the girl. He told Sarleem firmly, â€œFind a place for you and your sister to hide, and be quiet.â€ Sarleem nodded solemnly, then rushed forward to hug the rangerâ€™s knees. Iorlas at first looked startled, then touched by the gesture. Then Sarleem turned around and started trying to hush his sister.
Ã‰owyn stared at the ranger, her fury plain to see. â€œYou have no right toâ€”â€ she lashed at him as he caught her arm and started pulling her to the door.
â€œWith all respect, my lady,â€ he said sternly, â€œmy orders from Lord Faramir are to make sure you remain safe.â€ They were out in the street now, and Ã‰owyn managed to steal one last glance at the house before they rounded a corner and it vanished from sight.
â€œWhen we get back to Ithilien, I will see to it you never know a day of rest again,â€ Ã‰owyn promised. â€œThat you could leave those children to certain death...â€ Her rantings became fewer the farther north they progressed. Villagers passed them, screaming and wailing that the raiders were coming. Soon, they heard harsh cries, horse screams, and metal clashing against metal. They stuck to the side streets, and it was not long before Iorlas did not need to hold onto his charge to make sure she stayed close. At one point they had barely ducked into an alley when a pair of horsemen came crashing down the lane they had left, yelling and cursing as they rode. Apparently the flaming arrows had returned with this round, as several roofs erupted into flame throughout town.
The closer they came to the village square, or where they thought the square should be (the twisting streets were quite confusing), the harder it became to avoid raiders. Several times Iorlas and Ã‰owyn had to duck into hopefully empty houses or other buildings to avoid being seen. Once while waiting for the street to clear, they noticed that though some of the raiders were clearly intent on slaughtering and burning, others were moving from building to building, looking inside for several moments, then moving on to the next without doing damage. It was as though they were searching for something.
Their luck nearly ended when, as they were scuttling across a street to another gap between buildings, a raider on foot spotted them and gave chase. He cried something repeatedly, but because his face was masked, muffling the words, Ã‰owyn could not be sure what he had said. Iorlas, who had drawn his sword long ago, pushed her to the side and stood poised to fight. The ranger was quick with his sword, and soon the raider lay still on the ground. Ã‰owyn silently retracted her promise to make him work forever. Perhaps it was because of what the raider had yelled, or perhaps they had not been as observant before, but now it seemed as they slinked away that there were more raiders swarming this area of the village.
They knew they were getting close to the square when they passed a building with a large hawk carved above the doorframe. Ã‰owyn followed Iorlas as he chose a path around the rear of the building, which fed into a narrow alleyway. Well, not so much follow as walk by his side; he would not let her get too far ahead or fall too many steps behind him. There was no doubt that he was taking his orders seriously. Ã‰owyn could vaguely make out part of the square at the end of the alley, and from the flickering shadows, something was on fire there. Now that they were close to the heart of the village, Iorlas crept along, always making sure the way ahead was clear, and often checking behind to be certain no unsavory characters dogged their steps.
They stopped at the end of the alley, sticking close to the shadows, pressed against the buildingâ€™s wall. Iorlas stood closer to the alley entrance, and Ã‰owyn noticed in the firelight that he had sometime received a cut along his forehead. A thin line of blood ran down his cheek, but he made no move to wipe it away. Instead, he was concentrating on watching what was happening in the square. The sounds of sword-fighting reverberated in the night air, mixed with menâ€™s shouts and horsesâ€™ hoofbeats.
Ã‰owyn peered around Iorlasâ€™s shoulder for a moment, and froze. It appeared that the most intense fighting was in front of the inn, with smaller skirmishes scattered throughout the square. She ignored these, and focused her attention on one figure fighting to the right of the innâ€™s door. Though the square was large, and the light was not good, and he was no longer wearing the outer garments he had worn into the village, she still knew that form, that shape. Faramir, she thought, suddenly afraid. Their petty quarrel seemed just that now, and as she watched him fighting she would have given anything for a chance to apologize and tell him she loved him. She noticed that after he felled whatever foe he was matched against, he scanned the area, ignoring the fighting until it an enemy came too close. He is looking for me, she realized.