In the aftermath of the battle it seemed as if they were living in a barren land, stripped clean of life. It was a foolish impression. There was movement, great movement, floods of movement, as the remaining, threadbare survivors milled about, their wounds seen and tended to. It was simply that such vast death contrasted such modest movement so greatly it was impossible to see anything but stillness, lingering in the corners of your eyes. Indeed, Saruman's loss was great, but the victory had been Pyrrhic. The land was choked with death, death on both sides. Uruk-hai, elf and man lay together, complacent and lifeless, without conflict. It was at the end of battles such as these that the men who survived rested themselves, healed themselves, and turned their thoughts elsewhere, displaced. It was at the end of battles such as these that the women mourned the loss of their husbands, their brothers: their sons. It was at the end of battles such as these that those who yet lived wondered how they would ever again find sleep.
He was not a man of much good cheer, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. It was not his way. Gandalf spoke bleak words but in the face of a frightened people he would speak them with a smile on his face. Gimli was stubborn and loud; he raged for all to see against harbingers of bad news, and he warmed even the most troubled of hearts. Theoden was a king: he looked after his people, gave them cheer when cheer they had none. Legolas was a force unto himself, as all elves were creatures of spirit and beauty, and warmed all hearts by way of the eye.
In the aftermath of the battle Aragorn could think of nothing he would like better than to spend his time alone. It would not have been time to rest, for that was not what he needed. Perhaps he wanted time only to look upon the destruction. Such sights, stored within his memory and burned into his mind, would sober him in the days to come. There was the gaping wound in the walls of Helm's Deep that ached more than the wounds inflicted upon his own flesh. There were glimpses of pale, fine hair amongst the Orc blood. There were helmets, crushed, headless. There were sights that in the dead of night with the rain beating down had seemed terrifying and gruesome. Now, they seemed only lonely and without purpose. They were bodiless; the number was too great to comprehend. Aragorn paused to watch, and felt stretched thin, like an old cloak that once had seen far better days. There were holes in him, like the holes forced upon Helm's Deep. He was a ragged man. The calluses on his hands, the tears in his clothing, the roughness of his chin and cheek proved that much to anyone with eyes. The one thing of brightness left in the pale afternoon hung about his neck.
In the lost night, too many had died.
Aragorn wound bandages around his hands with deliberate effectiveness. The skin there had broken, had bled, had roughened, had broken again. He covered it up quickly. Water was being brought in, fresh, sweet water to clean the most grievous of wounds. Aragorn moved between small, huddling groups of men, and watched the proceedings in silence, before he nodded to himself, to them, and moved on. He did not feel in himself any deep grief; his hands were numb. Rather than emotion he had given himself over to the mechanisms of necessity. If he stopped to feel or to think he would lose the reigns and the whip with which he drove himself. It was at the end of battles such as these that Aragorn wished he had the same internal, untouched strength as had the elves, self-sufficient and self-sure.
There was the boy he had spoken with the night before: good. There was the old man who had been first to tug free of his wife the day before: good. There were many faces that were not there: that was to be expected. Aragorn moved on.
At last, each station checked, Aragorn found himself in a high place, high and looking out over it all, which was by far too much. It overwhelmed him; he embraced the impossibility of it. He stared out over the land and searched the horizon. Dead things. Dead things everywhere. Dead people, dead creatures, with names and with severed arms and with mauled legs and with blood like breath upon their lips, replacing the breath that had been there. Blood that had long since stopped bleeding and now crusted upon the flesh; fingers that still gripped swords, fingers upon hands that were no longer attached to their wrists. It was all on so minute a scale from up above that it looked not like a massacre but like a game, chess pieces toppled every which of a way, indistinguishable in the eerie light.
"Will you not see to your own wounds, Aragorn?" The voice came suddenly. Aragorn's right hand had stilled upon the half-wound bandage upon his left. The cloth was far from clean, but it had been his own hands to maul the whiteness. The stone of the wall was pressed up against his fingers. He had lost a thumbnail some time in the night, though he could not recall when. His hands were covered with blood not his own, and looked as if they belonged to some apparition in a child's nightmare.
"It is not my own wounds I would wish to see to, Legolas," Aragorn replied. His hands were spurred into action again. They were numb, and he was grateful for such numbness. They did not fumble with the bandage as his mind fumbled for things, as did his heart. They were skilled, they pulled the length of cloth tight. At such tasks Aragorn was expert; he was familiar with them; they were comfortable, fitting him like old gloves.
"Our loss is indeed great." Legolas was wholly less pristine than ever he was wont to be, rain-washed bloodstains on his cheeks, on his hands. There was still a cleanliness to him, however, a purity that soothed the spirit and comforted the soul. He put a hand on Aragorn's shoulder, and looked out over the land with him. "There are great wounds in the body of the earth."
"If only it fought back as foolishly as we," Aragorn murmured, "against its injustices."
"It may yet," Legolas replied, "though the earth is no fool."
"At the loss of so many of its true people," and Aragorn spoke of the dead elves, still on the ground like scattered leaves, "it has suffered a great blow." Aragorn covered one of Legolas's impossibly smooth hands with one of his roughened own. There were of course no calluses on Legolas's bow fingers.
"They fought and died willingly."
"Theirs was a great sacrifice," Aragorn said quietly, a eulogy for a loss too deep to feel.
"No greater a sacrifice than Rohan's men made." Legolas's eyes were sad but cold. "A life to my people is the same as a life to yours, no matter how long, or how short. All who fought and died suffered the same fate. Their losses are equal."
"No such losses should be seen again." Aragorn had a dark look to him, dark, and grim. "But seen they shall be, and soon."
"Not idly do Elves fight alongside men. Have hope, Aragorn. You have taken us thus far; first a mere few, and now, so many."
"And would you follow me, even if my hand shook, and I strayed from the path I yet knew to be mine?"
"I would. But you will not stray."
"Yours is a blind faith." Aragorn was not a man of cheer. His smiles were small things, all in the turn of his lips, the tilt of his head, the angle of his shoulders. Legolas himself did not smile with his lips but rather with the color of his eyes. Aragorn knew him well. They were the both of them subtle, like the whisper of the wind in the autumn leaves. "And I am a lucky man to have it. Let us hope that such luck is not quick to run out." Legolas bowed his head, and touched the pendant that hung about Aragorn's neck. It was a solemn gesture, a somber one. It was almost a ritual. It was almost a bow. And there was something undeniably sad in Legolas's expression, unnamed and unnatural, when he said,
"Fear not, Aragorn. Your luck shall ever hold, for as long as there are those who love you as deeply as they do."