The Edge of the Water - Part Four

Part One http://www.theonering.com/docs/12305.html
Part Two http://www.theonering.com/docs/12391.html
Part Three http://www.theonering.com/docs/12497.html

The next few weeks passed slowly. There was, however, a great deal to do. There were some new manuscripts to copy--very exciting ones, concerning the War of the Ring. And there was a wedding to plan, of course. And Aliana had been speaking to the carpenters at Edoras about having a new house built, come spring. It was another strange thought, having a house of her own to preside over. Her own hearth to light, her own solid door to latch against the cold.

She had been helping Trewyn more often. The midwife had said that Trewyn mustn't exert herself too much during her pregnancy. She was strong, the midwife said, but fairly slender, even for a lady of Rohan. The first birth would probably be the hardest. Auren was there, for the time being, to split firewood and carry heavy pails of water back from the stream. Aliana could do these things in his absence.

As the only female in the house back in her family's home village for several years, Aliana had had to learn how to do a little of everything. At times she felt like a quilt sewn together with odd scraps of this and that; sometimes she was a little boyish, and at others she was definitely a woman, though Trewyn was still surprised at her sister-in-law's apparent lack of certain domestic skills.

"It's not your fault," she sighed one day as Aliana pulled a scorched loaf of bread from the oven. "You've had no mother to teach you."

"No, I suppose not," said Aliana, checking to see if the bread was salvageable. It wasn't. She echoed Trewyn's sigh; here, no one had extravagant amounts of anything. Waste was not an option.

"You're lucky it isn't the old days," Trewyn said with a gleam in her eye that told Aliana she mustn't worry too much. "In the old days, no one thought anything of love. If a girl could cook, work sunup to sundown, and had strong hips, then she was a good catch. And that was that."

So, she might be a poor catch, Aliana thought with a smile. There were large pieces of scribe and even bits of soldier thrown into that quilt, as well. She could not help but wonder how being married would change all this. It would probably make her more of a woman and less of everything else. Having a house to manage would dwindle away the time she could spend with her books and parchment. Well, she had been fortunate to have the chance in the first place. Here in Rohan, it was very unusual for a woman to be anything other than a wife and mother, a keeper of the hearth.

* * *

There were, of course, the notable exceptions.

Three weeks after the company's departure, Aliana was back in that room that Trewyn had called a cell, deep into an account of Master Meriadoc the halfling, squire to the lady Èowyn. She had just reached the most exciting part when her elder brother stepped into the doorway. Unlike his wife, he announced his presence with heavy, ringing footfalls.

Later, she would look back on that last moment before he entered, before she looked up at him, as one of the happiest of her life, though she didn't know it, then. Her last moment of not knowing.

She took one glance at his face, and felt a kick of fear in her belly. She didn't want to ask. Setting down the manuscript, she stood up.

"What is it, Auren?" she said, struggling to keep her tone level.

He crossed over to her, his footsteps punctuating the heavy quiet air, and took hold of her arm, rather too tightly. She felt her throat close with comprehension: it was Relian. Relian was dead.

"Come with me," Auren said flatly, his voice not his own. He led her out of the room, through the corridor and into the main hall of the building. The air was more open, here, full of echo and shadow. People stood in knots in the torchlight, whispering. There may have been muffled noises of dismay, of grief. Feeling ill, Aliana halted in her tracks.

"Auren, what's happened?" she demanded, finding her voice again. She pried her brother's fingers from her sleeve. "I'll not take another step until you tell me."

Auren stared at his sister, his face tight and guarded, and tried to speak. He couldn't. There, in the middle of the hall, he sank, crumpling heavily into Aliana for support. Stunned, she put her arms around him, feeling his weight and his shaking warmth and the tears he was crying into her shoulder. She had not seen him weep since he was a boy, when their mother had died so many years ago.

After a long moment like that, Auren righted himself and wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his uniform, glancing quickly at the others in the vicinity. He looked almost like a little child, she thought, lost and ashamed. When he could speak again, he told her.

Of the unit of forty men which had gone out on patrol, three had returned today--battered, breathless survivors who had had to be pulled from the backs of their dead-tired horses. Auren was unclear on the details, but it was a massacre of some kind, it seemed. Already, rumors were flying wildly about--some were saying they had been set upon by a horde of Men; others, orcs.

The three men had come to the edge of the city about an hour ago. One of them was Relian.

Now it was Aliana's turn to lose her footing. Auren caught her as she stumbled, holding her tightly. Relief, grief, and fear all grappled within her. She was grateful, so grateful that Rel had been spared, but what of all those other men? Her neighbors, her friends?

"Deomar?" she whispered, disengaging herself from her brother's comforting embrace to look him in the eye.

Auren shook his head.

"Trewyn!" she said. By this time, her eyes were burning, as well.

"I know," he said, his voice breaking. "I know. I have to go, right now--my captain has asked to speak to everyone in my unit, immediately. I don't know if...I can't..." He took a deep, hard breath and wiped his eyes once more. "Ali, could you please go to her, just for a little while? Could you please go and find my wife?"

* * *

As soon as Aliana opened the door of the house, it was clear that Trewyn knew. The normally tidy little dwelling looked as though it had been shaken at the edges. Aliana's beautiful sister-in-law was standing at the center of the main room, her slender arms wrapped around herself, breathing hard like a hunted animal. Her eyes were large and red.

"Trewyn..." Aliana began, but could find no more words to say beyond the name. She was about to step forward, to go to the young woman, when Trewyn crossed the space to where the wooden table was and calmly overturned it. Aliana jumped at the initial heavy thud, and the shattering of dishes on the well-swept floor. Her face frighteningly blank, her blond hair disheveled, Trewyn moved to the other side and kicked at a broken piece, then at another one, the shards slamming hurtfully into the walls.

That latest, warlike noise snapped Aliana from her shocked frozen stance and sent her to Trewyn's side. Without thinking, she took Trewyn's arms tightly in her clammy hands and drew her close, becoming newly aware of the bulge at her middle.

"Trewyn, what are you doing?" she demanded, trying to keep herself from screaming. "You could hurt yourself," she continued, dropping her pitch and slowing her words as she came back to herself. "You could hurt your child."

Trewyn broke away from Aliana, pushed her, almost.

"I would gladly give up a hundred children if I could see my brother one more time!" she said, her voice high and raw and strained. Her stare, desperate and defiant and just as lost as her husband's, made Aliana freeze again, newly stunned. Women in Rohan simply did not say things like that. She watched as Trewyn backed herself to the wall and let herself sink to rest on the floor, her hand over her face.

"Oh, Ali...I'm so sorry. I'm sorry." It was even more frightening to see Trewyn cry than it had been to see Auren cry. Aliana drew a deep, unsteady breath, and went to sit beside her sister-in-law. She cautiously put one arm around Trewyn, then another. Trewyn had never been physically affectionate with her, only touching her to get her attention, to guide her someplace. Now, she leaned into the younger woman, returning the gesture. As she held her second broken, shaking survivor in the space of an hour, Aliana realized for the first time in her life the acute unfairness of the world. She thought of Deomar and felt a deep pain in her chest, the beginning of a persistent ache that would remain with her for several days.

When Trewyn's tears were spent, she drew back gently, regarding her sister-in-law through tired eyes, running a hand over her dark hair.

"You frightened me," was all Aliana could manage to say.

"I know. I frightened myself, too. Ali, I'm sorry...You're a good girl. You're a very good girl."

Aliana stood up slowly, then helped Trewyn to her feet. Silently they righted the upset table together. It was a sturdy piece of work, seeming largely unharmed.

Trewyn stooped to pick up a piece of a bowl which had not fared so well. Aliana began to help her, but Trewyn stopped her, taking her wrist.

"You need to go and see about Relian, now," she said quietly. "I should have told you to go and do that right away, in fact. I shouldn't have made you..." She shook her head, closing her fingers around another shard. "He needs you, I'm sure."

Aliana stood up, but didn't move.

"Trewyn, will you be all right?"

"No." And then she looked up with a smile--a very comforting sight. "But I promise I won't break anything too large until you come back." Aliana smiled back. "We're sisters, aren't we Ali?" Trewyn asked slowly. "I haven't got any sisters besides you."

"Me, neither."

Trewyn tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and turned away to set a handful of large fragments on the table, solid matter clicking softly against solid matter. "Go, now," she whispered. "Go."

* * *

The three men had been brought to some healers and were being tended to in an outbuilding of Meduseld. The news had spread throughout the city by now, along with a tense kind of quiet. Though Aliana was out in the open as she made her way to the place she had been told of, the air still felt close. She exchanged somber glances with those who lifted their heads as she passed. Nearly everyone would have known at least one of the men who had been lost. She remembered everyone who was in that company--their faces, their demeanors, who their families were. To lose one would be bad enough, but thirty-seven...

A young man stood watch at the door.

"I'm sorry, milady, but I've been asked to admit no--" he stopped midsentence as he recognized her against the darkening backdrop of the outdoors. "Oh, hello, Aliana."

"Hello, Breneth." One of Auren's friends, and Deomar's.

"Go ahead. It should be all right," he said, opening the door for her.

Inside it was dark and warm. An older woman approached her as she entered.

"I'm Relian's fiancèe," she explained. The woman nodded.

"He's asleep, now. They all are." Aliana saw that she wore a black dress, that her hands were stained red and that her eyes were weary.

"Will he be all right? Will they all be all right?"

"They will, in time. Their wounds were grave, but if they had the strength to make it back to Edoras in their conditions, then they have the strength to survive."

"May I see him?"

She needed to see for herself--to make sure it was really true.

* * *

It was evident that the healers had taken excellent care of Relian, but he still looked terrible. He lay on a clean bad, deathly pale and naked to the waist. Red-smeared bandages were wrapped about his forehead and across one shoulder. His right leg had been set in a splint. What startled her most was how fragile he suddenly appeared, how different he looked from the strong, self-assured Rider she had bid goodbye to three weeks ago.

She wondered if it were possible for him to ever stroll quietly with her again, or trace his finger along a line of words, now that he had been so battered and broken. The body never ceased to amaze her--the same arms that embraced, that cradled a child, could just as easily deal out pain and death with a sword or a lance. And she thought of the bodies of all those men, lying out on the plains, surely unburied--or worse.

She watched him breathe, a slow, ragged rise and fall of his chest. She wondered if she could say something, if there were any words she could give to ease his dreams.

She was crying again, worse than before, as badly as Auren when he'd tried to tell her, as badly as Trewyn as she'd sank against the wall at the edge of her shattered dining room. Aliana was shaking violently, choking on her own tears. Rel. Deomar. All those boys. That's what they were, really; boys. She sank to her knees, unable to see.

She felt a pair of hands on her shoulders, gently but firmly pulling her to her feet.

"All right, my girl," said the woman in black. "He's in good hands. Go home and rest, now."

* * *

A truly heroic and self-sacrificing lady from one of the great stories would have stayed by her lover's bedside day and night, watching over him until he returned to health. Aliana, however, let herself be guided outside, where she made her way back to Auren's and Trewyn's house. It was dark, now, but Aliana could still see her breath each time she exhaled--the little bits of soul, escaping.

Auren and Trewyn were waiting for her. The house looked almost as though nothing had happened. Both looked utterly spent, just as Aliana felt. By this point, all words had been used up. Nothing to do but sit and eat, then put out the lamps and go to bed. Tomorrow was sure to be a long day.


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