A violent cough ripped through his raw throat and made his eyes water. He sat up and pain shot through his chest. Dizzy and shaking, he reached for something to hold on to. Someone caught him and waited till the worst had passed. Then a cup of something warm was held to his lips. „Drink it up, Tjoren. Slowly.“ Lorron’s deep voice. He felt too weak with fever to reject the man. The liquid soothed the urge to cough and soon he could breathe more easily. He was laid back gently and immediately fell asleep again.
The next time he woke he could feel the fever had lost its power over him. It wasn’t gone, but at least he could think more coherently now. A candle was burning on a little sideboard and threw the shadow of the man next to his bed against the wall, enlarging Lorron’s already great frame threefold. He was busy rolling up washed bandages into small balls to stow away in a basket. His hands were trembling.
„What are you doing?“ asked Tjoren, mystified that he would be doing this here and now, long past midnight probably.
„Things I can do“, replied Lorron in a sad tone and fell silent. His hands didn’t stop rolling up the bandage, though it escaped his fingers several times.
Tjoren frowned. „You needn’t watch over me, not anymore. Why aren’t you sleeping?“
The ball dissolved into a heap of cloth as it fell down.
Lorron stared at it a moment.
„I… when I close my eyes, I keep seeing… things. That day.“ He sighed and rubbed at his face, then shook his head. „You’re feeling better?“
„A little, yes.“
„Good. That’s good. I feared … well… the fever wouldn’t stop rising at first… good to know you’re better.“
He stared past his hands at some point between his feet. „When did it go wrong, Tjoren?“ he asked softly. „What could I possibly have done differently? You keep chiding me and I keep feeling guilty, for it was my responsibility, but… I can’t see how I could have prevented… We had guards out. We were careful. We sent out scouts and scanned the region. I keep repeating it all in front of my inner eye and… to no avail. It was a trap and the enemy was well prepared. Even if we hadn’t fallen for their bait… they were already in place, watching us, even guiding us perhaps by well-placed tracks… if we had left the first clan alone they surely would have had another plan. A fight between us and them was inevitable. And if we’d stood against both dunlandish clans and the orcs… if they’d just attacked us openly in a position bad for us with the orcs coming in at an opportune moment… I can’t say if we’d gotten out of that any better…“
Tjoren didn’t know what to reply to that. Yes, he’d chided Lorron for his rashness and he’d thought him careless to have fallen for the bait and not put out more guards, but in the end the man was right. They had definitely been outnumbered by their foes.
„I keep repeating it,“ Lorron sighed, „but the only solution I come up with is: we shouldn’t have gone at all. I should have stood up to Athelward as he declined my request for reinforcements. I should have told him it was madness, we already knew, at that time, that it was more than one group. I should have had the nerve to tell him ’no‘. To tell him I wouldn’t leave without Gerwald or Aerdan at our side. Damn! He had such an unnerving smile as he mocked my fears. He asked me if I really felt unable to deal with a few horse-thieving Dunlendings. I… you’re absolutely right, calling me arrogant, or rash. I was, then. I was so angry, I told him I’d do it and stormed out of the hall. We could have done it, even… if not for the orcs. No one could have foreseen that… but if Aerdan had been with us… if I’d not thought along the lines of:’Screw you, Athelward, we can do it on our own’… if I’d only stood up to him and demanded more men… but he’s our Reeve, Tjoren. He might just have answered that in that case, I clearly wasn’t up to the office of Captain. He could have downgraded me and chosen someone else to ride out with you. He hinted he’d do that. He was set on us going and no one else. Set on seeing me prove my worth… or fail utterly. He surely didn’t expect it to end this way, but… I think that day, that was when it went wrong. Now I know. It doesn’t help them anymore. No solution I come up with can help them anymore. I… I need to ask your forgiveness, Tjoren. I cannot ask for theirs, but you at least are here. You were right, it was indeed all my fault, that day… I was following orders against better knowledge… I should have protected them, not only against foes, but against folly also, but I did lead them out and now… they…“
Yes, that was true. But it was also true that Athelward could have easily spared Aerdan for the job. He must have known the danger multiple groups posed allright. If it was true the way Lorron reported it, then he had guided the young Captain into making this mistake on purpose. In that case he had cared nothing for the lives of his own men just to prove a point. A dangerous set of mind, the one their Reeve had.
‚…following orders against better knowledge…‘ Tjoren snorted. He had his own thoughts about following orders and looking at the unhappy young man beside him he saw them confirmed.
Lorron was at breaking point. The relative calm with which he had spoken so far had completely dropped away. His hands moved as if he was still rolling the bandages into a ball and he was shivering.
„They were good men, they didn’t deserve to die like that…“ he whispered hoarsely. „They didn’t deserve that… not they, not their families…“
The shivering grew more violent and Lorron folded his arms around him in an attempt to stop it, but it didn’t help.
Compassion didn’t list among Tjoren’s virtues very prominently, but now he reached out and laid his hand on Lorron’s arm.
The trembling stopped. Instead, there were tears starting to run down his cheeks and he tried to blink them away.
„You needn’t“, said Tjoren after a moment in which he’d achieved to find out if Lorron was more angry at himself or sad for the lost ones.
„I haven’t yet seen you cry for them. It helps a little bit, you know? And we’re safe here.“
They just sat there like that. Tjoren felt a bit awkward. Surely Rulavan would have been the right person to do this? But Rulavan was healing, as well.
His arm tired quickly, but he didn’t withdraw it. Only yesterday he’d shouted at the man that he’d never ever follow him again and Rulavan had had to step in to make him permit that Lorron treat him.
He hadn’t known this piece of information then. He hadn’t known about Athelward’s cold-heartedness. Callousness, even. He also hadn’t known he’d really hit the mark with his accusations. He’d just been angry.
One could say it was Athelward’s fault. Or one could say it was Lorron’s. Whichever one chose, Lorron would blame himself for the rest of his days, that much was clear.
The world was an unforgiving place and never fair, or so Tjoren thought.
„I’m sorry for the ugly things I threw at you earlier,“ he said. „I’d better safe my anger for when we’re back at Cliving. I’d better safe it for our Reeve.“
„You’d better be careful“, Lorron mumbled. „He’s a lot more powerful, our Reeve. But yes, I’d like to see you rub it in his face, where his jaded decisions have brought us.“ He wiped at his eyes and leaned against the back of his chair, then laid the hand over Tjoren’s. „Thank you“, he said. „So… you’re still with me?“
„You asked my forgiveness. You have it“, Tjoren replied. „I trust that you’ll clean up this mess when we’re home. Count on me to be at your side.“
Lorron swallowed, and then turned to Tjoren with a rueful smile.
„I shouldn’t keep you awake any longer.“
To be honest, Tjoren had already had trouble speaking and his answer came out as a cough. Lorron passed him another beaker of that soothing liquid and ignited a candle under a small earthenware bowl by the bed. The bowl was filled with water and a mixture of oil and herbs. As the water grew warm, the fragrance of the mixture spread and engulfed Tjoren, who dozed off as soon as he’d emptied the beaker.
Some noise in the house woke him. He blinked till he could see clearly and found that light came in through the half-open door. It was day already. He listened to the sounds. Johan’s family were bustling about in Trevvis‘ room and the kitchen. There seemed to be no panic, so Trevvis was still allright. He sighed with relief. Then he noticed Lorron. The chair by his bedside had been empty, so he hadn’t realized before that his Captain had obviously never left him the previous night. He lay nestled in the corner where the front of Tjoren’s bed met the wall, his head resting on his arm in a curve of the board that made the side of the bed. He still clutched the towel he had used to cool Tjoren’s forehead and a bowl of water was at his feet. Tjoren didn’t know if Lorron dreamed or what he dreamed of if he did. But at least he was sleeping now.
He was so very young, years younger than himself. It was a fact that escaped one easily when one watched him fight. Or drag and carry his wounded up into the mountains. Or take care of everything.
But it hadn’t escaped Athelward. It seemed he had made use of it. Or tried it out, but whatever he’d wanted, his manipulations had maybe even started before that, maybe even the day he accepted a 17-year-old as captain.
They had celebrated Lorron’s eighteenth birthday only a few weeks ago.
Tjoren cringed inwardly as he remembered. He had not attended the party and Trevvis had been angry with him. His friend had spent days in the kitchen, preparing this or that. Others had been secretive about this or that which they in their turn were preparing. Beltpouches, knives, a special handle for his bow, his spear… Tjoren had soon had enough of that and lost his temper. He had inquired why they were all so enthusiastic about it, since he saw no reason to spoil this pampered child any further and he’d asked if the gift of captaincy given by his father hadn’t been enough already to last him through the year. He had been met by stony silence all around until Aerwald had stood up and taken him outside to explain matters to him. Up until then Tjoren hadn’t known anything about Lorron, he hadn’t cared to ask. After Aerwald’s speech he knew that they all regarded their new leader as family, something like their younger brother, because he’d grown up amongst them. In some small way, he could understand them being proud of him. But it galled him nonetheless how they were all eager to please him and turn that day special for him. He didn’t like birthdays in general. They had held a taste of death for him ever since his family had been killed a day before his thirteenth. Never again after that had he celebrated one, not his own, not those of others. And he would certainly not cheer for this upstart of a captain.
Trevvis kept begging him not to be so sullen, wanted to persuade him to come in. He hadn’t known what to say to him. ‚I can’t, I keep seeing orcs hacking my brother apart when I think of birthdays?‘ Surely not. You didn’t say something like that to someone like Trevvis. It would have spoiled his fun for days to come and he’d have wanted to talk with Tjoren about it, something Tjoren absolutely didn’t wish to have to do. Darren was the only one who knew. It had been Darren who had understood his dilemma and come to his aid and distracted Trevvis long enough for him to take his axes and get out and go for a turn on the dummies while they were in, eating and drinking and singing and generally having fun.
Only a few short weeks ago.
Lorron would never be that young again.
Tjoren looked up as the door was fully opened. Margit was coming in to see if everything was allright. He motioned for her to be silent and nodded in Lorron’s direction. She followed his gaze and a strange expression flickered across her face. ‚I bet she thinks along the same lines as I just did‘, thought Tjoren.
Margit sighed, then knelt down and cautiously took away the bowl and the towel out of Lorron’s hand and carried them out. When she came back she brought a bowl of soup for Tjoren and a blanket for his captain, who didn’t wake, not for the next few hours.