"A man must shape himself to a new mark, directly the old one goes to ground.” (Ernest Shackleton)
Aragorn could still remember the day when he had first realized that even Lord Elrond, the mightiest healer in all of Middle Earth, could be defeated in his quest to preserve life. A young boy had been brought to Rivendell, only about twelve – not much older than Aragorn had been at the time. The boy had contracted a contagious illness and Aragorn had only seen a short glimpse of him before being confined to his rooms to avoid dangerous contact. Elrond had tried treatments and remedies, but about a week later the boy had died and Aragorn was shocked to the core. It was the first time the inborn trust of a child in his father had been shaken. Elrond was an icon, a figure larger than life. In the mind of ten-year old Aragorn, Elrond could do anything, take on any enemy. His touch was healing, his voice soothing and he was a well of old stories he would tell his foster son in the long evenings of winter. How could an elf so mighty be defeated by mere human illness? How could the boy have died?
It had taken many years into his own training as a healer until he realized that bandages and herbs were not the answer to every problem and that even the most extensive knowledge had its limits. It had been an elven warrior of their valley, wounded in a skirmish with orcs. Aragorn, as Elrond’s son, had been the most knowledgeable healer of the patrol, but he had not been able to bring the bleeding under control. Every method he had ever learned was tried, but the warrior had bled to death under Aragorn’s hands, who felt powerless and small in the face of death.
Back home, he had withdrawn into himself, playing the scene over and over in his head, trying to find the point were he had gone wrong. The elf’s blood was on his hands, his immortal soul wandering Mandos’ Halls because of him, an unfit mortal. He had complained bitterly to himself about the choices he had made until his father had taken him aside.
“What is on your mind, my son?” Elrond had asked, even though he had known all along what was haunting Aragorn. And haltingly, Aragorn had shared his worry and his feeling of inadequacy: He had fought for the elf’s life, but what if he had not fought hard enough?
“The ways of the Valar are veiled from us, Estel,” his father had answered. “The broken leg of one man will heal without difficulty and another with a similar wound will be left with a permanent limp. We can only always do our best. Sometimes it will be enough and sometimes it won’t. There are different ways to help a person and not always preserving someone’s life at all cost will be the prudent path to take.”
When Aragorn had recoiled at the hidden meaning in his father’s words, Elrond had looked at him compassionately. “Not everyone can be saved, Aragorn. You have to accept that or else your conscience will crush you in the end. It cannot take being haunted by the ghosts of those that went before you. You have to learn to let go or the memory of the dead will prevent you from helping the living.”
As always, Aragorn had taken his father’s counsel to heart, but that didn’t mean it made the responsibility any easier to bear. It had only turned the feeling of loss and defeat into anger and regret.
Now, nearly thirty years later, he was sitting in a large tent that was used to house the wounded and healing. At the moment it was crammed with soldiers who had been injured in recent skirmishes with marauding orcs that traversed the plains of Rohan. People were milling about, healers and fellow soldiers alike. The moans and groans of the wounded were a constant backdrop of noise in Aragorn’s mind. He was a captain here, but he was also a healer. The soldiers had soon discovered that his knowledge far surpassed everything that the men of the Mark could come up with. So Aragorn was fighting on two fronts: First, he would command his soldiers in battle and afterwards he would retreat into the healers’ tent and help the wounded.
That was what he was doing just now. His charge was a boy, no older than seventeen or eighteen summers, for under the dirt and blood of the battle that covered his face Aragorn could still make out the roundish features that had not yet given way to the sharp angles of a man’s. Aragorn was carefully cutting away clothing and armour to find the source of the bleeding while the boy squirmed under his touch, clearly agitated.
“I don’t want to die,” he repeated over and over as if saying the words would prevent the worst from happening. He was working himself into a panic, pain and fright stealing his calm.
“What is your name, soldier,” Aragorn asked to distract his patient while he peeled away the red shirt the boy was wearing under his armour.
“Tamás, Captain,” he ground out between his teeth, risking a glance at the man towering above him.
The experience of many years on the battlefield schooled Aragorn’s face into an impassive mask when he finally revealed the wound. Someone had thrown a dagger at the young man, embedding the weapon deep in the boy’s flesh. It was still stuck there, but the wound bled heavily nonetheless. A deep stomach wound like this meant certain death, Aragorn knew. In Rivendell, with time and a room full of healing utensils and herbs the boy’s life could have been saved. Maybe.
However, out here on the plains with only the most rudimentary supplies availabe, Tamás would die whatever Aragorn did to prevent this from happening. There were less severly injured lying in this tent who could still be saved while he sat at the bed of a doomed man. It was a simple question of math, weighing the importance of one man against that of many. On an intellectual level, Aragorn knew he had to follow that path, but his heart still wanted to prove his father wrong. Everybody could be saved. Everybody counted.
Heart and mind battled for a moment, but this was neither the time nor place for heroic thoughts. A healer had to keep a level head, assessing a situation from all angles. His heart, which so desperately wanted to save the boy’s life, had to admit defeat.
Aragorn could do nothing more than ease the boy’s passing. And that meant taking his fear and pain.
Smiling, Aragorn looked up from the wound and directly into the frightened eyes of his charge. He took care to not avoid his gaze when the boy’s eyes seemed to beg him for good news, for the reassurance that he would live to see another dawn. A whole unlived life passed before Aragorn’s mind: the boy’s family grieving, the wife and children he would never have, the fields he would never till, the horses he would never breed. But in the end, he was just one soldier of Rohan, sent out to battle the waves of evil crashing against the land and he had served his purpose well.
Aragorn would give the boy what he needed. “All is well, do not fear, Tamás,” he said in a steady voice. “We will have the dagger out in no time at all. And for a wound like this, I am sure you will be sent home.” Tamás settled down immediately, the promise of home giving him new strength.
“Tell me where you come from,” Aragorn encouraged Tamás, “while I prepare some herbs for you.”
He could see the boy’s eyes lighten up at the memory of his home and in delight that Captain Thorongil would take an interest in a common soldier like him.
“We live northwest of the White Mountains, near one of the tributaries of the river Isen. My father died in the strong winter three years ago, so now it’s only my mother, my older brother Vikrus, my little sister Eideen and me.” Tamás was smiling to himself and did not notice Aragorn repeating the names silently to himself to commit them to memory while he deftly mixed herbs and distilled water.
“We have a few horses and sell one or two every few years, but it’s not much. My brother joined King Thengel’s army when he turned seventeen and I did the same. It is our duty to keep the lands of our families safe, he always says.”
Aragorn nodded. “He is right, of course. The times are getting darker. Rohan needs all swords and riders she can get. But the battle is over, at least for now and at least for you. Here, drink the cup I prepared for you. It will dull the pain and you will not feel it when I tend to the wound. You will sleep through the worst of it.” And at least that last sentence was nothing but the truth.
The herbs would put the boy to sleep, nothing more. Still, it was a sleep Tamás would never wake from. It was certain that he would bleed to death in the next few hours, no need for him to feel how his life bled onto the trampled ground of the tent. No need for him to stare at the heavy linen of the tent in the knowledge that he would be dead before the sun rose next. It was enough that Aragorn knew, he would bear that burden for the boy.
He stayed for a while listening to the boy’s recollections of how he had learned to ride and waited for his speech to slur and his eyelids to droop. When Tamás’ rigid body relaxed from the influence of the herbs and his gaze grew distant, Aragorn lent down and whispered into his ear, “Sleep well, Tamás, soldier of Rohan, we will see each other when you wake.” And his voice was steady.
The boy’s whispered “Thank you” was more a movement of lips than an actual sound, but it sent a sharp pain through Aragorn’s heart nonetheless.
A bellowed “Captain Thorongil” made him hurry to the other side of the tent, where the healer that rode with their contingent was trying to remove an arrow from the upper thigh of a man. He was obviously missing hands there, unable to hold down the man and remove the arrow at the same time. Aragorn busied himself helping, thankful for the gruesome task that would take his mind off the dying boy.
There was another soldier and another that needed his attention and he was going back and forth in the next hours, changing bandages and administering herbs. Hours later and exhausted beyond measure, the tide of the wounded seemed to ebb and he could actually take a free breath again. As if drawn on a string, his feet carried him to the pallet where he had left Tamás. When his fingers went to the boy’s throat to check for a pulse he knew he would find none. His skin was cold and lifeless, his soul gone beyond the circles of this world. But the smile had stayed on his face, remembering his family to the last.
Aragorn knew he had saved many lives this day. But it was the one that had slipped between his fingers that would prevent his sleep for many nights to come.
- The End