Winlaf had shown him Aerdan’s tent but warned him that their captain was wounded and probably being treated right now. And he had not been wrong. Old Harold stood in front of the tent and let him in only grudgingly. „Captain, here’s Haldagard come to see you“, he announced.
„Tjoren Haldagard? Now that’s a surprise to see you here.“ Aerdan half-turned on his chair, drawing a grumbling from the man who was bandaging his leg. Other men stood round, officers of Harding’s and some faces Tjoren knew from Cliving. Aerdan motioned for him to sit down. „I’d really like to hear your story, but as you see I’m out of action. I got to make arrangements with these men and give out a few orders.“ And he did, while Tjoren waited. His orders were about the same as those Lorron had issued. He set people in charge of different tasks but mainly placed them under marshal Bynstan’s command until he said otherwise, for Bynstan was the highest-ranking officer who’d survived of both Harwick’s and Cliving’s forces. When he’d dispatched his men and they’d gone out except for the doctor he turned to Tjoren. „Now, tell me where you’ve been and what brings you.“
Tjoren settled down in front of him and made it short: „Olwig“, he said. „We found him wounded on the field and took him to Elfhelm’s doctors. He might not survive the night.“ He might have gone on but found it difficult with Aerdan grabbing his collar with both hands and drawing him closer. „What happened?“ Aerdan’s voice sounded grim. Tjoren fought for breath. „He managed to get Chlodhere killed by his rash actions, and Jurlen and Ranulf nearly died, too“, he wheezed. That was when Aerdan let go of him and sat back again, looking at him unhappily.
Tjoren adjusted his collar. „He sent me to tell you he was sorry. He said it wasn’t your fault.“ After a while in which Aerdan had been sitting staring at nothing he added: „I… I think he really means it this time. I’ve never heard him confess he’s done something wrong before… but Chlodhere’s death must have shocked him. He’s been weeping for him and not for himself this time.“ He waited a moment and when Aerdan didn’t say a word he got up. „Well…. – now you know. I still got a lot to do, so…“ „Don’t you dare walk out on me, Tjoren Haldagard“, growled Aerdan. He raised himself up with an effort and ignored the doctor’s protest. „Take me to him.“
(this part written from 15.3.-17.3.2017)
The had left their tent under the doctor’s protest and made their way to Elfhelm’s camp. Aerdan was leaning heavily on Tjoren’s arm as he hobbled along. „Doctor’s right, you’re doing yourself more damage“, the younger man said. „But you need to do this, don’t you?“ Aerdan nodded. „As long as there’s a chance to see him alive…“
Tjoren just hoped that that was the case. There was something about Aerdan’s stubborn solidarity with Olwig that touched him and made him forget who it was that the Captain’s heart feared for. He adjusted his grip and helped him on.
Elfhelm’s men showed them to the healer’s tent, obviously thinking that Aerdan was another patient who was being brought in. Even the healer thought so at first and seeing that the man wasn’t too badly hurt wanted to make them wait. Wounded soldiers, screaming for help, filled every corner of the room.
But no one made Aerdan wait when he knew time was running out.
The healer looked at them with a frown and, not wanting to spare any of his assistants as guide, described to them the way to ‚that tent‘.
Even Aerdan’s determination wavered for a moment after they had entered the dimly lit room where two men, with hushed voices, spoke to a dying warrior while another man covered the body of one who was past the pain now. Tjoren heard the captain suppress a groan and he knew his eyes were fixed on that cot, trying to figure out if it was the man they’d come to find.
Elfhelm’s soldier noticed them and stepped over. „I’m Gerwald“, he said quietly. „Can I help you?“
Aerdan drew himself up. „I believe you got my weaponsmaster here, Olwig Ortmerson, a slender, brown-haired man.“ Gerwald nodded in a direction. „Over here.“ Aerdan let out his breath audibly, for Olwig wasn’t among the dead yet. „It is good you came“, said Gerwald as he helped Tjoren to steer the captain round the other cots. „He called out to you desperately when he still had strength to do so… we told him we’d find you, as one says such things to calm a wounded man. He answered he was sure we would but that he needed you now and feared you wouldn’t come for him.“ Gerwald stopped and looked intently at Aerdan. „We cannot work wonders. It were the last words he spoke and he’s been drifting away since then, into sleep, for now. But soon beyond that, I fear. I do not know if he can hear you in his dreams, I do not know if he will ever wake again. If you wish to stay to whatever end, I’ll fetch you a stool.“
Aerdan swallowed and couldn’t answer. Gerwald stepped over to the side and brought a small, three-legged stool which he placed beside the cot in the farthest corner. When Aerdan had sat down he placed a hand on his shoulder to console him. „You can always call for me if you need me. – Will you be staying, too?“, he wanted to know of Tjoren. ‚To be honest‘, Tjoren thought, ‚I don’t want to, it’s a most private moment for them, and I wouldn’t want to intrude. I do not belong here.‘ But he wasn’t sure if Aerdan would need him, so he hesitated to answer. Aerdan’s sorrow didn’t cloud his perception. „I appreciate your concern, but your own captain will have need of you still this night“, he told him. „I’m safe here and will be cared for if needs be. Go, help Lorron, Tjoren. I can manage.“ Relieved to hear this, he promised to come back in the morning and took his leave from the place.
Aerdan studied Olwig’s pale face and sighed. Cautiously, he took the wounded man’s hand. It was clammy and Olwig didn’t respond to the touch. Aerdan held it nonetheless and started talking to him quietly, like the other men in the tent did. He didn’t look up when the dead were carried out.
After a while, he forgot there were other people here with them.
He urged him to wake up.
He talked of times long past.
Then, he fell silent and recalled fond memories.
Finally, overpowered by exhaustion, he dozed off. It was in the early hours of the new day. Gerwald wrapped a blanket round his shoulders and leaned him back against the tentpost trying not to disturb him. He laid Olwig’s hand back under the cover and shook his head as he looked at the two. He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the young man was still alive.
Aerdan woke with a start, saw the canvas of the tent illuminated by sunlight and almost cried out in anguish, for he thought he’d missed Olwig’s last hours. But then he saw him, and he saw him drawing breath. It might just have been the light of the morning, but he could have sworn the lad wasn’t as pale anymore as last night.
He watched him for long moments, then took his hand again and called his name softly.
This time, he felt Olwig’s fingers squeeze his weakly in response.
Aerdan wept for joy. There was hope.
It was a fragile hope, he knew. Tjoren had come and gone, taking with him Aerdan’s message for Bynstan. Gerwald had brought him breakfast, seen to his wounds and promised the healer would soon be in to take care of Olwig. He hadn’t said anything of moving him to the other tent or to Aerdan’s camp, for it was clear this would be too much. Midday was drawing near and still Olwig hadn’t woken up. ‚Touch and go‘, thought Aerdan. ‚Life as wispy as a butterfly’s wings in autumn‘.
The healer, when he finally came, had confirmed this. He had bandaged him anew and still the scent of the herbs in his salves hung in the air. Aerdan had shuddered as he’d seen the extent of the damage the lad’s body had taken. As to the damage to his heart and mind… after what Aerdan had been told he could only guess how devastated Olwig must feel. The healer had lingered beside them a moment, then sighed. Maybe he thought that for some, death would have been a blessing. But maybe not. „He’s got a strong will to live“, he had said. „Do your duties allow you to stay at his side? Talk to anyone in this tent if you need anything arranged in your name.“
Aerdan had counted the stroke that shattered his leg a lucky thing then, for else he wouldn’t be able to do what he did.
Outside, there’d been noise and running and change. Elfhelm was gathering the troops and making ready to clear the roads. Bynstan would probably ride with him with what remained of Cliving’s forces.
It seemed to him those things happened in another world. He was out of it.
The 16th of March drew to an end. There weren’t that many wounded left in this tent, so a bed had replaced the three-legged stool by now, but else there’d been no change.
The light in the room was fading and so was Aerdan’s hope.
But time that seems long for someone active may seem but a moment for someone wounded, half-asleep while he’s healing.
„You came for me…“
The hoarse whisper was barely audible but it startled Aerdan like a loud bolt.
„Of course, lad“, he answered, fighting to keep his voice calm and losing that struggle. „Don’t talk, I can see it pains you. Tjoren told me what happened. He said you were sorry.“
Aerdan sighed, for ‚yes‘, that was the case.
Olwig shivered. „Forgive me.“
„I already have“, Aerdan assured him. „You’re alive, that’s what really matters. Chlodhere’s efforts to save you weren’t in vain and we’ll get you through this.“
Now, Olwig’s eyes filled with tears. „Wish he were alive, and I…“ „Don’t do that!“ Aerdan commanded. „It is as it is, and I haven’t been sitting here for hours to hear you give up!“ Olwig shook his head once, weakly. „Haven’t. Felt you near. Felt I needn’t… needn’t cope alone…“, he said, his voice faltering. „Just… why?“
„Why do I still care for you?“ asked Aerdan quietly. Olwig nodded.
„I… because I cannot change it, no matter what I’m told about you. It is as it is. Maybe it’s because you still care what I think of you. You may have betrayed me and disappointed me, even looked down on me, misused my friendship and taken my back-up for granted far too often, but I refuse to believe you felt good doing all this. You never stopped liking me. It’s a strange thing with love. It comes in many different forms. The one a man feels for his wife, for the children, for a comrade… yet they all have one thing in common: if they aren’t mutual no amount of valour and no effort will make the other one change his or her mind. Where it isn’t you cannot force it to happen. But where it truly is no amount of misuse will make it go away completely. One can feel angry, abused, disappointed, jealous or outright repelled, but one will never stop thinking about the other or at least that’s what I have found. I will not let you down, Olwig, especially not now.“
While he spoke, he had groped for a pitcher filled with some medical brew the healer had left for them and filled a mug now, which he held to Olwig’s lips. „Try and take a sip, lad. It kills the pain“, he said and supported him as he did so, for Olwig was trembling. „Maybe it was my fault after all“, Aerdan said unhappily. „Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough that you didn’t need to prove yourself on the field.“
„No. I… I couldn’t stand being…tolerated… I knew you’d forgiven me, only I wanted you to be proud of me, just this once… pride… my biggest failure…“
All this had cost the wounded man’s strength and he couldn’t stop crying. „Chlodhere…“
Aerdan laid his head back gently and let his hand rest on his hair. There was nothing he could say to ease that sorrow. „You already did something that pleased me greatly“, he said instead. „You didn’t give in to your pain. You’re still here with me. Rest a while, lad. Heal. I’ll be here when you wake“, he told him, as sleep claimed him again.
And he was. Again, light illuminated the canvas from outside. It wasn’t as sunny a day as the one before, being grey and colder, but the wind sweeping in wasn’t crispy with the winter’s cold anymore. It promised spring and he could hear birds twittering. All the camp was quiet. Except for the healers, the wounded and a small force, most men had left with Elfhelm to pursue the enemy’s forces.
Olwig had been able to drink and eat a little today. The healer might be reluctant to raise premature hopes by acknowledging it, but Aerdan felt sure now the lad would survive.
There was a long road ahead of them, though, he knew that, too. Broken bones needed to mend, broken heart needed to heal, which would take far longer than the other. And no one knew what would happen next. The Darkness was still overpoweringly strong in the east. He sat contemplating the future and looked gratefully at Gerwald when he came to take his place so he could stretch and take a few steps out in the air, leave the tent with the wounded behind for a moment. It was afternoon and Elfhelm wasn’t back yet. He saw some men about their daily chores and some were returning from the ongoing work on the battlefield. They were helping to build barricades in front of the city now, where the gate had once been. A man with a lute slung over his shoulder made his way to the healer’s tent where the hurt warriors were tended to.
A little while later, the notes of his music drifted through the camp, accompanied by his voice. Aerdan couldn’t understand the words, but it was a beautiful, merry tune. One for dancing or singing along. One for happier days.
It annoyed him.
To make it worse, a soldier on his way past whistled to that tune.
Then it ebbed, only to be replaced by an even merrier one.
Aerdan frowned and groped for his crutches.
There were two healers at work in the tent as he came in and a third was near the entrance, sorting through a crate of bandages and now looking up. „Come to listen to some music, captain?“ he asked cheerily. Aerdan’s frown deepened. „Quite the contrary. I believe this isn’t the time and place for such frolics. Why is he allowed to disturb the wounded? There are men dying in the other tent. It isn’t appropriate.“ The healer stood up. „Have there been complaints?“ he asked, his cheerfulness gone.
„I am complaining“, said Aerdan. „Can’t you stop this nonsense?“
„But…“ The healer didn’t know how to respond. „But I like it. And so do the others…“
The singer had heard the exchange. He brought the tune to an end with a flourish and then came over. His hair was brown and his speech held an unfamiliar accent as he inquired what exactly had caused the anger. Clearly one of the southerners. „Can’t you play in your city?“ Aerdan grumbled. The man laid his head to one side. „My city? It isn’t and there are other musicians at work there already. This seemed such a sullen place that it called to me.“ „Then why can’t you at least play quiet tunes according to the situation?“ Aerdan wanted to know with some irritation clearly showing as he saw the man smile at that. „Because they aren’t what is called for“, he answered. „These men are wounded, some of them gravely, some, as you say, may not see another day. Do you want them to spend their time sullen or glad? They survived a great battle and they cannot go and celebrate it. Around them are groans and sorrow. All I’m trying to do is make them forget that for a little while. I want them to remember what they fought for. They fought for the light to win over the shadows, remember?“
„I do. And the fight isn’t over yet.“
„All the more reason to keep the mood up.“ He saw Aerdan take in breath and get ready to launch into a speech, so he went on speaking before the other could interrupt him.
„I lost a friend once, in a battle against orcs. He loved music and when he sang he made people’s hearts soar, lifting them up far above the sorrows of the world. We arrived home without him. The city was grey without him. No one dared sing. No one dared laugh. It was as if the sun gave no warmth anymore. We had lost more than just a man. Far more.
You know what I did then?“
Aerdan shook his head.
„I sang. It sounded hollow and without brightness in my own ears. I felt like crying while I did, but I did it all the same. It was all I could do to stop us from being lost before the last battle was fought. It was all I could do to remind the people that life went on. It had to and it would. I’ve seen this happen once before, captain. The darkness creeping into the hearts of men. Music is a great antidote against it. Merry music. Dreams of happier days.“
Aerdan thought about it and then, slowly, nodded. „What was that song about?“ he asked. „I’ve never heard such words.“ „I don’t know“, the singer shrugged apologetically. „My mentor taught me the song and words, and they came from of old. Their meaning was lost in time. Those who listen can make it into their own, now. It can be about their first love, about their little child, about a festival in their village, whatever they choose. What was it about for you?“ Aerdan wouldn’t answer that, but he suddenly smiled back at the singer. „You’re clever, I grant you. Well, go on and forgive my interruption.“