Elrohir stood still momentarily as he slammed the door behind him. He was in a narrow space between two beds, at one end of the room reserved for the most seriously ill patients. Suddenly he found the stifling atmosphere in the hospital far too suffocating and claustrophobic. It pressed down on him, making it difficult to think or breathe. He had to get out. He moved quickly between the close-packed beds, making for the main entrance to the schoolroom, and went out through the doors which led out towards the town gates. Finally outside, he took a deep breath of the cool night air, and kept on walking, wandering aimlessly through the darkened streets and alleys of the town, not noticing where his feet led him.
His mind was reeling from Elladan’s revelations. How could Bereth be dead? As they had journeyed together he had come to know and like the young, rather shy apprentice healer. And if it had not been for Bereth’s quick thinking at Withypool, Elrohir knew he would not have been able to escape from the raging torrent of water, and would be dead. His actions had been foolish then; he had not taken the time to stop and think before plunging into the roaring river after Dacy. It was a failing both his parents and brother had scolded him for many times – but he knew he would do the same again.
As he walked, the fresh air began to slowly ease the tension he felt, and his anger also faded. However it did nothing to help the headache which had been lurking for days, pressing against his temples like an ever-tightening clamp around his head. He realised it was the first time he had set foot outside the hospital since his arrival in Barlynch. The days since then had passed in a blur of tending the sick, preparing and administering medicines, and healing; the days and nights blending together seamlessly amid a steadily growing exhaustion. He knew he had been running himself perilously close to collapse, but had been unable to stop, knowing that to do so would result in more deaths, and not wanting to bear that burden on his conscience. Tiama had been one of the first he had helped, and he had been desperate to save her, knowing how much towns like this depended on their healer. She had fallen ill on the day he arrived – had it really been ten days ago? He could have sworn it had been only four, maybe five days at the most, but ten? Added to his journey time, it meant he had been away from Imladris for two weeks. He had only intended to be gone for about a week at the most. No wonder Elladan had been worried, it was the longest they had ever been apart. And now that they had at last been reunited, all he had done was to first weep, and then rage at his brother. Elrohir began to realise that some of his despair and anger – most of it, in fact – was centred on the guilt he felt. He felt guilty about Bereth, and he felt guilty about the way he had treated his brother. His desperate tiredness did little to help, either.
He heard again the bitter, angry words he had flung at Elladan. How could he have done that? How could he have said such things? Elladan, more than anyone else, would know precisely what he was feeling. They had never been able to hide things from one another, had never wanted to. They had never needed to. It made his words all the more unforgivable.
Elrohir found himself back by the gates, having apparently made a complete circuit of the town, although he could recall nothing of his route, or how far he had wandered. It had been here that he had bid farewell to Bereth, waving him off with a light hearted comment about not befriending any wolves. Then, from a walkway above the gates, he had watched his friend’s departure, until he had been lost from sight in the trees.
The wooden steps which led up to the walkway rose on his left, and he climbed them again, to look out along the path where he had last seen Bereth. He made the ascent slowly, wearily, and stopped at the top to catch his breath, appalled at how utterly drained he still felt. Here above the walls he at last felt free of the confining restrictions of the town, and leaned against the chest-high parapet, deep in thought.
It was so wrong, so unjust that Bereth had died. Elrohir had very nearly gone to Tarlong himself, but the sheer magnitude of the fever here would have overwhelmed Bereth; and his more conventional healing skills, though growing, would simply not have been enough. He should have been able to cope with the smaller outbreak at Tarlong, but now they would never know. It had been such a shock when Elladan told him. Elrohir felt desperately guilty, and wished fervently that he had done things differently, and at the very least asked if someone from Barlynch would accompany Bereth. Maybe then this would never have happened.
Elrohir sighed. The soul-deep weariness he felt was making it difficult to think clearly, but one thing was certain. He had to find Elladan, swallow his shame and apologise. The hardest part would be finding the courage to return to the infirmary. Would Elladan ever forgive him?
He tensed at the soft sound of a footfall on the wooden stairs behind him, and his hand tightened convulsively on the stonework. It seemed the decision to go back had been taken from him. What would happen now?
Legolas had been talking quietly to Tiama when he heard the raised voices from outside. Startled, he looked up, breaking off his conversation. He had deliberately left Elladan and Elrohir alone, giving them privacy, knowing they would have much to talk about. He had not expected the reunion to degenerate into such a bitter argument as that he heard now. The door was wrenched open, then banged shut as Elrohir stormed in. He barely stopped, but instead weaved quickly through the close-packed beds and left again through the main door that led towards the town gates. He ignored – or rather, did not seem to hear – Legolas’ call, intent on his own thoughts.
The second door, designed to close slowly to avoid trapping small fingers, did not slam, but instead creaked gradually shut, spoiling the effect somewhat. Legolas stared at the closed door, then caught Tiama’s eye. She looked as surprised as he felt.
“Well! Whatever was that all about? From the way he spoke, I’d have thought he’d be delighted to see his brother again. So what happened?”
Legolas shook his head. “I have no idea. I have rarely known them to ever disagree – not seriously like that. I had better go after him.”
Tiama stopped him. “No. From the look of him, I’d leave well alone for now. You’d better see to the other one – Elladan? I didn’t hear him shouting. Go and talk to him, find out what they said.”
Legolas returned to the small grassed area where he had left the twins. As he approached, Elladan seemed still startled and bewildered. “Elladan? What happened? What is wrong with Elrohir?”
“We were just talking. He was telling me about their journey, what he had been doing here. Then I told him about Bereth. Elrohir blames himself for his death!”
Legolas nodded. “Well, of course he does.”
Elladan looked even more stunned. “How can you say that? How can it be El’s fault, what happened to Bereth? Legolas, how can you possibly blame him for this?” he demanded.
“Hush. I did not say I blamed him, nor that it is his fault. But Elrohir is bound to think so. I know I would. So would you, I expect, if the circumstances were reversed.”
Elladan sighed and closed his eyes, nodding slowly. “Yes, I would. I understand only too well how he feels. I told him that. He said – ” Elladan shook his head. “Never mind what he said. I should never have told him about Bereth like that, not so suddenly. I had better go and talk to him. Is he inside?”
“Well – no. He walked straight past me and out through the doors without a word. Elladan, I have no idea where he went. I wish I did.”
“He went out? And no one knows where? Legolas, I have to find him. He was already upset, even before I told him about Bereth, because people here had died. Legolas, I have to find him!”
Elladan spent some time searching, once again, for his brother. The town gates had been closed for the night – surely Elrohir would not have ventured outside? Elladan paused, thinking, then headed for the stables. At Imladris, if Elrohir was ever troubled and did not wish for company, he would normally seek solace with the horses.
The stables were on the far side of the square by the gates, and were quiet and deserted, empty of all but their normal occupants. His own horse and Legolas’ had been placed here, and Elrohir’s, a black stallion identical to his own, stood quietly next to them. With a brief word of reassurance to all three animals, he left again. Where else would Elrohir have gone?
Then he spotted a familiar silhouette on the walkway above the gates. Finding the steps, he approached rather cautiously, unsure of his reception. His heart sank as he saw Elrohir’s hands clench on the stonework, and noticed the tension in his shoulders as he drew nearer. He was clearly still angry.
Elrohir’s soft words reassured him, though. He did not turn, but stared unseeingly at the night. “Elladan? I should never have said what I did. Will you forgive me?” Elrohir sounded very hesitant, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Will I forgive you? What kind of a question is that? Ah, El, of course I forgive you! How could I not?” Elladan joined Elrohir on the walkway, standing next to him. “But will you forgive me? I should have given you more warning about Bereth. It would have been better if I had told you in the morning.” Elladan was very aware that his brother had been exhausted, and upset over the deaths of his patients at the time. It had been foolish – no, worse, utterly thoughtless – to have told him like that.
“It would have made no difference. But Elladan, although I have told you about my travels, you have said very little. How did you come to be here? How long have I been away? I seem to have lost track of the days,” Elrohir admitted.
Elladan paused, searching his memory of the last few days. “The first we knew that something was wrong, was when Arahad returned. He was angry, because no one had come to help them – but I knew you had left the day after his first visit a week before. Legolas and I left at dawn the next day. We retraced your steps as far as Withypool, and were able to confirm that you and Bereth had been that way some time before. Then we got to Tarlong.” Elladan stopped abruptly, living again the horror of Aldor’s words. “The mayor, Aldor, said – he said they had found the body of an elf, a healer, and that he was carrying – ” he felt inside his tunic, and removed the insignia Aldor had given him, now reattached to the chain Legolas had retrieved – “he was carrying this.”
Elrohir took his medallion, holding it lightly in his hand. “Yes. Bereth was worried he would be refused admittance at Tarlong, they were expecting me; so I gave it to him, more to set his mind at rest than anything else. There was no need. They would never have refused to let any healer in!”
“They used it to identify him.” Elladan’s voice sounded strangely flat.
“To identify Bereth? But how – oh, no.” Elrohir wondered how he could have been so blind. He was dazed with weariness, but that was no excuse. “They thought it was me? Is that what they told you? El?”
Elladan simply nodded. “I thought it was you.” His voice shook slightly. “They told me you were dead.” His head dropped, and he gripped the stone wall in front of him until his knuckles turned white. “El, I thought you were dead,” he whispered.
“Oh, no. Valar, no!” Elrohir turned swiftly to his brother, and drew him close in embrace. “El, I am so sorry. If I had thought for a moment that any of this would happen – I wish I could change things,” he said softly. He tried to imagine the torment Elladan had been through, and how he himself would have reacted, given the same news. It was something he could not bear to think about. “When – when did you realise it was Bereth?”
“Not for far too long. It seemed like an eternity. Legolas had to identify him. I – I could not do it. I was so afraid that it was you …” Elladan broke off, trying to forget the memories. It was something he knew would haunt his nightmares for a very long time.
“I can imagine. El, I am so sorry. It must have been dreadful.” Elrohir brushed a single tear away from his brother’s face. “But you must remember one thing. I feel sure that if anything ever happened to either of us, the other would know. I am certain of it. Remember that.”
Elladan nodded. “I know. And I always thought that, too. But at Tarlong – they had proof, it seemed, and the only thing I knew without any doubt was that there was something terribly wrong. That you had been deeply troubled. I know why, now. But at the time …” Elladan took one pace back, looking at his brother closely. “You still look troubled. And tired. El, you look terrible.”
Elrohir was still pale, and dark shadows circled his eyes. At the moment, even a casual acquaintance would find it easy to tell them apart. Elladan did not know when he had made the decision, but suddenly knew that he would not tell his brother of the nightmares and visions he had experienced; would not tell him of the premonitions of death he feared. It would cause needless anxiety if they were groundless fears, and if they were real – he did not want to place the weight of that foresight on his twin. But it would be a heavy burden to carry the knowledge alone – they had never kept secrets from one another before.
“Come, it is late,” Elladan said now. “We should return to the others, there is still much to be done.”
As Elrohir turned, he stumbled a little with weariness. Elladan caught his arm, steadying him before he fell headlong down the steps. “El, you need to rest. You have still to recover from the last few days. And do not tell me you are ‘fine’, or that you will rest later, or any other such nonsense. Do not argue!”
“But I –” Elrohir swayed a little despite Elladan’s supporting arm. He felt light-headed, dizzy with tiredness, and his head still ached. “Very well,” he admitted reluctantly. “You could be right.”
They stayed at Barlynch for a few more days. No further cases of the plague had been discovered, and all the patients were recovering, including Elrohir. Two more had died, much to Elrohir’s regret, but there had been nothing any of them could do. Tiama had been shockingly pragmatic. “They were both old. I doubt they’d have survived the next winter.” She sighed, noticing their expressions. “You look shocked. You have to realise that death is with us all the time, whether it is from illness, accident, old age, or the fevers that come every winter. We grieve, but accept it. It is a part of our life.”
They left, bidding a fond farewell to Tiama, with a promise to trade for medicinal herbs as they did with Tarlong. With a last goodbye they finally left, heading east, retracing the route Elrohir and Bereth had taken two weeks previously. Withypool was only a day’s journey away across the marshes, and they planned to visit Dacy and her mother again before returning to Imladris.
Their route took them past dark, clustering trees, crowding close to the twisting path. Open grassland lay to the south, gradually giving way to the marshland.
Legolas was in the lead when he heard the approach of a horse and rider, although both were hidden by a turn in the path. He tensed, his hand reaching automatically for his bow, but then relaxed a little as the rider came into sight. The man rode slowly, slumped forward over his horse’s neck as if injured. Legolas approached cautiously, still wary, but ready to give help if needed. Behind him he could hear the twins, still out of sight, arguing about some triviality. He had nearly reached the man when he swayed, nearly falling from the horse. Legolas instinctively moved his horse forward, ready to catch him, when he heard a shout of warning from Elrohir. “Legolas! Look out!”
Legolas twisted to one side, only narrowly avoiding a slash from the knife that had suddenly appeared in the man’s hand. “Damn you, elf!” he spat viciously, lunging forward with the knife again. Legolas seized his wrist, gripping it tightly, pressing relentlessly until the knife dropped to the ground from the man’s numbed fingers.
Legolas dismounted and pulled the man roughly from his horse, pinning him to the ground, just as Elladan and Elrohir rode up swiftly. He looked up. “How did you know?” he asked. “That it was a trap?”
“The horse,” Elrohir replied. “It was Bereth’s. This must be one of the raiders who killed him.” He prodded the man with his foot. It was not quite a kick. “Do you have anything to say?”
The answer came very suddenly. An arrow flew out of the trees, cutting a deep gouge in Legolas’ thigh. He gave a cry of pain and whirled, drawing his bow and an arrow in an instant. If he had not risen to his feet a half second before, the arrow would have hit him in the back, and Legolas would probably have never moved again. The arrow was followed by several more, and a wave of attackers poured from the sheltering wood. Some were mounted, on a motley assortment of horses and ponies, but most were on foot. There were a dozen or more of them, and they clearly thought they would easily defeat the three travellers.
In seconds, Elladan, Elrohir and Legolas were surrounded, the three of them fighting desperately against what seemed like the whole band of robbers. To Legolas’ shock, a second arrow, deliberately aimed, took the man on the floor in the throat. He gurgled and died. The bandits clearly did not intend to leave any of their number alive to reveal their hideout.
The three elves found themselves fighting three or four of the outlaws each. The men fought viciously, stabbing and slashing uncaringly, not bothered if they attacked elf or horse. Before he had been overwhelmed, Legolas had accounted for two of the men with his arrows, and now fought desperately against three more, armed only with his knife. Both Elladan and Elrohir had dismounted, and fought on foot, pursuing those who tried to flee into the trees. Gradually they evened the odds, until only four of the band were left. One, either bolder or more desperate than the rest, slashed at Elladan again, cutting a long shallow gash down the length of his forearm.
Only one of the raiders was still mounted. Realising the unequal fight was all but over for them, he tried to flee. He hauled hard on the reins, and wrenched his horse around, causing the animal to rear up. He kicked it hard, and the horse reared again, its forelegs flailing the air in protest at the brutal treatment. The movement brought it close to where Elrohir was still fighting two of the outlaws. He whirled as he sensed this new danger, but it was too late for him to avoid the animal.
One of the flying hooves caught him across the temple even as he tried to dodge, and he dropped heavily to the ground, senseless, to lie motionless beneath the plunging hooves.Stories > First > Previous > Next